Shooting craps at the dawn of time

By Jason Gillespie

In his attempt to prove the existence of God using science, Dr. Ott’s lecture was impassioned. It was also misinformed and incorrect, filled with the same tired arguments that Creationists and pseudo-scientists have used for a long time. Those of you who have read Michael Shermer’s 1997 book Why People Believe Weird Things immediately recognized at least three problems with Dr. Ott’s lecture.

The Probability Fallacy. To demonstrate the evolutionary "fallacy" that life was created by "undirected chance" through natural selection, Dr. Ott wowed his audience with a variation of the "monkeys-at-a-typewriter" analogy, to support the notion that natural selection cannot produce change through purely random events. This argument is incorrect because natural selection is not the product of chance alone. The monkeys-at-a-typewriter analogy does not work because natural selection preserves gains and eradicates mistakes. Shermer (p. 150-51) notes it would take a monkey 2613 trials to type "To Be Or Not To Be" by chance alone. If each correct letter is preserved and each incorrect letter abandoned (i.e., they are selected), it would only take 335.2 trials to create that sequence. For a monkey to type out Hamlet in its entirety, the process would take 4.5 days.

Irreducible Complexity. Dr. Ott suggests the human eye is irreducibly complex because if you take away one part, the whole will no longer function. This argument was popularized more recently by biochemist Michael J. Behe. Not surprisingly, scientists were quick to point out the fundamental flaw of this idea. As the Lead Review of American Scientist (September-October 1997) pointed out, Behe et al. err in their belief that the current utility of a given feature explains why that feature originally evolved. As H. Allen Orr, writing for the Boston Review (1998), explains:

An irreducibly complex system can be built gradually by adding parts that, while initially just advantageous, become–because of later changes–essential. The logic is very simple. Some part (A) initially does some job (and not very well, perhaps). Another part (B) later gets added because it helps A. This new part isn’t essential, it merely improves things. But later on, A (or something else) may change in such a way that B now becomes indispensable. This process continues as further parts get folded into the system. And at the end of the day, many parts may all be required.

God in the Gaps (GG). The GG argument holds that gaps in scientific explanation must represent divine intervention. In other words, just because science cannot explain certain phenomena (yet), the hand of God is invoked to fill this gap. Specifically, Dr. Ott argued that scientists do not yet fully understand how amino acids first became dna. Most scientists would admit this is a large step in the evolutionary process which is not yet entirely explained. They would not, however, invoke God as the explanation, but would rather continue their research. Simply stated, the unexplained is not the inexplicable.

There are many examples where past processes, which were once attributed to God, have since been explained by science. For example, until about 150 years ago, it was widely believed that the earth was created in 4004 BC. Science has since proven that the earth is, in fact, more than four billion years old. Similarly, given enough time and research, there is no reason to believe that science will not fill many of the current gaps in our understanding of evolution.

In summary, Dr. Ott’s lecture rehashed standard Creationist arguments which have been thoroughly refuted by scientists. At the beginning of his lecture, he warned us to trust no authority, and we would echo his sentiment by asking the reader to think critically before succumbing to faith alone in addressing such important questions. Far be it for a couple of archaeologists to demonstrate that God does or does not exist–this is likely impossible to answer. This question lies in the realm of emotion and faith only, and science should be left out of it.

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