Place Your Bets: The probability of life evolving on even one planet in the whole universe is “less than 1 chance in 10172 (100 thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion)

Guest post by theologian Dr Robert Knowles.

Is there any proof of/against evolution? Is it possible for evolution to exist without contradicting the Bible?  i.e. Could it be that God designed us differently at the moment of creation but that he has gradually changed things, or does the Bible suggest otherwise?

As I understand the theory of evolution as it has developed “post-Darwin”, then we cannot simply accept it as its stands. What I believe we can accept is a notion of a “divinely directed creation process” that looks like “Darwinian evolution” when viewed through naturalistic spectacles.

As I understand it, the traditional evolutionary theory demands that “time and chance” causes genetic mutations to be occasionally positive, and that “natural selection” then favours positive mutations since these are better suited to the environment. All this happens “post-DNA” formation. Prior to DNA formation, certain chemical ingredients supposedly came together by “time and chance” again, and gradually DNA molecules, and ultimately cells, form.

So, (a) “time and chance plus the right ingredients” supposedly produce DNA and ultimately cells, and then (b) “time and chance” supposedly causes positive DNA and cell mutation, and then (c) “natural selection” causes “positive mutations” to prosper and “negative mutations” to die off. A fourth notion can be added whereby (d) “equilibriums” of relative stability are “punctuated” by relatively short periods of rapid change. That is, evolution happens in bursts, rather than always happening gradually.

In my view what we really have going on, however, is: (a) “creation” of the DNA molecule and of cells – over time, and from the right ingredients, where these ingredients are also created gradually over time. This is not by “random chance by nature” alone but by “ordered direction by God” acting into a setting that would otherwise be just “random chance by nature”.

For DNA to evolve through “time and random chance” means that DNA, proteins, and RNA molecules have to simultaneously evolve from inorganic compounds, since all three molecules are interdependent on each other. The problem with this, however, is that it would take many times longer than the universe has existed for even several chimpanzees to accidentally type out Psalm 23 “by time and random chance” alone – approximately “9.552 x 101016 years”. The DNA molecule, however, contains as much information as about 250,000 books. The time needed for the same chimpanzees to accidentally type out 250,000 books “by time and random chance” alone is so great that the notion of the DNA molecule evolving “by time and random chance” is utterly absurd. It is a mathematical impossibility given the actual age of the universe. A mere 13 – 15 billion years (i.e. 13 to 15 x 109 years) is nowhere near long enough (see, Russel Grigg, ‘Could Monkeys Type the 23rd Psalm?’ Interchange 50 (1993), 25-31; cited in, Carson, D.A., The Gagging of God. Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Leicester: Apollos, 1996), 198).

It has been estimated mathematically that the probability of life evolving on even one planet in the whole universe is “less than 1 chance in 10172 (100 thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion)”. Over 153 parameters have to be exactly right for life to exist at all – let alone for it to “evolve by time and random chance” alone (see, Ross, H., K. Samples and M. Clark, Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men: A Rational Christian Look at UFOs and Extraterrestrials (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 185-189).

(b) I then think that God “creates” positive DNA and cell mutations, and that this is not just left to “time and random chance”. Now, I believe that “time and random chance” are operative at this level, just as they are at the pre-DNA stage. However, I believe that God also reaches into the situation and again exercises “ordered direction”. I have heard it said by somebody from the field of micro-biology that only 1 mutation in 1012  is positive. Again, this casts doubt on whether the universe is anywhere near old enough for  sufficient positive DNA and cell mutations to occur by “time and random chance” alone.

Taking (a) and (b) together, then we have to conclude that the argument for the existence of God on the grounds of “intelligent design” is extremely strong.

(c) In relation to “natural selection”, then I think that “time and random chance” appear to have greater roles to play in terms of different mutations faring more or less well in given environments. Having said this, however, since the “mutation” process is not simply random, then the “natural selection” process is not simply random either. Rather it is a predictable corollary of the “mutation” process.

To my mind, the “natural selection” rule is one of the least absurd of the points made by traditional evolution theory, which is probably why traditional evolutionists seem to focus on it more than on the other less probable points in the theory. The problem, however, is that so much happens even before “natural selection” has an opportunity to become operative, that the degree to which “chance” could come into play is severely limited by the boundary conditions that God would have had to have already “intelligently directed” just in order for DNA and for positive mutations of DNA to have ever existed. How the environment responds to what God does could be said to have elements of “chance” involved in it, but we could hardly argue that what appears to be “chance” to us could be anything other than infinitely predictable to the environment’s Creator. As Jesus puts it, “not even a sparrow falls from the tree apart from the will of the Father”. Or, as the Psalmist expresses it, “even the hairs on our heads are numbered” by God. God’s monitoring of what he has created, and his control over it, is infinite and absolute.

(d) That science has had to come up with a “punctuated equilibrium” theory suggests that God acts creatively in bursts. If “time and random chance” were the only “directing” factors, then one would expect “change” to happen in longer drawn-out ways, rather than in shorter bursts. That is, if the actual periods of “change” or of “evolutionary development” are not drawn out over billions of years so much as they are intermittent within periods of billions of years, then the mathematical probabilities stacking up against DNA occurrence and against positive DNA mutations are even greater than those cited above.

One wonders whether the theory of “punctuated equilibrium” is in part the result of the lack of sufficient fossil evidence for “in-between states”. That is, if one imagines that bats “evolve” from mice, then where are the “mice with mini bat wings” in the fossil record? Coming up with the “punctuated equilibrium” idea could potentially get around this problem because it could then be argued that the intermediate “mice with mini bat wings” mutation only existed for a very short spell, and not long enough to be preserved in the fossil record. As we have already argued, however, the down side is then that anything deemed to have required “time and random chance” to occur is even less probable if the times allowed for change are radically diminished. This only strengthens the arguments for “intelligent design” by God.

My conclusion so far from these arguments is that: (a) geological considerations force us to reject the “literal six-day creation” view; (b) this is no threat to biblical authority because a good hermeneutic (i.e. interpretation) of Genesis 1-2 shows that the author of Genesis knew he wasn’t speaking about six literal “earth-days”; (c) so, we may reasonably accept the geological working hypothesis that the earth is 4.54 billion years old, and the astronomical working hypothesis that the universe is between 13 and 15 billion years old.

(c) The length of time presupposed by this “ancient earth” view, however, is utterly dwarfed by the absurdly large time-spans required mathematically for DNA to (i) come into existence at all by “time and random chance” and, (ii), for DNA to mutate positively, by “time and random chance”; (d) therefore, we cannot accept the traditional naturalistic interpretation of “evolutionary process”; the universe is much more likely to have been “intelligently designed” by God in a sense that is still ongoing;(e) if science says that even finite humankind will soon be able to “intelligently direct evolution” in the laboratory, then it would be irrational to argue that the infinite God could not “intelligently direct evolution”; (f) in my view, then, the most rational viewpoint to hold is that God “intelligently directs” a process that some have misidentified as “evolution”.

In the light of these arguments, I suggest that we should think in terms of intelligently and divinely directed creation processes, rather than in terms of “evolution”. That is both the “six-day creationist” and the “evolutionist” arguments are absurd as they stand. The debate has become polarised into two false alternatives.

Three possible objections to my stance here still need to be addressed, however.

First, it has been argued that since an infinite number of universes exist in what is known as a “multiverse”, then even though the chances against the evolution theory as it stands being true are absurdly large when we are talking about one universe, then this argument does not hold since there are an infinite number of universes. If there are an infinite number of universes in existence, then one of them must have allowed life to evolve by “time and by random chance”.

In my view, however, this argument is a sleight of hand that takes advantage of the peculiar properties of the notion of a numerical “infinity” in order to justify belief in the absurd. Let us imagine an explosion in a print factory. Having studied pure maths at university level I know that, mathematically, it is possible that the explosion causes all the letters in all the words in all the books involved in the explosion to separate out from each other during the blast, to fly through the air, and to flutter back down to earth in such a way as to be the right way up, and so as to be arranged into new words in a certain order that just happens – by chance – to form the complete works of Shakespeare.

If anybody saw that happen, however, then they would instantly conclude that some infinitely intelligent force possessing infinitesimally detailed micro-management skills had utterly controlled the blast and its results. They would not postulate that an infinite number of blasts must have occurred in order for this one blast to recreate the Shakespearian corpus. Yet that’s just what the “multiverse” theorists do in order to explain the existence of life. I remember one such theorist gleefully concluding that despite the fact that the cosmological constant had to be accurate to 121 decimal places in order for there to be life that he still was not “intellectually obliged” to believe in God.

Of course, though, this theorist was confusing mathematical or “philosophical” possibility with what philosophers would call “concrete” possibility. Mathematical systems are just abstract interpretative models projected onto concrete historical reality. The question is not what is mathematically possible in an abstract system, but rather what is concretely possible in a historical world. Since mathematical systems are abstract, they have peculiar properties that cannot be translated into concrete terms.

Furthermore, “rationality” implies internal or logical coherence. Thus, for example, it is rational to argue that a person having “rationality” wrote any given book that contained internally consistent or “rational” language-uses. It would not be “coherent” or “rational” to argue that a great wind blew through an infinitely large Scrabble factory and accidentally resulted in a large number of Scrabble letters being arranged in a “rational” manner so as to create – accidentally – a large mosaic that formed The Lord of the Rings narrative. Because of the peculiarities of “mathematical” or “philosophical” possibility however, one could not absolutely rule out such a scenario if one allowed an infinite number of wind-storms to hit an infinite number of Scrabble factories. Such is the “multiverse” argument.

In my view, then, it is much more “rational” – or internally coherent – to argue that the “rational” (the internally ordered or structured) comes from “rationality” (an intelligent ordering principle) rather than that the “rational” comes from solely the “chaotic”. For sure, the “chaotic” exists. But it is more rational to assume that rationality produces the rational by applying an ordering principle to the chaotic than it is to say that the chaotic by itself produces rational order.

Second, some might point out the flawed character of nature so as to indicate that it could not have been “designed” by a loving God. It is one thing to praise God for beauty and for complexity and design, but it seems absurd to praise God for the smallpox virus, for disease, and for tsunamis.

This objection need not detain us for very long, however, since the Bible speaks not only of creation, but also of the Fall and of the curse. That is, in order for God to create persons, he had to give them a certain degree of ethical decision-making freedom. This meant that persons – whether angelic or human – were capable of choosing to do wrong. Since some angelic and all human persons then did choose to do wrong, then God has chosen to not allow the universe as it currently is to endure eternally, for this would mean allowing evil to persist eternally, which would be inconsistent with the divine character. And so, God introduced a “death-principle” in order to render the current universe “temporary”. This “death-principle” appears to disrupt created order by causing it to slowly disintegrate in ways that appear somewhat random to us.

This is not to deny the huge moral dilemmas still posed by awful realities such as those born handicapped, or infant mortality, or famine and so on. But that’s another issue. Broadly speaking, the biblical account of the Fall at least explains it, even if it then raises problems related to theodicy. Which is more unjust however: mass starvation followed by no divinely-created afterlife with compensations; or mass starvation followed by God-given compensations and reckonings? At least there is hope for justice if there is a God. Evolutionary theory, however, becomes a polemic for eternal injustices – a council of despair. If it is as utterly improbable as it seems to be, then one has to question the motives of those who espouse the theory. Do they want to perpetuate an unjust status quo in order to remain free of moral obligations to God and to others?

One could argue, of course, that events such as tsunamis could not be explained away so readily. Since they are part of the planet’s “normal” tectonic functioning, then they are not “evil” in themselves, even if they cause great suffering. One answer here, however, is that humankind has refused to walk with God for thousands of years. If the whole world had been organised under God’s direction, then such “natural disasters” could have just been “natural phenomena”. Who says we have to build cities on fault-lines or in the path of tsunamis? Is it God, or is it thousands of years of human societies shunning God and going there own way – using their own lanterns and, in Nietzsche’s language, being unchained from the sun? If one chooses to proceed using only inadequate lanterns, then one is bound to trip up eventually.

In any case, the existence of death and decay only make the case for divinely directed creation processes even stronger. In the face of destructive forces, it is even less likely that constructive forces could prevail “by time and by random chance”.

Third, it could be argued that even if my arguments here suggest that belief in the divine is “rational”, then this still doesn’t mean that one should become a “Christian” as opposed to, say, a Muslim or a Hindu.

Actually, this objection is the only objection that holds water in my view. To show the rationality of believing in “intelligent design” is a long way from identifying which “God” or “gods” did the designing.

Nevertheless, in my view there are many other reasons for choosing the Christian explanation over that of other religions. We are hardly confined to “the argument from design” when we are defending Christianity!

Thus, for example, it has been shown that an individual’s “personhood” only fully develops in relationship with others. A person held in isolation goes mad. Only a living entity that is less than personal can tolerate and flourish in isolation. This provides problems for strict monotheism, however. If God is just “one person”, then how does he “become fully personal through relationship”? Does God need to create human beings in order to “love”? Wouldn’t this make God dependent upon mere creatures? How could God “love” if he was isolated from eternity? “Love” would then be alien to God’s intrinsic character.

Thus, in my view, the Islamic view of God raises insuperable problems for these kinds of reasons. The biblical view of God, however, teaches that God is three persons in one communion or relationship that is eternal. This means that there are no problems involved in calling God “personal”. Of course, the argument could then swing towards an argument for unbiblical polytheism if it were left unchecked by other considerations such as the lack of historical evidence for polytheistic deities – but that is another essay!

The point in the present essay is that we are not confined to the argument from intelligent design in order to identify the designer as being the God of Christianity. One thing remains certain however: evolutionary theory as traditionally understood is not an option for Christians, since it denies the Creator who is to be forever worshipped, and since there is evidence stacked against it.

So, in answer to the original questions then I believe there is strong evidence against “evolution” in the traditional “naturalistic” sense of the term, but that God still created us using a long process that naturalism has misinterpreted. It is not possible for “evolution” in the traditional “naturalistic” sense of the term to exist without contradicting the Bible. But it is possible for a long creation-process to exist without contradicting the Bible, which one could argue was a sort of “evolution”, but one that was intelligently directed by God.

I believe that God’s design at the moment of creation is still being worked out. We will not “evolve” into our final state, however, for that will be a matter of eschatological transformation, and will be instantaneous. We should not replace a biblical eschatology with a secular evolutionary “futurological” eschatology of the sort imagined by Arthur C. Clarke! Prior to the final eschatological transformation, however, I believe God will go on making “adjustments” in his intelligently-directed creation-process.

With thanks to theologian Dr Robert Knowles

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