What is the Basic Order of the Universe? Bottom Up? Or Top Down?

Stephen Meyer says, “I think nature is actually telling us something”

Digital golden ratio

Where does order in nature and the cosmos come from? Stephen Meyer & Saleem Ali recently met up with Justin Brierly on the Unbelievable? podcast to discuss the nature of order in the universe. Saleem Ali’s focus on the comparison between natural order and human social systems in his book, Earthly, Order, is the backdrop for the discussion with Stephen Meyer, who wrote Return of the God Hypothesis.

Saleem Ali’s book, Earthly Order: How Natural Laws Define Human Life, explores the linkage between natural order and societal order. He ultimately argues that mankind should synthesize social structures to match the order found in the natural world for the benefit of mankind and the environment in which we live. In reaching this conclusion, Ali devotes attentions to the beauty of natural order, which he sometimes calls design.

Saleem takes the consensus, scientific approach to the natural order. He assumes that natural order developed from the bottom up: that stars and planetary systems formed from initial cosmological constants present in the fabric of the universe at the instant after the “Big Bang” and that life formed spontaneously from inert matter into self-replicating molecules that grew exponentially more complex over time.

Saleem Ali is the Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware. He has a B.S. degree in Chemistry and Environmental Studies from Tufts University, 1994, and M.S. degree in Environmental Studies from Yale University, 1996, and a Ph.D. in Environmental Planning, Department of Urban Studies and Planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2000. Stephen Meyer, who also wrote Signature in a Cell and Darwin’s Doubt, has degrees in physics and earth science from Whitworth College, 1981, and an M.Phil. in history and Ph.D. in philosophy of science from Cambridge University, 1987 and 1991.

In Return of the God Hypothesis, Meyer attempts to show that what we see in nature is better explained by a top down model of order. He argues that “specified complexity” defies a bottom up explanation, and begs for a top down approach. He claims that this is a not a “god of the gaps” argument. Rather, it is the natural conclusion to be drawn from what we observe: that the specified complexity we observe in the world always comes from a mind.

Meyer doesn’t necessarily chart new ground in the evidence or the methods he uses to reach his conclusions. He using principals consistent with good science and the evidence revealed by modern science to argue that they point in a different direction than the modern scientific consensus. He argues that the evidence we see in science is better explained by the conception of top down order and it points to a particular kind of top down order.

I am not going to attempt to describe either book more than what I know, most of which can be gleaned from the descriptions of those books and the descriptions provided by both gentlemen. I am also not going to attempt to get too deep into the conversation between Ali and Meyer. You can watch their interaction yourself if it piques your interest. (Linked in the photo below.)

Saleel Ali’s perspective is the one you have heard. It is the perspective that is included in every textbook (by law). It is grounded in the predominant view: that the universe is self-organizing, and life is self-replicating. His responses to Meyer reflect a carefully guarded reluctance to allow for intelligent agency in the design we see in the natural world.

Stephen Meyer and other people, some religious and some not at all, are questioning the propriety of that reluctance to allow for intelligent agency, or what we might simply call “mind”, in or behind the processes that created the universe and life in the universe. One argument in favor of that view is derived from the scientific experiments intended to show how life evolved on earth, says Meyer:

“I love these new approaches in the origin of life and the simulation experiments that are done to test them. I think that they are telling us something, though, about the importance of, as Thomas Nagel put it in Mind and Cosmos[i], that in addition to physical order there is a reality of consciousness and mind, and, we can see hints of that in life…. You see this actually in the origin of life simulation experiments that are conducted to test these new models, because the logic of simulation experiment is to try to reconstruct conditions that we think might have been present on the early earth, and then see what happens in the present. So our knowledge of those cause and effect processes that we see ensuing will help us reconstruct what might have caused life to arise on planet earth.”

These experiments are a kind of “reverse engineering” of the conditions that might have given rise to life from the inert chemistry of the primordial earth, assuming that life developed in that way. Reverse engineering requires an enormous amount of intentional effort and creative design. It also suggests that our efforts at reverse engineering proves an initial engineering that was also the product of intentional effort and creative design. Meyer continues:

“There is something that has emerged invariably from these experiments, and that is to get the chemistry to move in a life relevant direction, the chemist repeatedly has to impose constraints on what the chemical reactions would naturally do. If you have got reagent A and reagent B, and they are combined, they will make A/B, but they will make a whole slew of versions of A/B…. The chemist has to fish the A/B version three out of that gamesh of possibilities…. What the chemist is doing at that point is excluding some options, electing another…. [Often]what they will do is just buy the reagent that they want off the shelf that has already been purified by an intelligent agent. At each step along the way there is an impartation of information. If you exclude some options and elect others, you are imparting information into your simulation, and that information is invariably coming from the experimenter.”

The impartation of information, of influence, of direction is the activity of a “mind” – a causal agent. By agent, I don’t mean a compound that is, itself, a product of inert matter that always reacts according to its properties; I mean a “will” that is directed by “mind”. A billiard ball is inert until it is stricken by a person with a cue, and then it acts according to its properties and the laws of motion until friction causes it to slow and to stop. Meyer says:

“So, I think nature is actually telling us something. These simulations invariably require the imposition of intelligence to proceed in a life relevant direction. You have to ask, ‘What are they simulating?’ If this is something that is consistently arising in all simulation experiments, maybe they are pointing to a need for a top down explanation (explaining the origin of life) because all of the simulations require top down imposition of intelligence and information into the systems.”

These experiments intended to show the possibility that life might arise spontaneously, given the right conditions, are demonstrations of the importance of outside influence to cause it to happen – if indeed it can happen that way.

The famous Miller-Ulrey experiment still referenced in high school textbooks was heralded as proof of the concept. It comes woefully short, however, in demonstrating that life might have arisen out of a primordial soup. (I explored the limits of that famous experiment in What’s in Your primordial Soup?) In the Miller-Ulrey experiment, the experiment was done with elements that were not known to have existed in the early “primordial soup” of the earth at the time in which we know that life arose.

To be fair, though, they were just trying to show that it’s possible: that life can form on its own, given the right environment. On the other hand, it is a good example of the way in which an intelligent agent (the scientist) must jury-rig an experiment to try to produce the intended result he is trying to achieve.

Meyer’s point point is that scientists who do experiments like these carefully set the “initial conditions”. They also monitor the experiments along the way, and they inevitably require some tweaking along the way to orchestrate the results they want to achieve. This is what Meyer means when he says the experimenter has to “fish” the version of the results he wants from the processes, and sometimes he just buys them off the shelf to carry on the experiment.

Many others have described the origin of life experimentation in much more detail and have provided many more nuanced and detailed examples from actual experiments of the kind of direction, influence and design needed to accomplish the desired result. One man who has recently turned up the heat in his criticism of the origin of life researchers who claim to have made more progress in their research than they actually have is James Tour.

James Tour was once a secular Jew, and an atheist, who became a Christian, but he is most known for his prolific scientific career. James M. Tour is a synthetic organic chemist. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from Syracuse University, his Ph.D. in synthetic organic and organometallic chemistry from Purdue University, and postdoctoral training in synthetic organic chemistry at the University of Wisconsin and Stanford University. After spending 11 years on the faculty of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of South Carolina, he joined the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University in 1999 where he is presently the T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry, Professor of Computer Science, and Professor of Materials Science and NanoEngineering.

James Tour is, perhaps, more distinguished in his scientific field than any living person. I know that is saying a lot, but you can read his credentials yourself and compare them to anyone.[i] He is expert in the area of science out of which origin of life research is being done. He isn’t some hack.

His expertise is not just theoretical. Dr. Tour has published over 750 research documents, and he has obtained over 130 granted patents and has more than 100 pending patents. He creates nanotechnology for application in treating cancer, spinal cord repair, making batteries and many other practical applications.

Tour has been critical of origin of life researchers who have oversold their success in their attempt to discover the origin of life. Those researchers have, in turn, attacked him and disparaged him. Those tensions motivated him to take them on, which he has done very vocally and publicly, including the creation of a podcast on the subject that is now in its second season.

Tour goes much farther than Stephen Meyer in his observations about origin of life research. Meyer focuses his analysis on the observation that origin of life research inadvertently highlights the critical need for input from intelligent agents in the process of orchestrating chemical reactions that might be relevant to life. Tour, on the other hand, is unrelentingly critical of the claims of origin of life researchers that say they have accomplished anything close to their stated goals of demonstrating that life could have arisen as they suppose – by random chance.

People have discredited Tour because of his criticism of the claims of origin of life researchers, as people have discredited Meyer for his intelligent design approach, but I have yet to see anyone really address the issues they raise in an effective, substantive and compelling manner. Most of the arguments I see people making are not really arguments at all: they dismiss what they say, and they do not take it seriously, on the basis of scientific consensus – because they call the scientific consensus into question.

Some people dismiss them both on the basis that they are theists, and Christians, as if a person’s atheism and lack of religion have no bearing on the way he thinks and the science he does. Of course, they do! But, that is no reason to sidestep the observations and arguments they make. Those observations and arguments stand or fall on their own.

Thomas Nagel, who Meyer quotes, is neither a Christian nor even a theist. He and others like him have managed to maintain an open mind and to consider the observations and arguments on their own merit. Whether the universe and life were ordered from top down, or bottom up, does have some theological implications, but those implications are only subservient to the reality.

We don’t bend reality to fit our preferences. If reality points in one direction or the other, we are much better off bending our perceptions to fit the reality. These kinds conversations tear at our perceptions of reality, but they cannot tear at reality, itself. We should always be willing to bend to the facts and to follow the evidence where it leads, even if it pulls against our current conceptions.

[i] Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly Wrong, 1st Edition, Oxford University Press (2012) (“Nagel’s skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic.”)

[i] JAMES M. TOUR, Ph.D., T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry, Professor of Computer Science, Professor of Materials Science and NanoEngineering, Rice University, Smalley-Curl Institute and the NanoCarbon Center, bio and curriculum vitae at Rice University. https://profiles.rice.edu/faculty/james-tour. For more detail, see https://www.jmtour.com/.

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