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Information and Nature

The question of the significance of human existence comes sharply into focus as we consider the origin of life itself. Do the laws of nature support the origin of life from nonlife, or do they argue against it? In order to address this question, it is helpful to consider a defining characteristic of all living things, namely their phenomenal information content. Naturalistic explanations attempting to reach the heights of information content found in even the simplest living thing have appealed to “dumb luck” or to some unobserved natural law. However, consideration of the known and observed laws of physics in conjunction with the finite limits of “chance” within our universe appear to rule out any natural origin of the vastly complex biomolecular metropolis found within the cells of life.1

The science of information theory, formed in the early 1950s, allows the quantification of the information content of physical systems such as stars, rocks, molecules, and books.2 The information content of a system composed of many parts, such as atoms, is low if the various parts don’t have to be in a specific relation to one another. In nature, examples of low-information systems would be a cloud of water molecules or a pile of dirt. Rearranging the particles of water or dirt doesn’t ruin the system; if an airplane flies through a cloud, stirring it up, it’s still a cloud. Another type of system found in nature is an ordered system, such as a snowflake or a salt crystal. These also have a low information content because the regular, repetitious pattern of the atoms composing the crystal can be easily specified with only a few instructions or decisions. “Stirring up” a crystal will ruin it, but it can be easily re-formed since its ordered structure follows a simple pattern, governed by specific interatomic bonds. Thus, both complex but random systems, like clouds, and specific ordered systems, like snowflakes, have low information content. Either of these systems can form naturally since they have lower information content than the precursors (dispersed water droplets or vapor) out of which they formed.

Our discussion of the information content of physical systems has so far neglected the question of how this information will change over time as a result of natural processes. The appropriate law of nature that governs this change is known as the generalized second law of thermodynamics. In Concepts in Statistical Mechanics, Arthur Hobson gives a description of this law in terms of entropy, uncertainty, and information.3 Given an initial measurement of a system, predictions of the system at a later time “cannot contain more information (but may contain less information)” than the initial measurement.4 This conclusion remains true no matter how the initial constraints of the system are changed. Since the information content of the entire physical universe has always been lower than that found in even the simplest living organism, we can conclude that no scientific examination of the initial conditions of the universe or of planet Earth could yield a naturalistic prediction of life (with its fantastically high information content) at any later time in the history of the universe. In consequence, since life came into existence on Earth, a reasonable conclusion is that the source of this exponential jump in information content comes from beyond nature—from a super-natural source.

Some have posited that the information required for a living system was simply borrowed from a low-entropy source within the environment. In principle, information can be coalesced out of the environment, but not to a degree any greater than already contained within the environment. It has been repeatedly shown that the information content of even a single large protein molecule far exceeds that of the entire nonliving universe,5 and the information content of even the simplest living thing is so much higher that were our universe 10500 times bigger it would not come even close to sufficing for a naturalistic origin of life.6

Others have tried to suggest that certain natural processes can, in fact, generate new biological information. At times, this opinion comes from misidentifying increasing information with decreasing thermodynamic entropy.7 Decreasing thermodynamic entropy can only be leveraged into information if a design template and the mechanism to employ it already exists. In this case, the desired information is not being created by the action of the low-entropy energy source; it is merely being transferred from the template to an output product. An example of such a system is a printing press—it takes energy to make it run, but the energy produces no information beyond what preexists in the type-set template of the press. 

Our sun is a low-entropy source of thermal energy that Earth receives via electromagnetic radiation. This thermal energy is useful energy in the thermodynamic sense because it can be used to do work. The same is true of gravitational potential energy being converted into kinetic energy or heat. Waterfalls and solar collectors can produce energy for useful work, but they are sterile with respect to generating information. In fact, sources of natural energy (sunlight, fire, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.) universally destroy complex specified information, and never create it. What will happen to a painting if left outside in the elements? What happens to a newspaper tossed into a ditch? Information-rich systems always degrade by the actions of nature, until all trace of information disappears. 

What kind of structures is nature good at producing? Stars! Astronomers estimate that the universe contains at least 10 billion trillion stars, formed through the gravitational collapse of primarily hydrogen and helium gas clouds. Stars, however, have a relatively low information content. We can understand this conceptually by imagining sticking a giant spoon into a star and stirring it up. After you pull the spoon out, what has become of the star? Have you permanently destroyed it? No, its internal fusion energy production will only be temporarily interrupted, because the laws of nature will cause it to settle back down into its former state, and it will shine just like before. Compare this to what would happen if you stirred up a living thing, even a single cell, in such a way that you rearranged all its atoms. Doing so would irreparably destroy the intricate internal chemical structures within the cell, and no matter how long you waited, it would not settle into its former state. The laws of nature could not recreate what your stirring destroyed.

The information content of the universe exponentially increased with the formation of the first living organism. Since natural processes always work to lower the information content of any closed (or effectively closed) system over time, the origin of life represents an unnatural event in the history of our universe. And yet, it obviously came to pass! If life’s origin defies natural causes, then a supernatural Cause becomes a plausible explanation. If a skeptic demands a miracle as a reason to believe, consider that God has provided just such a confirmation of his reality in the abundance of life abounding on planet Earth.

Note: This article is excerpted and adapted from Eric Hedin, Canceled Science: What Some Atheists Don’t Want You to See (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2021).

Endnotes

  1. Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 236.
  2. C. Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Bell System Technical  Journal 27, no. 3 (1948): 379–423, reprinted in The Mathematical Theory of Communication (Urbana: Illinois University Press, 1949); Robert Gange, Origins and Destiny (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1986), 54.
  3. Arthur Hobson, Concepts in Statistical Mechanics (New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1971), 139–140.
  4. Hobson, Concepts in Statistical Mechanics, 142–145.
  5. Gange, Origins and Destiny, 164.
  6. Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, Evolution from Space (London: Granada Publishing, 1981), 20.
  7. Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 175.