D to the N to the A

Question from Al Jih:
How in the world is DNA created from your theories guys?
Tell me how it’s created and got its beginning.

Answer by SmartLX:
Today’s DNA is created when older DNA makes copies of itself – but the copying process isn’t perfect, so the genome changes over time. By examining the similarities between the DNA of various lifeforms (I won’t go into details just now) it is reasonable to conclude that all known DNA is related, which is to say that it originates from a common strand that existed millions of years ago.

Where the original DNA came from is unknown, but we do have some clues. Experiments in the 1950s showed that an atmosphere rich in chemicals like hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide, like that which existed on Earth billions of years ago, can produce amino acids when electricity like that in lightning is applied. RNA, an accompanying chemical, is simpler but can do much the same job, which suggests the possibility that a DNA-based genome developed from an RNA-based one.

With all this uncertainty, why shouldn’t we just accept the ready-made explanation that a god designed DNA in order to create us? There are a fair few reasons, so here are some.

– Investigating DNA and its development leads to a greater understanding of DNA and life in general, so even if we never find the answers we seek we get all kinds of advances in biological and medical science.
– The alternative progenitors, like swamp gases, lightning and RNA, are at least known to exist.
– Even if there is some kind of god, there’s no guarantee that it’s responsible for DNA, or has had anything to do with Earth and its inhabitants.
– If you use a god to explain the unexplained, you end up with an even bigger unexplained phenomenon, namely the god itself. Hardly advisable, especially if you’re not sure it’s real.

The Determination Of The Universe

Question from Alejandro:
Message: I was debating (not formally) in my university about the existence of a god, and we ended up in the topic of determinism. My theist opposition argued that determinism would prove the existence of (their) god, that it would prove that, say, life was determined to exist by physics and chemistry, so there is a teleology in it.

In sum, they said the old adage: “Laws require a lawgiver”.

I believe this is a very common argument theists make to atheists, and some don’t know how to answer that.

Does determinism prove there is a god?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s a common argument all right. Actually it’s two different ones mashed together, so let’s split them up.

Determinism means that everything that’s ever happened or will ever happened was destined to happen from the very beginning, if indeed there was a beginning. God’s plan is one interpretation of this, and a highly disturbing one because it implies that everything bad that’s ever happened was God’s plan, including all the people who’ve gone to hell. There was no way they could have done anything other than commit the sins that damned them.

Another valid interpretation of determinism is that it all simply happened because it had to, without any plan at all. Some very interesting stuff has happened, like the emergence of life and Beethoven’s Fifth and that amazing coincidence that happened to you last week, but in a universe as enormous as ours you would expect at least a few amazing things to happen by chance in a few corners of a few galaxies. If billions of people played the same lottery at million-to-one odds, you’d get thousands of winners.

Finally, regardless of any of the above, determinism can’t establish a god until determinism itself is shown to be true, and it hasn’t been. Decades ago quantum mechanics put paid to our self-assurance that every particle must have a plan, by telling us that a particle’s exact position can be a matter of probability, with no apparent reason why it’s in one spot and not another. Until the accurate predictions of quantum mechanics can all be explained by another completely different and intrinsically determined mechanism, determinism cannot be assumed to be reality.

The second argument is the argument from design, in this case applied to the origin of life. I covered it very broadly in my Great Big Arguments series, and I’ve written a few things on the fine-tuning argument which you might find relevant. Briefly, just because the universe supports life does not mean the universe was designed for life.

Sex, Evolution and Everything

Questions from Tabassum:
1. Things are existing around us. Why do they exist? Someone once answered that things exist because they just have to. But why do they HAVE to? How do I answer this without metaphysical ideas?

2. Evolution.
How did genders arise? People usually answer by giving some of the benefits of sexual reproduction but I am asking the how not the why. I mean how can we believe that genetic mutations led to perfectly complementary organisms when the two organisms (male and female) are separated in space and time? Or do I have the concept wrong here?

3. Evolution.
Evolution does not violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics, as I was taught. This is because there is energy continually being supplied to the organism so it can have the opportunity to become more sophisticated. Overall, the universe becomes more complex because the energy released from the sun increases the randomness of the overall system of the universe.

My query is:
If energy is being made available to the organism constantly, how would the organism use that energy. Shouldn’t there be a system to consume and use that energy in a useful way in the first place? So there needs to have evolved a system to use the energy, but it could only have evolved if it was able to use energy. Or maybe it can evolve without consuming energy? Answers?

Answer by SmartLX:
1. The short answer is that we don’t know, but that’s not a good reason to assert any particular explanation.

Matter exists right now either because it has always existed or because it came into existence at some point. If it always existed in some form, then like most people’s concept of a god it has no need of an origin. If it came into existence, not only do we not know how but we don’t know if it needed a cause at all. We’ve never seen anything come into existence from nothingness, so for all we know it could be entirely spontaneous, though very rare. The exception is in quantum mechanics where current theory suggests that (and of course this is a gross oversimplification) small particles are regularly winking in and out of existence, without any known cause or even much of an effect. This hardly supports the idea of deliberate creation of matter.

2. The most popular hypothesis is that gender and sexual reproduction began as a simple transfer of DNA material between two almost identical entities. We know it evolved extremely early in eukaryotic single-celled organisms, and for such creatures an exchange like this could be as simple as pushing material through their cell walls while in contact. Even if this happened regularly but by accident, it would have altered the population’s overall genome much more quickly than cell division alone. That would have meant disaster for many individual cells that got the short end of the helix, but overall it meant more unique material for natural selection, faster evolution and better survival prospects. The organisms that won out and continued to reproduce would have been the ones that made this exchange a hard-wired part of their life cycle. After that, all that was required to achieve genders as we understand them today was the emergence of a DNA structure with a switch, or a split probability of going one way or the other – in other words, a chromosome.

3. Living organisms have evolved very efficient means of harnessing energy from outside themselves, like photosynthesis and digestive systems, but while such complex mechanisms are useful they are not essential. There are chemical reactions caused by light, water, oxygen and especially heat which have nothing to do with life at all. Molecules break down and recombine, elements move between states of matter and so on. For a crude thought experiment, imagine a variety of inorganic objects and what happens to them in a pot of boiling water, or on a stove, or when left in the sun all day.

The very first living organisms simply needed to include substances within their membranes that could absorb heat, light and maybe bits of other organisms, and use the material to do something chemically interesting enough to keep the whole thing running for another few seconds until it happened again.


Brainless atoms form brains, lifeless atoms form life, meaningless synapses form a conscious mind. The simple comes together to form the complex. It happens. We’re proof.

Question from Aravind:
the theory of abiogenisis states that we evolved from non living matter and that atoms are nonliving and that the only reason for which the atoms in our body work together is because of Chemical feedback loops acting so if we are made up of non living matter how is it that I am able to perceive my external environment how am i able to think how is it that I am conscious since i am made up of nonliving matter how is it that i am able to perceive my external environment the very fact that i am able to respond to external factors like gravity electricity ,magnetism is because the atoms in my body perceive them??

the very fact that I am sentient and can perceive my external environment conforms that there is something in me which is not nonliving ??we know that atoms are nonliving simply by the fact that they cannot regroup to form an amputated arm or form an eve of a blind person by simply sensing the combination of atoms from the eye of another living being so if we are able to sense the environment it means that there is some other transcendental property in me which is perceiving the external environment(soul???)

if I was made up of nonliving matter i would simply respond to existing code and chemical feedback loops and be unable to form my own thoughts but that is not the case i can even condition myself to starve myself for long periods of time which means that i am not simply responding to existing codes to enable my survival and reproduce The very fact that I do not function to the basic codes of survival implanted in my dna like a robot responds to existing programs shows that there is something inside me (soul???) that is not nonliving????

if the primordial bacteria which replicated itself was already composed of nonliving randomly combined atoms why did the bacteria replicate itself since it was already dead why would it want to shuffle its genes to evolve in order to adopt to the environment if it was composed of dead matter to begin with it would be meaningless for something which was already dead to evolve and preserve its code if it was already dead???

Answer by SmartLX:
An atom cannot be alive, because life as we define it requires a great deal of interaction between atoms. Living tissue, however, is made up of atoms which by themselves or in small groups would be regarded as non-living. All of the remarkable functions of living tissue, including brains, are performed via chemical (and electrical) interactions between individually non-living atoms. It’s like how a computer does its computations with a bunch of silicon and copper atoms. Nobody thinks that’s impossible.

The first self-replicating organism probably did form through random combinations of components, but if you have hundreds of men and hundreds of women at a party you’d be surprised if at least one couple doesn’t form. Once the organism had formed, it replicated not because it wanted to (it couldn’t want anything) but because that’s what its parts could do. It evolved not because it had any evolutionary goal but because later copies of it were slightly different from each other, and had to compete based on their physical qualities.

Our sentience and consciousness are referred to as “higher brain functions” because that’s exactly what they are. The human brain is a network more complex than the world’s biggest computer (though computers are slowly catching up). It does everything it does by receiving input through our eyes, ears, skin, etc. and processing it with nothing but “grey matter” and tiny electrical sparks.

That works because it does an awful lot of simple processing in a short time. A calculator actually only knows how to add, or did until recently. All its other functions are accomplished by complicated sequences of adding (adding negative numbers to subtract, adding multiple times to multiply, etc.) Likewise, the neural network has the capacity to form complex thoughts out of multitudes of simple processes.

We think about things other than survival for two reasons. Firstly, as other animals demonstrate, you can usually survive on far less brainpower than we have. Secondly, our survival is almost assured in the short term because of the stable society in which we live, so we can indulge in the luxury of applying our minds to other matters. As soon as we feel that our survival or that of our friends or family is directly threatened, however, we won’t even notice how quickly our brains abandon extraneous thoughts and focus fully on survival.

Brainless atoms form brains, lifeless atoms form life, mindless neurons give rise to a conscious mind. The simple comes together to form the complex. It happens. We’re proof.

Incidentally, I would suggest to you that what Terry Pratchett has written on the subject of multiple exclamation marks also applies to question marks.

Mitchell Heisman, and one heck of a suicide note

“…if a man’s willing to write 1905 pages justifying his own death he’s not interested in being talked out of it.”

Question from Rohit:
Sometimes one comes across really rare incidents – and the reaction of the general public to such incidents really saddens one.

I’ve actually taken some time to go thru some of Mitchell Heisman’s 1905 page suicide note. I do not find any flaw in his logic except perhaps too narrow a focus on the concept of equality.
Some of his ideas are actually pretty interesting.
If you go to his site www.suicidenote.info and see his pic you do not see a guy who’s pathetic in appearance. He actually looks a bit intense. If you read his note even in bits and pieces you soon discover that this was a guy who was not pathetic in mental abilities either.

How would atheism sell life instead of death to Heisman? Can it? Can atheism justify life over death?

Religion’s stand on death seems to be pretty solid by the way. I’m not so sure of atheism’s stand.
I am an atheist and I think it is purely a matter of personal choice, social custom, muddied up with an evolutionary survival instinct (will to live – like that of any living organism – an instinct of flight from danger).

But I’d like to hear your comments on it … there’s been no answer to this in another forum till now.

An aside – Heisman’s is a case that has an eerie comparable in fiction – Dostoyevsky’s Kirilov in “Devils”

Answer by SmartLX:
Excuse me if I don’t devote the next several days to ploughing through all 1905 pages. I’m already reading Scott Pilgrim and I Shall Wear Midnight, and I have a job to go to. The sheer size of the piece may have a lot to do with why there’s no full response so far. Another major factor is that he only killed himself last month. Give it another month or two before you really wonder why there are no responses.

I did skim it though. My immediate response based on that, and your description, is that if a man’s willing to write 1905 pages justifying his own death he’s not interested in being talked out of it. He appears to have pre-emptively dismissed the stances of any set of people who he thought might try: Christians, Jews, members of many schools of philosophy, psychologists, scientists, atheists and so on. (His own position, in the vein of pantheism, might be called “technotheism”: God, or the making of God, is technology and He will have fully evolved at the point of the Technological Singularity.) Nobody, let alone atheism, had a chance of selling life to this guy.

Atheism by itself doesn’t justify life, nor can it be expected to. There’s no line of reasoning that goes, “There is no god, therefore don’t die.” The reasoning that keeps atheists alive, when it has anything to do with atheism at all, goes, “Despite the fact that there’s no god, there are such-and-such reasons to live.” We find reasons not in the simple absence which is atheism but in the incredible presence which is the universe. Philosophically or psychologically this can take the form of humanism (humanity is important), altruism (others are important), egotism (I am important), hedonism (while I live, I can find happiness), curiosity (I can’t explore when I’m dead) or any number of other concepts.

When you get right down to it, it is personal choice and social custom, “muddied up” with the hereditary survival instinct. Humans, by their upbringing and their intrinsic nature, generally want to live and most of the intellectual justification for living (religious or otherwise) is rationalisation after the fact. Mitchell Heisman didn’t want to live anymore, and for an educated man like him that took a mammoth 1905-page effort to rationalise.

The sad thing is that his last work may or may not contain the real reason he killed himself. It’s just as likely to emerge from his own circumstances as the last weeks and years of his life are explored by the media. And wherever it comes from, we may not even recognise it among the chaff.