Re: [asa] three origin of life scenarios

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Sun Jun 07 2009 - 02:42:39 EDT

Thanks, Randy.

Regarding Scenario A: The only *rational* explanation for the complex integrated nature of a cell -- if we exclude design, which is a very rational explanation -- is the chemical evolutionary scenario. If a complete and functioning cell popped into existence -- and in my example, it was stipulated that I was talking about a real popping into existence, not a fraud or trick of some kind -- then obviously it was not formed by the chemical evolutionary process. The only *rational* explanation would therefore be design. The choice would then be either to accept the rational explanation, or to rest satisfied with no explanation at all. You may choose not to call the rational explanation a scientific explanation; that is fine with me. I was not insisting that it be called a scientific explanation.

Regarding Scenario C: I did not speak of theological versus scientific explanations. I spoke only of "possible explanations", without categorizing them. Given the phenomena I described, there are three logical options for explaining it: front-loading by an intelligent agent, intervention by an intelligent agent, or chance. I asked you whether the choice between these interpretations was one which science as such was powerless to make. From what I can tell, your answer is yes: science is incapable of ascertaining whether front-loading, chance alone, or intervention caused the phenomena; all three conclusions are metaphysical or theological rather than scientific. So I will continue on the assumption that you believe this.

Now, first of all, it is not clear to me that science could not adjudicate the matter. It depends on what was seen. Remember that in my scenarios we can see everything. If the molecules moved around, as they were re-arranged, in certain peculiar ways, it might well be that chance could be ruled out, and even that front-loading could be ruled out. It might be that intervention would be the only possible explanation for a particular set of motions. But I won't insist on this point. I'll just accept for the moment that the motions seen are compatible with all three explanations, and move on.

Randy, I set up my scenarios as observation events which posed ambiguities in interpreting the observations, because I sensed that this is the way that you approach "science" as it relates to atheism, ID, and TE. I think that many of the scientists here, like you, are imagining themselves in a lab situation or some other observational situation, and asking: "If I saw phenomenon X, how would I explain it? Would I be able to rule out chance? Would I be able to infer design? And if not in this case, how could I infer design in any other case?" I understand this perspective, and I agree that in many cases all three options -- front-loading, intervention and chance -- might produce the same phenomena, and that modern scientific methods would not be able to distinguish between them, so that a non-scientific judgment (theological, philosophical) would have to be made. So we have a measure of agreement. But ID people are taking another approach.

ID people are looking at Darwinism's theoretical claims. (And again, by "Darwinism" I mean the views of the people who have established Darwinian and neo-Darwinian thought in biology -- Darwin, Huxley, Mayr, Simpson, etc.) Darwinism as a theoretical claim goes further than saying, "design might be operative in nature, but if so, that cannot be established by science". Darwinism lays it down that there is no design in nature. And in saying this it does not merely comment on how science is in fact practiced (which is what you say you are doing); it actually stipulates how nature works. It does not always state the stipulation explicitly, but it consistently employs it. Thus, if an orthodox Darwinist saw a cell in formation as in Scenario 3, the Darwinist would not adopt your position of neutrality. The Darwinist would unhesitatingly choose the "chance" option. The other two are eliminated because, according to the Darwinists, there is no design in nature. And ID people are saying that Darwinists are wrong to stipulate that natural processes operate to the exclusion of intelligent design.

ID people agree with TE people that atheist Darwinists over-reach in their claims that evolution disproves God. The difference is that ID people disagree with TE people over exactly what the over-reaching is. For TE people, all of Dawkins's science is just peachy-keen, and all he has to do is drop the atheism and all will be well. For ID people, if Dawkins dropped the atheism -- or rather, to be more precise, dropped the metaphysical assertion that there is no design in nature -- he would be gutting the so-called "science" of Darwinism, because the evidence that Darwinian mechanisms can drive macroevolution is extremely scanty, and without the assurance that there is no design, and that nature is entirely on its own, there is no compelling scientific reason for believing that Darwinian mechanisms can accomplish their Herculean chore. So Dawkins's overreaching consists in his unproved metaphysical assumption of no-design.

So, Randy, even if I agree with you, for the sake of argument, that design is not inferrable by the methods of science, you have a much bigger problem. Your bigger problem is that Darwinism is not a scientific view by your definition, because it makes metaphysical pronouncements about the non-existence of design that, according to you, science cannot make. And if you agree with me on this, and are willing to strip Darwinism not only of the metaphysical pronouncements, but also of all the "science" that depends on those pronouncements, then I will go along with you. But bear in mind that if you strip Darwinism in this way, what will be left over is an anemic theory of evolution in which all the empirical evidence supports only microevolution (e.g., finch beaks and antibiotic resistance), and all the rest is highly tentative and speculative. Without the "no-design guarantee", we can no longer say: "Well, we don't know how in detail, but we know that Darwinian mechanisms did it". We must take the longer, harder route, and prove the macroevolutionary capabilities of the Darwinian mechanisms. Further, these capabilities must be proved not just in one case, but in several, if the mechanism is to be safely generalized. And so far they have not been proved in even one.

I could go either way on this, Randy. I could accept a narrow view of science which excludes *both* the possibility of detecting design *and* the stipulation of no-design, which would cut out *both* Paleyism *and* Darwinism, and would leave evolution as a weak theory, with its evidence concentrated almost exclusively in that part of the theory which is non-controversial (microevolution). Or I could accept a broader view of science in which science *is* allowed to infer that "only chance and natural law" are operating in nature, provided that science is *also* allowed to infer the opposite, i.e., that design is operating in nature. That would admit both Darwinism and Paleyism (ID) into science. Which way should I go? Choose your poison. Do you want me to keep harping on the incredibly weak evidential base for Darwinism, or on the propriety of including design inferences in natural science?


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Randy Isaac
  Sent: Saturday, June 06, 2009 9:13 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] three origin of life scenarios

  This time you're getting closer but some clarification is still in order. Your assertion that "design would be the obvious inference" is one for which neither you nor anyone else I know has offered any evidence. Be it an electron or a cell, there is no scientific basis for an inference of "design" from "appearance ex nihilo." There is no known scenario outside of theological perspectives that would provide such an inference. It is a leap of faith that says, "I don't know how else it got there so it must be design."

  I'm not sure what you mean by " act of purely personal interpretation..." That implies that the options are viable and are the correct options and that a person is right to choose one of them. I'm really saying that neither front-loading nor design are options for "purely personal interpretation" within science and "chance" may or may not be, depending on how the term is used. Yes, those options may be offered from theological perspectives and are worthy of consideration from that perspective but science would not distinguish them from alternatives.

    ----- Original Message -----
    From: Cameron Wybrow
    To: asa
    Sent: Saturday, June 06, 2009 7:08 PM
    Subject: Re: [asa] three origin of life scenarios


    There are many things I could say in response to your comments. I could say, for example, that I am aware that ex nihilo appearance and design are logically distinct categories, but that in context (the example being a cell, not a change in the location of an electron, as per your quantum example) design would be the obvious inference. (I could add that in quantum mechanics the inference that events are ex nihilo is debatable.) I could also draw some inferences from your firm stipulations about observability and repeatability in science that would be quite embarrassing for Darwinian theory. Etc. But I want to stay focused on getting something definite established, so I will stay away from side points.

    Let's focus on Scenario C, since the first two scenarios were really just meant as a lead-up to that one. Your answer regarding C is somewhat hard to follow (not in the details, but in the organization), but I gather that you are saying that, even if we could observe the entire process of formation of the first cell, down to the tiniest atomic details, science would not be able to determine whether it occurred by front-loading, chance, or design. The decision between front-loading, chance and design would be an act of purely personal interpretation, with no support from science and of no significance for science. Is that the gist of your answer?

      ----- Original Message -----
      From: Randy Isaac
      Sent: Saturday, June 06, 2009 3:41 PM
      Subject: Re: [asa] three origin of life scenarios

        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?



To unsubscribe, send a message to with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Sun Jun 7 02:43:29 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Sun Jun 07 2009 - 02:43:29 EDT