What is Life?

Where did it come from?

Possible objection no 6
Possible objection no 6

Some yet to be discovered law of physics will prove to be the source of biological information

This is an interesting question that forms the fundamental basis of all origin of life research. So this is one question that really needs to be addressed. Is this hope realistic? Can the laws of nature create semiotic information, the computational algorithm that manipulates the laws of chemistry to form biological systems?

I believe the main body of this site has definitively answered this question already, however for the sake of a comprehensive coverage of this question I think it is worth covering from a slightly different angle.

While the laws of physics are without question the driving force of much of our physical reality, as already stated, the immaterial nature of information poses a quite different challenge. The specific nature of this challenge will be explored in the following section.

The physical laws are quite capable of driving disordered matter into ordered structures. Stars, planets, tornadoes, crystals and snowflakes for example. These are all examples of physical order but most importantly not organisation.  On the other hand any computational algorithm requires organisation not order. What is the difference? And why is it important? Here is an example of the difference

Snowflakes and symphonies

It is said that every single snowflake is unique in shape and structure. If that is the case the total number of different snowflake shapes must be truly vast. The laws of physics that create snowflakes have been in existence since the beginning of time, therefore the variety of snowflakes that have ever existed is beyond calculation.

However, have any of these snowflakes ever formed in such a way to create the musical notations of a symphony? Or to form the solution to a pre existing complex mathematical equation? No. And no matter how long we wait, that will never occur. Why?

The reason is that the laws of physics while they certainly have creative power, they also operate as a constraint on possible outcomes, they restrict possible outcomes to within certain boundaries.  As a result, what they produce is an example of order. Tornadoes for example will always form a nicely ordered vortex, never an organised dictionary.

The laws of physics are by their very nature very predictable, that is why they are referred to as laws, the outcomes of their operation can be accurately calculated in advance. As a result mathematicians can use the laws of gravity and motion to calculate the trajectory of both the moon and a space rocket with incredible accuracy to ensure they meet. They know that if a spacecraft is launched in a certain direction with sufficient force the rocket will rendezvous with its target at a precise time and place.

The laws of physics produce ordered, fixed outcomes. By contrast the ability to form the kind of complex algorithmic programing required by both biology and an orchestra requires that pragmatic choices are made toward a known goal at each and every step along the way. This directional objective choice selection is an example of organisation to accomplish a goal as opposed to lawlike order which restricts possible outcomes in a way that is blind to any future goal.

It is this goal driven choice selection that marks the difference between the constraints of lawlike order and the spectacular organisation that is required to create both a symphony and to write a complex algorithm.

Chance and necessity

What about introducing an element of chance into the mix? It is certainly realistic to expect a certain level of random chance events to be part of any processes in a prebiotic world. Surely this opens up the opportunity for randomly generated success?

The problem is that just like the laws of physics, chance events when viewed over the long term, are also very predictable.

If you flip a coin 10 times you will likely get an uneven distribution of results. Flip our coin a hundred times and the ratio of heads to tails will likely begin to even out. However if you flip a fair coin a million times you will get very close to a 50 / 50 ratio.

If you are expecting chance to have a positive effect on the production of a large scale computational algorithm you will need to factor into your reckoning the fact that any fortuitous chance selection will inevitably be undermined by an equal number of undesirable selections.

In fact this problem of random chance is much worse for the random creation of a functional biological sequence than our illustration of flipping a coin might suggest. While flipping a coin has just two possible outcomes, one of them perhaps could be viewed as the desired outcome the other undesired, by contrast there are vastly more ways to produce a non-functioning biological sequence than there are to produce a functional one.
Therefore, a random chance selection process would be vastly more likely to a produce a non-functioning sequence.

Chance is a very poor strategy for success.

So what is required?

To demonstrate exactly what is required to create organisation lets take as an example something that we definitively know is capable of writing an algorithm - a human computer programmer.

A skilled computer programmer uses his previous knowledge and experience to write a functioning code. However to make a comparison lets change some of the circumstances to more realistically reflect the nature of the task of creating coded information without the benefit of an intelligent agent and using only the constraining laws of physics.

First of all let's remove our unfortunate programmer's access to a known goal. Without a stated objective, our programmer, just like every blind material process lacks a direction for his actions. He lacks the ability to see in advance and therefore navigate his choice selections toward the required function.

Next, lets introduce some random chance to this process by removing the lettering from and redistributing the keys of his computer keyboard as well as switching off his monitor.

Now lets introduce some lawlike constraints to his actions by disabling a percentage of his keyboards keys. This will remove a considerable amount of the possible outcomes and narrow down the choices he is able to make with each keystroke.

We can also delete our programmers previous knowledge of the semiotic conventions of computer programming by removing the skilled programmer himself and replacing him with a complete novice.

And finally, lets remove his volition, his conscious desire to achieve anything at all.

This scenario helps us see just what is required to organise individual pragmatic choices into a coherent functional algorithm - a desire coupled with knowledge and complete freedom to accurately express those choices.

Adding additional constraining laws of physics will only reduce possible outcomes still further to the point where with a very limited number of available keys our hapless programmer will only be able to produce a random pattern or at the most optimistic he could produce ordered patterns similar to snowflakes, crystals or tornadoes.

All of this removes the capacity and freedom to make coherent pragmatic choices at each and every step of the way to produce a complex functional algorithm.  What is actually needed to successfully drive any process toward its goal is not constrains but a system of controls.

Not constraints - controls.

A control system is a integral part of every manufacturing process, particularly in an automated process. A system of controls is designed to monitor and regulate each and every step in the process and reject any errors that occur which would result in the final product failing. 

The designer of a control system builds into the process certain parameters that are determined by the requirements of the functioning end product. The ability to detect and reject errors is central to any control system, and of course integral to this is the ability to detect the correct desired outcome so as to progress the product on to the next controlled process in the chain.

Without doubt, any control system is goal directed. The designer of every control system needs to have a detailed understanding of the finished product and to clearly understand exactly what is required at every step in the process to ensure final success.

It is only this detailed understanding of the final product that can control the process to its successful conclusion.

Yet another reality check

At this point it is important to re emphasise the fact that the physical laws of nature are blind to any possible future goal. Not just blind to the functionality of each individual nucleotide selection in a polymer but also blind to the function of that polymer.

Our polymer will need to be sequenced in such a way so that when it is transformed  through the  transcription / translation process it will fold into a stable protein with a specific shape to achieve its next level of function.

The function of that protein is not discernible from the previous vantage point of the DNA polymer.

Our correctly folded protein very likely will not have any function of its own due to the fact that a great may proteins only function as part of a larger protein complex, where multiple proteins as well in some cases RNAs all come together to form a larger functional unit. Some Ribosomes for instance can have as many as 80 separate protein components, each one the product of its own correctly sequenced gene.

No functionality exists till each of these separate components are assembled together. The function of this protein complex is not discernable from the previous vantage point of the individual protein.

Protein complexes come together to form organelles, each of which has its own discrete function within a cell to keep the many metabolic processes of the cell running.

In multicellular organisms, cells come together to form tissues, tissues come together to form organs, organs work together in a coordinated integrated network of functionality to keep the organism alive. 

At each step along this remarkable multistep process, the required functionality of the next step is totally undiscernible from the vantage point of the previous one.  However, the success of every part of the process is totally dependent on the highly optimised functionality of its previous step.

No selectable advantage to the survival ability of the creature exists at any step in this lengthy process until it is complete, resulting in an actual function. A single misstep in this long chain of events will destroy any end functionality.

The blind laws of physics without the ability to see ahead through the remarkable transformations that take place during the cascade of processes that are required to execute the genetic algorithm contained within DNA, have no mechanism sufficient to control and steer that process to a successful conclusion. 

Control systems are capable of creating organisation (symphonies, dictionaries and algorithms) while the constraining  laws of nature are only capable of creating order (snowflakes, crystals and tornadoes)

The constraining laws of physics on their own, are insufficient to create the astounding level of organisation that forms the algorithmic basis of all life.

How to create a system of controls

So what would be required to build a control system that would drive natural chemical process toward the unnatural complex systems we call biology? To get a better handle on this question let’s reverse the circumstances of our poor hapless computer programmer.

1st Lets restore his volition, his desire to achieve something.

2nd Lets give him a goal, to fight against the naturally destructive entropy of the world around him to produce the incredibly organised structures that we call life.

3rd Restore his skill, give him the detailed knowledge enabling him to understand of how to achieve the end goal by making pragmatic choices at each decision point along the way. Choices that are able to set up the correct conditions at each of the multiple steps to progress the process toward a distant end goal that is that is now discernible  at each step in the process.

4th Remove the physical constraints by restoring the complete functionality of each key on the keyboard so as to give him complete freedom to make the required decisions to purposely steer the process to a successful conclusion.

5th Remove the chance element that would destroy his efforts to achieve success by restoring his keyboard and screen, enabling him to monitor each step so as to reject errors.

Finally, give him the capacity to manipulate the physical chemical elements in an accurate constructive manner to form the information bearing molecular chains necessary within biology.

Volition, knowledge and the ability to set and visualise an end goal and the ability to steer through multiple negative destructive dead end options to reach an optimised functional algorithm. This is what is required to form an effective control system that can drive the disorganised physical chemical environment toward an organised information processing system that is able to harness the physical properties of chemistry to form the biological systems we call life.

Origin of life researchers make the mistake of failing to recognize the fundamental difference between both order and organisation as well as the difference between constraints and controls. The laws of physics are very capable of producing order, they however are totally inadequate to produce the spectacular level of organisation that exists within the algorithms that control biology. 

The constraining laws of physics can only limit possible outcomes, it cannot possibly control or steer outcomes toward an invisible future goal.

Both organisation and controls requires the actions of an intelligent agent not the blind actions of any physical law.

For a more comprehensive coverage of this topic see "The First Gene the Birth of Programming" by David Able.