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Better late than never

Professor Aviezer replies to critique after 13 years of silence

By Mark Perakh
Posted on July 25, 2012

In 1999 I posted to the Talk Reason website a critical review of Professor Nathan Aviezer's book In the Beginning [1] and of his article The Anthropic Principle published in the Jewish Action journal [2]. My review was titled The End of the Beginning (see www.talkreason.org/articles/aviezer.cfm) [3]. Soon afterward one of my friends (on his own initiative) sent a copy of that essay to Aviezer and asked him to respond. Professor Aviezer chose to ignore my friend's request. Of course, Professor Aviezer was under no obligation to respond to critique. In the following years my essay evoked some discussion on the internet, but Professor Aviezer remained silent in regard to my critique. In 2003 my book Unintelligent Design was published [4] wherein one chapter was a slightly modified and updated version of my essay in question. Professor Aviezer remained unresponsive to my critique. Suddenly, in February 2012, 13 years after my review of his work appeared, Professor Aviezer posted a reply (see torahmusings.com/2012/02/fossils-and-faith) [5]. This is accompanied by a reference to a rabbi, who, according to Aviezer, pointed out my essay and told him to respond. Since Aviezer received a copy of my essay from my friend many years ago, it seems odd that to finally respond to my critique Aviezer had to wait 13 years until a rabbi urged him to do so.

Professor Aviezer's post is accompanied by 39 comments from readers. The website "Hirhurim" caters to religious Jews, and all 39 commenters seem to belong in that category. Nevertheless, not a single comment there supports Aviezer's position. Some commenters point disapprovingly to the unwarranted "inflammatory" rhetoric by Aviezer. Most of the commenters reject Aviezer's treatment of probabilities. Some of them directly justify my position. Some others tell Aviezer that he appeals excessively to authorities and is too concerned with his own credentials.

Let me turn to the arguments offered by Aviezer, which allegedly refute my critique.

One of Aviezer's "arguments" is quite original and illuminates in a vivid way the level of his discourse. Discussing a certain point in my essay, Aviezer wrote that if that point were correct I certainly would have received the Nobel Prize! Since, wrote Aviezer, I have not received the Nobel Prize (or any other price, Aviezer added) the point in question was wrong. I will address "any other prize" a little later. As to the Nobel Prize, I don't recall any mention of Aviezer among the Nobel Prize winners. Must therefore some of Aviezer's assertions be wrong because he was not awarded a Nobel Prize for them? This argument of his seems to reveal in a spectacular way that perhaps at least some of his asseverations ought to be accepted not-quite-seriously. The funniest part of the story is that the point for which, if it were true, I would have received the Nobel Prize, does not exist. (According to Aviezer I allegedly claimed that I know how the life originated. Of course I never claimed anything even remotely hinting at such knowledge on my part. Aviezer just invented it using the well-known technique of destroying a straw man.)

Prior to discussing my critical comments, Aviezer makes a general statement, claiming that in my view his book is "total nonsense." There was no such assertion in my review. Since it is hardly probable that in a book by a respected professor "everything" is nonsense, apparently Aviezer made that assertion in order to "demonstrate" my lack of objectivity, making it seem that my essay was just a screed dictated not by objective analysis but rather by the prejudice of a "secularist" against a believer. (For Aviezer the word "secularist," which he has applied to Professor R. Falk of the Hebrew University, seems to have a pejorative connotation.) However, later in his response Aviezer twice quotes from my essay such statements as "This statement by Aviezer is correct," or "Very good, Professor Aviezer." (Some more quotations of a similar character could be added.) Apparently he does not notice that the general statement in the beginning of his reply contradicts the two quotations in question. In fact, when offering critique of those parts of Aviezer's (or anybody else's) output which in my view are faulty, I am always happy to give respect where it is due.

Let me now address the Aviezer's supposed rebuttals of my critique. He wrote that my critique contained "blatant errors." Unfortunately, in pointing to those supposed "errors" Aviezer displayed the same deficient comprehension of the matter he endeavored to discuss that was evident in his acclaimed book. In particular, his treatment of probabilities shows his lack of understanding of the actual meaning of probability. Unlike the case of the Big Bang theory (which will be discussed a little later), the theory of probability is rather close to my expertise. In particular, I taught statistical physics for many years both to undergraduate and to graduate students. Statistical physics contains as its basic foundation the theory of probability. Hence I had to study the theory of probability in depth and gave it a lot of thought. I think there is hardly any major textbook or monograph on probability theory in Russian or English which I have not studied. About ten years ago I wrote an essay on "uses and misuses of probabilities" (see www.talkreason.org/articles/probabilities.cfm [6]) where certain errors, common in writings of amateurs trying to utilize probabilistic concepts, are discussed in a way accessible to non-experts.

In order to discuss probability Aviezer may need first to refresh his knowledge of the fundamentals of probability theory. I may recommend the recently published excellent textbook [7] on probability and statistics by Peter Olofsson which combines a high level of discourse with a clear explanation of many difficult points of this wonderful discipline.

In my review of Aviezer's book I addressed his errors in discussing probabilities and his reply contains nothing that would in any way refute my comments. I will not repeat here my critical remarks about Aviezer's mistreatment of probabilities, as they are freely available in the essay. Instead, I'll address here only those points in his rejoinder which he used to allegedly prove the validity of his position on probability. (By the way, he assaults not only my critical remarks, but also those by Professor R. Falk of the Hebrew University who correctly demonstrated some of the faults of Aviezer's treatment of probability.)

Perhaps an opinion could be suggested that since Aviezer is a physicist rather than a probability expert, we can't demand from him a professional treatment of probabilities. Indeed, Aviezer is not alone in his misinterpretation of probability. Probability theory contains many tricky and subtle points which require a considerable time and effort for their comprehension. Perhaps a good example is the story about the so-called Monty Hall problem. Its solution is highly counter-intuitive, so even some outstanding mathematicians erred in its interpretation. Recently a brilliant young professor of mathematics Jason Rosenhouse published a whole book [8 dedicated to that, on a first glance quite simple but in fact rather tricky problem which puzzled even some great minds. Aviezer should not be ashamed by his insufficient understanding of probabilities, as he is in good company. This does not mean, however, that his errors should not be addressed. As a serious scientist, he should not try to reject critique automatically but rather admit that he is not an expert in probabilities, and try to correct his position. I wish him success in that. While it may seem like self-promotion, for which I apologize, I dare to point to my essay on uses and misuses of probabilities already mentioned above ( www.talkreason.org/articles/probabilities.cfm).

Now let us see what specific arguments Aviezer offers regarding my (and Falk's) critique. One of Aviezer's notions is based on the very low calculated probability of a spontaneous emergence of biological systems. Addressing this notion, I pointed to Aviezer's inconsistency. Following some earlier publication by G. N. Schlesinger, Aviezer considers the case of a one-dollar bill that is retrieved from a pocket and found to have a certain serial number on it. What is the probability that the randomly chosen bill will have exactly that number? Aviezer answers that it is 100% because we ask our question after we have already seen the number. This is correct. And it is essentially what Professor Falk addressed, just using another example. However, when discussing (instead of a particular dollar bill) the universe and/or the emergence of life, Aviezer asserts that the probability of spontaneous emergence is negligibly small. If, though, in Aviezer's logical construct we replace the words "one-dollar bill" with "universe" or "life emergence," his logic would be fully preserved and the conclusion would be that the probability of spontaneous appearance of our universe (or of biological life) is 100%. Of course, this whole set of notions is meaningless, since frequentist-probabilistic considerations are irrelevant when the universe or life are discussed (as some of the commenters to Aviezer's post correctly noted).

Aviezer counters the above discourse (as well as that of Falk) by stating that Falk and I have "missed the point." Namely, there is nothing special in finding a specific number on a one-dollar bill. Each bill has a certain number on it, so discovering that number does not constitute anything special. On the other hand, the emergence of the universe is indeed a special event, quite unordinary one. I may agree that the emergence of life or of the universe can be viewed as a very special event while finding a specific number on a bill is not. However, in this case it is Aviezer who has "missed the point." The fact is that the theory of probability does not know the concept of a "special event." (I have discussed this point in detail in my essay on probabilities, mentioned above.) For example consider tossing a die with each of its six facets bearing one of the six letters of the alphabet (A,B,C,D,E,F). Toss the die, say, a hundred times and register the letters appearing on the upper facet. In each run we get a set of 100 randomly chosen letters, containing the six first letters of the alphabet, say ACFEBAABFCCFD…. Or BFCAABFC… etc. Each such set has the same very low probability of appearance. What if in one of the runs we get the set which looks like ABCDEFABCDEFABCDEF etc? It amazes us because it is ordered. What if the set looks like AAAAAAAA….. We are amazed even more, because the appearance of such a set has a negligible probability. From our human perspective the highly ordered set is "special." However, from the standpoint of probability theory no set, however amazing it looks to us, is "special." All sets have exactly the same minuscule probability of appearing, and the ordered set, from a probabilistic standpoint, in no way differs from any other of the possible sets. While the emergence of universe or of life may be viewed, if desired, "special," there are no frequentist connotations. Here Aviezer makes one more wrong assertion. In his opinion, events of exceedingly small probability simply do not occur. Wrong. Events whose probability is very small occur routinely all the time, and from the standpoint of probability theory none is "special." Indeed, if Aviezer were right, then in the example with a die no set would have emerged after one hundred tosses, as all possible sets have the same minuscule probability. Such a conclusion, which follows from Aviezer's assertion that events of very small probability just do not occur, is obviously absurd.

In general, frequentist -probabilistic estimates are irrelevant for the problem of the universe's or life's emergence. As professional probabilists would tell you, unique events have no frequentist interpretation. Therefore Aviezer's probabilistic exercises are meaningless. This has been correctly pointed to in several of the comments to Aviezer's post. (More on that in my essay on probabilities, mentioned above.)

While a frequentist approach is hopelessly inadequate for solving the puzzle of universe's and life's emergence, perhaps an alternative (still probabilistic) approach, namely one based on Bayes's theorem could be more fruitful? In fact, the Bayesian approach, unlike the frequentist one, is quite fruitful for shedding light upon the problem of universe's and/or life's emergence. In his book Aviezer did not mention the Bayesian approach. Well, many other authors did. In particular, in 2000 I posted an article [9] (see www.talkreason.org/articles/anthropic.cfm) wherein I considered the "fine-tuning" argument in favor of the supernatural emergence of the universe and of life (which is endorsed in Aviezer's paper [2] "The Anthropic Principle" in the Jewish Action magazine). Alas, an analysis based on a particular form of Bayes's theorem shows that arguments in favor of the supernatural emergence of the universe and/or life are untenable. (A slightly modified version of that post was later also printed in the Skeptical Inquirer magazine.) A more detailed discussion of that problem, based on the full form of Bayes's theorem, was offered by Ikeda and Jefferys [10] (see www.talkreason.org/articles/super.cfm). On the Talk Reason website there are several more articles by various authors, all concluding that the hypothesis of a supernatural origin of the universe and/or life is not supported by logic or evidence.

Now let me address Aviezer's alleged refutation of the part of my critique regarding the Big Bang theory. Aviezer asserts that in my review I expressed doubts regarding the currently prevalent theory of the universe's beginning in a Hot Big Bang (HBB). He very energetically pounces upon the grievous sin I allegedly committed. In fact all the energy Aviezer spent on that matter is a waste. Not only I did not cast doubts anywhere in my review on the HBB theory, but I quite unequivocally stated that nothing in my review should be interpreted in such a way. What I did write in my review pointed to the inaccuracy of Aviezer's notion according to which ALL, i.e. 100% of physicists adhere to HBB. Such a thesis is not accurate because, as I wrote, there exist alternative theories suggested by a number of scientists. I listed those alternative theories but nowhere stated that I accept any of them. In fact I abstained from uttering any view on the validity of HBB. I am not a cosmologist (neither is Aviezer) and therefore don't feel I can offer a substantiated opinion of my own on that subject. I also stressed that the overwhelming majority of physicists accept the HBB theory. On the other hand, I also pointed out that, however well the HBB theory explains a multitude of observed data, there still are some unexplained features of the universe, for example the discrepancy between General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Theory, which has forced the famous physicist, Stephen Hawking, one of the main promoters of the HBB, to admit [11] that possibly there could be no singularity after all at the beginning of the universe's existence. I also pointed out that no scientific theory is considered as the final word on a subject. A further development of science may lead to a modification and in some cases to a complete reversal of theories which today are almost universally accepted. The history of science is replete with such unexpected reversals of seemingly impervious theories. If Aviezer thinks otherwise, he is out of touch with reality. Since, contrary to Aviezer, I did not write that I reject HBB, his emotional diatribe against my alleged position on that subject may be viewed as what a Russian maxim calls "breaking through an open door."

One more part of my critique which Aviezer deigned to address is the problem of the emergence of proteins and nucleic acids. According to Aviezer's opinion (which is not 100% correct in itself, as mentioned in one of the comments to Aviezer's post, written by a chemist) proteins cannot emerge in the absence of nucleic acids, and nucleic acids could not emerge in the absence of proteins. Hence, to start the cyclic process wherein proteins are produced with the help of nucleic acids and the latter are produced with the help of proteins, via a natural path would be impossible as long as no proteins and no nucleic acids are yet present. Then the only possible explanation, thinks Aviezer, is to assume a supernatural interference with the situation. It is here that Aviezer offers his funny argument about Nobel Prize. Aviezer asserts here that I allegedly claimed to know how life emerged. Needless to say, I never suggested anything of the sort. What I did suggest was the idea that a cyclic process could somehow have started in a non-cyclic way, and I discussed several possible way it could have happened. My example with runners circling a stadium was just for illustration and in no way was meant to suggest that it is equivalent to the emergence of proteins or nucleic acids.

Finally Aviezer lists several assertions in my review where, he thinks, I attributed to him statements which he did not make in his book. In fact, in none of the cases listed by Aviezer, did I pretend to provide direct quotations from his book, but rather rendered in my own words notions that seemed to follow from his narrative. I still believe that in all three cases listed by Aviezer he has no reason to accuse me of attributing to him something he did not have in mind. I understand though, that because of Aviezer's not always clear style, some confusion on my part was possible. If, therefore, Aviezer now disowns those positions (as I interpreted them) which were the subjects of the three statements in question, I can only greet this with satisfaction: it would mean there is a hope he will realize his errors and come to a more reasonable world outlook.

My review contains several sections which Aviezer chose not to address. Why? His explanation is that he just had no more patience for replying to all of my critical remarks and, moreover, did not wish to test the patience of his audience. I believe in scientific debates impatience has never been a justification for avoiding replies to critique. Of course, Aviezer's book and paper hardly can be referred to as "scientific." They belong in apologetics thinly disguised by a scientific-like veneer. Could it be that he simply could not come up with reasonable counter-arguments regarding those parts of my critique he left without a rebuttal?

In conclusion I'd like to discuss certain points which may seem to be beyond the specifics of Professor Aviezer's book, which, however, have some (admittedly secondary) relevance to my debate with him. As mentioned above, in one of the comments to Aviezer's reply he was reproached for being too concerned with his credentials. In this regard I recall two conferences dedicated to the "Torah and science" subject, which I attended several years ago in Miami Beach, FL. On both occasions Professor Aviezer was a member of a panel, sitting on a podium, and also delivered talks which were in the same vein as his book. He was introduced by the chairman as both an outstanding physicist and a great authority on the "science versus religion" subject. Hence, he seems to have very impressive credentials. Isn't it impudence on my part to raise a hand on such a formidable opponent? Reluctantly, I feel compelled to compare my credentials with those of Aviezer.

First, I'd like to address Aviezer's assertion that I have not received "any other prize." In fact I have received a number of prizes and awards, including one from the Royal Society of London (in 1978) for the discovery and study of a hitherto unknown phenomenon for which I coined the term "photodeposition" of semi-conductor films on dielectric substrates. After a series of papers (written by me and my doctoral students) describing the kinetics of photodeposition and the properties of films thus obtained, appeared in several scientific journals, three international conferences dedicated to the photo-assisted deposition of various materials were held, and scores of researchers from various countries reported on the studies in the area which I originated. I also received a number of other prizes and awards, both in the USSR and in the West. Perhaps Aviezer should have been a little more cautious when denigrating an opponent with unsubstantiated claims.

Aviezer is a professor emeritus of physics at the Bar-Ilan university in Israel. I am also a professor emeritus of physics (at the California State University). In the seventies I was, for five years, a Full Professor (professor min haminyan) at the Hebrew Unversity of Jerusalem (which is considered the best university in Israel and each year appears on the list of the 100 best universities in the world). Professor Aviezer has published, according to information found on the internet, about 140 papers in peer-reviewed journals. I have to my credit nearly 300 papers in peer-reviewed journals, plus several scientific monographs. One of them, originally published in the USSR, was translated into English in 1970. (The translation was ordered by the National Bureau of Standards of the USA and paid for by the National Science Foundation.) In the past Professor Aviezer worked for the T. J. Watson Research Center of the IBM in Yorktown Heights , NY. In the seventies I had a two-year stint at the same research center as a visiting scientist. I was invited to that center after the monograph I mentioned above attracted the attention of IBM scientists, who arranged for the invitation. Besides his research (reportedly in the physics of solids) Professor Aviezer is very active in the "science versus religion" debate. I also am interested in that debate and have authored about 70 papers on that subject and also a book, Unintelligent Design, which was reviewed more than 80 times in various media. Some chapters of that book were translated into other languages, including Russian, Byelorussian, Polish, and Bengali. I have also published a number of articles regarding some problems of a political and historical nature, which have appeared in five languages. In one of these papers, published in the mid-seventies in four languages, I predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, and when, some seventeen years later, the USSR indeed collapsed, it happened in a way quite similar to the scenario offered in my article. The only difference between my scenario and the actual event was that I expected the collapse to happen some thirty years later, while in reality it took only seventeen.

So, it seems that from the viewpoint of credentials Aviezer and I are roughly in about the same category.

Of course, it is most likely that Professor Aviezer will not be impressed by the above discussion and will rather stick to his views. I wish him well and apologize if my critique caused him some pain. I wish I could have praised his work, but regrettably I couldn't and I can't.

I am thankful to Matt Young and Paul Gross who have kindly read the initial draft of the above text and made valuable comments.

REFERENCES

[1] N. Aviezer. In the Beginning. Biblical Creation and Science. KTAV Publishing House, Hoboken NJ, 1990.

[2] N. Aviezer. The Anthropic Principle. Jewish Action. Spring 1999.

[3] M. Perakh. The End of the Beginning, a review of Professor Aviezer's book (reference [1]. www.talkreason.org/articles/aviezer.cfm, November 30, 1999. Updated November 2001.

[4] M. Perakh. Unintelligent Design. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY. 2003.

[5] N. Aviezer. Reply to Mark Perakh. (torahmusings.com/2012/02/fossils-and-faith) Feb. 29, 2012).

[6] M. Perakh. Improbable Probabilities. June 22, 1999. www.talkreason.org/articles/probabilities.cfm. Updated September 2001, last update November 2006.

[7] P. Olofsson. Probability, Statistics, and Stochastic Processes. John Wiley &Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2005.

[8] J. Rosenhouse. The Monty Hall Problem. The Remarkable Story of Math's Most Contentious Brain Teaser. Oxford Univ. Press USA, 2009.

[9] M. Perakh. The Anthropic Principles - Reasonable and Unreasonable. www.talkreason.org/articles/anthropic.cfm. Posted August 2000, updated July 2001. A slightly modified version of that article was in 2004 printed in the Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

[10] M. Ikeda and W. Jefferys. The Anthropic Principle Does Not Support Supernaturalism. www.talkreason.org/articles/super.cfm. Posted January 2004.

[11] S. Hawking. A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books, 1988.


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Location of this article: http://www.talkreason.org/articles/aviezer2.cfm