How order develops spontaneously in news

This Independent headline caught my eye: New theory could prove how life began and disprove God. As you’ll see, that’s the sub-editor’s sense of priority: the article itself just says the new theory “throws out the need for God”. The Indie’s source, with its stress on the punch-drunkness of God and the terror of Christians, is actually a piece by Paul Rosenberg at the Richard Dawkins Foundation, rather than the original review in Quanta Magazine. The latter was obviously un-newsworthy when it appeared over a year ago as it just mentioned the science, not the demise of God. Quanta was itself a secondary source for the work of physicist Jeremy England, making the Independent headline 5th hand (and this piece of mine 6th hand!) journalism.

My concern here is why a perhaps significant piece of science only becomes general news when somebody suggests it disproves God: a societal agenda is demonstrated by that, since (as I will show) the hypothesis actually has the opposite implication. After all, the Quanta article rounds off with positive comments on the new work by Ard Louis, who is of course a Christian often writing for BioLogos. Despite Rosenberg, he gives no impression of being terrified. But before looking at that, a few observations on the 2014 article.

There’s not much comment needed on the implications of England’s maths, because a long comments thread, exemplary in its tone and informed content, follows the piece. England himself, Louis and such luminaries in the field as Dorion Sagan are amongst the posters. The work, as even the Independent manages to convey, is a mathematical treatment of open thermodynamic systems, and one of the main points of consensus in the comments is that it is really only an elaboration of the work of Ilya Prigogine and others who have proposed thermodynamically emergent self-organisation as the explanation of life.

England’s maths demonstrates, to himself at least, that organisation is an inevitable outcome of the requirement for open systems to dissipate heat in the most efficient manner:

“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” England said.

The general tone of comments is admirably less gung-ho: this is an important stimulus for new directed research, in the recognition that a mathematical equation is not, in itself, an empirical theory. It would be significant if confirmed by evidence.

There is much discussion that takes the theory to its logical conclusions: if entropy is a sufficient cause for atoms to organise into life, it’s also sufficient to drive every other stage of evolution, potentially being the organiser of which natural selection is merely the refiner. More than once, and by academically reputable commenters too, man is seen as dominant because of his ability to dissipate energy more efficiently than any organism hitherto – even global warming may be viewed as the freeing of energy from fossil fuels as the direct outcome of the 2nd law of theromodynamics. Homo sapiens had to evolve in order for that dissipation to take place. Needless to say, what explains global warming also explains the evolution of mind.

Now some commenters (but remarkably few) point out that to say that thermodynamic compliance is necessary for living systems is not the same as saying it is sufficient causally. And there is, in many discussions of entropy, something of the whiff of perpetual motion; that life is simply inevitable because the laws of thermodynamic systems out of equilibrium require it.

This is exemplified and, I would suggest, refuted, by one part of the discussion on the thread, which spoke of digital computers as such open systems, functioning as superbly efficient dissipators of energy. In this way they are “explained” by basic thermodynamics, being produced as a thermodynamic necessity by the aforementioned supremely efficient human race, itself a necessary product of nature’s drive to ever-better heat redistribution. There is something thoroughly perverse, surely, in dismissing the actual functions of computers, and all the brilliant problem-solving and goal-setting that has gone into their development, as mere epiphenomena of energy flows. “Here’s the equation that completely accounts for Alan Turing.”

In my review of Arthur Eddington’s work I commented on his description of “that incongruous mixture of theology and statistics known as the second law of thermodynamics”. It’s incongruous because it depends on our subjective teleological judgement as to which states are more or less ordered or disordered, and because it requires us to override the mathematical reversibility of physics with the intuition that the wind causes the movement of leaves, and a gunshot the bullet’s flight, and not the reverse.

And yet in the discussion above, that intuitive sense of sufficient cause and effect seems to be lost in the logic that since the laws exist (assuming the maths actually applies to reality), the world must evolve as it has. But (as was again pointed out by a stray poster on the comments thread at Quanta), laws don’t cause anything – they just describe what happens. Computer design complies with thermodynamic laws – but it is more than a mathematical term in those laws. And the same must be true of the origin of life. In both cases, the actually causative factor is (in Michael Polanyi’s terminology) the “boundary conditions”.

That brings me to the “God on the ropes” issue. The truth is that, in at least two ways, were this new hypothesis to be found true and explanatory of life (confidence over which is some decades premature), it would actually significantly strengthen the case for God as Creator.

The first point is empirical. The Quanta article says:

The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy.

So we need the right source of energy, such as sunlight hitting a planet in the Goldilocks zone or oceanic volcanic vents. We need the right kind of heat bath. And we need atoms with the right characteristics to organise in the specific and information-rich ways leading to biological molecules. Those in turn depend on many finely tuned conditions both of the local planetary environment and the cosmic constants.

We also, of course, need someone to write those magical laws. If England’s formula proves fruitless, it will not (I assume) be because the maths is wrong, but because the maths doesn’t turn out to map to our particular reality. There are many different, mathematically robust, versions of string theory, for example, and at best all of them are inapplicable to reality except one.

In other words, what needs explaining is why we have the kind of universe in which just shining light on a random (that weasel word) clump of atoms long enough leads to the spontaneous generation of a plant.

That leads to the second point, which is metaphysical. What the demonstration of life’s origin and its subsequent direction, as an outcome of thermodynamic laws, would demonstrate is that life is a fundamentally law-like process. Law is a thoroughly teleological concept, as the early Christian scientists realised when they used it to restate the Aristotelian emphasis on formal and final causation. To Boyle, the teleological natures of creatures would make creation too independent of God – and so instead he saw matter as inert, but directed by the laws of God to their observed ends.

A law that makes mere energy flow responsible for all life, and even for life’s products (global warming and computers included), is about as teleological as it gets. And at that point we’re back at Aquinas’s Fifth Way.

What no-one apparently noticed in the long discussion thread was that following the logic of England’s work restores to evolution the deeply progressive cast it had back in Darwin’s day and until recently. Neo-darwinism’s emphasis on randomness opened the way for the idea that evolution has no direction. Mankind is no longer the pinnacle of its achievement as he was to Spencer and Darwin, but just another species adapted to its particular environment, and actually less successful than the bacteria. But if thermodynamics ensures that species become ever more efficient at dissipating energy, then the one that can do it with concerted intent is The Goal of The Process. In fact, strictly speaking one would expect not a tree of life with mankind at its crown, but the kind of progress towards humanity of every species conceived by the early transformists like Buffon. If England is right, someone will have to explain why all life is not human.

It’s easily forgotten that what made evolution congenial to atheism was not Darwin’s proposal of a sufficient natural process, but the realisation that it could be represented as a random one, thus making the atomism of Democritus intellectually respectable. The atomists suggested that particles randomly colliding would, as a matter of principle, eventually clump together to produce order.

Opponents like Aristotle pointed out the impossibility – even the incoherence – of that idea. But the “breakthrough” for chance to replace teleology was that random variation, with differential reproduction, ought to work in all possible worlds where it occurs – it’s a universal principle independent of the details of life or our planet. That’s why it was assumed that life is widespread through the Universe, and why everything evolves.

But if teleological thermodynamics were found to be a major player in the arrival of the fittest, or even just in the origin of life, the universality of natural selection would disappear. It would work here only because energy-flows have been monkeyed-with to ensure there are viable organisms to select. Our universe is therefore special, which once more requires an organising mind.

This we call God.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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One Response to How order develops spontaneously in news

  1. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    PS – it appears Rosenberg got his piece off another source which originated the “God on the ropes” headline. That makes my piece 7th-hand journalism, but at least I went back to the primary secondary source…

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