Does Origins of Life Research Rest on a Mistake?
White’s ultimate argument throughout this paper is that life on earth is caused either by chance or an intentional bias, rather than a non-intentional bias inherent to natural laws. He considers this argument important as nearly all origin-of-life research is focused on finding a process that is non-intentionally favored by physical laws. It’s an interesting argument, but one that is perhaps misguided — science is the search for (natural) explanations, and those explanations are best found via repeatable phenomenon — if it turns out that life is indeed caused by genuine pure chance, science cannot explain its origin, and you cannot prove pure chance except by disproving all biases, so how could we possibly research pure chance any more directly than we are?
I’m noticing what I have to consider a serious issue with Theorem 3. It states that the probability of S being caused by chance is lower than the probability of S having a nonrandom cause if either P(S|BI) > P(S|C) or P(S|BN) > P(S|C). But this is wrong, the formula also needs to include the probability of each bias actually existing, ie P(C|S) < P(C) only if either P(S|BI)*P(BI|S) > P(S|C) or P(S|BN)*P(BN|S) > P(S|C). (One could also include a P(C) multiplier if one wanted, but in general it should probably be close to or actually unity.) To recognize this, let’s return to his pebbles. The probability of a stick figure on the beach a bias toward creating stick figures is very high, but the reason that we ascribe it to intention is that we understand the motivation a person might have in creating the stick figure. The probability of a random arrangement of pebbles on the sidewalk given a bias toward placing them that way is also very high, but we cannot understand why any agent would have wanted to place pebbles in a random way, so we ascribe it to chance.
So, given any arrangement of pebbles we look at the arrangement, assign a probability that the arrangement has a real (rather than imagined) pattern given various kinds of patterns we have encountered before (intentional or non-intentional), and then determine if we think it matches a pattern closely enough that it is likely to have been caused by that pattern rather than by mere chance. White actually describes this sort of process following his theorem, but the theorem does not properly notate it. Authors who use formal notation for their arguments should get it right, or the notation is not just useless but confusing. Indeed, the proper notation here would make his later discussion easier when he grapples with the Preference Problem — he could simply say that we have no idea what the probability of a very powerful being existing who prefers life is, and so we cannot disprove chance based on the existence of such a being.
Later on, I seriously disagree with White’s suggestion that life should not be considered to have non-intentional biases because there are no conceivable reasons that the laws of the universe would be biased toward life. Rainbows have order, and are caused entirely by natural phenomena. This illustrates why White is wrong — life is a form of order, and we know that physical laws are in many ways biased toward order of one form or another because order produces stability. Crystals “grow” under the right conditions, and their growth is predictable by the laws of the universe. Atoms and molecules of any size are highly ordered, generally in a lowest energy state, but we do not say that their order cannot be the result of non-intentional biasing. We have observational evidence that the universe’s laws are non-intentionally biased toward the existence of order, and life is merely self-sustaining order. So while we may not know how the physical laws are biased toward life, we have evidence that suggests it might be as an outgrowth of the bias toward creating order.