Losing God in the Fallacies
December 22nd, 2004
I was recently given the book Finding God in the Questions: A Personal Journey by Dr. Timothy Johnson in a failed bid to help me rediscover my religion. Let me start by saying that this is not normally the kind of book I would bother reading. It is banal, predictable, and as I will explain, largely fallacious.
However, having basically read it on a bet, I feel compelled to respond to it.
First, some background. You may be familiar with Timothy Johnson from various ABC News programs — he is the medical editor for that network. Aside from reporting on the Columbia prayer study that turned out to be a fraud , most of his spots that I have seen personally have been reasonably informed.
As he explains in the first chapter, Johnson has longstanding personal ties with the Christian faith . Much to his credit, he certainly could not be described as a Robertson or Falwell fundamentalist. He is by no means a young-earth creationist. He does not seem to reject evolution outright, as one might hope from a physician.
Johnson is, however, is an Intelligent Design apologist. In the end, Mr. Johnson’s evidence is imagined or nonexistent and he draws the conclusions that he wants to draw.
Johnson’s book begins by talking about the scientific case, as he sees it, for the existence of God. The remaining sections are concerned with Christianity in particular. It is in the first section that I see the most reason for quarreling. I am simply too far from statements such as this:
…I personally believe that the otherwise unexplainable success of the early Jesus movement verifies the reality of the resurrection; in other words, I believe it really happened 
o bother replying. I would never finish this article were I to spend time on the definition of “otherwise unexplainable” and why this assertion is false.
And in truth, Johnson is a very moderate Christian in many respects. It doesn’t make much sense to criticize his respect for the “historical Jesus” (whatever that is) when there are so many fire and brimstone types available.
Reading this book, I found I the following quote from Feynman constantly making its way to the front of my brain.
I had the most remarkable experience this evening. While coming in here I saw license plate ANZ 912. Calculate for me, please, the odds that of all the license plates in the state of Washington I should happen to see ANZ 912 .
It would not be accurate to say that his entire argument rests on instilling a sense of wonderment in the reader by reflecting on the enormous improbability of events that have already transpired. However, to a great degree this is the case. (The title of this section is, of course, a bad play on his worldview and the popular news magazine that he frequents).
The first truly jaw dropping work specious reasoning I found was in the second chapter, where he basically constructs the following syllogism.
- An idea frequently used to convey the law of big numbers is the “thousand monkeys banging on a thousand typewriters for a thousand years” analogy.
- In truth, given a thousand years a thousand monkeys would probably still not produce the combined works of Shakespeare.
- Therefore, given an infinite length of time, an event such as a universe with complex life is similarly unfathomable.
He goes so far as to say,
For me, the most dramatic analogy of the improbability of chance alone accounting for life as we know it comes from the same Fred Hoyle who coined the term “big bang”: “The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable with the chance that ‘a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the material therein.’” 
It is worth pointing out a minor problem here, in that Hoyle unwittingly coined the term “big bang” in an effort to decry the idea . Hoyle was one of the last proponents of steady-state cosmology, an idea that the universe is described by one of a few infinite-duration models.
In making this argument, Johnson displays an appallingly unsophisticated understanding of probability. Use whichever terminology you like — “infinite length of time,” “infinite number of trials,” whatever you want. When infinity is involved, all events with nonzero probability are absolutely certain to occur!
We are of course both making the implicit assumption that “probability” has any meaning outside of our universe, and perhaps also the assumption that “outside our universe” holds any meaning. I will spare everyone the headache of getting involved in this discussion.
God of the Gaps
Johnson makes quite a big deal out of the fact that living organisms have arisen from nonliving materials. He makes sure to point out that Darwin didn’t know how this might have occurred, as if Darwin wrote the unalterable gospel of scientific thought on the subject.
In asserting that because Darwin could not explain this process in the mid-nineteenth century, that a description shall ever be “unfathomable,” Johnson has effectively retreated into a “god of the gaps” argument.
Even if we cannot yet adequately model something, we are not justified in saying that it is therefore an unlikely event. Complex adaptive systems developing when sufficient chemistry is available may in fact be highly likely. He is drawing a fallacious connection between (perceived) complexity and probability.
Dr. Johnson is quite taken by what he terms “cosmic coincidences,” one of which is apparently the fact that Earth orbits the sun without being flung into interstellar space.
…if the planets formed were too close to each other, they could destabilize orbits. The distance between planets in our solar system is about 30 million miles, just the right distance for stable orbits .
Let’s take a closer look at that second sentence, as it certainly set off several alarm bells in my head and I hope it did the same in yours. Here are the actual figures for the distances between the commonly-accepted nine planets. The first numerical column is the distance between each planet and the sun in astronomical units. The second is the same measure in millions of miles, and the last is distance from the previous orbit .
|Planet||AU||Millions of Miles||Difference|
This is of course a simplification, as the actual orbits are not circular. The average is an order of magnitude from the stated 30 million miles, and where they got the idea that this is the “right distance for stable orbits” is beyond me. Frankly I am not interested enough in this drivel to bother finding out.
Dr. Johnson cites a book called Nature’s Destiny by Michael Denton as the source of this unbelievable, outrageous error. I circled this citation in my copy of the book, planning on making a note of how much he relied on this source. He made the job pretty easy for me.
For this section I am relying heavily on a book titled Nature’s Destiny by Michael J. Denton, a senior research fellow in human molecular genetics at the Universe of Otago in New Zealand .
Michael J. Denton and his ideas are beyond the scope of this paper, but suffice it to say that he is huge in creationist circles but not highly regarded in the scientific community. Some critiques of his work can be found here and here.
Moving on, Johnson marvels at the fact that life has evolved into forms that are physically possible. As opposed to, I guess, forms that would have no chance of surviving in our corner of the universe.
…the majority of the electromagnetic radiation produced by the sun is… [in the] range needed to provide the energy for the great majority of chemical reactions that occur in living creatures. And here is the real kicker: the electromagnetic radiation in the other wavelengths is very dangerous to human life .
So successful living things use energy sources that are abundant, as opposed to sources they’d have trouble locating. And humans live in an area of the universe where they would not instantly fall over and die. This is fascinating, groundbreaking stuff. Really it is.
I’m still trying to get this straight—and if you’ll bear with me here I think it might help if I try to write out his syllogism once again.
- The universe contains water, light, oxygen, and carbon.
- The universe also contains life forms that have developed to take advantage of these resources in various ways.
- Therefore the universe was expressly designed for the purpose of developing those forms of life.
Now I see. Well, I’m convinced. Sign me up.
I expected that his argument would be more sophisticated, but it really is not. He of course mentions the apparently “fine-tuned” physical constants, but shows no sign of comprehending the possibility that they are artifacts of our incomplete physical models. The Standard Model does not include their derivations, so according to him no derivations must exist. They must be divinely fixed. More god of the gaps.
Jumping to Conclusions
I don’t know how serious Dr. Johnson really was about authoring a scientific argument for a god. Indeed, there is another half to this book concerned mostly with Jesus and the gospels, and there is frequent discussion of his own doubts and beliefs.
Presumably, if he were serious about the scientific questions, he would read and cite more sources that are hostile to the Intelligent Design apologists. He seems to only be interested in supporting his preconceptions.
This book is more about Dr. Johnson convincing himself than it is about Dr. Johnson convincing anyone else. In this effort, I am sure that he has succeeded admirably.
- Flamm, Bruce. The Columbia University 'Miracle' Study: Flawed and Fraud Skeptical Enquirer Magazine, September 2004; reprinted on CSICOP website.
- Johnson, Timothy. Finding God in the Questions: A Personal Journey. InterVarsity Press, 2004; pp. 17-18.
- Johnson, p. 130.
- Feynman, Richard. This Unscientific Age. 1963.
- Johnson, p. 38.
- Various. Fred Hoyle. From Wikipedia.
- Johnson, p. 44.
- AU figures are from Wikipedia. Calculations mine.
- Johnson, p. 46.
- Johnson, p. 48.