Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Intelligent Origin

Like everyone else, I haven’t got the foggiest clue how life began. Volcanic vents, comets’ tails and Darwin’s own warm pools have all failed to produce the goods. The main problem is that the simplest forms of life today are still, on an objective level, fantastically complex. The earliest stages of life on earth are no longer with us and have left no trace. In recent years we have also learnt that life appeared relatively quickly after our planet cooled. Bacteria were swarming in the primordial oceans just a few hundred million years after the crust had formed.

Despite all this perplexity, I think that the origin of life is not a good occasion to invoke direct divine intervention. I have come to this conclusion for a historical and a theological reason. Let me deal with them each in turn.

Intelligent Design seeks to overturn a well-established scientific theory on the basis that it cannot explain what it purports to explain. “Intelligent Origin” theories (to coin a term) are quite different in that there is no scientific theory that even purports to explain how life first arose. Thus, Intelligent Origin is in competition with speculations and pipe dreams. There is no purely scientific reason for supposing that life has a naturalistic origin. This means that Intelligent Origin is seeking to insert God or some sort of miraculous happening where science can provide no explanation itself. This makes Intelligent Origin a classic ‘God of the Gaps’ argument and history has shown us that these make for poor apologetics.

The theological reason that I would avoid Intelligent Origin is that it seems to assume that God had to have recourse to a miracle to allow life to appear. Given that we believe that He created the universe with the intention that intelligent beings should emerge, it would appear to be a serious design fault if life could not arise spontaneously. Of course, God could do things in any way He pleased but he is not capricious. His method appears to be to rely very heavily on secondary causes that follow the laws of physics. I would be surprised if He saw fit to reject this method for the origin of life. My suspicion is that the laws of nature, as discovered by science, will turn out to be such that the emergence of life will not be unlikely at all. Life, I believe, must have been a near certainty or else, again, we would have to assume that God did not know what he was doing. Note that this is not the same as assuming that the universe is a ‘fire and forget’ weapon as once postulated by deists. I assume that God must continue to maintain the existence and laws of nature.

Overall then, I don’t feel comfortable with even the most careful attempts to show that life could not have emerged as a result of a naturalistic process.

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