By Robert C. Newman
Biblical Theological Seminary
Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute
This paper was written up from the notes of a talk given to the physics colloquium at the University of Delaware in 1984. How does one distinguish an artifact from an object that has been randomly formed? Is life an artifact or an accident? Here we consider the organization in living systems. Is the universe an artifact or an accident? Next we consider the organization found in various features of nuclei, molecules, the earth-sun system, and the basic known forces in the universe.
This afternoon we want to think about intimations from the presence of order that point to a Mind behind the universe.
How does one recognize an artifact — something which is the product of an intellect — in order to distinguish it from something that is basically the result of random events? How, for instance, does an archeologist (or even an amateur arrowhead collector) distinguish between naturally chipped stones and humanly prepared flints? A piece of flint might have fallen from a cliff and gotten chipped in a number of places as it struck other stones in falling. It might have been struck several times subsequently as it lay on the ground. But if we find a significant number of chippings that are in the right places for an arrowhead — even an imperfect one which was discarded — we would have little doubt that we are looking at an artifact.
How does one recognize an intelligent message in a place where one might otherwise not expect to find it? In the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, how does one recognize a signal in contrast to a natural phenomenon or random noise? When pulsars were first discovered, the investigators considered the possibility that these very rapidly pulsating radio signals might have an intelligent source. For a short time, they designated these signals as LGMs — little green men — before concluding that these were a natural phenomenon. [Since this talk was given, we have had the sci-fi novel and film Contact, which deal with similar questions.]
Certain strange markings found in New England along the edges of large stones have been variously identified as a type of writing in a system known as Ogham or as marks made by a plowshare when plowing a field. How do we tell?
In trying to make judgments of this sort, there will certainly be undecidable boundary cases. There may also be differences of opinion based on one’s worldview. Yet basically the question comes down to the level and type of order that is encountered.
In our discussion this afternoon, we want to look at organization in living systems and also various types of organization in the universe. Is this the sort and amount of information that suggests our universe is an artifact or just an accident?
Is Life an Artifact or an Accident?
It is becoming apparent that life is very complex indeed. Carl Sagan, a professor at my alma mater Cornell University, has a particular research interest in exobiology — the study of life that exists beyond this planet. He has written the article “Life” in the most recent editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica. There he makes this comment on the simplest living cell:
The information content of a simple cell has been estimated as around 10 to the 12th power bits, comparable to about a hundred million pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
How can one produce this level of order? By a random process? Well, there is a saying going around — I have not been able to locate its source:
Give enough monkeys enough time, and they will eventually type out the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.
To this claim we respond: How much time? How many monkeys?
Consider a Gedanken experiment. (1) Let us just type out the title only, all in caps — Encyclopedia BRITANNICA — rather than typing the whole set of 25+ volumes. (2) Let us use monkey-proof typewriters, with only 33 keys: the alphabet, all caps; the space; punctuation. (3) Imagine we have an unlimited number of trained monkeys to do the typing, at a modest speed of three characters per second. (4) Our text, above, is 24 characters long (counting the space between the two words), with 33 alternative characters at each of the 24 locations. (5) How long would it take to type all the possible combinations, assuming the monkeys make no repeats?
A simple calculation shows that the job, under these conditions, will take 3 times 10 to the 28th monkey-years. In the roughly 15 billion years since the big bang, we would need 2 times 10 to the 18th monkeys!
What does this have to do with the complexity and formation of a simple cell? It tells us that rather simple levels of (organized) complexity are hard to reach by random processes.
Let’s try a more relevant calculation — one involving protein construction. Molecules, of course, move faster than monkeys do, but we can do an analogous calculation for constructing a simple protein (still far simpler than the simplest cell) from amino acids. (1) Let us construct a particular protein consisting of 100 amino acids, which is about the smallest protein that is functional. (2) We have about 20 different amino acids in living systems, so this is equivalent to typing a 100-letter word or phrase with a 20-letter alphabet. (3) We make some simplifying assumptions: (a) we form only 100-link chains, and never repeat the same combination. (b) The chains change randomly at the rate an amino acid moves a distance of (say) 10 Angstroms at standard temperature. At this rate, we form 3 times 10 to the 11th new combinations per second. Using the same kind of expression that we used in our previous calculation, the job with take 10 to the 111th chain-years.
So, the time needed depends on the number of chains we have to work with. Case 1: If we think in terms of forming this particular protein in our solar system, then let us assume that we have one amino acid for every nitrogen atom in the solar system. The relative abundance of nitrogen atoms (compared with hydrogen) is 1.2 times 10 to the minus 4, and the time necessary will be 10 to the 61 years.
Case 2: How long to form all the possible combinations in our galaxy? The number of stars in our galaxy is about 10 to the 11th, so the time necessary will be 10 to the 50 years.
Case 3: How long to form the possible combinations in our universe out to the Hubble radius? (the distance light has travelled since the big bang). The density of galaxies is about 1 per 500 kiloparsec3. The Hubble constant is about 75 Km/sec/Mpc, so the time necessary will be 10 to the 37 years. The fraction of the required number formed since the big bang would be about 3 times 10 to the minus 28.
This doesn’t look like something that is going to happen by accident! [Since I gave this talk, two books have done a more sophisticated job of putting numbers to the problem of the origin of life. These are Frederic P. Nelson, Evolution Dissected (2003), and Stephen C. Meyer, The Signature in the Cell (2009).]
Is the Universe an Artifact or an Accident?
We move on to the more general question of organization in the inorganic universe. Let us consider apparent design in nuclei, molecules, the earth-sun system, and the basic forces of the universe. We will only consider selected examples in most of these cases.
Nuclei. The element carbon is crucial to life, being the only element that easily forms a wide variety of long chain molecules such as are necessary for the huge diversity of molecular functions in known life. The nucleus C-12 (the common isotope of carbon, with 12 component baryons: 6 protons and 6 neutrons) only forms in stars by a very rare collision of three helium nuclei. This would make carbon very rare, but for the fact that the thermal energy of stars is right at the resonance energy level for C-12! So a lot of C-12 is formed in stars.
But carbon can also be destroyed in stars, by the reaction C + He => O (carbon plus helium produces oxygen). But in this case, the combined energy of carbon and helium is above the O-16 (oxygen) resonance energy level, so C-12 is preserved. This produces a bottleneck, giving a large abundance of carbon in the universe. See Paul Davies, The Accidental Universe (1982), pages 117-118. This apparently had a profound impact on Sir Fred Hoyle, who first discovered this.
Molecules. We look at only one case here, that of water. Water, as we all know, is quite crucial to most forms of life that we know anything about. Yet it is a very unusual molecule. It is a very small molecule of molecular weight 18 (versus molecular nitrogen at 28, molecular oxygen at 32). Surprisingly, it is liquid at temperatures suitable for life due to its polymerization (forming pairs and triplets), so that it is able to function as a liquid in chemical reactions for life processes. In its gaseous state, it is no longer polymeric, so it behaves as a gas that is lighter than air, thus not hugging the earth’s surface and stifling life. No other substance has this property.
Water is what we call a universal solvent. So it dissolves and carries solid chemicals in the blood stream, plant sap, and in the fluid within the cell, all functions crucial to life. All other comparable solvents are destructive to living tissues.
Water has a very high heat capacity; that is, it requires a substantial amount of heat to change its temperature significantly compared with most other substances. As a result, it moderates the earth’s climate and stabilizes body temperatures. Unlike nearly all other compounds, it expands on freezing rather than contracting. This very rare property prevents ocean freeze-up and aids soil formation.
This material on water came from Alan Hayward’s book God Is (1980), page 59-61. [Since this talk was given, two much more extensive discussions have been given, by John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986), page 524-541; and by Michael J. Denton, Nature’s Destiny (1998), pages 19-46.]
The Earth-Sun System. For our earth-sun system to be a place that is hospitable to any sort of life as we know it, there are numerous constraints that the pair need to satisfy. Let’s look at some of these.
The sun needs to have a lifetime of over four billion years. This is only true if the mass of the sun is not over about 20% more than it actually is. The sun also needs to produce enough ultraviolet radiation for life (at least about 10% of what the sun does). For this the mass of the sun must not be less than about 80% of what it is. We probably need a single star system in order for planets to form. [Only a couple of exceptions to this have been found in over a thousand extra-solar planets recently discovered.] The sun cannot have too much variation in luminosity over its lifetime. Even the sun’s luminosity has risen by about 25% over the past billion years, but this has been solved by unusual events on earth, as we will see below.
The earth needs to have enough atmosphere to support life. This is only true if the planet’s mass is at least 25% that of earth. It must not have too much mass, or it will experience a runaway greenhouse effect. This is only true if the planet’s mass is less than twice that of earth. At appears that while the sun’s luminosity was increasing by 25%, the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere was replaced by oxygen (lowering the greenhouse effect) at just such a rate than the earth’s temperature stayed in the range so as to support life! Meanwhile, the right kinds of changes were taking place in earth’s life forms in order to cope with the rising oxygen level in the atmosphere. Putting these features together, we get a very narrow window for survival of life on earth over four billion years: (1) If the earth were 5% nearer the sun, then there would have been a runaway greenhouse effect near the beginning of the period. (2) If the earth were 1% farther from the sun, then there would have been runaway glaciation at about two billion years. See Michael Hart, Icarus 37 (1979), pages 351-357. [Since this talk was given, much more detail has been worked out in this area. See Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos (1993) and Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee, Rare Earth (2000).]
The Universe and Its Forces. There are a number of delicate balances involving various features of the universe and its forces. As far as we know, there are four basic forces that operate in our universe: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear interaction, and the weak interaction. [The recent discovery of “dark energy” may add a fifth.] Let us look at several of these balances.
There is a delicate balance of forces for element formation in our universe. The difference in mass between the neutron and the proton is only about one-tenth of a percent, and that difference is very close to the mass of the electron. These numbers, taken together with the strength of the gravitational force and the weak interaction, mean that neutrons and protons “freeze out” in the early universe with comparable numbers of each, instead of nearly all neutrons or all protons. The actual numbers are about 10% neutrons and 90% protons. If instead, the numbers of neutrons and protons had been nearly equal, very little hydrogen would have been formed, so no stars and no life. If the number of neutrons had been very much smaller than the number of protons, little helium would have been formed, and stars would not burn.
If the strength of the weak interaction were much smaller than it is, there would be no supernovas, as neutrinos would not interact with and explode the outer shell of the dying star to scatter the heavy elements formed inside. If the strength of the weak interactions were much stronger than it is, there would also be no supernovas, as neutrinos could not escape the core of the star to scatter its heavy elements. Thus if the weak interaction were much different than it is, there would be no heavy elements (including carbon, nitrogen and oxygen) outside the cores of stars; so no life, no people!
If the strong nuclear force were much weaker than it is, there would be fewer stable elements. If it were 50% weaker, iron, carbon, etc. would be unstable. If it were only 5% weaker, deuterium (a heavy form of hydrogen) would not exist, and stars would not burn. If the strong nuclear force were a few percent larger than it is, the diproton would be stable, the reaction proton + proton => diproton would go by means of the strong force, and stars would burn catastrophically.
There is a delicate balance between cosmic expansion and gravity. The current matter density of the universe is somewhere between one-tenth and ten times the critical density, that density at which the universe will be on the dividing line between expanding forever and eventually falling back on itself. This means at the Planck time (10 to the minus 43 seconds after the big bang), the matter density differed from the critical density by less than one part in 10 to the 60th power. If the density were only very slightly larger than this, the universe would have quickly collapsed, and there would be no stars, no planets, no life. If the density were very slightly smaller than this, the universe would have expanded too quickly to form galaxies. Again, no life. So the universe really is “fine-tuned” in a number of striking ways.
We have given only a few examples here. More are given in P. C. W. Davies, The Accidental Universe (Cambridge, 1982) and in Alan Hayward, God Is (Nelson, 1980). [Since giving this talk, a number of other works of this sort have appeared, many of which can be accessed by doing a web search on “Fine-Tuning” or “Anthropic Principle.” I mention a few in the brackets at the end of the previous sections.]
Weak Anthropic Principle. How do we explain these things? Do we invoke chance, something like the so-called Weak Anthropic Principle? In this view, it is pointed out that, no matter how unlikely the chances, if the universe couldn’t support life, we wouldn’t be here to observe it. Improbability, therefore, even very great improbability, is selected by the presence of intelligent observers. Therefore, it is necessary that the universe we observe be able to support intelligent life.
It is hard to argue with this position, since the last sentence above is unarguably true. But it is not much of an explanation. It is like the old-timer interviewed on his 100th birthday. “To what do you owe your longevity?” the reporter asks. “Well,” he replies, “If I weren’t still here, I wouldn’t have it!”
Is this explanation falsifiable? What would count against such a view, other than divine revelation? Is there really any evidence for other universes (whether all existing at one time or one after another) to raise the level of probability? The rarity of such events as calculated in the previous sections goes far beyond the experimental basis for randomness. Compare this to the idea of ice forming in a pan on a hot stove, or all the air in a room moving to one end and leaving people in the other end to suffocate.
Strong Anthropic Principle. Maybe we don’t invoke chance, but suggest that somehow the universe itself guides the values of the relevant parameters in order to produce (intelligent) life. Is there really any evidence for this?
God. Perhaps there is a Mind behind the universe, that is not itself a part of that universe. That is, I believe, where the evidence we have just examined points. And all the more when we bring in other evidence that God has communicated with humans in the phenomena surrounding the ancient nation of Israel and culminating in the events connected with Jesus of Nazareth. See our IBRI Research Reports and IBRI Occasional Papers which are posted as Kindle e-books. May God — the Mind behind the universe — guide you to Himself. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart,” Jeremiah 29:13
Robert C. Newman is Emeritus Professor of New Testament and Christian Evidences at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield, Pennsylvania, and Emeritus Director of the Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute there. His doctorate is in theoretical astrophysics from Cornell University; he has an M.Div. from Faith Theological Seminary, and an S.T.M. in Old Testament from Biblical Theological Seminary. He has done additional graduate work in cosmic gas dynamics at the University of Wisconsin, in religious thought at the University of Pennsylvania, in hermeneutics and biblical interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, and in biblical geography at the Institute for Holy Land Studies (now Jerusalem University College). He is a past President of the Evangelical Theologi¬cal Society.
He is the editor, coauthor, and author of numerous books and articles. Some examples include being the coauthor of Genesis One and the Origin of the Earth (InterVarsity Press, 1977, is IBRI (Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute), 2007), editor of The Evidence of Prophecy (IBRI, 1988) contributor to Habermas and Geivett, In Defense of Miracles (InterVarsity Press, 1997); Dembski, Mere Creation: Faith, Science and Intelligent Design (InterVarsity Press, 1998); Newman, Wiester, Moneymaker and Moneymaker, What’s Darwin Got to Do with It? (InterVarsity Press, 2000) and author of articles in The Astrophysical Journal, Planetary and Space Science, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, The Westminster Theological Journal, Grace Theological Journal, Concordia Journal, Presbyterion, The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and Philosophia Christi.
He is a frequent speaker at churches and colleges on evidences for the truth of Christianity and on the interaction between science and the Bible.
[Editor’s Note: Science and Faith image from 2014 Hubble WFC3/UVIS Image of M16, by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), found at Wikipedia Commons.]