Evolution is Easy: It Just Takes An Infinite Number of You 

Evolution of life just by law and chance faces steep improbability problems. Even Richard Dawkins described it as "Climbing Mount Improbable," and for many, the improbabilities seem impossibly high. Eugene V. Koonin says that's not an issue. We needn't worry about it. Even if naturalistic evolution is vanishingly improbable, as long as its odds equal any finite amount greater than zero, then a world like ours had to evolve.

Eugene Koonin is Senior Investigator in the Evolutionary Genomics Research Group, associated with the National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, and National Institutes of Health.

He says that evolution's probability levels are no issue, because current models of cosmological origins tell us that an infinite number of side-by-side, parallel universes have been generated. No non-zero probability--no matter how small--can stand up against infinity. Some of these infinite number of universes had to produce life--intelligent life like ourselves--and we're in one of them.

With all respect to a highly accomplished scientist, I propose that this conclusion is untenable from the start. It can be shown, rather simply I think, to be self-defeating, without having to delve into the depths of physics or cosmology. 

The key issue here is infinity. Koonin admits that the proportion of universes in this infinite "multiverse" that have intelligent life must be very small. But a very small proportion of infinity is still infinite. Indeed, as he put it, "all macroscopic histories permitted by laws of physics are repeated an infinite number of times in the infinite multiverse;" or,

"The 'many worlds in one' (hereinafter MWO) model makes the startling prediction that all macroscopic, 'coarse-grain' histories of events that are not forbidden by conservation laws of physics have realized (or will realize) somewhere in the infinite universe, and not just once but an infinite number of times [1,2]. There is, e.g., an infinite number of (macroscopically) exact copies of the earth with everything that exists on it, although the probability that a given observable region of the universe (hereinafter O-region) carries one of such copies is vanishingly tiny. This picture seems counterintuitive in the extreme but it is a direct consequence of eternal inflation, the dominant model of the evolution of the universe in modern cosmology."

Counterintuitive indeed. There are an infinite number of universes exactly like this one--an odd thought, for sure! "Counterintuitive" is not the problem with it, though. There are at least two or three fatal issues this conception faces, and some of them are simple enough to describe even in this small space.*

I'll dispense with one quickly. Any theory that has to propose infinity as a way to get around improbabilities is, well, reaching, we might generously say. It's trying a bit hard--not exactly observing Occam's famous razor, which says we ought not to needlessly multiply entities in order to get to our explanations. Infinity is quite a multiplication.

But maybe Koonin would say this isn't needless, that it's necessary, entailed in our physical understanding of how everything got its start all those billions of years ago. He wouldn't get every cosmologist to agree with that, certainly. But even if he could, he would have yet another serious problem.

Let's start here with it: One of the virtues we look for in a theory is that it give us some way to tell a right version from a wrong version, or a right opinion on it from a wrong one. Let's consider how well Koonin's MWO theory stands before this. He says that there are an infinite number of universes just like ours; and indeed, an infinite number of universes with every physically possible history contained within them. Some of those infinitely many histories are fairly similar to this one. In one of them you were never born. But in one of them, you married your childhood sweetheart and lived happily ever after. In one of them you picked the right Lotto number last week. In one of them you picked the right Lotto number 52 weeks in a row last year, entirely by good luck. This is the nature of infinity, under Koonin's hypothesis. Every history that is not physically impossible exists somewhere in the "multiverse," no matter how improbable.

(It's unclear, by the way, what Koonin means by "macroscopic" or "coarse-grain" histories; but it cannot mean that there is no universe in which these kinds of things did not happen; at any rate, not if there have indeed been an infinite number of universes as he suggests.)

So it's also true that in some of those universes you are writing this blog post instead of me. If you are an atheist reading this here, you are a theist writing this there. In some of those universes, everybody (including you!) believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. (In the next universe over it's the Swimming Ravioli Monster.)

In some of the universes, theories of cosmological origins have never been proposed, so this idea of Koonin's never could have gotten off the ground. But in some of those universes, he started to write this paper, but by the time he finished, he changed his mind and wrote that the MWO hypothesis is necessarily false. In some of them, Eugene Koonin has written books entitled Darwin's Black Box and The Design Inference, and Richard Dawkins co-authored The Edge of Evolution with his friend and lecturing partner Michael Behe.

One of Koonin's reviewers (on the same web page) points out that one conclusion of this hypothesis might be

"a rather strange outcome where we might as well assert that all observed biological order emerged in one step, including the complete evolutionary history of life. This is equally as possible as the emergence of an RNA polymer, an eye or an atom. Notice that these are all equally possible, namely certain in an infinite multi-verse, as there is no conceivable way of deciding whether they are all equally probable without first writing down an appropriate equilibrium theory for the universal ground state, by making use of relevant cosmological data etc. in our local space."

All of this is the case just because of the nature of infinity. It is Koonin, remember, who said that any history not prohibited by the conservation laws of physics must exist infinite numbers of times.

Now, back to our simple starting point. "One of the virtues we look for in a theory is that we have some way to tell a right version from a wrong version." The question we're faced with now, in light of Koonin's hypothesis is not, "which is the right or wrong version of a theory," but "which universe produced the Koonin who thought of the right answer?" Necessarily, all answers have been produced in some universe; and an infinite array of proponents and opponents of the right answer have been produced-all in infinite quantity, somewhere in the vast multiverse.

Now, if there are an infinite number of universes in which Koonin thinks the way he does here, and an infinite number where he thinks the opposite, how do we choose which is correct? Can we say that there is some logic to his thinking in this universe that makes him more right here than somewhere else? But he necessarily came to this conclusion in some universe, and he necessarily came to the opposite conclusion in some other universe. Both outcomes necessarily exist; a necessity that has no regard for laws of logic or reasoning in the overall multiverse.

Koonin makes appeal to the anthropic principle, which says that the reason we're lucky enough to live here, experiencing this most improbable evolutionary outcome, is because it isn't luck at all. Any universe where someone is asking about probabilities of evolution is a universe where evolution of complex life was 100% probable. In the other universes, nobody's asking those kinds of questions. Thus the question, "how did we come to be, in spite of such terrific improbability?" is rendered fairly meaningless.

But why can't we extend the same principle? We are discussing Koonin's paper on MWO, here in this universe, because any universe where such a discussion arises is one where it was 100% probable that Koonin wrote this paper. In other universes, where he didn't write it, the matter doesn't arise. Thus the question, "How did it come to be that Koonin wrote this paper we are discussing?" is fairly meaningless, just as the anthropic principle is said to make the improbabilities of evolution meaningless.

Did Koonin write this paper, here in this universe, because he discovered (by sound scientific and logical reasoning) that these things were true? Or in that other universe, where he changed his mind part-way through, did he change his mind because (by sound scientific and logical reasoning) he discovered there that it was false? It's hard to say how we would know which answer must be better than the other. Koonin himself is guaranteed to come up with both answers--not just once, but infinitely many times.

So if I have understood and presented this correctly, his theory cuts itself off; it is self-defeating. One who believes it is true could never truly say that he or she has solid grounds for believing it is true. It lacks that basic virtue of including a way to tell a right opinion from a wrong opinion. Koonin was right to say that evolution just by law and chance is extremely improbable, but he hasn't solved the problem that causes.

*There is yet another problem Koonin faces, which I'll mention briefly for the sake of completeness, without taking time to explain it. It seems unlikely that an actually infinite number of things could possibly exist. This argument distinguishes an (impossible) actual infinite from the common and very real conception of a potential infinite, which is a series (like the natural numbers, for example) forever extending toward infinity. (Objections to this argument usually confuse an actual infinite with a potential infinite.) I'm not going to develop that thought any further, for I think the other objections I've stated already accomplish my purpose for this post, and this one would take too long. You can pursue the question here if you like.

Credit where due: my main argument here is based on a brief point William Lane Craig made in one of his Defenders podcast lectures. The link to the Koonin article came via Uncommon Descent. 

Posted: Mon - September 10, 2007 at 08:33 PM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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