Mar 7, 2007

Nothing about airplanes here... really?

Today I woke up thinking about monkeys. Specifically the monkeys some don’t like to talk about. Call them the ‘d-monkeys’ - where ‘d’ stands for disorder.

This article at Wikipedia ( explains an analogy that is often used regarding chance processes and the rise of complexity. You’ve probably heard some version of it. If an infinite number of monkeys tapped on an infinite number of typewriters, they’d soon reproduce a copy of - “fill in the blank” - some great literary work like Hamlet or War and Peace. (and if they managed to produce an airplane this way would you want to fly it?...)

That article covers the fallacies in the under-lying logic so I won’t ‘go there.' What I want to point out is how the analogy itself is flawed as a descriptor of random processes.

Now I understand what analogies are and I use them all the time:

1 : inference that if two or more things agree with one another in some respects they will probably agree in others

They give us a way to move from what we understand to something we don't fully understand. But any analogy contains pre-suppostitions that we should be aware of so we can determine when it is useful, what its limitations are and where it inevitably breaks down. An inaccurate, but convincing analogy can be very misleading.

When the typing monkey analogy is used to describe randomness we should see that it already includes some very highly-ordered components which are already way way up on the ladder of complexity. But it gives a slewed perception at quick-glance. We tend to immediately accept whatever proposition the analogy is being used to justify because 'everyone knows' infinity is a r-e-a-l-l-y b-i-g number!

I suggest that the better analogy of random processes is this:

Instead of an infinite number of monkeys typing, we should posit an infinite number of meteorites striking the earth. Instead of hitting complex, functioning typewriter keys, each meteor strikes a pool of black substance - inky water, coal dust, oil, or something like that. Then instead of the keys striking a nicely produced sheet of paper, the splashes of this dark liquid fly out in all directions and land on bare ground and against rocks and so on. Some of this surface might actually be uniform and smooth enough to allow the splashed globules to make coherent marks. Then some of the globules might cause marks that are actually recognizable as letters in the English language. And then some of them might actually align themselves with other intelligible marks, and then and only then might we get our ‘targeted’ output - a copy of Hamlet, War and Peace or heck, I’d be satisfied with Hickory Dickory Dock.

I think this meteorite analogy better conveys how big infinity is and how small the odds of random complexity are.

The second problem I have with the monkey-typewriter scenario is that it ignores the other monkeys in the room. Other monkeys? Yes, those ‘d-monkeys’ I mentioned earlier. Disorder is related to entropy which is related to the second law of thermodynamics. I’m not a scientist, so I’ve linked some articles below which examine entropy more closely and one seems to contradict the other (what else is new). But as I experience reality on this planet there exists a background state which dictates that as fast as anything complex arises, another force (call it disorder) begins to wear this complexity down again. That’s why the sand castle I built on Parksville beach last July is no longer there (and I don’t have to go see to believe this.) I am completely confident that the tendency towards disorder has already reduced my artistic and engineering masterpiece to a mere pile of sand. In fact not even a pile because by now all the individual sand-grains are thoroughly mixed back into the beach and I won’t find even a small trace that it was there. And that is also why the house I'm sitting in won't be here a thousand years from now.

So getting back to those infinite monkeys and typewriters, reality as I experience it says that the capricious d-monkeys are just as busy as the typing monkeys. And just as fast as the typing monkeys produce lines of text, the d-monkeys pull out the pages and eat them or tear them up. In fact the d-monkeys also pull at the keys themselves, bending the mechanisms and rendering the typewriters defective, and the little imps also jump and play and distract the typing monkeys until the whole infinite room becomes a big wrestling match of monkeys going back to what monkeys love to do most - monkeying around.

Okay, I’m being capricious myself. I’m probably a closet d-monkey at heart though you wouldn’t know it watching me type away in my own efforts to defy disorder. But I’m trying to make the point that the concept of the very complex structures and fragile building blocks of life coming into being by random chance is an inadequate explanation. And it bothers me that this has been the prevailing paradigm (some would say dogma) for our society for most of my adult life - though this may be changing. But that’s another article for another day, entropy and disorder permitting.

Postscript: I realize that including this quote from Wiki may undermine any attempt to appear unbiased, but I can’t resist. I’m still laughing!
“…In 2003 an experiment was performed on six Sulawesi crested macaques, but their literary contribution was five pages consisting largely of the letter S before they chose to attack and defecate on the typewriter.”

1) The article I like most because it supports what I’ve written ;-)

2) This one may totally undermine what I’ve just written!?
Christian Physicist explains Entropy more rigourously

3) A discussion of order/disorder:


nec Timide said...

Hmmm. I agree that the infinite monkey analogy is a bit hackneyed but your meteorite thought experiment suffers from the same primary failing: to be able to compare the output of a random process with a great literary work also assumes a pre- and continuing existing high order process to create the literature, and do the comparison. But using those failing to suggest that order can not arise from chaos is also stretching things a bit. Down that road live the various anthropic principles. My personal favourite is Terry Pratchett's Special and Inevitable Anthropic Principle.

Aluwings said...

That's a whole other story I didn't address for sure - the assumptions inherent in language itself. One morning in a hotel room, sipping my morning coffee, slowly waking up for a long day's flying, I heard some vague sounds in the wall next to me. At first I thought I was hearing muffled voices from the neighbouring room. Then after a few minutes it became clear that it was water running in a pipe within the wall itself.

Got me wondering. What if the sound of water gurgling accidentally "spoke" to me by actually making the sounds of English words? How would that differ from real language? Would it constitute evidence of intelligence behind the wall?

I think that wiki article on the monkey theorum points out a similar criticism of such chance happenings. Even if they did produce Hamlet, it's still not Shakespeare.

Thanks for the anthropic links. the Special Principle is hilarious.