Over at Evolution News, mathematician Granville Sewell has written an article titled, From Barren Planet to Civilization — Four Simple Steps (July 27, 2017). My intention in writing this post is not to critique Dr. Sewell’s latest argument, but to clarify its premises. Sewell’s own comments reveal that it is ultimately a philosophical argument, rather than a scientific one. Although I agree with Dr. Sewell’s key intuition, I contend that his argument hinges on two assumptions: that unguided processes have a snowball’s chance in hell of giving rise to factories, and that mental states do not supervene upon physical states.
The bulk of this post will be devoted to what Dr. Sewell has written in his latest Evolution News article. At the end of my post, I will briefly comment on the thermodynamic arguments in his accompanying video, which I see as peripheral to Sewell’s main point.
I’d like to begin by quoting from the first, second and last paragraphs of Sewell’s article:
In the video “Why Evolution is Different,” above, I make the simple point that to not believe in intelligent design, you have to believe that the four fundamental, unintelligent forces of physics alone (the gravitational, electromagnetic, and strong and weak nuclear forces) could have rearranged the fundamental particles of physics into encyclopedias and science texts and computers and airplanes and Apple iPhones. I show that this belief runs contrary to the more general statements of the second law of thermodynamics, even if the Earth is an open system.
Whether or not it has anything to do with the second law, I can’t imagine anything in all of science that is more clear and more obvious than that unintelligent forces alone cannot produce such things as Apple iPhones.…
Mathematicians are trained to value simplicity. When we have a clear, simple, proof of a theorem, and a long, complicated counterargument, involving controversial and unproven assertions, we accept the clear, simple, proof, and we know there must be errors in the counterargument even before we find them. The argument here for intelligent design could not be simpler or clearer: unintelligent forces of physics alone cannot rearrange atoms into computers and airplanes and Apple iPhones.…
By his own admission, Dr. Sewell’s argument rests on a simple intuition, that unintelligent forces of physics alone cannot rearrange fundamental particles into science texts and computers. Although Sewell maintains that the second law of thermodynamics prevents the four fundamental forces of physics from rearranging fundamental particles into science texts and computers all by themselves, he insists that his intuition is clear and obvious, regardless of whether it has anything to do with the second law. Since Sewell’s intuition does not appeal to any mathematical reasoning to justify it, and the intuition is couched in non-mathematical language, it is evident that we are not dealing with a mathematical claim here. Nor can it be called a scientific claim, as key terms are left undefined: what is it, exactly, that the four fundamental forces of physics are incapable of rearranging fundamental particles into? Machines, texts or both? Additionally, the only scientific law which Sewell appeals to, in order to support his claim, is one which he says intuition does not require, anyway, in order to grasp its truth.
What does Dr. Sewell mean?
I take it, then, that Sewell’s fundamental intuition is a philosophical one. As a philosopher, I find it somewhat ambiguously worded, in that it fails to distinguish between proximate and ultimate causation. Sewell’s claim could mean either:
1. Science texts and computers can never have, as their proximate cause, the four fundamental forces of physics, acting on elementary particles without any intelligent assistance
2. Science texts and computers can never have, as their ultimate cause, the four fundamental forces of physics, acting on elementary particles without any intelligent assistance.
But we are not finished yet. Although Dr. Sewell claims in his article that “unintelligent forces of physics alone cannot rearrange atoms into computers and airplanes and Apple iPhones” (my emphasis), he does not literally mean this. As he explains in an earlier post from 2012, what he actually means is that such an outcome would be “astronomically improbable.” So what Sewell really means to say is either
1(a) It is astronomically improbable that science texts and computers would have, as their proximate cause, the four fundamental forces of physics, acting on elementary particles without any intelligent assistance
2(a) It is astronomically improbable that science texts and computers would have, as their ultimate cause, the four fundamental forces of physics, acting on elementary particles without any intelligent assistance.
Now, even opponents of Intelligent Design would readily agree with Sewell that claim 1(a) is true. In the real world, science books are always written by scientists, and computers are always built by computer engineers. In both cases, the proximate cause is an intelligent agent. (A robot can build a computer, but it still has to be designed by an intelligent agent.) We never see science texts and computers being put together by the four fundamental forces of physics, acting on elementary particles. While it’s theoretically possible for the four forces of nature to assemble particles into texts and computers, the odds are so low that we would never expect to witness such an event. So I can only assume that Dr. Sewell means to assert claim 2(a). Sewell confirms this interpretation in his latest article, where he states that materialists attempt to explain the origin of advanced civilizations from inanimate matter, in four steps:
1. Three or four billion years ago a collection of atoms formed by pure chance that was able to duplicate itself. [Life]
2. These complex collections of atoms were able to preserve their complex structures and pass them on to their descendants, generation after generation. [Reproduction and heredity]
3. Over a long period of time, the accumulation of duplication errors resulted in more and more elaborate collections of atoms. [“Higher” animals]
4. Eventually something called “intelligence” [i.e. human beings] allowed some of these collections of atoms to design buildings and computers and airplanes, and write encyclopedias and science texts.
In step 4, Sewell acknowledges that even materialists posit something called “intelligence” as the proximate cause of computers and science texts. What distinguishes materialists from Intelligent Design theorists, according to Sewell, is that the latter would deny that the four fundamental forces of physics, acting on elementary particles without any intelligent assistance, are the ultimate cause of these remarkable artifacts.
Sewell contends that each of these steps is very difficult to explain scientifically. The origin of life (step 1) is “a very difficult problem which has not yet been solved by science.” Reproduction (step 2) is “difficult to explain without design,” especially when the new entity being constructed is one which has to contain a factory for building yet another entity like itself. The bodies of higher animals (step 3) contain major new features, whose sudden appearance and subsequent refinement “actually looks more like the way human technology, such as software or automobiles, ‘evolves,’ through testing and improvements.” And while the process whereby humans design science texts and computers (step 4) might seem very familiar to us all, “science cannot yet explain human consciousness or intelligence in terms of unintelligent forces alone.”
Some readers might wish to question whether Sewell has an adequate grasp of evolutionary biology. However, as this post is intended to assess his philosophical reasoning, I shall overlook any scientific objections to Sewell’s argument, in his article. Instead, I’d like to focus on his key intuition. Sewell thinks it is clear and obvious that the probability of science texts and computers ultimately arising from the four fundamental forces of physics, acting on elementary particles without any intelligent assistance, is astronomically low. That is his central claim.
What is interesting here is that Sewell does not assert that it is intuitively obvious that the probability of life ultimately arising from the four fundamental forces of physics, acting on elementary particles without any intelligent assistance, is astronomically low. He regards the origin of life as “a very difficult problem,” but that’s a much weaker assertion than his central claim. Sewell also acknowledges that the origin of “higher” animals, and even “intelligent humans,” appears at least “superficially plausible (until we look at it in more detail).”
Getting to the roots of Sewell’s key intuition
As far as I can tell from reading his article, there are two classes of phenomena which Sewell regards as truly mysterious: reproduction and creativity – the former, because it involves not only copying something, but building a factory that can continue the chain of copying down through the generations; and the latter, because Sewell does not believe that human consciousness or intelligence can be explained in terms of blind forces.
I am curious to know which Sewell regards as more mysterious: reproduction or human creativity. Although he devotes two entire paragraphs of his article to the marvel of reproduction, I find it very strange that Sewell nowhere claims that it is obvious that the probability of, say, a lineage of bacteria ultimately arising from the four fundamental forces of physics, acting on elementary particles without any intelligent assistance, is astronomically low. And yet, if he regarded reproduction as the main hurdle rendering the unguided origin of science texts and computers from inanimate matter astronomically unlikely, that is precisely the sort of claim which one would expect him to make.
That leaves us with the mystery of human creativity. And indeed, there is something profoundly odd about the appearance of an animal whose mind enables it to explore the farthest recesses of time and space, and to solve any technological problem that the cosmos throws at it. How did a such a magnificent mind arise, in the first place?
A Darwinist might contend that if we examine the hominin fossil record and the tools made by our ancestors, we can discern no breaks that correspond to any sudden appearance of the human mind. As far as we can tell, the mind arose gradually, over a period of hundreds of thousands of years. Sewell might object that “science cannot yet explain human consciousness or intelligence in terms of unintelligent forces alone,” but Darwinists would call that an argument from ignorance. Or is it? Are there any good reasons to believe that blind forces cannot generate minds like ours?
A Thought Experiment
Instead of putting forward an argument for the immateriality of the mind which is based on Aristotelian metaphysics (as many Thomistic philosophers do), I’d like to cut to the chase with a thought experiment.
Imagine that you’re an astronaut, traveling in interstellar space in the 25th century, and that your spaceship has a super-duper computer. One day, you land on a planet and encounter a race of technologically advanced beings whose science is roughly on a par with your own. One of these beings kindly lets you scan its brain and body, allowing your on-board computer to construct a detailed model in its databank. You also observe the alien being very carefully, monitoring its verbal utterances and its brain waves whenever it communicates with other members of its race.
Now here’s my question for the materialists: do you think you would be able to reconstruct the alien’s thoughts and its language, simply by analyzing its brain waves and bodily behavior? After all, if the mind “supervenes upon” the body, as materialists love to claim, so that two intelligent entities having the same physical states will always have the same mental states, then it should be possible, in theory at least, to infer the latter from the former, given a powerful enough computer. If intelligent beings’ brain processes possess intentionality in their own right, then there is no reason in principle why we cannot “read off” the meaning of these brain processes at time T from their structure and/or the changes they are undergoing, at time T.
What’s more, it shouldn’t be necessary for us to know anything about the alien’s life-history, or the history of its species, in order to determine what it is thinking. For if the content of its thoughts supervenes upon what’s going on in its brain and body right now, as materialists suppose, then a complete knowledge of the alien’s current physical state (and its present surroundings) should be enough to tell us what’s going on in its mind. Otherwise, one might imagine a race of aliens on another planet, having identical brain processes, bodily states and immediate surroundings, but whose thoughts have a different content from those of the first race of aliens, because of different choices they made in the past – for instance, about the rules of their language. This would contradict the physicalist thesis of supervenience, that there can be no mental differences between two individuals without some underlying physical difference.
When my thought experiment is couched in this form, it becomes evident that the materialist’s claim that mental states (including our language and our most creative ideas) supervene upon physical states is highly implausible, and stands in need of justification. One would want to see very good evidence, before accepting such a sweeping claim. Of course, rejection of materialism doesn’t tell us what the mind is. Nor does it establish the truth of any particular version of dualism. One could still adopt some form of neutral monism, where mental and physical properties are regarded as existing side by side, in human beings and other intelligent organisms. But on such an account, the origin and existence of the mind would still remain a profound mystery.
If there is any truth to Sewell’s core intuition, then, it must rest on the materialist claim that mental states supervene upon physical states. The emergence of life, of reproduction and heredity, and of complex animals, are all very puzzling facts, in a world where unguided forces hold sway, but it is not obvious that these outcomes are astronomically improbable. But the origin of a mind which can ask and answer questions about where it – and everything else – came from, and that can solve any technological problem it sets itself, is something truly astonishing. The laws of physics simply express functional relationships between various physical properties; they say nothing about syntax, let alone the semantics of our language. Language is a wholly unexpected phenomenon in a world governed by blind forces. And so are those human creations, such as science texts and computers, which presuppose the existence of language. That, I would suggest, is what lies at the core of Sewell’s big claim.
What do readers think?
APPENDIX: Some remarks on Grant Sewell’s video
Sewell’s 22-minute video, titled, “Why Evolution Is Different,” is available here:
This video is more scientific and technical than Dr. Sewell’s article; consequently, my assessment of it will be quite different from my overall favorable assessment of the central claim of Sewell’s article.
I’ll keep my comments as brief as possible.
(1) At the beginning of the video, Sewell discusses Le Conte’s axiom: the four forces account for everything else in nature, so why should evolution be any different? For my part, I think Le Conte’s axiom is scientifically plausible, when one is discussing the physical properties of objects. But as we have seen, it is wildly implausible to suppose that the four forces can account for the appearance of human language. Syntax and semantics can’t be explained in terms of functional physical relationships, such as Hooke’s law. That’s why I think Sewell’s central claim is a valid one.
(2) At 5:09, we are told that in his published paper, On “compensating” entropy decreases (Physics Essays 30, 1 (2017), pp. 70-74), Dr. Sewell defined “X-entropy” as the entropy associated with any diffusing component (e.g. heat). And since entropy is a measure of disorder, he defined X-order as the negative of X-entropy. However, it’s a mistake to regard entropy as a measure of disorder (admittedly, it’s a common one in physics textbooks, which originally goes back to Ludwig Boltzmann). Steve Donaldson’s paper, Entropy is not Disorder, is well worth reading in this regard. I shall quote a few of the highlights:
So what is entropy? Probably the most common answer you hear is that entropy is a kind of measure of disorder. This is misleading. Equating entropy with disorder creates unnecessary confusion in evaluating the entropy of different systems. Consider the following comparisons. Which has more entropy?
– stack of cards in perfect order or a stack of cards in random order?
– a Swiss watch with intricate internal workings or a sundial?
– ten jars of water stacked neatly in a pyramid or the equivalent mass of water in the form of 10 blocks of ice flying randomly through space?
– a living, breathing human being or a dried up corpse turning to dust?
– the universe at the moment of the Big Bang or the universe in its present state?
If you think of entropy as disorder, then the answers to these questions may trouble you….
A better word that captures the essence of entropy on the molecular level is diversity. Entropy represents the diversity of internal movement of a system. The greater the diversity of movement on the molecular level, the greater the entropy of the system. Order, on the other hand, may be simple or complex. A living system is complex. A living system has a high degree of order AND an high degree of entropy. A raccoon has more entropy than a rock. A living, breathing human being, more than a dried up corpse…
With this clearer understanding of entropy, let’s take a look at those troubling entropy questions posed earlier. Those stacks of cards? They both have the same entropy. On the molecular level, the molecules are not behaving any differently in one stack than in the other. Even on the card level, there is no difference. None of the cards are moving. There is no kinetic energy present on the card level in either stack. There is no difference between the stacks except our subjective sense of order.
As for the watch and the sundial, it depends. If they are both made of similar metals and they are at the same temperature and pressure, then on a molecular level they would have about the same entropy. The molecules in the watch would have about the same diversity of movement in the solid metal parts as the molecules in the metal of the sundial. Ounce for ounce, the heat content would be about the same for both.
On the higher system level, you could say the watch has more entropy than the sundial because it has a greater diversity of internal movement. The watch has more internal kinetic energy than the sundial. What significance you could give this “higher level” entropy is not clear to me.
The water in the stacked jars has more entropy than the flying ice cubes because liquid water molecules have more modes of movement than ice molecules. Again, the heat trapped in the liquid water per degree is greater than the heat trapped in the ice per degree…
…The 2nd law says entropy is always increasing in the universe, so the entropy of the universe at the time of the Big Bang must have been much less that the entropy of the universe now.
This does not mean there was more structure or order back then. It does mean there was less diversity and less space to move around. The evolution of the universe has been characterized by an on-going transformation from a simple, restricted, highly condensed, homogeneous state to an increasingly complex, widely dispersed, dynamic, multipotent, granular diversity. In other words, the universe is not winding down, like a giant soulless machine slowly running out of steam. On the contrary, she is just waking up. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
(3) Later, Dr. Sewell discusses the astronomical unlikelihood of a tornado turning all the houses and cars in an area into rubble, being followed by a second tornado which turns the rubble back into houses and cars. Sewell’s point is that unguided evolution is equally ridiculous. But the origin of life is completely different from a tornado turning a heap of rubble back into a house. In a living organism (e.g. a tiny bacterium), the constituent molecules show at least some tendency to bond together (although we still have no idea how the first organism was formed), and (usually) a very robust tendency to hold together, once assembled. The pieces of rubble from a house destroyed by a tornado show absolutely no tendency to come together again; nor would they show any tendency to hold together, even if they somehow managed to coalesce in some freak event. Also, a bacterium is very small, and a house is very big. From a purely thermodynamic point of view, assembling a house is a lot harder than assembling a bacterium. As for the subsequent evolution of more complex life-forms, Darwinian evolution (supplemented by the neutral theory) provide at least a mechanism whereby complex traits could evolve. No such mechanism exists for houses.
(4) Dr. Sewell contends that major transitions occur suddenly in the fossil record. Evidently he hasn’t read much about the evolution of mammals from mammal-like reptiles, or the origin of birds from dinosaurs, recently. Back in the 1980s, these transitions were still deeply puzzling (especially the latter). Not any longer.
(5) In his video, Sewell explains why the evolution of the automobile engine couldn’t have been natural. I’m sure it couldn’t: cars don’t have babies.
(6) Finally, Dr. Sewell argues that the evolution of life shows the same pattern of careful planning and gradual improvement as we observe in technological design. Convergence, he suggests, explains the similar structures which are sometimes found in different lineages of living things: Ford automobiles and Boeing jets may simultaneously evolve new GPS systems. OK, so here’s a question: why do we never see exactly the same complex structure appearing in different lineages of living things? (The vertebrate eye is not the same as that of the octopus.) This is odd, because human designers typically reuse their designs. And why do novel designs appearing in one branch of living things never appear at exactly the same time, in another branch, as occurred with GPS systems? That does not sound like technological design to me.
(7) Professsor Joe Felsenstein and Mark Perakh have responded to Dr. Sewell’s argument based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics here and here, respectively. I’ll leave it to readers to form their own judgement. Elsewhere, Felsenstein highlights what he sees as two key errors made by Dr. Sewell (emphases mine):
1. His X-entropies, even if the equations for them are correct, isolate the concentration of one quantity from all others, not allowing chemical or nuclear reactions to create or destroy the substance. For example, we could make an X-entropy for carbon dioxide. We could have equations for the changes in concentration of CO2, but these would not have terms for the creation of CO2 by respiration or by some geochemical processes, and they would not have terms for the destruction of CO2 by photosynthesis. So the equations can be correct but their application to the real world wrong.
2. Leaving aside the issue of X-entropies and just looking at the energy flows, Sewell wants to argue that his math shows that evolution cannot make organisms more complex and energy-rich. Here he gets very handwavy and vague, and that is telling. In fact he is ignoring the role of solar radiation in powering the processes in the biosphere. He just says that “all we see entering [the biosphere] is radiation” and expects his readers to dismiss the idea that this radiation could be important. In short, even if his equations are all correct, he has msiapplied them by ignoring a major fact explained in science classes.
Please note that I’m just passing on these comments; I’ll leave it to readers to elaborate on them.
(8) Dr. Sewell’s claim that you can calculate the entropy of a poker hand should be read in the light of Steve Donaldson’s explanation of why an ordered stack of cards has the same entropy as a randomly ordered stack (see above). Likewise, Sewell’s assertion that the Boltzmann formula can be used to calculate “the change in thermal entropy associated with any change in probability: not just the probability of an ideal gas state, but the probability of anything,” has been criticized as a sweeping generalization, which reflects a misunderstanding of Boltzmann’s work.
(9) Sal Cordova points out that not all creationists believe that the Second Law of Thermodynamics precludes the evolution of life.
I shall stop here, and invite readers to weigh in with their comments, both philosophical and scientific.