Friday, December 22, 2006

A New Approach to Answers

The following paragraph can be viewed within the context of the linked book review titled, Seeking anthropic answers, in which it appears. The subject of the review is Paul Davies' book 'The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life?' My comments on the author's thoughts follow in bold print.

"But the universe does not need an "atom principle" to ensure that atoms are formed, or even a "carbon principle" to enforce the details of stellar nucleosynthesis that Hoyle was worried about. So it is not at all clear that we should elevate the existence of life to something in need of a "life principle" separate from the laws of physics themselves – the same laws responsible for those atoms and nuclei. Indeed, this is just the criticism correctly levelled by Davies himself against the proponents of intelligent design: just because we are not yet able to understand the evolution of the mechanism of the flagellum, that does not mean it did not evolve."

That may be the criticism but it is hardly correct criticism. There is much that is misunderstood about intelligent design and this illustrates a core defect in the thinking of opponents of ID. While some theories related to atoms and the universe have proven useful others have been discarded along the way. New theories arise when preceeding theories fail to account for new data. So given a longstanding failure of current theories to explain the origin of life, why would it come as a surprise that some would point in a different direction for answers?

The critical paragraph is based on a materialist perspective. It implicitly argues that matter and laws governing it are sufficient to explain the generating cause of life because they are sufficient to explain all physical phenomenon. It is an axiom but not demonstrable. The cause for life's origins has proven elusive to those bound by this restrictive paradigm. But, is there an existing answer, incompatible with intelligent design, that has not yet been found or are lack of results attributable to looking in all the wrong places? As long as some options are off the table we'll never know.

What physical clues would be indicators that a new approach is called for? A lack of answers is surely basic but there is more. Why think that an absence of answers equates to existing, but yet unfound data, rather than a flawed approach that artificially excludes options? The key to answering this can be found in the objections initially introduced. Does the study of chemistry explain a process that would generate life from non-life? Has accumulated knowledge about cellular chemical compounds and the nature of bonds linking one substance to another illuminated how life would have arisen? If the answer to these basic questions is no or not likely, then why is that be so?

One need only look at a central characteristic of life to find the answer. A capacity for self-replication enables the continuation of life. While some molecules have been known to have self-replication properties, there is no experimental evidence that errors in self-replication lead to novel systems or functions through a selection process. Indeed there is no reason to believe that such a process would sustain itself in prebiotic earth conditions. Moreover the type of replication needed would be that which would satisfy von Neumann's theoretical prerequiste for self-replicating entities. A pathway to life commencing with self-replicating RNA does not separate a universal constructor from its description. The two functions would be embodied by the same nucleic acid. But then what sequential pattern could be said to have selective value? One whose pattern would enable enzymatic protein synthesis when the the mechanism enabling this function is non-existent? The theoretical problems are actually much graver as was indicated here.

The problems of OOL models are well known. A genetic code, which had to come about to enable life as we know it, operates through nucleotide sequence patterns made possible through phosphodiester bonds. However, these bonds do not determine the selective value of nucleotide patterns. The function of encoded by-products reveals selective value. That in turn is dependent on a set of existing mechanisms making gene expression possible. Chemical determinism is not compatible with the symbolic flexibility required by codes. A selection approach begins with a scenario wherein mechanisms needed to assess selective value are non-existent and provides no reason to believe their selection value is favored through a self-replication process.

Known causal links between codes and intelligence are sufficient to suggest reasonable hypotheses. Testing, rather than arguments aimed at strawmen like "life principles," should determine the scientific credibility of such hypotheses. This is particularly so when a key property of life- encoding nucleic acids- have properties indicating their generating cause is inconsistent with chemical determinism and not suggested by a selection paradigm. At best new approaches offer the possibility of revealing elusive answers and at worst they would confirm the wisdom of pursuing more traditional approaches to life's origins.


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