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  • Patrick Prill

The Only Watchmaker Is Physics

Updated: Jan 30




"All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way. A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind's eye. Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind.”[1]

- Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins sees the origins of life and the driving force of complexity within nature as being driven by natural selection. Natural selection, in turn, is somehow powered by the “blind forces of physics.” Though he doesn’t know how natural selection got started, he says that it was physics that ultimately did it.[2]

This point of view, that everything that is complex was somehow caused by something smaller and simpler, is often called scientific reductionism. It’s the idea that consciousness emerged from biology, which emerged from chemistry, which emerged from physics.[3]

The idea of scientific reductionism sounded great in the late 1800s. Charles Darwin had just published On the Origin of the Species, which described the evolution of species from the simple to the complex. Thomas Huxley had just declared that all living cells (plant and animal) are composed of protoplasm[4] and scientific publications about protoplasm being the “only living substance” were all the rage.[5] Scientists were even maintaining that life could come from inorganic matter.[6]

All of this seemed to make sense – big things were composed of simpler smaller things, which were composed of even simpler smaller things, and so on. In their universe where matter and energy had no beginning or end,[7] all of this was great science. The only problem was, in reality, things just aren’t that simple.

Over 100 years later, it now seems that matter and energy did have a beginning, though we really don’t know how. Physics includes a system of complex finely tuned laws, though we don’t know their source. Chemistry does support biology (life), but we don’t know how life got started. Cells don’t just consist of a nucleus and protoplasm; they’re incredibly complex and require purposeful information to function. And, human consciousness is still a mystery. So, is physics the only watchmaker? If it is, no one really knows how or why.

Reductionism isn’t working

It seems that the more scientists learn, the less viable the simple reductionist view becomes. Thomas Nagel, who is both a philosopher and an atheist, observes that reductionism has growing problems with its lack of probability. He says, “The more we learn about the intricacy of the genetic code and its control of the chemical processes of life, the harder those problems seem.”[8]

Mr. Nagel does want to develop a comprehensive world-view that integrates physics, chemistry and biology, but he questions current views of evolution and how life could have developed in the time available.[9] There seems to be more involved than simple reductionist ideas. He boldly goes against popular scientific consensus and states:

“Whatever one may think about the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine – that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation of physical law – cannot be regarded as unassailable. It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.”[10]

A growing number of scientists also see simple reductionism as inadequate. Scientists like Ernst Mayer, Steven Weinberg and Niels Bohr recognized the limits of explanatory reductionism decades ago.[11] This is the idea that complex systems can be understood just by understanding their smaller parts – it’s not that simple. Marie Kaiser states that most scientists in the life sciences now realize this. [12]

Reductionism is still a hypothesis

Grand reductionism also has problems. This is the idea that everything ultimately has physics as its root cause. When Richard Dawkins says, “the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics,” this is what he means.

The first flaw with this idea is leading physicists acknowledge that physics (energy, matter, space, time, and laws) didn’t cause itself – it had a beginning.[13] Physics can’t be the ultimate builder, if physics didn’t build itself. And, as Thomas Nagel has observed, physical laws alone can’t account for life. Physics also can’t account for the purposeful information in DNA[14] or human consciousness.[15] So, to say that physics caused these things is to go beyond what has been validated by science – it’s a hypothesis that hasn’t yet been proven.

Layers of science

Christopher Longuet-Higgins, a chemistry professor at Cambridge University, observed that the various layers of science are indeed compatible with one another, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re derived from or explained by each other.

“It's all very well to say that one science rests upon another, if all we mean is that the laws of the former do not actually conflict with those of the latter. But this demand does not entail that the concepts of the higher science can necessarily be explicated in terms of the concepts of the lower science. Nor does it even imply that the laws of the higher science follow from those of the lower: this is clear from the universally conceded fact that thermodynamics does not follow logically from dynamics.” [16]

Holding to the idea that everything that exists does so because physics is the ultimate builder is an increasingly improbable, incomplete, and dated depiction of reality. Physics is definitely part of the equation, but the big bang, intricate laws of nature, purposeful information, self-replicating life, consciousness and apparent design suggest that there might be much more going on than just physics.

It isn’t 1900 anymore. Richard Dawkins’ reductionist assumptions are not working; they’re not providing ultimate answers for the Universe’s incredible complexity. Dawkins does acknowledge that the Universe looks as though it was designed. Perhaps the reason is because it actually was.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986), 9. [2] IBID, 237. [3] Scientific reductionism includes several ideas. Two of the most common are: 1) analytical reductionism – you can understand a complex system if you understand its smallest parts, 2) grand reductionism – that every layer of existence can be understood by and emerge from the layer beneath it with particle physics at the lowest level. [4] Lionel Smith Beale, Protoplasm; or Life, Force and Matter, (London, England: J. Churchill & Sons, 1870), 17. [5] John W. Hayward, Protoplasm: Its Origin, Varieties and Functions, (Bristol, England: John Wright & Co., 1902), 8. [6] Lionel Smith Beale, Protoplasm; or Life, Force and Matter, 3rd Edition, (London, England: J. Churchill & Sons, 1874), 22. [7] Ludwig Büchner, Force and Matter, (New York, NY: Peter Eckler, 1891), 10, 14, 21. [8] Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos – Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 9. [9] IBID, 4-9. [10] IBID, 11. [11] Ernst Mayer, The Limits of Reductionism, Nature, (Vol. 331, Febr. 1988), 475. [12] Marie I. Kaiser, The Limits of Reductionism in the Life Sciences, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, (Vol. 33, No. 4, 2011), 455. [13] Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma, (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), 68-69, 232-233, 236. [14] Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma, 232-233 and Fazale Rana, The Cell’s Design, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), 273. [15] David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996), 93. [16] Christopher Longuet-Higgins, The Failure of Reductionism, The Gifford Lectures, 1972, https://www.giffordlectures.org/books/nature-mind/second-lecture-failure-reductionism

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