Is information the fundamental building block of life?

Paul Davies, cosmologists, physicist and agnostic, with Sara Imari Walker, proposed a theory that information, and not chemicals, is at the very foundation of lifeHere

Why?

Well, it is not really surprising because everything we know to date about life boils down to information… Some of the longest debates about life origins, including several of them at TSZ, UD, Peaceful Science, Evolution News, Mind Matters have been about information; mainly whether random processes can (spontaneously) increase the complexity of specified information for life to evolve…

So, whether we like Paul Davies’ and Sara Walker’s idea or not, information, as the fundamental block of life can’t seem to be avoided…

After all “…from the Big Bang onwards, the universe has developed in line with precise mathematical laws, leading to the idea (seductive or repulsive, depending on your point of view) that maths is not a human invention but a fundamental force…”

So, one would think that since on both sides of the origins issue, ID proponents and materialists supporting evolutionary theory, agree that information is fundamental in the explanation of life origins, Paul Davies’ and Sara Walker’s idea of information being at the very root of life origins would not be disputed…

However…there is a problem with this theory that not everyone is willing to accept as the article puts it:

“How information can be causal in a physical system?”

In other words, if information is the very fundamental building block of life, there has to be not only a source of this information, but also the first cause that has implemented the information into the physical systems… So, while the theory is logical and makes perfect sense, it can’t be accepted by the great majority of scientists…

Why?

Here is what the article has to say about that:

“…Scientists have embraced a kind of mathematical creationism,” wrote New York Times science writer George Johnson back in 1998, “God is a great mathematician, who declared, ‘Let there be numbers!’ before getting around to ‘let there be light!
Davies and Walker come intriguingly close to allowing a Great Mathematician to enter the story of how the universe, and thus life, came into being. From one perspective it is the central assertion – revolutionary or shocking, take your pick – in their paper…

In other words, if you follow the scientific inference of information being the fundamental block of life, you run into one and only conclusion: If there is complex specified information as the fundamental block of life, there has to be not only a source of that complex, specified information, but also the cause that implemented that information into living systems, such as a supernatural, Intelligent Designer or God…

So, a theory like that has to be rejected by the main stream scientists not because it is necessarily wrong, but it is not what the so-called scientific community wants to hear…

Why?

Because the main stream scientists do “the real science” by supporting their preconceived ideas, which exclude any evidence that could point against their “scientific bias”…

It doesn’t cost them anything to be biased and wrong… and they have nothing gain by supporting the scientific evidence…

As one of my favorite discussion opponents once said:

“…So what that there is no evidence for the theory of the origins of life…So what?” 

Who can argue with that?

26 Replies to “Is information the fundamental building block of life?”

  1. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    A building block is a material entity. Unless you’re speaking metaphorically.

  2. BruceS
    Ignored
    says:

    That’s an interesting article so thanks for pointing it out.

    However, it says nothing about CSI. Instead, for possible types of applicable information, it refers to an SEP article on biological information which also says nothing about CSI. CSI is your addition; not something in the article..

    Furthermore, the authors are adamant that any generalized definition of life must be consistent with known laws of physics. So dependencies on God are also your additions, not supported by the authors’ arguments in the article.

  3. BruceS
    Ignored
    says:

    Mung:
    A building block is a material entity. Unless you’re speaking metaphorically.

    Or speaking functionally. You can separate the functional characterization as a set of causal interactions from their realization in any particular physical implementation.

    Now can we attribute causal powers to functional roles? Or only to a particular realization of them. As an example, think of software as a functional specification of an algorithm? Does it cause anything? Or all all causes better assigned to implementation hardware? Or to the underlying QM entities in the circuit boards?

    The say early on that the organization of DNA is causal, not the particular chemistry. So they are going with the software. But then the paper goes into some head-scratching stuff on how information somehow imposes constraints on the evolution of the phase space of the dynamics of the cell, and so therefore it is causal.. Needs some close reading.

    I think there is an important general principle here: sometimes we can learn by generalizing the architecture from our only implementation. Here it is a general characterization of life The von Neumann stuff I posted about in another thread is an easier-to-follow example of this, where self-assembly is the thing to be explained.

  4. walto walto
    Ignored
    says:

    BruceS,

    Did you look at the paper itself or just the article about it? Based on the abstract, the former looks like it’s pretty complicated.

  5. Entropy Entropy
    Ignored
    says:

    walto:
    BruceS,
    Did you look at the paper itself or just the article about it? Based on the abstract, the former looks like it’s pretty complicated.

    The original looks like a load of bullshit. Complicated bullshit, but still bullshit.

  6. J-Mac
    Ignored
    says:

    Mung:
    A building block is a material entity. Unless you’re speaking metaphorically.

    On subatomic level?

  7. J-Mac
    Ignored
    says:

    BruceS:
    That’s an interesting article so thanks for pointing it out.

    However, it says nothing about CSI.Instead, for possible types of applicable information, it refers to an SEP article on biological information which also says nothing about CSI. CSI is your addition; not something in the article..

    Furthermore, the authors are adamant that any generalized definitionof life must be consistent with known laws ofphysics.Sodependencies on God are also your additions, not supported by the authors’ arguments in the article.

    Good thinkin. Quick thinkin, Bruce!
    The article doesn’t say what kind of information it is, does it? 😉

  8. J-Mac
    Ignored
    says:

    walto:
    BruceS,

    Did you look at the paper itself or just the article about it? Based on the abstract, the former looks like it’s pretty complicated.

    Sorry guys… the way I set up the links, they look like one: the article and the paper…I’m confessing …I’m guilty…

  9. J-Mac
    Ignored
    says:

    BruceS: Furthermore, the authors are adamant that any generalized definition of life must be consistent with known laws of physics

    Is there a definite definition of life in sight?

  10. DNA_Jock
    Ignored
    says:

    Moved a couple of posts to guano.

  11. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    The fundamental building blocks of life, according to some, are made of “little more than the universal building blocks found in all living organisms today.”

    – See de Duve. 2005

    LoL.

    And these come from space.

    The general conclusion that emerges from all these findings is that the building blocks of life form naturally in our galaxy and, most likely, also elsewhere in the cosmos. The chemical seeds of life are universal. The first singularity that we detect is thus the consequence of the basic laws that govern the transformations of matter in the universe; it is clearly of deterministic origin.

    – de Duve. 2005.

    Therefore, not because of intelligent design.

  12. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    Mung,

    He may be preparing the ground for interstellar origins, but all he’s really saying is that the formation of the basic components – amino acids, sugars, nucleic acid bases – is thermodynamically favourable, as my dad Stanley*** discovered. Which of course it must be; enzymes don’t act against thermodynamic gradients.

    Of course this is the point at which informatic and thermodynamic entropy become routinely confused. Monomers – even their polymers, subject to certain conditions – might be thermodynamically plausible, but by golly not their sequence!

    *** not really!

  13. Rumraket Rumraket
    Ignored
    says:

    One wonders how Paul Davies would know of “information” in biology if organisms did not have a physical body of atoms and molecules.

  14. BruceS
    Ignored
    says:

    walto:

    Did you look at the paper itself or just the article about it? Based on the abstract, the former looks like it’s pretty complicated.

    The paper itself. The first few pages are easy, but then it gets complicated as you say.. At least for me.
    I agree with entropy that it is complicated. Not sure it is bullshit.

    For me, it gets complicated when it talks of constraints on the state space as being imposed by information and hence information is causal. That does probably require a link from pure info theory to TD, but I don’t think that is as easily dismissed as I read Allan Miller as saying.

    Furthermore, there is a well-supported philosophy of science approach to downward causation as being based on constraining the state space. So the idea of constraints as causal (counterfactually at least) is not something unprecedented in philosophy of science, in particular of complexity.

    ETA: Also see my comments to Mung which are alluding to the role versus realizer problem of causation in functionalism, where software/information is taken as the functional description, and hardware/life chemistry as the realizer. Basically Kim’s causal overdetermination chestnut.

    To add physics to the philosophy: Aaronson also published a blog entry on information where he basically said that if your philosophy treats energy as causative (as so real), then you are obliged by the physics to also treat information as causal (he was supported by elucidations in comments by Sean Carroll).

    I can supply links for the above, but they do get mathy.

    Here is a recent paper by philosophers Winning & Bechtel that covers the downward causation via constraints:
    Rethinking Causality in Biological and Neural Mechanisms

    (Aside to Mung if reading: your biosematician friend Pattee gets a favorable cite in that paper).

  15. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    BruceS:
    For me, it gets complicated when it talks of constraints on the state space as being imposed by information and hence information is causal.That does probably require a link from pure info theory to TD, but I don’t think that is as easily dismissed as I read Allan Miller as saying.

    I was responding to Mung on de Duve, not the Davies paper. Nonetheless, polymers are physical entities. They have a causal role because of physics, not because of the number of other ways they could be arranged, or the size of a data packet through which their sequence could be transmitted.

  16. BruceS
    Ignored
    says:

    Allan Miller: I was responding to Mung on de Duve, not the Davies paper. Nonetheless, polymers are physical entities. They have a causal role because of physics, not because of the number of other ways they could be arranged, or the size of a data packet through which their sequence could be transmitted.

    I agree physical realizer is causal. But there is philosophical issue here: if we have a series of decompositions in various levels of science, are all of them causal, or only the bottom-most?

    For example, in this case, why can’t I say the real causation is at the level of QM not life chemistry? (leaving aside the issue of whether there is causation in physics),. I think the answer is that the science provided by biological explanations is successful and so we can understand causation in that scientific domain as being real.

    But then why can’t we allow for the possibility of a higher, explanatory level above life’s chemistry? I’m not saying the paper does that, I’m just saying there is nothing illegitimate in trying.

    The software/hardware example I quoted to Mung illustrates the issue. Does software cause? Or just the realizing hardware? The correct answer is they both do, with the understanding of causation being tailored to the explanatory level of the relevant science.

  17. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    BruceS,

    You can say what you wish about ‘real causation’, but there ought to be something useful to come out of that consideration in terms of comprehension of phenomena (me being of a not especially philosophical bent!).

    Some levels just lose explanatory power. Even reductionists don’t explain the internal combustion engine in terms of fields of force, for example. Nonetheless, in the physical sense, the electromagnetic field is ‘information’.

  18. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    Allan Miller: He may be preparing the ground for interstellar origins, but all he’s really saying is that the formation of the basic components – amino acids, sugars, nucleic acid bases – is thermodynamically favourable, as my dad Stanley*** discovered.

    He is saying more than that though. He is trying to provide explanations for the various “singularities” in life and evolution and outlines seven possible mechanisms for them. Deterministic is but one of those mechanisms. So he is saying it could not have been otherwise.

    Just because something is thermodynamically favourable it does not follow that it must happen.

    Next up on his list of singularities is homochirality, so it will be interesting what he has to say about that.

    His whole point, by the way, seems to be that there is a “natural” explanation for all of these singularities and thus no reason to invoke Intelligent Design.

  19. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    Mung,

    My opinion, homochirality would fall naturally out of the early RNA world. Now, I know there are problems with RNA world, but this is one strike for it. Binding energies are strongest between homochiral base pairs, particularly when arranged in a string. It’s one of the remarkable properties of the nucleic acids, that each base specifies its chiral complement in a handshake-like sense, though oriented 180 degrees vertically rather than laterally.

  20. Acartia Acartia
    Ignored
    says:

    Isn’t this just the “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” question? What came first, the information, or the material that has the capability to store the information?

  21. Entropy Entropy
    Ignored
    says:

    Rumraket:
    One wonders how Paul Davies would know of “information” in biology if organisms did not have a physical body of atoms and molecules.

    The guy is full of shit.

  22. Entropy Entropy
    Ignored
    says:

    Acartia:
    Isn’t this just the “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” question? What came first, the information, or the material that has the capability to store the information?

    “Information” is about the “relative” “arrangement” of “materials.” If there’s “materials” there’s “arrangements.” No chicken/egg stuff. This is nothing but messing up with poorly defined concepts. Mistaking concepts with referents, etc. Davies is full of shit.

  23. BruceS
    Ignored
    says:

    Allan Miller:

    but there ought to be something useful to come out of that consideration in terms of comprehension of phenomena (me being of a not especially philosophical bent!).

    Some levels just lose explanatory power. Even reductionists don’t explain the internal combustion engine in terms of fields of force, for example. Nonetheless, in the physical sense, the electromagnetic field is ‘information’.

    Of course you are right.

    I’m just saying I would not rule out the possibility raised by the authors.

    My reasons are by analogy to other cases. Quantum information is as explanatorily and real as energy in physics (according to Carroll). Constraints of state space can help us to understanding downward causation in biological processes.

    So maybe there is a way information in some sense can be help us to provide a general definition of life based on constraints, and independent of Earth’s biochemistry, to be used in astrobiology. I am not saying the authors have done so in the posted article.

    Furthermore, as far as I know, information does not provide any type of helpful role in biology. No DI version like CSI or ASC view does. Nor does Szostak FI based on discussion here (except as I said to argue against ID info quantities).

    But what about Shannon info? Are there roles where you know it is useful in biological explanation?

  24. Entropy Entropy
    Ignored
    says:

    BruceS: I’m just saying I would not rule out the possibility raised by the authors.

    What possibility is that? All I found was some misconceived “hard problem.”

  25. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    BruceS,

    But what about Shannon information?

    Replication fidelity

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