The Roll the Dice Once Fallacy

It was Stephen Hawking who noted,

The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron. … The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.

What concerns me is the claims people make based on these facts. Whether it is intelligent design, the hard Anthropic Principle or any claim about the likelihood of life as we see it coming into being.

All suffer from a very simple logical flaw known as the Selection Bias. When any discussion about our place in the universe starts using extremely large or small numbers to make a point then you see this bias in action. The truth is we only have one data sample with which to make such claims. That sample of data has intelligent life emerge, on one planet, with one species skilled enough to make suitable observations. We simply know nothing about the situations where life didn’t emerge, or where it emerges differently. Any argument that uses probability with only one data point is flawed.

Imagine trying to make claims about the behaviour of a simple 6 sided-dice. If you have been able to throw the dice just once. For arguments sake on that one throw you get a 6. We’d be told the chances of rolling a six are small, just 1 in 6. Behold the more we examine the dice the more it is clear the only outcome we observe is a 6. We’d analysis the video of the dice bouncing and tumbling across the table. The improbable events that led to our seeing a six would be discussed at length. External forces would be called into question. Some would say the dice was loaded.

Of course eventually there would be calls to roll the dice again, but with life we can’t do that. We can’t change the starting conditions and see what happens. Of course we can speculate, but in the same way we’d try and model the tumbling dice, the smallest changes in parameters will have a large effect to the outcome.

So when you see an argument based on probability and our place in the universe call bullshit. We have only been able to roll the dice once.

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