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Michael Shermer and the Laws of Complexity


Recently on the Michael Medved Show, atheist Michael Shermer debated Catholic philosopher Edward Feser. The subject was Feser’s new book on five arguments for the existence of God. During the debate, a caller commented on the improbability of the undirected appearance of life. Shermer stated that bottom-up organizational principles are built into the laws of nature, which can create complexity. This assertion has been made countless times by scientists addressing the problem of the origin of life. However, it is based on a fundamental confusion between the order created in self-organizational processes and the specified complexity/information seen in life. Stephen Meyer describes the error at length in Signature in the Cell.

One of the first scientists to attempt to identify natural processes that could drive the formation of life was biochemist Dean Kenyon. He and his colleagues sought to find affinities between the different amino acids that could help explain their sequencing in proteins. However, all attempts failed, for no correlation exists between differences in attractions between different amino acids and their arrangement in proteins. Meyer writes:

Although Kenyon and Steinman had shown that certain amino acids form linkages more readily with some amino acids than with others, new studies showed that these differential affinities do not correlate with actual sequencing patterns in large classes of known proteins. In other words, differential bonding affinities exist, but they don’t seem to explain (or to have determined) the specific sequences of amino acids that actual proteins now possess. (p. 236)

This finding coincided with previously identified theoretical challenges by scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi to explaining the sequencing of bases in DNA. He argued that DNA could no more be reduced to chemistry and physics than could be the arrangement of parts in a computer.

Nevertheless, the specific structure of the computer, the configuration of its parts, does not result from Ohm’s or any other law. Ohm’s law (and, indeed, the laws of physics generally) allows a vast ensemble of possible configurations of the same parts. Given the fundamental physical laws and the same parts, an engineer could build many other machines and structures: different model computers, radios, or quirky pieces of experimental art made from electrical components. The physical and chemical laws that govern the flow of current in electrical machines do not determine how the parts of the machine are arranged and assembled. The flow of electricity obeys the laws of physics, but where the electricity flows in any particular machine depends upon the arrangement of its parts — which, in turn, depends on the design of an electrical engineer working according to engineering principles. And these engineering principles, Polanyi insisted, are distinct from the laws of physics and chemistry that they harness. (p. 238-239)

The fundamental reason is that DNA functions like a communications system, and a communications system cannot be reduced to the chemistry and physics of the underlying medium which hosts it. Meyer explains:

Polanyi argued that, in the case of communications systems, the laws of physics and chemistry do not determine the arrangements of the characters that convey information. The laws of acoustics and the properties of air do not determine which sounds are conveyed by speakers of natural languages. Neither do the chemical properties of ink determine the arrangements of letters on a printed page. Instead, the laws of physics and chemistry allow a vast array of possible sequences of sounds, characters, or symbols in any code or language. Which sequence of characters is used to convey a message is not determined by physical law, but by the choice of the users of the communications system in accord with the established conventions of vocabulary and grammar — just as engineers determine the arrangement of the parts of machines in accord with the principles of engineering….Polanyi argued that, as with other systems of communication, the lower-level laws of physics and chemistry cannot explain the higher-level properties of DNA. (pp. 239-240)

The same challenge holds true for the code that assigns specific codons to each amino acid. It cannot be reduced to affinities between the amino acids and the assigned codons. The code is arbitrary, but it has to be the same for the encoding of amino acid sequences into DNA and the complex decoding process to manufacture new proteins.

From the standpoint of the properties of the constituents that comprise the code, the code is physically and chemically arbitrary. All possible codes are equally likely; none is favored chemically. (p. 248)

Other scientists, such as Ilya Prigogine, have attempted to compare the order in cells to the order created by such self-organizing processes as the formation of a funnel cloud in a tornado. These attempts also fall short since such appeals can only explain the order of a repeating or chaotic pattern but not that of specified information.

Yockey pointed out that Prigogine and Nicolis invoked external self-organizational forces to explain the origin of order in living systems. But, as Yockey noted, what needs explaining in biological systems is not order (in the sense of a symmetrical or repeating pattern), but information, the kind of specified digital information found in software, written languages, and DNA. (p. 255)

Others, such as complex-systems researcher Stuart Kauffman, have attempted to generate complex patterns out of self-organizing or autocatalytic systems and then relate them to life. However, all such attempts require that the initial conditions or arrangement of molecules is precisely specified. In other words, specified structures cannot be generated unless information is provided.

Thus, to explain the origin of specified biological complexity at the systems level, Kauffman has to presuppose a highly specific arrangement of those molecules at the molecular level as well as the existence of many highly specific and complex protein and RNA molecules. In short, Kauffman merely transfers the information problem from the molecules into the soup. (p. 264)

All such attempts to explain life by natural processes make a fundamental error. They fail to distinguish between the order created by natural processes, such as water freezing to form a snowflake, and specified complexity. The former results from natural laws directing the arrangement of molecules. However, for a medium to contain information/specified complexity, it must have the freedom to take on numerous possible arrangements of parts. Correspondingly, law-like processes determine outcomes making arrangements that are highly probable, but the presence of information corresponds to patterns that are highly improbable.

Instead, information emerges from within an environment marked by indeterminacy, by the freedom to arrange parts in many different ways. As the MIT philosopher Robert Stalnaker puts it, information content “requires contingency”…the more improbable an event, the more information its occurrence conveys. In the case that a law-like physical or chemical process determines that one kind of event will necessarily and predictably follow another, then no uncertainty will be reduced by the occurrence of such a high-probability event. Thus, no information will be conveyed. (p. 250-251)

This confusion has been pointed out by such experts in the field as Herbert Yockey, who was one of the founders in applying information theory to biology. In particular, he pointed out why order generated from natural processes could not explain the biological encoding of information. Meyer cites him on this:

Thus, as Yockey notes: “Attempts to relate the idea of order…with biological organization or specificity must be regarded as a play on words that cannot stand careful scrutiny. Informational macromolecules can code genetic messages and therefore can carry information because the sequence of bases or residues is affected very little, if at all, by [self-organizing] physicochemical factors.” (p. 257)

The described technical details are important, but the basic challenge is easily understood by anyone via a simple analogy. Physical processes can produce various types of order, such as that seen in a hurricane. But no one has ever run to a lumber yard before a hurricane expectantly waiting for the oncoming winds to arrange the lumber into a new house. Instead, they wait in dread to see how a hurricane might demolish a home into a pile of debris. The same tendency holds true for life. Physical processes tend to break apart complex biological structures into simpler chemicals. None will organize a wide variety of molecules into fantastically improbably configurations that achieve such functional goals as processing energy, building molecular machines, and maintaining homeostasis. Only intelligence can build such complex structures for such purposeful ends.

Photo: A funnel cloud, by skeeze via Pixabay.