Philosopher Thomas Nagel created a stir in the philosophical world when he took wing a couple of months ago with the release of his book Mind and Cosmos: Why Darwinian Materialism Is Almost Certainly Wrong. Now comes word that cosmologist Paul Davies, one of the most prolific writers of science books in the last twenty years, has placed himself on the rim of the nest and is flexing his wings.
An article in Science Daily discusses a recent paper Davies has written with a coworker named Sara Walker that sounds almost as if it could have been written by an Intelligent Design advocate. The article starts this way:
One of the great mysteries of life is how it began. What physical process transformed a nonliving mix of chemicals into something as complex as a living cell?Davies and Walker have come up with what they think is a partial answer:
In a nutshell, the authors shift attention from the "hardware" -- the chemical basis of life -- to the "software" -- its information content. To use a computer analogy, chemistry explains the material substance of the machine, but it won't function without a program and data. Davies and Walker suggest that the crucial distinction between non-life and life is the way that living organisms manage the information flowing through the system.In other words it's information that defines life and information processing that must be explained, but as Intelligent Design theorists have been saying now for a decade and a half, information is uniquely a characteristic of minds. If life is all about information what is the genesis of that information? Living cells are like libraries of information. They're like computer software, but the library's books and software codes are products of intelligence. You don't get Windows XP by random chance and natural forces.
"When we describe biological processes we typically use informational narratives -- cells send out signals, developmental programs are run, coded instructions are read, genomic data are transmitted between generations and so forth," Walker said. "So identifying life's origin in the way information is processed and managed can open up new avenues for research."
"We propose that the transition from non-life to life is unique and definable," added Davies. "We suggest that life may be characterized by its distinctive and active use of information, thus providing a road map to identify rigorous criteria for the emergence of life. This is in sharp contrast to a century of thought in which the transition to life has been cast as a problem of chemistry, with the goal of identifying a plausible reaction pathway from chemical mixtures to a living entity."
The article continues:
"To a physicist or chemist life seems like 'magic matter,'" Davies explained. "It behaves in extraordinary ways that are unmatched in any other complex physical or chemical system. Such lifelike properties include autonomy, adaptability and goal-oriented behavior -- the ability to harness chemical reactions to enact a pre-programmed agenda, rather than being a slave to those reactions.""Magic matter?" One might think that Davies has taken wing, but he's not ready to leave the materialist nest just yet. He still thinks that there's some purely physicalist explanation for the amazing amount and functionality of information in the cell, at least he says he does. Perhaps, he's at the stage of the fledgling which knows that leaving the nest is inevitable, but it clings to the security the nest represents as long as possible. After all, there's a tremendous professional price to pay when one becomes a full-fledged heretic.