Thursday, March 10, 2011

the origin of life

The theory of evolution is considered by most scientists to be pretty well proven. It tells us how life developed via natural selection to the complexities we see today. But evolution doesn't explain how life began, and so far science cannot do so either. What should we make of this?

This article in Scientific American (Pssst! Don't tell the creationists, but scientists don't have a clue how life began) summarises the dilemmas facing biochemists - they can't find a mechanism for abiogenesis (the beginning of biological life from inert chemicals) that works in the laboratory under favourable conditions, let alone one that would work in the harsh conditions of the real world.

Different people will draw different conclusions, depending on the assumptions they make:

  • Creationist christians will tend to be pleased to note the difficulties, because they don't believe in evolution by natural selection, let alone abiogenesis. They are convinced God did it in a very direct way. But in the long run this difficulty of explaining the origin of life doesn't make any difference to them because they wouldn't believe life began by natural processes even if scientists find a plausible mechanism.
  • Most scientists likewise remain unaffected. They are confident, as a matter of something almost like faith (as described in this thoughtful blog by a philosopher), that there is indeed a natural explanation, and they will hopefully find it soon. But as the Scientific American article explains, simply saying "God did it" is not a sufficient explanation for them, even if the reason given in the article (these "explanations suffer from the same flaw: What created the divine Creator?" is really philosophically quite crude (as discussed below).
  • Christians who are theistic evolutionists (i.e. they believe in both God and evolution) have already accepted that evolution is the means by which God created human life on earth, and that he set the whole universe up so it would achieve this result. So they are not going to be concerned if abiogenesis is another part of the natural process God set up in advance. But they may just be more open-minded than the other two groups, because they are not committed in advance to any one answer. If science continues to be unable to resolve the mechanism for the origin of life, such christians may decide that it didn't occur naturally after all - or they may not. But Al Moritz (The Origin of Life), whose views I respect, seems to be confident that a scientific solution to the origin of life will be found soon.

The attitude of scientists is interesting to me. When they say that saying "God did it" provides no explanation for the origin of life, they only mean that it provides no scientific explanation - it doesn't explain this event in terms of understandable natural laws and processes. But of course, if true, saying "God did it" is very much an explanation in other senses - it identifies cause, and perhaps motive, which are very important - and it is only truncated and reductionist thinking by scientists that leads them to say otherwise.

The question of who created God is an elementary one in philosophy, and any scientist who asks it in this crude form simply hasn't done their homework. If God exists, he has always existed, and his existence is logically necessary - it couldn't have been otherwise. He needs no explanation for his existence, it is just a brute fact. But the universe, earth and life have not always existed and they do not exist necessarily - i.e. their existence is contingent on other things and requires an explanation. (A short summary of the argument is at how did the universe start?)

In the end, this question of the origin of life reveals, I believe, some of the strengths and weaknesses in each of the three positions. I feel most comfortable with the theistic evolution view, because it allows me to be more open to the various scientific and philosophical possibilities.

Time will tell, but things may get even more interesting.

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