Hoyle’s ‘junkyard tornado’ revisited

Orlando asks:

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

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

My answer comes much later than the others and in part also engages with their replies. But first I must say that I’ve not heard of Hoyle’s 747 metaphor being associated with God — rather it was his rebuttal to scientists who promoted the idea of life arising from the zillions-to-one chance of physics matter clicking together at the right time and place, in the right order etc. Not that it makes much difference to the present question, since the replies by Skinner and Klempner bring aspects of this argument into play which induced me to respond again.

But apropos Craig Skinner, I have to say that the question elicited an astonishing faux pas: Hoyle’s point was that unguided processes cannot evolve meaningful structures which rest on purpose, strategy, discrimination, direction, intentionality and so on. Take the illustration based on Huxley’s Shakespearean monkeys, which though a notoriously inept metaphor, finds Craig saying, “If the attempt fails… he starts again…” What does this mean? Which attempt is failing, and what exactly is the monkey “starting again”? And then, “evolution is equivalent to keeping the letters which are correct…” What does ‘correct’ mean here? That evolution has foresight?

Taking it out of Huxley’s court, a different, but exactly equivalent scenario might clarify the problem: Suppose that every particle in the universe represents a letter and that their infinite shake-up keeps bringing them together in two, three, four etc combinations, doesn’t this give us a plausible basis for asserting that at some time several thousands of these will accidentally match Shakespeare’s text?

I suspect (even from the literature on the subject) that many people would nod their assent. It seems ‘logical’ to suppose that in an infinite playground, all possibles are actualisable and must ipso facto be actualised at least once in some corner of this infinite space. But now suppose that the particle representing ‘e’ has a nick in it that prevents its association with the particle representing ‘n’, what then? Well, goodbye Shakespeare!

In any case, the argument has holes in it big enough to drive a truck through them; though where to begin is not so easy to state. The cardinal problem is that it’s not a conclusion from a compelling stack of evidence, but a quite illicit extrapolation of evolutionary analogies on processes which do not evolve. Dawkins’ texts are full of such intuition pumps, which insinuate that inorganic processes can be dovetailed to organic processes; yet there is nothing in the sum of scientific knowledge to encourage this belief. It does not mean that we need God to lend a hand; but still puts his blind watchmaker and his mythical Mt Improbable out of court.

Therefore Geoffrey Klempner’s remark on wings and eyes belongs to a very different context — namely that these are not dead matter items like bosons posing as an alphabet, but organic extensions of living entities whose primary state of existence is intentional behaviour.

I cannot fathom why this feature is so desperately resisted by Dawkins and likeminded colleagues, as on first and every future glance it is blindingly obvious that intentionality is the driving motor of evolution and “can do” — it can demonstrably scale Mt Improbable. We might look at two ‘accidental’ evolutions to help us along. First, the mandibular hinge of H. sapiens which should leave all of us suspiciously eyeing the word ‘accidental’, as after all the resulting fluent speech accelerated the motor of human evolution. A companion piece is the emergence of the sickle cell aorta among Congolese negroes. Now this can be dated with reasonable closeness to an evolutionary trait installed in less than 5-6 generations. It was the response of an organism to survival pressure and retrofitted to the genes as an heritable trait. In the face of this, why must we insist on chance with the mandible hinge, when it is equally probable that persistent straining of the jaw over many generations, by people intent on opening their mouth to speak, was at last answered by an organically induced modification?

I think the aye’s have it: “In the world of the living, Horatio, there are more possibilities than are dreamed of by blind watchmakers purporting to scale a mountain of improbable dead matter conjugations.”

The crux of all this is easy enough to state: Evolution is a two-way traffic between organisms and habitat. The habitat delineates the possibilities of survival by fitness, it therefore facilitates adaptation, diversity, proliferation etc. Organisms, in staging their survival activities, change the habitat (so do external impingements, but these may be left to one side as self-explanatory). Now if you’ve been following me so far, you should have your ears ringing with the word “intentionality” which hardly makes its presence felt in Dawkins’ propositions. It denotes that in the two-way traffic between organisms and habitat, the former act in whatever ways are possible to sustain themselves, while the latter is modified by mechanical causes and forces, including those related to the organisms’ survival struggles.

That was short, but permits an immediate resume. Survival pressure provokes a reaction from organisms which must in many instances confront them with the need for enacting a choice from among possible alternatives and to throw the whole species history into the balance. Somewhere along this road we find wings and eyes emerging. Evolution is in fact the fundamentally intentional exploration of the greatest possible diversity for appropriate niches. But dead matter has no choices, only accidents, and I can’t think of a single specimen where a physics accident “improved” anything. Indeed it is nonsensical to begin with, as the physical cosmos has no agenda that we could articulate.

Finally apropos Klempner’s quip on DNA: “you and I are here, talking about this”. DNA is dead matter too, and so the choice between supposing the incipience of life to be due to genes, or genes having been constructed by organisms to help with their self-reproduction seems hardly worth disputing, especially as every textbook tells us that organisms still construct, maintain, repair, copy, refashion and multiply them every minute of the day. Hence it is far more plausible to support the view that organisms began with a simple chemical clock and enhanced this device as they got bigger and more complicated than supposing that a bit of dirt on the ground grew into the sophisticated machinery of DNA all by itself. It is, as Klempner wrote, “even more improbable than the chimpanzee story”. But we need do nothing more than to introduce an intentional agent into this scenario and bingo! things happen!

I’m going to stop here. Hoyle’s point was really very simple. In the stakes between physics improbabilities being overcome by chance events or intentionality, the latter is a hands-down winner. Without intentional agents marshalling their intentional resources, the Earth would not have changed from being a ball of rock, water and gas in the 5-or-so billion years of its existence. I see the problem related to “God” in a different light: We assume that we know how matter came into existence; but we can’t explain intentionality. So we end up plastering a false and useless ‘objectivity’ over the question and achieve nothing. But I can’t follow this through in this place, and in any case, I wrote a book on it called Life and Mind, which maybe you could do worse than looking into.

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