# Miracle or Privileged Observation?

At what point will one wager that a phenomenon is a miracle, a privileged observation, or some yet-to-be-determined natural mechanism?

Dawkins has made it clear that nothing could count as evidence for the existence of God. He has shown himself as a closed-minded, dogmatic atheist. You can see the demonstration for yourself in the video below. It starts at 12:30 and goes to 15:30.

This is a video clip that should be shown in churches everywhere. Dawkins, with agreement from Boghossian, has just admitted that if God Himself were to appear to Dawkins, complete with mind-boggling displays of miraculous power, all during the second coming of Christ, he would NOT consider that evidence for God’s existence. Well, if an empirical demonstration of God and miracles would not count as evidence for God’s existence, then nothing will. And that is essentially what he confesses at the end of the clip.

For those in the world of skilled mathematical gamblers in the casinos, we realize hypothetically among a population of 1000 highly skilled mathematical gamblers, one poor chap will be the unlucky guy with a bad run of luck that will make him the 1-out-of-1000 unlucky phenomenon that is more than 3 sigma from expectation. In analogous manner there will be that one guy that is 1-out-of-1000 lucky.

For bank rolls that are exponentially grown from an initial amount of (say) 10,000 dollars according to fractional Kelly betting (see: Kelly Criterion), the difference between bad and good luck will be the difference between ending up with say 5,000 vs. millions! One can construct a simulation on Excel or write a program to demonstrate this. So the question arises, at what point is it the gambler’s skill or bad luck or good luck that is the mechanism for his success or lack thereof. This question is extensible to the question of OOL.

Even Dawkins and Koonin admit the probability of the origin of life is far from mathematical expectation. If one could hypothetically get some credible odds on the question of OOL or any miracle for that matter, at what point will one wager the Origin of Life is a miracle or just some privileged observation like that lucky 1-in-a-buzzillion gambler or some other yet-to-be-determined natural mechanism? I suppose there is no formal right or wrong answer, but personally I’ve decided I’d wager on OOL being a miracle.

PS
Ideally one tries to make wagers on uncertain phenomenon that have a high Sharpe ratio:
Sharpe Ratio

In finance, the Sharpe ratio (also known as the Sharpe index, the Sharpe measure, and the reward-to-variability ratio) is a way to examine the performance of an investment by adjusting for its risk. The ratio measures the excess return (or risk premium) per unit of deviation in an investment asset or a trading strategy, typically referred to as risk (and is a deviation risk measure), named after William F. Sharpe.[1] To this day,[when?] the Sharpe ratio is still found as a prime metric for any alternative investment.

I loved playing high sharp ratio games in casinos, but unfortunately, the few times I managed it, Casino security would swoop down on me and expel me for my thought crimes. At Hollywood casino in Tunica I was threated with jail time if I ever returned (some stupid trespassing law against people who use their minds to beat the game of blackjack). Oh well!

Yours Truly was listed in the credits of this documentary 🙂

## 76 thoughts on “Miracle or Privileged Observation?”

1. stcordova: Personally, to me, the billiard ball or lego model of the components of life are expected to obey frequentist statistics. The components are atoms that bond or disassociate according to some probability. Just like the probability of Rube Goldberg machine arising from a tornado in a junk yard, I don’t expect life to arise from an ordinary process (ordinary meaning close to expectation)

I think that we don’t have the relevant knowledge to determine whether the origin of life is likely or unlikely. (In Bayesian terms, we lack the priors.)

For one thing, it’s a big difference if you think of non-living things as stochastic arrangements of tiny billiard-balls or if you think of non-living things as complex dynamical systems. Which ‘picture’ of physics and chemistry one starts off with will affect one’s intuitive assessment of the priors. But we simply don’t know if life is common or rare in the universe, and we don’t know if life is possible under different physical constants.

I think the question of miracles and God is formally undecidable from our vantage point. One can only move forward in faith (in God or multiverses or whatever) and hope they are right.

I agree with that entirely. Both theism and atheism (e.g. the multiverse hypothesis) are speculations that exceed all available evidence. If one wanted to restrict one’s metaphysics to only what can be confirmed by evidence, then with respect to the existence (or non-existence) of God, agnosticism is the only option.

2. stcordova: Personally, to me, the billiard ball or lego model of the components of life are expected to obey frequentist statistics. The components are atoms that bond or disassociate according to some probability. Just like the probability of Rube Goldberg machine arising from a tornado in a junk yard, I don’t expect life to arise from an ordinary process (ordinary meaning close to expectation).

Sal, they can’t “obey frequentist statistics” in any meaningful sense. “Frequentist statistics” isn’t something that anything “obeys”. What frequentist statistics tells you is the probability i.e. the frequency of an event given knowledge of the frequency distribution. If you don’t know the frequency distribution then it doesn’t matter whether the phenomena “obeys it” or not – because you won’t know whether it has or not.

That’s why I made the point that you seem to be confusing the meanings of frequentist and Bayesian probabilities. You seem to be forgetting that with life the frequency distributions are themselves unknown.

3. And in frequentist terms, if we find evidence of life on, say Mars, or Titan, or exoplanets, then in frequentist terms we’d have to say that life is quite likely, given certain planetary conditions.

4. Kantian Naturalist,

Both theism and atheism (e.g. the multiverse hypothesis) are speculations that exceed all available evidence. If one wanted to restrict one’s metaphysics to only what can be confirmed by evidence, then with respect to the existence (or non-existence) of God, agnosticism is the only option.

This gives undue respect to the unsupported claim that a god or gods exist. Do you consider yourself agnostic with respect to the existence of the Easter Bunny as well?

Atheism is simply the lack of belief in a god or gods. It is not a positive claim that gods do not exist, although some atheists take that position. If you lack belief in a god or gods, you are an atheist.

Agnosticism refers to knowledge, not belief. It is possible to be a gnostic-theist, an agnostic-atheist, an agnostic-theist, or a gnostic-atheist. Socially and politically some people consider it somehow more polite or less confrontational to call themselves agnostic, but the fact remains that if you lack belief in a god or gods you are an atheist by definition.

I went into this in a bit more detail in this post.

5. expectation).

Sal, they can’t “obey frequentist statistics” in any meaningful sense. “Frequentist statistics” isn’t something that anything “obeys”. What frequentist statistics tells you is the probability i.e. the frequency of an event given knowledge of the frequency distribution

We frequently know things that are non-living stay non-living unless there is outside influence. That is frequently known. Having to invoke some unknown specialized scenario over billions of years and on some planet among thousands is admission it is an exceptional event. We have good enough data to state it is an exceptional event, the only question is the degree.

6. stcordova: We frequently know things that are non-living stay non-living unless there is outside influence.That is frequently known.

But that’s not what is at stake.

Having to invoke some unknown specialized scenario over billions of years and on some planet among thousands is admission it is an exceptional event.We have good enough data to state it is an exceptional event, the only question is the degree.

We have no idea whether the kind of molecules found on some kinds of environments on some kinds of planets are likely, or not likely, to form simple roughly self-replicating chains, possibly within spontaneously forming lipid vesicles.

We may know one day, or possibly may know about some other kind of scenario that is also quite common, and tends to lead to the necessary prerequisites to kick-start evolution.

7. This gives undue respect to the unsupported claim that a god or gods exist

So what would count as evidence for God? You can rightly complain the in-your-face obvious evidence like the air you breath is not there.

You are right to say God isn’t obvious, but obvious isn’t the same as non-existent or unsupported. Even by Dawkins admission, it was, on intellectual ground hard to be an atheist prior to Darwin. “Darwin made it possible to be and intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

For starters, even evolutionary biologists agree Darwinian evolution doesn’t explain the origin of life. Secondly, Kimura and others have shown Darwinian evolution can only explain a miniscule fraction of molecular evolution. Graur and Moran and others are desperately claiming there isn’t a lot of integrated interdependent function in biology. I’ve argued, even beyond DNA, there is the glycol protein codes and cytoplasmic information systems we’ve only scratch the surface on in terms of understanding. If that’s the case, from a scientific standpoint alone, Darwinian evolution can explain only a miniscule fraction of the design of life after abiogenesis.

So I would only agree with you to the extent God doesn’t make His existence obvious. Neither does a stealth aircraft to its opponents.

8. “I’ve decided I’d wager on OOL being a miracle.”

Do you consider winning poker or blackjack ‘hands’ at casinos as ‘miracles’? Do you think God wins for you when you gamble, stcordova?

9. stcordova,

So what would count as evidence for God?

The same kind of objective, empirical evidence that any such claim requires. First an operational definition so we can distinguish between what is a god and what is not a god, followed by some repeatable observations that support the existence of such an entity.

I find it interesting that questions like “So what would count as evidence?” are only asked when the topic is supposed supernatural (yeah, I used that word) entities. When people posit things that might actually exist, like x-rays or dark matter, everyone knows the kind of evidence required to support the claim. Only those things that are repeatedly asserted but never demonstrated get this special treatment.

10. stcordova: So what would count as evidence for God?

Define “God”. Bonus points if your definition is not so damn vague that there’s no way to tell whether or not a given entity actually does fit your definition. “God” is your concept, not mine; if you can’t tell me how the hell to distinguish between this “God”-thingie of yours and a non-“God” thingie, why should I believe your “God” thingie even exists?

11. Patrick wrote:

The same kind of objective, empirical evidence that any such claim requires. First an operational definition so we can distinguish between what is a god and what is not a god, followed by some repeatable observations that support the existence of such an entity.

Fair enough. Electromagetic laws are repeatable. If God is capricious (like us) He may not choose to participate in our experiments.

What you have said then is unless He shows up at the convenience of your experiments, you won’t find His existence believable. I respect that. Thanks for your response.

However, if such a God is no more than a mindless law of physics like electromagnetism that responds to repeated experiment, it’s not much in the way of a God that has a mind and consciousness like us, more like Spinoza or Einstein’s God which is sort of a Pantheistic impersonal mindless god.

Additionally, it is not the sort of God that does miracles, since such a god would be indistinguishable from a law of physics.

If God is a capricious agent, He can choose when and when not to reveal itself and how.

You have stated what would make you believe, but in that case the God you describe will be not God at all, as in something with a mind to choose whether or not to cooperate with an experiment like say, “if God exists he can strike me with lightning in the next minute” and when He doesn’t you can conclude there is no evidence for Him.

I agree the world as it is may not provide sufficient evidence for you to believe. But the sort of God that would be convincing to you any wouldn’t be much of a god beyond the laws of physics, which in some respects, is no God whatsoever.

Now if he showed you the sort of miraculous fireworks Dawkins describes, would you find that believable? Or, like Dawkins would you think you are hallucinating or that you’d encountered aliens with advanced mind technology? Though I think Dawkins is right to formally allow such possibilities, from a practical standpoint, I’d prefer to presume I’m dealing with a Deity capable inflicting damnation.

12. stcordova: Now if he showed you the sort of miraculous fireworks Dawkins describes, would you find that believable? Or, like Dawkins would you think you are hallucinating or that you’d encountered aliens with advanced mind technology?

The Bayesian bet is the Dawkins bet. The known, plausible instances of deities is zero. The known instances of fraud and “just don’t know yet” are innumerable.

13. stcordova,

You use a lot of “ifs” in your response, but I don’t see an operational definition of god anywhere in it. This is your concept, not mine. If you can’t define it well enough for someone else to determine if a particular entity is or is not a god then I submit that you literally don’t know what you’re talking about.

14. Elizabeth:
And in frequentist terms, if we find evidence of life on, say Mars, or Titan, or exoplanets, then in frequentist terms we’d have to say that life is quite likely, given certain planetary conditions.

Not sure about frequentism but regarding life elsewhere: find life (extant or extinct) on Mars that is similar to life on Earth and the hypothesis of “panspermia” is supported, find life unrelated to life on Earth and life must pervade the universe.

15. He did say “for behavior.” I know that he just narrowed the subject without justification, but it’s what he wrote.

Given the context – a very general statement about science and explanation – I took ‘behaviour’ to include system behaviour, particle behaviour etc.

16. Alan Fox: Not sure about frequentism but regarding life elsewhere: find life (extant or extinct) on Mars that is similar to life on Earth and the hypothesis of “panspermia” is supported, find life unrelated to life on Earth and life must pervade the universe.

Point accepted.

17. We frequently know things that are non-living stay non-living unless there is outside influence. That is frequently known. Having to invoke some unknown specialized scenario over billions of years and on some planet among thousands is admission it is an exceptional event. We have good enough data to state it is an exceptional event, the only question is the degree.

That does not make it exceptional. For one thing, life getting going on a planet that already has it is probably less likely than life arising on a sterile version of the same.

But more importantly, something does not become more improbable the lower its probability in a single trial. For N trials of a 1 in N event, the probability of it occurring rapidly approaches 1-1/e, or about 63%, for any N. Being the observer of the actual instance in 10 billion trials of a 1 in 10 billion event may make it seem very unlikely, but taking a higher-level view, the event is no more exceptional than observing a 1 in 100 event from 100 trials. We don’t have access to the distribution, so are in no position to say what it is.

There is an obvious reason why observers may be disproportionately represented among those planets where the event occurred. But they are not, from their position in the distribution, entitled to declare it ‘exceptional’ simply because they are individually-unlikely observers. We are all individually unlikely for that matter, but don’t (usually) consider ourselves individually exceptional, because we have a better handle on the overall distribution.

18. If one wanted to restrict one’s metaphysics to only what can be confirmed by evidence, then with respect to the existence (or non-existence) of God, agnosticism is the only option.

If one went through life blissfully unaware that some people thought that trees had spirits, one would not be considered an agnostic on the matter. Then someone tells you that they think they do. Do you thereby become agnostic on the matter of tree-spirits? At some point in my life, people started to tell me about ‘God’. I believed them for a while – I was only a kid – but then I figured it was likely all just made up. I am certainly not undecided on the matter. I could change my mind given a reason to, but pending that, I prefer a more forceful expression of disbelief on a proposition. So personally I reject the label ‘agnostic’ for that reason.

19. A point I have made before: I doubt that the multiverse is the case, but even if it is, one should not use it to bump up the probabilities of life occurring. Doing so implicitly concedes that there is a probabilistic problem in one universe, without any justification.

20. Allan Miller: We don’t have access to the distribution, so are in no position to say what it is.

And that is the point that the entire ID “science” community ignores, except Dembski, who mentions it, only to subsequently ignore it.

21. Allan Miller: At some point in my life, people started to tell me about ‘God’. I believed them for a while – I was only a kid – but then I figured it was likely all just made up.

I think one can distinguish between:

(a) is there a god that is something like the gods that humans have made up?
(b) is there some kind of god which is unlike any that humans have made up?

One can be agnostic about (b), but highly skeptical about (a). But I don’t think that really matters, because it is surely a waste of time to be speculating about the nature of such a god.

In any case, I take it that KN’s agnosticism is likely to be about (b).

22. Patrick: You use a lot of “ifs” in your response, but I don’t see an operational definition of god anywhere in it.

Boring. Tedious even. Broken record.

23. Mung,

You use a lot of “ifs” in your response, but I don’t see an operational definition of god anywhere in it.

Boring. Tedious even. Broken record.

If I ever get an answer, I’ll stop asking the question. Alternatively, if theists stop making claims they can’t support, there will be no need for the question.

If it bores you, feel free to ignore those comments like I do most of yours.

24. In any case, I take it that KN’s agnosticism is likely to be about (b).

I don’t see how one even contemplates the possibility of b) without going through something like a). Having been told about gods, one then rejects the formulations presented. But then, one thinks, maybe there’s a different kind of formulation that works … it still has its genesis in the stories told by people.

25. But more importantly, something does not become more improbable the lower its probability in a single trial. For N trials of a 1 in N event, the probability of it occurring rapidly approaches 1-1/e, or about 63%, for any N. Being the observer of the actual instance in 10 billion trials of a 1 in 10 billion event may make it seem very unlikely, but taking a higher-level view, the event is no more exceptional than observing a 1 in 100 event from 100 trials. We don’t have access to the distribution, so are in no position to say what it is.

Allan,

I have no problem saying a 4-sigma event is exceptional in a casino even though I pretty much assume the probability it will happen somewhere to someone is near 100%.

There might be a philosophical issue if something is a miracle vs. privileged observation, but I don’t think there is a need to dispute if a phenomenon is exceptional much like a 4-sigma event in a casino.

For N trials of a 1 in N event

If N is large, then I would consider an 1 in N event exceptional.

That is true whether or not the single event will be probable because of a buzillion times N trials.

If we let the number of trials approach infinity, but the probability is non-zero and finite, the probability of the event happening once is 100%! From that standpoint, we may not have any formal way of knowing if something is or is not a miracle. I have said as much myself. No argument there.

But if that is the case, then according to your personal epistemology, if a real miracle occurred, you might resort to saying you formally don’t know if it did. So is there any point you’d say you’d believe it was or was not a miracle short of you being Omniscient? I’m not saying there is necessarily, from the formal standpoint, a right or wrong answer.

However, from my perspective, we model chemical reaction rates and probabilities with assumed distributions. Some of the first statistical mechanics and thermodynamic models of Gibbs and Boltzmann were billiard ball approximations, though we’ve gone beyond the billiard ball model of atoms with the advent of quantum mechanics, some of the statistical approaches are fundamentally similar.

If we have 500 fair coins 100% heads from a random process (like shaking the set of coins), it is an exceptional event by common understanding.

There would be similar molecular phenomenon that would be deemed exceptional such as two bricks in contact, one hot and one cold, then going into equilibrium, and then going back to the initial state of hot and cold! Hypothetically many suppose it can happen with enough trials according to the
Poincare Recurrence theorem in Poincare time:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poincar%C3%A9_recurrence_theorem

This has been a perplexing problem in deriving the 2nd law of thermodynamics from statistical considerations alone since it seems it allows the law to have an occasional but rare hiccup over infinite time. 🙂

But from our vantage point, if we ever witnessed this exceptional event, many would deem it a miracle — even a violation of “law”, even though it is formally possible.

If exceptional events that are formally possible are ruled out as being miraculous because of the “I don’t know how many N trials there are” rebuttal, then I suppose all miracles with stochastic possibilities could be ruled out on philosophical grounds of “I don’t know”.

The only miracle then I could think of that would circumvent this problem is the breaking a deterministic (rather than stochastic law) like the 1st law of thermodynamics. In that case on might appeal (as Francis Collins did) to the origin of the universe as a miracle. But one could then just invoke a more general set of laws, and hence no miracle exists as a matter of principle.

For that matter, one could assert God is a natural principle that just doesn’t fit a compact differential equation (like many of the laws of physics), but is just as natural and improbable as anything else. But in such case, the meaning of natural sort of becomes meaningless, since at that point it’s no better than saying, “what it is is what it is”.

PS
Von Neuman gave a better proof of the 2nd law from quantum mechanics than Gibbs and Boltzmann’s version. It’s the same theorem Wigner tried to use to argue on the improbability of life.