Tuesday, January 23, 2007

How Did Life Begin?

8. Life from non-life. Science has now proposed large number theory as a way to explain how life came from non-life. Once again I would assert that this very recent theory, while plausible, is extremely fragile.

To believe that God created life, as He created everything, is not that hard to believe. Billions believe it to be true. So it can hardly be called illogical or primitive. That would suggest that a very small percent of the population has, with absolutely no proof or even a way to get to the proof, determined that the vast majority of the population (including some pretty smart people) are delusional, and only they have it right. This would not hold up very well in a court of law with finders of fact trying to get it right.

Bernardo's Response to #8. Once self-replicating molecules came around, they competed for resources until the necessary building blocks were used up, and then some mutation caused them to start "eating" each other, and then some random arrangement allowed for self-replicating defense mechanisms, and so on, leading to the prokaryotic cell. Or something like that. Is that so hard to believe? I just tried to say in a sentence what Richard Dawkins says in one paragraph of "The Selfish Gene" (he concludes the chapter with the thought that we (people) are survival mechanisms for our genes - or at least that's one useful way to look at why and how we evolved). So my super-summarized version of the explanation may not sound convincing, but I highly recommend you read the book. Or, even better, that you read "The Mind's I", which includes that chapter of "The Selfish Gene" (followed by commentary/analysis by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett) as well as other excerpts from other books that address the questions of what we are, what it means to "be", to "think", to be "alive", to have a "point of view", etc. Back to the subject of the origin of life, though: whether or not the God "explanation" of things is hard to believe, makes sense, or even meaningfully "explains" anything at all, is a topic that deserves separate attention. I'll write a little about it after number 10.

Randy's response: I've been doing a little reading on this today, and there seems to be a body of work emerging that takes us back to primordial soup theory. More correctly known as the Miller-Urey experiment, the idea is that if you have a certain set of environmental characteristics and you hit the "soup" with a bolt of energy (lightening in the original theory) living things might be produced out of the non-living soup.

This experiment was completely debunked when it was learned by other scientists that the "soup" used had way too much free O2 compared to the earths environment at that time.

Apparently others have now tried some experiments with other possible soups that more closely approximate what they believe was available at the time, and have been able to create something like life. Others suggest that the amount of energy required could not have come from lightening, so have suggested other sources for the energy.

The other problem with even a successful Miller-Urey has always been the small likelihood of this exact set of products coming together, being zapped by some energy, and then having a feedstock available to survive. If all of these things came together, you'd then have issues with continuation of survival. What are the odds.

Now Bernardo would give us a couple of other conceptual ideas of how it could have happened. I think it was either God...or possibly some green guys from a faraway planet started it and left. I do, however, appreciate that it takes immagination to come up with all these possibilities. I just don't understand why the immagination can not include a spiritual option when most humans on the planet feel a spiritual option is at work.


bernardo said...

"I just don't understand why the imagination can not include a spiritual option"

Because a spiritual option has very little explanatory power. It keeps you from imagining the REAL "beginning", the point where things started going from random/natural to intentional/volitional. It's a wall that keeps you from looking beyond it to the previous level, or from speculating about when something came from nothing (in terms of organization and life). If I ask you "What was the beginning of life" and you tell me "It was created by this other being", then you didn't answer my question.

When I think about "the beginning" of anything, saying it was created by something else means it no longer is "the beginning", but more like "the middle" or maybe "the beginning of THIS step". Doing so removes the satisfaction of thinking about a "beginning".

When you propose that God is responsible, you take all the complexity I want to try and unravel, all the complexity that I think might arise on its own, and you put its origin inside a black box called "God" that no one could possibly even speculate about. You rip all the interesting questions right out of my hand and say "No, you don't get to try and figure out how this came about". When I want to figure out how something came from nothing, "God" is not a valid explanation, because "God" is already something, and it's "something" whose origins are much harder (impossible) to speculate about than, say, DNA.

Ok, I see that I can't just keep saying "Your non-natural explanations explain nothing at all" without really explaining what I mean. I'll dedicate some time today to writing about this and I'll let you know when I think I can better explain my dissatisfaction with the "God" hypothesis. (Luckily today at work I have to test a program that takes about 7 hours to run, and which only requires input from me on about 4 occasions, so I'll have plenty of time to write... Ah, if only every day at work were this easy).

This is a very enlightening debate. I'm learning a lot, about myself and about one more possible take on Christianity. I'm very glad to be participating in this blog, and I wish I had about 5x as much time as I do to dedicate to writing comments here.

Randy Kirk said...

I'm looking forward to your input. Life began. We can postulate that. It is possible that life always existed, but our feeble brains can't imagine actual infinity. We need a closed loop to fit our logic.

So how did it begin?

Primordial soup
Lava tubes
drifting life from other planets
God spoke it into existance
God created only a few single celled organisms with the right information to spawn all the rest
A parallel universe of giants

These are all postulates. Some may seem to be more available to scientific inquirey, but just because a line of inquirey is easier, doesn't mean it is right.

Global warming might be man caused, or it might be sun caused. It is much easier to persue the man caused, so man can fix it approach, so that's where the money is being spent.

bernardo said...

"Primordial soup"

Yes, that would be a real "something from nothing" beginning.

"Lava tubes"

I'm not sure what you mean...

"drifting life from other planets"

That's not a beginning. That's a middle. How did it begin on that other planet?

"A parallel universe of giants"

Another middle. How did they start?

"God spoke it into existence"
"God created only a few single celled organisms..."

Not a beginning (unless you're suggesting God is not alive).

Do you see what I'm saying? "Beginning" means "something from nothing". If God creates something, or if it comes from another planet or is shaped by the influence of beings from a parallel universe, then it's not really a beginning, and you just moved the question of the REAL beginning behind a curtain that is much harder to penetrate.

If you don't think that something can come from nothing, then something has always existed. That "something" might as well be the universe. And if something CAN come from nothing, then why do you need God?

I'll admit that maybe our beginning is unknowable if you admit that, by introducing the supernatural, you're making it less knowable than it needs to be.

Like I commented on in another post: I think that the existence of inanimate but chemically diverse stuff is a prerequisite for the rise of life and thus of intentional, aware beings. You think that intentional, aware beings (like God or aliens or transdimensional giants) are a prerequisite for the creation of inanimate but chemically diverse stuff. That's a pretty big gap between what requires what in my opinion, and what requires what in your opinion. I don't know what we should do about that gap, but I find it pleasantly simple to look at it that way. It could be an oversimplification of our differences but it feels pretty fundamental.

Randy Kirk said...

Once again we need to keep in mind that Christians established ALL the great Western universities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Christians were the scientists. None that I have wish to stop researching the origins or causes of the universe or life, and in fact, everyone I read or know heartily desires a continuation of research into same.

The naturalists are the only ones trying to limit the possibilities.

bernardo said...

Even if Christians invented science and created the institutions that pursue it, this does not give modern Christianity the authority to re-define what science is.

Science must limit itself to naturalist possibilities. Science must be necessarily agnostic (or at most, deist).

Science is the attempt to explain the phenomena we observe via causal processes. Proper science requires the assumption (or "belief" or "faith", if you prefer) that every event was the direct consequence of a previous event in the natural world, and this causation carried itself out via natural processes we can observe, understand, and (if within a small scale) replicate.

Even if God did create the universe, and miraculously and individually created each species that inhabits it, this is not a conclusion that science should reach, or even pursue. That's because this "theory" basically translates into "we will not be able to find a natural cause to this phenomenon", which is not something science should say. Individuals are free to pursue such theories, to research them, and to promote them (heck, they might even be right), but it's not science.

If you take this to mean "science is limited", then, well, you're right. But keeping the supernatural out of science is part of what has allowed for so much scientific progress over the past few centuries.

bernardo said...

Not that everyone should limit their world view only to what science offers. Indeed, science is only a window to the natural world, and if you believe in the supernatural, then science should not deliver any insights about that (except insights you think you can deduce from looking at the natural world).

The thing is, I have not seen any convincing evidence for anything supernatural (if you have, then James Randi's got a million bucks you can claim). And, like I have said, I do prefer to think I live in a naturalistic world. It seems to make more sense to me and it's preferable to living under a god who is whimsical and unclear.

And, like I have said, pursuing the "beginning" question naturalistically is what allows you to theorize about how life could arise from non-life. This is much more satisfying than thinking about the "beginning" in supernatural terms, because there is no way to think about how supernatural entities might have arisen from non-life, so the real "beginning" slips out of your reach.

So science limits the possibilities because that's what science is all about. I limit the possibilities because supernatural theories cannot explain how life came from non-life, a fact that makes them very unsatisfying to me.

bernardo said...

I just realized I made a mistake in the writing you quoted in the blog post: I meant to have said, "I just tried to say in a sentence what Richard Dawkins says in one CHAPTER of "The Selfish Gene"..."