May 27, 2010

A Deck of Cards Both Ways: An analysis of The Boeing 747 Argument and A Speech from The Watchmen

Welcome to the blog on a sunny Thursday afternoon. I liked my last post and thought that it covered the subject matter fairly well, but I still had a couple issues that I wanted to get to but wasn't able to in my last post. They really pick up where the last post left off, but I'm fairly sure that this post will have a couple tangents, including a look at part of The Watchmen.

The topic for this blog will be slightly different as it is peoples assessment of probability. This time I will pick on the Boeing 474 argument. I'll start off by thanking Richard Dawkins for making this post a lot easier to write, as I will end up referencing both the God Delusion and The Selfish Gene. After that I'll talk about William Paley, and his design argument. 

Anyway, so the God Delusion points out Fred Hoyle's Boeing 747 argument that amounts to this. It is an argument from the improbability for life originating on the earth. In this argument it is pointed out that the probability of life originating on Earth is akin to the to the chance that a tornado, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747 (page 113, The God Delusion). This is an interesting example, and provides an insight  into both probability and evolution. 

In the example above lets take the Boeing 747 and turn it into the process of evolution, and the scrapyard would be the earth. This is where The Selfish Gene(or other books that explain the beginning steps of evolution) really comes into play. It starts out with some chemicals joining together and remaining in a stable state. This means that, "Evolution can start with just the ordinary process of physics and chemistry. (TSG 13)" It just relies on chemicals coming together in natural states. After this all that is needed are chemicals that can make rudimentary copies of themselves, this starts evolution and can account for all life and parts of life seen today. So all that is needed in the scrapyard are chemicals coming together, and then making crude copies of themselves, so start a process where a Boeing 747 (Animal like a Cow) could be created. (I can see from here some people wanting to point out a leap I am making, in stating the transition between chemicals in a steady state and something creating a crude copy.)

Before I address that leap, I will point out  an assumption Hoyle makes and is the reason I said could be created. The assumption is that it is the Boeing 747 that must be created, and not any other complex mechanical device.  Evolution doesn't mean that anything necessarily has to be created, it happens to have created human, parrots and the platypus, but if the clock were turned back and evolution was allowed to run its course again, it might not be that any of those things would be created. So the argument should really be, the tornado creating a complex mechanical device rather than any specific device. This might just be a nitpicking error caused, by trying to create a simple example though and I wouldn't put too much weight to it.

There is a far more serious error this argument makes and it is all about looking at probability after something as happened. To show this error all one need do is shuffle and deal out a deck of 52 cards. Now after the cards are dealt judge the odds of those 52 cards being put out exactly in that order. This is a pretty difficult task, so I'll just give you the odds; The odds are 1 in 80,658,175,170,943,878,571,660,636,856,403,766,975,289,505,440,883,277,824,000,000,000,000, a pretty impressive number I got from the Huge Numbers in a Deck of Cards Page. So that makes every time a deck is shuffled and 52 cards are dealt out even more amazing than a tornado creating a 747. I think the problem can now easily be seen. Judging the odds of something after it has happened and taking into account all the information, while ignoring the process going on always leads to a result that seems unbelievable. Appreciating the odds for something happening is no where near as important as understanding the process that helped shape those odds. Trying to determine if something happened by odds after it has already happened is insane, and really doesn't say anything about the event, except perhaps adding a level of interest and appreciation. Looking at odds doesn't determine if anything happened, examining the evidence for it happening does. Odds are for the most part astronomical and misleading. 

This is why I thought this speech in The Watchman was really un-intelligently put together. Dr. Manhattan, the smartest and most powerful person in the story, states that, "Will you smile if I admit I was wrong?" The other character then asks "About what?" and Manhattan answers with a Hoyle like statement saying, "Miracles, events of astronomical odds of occurring, like, oxygen turning into gold. I've longed to witness such an event, yet I neglect that in human coupling. Millions upon millions of cells compete to create life for generation after generation until finally your mother loves a man....and out of that agianst unfathomable odds its you." The problem of this is the same as the problem with the deck of cards, if you were to take into account anything and have that much information about the event than anything is miraculous. Manhattan has longed to see an event that amounts to any event. How amazing it is that you set that pencil in that spot, the chance that that peace of wood would travel all this way to be ignored for weeks and then end up exactly on that section of the counter, agianst unfathomable odds that pencil is there! Dr. Manhattan should longed for that event as well or any other event.

When all the information is taken into account, then the odds for anything happening is agianst unfathomable odds, the sheer lunacy of that conversation should be readily apparent after the card example. People can appreciate things happening, but to only appreciate things that happen agianst all odds still means that everything should be appreciated. To define a miracle like they did in The Watchmen degenerates all actions into miracles. This means that doctor Manhattan shouldn't just appreciate the girl being there, but also the dust being in the exact position it is, or any other thing that people would consider mundane. David Hume has a much better understanding of Miracles...but that's another blog post.

That scene was had a neat relevance to what I was taking about earlier and was a good example of misunderstanding probability within pop culture, and while I would like to end here I really have to do a paragraph to talk about the leap I was making earlier.

In the part where I talk about the beginnings of evolution I talk about chemicals in steady forms and then just leap to there being a self replicating process. I want to point out that this is a necessary leap that has to be made, and would be a much better area of attack for people like Hoyle. Here I would have to just state that it doesn't seem to far to go from self organizing chemicals, to chemicals that can make crude copies. Scientists have been able to create amino acids (the building blocks of life) from simple chemicals that were available soon after the earth was formed, by adding energy to those chemicals (TSG 14-15). The problem comes up with something people are inherently bad at; Being judges of the odds that life can arise out of those building blocks. It is an interesting part of the Drake Equation and something I might blog on later.

Those waiting for Paley will have to wait until my next post, as this one ran longer than anticipated. Thanks for reading.

-The Moral Skeptic


  1. In defense of Dr. Manhattan, he was stating the improbability of this particular person being formed instead of someone else. Dawkins uses a similar line of reasoning when he talks about the being the lucky few who exist out of the multitude of possible people.

  2. Yeah, I completely agree that it is improbable that a specific person is created, but it is also just as improbable that out of all the pencils that are made that I get that specific one and it is left in that specific place on the counter. Whenever you look at odds for anything like that, how agianst all odds this computer came to be here, or how I was able to write this note in time for you to see it, it built on a foundation of improbable events when you look at it afterwords.

    The problem with Manhattan is that this is where he finds meaning, in the things that are unlikely to happen, but his understanding of the likeliness of something to happen is totally wrong, if he is to apologize because he was wrong about her, he is also wrong about absolutely everything else.

  3. I found your blog a while back and bookmarked it. I read quite a few blogs, and this is one of the best.

    I noticed that you are well-schooled in the discipline of logic. You often label an argument you intend to refute with the label of a known fallacy, but you never add the word fallacy on the end.

    I think a lot of readers, perhaps most who have never studied logic, do not really appreciate the meaning.

    Have you considered writing a book that in some way homogenizes your thoughts? It would be challenging, but if you do it, I will buy one copy.


  4. Thanks, for the flattering comment. I haven't though of writing a book, I'm just steadily trying to improve the quantity and quality of these posts.

  5. I love Dr Manhattan as a character and I too have always been disappointed that this ill-considered statement was not only put into his mouth, but was actually portrayed as explaining his change of heart.

    However! I think there's a convincing argument to be made that he was actually just trying to be nice. Anyway, thinking so is the only way I can salvage that speech. I consider that moment to have been such humanity as remained in him flaring up at the sight of this girl he cared about being emotionally destroyed. So he used the Manhattanish/super-logical/cold/post-human means (the particular nature and tenor and point of view of the speech) to actually do very human work, that he was doing for very human, purely emotional/compassionate reasons. And seen thus it makes sense that he wasn't rigorously logical and correct, since he was in fact lying - but for the right reasons.

    He'd actually do/ endorse the same exact thing back on earth a little later. Lie for the right reasons. Why? Because he cared about human beings again - but the real reason he takes an interest in living things again (to the point that he leaves to create his own life) isn't the thermodynamic miracle nonsense, which he himself must know is nonsense, rather it's the emotions that were re-awoken when he saw the girl he loved crying her eyes out. It's actually kind of sweet.