Examining the origins debate, part 4

This is part 4 in a series exploring Gerald Rau's book Mapping the Origins Debate. For other posts in the series, click a number: 12, 3, 5678.


The origin of life

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
A successful model of origins provides a credible explanation of the origin of life (referred to by scientists as abiogenesis). Rau offers a detailed analysis of this complex, controversial topic, including the strengths and weaknesses of each model.

Here is an example of Rau's analysis--in this case noting a weakness he sees in strictly evolutionary models that reject outright any supernaturalistic explanations for life's origin:
If cells arose gradually, as predicted by all of the evolutionary models, certain things must have preceded the first true cell, including the presence of organic molecules necessary for life. But the existence of the molecules by themselves is not sufficient, since only specific arrangements would be useful in building a cell, a problem referred to as information. And even if all of the molecular components could be formed, a cell is far more complex than the sum of its component parts (p83, italics added).
Seeking to be even-handed, Rau is careful to note that evolutionary models do posit naturalistic explanations for abiogenesis. However, whether or not those explanations are credible is a topic for debate. According to Rau's analysis, the evidence for strictly naturalistic (i.e. non-supernaturalistic) explanations for abiogenesis remains ambiguous--a reality rarely admitted by proponents of strictly evolutionary models (p85).

A related issue in Rau's analysis of abiogenesis has to do with the issue of sequence in light of the fact that the cell's "molecular machinery [is] as sophisticated as any human factory" (p88). Rau comments:
The question for origin of life scientists is how this complexity could have arisen in a stepwise manner. Despite occasional exaggerated claims to the contrary, scientists are far from being able to create life in the laboratory. Life is too complex for such a reconstruction effort, as least given the knowledge and techniques we now have available (p89).
Though these are complex matters, there is no getting around the reality that life exists and, therefore, must have originated somehow (unless one wants to argue that life has always existed, but that argument merely ducks the issue). However, in accounting for the origin of life, none of the models is able to rely on direct, observable evidence. Therefore, the approach that each takes largely has to do with reliance on an underlying worldview/philosophy--which means (as we noted last time in this series), it's largely a matter of faith (or call it "belief," if you prefer).

Naturalistic explanations

Given that naturalistic evolution (NE), nonteleological evolution (NTE) and planned evolution (PE) all have prior commitments to the belief that there is no supernatural intervention in natural events, they all must come up with totally naturalistic explanations for abiogenesis. One such explanation involves what is referred to as the "anthropic principle":
Lacking any hard evidence of how life originated, the argument most commonly used is a variant of the anthropic principle...we are here, therefore life must have arisen, so conditions must have been such that life could arise. All we have to do is find out what those conditions were (p95). 
Of course, evolutionists continue to look for evidence of prebiotic, naturalistic evolution, postulating various options. But doing so is a highly speculative and daunting task, due to the issues of sequence noted above as well as several other challenges that Rau helpfully addresses (often in great detail).

Supernaturalistic explanations

Models that allow for supernatural causation in abiogenesis state the viewpoint that life is simply too complex to have arisen in stepwise, naturalistic fashion. Therefore, they posit the viewpoint that "God chose to create the first cell directly, fully functional." This is so because these models see living things as having a complexity that, logically, must be taken as a sign of intelligent design and creative action---in our experience, "order does not arise from disorder without intelligence as an organizing force" (p97).

Advocates of supernaturalistic explanations note that the mathematical probability of life arising by chance (through random naturalistic processes over long periods of time, in stepwise fashion) "is less than the probability of picking one atom at random from all the atoms in the universe" (pp97-98). This impossibility thus points to supernatural agency.

Critics of the three models that posit super-naturalistic intervention (young earth creation, old earth creation and directed evolution) accuse their supporters of being science stoppers. At the same time, critics of the NE, NTE and PE models accuse their supporters of being willingly and stubbornly blind to evidence for supernatural causation.

A third explanation

When it comes to abiogenesis, the naturalistic and supernaturalistic explanations seem hopelessly at odds. But as Rau notes, there is a third explanation---the directed evolution (DE) model. This model is "not philosophically tied to either a gradual or immediate solution." As a result, there has emerged within this model a variety of explanations concerning mechanisms of abiogenesis and subsequent evolution, ranging from the gradual to the nearly instantaneous. These explanations have in common the idea that "God directed low probability events to achieve his purposes in creation" (p98-99).

Of course, all sides in the origin-of-life debate rely on inferences, utilizing inductive reasoning. There simply is no direct evidence explaining abiogenesis that can be examined and analyzed using deductive reasoning. It would be helpful if all sides in the debate would acknowledge this and then approach the debate with greater humility, reserve and flexibility. That seems particularly hard to do for those who embrace strictly naturalistic or strictly supernaturalistic models (did you see the televised debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham?).

Next time we'll look at the topic of the origin of species. The debate continues.

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