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“Lifelikeness” Without Intelligent Design? Brian Miller Responds to Jeremy England

David Klinghoffer
Photo credit: Ravi Roshan via Unsplash.

Jeremy England is a physicist and Orthodox rabbi who has a new book out this month, Every Life Is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things. I always find England’s writing thoughtful and stimulating, so I am looking forward to reading the book. He has debated on that subject — thermodynamics and the origin of life — with our physicist colleague Brian Miller in the past. Today, Dr. England has a poetic and ingenious article in the Wall Street Journal reflecting on God’s commissioning of Moses to lead the Jews out from Egypt. This caught my attention:

Arguing that God had to have been there at the beginning seemingly would get harder if life’s very existence were to stop looking so miraculous. Yet lately the science appears to point in that direction.

As a physicist and Orthodox rabbi, I sit right in the middle of this dilemma. My colleagues and I have shown in our research that “dumb” collections of particles can spontaneously recapitulate impressive behaviors normally associated with life. Such particles simply require the right kind of patterned energy in their environment. In other words, there are a variety of behaviors that life displays — making copies of itself, harvesting energy from its surroundings, predicting its future — that can emerge in initially lifeless and inchoate matter.

It’s reasonable to assume this perspective might chip away at my confidence that Scripture has anything accurate, let alone profound, to offer on the origin of life. To my delight and amazement, I have found the opposite to be true.

Interestingly, the “miraculousness” of life, specifically the living cell, is the theme of biologist Michael Denton’s new book that comes out on Monday, The Miracle of the Cell. He discusses the origin of life in Chapter 8. Can, in fact, “‘dumb’ collections of particles…spontaneously recapitulate impressive behaviors normally associated with life”? The key word there is “spontaneously.” That did not sound right to me, but Dr. England’s reading of Scriptural passages in Exodus turns upon the assertion he makes about experimentation in physics. I asked Dr. Miller for his view. Brian replies, “My response article to England on Evolution News specifically addresses this issue and experiment.” Indeed it does:

The role of information in the simulation is more subtle and calls for a brief digression into information theory. A key tenet is that information can often be thought of as that which enacts causal control over or reduces the uncertainty in an outcome. In the case of the experiment, the highly specified construction of the simulation entails the implementation of information. The applied information constrains the dynamics (reduces the uncertainty) to effect a specific category of outcomes. It functions equivalently to the information in an enzyme that directs the production of a specific molecule.

The same preconditions hold true for another experiment England referenced that studies the behavior of particles placed in a viscous liquid and confined within an acrylic tube that acts as a waveguide. The particles are agitated by a continuous acoustic pressure exerted by speakers. The particles’ motion and the sound transmission through the waveguide are measured respectively by a webcam and microphone. The researchers reported self-organization and “lifelike” behavior in the bandgap (i.e., range of acoustic wavelengths with reduced transmission through the waveguide):

“Remarkably, the lifelike behaviours often observed in non-equilibrium structures are here bestowed to the emergent bandgap itself. This is manifested in its ability to self-heal to mechanical perturbations and self-adapt to changes in the drive wavelength.”

The key observations are that the speakers convert electricity into acoustic waves of specific wavelengths that interact with the particles in the required manner, so a speaker acts as a highly calibrated energy converter. And the experimental instructions specify the precise shape and dimensions for the waveguide; the size, shape, and physical properties of the particles; the positions and orientations of the speakers; and the physical properties of the viscous fluid. These specifications represent applied information that constrains the dynamics in such a way as to produce the desired results. Here again, achieving noteworthy behavior requires an energy converter and the application of information. 

Find the rest here. I understand that to mean that there is no “lifelikeness,” as Jeremy England puts it, without “instructions,” “specifications,” or “information.” Or in simple terms, no life, nothing like life, without intelligent design. That is also Michael Denton’s point.