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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Life Isn’t All That Special?

Posted by jlwile on November 28, 2011

Dr. Seth Shostak has a B.S. in physics from Princeton and a PhD in astronomy from the California Institute of Technology. Obviously, then, he knows a thing or two about astronomy. His original research started out using radio telescopes to measure the motion of distant galaxies, but for quite some time now, he has been involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). He is currently the senior astronomer at the SETI institute.

In a recent report, CNN interviewed him to lead off a discussion about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Here’s what he said:

…one thing that strikes you is that every time we learn something new about the universe, what we learn is that our situation doesn’t seem to be all that special, and that suggests that life is not all that special, either.

When I heard that statement, the first thing I wondered was, “How can such a well-educated astronomer say something that absurd?” Really? Our situation isn’t all that special? We live on a special planet that orbits a special star (at just the right distance) that resides in a special part of the galaxy. Yet our situation isn’t all that special?

And then there’s the last part of the statement. Life isn’t all that special? Really? Even with all our technology, we can’t come close to making it. Indeed, single-celled organisms can stitch DNA together better than we can. Despite a lot of looking, we haven’t found life anywhere else in the universe. Nevertheless, according to Dr. Shostak, it isn’t all that special.

I was hoping that the rest of the video would explain how in the world anyone could consider such a statement to be even remotely reasonable. However, it never did.

The best the report could do is highlight some results from the Kepler project, a NASA mission that is trying to find planets that are roughly the same size as earth. According to one of the scientists that works on the project, Kepler’s results indicate that earth-sized planets are abundant in our galaxy. Another scientist says that the results indicate that there should be many billions of earth-sized planets in our galaxy alone.

Now that sounds really good, but the problem is that when you consider all the factors necessary for life to exist, you find out that many billions of planets don’t even come close to ensuring that all those factors will come together. Indeed, Dr. Hugh Ross, an astronomer himself, calculates the probability that all the (known) processes necessary for life could be found together in any planet. He finds the odds to be 1 in 1099. Given the approximation that there are “only” 1022 planets in the universe, it is clear that the chance of finding another planet that is habitable for life is pretty much zero, at least assuming all of these amazing processes came together as a result of random chance.

This is where I find the whole extraterrestrial life question fascinating. Most naturalists assume that life must be very common in the universe. On the other hand, most creationists I read don’t think there is life on any other planet in the universe. It would seem to me that each camp should think just the opposite. After all, life is so wildly improbable to begin with that if you think it is all the result of random chance, you should be astonished that it happened anywhere in the universe. Given that we know it happened once here on earth, the thought of it happening twice is simply ridiculous. On the other hand, if life was created by God, then He could certainly create life a second time, a third time, a fourth time, etc., etc.

Thus, I would think that a naturalist should be incredibly skeptical that life could exist anywhere else in the universe. A creationist, on the other hand, should be very open to the idea that life exists elsewhere in the universe. I most certainly am. Of course, since I try to follow the data, I must quickly add that since there are no data to support the existence of extraterrestrial life, I don’t have any reason to believe that it exists. I just don’t have any reason to believe that it doesn’t exist.

Regardless of whether or not life exists on other planets, however, the data tell me quite clearly that life is incredibly special. To say otherwise requires that you ignore most of what we know about this planet and the life that inhabits it!

Comments

41 Responses to “Life Isn’t All That Special?”
  1. Enoch H. says:

    Dr. Wile,

    Thank you for the article! On the subject, I was wondering what you thought NASA’s recently launched Mars rover “Curiosity” will tell us about Extra-terrestrial life and the solar system.

  2. Sensei Mitch says:

    Your observation about creationist and naturalists is awesome, I never thought of it that way before! I will be using that in the Catechism class I teach (yes a Catholic reader here;-) Most people don’t realize how big a number 10^22 is, let alone 10^99. I remember reading a mathematical proof for the development of “just” the human eye given random events which featured similar numbers. What still amazes me is the number of “intelligent” people who would rather believe in the rationally and mathematically impossible then even consider the idea of God existing. I guess that is why God gave us pity, for there is no other emotion I can think of to offer them (in the privacy of my mind of course).

    I would like to read your insights into extra-dimensional opposed to extraterrestrial interactions. This might sound crazy but to me extra-dimensional interactions seem much more feasible from mathematical and rational perspectives, given belief in Angels (we can’t see).

  3. Singring says:

    I’m a bit confused by Dr Ross’ calculation and your use of it in this context, Dr Wile.

    First of all, many of the factors Ross uses are dependent on each other – for example, right at the start he uses ‘galaxy type’, ‘galaxy size’ and ‘galaxy location’ as three independent factors when it seems they are dependent upon each other. He doesn’t stop there – he uses ‘star age’ and ‘star birth date’ as two separate factors, when of course they are the same factor used twice. Would you say that is an honest approach that a credible scientist would take?

    Secondly, there are a number of factors toward the end of the table like ‘frequency of forest fires’, ‘soil degradation’, ‘quantity of soil sulphur’ (why stop there – why not include soil phosphorous or soil manganese I wonder?) that not only seem very random but – by Dr Ross own admission – have nothing to do with the origin of life, but rather its diversification when it has already arisen. Wouldn’t you say that it is a bit disingenuous to counter Dr Shostak’s statement that there probably is some kind of life elsewhere in the universe with a ‘calculation’ that specifically tries (and I emphasize *tries*) to give the probability specifically of an earth-like planet (soils, forests, etc.)? Some of Ross’ factors even pre-suppose life has already arisen (‘quantity of decomposer bacteria in soil’, ‘quantity of mycorrhizal fungi in soil’ etc.). But what is to say life on another planet isn’t aquatic? Maybe Dr Ross didn’t want to consider that option, and I have to wonder why?

    Maybe its because, when you already know the answer you want to get, picking ‘factors’ for a calculation is easy?

  4. jlwile says:

    Thanks, Enoch. The new Mars rover is supposed to land in a crater that seems to have been exposed to a lot of water at some point and is thought to be rich in minerals. Thus, the team thinks that if there is any evidence of microscopic life on Mars, it would be found there. The problem I have with the idea that there was life on Mars is that the planet orbits pretty far from the sun. If life that is anything like we know today was once there, something had to be radically different from what we see now. Since I don’t see any convincing evidence for a radical change in Mars, I doubt that any life will be found there. However, I don’t rule out the possibility 100%. I just think the odds for finding extraterrestrial life are better if we find a planet that is more earthlike.

  5. jlwile says:

    That’s an interesting question, Sensei Mitch. I really haven’t thought about that much. There is a rather interesting theory called “String Theory” that uses the concept of extra dimensions as a standard part of the theory. Those dimensions do interact with the four dimensions of spacetime with which we are familiar. However, String Theory has made no testable predictions that would actually help to confirm it. As a result, I don’t really put much stock in it.

    I have never really thought of Angels as extradimensional beings, however. I think of them as supernatural beings, like God.

  6. jlwile says:

    Singring, the three galaxy factors are not really dependent upon each other. There are large spiral galaxies, for example, and there are small spiral galaxies. Thus, just because you have a spiral galaxy, that doesn’t mean you have the correct size for a galaxy. Also, galaxy type is not correlated with galaxy location in any way with which I am familiar, and while nearby galaxy clusters will restrict the stability of a galaxy of a given size, they will not inhibit the formation of such a galaxy.

    You might think that “star age” and “star birth date” are the same, but they are not the same to an astronomer. The star’s birth date is relative to when the galaxy itself formed. That’s what affects the makeup of the star itself. The star’s age is relative to when the planet itself forms. If the planet forms too soon or too late in the star’s development, the luminosity of the star would change too quickly. Thus, they are two different factors. The first is based on when the star forms in the galaxy, and the second is based on when the planet forms in the star’s lifecycle.

    In terms of the factors towards the end of the table, I think Dr. Ross is trying to ensure that the planet provides a stable enough environment for life that it proliferates and grows to the point that it is detectable. If a hypothetical planet out there has enough of the factors for life to exist for a brief time, that doesn’t really help us. In order for us to actually find that life, it needs to have proliferated enough to cover most of the planet with a reasonable population level. This can only happen if the planet is enough of a haven for life that it exists for a long, long time.

    No, I don’t think it is at all disingenuous to counter Dr. Shostak’s statement with Dr. Ross’s calculation, since the only life we know is the kind of life that is here, and the only planet we know that can sustain life for a long time is this planet. Thus, if we want to be scientific, we need to use what we know to predict the probability of finding life elsewhere in the universe. If you want to throw away all that we know and simply make wild speculations, you are free to agree with Dr. Shostak. However, if you are interested in having the data guide your speculations, then Dr. Ross’s calculations are a good reference point, and they show how absurd Dr. Shostak’s statements are.

    Let’s suppose life on another planet is only aquatic. How does that affect Dr. Ross’s calculation? It increases the odds a bit, but it doesn’t change the overall conclusion. Let’s suppose we get rid of all the requirements after “drift and rate of drift in major planet distances.” Thus, we are not making any assumptions about the kind of life that exists on this hypothetical planet, other than that it needs a certain environment. If you do that, you increase the odds by a factor of 10^44. That sounds incredible, but it only “increases” the odds to 1 in 10^55, which is still insignificant given the estimate of 10^22 planets in the universe. Thus, you can quibble with Dr. Ross’s calcuations here and there, but in the end, you will never be able to produce a calculation that gets the odds anywhere near 1 in 10^22, which is what you need.

    Also, one thing Dr. Ross’s calculations don’t even take into account is the probability of life forming once it is given a habitable planet. Dr. Ross’s calculations assume that given a habitable environment, life will inevitably form. That, of course, is way, way, way too generous. Life is clearly hard to form, since we can’t even make it ourselves, even though we are trying like crazy and using a lot of technology in an attempt to get the job done. If anything, then, even the odds of 1 in 10^55 are incredibly generous!

    I have to wonder how a person can think that life is not special when all the data indicate it is. Maybe it’s because when you don’t want to accept what science is saying, you will find any way you can to ignore the data.

  7. Singring says:

    ‘Thus, just because you have a spiral galaxy, that doesn’t mean you have the correct size for a galaxy.’

    I never claimed as much. I claimed that regardless of intra-type variation, galaxy types tend to differ in size – therefore the two factors Ross uses are dependent and shouldn’t be used as discrete factors in calculation of probabilities (http://cas.sdss.org/dr6/en/astro/galaxies/galaxies.asp).

    In fact, I have just spotted that Ross seems to be aware that alost all of the ‘factors’ he uses are dependent. He mentions a ‘Dependency Factors Estimate: 100,000,000,000.’ at the end of the table. From where does he get this correction factor? He doesn’t say. Niether does he say where he gets his ‘longevity requirement’. Is that the way science works? You just make up with the numbers as you go along?

    ‘You might think that “star age” and “star birth date” are the same, but they are not the same to an astronomer.’

    I stand corrected. Thank you.

    ‘In terms of the factors towards the end of the table, I think Dr. Ross is trying to ensure that the planet provides a stable enough environment for life that it proliferates and grows to the point that it is detectable.’

    Please explain why you think it reasonable for Ross to use ‘soil sulphur’ as a factor, but doesn’t think ‘soil nitrogen’ or ‘soil phosphorous’ (which are more limiting for plant growth) require inclusion in the ‘calculation’?

    ‘Thus, you can quibble with Dr. Ross’s calcuations here and there, but in the end, you will never be able to produce a calculation that gets the odds anywhere near 1 in 10^22, which is what you need.’

    I haven’t even started ‘quibbling’ with Dr Ross ‘calculation’. For a start, he picks the value of each factor from – I really don’t know where because he doesn’t say. If his calculation is so convincing and sound, why was it never published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal? Dr Shestak seems to have no problem publishing his work.

    ‘Life is clearly hard to form, since we can’t even make it ourselves, even though we are trying like crazy and using a lot of technology in an attempt to get the job done.’

    But ‘forming’ and ‘making’ are not the same thing, are they? So why do you keep claiming that because we can’t ‘make’ life it can’t ‘form’? Just because we can’t ‘make’ iron atoms, does that mean they can’t ‘form’?

    ‘I have to wonder how a person can think that life is not special when all the data indicate it is.’

    I never claimed that life was not special. I think its very special on the scale of the universe. I just don’t think its so special that it could only exist here on earth.

  8. jlwile says:

    Singring, you claimed (and still do) that Ross should not use galaxy type and galaxy size as different factors, but clearly he must. Since you can’t get the right galaxy size just by choosing galaxy type, then they are two different factors. Once again, you can quibble with the actual values he uses, but the fact that there have to be two different probabilities is rather obvious.

    “Please explain why you think it reasonable for Ross to use ’soil sulphur’ as a factor, but doesn’t think ’soil nitrogen’ or ’soil phosphorous’ (which are more limiting for plant growth) require inclusion in the ‘calculation’?”

    I would expect that “soil nitrogen” is driven by the atmosphere, which is already covered in other factors. I am not sure why phosphorus is not included, but once again, that would make the results even more improbable, which makes my argument stronger, not weaker.

    “I haven’t even started ‘quibbling’ with Dr Ross ‘calculation’.”

    Actually, you have. In response, I have shown that one of your quibbles is wrong, and that even with a massive amount of quibbling, the conclusion doesn’t change.

    “For a start, he picks the value of each factor from – I really don’t know where because he doesn’t say.”

    Probably from his knowledge of astronomy, which is greater than yours or mine. If you want to quibble with his values, please provide reasons.

    “If his calculation is so convincing and sound, why was it never published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal? Dr Shestak seems to have no problem publishing his work.”

    Ah…trotting out the old “peer-reviewed journal” argument. How nice. How about because his conclusions are at odds with the editors and reviewers who control what gets published? Also, if Ross’s calculations are so wrong, why can’t you show that they are? Instead, all you can do is quibble with them, and so far, your quibbles have not affected the conclusion at all. Indeed, your quibble about phosphorus actually works in Dr. Ross’s favor!

    “But ‘forming’ and ‘making’ are not the same thing, are they? So why do you keep claiming that because we can’t ‘make’ life it can’t ‘form’?”

    Because “making” is much easier than “forming.” When you have intelligent designers making things, they can control the situation, bring all the right factors together at the right time, etc., etc. When you rely on random chance, it is harder to get anything done. Thus, if we can’t make it, the idea that it could form by random chance is rather silly.

    “Just because we can’t ‘make’ iron atoms, does that mean they can’t ‘form’?”

    Actually, I can easily make iron atoms. Anyone who has experience with particle accelerators can.

    “I never claimed that life was not special.”

    I never claimed you did. I simply said that anyone who thinks so (like Dr. Shostak, for example) cannot possibly be looking at the data.

    “I think its very special on the scale of the universe. I just don’t think its so special that it could only exist here on earth.”

    I would say that the odds are against you. Once again, even with massive quibbling, Dr. Ross’s calculation indicates that anyone who thinks life formed as a result of random interactions must be truly amazed that it formed even once in this universe. Thus, the idea that it formed twice seems way outside the realm of possibility.

  9. Singring says:

    ‘Singring, you claimed (and still do) that Ross should not use galaxy type and galaxy size as different factors, but clearly he must.’

    Again, I never claimed that. I said that the two factors are dependent upon each other so he can’t use them as *independent* factors. Ross is aware of this as he applies an arbitrary blanket ‘Dependency Factor estimate’ to his ‘calculation’. You seem to be aware of these complications yourself because you use them to excuse Ross’s choice of soil nutrient factors:

    ‘I would expect that “soil nitrogen” is driven by the atmosphere, which is already covered in other factors. ‘

    So if soil nitrogen is driven by atmospheric nitrogen and therefore needs no further ‘factors’, why does he not have a factor for atmospheric nitrogen in his ‘calculation’ and instead includes one on ‘nitrogen fixing microbes’? Doesn’t the choice of ‘factors’ seems utterly random?

    ‘I am not sure why phosphorus is not included, but once again, that would make the results even more improbable, which makes my argument stronger, not weaker.’

    Oh, you can add factors upon factors to make this ‘calculation’ ever more improbable, I agree. But is that scientific? A credible scientist would be able to justify why he chooses certain factors in a calculation, why he assigns certain values to them and why he excludes other factors or includes factors that are strongly dependent on other factors. Ross does none of this. That is why work such as this is unpublishable in peer-reviewed literature. It has nothing to do with the conclusions. Conclusions are always publishable if the methods used to obtain them are sound. Ross doesn’t even attaempt to describe his methods.

    ‘Probably from his knowledge of astronomy, which is greater than yours or mine.’

    Can you give me an example of any peer-reviewed journal in the world that would accept a statement in its material and methods section that reads: ‘The factors used for this calculation/model were obtained from the authors knowledge of the subject matter.’? Also, I was unaware that Ross’ background in astronomy also qualified him to assign a probaility of 0.2 to the factor ‘oceans to continent ratio’ or 0.01 to ‘quantity of mycorrhizal fungi in soil’.

    ‘Because “making” is much easier than “forming.”’

    So you can ‘make’ the Grand Canyon? You can ‘make’ the moon? You can ‘make’ a supernova? Remarkable.

    ‘Actually, I can easily make iron atoms. Anyone who has experience with particle accelerators can.’

    You can ‘make’ iron atoms from scratch? Those are some amazing abilities you boast. Has that been published anywhere – because it seems like a revolutionary discovery.

    You know perfectly well that you saying that you can ‘make’ an iron atom in a particle accelerator is like me saying I can ‘make’ a living cell by introducing synthetic DNA into its nucleus (which has been successfully done). So if that is what you mean by ‘making’ something, then I guess we can ‘make’ life after all. Which means it shouldn’t be that hard to ‘form’.

  10. JL says:

    Another Catholic reader here, Sensei Mitch–I follow several excellent Protestant creation-related blogs, but I really like this one because it’s not exactly non-denominational, but more like extra-denominational–beyond denominations. The emphasis is on combining faith and reason, along with respect for different viewpoints, regardless of denominational background. As a homeschooling mom, I see this blog as a good example of what I try and teach my kids, which is that we should treat all participants in the debate with courtesy and humility, realizing that we will not know for certain what the truth is until we meet face to face with Him who made us, and all else that exists.

  11. jlwile says:

    Singring, Dr. Ross never claimed that the factors were independent. He simply says that they are the “parameters” involved in determining the probability of making a life-sustaining planet. Thus, he is absolutely right in treating them as two separate factors. Since galaxy type has one probability, that should be one parameter. Once you have selected galaxy type, you still have some probability of getting the wrong size, so galaxy size needs to be a second factor. As you even admit, he has a “Dependency Factor estimate” to attempt to take care of any overlap in the parameters. Thus, his treatment is entirely legitimate, contrary to your original claim.

    “So if soil nitrogen is driven by atmospheric nitrogen and therefore needs no further ‘factors’, why does he not have a factor for atmospheric nitrogen in his ‘calculation’ and instead includes one on ‘nitrogen fixing microbes’?”

    He does have a factor for atmospheric nitrogen. Perhaps you should actually read something before attacking it. Look at #59. It’s the ratio of oxygen to nitrogen in the atmosphere, which is the important consideration. Because atmospheric nitrogen itself cannot be used biologically, however, it must be converted to a biologically-useful form, such as ammonia or nitrates. Thus, nitrogen-fixing bacteria are the second step in the process. Thus, after having the correct factor that deals with nitrogen in the atmosphere, he has a factor for the nitrifying microbes in soil (#66). That factor takes into account the fact that the nitrogen by itself is not enough.

    “Doesn’t the choice of ‘factors’ seems utterly random?”

    Absolutely not, especially when you understand astronomy and biology.

    “Oh, you can add factors upon factors to make this ‘calculation’ ever more improbable, I agree. But is that scientific?”

    Absolutely. If you had any experience doing original research, you would know that scientists often use qualitative calculations, just to see if something is plausible. For example, in my nuclear chemistry research, I often had to determine whether or not background radiation would affect my results. Thus, I would do a qualitative calculation to determine this. A qualitative calculation is never expected to include all factors – just the important ones. These are the factors that Dr. Ross considers important. Sure, there might be more factors, but once again, that makes Dr. Ross’s conclusions even stronger, not weaker.

    “That is why work such as this is unpublishable in peer-reviewed literature. ”

    Qualitative calculations are never meant to be published in the peer-reviewed literature. They are simply there to give you ballpark estimates. Even this ballpark estimate shows how ridiculously impossible it is to form life by chance. If you make the calculation even more accurate by adding more factors, the conclusion is even stronger.

    But let’s not ignore the most absurd aspect of what you are arguing here. You are arguing that Dr. Ross is so wrong on his assigned probabilities that his work is not of any use. Well…let’s assume that every estimate he makes is 80% incorrect in the wrong direction. Even if that were true, the resulting odds would be 1 in 10^31 instead of 1 in 10^99. That’s still several orders of magnitude off from what it needs to be to make the formation of life in the universe reasonable. And don’t forget that even you agree that Dr. Ross has not included all the factors. Indeed, he doesn’t even add a factor for the probability of life actually forming. Thus, even if he is wrong by 80% in every parameter, his conclusion is still very solid.

    “Can you give me an example of any peer-reviewed journal in the world that would accept a statement in its material and methods section that reads: ‘The factors used for this calculation/model were obtained from the authors knowledge of the subject matter.’?”

    No, but a peer-reviewed publication assumes a basic level of knowledge of its readers. Dr. Ross is writing for the general audience, so he doesn’t want to bog the reader down with details. This is common practice for any science educator.

    “Also, I was unaware that Ross’ background in astronomy also qualified him to assign a probaility of 0.2 to the factor ‘oceans to continent ratio’ or 0.01 to ‘quantity of mycorrhizal fungi in soil’.”

    You might also be unaware that Dr. Ross has a team of scientists working with him, so he has access to people who do have the ability to assign probabilities to such factors.

    “So you can ‘make’ the Grand Canyon? You can ‘make’ the moon? You can ‘make’ a supernova? Remarkable.”

    I can certainly make the Grand Canyon on a small scale. If I were given enough money and technology, I could even make it on a grand scale. Anyone with a basic knowledge of geophysics could. The same with a supernova. In fact, the reason we are having a hard time using fusion as an energy source is that a supernova is rather easy to make. Controlling the reaction so that it makes a nice energy source is the problem. The moon is a problem, but that tells me the moon didn’t form. It was made by someone much more knowledgeable and powerful than me.

    You know perfectly well what I am saying, and trying to play semantic games doesn’t help your case at all. I can make iron atoms the same way we see them being formed today – through radioactive decay, fusion and fission. We don’t see iron atoms being made from scratch today. Once again, the very fact that we can’t make them from scratch tells me that they didn’t form from scratch by random processes.

    This is why my original statement is so true. It is much easier to make life than to form it, since in the process of making life, we can control the factors as precisely as they need to be controlled. Such control would not be available if you are counting on random chance, which makes the job significantly harder.

  12. jlwile says:

    JL, thank you so much for your kind words. That is certainly what I am striving for here.

  13. Josiah says:

    “Well…let’s assume that every estimate he makes is 80% incorrect in the wrong direction. Even if that were true, the resulting odds would be 1 in 10^31 instead of 1 in 10^99.”

    How do you arrive at that figure? Shouldn’t it increase the probability by a factor 0.8^-100, a multiplication of less than 10^10?

  14. jlwile says:

    Josiah, Dr. Ross has 75 factors that determine the suitability of a planet for life. In reality, there are many more, but Dr. Ross thinks that 75 of them are important. If he is wrong by 80%, his .1′s are really .8′s, his 0.01′s are really 0.08′s etc. Thus, it is like multiplying all his factors by 8. That means you take his number (10^-99) and multiply it by 8^75, which is 5×10^67. I rounded that up to 10^68. When you multiply 10^-99 by 10^68, you get 10^-31.

    Perhaps saying “wrong by 80%” wasn’t really the right descriptor. I meant wrong by a factor of 8, turning 10% into 80%, 1% into 8%, etc.

  15. Singring says:

    ‘Singring, Dr. Ross never claimed that the factors were independent. He simply says that they are the “parameters” involved in determining the probability of making a life-sustaining planet. ‘

    Calculating a probability from ‘parameters’ is not valid if the involved parameters are dependent upon each other. This is mathematics 101. For example, if I have a box with slips of paper numbered 1 to 6, then the probability of drawing a ’6′ on the second draw depends on what card I draw first. Therefore, any calculation of the probability of drawing a number after X draws in such a scenario hinges on the probabilities of prior event. Dr Ross nowhere explicitly explains how he corrects for dependencies like this, he just gives (with no explanation or methodology) a blanket ‘dependency’ correction at the end. This has nothing to do with credible science.

    ‘Look at #59. It’s the ratio of oxygen to nitrogen in the atmosphere, which is the important consideration.’

    If I tell you that the oxygen:nitrogen ratio in the atmosphere of planet X is 1:8, can you then tell me how much nitrogen (ppm) is in the atmosphere?

    ‘Thus, nitrogen-fixing bacteria are the second step in the process. Thus, after having the correct factor that deals with nitrogen in the atmosphere, he has a factor for the nitrifying microbes in soil (#66).’

    Didn’t you just argue that atmospheric nitrogen was sufficient as a factor for the calculation? Now you are arguing that it is not but that we also need to take microbial nitrogen fixation into account. Wouldn’t it be nice if Dr Ross had explained how he arrived at his choice of factors so we could avoid all this confusion?

    ‘Absolutely not, especially when you understand astronomy and biology.’

    Then why mention sulphur in soil but not phosphorous or nitrogen? What is the rationale for this choice of factors?

    ‘Absolutely. If you had any experience doing original research, you would know that scientists often use qualitative calculations, just to see if something is plausible.’

    In fact, as a PhD in Biology I do have experience in practical research. I have never heard of a ‘qualitative calculation’. Calculations like the one by Ross are always quantitative, because the factors are quantitative. What ‘quality’ is a probability of 10 to the power of -99 or 0.001 supposed to describe? No – this is a quantitative result derived from quantitative variables.

    And when scientists use *quantitative calculations*, they have to justify every single variable they include and why they assign a specific value to it. Where does Ross do this?

    ‘For example, in my nuclear chemistry research, I often had to determine whether or not background radiation would affect my results. Thus, I would do a qualitative calculation to determine this.’

    And how did you choose the factors you included in that calculation and the values you assigned to them?

    ‘These are the factors that Dr. Ross considers important. Sure, there might be more factors, but once again, that makes Dr. Ross’s conclusions even stronger, not weaker.’

    This is beside the point. Obviously Ross considers these factors important. But *why* does he consider this particular set of factors important and *why* does he assign the particular probabilities in the list? If you could point me to such essential informaion, we could easily evaluate how credible the entire calculation is – unfortunately Dr Ross doesn’t seem to have done so, which makes his calculation arbitrary.

    Take this example: Imagine I lay out a deck of cards. The likelihood of setting out any one combination of cards (just based on the probabilities of drawing each card) is roughly one in 10 to the 68th power. But hey – why stop there? After all, there had to be life on this planet for me to set out that deck of cards – so lets multiply that with Dr Ross’ probability of 10 to the 99th and we get a likelihood of 10 to the 167th power that I could have set out that particular sequence of cards. But what if I personally hadn’t even been alive to set out those cards? Let’s add another factor (because after all, you claim that the more facctors we use, the more accurate the result) for the likelihood that all of my ancestors survived and had children at the the exact time that ultimately resulted in my genotype etc. – and let’s be generous and say that likelihood was 0.001. So now we’re at 1 in 10 to the 170th power (we could go on and on like this). That’s much, much less likely than Dr Ross’ calculation which he claims shows that life couldn’t possibly have arisen by chance – and yet that set of cards was laid out in that sequence by me. So are you going to argue that every little thing that happens is directed by God himself to overcome these incredible odds? That there is no chance involved at all? Or are you going to admit that calculating probabilities for an event after the fact by picking random ‘factors’ from a hat is nonsensical?

    ‘Qualitative calculations are never meant to be published in the peer-reviewed literature.’

    First of all, a ‘qualitative claculation’ is a nonsensical term, as I said above. And quantitative calculations similar to the one by Ross are published all the time – ones with sound methodology to back them up, that is. Quantitative models all rely on mathematical algorithms that often include the multiplication of probabilities.

    ‘If you make the calculation even more accurate by adding more factors, the conclusion is even stronger.’

    You simply assume that adding more factors would make the conclusion even stronger – on what basis? As I have shown above, by adding more factors to my claculation for laying out a deck of cards, I can make any mundane event seem impossible after the fact.

    ‘Well…let’s assume that every estimate he makes is 80% incorrect in the wrong direction.’

    I would suggest that for a start, we assume that the entire approach is nonsensical and that most of the estimates he makes are irrelevant and arbitrary.

    ‘And don’t forget that even you agree that Dr. Ross has not included all the factors. ‘

    Not at all – I just don’t see his rationale for choosing any of his factors. That is my entire point. If he doesn’t include phosphorous in soil, then why does he include nitrogen-fixing bacteria in soil? Why not leave those out as well? Why not leave out ‘abundance of mycorrhizal fungi in soil’ and instead add ‘abundance of ants’?

    ‘I can make iron atoms the same way we see them being formed today – through radioactive decay, fusion and fission. We don’t see iron atoms being made from scratch today.’

    Well I can make life the same way we see it being formed today – by plating a few bacteria on nutrient agar, for example. Oh, and by ‘made from scratch’ I meant ‘assemble de novo from subatomic particles’. Sorry if I was unclear on that. Because we all agree of course that matter came into existence from ‘nothing’ at some point.

    ‘Dr. Ross is writing for the general audience, so he doesn’t want to bog the reader down with details. This is common practice for any science educator.’

    Thanks for the spirited debate, Dr Wile, but if you can type above statement with a straight face, then I guess we won’t see eye to eye on much of anything. Personally, I stick to the peer-reviewed literature where scientists are ‘bogged down’ by the ‘details’. But thanks again, you’ve been very kind to let me ramble on like this on your blog and I do appreciate it.

  16. NoOneKnows says:

    Reminds me of an article I read sometime back that calculates the probability of a person’s existence.
    It goes something like – for a person to exist, his/her father and mother should be born, survive and mature, meet each other and reproduce (of all the other people on the planet), not to mention that a single sperm out of millions need to fertilize the egg to form the embryo that grows into to the person under discussion.
    For the person’s father and mother themselves to be born, their respective parents have to be born, survive and mature, meet etc… If we extend this to all the ancestors, then the mere fact that a particular individual exists seems a miracle and it does seem to be a very “special” event. But people are born all the time and while each of them is unique, there is nothing special or miraculous.
    Everything can be made a miracle by this kind of irrational and backward reasoning after the event happened.

    @Singring – there is no point in trying to argue logically with people motivated by ideology, who try to reinterpret information/evidence long after reaching a conclusion.

  17. jlwile says:

    Singring, I think you might want to review mathematics 101. In your example, the chance of pulling a certain number from the box is 1 in 6. Once that is removed, the chance of pulling another number is 1 in 5. Thus, the chance of pulling two specific numbers (say 2 and 4) is 1 in 6 TIMES 1 in 5, or 1 in 30. This is exactly what Dr. Ross is doing. The chance of having the right-sized galaxy is 1 in 10. However, among all the right-sized galaxies, only 1 in 10 of them are spiral. Thus, your chance of finding a galaxy that is the right size AND spiral is 1 in 10 times 1 in 10, or 1 in 100. Once again, Dr. Ross is treating the probabilities correctly.

    “If I tell you that the oxygen:nitrogen ratio in the atmosphere of planet X is 1:8, can you then tell me how much nitrogen (ppm) is in the atmosphere?”

    No, but you don’t need to know that. The ratio is what’s important. In order to support oxygen-using creatures, you need a certain ratio of oxygen to nitrogen. The absolute amounts are not as important as the ratio. This is standard chemistry, and Dr. Ross obviously knows this, probably because he has a chemist on staff (Dr. Rana).

    “Didn’t you just argue that atmospheric nitrogen was sufficient as a factor for the calculation? ”

    No, I did not. I argued that it was a factor, and it clearly is. There is another factor, but since that factor takes care of the level of nitrogen in the soil, there is no need to have it as an explicit factor.

    “Wouldn’t it be nice if Dr Ross had explained how he arrived at his choice of factors so we could avoid all this confusion?”

    Actually, he does explain his choice of factors, which is what Table 2 is all about. Once again, please read something before you attack it.

    “Then why mention sulphur in soil but not phosphorous or nitrogen? What is the rationale for this choice of factors?”

    Once again, nitrogen is taken care of by the other factors, as I have already explained. Sulfur is necessary to support many of the bacteria you find in soil, and it is clear that Dr. Ross understands the importance of those bacteria. Once again, adding phosphorus would be a good thing to do, but that makes Dr. Ross’s conclusions even stronger, not weaker!

    “In fact, as a PhD in Biology I do have experience in practical research. I have never heard of a ‘qualitative calculation’.”

    Well, perhaps that’s because you aren’t reading a wide enough range of the literature. For example, in the journal Science, we read:

    “…the qualitative calculation differs from experiment by only a factor of 4, not 36. The remaining difference presumably traces to inaccuracies of the calculation, which takes neither laterally dependent electrostatic forces nor elastic deformations of tip and sample into account.” (H. J. Hug, et. al., “Subatomic Features in Atomic Force Microscopy Images,” Science 291:2509, 2001)

    In the Encyclopedia of the Solar System we read:

    “This is adequate for a qualitative calculation, but zero-temperature equations of state are insufficiently accurate for the calculation of detailed interior models. ” (Paul Robert Weissman and Torrence V. Johnson, Encyclopedia of the Solar System, Academic Press 2006, p. 411

    Qualitative calculations are common in science. Perhaps that’s why you are having trouble understanding Dr. Ross’s calculations – your knowledge of the kinds of calculations done in science is incomplete.

    “And how did you choose the factors you included in that calculation and the values you assigned to them?”

    Like Dr. Ross, I used the knowledge I had gained from the field.

    “But *why* does he consider this particular set of factors important and *why* does he assign the particular probabilities in the list? If you could point me to such essential informaion, we could easily evaluate how credible the entire calculation is – unfortunately Dr Ross doesn’t seem to have done so, which makes his calculation arbitrary.”

    The *why* is answered in Tables 1 and 2. The method for assigning probabilities is qualitative, as I have explained already.

    “Take this example: Imagine I lay out a deck of cards…”

    Once again, you are simply playing semantics, which doesn’t help your case at all. The difference between this example and what Dr. Ross is doing is that whether or not a sequence of cards gets laid out doesn’t depend on you doing it. Anyone could do it. Also, “laying out a sequence” presupposes that someone is there to do it. The existence of life does depend on a correctly-sized galaxy, a correctly-shaped galaxy, a proper sun, etc., etc. Since we don’t know whether or not life exists, somewhere, we can’t presuppose it. This is what you don’t seem to understand. Dr. Ross has compiled things that are absolutely necessary for life to exist for any reasonable length of time. Sure, there are more factors, but adding more factors simply strengthens Ross’s argument. In addition, he doesn’t presuppose that it could exist somewhere else. He is actually trying to scientifically determine whether or not such a thing is reasonable. Based on purely naturalistic assumptions, it clearly is not.

    “First of all, a ‘qualitative claculation’ is a nonsensical term, as I said above.”

    And as I showed above, that statement is false, and it is probably one of the reasons you are having such a hard time understanding Dr. Ross’s calculation.

    “You simply assume that adding more factors would make the conclusion even stronger – on what basis?”

    Because the highest percentage chance of that factor being present is 1, which doesn’t change the result. Even if the percent chance of the factor existing is less than 1, even 0.9999999999, it reduces the probability. Thus, every necessary factor will most likely result in a decrease of the overall probability.

    “I would suggest that for a start, we assume that the entire approach is nonsensical and that most of the estimates he makes are irrelevant and arbitrary.”

    Unfortunately, I cannot do that, because I am committed to following the data. You can choose to do this if you wish, but please don’t claim that you are being scientific. That’s not what a scientist does.

    “Why not leave out ‘abundance of mycorrhizal fungi in soil’ and instead add ‘abundance of ants’?”

    I would think that as a PhD in biology, you would know this. Mycorrhizal fungi in soil is an absolutely essential condition for a healthy plant ecosystem. Without these symbiotic partners, too many species of plants would not get the necessary minerals they need. As a result, a balanced plant ecosystem could not develop. As far as I know, ants are not absolutely essential for a stable plant ecosystem. Roughly 90 percent of plant species form a symbiotic partnership with mycorrhizal fungi. I only know of a couple of plants (like the Acacia tree) that form a symbiotic partnership with ants.

    “Well I can make life the same way we see it being formed today – by plating a few bacteria on nutrient agar, for example.”

    Exactly. You can “make” life the way we see life being made today. What you can’t do is make life from nonliving substances. That is what we are talking about, and that’s the problem. Making things is easier than expecting them to form by chance. Since we cannot make life from nonliving chemicals, it is hard to understand how life could from from nonliving chemicals by chance, since chance events can’t be controlled like designed events can be.

    “Oh, and by ‘made from scratch’ I meant ‘assemble de novo from subatomic particles’. Sorry if I was unclear on that. Because we all agree of course that matter came into existence from ‘nothing’ at some point.”

    Once again, the problem is that we can’t make atoms from subatomic particles. We also don’t see that happening in nature. We see atoms being formed via nuclear reactions between existing atoms or radioactive decay of existing atoms. We can make atoms that way as well. If you want atoms to form from subatomic particles by random chance, first show that it can be done in a controlled environment, and then there might be a possibility that it could happen by chance. Until then, the most scientific conclusion is that matter came into existence as a result of a Designer who is significantly more knowledgeable and intelligent than us.

    “Thanks for the spirited debate, Dr Wile, but if you can type above statement with a straight face, then I guess we won’t see eye to eye on much of anything. ”

    My pleasure. I think the fact that you have been kicking and screaming against Dr. Ross’s calculations and have been shown wrong at every turn will be very helpful to my readers.

    As for the “straight face” comment, as an award-winning educator at both the university and high school level, I say many educational truths with a straight face, including the one above.

    “Personally, I stick to the peer-reviewed literature where scientists are ‘bogged down’ by the ‘details’.”

    I read a lot of the peer-reviewed literature as well, as you can tell by a cursory glance at the articles on this blog. However, as a scientist, I understand that such literature gives a biased view of the data, since publication is controlled by editors and reviewers. Since I am committed to following the data wherever they lead, I must explore the data from multiple sources. Perhaps you should try that sometime.

  18. jlwile says:

    NoOne, your comment makes a very common mistake when it comes to probability. There is a difference between calculating the chance of a given person existing and life coming about by chance. For the given person to exist, we must have all the necessary biological machinery already set up. As we all know, it is. Thus, people are produced all the time. Each person is unique, and the probability that each person will be unique is 100%, since that’s how the process is designed to work. The mechanics of how they are born assures uniqueness (even identical twins are unique). Thus, the chance of a unique person being born is 100%.

    For life itself to exist, you need specific factors that we know are in place now, but we don’t know how they got in place to begin with. If you want to assume that these factors all came about by random chance, then you can try to calculate the probability of this happening. As Dr. Ross clearly shows, that probability is absurdly low. Because unique people are not formed by chance (there is a long series of biological programming that ensures they are produced), applying probability calculations in that case makes no sense. If you assume that life itself formed by chance, then applying probability calculations makes a lot of sense.

    I agree that it is hard to argue logically with people motivated by ideology. After all, people who are motivated by ideology tend to misapply mathematics and science, such as trying to apply probability calculations to whether or not a unique person is born!

  19. Josiah says:

    Regarding both the card and individual person probability, it is important to consider how specific the requirement is. If I throw two normal fair die, the probability of getting a 7 is 1 in 6 because there are 6 different combinations that result in a 7 out of 36 possible combinations. The probability of throwing a specific 7 (let’s say a 5 on the first dice and a 2 on the second) is only 1 in 36 because it is a much more specific requirement.

    In the same way the probability (assuming it is a chance based event) of a specific person being born when man and wife decide to have a baby (Introverted, green eyes, 5 foot 4 at adulthood, and however many characteristics you want) is incredibly small. However the probability of “a person” existing as the result of such a union is much greater, such people appear all the time.

    The probability of pulling out a specific sequence of cards (I’ll say prime numbers then square numbers then remaining numbers in ascending order, hearts then clubs then diamonds then spades) is appallingly low. However the probability of pulling “a sequence” given that you’re going to try the experiment is actually 1.

    Your attempt to show by analogy that improbable events do happen falls apart because the events you’re referring to are non-specific. However the conditions required for life are very specific. This means that the much lower probability value is appropriate.

  20. Josiah says:

    Dr. Wile, I thought as I posted my earlier comment that you’d probably just missed the 0 off the 800%. Unfortunately I couldn’t stop the submission to check the figures.

  21. jlwile says:

    Josiah, that’s an excellent point about the difference between specific events and nonspecific events.

    Actually, I didn’t drop the 0, I just communicated poorly. You are correct that 800% is the actual error I was talking about. Once again, this makes the case even stronger, since an 800% error in every variable (all in the correct way) still doesn’t come close to making a life-sustaining planet in the universe probable.

  22. NoOneKnows says:

    Wow. So the process of how a boy meets girl and mates with her is completely known with no chance involved. There is no chance involved how a particular sperm fertilizes the egg either.

    @Josiah – I disagree. The event of birth is non specific from the overall perspective, but becomes specific if you view it from the perspective of that person. Similarly, the event of life on earth and supporting factors are specific only with respect to earth and its inhabitants but becomes non specific from an universal/external perspective. It is all relative and depends on the point of observation.

  23. jlwile says:

    NoOne, you need to actually read the comments. Of course there is chance involved in fertilization, but the programming is already set up to produce a unique individual. Thus, the production of a unique individual has a 100% chance of occurring, which is why it occurs all the time. This is completely different from the production of life from nonlife, as no programming exists. Thus, all sorts of factors have to occur by random chance if you are too driven by ideology to consider the existence of a Designer. As a result, why probability calculations do not apply to the production of individuals, they apply directly to the production of life from nonlife.

    In terms of specificity, you can choose to believe that there are other specific processes that could result in life forming, but that is not a scientific belief. Scientifically, there is only one way we know to support life, and it is what exists here on earth. You can hope some for other set of processes that might do so, but all you have is hope, nothing more. In addition, suppose there were one, two, or even a hundred different sets of processes that could be used to support life. That doesn’t help your odds much at all, since you need to get the odds down by a factor of 10^70 or so. Thus, you need to have a hope that there are roughly 10^70 different combinations of processes that could support life. That’s a rather outlandish hope, but you are free to hold it if you wish! It takes far too much devotion to ideology for me to hold to such a hope, however.

  24. Sensei Mitch says:

    JL, nice to meet another Catholic! We home school too!! I’m not sure but I think you misread my post, I didn’t mean extra-denominational, I meant extra-dimensional as in the 4th dimension.

    My comment and mentioning my Catholic-ness was simply meant to self-identify my background since that can and does influence our thought process (as we see from atheist and agnostic people we encounter). I would differ with you on “we should treat all participants in the debate with courtesy and humility”, we should treat participants with respect but speak in truth which is often construed as not courteous. Jesus was respectful to all, he wasn’t mean spirited but he also didn’t mince words. He respected freewill. Dr. Wile has a very similar approach which I like, he respects freewill.

    et al

    The conversation here is focusing on the mathematics and scientific assumptions surrounding the mathematics. Even after reading most of the comments I do not think some are grasping the enormity of the numbers Dr Wile is talking about. 10^99 is 1/10th of a googol! That is still a small number in the scheme of things. Consider the probability of even one single protein molecule consisting of 200 amino acids arising spontaneously by chance is 1 in 10^260. Random creation and/or evolution just don’t stand up to the math. For a moment let’s assume they did support the creation of life, wouldn’t that mean they support the development of A life form, singular, not a plant filled with very different life forms that could never have a single common ancestry. The arguments made so far seem to ignore that fact, of course there is the irrational counter that if the circumstances are right for the creation of one life form then obviously the other life forms would be easy!

    From a different perspective…I am surprised no one has added this to the discussion so I will. The First Law of Thermodynamics says that there is only a finite amount of energy. Further the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that a system will always go from order to disorder unless there is a plan or outside intelligence to organize it. The Second Law also states that the amount of available energy is continually decreasing. If the universe had existed forever, all the available existing energy would have already been used up.

    Perhaps it is just me but it amazes me how much faith some people have in anything that does not include GOD.

  25. Psalm19:1 says:

    Dr. Wile,
    Firstly I want to say thank You so very much for writing your apologia books. My mom bought me your general science book last year, really I should have done it before but I was never very good (or interested) in science so she decided to wait. I started your book and soon I found myself reading it on the weekend and putting down the most exciting novel just to read science I even did two modules a week at some points! I looked ahead and saw that the end was on the human body,and figured the second half would be boring.. Let me say I was so wrong! I am now going through your biology book and working hard at math so I can do chemistry in the hopes of getting to advanced biology soon.
    I always look forward to your newest blog posts, and get very excited when I find one that shows how intricate God’s “simple” Organisms are, and I love reading about your homeschool conferences, for you may have guessed I am a homeschooler myself! Thank you again for all the hard work that went into such a powerful series of books. God bless you Dr. Wile!

  26. Elizabeth says:

    Wow! Fabulous comments, NoOne’s included! Very useful to see how the debate plays out. Excellent responses Dr Wile.

    I thought modern science had gone way beyond the Stone Age idea that can maggots spring up from raw meat or whatever.

    As Josiah mentioned, the relative impossibility that protein sequences required for cellular function can come together randomly definitively rules out Chance as the explanation for our existence. I have thought this point compelling for a long time.

  27. jlwile says:

    Thanks for your input, Sensei. Your example of a protein forming by chance is a good one, but I would add one additional consideration. The probability you give is for any single protein forming. What that really means is that a 200-amino-acid-long protein has roughly 10^260 different ways it can form. The real question is, “Out of those 10^260 different possible proteins, how many can do a biologically-meaningful job?” If the answer is 10^260, then the probability of forming a biologically-meaningful protein is essentially 100%. Based on the work of Douglas Axe (Douglas D. Axe, “Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adopting Functional Enzyme Folds,” Journal of Molecular Biology 341:1295-1315, 2004), the number of biologically-meaningful possibilities is rather small compared the to total number of possibilities. As a result, he calculates that “the overall prevalence of sequences performing a specific function by any domain-sized fold may be as low as 1 in 10^77.”

    I don’t think there are many who believe the universe existed forever. Einstein wanted to believe that, but as a true scientist should, he followed the data to see that it is not eternal. Most scientists today do concede that the universe had a beginning.

  28. jlwile says:

    Thank you so much, “Psalm19:1.” I am thrilled that you have become interested in science! Also, two modules a week is very impressive, since most students take two weeks to get through just one module!

  29. jlwile says:

    I am glad that you are enjoying the conversation, Elizabeth. When it comes to spontaneous generation, what I see in the history of science is that each time it is shown to be incorrect, scientists simply pass it on to the next level of uncertainty. For example, as you say, scientists used to think that maggots spontaneously arose from decaying meat. They even had experiments to “prove” it. However, when the experiments were analyzed and repeated more carefully, it was shown that the conclusion was in error. Rather than giving up on spontaneous generation, however, scientists just moved it to the next level. “Sure,” they said, “macroscopic organisms (like maggots) can’t arise spontaneously, but microscopic organisms can.” Once again, they had experiments to “prove” it. When Pasteur came along and showed those experiments to be incorrect, many just passed spontaneous generation on to the next level. “Sure,” they said, “microscopic life as we see it today can’t arise spontaneously, but at some time in the distant past, a simpler version of microscopic life did.” That’s where spontaneous generation is today. Of course, at this point, those who support spontaneous generation don’t have any experiments to back up their view. Nevertheless, since they have passed it on to an uncertain time in the distant past and assumed it produced an uncertain type of “simple” organism, they can continue to believe it, despite the evidence to the contrary.

  30. Josiah says:

    “I disagree. The event of birth is non specific from the overall perspective, but becomes specific if you view it from the perspective of that person. Similarly, the event of life on earth and supporting factors are specific only with respect to earth and its inhabitants but becomes non specific from an universal/external perspective. It is all relative and depends on the point of observation.”

    Absolutely. The chance against your being conceived instead of all the other people who might have been born instead is astronomical. However, the chance against all those millions of other potential people was about the same, and the vast majority didn’t make it. When you’re talking about the chance of “people” being conceived you’re adding up all of those probabilities. That adds up to a pretty high liklihood, it’s only in hindsight that you can say “well what are the chances that ‘I’ would come to be.”

    As a rule of thumb, you can only talk about specific probability when the event in question must have properties that you could specify before and independently of the selection.

  31. jlwile says:

    Josiah, you are correct. Here is another way to say what you said. Suppose you found out your mom was pregnant. What’s the chance that she will have another son who has exactly the same genome as you? The odds are so astronomically low that we know it will never happen. She can have more babies than Mrs. Duggar, and none of them will have your genome, even though it is theoretically possible, given that she has them all with your father. However, the odds of forming two children with identical genomes from two separate fertilization events is astronomically low. Once you specify the genome ahead of time, there is zero possibility that a child with that specific genome will be born. The odds are simply too low. However, you will still have a sibling each time your mom has a baby, because to be your sibling, the baby doesn’t need a specific genome. It only needs one of the gazillion possibilities that results from one of your mom’s gametes being fertilized by one of your dad’s gametes.

    When it comes to a planet supporting life, however, the situation is quite different. There are lots of ways for a planet to form, but the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of those ways results in a planet that will not support life. While your mom and dad will have a baby regardless of which of the many, many genomes actually gets formed, the universe will not get a life-supporting planet regardless of which of the many, many kinds of planets form. A specific kind of planet must be formed to support life, and thanks to calculations like those done by Dr. Ross, we know that the odds of that happening are so low that random chance will never produce such a planet, at least not if the universe has the major characteristics that we think it has.

  32. Rio says:

    Only a fool says there is no God like it says in the Bible

  33. Rio says:

    Can the basis of life like amino acids form in the presence of oxygen

  34. jlwile says:

    Rio, it is difficult for amino acids to form from the uncontrolled reaction of simple chemicals in the presence of oxygen. However, given the right conditions (like the cellular machinery that makes amino acids), amino acids can form in the presence of oxygen. This brings up an important point. Most origin-of-life researchers have assumed that the earth’s atmosphere was very low on (if not devoid of) oxygen when the first life form spontaneously arose. However current research indicates that this is probably not the case. If nothing else, the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere of earth puts severe constraints on the spontaneous generation of life, and most origin-of-life researchers have been ignoring those constraints by assuming that there was little or no oxygen in the early earth’s atmosphere.

  35. Rio says:

    thanks for the info just wanted to clear that question up do u think thats a good point to use when i talk to my evolution friends who are the theism religion. And for this info you give it really anserwed a lot of questions of mine and God bless.

  36. jlwile says:

    My pleasure, Rio. I am not sure I understand your question. If you are talking to a theist, I don’t think abiogenesis is an issue, since most theists acknowledge that God made life. To me, the most compelling argument against abiogenesis is not related to the conditions. Instead, it is related to the utter failure of all abiogenesis experinments. We can’t even make it come anywhere close to happening under controlled conditions. How in the world can we believe that it could happen under uncontrolled conditions?

  37. Josiah says:

    “We can’t even make it come anywhere close to happening under controlled conditions. How in the world can we believe that it could happen under uncontrolled conditions?”

    Because we haven’t had billions of years constant attempts testing across billions of trillions of star systems. It’s that old magic wand again.

  38. jlwile says:

    Yes, Josuah, a naturalist will always resort to the magic of billions of years when the data turn against him. However, such nonsense should not hold any sway for any serious scientist!

  39. Ben Fournier says:

    Hi Dr. Wile,

    it would seem to me that Dr. Seth Shostak is asserting doctrinal beliefs regarding his view of Earth and life. Similarly, CMI also has doctrinal beliefs regarding the possibility of extraterrestrial life on the basis of “God wouldn’t do this because they’d experience the Fall and Christ isn’t going to die a second time.” But why should it be that if God created ETs that they’d have to experience the Fall? And if they do, then also animals here on Earth continue to experience the poor choice of Adam and Eve regardless. It boils down to doctrinal fiats and humans deciding what God would do on an issue where the Bible is silent.

    It is rather paradoxical though, as you say, that an atheist would insist on ubiquitous life while claiming to be honest with the data while most creationists reject offhand the possibility that God would create any life other than human beings anywhere.

    To me it would be preferable that ETs don’t exist as it would make the terraformation and colonization of other worlds far easier than having to study and see what plants might be lethal or whatever, should we ever develop the necessary propulsion systems, extend our lifespans enough, and have enough time before the end of time to go anywhere else other than our own backyard (if we ever do anything more than briefly visit the Earth’s moon and send robotic probes everywhere within reach).

  40. jlwile says:

    Ben, you are quite right. Too often, we simple humans try to dictate what our Transcendent God would do. That is absurd on every level.

    Certainly the lack of ETs would make it easier for us to colonize other planets. However, it would also eliminate the drama of a future James Tiberius Kirk constantly ignoring the Prime Directive for the greater good. I am not sure I am willing to make that trade…

  41. Ben Fournier says:

    You know, a lot of Star Trek plots of each of the series have to do with that artificial Prime Directive being ignored or heeded, sort of like the three laws of robotics in some of Asimov’s books. But anyway, Picard is cooler than Kirk and Sisko trumps them both. :P

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