Wednesday, February 1, 2006

The 5th Miracle

Physicist and prolific science writer Paul Davies wrote a book in 1999 entitled The 5th Miracle: The Search For the Origin and Meaning of Life. The title is a little misleading because the book has more to do with the search for an explanation as to how life might have arisen through purely mechanistic processes than it does with the question of the meaning of life. Even so, it's a good book and contains a lot of information on the matter of why the problem of abiogenesis seems so intractable.

The fifth miracle of Davies' title refers to Genesis 1:11: "Let the land produce vegetation." (The first four Biblical miracles are the creation of the universe, the creation of light, the creation of the firmament and the creation of dry land.), and Davies tries to explain how this might have occured without invoking an actual miracle.

Davies' book is especially noteworthy for two things: First, he acknowledges what a lot of anti-IDers want to paper over which is that evolutionary science is believed by many of its practitioners to be antithetical to belief in the God of Christianity, and secondly, he recognizes that natural mechanisms are wholly inadequate to explain how life could have arisen. He doesn't come out and say that life seems to have required intelligent input to have emerged, but he may as well have. He doesn't go all the way because he doesn't want to accept the logic of his own argument, but it's hard to escape it.

About the alleged incompatibility between God and materialistic science he writes:

Science takes as its starting point that life wasn't made by a god or a supernatural being: it happened unaided and spontaneously, as a natural process. p.28

This is an interesting claim, actually, given the number of commentators who have been at pains lately to convince us that there's really no conflict at all between the established theories of science and Christian religious belief. Technically, this is true, but there is certainly a substantial conflict between what many scientists think their science implies and the religious beliefs of most Christians.

Elsewhere, for example, Davies says this:

Darwin's...Origin of Species...sought to discredit the need for God to create species..... p.83

...atoms...accomplish ingenious marvels of construction and control, with a fine-tuning and complexity as yet unmatched by any human engineering. Somehow nature discovered, on its own, how to do this. p.98

For three hundred years, science has based itself on reductionism and materialism, leading inevitably to atheism and a belief in the meaninglessness of physical existence. A bio-friendly universe would mark a decisive shift. p.263

Davies himself doesn't seem to know what to think about all this. He's impressed by the apparent evidence for teleology and unimpressed with the arguments of some materialists that life is common in the cosmos. The laws of nature, they aver, make it inevitable. Davies disagrees. The laws of chemistry and physics don't make life inevitable, because they can't produce organized, specified complexity or information, and if there are other laws, still unknown, which lead ineluctably not only to life but to mind, then where did such astonishing things come from? How did a mindless universe give rise to algorithms which program matter to be sentient?

Davies asks the question from several different perspectives:

We are then confronted by the ultimate question: where did the information content of the universe come from? p.60

The problem of the origin of life reduces to one of understanding how encoded software emerged spontaneously from hardware....It is like trying to explain how a kite can evolve into a radio-controlled aircraft. Can the laws of nature as we presently comprehend them account for such a transition? I do not believe they can. p.115

This viewpoint (that intelligent life is common in the cosmos), though prevalent, again conceals a huge assumption about the nature of the universe. It means accepting, in effect, that the laws of nature are rigged not only in favor of complexity, or just in favor of life, but also in favor of mind. To put it dramatically, it implies that mind is written into the laws of nature in a fundamental way. p.271

The dilemma for the materialists is this: If life is inevitable, that fact points to a purposeful universe, but if it's contingent, accidental, then the improbability of it ever coming to exist is absolutely staggering and as close to miraculous as anything can be without crossing the line.

Davies wonders:

How did something so immensely complicated, so finessed, so exquisitely clever, come into being all on its own? How can mindless molecules, capable only of pushing and pulling their immediate neighbors, cooperate to form and sustain something as ingenious as a living organism? p.30

He wants to hold on to naturalism at all costs, of course, because the philosophical and professional price to be paid for allowing a non-natural agent in the door is too dear:

The living cell is the most complex system of its size known to mankind. Its host of specialized molecules, many found nowhere else but within living material, are themselves already enormously complex. They execute a dance of exquisite fidelity, orchestrated with breathtaking precision. Vastly more elaborate than the most complicated ballet, the dance of life encompasses countless molecular performers in synergetic coordination. Yet this is a dance with no sign of a choreographer. No intelligent supervisor, no mystic force, no conscious controlling agency swings the molecues into place at the right time, chooses the appropriate players, closes the links, uncouples the partners, moves them on. The dance of life is spontaneous, self-sustaining, and self-creating. p.29

But why does he think the choreographer should be in evidence? Does the audience see the choreographer onstage in the midst of a musical? His last two sentences above are sheer affirmations of his materialist faith which he senses is to be at odds with so much of what he's written in this book and which he feels he must reinforce to himself:

[I]t is the job of science to solve mysteries without recourse to divine intervention. Just because scientists are still uncertain how life began does not mean life cannot have had a natural origin. p.31

It is worth repeating that, in spite of the appearance of purpose, the participating molecules are completely mindless. p.107

Unfortunately, "meaning" sounds perilously close to purpose, an utterly taboo subject in biology. So we are left with the contradiction that we need to apply concepts derived from purposeful human activities (communication, meaning, context, semantics) to biological processes that certainly appear purposeful, but are in fact not (or are not supposed to be). p.121f

Davies certainly gives the reader the impression that he's teetering on the brink of thinking that the universe is governed by something that seems awfully close to the designer posited by the ID folks:

Might purpose be a genuine property of nature right down to the cellular or even the subcellular level? p.122

...shunting the problem off into outer space does nothing to address the central problem of biogenesis - the problem that has plagued researchers in this discipline for decades - which is that life seems just too good to be true. p.243

He quotes physicist Freeman Dyson in this connection:

"The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming." p.245

The book concludes, inconclusively, with these words:

The search for life elsewhere in the universe is therefore the testing ground for two diametrically opposed world-views. On one side is orthodox science, with its nihilistic philosophy of the pointless universe, of impersonal laws oblivious of ends, a cosmos in which life and mind, science and art, hope and fear are but flukey incidental embellishments on a tapestry of irreversible cosmic corruption. On the other, there is an alternative view, undeniably romantic but perhaps true nevertheless, the vison of a self-organizing and self-complexifying universe, governed by ingenious laws that encourage matter to evolve towards life and consciousness. A universe in which the emergence of thinking beings is a fundamental and integral part of the overall scheme of things. p.273

It's hard to see how this second alternative differs from the fundamental claim of ID that life and the cosmos show evidence of having been designed with a purpose. That being so, we can be sure that the thought police in the ACLU will certainly fight hammer and tong to prevent The 5th Miracle from being read in the science classrooms of American public schools. More's the pity because it certainly does give the reader an excellent education in the difficulties involved with trying to imagine a naturalistic origin of life.

See also Phillip Johnson's excellent review of The 5th Miracle.

Gallantry Under Fire

Vasko Kohlmayer at The American Thinker has a piece that says something about George Bush and his political opponents that we have mentioned, oh, every other day or so: George Bush shows far more class, Kohlmayer calls it gallantry, than do his detractors, and indeed, far more class than almost anyone who has been vilified and hated to the extent he has could be expected to show. Here are some highlights from Kohlmyer's essay:

The other day, the American people saw George W. Bush once again addressing his critics in connection with the NSA's surveillance program . Despite the fact that he has been accused of the worst of possible motives - of willfully and deliberately breaking the law to spy on his fellow citizens - the President tackled this and other gratuitous charges without a trace of anger or bitterness.

A relative few presidents in this country's history have endured the kind of vicious and spurious attacks that have been leveled against George Bush. Completely abandoning any sense of decorum or statesmanship, some of the highest officials in the Democratic Party have repeatedly called him a liar, a loser, an election-thief, an airhead, and a fraud. Regularly likened to Hitler, there have been books discussing his assassination. Recently he was even dubbed the world's greatest terrorist by one of America's once-prominent entertainers . There are just a few of examples. Sadly, such views are increasingly becoming part of the mainstream liberal outlook.

But no matter how malicious they have been, George Bush has always faced his critics with affability and goodwill. Even his most bitter enemies - hating him as they do - would be hard pressed to fault him for being uncivil or personally unpleasant. He displays none of the unkindness, harshness or anger one would normally expect from someone engaged in a political struggle against those who frenziedly seek his destruction.

In fact, Bush's gallant manner has become something of a trademark. His comportment has served him well, for he has triumphed in almost every great battle he has fought, including two heatedly-fought national elections. His successes tend to drive his opponents into what can only be called spasms of political hysteria, and not knowing what else to do, they crank up even further their already outlandish rhetoric. Their near-madness is indeed a sight to behold.

What this shows is that that when you are on the side of right you do not have to be brusque to prevail. Conducting yourself with grace and dignity can in itself have a devastating effect. Insults and vituperation are altogether unnecessary. Quite to the contrary - geniality and personal warmth further augment the effectiveness of your words and actions.

No president since Lincoln has had to endure what Bush has suffered. That he has borne up so well and has not allowed the attacks to make him bitter or angry is a testament to his character. His reward will be that he will probably be a heroic historic figure long after his disparagers have been completely forgotten. Some of them may go down in the history books, perhaps, but it will be in the same fashion that James Thomson Callendar, Thomas Jefferson's vicious journalistic critic, made his mark in history - as a deranged man irrationally obsessed with destroying a president.

The Democrats Need to Grow Up

At last night's State of the Union message the Democrats gave the president a gleeful standing ovation when he said this: "By 2030 spending for social security, medicare, and medicaid alone will be almost 60% of the entire federal budget. It will present future Congresses with impossible choices: staggering taxes, immense debt, or deep cuts in spending. Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save social security..."

As much as anything else they could have done this shows the juvenile immaturity of people who themselves offer no solutions to our problems. Why they should celebrate blocking a proposal to save social security is beyond me. Even if Bush's proposal was a bad one, it was at least a step toward a solution and should be praised and respected as such rather than treated with the raucous contempt the Democrats displayed last night. The fact is that the Democrats have no solution to the looming entitlement crisis. If left to them nothing at all would be done to prevent it.

Some day when social security is bankrupt the tape of the Democrats' wild, self-congratulatory applause will be endlessly played and replayed by their political opponents, and they will rue the day they gave themselves so much credit for their puerile obstructionism while ceaselessly impugning those who sought to prevent the calamity they will then be facing.