Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Monday, September 08, 2014

David L. Paulsen on the Problem of Evil

Many thanks to Matt W. at New Cool Thang for mentioning the outstanding speech by David L. Paulsen, "Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil." This is an excellent summary of the serious challenges to Christian faith presented by the abundant presence of evil and suffering in the world, and a sound demonstration of the power of the revelations given to Joseph Smith in helping us to better address these issues. Much more to say on this topic later, but for starters, let me know your thoughts about Paulsen's treatment of 3 major aspects of the problem of evil. Good stuff, IMHO.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps one of God's little jokes?

Anonymous said...

Heh... Touche

Jeff Lindsay said...

Evil is no laughing matter, Anon. It's existence is a challenge for any belief system--even one that denies the existence of God due to the presence of evil. How do we have a moral conscience and recognition of good and evil in a purely materialistic universe without intrinsic, eternal values? This is one of the great challenges appropriately noted in Thomas Nagel's monumental book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. This deep thinker, himself an atheist, points out the brutal flaws in the purely materialistic framework that is the reigning model for intellectuals today. It falls short.

The LDS understanding of mortality and of man's eternal nature resolves some of the controversies in unique ways. No joke.

Orbiting Kolob said...

I agree that Mormon thought offers a distinctive way out of the Christian version of the problem of evil. Note, however, that I have to say Mormon thought here instead of Mormon doctrine, since Paulsen relies partly on writings like the King Follett sermon. Paulsen is right to speak (rather more precisely than Jeff) of "Joseph Smith and the problem of evil" rather than "the LDS Church and the problem of evil."

Pierce said...

Orbiting makes a good point--there certainly is a distinction to be made. Some of the things found in King Follet and other places are not canonized, and are thus in the "Mormon thought" realm rather than doctrine.

In this case, the ideas mentioned are also found in scripture, like intelligences being eternal (D&C 93), pre-existence of spirits (Abraham 3), structures that God works in (Alma 42:15, God "would cease to be God").

I was always amazed as a missionary that nobody I talked to had a very satisfactory answer for the people who die without a knowledge of Christ. The most common response I heard was a. the don't make it to heaven (but they had to word it in a way where the word "hell" was avoided) or b. everyone who has every lived has known about Christ intrinsically. I felt both ideas are preposterous. But I was surprised at how many people already and automatically believed in possible salvation for the dead, even though it was not part of their doctrines.

Anonymous 8:11PM said...

Hi Jeff,

It's "little jokes" anon here. My post was actually a barb at the ridiculous theory that God concerns himself with "little jokes" like putting Holy Scripture in archaic language that has no relationship to anyone or anything.

I am actually the person who raised the issue in your previous "little joke" post about how inconsistent it is (to me at least) to believe in a God who likes to play practical jokes on all of us (in a matter concerning our eternal salvation) while little children get sold into sex slavery.

In actuality, I do think God concerns Himself with suffering, and I believe the Problem of Evil is a serious one. The issue is that your "little joke" theory is not only a big "joke" of a theory, but appalling when considering the suffering in the world.

The joke is really about these recent posts you've done. That you would juxtapose a ridiculous post about "little jokes" with a serious post about the problem of evil really undermines the confidence I have had in you, making me wonder whether you have any kind of a consistent worldview or opinion about God that lasts more than a week. How can a person blog one week about a theory of an almost autistic-seeming God who jokes about recondite minutia, and then expect to be taken seriously the next week when he addresses perhaps the pre-eminent question of life and religion?

Sorry if this comes off as harsh, but it's the truth. You really should revise your prior comments about the "little jokes" God plays on us, as they undermine your credibility and tarnish the image of apologists more generally.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Anon, my previous post offered a tongue-in-cheek speculation that you are making way too much of. But I did not posit God as a practical joker.

In this mortal world, where we all kust suffer and sooner or later die, I propose that a key concern for God is our development of faith, so He does not force us to believe and will not simply give us irrefutable, overwhelming proof that eliminates the need for faith and struggle. But He does provide evidences and witnesses to give hope and support to faith, or to help those willing to move forward. So there is a balance.

If the Book of Mormon ismpart of His word, evidences for it may be a factor He cares about. If the strange evidence for pre-KJV language is real and withstands further research showing it cannot be explained as coming from Joseph and his environment, then perhaps it could serve as one of the evidencess that overthrow some common attacks on its miraculous origins. If so, and I am not convinced that will be the case, but if so, it would be ironic that all these years the hick langUage we had to correct and apologize for is actually evidence of origins impossible to explain as coming from Joseph. Ironic. Almost humorous. Not a callous prank, but a hidden little gem that nurtures faith while still raising many questions.

If that is so, I can see that you will choose to be offended that God could do something ironic for the spiritual welfare of others when you feel there are much bigger problems to be solved. But a small and even humorous act of kindness at one moment does not make God or any other compassionate person a callous prankster. Big problems do not make small miracles meanibgless. This is a topic I will address shortly, as I started to by mentioning Paulsen. I did that not because I am callous, but because you raised the issue of the problem of evil in your comments. I was trying to respond to you, though I am sure that whatever I say will be taken as evidence of evil. So be it.

Anonymous 8:11PM said...


I appreciate your response to me. You must understand where I am coming from. I am a believing LDS member with a testimony perhaps as strong and living as your own. Let's be clear here: I'm not choosing to be offended at God. I was offended at what you now minimize as a "tongue in cheek speculation," because I thought it was utterly wrong, and that it trivialized the God that we worship. Your prior post didn't seem to be clear on being a "tongue in cheek speculation," so revising it would be appropriate.

Perhaps you should be a little more cautious when discussing the Sacred. Once upon a time, people concerned themselves with blaspheme, but in the age of the bloggernacle, we often don't pause to think about what we're really saying.

You may be correct that I am making too much of your prior post. I will note that others were bothered by it as well. Why not just revise it so that others won't be misled, either as to the nature of God, or as to your intentions?

The problem of evil is a deep and complicated issue on its own (though not one that shakes my testimony). There is no need to try to reconcile evil with a God who does "little jokes" or engages in medieval word-play. Table the "little jokes" and early English wordplay matters, and let's just address evil as if the "little jokes" post never happened (although please revise it for future readers!). Your readers will be thrilled if all they get is an answer to the age-old question of why a compassionate God allows evil in the world.


Marshall MacTavish said...

Paulsen nails it. Philosophies of men entangled with scripture creates a theological mess, hence the need for the Restoration. I, too, thank God for Joseph Smith.

(I think God does have a sense of humor. No, he doesn't laugh at serious or sacred things. He laughs at funny things, sort of like how we do if we aren't busy sucking on lemons.)

Anonymous 8:11PM said...


Who am I to argue with your conception of God?

But let me tell you: the world is full of atheists and people who have given up on the idea of a compassionate God altogether because of evil and suffering. How do you they will respond when they see prominent mormon apologists arguing that evil is not only consistent with a compassionate God, but also a humorous One! I think if you pause to think of the people the posts are hopefully trying to reach--and pause to think of the agony many people are going through while they are not "busy sucking on lemons" as you say--you might not focus so much on how to reconcile humor with evil.

Givens gave us. "The God Who Weeps." Lindsay and crowd now give us, "The God Who Jokes." Blaspheme away.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Point well taken - thanks for the clarification. "Joke" has been softened to "irony' and a little explanation has been added. Hope that's better.

Ryan said...

I don't see the problem with believing in a God who both jokes and weeps. Given the many facets of human personality, I have to imagine that God is at least that complex. And seeing as "Men are that they might have joy" it seems that we need not confine ourselves to weeping alone. Yes, there is tremendous sadness in the world and it is cause to weep. But that doesn't mean that being happy and making friendly jokes is blasphemy, nor is it blasphemy to believe that God could be happy and enjoy His existence generally. Being happy about one thing doesn't lesson the seriousness of another.

Pierce said...

I agree with Ryan. Acknowledging that God may have a sense of humor in one instance while acknowledging general suffering in another is in no way "appalling." And blaspheme? Most of the Christians that I have interacted with have, more or less, anthropomorphized God in such a way that He has a sense of humor, is concerned with specific details of someone's life, loves animals, etc. You can call it blaspheme, but perhaps your view is more closely aligned with an orthodox Rabbai than a run-of-the-mill Christian.

Besides, you're the one who is somehow linking a previous post with this one. They are two different conversations.

Pierce said...

Regarding evil and suffering in the world, I would be interested in knowing how fellow LDS members feel about the idea that God will answer prayers when he helps some upper-class mom find her car keys instantly, but not answer a child's prayer to relieve starvation.

Does anyone else feel the weight of this conundrum during, say, testimony meeting? How do you reconcile it?

Anonymous 8:11PM said...


Thank you for clarifying the wording of your prior post re "joke" and "irony." Very much appreciated.

All - I probably was overboard in my prior posts about "blasphemy" and the like. Sorry. It's true I do think it's hard enough for many to believe in a compassionate God who allows suffering, let alone One with a sense of humor. But there have been plenty of times in my life when I've imagined Him as having humor, smiling, being filled with joy, sharing in my happiness, etc. It's unfair for me to criticize you all for expressing something I too have believed.

This raises a question: In our individual lives, we go through periods of suffering, but also periods of joy/humor/happiness. But for God, at any given moment among his billions of spirit children, there will no doubt be SOMEONE suffering miserably. How does God multi-task so that he can empathize with suffering of one of his children, while simultaneously sharing in the joy of another of His children? Perhaps it has to do with the nature of how He experiences time? For that matter, how does anyone who used to be mortal develop the capability to simultaneously watch over billions of children, sparrows, and so forth? It's a mystery to me.

Ryan said...

That's quite a question, anon, and one that I think will be answered in the "He will yet reveal..." realm of AoF 9. I imagine it will not be revealed until after this life. Just the fact that He's able to keep track of the names of all His children is impressive, to say nothing of His understanding of and empathy with how we're each feeling. I do suspect it has something to do with time only being measured unto man. Admittedly this is not doctrinal, but CS Lewis makes the comparison of an author/reader of a book. If we are the characters in this very complex novel, our frame of reference is that of the book itself. The author/reader, though, can essentially pause time as the characters view it when he puts the book down, and pick up right where he left off. So though he has had time to deal with multiple other things, the characters in the book are still right where they were. That's probably an imperfect analogy, but it helps me visualize things.

Ryan said...

Pierce, your question is really interesting too. I wish I had a better answer, but the one thing that comes to mind is "All things have been done in the wisdom of Him who knoweth all things." I do believe God often helps us with our first world problems when we have them, and clearly sometimes He doesn't help with the more serious problems of life, at least not right away. Sometimes he makes us wait until after this life. It's certainly not a matter of faith alone- the people of Alma were severely tried in spite of their righteousness. In that instance we are told that the Lord will try both the patience and the faith of His people. Maybe it has something to do with that.

Not a fantastic answer, I know, but maybe it sheds some light on the subject? What do you (or anyone else) think?

Pierce said...


This question affects the way that I view God's involvement in the world and in our personal lives. For me, it's easier to believe that the mom finding her keys right after praying is a coincidence rather than divine intervention, so that the starving child is at least as equidistant from God. I just can't rationalize it beyond that. But that also offends people like my wife, who believes that God is closer and more involved. It almost prohibits me from praying for inconsequential things or giving priesthood blessings "for the heck of it" (you know the kind).

Ryan said...

In writing this I must first acknowledge that my answer is by no means comprehensive, or even correct. Just a few thoughts, though.

First- I imagine at least some of the time when someone finds their keys after praying, it is coincidence. We are agreed on that point.

Second- I nevertheless believe that God does get involved in our daily woes, which often are not so important on the grand scale. An example from my life is when I lost a pet hamster as a kid. It got out of its cage, and because of some renovations we were doing on the house, it was likely that he either got outside or into the furnace duct. Naturally, I was freaking out. I couldn't sleep because of it. My dad gave me a blessing, and I almost immediately calmed down, though my hamster was still missing. Later we did find the hamster (he was indeed in the furnace, which my dad had had the presence of mind to turn off, and he was unharmed), but the help that I believe came from God was in the form of comfort. It's a silly example, but it seems consistent with the scriptural and much more serious example of the people of Alma who, rather than having their burdens relieved, were made equal to them. They were given comfort and strength rather than an immediate solution to their problem. In an even more extreme case, the people of Ammonihah suffered death by burning. They were not saved in the temporal sense. But ultimately, I believe they were blessed with comfort and strength to endure, and finally a return to God.
To me it becomes not so much a question of WHY God does or does not help, but one of HOW He helps. Whether it is lost car keys, a breakup, a lost job, slavery, or a horrifying death, I believe God helps His children when they ask. It is just that He doesn't always do so in the way we want or expect.

Pierce said...

Ryan, I think you offered a great insight when you said that it is not "why" but the "how" he helps. I know that it ultimately is an elementary solution, but it kind of hit it home for me. Thank you.

This idea makes sense, especially for a younger kid such as yourself at the time who was really affected for the rest of his life by this one tender mercy.
The inner demon in me still screams about the starving kid, but there are things that I just don't comprehend yet. I would like to though. I would like to know "how" God is involved in these kinds of lives.

Ryan said...

Yeah, me too. I bet He'd like it if those of us who aren't starving made it our business to be His "how" as much as possible. That's something I'll try harder to do.

"Auntie" RfM said...

I suspect that our anti-jokes Anon is not LDS after all, but a role-playing RfM-er

Anonymous said...

God is a mystery. Where did it all start. How did God get His powers. It is mind boggling to think of it and it scares the life out of me. To think there is no God is even scarier.

Anonymous 8:11PM said...

It's "no jokes" anon here. To clarify, I'm definitely active LDS, and not playing a role. Sorry to disappoint. There's obviously no way for me to disprove your doubt about my sincerity. I'll just affirm what I am and leave it at that.

Fuller said...

Question for Jeff: Are you still inclined to use the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God? You've used something like this in the past, but if the natural world can be explained in terms of self-existent laws, the existence of God need not be invoked.

Most members of the church that I've had occasion to talk to about this subject simultaneously hold two contradictory views in their head without feeling the need for any reconciliation: God is the author of laws both natural and moral, and God is preceded by laws that He didn't create but is bound to observe. The former view is attested in Doctrine and Covenants 88:42, and the latter is traceable to Nauvoo sermons of Joseph Smith. The former is canonized, and the latter is not, as others have pointed out in this thread. The former is a more traditional Christian view that is difficult to reconcile with the problems of evil. The latter has the virtue of evading the problem of evil, but it comes very close to the atheists' position that we can believe in moral laws or principles that obligate us to do right without believing that morality must come from God.

If members of the church want to go with the latter view of God as the non-creator of moral or natural laws, that's fine, but it's then inconsistent for them to use the moral argument, the fine-tuning argument, or the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

Pierce said...


It may be a bit rash to say that the LDS view of moral and natural laws is inconsistent with those arguments LDS doctrine still teaches that morality does come from God. This comes in a variety of forms such as revelation and commandments. The light of Christ--everybody's collective moral compass--is also described as coming from Christ, or God, and not from nature.
When we start talking about laws that God lives within, we are almost always going to be speculating. We don't really know what it entails. But this doesn't mean that OUR morality derives from a source (nature) other than God and what he has revealed and instilled in us.

I also don't see how the fine-tuning argument is nullified by the belief in natural laws either. This argument has to do with Creation and how everything in the universe has to line up just right for life to be sustained. Despite the idea that God operates in a way in which he is bound by certain laws for some things, he is still a creator and organizer, so a Latter-day Saint would have no problem accepting the idea that divine creation is much more probable than accidentalism.

Anonymous said...

"...a Latter-day Saint would have no problem accepting the idea that divine creation is much more probable than accidentalism..."

Yeah, especially if you compute the probability for accidental life.

Orbiting Kolob said...

Yeah, especially if you compute the probability for accidental life....

The emergence of life might not be all that improbable. It's an open question right now, and a very exciting one.

To some of us, abiogenesis is a fascinating scientific challenge, in fact one of the greatest scientific problems of all time. Sometimes I regret majoring in math/physics rather than biochem, simply because I think working on the origin of life is so tantalizing.

To others, of course, abiogenesis must be ruled out from the get-go because it conflicts with their precious testimony -- a sad example of how religion can shrink one's world.

Pierce said...

I've seen PLENTY of atheists also holding onto their precious testimonies despite solid philosophical arguments from the other side. Everyone shrinks their own world at some point with biases, especially when they have an answer for questions like "does God exist?" and "how was life formed?"

So if it's sad that a religious person answers those philosophical questions, is it equally sad when an atheist does?

Orbiting Kolob said...

No, it is not.

"At some point" both Martin Luther King and Bull Connor had biases, but that does not make their cases equally sad. Ditto for Charles Darwin and Samuel Wilberforce. Some worldviews really are more constricting than others.

False equivalence, Pierce. You can do better.

Anonymous 8:11PM said...

Orbiting Kolob -

"The emergence of life might not be all that improbable. It's an open question right now, and a very exciting one."

I am sure there are plenty of LDS scientists who would agree it is an exciting question.

You statement about probability reminded me of a calculation by Sir Roger Penrose that I have not seen refuted. In his book "The Road to Reality" he shows that the probability of an accidental Big Bang leading to the universe we see is 1/(10^10^123).

I say this in hope that it will inspire a little humility from scientific atheists who are confident about the origins of life and the universe.

Pierce said...

"Some worldviews really are more constricting than others"

But this is a matter of opinion. To a person of faith who does believe in God, it is sad to see a person constrict their view of the cosmos, God, the purpose of life, and the afterlife.

I'm not interested in comparing the decisions of specific individuals. We're talking about 2 very general opposing philosophies. Those who have taken a philosophical side on this issue have reasons to feel "sad," as you put it, for the other side. All I'm hearing from you is a superiority complex that rivals the religious who "thump" on the non-believers.

There are plenty of religious people who are excited about theories that explain how God may have created the universe. My friend (and Elder's quorum 1st counselor) is a bio-chemist and he gets just as giddy as you about that stuff. I just don't. I think that most people aren't THAT into real, deep science. I'm also not that deep into mechanics or art, either.

Ryan said...

I'm a biochemist. Here's a little calculation I did. It's kind of lengthy and can involve jargon, but I'll try to avoid that. Here we go:

A 2001 Nature paper titled “Universal trees based on large combined protein data sets” by James Brown et al. claims that they found 23 proteins that are highly conserved across all domains of life. Eukaryotes, bacteria, and archea all have them, and any given one of them is similar to the others across all species checked. This suggests that all of these proteins are necessary for life, because no known organism has evolved with a non-functional or even structurally different version of any of them. Kind of a "minimum requirement." This paper also tells us the lengths of the aligned regions for each of these proteins. We'll just deal with the shortest ten,which are 95, 110, 118, 126, 131, 166, 177, 188, 192, 194, and 233 amino acids, respectively.

Now of course, "highly conserved" does not equal "identical." There can be some differences. A 2004 PNAS paper called “Protein tolerance to random amino acid change” by Haiwei Guo et al. generally quantifies how often a change of any one amino acid alters protein activity. They found that there is roughly a 33% chance that changing any single amino acid in a protein will inactivate it. This accounts for unstructured regions as well as structured, conserved ones. So it is pretty safe to assume that there is at LEAST a 33% chance of inactivating a protein if you alter an amino acid in the conserved region. But let's scale that back to a 20% chance to make things easier. So that about 17 acceptable amino acids (or codon sets) in any given position.

Since DNA encodes 20 amino acids plus stop codons, there are essentially 21 different protein outcomes you could arrive at if you alter nucleotides, which is where these changes actually happen. Thus, changing any specific codon to any one of 7 "codon sets" that codes for something different will, on average, inactivate a protein. Or, put another way, any one of 14 codon sets, including the starting one, will not inactivate the protein, on average. So for a 95 amino acid protein, there are 95^21 possible combinations, and 95^14 of them could give us the desired function. That's ~1.7E119/4.1E125, or ~1/23000 chance of making that protein in one try. For the 233 amino acid protein, it's ~1/3E13. You can calculate the rest on your own if you care to.

Of course, there is more than one try to get each protein right. I will assume that there already exist at the beginning of the universe assembled stretches of DNA within membrane-bound "proto-cells" and that these proto-cells have some sort of machinery to duplicate the DNA (or RNA) and the machinery to convert that to proteins. We will ignore the fact that that machinery is actually a part of the 23 required proteins mentioned above.
Now the current estimate is there are 5E30 bacteria on earth. Let's assume 1 million times that many proto-cells when the universe began, or 5E36.

DNA becomes mutated as the cellular machinery makes mistakes during replication. So we need to know how fast a cell can make DNA, and how often it messes up. The fastest rate I've ever heard is 1000 nucleotides per second. Let's multiply that by 1 million, so 1 billion nucleotides per second per proto-cell. Then with all the proto-cells we assumed were on earth, that would be about 5E45 nucleotides added to some growing chain every second. Mistakes happen roughly every 100 million nucleotides. Remember, more mistakes increase the chances of producing something functional, so let's take it down to every 100,000 base pairs that a mistake is made. We won't worry about the fact that this would ultimately prove detrimental to whatever organisms arise. So what we have, then, is 5E40 mistakes every second on earth.

Ryan said...

Of course, earth isn't the only planet in the universe. It is currently estimated that there are about 500 billion stars in the average galaxy, and there are about 500 billion galaxies in the known universe. That means there are about 2.5E23 stars in the known universe. Let's go ahead and multiply that by 1 million. So now there are 2.5E29 stars. Now in our solar system there is 1 known habitable planet. But let's go ahead and multiply by 1 million again and assume there are 1 million habitable worlds orbiting each star on average. We will assume they all have 5E36 proto-cells behaving the same as the ones we assume for earth.

So throughout the universe, there are about 1.25E76 mistakes being made every second. Thats a little more than 10 thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion new combinations every second. Seems like pretty good odds on coming up with something functional at this point.

But let's remember now you need all of these proteins together in the same proto-cell to get something living (Actually you need 23 at least, but we're just dealing with the 10 shortest). Upon crunching the numbers we find that there is a roughly 1/2.4E137 chance of producing all of those proteins together in the same place. In order to test just 1% of 2.4E137 options, using the calculated rate of mistakes, it would take about 1.9E59 seconds. The universe has existed for about 4.4E17 seconds (13.8 billion years). So to have a 1% chance of producing all 10 of those proteins in the same proto-cell would take over 400 trillion trillion trillion times the existence of the universe. Heck, even to have a 1% chance that they all appear on the same planet would take over 8500 times longer than the universe has existed.

So what can we conclude? Well, even ignoring Anonymous's figure of the probability of the universe existing (I have no idea if it's right or not), there is no way we've had enough time to produce the most basic of life forms, let alone a human. Unless there is some driving, highly organized force.

Sorry for the novel. Hope it was enlightening to someone.

Orbiting Kolob said...

...there is no way we've had enough time to produce the most basic of life forms.... Unless there is some driving, highly organized force.

Or some self-organizing force, like maybe evolution?

Maybe I missed the relevant portion of your novel, Ryan, but it seems to me you're calculating the odds of everything coming together randomly, which is presumably not the way it worked. In any event your a priori calculations ignore the actual empirical research on the origin of life. You're essentially playing the creationist William Paley role here.

Ryan said...

I like how the first thing I saw when I clicked on your link was "There is still no 'standard model' of the origin of life."

Actually, DNA mutation is a completely random process. Any biologist or biochemist, atheist or devoutly religious, will tell you as much. Organisms do not know a priori whether a specific mutation will be beneficial or detrimental. In fact, they do not even know whether there will be a specific mutation. It just happens, and as far as we can tell, there is no way to predict which mutations will happen when.

I assume the theories you say I ignored are things like RNA-world and the experiments showing how organic molecules could have been made in what are believed to be early earth conditions. Just for the record, I consider these to be viable ways for how life arose. But they don't negate the fact that at some point you have to come up with those 23 proteins at minimum, and the only way to get there is through random mutation. The calculations are there for you to scrutinize. If I've done something wrong in them, please let me know.

Orbiting Kolob said...

Oh, far be it from me to critique your calculations, Ryan. No doubt that greatest of astronomers, Abraham himself, is even now buffing up your plaque for installation in the Grand Pantheon of Kolobian Science.

But just for the heck of it, maybe you could run your argument past some of the less exalted folks who actually work in the field of abiogenesis? If their quest is really as hopeless as you suggest, they ought to know. It would be a pity were they to waste their careers chasing what you have so brilliantly proved to be impossible.

Ryan said...

Never said it was impossible. Only that it is impossible if left to random chance. I believe in abiogenesis. I just also believe it needed some help given the time frame of the universe. Your own link says those ""less exalted" folks have not come up with a mechanism. You are welcome to critique my work. Maybe I got something wrong. Let me know what you come up with.

allthingswitness said...

Apologies for coming to this late, but for what it's worth I've recently written about the problem of evil. I've not taken so much of a philosophical approach, but have looked at what I think are assumptions within the problem as often stated, assumptions which I consider fallacies. If anyone is interested, it can be found here.

Fuller said...


Just tell me which horn of Euthyphro's dilemma Mormonism comes down on. Is God the creator of our moral laws or merely the revealer?

As for your comments about fine-tuning, it's true that some atheists think the universe is an accident, but the most thoughtful among them do not. "Accidentalism" is a mischaracterization. Observed phenomena are not an accident; they can be explained by natural laws. The crux of the argument is whether laws must have a lawgiver. You seem to want to have it both ways. The laws of the universe are created by God except when they aren't.

Fuller said...

Even if you ultimately rest on the ad hoc claim that there are some laws created by God and other laws that are self-existent, you implicitly acknowledge that God is not a necessary explanation for anything. If one law can be uncreated, why not another and another? And so on. God is less an explanation than he is something that needs explaining.

It's entirely arbitrary to make him responsible for creating the laws that explain the existence of life but not the laws that explain the amount of evil in the world.

Orbiting Kolob said...

The problem is not just your math, Ryan (though I love how the phrase "upon crunching the numbers we find," apparently inside some mathematical hat, perhaps appearing on the surface of some mathematical seer-stone, some gargantuan exponent). It's also your unscientific, God-of-the-gaps philosophy.

When your back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate that something seems impossible, you simply attribute that something to divine intervention. God did it, case closed! This is the creationist impulse, pure and simple. Where you see evidence of your God, the scientist sees a problem to be solved. You're a creationist.

Also, of course, you don't really "believe in abiogenesis," for the simple reason that, by definition, abiogenesis is the natural, not the divinely assisted, process of the emergence of life from non-living matter.

Ryan said...

I said "upon crunching the numbers" because I figured my novel was long enough already, and I thought I'd given enough information that anyone else could crunch the numbers themselves. Here's the breakdown:
2.5*10^29 stars X 1,000,000 planets/star = 2.5*10^35 planets

2.5*10^35 planets X 5*10^36 proto-cells/planet = 1.25*10^72 proto-cells

1.25*10^72 proto-cells X 1,000,000,000 base pairs per second per proto-cell = 1.25*10^81 base pairs per second

1.25*10^72 base-pairs per second X 1 mistake/100,000 base pairs = 1.25*10^76 mistakes per second

For the probability of assembling all 10 proteins together:
95^17 functional possibilities/ 95^21 total possibilities = 1 functional possibility/522 million total possibilities, or a 1/522 million chance of getting that protein right

Repeat for all proteins. 110^17/110^21, 118^17/118^21, etc. The 233 amino acid one was actually the eleventh, so we'll leave it out. I listed all lengths in my novel above. I assume you can do that part yourself if you want to check me.

Multiply all probabilities by each other to get probability that they are all in the same place:
1/(522 million X 12.4 billion X 67.4 billion X 367 billion X 1 trillion X 171 trillion X 1.7 quadrillion X 17.8 quadrillion X 41.6 quadrillion X 63.6 quadrillion)
= 1/2.4*10^137 probability.

1% of that is 2.4*10^135. So if we try that many combinations, we have approximately a 1% chance of success.

2.4E135 combinations / 1.25E76 combinations/second = 1.9E59 seconds

The universe has existed for 13.8 billion years (I believe that, by the way).
13.8 billion years X 365.25 days per year X 24 hours per day X 3600 seconds/hour =
4.35E17 seconds that the universe has existed

1.9E59 seconds/4.35E17 seconds = 4.33E41, so it would take 4.33E41 times the existence of the universe to get through 1% of the possible iterations, assuming no repeats. Probably a safe assumption. Longer if there were repeats.

Ryan said...

I guess I am a creationist because, admittedly, I do believe that God created the universe. I also believe the scientific method. I'll be interested to see how the abiogenesis folks explain what the driving force is that allowed random mutations to either sample that many combinations that quickly, or to skip some of them. Maybe they'll come up with something. That would be cool. But whatever they come up with will have to invoke an organized driving force, and mutation is not organized, it is entirely random.

I was viewing abiogenesis as life arising from non-biological sources. I guess if scientists are ever able to produce proto-cells in a lab, it won't count as abiogenesis, then, since it didn't happen without help? I will grant that if the definition of biogenesis excludes God, then no, I don't really buy it.

Fuller said...


You're calculations depend on some unjustified assumptions. The first is that because there are 23 conserved proteins that these are a minimum requirement or necessary for life. That may be true for all organisms alive today, but it does not necessarily mean that earlier versions of life depended on them. All life today may have descended from a common ancestor that through evolution came to depend on these 23 proteins. The fact that there are no organisms around that don't depend on these proteins could be due to a bottleneck effect at some point in the history of life.

Earlier versions of life could have been much simpler. Functional proteins may have started out using a lower number of different amino acid building blocks. Proto-organisms may have been using catalytic RNA or catalytic something else to perform some functions that were later performed by proteins as a result of evolution. They may have been using catalytic something else when the first protein evolved and consisted of a lower number of amino acids. There need not be 10 initial proteins comprised of 21 different amino acids arising by point mutation independently of each other in order for life to arise from natural processes not requiring divine intervention.

Ryan said...

Oh, and some context for those calculations: When us "creationists" argue that proteins are too complex to have arisen by the known mechanisms, the usual response is that given the shear number of planets in the universe, and the fact that billions of iterations per second can take place, life arising randomly becomes probable. In other words, that is the proposed mechanism that I've heard. My calculation shows that that is not the case, unless I've made a mistake.

Ryan said...

Fuller, that may be true. But the fact remains that at some point we had to get to at least those 23 proteins. (By they way, they consist of the central dogma of molecular biology- replication, transcription, and translation machinery. It doesn't even account for cell division or metabolic machinery.) My work essentially spots you that catalytic RNA or catalytic whatever, starting from the beginning of the universe. If we figure in how long it might have taken for that to come about, it makes the necessary time even longer.

Fuller said...

But we need not get to those 23 proteins by independent point mutations for a set number of positions using a set number of amino acids.

I presume you believe that humans evolved. Don't your calculations also imply that it would be impossible for a human with 30,000 genes to have evolved from an ancestor with 23 genes in a few billion years?

Fuller said...

We also don't need to assume a constant mutation rate, especially for simpler organisms.

Pierce said...


"Just tell me which horn of Euthyphro's dilemma Mormonism comes down on. Is God the creator of our moral laws or merely the revealer?"

I think there is a difference between moral laws (morality) and some of the natural laws that it is hinted at that God is bound to. For one, I believe that God has given us commandments to live by in order to help with our decision making. The Code of Hammurabi had quite a bit to say about those who stole property, but nothing about intentional homicide. God showed us the value of innocent human life through his laws, which we still refer to today. I will readily admit that social constructs have interpreted and enforced this differently throughout time. I am also free to believe that God has worked through different law-givers and inspired people throughout the ages. And I do believe that.

Second, our doctrine of the light of Christ (conscience) stems directly from God, per our doctrine. According to LDS.org "it is 'the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed."' Conscience is a manifestation of this light.

So that takes care of the moral argument. Morality comes from God. The feeling that we get that repulses us to give into the basest of our desires comes from God. It does not come from nature, since in nature there is nothing to enforce these laws, and it often works to our disadvantage to live with morality (running into a burning building to save an old woman). There are also many other reasons that I'm sure you're familiar with.

But Mormon doctrine specifically teaches that for an action, there is an equal or opposite reaction, even in the cosmos. If God wants to exalt man, they must face mortality. If they do that, they sin and move far from exaltation. Therefore, they need to be redeemed by one who is without sin. Otherwise, God would cease to be a God who exalts man. I don't begin to comprehend this, but it seems to be more cause and effect rather than the nature that you read into it.

So this is a separate from the moral argument.

Fuller said...


With all due respect, you didn't really answer my question. Here's another version of it: is murder wrong because God commands it, or does God command it because it's wrong?

You're mistaken that there is no natural enforcement of moral laws. A society with altruism prospers more than a society without it. Prosperity leads to competitive advantage.

"Cause and effect" is subsumed by natural law. Your distinction between the two is unintelligible.

Ryan said...

Well said. My calculations do imply that. So the fact that humans did evolve in a few billion years means there must have been something besides random mutations going on. Yet random mutation is the only proposed mechanism for evolution.

The number of amino acids used in my calculations correspond only to conserved regions. The full proteins are actually much longer. The curent thinking is that conserved things are conserved because if you mess them up, the organism does not reproduce. So it would seem we do need a fairly set number of amino acids for protein function.

If we did not get there by point mutations, deletions, or insertions (all random events), how did we get there?

Ryan said...

With regard to fixed mutation rates, I actually made them abour 1000 X faster than the current known rate. But even I we assume every nucleotide gets changed, we are still dealing with ~10^36 X longer than the universe has existed

Pierce said...


I am of the opinion that morality stems from God, so my default position is that something is moral because God commanded it, instilled it in us, and will judge us by it.

You are trying to pull this discussion out of them realm of Mormon theology, so I think that is why we are talking past each other.

You say that murder is wrong. But without god, in a universe that is chaotic and without consequence and where consciousness ends, and where morality is a social construct, that means little in my opinion. To me your explanation about altruism is not a satisfactory explanation for what I feel to be my conscious and how it checks my natural desires and instincts, especially when nobody is looking. Many more qualified people have debated this , so I don't intend to hijack the board with an expose on the morality argument. I just think it's stronger in favor of the god crowd.

Fuller said...


Our argument hinges on whether particular sequences were required at the time they evolved, or whether they initially conferred an advantage but were not required, and later became conserved because the organisms evolved to depend on them more. If the former, then yes, creationism would have to be true. Something like an entire cell would have to be assembled at once. This is essentially irreducible complexity.

You're taking the existence of 23 cross-species, conserved proteins as evidence for this example of irreducible complexity. Most molecular biologists won't grant you that conclusion, however. We don't know that an organism no longer found on Earth couldn't function with a different set of proteins. The dependence may have come later, prior to a bottleneck effect.

The reason this matters to our argument is that a larger space of potential mutations may be tolerated to achieve life. The probability of a particular set of 10 proteins is as you said above; but the probability of getting 10 proteins of any unspecified sequence is much higher. For illustration's sake, consider coin flipping. The probability of getting heads then tails then heads is 1/8, but the probability of getting any sequence of heads or tails is 1. Your probability estimate should be revised based on the space of possible amino acid solutions to help an organism fit a niche. Alternate sets of proteins wouldn't even necessarily be required to fulfill the same enzymatic functions. The only requirement is that alternate organisms are able to fill niches.

This point is illustrated by human evolution as well. The probability of arriving at the human genome as it is now is astronomically remote. The probability of arriving at any genome is much higher. The probability of arriving at any genome that enables an organism to fill the niche currently occupied by humans is somewhere in between. It can't be calculated reliably at present because we don't really know a niche's tolerance for different protein sequences. So while I grant that conservation implies low tolerance for changing a sequence, this is in the context of defined protein function. Evolution depends more on function within a niche which can be achieved using alternate protein functions.

Fuller said...


I thought the point of this thread had to do with whether or not there are laws not created by God that explain the existence of evil. I'm trying to focus this question on the set of moral "laws." If that's outside Mormon theology, then so is the point of this thread.

You seem to adopt the position that there are no moral laws not created by God. That's a traditional Christian view as well. This thread seems to favor a view that there are some laws not created by God--evidently laws without moral implications, if you're correct. It's difficult to see how laws without moral implication can explain the existence of evil, however.

Just because we absent God from the picture doesn't mean that consequence disappears as well. There would be a consequence to changing all human beings into psychopaths. Your conscience may not benefit you personally sometimes, but having a species in which most of its members, you included, have a conscience benefits the species, your personal incredulity notwithstanding.

Fuller said...

One more thing, Pierce: Human evil wouldn't exist without moral imperatives that apply to humans. If God is the creator of these moral imperatives, then God is responsible for the existence of human evil. This is the opposite of David Paulsen's thesis.

Pierce said...


I think the crux of the argument was this statement:

"Man is that he might have joy, but even God cannot bring about joy without moral righteousness, moral righteousness without moral freedom, or moral freedom without an opposition in all things. With moral freedom as an essential variable in the divine equation for man, two consequences stand out saliently: (i) the inevitability of moral evil; and (ii) our need for a Redeemer."

This seems to be the "law" that God did not create as well as Paulsen's explanation for evil--one which vindicates God. However, our own morality, as we experience it here, has come in the form of revelation as well as the light of Christ. The morality of a person will be ENFORCED at judgment by God. So there seems to be a separation between human morality and un-created laws. That is why I don't think your categorization of this very fitting. It's over-simplistic.

Ryan said...

I will grant that evolution has some flexibility. Clearly there is more than one acceptable, viable form of life. Conceivably there could have been others that didn't arise because it just wasn't in the cards.

My argument is not so much about filling niches, however, as it is about getting life started in the first place. That is why I mentioned that the proteins in question all relate to the central dogma. They are necessary for duplicating information stored in the form of DNA (or RNA), and for transitioning that information to a biologically active format (proteins). These are things like DNA polymerases, RNA polymerases, ribosomal proteins, tRNA synthetases, etc.There is no niche that we know of that can be filled without those abilities.

I'm thinking at this point I'll probably go my way while you go yours, but before I do that I want to thank you, Fuller, for your civility in this debate. When you pointed out potential flaws in my argument, you did so without being snide. I appreciate that.

Ryan said...

Oh, one other clarifying point- I'm not saying these proteins all have to be produced simultaneously. Only that at some point in the history of the universe, they all had to show up in the same cell (or proto-cell). It could be that a particular one made protein a (or a DNA sequence corresponding to it), and then a billion years later it made protein b without having degraded protein a, and then a billion years later it made protein c, etc. But whether it all happened at once or over thousands of eons, the probability does not change.

Pierce said...

Even though there are un-created laws, human morality still only exists because God exists.

"Your conscience may not benefit you personally sometimes, but having a species in which most of its members, you included, have a conscience benefits the species"

So what? If an action doesn't collectively benefit my species, how does that make it morally "wrong?" What makes me obligated to sustain human dignity at my own expense? Your position is biological in nature and really only concerns itself with survival--not true belief. In other words: just because murder doesn't help a species to prosper, it doesn't mean it's wrong to murder someone.

Ryan said...

One other, other clarifying point:
I recognize that there is more than one way to make a functional ribosomal protein, for example. In fact, looking at ribosomal protein S11, which has 110 conserved amino acids, I submit based on the PNAS paper I referenced, that there are ~17^110 ways to make that protein such that it is functional (actually, according to that paper it would be about 14^110, but I made the probability higher for my scenario). The problem is that there are 21^110 ways to assemble a 110 AA sequence, which works out to about 12 billion times as many ways to do it wrong as there are to do it right.