Re: [asa] Origins of Life

From: Randy Isaac <randyisaac@comcast.net>
Date: Thu Jun 04 2009 - 21:51:20 EDT

Cameron,
  I think you offer an excellent example of confusion between methodological naturalism and metaphysical assumptions. He discussed at some length the impact of various philosophical perspectives at the very beginning. The net of the discussion was that the underlying assumption is the methodological naturalism (though he didn't use the term itself) that permits science to be done. Hazen says very simply that if life arose from non-life in a way that science can detect, then this is how it would have had to happen and how science should approach it. And that if it is sufficiently probable, then it has likely happened more than once in this universe.
  No, I simply do not agree with you about your design comment. As I've stated to you over and over again, science does not and cannot detect design in the abstract from an unknown agent with unknown methodologies. This is not science in a "narrow" sense but in the only way in which it can work. It is not a metaphysical assumption but a good understanding of what science can and cannot do.
  As for the definition of life, I didn't begin to do justice to Hazen's lengthy discussion of the views of scientists, theologians, and philosophers of the definition of life. He cited only some of the 48 that he had studied but he did discuss the pro's and con's of several. I assume there is more in his book. And, yes, that definition should be without reference to metaphysical design as long as one is talking about the science of the origin of life rather than the metaphysical meaning of the origin of life.
  My point was primarily to emphasize the inherently gradual character of any such transition, no matter how life is defined.

  Randy
  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Cameron Wybrow
  To: asa@calvin.edu
  Sent: Thursday, June 04, 2009 5:35 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] Origins of Life

  I can't help but note the metaphysical assumptions made in the quoted passage.

  "I believe that any attempt to formulate an absolute definition of life, any definition that makes a sharp distinction between life and non-life, must represent a similar false dichotomy. Here's why I say that, I think it's obvious that the first living cell did not just appear fully formed, with all its chemical complexity and genetic machinery intact. Rather, I suspect that life must have arisen through a step-wise sequence of emergent events. I see life's origin as a process of increasing chemical complexity."

  The writer thinks that it is wrong to make "a sharp distinction between life and non-life", and gives, as a reason for this, the statement that "the first living cell did not just appear fully formed", a statement which he terms "obvious".

  Metaphysical assumption #1: That the question whether there is a sharp distinction between life and non-life -- what philosophers would call a metaphysical or ontological question -- can be settled by an appeal to the historical process by which life first arose. The assumption is then that in order to understand the essence of a thing -- in this case, the essence that separates life from non-life -- we must understand its origin or genesis. This is an assumption typical of modern thought, which is radically historical and tends to reduce all questions of essence to questions of origin. That it is not necessary for biology to understand the origin of life in order to correctly characterize life and distinguish it from non-life is shown by works such as Hans Jonas's *The Phenomenon of Life*.

  The writer also suspects that life "must have arisen" through a process of chemical evolution. But the "must have" is only justified if a designed origin of life is ruled out. Otherwise, it is possible that the first cell arose through a process of guided assembly.

  Metaphysical assumption #2: The origin of life can and should be explained without reference to design.

  Needless to say, "science", in the narrow sense of the word that ID's critics employ, cannot justify either of these metaphysical assumptions. And if they are false assumptions, then biologists who work under their influence will be led to false conclusions.

  Note that I am not arguing that chemical origin-of-life scenarios are false. I am merely pointing out that the above passage makes metaphysical assumptions in arguing for such scenarios. These should be honestly admitted, and not passed off as cool, dispassionate, "objective" science. It would be more intellectually scrupulous to say: "*If* we are to explain the origin of life without appeal to any notion of design or planning, and *if* we are to rule out the hypothesis of a freak sudden origin, *then* we must *assume* that it arose through a gradual increase in chemical complexity." Thus, "gradual increase in chemical complexity" would be seen for what it truly is, i.e., not a scientific hypothesis proper -- all proper scientific hypotheses can at least conceivably be disproved -- but an undemonstrated assumption which the origin-of-life scientists have taken as the basis for their research program.

  Cameron.

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Received on Thu Jun 4 21:51:50 2009

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