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Crying “Chance, Chance” When There Is No Chance


“Biology is the study of complex things that appear to have been designed for a purpose,” Richard Dawkins famously asserted. But if design is only apparent and not real, what else is there to create the appearance of design? Natural law might be the answer, but if nobody is guiding that, the results are still matters of chance. 

No Power of Agency

When it comes to biology, life as we know it involves more than just repetitive patterns wrought by natural law, beautiful as they might be. It involves operations based on coded instructions. During the origin of life, before there were coded instructions able to accurately replicate, sequences were purely matters of chance, even if molecules interacted by natural law. Nothing about natural law will sequentially organize building blocks with semantic information and syntax, and then translate that coded information into another code with the power to cause functional information. Natural law doesn’t care about trying to do that. It has no power of agency in the materialist conception.

 “Random mutation” might be the answer, but that is pure chance embedded in a fancy phrase. In short, they can only invoke chance for sequential information, and they can only invoke chance for random mutations. Chance plus chance equals chance. And yet life does appear designed for a purpose. Everyone acknowledges that. The only way out of this dilemma is to believe in fake chance: random processes mystically imbued with agency. Evolutionists imagine a personified chance wanting to evolve upward in complexity. Or they can invoke the post-hoc fallacy, saying, “We’re here, therefore we evolved.” This absolves them of having to explain how chance could create a coded information system. Any gambler watching Illustra’s film clip from Origin on the improbability of a single protein self-organizing would agree, “Not a chance!” In Darwinland, the vast improbabilities are swept away by philosophical bias. They cry “Chance, chance,” but there is no chance. There is only fake chance, endowed with purpose and choice.

Demon Lingo

To see how this is done, consider a book review by Timo Hannay in Nature, where he comments on Paul Davies’s recent book, The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Finally Solving the Mystery of Life (Allen Lane, 2019). Hannay’s review, titled “Maxwell’s Demon and the Hunt for Alien Life,” echoes the demon lingo. It sounds like agency, but we know neither writer is talking about real mind-directed design. How will they imbue chance with agency in this case?

Hannay is mostly kind to Davies, though we know that the book’s author often thinks outside the box. Hannay is glad that Davies is “certainly no believer in a vital force distinct from physics or chemistry” (emphasis added), but he worries that Davies tiptoes at the edges of real design, not just apparent design. 

Davies claims that life’s defining characteristics are better understood in terms of information. This is not as absurd as it may seem. Energy is abstract, yet we have little trouble accepting it as a causal factor. Indeed, energy and information are closely related through entropy.

Turning Chance into an Agent

Information “is not as absurd as it may seem,” he says. That’s an interesting way to put it, given that intelligent design theory relies substantially on the concept of information. ID proponents do not compare information to raw, unguided energy, though. Information is superior, because it can commandeer energy. It can take energy and force material to decrease entropy by organizing it in ways natural law alone would never do (i.e., natural law cannot arrange building blocks with sufficiently improbable complex specified information). But can unguided chance use energy to do it? Watch how both writers make chance into an agent:

Davies explains this connection by referring to Maxwell’s demon. Victorian physicist James Clerk Maxwell’s celebrated thought experiment features a hypothetical miniature beast perching at an aperture between two containers of gas, where it allows only certain molecules to pass, depending on their kinetic energy. The demon can thus create a temperature gradient between the containers: a reduction in overall entropy, apparently breaking the second law of thermodynamics. The resolution to this paradox seems to lie in the fact that the demon must gather information about the properties of each molecule, and for this it requires a recording device, such as a brain or a miniature notebook. When its storage space eventually runs out, the information must be deleted, a process that necessarily produces an increase in total entropy.

From this perspective, living systems can be seen as composed of countless such ‘demons’ (proteins and other cellular machinery) that maintain local order by pumping disorder (often in the form of heat) into their surroundings. Davies adroitly brings Schrödinger’s account up to date by way of Claude Shannon’s information theory, Turing machines (universal computers), von Neumann machines (self-replicating universal constructors), molecular biology, epigenetics, information-integration theories of consciousness and quantum biology (which concerns quantum effects in processes from photosynthesis to insect coloration and bird navigation).

Notice, though, how this account dodges the issue by appealing to virtual agents (Maxwell demons) as well as real agents, like Turing. To the materialist, all these agents emerge by a long series of chance events, direct things for a while, then delete themselves. How did that happen? 

Cheating with Fake Chance

Sure, the Second Law is not violated, but Davies and Hannay have cheated with fake chance. They speak as if Maxwell’s demon emerges by chance, uses purposeful intelligence for a goal, then vanishes by chance. Now watch them dig a deeper hole:

What practical difference does it make to see life as informational? We don’t yet know, but can speculate. For one thing, if the essential characteristics of life are entropic, extraterrestrial searches based on chemistry could be misguided. It might be more useful to look for phenomena such as ‘anti-accretion’ — in which matter is regularly transferred from a planet’s surface into space. Earth has experienced this since the 1950s, when the one-way traffic in asteroids and meteorites plunging into the globe was finally counteracted by the launch of the first artificial satellites. Arguably, such situations are not merely consistent with the presence of life, but almost impossible to explain in any other way.

Note the artfully deployed passive voice. One-way traffic “was finally counteracted by the launch of the first artificial satellites.” Who counteracted it? Did not intelligent engineers use design to launch satellites? It’s hard to exaggerate how ludicrous the thought could be that satellites are mirror images of the same chance processes that pockmarked the Earth with craters. This is fake chance, endowed with purposeful agency, but like Hannay said, to the materialist, “such situations are not merely consistent with the presence of life, but almost impossible to explain in any other way.”

Iconoclasm and Vitalism

Hannay takes issues with a few of Davies’ “iconoclastic” ideas in the book, but since Davies doesn’t cross the line into “vitalism” (a favorite epithet some Darwinians use to describe intelligent design), he ends with a compliment: “On the contrary, if only more of us were wrong in such thought-provoking ways, we might more readily uncover the truth.”

And so Hannay, with Nature’s pulpit, preaches about thoughts and truths. Those are ponderous demons to have to emerge from bouncing molecules, only to disappear after temporary violations of the Second Law. Presumably the truths that emerge on another planet would be quite different. Maybe, even, the truths that emerged here on the materialists’ unguided, naturalistic Earth are the real falsehoods. “Who” could ever judge the difference?

Photo: A reproduction of Sputnik 1, an artificial satellite, National Air and Space Museum, by NSSDC, NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.