A thought experiment about OOL


(Stephen Matheson) #21

Huh? No, that doesn’t follow from anything I wrote.


#22

There is still interstellar dust and many more modes of transport.

It is the same metaphysical assumption we use in our every day lives, so it seems pretty reasonable. We look for natural processes when we come up to a mystery, so life shouldn’t be any different. If we walk out our front door and find a tree toppled over in our front lawn our first hypothesis usually isn’t that time travelling designers knocked it over.

There is also the practical scientific view. If we are looking to investigate something then would choose the route that actually allows us to investigate. Time travelling designers who leave no evidence are not a viable route of investigation. Things like naturally occurring panspermia and abiogenesis offer routes of investigation unlike invisible designers.


#23

Irreducible complexity was solved by Muller back in the early 1900’s, so I don’t know why it would pose a problem:

"… thus a complicated machine was gradually built up whose effective working was dependent upon the interlocking action of very numerous different elementary parts or factors, and many of the characters and factors which, when new, were originally merely an asset finally became necessary because other necessary characters and factors had subsequently become changed so as to be dependent on the former. It must result, in consequence, that a dropping out of, or even a slight change in any one of these parts is very likely to disturb fatally the whole machinery; for this reason we should expect very many, if not most, mutations to result in lethal factors …"
Muller 1918 pp. 463-464. (emphasis in the original)

We also have evidence of irreducible complexity evolving in the fossil record, such as the mammalian middle ear where two jaw bones evolve into middle ear bones that are now needed for hearing where they were not needed before…[quote=“Bilbo, post:13, topic:36944”]
But if the aliens designed life, instead of it evolving, they still could have sent microbes in a rocket ship.
[/quote]

That only moves the question to the origin of the aliens.


#24

The earliest signs of life we see on Earth emerged early in Earth’s history, and it was very simple life. This is what we would expect to see if life arose naturally on Earth.


#25

Love the quote. What is the source?


#26

http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/ICsilly.html

The rest of the webpage is also informative.

The talkorigins page on the evolution of the irreducibly complex mammalian middle ear can be found here:

http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/section1.html#morphological_intermediates_ex2


#27

Dr. Matheson,

I still haven’t found a way to copy comments. One of your comments seemed to imply that without comets, asteroids, and meteors, the Earth would have been devoid of necessary precursors for the origin of life. But perhaps I misunderstood you.

Anyway, let’s revise the thought experiment to include having the same pre-biotic conditions that were present on Earth, whatever their origin.


#28

Hi T,

I don’t want to get into a debate about irreducible complexity. I was looking for a shorthand way of describing the first part of Crick’s book, which led him to propose his hypothesis of directed panspermia. Whatever shorthand terms one wants to use, it drove Crick to describe the origin of life as appearing to be miraculous.

As to allowing supernatural and time travelling designers as possible explanations: I think we might need to make a distinction between scientific and reasonable explanations. In the thought experiment, we know that an intelligent agent could design living bacteria. We don’t know if non-intelligent processes could accomplish that. In such a situation, it seems to me that to insist that we must rule out supernatural and time travelling designers as unreasonable explanations is unjustified. We have no evidence that a non-intelligent process could produce living bacteria. We do have evidence that an intelligent agent could. We don’t know that there are not supernatural or time travelling agents. To insist that we cannot hypothesize their existence strikes me as closed-minded.

Undirected Panspermia would have the same problem of pushing the problem of the OOL back to some place else. How did living bacteria originate somewhere else?

First life forms being “simple” bacteria might imply that they arose from simpler non-living things. It might imply directed panspermia. It might imply a supernatural creator who acts in a similar manner to a farmer planting seeds. It might imply a time travelling designer who is at one point in his own crazy time loop.


#29

One person’s opinion isn’t scientific. I think we are more interested in the question of how life originates than in the opinions held by Crick.[quote=“Bilbo, post:28, topic:36944”]
In the thought experiment, we know that an intelligent agent could design living bacteria.
[/quote]

We also know that the universe has a finite history which means that life had to start from non-life at some point in the history of the universe.[quote=“Bilbo, post:28, topic:36944”]
We don’t know that there are not supernatural or time travelling agents.
[/quote]

We also don’t know that there aren’t natural pathways for the origin of life.

That is the question. As far as the scientific method goes, can you produce a falsifiable hypothesis as it relates to an intelligent designer? Can you design experiments that will produce positive evidence for a designer instead of just negative evidence for competing explanations?

We aren’t the thought police. We aren’t telling you what you can or can’t consider. Instead, we are asking what the next step is in this investigation. What type of positive evidence would one expect to find for an intelligent designer? Or is the argument simply a Designer of the Gaps?


(Stephen Matheson) #30

You misunderstood. I was participating in your thought experiment. That thought experiment was quite clearly not about earth, and my comments most definitely did not imply that any planet would require extraterrestrial impacts to acquire prebiotic components. I think that should all be clear from what I wrote.

Well then, this isn’t a “thought experiment” anymore. Which is a shame, because the original thought experiment had some potential to be interesting. It was similar to Del Ratzsch’s thought experiment about a diesel bulldozer on Mars.


#31

Hi Beaglelady,

From the evidence given in the thought experiment, how would we be able to conclude that God was the designer? How would we be able to conclude that God was not the designer?


#32

I would be interested in your answers to those same questions.


#33

I don’t know what we’d be able to conclude. We’ve never seen life forms that we know for sure that God designed (except for beagles!!!) so there is no basis for comparison.

Scientists would look for a natural explanation because that is what they do. If there is a natural explanation, scientists will only find it if they look for it. That has worked very well so far.


(Stephen Matheson) #34

The thought experiment was unrelated to earth, because earth has abundant resources to support life. Bacteria on earth are not anomalous, but they were in the thought experiment.

But more importantly, it is technically true that “we don’t know if non-intelligent processes could accomplish” the OOL. But that’s a vacuous assertion because it rests entirely on the fact that we don’t have ready access to the phenomenon itself (merely because of the passage of many eons). In the case of the OOL and many other questions about the deep past, it is inadequate to assert what we don’t know, at least when attempting to justify a major explanatory move. It is far more important to show that we have reason to doubt that non-intelligent processes could do this or that. Only then are we justified in proposing superbeings in superships using supertechnologies. There are lots of reasons for that, and those are a conversation by itself. But to simply say “I don’t know x” is to barely begin to make a case for “I propose extraordinary explanation y.”

That claim relies on a non-canonical definition of ‘evidence.’ I would call the claim plainly false.

This kind of claim is completely vacuous. Substitute anything you want for “supernatural or time travelling agents.” Try it at home. Here’s one I just cooked up: We don’t know that there are not aliens using mind control to cause people to post on this discussion forum. No rational (or even sane) discussion can proceed while such statements are taken seriously.


#35

I haven’t found a way to copy any of your comments, which means I have to rely upon my unreliable memory, which gets too frustrating. So I give up. Too bad. There are a number of very interesting lines of discussion here.


(Brian J Miller) #36

As another thought experiment, imaging SETI receives a signal from space that contains the instructions for a spaceship as in the movie Contact. Essentially, the signal contains information on the construction of complex machinery. Would attributing design to that signal be scientific? One could always argue that scientists might one day explain the signal through self-replicating stars which were somehow selected for space-ship-like signals. Is life any different in that the simplest functional cell requires significant amounts of information related to the assembly of molecular machinery?

The challenge is that the first functional cell represents a collection of atoms in a configuration which is low entropy and high energy compared to its original prebiotic precursors. No natural process moves in a direction which both lowers entropy and increases the internal energy for extended periods of time. Such a process would move a system to higher free energy when spontaneous processes move toward lower free energy. Often, origins scientists point to nonequilibrium dissipative systems which are far from equilibrium and produce self-organizational behavior. The challenge is that fluctuation theorems over the past few decades indicate that systems far from equilibrium will continuously generate entropy, beyond small fluctuations, which would not be conducive to creating a low entropy system the size of the first autonomous cell.

The only way around this challenge is for a system to have machinery which can process the flow of energy or fuel through the system and then redirect that energy into a form which can be used to move the system (or a smaller subsystem) towards higher free energy. In all cells, molecular machinery converts energy into high energy molecules such as ATP. The breakdown of the high energy molecules can then be coupled to reactions, which go uphill, required to build up and maintain the cellular structures. However, that machinery did not preexist the first cell. In addition, information is required in the sequences of proteins (or ribozymes), so they would form into structures which properly couple the downhill reactions with the right uphill ones to create the right type of cellular order. Else, the breakdown of the high energy molecules would just dissipate energy into the environment.

The problem is that non-biological collections of molecules vastly outnumber collections which correspond to life. And, natural processes drive systems towards lower free energy, so they would not bias molecules toward life to beat the odds. All origins theories have to assume design in some hidden form. For instance, to generate large quantities of RNA some environment on the early earth would have had to experience a series of fantastically improbable events to produce the right conditions at the right times. For, all experiments which generate significant quantities of life’s building blocks include a series of steps each using the perfect conditions, the perfect collections of highly purified materials, the constant removal of unwanted byproducts, and the concentration and purification of the desired products. In addition, nature is assumed to know to select the correct RNAs (or sequences of reactions) that happen to perform biological functions over the vastly more common non-functional alternatives. In short, cells demonstrate three key features which point to design:

  • Arrangements of parts which should not have come about by any natural process due to their high free energy.
  • Arrangements of parts which fall into a class (i.e. life) which is fantastically improbable compared to random collections of smaller molecules.
  • The purposeful arrangement of heterogeneous parts toward a function goal - an autonomous molecular assembly which can maintain itself far from equilibrium through the use of molecular machinery which can process energy and assemble and install its own parts.

These characteristics do not prove life is designed, but can one not infer design as clearly as the signal from space?


#37

Any collection of molecules in the universe requires significant amounts of information. We also get radio signals from stars that contain a ton of information in the form of spectra and changes over time, so does this mean that stars are also intelligent?

The problem is that life is nothing like the information in a radio signal. Life reproduces itself while radio transmissions do not. Life evolves through natural selection. Radio transmissions do not. Machines like those in the movie Contact do not reproduce. Life does. The two are simply not analogous.


(Brian J Miller) #38

Any collection of molecules in the universe requires significant amounts of information. We also get radio signals from stars that contain a ton of information in the form of spectra and changes over time, so does this mean that stars are also intelligent?

This comment represents a common confusion between what is referred to as Shannon information and functional or semantic information. Semantic/functional information (specified complexity) represents a pattern or arrangement of symbols which corresponds to some external pattern or demonstrates purpose/meaning/agency. And, the arrangement is not associated with the physics and chemistry of the underlying medium which carries it. For instance, an ice crystal maintains a pattern which is the result of the attractive forces between the atoms. In contrast, letters on a scrabble board can carry semantic information since they can be arranged in any order independently of the materials making them up. And, that arrangement only carries semantic information if it corresponds to meaningful sentences. Likewise, the origin of life required a highly improbable ensemble of chemical reactions which operated symphonically to achieve a fully operational cell. Those reactions depended on enzymes which drove and coupled them together properly. And, the enzymes represented arrangements of amino acids with semantic information. Hurbet Yockey has made this point both in terms of the information in proteins/enzymes and the genetic code.

“Attempts to relate the idea of order…with biological organization or specificity must be regarded as a play on words that cannot stand careful scrutiny. Informational macromolecules can code genetic messages and therefore can carry information because the sequence of bases or residues is affected very little, if at all, by [self-organizing] physicochemical factors.”

He also stated:

The paradox is seldom mentioned that enzymes are required to define or generate the reaction network, and the network is required to synthesize the enzymes and their component amino acids. There is no trace in physics or chemistry of the control of chemical reactions by a sequence of any sort or of a code between sequences. Thus, when we make the distinction between the origin of the genetic code and its evolution we find the origin of the genetic code is unknowable (Chapter 11). Hubert P. Yockey. Information Theory, Evolution, and The Origin of Life (p. 93).

Another common misconception is that the early earth likely contained a large collection of self-replicating molecules which natural selection could act upon.

The problem is that life is nothing like the information in a radio signal. Life reproduces itself while radio transmissions do not. Life evolves through natural selection. Radio transmissions do not. Machines like those in the movie Contact do not reproduce. Life does. The two are simply not analogous.

The problem with this claim is that any autocatalytic network of reactions or self-replicating molecules would involve chemical reactions which move toward lower free energy, so the starting high-free-energy molecules would be quickly used up. The percentage of different types of molecules on the early earth drops off exponentially with their free energy. The dropoff is not a perfect exponential since the earth is not in thermal equilibrium, but it is close enough for the sake of the discussion. A common misconception is that energy sources, such as sunlight or heat, could strongly bias molecules toward higher free energy. However, adding raw energy to a system increases its entropy, so complex (e.g. long-chained RNA) high-free-energy molecules would actually tend to break down. More specifically, the production of nucleotides on the early earth was assessed by leading synthetic chemist James Tour, and his analysis suggests that they should have been virtually non-existent.

The other challenge is that even if the earth contained countless RNA or other long-chained molecules, natural selection would only select for the ease to self-replicate. However, chains which folded into stable structures which could act as enzymes or serve other functions in the first cell would seem to be selected against. Would not a tightly folded structure be difficult for any replicator molecule to unfold for the duplication process?

Even if a self-replicating collection of RNAs emerged, the transition between that system and a true cell requires the emergence of an information storage system, translation process, and a fully functional set of proteins encoded in the storage system. Leading origins expert Eugene Koonin calculated probabilities related to the emergence of such as system, and they were less than 1 in 10 to the power of 1000, which is clearly impossible. His solution to this dilemma was to invoke a probabilistic deus-ex-machina. He argued for the existence of a multiverse with countless planets trying countless combinations of sequences. If one were uncomfortable with that approach, the problem becomes insurmountable.

To reiterate from before, the basic challenge is as follows:

  • The number of possible collections of atoms is unimaginably large. And, those combinations which would generate an autonomous cell represent a fraction so small that life could never come about by chance.
  • No natural processes could help beat the odds since they would drive any system away from the target of the first cell. For, a cell contains far higher free-energy than random collections of simple molecules.
  • A cell demonstrates semantic/functional information since it represents a collection of information-rich molecules working together for a common purpose. And, large quantities of semantic information cannot be generated by natural processes.

#39

How do you determine if a pattern is the product of purpose/meaning/agency?[quote=“bjmiller, post:38, topic:36944”]
And, the arrangement is not associated with the physics and chemistry of the underlying medium which carries it.
[/quote]

That would apply to every crystal that is made up of more than one molecule. The pattern of occlusions would not be associated with the chemistry or underlying medium in much the same way that we find with randomly assembled genetic molecules.[quote=“bjmiller, post:38, topic:36944”]
For instance, an ice crystal maintains a pattern which is the result of the attractive forces between the atoms.
[/quote]

Same applies to DNA, RNA, and protein. The production of these molecules has everything to do with the attractive forces between nucleotides.[quote=“bjmiller, post:38, topic:36944”]
Likewise, the origin of life required a highly improbable ensemble of chemical reactions which operated symphonically to achieve a fully operational cell. Those reactions depended on enzymes which drove and coupled them together properly. And, the enzymes represented arrangements of amino acids with semantic information. Hurbet Yockey has made this point both in terms of the information in proteins/enzymes and the genetic code.
[/quote]

That is just an argument from incredulity.[quote=“bjmiller, post:38, topic:36944”]
The problem with this claim is that any autocatalytic network of reactions or self-replicating molecules would involve chemical reactions which move toward lower free energy, so the starting high-free-energy molecules would be quickly used up.
[/quote]

There are plenty of systems that would replenish that energy, such as underwater vents that are often called “smokers”. There could even be temperature cycles.


(Brian J Miller) #40

Thank you for your comments. You have helped to clarify the challenges of communicating some of the concepts.

How do you determine if a pattern is the product of purpose/meaning/agency?

The key is that the pattern matches an external, disconnected category of patterns. For instance, the faces on Mount Rushmore match the category of human faces. A series of Scrabble letters could match a sentence of any language. A series of 3 royal flushes in a row would match the category of special poker hands. And, a signal from space with the schematics of a spaceship would match the general category of machinery. The specific machinery from the signal might have a minimal resemblance to any human machinery, but it could still be recognized as falling into that category. In the case of a minimally complex cell, the cell contains information processing machinery, energy production cycles, feedback sensors, and the like. If the NSA found nanotechnology with even a fraction of the machinery needed for a minimal cell, they would immediately see it as falling into the general category of machinery and recognize it as designed.

Same applies to DNA, RNA, and protein. The production of these molecules has everything to do with the attractive forces between nucleotides.

The key issue is that the sequence of the nucleotides (letters in the message) is not determined by the underlying chemistry of the RNA/DNA medium. See here for more details or the link in my previous post. This point becomes clear when one recognizes that the same information resides in a protein and in a gene; although, the chemistry of the media are different. In the case of occlusions, imagine their arrangement in some crystal matches some external pattern, such as a series of numbers ranging between 0 and 9, which happen to match the phone numbers of the last five previous researchers. I suspect the inference to design would be clear.

There are plenty of systems that would replenish that energy, such as underwater vents that are often called “smokers”. There could even be temperature cycles.

One has to be careful equating the energy released from a smoker to the production of the specific high-free-energy molecules which could drive the reactions needed to generate life. Another key challenge is the development of a coupling mechanism between the energy flow from any realistic energy source and the required reactions needed for the origination and maintenance of life. For more details see here.