Undeniable: Thermodynamics and Life

Here’s my fourth post on the 2017 Westminster Conference on Science and Faith. I thought this session was one of the most valuable because it’s on a topic that’s often misapplied.

Dr. Brian Miller, who holds a Ph.D. in Physics from Duke University, led this session, and I was very pleased. He began with the claim that life won’t spontaneously happen by natural processes; it must be designed. This is because there are problems with the step-by-step processes atheists demand. One problem is the accessibility of the right ingredients. He explains, without the right chemicals being available, life can’t begin. Another problem he presents is probability. Scientists have been wrestling with the chances of life evolving spontaneously, and the odds are staggering. Some have calculated the odds to be 1 chance in 10 to the 40,000 power, which is considered extremely improbable, to say the least. The atheist Fred Hoyle likened the odds to “a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard and assembling a Boeing 747 from the materials”.

With that said, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey in 1952 attempted to simulate the conditions of the earth’s early atmosphere, hoping to demonstrate that life could spontaneously arise by natural processes. Their results produced some amino acids, considered to be the ‘basic building blocks of life’, but the experiment failed to live up to expectations. First, present day scientists believe the early earth atmosphere had a different composition (including oxygen) than what was used in the experiment, so it’s no longer relevant. Second, it fails to demonstrate that life could form spontaneously given the right conditions and ingredients.

Some atheists argue that spontaneous, improbable events do happen in nature, like snowflakes. This is true, but, nonetheless, nature behaves in a way that is expected according to the laws of physics. Miller argues that we observe driving forces and dynamic patterns in nature. He says nature moves from low entropy to high entropy, or high energy to low energy. Water, for example, naturally runs downhill. In order for it to go uphill, it would need to be pumped.

He also notes that systems give off heat. But nothing in nature goes from low energy to high energy and disorder to order. Therefore, if there are no examples to the contrary, it’s a stretch for any atheist to claim that it could have happened at least once at some point during earth’s history.

Miller refers to tornados and hurricanes are examples of spontaneous, self-organized processes, but they operate according to law-driven patterns and natural processes. They have increased entropy, but lower free energy. Yet, when we observe organization in a cell, we see a completely different process at work than when a tornado forms.

When it comes to the origin of life, the correct ingredients don’t spontaneously attract. Instead, they diffuse. That’s a big problem for those who believe life formed spontaneously.

Still another major hurdle to overcome is the chirality problem. Chiral means “hand” and refers to the handedness of certain biological molecules- like amino acids and proteins. Almost all amino acids have two forms- a right hand and a left hand, but proteins are made only from left handed or the right handed amino acids, not both.

To understand this dilemma, keep in mind that almost all life is comprised of proteins built entirely from left-handed amino acids. The problem for the origin of life is that, when amino acids are synthesized, there’s always a 50-50 mixture of both left and right. This is a problem because, when it comes to biological systems, only one hand is physically able to fit into the 3D puzzle, so there’s a huge dilemma- or paradox-for those who believe life can form spontaneously. The first lifeform would have needed only left handed amino acids, but the forces of nature produce both left and right handed amino acids, ending any chance for life getting started.

Chemical reactions within a cell operate according to the laws of thermodynamics. They go from high energy to low energy, which is the opposite of what nature will do. Cells are structural in order, decrease in energy, and contain specified complexity.

Miller explained that cells contain the complex machinery needed to process the energy received. Cells need information in order to work, and proteins are needed to form enzymes. Some chemical reactions in a cell go uphill. Enzymes are shaped as needed in a specific order to achieve the correct 3D shape. So, we can see the components of a cell working towards a goal. Information is non-physical, meaning that it needs to be interpreted or decoded by enzymes. Proteins are independently coded into the DNA. Therefore, says Miller, in order for the cell to exist and function, that information has to pre-exist in the cell.

Secular scientists have no idea how life originated and are forced to assume there are processes operating that we don’t know about yet.

Miller likens the simplest lifeform like an advanced city, and concludes that design is the most reasonable explanation. Life couldn’t arise due to the laws of thermodynamics.

This was a terrific presentation. Atheists are able to observe the way a cell works along with all its complex components, yet they cannot explain how the first living organism could have come about by purely naturalistic explanations. Still, they’re undeterred, insisting that someday scientists will be able to create life in the lab. But even if scientists could create life in the lab, this would only demonstrate that intelligence is needed for the creation of life.

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