I want, in this post, to use the properties of water as a proxy for the kind of emergent structural laws for which Michael Denton argues in Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis. This is because it is a simple compound that is one of the examples he explores at length in his earlier book, Nature’s Destiny, to argue for the fine tuning of the universe for human life (pp.15-46).
In fact, the nature of water is so unusual (despite its apparent mundaneness) that an entire popular book has recently been written on it, and the unique importance of its strange characteristics to life. Water’s unusual properties arise from self-organising principles that (perhaps unlike those in living things) cannot be denied, but are similarly surprising. Denton returns to water on p.251 of his new book:
No matter how exhaustively its two constituents – hydrogen and oxygen – are analysed, the physical and chemical properties of water cannot be predicted and are strictly emergent; they arise mysteriously out of the self-organisation of matter. [my emphasis]
I will dwell for a while on the meaning of “strictly emergent”, which is of significance, though not ultimately crucial to the case I wish to make in this post. I ask (and maybe some physical scientist like GD can help me out here) whether it is in principle true that water’s properties are not able to be deduced from those of hydrogen and oxygen, and that this is what constitutes “strict emergence”. If so, it would mean that the information about water is not inherent in the lower-order elements and their controlling laws. This would pose quite a mystery about just how this information enters the universe when water is synthesised.
The nature and “situation” of scientific laws generally is actually problematic (somewhat less mysterious if one sees them, in Aristotelian manner, as “properties of substances”!). How much more, then, the nature and situation of laws that cannot be derived from lower-order laws, but emerge de novo each time water appears. Indeed, Aristotelian or even Platonic perspectives make even more sense here – there is an immaterial “form” which is taken on when hydrogen and oxygen become (rather than constitute) the true substance water. This form consists of all kinds of “potencies” unique to that form, which become “actual” only when water interacts with the rest of reality by dissolving it, freezing or whatever. Aquinas would be at home with this, as an ongoing reminder of the world’s constant dependence on God.
Let me contrast this with the classical scientific conception of “law”, which was initially a theological concept and only later a secular one. The idea was that matter is an inert collection of particles, governed by a limited collection of simple, mathematical rules (as mankind is by God’s moral law), established on the first day of creation: a kind of scientific equivalent to the Ten Commandments.
The concept was not intended to mean inordinately complicated, and unpredictable, physical and chemical behaviours that appear only when particular combinations of different atoms occur. That smacks more of God’s ongoing active government of creation, along regular but complex lines; more of general providence or, perhaps, continous creation; more of the eternal logos of God’s wisdom both sustaining and ruling the world.
But perhaps the “laws of water” are not “strictly emergent”, in the sense that the information could, in principle, be derived from the basic laws of physics. The problem then would still, it seems, be that the exercise of extracting that information other than by empirical observation of water is in practice impossible, because it would require near-infinite calculating resources, rather as would Maxwell’s demon, requiring Maxwell to invoke statistical laws as his widest contribution to science.
But Maxwell’s statistics applied, essentially, to entities approximating the “inert atoms” of early modern science. The statistical analysis simplified the complications of individual particle movements. However, such relatively uncomplicated generalisations do not lead to predicting the esoteric properties of water, simple a compound though it is.
Here’s a link to a page that discusses the difficulties of predicting the properties of water. A quote from this shows just how imprecise such models are:
A recent review listed 46 distinct models, so indirectly indicating their lack of success in quantitatively reproducing the properties of real water. They may, however, offer useful insight into water’s behavior.
As I read the article (and once more, I stand to be corrected by those closer to the basic sciences), the implication seems to be that accurate prediction would require more or less infinite processing capability, much as does modelling complex problems in Newtonian orbital astronomy. And whether that means calculating from simple first principles, or simply more sophisticated modelling from observed data, I’m not sure. I suspect that one needs to feed in the sometimes unexpected data from actual observation to keep refining the model… and an anecdote from the “water” page is instructive regarding that:
As a young physicist, Dyson paid a visit to Enrico Fermi (recounted in Ditley, Mayer, and Loew). Dyson wanted to tell Fermi about a set of calculations that he was quite excited about. Fermi asked Dyson how many parameters needed to be tuned in the theory to match experimental data. When Dyson replied there were four, Fermi shared with Dyson a favorite adage of his that he had learned from Von Neumann: “with four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.” Dejected, Dyson took the next bus back to Ithaca.
This seems to be how industrial chemistry is done: first principles may give you a ball-park idea of what kind of compounds to check out for any particular role you have in mind, but massive leg-work, and a host of unexpected results, invariably precede a useful application. That’s why drug development costs a king’s ransom. The world is not at all simple – even when that world consists only of water.
As far as I can see, to say that only infinite resources can determine the properties of water (rather than the routine application of the classical idea of simple “laws”) is not very far removed from saying that such information is fully accessible only to God himself – and that because he created it and sustains it whenever water is formed.
So in the end, whether the properties of water are “strictly emergent” – as it were, new laws that exist only where water comes into being – or are derived from the fundamental constants of space-time by complex interactions that are incalculable to man, the shorthand form “God does it” appears to me to be no simplistic Creationist denial of science, but a profound truth which re-unites science and theology, after the manner of Kepler attempting to “think God’s thoughts after him.”
As Denton points out in his earlier book, the remarkable detailed characteristics of water, these unexpected and inexplicable emergent properties, are absolutely essential to life. If God intended there to be life at all, the specific properties of water had to be designed into nature. In that particular matter, God could not just ordain simple laws and see how things panned out in some “free process”. No special properties of water = no life possible.
And remember, as I have suggested, that is as likely to mean God’s creative order “regularly enacted in the world” as “mysteriously decreed when things began” – God after all creates in eternity according to Christian doctrine, not in time.
Therefore the Leibnizian idea of God “setting the world a-going in a perpetual motion”, the clockmaker analogy against which Denton actually writes in his denial of the functionalism of Paley and Darwin both, and which survives in the thinking of many theistic evolutionists when they see nature in terms of “law and contingency”, bears little relationship to the necessary truths of reality. Even the reality of simple water.