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.
This is a follow-up to Prof. Aviezer’s earlier essay on this site: link
Professor Mark Perakh begins his second article (hereafter, Perakh 2) by claiming that 13 years ago, his friend sent me a copy of his first article (hereafter, Perakh 1) and asked me to reply, but I “chose to ignore the request.” I have no such recollection, but one cannot be certain of exactly what happened 13 years ago.
The replies of Perakh 2 to the criticisms that I raised against Perakh 1 are feeble. For example, the well-known chicken-and-egg paradox regarding the origin of life is dismissed in Perakh 1, Sec. 9, by means of an analogy to runners in a stadium. To my demonstration (“Reply to Mark Perakh”) that the analogy is completely false, Perakh 2 replies (p. 4) that his analogy was “just an illustration.” A false analogy illustrates nothing but lack of understanding.
Even worse is the fact that Perach 1 repeatedly attributed to me views and opinions that I never expressed. To this charge (“Reply to Mark Perakh”), Perakh 2 replies (p. 4) that he “rendered in his own words notions that seemed to follow from Aviezer’s narrative.” However, what Perakh “rendered” was quite different from what I actually believe and have written in my books, as we shall see.
Perakh 2 continues this sorry tradition of attributing to me opinions that are the opposite of what I believe. Perakh 2 writes (p. 1): “For Aviezer, the word ‘secularist’ seems to have a pejorative connotation.”
I am deeply offended by this charge. In fact, the exact opposite is true! It is very important to me that every scientist that I quote in my articles, in my books, and in my lectures, is completely secular. This ensures that the scientist is totally objective in his/her scientific statements, and that he/she does not distort or misrepresent anything to justify religious beliefs.
FIRST TOPIC – VALIDITY OF BIG BANG THEORY
Perakh 2, p. 4, states the following:
“Aviezer asserts that in my review [Perakh 1], I expressed doubts regarding the currently prevalent theory of the universe’s beginning in a hot big bang…Not only did I not cast doubts anywhere in my review [Perakh 1] on the hot big bang theory, but I quite unequivocally stated nothing that could be interpreted in such a way.”
Perakh 1, p. 6, stated the following: “There are scientific groups in several countries who 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…The big bang theory leaves a number of topics elusive, speculative, and often not understood at all. One of the weak points of the big bang theory is that…it seems to be incompatible with quantum theory.”
With these words, Perakh is clearly “expressing doubts” regarding the validity of the big bang theory.
Perakh’s entire discussion of the big bang theory was designed to create the false impression that this theory is controversial and, therefore, it was unwarranted of me to use this theory as the basis for explaining the creation narrative in the Torah. In fact, the big bang theory has achieved consensus status among cosmologists. (“The big bang theory works better than ever,” Scientific American, February 2004, p. 30).
It is well known that every theory in science has some dissenting voices. Even the great Albert Einstein refused to accept quantum theory, which is the basic theory of modern physics and electronics. Dissenting voices do not mean that a theory that has achieved consensus status is controversial. As I wrote in my book (Fossils and Faith, p. 4): “the big bang theory is now accepted by all mainstream cosmologists” (emphasis added).
SECOND TOPIC – ORIGIN OF LIFE
Perakh 2, p. 1, states the following:
“According to Aviezer, I allegedly claimed that I know how life originated. I never claimed anything even remotely hinting at such knowledge on my part.”
Perakh presented his possible scenario for the origin of life in Sec. 9 of Perakh 1, entitled “The Paradox of the Origin of Life.” In this section, Perakh claims that there really isn’t any paradox at all, and goes on to explain how life could have originated from inanimate material. The technical aspects of his explanation are given in Sec. 9, where Perakh wrote the following (for more details, see his Sec. 9):
“Under certain conditions…the interacting molecules could have acquired the activation energy sufficient to overcome the potential barrier… Thus, the first protein or the first nucleic acid could emerge… Another effect with the same consequences could be a decrease of the potential barrier, for example, by a shower of photons…”
Presenting a specific possible scenario for the origin of life is considerably more than “remotely hinting at knowledge on [his] part” of the origin of life.
In contrast to Perakh’s proposed scenario, many world-famous scientists, including Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick and Professor Harold Klein of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, have stated that they have no idea how life originated from inanimate material (relevant quotes in FIFTH TOPIC). Therefore, I had facetiously suggested that if Perakh’s proposed scenario for the origin of life had any validity, Crick and Klein would have been among the first to nominate Perakh for the Nobel Prize.
I wish to apologize to Perakh for this inappropriate, facetious comment.
THIRD TOPIC – FALSE ATTRIBUTIONS
Perakh 2, p. 4, states the following:
“Aviezer lists several assertions in my review [Perakh 1] where, he thinks, I attributed to him statements which he did not make. In fact, in none of these cases did I pretend to provide direct quotations, but rather, rendered in my own words notions that seemed to follow from his narrative. I believe that, in all three cases listed by Aviezer, he has no reason to accuse me of attributing to him something that he did not have in mind.”
The “three cases listed by Aviezer,” referred to above by Perakh, are the following:
Perakh 1, p. 2, states the following: “Aviezer asserted that the role of a guiding mind must be accepted as the only possible explanation for our existence.”
Perakh 1, p. 6, states the following: “Therefore, concludes Aviezer, stars were created specifically in order to make possible the existence of men.”
Perakh 1, p. 10, states the following: “Aviezer claims to somehow know the answer [of how life began] and provides the answer in a categorical way.”
When he writes “Aviezer asserted” and “concludes Aviezer” and “Aviezer claims,” Perakh is clearly stating that these “assertions”, “conclusions”, and “claims” are my opinions. In fact, however, the various opinions that Perakh attributed to me are not my opinions and they do not appear anywhere in my books or articles.
Let me quote here exactly what I did write, taking the anthropic principle as an example (Fossils and Faith, p. 36):
“Many extremely unlikely events had to occur to make possible the appearance of human beings. Thus, the extreme rarity of the events leading to human existence is well established. That is the scientific content of the anthropic principle.”
The above words of mine have been misrepresented (“rendered”) by Perakh to mean that “a guiding mind must be accepted as the only possible explanation for our existence.” Professor Stephen Jay Gould certainly does not think so. Although Gould emphasizes that “a staggeringly improbable series of events” were needed for human existence, he attributes these events to “chance.” But, as a religious person, it is my belief that the “staggeringly improbable series of events” needed for human existence resulted from Divine guidance. However, I never implied that my belief constitutes the “only possible explanation.”
In Perach 2, p. 4, he again attributes to me opinions that I do not hold and never wrote: “The only possible explanation, thinks Aviezer, is to assume a supernatural interference with the situation.”
Once again, Perakh has made a false attribution. This is not my opinion and such an assumption does not appear anywhere in my books, as shown in my SUMMARY at the end of this “Reply.”
In fact, it is not hard to know what “Aviezer thinks.” One need only read my book (Fossils and Faith, p. 22):
“The thesis to be developed here is that the anthropic principle – the idea that the universe seems to have been designed for the existence of human beings – may be taken as evidence that the universe really was so designed by the Almighty. This statement requires justification because secular scientists view the anthropic principle as merely a curious property of nature, having no significance at all.”
It is impossible to understand these words as claiming “the only possible explanation [for the origin of life] is to assume a supernatural interference with the situation.”
FOURTH TOPIC – EXPERTISE
Perakh 2, pp. 2, 5
Perakh 2 devotes considerable space to emphasizing his expertise in probability theory, relating how many scientific articles and books he has published, and stating that he “had to study the theory of probability in depth and gave it a lot of thought. I think that there is hardly any major textbook or monograph on probability theory in Russian or English that I have not studied.” And so on and so forth.
This long discussion in Perakh 2 is designed to create the impression that there are no errors in Perakh’s assertions that relate to probability theory. We now show that in spite of his claimed expertise, Perakh 2 does contain errors in probability theory.
Professor Raphael Falk published an article in the Israeli journal Alpai’im (vol. 9, Spring 1994), in which he dismissed my discussion of probabilities, writing (p. 136): “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” – lies in the fact that every article is written under some set of conditions – at a certain time, at a certain address, using certain writing implements, etc. Thus, the chances are 100%, and not “completely negligible,” as Falk had claimed, that Falk would write his article under some set of conditions. In probability theory, the technical term for this situation is “equivalent microstates.” There are many equivalent ways (equivalent sets of conditions) in which Falk could have written his article.
Now we consider the origin of life. In contrast to the conditions under which Falk wrote his article, life did not have to come into existence at all. Therefore, the particular arrangement of molecules in the cell that leads to life is a unique microstate. The existence of life and the absence of life are not equivalent situations. It follows that the origin of life is not a case of “equivalent microstates.”
Therefore, Falk’s analogy between the origin of life (no equivalent microstates) and the conditions of writing his article (yes equivalent microstates) is false. Failure to distinguish a case with equivalent microstates from a case without equivalent microstates is a common error in probability theory.
Now we come to the point. What does Perakh think about Falk’s erroneous argument? He accepts it! According to Perakh 2 (p. 2), “Professor Falk of the Hebrew University correctly demonstrated the faults of Aviezer’s treatment of probability.”
Perakh’s acceptance of Falk’s erroneous claim shows that Perakh has erred regarding probability theory.
FIFTH TOPIC – POKER, ORIGIN OF LIFE, AND PROBABILITY THEORY
Perakh 2, p. 3
Perakh 2 writes that the origin of life has absolutely nothing to do with probability theory (p. 3): “the emergence of life is a special event [but] the theory of probability does not know the concept of special events” and again “probabilistic considerations are irrelevant when life is discussed” and again “Aviezer’s probabilistic exercises are meaningless.”
In fact, there is a very important and deep connection between the origin of life and probability theory. The connection is clarified by means of an analogy with the game of poker, in which each player receives a hand of five cards (no draw).
Probability theory tells us there are over two million different poker hands (2,598,960 to be exact), with different hands being assigned different values. Most poker hands have little value (the least valuable hand is the “high card”), whereas some poker hands have great value. The most valuable poker hand is a “royal flush” (ten, jack, queen, king, ace of the same suit). The probability of getting a royal flush is only 0.00015%.
If one gets a royal flush, the dream of every poker player, he will speak about it for weeks, if not months. But why? The probability of getting any particular poker hand is exactly the same as the probability of getting any other particular hand. In other words, the probability of getting the royal flush that the player just received was exactly the same as the probability of getting the particular valueless “high card” hand that he received in the previous game. Therefore, why is every poker player so excited about getting a royal flush?
The concept of “equivalent microstates” in probability theory supplies the answer. There are over a million different “high card” hands. The player does not care which “high card” hand he received; they are all equally valueless to him. In other words, “high card” hands consist of a million equivalent microstates.
There are only four possible royal flushes (one in each suit). If one compares the million equivalent “high card” hands with the only four equivalent royal flush hands, one immediately understands why the royal flush is considered so unusual by a poker player.
As in poker hands, so too for cells. There are an enormous number of different microstates for a cell, meaning different possible arrangements of the molecules in a cell. The vast majority of these microstates are equivalent in that they do not yield a living cell. They correspond to the valueless “high card” hands in poker. When considering the origin of life, one is only interested in those microstates that do yield a living cell. These are very few in number. Thus, the origin of life is exactly like the royal flush in poker. A non-living arrangement of molecules is vastly more probable than a living cell, just like a valueless “high card” hand in poker is vastly more probable than a royal flush.
Now we come to a very important difference between poker and the living cell. It is certainly possible to get a royal flush in poker. The chances of getting a royal flush are about one in a million, and events at this level of probability do occur. However, the chances of getting two consecutive royal flushes are vastly lower. It is the repeated occurrence of rare events that leads to the astronomically unlikely probabilities.
How would one respond to a poker player who received two consecutive royal flushes? One option is to believe that a staggeringly improbable event actually occurred. The second option is to suspect cheating. Although the first option is possible, I think that most poker players would choose the second option.
Also with the anthropic principle, it is the repeated occurrence of rare events that leads to the astronomical unlikely probabilities that are the essence of the anthropic principle. Scientists who discuss the anthropic principle always emphasize the many unusual features of the universe and the many special events that were necessary for life in general and for human life in particular, and they all occurred. Professor Dyson writes: “the many peculiarities of physics…”; Professor Crick writes: “so many conditions…”; Professor Gould writes: “staggeringly improbable series of events…” The series of unusual requirements that occurred are the reason that leading scientists consider the origin of life to be such a highly improbable event.
How does one respond to the anthropic principle? That depends on one’s personal beliefs. If one is a secular person who does not believe in G-d, as are all the scientists I have quoted, then divine interference is not an option. Thus, Professor Gould opts for the explanation of “chance.” He writes that human life just happened by chance in spite of its extremely small probability. This approach is certainly possible.
Other scientists prefer the following approach. Maybe there exist many, many universes, each with different laws of nature. Therefore, one of these many universes will have the laws of nature that are compatible with life, and the universe that we inhabit is, of course, that special universe. In addition, in this very special universe that we inhabit, the “staggeringly improbable series of events” necessary for human life just happened to occur. This scenario is also possible.
However, a person who believes in G-d has the option of believing that divine intervention is the correct explanation for the origin of human life. For the person who believes in G-d, the explanation of divine interference is at least as reasonable, if not more reasonable, than any other explanation.
As I clearly wrote in my book, the religious implications of the anthropic principle are not a matter of science. Each person will decide on this matter according to his or her opinions and beliefs.
Finally, we turn to Perakh’s assertion that “probabilistic considerations are irrelevant when [the origin of] life is discussed.”
According to Professor Stephen Gould of Harvard University, a leading authority on evolution, “It fills us with amazement (because of its improbability) that human beings exist at all…Let the ‘tape of life’ play again from the identical starting point, and the chance is vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay” (emphasis added).
Does Professor Gould consider the existence of human beings to be a highly improbable event? His words speak for themselves.
According to Professor Francis Crick, who shared the Nobel Prize for discovering the famous double-helix structure of DNA, “The origin of life appears to be almost a miracle, so many conditions would have had to be satisfied to get life going.”
Does Professor Crick consider the origin of life to be a highly improbable event? In fact, he considers the origin of life to be “almost a miracle”! Crick does not, of course, mean “miracle” in the religious sense. He is an atheist, as are all the scientists whom I quote. Crick uses the words “almost a miracle” to emphasize how improbable this event was. It is as if Israel were to win ten gold medals in the London Olympics!
According to Professor Harold Klein, chairman of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences committee that reviewed origin-of-life research, “The simplest bacterium is so damn complicated that it is almost impossible to imagine how it happened.”
Does Professor Klein consider the origin of life to be a highly improbable event? In fact, he finds the origin of life “almost impossible to imagine how it happened.”
Detailed references for the quotes presented above can be found in my book, Fossils & Faith, Chapter 3.
SIXTH TOPIC – BAYES’S THEOREM, THE ORIGIN OF LIFE,
AND PERAKH’S STRAW MAN ARGUMENT
Perakh 2, pp. 3, 4
Perakh 2 states that “an analysis based on a particular form of Bayes’s theorem shows that arguments in favor of a supernatural emergence of life are untenable.” Perakh 2 claims that this refutes Aviezer, whose opinion is: “the only possible explanation [for the origin of life], thinks Aviezer, is to assume supernatural interference.”
Bayes’s theorem is a useful method in probability theory for testing the validity of a hypothesis. The problem with Perakh’s statement lies in the fact that nowhere did I claim that “the only possible explanation for the origin of life is supernatural interference.” Perakh has falsely attributed to me an opinion that I do not hold.
Perakh’s statement is thus a classic example of a “straw man argument,” which works like this. One falsely attributes to an opponent a claim that the opponent never made, and then one shows that this imaginary claim is wrong.
It follows that the entire discussion in Perakh 2 of Bayes’s approach is irrelevant because Perakh has used Bayes’s approach to test a hypothesis that no one has suggested – not I and certainly not the secular scientists who formulated the anthropic principle.
The many scientists who formulated the anthropic principle state that the universe requires very fine-tuning for life to exist. Any old universe will not do. This is the entire content of the anthropic principle.
For the convenience of the reader, in the THIRD TOPIC, I quoted from my book Fossils and Faith showing what conclusions I draw from the anthropic principle. It is impossible to understand my words as claiming that “the only possible explanation for the origin of life is supernatural interference.” I clearly state that divine intervention is one possible explanation, the one that will be favored by the religious person.
It is time to summarize. Perakh has falsely accused me of claiming that I have proved that the Torah is true, G-d exists, and He intervened in the origin of life in general and human beings in particular. In fact, I wrote the exact opposite (Fossils and Faith, p. 7):
“It should be emphasized that the comprehensive agreement between science and Genesis described here does not prove that the Book of Genesis is of divine origin, and it certainly does not prove that G-d exists. These matters remain articles of faith. However, as we begin the twenty-first century, the person of faith is not forced to choose between accepting the latest scientific discoveries or accepting the Genesis account of Creation” (emphasis in original).