Sunday, June 24, 2007

Eternal inflation solves all of biology's mysteries?

In a peer-reviewed article published in the online journal Biology Direct, Eugene Koonin argues that the emergence of life is an extremely unlikely event - virtually impossible - but that life emerged anyway. It was able to do this, Koonin hypothesises, because it is possible that there are an infinite number of universes that all are different; And with an infinite number of universes follows the possbility of essentially infinitely unlikely events occuring with certainty. Events, Koonin argues, such as the emergence of life. I originally found this paper because it was mentioned by someone pro-ID at arn and it was also mentioned at uncommondescent. Here, I want to comment on some of the flaws this paper contains as well as pointing out the relevance of all of this to ID.

The hypothesis is scientifically useless

The entire idea of the paper is philosophical rather than scientific. Koonin argues that his hypothesis is scientific since it is falsifiable. Two ways to falsify his claim, Koonin says, is to show how an RNA world could give rise to a translation system or by the demonstration of life having emerged independently on different worlds. He seems to reach this conclusion since he claims that the above scenarions would be too unlikely to occur more than once. Writes Koonin:
In other words, even in this toy model that assumes a deliberately inflated rate of RNA production, the probability that a coupled translation-replication emerges by chance in a single O-region is P <>-1018. Obviously, this version of the breakthrough stage can be considered only in the context of a universe with an infinite (or, in the very least, extremely vast) number of O-regions.
10^-1018 is admittedly virtually impossible and squaring this number would make the outcome even less likely. Unlikely it might be, but he himself is posulating the existence of an infinite number of universes. How can you possibly talk probabilites when you are given an infinite number of attempts to reach a certain outcome? It doesn't matter if the probability is 10^-1018 or 10^-9999 - applying any sort of probability calculation to Koonin's hypothesis is useless.

The hypothesis and intelligent design detection using the explanatory filter

To sum up the idea of William Dembski's explanatory filter (EF), it is, Dembski claims, a three step process for inferring design. The first two steps exclude the possiblity of natural processes alone (in the absense of intelligence) to explain an event. If no known law can account for an event and if the event is so unlikely as to be impossible, we are to proceed to step three. The third step, in turn, is a tautological question: could something intelligent have done it? The question is tautological since the intelligence in question could be anything - including an omnipotent god. The answer to question three is always yes.

The relevance of all of this to Koonin's paper is two-fold:
(1) There is no known law that would make life appear natually and as Koonin argues, it is an unlikely event. IDers would therefore apply the EF and state that something intelligent designed life. Koonin's paper would, however, render EF completely impotent since under his hypothesis, anything, no matter how improbable, is bound to happen. If one were to use both the EF in addition to Koonin's hypothesis, one would never get past step two of the EF; One would never be able to infer design.
(2) Although Koonin claims that his hypothesis leaves no room for intelligent design (for the above reason), this claim does not hold water. After all, with an infinite number of possibilites, it is not exactly impossibly that we should find ourselves in a universe where life was designed by something intelligent. We just wouldn't be able to infer it using the EF.

Final words

The paper is philosophical in nature and I can only really see it useful as the topic of discussion during a "mind-altering-substance-fest". Merely declaring the probabilites of extremely unlikely events as probable is as useful as claiming that something intelligent did it. These "techniques" are equivalent to merely throwing your hands in the air while exclaiming "we can't explain how this could have happened, so it must have been...".


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