Sunday, April 27, 2008

EGGS, FLOUR AND MOZART: A short course on how the ingredients of Life became more than the sum of their parts

Did life arise by chance, or by design? To describe it problem in very simple terms, lets use a very simple analogy. While it may seem laughable to some, it's nonetheless accurate and demonstrates the problem in a very real way.

Let's assume you're going to bake a cake. You assemble the ingredients, knowing that flour, eggs, baking soda, sugar, water and a few other ingredients will produce a thick mess that when heated will be a cake. All this is predictable. You know that adding these ingredients together will produce cake batter, and taken to its conclusion, a cake. Nothing about this concoction exceeds the limits of the ingredients.

Let's take it a step farther, for the sake of explaining the position of the naturalist camp, or those who believe Life happened without cause or intent. Let's assume that the ingredients are all assembled on the counter, sitting uncovered, side-by-side under ideal conditions, and you get a call that takes you from your home. While you're gone, an earthquake hits. All the ingredients are mixed together in the quake, which tears at your electrical wiring and starts a fire which burns your kitchen counter (and bakes your cake in the process). You return home to the mess of charred cabinets, to find a bowl containing something that resembles a cake. It was simply a case of everything being in the right place at the right time.

A highly unlikely chain of events, but it happened nonetheless. And what happened was predictable. Not likely, but given the right set of conditions, it still falls within the realm of predictable. Ingredients, mixed properly, with heat added, produce something resembling a cake. While improbable, the end result was predictable because it didn't exceed the abilities of the ingredients. No matter how long it sits there, it can never become more than what it is... the total sum of its parts.

But now imagine this...

You receive a call that takes you from your home. The same events takes place: the earthquake hits, the ingredients get mixed, the fire starts and the cake gets baked. You return home to find this baked cake. But something's very different this time. It's not a charred accidental mess (as you'd expect from such random events), but it's already decorated and sitting at the piano playing Mozart (with its new appendages and opposed thumbs), and on the counter is a picture it has painted...of you, no less! And dinner simmers away on the stove. All in all, it's quite an impressive cake.

This scenario, needless to say, does not fall into the realm of the predictable. What has taken place falls outside the bounds of probable events. Eggs, sugar, flour, water and baking soda (and by extension, all the elements of which they're composed) do not, on their own or mixed together, contain the ability to walk to the piano and play Mozart. No matter how many different ways we arrange them, we cannot produce anything other than a thick batter under normal temperatures, or a cake when heated. This holds true whether we give it an hour, a year, or 15 billion years. The outcome simply cannot exceed the inherent properties of the ingredients. So what we're witnessing in this impressive cake is an emergent property of matter that cannot be explained through process or scientific law. Yet there it sits, a living, breathing piece of matter that can play and appreciate music (and paint pictures of you!).

When we take this simple analogy and apply it to the natural world and the creation of complex life, we have to ask ourselves this question: Everything physical thing we encounter is composed of particles which formed into atoms, which formed into molecules, which formed into the very matter that we're made of. How do we get from tiny electro-magnetic pulses to living, breathing, thinking matter without some help and direction? One thing we know for sure... whatever took place within the initial burst of energy that created the Universe, the driving force behind the emergent properties of matter was present at that very moment... and imprinted itself upon those particles. The very deterministic information that gave rise to matter in all its forms appears to have been present before the Creation event itself.

Even when we reduce this to the lowest common denominator of life, the individual cell, the problem remains just as unfathomable. Why, when we take all the necessary ingredients of a cell and place them together in the most optimal possible position, do we still come up with nothing? Without the deterministic information contained in DNA to run the show, no amount of cajoling or manipulating can push these ingredients into anything even remotely resembling a living, functioning cell. In fact, to most biologists, the emergence of the first cell still seems somewhat miraculous (their own words, by the way). Which leads to the questions: If we're just matter, then why do we appear to be so much more than just the sum of our parts? And since DNA only exists within a cell, and a cell can only exist because of its DNA, which came first?

Science has no term for these emergent properties, other than to note that in addition to the ingredients, it also requires a tremendous input of information (found in DNA). Believers call the source of that information by a name: God.

Life was no accident, and no amount of circular reasoning on the part of the naturalist can overcome this fact. Naturalist thinkers often accuse the faithful of circular reasoning, and think of our position something like this: "We're here and we're pretty amazing creatures, so God must have done it." The truth is, the naturalist thinker is the one engaging in circular reasoning, and does it by being intellectually dishonest, essentially saying: "We're here, and because I refuse to consider the option of a Creator, it MUST have happened naturally." The naturalist thinker eliminates a valid option before starting the thought process, and therefore must accept the default position on faith, that of natural origins. Yet when we consider the problem posed above, it's very easy to take a side based purely on logic.

In the end, I look at my own position and feel that my decision, although based upon faith, is ultimately the more logical one. We're not here by chance. The great Catholic thinker G.K. Chesterton stated the scope of the issue quite succinctly in this famous quote: "To an atheist, the universe is the most exquisite masterpiece ever constructed by nobody."

Amen, brother. You said a mouthful. Cake, anyone?

1 comment:

jayjay said...

Great analogy! I love it when a picture can so clearly demonstrate a more complex thought, or make obvious what is so wrong with a philosophy like this. That'll be why Jesus so often used parables, and this is a good one. Cake - I love it, and I do rather cook like the naturalist's theory - sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I very much prefer the ones I get from Eve's Pantry, where it's all cleverly arranged and delectable in the eating. Planned, sorted, and prepared with my eating in mind. Yes, I'll have a piece thanks.