A Preface to the Problem of the Origin of Life

The problem of the origin of life is an Achilles heel, not for science, but for the materialist

Particles of DNA strands flying through space to Earth.
Concept of the origin of life. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

Michael Guillen, who obtained degrees in physics and mathematics from Cornell University, where he studied under Carl Sagan and Fred Hoyle, and who taught physics at Harvard University, has a podcast in which he addresses the problem of the origin of life (among many other things). (See Science + God with Dr. G. Episode #44)

Guillen was an atheist into his late 20’s or early 30’s. Then he became a theist, and then a Christian. He has always been a “science guy”, however.

You can find the explanation of how he gravitated from atheism to Christianity in earlier episodes of the podcast. I am not going to address it here. I want to address the origin of life problem using this particular episode as a backdrop because I think he explains the problem well.

Before I do that, I want to preface the origin of life problem and put it in some context. The unspoken and unexamined assumptions we make can cloud our understanding, so I want to seek a little clarity first.

The origin of life “problem” is a problem for scientists who hold to a purely materialistic view of the universe, who believe that evolution is the only explanation for life (including the origin of life), and who refuse to entertain or even to allow for the possibility of other causal explanations. It is much like the “problem of evil” for the theist. The problem of the origin of life is an Achilles heel, not for science, but for the materialist.

The problem of the origin of life is an Achilles heel, not for science, but for the materialist

Guillen lays out two of the leading theories on the origin of life touted by non-theists who believe that the explanation lies in nothing but evolution and only evolution. The first, transpermia, is not really a leading candidate, but it is noteworthy coming from the lips of Richard Dawkins.

Guillen describes the theory of transpermia quoting Dawkins (at about 9:45 in the episode linked above). On this theory, Dawkins suggests, some life form that has advanced far beyond the human race through evolutionary processes planted life on earth.

We have no evidence for such a theory. We have no evidence of other life forms in the universe, though we have been searching for them since Carl Sagan imitated the SETI program many decades ago. Even if other life forms do exist, we would have to ask, “Where did they come from?” Dawkins says they would have evolved like we did, only they are further advanced.

Thus, this theory is similar to the multiverse theory of how our universe became so finely tuned for life in the sense that it “kicks the can down the road”. The odds of a universe existing by random chance that has the robust and delicate fine-tuning we find to support life in our universe are astronomical. The multiverse theory proposes that our universe is one of an infinite number of multiverses such that some universe somewhere would have to have the exact characteristics of our universe, and we just happen to be living in that one. The multiverse is a “someone-has-to-win-the-lottery” theory of the universe.

Just as Stephen Hawking showed mathematically that our universe had a “singularity (a “point” of beginning from which the universe expanded into what we see), Alexander Vilenkin, Director of the Tufts Institute of Cosmology and Professor of Evolutionary Science, demonstrated mathematically that a multiverse (in a “world” of universes capable of creating a universe such as ours) must also have a singularity. Thus, positing a multiverse to explain our universe “kicks the can down the road” in similar fashion to the idea of transpermia.

How did the multiverse begin? We don’t know. How did evolution begin? We don’t know. That is the origin of life problem, and science doesn’t have very satisfactory answers at the moment.

Dr. James Tour, one of the leading scientists today in the filed of chemistry and nanotechnology explains the problem of the origin of life in the video I have linked below. (Tour has multiple post doctoral degrees and teaches at Rive University. Tour became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2020 and was awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Centenary Prize for innovations in materials chemistry with applications in medicine and nanotechnology. He was named one of “The 50 most Influential Scientists in the World Today” by TheBestSchools.org in 2014. Tour was named “Scientist of the Year” by R&D Magazine in 2013. Tour won the ACS Nano Lectureship Award from the American Chemical Society in 2012. Tour was ranked one of the top 10 chemists in the world over the past decade by Thomson Reuters in 2009, among other awards. He is one of the top researchers and most cited researches in his field, with over 700 research publications. (See Wikipedia)

Scientists like Dawkins, Hawking, and Vilenkin, who embrace a materialistic worldview, do not allow for the possibility of a divine creator or intelligent designer. They believe science will one day reveal the answers. They believe the answers lie in nothing but the matter and energy that make up the material universe.  

The assertion that the answers lie in nothing but the matter and energy that make up our universe is a statement of faith, though they might bristle at the term being applied to them.

How do they know science will reveal the answers? How do they know that the answer lies in nothing but the matter and energy that make up the material universe?  How do they know there is nothing else?

They don’t know that. They can’t prove it. This is the same issue with the problem of the origin of life for which the answer given by materialists is evolution.

Out on the edge of our science and knowledge lies the unknown. The multiverse idea is likely never to be proven because human beings are creatures of this universe, and we may never have the capacity to explore beyond this universe in which we are confined.

Alignment or array of many Earth planet in outer space scenery 3D rendering illustration. Multiverse or parallel universes concept. Earth textures provided by NASA.

The problem of the origin of life seems like it may be capable of testing, proving, and knowing, but we are (so far) not even close to proving how it happened (or could happen). This may be the subject of a future article. In the meantime, I want to finish my current thoughts with a few more observations.

As a college English Literature Major with a juris doctorate (law degree) and practicing attorney for over 30 years, I cannot understand the mathematics and the science as well as scientists and mathematicians. Therefore, I respect and accept the scientific and mathematical conclusions of modern science and try to understand them as best I can.

At the same time, I am attuned to notice when scientists leave the area of science and mathematics in which they have superior expertise and knowledge to enter into philosophical and even theological space. When scientists stray into the realm of philosophy and theology, they get into disciplines in which most scientists are not well-trained.

For instance, the great, popular scientist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, has famously said that we don’t need philosophy because our science is so well-advanced; the great advancement of science has dispensed of the need for philosophy; and science provides all the answers. If Neil deGrasse Tyson had some training in philosophy, he might realize that the statements he makes about science paraphrased above are philosophical statements!

Those assertions made by Tyson are not scientific statements. Science cannot proof them. There is no way to demonstrate them, to quantify them, or to reduce them to mathematical formulae. Tyson enters into the realm of philosophy when he claims that philosophy is dead, and he doesn’t even realize it!

One doesn’t need to travel far to find that science has no answers for some of life’s most common and most important questions: Why do we exist? What is beauty? Why do people value art so much? Why do we need love? What purpose do I have? Why are human beings religious? Why do we fixate on death? Where does self consciousness come from?

We can suggest all kinds of materialistic answers to these questions using the evolutionary paradigm, but we can never prove them. They are not susceptible to scientific proofs. They are not reducible to mathematic formulae. The ultimate answers to these questions lie in the province of philosophy and theology.

The basic assumptions and the ultimate answers to these questions must be taken on “faith”. The materialist has faith in her conclusions no less than the philosopher or theologian, though sometimes she doesn’t recognize when she has wandered into their territory.

But all of this is a preface to the topic I hope to explore in more detail using the Guillen podcast episode I have linked above. I encourage you to listen to it. The episode is less then 30 minutes long.

(You might even listen to the episode before it (Journey #43 – Origins: How the Universe Began) In a future article, I hope to get into some detail on the conundrum of the problem of the origin of life with my own thoughts on the subject.

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