News Origin Of Life

Shift in origin of life studies from chemistry to information theory

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Image of Paul Davies Here’s the blurb for Davies’ 2013 C4 lecture on origin of life:

How did life begin? What sort of process can turn a complex mixture of chemicals into a genuinely living organism? The origin of life remains one of the great outstanding mysteries of science. At the heart of the enigma lies a deep conceptual mismatch between the realms of physics and chemistry, which are cast in the language of matter, energy and forces, and the realm of biology, which is described in the informational terms of genetic instructions, signals and codes. Decades of research into life’s emergence have focused on the chemical substrate – the hardware. But the key to life’s distinctive qualities lies with the organization and management of information – the software. In my lecture I will describe attempts to shift the problem of life’s origin from chemistry to information theory and complexity theory. Although we may never have a blow-by-blow account of life’s murky beginnings, a great deal hinges on the answer. If life emerges readily in earthlike conditions, then it may have started many times on Earth, raising the tantalizing prospect that a shadow biosphere of alternative life forms interpenetrates the known biosphere. But if life is a bizarre statistical fluke, then we may be alone in the universe.

Davies is reasonably good at predicting trends.  See also: The Science Fictions series at your fingertips (origin of life), for the reasons why chemistry doesn’t explain origin of life.

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4 Replies to “Shift in origin of life studies from chemistry to information theory

  1. 1
    tgpeeler says:

    From “Information and the Origin of Life” by Bernd-Olaf Kuppers, English translation published by The MIT Press, 1990. Originally published 1986 in German. So this isn’t exactly news.

    Page 7 – “It would thus be absurd to deny the purposiveness of the natural organ while conceding the purpose of the artifact. On the contrary: this purposiveness is a characteristic of all organisms, and not just an isolated phenomenon based on a coincidence of specific structure and meaningful information. continuing… Colin Pittendrigh has introduced the term “teleonomy” to describe the biological phenomenon of purposiveness. In contrast to teleology, which interprets the purposiveness of living systems in terms of the existence of a final cause or purpose, teleonomy denotes in a purely objective way the fact of purposiveness, without implying any explanation of the cause of the phenomenon.” This conceptual clarification is important, as it allows a distinction between natural and artificial objects.” … “For natural objects, however, we do not presuppose any kind of ultimate purpose, at any rate not if we are prepared to accept what Monod called the “postulate of objectivity” as a basic postulate of scientific method: “Nature is objective and not projective.” However, objectivity itself forces us “to recognize the teleonomic character of living organisms, to admit that in their structure and performance they decide on and pursue a purpose. Here therefore, at least in appearance, lies a profound epistemological contradiction. In fact the central problem of biology lies with this very contradiction, which, if it is only apparent, must be resolved, or else proved to be radically insoluble, if that should turn out indeed to be the case.”

    Well, at least I give Bernd credit for realizing, at one level, the complete asininity of a materialistic explanation for information, purpose, and life.

    He goes on to say one page later: “Consider the highly diverse interactions of the molecules in the cell. One cannot fail to be impressed by the complexity of the network of metabolic cycles and regulatory mechanisms, and the scheme shown in figure 2 represents only a small excerpt form the numerous known functional processes of the living cell. The interplay of the molecules in the cell can well be compared to the coordinated working of a fully automated chemical factory. Every complex task requires a plan. So it is not surprising that the many-sided and, when examined in detail, quite bewildering processes of metabolism and regulation are controlled by information. Today we know that behind all the details of these metabolic processes lies a plan that the cell acts upon and adheres to in minute detail. Before we examine this plan in greater depth, let us look at the amazing perfection with which biological structures are built up, according to the criteria of purpose.”

    Perhaps the materialists can help me understand a few things.
    1. I get it that it truly is absurd to deny purpose while admitting purpose. But why would Bernd admit purpose in the first place? Given Monod’s “postulate of objectivity,” that is.
    2. How scientific is it to slavishly follow a philosophical dictum that prevents one from realizing what everyone knows to be true, that life is intricately designed in ways that we do not even comprehend. In other words, Monod’s postulate demands objectivity but then that objectivity screams design, but since we can’t have design, by fiat, well then, there isn’t any, even though we all know there is.
    3. Explain how information is created or accounted for by the laws of physics one more time. I must have missed the last time somebody did that in a satisfactory manner. Of course, I would hope this explanation includes some accounting for codes, which is necessary for information.
    4. Teleonomy sounds suspiciously like it would be subject to the same charge levied against ID. That no accounting or explanation of the Designer (or cause) is proffered. No? If not, how is it different?
    So, what, it’s been almost 40 years since this book was published and how much progress has been made in resolving these issues in a materialistic fashion? That’s right. ZERO. Why? Because it’s impossible, in principle, to account for information within a materialist framework. Guys like Davies keep trying, though. Like trying to build a perpetual motion machine. Good luck!

  2. 2
    johnp says:

    What, exactly, does he mean by “information theory”?

  3. 3
    Mung says:

    I love Davies. He’s a wonderful author, and thought-provoking.

    Salvador, is your new thread meant to show why Davies is wrong?

  4. 4
    tgpeeler says:

    I love Davies, too. The point is that a materialistic explanation for life is impossible in principle. It’s even worse than trying to create a perpetual motion machine which puts one up against entropy. At least that’s logically possible, if not physically possible. Explaining life/information within a materialist ontology is logically impossible. They love to keep trying, though. Don’t they?

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