Spontaneous Creation: Probability's Choice

What follows are some high level thoughts about the problems with some common deist arguments. I don't have any problem with people believing as they wish. - faith is after all a personal thing. I have a problem with people twisting logic and bits and pieces of science to either make their arguments or discredit science. Or claiming that science is akin to a religion. It isn't. Some deists love to cross the Yalu River of epistemology to attack skeptics and then retreat when pursued. Pliny’s tired of that tactic, so here goes. I will argue that a lot of what some will claim is beyond our ability to know, isn't.

Can a universe just happen? That is a pivotal question and one that is a cornerstone of deist arguments. But one that may not be out of our reach particularly if we build a case starting from some very basic premises. I'll start with the most basic - the probability of spontaneous emergence versus divine creation.

The Probability Argument: Probability is the likelihood of an event occurring divided by the number of possible outcomes. Deists argue that the probability of the universe spontaneously coming into existence is very, very low. No argument there if we are talking about the set of all possible events. Maybe not if we are talking about the set of all possible universal origins. The Deist slight of hand at this point is to posit that a 'first mover' creating the universe is more likely. Such claims aren't supported by facts, just strong assertions. The argument goes, it's far easier to imagine that the mysterious prime mover can create a universe than to imagine it occurring spontaneously. It may be easier for many to imagine but there are at least 3 big problems with the argument - Time, the problem of delayed origins, and the problem of structure.

Time: Probability calculations deal with the incidence of an event, i.e., the percentage of new events with respect to a population of events for a given period of time. That last part is the crux of the issue - time. In our example the incidence of events that lead to a Big Bang would be low amongst a set of all events that could occur. But probability doesn't deal with the prevalence of an event or the percentage of existing events within a given population for a given period of time. Probability arguments are more about will something occur than has it already occurred. This is critical. One, time is a characteristic of a universe where entropy is a driver. Time, as we know it did not exist prior to the Big Bang. Therefore incidence (or the likelihood that something will happen) potentially has no bearing to the discussion of universal origins. Where time is absent, the probability that something that is possible could in fact occur (be prevalent within the population of all possible events) becomes moot. Absent time, any viable possibility will likely be present in the set of possible events. Once it occurred time becomes a factor, but not before. Therefore, it is reasonable to state that the probability of spontaneous origins of the universe is irrelevant when time is excluded from the debate, and if possible, it would have occurred. In the end, probability becomes far less important than possibility. Absent time the whole argument boils down to which, if either, of our two contending explanations is actually possible.

Possibility: If time is excluded the next factor to consider is the limit of what is possible. Is it possible that a universe could spring into existence? We have evidence that, at the quantum level, at least, particles do in fact spring into existence from time to time. And that's just something we have been able to observe in the last few years. Can vastly larger amounts of energy come into being under certain circumstances when time is not a factor? Not to be glib, but the difference from a particle and a universe blasting into existence is a problem of magnitude not a limit of possibility. There is no scientific limit that says no. And if it happened that way, there is also science to explain how an irregular soup of extreme energy could condense in all sorts of ways convenient to humans over a period of say, 14 billion years. Is it a common event? Fortunately for us, no. There appeared to be just enough heterogeneity in the singular event of the Big Bang that over time the structure we observe (and from which our bounty flows) could come into being - at the expense of creating more disordered than ordered states. (Remember, the vastness of the universe allows for a lot of nooks and crannies to fill with disorder to feed the needs of entities that crave structure like ourselves.) Science suggests that such an event is possible and absent the limits of time, the prevalence of such an event, within the set of all possible events should be high enough to account for us. After all, one such event is all we need. Absent time, all possibilities become eventualities. (Suggesting that the multiverse theory might not be a bad one.) But this line of argument spells trouble for the deist. Even absent time there is no logical reason to assume that impossible events could occur. Science suggest that the Big Bang is not an impossible event. Ok so far. The question that we can now turn back on the deists is this; What is the likelihood and possibility of the prime mover? Is the prime mover an impossible event? The problems of delayed origins and structure suggest that such a thing may not be possible.

Delayed Origins: Deists conveniently side step the problem of where did the all powerful first mover come from. But consider for a moment that all the deist really is doing when they say the universe had to have a creator is push the problem of spontaneous creation back to before the Big Bang. That's cheating but they don't always get called on it. At some point you have to account for the origins of the prime mover. The prime mover has to be created or just be. The ‘just be’ option isn't reasonable. We’ll return to that later on. If a huge quantity of energy with minimal variation in it is hard to imagine then a fully formed super being just blinking into relief stretches credulity far, far, far more. To be fair, the time problem would suggest that, if possible, even this scenario might be present in the set of all eventualities. But the self organizing super being? Is that possible? No, because of the structure problem.

The Structure Problem: Disembodied beings are the mainstay of religion and its modern descendant, science fiction. But are they even possible? This is central to deism and any variation. Certainly we have no extant science to describe intelligence without physicality. The argument must hedge on either the evolution of nonphysical super intelligence (transcendence) or the spontaneous creation of a wholly formed super being with some type of nonphysical structure. Reality will require some type of structure upon which to hang all this mental power both to support things like thought and memories, and to allow the entity to interact with its environment. Structure requires raw materials. Maintenance of structure requires enormous energy. A body, even a non-corporeal one’s gotta eat to live. A human needs about 1200 to 1600 Cal/day to live. An elephant consumes 150 - 170 kg of vegetation per day, and a Blue Whale 5 - 6 metric tones a day during the feeding season; Imagine what a god would have to eat in a day. Particularly one able to create a universe from simple ingredients. The energy required would be orders upon orders of magnitude higher than that required to spark the Big Bang in the first place - how likely is that - how possible. Against what backdrop or framework would (could) such an entity hold itself together and interact with the Uberverse? Astute readers might note that this discussion seems predicated on an entity behaving in a manner similar to life in this universe where entropy and time are factors. Yes it does. The notion of thought without the arrow of time (needed for any self-aware entity) is impossible on many levels; some obvious some not. But that is a big subject that will be addressed in a later post. For now it is enough to say that thought without history - without time - is nothing but a jumbled mess. For this reason we can discount the possibility of spontaneous incorporation of super powerful entities outside of time. And they would have to have existed outside of time to have created the universe.

What about evolution of such an entity (I admit it’s a bit cheeky to be discussing the evolution of a god used by many to discount human evolution but you know how Pliny loves his irony...). Evolution requires two things; an abundance of naturally occurring options and mechanisms to stratify the reproductive success of those options in future generations. Neither of these can violate basic physics in the process either. No magic is permitted. Greater organizational complexity must be payed for by robbing Peter to pay Paul - entropy of the system must increase overall. In biological systems we can think of entropy as metabolism - an entity has gotta eat to organize and maintain. And it pumps heat and waste products into its universe in order to obey the laws of physics. Absent active intake of new sources of energy there is no way to maintain let alone grow. All processes within a living entity (physical or otherwise) require energy. The larger or more involved the process (or the entity) the more energy is required.

A super being faces obstacles on both sides of the evolutionary equation. A source of supernatural source material and the energy requirements needed to sustain the survival of a naturally selected super being. Remember we aren’t just talking Superman here - we are talking about a being that creates universes! For such a thing we have no mechanisms that can account for that via any kind of incrementalism. How does a thing evolve to not need a body? In two words - it doesn’t. It would have to contain or be able to co-opt existing non-corporeal substrates to be able to gain any advantage. Can such a thing occur? Not from what we can infer. Evolution is repackaging, reordering, duplicating, etc. existing biological structure that gains advantage. Not creating and testing new avenues of structure using different raw materials. So gods evolving seems out of the picture.

Absent gods, can we get here - to where we are in the schema of creation? Only if we can explain the spontaneous emergence of life.

Life?: Could life spontaneously emerge? Certainly if a universe can why not life within it? But life faces problems that the universe did not - life must contend with a defined set of parameters and the clock, for time is a player once the universe exists. Can science explain spontaneous origins within a period of 10 billion years? As it turns out, yes. What follows is a very cursory story of a possible creation event.

In the beginning there were the elements. Forged in the hearts of dying stars. Scattered about by explosions so big that we don't have words to do it justice. Some of those elements happened to condense along with many others to form a rocky planet just far enough from its primary star to have liquid water. Through well known chemical processes these became compounds including lipids, amino acids and nucleic acids. No magic save physics was required to reach that point. Nucleic acids could become RNA strands through self-catalyzing reactions that can be mimicked in a lab today. Lipids could form globules encasing small quantities of fluid and any random compounds so engulfed. Peptides could form from the amino acids. All these things can be replicated today. There appear to have been ample avenues for these events to have occurred on the primordial Earth.

And so it probably went for some very long time until perhaps through countless random mutations of unstable nucleic acid strands a sequence of base pairs had enough affinity for a particular set of amino acids that they came into proximity long enough and frequently enough to create a peptide that made that particular strand less unstable. If so, it might have stoked the first fires of natural selection. How at such a primitive level? If it were more stable it might catalyze more copies of itself and begin to represent a larger and larger percent of the available strands. Natural selection is simple reproductive success. We tend to think of it only in the context of living systems but in pre-life conditions, reproductive success may be nothing more than greater chemical stability and superior catalysis. Is that enough to favor one arrangement of compounds over another? - just ask DuPont or any other chemical manufacturing company. Perhaps the strands were aided in this by being surrounded by the lipid globules preventing dilution of the reactive elements allowing for more reactions. Maybe not. But this imagining once again does not require magic beyond organic chemistry.

Although all these reactions were merely the product of simple chemistry at some point perhaps either a random mutation in a nucleic acid strand or a random combination in a peptide created from raw amino acids created a new sequence. One that made it easier for our more stable nucleic acid strand to be created from random nucleotides floating about. A catalyst. The first enzyme. Back and forth it went for time beyond imagining. The addition of a new peptide making it easier to create a new peptide or nucleic acid strand or visa versa. Natural selection by chemical stability and the ability to replicate from the primordial soup. (Remember - creation of the options for selection is random but natural selection is very nonrandom and an extremely powerful driver.) In time enough of these accidents accumulated that a tally of useful bits could be immortalized in a strand of nucleic acid sequences. Maybe some combination made it more likely that those lipids would aggregate around the reactive mass of more complex compounds. And the principle players required to make a cell were brought together. For now, all powered by the heat of the earth’s creation. There may have been many contending arrangements fighting for supremacy but eventually some structures centered around using DNA provided just enough stability to improve their replicative success and just enough chemical divergence to ramp up the engine of selection. The other contenders hadn't a chance. Soon the victor's descendants would stumble upon a chemical arrangement that would allow them to gather a small part of the enormous energy of our local star. But physics still ruled. Organizing that all that energy required a larger component of disorder within the ecosystem. As a consequence they would pollute the atmosphere with a terrible poison - oxygen. A pollutant that would turn out to greatly accelerate local disorder (satisfying thermodynamics) but also provide the ample power needed for more complex life. A billion or two years later, one family of their distant descendants would ponder and argue the nature of existence.

There are other far more sophisticated and detailed explanations and theories for what started the engine of creation here on Earth but the point is simply that it need not have been helped along by any mystic hand. Did it happen just this way - probably not exactly, but it could. It requires no retreat into metaphysical realms where magic of some sort is applied. Now we have a spontaneously emerging universe and spontaneously emerging life within it. None of which requires any journey into the unknowable. With the trail of reasonable science this becomes by far the more likely explanation. It requires neither a first mover to kick start it nor a maintenance crew to keep it going (the maintenance crew considerations actually do face known hard science that discredits the need for frequent tuning).

There are other issues facing the deists. I’ll close with a couple more.

Missing Energy: If you dial your TV to a station without a signal, you’ll see snow. Some of that snow is energy left over from the Big Bang - an echo across 14 billion years of creation itself. It still gives me shivers. The Big Bang left a signal (and a whole lot more of course...). Immense as it was, it still had to play by its own rules. Forces, energy, mass effects, gravitation, all these things play by the rules and leave traces even if we haven’t figured them all out yet. A visitor or tender of a universal terrarium of sorts would have to leave a trace - either by disrupting reality’s structure or by leaving energy traces in its wake. So if gods are about they are leaving a mark somewhere. And science should be able to find it. Nothing yet. (Dark Matter and Dark Energy? sorry, no joy but that is a long post for another time). This returns to the structure problem - what is a god's finger and how does it move stuff about, absent one? Alteration, movement, effects - all require a mechanism to transfer energy from one thing to another. Where does it come from, how did it come to be, where are its fingerprints - lots of hard questions without deist answers. Fortunately the mechanist doesn't need to answer these 'angels on the head of a pin', level questions. Testable mechanisms exist.

The Anthropic Principle: This universe of ours seems really well tailored to our needs, therefore it's evidence of design or so the argument goes. Not really and I'll limit my rebuttal to two things. One, the old correlation is not causation truth. Is it really surprising that we as life forms would in fact find ourselves in a universe that makes life possible? Would life evolve in a universe that didn't have the structure to support life? Of course not. We live because of the good fortune of being in one possible universe that allows us to exist in the first place. There's no other place we could be! Finding that a universe within which life evolved can in fact support the evolution of life is not a big revelation. Finding life in one that didn't would be a far more compelling argument for having had some help.

Perhaps even more damning is he fact that 99.99+% of this universe of ours is really, really hostile to life. Gamma ray bursters, black holes, super novas, hard vacuum, solar flares, asteroid bombardment, galaxy collisions, stellar nurseries, etc. - not exactly a cake walk. Life can exist - but just barely. Maybe not hostile but at least supremely apathetic.

The credibility problem: Nonbelievers often say that if there was some science, say, in the Bible then we would all believe. The equation for calculating the area of a circle, the structure of DNA etc., but that isn’t true. All that would prove is a superior knowledge of science not proof of divine origins. Certainly not enough to prove that the authors actually created a universe. Tecumseh’s brother, The Prophet, gained power by predicting an eclipse by reading a farmer’s almanac. Not exactly divine revelation but sufficient amongst a group of scientifically uneducated people steeped in mysticism. A graduate student transported back in time could have created a compelling Bible account for science and creation that would be convincing. But not divine. The true skeptic is going to require a lot more - some sort of treatise by Victor Frankenstein, “How I did It!” with charts and graphs I suppose... Many like myself believe that when all the mystery is stripped away, we will be staring at the face of - mathematics.

So now I will end this with by simply saying that the theory of spontaneous emergence of the universe and of life within it is a reasoned probability based upon what we know and can infer. Time may tell...


Michael Lockridge said...

So, you just aren't really into the whole Mystery thing, are you?

Very nicely presented. A great deal of information in a concise and relatively approachable format.

While I am not compelled to recant my faith, you have given me food for thought. In my own outworking of probability I find I can both think and believe.

I may just share this with other Christians. It should prove interesting.

pboyfloyd said...

As you likely know, I'm very, very skeptical. I'm skeptical of peoples' motives more than anything else.

I'm actually skeptical of the Big Bang Theory, simply because I don't have enough information to be happy with it.

But, like Mike above, I am impressed with your reasoning about how the Big Bang Theory works, how there could be nothing at all, well maybe not 'nothing at all', but so little that time was less than meaningless, just a concept that had no 'business' there in the 'non-there', then in that 'non-then', if you see what I mean.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Actually Mike, I Love mysteries! I just think they all have 'Hound of the Baskervilles' or 'Scoobie Doo' endings ;)

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Also - I don't want anyone to recant anything. Just to acknowledge that many nonbelievers come to their conclusions through thoughtful consideration as well. I don't object to faith - just faith in politics.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Thanks pBoy - skepticism of motives is an occupational hazard of mine ;)

Harry C Pharisee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harry C Pharisee said...


Only read up to Time :-( I hope I get a chance to read the rest of this before I pass out from one prof's idea of fun... that'll be weeks.

At the end of the semester apparently some nice arguments await.

The only thing I'm a bit suspicious of is using the lack of time as a premise... so what do you specifically mean by it/time?

Entropy is physical, measurement is not, you see why I'm leery?

1st word verification: xygynat: the sound a Yeti makes when it sneezes.

2nd w.v. mophagna: word used by Yetis to demand oral sex.

GearHedEd said...

Yetis demand oral sex???

I guess you won't be seeing MY fat ass in nepal, then...