A friend notes that physicist Paul Davies considered the possibility that quantum mechanics (QM) might solve the origin of life by exploring search space much quicker than a classical system could and by using quantum superposition. But he was afraid it might be “teleological”:
Though it is easy to believe that quantum superpositions might accelerate the “discovery” of a specific, special, physical state (e.g., the ‘living’ state), there is an element of teleology creeping into this mode of thought. We might be familiar with what it takes for a system to be living, but a molecular mixture isn’t. The concept of a ‘target sequence’ or ‘goal’ at the end of a search is meaningless for molecules. Nevertheless, a quantum search could speed up the “discovery” of life if there is some way in which the system ‘knows when it is getting hot,’ i.e., if there is some sort of feedback that senses the proximity to life, and focuses or canalizes the search toward it. Sometimes it is claimed (Fox and Dose, 1977) that ‘life is built into the laws of physics,’ i.e., that there is an inbuilt bias or directionality in physical processes that guide them toward ‘life.’ Expressed more neutrally, ‘life’ constitutes an attractor in chemical sequence space. But to suppose that such an attractor is conveniently built into the laws of nature is just too contrived to be believable (Davies, 2003).
More recently, from Life on the Edge,
The proposition we have outlined above is, of course, speculative. But if the search for the first self-replicator was performed in the quantum rather than the classical world, it does at least potentially solve the self-replicator search problem.
In order for this scenario to work, the primordial biomolecule – the proto-self-replicator – must have been capable of exploring lots of different structures by the quantum tunnelling of its particles into different positions. Do we know what kind of molecules would be capable of such a trick? Well, to a certain extent we do. As we have already discovered, the electrons and protons in enzymes are held relatively loosely, which enables them to tunnel into different positions with ease. The protons in DNA and RNA are also capable of tunnelling, at least across the hydrogen bond. So we might imagine our primordial self-replicator to be something like a protein or RNA molecule that was loosely held together by hydrogen bonds and weak electronic bonds that allowed its particles – both protons and electrons – to travel freely through its structure to form a superposition of its trillions of different configurations.
Our physics color commentator, Rob Sheldon, who knows somewhat of quantum mechanics, offers some thoughts:
QM has a reputation for being somewhat mysterious and capable of feats denied ordinary material particles. In other words, when materialism fails us, call for the super-QM! In no particular order, here’s what is wrong with that view:
a) QM simply says that particles and atoms are not dots, but distributed waves. Waves have exact mathematical descriptions too. That’s what makes “quantum mechanics” such an exact science. So QM has no super-power over material points. They are both mathematical models with well-defined solutions.
b) The reason so many think QM has spiritual properties, is because since high school, they have been fed a diet of Newtonian particles in Laplacian deterministic orbits. And why has this been their diet? Because it supports an atheistic worldview without God, without mind, without responsibility, and above all, without guilt. And for those that found this diet less than filling, a Kantian wall was erected between materialism and morals/values, so as to protect whatever we wanted to cherish from Darwin’s universal acid. But as the Kantian wall has succumbed in the 21st century, drowning all and sundry in a flood of corrosive materialism, even physicists are floundering about for escape, Paul Davies included.
c) It is true that the distributed nature of waves allows “spooky action at a distance” to occur. Again, such non-local forces are mathematically well-defined, but ever since Epicurus and Democritus, we have been told that particles can only interact by contact, making non-local “action at a distance” the antithesis of materialism. Even in antiquity this was challenged, so for example, Lucretius (50BC) comes up with a quite imaginative way to explain magnetic “spooky action at a distance” by invoking invisible particles rapidly bouncing between the two magnets and evacuating the air, so that “nature abhors a vacuum” and pushes the magnets together. Which is to say, there’s nothing spooky about non-local forces, what is spooky is the materialist devotion to particles.
d) The fact that a wave can incorporate a large number of entities by being spread out means that it can solve jigsaw puzzles by moving all 500 pieces at the same time. This “speed-up” of parallel processing, through an algorithm proved by Peter Shor, would allow the cracking of large-prime-number-encryption, which is why NSA has been desperately trying to build quantum computers for the past 30 years. The speedup is somewhat illusory, however, because the 500-piece-puzzle wavefunction has to be constructed in a serial fashion. What time is gained in solving the puzzle in parallel, is lost in loading the various components one at a time into the quantum computer. Believe me when I say, that after 30 years of QM computing, we are still awaiting a product that works faster than simply using “the cloud”.
e) Paul Davies observes that living things can reverse entropy through multiple interconnecting properties. Life is this incredibly complicated Rube Goldberg machine, where if we remove one element, the whole thing collapses—otherwise known as irreducible complexity. Since there is no chance in Hades of IC happening by serial assembly of a one-at-a-time accidents, Davies wants it to all happen simultaneously through some complicated wavefunction. And now he is between a rock and a hard place. For if we assemble aforethought this 10-zillion-element wavefunction, then it takes design and purpose. But if we ask for the wavefunction to assemble randomly, we have simply compressed billions of years of one-at-a-time lucky assembly into an instantaneous gazillion-to-one-lucky-strike. We’ve exchanged the devil we knew for the devil we didn’t.
f) As a way out of this dilemma, many physicists reach into the religion bag and pull out spooky QM-at-a-distance. But it isn’t a solution, it is an admission of failure. For if they had reached a trifle deeper into the bag they would have pulled out Genesis 1. Instead, they have loosed this uncontrollable “dark matter”, “dark energy”, “dark QM” chaos god on the ordered universe of laws and purpose. What little remained of purpose under Newton, will vanish under this 21st-century god of the “dark sector”.