Sunday, March 01, 2015

Another Solution(?) to OOL using Front Loading

Successful OOL theories (Origin of Life theories) have been hard to come by and I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that with regard to the detailed mechanism of OOL “Scientists haven’t got a clue”. However, the latest OOL attempt by physicist Jeremy England to tackle this problem is causing a minor flurry of interest. In the video above he gives a general run down on his ideas. His essential idea is that life is a successful way of dissipating a low entropy energy source into high entropy energy and therefore life is actually favoured by the second law of thermodynamics, a conclusion that is very ironic*1 (I hope to consider England’s views in more detail in a later blog post)

Not everyone is very convinced. In fact evangelical atheist Larry Moran is rather sarcastic. For myself, at this stage, I’m inclined to say “Perhaps, but probably not!”; England makes no appeal to the exponentiating power of the expanding parallelism that would be needed to solve the OOL problem in realistic time from scratch. It follows, then, that  in order for England’s proposal to work he must assume that suitable a priori information, probably in the form of some kind of generalised “Fitness space”*2 is front loaded into our cosmic physical regime; see my blog post here and atheist biologist Joe Felsenstein’s accompanying comments about the work of William Dembski. For me this is the undoing of England’s proposal: My expectation is that the cosmic physical regime doesn't have such blatant informational “front loading” and that the cosmos therefore has to work hard for its solutions, just as one expects any sensible algorithm to actually seek solutions and not have them built in from the start to be merely revealed in some kind of decompression process. However, in saying this I must confess that I’m using my very anthropomorphic a priori instincts about what would constitute a purposeful and teleologically useful computation to guide my expectations on this subject; after all I am a theist and that changes a lot, a priori.

Inevitably this sort of theory by England will lead to popular talk about “disproving God”, or “God being on the ropes”. In this connection see this web page at the Independent and this one at Salon.  Salon’s headline says:  

God is on the ropes: The brilliant new science that has creationists and the Christian right terrified

In my view Salon is being fair here because they are singling out “Creationists and the Christian Right”, terms which don’t cover all Christians by any means. This follows because the de-facto connotations of the term “Creationist”  is bound up with Young Earthist religious fundamentalism and the Christian right, sometimes the very far right. It is these right wing and fundamentalist Christians who are likely to have an underlying dualist theology of “God vs. Natural Forces”, a theology which tends to favour a “God-of-the-Gaps” account of creation. In this right wing context it is usually tacitly assumed that science cannot complete the account*3 of the origin of life in terms of “natural forces” and will therefore leave big gaps inviting the Christian right to fill them in with “God did it!” assertions. In fact this kind of logic is even found among the more sophisticated and less abrasive evangelicals of the de-facto Intelligent Design movement – see for example IDist V J Torley whose arguments have a very telling God-of-the-gaps vs. natural forces theme running through them. The kind of homunculus creator favored by God-of-the-gaps theologians is rooted in the very Western concept of the divine persona as a kind of jumped up tinkering engineer, a theology that many Western anti-theists also will share in concept form (only) and who are therefore engaged in frantic research that they hope will fill in all those scientific gaps with “natural forces”.

One of the driving forces behind the polarization of the two opposing sides who respectively argue in favour of “God” or “natural forces” seems to be political. The Christian right don’t have a very good relationship with the government paid servants of official academia. The Christian right, who are more likely to be on the side of big business*4 rather than big government, hate the sight of the government paid academics (whether they be Christian or atheist). Some extreme right wingers such as Mormon Glenn Beck and fundamentalist Kent Hovind perceive official academia to be part of a government conspiracy that is pushing theories like evolution and anthropogenic global warming in order to control and deceive us!


*1 England’s work is another indication of the naivety of the Christian right wing who are forever trying to use the Second Law of Thermodynamics as an in principle disproof of evolution. It never seems to occur to them that the Second Law only tells us about the rather insensitive parameter of entropy, a parameter which as a global property of an isolated system does not dictate what is happening locally in that system. Moreover, from the perspective of a theist such as myself it would seem to be little problem for God to arrange a system where order can increase locally, but never globally; that is, the 2nd law is only telling us about the global entropy and nothing about any clever physics with which the Almighty has Providenced the cosmic regime to bring about the generation of life locally by feeding off high entropy sources in the process - in such a scenario the global entropy of an isolated system would always increase. The desire by the Christian right to find in principle reason against the "natural" generation of life traces back to their philosophical dualism expressed as a God  vs. Nature dichotomy; they see God as a kind of magical conjurer who does his supernatural stuff every now and then. The Christian right's views here are also bound up with their polarized political antipathy toward government financed academics who as a rule support standard evolution.

*2 See my configuration space series here. My work on configuration space resulted in my dispensing with the idea that this space contains a sufficiently connected set of stable organic forms to facilitate “evolutionary” diffusion. I then went back to my earlier ideas of the "Melencolia I" series.

*3 Incomplete description mustn't be confused with the grand logical hiatus (i.e. ultimate contingency) that pervades all our theories, descriptively complete or otherwise. See here:

*4 There is a paradox in right wing thinking about business; On the one hand they are very much in favour of hands-off governments and market driven anarchism. This view, if implemented, leads to a loosening of controls thereby favouring towering business monopolies and plutocracies which end up looking very much like corrupt autocratic governments.

Other Relevant links:

ADDENDUM 4/03/2015 Fundamentalist Intellectual Bankruptcy
The intellectual poverty of some members of the Christian right wing is no better illustrated than Ken Ham's unthinking dismal of England's OOL "solution". Completely unable to engage England's work Ham can do little more than dismiss it as obviously foolish and issue the usual religious threats as is the wont of the cornered and marginalized fundamentalist. Now, I think it very likely that England is wrong and neither do I think that standard evolution with its manifest necessity for front loaded information is right, But I'll at least give intelligent academics like England the respect and credit they deserve; after all, it is just possible that it pleases the Almighty to reveal the truth of the matter to such people.  The following blog entry was published by Ham. Very tellingly and disparagingly Ham talks about natural processes.  Ham represents a nadir in Christian thought.

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