Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Origin of Life Problem - Still Not Solved

A reader was kind enough to send me this article from entitled "Researchers May Have Solved The Origin-Of-Life Conundrum."  While this is certainly an interesting approach, the title is a tad misleading.  What it boils down to is something akin to oncologists declaring that the most recent theoretical anti-cancer treatment "may have cured cancer" (except that that one could actually be tested).  In their own words "could life have kindled in that common pool?  That detail is almost certainly forever lost to history."  And "this general scenario raises many questions and I am sure that it will be debated for some time to come."

So, yes, while they may indeed have solved the conundrum, our knowledge of it (and theirs) will remain hidden for some time.  As of now, the issue remains perplexing as ever and should once again serve to highlight the formidable obstacle that abiogenesis (how animate life arose from the inanimate) still poses for origin of life researchers.  With that in mind I'd like to re-post something that I wrote for the Huffington Post a few years back called "A Reasonable Argument For God's Existence" - I don't think that much has changed since then.

In our recent dialogue I have noticed a consistent theme. It was frequently remarked that religious lines of argumentation lack reason. The contention seems to be that most, if not all, religious systems rely solely on wholly unsubstantiated faith to support their beliefs.

Is this contention in fact true? From a theistic perspective the reality seems quite inverted in that it would appear to require an unreasonable commitment to naturalism to maintain a denial of the transcendent.

Rabbi Moshe Averick has done yeoman's work in deconstructing the arguments in favor of naturalistic explanations to the origin of life and has concurrently demonstrated the high degree of intellectual vigor of theistic reasoning. This post is a paraphrase of his analysis of the origin of life problem that confronts the naturalist camp within the scientific community. A full treatment is available in his indispensable book Nonsense of a High Order.

One might suppose that in the six or so decades since the discovery of the DNA molecule by Watson and Crick during which researchers have been investigating the origin of life they might have come up with some pretty solid leads to explain it. The truth of the matter is that we see scientists coming up surprisingly empty-handed and that even within scientific circles, the few hypotheses they do have are shredded to ribbons by their colleagues within the scientific community.

So how is a non-religious scientist expected to contend with this dearth of hard evidence? Some seem to have recognized the dead ends within the maze and the subsequent outgrowth of a scientific version of a "faith" in light of the problem:

"One must conclude that ... a scenario describing the genesis of life on Earth by chance and natural causes which can be accepted on the basis of fact and not faith has not yet been written." (Dr. H.P. Yockey, physicist, information theorist and contributor to the Manhattan Project)

"The theory behind theory is that you come up with truly testable ideas. Otherwise it's no different from faith. It might as well be a religion if there's no evidence for it." (Dr. J. Craig Venter, Biologist and one of the first people to sequence the human genome)

And there's the rub: There just is no evidence for it. Not one of them has the foggiest notion about how to answer life's most fundamental question: How did life arise on our planet? The non-believer is thus faced with two choices: to accept as an article of faith that science will eventually arrive at a reasonable, naturalistic conclusion to this intellectual black box or to choose to believe in the vanishingly small odds that the astonishing complexity, intelligence and mystery of life came about as a result of chance, which of course presents its own problems:

"Suppose you took scrabble sets, or any word game sets, blocks with letters containing every language on Earth and you heap them together, and then you took a scoop and you scooped into that heap, and you flung it out on the lawn there and the letters fell into a line which contained the words, 'to be or not to be that is the question,' that is roughly the odds of an RNA molecule appearing on the Earth." (Dr. Robert Shapiro, Professor Emeritus and Senior Research Scientist in the Department of Chemistry at New York University)

Ask yourself, do you believe in the RNA molecule? Do you accept Dr. Shapiro's scrabble analogy as an actual possibility? Most people intuitively recognize that it's not a reasonable position to hold. Everybody knows that too many good hands at the blackjack table will get you kicked out of Vegas and that arguing to casino security that your three hours of consecutive 21s are theoretically possible will not be accepted as a valid defense. Nonetheless, these odds are what many are suggesting we accept. The resulting cognitive dissonance seems to have a negative effect on some of those making the argument:

"It is this combative atmosphere which sometimes encourages scientists writing and speaking about the origin of life to become as dogmatic and bigoted as the creationist opponents they so despise." (Dr. Andrew Scott, Chemist and science writer)

This inescapable conundrum is what has driven otherwise brilliant minds to concoct such exotic (and evidence-averse) theories as directed panspermia -- the notion that life was seeded on Earth by space aliens -- posited by Nobel Prize winning biologist Francis Crick and at times seconded by Richard Dawkins. The (unfalsifiable) multiverse theory is another example. At times these researchers, despite themselves, seem to grasp the sheer unlikelihood of the whole enterprise and start groping for the most unscientific of words to explain themselves:

"An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle." (Francis Crick)
Amazingly, even Richard Dawkins has written that, "I could not imagine being an atheist at any time before 1859." Why? Because in 1859 Darwin published his Origin of Species. But so what? This entire discussion is taking place outside of an evolutionary context. Evolution can only begin once we already have a dazzlingly complex, self-replicating, living cell with which to work. That -- the origin of that first cell, not what happened thereafter -- is the fundamental basis of disagreement between theist and atheist. I make that statement with a full awareness of the fact that scientists hypothesize the prior existence of "simple" self replicating molecules that led up to the emergence of the DNA based bacterium; but this just pushes the question back a step. There is no conclusive evidence that such molecules ever did, or could, spontaneously self-assemble on the prebiotic earth. Again, even Dawkins candidly admits regarding this notion that, "I don't know how [it started], nor does anyone else."

I posit to you that all the evidence points, in an obvious and inextricable way, to a supernatural explanation for the origin of life. If there are no known naturalistic explanations and the likelihood that "chance" played any role is wildly minute, then it is a perfectly reasonable position to take that a conscious super-intelligence (that some of us call God) was the architect of life on this planet. Everyone agrees to the appearance of design. It is illogical to assume its non-design in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

"Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to understanding the real struggle between Science and the Supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community of unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to naturalism ... for we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door." (Richard Lewontin, Geneticist)


  1. Dear Rabbi,

    I observe logical fallacies (including God of the Gaps), errors of understanding abiogenesis, misuse of probability calculations and probability theory in your article. Oh, and a good deal of Quote Mining, some of it without dates and so is suspect for that reason as well.

    Best Wishes

    1. Hi Anonymous. Would you be willing to outline the logical fallacies and errors that you observe in a more specific fashion?

      I've never really understood what the difference between "quote mining" and just "quoting" is. Though I've noticed that it generally gets that label only when the reader disagrees with the subject matter.

  2. How did life on Earth originate?

    The atheist or scientist would say "I do not know. I am trying really hard to figure it out, but I have not been able to explain it. I will keep working on this question"

    The theist would say "God did it!" and be happy to leave it at that.

    Well, as reasoning human beings, "God did it" is not good enough. HOW did he do it? Was it merely a miracle, or did He use known laws of universe to create life? Can we someday reproduce what He did in making the first living organism? These are questions that we are interested in. Can you fault scientists for trying to answer these questions?

    But what if one day someone comes along and creates a living organism out of simple biological material? Does this mean that God does not exist?

    What does the question of life's origin have anything to do with the proof of God's existence?

    1. The theist would look at science's 60 year struggle with this and conclude that the more elegant solution (philosophically) is to posit the existence of a conscious designer who, through some means that at present no one understands (and perhaps is beyond understanding). This is not an unreasonable conclusion.

      The ability to create life in a lab would actually strengthen the design position as it would demonstrate that a conscious designer is indeed required to produce life. That's the whole point.