04/22/2010 (9:29 am)
The famous skeptical philosopher Anthony Flew died last week after a long illness. He was 87.
When I wrote about miracles last August, I discussed an argument by David Hume, Scots philosopher from the 18th century, and the modern update of his argument by Anthony Flew. Flew was an atheist with an odd specialty, in that he was one of the foremost modern experts in philosophy regarding miracles. He was more than that, though; he was probably the leading living champion of atheism in the world. And then, after an adult lifetime of skepticism, in 2004 he became a Theist.
Not a Christian, mind you, although he claimed he was open to that. A Theist; he became convinced by the evidence available to modern science that some sort of God must exist. To hear him tell it, he was convinced by the extreme fine-tuning science was discovering in the cosmos, and particularly by what was being discovered about DNA. He observed that recent discoveries lend strength to the argument from design.
When I discussed the Teleological argument for the existence of God (also called the argument from design) back in December of 2008, I wrote only about the Anthropic Principle, the study of those variables in the laws of nature the values of which must have been fine-tuned in order for what we call life to have been remotely possible. I wrote that cosmologists have discovered that at the beginning of our universe, the odds against the possibility of life anywhere in the universe were so infinitesimally small that there would have been no life at all unless the singular explosion had been carefully engineered to produce it.
However, the result of 50 years of study concerning the structure and function of DNA is every bit as impressive as the result of 40 years of cosmology examining anthropic constants, impressive enough to convince a thorough-going rationalist like Anthony Flew. So in commemoration of a great philosopher, I’m going to amend my discussion of the Teleological argument by discussing the wonder of DNA.
To talk about DNA, we have to start by talking about language. Bear with me…
Languages contain layers of abstraction. There is no logical or mechanical connection between the sounds we make and the objects we indicate when we make them; they’re completely arbitrary. Imagine I’m an proto-lingual cave man (tough, I know). The first time I encounter that furry creature making a purring sound as it rubs against my leg begging for food, what should I call it? Even if I decide to call it a “purrrrrr” I’ve intelligently mimicked its sound. But why would I call it a “kat” rather than, say, a “hammer,” or a “blik?” What do the sounds “k,” “a,” and “t” have to do with that particular animal? Answer: nothing at all. They’re just sounds. Somebody, or a large group of somebodies operating by common agreement, has to assign the sounds to the animal, in order for the combined sounds “k,” “a,” and “t” to refer to that particular animal. Furthermore, there is no logical or mechanical connection between a semicircle open on the right, “c,” and the sound “k,” or between a vertical stroke with a bottom hook to the right, crossed near the top, “t,” to its sound. Those are also completely arbitrary. Again, somebody, or a group of somebodies operating by agreement, has to assign those shapes to those sounds in order for them to be useful in conveying meanings. Every language contains at least these two nested levels of abstraction — even before we get to syntactical rules, which add yet another nested layer of arbitrary assignments.
It is the abstractions that distinguish languages from mechanical processes like the creation of dunes on the shore. Wave motion can create fascinating patterns on the shoreline, but those patterns do not contain meaning, and they are never abstract; the shapes conform directly to the motion of the waves in mechanical fashion.
The abstractions of language denote intent; and specifically, intent to communicate meaning. And because of these abstractions and this intent, is it simply not possible for a language to arise without some intelligent agent to arbitrarily assign indicators to objects or actions. This is, in fact, a definition. Language requires intelligence and intent, and can never, ever, be separated from them.
DNA is a language.
Take a moment to let that sink in. DNA is not like a language; it is a language. Grammar, syntax, spelling, vocabulary, sentence structure… everything. And because DNA is a language, complete with layers of abstraction and arbitrary assignment of unrelated objects to produce meaning, it has to have been devised; it came from a mind. It is simply not logically possible in any plausible world for DNA to arise without a mind.
DNA uses a four-character alphabet to spell out instructions. The four characters are actually proteins: adenine (designated by the letter A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T). These proteins come ordered in pairs, called “base pairs,” and the base pairs are strung together in sequences according to syntactical rules. The sequences of base pairs spell out instructions for constructing protein molecules, which get carried out by RNA molecules within cells. In this way, the cell is very much like an automated factory with several separate assembly lines, like those that build automobiles, and the DNA is like a huge computer program that controls the building process. The amount of information is overwhelming; the DNA in an amoeba contains encoded messages equivalent in length to 1,000 volumes of an encyclopedia. The process is also overwhelming, and involves reading, transport, assembly, timing, and replication; biologists studying the process have resorted to borrowing descriptors from manufacturing engineers to describe what they’re seeing, because it’s so similar to human-built factories.
This system of programming and executing protein construction has to have been present in the very earliest life forms on earth, whatever they were, as this process is the basis of all life on earth. Consequently, while it is likely — proven, according to some — that life evolves on our planet, it is not logically possible that life arose in the first place without an intentional designer. What we call “evolution” is a process in our biosphere that begins with organisms that already possess the power to reproduce; it does not, and cannot, explain how the first living organism came to exist, or how the process of reproduction came to exist. Charles Darwin actually admitted this in On the Origin of Species, and now that we understand how DNA works, we can consider it a scientific fact: evolution cannot explain the beginning of life. The DNA/RNA manufacturing process is far too complex to have arisen on its own. Briefly put, we’ve opened up the earliest life form, and found a 5 million line computer program in it. The implication is obvious.
Frank Turek, the author of the seminar on which this series is based, uses a breakfast cereal from his childhood to illustrate. The cereal was called “Alpha Bits,” and consisted of ground-up grains formed and baked into the shapes of letters of the alphabet. Imagine you’re 10 years old, and you wake up one morning and come down to breakfast. You find a box of Alpha Bits lying on its side on the table. Letters have spilled out and are lying in this pattern: “TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE – MOM”. If Mom comes home later and finds that the garbage has not been taken out, and comes to you to find out why, will she accept as an excuse “I just thought the cat had knocked over the box, and the letters spilled out?” Of course she won’t. The coherent message clearly indicates intent. DNA spells out similar messages, only they’re a bit longer.
It was learning about processes like DNA/RNA manufacturing that eventually convinced Anthony Flew that a God of some sort must exist. Flew’s God was deistic; that is, he imagined that he/she/it constructed the universe and stood back to let it run. He had some issues about the personal God of Christianity or Judaism; Flew was raised a Methodist, and eventually left the faith over the Problem of Evil. Though he spent the last 20 years of his life debating publicly with Christian apologist Gary Habermas, and they became good friends, it is not clear that he ever resolved this problem for himself.
It is God’s job to judge departed souls, not mine. Theological purists will surely insist that unless Flew prayed a specific prayer of repentance, he’s consigned to hell. I’m fairly well convinced that God is not such a stickler as to demand specific words, and that he’s more inclined to look at what direction a man is facing, and what he’s moving toward; but all judgment rests with Him, and for better or worse, He does not communicate His specific decisions to those of us who remain. I can only hope, and note, with sadness and admiration, the passing of a mind uniformly acknowledged to have been great.
9 Comments »
Comment by Dale
Perry Marshall gives a lecture in a video that can be found at http://www.cosmicfingerprints.com/perryspeaks/ that I found well worth the 60 minutes it took to watch it. The main jest of the presentation was that if evolution happened it could not have been random. As I understand it Anthony Flew is saying that someone must have started the process, and Perry Marshall is saying that once the process started, life could not have evolved into evermore complex life forms from a random process. Perry seems to have proved that “random mutation + time = extinction”. Not my words but his.
As for Anthony Flew I can’t help but be sorry that he never took the final step.
Comment by Gordon
I recall reading “Habermas Vs. Flew”, a book from 25 years ago showing an interesting debate between Gary Habermas and Dr. Flew as atheist. (The most remarkable thing about it was the very civil way these two treated each other every step of the way – Habermas never seemed to feel the need to question Flew’s intelligence).
Apparently the exchange had an impact…though I did not find Habermas’ presentation all that convincing, he at least treated Flew as a person with full use of his faculties.
Comment by Lion IRC
It seems to me that when we name a “thing” (taxonomy) we are taking part in a privilege given to us by the Creator of those things. (Genesis 2:19) A request by God to do a very scientific act – examination of “things”, thinking about them and then naming them.
So it seems that we must have something more than just an “abstract” connection to a “thing” in order to name it. I think it is an emotional/psychological (spiritual?) connection related to our “likeness to God”. And I think it would take a great deal of conscious deliberation to devise a purely “abstract” taxonomy such as if you wanted to artificially invent a brand name which had neutral connotations in all languages. So I would argue that we don’t pluck an abstract word like CAT out of thin air.
I wonder if the etymology/taxonomy choices in the earliest forms of language were onomatopoeic (and therefore not abstract) associations either directly WITH the “thing” or some other thing to which IT was related. Or perhaps to an event or place in close proximity to when or where we developed the new word and it was therefore not “abstract”. Possibly, we named some “things” based on the emotions we felt at the time we saw them – not abstract emotions but emotions very strongly connected to the “thing” itself. Once the earliest primitive (proto-lingual) framework for naming things was underway, in a form that was anything BUT abstract, it would be a template that had to be followed from then on unless one intentionally decided to diverge from it. (See International Code of Zoological Nomenclature which itself is not really abstract).
A cat is named “purr”. If you roll the R’s (G’s) mimicking a cats low growl of contentment you might get something like gdgdgdgd or kdkdkdkdkdkd. Hence over time – Kadiska Katuzz, Kadis, Cat. Another animal which looks similar to a cat is named “like purr”. An edible thing might be named “yum purr”. Another person might name the same animal “meow” instead of “purr” and later discover that most other people call that animal “purr”. A purring animal which we named on a sunny day might be called “bright-purring”. I am reminded of the title of a movie “Dances With Wolves”. A cave-dwelling “thing” might be called “unseen-purr” or “numinous-purr”.
“Awe” is a good name for a “thing” we want to name when we have just “sucked air” and sit in wonder. Like, for example, the first time we are struck with amazement at the complexity of DNA. I don’t think we can look at DNA and think purely scientific / abstract thoughts and the people who point to patterns in sand dunes or Cheerios which spell out the word “ooooo” are missing the point.
We can look into a mirror and interpret the face we see in the reflection (light particles) as “information”. But two mirrors – matter without “minds” – cannot face each other and “see” something let alone give each other names. In fact, even two robots with artificial intelligence could not do this because the information exchange would end in a stalemate – what computer programmers would call a “double-snake bite”.
The mind of the prudent acquires knowledge. The ears of the wise seek it out.
Comment by Phil
I agree more or less about the possible origins of word choices. My point, though, is that the association is abstract, that there exists no mechanical connection between the word and the object. An emotional or sociological connection, or even a formally logical connection, maintains the abstractness of the relationship.
I was a programmer once, and don’t recall anything called a “double snake bite.” I imagine you’re talking about an infinite lock-out. It’s the sort of thing that happens when, for example, two executives of two companies both set a policy never to take a call, but always to let their assistant handle the incoming calls. If they ever decide to talk to each other, they can’t — their respective assistants will continually take messages.
Comment by Lion IRC
Don’t misunderstand me. I was merely making an observation. I am not a professional in either computer science or linguistics (although both of these help me put bread on the table)
It really does boil down to agent/mechanism.
My point is that language (the word) is more connected to the agent than to the mechanical function of speech.
Comment by jackson
Fascinating post, Phil, thanks.
Your mention of the four character alphabet that forms the proteinaceous language of all biological life forms reminded me of the other fundamental four that create the nature of all matter.
The four fundamental forces, the electromagnetic force transmitted by photons, the weak force transmitted by W and Z bosons, the strong force transmitted by gluons, and gravity, transmitted presumably by the as yet undetected graviton. I guess you could say these four fundamental interactions between particles are the forces that create the language of the entire universe.
Comment by dullhammer
Thank you Phil and others posting here on the subjects of Flew and DNA and language. I look forward to checking out Dale’s “cosmic fingerprints” link. And I’m going to post something a bit longer later, as I find this subject most interesting.
Sorry to hear about Antony Flew dying without a word about where he may have moved on with his newfound implications of God. But, fortunately, that would be between him and God. I will say this, though, I am glad God calls people to come to him by reasonable faith (instead of reason alone). For Flew’s life is not only a testimony of how laborious and long a path singularly devoted to reason can be, it’s a warning of how long and laborious it is on just the very first, most elementary question of life.
Comment by dullhammer
On the statement that “DNA is language”. My first impression is that it’s like saying, “birds are airplanes”. It’s more right than not, but there’s something else needed (IMO) in appreciating the sources of both, especially the birds.
It might be that I just don’t know enough about DNA’s operation, but I do not see the four letter alphabet as necessarily abstract. Those proteins are actual building blocks used in the physical formation of everything else in the body. Does anyone here know if there could somehow be 6 or 8 proteins? Are there other proteins which could be substituted? I don’t think so, but I certainly don’t know either. So I’m asking. (Hope people are still reading.)
Does anyone here know if the language of ones and zeros in a computer’s machine language is the only way it can work? If so, that might be a great comparison to DNA’s four letter ‘alphabet’. Or maybe there’s something even more fundamental at work, like the actual circuits on the motherboard. But again, I’m over my head. I’m just not sure DNA is best compared to human language right off the bat, though I’m not disputing the claim of “language” per se. I just want to get the best fit for further thoughts on the matter. Sorry for the rambling nature of this post. It’s gone through a lot of ‘evolution’ to get even this far here.
Comment by Dale
Dullhammer, I can see what you mean. Does DNA really need someone to interpret it or is more like an automated factory?