Thursday, November 17, 2005
Friday, November 04, 2005
The Lottery Winner’s Dilemma: Chance or Divine Intervention?
Creationists use the idea of a lottery to argue against the natural origin and evolution of life on Earth. They say that the chances of life occurring naturally here on the Earth are like the chances of winning a lottery; very low. So there must be a supernatural explanation. Yet the idea of a lottery actually supports natural evolution, so it is about time that evolutionary scientists reclaimed the concept.
When someone wins a lottery, especially one of the big multi-state lotteries, more often than not they will thank God for their good fortune. And who could blame them? They have just overcome odds of tens or hundreds of millions to one. How could something so unlikely have occurred to them without some help from the good Lord?
Yet if you asked any statistician about the likelihood of someone winning a big lottery, they will tell you that, not only is it likely, it is actually inevitable! And if you follow the news, you will know that there are winners in the big multi-state lotteries (the ones with the highest odds against winning) every few weeks or thereabouts. So how do we reconcile these two opposing views of an extremely low probability event?
The winner looks at the event from his or her individual perspective, and clearly sees that such immense odds could not have been overcome by mere chance. The statistician looks at the event in the aggregate, and knows that with sufficient players the chance of someone winning approaches unity so that a winner is inevitable. They know that divine intervention is not needed for someone to win a lottery.
Such is the difference in perspective between creationists (of both the “young earth” and “old earth,” i.e., intelligent design, types) and evolutionary scientists. Creationists are constantly harping on the idea of the extremely low probability of life originating and evolving here on Earth through the God-created laws of physics and chemistry. Thus, they are focusing solely upon the odds against all of the events that were required for life to occur here, on this specific planet, in the correct sequence and time frame. They thus embrace the logical fallacy of the lottery winner.
Evolutionary scientists, while acknowledging that there is a low probability for life to occur on a particular planet, see the number of stars in the universe as supporting the inevitability of life. There is no need to dwell upon the individual odds against life, when in the aggregate it is inevitable that life will occur somewhere in the universe.
Indeed, a recent star survey estimated that there are at least 70 sextillion stars in the universe. That would result in 70 billion planets with life like ours if the odds were one in a trillion, 70 million planets with such life if the odds were one in a quadrillion, and 70 thousand planets with such life if the odds were one in a quintillion.
Even at odds of one in 70 sextillion, there would be at least one planet in the universe with life like ours. Just because that one planet happens to be our planet does not support a conclusion that life could only have occurred through divine intervention. We are merely that lottery winner whose existence somewhere in the universe is inevitable.
So the next time you are standing under a moonless sky far from the lights of a city, look up at God’s heavens and spend a few minutes admiring all of those beautiful losing lottery tickets that are shining down upon you. But do not spend any time wondering why life happened to occur on this specific planet. If you do, you will have impaled yourself on the horns of the Lottery Winner’s Dilemma!
(This essay was first posted to the talk.origins newsgroup on 3 November 2005)