the improbability of here and now

This is a way of thinking that comes up occasionally in support of the existence of god. Really, I have more issues with the reasoning than I do with the conclusion. Believe what you will, but please don’t offer up chimeras as cornerstones of that belief. I’m not saying all ideas must be grounded in science, I don’t think that at all, but there mustn’t be all this slight of hand to make an explanation convincing. What follows are a few of my own problems with the “improbability of it all”.

So, the reasoning goes, for every atom to be directed just so, for the temperatures, distances, and elements all to be just as they are in order to support life – the odds of that are mind-numbingly low – god must have intervened to get life going. Further, it is sometimes added, conditions to sustain this fragile state are improbable in their own right. Praise the lord, for making this system!

I’ll start from the last statement and work my way back. Ridiculous. I think we can get rid of the sustenance part all together. We’re in a system that has safeguards built in – we’ve got more-or-less predictable orbits, an atmosphere, a sun that doesn’t move much, and energy that doesn’t just disappear whimsically. The system itself appears to be in a reasonably steady state (at least locally or practically). Most people would agree that seems reasonable. We act on the principle all the time, we constantly rely on a predictable system that is bound by some laws to act as it always has before. (Even if we have little reason to do so, we do rely on that.) Creating a system that’s self-perpetuating might be more improbable than creating one that isn’t, but lets assume that’s what we’ve got. Then we don’t have to deal with the probability of existence second by second, we just account for the potentially increased improbability in the original system itself. Now, we’ve got an even more highly improbable system that basically acts like it doesn’t have many options at all (that it’s law based).

Right, so in making now easier to explain by appeal to yesterday, we’ve made day one more improbable. That’s alright. All kinds of thing are improbable, but reality trumps statistics. You might double-check your numbers upon winning the lottery, you might exclaim “this isn’t happening” because it is so very unlikely, but if it is… well, then it is. Our system looks like that, it looks like it is happening. We rely on it happening systematically, and it looks like it does. So set down your numbers and go for a walk.

Of course, that might not convince you. Fair enough. It’s much more improbable, after all, than winning the lottery. It’s like winning the lottery every day. (Again, if you did, you did… but I see the concern while you didn’t). So what are you saying? That you don’t think this system actually happened on its own. You crunch your numbers, gaze at the astronomically large negative exponent and disregard the sand under your feet. As if the god idea has better odds. Well, I’m a bit short on words for you here. If you’re using math to back up your line of thought, mustn’t you provide two sets of numbers? What calculations can you give for the god claim? What’s more, is that you’re acting like you think the system is self sustaining (or possibly god intervenes every nano-second), at any rate, you’re not constantly double-checking the math. At least we agree on that part. It appears self-sustaining. Come back when you’ve imbued your god model with a probabilistic number. Things will be the same.

If you can actually give me a number, arrived at by convincing methodologies, I’m going to have to assume it’s going to be quite improbable too. And the deal with probability is that its bound to happen sooner or later, so that your god number and the self-organizing system number might both have happened, or at least enough time has passed for either (eternity anyone?). If you could give me a number, I’d probably grant you that possibility. But you’d need to grant me my possibility too. Because we’d both just have an astronomically small number. Then what do we do? Have a cup of tea? Flip a coin? Can I double check your number?

Maybe we don’t need to go that far, maybe there’s another way of looking at this. Consider this before you go… if you happened to be in an improbable system could you actually use it against itself? You use the numbers provided by the system, because that’s where you are. Does it make sense to say that the system furnishing the numbers is improbable? Improbable where? Within that system? I don’t think you can. You’ve got your numbers, but they only work within the system. Not before the system or outside the system. They’re numbers for here. The way they work, whatever they mean, reaffirms that the system is actual, or at least like it was yesterday. All your logic, words, thoughts, they are not somehow able to be divorced from what we’re in.  They are part of it. So it might make sense to talk about the odds of the Earth being where it is in a universe like we have, but not to talk about the odds of the system itself. That doesn’t make sense.

But in this system things are like they are, seemingly, because of how they were before. The odds of that are pretty good. So the fact we are here in the system is a practical inevitability in this place. In this system. Its part of how it works that we’ve got to be where we are. Even random quark models don’t disrupt the hitting of a golf ball or the smell of sulfur.

But who created the system then? Hell if I know who did… or didn’t, but don’t give me a probabilistic model to talk about meta-system possibilities. Things there need not conform to what you think of things here. It’s an unconvincing argument, on my view. In this system things are apparently deterministic, the probability of here and now is 100%. Now, if you think god is incessantly following his own laws, I don’t think you’d have much to argue with a physicist about anyway. In that case, you’re just giving different names to the same phenomena. (Never-mind the difference in “feel”, you’re then bound to scientific claims about what’s going on inside the system.) We’re all on the same page here in the system. And we’ve got no clue about the meta-system.

In All Fairness, Part One (Identifying Previously Held Assumptions)

What does it mean, fairness? What is fair? Is nature fair, is society fair, how can we go about being fair? Are there levels of fairness and should there be?

It seemed so clear to me when I was a child: fairness is when I got the good things I saw other people get. Fairness was ice cream and toys. Fairness was goodness. Group punishment was not fair, head lice was not fair, and the chickenpox was not fair – because they were not good, I did not want them. I wonder how this early idea of fairness as goodness may linger in my thoughts. I will try and shed my prejudice: fairness may not necessarily be goodness. Bad things may be fair things.

I am also inclined to think of fairness as something rank-able – possibly even quantifiable. “The game is fair only half of the time”, “this game is more fair than that game”, or “make this adjustment to your rules and they will become more fair”. These are certainly ways that are very natural for me to talk about fairness. I should like to try and suspend this way of thinking. A game that can be made more fair may simply be NOT fair. “Unless you adjust your rules they will not be fair”, or “a game that is fair half of the time is not a fair game”. These seem reasonable to me as well, although I tend not to think about fairness as absolute in my everyday life. I’d like to start with the possibility that it might be.

Also, it seems to me that fairness often requires interference. That nature is not fair – although it may be unbiased. It kills some children, it lets others grow up with severe handicaps, or allows others with no troubles at all to grow until a very old age – that does not seem fair. Not only because it does not seem good, but because it seems random. It does not pick the strongest-willed mother to rob of her child – it picks any mother at all – it may pick the weakest mother. Randomness does not necessarily seem fair to me. In some cases it seems that fairness is separate from chance.  I am, however, going to entertain that randomness MAY be fair. I will not dismiss the possibility just because it does not seem intuitive to me.

I occasionally have trouble with the idea that awareness is required for fairness. I don’t intrinsically feel that it is unfair to withhold something from me that I do not desire. This can include good things that I may simply be unaware of. If I don’t know they exist, if I don’t know they can be had, it seems to me that I can’t integrate them into my own idea of fairness. But, I think this is likely the most problematic idea of them all: for it would seem to suggest that enhancing ignorance can enhance fairness – and that seems to pose a real difficulty. At any rate, I am going to consciously consider that fairness may have nothing to do with what I know or can conceive of – it may, after all, not be fair of my peers to keep me in ignorance.

Lastly, it seems much too commonplace to imagine fairness as a common starting ground. If we start out on an equal footing, well that seems fair. I’m not going to assume that is necessarily true. I can imagine a scenario where starting fair does not mean things stay fair – it might mean nothing is really fair but the start itself.

Those are some conceptions of fairness that come easily for me – and because of this I am going to be very cautious with them and make a real effrot to entertain alternatives. This investigation of fariness will be continued in a second part.

mind and science fiction, rolling notes

I’m going to update this post throughout the next ten weeks with new information about mind and science fiction.

It will consist primarily of summarization, although if I find something exceptionally problematic and decide to grapple with it immediately… then I will post a link to my further analysis. (more…)