Myth and its Use
Long before they abolished pennies in Canada, I’d always got rid of them. I’d leave them on a windowsill, or on a bicycle seat, or on the corner of a café table. It didn’t matter. But I especially favoured the outstretched palm of a green Buddha on St-Denis Street.
“Don’t throw them in the street,” a lady once warned me. “Children can pick them up. It’s dangerous.”
Clarification: it’s lucky to find a penny, but not in the middle of traffic.
The Artisan God
The penny reminded me of the artisan god argument, used to prove the existence of God (proving the existence of an imperceptible object is difficult). It goes like this: imagine an exceptionally intelligent being (you, let’s say), but living in the time of J. C. You find a pocket watch on the ground. One of those round antique watches, with a chain and complicated gears inside, like the bankers in the cowboy movies had. But since you live in a remote era, you don’t know what a watch is. Little by little, you discover more and more about this clever and complex object. Do you conclude that the laws of nature have created this unlikely mechanism through patient, timely and blind chance work?
For Voltaire and other thinkers, the meticulous and complex history relating to the cogs of life in terms of biological evolution—should be proof enough, even if only by analogy (suspicious, I agree), of the existence of a God as artisan.
The Clever Watchmaker
Reclaiming Voltaire’s idea of the watchmaker, Herbert Simon (Chicago economist, Nobel Prize winner in 1978) imagined the following situation to illustrate how the complexity of life happens. A watchmaker assembles thousands of cogs to make a watch. While each assembly requires minute attention to detail, the artisan has only seventeen hours to assemble the whole thing. If by misfortune he must stop, he loses all his work. However, if he could build his watch in stages, say ten pieces at a time, and then put them together into a stable whole — ten elements composed of ten parts, assembled into ten completed pieces, our artisan would have performed 1,110 operations. If the assembly time increases, then only a small part of the work’s evolution is lost.
Think about your smart phone. It not only has a telephone but also a fax machine, a typewriter, a camera, a video recorder, a television, a radio, a Walkman, a clock, a calculator, an agenda, a hi-tech compass, a mailbox and folders to hold words, images or sounds (did I forget something?). No one could have made such an object from scratch. All these objects were invented separately.
The Other Side of the Coin
Replace the clock with life. Each piece represents a separate life and each intermediate assembly a genesis of a species. Replace the clock by a life, each piece by a cell, the intermediate assemblies become tissues and organs. Replace the clock by a cell…
What we never see is how long life took to develop, with all the dead-end avenues disappearing. In the beginning, amino acids, proteins and other complex molecules appeared that look no more alive than a capacitor or a resistor in a communication device.
Here’s another example. Homo sapiens at one time walked the planet without technology, geography or Club Med. Impressed? But in 70,000 years, our species has developed at an average speed of less than one kilometre per year.
If life seems so incredible to us, it is because we’ve forgotten the millions of abandoned tracks. Life’s process is often disturbed and interrupted. The evolution that biology reveals is the only story we have, and it is the story of the winners. Regarding the evolution of animal species, we are talking about millions of years and a pool of billions of individuals. That’s why it seems arranged with the guy of the movies, as we used to say in Quebec. Life appeared millions of years ago — our ancestors, 300,000 years ago. And numbers are often misleading. What does 300,000 years really tell us? We’ve been handling copper for only 4,000 years and radio waves for barely 100 years.
Of course this cannot refute the possibility of existence of a divine power.
As the English would say, “a penny for your thoughts.”