Over at the Scientific American, John Horgan lets us in on a little secret: Scientists are at a total loss in explaining the origin of biological life. Really? You don’t say!
As recently as the middle of the 20th century, many scientists thought that the first organisms were made of self-replicating proteins. After Francis Crick and James Watson showed that DNA is the basis for genetic transmission in the 1950s, many researchers began to favor nucleic acids over proteins as the ur-molecules. But there was a major hitch in this scenario. DNA can make neither proteins nor copies of itself without the help of catalytic proteins called enzymes. This fact turned the origin of life into a classic chicken-or-egg puzzle: Which came first, proteins or DNA?
RNA, DNA’s helpmate, remains the most popular answer to this conundrum, just as it was when I wrote “In the Beginning…” Certain forms of RNA can act as their own enzymes, snipping themselves in two and splicing themselves back together again. If RNA could act as an enzyme, then it might be able to replicate itself without help from proteins. RNA could serve as gene and catalyst, egg and chicken.
But the “RNA-world” hypothesis remains problematic. RNA and its components are difficult to synthesize under the best of circumstances, in a laboratory, let alone under plausible prebiotic conditions. Once RNA is synthesized, it can make new copies of itself only with a great deal of chemical coaxing from the scientist. Overbye notes that “even if RNA did appear naturally, the odds that it would happen in the right sequence to drive Darwinian evolution seem small.”
The RNA world is so dissatisfying that some frustrated scientists are resorting to much more far out—literally—speculation.
The speculation gets pretty far out, some of it consisting of aliens seeding life into ours. Speaking of space, it is a bit ironic that we spend millions of dollars in the search for intelligent life in space, using what we feel are reliable methods for identifying such an intelligence. But the very idea of looking for signs of intelligent design in biological systems – systems that need specific, complex informational codes and instructions – that’s ruled out in advance. But that’s not really the point of my post. If you’re interested, the gist of that argument is beautifully illustrated here.
What I really just wanted to discuss Horgan’s last few comments, which I think are demonstrably fallacious.
If life didn’t begin here, how did it begin out there? Creationists are no doubt thrilled that origin-of-life research has reached such an impasse, but they shouldn’t be. Their explanations suffer from the same flaw: What created the divine Creator? And at least scientists are making an honest effort to solve life’s mystery instead of blaming it all on God.
So everything needs a cause? Because not really all that long ago, scientists held to the view that the universe didn’t need a cause, that it was self-existent. This wasn’t seen as an illogical nor impossible. Horgan is arguing in a circle; he is saying that all reality is physical and so God can’t exist because He isn’t part of the physical world.
Asking “who made God?” makes about as much sense as “have you ever tasted the number 6”? It’s logically incoherent, because by definition, God is a self-existent, uncaused Cause. If you think that’s strange, a good number of philosophers believe that many uncaused things exist, such as numbers, sets, logical laws, moral virtues, etc. So what Horgan is basically asking is “what caused a self-existent, Uncaused Cause?” It doesn’t make sense.
Moreover, while Horgan thinks that punting to God destroy science. Considering the failure of the other hypotheses of origins, inferring that information comes from mind certainly doesn’t seem to me to be unscientific. Really, it is Horgan’s own standard that would destroy science. What I mean is that in order for scientists to know what cause best fits the evidence, they don’t need an explanation of an explanation, and then an explanation of that explanation, etc. If that’s necessary to do science, you wind up with an infinite regress. This is an elementary point in the philosophy of science. As William Lane Craig often illustrates, if astronauts on the moon were to find a pile of machinery, they would be justified in inferring the machines were made by an intelligent designer, even if they had no clue who put them there or how they got there. Or if archaeologists were digging somewhere and found arrowheads and pottery, they’d be justified in inferring that they were designed.
Finally, belief in a divine Creator did nothing to stop Newton, Kepler, Galileo, Faraday, Pasteur, Planck from scientific inquiry, nor has it stopped some of the more brilliant scientists of the day, like Francis Collins or Henry F. Schaefer III. Rather, most of these men would say their belief in a Creator inspired their science. I wish people would stop pretending there is some sort of war between faith and science. The real battle is really a philosophical debate that has little to nothing to do with real science. An honest effort of a scientist would be to infer to the best explanation, without ruling out any hypothesis in advance.