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Hey, Paul Davies — Your ID Is Showing

Paul Davies

Editor’s noteDr. Shedinger is a Professor of Religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He is the author of a recent book critiquing Darwinian triumphalism, The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms.

No better advertisements for intelligent design exist than works written by establishment scientists that unintentionally make design arguments. I can think of few better examples than well-known cosmologist Paul Davies’s recently published book The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Solving the Mystery of Life (2019).

With a nod toward James Clerk Maxwell’s entropy-defying demon, Davies argues that the gulf between physics and biology is completely unbridgeable without some fundamentally new concept. Since living organisms consistently resist the ravages of entropy that all forms of inanimate matter are subject to, there must be some non-physical principle allowing living matter to consistently defy the Second Law of Thermodynamics. And for Davies there is; the demon in the machine turns out to be information.

Order from Chaos

Throughout the book, Davies marvels at the stunning complexity of life, especially at the cellular and molecular levels. He wonders at the existence of molecular machines like motors, pumps, tubes, shears, and rotors — paraphernalia familiar to human engineers — and their ability to manipulate information in clear and super-efficient ways, in Davies’s words “conjuring order out of chaos.” In fact, he calls the cell “a vast web of information management,” observing that while molecules are physical structures, information is an abstract concept deriving from the world of human communication. 

Yet despite all these analogies between the nanotechnology of life and the world of human engineering, Davies deftly ignores the obvious conclusion — the nanotechnology of life must have been designed, just like human-engineered machinery. Though he tries valiantly to ignore this obvious conclusion, Davies cannot completely run and hide, for he explicitly says, “It is hard not to be struck by how ingenious all this machinery is, and how astonishing that it remains intact and unchanged over billions of years.” (Emphasis in the original.) Indeed! Anything so ingenious must, almost by definition, be the product of intelligence if we are not to drain the word “ingenious” of its meaning.

His Work and Its Implications

But trying to ignore the implications of his own work, Davies soldiers on with more unintentional ID statements:

Life’s ability to construct an internal representation of the world and itself — to act as an agent, manipulate its environment and harness energy — reflects its foundation in the rules of logic. It is also the logic of life that permits biology to explore a boundless universe of novelty.

Logic, of course, is a product of mental activity. So is Davies implying an active intelligence working at the cellular and molecular level? It appears so even if he would never admit it. Yet he does practically admit it when he throws up his hands and declares, “Indeed, life’s complexity is so daunting that it is tempting to give up trying to understand it in physical terms.”

If the molecular machinery of the cell has overwhelmed Davies with its sublime complexity, he is equally astounded by the field of epigenetics: “In the magic puzzle box of life, epigenetic inheritance is one of the more puzzling bits of magic.” He discusses the research on directed mutation by John Cairns in the 1980s, more recent work on epigenetics by Eva Jablonka, and the early work on transposition by Barbara McClintock and its flourishing in James Shapiro’s Natural Genetic Engineering and concludes: “…it’s tempting to imagine that biologists are glimpsing an entire shadow information-processing system at work at the epigenetic level.” Tempting indeed! And lest we forget, information processing derives from and is a property of intelligence. 

The Mystery of Life’s Origin

Finally, Davies turns to the origin of life question which he brands as “almost a miracle.” He agrees that chemistry alone cannot explain the origin of life because one also needs to account for the origin of information. For Davies:

Semantic information is a higher-level concept that is simply meaningless at the level of molecules. Chemistry alone, however complex, can never produce the genetic code or contextual instructions. Asking chemistry to explain coded information is like expecting computer hardware to write its own software. 

The origin of coded information is, according to Davies, the toughest problem in evolutionary biology. But, of course, it is only a tough problem for those who have excluded intelligence from the equation a priori. From an ID perspective, the origin of information is no mystery at all. It is always the creation of intelligent minds, a point made consistently by Stephen Meyer. 

Beyond Chemistry

To explain all this, Davies can do no better than to speculate that somehow new laws and principles emerge from information processing systems of sufficiently great complexity. But he entirely ignores the question of the origin of the information processing system itself, which he has already pronounced as beyond the ability of chemistry alone to explain. 

It is likely that Davies would never want to align himself with the ID community. He might believe that the professional cost is just too great. But if I didn’t know any better, I would swear that The Demon in the Machine had rolled right off the presses of Discovery Institute. If abstract information is truly at the root of life, then intelligence has to be factored into the equation. Davies has made a compelling case for the former, so by extension — and much to his chagrin — he seems to be making a compelling case for the latter.

Photo: Paul Davies, by Cmichel67 / CC BY-SA.