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.

Continue reading “A Preface to the Problem of the Origin of Life”

The Hole In the God of the Gaps Argument

All people, including scientists, fill in the gaps in their knowledge with a model of reality they believe best fills those gaps in light of the knowledge they have. 

Most people who have entertained the question, whether God exists, are familiar with the “God of the Gaps argument” that is made against the existence of God. It goes something like this: In the past, people couldn’t explain natural phenomenon, like rain, thunder, earthquakes, etc. so they attributed those things to the activities of the gods. People use the gods (or God) to fill gaps in their knowledge and understanding of how the world works out of ignorance.

From that observation (which is factually true as a simplistic statement), they add in the equally true observation that the progression of science over the centuries has been filling in the gaps in human knowledge and understanding of the natural world. We have found natural explanations for most phenomenon without having to resort to the conclusion that “God did it”. Thus, the argument goes, we should stop invoking divine explanations.

Many people take that even further and conclude that we should stop believing in God altogether. We don’t need God to do science; thus, we don’t need God at all, they say.

Thinkers realized during the Enlightenment period that they didn’t need to invoke divine explanations at all to be able to study the natural world. From that realization, a scholarly consensus the thinking has developed that divine explanations are not only not necessary; they are not appropriate.

Divine explanations are viewed today by most scholars as anti-scientific. Some people who are concerned with the purity of science would even deem divine explanations “heretical” to the current scientific orthodoxy.

The God of the gaps argument (as an argument to prove the nonexistence of God), however, is pretty weak. The fact that we can do science (which is, by definition, the study of the natural world) without appealing to a supernatural being or explanation isn’t surprising. It also can’t tell us what caused the natural world, as any cause of the natural world would have to be independent of it.

Just as the study of a painting can never introduce us to the painter, study of the natural world could never hope to introduce us to the creator of the natural world. At best, it might tell us something about the painter/creator. In both cases, we must be willing to look elsewhere to find the painter/creator.

Frankly, the order we see in the natural world is more surprising on a naturalistic worldview that assumes no intelligence behind the universe. We see intricate design in the universe, from the micro to the macro levels. How do unguided co-locations of molecules and matter acting randomly on each other produce the exquisite fine tuning we see?

The order to the natural world that we can study and know doesn’t preclude the existence of a supernatural (other than natural) Being behind it all. The order of the natural world is actually more difficult to explain without God.

The order of the world, by itself, is not proof that God exists, but the design we see is best explained by a grand Mind. This is not a gap-filling argument. It is an argument based on the best explanation we have – that all design we see in our experience is created by a being with agency who thought of it, designed it, and created it. This is the best explanation that we have.

If we resign ourselves to nothing but the study of the natural world, how do we expect to know anything about the possibility of reality beyond it? If we limit ourselves to naturalistic explanations, we foreclose any other possibility.

Thus, refusing to allow for the possibility of a God that might fill the gaps in our knowledge is just as arbitrary and closed-minded as filling every gap with God (and refusing further inquiry).

We all fill gaps in our knowledge, and we do it on the basis of what we know and believe about what we know. Our gap fillers are our basic assumptions. The theists assumes a Creator exists. An atheist assumes that no creative mind is behind the universe.

Frankly, there is a big gap between the fact that the natural world has order that we can study and the question whether anything beyond the natural world exists. I can turn the argument around and accuse the naturalist of filling the gap with the conclusion that no God exists.

But all of this really misses the important point. Hugh Ross addresses the God of the gaps argument in a recent interview with Kahldoun Sweis. He says,

“In science, there are always gaps. We will never learn everything. We are limited human beings.”

However, when we “push back the frontiers of science”, we have to ask ourselves whether the gaps in our knowledge are getting bigger and more problematic? Or are they getting smaller and less problematic?”

Continue reading “The Hole In the God of the Gaps Argument”

What’s In Your Primordial Soup?

 (c) Can Stock Photo / jgaunion
(c) Can Stock Photo / jgaunion

I am reminded of a Farside cartoon when I think of primordial soup. For instance, the amoeba reading a book titled, Primordial Soup for the Soul. The concept of a primordial soup isn’t a joke, of course. It is the idea that life began many millions of years ago as chaotic elements churned in the boiling atmosphere and electric charges of a primitive earth – a kind of Frankenstein-like beginning to be sure, but a serious elementary concoction.

The ramifications of this primal stew are far reaching. They imply that nothing but natural forces were necessary for the creation of life. For many, the ultimate implication is that God doesn’t exist or we don’t need God (which isn’t quite the same thing): we don’t need God to explain the origins of life because there is a plausible natural explanation.

But is that the case?

For a century or so, people have sought alternative explanations for the origins of the universe and of life as a way of chasing off the specter of God. Richard Dawkins, for instance, asserts that the “greatest achievement” of mankind is the theory of evolution, giving man the power to cast off the shackles of faith in God and allowing man to stand unfettered on his own two feet firmly planted in terra firma against all odds.

Whether God exists, or doesn’t, what ingredients might have primed that primordial soup that seems to explain how life can rise from non-life, without need of a God, without anything other than the basic stuff of an infantile universe? Continue reading “What’s In Your Primordial Soup?”

Not So Random Thoughts on Evolution

Evolution does not satisfactorily explain the big picture, and it seems to me that the forest gets lost in the trees.

sad chimpanzee

I am fascinated by evolution. I have learned more about evolution in the last ten years of my life than I did in the first 50. I have come to respect the science, though I do not come to it from within the scientific community. As an outsider to this community, I am curious to see the religious fervor with which evolution, as theory for the origin of life, has provides for its adherents. It prompts me to ask: why are so many people so religiously attached to evolution?

I am no scientist. I will admit that; at the same time, I note that many people are downright dogmatic on this topic. Questioning the theory of evolution as an explanation for the origin of life is sacrilege in these modern times – so much so that we have laws in the United States that forbid competing theories (like intelligent design or creationism, which are very different models) from even being mentioned in a public school.

As I focus on evolution in this blog piece, I am not talking about the adaptation of species. I see more than sufficient proof of evolution in that sense. I am not even talking about the origin of species, though I believe we need more sufficient evidence to prove that evolution is the sole explanation for the origin of species.

I am talking about the origin of life, itself – the big picture, the forest, not the trees. When talking about the evolutionary paradigm as an explanation of the origin of life, I do not see a satisfactory explanation of the big picture, not even close, and it seems to me that the forest gets lost in the trees. Continue reading “Not So Random Thoughts on Evolution”