Fossils and Faith: A Reply to Mark Perakh
Guest post by Prof. Nathan Aviezer
Dr. Nathan Aviezer is Professor Emeritus of Physics and former Chairman of the Physics Department at Bar Ilan University. His books include In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science and Fossils and Faith: Understanding Torah and Science.
I recently became aware of an essay by Mark Perakh, devoted solely to the theme that my book, In the Beginning, is total nonsense. Perakh’s essay, bearing the sarcastic title “The End of the Beginning,” is riddled with errors. Indeed, every page of his essay contains blatant errors, false claims, and illogical conclusions, as will now be shown.
Before beginning my detailed critique of Perakh’s essay, there is a very important point to be made. In my books, I never bring any scientific facts or scientific arguments or scientific conclusions of my own. I always quote the leading scientific authorities. Therefore, when Perakh claims that my scientific discussion is all wrong, he is really asserting that the world-famous scientists whom I quote do not know what they are talking about. The reader should have no difficulty in choosing between accepting Perakh’s claims or accepting the scientific statements of Nobel Prize winners and scientists at the world’s most distinguished universities.
First Example – The Big Bang Theory
In the first chapter of my book, In the Beginning, I show that the big bang theory of cosmology agrees in every respect with the Bereshit text of the First Day of Creation. This presents a problem for Perakh. He cannot claim that the big bang theory does not agree with the Bereshit statement that the universe began through an act of creation since even secular cosmologists assert that this theory does assert the creation of the universe. For example, Professor Joseph Silk, distinguished cosmologist at the University of California, wrote a book about the big bang, entitled The Big Bang. The very first sentence of Professor Silk’s book is: “The Big Bang is the modern scientific version of creation.”
Perakh proceeds by trying to discredit the big bang theory itself, describing it as unreliable, not well accepted by the scientific community, and probably on the way out (his p. 7): “There are scientific groups in several countries which doubt the big bang theory…the ‘steady-state theory,’ which denies the big bang theory, still has adherents… Alternatives to the big bang theory include symmetric matter-anti-matter theory, variable G theory, tired light theory, shrinking atoms theory, oscillating universe, and other theories… These examples do not cover all alternatives to the big bang theory…a group of scientists in the Russian Academy of Science deny the big bang theory.”
According to Perakh, the big bang theory is just one of many possible theories of cosmology, and a controversial and not very reliable theory at that.
Perakh’s description of the current status of the big bang theory is a misrepresentation of outrageous proportions! The big bang theory is accepted by virtually every cosmologist; it is taught in every university; it is known as “the standard theory of cosmology”; the discoverers of the big bang lightball were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.
In his book, The Big Bang, Professor Silk presents the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the big bang theory. Moreover, Silk devoted an entire chapter (Chapter 18) to pointing out the defects of the alternative theories of cosmology that have been proposed in the course of time, and since rejected, the very theories that Perakh mentioned.
Scientific American is the most prestigious journal in the world for reporting advances in science to the educated layman audience. In the July 1992 issue, Scientific American reported the measurements carried out by the COBE satellite, which was launched for the express purpose of determining whether the detailed radiation measurements conform to the predictions of the big bang theory. The unequivocal results were emblazoned on the cover of Scientific American: MORE PROOFS FOR THE BIG BANG.
The article elaborates (p. 9): “One of COBE’s top goals was to test the big bang theory by measuring the spectrum of the microwave radiation. The big bang theory predicts that this radiation will describe a smooth spectrum, known as a blackbody spectrum. In January 1990, Mather presented COBE’s measured spectrum at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. The data on the screen looked so much like a perfect blackbody spectrum that the astronomers in attendance broke out in spontaneous applause.”
In February 2004, more than a decade after Perakh posted his essay on the internet, Scientific American discussion of recent advances in cosmology concluded (p. 30): “The big bang theory works better than ever.”
To this very day, every discussion of cosmology in the scientific literature is based on the big bang. For example, on 27 December 2011, Science Daily reported the following: “According to current science, space, time, and matter originated in a tremendous explosion called the Big Bang… The latest observations of the Spitzer Space Telescope suggest that the detected infrared radiation comes from clusters of bright objects that appeared shortly after the Big Bang.”
In a final, feeble attempt to undermine my analysis, Perakh writes that even though accepted today, big bang theory may be overturned tomorrow by new scientific findings (p. 8): “Here lies one of the weak points in Aviezer’s position. A theory which is prevalent today can well be rejected tomorrow, thus rendering invalid its compatibility with the Bible.”
The facts are quite otherwise. Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg has addressed precisely this question (Dreams of a Final Theory, p. 102), writing: “One can imagine experiments that refute well-accepted theories that have become part of the standard consensus of physics. Under this category, there are no examples whatever in the past hundred years” (emphasis in original). If not a single widely-accepted theory of physics has been refuted in the past century, one may dismiss Perakh’s pessimistic prognosis.
Second Example – The Origin Of Life
My second example concerns the chicken-and-egg paradox relating to the origin of life. I explained (p. 68, In the Beginning) that all living cells contain both nucleic acids and proteins and that life is quite impossible without both. The paradox lies in the fact that proteins are produced only by nucleic acids and that nucleic acids can exist only in the presence of proteins. Since neither molecule can exist without the other, there is a paradox: how did nucleic acids and proteins come into existence? This paradox is often compared to the famous “chicken-and-egg paradox.” Since chicken eggs come only from chickens and chickens come only from chicken eggs, how did chickens and chicken eggs come into existence?
This seems pretty straightforward, but Perakh thinks that this paradox is absurd. Before discussing the error in Perakh’s argument, I wish to state that in my book (pp. 68-69), I quoted leading scientists who presented this paradox, including Professor David Smith, editor-in-chief of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Earth Sciences, Professor Frank Shu of the University of California, and Professor Jean Audouze, General Editor of The Cambridge Atlas of Astronomy. Thus, Perakh is not calling my discussion “absurd”; he is calling “absurd” the discussion of respected men of science.
Perakh dismisses the paradox with the following example (his p. 10): “An oak tree’s root contains neither acorns nor leaves. Does this lead to the conclusion than an oak tree could not grow from its root?”
The absurdity of his example is easy to explain. Living cells contain both nucleic acids and proteins, and similarly, oak trees contain both leaves and acorns, but that is not the point of the paradox. The paradox lies in the fact that proteins cannot exist without nucleic acids to produce them and nucleic acids cannot exist without proteins to keep them from disintegrating.
An oak tree is completely different. In the oak tree, the root can and does exist without leaves and leaves can and do exist without acorns. An oak tree develops by first producing a root, which then produces leaves, which then produce acorns. Therefore, Perakh’s comparison of an oak tree to nucleic acids and proteins is completely false.
To support his claim that the protein-nucleic acid-protein process could have “happened naturally,” Perakh presents the following analogy (his p. 10): “Imagine a long-distance running competition in which runners have to circle the stadium 25 times. A spectator who came after the competition had started would observe the runners circling the stadium time and time again. This spectator would conclude that there was a starting point even though he has no direct knowledge of how the runners arrived at that starting point.”
Perakh’s analogy is that although each runner is circling the same track many times (cyclic process), surely each runner started the race somewhere (non-cyclic beginning). Therefore, there is no paradox in the protein-nucleic acid-protein process because every cyclic process has a non-cyclic beginning.
Perakh’s analogy of the runners completely misses the point. The protein-nucleic acid-protein process is not a paradox because it is a cyclic process. It is a paradox because of its cause-and effect nature. Each step in the cycle requires the previous step. Nucleic acids require proteins; proteins require nucleic acids. In complete contrast to this situation, a runner circling the track did not require a previous circling of the track to continue running.
Perakh also tells us that there is really no difficulty in explaining how the first protein could have emerged without requiring nucleic acids, and he presents a proposal. Perakh thus claims to have solved the riddle of the origin of life – a riddle that has confounded outstanding scientists for decades! Nobel laureate Francis Crick and Professor Harold Klein of the National Academy of Sciences, both leading authorities, refer to the origin of life, respectively, as “almost a miracle” and “It is almost impossible to imagine how it began” (p. 27, Fossils and Faith). But Petakh writes that he does know how to explain the origin of life!
If Perach’s explanation for the origin of life had any scientific validity, he would surely have been awarded the Nobel Prize! The fact that Perach has not been awarded any prize at all speaks for itself regarding his “explanation.”
Third Example – The Anthropic Principle
In discussing the Anthropic Principle (pp. 21-38, Fossils and Faith), I wrote that the probability of human life appearing spontaneously is extremely small, which is in fact the essence of the Anthropic Principle. In response, Perakh writes (his p. 3): “In the light of the above (discussion of probabilities), Aviezer’s discourse in regard to the exceedingly small probability for the spontaneous development of intelligent life is not in the least convincing.”
The multitude of scientific facts that support the anthropic principle is presented in Chapter 3 of my book, Fossils and Faith. Here, I will simply point out that it is not Aviezer who proposed the anthropic principle, but rather the many world-famous scientists, all atheists, who have emphasized the extreme improbability of life in general and human life in particular. Let me bring just one of the many quotes from my book (p. 30):
Professor Stephen Jay Gould, leading evolutionary biologist from Harvard University, writes:
“We (human beings) are a fragile and improbable entity…the result of a staggeringly improbable series of events, utterly unpredictable and quite unrepeatable” (emphasis added).
Professor Gould certainly thinks that there was an “exceedingly small probability” for intelligent life to appear. Gould also writes: “It fills us with amazement, because of its improbability, that human beings exist at all.”
Unlike Gould and the other famous scientists whom I quote, Perakh finds the arguments “not in the least convincing.” I will let the reader decide whose opinion to accept.
Fourth Example – Calculating Probabilities
Perakh is not the only one who devoted an entire essay to discrediting my book. Professor Raphael Falk, geneticist from the Hebrew University and a militant secularist, published a 10-page article against my book in the Israeli journal Alpai’im (vol. 9, Spring 1994, pp. 133-42). The editor invited me to respond, and in the article following Falk’s (pp. 143-47), I pointed out his many errors.
Falk rejected my discussion of probabilities as follows (p. 136): “Aviezer places particular emphasis on the ‘remarkable coincidences’ that characterize the universe. The point of his claim is that such remarkable events could not have occurred through chance, but rather are the result of a guiding hand. Superficially, this claim appears convincing, but a little thought shows that it is without foundation. According to Aviezer’s logic, the probability that I am writing these lines with a dull yellow pencil, using my left hand, sitting at my kitchen table, on the third floor of a specific Jerusalem address – this probability is completely negligible. Nevertheless, all these events happened and they clearly mean nothing.”
The error in Falk’s claim – “this probability is completely negligible” – had previously been pointed out by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, one of the most brilliant physicists of the twentieth century. In his discussion of probabilities (QED, p. 81), Professor Feynman emphasizes that: “In order to calculate correctly the probability of an event, one must be very careful to define the event clearly” (emphasis in original).
Feynman ridicules Falk’s claim in an amusing way. He begins his lecture about probabilities as follows: “A most remarkable and surprising thing happened to me on my way to this lecture. I noticed that the car parked next to mine had the following license plate number, FY56298. In the United States, there are about 100 million cars and only one car has license number FY56298, and I happened to park next to that car! The chances of that happening are 100 million to one – and it happened! Isn’t that remarkable!”
Feynman then explains what is wrong with this argument. There is nothing special about the number FY56298. Therefore, all that happened was that Feynman noticed that the car next to his had some license plate number. But every car has some license plate number. Therefore, the chances are 100% that the car next to Feynman will have a license plate number.
Feynman’s ridicule applies equally well to Falk’s claim, because every article is written under some set of conditions – at a certain time, at a certain address, using certain writing implements, etc. Therefore, the chances are 100%, and not “completely negligible,” as Falk had claimed, that he would write his article under some set of conditions.
All this appeared in my book. I now turn to Perakh’s essay. Regarding this topic, Perakh wrote (his p. 2): “Very good, Professor Aviezer! Your explanation meets no objection.” However, Perakh then accuses me of making the very same mistake in my discussion of the origin of life (“His [Aviezer’s] argument is exactly what Falk wrote, just in different words”). Perakh asserts that since we know that life exists, the chances of life coming into existence are 100%, writing (his p. 2): “There is no logical difference between the examples of Falk’s writing and [the origin of] life.”
Perakh has completely missed the point. What is crucial to Feynman’s example is that every car has some license plate number, and the observed number FY56298 is not unusual in any way. Similarly, what is crucial to refute Falk’s claim is that every article is written under some set of conditions, and Falk’s conditions were not unusual in any way.
Now we turn to the origin of life. Perakh has ignored the fact that in complete contrast to the license plate on the car and the writing of Falk’s article, life did not have to come into being at all. Moreover, life requires a highly unusual arrangement of molecules in the cell, so unusual that Nobel laureate Francis Crick referred to the origin of life as “almost a miracle.” Similarly, Professor Harold Klein, chairman of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences committee that reviewed origin-of-life research, wrote (p. 27, Fossils and Faith): “The simplest bacterium is so damn complicated that it is almost impossible to imagine how it happened” (emphasis added).
Fifth Example – Six Days Or Six Epochs
Perakh criticizes my approach regarding the time scale, in which I wrote that the Six Days of Creation do not refer to six periods of 24 hours each, but rather to six epochs in the development of the universe. He calls my approach (his p. 9): “an arbitrary hypothesis not based on logic when the text of the Bible is viewed from a rational standpoint.”
Perakh’s view is strikingly different from the view of Rambam. In his Guide for the Perplexed 2:25, arguably the most important words ever written regarding comparing science and Torah, Rambam wrote that whenever the text of the Torah contradicts well-established scientific knowledge, the Torah text should be interpreted figuratively, rather than literally. Thus, Rambam does not consider interpreting the Bereshit Creation Days figuratively, as epochs, to be “arbitrary…not based on logic”.
Perakh writes: “It would be in vain to search the Bible for an indication that the Hebrew word ‘yom’ was meant to denote anything but a ‘day’.”
Rashi does not agree. The Book of Hosea discusses (6:2) “the two days” (yomaim) and “the third day” (yom ha-shelishi). Rashi comments that each of these three “days” refers to a different “period” in Jewish history.
Also in English, one may use the word “day” to refer to a period, rather than referring to 24 hours. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, lists “a specified period” as one of the definitions of the word “day,” giving the following example: “in grandfather’s day”.
Perakh also raises the following question: “If the author of the Book of Genesis meant that the creation of the universe took place over six epochs, why did that author choose the word yom, and not choose, say, tekufa?”
I already answered this question on pp. 26-27 of Fossils and Faith, where I wrote the following:
“The question still remains: Why is the term ‘day’ (yom) used in the Genesis creation narrative if a 24-hour period of time is not intended? The answer is given in Genesis 2:1-3, which discusses the seventh day – the Sabbath.
“The Torah states that G-d designated the seventh day as holy because it marked the completion of the creation of the universe. This connection between the Sabbath and the Creation is reinforced in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11), where we read that G-d sanctified the Sabbath to have this day serve as a weekly reminder that He had created the universe. However, since the Sabbath is an actual 24-hour day, the six phases of creation are also referred to as days to strengthen the connection between the Sabbath and the creation of the universe.”
Sixth Example – False Quotes
Perakh repeatedly quotes me on assertions that I never wrote. Examples follow:
1. On p. 2, Perakh wrote: “Aviezer asserted that the role of a guiding mind must be accepted as the only possible explanation for our existence.”
No such assertion appears anywhere in my books.
2. On p. 6, Perakh wrote: “Therefore, concludes Aviezer, stars were created specifically in order to make possible the existence of men.”
No such conclusion appears anywhere in my books.
3. On p. 10, Perakh wrote: “Aviezer claims to somehow know the answer [of how life began] and provides the answer in a categorical way.”
No such claim appears anywhere in my books.
I could go on and write many more pages, pointing out additional blatant errors and false conclusions in Perakh’s essay, including those appearing in sections that I did not discuss here, entitled “The Sun and the Moon” and “Aviezer’s Discussion of Ice Ages” and “What Aviezer Did Not Talk About”. However, I will not try the patience of the reader, or my own patience for that matter, with such an exercise. The six examples discussed above should be sufficient to convince the reader of the lack of any validity of Perakh’s essay.
I wish to thank Rabbi Yaakov Weiner of SAR High School in the Bronx for calling my attention to this essay. Rabbi Weiner pointed out to me that it is important that I reply to Perakh, lest readers of his essay think that there is substance to his criticisms and thus my influence in the cause of Torah will be diminished. I recognized the wisdom of Rabbi Weiner’s suggestion, and here is my reply to Perakh’s essay.