England, Davies: Honesty, if not agreement, on the origin of life
I recently had the pleasure of watching Justin Brierley host a discussion between Jeremy England and Paul Davies. This episode of the show Unbelievable? was titled “The Origins of Life: Do We Need a New Theory of How Life Began?” ”
England is Senior Director in Artificial Intelligence at GlaxoSmithKline, Principal Investigator at Georgia Tech and former Professor of Physics at MIT. We engaged in a fruitful exchange in the newspaper Inference (here, here) on the same question. Davies is a physics teacher at Arizona State University and the director of Beyond: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science. The two scientists are not only leaders in their fields and excellent communicators, but they have also engaged members of the smart design community with respect and honesty. Of particular importance, their exchange and Brierley’s insightful questions and comments further demonstrate the need for the mainstream scientific community to break free from the confines of scientific materialism.
Two enlightening moments
Two moments of the conversation stood out particularly. The first came after England explained their conjecture that the flow of energy through a chemical system could cause it to self-organize in a way that heads for life, including generation required biological information. Brierley referred to my review that such a fortuitous scenario may seem possible in principle, but that it is improbable in practice. He also commented that such proposals naturally lead to “anthropomorphizing the process” where one speaks as if nature wanted to direct simple chemicals towards life. Previously, I explained how theoretical and experimental evidence shows that natural processes always move chemical systems in the exact opposite direction (here, here).
England responded by stating that the tendency to treat life as a special arrangement of matter defined by meaningful biological information represents our inherent bias, resulting from our familiarity with the characteristics and current forms of life. Instead, “one person’s information is another person’s noise.” In other words, the first forms of nascent cells might appear to us as much more mundane arrangements of molecules. Yet this claim is in complete conflict with studies of minimally complex cells examined in the light of studies of minimally complex self-replicating machines.
The confluence of these two streams of research demonstrates that the simplest possible cell that would not spontaneously decompose into simpler molecules must contain the following components:
- Machines for the production and delivery of energy
- Information repositories and processors
- Selective gateways with active transport
- Sensors coupled to signal transduction and signal processing pathways
- Actuators that implement instructions
- Automotive manufacturing and assembly process
- Automated repair machines
- Waste disposal and recycling mechanisms
- Control systems capable of global coordination
These characteristics run directly parallel to human engineering, but they must be performed in life at a much higher level of ingenuity and efficiency. The underlying information is easily distinguished from noise or anything that might be generated by a physical process.
Honesty and frankness
A second notable moment was when Brierley asked Paul Davies about his view that there is a principle in the universe that could generate the required information and move a chemical system forward to life. Davies admitted that no one knows of such a principle. He also honestly stated that the reason he still had faith that such a principle or process must exist is his refusal to consider the possibility of a supreme intelligent agent, as most of the world’s religions assume, who acts in the world. I deeply respect his intellectual honesty and his frankness.
Most of the critics of smart design claim to reject the possibility of design in nature based on scientific evidence, while their critics in fact reflect that they had made no serious effort to understand the key arguments or the science. underlying. Instead, they assume from the start that the arguments must be wrong, then simply look for an excuse to justify their predetermined conclusion. Such people stand in stark contrast to academics like England and Davies who wish to discuss deeper scientific questions in a posture of respect and honesty.