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There’s a pretty heated stand off between Smilodon’s Retreat (SR) and Jim Dailey (JD) over on this thread here. The crux of the argument seems to be about how difficult it is for the believer to swallow the notion that something like life, and the complexity it requires for spontaneous lift-off, couldn’t possibly start on its own. There are definite hallmarks here of the Fine-Tuning Argument: the physical constants are so complex and finely-tuned to allow for life (hmmm, as we know it) that it is improbable that life could exist without God cooking the books.

Let’s furnish you with some quotes to show you what I mean. I have condensed some comments together. SR stated:

In essence, atoms and the sun are the source of everything on Earth. The atoms came from other stars of course. But that’s all that there is… matter and energy. Combine those correctly and you get stars, life, supernova, ice moons, comets, corgis, and the internet.

Now, if you want to get into particulars, you require some very specific atoms arranged in very specific ways, using energy to locally reduce entropy* and arrange in particular patterns that, evolving over millions of years, will produce the earliest photosynthetic organisms.

* But producing a larger overall increase in energy…

Organic compounds (those using carbon as a base) are found in comets, nebula, on other planets… you know, places where life doesn’t exist. So how did those organic compounds (some quite complex) get there? OMG, must be a designer!!! Not.

It’s basic chemistry. If you put certain atoms in certain concentrations and give it a little energy, then these compounds will form. It’s absolutely no different than when you mix O2 and H2 and add a touch of energy. You get water, lots of water.

Here are some references…

If you use energy to make something more complex… like an organism growing, crystals forming, suns forming, or purines forming… it’s takes a net input of energy. That, if you do some math, is a net decrease in the local entropy. It’s not a claim, it’s not science fiction, it’s math that’s been well understood for a little over 200 years. Now, the overall universe still experiences a net increase in entropy, but if it wasn’t for local decreases in entropy by the process of adding entropy, you couldn’t exist, crystals couldn’t exist, our planet couldn’t exist.

Who or what is doing all this?

The correct answer is that it is the statistical result of quantum field theory. Every thing that happens and exists is due to that. Whether you like it or not, whether you accept it or not, that is the simple truth. Again, that is science that is well understood by physicists and is used to make very, very accurate predictions about the way the world works.

Do you want to actually talk about t he thermodynamic requirements of forming a purine? Because we can… I don’t know if you have the math for it. But, as Urey-Miller showed us more than 70 years ago, you can get the basic materials for life from non-life easily. Yes, it is almost a science fair project, but much of cutting edge science in the 1950s was stuff we would now consider a science fair project. High school students can extract and sequence DNA with a kit that costs $20. I’ve done it, with my science classes. Seventy years ago, it was not possible to do that. Now it’s trivial.

Read those papers. If you like I can dump another 300-400 on you when you’re ready. They cover everything from synthesis of sugars, amino acids, lipids, and nucleic acids of all stripes and the formation of complex aminos (pro teins), lipids (cell membranes), sugars (parts of RNA, DNA, and energy), and nucleic acids (RNA and DNA). I can show you the evolution of our codon system and alternate codon systems that exist on Earth.

You’re probably not used to this, but when I say something, I can provide multiple references supporting it. References that I have personally read, and in several cases, have directly to the authors about.

You don’t have to take my word for any of this. Just ask me for a list of references.

JD replied:

I am really not questioning any of the mechanics AFTER the primordial ooze forms into DNA.

However, getting from a bunch of carbon atoms floating around on a comet to replicating DNA by just “adding a little sunshine” is, to put mildly, a leap of faith.It is disturbing to me that an obviously brilliant person like you is throwing away his intellectual curiosity on the old atheist canard that “shit happens.” Surely you can come up with a better explanation?…And while you are at it, since you are pushing the idea that the exquisite biochemical ballet that is replicating DNA “just happened”, how come something infinitely simpler – like a car- has never been found to have “just happened”? Or not even a car- say a small part of the car – like a wheel? Or I’ll go even further – just a bolt from the wheel of a tire?

Surely if all these ray beams, chemicals and what not can form replicating DNA, surely they would have, by accident and billions of years of natures random forces, formed a bolt for a car tire?

Reductio ad absurdism. Hey, it’s fun being a skeptic and demanding proof from you atheists!

And this is the nub of the issue that Jim Dailey has with the “atheist” (qua scientific) account. SR replied:

The difference of course is that tires have a specific shape and are large things that don’t readily react with other things. We don’t want them to react, we want them stable, for years… decades even.

Molecules like ribose and cyanamide react with each other. Which is the point. They react in very specific ways under certain conditions (that would have been present on early Earth) to produce other molecules that also react. It’s system of reactive chemistry. It’s not a factory.

This is the exact same reason that the tornado in a junkyard doesn’t produce a 747 argument fails. Because it mistakes one form of complexity with another.

Life (and chemistry and physics) can produce massively complex systems… like a living, functionin g, (mostly thinking person). But you didn’t pop out of your mother’s womb full size, already educated (ha!), wearing the latest hat. You are a process of chemistry. Your growth and development from a single sperm and a single egg has been analyzed and quantified using really impressive chemical tools. We KNOW the process of cell division, DNA copying, and all the other things that make a living thing function. The difference is that all those molecules do all the work themselves. All we do is provide energy and raw material. Airplanes (and car tires) do not spontaneously form from raw materials using known chemical principles. We have to force them into existence with a huge input of energy (again, locally reducing the entropy).

If the chemistry that is described in these articles didn’t work… then living things on Earth couldn’t exist.

If you demand proof… then you don’t know anything about how science works.

How about I boil down over 250 years of research and knowledge of basic chemistry, 70+ years of research into chemical origins of life, 200 years of research into the nature of energy, entropy, and thermodynamics, and a couple of decades worth of molecular biology… into a couple of paragraphs that you can read, understand, and will convince you that science works.

SR is right in calling out the false analogy of the ubiquitous 747 claim. It is simply fallacious to equate the two, so I won’t dwell on that one.

I would like to think for a while about complexity.

Complexity is completely arbitrary.

This is the thing about something that can, in theory, be quantified into a number. Any number you can think of is essentially infinitesimal when compared to infinity. The biggest possible number that our minds or supercomputers or whatever can conceive is actually an infinitesimal fraction of bigger numbers approaching infinity. You can always double, quadruple […] that first conceived number. If we substitute “number” with “complexity”, then any hugely complex system you can imagine is infinitesimally simple compared to a more complex one.

When people talk about complexity – irreducible complexity, complex systems, all the physical constants interacting together – what we really do is anthropocentrically look at things and say, “Well, I can barely understand it with my incredible brain, and so it must be bloody complex.”

What Jim Dailey above says is, “This thing here is so complex a thing to spontaneously generate that I can’t believe it happened without a god.”

I don’t want to be overly harsh here (as I really appreciate him commenting here) but this is unadulterated nonsense.

You could use that argument for anything along that line of complexity. Imagine life was equivalent in complexity to a brick, or to something 50 million times more complex than present life. He could still make that argument because that threshold of unbelievability and complexity is subjective. These things could seem complex to the subjective viewer, but they are not objectively complex because complex (certainly as used here) is a fundamentally subjective term. Something more complex than his present idea of complexity would certainly be complex to him. But life having the complexity of a brick would just scale down the scenario. Or you would have many other inanimate structures in the universe that were more complex than life and the believer would throw a god into the explanatory mix for them.

I think what Jim Dailey (and similar thinkers) really has a problem with is self-replicating organisms starting from inanimate matter. I wager it is a conceptual issue on that level, and complexity is then co-opted in.

Of course, probabilities assigned without frequency are meaningless, and this is something else you often see: the chance of a life spontaneously starting given the necessarily precise conditions is stupendously low. Well, winning the lottery is very low given a 1 in 13 million chance if I only buy one ticket. The frequency of the event here is one. But if I buy 13 million separate tickets, then I am statistically certain of winning. Likewise, if there is only one “test-tube” event in the history of the universe to give life a chance of starting, then yes, the probability is low. But if there are trillions of these mixing events happening for billions of seconds and years, then who’s to say life isn’t improbable but statistically certain?

So to conclude here, I think ideas of complexity or probability (too complex or improbable to happen) are too arbitrary and subjective to be of any substantive use or meaning.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...