Posts Tagged ‘probability


Improbabilty or Chance

I am struggling to understand the difference between chance and statistical improbability. It is very apparent that there must be a critical distinction between the two concepts, because Richard Dawkins writes a number of paragraphs on the common mistake that creationists make—referring to chance as the only alternative to design (The God Delusion, 119-121). Other atheists get worked up on the choice of words as well. They prefer the word improbability instead of chance. If the distinction is important to the atheist, than it is important for the creationist to understand the difference. I have yet to understand what that distinction clearly is, and so far I have not received a clear explanation. I looked up the following words in the dictionary. Will someone please explain to me the difference?


3. The possibility or probability of anything happening: a fifty percent of chance.
4. An opportunity or favorable time; opportunity: now is your chance


1. the quality or fact of being probable
4. statistics

a. the relative possibility that an event will occur as, expressed by the ratio of the number of actual occurrences to the total number of possible occurrences.
b. the relative frequency with which an event occurs or is likely to occur.


1. the quality or condition of being improbable, unlikelihood.
2. something improbable, unlikely

My High School class graduated with no deaths, barely. In our senior year, one classmate had suffered very serious injury in a devastating car wreck. He was given one percent of one percent chance of survival. You wonder how on earth he even lived. The theme of our yearbook that year was ‘I survived’ in honor of him. Somehow (miraculously?) he was even able to walk the stage to receive his diploma at graduation. You can imagine the applause.

If a doctor states that a patient, given his condition, stands a fifty percent chance of survival, is that not a statistical answer? While knowing the calculated odds, does it not ultimately rest on uncontrolled chance? And if the patient does survive, while much to his own advantage, would it not be commonly esteemed a strike of tremendous fortune, or luck? (or from the creationist’s perspective…tremendous providence.)

The statistical improbability of complex life emerging and thriving as we observe it on earth, is said to be too impossible to be given to chance. Considering no other alternative, the creationist insists that their must be a master mind behind everything, and that master mind is God. Dawkins insists on natural selection as an alternative to chance (121). Natural selection, according to Dawkins, is a series of relatively improbable events, which in accumulation add up to an immensely improbable phenomenon–one that is too impossible to be given to chance.

…natural selection is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces. Each of the small pieces is slightly improbable, but not prohibitively so. When large numbers of these slightly improbable events are stacked up in a series, the end product of the accumulation is very very improbable indeed, improbable enough to be far beyond the reach of chance (Dawkins, 121).

The best I can understand this is to relate it to the lottery game where you have to match eight winning numbers. I don’t play the lottery, but they run these lucky numbers in the evening News….Eight glass chambers each with twenty-five ping-pong balls numbered between 1 and 100 bouncing around inside, awaiting their release. One by one, a lady would release one ball from each chamber. When I was little I used to guess the numbers before they came out. Twelve! (I had a 1% chance of guessing correctly on each one.) Seven! (One out of one hundred chance to get it right.) Sixty-three! (Every turn got more suspenseful) Fifty-one! (Four down four to go!) Eighty-four! (Oh boy!) Fifty-one! (Mom, come quick! So far, I guessed all the numbers correctly!) Nineteen! (One more!) Forty! (I did it! I did it! I guessed them all right!)

I DID infact guess them all right once. A freak chance. My guesses were completely random, as were the resulting winning numbers. A 1% chance of guessing the winning number correctly eight times stacks up to be a highly improbable outcome, but not too improbable. I was just downright lucky. (Of course this is a very small scale illustration when discussing the origin of life. But I am only trying to understand the concept of natural selection at this point.)

Does this accurately summarize the concept of natural selection? How is Natural Selection too far beyond the reach of (freak) chance?

Right now, this all feels like a game of numbers and words, perhaps even a house of cards. What am I missing?

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