June 8, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

The Cause of a Teapot: Can Physics Explain Design?

George F. R. Ellis (U. of Cape Town) wrote a Concepts piece in Nature1 this week that asks fundamental questions about ordinary things, particularly, can we get from fundamental physics to complex hierarchical structures through a chain of cause and effect?

A simple statement of fact: there is no physics theory that explains the nature of, or even the existence of, football matches, teapots, or jumbo-jet aircraft.  The human mind is physically based, but there is no hope whatever of predicting the behaviour it controls from the underlying physical laws.  Even if we had a satisfactory fundamental physics ‘theory of everything”, this situation would remain unchanged: physics would still fail to explain the outcomes of human purpose, and so would provide an incomplete description of the real world around us.   (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

But Ellis does not end on that depressing note.  Admitting that meaning, though inexplicable from fundamental physics, did come into being, he claims that physics can illuminate the cause-effect structure of the universe.  It does so by creating a playing field where emergent properties like human intelligence can create their own cause-effect realities.  In the right context, he claims, higher levels of order can emerge and become autonomous:

It is possible that what actually happened was the contextual emergence of complexity: the existence of human beings and their creations was not uniquely implied by the initial data in the early Universe; rather the underlying physics together with that initial data created a context that made the existence of human beings possible.  Conditions at the time of the decoupling of matter and radiation 14 billion years ago were such as to lead to the eventual development of minds that are autonomously effective.  Such minds are able to create higher-level order, such as the Hubble Space Telescope and Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, that embodies a purpose and meaning not in existence before.
    With this view, the higher levels in the hierarchy of complexity have autonomous causal powers that are functionally independent of lower-level processes.

He admits that a key to making this work is the ability to store information, yet he fails to define the term:

Stored information plays a key role, resulting in non-linear dynamics that are non-local in space and time.  Brain functioning is causally affected by abstractions, such as the value of money, the rules of chess and the theory of the laser.  These abstractions are realized as brain states in individuals, but are not equivalent to themJames Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism is not the same as any individual’s brain state.  Although such concepts are causally effective [i.e., they can lead an electrical engineer to apply them to an invention], they are not themselves physical variables.  Consequently physics per se cannot causally determine the outcome of human creativity; rather it creates the ‘possibility space’ to allow human intelligence to function autonomously.

Even beaver dam building and the dances of honeybees, he says, might have emerged late late in the expanding Universe, “made possible but not causally determined by the underlying physics and chemistry of matter.”  To figure out how the hierarchy of complex structures can arise is the challenge of physics, he says: i.e., how “top-down causation and memory effects allow autonomous higher levels of order to emerge with genuine causal powers” of their own.  The meager attempts to do this with complexity theory, chaos theory and the like only take us “a small step on this road.”
    A photo of a teapot adorns his article.  The caption reads, “Intelligent design: no physics theory is able to explain a teapot.”  Lest one think he would dare give aid and comfort to the Intelligent Design movement, he makes it clear which side he is on: “Darwinian processes of selection,” he asserts, “guided the physical development of living systems, including the human brain.”


1George F. R. Ellis, “Physics, complexity and causality,” Nature 435, 743 (9 June 2005) | doi: 10.1038/435743a.

Well, this goes to show that the debate over freewill and determinism is not argued only between theologians.  Ellis has just charmingly bluffed his way past a major logical gap in naturalism: why there is something instead of nothing, and especially why there is such astonishing complexity as in a human brain instead of nothing.  His answer: you can get something from nothing!  First, the particles emerge out of nothing.  Then, they create a possibility space out of which complexity “emerges” and takes over, becoming a new, autonomous entity, like a human mind, that can engender new levels of autonomy.  This is the old tornado-in-a-junkyard theory of the 747.  The junkyard is now to be understood as the “possibility space” of the jumbo jet.
    They just love that word emergence.  It’s the miracle word that produces any phenomenon needing explanation, from nothing.  Granting a little memory that can store information helps.  Presumably, that just emerges, too.  Can anyone demonstrate an actual new cause-and-effect space emerging from one below it and becoming autonomous?  Read Dembski’s No Free Lunch to see that it cannot be done; claims of emergence are exposed when perpetrators are seen sneaking information into the side door.
    The major flaw in this line of reasoning is to assume that possibilities yield probabilities and these, in turn, actualities – given enough time.  Like George Wald once blathered to his everlasting shame, “Time is in fact the hero of the plot.  The impossible becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain.  One only has to wait – time itself performs the miracles.”  No gambling addict could have more faith.  There is simply not enough time to expect the unguided emergence of just one protein molecule under the best of conditions (see online book), let alone the emergence of the simplest memory storage and retrieval system, whether in a beaver, bee, or Berkeley, to allow the hierarchy of autonomy to proceed onward and upward.
    Non-existence is extremely more likely than existence – yet here we are.  We do not need to just explain what might be, but what is.  One cannot bootstrap nothing into something.  That is equivalent to belief in magic.  The worldview that explains the something, including all the complexity of the human mind, its autonomy and its degeneration into nonsense and evil, is Christian theism.  Emergence must always be downward: the Lawgiver into the realm of law, the Creator into the realm of the created.  Which view is more in accord with physics as we observe it?  Maxwell has a lot more than electromagnetic theory to say about that.
    Out of nothing, nothing comes.  Whatever begins to exist has a cause.  If you can keep your head when all around you are losing theirs and blaming it on chance, the Universe is yours and all that’s in it, and what’s more, you’ll be a Mansoul, my son.

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