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Could Finely Tuned Initial Conditions Create Biological Organisms?

Photo: Leaf senescence, via Wikimedia Commons.

Is the arrangement of mass energy at the beginning of all things sufficient to account for the origin of life, the diversification of life, our capacity for abstract thought, volition, spiritual communion, and more? At present, there seems to be very little reason to answer in the affirmative.

However, theologian Rope Kojonen, in an attempt to wed design and evolution, allows for this interpretation in his recent book, The Compatibility of Evolution and Design. My colleagues and I reviewed the book in the journal Religions and have been discussing it further in a series here. The laws and preconditions of nature are at the heart of Kojonen’s model. They are his proposed mechanisms of design, the linchpin of his project. Yesterday, we looked at the first of three interpretations of how Kojonen’s model would actually work. Today we will look at the second:

  • The laws of nature simply transmitted biologically relevant information sufficient to produce all biological complexity and diversity, including new proteins, protein machines, and the like. This biologically relevant information was “built in” to the mass-energy configuration at the Big Bang. The laws of nature did not create anything but rather were the media (or “carriers”) through which biologically relevant information was eventually expressed and instantiated in everything from proteins to bacterial flagella to human beings.

A Helpful Analogy 

Laws have the capability of transmitting information in some situations, but they lack the ability to generate biological information of the kind found in DNA and proteins, as we’ve already discussed. Philosopher of science Stephen Meyer develops this point with a helpful analogy in Return of the God Hypothesis:

[I]magine that a group of small radio-controlled helicopters hovers in tight formation over the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. From below, the helicopters appear to be spelling a message: “Go USC.” At halftime, with the field cleared, each helicopter releases either a maroon or gold paint ball, one of the two University of Southern California colors. Gravity takes over and the paint balls fall to the earth, splattering paint on the field after they hit the turf. Now on the field below, a somewhat messier but still legible message appears. It also spells “Go USC.”

Did the law of gravity, or the force described by the law, produce this information? Clearly, it did not. The information that appeared on the field already existed in the arrangement of the helicopters above the stadium in “the initial conditions.” Gravitational forces played no role in causing the information on the field to self-organize. Gravity merely transmitted preexisting information from the helicopter formation to the field below.

The information in the message was encoded in the original position of the helicopters. The laws of nature (and gravity in particular) were merely the “carrier” of this previously created information. The second interpretation of Kojonen’s view agrees with this perspective of the laws of nature but then supposes that all the information necessary for the origin of life, diversification of life, and accounting for human cognition was present in the initial conditions (positioning of matter and energy). This concept is comparable to playing pool, where a single strike of the cue ball can knock all the balls into their respective holes due to their positions on the table. This mechanism is highly implausible when applied to life because the initial conditions that would have had to be established to create such a system are extreme.

Six Objections from Meyer

Additional problems plague this “initial conditions” idea. In Return of the God Hypothesis, Meyer summarizes six objections.

[G]iven the facts of molecular biology, the axioms of information theory, the laws of thermodynamics, the high-energy state of the early universe, the reality of unpredictable quantum fluctuations, and what we know about the time that elapsed between the origin of the universe and the first life on earth, explanations of the origin of life that deny the need for new information after the beginning of the universe clearly lack scientific plausibility.

Let’s explore this a bit more. To understand the absurdity of proposing that initial conditions could, without additional intervention, account for the facts of molecular biology, consider again the pool analogy. The idea that unfavorable thermodynamic events could be stacked into the initial conditions would be like supposing that after the cue ball hit one ball, three balls went in immediately, but after ten minutes, three more went in, and finally all the balls went into the holes. This scenario is scientifically implausible because our experience with the laws of nature is that they work consistently through time, and only agents that can work outside of the system are able to cause new events to occur. Thus, after a causation event, processes that must overcome thermodynamic barriers do not occur.

An Unknown Force in History

While the laws of nature can transmit information, the way they transmit it is consistent and constant. If the initial conditions could do something thermodynamically unfavorable after time has elapsed from an initial agent’s action, this would certainly be different from what we observe today. The laws would require the ability to select specific outcomes — i.e., to assemble specific molecules into these outcomes at specific points in time. This would require a process model running in the background and invoking the right actions at the right times — an unknown force that only seems to work at specific times in history. 

Tomorrow, we will look at the final possible interpretation of Kojonen’s model for the laws of nature.