I have sometimes had the idea that the best way for Intelligent Design advocates to make their case would be to build a giant museum replicating the complexity of the cell on a large scale, so that people could see for themselves how the cell worked and draw their own conclusions. Recently I came across an old quote from biochemist Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Adler and Adler, 1985) which put paid to that idea, but which raised an interesting philosophical puzzle for people who adhere to scientific naturalism – which I define here as the view that there is nothing outside the natural world, by which I mean the sum total of everything that behaves in accordance with scientific laws [or laws of Nature]. Here is the first part of the quote from Denton, which I had seen before (h/t Matt Chait):
To grasp the reality of life as it has been revealed by molecular biology, we must magnify a cell a thousand million times until it is twenty kilometres in diameter and resembles a giant airship large enough to cover a great city like London or New York. What we would then see would be an object of unparalleled complexity and adaptive design. On the surface of the cell we would see millions of openings, like the portholes of a vast space ship, opening and closing to allow a continual stream of materials to flow in and out. If we were to enter one of these openings with find ourselves in a world of supreme technology and bewildering complexity. We would see endless highly organized corridors and conduits branching in every direction away from the perimeter of the cell, some leading to the central memory bank in the nucleus and others to assembly plants and processing units. The nucleus of itself would be a vast spherical chamber more than a kilometer in diameter, resembling a geodesic dome inside of which we would see, all neatly stacked together in ordered arrays, the miles of coiled chains of the DNA molecules. A huge range of products and raw materials would shuttle along all the manifold conduits in a highly ordered fashion to and from all the various assembly plants in the outer regions of the cell.
We would wonder at the level of control implicit in the movement of so many objects down so many seemingly endless conduits, all in perfect unison. We would see all around us, in every direction we looked, all sorts of robot-like machines. We would notice that the simplest of the functional components of the cell, the protein molecules, were astonishingly, complex pieces of molecular machinery, each one consisting of about three thousand atoms arranged in highly organized 3-D spatial conformation. We would wonder even more as we watched the strangely purposeful activities of these weird molecular machines, particularly when we realized that, despite all our accumulated knowledge of physics and chemistry, the task of designing one such molecular machine – that is one single functional protein molecule – would be completely beyond our capacity at present and will probably not be achieved until at least the beginning of the next century. Yet the life of the cell depends on the integrated activities of thousands, certainly tens, and probably hundreds of thousands of different protein molecules.
We would see that nearly every feature of our own advanced machines had its analogue in the cell: artificial languages and their decoding systems, memory banks for information storage and retrieval, elegant control systems regulating the automated assembly of parts and components, error fail-safe and proof-reading devices utilized for quality control, assembly processes involving the principle of prefabrication and modular construction. In fact, so deep would be the feeling of deja-vu, so persuasive the analogy, that much of the terminology we would use to describe this fascinating molecular reality would be borrowed from the world of late twentieth-century technology.
What we would be witnessing would be an object resembling an immense automated factory, a factory larger than a city and carrying out almost as many unique functions as all the manufacturing activities of man on earth. However, it would be a factory which would have one capacity not equalled in any of our own most advanced machines, for it would be capable of replicating its entire structure within a matter of a few hours. To witness such an act at a magnification of one thousand million times would be an awe-inspiring spectacle. (pp. 328 ff.)
Reading this passage vindicated my belief that a museum of the cell would be a great way to promote ID. “If we build it, they will come,” I thought. But there was more to follow, which I hadn’t read before. It turns out that we can’t build a replica of the cell, down to the atomic level:
To gain a more objective grasp of the level of complexity the cell represents, consider the problem of constructing an atomic model. Altogether a typical cell contains about ten million million atoms. Suppose we choose to build an exact replica to a scale one thousand million times that of the cell so that each atom of the model would be the size of a tennis ball. Constructing such a model at the rate of one atom per minute, it would take fifty million years to finish, and the object we would end up with would be the giant factory, described above, some twenty kilometres in diameter, with a volume thousands of times that of the Great Pyramid.
Copying nature, we could speed up the construction of the model by using small molecules such as amino acids and nucleotides rather than individual atoms. Since individual amino acids and nucleotides are made up of between ten and twenty atoms each, this would enable us to finish the project in less than five million years. We could also speed up the project by mass producing those components in the cell which are present in many copies. Perhaps three-quarters of the cell’s mass can be accounted for by such components. But even if we could produce these very quickly we would still be faced with manufacturing a quarter of the cell’s mass which consists largely of components which only occur once or twice and which would have to be constructed, therefore, on an individual basis. The complexity of the cell, like that of any complex machine, cannot be reduced to any sort of simple pattern, nor can its manufacture be reduced to a simple set of algorithms or programmes. Working continually day and night it would still be difficult to finish the model in the space of one million years. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
But there’s more, as Matt Chait points out (emphasis mine):
And let me add my two cents to this astounding picture. The model that you would complete a million years later would be just that, a lifeless static model. For the cell to do its work this entire twenty kilometer structure and each of its trillions of components must be charged in specific ways, and at the level of the protein molecule, it must have an entire series of positive and negative charges and hydrophobic and hydrophilic parts all precisely shaped (at a level of precision far, far beyond our highest technical abilities) and charged in a whole series of ways: charged in a way to find other molecular components and combine with them; charged in a way to fold into a shape and maintain that most important shape, and charged in a way to be guided by other systems of charges to the precise spot in the cell where that particle must go. The pattern of charges and the movement of energy through the cell is easily as complex as the pattern of the physical particles themselves.
Also, Denton, in his discussion, uses a tennis ball to stand in for an atom. But an atom is not a ball. It is not even a ‘tiny solar system’ of neutrons, protons and electrons’ as we once thought. Rather, it has now been revealed to be an enormously complex lattice of forces connected by a bewildering array of utterly miniscule subatomic particles including hadrons, leptons, bosons, fermions, mesons, baryons, quarks and anti-quarks, up and down quarks, top and bottom quarks, charm quarks, strange quarks, virtual quarks, valence quarks, gluons and sea quarks…
And let me remind you again, that what we are talking about, a living cell, is a microscopic dot and thousands of these entire factories including all the complexity that we discussed above could fit on the head of a pin. Or, going another way, let’s add to this model of twenty square kilometers of breath taking complexity another one hundred trillion equally complex factories all working in perfect synchronous coordination with each other; which would be a model of the one hundred trillion celled human body, your body, that thing that we lug around every day and complain about; that would, spread laterally at the height of one cell at this magnification, blanket the entire surface of the earth four thousand times over, every part of which would contain pumps and coils and conduits and memory banks and processing centers; all working in perfect harmony with each other, all engineered to an unimaginable level of precision and all there to deliver to us our ability to be conscious, to see, to hear, to smell, to taste, and to experience the world as we are so used to experiencing it, that we have taken it and the fantastic mechanisms that make it possible for granted.
My question is, “Why don’t we know this?” What Michael Denton has written and I have added to is a perfectly accurate, easily intelligible, non-hyperbolic view of the cell. Why is this not taught in every introductory biology class in our schools?
Based on the foregoing, I think it’s fair to say that we’ll never be able to construct a computer model of the cell either, down to the atomic level: the computing resources required would just be too huge. And in that case, it will never be scientifically possible to model a natural process (or a set of processes) and demonstrate that it could have given rise to the cell – or even show that it had a greater than 50% probability of doing so.
So here’s my question for the skeptics: if we have no hope of ever proving the idea that the cell could have arisen through unguided natural processes, or even showing this idea to be probably true, then how can we possibly be said to know for a fact that this actually happened? Knowledge, after all, isn’t merely a true belief; it has to be a justified true belief. What could justify the claim that abiogenesis actually occurred?
It gets worse. We cannot legitimately be said to know that scientific naturalism is true unless we know that life could have arisen via unguided processes. But if we don’t know the latter, then we cannot know the former. Ergo, scientific naturalism, even if were true, can never be known to be true.
There’s more. Scientific naturalists are fond of claiming that there are only two valid sources of knowledge: a priori truths of logic and mathematics, which can be known through reason alone; and a posteriori empirical truths, which are known as a result of experience and/or scientific inquiry. The statement that abiogenesis occurred without intelligent guidance on the primordial Earth is neither a truth of logic and mathematics nor a truth which can be demonstrated (or even shown to be probable) via experience and/or scientific inquiry. And since we cannot know that scientific naturalism is true unless we know that abiogenesis occurred without intelligent guidance, it follows that the truth of scientific naturalism cannot be known through either of the two avenues of knowledge postulated by the skeptic. So either there must be some third source of knowledge (intuition, perhaps?) that the skeptic has to fall back on. Yeah, right.
And please, don’t tell me, “Well, scientists have explained X, Y and Z, so it’s only a matter of time before they can explain life.” First, that’s illicit reasoning: performing inductive logic over a set of things is problematic enough (black swans, anyone?), but performing it over a set of scientific theories, concocted during a time-span of just 471 years – the Scientific Revolution is commonly held to have begun in 1543 – is absolutely ridiculous. And second, as I’ve argued above, there’s good reason to believe that our computing resources will never be up to the task of showing that the first living cell could have arisen via a natural, unguided process.
One last question: if we cannot know that scientific naturalism is true or even probably true, then why should we believe it?
Checkmate, naturalists? Over to you.