Re: [asa] three origin of life scenarios

From: Randy Isaac <>
Date: Sat Jun 06 2009 - 15:41:00 EDT

  You certainly do get an A for effort and I appreciate your approach. Unfortunately, I have to say that regarding your anticipation of my response, you're batting 0 for 3. Maybe, if I generously give partial credit for one aspect of a third of part 3, a score of 0.1 out of 3.

1. I'm puzzled why you see a one-to-one correlation between appearance ex nihilo and design. Neither mandates the other. In all the analogous examples of design by intelligent agents like humans, design is never characterized by appearance ex nihilo. And many on this list have noted that references to God's creation in the Bible often explicitly claim formation from pre-existing forms. From a scientific point of view, appearance ex nihilo is not unknown to anyone who has studied quantum mechanics and it is not related to design.
   In your example a cell just pops into being ex nihilo. If this is a one time singularity, scientific methodology has nothing to say or investigate. It's just an oddity. If it's a reproducible event that can be stimulated under controlled laboratory conditions, then it would be quite interesting indeed and worthy of further investigation. If this appearance occurred in the past and not under controlled observation, then all bets are off. One could not say scientifically with certainty that its appearance was ex nihilo or not. But there's no case that I can think of that would lead to a scientific conclusion of design (by non-human intelligent agents), though one might indeed be suspicious that a human being had contaminated the experiment.

2. Your second example is not one that I would describe as chance, at least from a scientific perspective. It is an innovative science fiction tale. It may be valuable as a comparison of vivid imagination and ability to conjure up fictional scenarios. But it doesn't constitute what science recognizes as chance. Chance to a scientist is within the framework of the probability amplitudes of natural processes.

3. This scenario is as much science fiction as the previous one but for discussion purposes, I'll presume you in fact sketched out a more plausible scenario. Let's take your comments in reverse order. No, I don't see how an intervening designer is one that would arise under any scientific perspective. And, as I've stated previously, I don't see the interventionist model in Scripture either so this is off the table. And front-loading is totally transparent to science and isn't Biblically based either, as far as I can tell. It may serve as a bandaid for some philosophical positions, but a scientist can't distinguish a well-behaved comprehensible system that is front-loaded from one that isn't. That leaves what you describe as a "blind, trial-and-error chemical evolutionary process." That phrase is so loaded with philosophical presuppositions that it's hard to treat seriously as a scientific observation. Blind? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that the factors triggering mutations are unrelated to and unaffected by the final impact. No in the sense of being wildly random and out of bounds of typical reactions. Not necessarily, in the sense of mataphysical purposefulness. Trial-and-error? Yes, you can get some partial credit for that. But is this any different from the very core of trial and error inherent in all chemical processes? Virtually every reaction around us is driven by thermal activation, which could, though somewhat dubiously, be described as a trial-and-error approach. On the other hand, from a species perspectives, it looks suspiciously as if there were a number of different hominid species that didn't survive. One of those species did survive and become God's chosen people. Is that trial and error? Maybe scientifically but it certainly need not be theologically.

I do look forward to listening to the rest of Hazen's course. He seems to be eminently cognizant of the real possibility that scientifically we'll never be able to determine the origins of life. You can leap to whatever metaphysical conclusion you want from that, but it wouldn't be a scientifically driven conclusion. Alternatively, if the reaction path from non-life to life is ever documented scientifically it would be most fascinating indeed. Hazen and the other 500 or so researchers in the International Society of the Study of the Origin of Life have spent a lot of time understanding the aspects of life that might make it amenable to detect its origins. In that case, it most likely would not be a singularity and would have happened elsewhere in this universe. It would in no way eliminate a divine designer, though that is not a scientific conclusion either.

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Cameron Wybrow
  To: asa
  Sent: Friday, June 05, 2009 1:38 PM
  Subject: [asa] three origin of life scenarios


  Let me try a different approach.

  Instead of finding fault with your argument, I want to try to find some common ground, some points we can agree on.

  I have created three origin-of-life scenarios, and I've analyzed them in terms of design, chance, and front-loading. I have then inferred how you would relate each of these three scenarios to the limits of scientific explanation, i.e., what you would say science could determine from them. I want to see how closely I have anticipated your responses. Your answer may give us a basis to find more agreement than we have found so far.


  Let's imagine a cell being formed in the primitive ocean. Suppose that we could watch all the details, at the microscopic level, from the first beginnings to the finishing touches. I can imagine three scenarios:

  1. In a patch of ocean where there is nothing but salty water (no ammonia, no methane, no carbon dioxide), a cell just pops into existence -- it's suddenly there, complete and functioning.

  2. In a patch of ocean, crowded with atoms and simple molecules (carbon dioxide, oxygen, hydrogen, methane, ammonia, etc.), there is a sudden bolt of lightning, and five seconds later, all the atoms and molecules have re-arranged themselves into a cell.

  3. In a patch of ocean, crowded with the same atoms and simple molecules, there is a bolt of lightning, and simple sugars and slightly more complex molecules form. A few months later, there is another bolt of lightning and some amino acids and nucleotides are formed. A year or two later, after an unusually active month for cosmic rays, some simple self-replicating molecules, precursors to the ones we know now, form. Over time these self-replicators become associated with crude complexes that will later become the material of cell walls. Etc. Ten years later, after a violent eruption of volcanic heat from the sea floor, the first true cell appears.


  Now let's examine these three scenarios.

  1. Just "plain" sea water, i.e., water with only salt in it, doesn't have the right elements in it to form a cell. The requisite atoms were therefore created out of nothing, or magically teleported from elsewhere. We therefore have the miraculous creation or introduction of new matter and a deliberate arrangement of it according to a design. This appears to be the only possible explanation.

  2. Either this is a case of "a tornado tearing through a junkyard and building a Boeing 747", i.e., an astounding freak which might happen once or twice in the history of the whole universe, if mere probability is considered, or this is a miraculous re-arrangement of the existing matter in accord with a design. There are therefore two possible explanations.

  3. Either this series of events is caused by chance, i.e., by fortuitous combinations of atoms which end up undergoing a blind, trial-and-error chemical evolutionary process (analogous to the popular conception of Darwinian evolution), or it is caused by a front-loaded biochemical program which is driving the re-arrangements of matter (triggered by surges of energy which are predictable in general terms if not in their exact timing), or a designer is intervening stepwise to assemble everything. There are therefore three possible explanations.


  Now, what I think you are saying is something like this:

  If scenario #1 were ever observed, you would concede that the cell was designed, but you don't expect that #1 will ever be observed.

  If scenario #2 were ever observed, you would say that it would be impossible to tell whether an intervening invisible designer or a freak of nature assembled the atoms and simple molecules within five seconds in just the right way.

  If scenario #3 were ever observed, you would say that it would be impossible to tell whether a series of accidents assembled the cell over time, whether an invisible designer set up the properties of atoms and molecules to automatically form the cell over time (given certain environmental triggers), or whether an invisible designer intervened over an extended period of time to assemble the cell.

  Thus, I think you would say that science could infer design only in the case where the apparent design was accompanied by the unnatural violation of the law of the conservation of matter and energy (#1), but that in the other cases (#2 and #3), science could not determine whether chance, an intervening designer, or a front-loading designer was the cause of the origin of the cell.

  Would this be an accurate statement of how you would look at the matter?

  If not, why not?

  If so, what comments would you add, to clarify your position further?



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Received on Sat Jun 6 15:41:44 2009

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