RE: [asa] Origins of Life

From: Hofmann, Jim <jhofmann@Exchange.FULLERTON.EDU>
Date: Fri Jun 05 2009 - 12:05:46 EDT

My colleague Bruce Weber has written a bit on this subject:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/life/

Jim Hofmann

-----Original Message-----
From: asa-owner@lists.calvin.edu [mailto:asa-owner@lists.calvin.edu] On Behalf Of gmurphy10@neo.rr.com
Sent: Friday, June 05, 2009 8:56 AM
To: asa@calvin.edu; Cameron Wybrow
Subject: Re: [asa] Origins of Life

Cameron -

I'm in general agreement with your criticisms of reductionist tendencies in science. Taking things apart (physically or conceptually) to see how they work has been one of the keys to scientific success. But success in understanding is incomplete unless the thing can be put back together and understood as a whole. OTOH attempts to understand the world in a priori wholistic fashion haven't worked so well.

The same issues arise in biblical criticism. The essentially analytical approach of the historical critical method has taught us a lot about the Bible but from a theological standpoint we've failed if all we have at the end of the day is an assortment of ancient texts by different authors in different contexts. That's why something like canonical criticism seeing scripture as a whole, is theologically essential - & why a lot of biblical scholars are theologically inept.

On the statement of mine with which you differ, note that I said that if a philosophical definition of life differs from the general understanding of biologists, "we have a problem." I didn't say whose problem it was. It may well be that biologists have been too narrow minded. But if the word "biology" means anything like what the word suggests, study of the logos of bios, then the views of trained biologists about what life is can hardly be ignored. Philosophers don't necessarily have the last word on the definition of life either.

Shalom,
George

---- Cameron Wybrow <wybrowc@sympatico.ca> wrote:
> George, I think we are talking at cross purposes.
>
> I agree with this statement:
>
> > My point wasn't that biologists & scientists who work on chemical
> > evolution get to have the last word on the meaning of "life."
>
> Jonas, too, would agree; they don't necessarily get the last word.
>
> Regarding this statement:
>
> > But if a definition of life conflicts with biologists' understanding of
> > what's alive & what isn't then there's a problem.
>
> I'm not sure that Jonas's characterization of life at any point clashes with
> any biologist's understanding of what is alive and what isn't -- I don't
> remember any passage where such a conflict occurs -- but if Jonas did
> disagree with the consensus of biologists, he would provide copious
> reasoning for such a disagreement. And it would not be in an
> anti-scientific spirit that Jonas would advance the disagreement. He
> certainly was not anti-science. Nor was he anti-evolution. He doesn't
> speak about evolution directly much, but he appears to take it for granted.
> However, his philosophical purpose was not to account for evolution but to
> characterize life. (In this he differed from Bergson, and was more like
> Aristotle.)
>
> The real point is this: I can say that I am made up of X billion carbon
> atoms, X billion oxygen atoms, and so on; do I understand what it is be
> human from that? Or even to be alive? Even if I say I am X billion atoms
> arranged in a certain configuration which accounts for certain physiological
> activities, does that teach me all there is to know about what makes me
> human, or even about what makes me alive? And if someone can show me that I
> have certain embryological antecedents, do those antecedents "explain" my
> humanity or the life I feel within me? And if someone can show me that I
> have evolutionary antecedents, can those antecedents fully explain my "human
> nature" to me? Modern science has a built-in tendency to try to understand
> all "wholes" in terms of their parts; it tends to analyze or resolve the
> whole into the parts, and then to try to "explain" the whole as "nothing
> but" an assemblage (whether ahistorical or historical) of the parts. So,
> conceptually speaking, it tends to to reduce the living to the non-living.
> This tendency of modern science, which is precisely what enables it to
> achieve so much in other areas, it precisely what makes it clumsy in talking
> about a unitary whole with the subtlety of a living thing. Jonas, who
> certainly knew the philosophical foundations of modern science -- Descartes
> etc. -- very well, saw that modern science (and modern philosophy with it)
> was not very good at accounting for the wholeness and unitary character of
> life. He saw a huge gap between the philosophical accounts of "mind" on one
> hand and "matter" on the other, all very thorough in their own ways, but
> hopelessly disjoint, because they did not take into account the phenomenon
> of life, where mind and matter are joined. So he set out to write a
> phenomenology of life. Others of course have done so, but to my knowledge,
> his has been the greatest systematic attempt since Bergson. I am not saying
> that his account is flawless or even good. But I think it is something that
> philosophers in the past have largely done very poorly, and so I salute him
> for the effort. I certainly learned from wrestling with his thoughts.
>
> Again, I only introduced the man as an example. I do not wish to defend his
> views in particular. The crucial point is that there may be absolutely
> important things about life which we can never understand on a Darwinian or
> chemical evolutionary analysis. And by that I mean not only the things that
> revelation can teach, but the things that a philosophical biology can teach.
> So even if, in historical terms, there is a series of graded steps, with
> some ambiguity, between life and non-life, it does not follow that the
> nature of life and non-life cannot be distilled out of reflection upon that
> series of graded steps. The difficulty of deciding in any particular case
> which category applies does not imply the general invalidity of the
> categories. We do not say that male and female have no real existence
> because of the existence of a few "transgendered" people. It is always the
> task of phenomenological analysis to distill the appropriate categories out
> of experience. Of course the philosopher who is trying to explain life
> will, if he is not a fool, familiarize himself with the best work of
> biologists. But as you say, there is no guarantee the biologists are better
> at thinking out the implications of their empirical work than the
> philosopher, and the biologists do not automatically get the last word.
>
> Cameron.
>
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: <gmurphy10@neo.rr.com>
> To: <asa@calvin.edu>; "Cameron Wybrow" <wybrowc@sympatico.ca>
> Sent: Thursday, June 04, 2009 11:31 PM
> Subject: Re: [asa] Origins of Life
>
>
> > Cameron -
> >
> > I know Jonas' work on Gnosticism but not the book you mentioned. If
> > you'll forgive my oversimlpification, a "phenomenological" definition of
> > life amounts to an "If it walks like a duck" criterion. I don't mean that
> > pejoratively. It's probably
> > what most biologists would appeal to - if they had to try to define
> > "life." But in reality they don't spend much time or effort doing that.
> >
> > The question though does come to prominence when claims like the ones 10
> > years ago or so about possible traces of "Martian bacteria" are made. How
> > else do we decide whether whatever it was left those traces was alive
> > other than by comparing it with terrestrial bacteria which we have agreed
> > to call "living"?
> >
> > & what do we mean when we call God "living"? Attempts to use our
> > phenomenological definitions run into all the limitations of the
> > theological use of analogy.
> >
> > My point wasn't that biologists & scientists who work on chemical
> > evolution get to have the last word on the meaning of "life." But if a
> > definition of life conflicts with biologists' understanding of what's
> > alive & what isn't then there's a problem.
> >
> > Shalom,
> > George
> >
> >
> >
> > ---- Cameron Wybrow <wybrowc@sympatico.ca> wrote:
> >> George:
> >>
> >> Jonas was a noted German-Jewish-American scholar of antiquity (wrote a
> >> classic book on Gnosticism) and also a philosopher who had studied with
> >> Heidegger -- though he was not a Heideggerian. In the last few decades
> >> of
> >> his life he wrote extensively on the history and philosophy of science,
> >> ethical issues connected with science and technology, and the
> >> phenomenology
> >> of life. Summarizing his views on the nature of life would be like
> >> trying
> >> to summarize the views of Kant on the nature of knowledge. His writing
> >> is
> >> meant to be wrestled with, not epitomized. I mentioned him only as an
> >> example of someone who characterizes life phenomenologically -- based on
> >> its
> >> observable features -- as opposed to offering a reductionist account of
> >> it
> >> in terms of its alleged origins. The tendency of modern thought has been
> >> to
> >> explain away, rather than to explain, life, mind, and soul, and Jonas is
> >> happily not inclined to that mode of analysis. He writes for those who
> >> are
> >> interested not just in the mechanics of life, but in thinking deeply
> >> about
> >> the nature of life, about what makes life life, about the "what is" or
> >> essence of life. Earlier writers in this tradition would be Henri
> >> Bergson
> >> and Aristotle.
> >>
> >> Though Jonas is informed about the basic facts of the life sciences, he
> >> does
> >> not contribute, and does not try to contribute, anything to what is
> >> normally
> >> thought of as "biology". Rather, he offers a philosophy of biology, a
> >> philosophical analysis of the phenomenon of life. As someone who thinks
> >> that "science" should include a philosophical reflection upon the subject
> >> of
> >> study and not merely an efficient-cause dissection of it, I approve of
> >> Jonas's project, even if I don't agree with everything he says. I would
> >> recommend the reading of Jonas to thoughtful life scientists who are not
> >> averse to the way philosophers approach things. But Jonas's implied
> >> criticism of the epistemological shortcomings of Cartesian science may be
> >> too much for some members of this list (I'm not referring to you
> >> personally,
> >> George) to endure.
> >>
> >> I actually did not mean that Jonas's characterization of life was
> >> "correct"
> >> in the sense of absolutely true, since his phenomenology of life differs
> >> from that of Bergson, Aristotle and others. What I meant was that one
> >> could, in principle, come up with a correct answer to the question "what
> >> is
> >> life", without necessarily being able to answer the question "where did
> >> life
> >> come from". Thus, my criticism of the quotation in question in no way
> >> depends on the success or failure of Jonas's philosophy. Rather, it
> >> depends
> >> upon a more general criticism of the "historical" orientation of modern
> >> philosophy, a criticism springing out of the tradition of Greek and
> >> Medieval
> >> philosophy.
> >>
> >> Cameron.
> >>
> >>
> >> ----- Original Message -----
> >> From: <gmurphy10@neo.rr.com>
> >> To: <asa@calvin.edu>; "Cameron Wybrow" <wybrowc@sympatico.ca>
> >> Sent: Thursday, June 04, 2009 8:08 PM
> >> Subject: Re: [asa] Origins of Life
> >>
> >>
> >> Cameron -
> >>
> >> For those not familiar with Jonas' _The Phenomenon of Life_, perhaps you
> >> could tell us his supposedly correct characterization of life &
> >> distinction
> >> between life & non-life. The it will be interesting to see how well
> >> these
> >> hold up in the view of those here familiar with biology.
> >>
> >> Shalom,
> >> George
> >>
> >> ---- Cameron Wybrow <wybrowc@sympatico.ca> wrote:
> >> > 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.
> >> >
> >> >
> >> > ----- Original Message -----
> >> > From: Randy Isaac
> >> > To: asa@calvin.edu
> >> > Sent: Thursday, June 04, 2009 4:23 PM
> >> > Subject: [asa] Origins of Life
> >> >
> >> >
> >> > The frequent posts on the topic of the origin of life finally
> >> > prompted
> >> > me to listen to the Teaching Company course entitled Origins of Life,
> >> > taught by Prof. Robert Hazen from George Mason U/Carnegie Institution
> >> > of
> >> > Washington. He's a geologist who has devoted his career to the study of
> >> > the origins of life and wrote, among others, the book "Genesis: The
> >> > Scientific Quest for Life's Origins"
> >> > http://hazen.ciw.edu/publications/books. I've just listened to the
> >> > first
> >> > half dozen or so lectures but I'm already very impressed with his
> >> > balanced
> >> > and professional approach. Two concepts from his early lectures are
> >> > noteworthy for this list, I think.
> >> >
> >> > First of all, in discussing the definition of life, he stresses the
> >> > gradual, virtually seamless transition from non-life to life. He notes
> >> > that once-sharp distincions between plants and animals or single-celled
> >> > and multi-celled organisms have become blurred. He says "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. That
> >> > process began with diverse processes of molecular synthesis in a
> >> > variety
> >> > of environments. Synthesis was followed by the selection,
> >> > concentration,
> >> > encapsulation, and organization of those molecules into diverse
> >> > molecular
> >> > structures. Next was the emergence of self-replicating molecules of
> >> > increasing complexity and mutability. Then, self-replicating molecular
> >> > systems evolved through the process of natural selection, driven by
> >> > competition for limited raw materials. That sequential process provides
> >> > the organizing theme for much of this lecture series."
> >> >
> >> > I mainly want to note the emphasis on the gradual rather than sudden
> >> > transition. This is similar to the message Denis Lamoureux emphasizes
> >> > in
> >> > his book Evolutionary Creation when he repeatedly notes the gradual
> >> > transition from non-human to human, embryo to human, etc. In his
> >> > polysyllabic words, "...gradual polygenism vs punctiliar monogenism".
> >> >
> >> > The second aspect of note were the two lectures he devotes to two
> >> > particular scientific announcements in the last dozen years or so. He
> >> > articulates very well the essence of the scientific method, the role of
> >> > subjectivity in science, and the importance of peer review. The first
> >> > incident was the NASA announcement of the discovery of life on Mars.
> >> > Published to great fanfare in Science in 1996, the analysis of the
> >> > meteorite from Mars dubbed ALH84001, found in the Allan Hills region of
> >> > Antarctica, NASA claimed to have discovered evidence of life on Mars.
> >> > The
> >> > relevant peer review in this case is not whether or not to publish in a
> >> > noted journal, but the response of colleagues. One of the most vocal
> >> > critics reviewing the findings was UCLA paleontologist William Schopf.
> >> > In
> >> > his book published in 1999, "Cradle of Life", he criticized the NASA
> >> > team
> >> > for inadequate analysis. Today that "discovery" is no longer credible.
> >> >
> >> > The other announcement was by Schopf himself back in 1993 when he
> >> > claimed to have discovered the oldest fossil evidence for life on
> >> > earth.
> >> > He identified single cells in Apex Chert in Australia, dating to 3.465
> >> > bya. Schopf was known to be a very scrupulous and careful scientist and
> >> > his findings were widely accepted. Until another paleontologist, Martin
> >> > Brasier, reexamined the fossils and challenged Schopf on every point of
> >> > analysis in what Hazen describes a "dramatic high on April 9, 2002, at
> >> > the
> >> > second biennial NASA Astrobiology Science Conference." (Were any of you
> >> > paleontologists at that meeting?) Today, the conflict is not
> >> > definitively
> >> > resolved but the two scientists have turned it into a constructive
> >> > channel
> >> > for vigorously searching for new fossils.
> >> >
> >> > These are quite dramatic examples of how science works. The intense
> >> > desire to be the first to find evidence of life leads to dramatic
> >> > announcements and tremendous hype while any extraordinary claim draws
> >> > extraordinary close examination. I recall reading about the above
> >> > announcements but, not being active in the field, I hadn't appreciated
> >> > the
> >> > way in which it had played out in the scientific community.
> >> >
> >> > Randy
> >>
> >>
> >>
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> >
> >
>
>
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Received on Fri Jun 5 12:06:38 2009

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