The divine foot
The common worldview known as scientific materialism was formulated early in the twentieth century as the philosophy which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature and that all things, including the cerebral, are the result of material interactions.
Fifteen years ago, Stephen Meyer (Ph.D. History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge), who serves as director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, came out with the claim that from a scientific perspective, matter and energy are insufficient as the fundamental entities for the cosmos and for life. He states that in the last few decades it has become apparent that information is a necessary fundamental entity.
Is the concept of the need for information a threat to scientific materialism? It seems it must be, since in 1997 Harvard geneticist Professor Richard Lewontin is quoted as claiming: materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a “divine foot” in the door.
What is information? I think we all, intuitively, have our own understanding of what is meant by information, but we need a useful, scientific, definition. The mathematician and philosopher William Dembski and electrical engineering professor Robert Marks have formulated a definition of information as follows: in the search for an answer to any question, information is any statement that reduces the number of possibilities in the space of all answers.
Is Meyer’s claim concerning information correct? I will follow some of the major scientific discoveries over the last 100 years to discern, as Dr. Meyer has, that information is the fundamental basis for all of science and as a result, the philosophy of scientific materialism is crumbling. There may be a “divine foot” in the door of science.
Looking at the physics, where did all this matter come from? That question leads us to the big bang. In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble used the new, and the world’s largest (100-inch), telescope at the Mt. Wilson Observatory to discover that the universe is expanding. This implies that if we go back in time, the universe had a beginning – it started as a singularity and exploded into all of the universe. Many physicists were not pleased with that result, but they then went to work on this concept: The Big Bang.
Based on the four fundamental forces of nature – the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and the force of gravity – over billions of years all of the matter in the universe was created out of some initial singularity. Protons and electrons gave rise to hydrogen. The fusion process converts hydrogen into helium with the release of a huge amount of energy, and that process is the source of the heat and light that radiates from the sun to earth. This is now what is referred to as The Big Bang.
And physicists tell us that all this happened because the four fundamental forces of nature are very, very finely tuned to just the right values. Changing ever so slightly any of those four forces and the process of the fusion of hydrogen to helium — to all the other elements required for life — would fail. There would be no universe and no life. This fine tuning of the fundamental forces requires information and in their work at the Informatics Lab at Baylor, Dembski and Marks have shown that information cannot be created by chance; hence this fine tuning of the universe could not be a result of chance events. If Dembski and Marks are correct, it seems that there is at least a divine toe in the door.
In 1953, about 30 years after Hubble’s discovery of the expanding universe, Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, the holy grail of the cell, the secret of life.
Over the next years and decades, it was determined that the proteins of life are defined by the ordering of segments of DNA. Proteins are built up out of amino acids. There are about 500 naturally occurring amino acids, but only 20 of those amino acids are used to build proteins. For every protein, the ordering of the 20 possible amino acids is absolutely critical to the folding and functioning of the protein. These 20 amino acids are special in another way: they come in what are referred to as left- and right-hand forms. In the lab, any chemical reaction that builds amino acids results in a 50-50 mixture of both left- and right-hand amino acids.
Yet in the cell only left-handed amino acids are built and then used to build proteins. So how are amino acids used to build all the machinery found in a cell? It is commonly agreed that the building of proteins out of specific orderings of amino acids functions like a language: the 20 amino acids are the letters and the proteins are the resulting words. Putting words together you get sentences and putting sentences together you get paragraphs and then chapters and books. Similarly, proteins are combined to build all the workings of the cell and the organism.
Consider Oxford biology professor Richard Dawkins and his Shakespeare phrase: METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL.
The heart of neo-Darwinian evolution is based on random mutation and natural selection. In the Weasel phrase above what happens when a letter is changed at random? Almost every change converts the word to gibberish. And the phrase loses its meaning. The same thing happens when one of the amino acids in a protein is changed by a mutation. The usefulness of the protein is diminished, or even lost, and the cell is damaged or dies.
The neo-Darwinian evolutionary claim is that every organism is subject to random errors in their DNA and that these mutations accumulate via natural selection to yield new organisms. This is supposedly responsible for all the diversity of life. As an example, in 1994 two Swedish biologists, Dan-Eric Nilsson and Susanne Pelger, wrote a paper outlining the process by which the eye is supposed to have developed by a sequence of small changes going from a light sensitive spot to a focused-lens eye. And they claimed that this process might take only a few hundred thousand years.
Consider the following fable related to us by author and academic David Berlinski.
In 1605 the first modern novel, Don Quixote, was published by the author Miguel de Cervantes and over the next centuries, many monks copied the book thousands and thousands of times, just as the Bible has been copied thousands of times. By 1869 Don Quixote had evolved into Tolstoy’s War and Peace!!
If you think the focused-lens eye could have evolved from a light sensitive spot then you may also believe that War and Peace could have evolved out of Don Quixote by the accumulation of random errors.
The analogy between letters combining to form words, and amino acids combining to form proteins is very revealing. Consider a string of six letters. Using our 26-letter alphabet there are 26*26*26*26*26*26 = 30,617,392 possible orderings of six letters. If we know some string of six letters is found in our dictionary, that constitutes information since it greatly reduces the number of words of six letters. The string W, E, A, S, E, L is in our dictionary so out of all the orderings of six letters we have found the word WEASEL.
An important difference between words and proteins is that proteins are very long. Consider all the orderings of what would be considered a short chain of 150 amino acids. Using the 20 possible amino acids there are 20 x 20 x … x 20 x 20 = 20150 = 2150 x 10150 ≈ 10195 possible chains of 150 amino acids — a huge number of chains. For perspective there are only 1065 atoms in the Milky Way and only 1085 atoms in the whole universe! Again, knowing that a particular chain is a protein would be information yielding a massive reduction in the number of chains of 150 amino acids.
So how rare are the proteins in the space of all amino acid chains? Caltech Ph.D. Douglas Axe spent years at the Cambridge research labs investigating protein function and constraints. His research agrees with the results of others and he calculated the ratio of proteins to amino acid chains to be 1 in 1077. Since there are only about 1065 atoms in our galaxy that means if you were trying to find a protein in the space of all amino acid chains, it would be equivalent to searching for one particular atom out of all the atoms in the Milky Way. No hope of finding that atom.
Yes, the DNA of an organism defines all the proteins that are used to build all the machinery of the cell, but how are the parts, the machinery of an organism, constructed? Given the complete set of proteins, they do not just fall into place. There has to be a design, a set of instructions, that put together the proteins in the right order and the right place. This is not a trivial task.
Suppose you buy a Lego set of 350 pieces. Now tear open all the bags of parts and dump them on the table. Then throw away the instructions that would take you through each of the 122 assembly steps so that you can end up with the toy shown on the box. Now, ignore the picture on the box, so you have no notion of what you are building. Pick up a random piece, then a second piece at random and join them into something. Continue picking up a random piece and joining them together at random until all the 350 pieces have been assembled together. Oh, I forgot to tell you, you are also blindfolded. What is the probability that your result resembles anything that Lego has ever produced, much less the object that was pictured on the original box?
So how might nature build a cell? As an example, we will look at the wing of a fly. Given the proteins that are used to build the wing, New Zealand geneticist and author Michael Denton explains:
The complexity of the development of the wing … is beyond belief… Every detail of the developmental program is an enigma in terms of adaptive gradualism. Part of the laying down of the basic plan of the wing in [the fly] involves the setting up of two orthogonal … gradients which serve as the x and y axis in a planar Cartesian coordinate system which the cells …“read” to work out their position.
Flies discovered Cartesian coordinates millions of years before Rene Descartes first formulated the x,y plane in 1637!
Matter and energy are not enough. Information has floated to the top. Princeton physicist John Wheeler expressed this well in 1989.
I, like other searchers, attempt formulation after formulation of the central issues and here present a wider overview, taking for a working hypothesis the most effective one that has survived this winnowing: It from Bit. Otherwise put, every it – every particle, every field of force even the spacetime continuum itself – derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely – even if in some contexts indirectly – from that apparatus-elicited answers to yes or no questions, binary choices, bits.
Compare Wheeler’s comments above to how a Techie Pietist might paraphrase John 1:1-3.
“The Bit Became Flesh”
In the beginning was the Bit, and the Bit was with God, and the Bit was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
So, it would seem, there is not only room for a “Divine Foot” in the door, but even a Divine Torso.