Paul Davies uses the G-Word, but leaves little room for
William A. Dembski
the passing of Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, Paul Davies is perhaps the most
prolific science writer currently active. Unlike Asimov and Sagan, how ever,
Davies is willing to consider evidence of God in nature. Indeed, Davies often
cites God in his scientific writings, offering up titles like God and
the New Physics and The Mind of God. As the recipient of the 1995
Templeton Prize for progress in religion--a prize worth 750,000 British pounds
and thus the most lucrative academic award currently offered--Davies has
become a leading light in the dialogue between science and religion.
Given Daviess background and a title like The Fifth Miracle,
one therefore expects this book to engage religious questions. Yet when Davies
describes himself on the inside dustjacket of this book, he attributes receiving
the Templeton Prize not for his work relating religion and science but for
"his work on the philosophical meaning of science." This is significant.
Davies does not address religious questions except insofar as they are mediated
through certain philosophical presuppositions that he uses to make sense
of science. For Davies science is a given, philosophy is what he em ploys
to interpret science, and religion is an afterthought that emerges once
philosophy has done its work of interpreting science. Ironically, this order
of priority--science first, philosophy second, and religion last--though
designed to keep science safe from religion, ends up undermining science
by artificially restricting its range of inquiry.
Daviess title, The Fifth Miracle, is his idiosyncratic way of
referring to the origin of life. When Davies counts up the Creation events
in the first chapter of Genesis, the fifth of these is the creation of life.
Davies claims that we are "a very long way from comprehending" how life
originated. "This gulf in understanding is not merely ignorance about certain
technical details, it is a major conceptual lacuna. . . . My personal belief,
for what it is worth, is that a fully satisfactory theory of the origin of
life demands some radically new ideas." Davies is equally clear, however,
where his openness to radical ideas ends: "I am not suggesting that lifes
origin was a supernatural event, only that we are missing something very
fundamental about the whole business." And in case we missed his disclaimer
the first time, Davies repeats it a few pages later: "Science takes as its
starting point the assumption that life wasnt made by a god or a
supernatural being: it happened unaided and spontaneously as a natural process."
In particular, Davies is not about to open the door to "religious fundamentalists
and their god-of-the-gaps pseudo-explanations."
My own view is that Davies is not being nearly radical enough and that the
origin of life can properly be understood only as the product of intelligent
design (which can be formulated to avoid Daviess charge of religious
fundamentalism or god-of-the-gaps pseudo-explanations). The Fifth Miracle
is fascinating, not for its radical proposals, but for its ingenuity at avoiding
radical proposals. Intelligent de sign--the idea that a designing intelligence
is responsible for the origin of life--is for Davies scientifically unthinkable.
Yet all the options that for him are scientifically thinkable fail miserably
to explain the origin of life. The Fifth Miracle thus becomes a balancing
act on the boundary between whats thinkable and unthinkable.
What would be so bad about succumbing to the unthinkable and treating intelligent
design as a live option in origin-of-life studies? The problem for Davies
is that it would render the origin of life "utterly mysterious." According
to Davies, "It is the job of science to solve mysteries without re course
to divine intervention. Just be cause scientists are still uncertain how
life began does not mean life cannot have had a natural origin." Given the
premises of Enlightenment rationalism and scientific naturalism, such a claim
makes perfect sense. What is more difficult to grasp is Daviess persistent
use of the G-word despite that claim. On the one hand, Davies portrays God
as irrelevant to the origin of life. On the other, by regularly invoking
God throughout The Fifth Miracle, he seems still to be leaving some
room for God in the origin of life.
The paradox is easily resolved by clarifying Daviess conception of
God. Davies nowhere endorses a transcendent personal God who freely creates
the world and then acts freely within it. Nor for that matter does Davies
endorse a deistic watch maker God who creates the world, winds it up, and
then sits back. Gods relation to the world for Davies is not causal
(i.e., God does not create the world or act in it) but ontological (i.e.,
God gives the world its being). Daviess God is the God of Spinoza,
Schleiermacher, and the ancient Stoics. Consequently, traditional theistic
ideas about God as a causal agent in the world all need to be reinterpreted.
Consider, for instance, how Davies makes sense of teleology. Within traditional
theism, theres a telos or end to the world because God in wisdom freely
created the world to fulfill certain purposes. Davies, on the other hand,
finds teleology not in the freely chosen purposes of a personal transcendent
God, but in nature having certain built-in ends, which it ineluctably fulfills.
Thus, in describing the origin of life, Davies will write: "If life is somehow
inevitable, accidents of fate notwithstanding, a particular end is certain
to be achieved; it is built into the laws. And end sounds
suspiciously like goal or purpose--taboo words in
science for the last century, redolent as they are of a bygone religious
age." Daviess God, in sum, is not a designing intelligence but rather
a system of natural laws by which nature operates.
Given his understanding of God, Davies has but two options for explaining
the origin of life: either life results from brute contingency, or life is
the determined end of laws built into nature. Davies rejects brute contingency.
To suggest that life, and in particular intelligent life, arose simply through
the toss of a coin is to trivialize the grandeur of the cosmos. In stead,
Davies wants us to see "the laws of the universe" as having "engineered their
own comprehension." Davies expatiates:
This is a breathtaking vision of nature, magnificent and uplifting in its
majestic sweep. I hope it is correct. It would be wonderful if it were correct.
But if it is, it represents a shift in the scientific world-view as profound
as that initiated by Copernicus and Darwin put together. It should not be
glossed over with glib statements that water plus organics equals life,
obviously, for it is far from obvious.
Whether this vision is as breath taking as Daviess purple prose suggests
is perhaps decidable on aesthetic grounds. The interesting question here,
however, is why this vision should represent a profound shift in the scientific
picture of the world. Either life is a brute contingency or it is the determined
outcome of universal natural laws. Philosophically this be comes a forced
choice as soon as one excludes intelligent design. But what is there here
to alter fundamentally the scientific picture of the world? We explain some
things as brute contingency (e.g., a meteor slamming into the earth). We
explain other things as following deterministic natural laws (e.g., water
freezing when its temperature is sufficiently lowered). For the emergence
of life to fall into either of these categories is perfectly acceptable to
scientific orthodoxy. Why, then, does Davies think he is onto something big?
Davies is convinced that any laws capable of producing life must be radically
different from scientific laws known to date. The problem with currently
known scientific laws, like the laws of chemistry and physics, is that they
are not up to explaining the key feature of life that needs to be explained.
That feature is specified complexity. Life is both complex and specified.
The basic intuition here is straightforward. A single letter of the alphabet
is specified without being complex (i.e., it conforms to an in dependently
given pattern but is simple). A long sequence of random letters is complex
without being specified (i.e., it requires a complicated instruction-set
to characterize but conforms to no independently given pattern). A Shakespearean
sonnet is both complex and specified.
Now, as Davies rightly notes, contingency can explain complexity but not
specification. For instance, radio active emissions from a chunk of uranium
will be contingent, complex, but not specified. On the other hand, as Davies
also rightly notes, laws can explain specification but not complexity. For
instance, the formation of a salt crystal follows well-defined laws, produces
an independently known repetitive pattern, and is therefore specified; but
that pattern will also be simple, not complex. The problem is to explain
something like the genetic code, which is both complex and specified. As
Davies puts it: "Living organisms are mysterious not for their complexity
per se, but for their tightly specified complexity." What Davies is
proposing, then, is a new category of natural law, one that generates specified
Davies has identified the right problem. The best parts of The Fifth
Miracle are those in which he strips off the pretensions of origin-of-life
research, where the solution to lifes origin is presented as always
just around the corner--all thats needed is a little tinkering with
existing tools and ideas. No, says Davies. Specified complexity will not
submit to existing technologies. "Radically new laws," unlike anything
were familiar with, are needed.
But to claim that laws can produce specified complexity is to commit a category
mistake. It is to attribute to laws something they are intrinsically incapable
of delivering. Davies is not alone in committing this mistake. A few years
back, Stuart Kauffman, an origin-of-life researcher, wrote At Home in
the Universe. There he too sought to resolve the origin of life through
unknown laws. In a similar vein, Roger Penrose hopes to unravel the problem
of human consciousness through unknown quantum-theoretical laws. In each
case the motivation is to avoid the nihilism that comes from attributing
life or consciousness to brute contingency. Davies in particular seems to
derive tremendous hope from life being necessary rather than accidental.
But Daviess necessitarian world can be as cold and stark as one that
is chance-driven. I may be comforted to know that lifes origin is
necessary, but if lifes extinction is also necessary, what advantage
does a necessitarian universe hold over an accidental one?
Davies is right that the item of interest that origin-of-life research must
explain is specified complexity. But we already know what produces specified
complexity, namely, intelligence. Whats more, this is the only source
known to produce specified complexity. Indeed, in every case where we know
the causal history responsible for an instance of specified complexity, an
intelligent agent is involved. Most human artifacts, from Shakespearean sonnets
to Dürer woodcuts to Cray supercomputers, are specified and complex.
For a signal from outer space to convince astronomers that extraterrestrial
life is real, it too will have to be complex and specified, thus indicating
that the extraterrestrial is not only alive but also intelligent (hence the
search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI).
Weve known this intuitively all along. We now also know it on theoretical
grounds (see, for instance, Michael Behes Darwins Black Box
or my own The Design Inference). Davies is worried that intelligent
design is a science-stopper. It is nothing of the sort. The science-stopper
here is Daviess philosophical presuppositions, which prevent him from
even considering intelligent design. Committed as he is to a naturalistic
resolution of the origin-of-life problem, Davies muddles through one scenario
after another hoping to find some insight that will unlock the secret of
lifes origin. The Fifth Miracle is an object lesson in the
contortions scientists must endure to avoid intelligent design.
William A. Dembski is a fellow of the Discovery Institute. He is
the author of The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small
Probabilities (Cambridge Univ. Press). His book, Intelligent Design:
The Bridge Between Science and Theology, will be published this fall by
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