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Probably Inevitable

September 15, 2010

What is the difference between luck and circumstance? I’ve written before on how the sheer fact of observation after a pair of events causes the mind to draw whatever possible correlations may exist, regardless of whether “luck” would suggest the connection in the absence of a searching mind. But what should one make of a collection of independent events of pure “blind luck” as this one (UPDATE: the original was taken down, but this compilation has many of the same clips)?

I would posit that we should be inclined to think of evolutionary theory since that seems to be an explanation for pretty much everything these days. No, I don’t mean that these humans are the products of generations that survived and developed quick response-times to such precarious circumstances in the past (though that might be the case). Instead, I mean that we humans only observe the products of those environment-shaping dynamics that produced us. We wouldn’t have a YouTube video collection of all of the actual fatalities that could have happened; instead we see everything that worked out alright. It’s simple selection bias.

When we ponder the odds of surviving such a set of gut-wrenchingly close calls, we are far too quick to give up our search for rational explanation and ascribe the causal factors to pure chance, even though the fact that we observe such a coincidence proves that it was a success:

At first, evolution as an explanation for extraordinary events seems reductive and facile for such crazy happenstances. One worries about cheapening the integrity of evolutionary processes by making the operative forces seem rather too obvious and teleological in retrospect. It seems to skew the unguided and blind naturalism of evolution to say that “of course, that’s how it worked out.” That’s what Intelligent Design proponents always say; calculating the probability of a specific outcome of the serendipitous present would require a nearly infinite myriad of little “lucky” events of the past to the point where “blind evolutionary luck” could not provide an explanation.

But when you really understand evolution, and therefore understand the series of “coincidences” explained through sheer probability above, you realize that our outcome was not predetermined and that the situation we are living in is something to delight in, precisely because it wasn’t necessary that things would come out so well. As David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins both agreed in a recent joint interview/conversation (and as Stephen Hawking recently pointed out to some controversy), the biggest truth about the universe is how our perspective is so wonderful that it seems improbable, even though probability is the only force that could have gotten us here.

Richard Dawkins: The unity of life that comes about through evolution, since we’re all descended from a single common ancestor. It’s almost too good to be true, that on one planet this extraordinary complexity of life should have come about by what is pretty much an intelligible process. And we’re the only species capable of understanding it.

Capable? Yes. But is any given human being likely to understand it? I suppose that’s a matter of luck.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2010 10:30 pm

    I would take issue with this not uncommon interpretation, slickricks.

    A fundamental aspect of scientific enquiry is the search for patterns arising in our universe and development of consistent interpretations that use minimal assumptions.

    The evolutionary patterns we observe right from stellar nucleosynthesis right through to the emergence of present technologies are so persistent and pervasive as not to be dismissed lightly.

    Your “call to authority” in presenting your argument is inappropriate. Neither the dreamings of Hawkin nor the simplistic reasoning of Attenborough have any real bearing.

    Dawkins, for me at least, certainly is worthy of attention. I first read “The Selfish Gene” way back in antiquity when it was first published and it has been a major influence on the development of my own world view. However, quite understandably in view of the barrage of flak from creationists and other religious crazies over the years seem to have left Dawkins with a rather paranoid reluctance to accept this strong pattern at face value.

    Just to look at the biological phase of evolution:

    The evolution of species is not a random process. It is driven by random events which produce mutations. Most importantly these mutations are then filtered by the prevailing environment. This is the process of natural selection which gives the development of life its direction, which, in a limited sense, can be equated to “purpose”

    In the Paley’s example of the watch both Richard Dawkings and theists fall into exactly the same trap. It is the trap of anthropocentrism whereby any phenomenon that exhibits what can be called “design” or “purpose” must involve a reflection of our own particular mental processes.

    As discussed further in my recent book “Unusual Perspectives” (Ch 10) this is a logical error of the “package deal” variety. Both the watch and the eye (or neither) can be considered to have design or purpose within this model. We consider ourselves to design such things as watches. This arrogance can only be justified in a very limited sense. In actuality, watches have evolved! Albeit by a non-genetic mechanism.

    They are products of nature and we merely the vehicles for their evolutionary progress.

    There is absolutely no need to invoke any kind of “creator” to explain the undeniable pattern that we observe. Nature being best viewed as simply an ongoing machine

    This and related interpretation are presented in my first book, “Unusual Perspectives”, which can be freely downloaded from the dedicated website http://www.unusual-perspectives.net.

    However, some do find this a hard read and, if skimmed, it can be easily misinterpreted.

    My latest work “The Goldilocks Effect”, which is almost ready for publication, is more concise and deals more specifically with this wider evolutionary model.

    • slickricks permalink*
      September 17, 2010 12:43 pm

      Peter, while your “comment” is one of the more serious and content-filled comments I have received (and I am thankful for that), you were in no way responsive to the actual content of my post. Therefore, I must assume you are a SPAMmer, hocking your book and/or website in any comment box attached to a post where Dawkins is mentioned.

      But, despite that, I think your metaphorical interpretation that all things we colloquially refer to as “designed” are actually products of evolution (e.g., that a watch evolves based on the forces of its environment) is somewhat fun, even though it eviscerates any functional distinction between the words “evolve” and “design.” The problem is that there is a use for both concepts, in that the watch’s environment does impose a teleology on the nascent watch, whereas nature does not care about the functionality of its constituents. Humans have the capacity to refine their products with respect to such functionality and make a better or more desirable use of it, not just a use that will survive its environment (see, e.g., what I am doing to your SPAM comment right now).

      But if you want to send me a promotional copy of your book, I’d be happy to review it on this site.

      Note: you may wish to correct your copy/paste text as “Hawkin” and “Dawkings” are embarrassingly misspelled.

  2. September 17, 2010 3:37 pm

    It is a sad comment on the quality of the blog-world that many of the replies I receive are simply ad hominem attacks or trivial criticisms regarding typos or the like.

    So much easier than having to try to extend the mind to addressing the actual content, isn’t it?

    I usually don’t bother to respond to such posts and either have a chuckle or shake my head sadly, as the mood takes me. In this instance however there is some evidence that your intellect may possibly exceed that of your average mollusk and there might be hope for you yet.

    Certainly I often use some degree of cut and paste in my comments, why on Earth wouldn’t I?
    But having read my post I am at a loss to comprehend how you can interpret that as SPAM!

    Of course I am enthusiastic with regard to promulgating the ideas expressed in my books and I don’t have the marketing machines of a Dorkabooly or a Hawkpongler. You think I should make no mention of these works in my communications?

    “Unusual Perspectives” is available for free download but, judging by your present form, I very much doubt if you could handle it. I have been urged to “dumb it down” and that is one of the motivations of “The Goldilocks Effect”. The other being to present the main theme in a more direct and explicit manner.

    You certainly don’t seem to be able to grasp the relevance of my comments to your post.

    You will appreciate, of course, that this post has been generated entirely by my wondrous auto-spammer.

    Oh, and, bugger it, I see that I spelled “Dorkabooly” wrongly.

    • slickricks permalink*
      September 17, 2010 4:21 pm

      Peter, thank you for your response. I agree, it is quite preferable to address the content of an argument than resort to ad hominem attacks. It is a principle I strive for in this blog on a regular basis. That is why I proceeded beyond my assumption that you are posting in order to promote the exciting offers available at your site and addressed the substance of your comment. However, if you think I “don’t seem to be able to grasp the relevance of [your] comments,” then I suppose you have handily proven that content-based arguments are superior to ad hominem attacks and content-free commentary.

      In all seriousness, http://www.unusual-perspectives.net/ is well worth a visit.

  3. September 17, 2010 7:29 pm

    WARNING: I would be very careful about recommending visits to my website.

    One of the recent replies to one of my posts which which particularly tickled me was this gem from the redoubtable J Thibeault .

    “I didn’t respond to this obvious self-serving bit of spam because it’s very likely Peter Kinnon’s “Unusual Perspectives” book reflects many ideas we all believe presently (though I haven’t bothered to read it, free or not — the 0.9 Time Cube level website made my eyes bleed and I couldn’t muster the will to download the likely Microsoft WordArt-laden PDF). From the synopsis he just gave of his newer book, I don’t see anything that contradicts M-Theory or any other topic of conversation in The Grand Design. Just because the “evolutionary model of our observed universe” is fairly easy to prove (by stretched definitions of the word “easy”), doesn’t mean anything you’ve said DISproves any of Hawking’s theories.
    One of the chief ways you can tell someone’s a self-shilling crank on the scientific or philosophic parts of the internet, is that they compare themselves favorably to certain intellectual giants (e.g. Hawking, Galileo, or Einstein). One of the chief ways you can tell someone’s a self-deluded crank is if they have delusions of being superior to these intellectual giants.”

    So there yer go! Makes your spam accusations effort look a bit tame, doesn’t it?
    I am especially impressed by the “the 0.9 Time Cube level website made my eyes bleed” bit.

    To return to the serious tone set by your last concluding remark, though, UP does need to be read carefully to avoid misinterpretation and I would now recommend that as a back-up for the the more concise and direct account given in the new book which is going to press next week.

    While I think ocular hemorrhages are not common among viewers of my site it has certainly become a bit messy and is on my to-do list for revision.

    Pete

  4. September 18, 2010 4:43 pm

    Having crossed swords and had a bit of a giggle it woud seem appropriate to tie this up with a return to reason. I respect of your remark:
    “it eviscerates any functional distinction between the words “evolve” and “design.” The problem is that there is a use for both concepts, in that the watch’s environment does impose a teleology on the nascent watch, whereas nature does not care about the functionality of its constituents. Humans have the capacity to refine their products with respect to such functionality and make a better or more desirable use of it, not just a use that will survive its environment”

    The machinery of nature has as much (or as little) teleology associated with it as you or I.

    One source of your misinterpretation is the great mistake made by the memetics faction. The overly literal identification of the evolution of ideas with those of genetic processes. While there is certainly a quite strong functional similarity between these two phases of nature’s machinery the workings at the nuts and bolts level are clearly very different.

    Another error is confusion of physical manifestations with the evolving entity. The eye is the expression of genes.
    The watch is the expression of ideas. What, from an anthropocentric viewpoint, you perceive as “redesigning” the watch to make a “better” one is illusory. In reality it is the constantly evolving cascade of ideas which produces the “better” watch.

    Why have I used quotes round the word “better”? Because we are again slipping into our (very natural) anthropocentric habits of thought. The implication promoted by religious groups, the present trans-humanist movement and the like, that our species is somehow the prime focus of nature’s activities. In actuality we just happen (at present) to be on the vector which corresponds to the relentless advance of technology. Watches and “better” watches, or cell phones, if you wish, being mere spin-off, by-products of the great natural machinery which we observe. They act as incentives and rewards for our provision of an environment in which ideas, and thus technologies, can evolve.

    I realise that, like most of us, you may have problems comprehending this. Not because of any essential inadequacy in your reasoning processes, but rather because of our deeply entrenched introverted and anthropocentric mind-sets.

    I hope “The Gooldilocks Effect” with its much wider evolutionary framework will help to break down these barriers.

    Meanwhile you might like to have look at the paper by Edward A. Wasserman & Mark S. Blumberg which I encountered earlier this year and which lends support to the “no inventors” proposition:
    http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/id.9347,y.2010,no.3,content.true,page.1,css.print/issue.aspx

    This, in turn, led me to the works of Henry Petroski (petroski@duke.edu), who appears to have been banging away very effectively around the fringes of this kind of thinking for many years.

    You see, there are no new ideas. They continuously evolve in baby steps.

    The quote of Carl Sagan’s which I use in “The Goldilocks Effect” gives the flavour of it nicely:

    “In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.”

    I’ll have to leave it there for now, but will no doubt pop back occasionally. (If I can get the hyper-semantic autospammer running properly, that is!)

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