On Fred Hoyle’s ‘junkyard tornado’

Orlando asked:

Is the “junkyard tornado” argument of Sir Fred Hoyle for the existence of God as bad as Richard Dawkins seems to think it is?

Geoffrey Klempner

As I recall — from Dawkins’ 1991 televised Royal Society Christmas Lectures, which I sat through, spellbound — Dawkins accepts the ‘steep slope of improbability’ as a challenge which he believes can be met. Improbable as it may seem, computer modelling demonstrates that there is a series of relatively ‘small’ evolutionary steps that lead, e.g. to a fully-formed wing or an eye.

But suppose Dawkins is wrong. I don’t see that it really matters. We can go further and assume that Darwin’s theory of evolution is complete rubbish, just as the creationists say it is.

Imagine that I gave you a typescript of the works of Shakespeare, and told you that it had been typed out, without a single mistake, by my pet chimpanzee. You would have every reason to disbelieve me.

However, we know that there is a finite a priori probability that what I have described might take place — in some possible world. Just work out the total number of actions that a chimpanzee could conceivably perform on a keyboard, including tapping a key, pressing shift or return, etc. then put that number to the power of the number of characters, spaces, paragraphs in Shakespeare’s works.

The result is a very large number. But so what? That doesn’t show that it’s impossible. Only that I must be pulling your leg, by any reasonable standard for belief.

The story of a Boeing 747 being ‘assembled’ by a junkyard tornado out of aeroplane parts is more problematic, because one would first like to see a proof that various stages in the assembly are physically possible, regardless of improbability. For example, inserting rivets requires a riveting gun, otherwise you just don’t have sufficient steady force to do the job. Epoxy glue needs to be heated to the right temperature. And so on.

Well, let’s agree that the formation, say, of DNA from its chemical constituents is as improbable, or even more improbable than the chimpanzee story. The difference is that you and I are here, talking about this, so unless creationism is true in some form or other, we just happen to be extremely lucky. In our possible world — one in a gazillion — things turned out just fine.

Why believe that tall story rather than creationism? The familiar reasons, which I won’t repeat here. The argument I’ve just given isn’t going to convince anyone who is a true believer in the Bible, but it works just fine for any true believer in science who is against creationism on fundamental principle.

My gut feeling is that there’s a lot of work still to do before Darwin’s theory looks like a genuine theory rather than the most plausible conjecture. It’s only on the table because it doesn’t have any real competitor as a naturalistic account. I’m with Fred Hoyle that evolution is not exactly easy to believe.

As an historical digression, the Ancient Greek atomists didn’t have anything so fancy as Darwin’s idea about natural selection to work from. They may well have observed how when wet gravel is shaken in a sieve — as in panning for gold — the heaviest lumps move to the centre. In addition, by the principle of insufficient reason, there must be atoms of every conceivable shape, so when the ‘right’ atoms collide, they stick together like Lego bricks, eventually forming the world as we know it. (Computer model that!)

In other words, with only initial random motion, it is possible to have a physical system whereby entropy is reduced on purely natural principles. That was all the atomists thought they needed.

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