Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Paul Davies: the hard problem of the origin of life is not “complexity” – it’s information

Check out this column on the origin of life from the radically leftist UK Guardian, written by agnostic cosmologist Paul Davies. (The same Paul Davies who is occasionally quoted by William Lane Craig)


The origin of life is one of the great outstanding mysteries of science. How did a non-living mixture of molecules transform themselves into a living organism? What sort of mechanism might be responsible?

[...]Most research into life’s murky origin has been carried out by chemists. They’ve tried a variety of approaches in their attempts to recreate the first steps on the road to life, but little progress has been made. Perhaps that is no surprise, given life’s stupendous complexity. Even the simplest bacterium is incomparably more complicated than any chemical brew ever studied.

But a more fundamental obstacle stands in the way of attempts to cook up life in the chemistry lab. The language of chemistry simply does not mesh with that of biology. Chemistry is about substances and how they react, whereas biology appeals to concepts such as information and organisation. Informational narratives permeate biology. DNA is described as a genetic “database”, containing “instructions” on how to build an organism. The genetic “code” has to be “transcribed” and “translated” before it can act. And so on. If we cast the problem of life’s origin in computer jargon, attempts at chemical synthesis focus exclusively on the hardware – the chemical substrate of life – but ignore the software – the informational aspect. To explain how life began we need to understand how its unique management of information came about.

[...]Sara Walker, a Nasa astrobiologist working at Arizona State University, and I have proposed that the significant property of biological information is not its complexity, great though that may be, but the way it is organised hierarchically. In all physical systems there is a flow of information from the bottom upwards, in the sense that the components of a system serve to determine how the system as a whole behaves. Thus if a meteorologist wants to predict the weather, he may start with local information, such as temperature and air pressure, taken at various locations, and calculate how the weather system as a whole will move and change. In living organisms, this pattern of bottom-up information flow mingles with the inverse – top-down information flow – so that what happens at the local level can depend on the global environment, as well as vice versa.

[...]The way life manages information involves a logical structure that differs fundamentally from mere complex chemistry. Therefore chemistry alone will not explain life’s origin, any more than a study of silicon, copper and plastic will explain how a computer can execute a program. Our work suggests that the answer will come from taking information seriously as a physical agency, with its own dynamics and causal relationships existing alongside those of the matter that embodies it – and that life’s origin can ultimately be explained by importing the language and concepts of biology into physics and chemistry, rather than the other way round.

The point of me posting this is simple. The thing to be explained in the origin of life is not a cake, where you can jumble ingredients together and get something. The thing to be explained is information. The origin of life is a programming problem, not a cooking problem. Where did the software come from – the first basic program that allowed for the basic functions of life, like self-replication.

Dr. Davies is hoping for a naturalistic solution to the problem, because he is a naturalist. But at least he is clear about specifying the thing that needs to be explained. A lot more clear than the journalists who explain intelligent design as the belief that some things are too complex to have evolved. But that’s wrong. The real question is: where did the information come from?

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Two astrophysicists dialog: Hugh Ross and Paul Davies on Unbelievable

Here’s the description from the Unbelievable page:

Hugh Ross is an astronomer and founder of Reasons To Believe, an apologetics organisation aiming to show why modern science confirms and supports the Christian worldview. Paul Davies is a British astrophysicist and popular science author currently based at Arizona State University. An agnostic, much of his writing has focussed on the extraordinary “fine tuning” of the Universe that allows life to exist and why the universe’s order and intelligibility defy a purely naturalistic explanation. Hugh and Paul discuss whether the properties of our Universe may be the result of a creator God, competing hypotheses such as the multiverse, whether science can be used to test the Biblical worldview… and Hugh explains why he wants NASA to look for fossils on the moon.

The MP3 file is here.

Paul Davies is one of the scientists that William Lane Craig often quotes in his debates.

Like this quote for the cosmological argument:

The evidence for the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe points to the creation of the universe out of nothing.  Not just matter and energy, but physical space and time themselves come into existence at the Big Bang.  In the words of the British physicist P. C. W. Davies, ‘the big bang represents the creation event; the creation not only of all the matter and energy in the universe, but also of spacetime itself.’

Or this quote for the fine-tuning argument :

British physicist P. C. W. Davies has calculated that the odds against the initial conditions being suitable for later star formation (without which planets could not exist) is one followed by a thousand billion billion zeroes, at least.  He also estimates that a change in the strength of gravity or of the weak force by only one part in 10100 would have prevented a life-permitting universe.

It’s interesting that Craig chooses non-theistic scientists as sources to support his premises.

By the way, did you know that Unbelievable is having a conference later this month? Click here to find out about it, especially if you like science apologetics.

Filed under: Podcasts, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Is carbon required for complex life? Is the production of carbon fine-tuned?

Here’s an article by Fuz Rana at Reasons to Believe, talking about alternatives to carbon-based life. (H/T Tough Questions Answered)


Life as we know it on Earth consists of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur (CHONPS). But could other elements constitute life as we don’t know it?

Not merely a discussion topic for science-fiction buffs, this question bears on origin-of-life discussions and on the search for extraterrestrial life. Carbon-based life requires a strict set of conditions. But perhaps life based on an element like silicon can exist under more extreme conditions. Few places in our solar system, and presumably beyond, can conceivably support carbon-based life. But for life built upon silicon, habitable sites may well abound throughout the universe.

However, of the 112 known chemical elements, only carbon possesses sufficiently complex chemical behavior to sustain living systems.  Carbon readily assembles into stable molecules comprised of individual and fused rings and linear and branched chains. It forms single, double, and triple bonds. Carbon also strongly bonds with itself as well as with oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and hydrogen.

Carbon serves as the hub of complex molecules. You can join lots of different things to it so that they stay put. But the bonds are not so strong that you can’t break things apart if you really want to. That’s what makes it suitable for making complex life, and why people talk about “carbon-based life”.

The rest of the article explains why other kinds of elements like silicon and phosphorus are not suitable for creating life.

Is carbon synthesis fine-tuned?

Here’s an article by agnostic physicist Paul Davies explaining why people think that the production of carbon in the universe is an example of fine-tuning.


One of the best-known examples of this life-friendly ‘fine-tuning’ of the laws of physics concerns carbon, the element on which all known life is based. The Big Bang that kicked off the universe coughed out plenty of hydrogen and helium, but no carbon. So where did the carbon in our bodies come from? The answer was worked out in the 1950s: most of the chemical elements heavier than helium were manufactured in the cores of stars, as the product of nuclear fusion reactions. It is the energy released by these reactions that makes the Sun and stars shine.

However, while the details of stellar nuclear reactions are fairly straightforward, there is a notable exception: carbon. Most nuclear reactions in stars occur when two atomic nuclei, rushing around at tremendous speed care of the searing temperatures, collide and fuse, forming a heavier element. But carbon cannot be made this way because all the intermediate steps from helium to carbon involve highly unstable nuclei. The solution, spotted by University of Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle, is for carbon to form from the simultaneous collision of three helium nuclei.

THERE IS, HOWEVER, a snag. The chances that three helium nuclei will come together at the same moment are tiny. So Hoyle reasoned that a special factor must be at work to boost the rare reaction and lead to our abundance of carbon. If not, then life in general, and Fred Hoyle in particular, would not exist!

Hoyle knew that nuclear reactions can sometimes be greatly amplified by the phenomenon of resonance, similar to the way that an opera singer can shatter a glass by hitting a certain pitch. Carbon nuclei can resonate too, if the masses and energies of the colliding particles that go to form it are just right. Hoyle worked backwards — he knew the particle masses and energies, and he used them to predict the existence of a carbon resonance.

He then pestered Willy Fowler, a nuclear physicist at the California Institute of Technology, to do an experiment to test the prediction. And sure enough, Hoyle was right. Carbon has a resonant state at exactly the right energy to enable stars to manufacture abundant carbon, and thereby seed the universe with this life-encouraging substance.

Hoyle immediately realised just what a close-run thing this mechanism is. Like Baby Bear’s porridge in the story of Goldilocks, the energy of the carbon resonance has to be “just right”. Too high or too low, and the consequences for life would be catastrophic.

So what determines the carbon resonance? Ultimately it depends on the strength of the force that binds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus. That force is one of the unexplained parameters of basic physics — one of the knobs on the Designer Machine if you like. If the strength of the force that determined the carbon resonance was only a fraction stronger or weaker, it is doubtful there would be observers in the universe to worry about the distinct absence of carbon.

Hoyle himself was deeply impressed by this discovery. “It looks like a put-up job,” he quipped. “A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics,” he later wrote. A similar conclusion was reached by the Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson: “In some sense, the universe knew we were coming.”

He doesn’t accept that God is the fine-tuner though, so the article just concludes with “it could be” speculations, which is all that naturalists can offer against the standard theistic arguments. Still, what he said about the finely-tuned synthesis of carbon is accurate.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

MUST-HEAR: John Lennox and Paul Davies debate about aliens and the origin of life

An amazing debate about the origin of life and the cosmic fine-tuning between a Christian and a materialist agnostic. John Lennox is AWESOME in this debate, and he only talks for a tiny part of the debate. He’s very gracious, and focused the discussion on the areas that we care about. Paul Davies is an EXCELLENT scientist and well aware of what Christians believe. This is a great debate, very easy to listen to. Justin, the moderator, does a great job controlling a fantastic discussion.

The MP3 file is here.


What does it take for life to get going in our universe? Is there intelligence in the stars or right under our nose? Renowned astrophysicist Paul Davies chats to Oxford Professor of Mathematics John Lennox.

A popular science author, Davies is also the Chair of the SETI post detection task force. His latest book “The Eerie Silence” which marks SETI’s 50th anniversary examines the likelihood of the universe producing life elsewhere.

John Lennox is a Christian Mathematician and philosopher. He is the author of “God’s Undertaker: has science buried God?” and has debated Richard Dawkins on several occasions.

Davies’ work on the fine tuning of the universe for life has been sympathetic to theism. In this programme Lennox challenges Davies to look to design not just in cosmology but in the cell. They also chat about what the discovery of ET would mean for Christian theology.



  • Is there meaning in the universe?


  • We have no evidence for or against intelligent life elsewhere in the universe
  • The vastness of the universe makes me think there is life elsewhere
  • Humans are capable of observing and understanding the universe
  • It seems the universe has the ability to create observers to understand it
  • If one species has this ability, then we should expect others to do it


  • The fact that we can observe the universe and do science has cosmic significance
  • Our rare habitable planet and our ability to do science is suggestive of purpose
  • So science itself points to an extra-terrestrial intelligence: GOD
  • The complexity of life and consciousness itself points away from atheism
  • Monotheism gave birth to science
  • Human minds capable of doing science are not compatible with atheistic materialism


  • Why do you say that either we are the only life or there are many different kinds of life?


  • There are lots of factors that have to be met to have a site for simple life
  • These are related to the fine-tuning of cosmic constants, e.g. gravitational force
  • But there are also factors that have to be met for originating intelligent life
  • Things like convergence, self-organization, etc.
  • So the cosmic requirements and evolutionary requirements are different
  • Darwinian evolution doesn’t solve the problem of the origin of life
  • 50 years ago, skepticism about alien life existing anywhere was excessive
  • Today, credulity about alien life exiting everywhere is excessive
  • The naturalist is searching for a process that creates life easily


  • Paul agrees that there is no theory for a naturalistic origin of life
  • This is fatal for the idea that life can emerge elsewhere in the universe
  • We have not discovered any law that produces life without an intelligence
  • Consider the method used by SETI used to detect an alien intelligence
  • Why can’t this method be applied to the origin of life on Earth?
  • Why can’t an intelligence created specified complexity (functional information)?
  • Why can’t an intelligence created epigenetics and protein folding?


  • Darwinian evolution can add new biological information after life begins


  • Darwinian evolution assumes a mutating replicating life form to act on


  • You can’t generate specified complexity by using physical laws
  • You can’t generate specified complexity by chance
  • At this point we are guessing as to how life might have formed


  • Why do we have to rule out an intelligent cause a priori
  • If you can recognize an intelligence in outer space, why not in living systems?


  • I don’t mind the word “intelligence”, it’s the word “signal”
  • I oppose the idea that God or aliens manipulated physical stuff to create life
  • It’s an “ugly explanation and very unappealing both theologically and scientifically”
  • I prefer the idea that the universe has processes to self-organize and create complexity
  • When it comes to supernatural meddling by God, “I don’t want that”
  • If I were God, I would create the universe so that I would not have to intervene
  • I think God would be more clever if he did not have to intervene
  • My preferences about what is “clever” determines what scientific conclusions are allowed


  • Humans already have experience with their non-material minds to move atoms (matter)
  • If God is a mind, then there is no reason why he cannot move atoms (matter)


  • My mind is physical, so are you saying that God is physical?
  • If God intervenes in the universe, then what is he doing now?


  • There is a distinction between acts of creation and providential upholding the universe
  • God is also speaking to people and drawing humans toward him
  • God is spirit, not material


  • How can a non-physical entity cause effects on the physical world?


  • What science reveals that there is information needed for the origin of life
  • Information requires an intelligence to create it, just as with human who write books
  • That’s not God of the gaps – it’s an inference based on what we know today


  • We may be able to explain the origin of life later, using matter, law and chance
  • What you’re saying is that God tinkers with the genome
  • If you say that God intervened once, then he intervenes all the time, everywhere!
  • I don’t want a God who tinkers in the genome
  • if God could intervene in the universe that would remove its intelligibility


  • Look at the cover of this book – when I read words, I infer an intelligence
  • There are bad gaps that the progress of science closes
  • There are good gaps that science opens, showing the need for intelligence
  • On the one hand, you say we have no theory of the origin of life
  • On the other hand, you know that an intelligent designer wasn’t involved
  • If we don’t know how life began, why do you rule God out a priori?


  • What scientists want to do is to explain the universe without involving God
  • naturalists want to use science to discover only materialist explanations
  • The purpose of SETI is to prove that there is other life in the universe
  • This would then show that there is a naturalistic way of making life
  • I agree that information in living systems is real hard to explain materialistically
  • I believe in the power of emergence
  • We might discover laws that prove that complexity can emerge without intelligence
  • The discovery of alien life would help to show that no intelligence is needed to make life


  • What sort of cosmic fine-tuning is needed at the Big Bang for life to occur?


  • It’s true that the universe appears extremely fine-tuned for life to exist
  • The typical answer from naturalists is that there is a multiverse
  • But the multiverse “falls far short” of providing a good answer to the fine-tuning
  • It’s irrational to appeal to massive numbers of unseen universes to explain fine-tuning
  • The design and purpose seen in the universe may be due to God or it may be emergent


  • The fine-tuning is real and the multiverse is a desperate attempt to evade the creator
  • Sir Martin Rees (an atheist) says he “prefers” the multiverse to a designer
  • Scientists are not supposed to prefer anything except what is true


  • Would the discovery of aliens hurt Christianity, because of the belief in the uniqueness of humans?


  • Christians believe that Jesus came to save HUMANS specifically, not animals or aliens
  • If we were to discover intelligent aliens, it would challenge traditional religions
  • What will God do with alien races? Multiple incarnations? Or just preach the gospel to them?


  • We don’t know if the aliens exist, first of all – it’s speculative
  • The Bible teaches that humans bear the image of God
  • We just don’t know whether alien species are also made in God’s image

Filed under: Podcasts, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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