Reflecting on recent coverage here of the origin of life problem (see, for example, “Researcher suggests molecules like Alzheimer plaques may have powered early life” and “Why ‘Alzheimer world’ won’t work”), physicist Rob Sheldon offers a different approach for discussion,
The OOL problem lies on the intersection of metaphysics and physics/chemistry/biology. The answers people give to the problem have to be evaluated both metaphysically and physically, preferably independently. Most of the time, the physics (or chemistry, etc) is a mess, because the real question they are addressing is metaphysical. So rather than make fun of their pitiful physics, perhaps we should be asking how well they are doing metaphysically?
My intention is wading into this debate, is to review OOL like an ice-dancing judge, and separate the technical part of the program from the artistic part. At least then we can separate the accomplishments from the schmaltzy choreography.
1) How it happened?
If we stay away from the 1:10^6000 odds, if we avoid invoking miracles, then we can actually begin to make progress on this question. To begin with, we know a lot of ways that it could not happen. That is not an insignificant accomplishment, as Thomas Edison once remarked about the light bulb. But by-and-large, this is the metaphysical “first question”, this is the aesthetic part of the ice dancing competition. The Darwinist wants chance, the ID wants design, and there is an inconsistent continuum between these two poles–e.g. Paul Davies who thinks that Nature has a built in design that operates by chance, or TE who think that God has a built in chance that operates by design.
My claim, and it is certainly supported by good physics, is that OOL was an information concentrating event, when two subsystems that were highly designed but not yet autonomous, were combined to make an autonomous system. It’s the way we make automobiles, watches, jet airplanes, etc. It is the way a designer works. Note that this “divide and conquer” approach doesn’t help the Darwinist with chance, any more than the probability of rolling 10 snake eyes is made any more probable by rolling five die twice.
OOL was an information concentrating event, when two subsystems that were highly designed but not yet autonomous, were combined to make an autonomous system. It’s the way we make automobiles, watches, jet airplanes, etc. It is the way a designer works.
Nor is this is an answer to #2 below, because this answer is in generalizations, principles, laws of designers, whereas #2 is asking for a particular pathway. But ID should be able to come up with a raft of designer-based principles: designers work with pre-existing solutions; designers reuse designs; designs are optimized for overall functionality, not local maxima; designers have aesthetic sense along with good engineering; designers plan for the future; designers sometimes sign their work.
All of this should go into an ID OOL model–not just my pitiful first principle of “adding subsystems together.”
2) How could it possibly have happened?
I do not use this phrasing as license, as if “possible” includes things that are 1:10^1000 probable. Yeah, I know how philosophers use this word “possible”, but that would turn the question back into metaphysics. This is the technical part of the ice dancing and I want to evaluate it with technical tools. So for me, “possible” means “greater than 1 part in 10^50” or something of that kind. More rigorously, I’d want to prove “greater than 1 part in 2”, but I’m afraid through ignorance I might miss the right answer, so I’ll include a lot of unlikely stuff as well.
Then going back to the metaphysics of #1, the question becomes “how can we add two subsystems together so as to probably achieve higher functionality” ? Now of course, we humans use our hands, sometimes robots, often with tools to accomplish this. But before humans had hands, what would a designer use? What kind of tools can we see at work in the universe? Darwinians are fond of warm ponds, tidal action, strong sunlight and meteoritic impacts. None of these are particularly well suited for say, assembling a 747. But if you wanted to assemble a cell, what kind of tools would you use?
Freezers, microscopes, micro-manipulators, petri-dishes. Would you use autoclaves, telescopes, blow-torches? Probably not. Why? Because they do more damage then help. Therefore none of the “warm pond” contingent is apparently interested in constructing a cell from subsystems, since they keep insisting on a lab bench filled with cell-destroying tools.
So I look around the universe for small, isolatable communities that like a Petri dish, could supply a single subsystem in its pure state. It has to be cold, lest heat and entropy destroy the material while I’m doing the operation. It has to be mobile, so I can get it from the freezer when I need it. It has to be “mixable” so that I can combine two Petri dishes.
#3 How can this fit in a Darwinist/religious paradigm?
It can’t, but then I argue that none of 21st century biology fits in a Darwinist paradigm.
Each of those criteria can be turned into a mathematical expression–say, by replacing “subsystems” with “entropy gradients” and converting to a fluid expression. Then we can write “information” as a mathematical “invariant” that needs to be conserved by the fluid, and the goal is to combine two streams of information into a more concentrated stream.
This has been my approach to finding a “possible” way to create OOL. It is both consistent with my metaphysics (design) and with my physics (fluid description of information).
#3 How can this fit in a Darwinist/religious paradigm?
It can’t, but then I argue that none of 21st century biology fits in a Darwinist paradigm. That’s because Darwinists are always talking about “apparent purpose” even if they think it is an illusion. So this approach to OOL fits perfectly with the way biochemistry is “elucidating pathways” even though biologists will claim its simply “an apparent path that nobody made”. Once we get past the kowtow to Darwin, all of modern biology is purpose-driven. Therefore, my research paradigm for exploring OOL is perfectly within the bounds of biology, if not chemistry and physics.
So what exactly are the objections to “panspermia”?
The Darwinists hate it for the very same reason that they hated Lamarck–it is a direct competitor to Darwin’s theory. After all, if various fossils show change because they were later arrivals, then there is no reason to believe in evolution at all! Furthermore, if Earth is the source of all our data, then it seems irresponsible, nay, cheating to outsource the data to an unknown and unknowable location.
The Christian response has been rather less nuanced, though equally vigorous. Bruno was burned at the stake for his many heresies, but rather high on the list was his view that there were an infinite number of worlds with intelligent life on them. (Obviously, an early multiverse proponent.) Why this one idea should be labelled a heresy, I do not know, since neither the Vatican astronomer nor the patriarch of Moscow, when asked this question by Hoover, said that it was a heresy. I’ve even put in four years at a Protestant seminary and I have yet to find any reference to this as heresy. So if none of the Orthodox faiths find this heretical, why is it so often ridiculed as if it were?
Having no metaphysical reason to desist from the research program, I continue to work on it, not least because it involves teleology, coherence, differential geometry, non-equilibrium statistical mechanics, cosmology, fluid dynamics, and “first things”. It is at the cutting edge of so many different fields of physics that I feel like Columbus, planting my feet on a totally new world which holds promise of new mountains and valleys, of El Dorado and the Eternal Fountain, but which may turn out to be simply an island.
For clearly explained background on problems with current origin of life models, see: The Science Fictions series at your fingertips (origin of life)
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