Feedback from an attendee at a recent presentation by Dr. John Oakes
I wanted to thank you again for the time you took to meet me last Wednesday, I enjoyed it greatly and it has been most helpful to be able to discuss all the things we did. I really appreciate the time you took and the advice you gave me. I went to your lecture later on with a couple of people from my department (you may recall the neuroscientist asking about life after death), which we all agreed was insightful and it has led to a good discussion afterwards. Personally, I liked the second half the most, where you made very clear why you personally believe in the one God you believe in. I wish I had the lucidity of mind to even be sure myself why I think I am on the right track. It was truly insightful to see the clarity with which you went about this. So thank you for this also!
I just wanted to give you a couple of comments on the first half of the first talk, which I think may be helpful in making the exposition of your arguments stronger — though I understand the the primary audience was perhaps not one of scientists who have been trained for years in being picky about most everything; anyhow here are a couple of thoughts I had during and after the talk, with the usual caveat that I might have just misunderstood many of the points you tried to make. Naturally, I’d be very happy to hear about any clarifying answers you might have on these, as I am very interested in these matters myself and have not yet managed to straighten out my own thoughts on much of this thus far. I hope you’ve enjoyed the rest of your trip (or are still enjoying it?) and I look forward to seeing you again some time.
With regards to the question about how DNA came to be, I suppose it would be useful to ask the reverse question first: what are the minimal precursors of the kind of structural encoding of information we find in DNA today? In light of this we would of course first have to acknowledge that the real important stuff is RNA, not DNA, as pretty much all processes even in us humans still have to use RNA as an intermediary to build proteins and replicate DNA, and RNA is quite a bit simpler in structure and also much shorter in length (and much less stable, which goes nicely along the point of why organic chemistry matters so much). As for what sort of simpler thing linked to RNA can we think I would suppose peptides, and these are not all too difficult to have pop up all over the place under the right conditions and given the right ingredients. Now all the facts you mentioned about the environmental conditions come into play. Water as a substrate means that we can find the right ingredients in suspension and mix them quite freely, and support simple structures enough so they can exist for some time even if they were unstable in most other conditions. The fact it is not too cold means stuff actually moves around quite a bit which is good to give everything a good mixing up, but not having it too hot also because it means that stuff doesn’t bounce around so much that it would never really find together either or just be unstable because of all the extra energy from heat — and here I suppose the excellent heatsink function of whater also does a great job to balance out the different levels of energy bound up in whatever molecules build up without affecting everything else too much. So I think if we think about this very basic level where we have all this stuff floating around in all the oceans of
our planet and infinitely more of the same stuff going on throughout the universe, over a really really long time, it would be quite a surprise if the whole thing did not churn out a couple of chains of peptides at some point. And given the conditions around some sort of protein from that, etc. The mystery I think lies not so much in how these things could have happened “just by chance” (but of course this phrase is just one of the worst misappropriations of the principles of non-deterministic quantum uncertainty ever), but much more in where did the basic ingredients of all this come from. We needed all the matter, we need stuff to have mass, and we need energy, and suddenly we get this amazing system which churns out all these interesting structures that just follow from a couple of ingredients given enough time. For me, I think this is where the mystery of creation lies and I find it completely fathomable that an infinite, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient would be able to will into existence the basic ingredients knowing full well that all things material would follow in time. But even if that is not what is wanted, I think constructing the argument that way around could make it stronger, without an apparent jump of assumptions from matter to DNA, which of course seems like setting up the most improbable of strawmen.
Another point concerns the way you used the term “information”, as in nature doesn’t just produce information out of the blue. One of the very definitions of what information is, is the lack of entropic uncertainty in a system (eg. Shannon entropy). That is as a system decreases in entropy and stuff gets more into “shape” and builds structures, uncertainty decreases and information content increases. It was almost interesting to me then that you showed a picture of some crystal formations at this point, as I would suppose following this sort of definition they are actually pretty much the opposite of the point you tried to make, namely they show how the forces of nature create information (in the form of structure) under the right conditions. I think it would be helpful to try and pre-empt this point somehow, because I think what you meant was not the existence of mere information, but of information that of itself is “useful” in a metaphysical sense, for instance the great mystery of self-replicating information in RNA, to connect the two. To my eyes, the mystery of even trying to fathom why not all kinds of information are equal in this way is even more tremendous than the mere fact that it exists.
One final thought I had concerned the overall placement of the argument structure in a network of causality. I think you pretty much adopted a Lewis kind of counterfactual approach to causality, i.e. to state that C had cause E, we need to show that if C had not occured, E would not have occurred. This sort of argument of course works great with situations of single causation, but in the real world this is of course rarely the case. And counterfactuals become very problematic when multiple causation is involved. So by trying to make a strawman of the random evolution of the first living mechanism and/or the occurence of “useful” information by chopping away at the causal link, i.e. you need C1 to get C2, and C2 to get C3, and C3 to get …, and … to get E, ad nauseum; then saying well it is really improbably that we get all that and who can really follow that chain –and of course what is the first cause anyhow–, you are on to something but I think it is not a lack of causal link. The interesting phenomenon at hand is what philosophers of science sometimes tend to call a “conspiracy”, where multiple causation becomes so tangled up with required preconditions that we cannot tell them apart any more. Steven Pinker likes to illustrate this with lighting a match: striking the match causes it to ignite. What about dryness? Take away dryness and it won’t ignite. Counterfactually, dryness must be a cause. What about oxygen? Take away oxygen, and it doesn’t ignite. Oxygen must be the cause. Now, can striking still be the cause? Of course, take away striking the match and it would not ignite; but why not assume that the striking is a precondition, and given that the match is struck anywhichway, quite clearly the principle cause for ignition would seem to be either the oxygen or the dryness. We can turn it on every single precondition and make it the sole actual cause. We have a conspiracy. And I think with you arguments about all the preconditons to get DNA (or peptides, … aminoacids perhaps?), the same thing applies. Why should
you single out God as the initial and principal cause? If your argument for needing his action is derived from counterfactuality, why isn’t the fact that we had a stable temperature the principal cause for life? Why not the sudden occurance of a chain of carbon atoms? It could be that God is just a precondition–we cannot tell or deduce since multiple causation gives us a case of conspiracy here. How to resolve this entirely I don’t know, but it struck me as interesting some time after your talk–and of course the whole thing is much easier if your argument is around the initial coming into existence of the few building blocks of the universe out of nothing (no conspiracy possible!), rather than God’s hand meddling with the molecules for our DNA.
I think that some of the fine points you pose for my argument are valid, but I am not sure that all of them are. For example, I doubt very much that quantum mechanics is particularly necessary for any of the argments. My comment is that it is my job, not to make the cogent argument for those from philosophy departments, but for regular old folks. If I were to use some of the phraseology you suggest, I might impress the audience with my erudition, but I also might as well be talking only to myself. It would be like the cartoon “The Far Side” I once saw which had the version that the person said and the version of what the dog interpreted from what the person said. In other words, my job is to two-fold, which is to truly understand the question of origin of life and to also present the question in a way in which a good majority of the audience can understand it. The most cogent explanation I have seen of this argument in scientific terms which is both readable and which deals with the question in depth is the book by Stephen Meyer, “Signature in the Cell”. He is an Intelligent Design guy and overly skeptical of evolution, which is usually a strike against a person in my opinion, but he does surprisingly well with this question. By the way, I deal with the question of “information” in a more technical way in an appendix in my book “Is There a God?” In this appendix I distinguish what I call informational entropy from other kinds of entropy. Your treatment of this question below has some analogy to my discussion. Again, I believe that if I were to discuss this in a public lecture, I would be talking only to myself and possibly one or two of the audience members, but you are wise to see this distinction.
By the way, you might have partially misunderstood the purpose of the crystal formation slide. But then again, you may not have. I often skip this slide because I doubt more that a couple in my audience will be able to understand the point about information. The point of this slide (for those who will actually understand it) is that nature does spontaneously create conditions of relatively low gross amount of entropy in certain cases, but situations with relatively low gross INFORMATIONAL entropy (which I will admit I do not define in this public lecture) are not ever created. I do agree with you that your use of the term “useful” is a good one. I may incorporate that term in my presentations in the future.
You point out the presumed central role for RNA. Of course, I agree that for any randomly produced living thing (a proposition which I reject as improbable to an extent so great that it could, for all practical purposes, it could be described as impossible), it would be essential that the RNA machines which create proteins would have to pre-exist the DNA, as DNA without RNA is useless. However, I purposefully do not mention that in the most basic level of my talk as this would simply confuse the audience. Besides, as you point out, RNA is much less stable than DNA. The net result of this RNA-first hypothesis is that the calculated probability of random life-production is even more “impossible.” I am guessing that you are aware of the “RNA world” hypothesis. I believe that the RNA world hypothesis is a creation, not of scientific reasoning, but of a philosophical necessity born out of an atheistic presupposition against supernatural intervention.
About your statement: “I find it completely fathomable that an infinite, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient would be able to will into existence the basic ingredients knowing full well that all things material would follow in time.” I find this fathomable as a philosophy, but not as a science. In other words I can conceive of the idea of God doing this, but if I try to create the scenario by which this would have to actually happen, I reject this hypothesis. I feel the same about evolution. I have heard scientists who are Christians propose the virtually identical fathomability argument for evolution of humans from the first simple living creature, but I am left doubting this hypothesis for interventionless evolution because it strikes me as almost infinitely unlikely to have actually occurred. I call this deistic evolution and, for convenience, I will call your proposal deistic creation of life. I do not reject this idea out of hand, but for myself personally, I think this is very unlikely to be the actual way it happened. Much more likely is that God conceived of what the simplest life form would be and then simply made it ex nihilo. Of course, we will never be able to prove which is right, but it sure is fun thinking about it!
About your third paragraph, this is a really interesting discussion, but I despair of even the possibility of an audience of typical persons getting anything out of such a discussion, so I imagine that I will not bring it into my public lectures. I will admit that, whereas the points you bring up in your first two paragraphs are things I have already considered at length, the philosophical issues you bring up in the third paragraph is something I have not thought about really at all, so I enjoyed reading this paragraph. It is possible that this idea can be distilled into something that regular folks could grasp, so I will have to think about this.
About your statement: “It could be that God is just a precondition–we cannot tell or deduce since multiple causation gives us a case of conspiracy here. How to resolve this entirely I don’t know” I say we resolve this by saying “I don’t know, but I do know that supernatural intervention is required in any case.”