Saturday, September 24, 2011
Why Random Processes Don’t Produce Information
by Robert Gerow
“What did you expect?”
† It’s not so much evidence for evolution as it is a key part of the ideology behind it. We’ve all heard the basic idea, which is something along the lines of “Given enough time, a group of monkeys using typewriters would produce the complete works of Shakespeare.” At least that’s the way I used to hear it, but Jewish scientist Gerald Schroeder (who earned his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate in science at MIT1 —wow) argues that mathematically, this is not even close to being true. In an article on his website, entitled Top Five Myths Popularly Accepted as Fact, he demonstrates that even with a mechanism far superior to typing monkeys (if you can imagine one), and a time period as long as the estimated lifespan of the universe, not one complete Shakespearean sonnet would be generated randomly, let alone Hamlet! Let’s examine his reasoning and see if it holds up.
It struck me when reading his article that Schroeder immediately makes a number of heavy concessions to the side of random chance. First, he says that for the purposes of his argument we will consider a sonnet to be a specified sequence of 488 letters (roughly the length of the average sonnet), and neglect the matter of correct spacing. Obviously, this makes a huge difference; “Iw il lco mpareth eet o asumme r’sd ay” is not the same as “I will compare thee to a summer’s day.” Furthermore, in this argument we will consider the “typewriter” to consist only of the 26 letters of the English alphabet, which eliminates the potential for countless, meaningless interruptions of numbers and punctuation. And finally, we’ll say goodbye to the monkeys (sorry monkeys) and instead enlist computer chips to do the random generating.
Now let’s take a look at the numbers (fun!). First, we will take the estimated number of grams of matter in the universe, which Schroeder reports to be 1056 g,2 and convert the entire amount into computer chips weighcombolocking one billionth (1/109) of one gram. This gives us 1065 (xn multiplied by xm is equal to xn+m) computer chips total, and we’ll assume that each one is capable of completing one billion sonnet trials (of 488 random letters each) per second. That gives us 1074 sonnets per second; but how long will they be given to try? If time began roughly 1018 seconds ago3 as physicists believe, then from then until now, they could have produced 1092 random combinations of 488 letters. Surely one of them would be exactly what Shakespeare came up with by design! As anyone who has worked with basic probabilities knows, if you have a certain number of spaces that can each be filled by any one of a certain number of options, the odds of getting a given specific combination of options is computed by putting the number of options to the power of the number of spaces (it’s less confusing than it sounds). For example, with a three digit combination lock where each digit can be 0-9, the number of possible combinations is 10x10x10, or 103, which is 1000 (since we’re including 000, along with 001-999). In this case, the number of options is 26 (letters in the alphabet), and the number of spaces is 488 (lettes in one sonnet). Twenty six to the power of 488 is about… well…
True story. I put it into my TI-83 Plus, and it said “ERR:OVERFLOW.” I also put it into the Microsoft calculator gadget on my desktop, and it came up with the answer “infinity.” The truth is, the number is in the whereabouts of 10690.4 The number of sonnet trials that would have been produced by our computer chips from the beginning of time until now is incomprehensibly large; this number completely dwarfs it, by a factor of 10598. I think Schroeder sums it up nicely: “The laws of probability confirm that the universe would have reached its heat death before getting one sonnet.”5 And more importantly, “the most basic molecules of life are far more complex than the most intricate sonnet”!6 Let’s just say that if life had to evolve from primordial chemicals that were waiting for these kinds of odds to pay out, we wouldn’t be here talking about it. Perhaps life, like a sonnet, required an intelligent author. This very argument had an great impact on Antony Flew, who spent the vast majority of his life as an atheist and a good deal of that time as the world’s leading atheist philosopher. In his final book, There is no a God, Flew writes that Schroeder’s argument against the information-producing capabilities of random chance (which is also found in Schroeder’s book The Hidden Face of God) was instrumental in his departure from atheism.
And now, after all this abstract talk of large numbers, I must mention that the original macky
concept of typing monkeys is no longer idle speculation but has been put to the test. Michael Behe describes the experiment briefly in his second book, The Edge of Evolution (a worthy read). A computer was placed in a British zoo cage containing six macaques, and in six weeks they produced 5 pages of text containing “nothing even close to a word of human language. Apparently the 5 pages were published under the title “Notes towards the complete works of Shakespeare.
So can random processes be expected to generate any significant amount of information? As Schroeder aptly put it, “Not in this universe.”10 Not with computer chips, not with monkeys, and certainly not with lifeless, mindless chemicals.
If you have any questions you’d like answered concerning Christian apologetics, feel free to send me an email at email@example.com and I’ll try to get back to you reasonably quickly. If you’d like a lot more information on these sorts of topics, consider the youth apologetics classes we offer periodically, which are described on the main site.
Thanks for reading, and God bless!
1 “About Dr. Gerald Schroeder.” accessed 9/23/11
2 Gerald Schroeder, “Five Common Myths Popularly Accepted as Fact.” accessed 9/23/11
7Antony Flew, There is no a God, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2008, p. 75
8Michael Behe, The Edge of Evolution, Free Press, New York, NY, 2007, p. 104
9Ibid., p. 105
10 Gerald Schroeder, “Five Common Myths Popularly Accepted as Fact.” accessed 9/23/11