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Difficulties for Atheism: How Did Life Begin?

Difficulties for Atheism: How Did Life Begin?

The Origin of the Origin of the Species

I could spend hours and hours, maybe even days in a natural history museum. I grew up taking trips with my dad to the Natural History Museum at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. As a small boy I would stare in wonder at the ancient woolly mammoth skeletons towering above me, some of which were discovered only hours away. After moving to Connecticut, we took our boys to the Museum of Natural History in New York. In one of the exhibits there's a long railing that represents the history of biological life. A thin sliver covers human history, a few more inches goes back to the Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Triassic periods, a few more to the Cambrian, and then many more steps leading back to the beginning of life. As I walked along the railing, running my fingers along countless ages to the starting point, a big question mark remains - how did life begin? Most scientists feel confident about evolution as the mechanism that accounts for biological diversity (although a minority point out some notable difficulties - see here, here, and here - but you won't hear about that in discussed at the popular level). But does natural selection and mutation account for the origin of life? 

Plenty of Time = Plenty of Chances

When Darwin wrote The Origin of the Species in 1859, I suppose it was simple to postulate that life could, given enough time and chance, spontaneously arise from inorganic material. The complexity of even the simplest cells and the information rich complexity of DNA all remained hidden to human view. Cells were generally viewed as a simple membrane and plasma. While the theory of "spontaneous generation" was dealt a final blow by Louis Pasteur in the 1860s, the philosophical and methodological naturalism guiding a portion of scientific inquiry at this time had to assume the origin of life by natural means, even if that origin wasn't naturally explicable.

Regardless of the difficulties, many banked on an eternally existing universe to account for the time and chance needed for life to arise. In the early 20th century, Russian scientist Aleksandr Oparin paved the way for a naturalistic explanation for life's origin. According to Oparin, chemical evolution over the span of billions of years could account for the gradual congealing of prebiotic molecular structures, which in turn eventually developed into the first living, self-replicating organisms. While this theory worked in principle, later discoveries related to the age of the earth and its early conditions would place a large question mark next to Oparin's ideas - not to mention the fact that the naturalistic assumption that the universe consisted of eternally existing matter would eventually be abandoned following the advent of Relativity and the Big Bang.

Too Complex for Chance

Nevertheless, the basic idea behind Oparin's idea gained wider acceptance, all the way to the lab of Stanley Miller at the University of Chicago. In 1953, the famous Miller-Urey experiment demonstrated that the combination of substances likely present in the earth's early atmosphere (methane, ammonia, water, and hydrogen), along with electrical charges, eventually produced the building blocks for life - amino acids. It would seem that materialism had won the day. In fact, as philosopher of science Stephen Meyer notes, Time magazine "gave the theory of chemical evolution the status of textbook orthodoxy almost overnight" (pg. 57).

Interestingly enough, another watershed discovery took place in the same year. Biology turned a new page as James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the elusive double-helix of DNA. Ever since Mendel's pea plants scientists had a lead on genetics, but until the discovery of DNA no one understood the mechanics of biological diversity both within and between species. But now, scientists began to discover that behind this diversity was encoded information at the molecular level - not just matter and energy, but also information. Although Watson and Crick assumed naturalism, a careful inquiry into the question of DNA eventually leads to an atheistic conundrum - how does biological information arise?

Specified Complexity

The information bound up in DNA is not simply generic information, such as a random string of numbers or letters. Rather, DNA is what Stephen Meyer has called functional information, since the sequences of nucleotide bases are "received and used by the cell's machinery to build the structures critical to the maintenance of life" (pg. 109). In other words, DNA is like a phone number or a paragraph from a book - within the right context, these sequences of numbers or letters are not random, but rather specified and functional. Meyer continues:

Apart from the molecules comprising the gene-expression system and machinery of the cell, sequences or structures exhibiting such specified complexity are not found anywhere in natural - that is, the nonhuman - world... How did these digitally encoded and specifically sequenced instructions in DNA arise? And how did they arise within a channel for transmitting information? (pg. 110).

In other words, sequences and patterns are present in non-living things - take, for instance, crystals or snowflakes. But these all exhibit predictable, repeating patterns. Not so with DNA. As Bill Gates has once said, "DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software created." Since the only known cause of information is intelligence, the pressing question for atheism is how information arose in the absence of intelligence.

Too Complex for Explanation

Scientists have posed multiple hypotheses, ranging from biochemical predestination to self-organization as the result of external forces (much like magnetism shapes iron shavings), however none of these have gained much traction, and probability weighs heavy against chance. Computer programs like Ev and Avida have given the appearance of progress by showing chance and necessity as capable of producing information, however, since they rely upon the intelligent design of human minds, these programs only push the problem farther back (pg. 283). 

Regarding the problem of life's origin, Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, summarizes:

No current hypothesis comes close to explaining how in the space of a mere 150 million years, the prebiotic environment that existed on planet earth gave rise to life. That is not to say that reasonable hypotheses have been put forward, but their statistical probability of accounting for the development of life still seems remote (pg. 90).

Collins is a Christian, so naturally he handles the elusive origin of DNA through the providence of God. But even some atheists recognize the seemingly impassible chasm between inorganic matter and life. In an article for The New Republic Thomas Nagel writes:

At this point the origin of life remains, in light of what is known about the huge size, the extreme specificity, and the exquisite functional precision of the genetic material, a mystery - an event that could not have occurred by chance and to which no significant probability can be assessed on the basis of what we know of the laws of physics and chemistry.

The Best Explanation

While some facts of science are plain and observable - take, for instance, the temperature at which water boils - others facts are more difficult to pin down because they occurred in the distant past, and in some cases are not repeatable. For example, no one can go back in time and observe the Big Bang. Rather, scientists observe the effects of the event and come to an agreed upon best explanation of the evidence. Questions of natural history fall into this category - we're left with only artifacts of ancient events - fossils and geological strata that must be pieced together like a puzzle. The question of how life began qualifies as well - except in this case we're left with no physical evidence of the event. At this point origin of life scientists must rely upon abductive reasoning, which "infers unseen facts, events, or causes in the past from clues or facts in the present." (pg. 153). In other words, we work toward a hypothesis that makes the best sense of the evidence we have on the basis of known causes. For example, if at home I find the toilet seat wet, there are multiple working hypotheses that could account for this. My wife may have opened the window above the toilet for five minutes while it was raining. But given the fact that I have two young boys in my house who often forget to put the seat up (and have terrible aim), the best explanation for the cause of an event I cannot go back in time and observe is that one of them urinated on the seat. Case closed, and a lecture is in order on the benefits of lifting the lid and concentrating. 

When the same abductive reasoning is applied to the question of life's origin, the best - in fact the only - known cause for information is intelligence. Therefore, some intelligence in the past accounts for the functional information of DNA. Case closed. It would seem that just as Christian theism was right all along about the universe not being eternal, it's been right all along about God as the author of life. However, it's not that simple. For those who presuppose materialism as the only acceptable answer, in this case something else must account for life's origin, even if that means bending over backwards to avoid God.

Why the Bias?

Some of the theories proposed by atheists to account for the improbability of life's origin by chance alone reveal how deep the problem really runs. For example, Francis Crick and James Watson have proposed that life arrived on earth from space - either as tiny particles in meteors, or "seeded" by extraterrestrial life (pg. 91). Next to having the feel of science fiction, these theories draw out the problem by pushing the question farther back - even if life arrived from elsewhere, what accounts for the origin of that life?

Some would even go so far as to overcome the inconceivable odds against life arising by chance alone by suggesting that our universe is one of an infinite number of universes. Other universes are beyond investigation, so this is simply a theory without any possibility of confirmation. Atheists often argue that God is beyond scientific investigation as well. This much is true, and Christians agree. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we wouldn't expect to find God in the universe anymore than Hamlet could expect to find Shakespeare in the attic (pg. 126). But why is multiverse theory more plausible than God? And furthermore, why is alien intelligence an acceptable theory and not an ultimate intelligence beyond the reach of the observable universe -an intelligence that is by definition self-sufficient and eternally existing (and if matter can supposedly arise out of nothing, then why can't God exist eternally??) The bias here against theism is thick, and not on the basis of science, but rather on the basis of preconceived philosophical assumptions. Or as Angus Menuge puts it:

Like a bad detective who says that the murderer cannot be in the basement because he is afraid to look there, subscribers to methodological materialism say that there cannot be scientific evidence that points to God or even design because they have decided to rule such evidence inadmissible before their investigation begins (pg. 249).

But Wait... God of the Gaps?

Some atheists are critical of any hypothesis that invokes God as the cause of life because of what many call "the God of the gaps" fallacy. The idea here is that when we can't explain something via scientific means, we invoke God to close the gap in our knowledge. Obviously Christians should be careful to recognize that when we say "God feeds us," we assume natural processes he ordained, such as photosynthesis and germination. But atheists also have their own "naturalism of the gaps," in which they invoke science as the eventual explanation of things that are up to now inexplicable. For example, Jerry Coyne confidently asserts:

As for the origin of life, we’ve made enormous progress in understanding how it might
have happened beginning with inert matter, and I’d be willing to bet that within the next fifty years we’ll be able to create life in the laboratory under conditions resembling those of the primitive earth –
Pg. 157.

This is a tall claim for sure. Only time will tell if Coyne is right or not. But in the meantime, I would hope that atheists would at least be open to the idea of design as a plausible hypothesis - one that is at least more believable than extraterrestrials seeding life on earth, or the idea of an infinite number of universes. Overall, the aversion to design seems to more rooted in the fear of religion rather than solid evidence.

Rev. John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church

*For the history of science portion of this post I am indebted to Stephen Meyer's book The Signature in the Cell. 


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