Re: [asa] Origins of Life (a moot question)

From: Terry M. Gray <>
Date: Fri Jun 05 2009 - 14:28:01 EDT

You all know that I'm no big fan of ID, but I just don't understand
Bernie's comment here. Surely we can "scientifically detect" the
consequences of an intelligent agent. Suppose, for the sake of
argument, that God were to place miraculously a segment of DNA in an
organism's genome. We surely would be able to detect the consequences
of that action, i.e. it would be detected when that organism's or its
descendant's genome is sequenced. We could also say, if we had enough
information, that it appeared with no natural explanation. Could we
argue that it was the result of an intelligent action? I'm not so
sure. Is such a miraculous event differentiable from a macromutation?
I'm not so sure about that either. (That's one of the reasons why I
think scripture couples miracle with a revelatory word.)

Also, how is that we detect the intelligent activity of human agents?
Is this done scientifically? Perhaps Bernie meant something other
human intelligence. But, if this is the case, why isn't it in
principle possible to detect scientifically intelligent activity
(forensics, SETI, archaeology, etc)? I'm sympathetic with Randy's
point of view that in all of those cases we know something about the
intelligence, but I think we need to be careful here not to overstate
the case. But, in principle, if God's intelligent activity is similar
to ours, then why shouldn't it be detectable?

I'm really quite opposed to all sorts of demarcationist arguments
about these things. I think in general that it's much more interesting
to figure out the mechanistic details of these various processes. But
maybe some people think it's more interesting to say that we haven't
figured it out yet. I still don't see how ID doesn't in the end come
down to "evolutionary mechanisms can't explain it so an intelligent
designer must have put it together". Also, if you really do believe
that a scientific explanation doesn't rule out God's involvement, then
I don't see what all the fuss is.


On Jun 5, 2009, at 11:14 AM, Dehler, Bernie wrote:

> “It would be great if Keith Miller or anyone else on the list who
> <believes> in the philosophical assumption of MN = science to tell
> whether they view <intelligent agent> as necessarily a <supernatural
> agent> or as possibly a <non-natural agent>.”
> Since there is no scientific way to detect intelligent design (or an
> intelligent agent), the question is moot.
> …Bernie
> From: []
> On Behalf Of Gregory Arago
> Sent: Friday, June 05, 2009 9:29 AM
> To:; Schwarzwald;
> Subject: Re: [asa] Origins of Life
> Hiya Schwarzwald and George,
> Since you both commented on the same quotation, let me respond to
> both of you in one short, quick post.
> George wrote: <I think your sentence below is a considerable
> overstatement - unless you mean by"naturalistic" a claim that God
> has nothing to do with the origin of life.>
> Yes, that is exactly what I mean by <naturalistic>. It is only the
> sophistry of the philosophcial assumption known as MN (supported
> mainly by religious natural scientists), defined in contra-
> distinction to metaphysical naturalism, that <wedges> the meaning of
> <naturalism> to distinguish naturalism from naturalism in an
> unsatisfactory and incoherent way. This is why I have been
> criticising MN - it is yet another example of <a claim that God has
> nothing to do with the origin of life>. You may say it can; I say it
> can,t - it is our <philosophies> and not our <sciences> that are in
> opposition on this theme.
> The idea of methodological agnosticism indeed might fit better on
> <origins of life> <science> (how much <science> vs. how much
> philosophy is it really?).
> Schwarzwald wrote: <the idea that life could spring from non-life
> under the direction of an intelligent agent is, though stated
> generically, pretty "orthodox" from my point of view.>
> I fully agree with this. Does this mean that the tough question is
> whether or not the proposed <intelligent agent> is <natural> or
> <something else>?
> It would be great if Keith Miller or anyone else on the list who
> <believes> in the philosophical assumption of MN = science to tell
> whether they view <intelligent agent> as necessarily a <supernatural
> agent> or as possibly a <non-natural agent>. Then again, Mike Gene
> leaving open the door for aliens speaks to this already.
> Gregory
> --- On Fri, 6/5/09, Schwarzwald <> wrote:
> From: Schwarzwald <>
> Subject: Re: [asa] Origins of Life
> To:
> Received: Friday, June 5, 2009, 8:07 PM
> Heya Gregory,
> While I'm in general agreement on your criticisms of MN, I have to
> ask - what do you mean when you say a 'naturalistic origin of life'
> is heresy? I would absolutely agree that an account of "Well, it
> just happened randomly with absolutely no direction or guidance"
> would be heresy. I'd also say that such a "theory" goes far beyond
> the bounds of science. But the idea that life could spring from non-
> life under the direction of an intelligent agent is, though stated
> generically, pretty "orthodox" from my point of view.
> I think one of the biggest problems in these discussions is the idea
> that the work of God and outcomes of nature are always going to look
> utterly distinct from each other. While it would be nice if we could
> make such things so simple, it strikes me as a terrible mistake -
> and one which the science/religion dialogue is going to freeze at
> until we get past it.
> On Fri, Jun 5, 2009 at 3:56 AM, Gregory Arago
> <> wrote:
> If you,ll forgive this short post to a rather large thread topic, I
> find it hard to picture why Christians have become apologists for a
> <philosophical assumption> about <science> that promotes a warfare
> model in the academy. Granted its not the warfare model that you,re
> used to discussing. Nevertheless, promoting MN = science is akin to
> dividing and fragmenting the Academy, using philosophy to do it.
> The idea that MN <permits science to be done> is quite absurd unless
> one is using such a narrow view of <science> as to even contradict
> the Mission Statements of ASA, which welcome scientific disciplines
> that study <non-natural> things as well. I know that many people
> here are in denial of this, but that doesn,t make it any less true.
> Randy,s definition of <natural> would support the idea that <rape is
> natural>, <murder is natural> and <deceit is natural>. Of course,
> many pretty things are <natural> too!
> One needn,t accept the philosophical assumption of MN under
> authoritarian conditions; one would be better to challenge the
> obvious display of <MNism = scientism> under the disguise of a
> <nature only> perspective.
> Dave Siemens Jr. wrote: <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 scientism.>
> On the contrary, Dave, there are surprisingly *many* on the ASA list
> who adopt <scientism>. But it depends of course on how one defines
> <scientism>. If one defines <scientism> as follows, then there are
> many on this list who accept it: <scientism is the ideology that
> preferences scientific explanations over other knowledge claims,
> under the guise that ,science knows best, or ,science works,>. But
> then again, this is an Association that focusses on <science> rather
> than on <philosophy> or <art>, for example, so it rather makes sense
> that members of ASA would <privilege> science,s explanatory power
> above that of philosophy or art. And then if we would have <music>
> come into play, those who are ideologically <scientistic> at ASA
> could reduce music to mathematics too!
> Where are the holistic thinkers?
> With respect to <the inherently gradual character of any such
> transition, no matter how life is defined>, Randy, would you be able
> to back that up with anything but personal rhetoric? I could name
> you many, many non-gradualistic examples of <development>, <growth>
> or <change>. But would you likely dismiss them all as <anomalies>
> that are <designed> simply to contradict your philosophical
> assumptions. Or would you rather face them on their own terms, and
> thus enter the philosophical arena? I don,t find your logic very
> convincing; i.e. that <life> could <gradually> come (fancy word:
> <emerge>) from <non-life> without the imput of intelligence or
> Intelligence.
> And Jonas' <The Phenomenon of Life> is really quite a read on this
> (though I didn,t finish it and only have parts of it with me here in
> Russia).
> The idea of a <naturalistic> <origin of life> is a simple heresy in
> any of the three Branches of Christendom. Why Christian naturalists,
> even the ExDir of ASA, would be arguing to <prove> a <naturalistic
> origin> (e.g life from non-life) is difficult to fathom (or maybe he
> is not promoting this, and I have misunderstood him?). The power of
> evolutionistic ideology must run stronger than I could have imagined
> in American <science and religion> discourse in order for this
> situation to have arisen.
> Gregory
> --- On Fri, 6/5/09, dfsiemensjr <> wrote:
> From: dfsiemensjr <>
> Subject: Re: [asa] Origins of Life
> To:,
> Received: Friday, June 5, 2009, 7:17 AM
> Randy,
> 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 scientism.
> 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" <
> > writes:
> 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:
> 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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Terry M. Gray, Ph.D.
Computer Support Scientist
Chemistry Department
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO 80523
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Received on Fri Jun 5 14:28:43 2009

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