Re: [asa] Origins of Life

From: dfsiemensjr <>
Date: Thu Jun 04 2009 - 23:17:19 EDT

I heartily second your post. Cameron seems to be making the silly mistake
of confusing technique with metaphysics. Methodological naturalism merely
specifies that science of any sort requires testing against observation,
whether directly or indirectly. Galileo rolling balls was an example of
direct testing against repeatable observations. It is no longer that
simple in physics, and has been less so in biology and any science that
involves persons. But at least the theoretical possibility of empirical
testing is necessary. To make methodological naturalism into a
metaphysical dogma requires the claim that the only source of knowledge
is science, that is, scientism. There is no member of ASA who adopts

Methodological naturalism gives confirmation or falsification to
scientific claims. It cannot touch metaphysical claims, which cannot be
tested empirically except in rare cases. I think of Schopenhauer's
pessimism, which claims that the negative experiences mount up
inexorably, whereas the demonstrable fact is that negative experiences
are forgotten more readily than positive ones. Those few who collect
nothing but the negative will probably be classed as mentally ill.

In general, the only test available for metaphysical claims is
consistency. The limitations of consistency are evident in the several
mutually contradictory geometries or the infinite variety of modular
arithmetics. Although I think Cameron will object, materialism is one of
the metaphysical views that can be logically consistent. It has its
problems, for no metaphysics completely explains or has place for
everything. Eventually one is forced back to the primary assumptions.
Those of materialism are not compatible with Cameron's primary
assumptions, nor with mine. That, as a Christian, I put unconditional
faith in my assumptions, does not prove them right. But I must live by
faith. I have to recognize that not all understand this. I recall a
professor of mine, a committed Kantian, who insisted that he had no
assumptions, but was just seeing things as they are. He could not
understand why his students did not see it as he, being right, did.

Do I see design in the universe? Yes, by faith. Do I see guidance of the
development of the earth and its inhabitants? Yes, by faith. Are these
matters that involve the methodology of science? No! I have to recognize
a similar distinction when I thank God for my food while also recognizing
the need for farmers, truckers, millers, bakers and a host of other
workers. Theological matters and practical ones are neither contradictory
nor mutually cancelling.
Dave (ASA)

On Thu, 4 Jun 2009 21:51:20 -0400 "Randy Isaac" <>
  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.

----- Original Message -----
From: Cameron Wybrow
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

"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

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.

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Received on Thu Jun 4 23:24:23 2009

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