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Thursday, May 06, 2004

Epiphany: DNA, 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, Information and Moby Dick

The argument by Creation Scientists that the Second Law of Thermodynamics proves the existence of God has vexed me for some time. The law specifically talks about heat and energy, but the general idea is that things don't spontaneously get more organized. If you ignore the fact that the law talks about a "closed system" and that it ONLY talks about heat/energy you can generalize the idea into an argument something to the effect of: if things don't usually get more organized, where did we come from? It's a powerful question, but not an answer to the question of God's existence. Claiming a God as designer/creator begs the question - who designed/created God? (a classic atheist rebuttal - from which a retreat to Faith is the only defensable position I've heard.)

Another common Creationist argument put forward for the proof of the existence of God is called Intelligent Design. It's derived from "Creation Science" (which I'm compelled to mention does not formally qualify as a "science". But some would argue by those standards Economics isn't a science either). One key argument of Intelligent Design is "The Eye: how could such a complex device evolve to be so perfect without a designer?" This question is typically backed up by an invocation of The Second Law of Thermodynamics i.e. "if scientists submit that things get less organized over time, how can they also submit that the eye improves over time?" That question is answered by:

a. strict interpretation of the 2nd Law of thermodynamics - heat/energy in a closed system (Earth is not a closed system - the Sun helps us out a lot).
b. an understanding of what DNA is and how it works.

Just this year I was reading up on Creation Science, The 2nd law rebuttals, and DNA while I was also looking into an emerging idea in physics called the "holographic principle". I can't efficiently explain the holographic principle, but to summarize, there is a limit to the amount of information a given volume can contain. But that limit is not determined by the volume. It's determined by the surface area. One reason that's significant is that it puts forward the idea that you only NEED a surface to "explain" how to make a volume - or put another way: The universe expresses itself as if it were 2 dimensional. It may only be an artifact of our consciousness that we experience it in 3 dimensions. But who cares? If walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and can mate with other ducks, it's probably a duck. Right?


However, the Holographic Principle seems to hint that "information" might actually be more important to the Universe than heat or energy (and Einstein helped us to understand that matter is just compressed energy - that's why nukes work, they release about half of the energy present in the mass of material they blow up - imagine that, nukes are generally quite short of 50% efficient - yikes)

The Holographic Principle forms the first suggestion that energy is made of information. This means that physics, instead of measuring heat or energy or mass, should be focused on measuring "information". This is just starting to happen. Information Physics is in its infancy. If the right personalities get behind it, it could become well known soon. If not, it could just simmer for a long while.

Anyway, if one considers that information is not just an artifact of human consciousness (i.e. something we made up) - that information is in fact the currency of the Universe (energy a commodity) then there may come to be Laws of Information Dynamics to match the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Why is this important to DNA? DNA is stored information. It's a symbolic reference. It's the volume of information that's passed from cell to cell, organism to organism. DNA's primary function as "information" allows it to escape from the limits of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This is the epiphany I had - that's the rebuttal of the Creation Science argument. And it's a rebuttal that goes past the less satisfying previous arguments of physicists that the 2nd law only applies to energy in a closed system (and other hair splitting).

This is not a fine point of wording or semantics. It's a broad shift in understanding the way the universe works. It gets us no closer to "knowing" (Faith and Knowledge are two different things) if there is a God. But it's my belief that it gets us closer to the meaning/identity/motive/nature of the idea of God. Some people feel a need for a personal relationship with God. I've never understood this or felt the need. Sean Palmer's recent crisis of Faith and corresponding blog has brought me closer to an understanding. I do feel existential angst (and several other types of angst), but it's always struck me as borrowing from Peter to pay Paul to offset lack of Knowledge with abundance of Faith.

Faith in my lack of Knowledge is my defensible point. From there I'm able to pursue the idea of God as a five year old would - with an infinite regression of "why, why, why?" (and lets face it, to any God we're all always 5yr olds). I have faith that there will always be an answer if only we let ourselves explore - and often those answers are so elegant and powerful in their revelation that they justify Faith and color the angst with excitement, passion and love. That sort of revelation is called epiphany.

Epiphany :(www.dictionary.com)
1. Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi.
2. A revelatory manifestation of a divine being.
3. A sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something.
4. A comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization

One of my favorite quotes/images of epiphany is from Moby Dick - after the servant boy Pip gets dragged "under" and almost drowns:

"He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels tohen uncompromised, indifferent as his God."

What's more like seeing "God's foot on the treadle of the loom" than looking at DNA physically? Unlike a mineral or a molecule (which might have a repeated pattern) there is an encoded tome of knowledge in DNA. Cells pass this knowledge unknown and unknowingly. It is sometimes changed by the (gratuitous Hamlet quote) "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" (random mutation) but remains True Knowledge and is able to bring an order to an otherwise fragmenting creation.

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