Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Winning the Lottery of Life

Topic

It's so unlikely that our planet would have spawned life that it couldn't have. At least, not without divine intervention. The fact Earth does have life demonstrates that some ultra powerful entity must have divinely intervened to make it so. Thus, the fact lief exists on this one planet proves God.

Right?

Well, no. This is one of those cases where an argument can sound good, even if it's vacuous. It's a question of how it's framed.

I'll explain.

Probability Analysis

The Lottery

Let's say that we have a lottery with a 1:1,000,000,000 chance of an individual winning. That's fairly unlikely, right?

If I were to win the lottery, I may be inclined to believe that some supernatural force intervened on my behalf because there's no way I could have won - the chances were so slim!

If we look at it from a different perspective, that interpretation of events doesn't seem as legitimate. Let's say that 1,000,000,000 people played that lottery. It's a very good chance that someone won it.

It doesn't matter which of those people wins - that winner is going to think it couldn't have happened, and thus, supernatural intervention is required. Anyone who wins is going to think that. From our perspective of knowing that a billion people played a one-in-a-billion chance lottery, it seems quite mundane the idea that someone will win.

Since it's so mundane, asserting supernatural intervention is a bit ridiculous.

Planets with Life

We, on our little dinky planet, look around and see a lifeless universe. The life may be there, but we don't see it. It just seems so unlikely that our planet just happens to support life, that it couldn't have just been an accident!

Again, it's a failure of perspective. If, on average, every planet had a 1:1,000,000,000 chance of having the right conditions for life and spawning life, if there are 1,000,000,000 planets, it becomes fairly likely that at least one will.

As it turns out, as our ability to find planets improves, our list of known extrasolar planets is getting extensive - and those are local. There's lots of planets, meaning that the chances of one having life on probability alone becomes significant. 

Of course, on that planet that does span life, regardless of which one it is, those people are going to be saying "It's so unlikely...!"

We're those guys.

There's nothing particularly special about Earth other than that it was a "lottery winner". The life on this planet evolved to adapt to it's particular environment, and the rest is history.

Standards of Evidence

Examples like this make the standards of evidence incredibly important. We shouldn't let psychological biases and errors distort our understanding of reality. Don't do that!