The sneaky deck-shuffler

In this short piece, the mathematician John Allen Paulos tries to poke holes in the creationist stastical-probability-based opposition to Darwinian evolution. He basically makes the good point that in a long process with lots of steps and alternative possibilities, the result will almost inevitably be extremely improbable. As an example, he cites the fact that after shuffling a deck of cards the resulting card order has approximately a 1 in 10 to the 68th power of occuring. However, I would make a distinction between a simple (or random) arrangement, like that of a shuffled deck of cards, and meaningful order. Obviously a deck of cards will be arranged in some way, no one would find that strange, but if the cards, after shuffling, were all in straight suits from lowest to highest, even Paulos would no doubt find that a little anomalous. The reason is that, although it’s just as statistically likely as any other particular arrangement, it is much more likely to have been the result of an intentional ordering. That sort of intuition usually proves correct in daily life, and creationists seem to simply be applying that way of thinking to evolution (assuming, of course, that they are not simply opportunists or casuists). Living organisms appear to exemplify meaningful order, and intuitively we imagine it to be much more plausible that meaningful order is created by a conscious mind than by the random interaction of inert matter. Of course this could just be an anachronistic product of the fact that our conscious minds are also created by that random process, so the order that we create in our surroundings, which we imagine to be exclusively within our purview, is itself simply an extension, and a relatively crude one at that with respect to them, of those randomly created organic systems.

In any case, those who have been reading my thoughts recently know where I stand on this issue right now: I’m no creationist, but from what I know it seems to me that evolutionists pay much too little attention to the source of variation and change in living things, as opposed to how traits are selected among competing alternatives. I suspect that the new theories of emergent order, which suggests that that which is created may be superior in complexity to that which created it, which at least in philosophy has traditionally been believed impossible, will have some implications on this debate.

4 Responses to “The sneaky deck-shuffler”

  1. shonk Says:
    I’m no creationist, but from what I know it seems to me that evolutionists pay much too little attention to the source of variation and change in living things, as opposed to how traits are selected among competing alternatives.

    In their defense, it’s not really reasonable to expect a sophisticated understanding of “the source of variation and change in living things” when we still don’t really understand the physical structure of DNA and proteins, even 50 years on from Watson and Crick.

  2. shonk Says:

    By the way, with regard to the argument in the first paragraph, I think you make a good point about perceived meaningful order being an intuitively reasonable cause for suspecting conscious design, but I think the key issue in this particular case is to quantify how meaningful the order we perceive really is.

    To illustrate this point by analogy with the deck of cards example, is the order we perceive in living organisms the equivalent of cards arranged in straight suits ordered from lowest to highest, or is it more equivalent to the order that an experienced card shark might detect in a skillfully manipulated deck? For example, a deck which is more or less randomly ordered except for the presence of aces in the 3rd, 15th and 29th positions might seem relatively innocuous to an ordinary observer, but a card shark might suspect that the deck was manipulated to favor the third hand in a 6-handed Omaha game.

    I don’t know the answer to this question (though I know people who would give completely different answers), but it’s obvious why it’s important: any given shuffle of a 52 card deck is likely to appear to overwhelmingly favor a particular player in some card game, so a knowledgeable enough card shark will, provided he is predisposed to suspect that someone’s trying to cheat, likely detect nefarious intent in virtually any completely random shuffle. Whether one believes that the human brain is designed or evolved, it’s not hard to imagine that the human brain is probably several orders of magnitude better at detecting apparently meaningful patterns in the sea of biological data than a card shark is at detecting apparently meaningful patterns in a deck of cards. In other words, when we see a biological structure like an eye (examine a deck of cards), we immediately recognize in which situations it would be incredibly useful (we “know” what game the deck was prepared for) and therefore conclude that the development of the eye couldn’t have been random (that the deck wasn’t, in fact, randomly shuffled in preparation for an entirely different card game).

    I don’t know if the above makes sense, but hopefully you see what I’m trying to get at. Of course, I don’t think I or anybody else has the faintest idea how to quantify just how orderly the apparent order we see in organisms really is, but thinking about it in this way provides some useful perspective.

  3. Curt Says:

    Right, that’s sort of related to the point I was trying to make, perhaps somewhat unclearly, towards the end, where I tried to suggest that because of the nature of evolution the human brain would probably be predisposed to recognize patterns in living systems even if they were the product of a purely random conglomeration, both because the perceiving brain would itself be another product of that agglomeration and because living systems represent an important element of its environment, the recognition and comprehension of which are vital to its survival and reproduction. So perhaps the question is moot for practical purposes, as we might expect a similar “comprehensibility” of living things whether or not they were randomly created. It might even be argued that the complexity of living systems as we perceive them consists precisely of their comprehensibility, though I’m not sure I would go that far.  And yes, I’m sure that it would be premature to expect any answers on the source of variation and change in living things, but I was responding simply to the seeming complacency of scientists who appear to regard “random variation” as a wholly satisfactory answer to these questions, which more or less ensures that that will continue to be the case.

  4. josephmartins Says:


    Finally, someone who understands that perceived “meaningful” order is relative.

    In the information management community, we like to say that there is a difference between data and information such that information is “data in context”. The alphanumeric sequence A737 may be meaningless to the average person, while a pilot may recognize it as a type of aircraft in the context of her profession. Similarly, 3.14 makes sense to those who know it to be Pi to three significant digits in the context of math and science. What appears to be without meaning to one person, may have meaning for another.

    I view meaningful order the same way. Naturally, my first question is: meaningful to whom? I believe Mr. Paulos’s example is an excellent one when one considers that all possible outcomes hold meaning, perhaps, in a context not necessarily known to us.

    I have yet to read an analysis, Curt’s included, that derails Paulos’s logic.

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