Evidence that life did not arise naturally

Let me introduce this post with a quote:

While most US scientists think humans are simply smarter apes, at least 4 in 10 believe a creator “guided” evolution so that Homo sapiens are ruled by a soul or consciousness [according to two surveys published in 1995 and 1997]. Scientists almost unanimously accept Darwinian evolution over millions of years as the source of human origins. But 40% of biologists, mathematicians, physicians, and astronomers include God in the process.

Some of my readers seem to think that atheism is self-evidently true, to the point where they do not even need to adduce evidence in support of their assertions. But if atheism is self-evidently true, why do 40% of American scientists continue to believe in God?

I’m not appealing to authority here, as if a scientist’s opinion is worth more than anyone else’s. I’m simply pointing out that a belief in evolution does not inevitably lead to atheism, as the above quote illustrates. Evolution begins at a point after (a) the cosmos and (b) life already exist. Therefore it cannot address these two profound issues.

Let’s express this point in the form of a question: why is it that so many scientists continue to believe in God? Odds are, it goes back to the puzzles I identified in my previous post.

In my comments, I have dwelt on the first of the three objections (how does anything exist?). In this post I want to move on, and illustrate how profound the second objection is. Even if we take existence itself as a given, how is it that, among the stuff that exists, there is life?

I am not competent to illustrate the difficulty on my own authority. Therefore I provide excerpts from a book by A.G. Cairns-Smith, an organic chemist and molecular biologist.

Seven Clues to the Origin of Life: A Scientific Detective Story was published by Cambridge University Press in 1985. It is described as a “layman’s version” of the author’s scholarly publication, Genetic Takeover.

Cairns-Smith comes from a position similar to that of Owen Flanagan (quoted in the previous post). That is, I am again quoting a naturalist, not a theist. Cairns-Smith writes,

Much of this book is devoted to seeking out, and making as stark as possible, the difficulties in the case of the origin of life on the Earth. [But] rightly or wrongly we will be assuming that life really did arise on this Earth “from natural causes”. (p. ix)

The author devotes several chapters to outlining the difficulties as he sees them. The following excerpt is somewhat lengthy; on the other hand, it constitutes only a small part of the case Cairns-Smith makes.

First, the author summarizes the usual argument from chemical biology. Readers may recognize here a reference to the famous Urey-Miller experiment.

According to the doctrine of chemical evolution, molecules of the sorts that we now find in organisms were made originally without organisms. These molecules (amino acids, nucleotides, lipids and such) were made as a result of chemical and physical processes operating on the early Earth. …

Organic molecules could have been made [proponents of chemical evolution argue] under the influence of various forms of energy that would have been there on the early Earth — particularly ultraviolet sunlight and lightning — acting on constituents of the early atmosphere. Experiments have shown this. Amino acids and some other “molecules of life” form when sparks are passed through mixtures of gases simulating a primordial atmosphere. (p. 35)

Cairns-Smith proceeds to raise a series of objections to the above account of the origins of life. First, he illustrates the interlocking of multiple subsystems. Everything depends on everything else:

Subsystems are highly interlocked within the universal system. For example, proteins are needed to make catalysts, yet catalysts are needed to make proteins. Nucleic acids are needed to make proteins, yet proteins are needed to make nucleic acids. Proteins and lipids are needed to make membranes, yet membranes are needed to provide protection for all the chemical processes going on in a cell.

It goes on and on. The manufacturing procedures for key small molecules are highly interdependent: again and again this has to be made before that can be made — but that had to be there already. The whole is presupposed by all the parts. The interlocking is tight and critical. At the centre everything depends on everything. (p. 39; emphasis in original.)

Second, conditions on the early Earth were not conducive to a reaction of the sort supposedly demonstrated by Urey and Miller:

There is a growing doubt about the idea that the primitive oceans would have been full of organic molecules. It seems now that the early atmosphere of the Earth was dominated by nitrogen and carbon dioxide. This would have made the synthesis of organic molecules much more difficult than under the methane-dominated atmosphere that had previously been imagined. (p. 42)

Third, ultraviolet light is problematic as the assumed catalyst:

It is being realised too that ultraviolet sunlight is even better at destroying middle-sized organic molecules than at making them. A general effect of ultraviolet light is to break covalent bonds. While this will tend to lead to the making of a wider spread of molecules — because the broken bonds will re-form in new ways — the general effect is nevertheless destructive. It is an atom-shuffling effect.

The typical outcome is either a very complicated mixture (a tar) or simple rather stable molecules like carbon dioxide and water (or, very often, first the one and then the other).The remote-controlled landings on Mars by the Viking spacecraft served to emphasise the bleak side of ultraviolet sunlight from the point of view of chemical evolution. There are seemingly no organic molecules on the surface of Mars — because of the ultraviolet light. (pp.42-43)

Fourth, as already mentioned, it is exceedingly likely that any natural reaction would result only in useless tars:

If you want an example of how the Earth processes organic molecules, then look at raw petroleum. Organic minerals are usually exceedingly complex shuffled-up mixtures of this sort. …

Organic chemists are only too familiar with tars, gludges and gunks. Infernally complicated mixtures are only too normal products of organic chemical reactions. It is the sheer richness of ways of putting together carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms that creates the problem. There has to be much contrivance and control if any particular molecule of any great complexity is to be made in more than the minutest amounts. Even then, complicated mixtures are seldom avoided entirely.

Most of the hard work in the synthesis of a particular organic compound is “work-up”. This is a kind of weeding operation, after a reaction has taken place, in which molecules that you did not want are removed. To synthesise a molecule of any complexity usually requires many reactions in a row — with careful “work-up” at each step, because, generally speaking, the product from one reaction should be pure before the next step is taken. (p.43)

Fifth, even when the “molecules of life” form spontaneously, they do so in insufficient quantities:

It is true that some of the simpler amino acids have been found in complex mixtures generated under conditions simulating those that might have been present on the primitive Earth. Even nucleotide letters have been found in mixtures that are said to be plausible simulations of prebiotic products. But all such “molecules of life” are always minority products and usually no more than trace products. Their detection often owes more to the skill of the experimenter than to any powerful tendency for the “molecules of life” to form.

Sugars are particularly trying. While it is true that they form from formaldehyde solutions, these solutions have to be far more concentrated than would have been likely in primordial oceans. And the reaction is quite spoilt in practice by just about every possible sugar being made at the same time — and much else besides. Furthermore the conditions that form sugars also go on to destoy them. Sugars quickly make their own special kind of tar — caramel — and they make still more complicated mixtures if amino acids are around. (pp. 43-44)

Cairns-Smith’s conclusion:

In sum the ease of synthesis of the “molecules of life” has been greatly exaggerated. (p. 44)

I now return to my own point of view. My claim is a modest one. I do not claim that I can prove God’s existence. I claim only that certainty is elusive, and atheists ought not to suppose that their position is self-evidently true.

Dogmatism is unwarranted. Accordingly, atheists must share, with theists, the burden of adducing evidence in support of their assertions.

God may be — that’s my modest claim.

Advertisements

89 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. nosugrefneb
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 09:25:38

    One thing that always annoys me is that people tend to think of these circumstances within a small amount of time, as if they’re isolated, time-limited experiments. The fact is that this was all happening over hundreds of millions of years or more, not a few hours or days or even weeks that it would take to even attempt to replicate some chemical experiment or thought experiment. Whenever I think about this problem under those terms, it makes it difficult to imagine that life couldn’t have arisen by itself, simply because of the amount of time it had to do so.

    Reply

  2. Simen
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 09:50:53

    First, it is mostly theists who think that somehow disproving evolution leads to an argument for God, and that atheists are “trying” (in reality they’ve already succeeded) to prove evolution in order to disprove God. That’s stupid and misled.

    Second, evolution is irrelevant, because it has nothing to do with the origins of life. Evolution applies only after the transition from dead material to life has been made. Even mentioning evolution in this context is misleading.

    Third, even if we couldn’t ever prove how life arose, it is not an argument for the existence of God, or even for the possibility of God. The atheist doesn’t have to prove anything as long as he doesn’t put forth any claims. When the atheists say “we don’t believe God created life”, they are not making some implicit claim about the origins of life.

    Fourth, how does your claim differ from my modest claim that The Flying Spaghetti Monster may be? It is deliberately vague. What is your definition of God?

    Fifth, as nosugrefneb says, life is not a short experiment. It is an all-encompassing experiment occuring everywhere, at any time, for billions of years.

    The truth is, this argument basically boils down to the God of the Gaps argument. We don’t know how life started. That is not an argument for the existence of God any more than it is an argument for the existence of spaghetti. What we don’t know at the moment may be discovered as I write. Truth is, in the absence of evidence for ghosts, gods, or aliens on earth, the most rational position to take is that those things are so highly unlikely that for all intents and purposes we can consider them to be untrue just like we can consider Odin and Tor and Zeus and Allah and Brahma to be untrue.

    Reply

  3. brian t
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 10:58:37

    “I claim only that certainty is elusive, and atheists ought not to suppose that their position is self-evidently true.”

    I don’t see any evolutionary biologist making any such suppositions. Dawkins certainly doesn’t. As Voltaire famously said: “Doubt is not an agreeable condition, but certainty is an absurd one”.

    I understand that people with strong Abrahamic faiths need Certainty in their beliefs. Beliefs are incredibly important, so important they are clung to in the absence of objective evidence for them. This is most visible in the Islamic world, where there is no separation between Church and State: Islam IS the government, which is not necessarily a bad thing, except that governments learn and evolve (there’s that word again), and Islam is stuck in the 12th century. (Is that what you want from your religion, in the USA? Keep pushing the “faith-based initiatives” and you may just get that. )

    But, you know what? I don’t Believe in Evolution in the same way; it’s interesting and useful, and explains a lot; but I don’t use it in my daily life. It doesn’t guide my behaviour any more than the Bible does. I can use the principles of ethics and society, evolved by people (not handed down), that pre-dated all religions and will survive them all. Moses and his Tablets were late to the table, to be blunt – the Bible is not where morality starts or ends.

    Even if Darwin’s Beagle sinks without a trace, I’ll survive, because I haven’t nailed my colours to its mast. Even if Evolution is not the way we got here, then we’ll keep looking for the truth. It does NOT follow automatically that your particular religion knows any better than science or the other religions, and that we will abandon Reason for Faith. It STILL comes back to Evidence that stands up to scrutiny.

    * By “objective evidence” I mean evidence that does not rely on the interpretation or testimony of people, especially people who lived thousands of years ago. People whose words have been “enhanced” and edited by various people with religious agendas, and who may even be fictional characters. Treat all eyewitness testimony as suspect, as we expect law courts to, then what is left?

    Reply

  4. Stephen
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 12:18:43

    nosugrefneb:
    One thing that always annoys me is that people tend to think of these circumstances within a small amount of time, as if they’re isolated, time-limited experiments.

    Cairns-Smith says, “One’s intuition can lead one astray when thinking of the role of vast times and spaces in generating improbable structures. The moral is that vast times and spaces do not make all that much difference to the level of competence that pure chance can simulate (p. 48; emphasis in original).

    In other words, if something is a mathematical impossibility, no amount of time and space will make it probable. And please remember, I’m quoting a naturalist throughout this post, not a theist.

    Simen:
    First, it is mostly theists who think that somehow disproving evolution leads to an argument for God.

    The fact that mostly theists make this argument is rather to be expected, isn’t it? Mostly atheists reject it, I assume. What does that prove? — nothing either way.

    I agree with the point you’re making. To raise problems with the other guy’s position doesn’t establish your own; I said as much in an earlier post on “The God Who May Be”.

    But that is precisely the mistake that you are making, Simen! You see some flaws in a particular variation of theism, so you assume you’ve proven atheism to be true. It doesn’t work that way for either of us! Work with me here: let’s try to achieve a level playing field, instead of biasing the debate.

    Second, evolution is irrelevant, because it has nothing to do with the origins of life. Evolution applies only after the transition from dead material to life has been made.

    You should read the post before you offer a comment. This is exactly what I said!

    Third, even if we couldn’t ever prove how life arose, it is not an argument for the existence of God, or even for the possibility of God.

    I agree with the first statement; I disagree with the second. If there is no naturalist explanation for the origins of life, of course that opens up the possibility of a supernatural explanation!

    The atheist doesn’t have to prove anything as long as he doesn’t put forth any claims.

    The atheist is putting forth claims: (1) that the cosmos arose spontaneously; (2) that life arose from natural causes. This notion that atheists are making no claims is self-evidently false, Simen. There are real issues in play here: both Flanagan and Cairns-Smith have the integrity to admit as much.

    Brian T:
    I understand that people with strong Abrahamic faiths need Certainty in their beliefs.

    I find it fascinating: not a single Christian (or Muslim) has entered into this dialogue arguing that certainty is possible. On the other hand, several atheists continue to make such a claim.

    It seems that fundamentalism can manifest itself among atheists, as among theists. (Fundamentalism being that mindset that says, “My position is self-evidently true and I do not need to adduce any evidence in support of it.”)

    It does NOT follow automatically that your particular religion knows any better than science or the other religions, and that we will abandon Reason for Faith. It STILL comes back to Evidence that stands up to scrutiny.

    Amen to that! 😉

    Please note the final few sentences at the bottom of my post. I am not arguing, here, for a specific religion. I make only two modest claims: (1) that God may exist, and (2) that atheists share, with theists, the burden of adducing evidence to support their claims.

    Even those modest claims are too radical for some of my readers, but I don’t see anything in your comment to put you in that category.

    Treat all eyewitness testimony as suspect, as we expect law courts to, then what is left?

    I’ve made no appeal to eyewitness testimony here. When it comes to these issues (the origin of the cosmos and the origin of life) there are no eyewitnesses to bring forward on either side.

    Reply

  5. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 12:38:56

    There’s one glaring flaw in the argument, Stephen, an argument which so far seems to be based on a fallacious appeal to ignorance. You keep insisting that the existence of god can’t be disproven, but you haven’t offered an explanation of who/what god is – despite several requests of which I think mine was the first.

    I will restate your argument: “Something might exist, which I shall call God, which atheists cannot disprove.”

    I can replace the word “God” with “tLbrgip.” Can you disprove the existence of tLbrgip? Of course not.

    Reply

  6. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 13:00:50

    I just read over my last comment and realized it could be inflammatory. I’m not trying to be mocking or offensive. I should restate that I don’t think that it’s impossible that some kind of God exists. Nevertheless I don’t believe in any kind of god as traditionally conceived. I don’t think that, upon examination, the god-concept is very useful, that’s all.

    Reply

  7. Simen
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 14:00:56

    Stephen: even though you say that evolution has nothing to do with the origins of life, the beginning of the post seems to imply some connection, negative or positive, between evolution and God. The fact is, there is none.

    First, it is mostly theists who think that somehow disproving evolution leads to an argument for God.

    The fact that mostly theists make this argument is rather to be expected, isn’t it? Mostly atheists reject it, I assume. What does that prove? — nothing either way.

    I agree with the point you’re making. To raise problems with the other guy’s position doesn’t establish your own; I said as much in an earlier post on “The God Who May Be”.

    But that is precisely the mistake that you are making, Simen! You see some flaws in a particular variation of theism, so you assume you’ve proven atheism to be true. It doesn’t work that way for either of us! Work with me here: let’s try to achieve a level playing field, instead of biasing the debate.

    I make no such assumptions. I only pointed out a flaw in your, or at least some theists’ reasoning. I don’t assume that those flaws somehow lead to my arguments being proven.

    The atheist is putting forth claims: (1) that the cosmos arose spontaneously; (2) that life arose from natural causes. This notion that atheists are making no claims is self-evidently false, Simen. There are real issues in play here: both Flanagan and Cairns-Smith have the integrity to admit as much.

    This is the same as saying theists make an implicit claim that the universe arose without a Giant Clown with a Bagpipe and that life didn’t originate from cheese from the moon. You can say they are claims, in a way, but it doesn’t mean I must prove evidence for them, any more than you must provide evidence for the fact that no involvement from a Giant Clown etc. occured at the dawn of time. We both know these claims can’t be disproven, because we have no knowledge of the laws that operated at the time, and little observations besides the ones that are taken into account for the Big Bang theory.

    So, the point: it is a fallacy to demand evidence for all possible events just to deny one event on the grounds that it is unproven.

    Reply

  8. Stephen
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 14:05:04

    It’s OK, Michael, I see that as fair criticism.

    Thus far, I have made only one specific suggestion about God’s nature: that it must be different than the nature of matter/energy. Presumably, God must be either self-generating or eternal.

    Theology traditionally posits a God that is eternal. (Any idea of a being that can call itself into existence when it doesn’t yet exist would seem to be a logical impossibility.)

    I am deliberately keeping my claims modest here. I don’t want to posit 1001 things about God, knowing that my critics will immediately start picking at each of the traits that I mention, and arguing that they have thereby disproven the existence of such a God.

    I prefer to work from first principles: in this case, a God who is eternal and who caused matter/energy to exist. That’s my starting point. Additional characteristics would be identified through a similar reasoning process: what sort of God would we have to posit to account for existence as we know it.

    Reply

  9. Ozymandias
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 14:54:35

    God may be — that’s my modest claim.

    I like that.

    Reply

  10. nosugrefneb
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 15:15:17

    What’s more improbable: that there’s some invisible dude who’s been controlling the world for the last 6,000 years purely as he sees fit, occasionally responding to peoples’ wishes and other times evidently completely ignoring them; or that over billions of years — a period of time millionfold longer than the Bible purports the universe to have existed — molcules formed from atoms, sequentially larger molecules formed from smaller molecules, eventually leading to molecular complexes, organellar precursors, simple organisms, more complex organisms, and ultimately extremely complex organisms, regardless of whether any catalysts were present! I understand that he’s a chemist, so surely he realizes that catalysts merely increase the probability that a reaction will occur. That is to say, reactions that occur normally under catalytic conditions aren’t impossibe outside of those conditions, simply less probable.

    If there’s a one-in-a-million chance that a given chemical reaction will occur every year, that is a pretty small chance, no? Give it 13.5 billion years; it will be predicted to occur 13,500 times. That’s all I was saying about the sheer length of time merely allowing for those sorts of reactions to occur, the extremely low probability of which no one is debating.

    Reply

  11. Jamie
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 15:24:00

    Simen:

    The truth is, this argument basically boils down to the God of the Gaps argument. We don’t know how life started. That is not an argument for the existence of God any more than it is an argument for the existence of spaghetti.

    If we were simply ignorant on the matter of how life got started, that might be one thing. But if the evidence points to the fact that life did not arise spontaneously from non-living sources, that is different. In that case, it presumably becomes foolhardy to continue to cling to the notion of life arising spontaneously.

    This is the same as saying theists make an implicit claim that the universe arose without a Giant Clown with a Bagpipe and that life didn’t originate from cheese from the moon.

    You seem to be hung up on the fact that it is impossible to disprove God’s existence. To my knowledge, no one is asking you to do that.

    What Stephen asked for (and what I would also like) is evidence for the atheistic belief that life came about without a god—i.e. purely from natural sources, without intervention from an outside, supernatural source. In other words, he’s not asking you to disprove anything, he’s asking you to marshal support for your own atheistic claims. (And as Stephen pointed out, atheists ARE making the claim that life and the cosmos arose spontaneously from natural causes.)

    What’s more improbable: that there’s some invisible dude who’s been controlling the world for the last 6,000 years purely as he sees fit, occasionally responding to peoples’ wishes and other times evidently completely ignoring them;

    Are you intentionally setting up a straw man, or was it an accident? 😉

    Reply

  12. juggling mother
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 15:46:22

    OK, I’m not too big on physics, and the origins of the universe are of particularly little interest to my daily life which is why I usually don’t comment on these posts, but….

    “What Stephen asked for (and what I would also like) is evidence for the atheistic belief that life came about without a god”

    Why? You haven’t provided any “evidence” that the universe came about because of a God. In fact Stephen actually admitted “I’ve made no appeal to eyewitness testimony here. When it comes to these issues (the origin of the cosmos and the origin of life) there are no eyewitnesses to bring forward on either side”

    The only thing we can say for certain is that we don’t know how the universe started! That does not provide any evidence for a god, anymore than it does against one. It is a totally irrelevent point in this debate! In the same way (to go back to my original analogy) the theory (growing in popularity at the moment) that life started on earth due to alien/extra-terrestial input does not provide any evidence for or against intelligent alian life.

    Reply

  13. nosugrefneb
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 15:48:57

    Wait, what evidence exists that supports the claim that life arose non-spontaneously? That someone wrote a book once saying that’s so?

    If I’ve grossly misrepresented what a god is supposed to be, I apologize and encourage you to better characterize it. However, given all of the both good and bad in this world, and considering the quite recent natural disasters across the planet, I would hesitate to say that a god is anything other than what I’ve written (with a few minor changes in rhetoric, of course!). 🙂

    Reply

  14. Stephen
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 18:27:04

    Juggling Mother:
    The only thing we can say for certain is that we don’t know how the universe started! That does not provide any evidence for a god.

    I’ve been wondering when someone would take that point of view. I was asked for evidence, and I’m aware that I’ve only half met the challenge.

    I would love positive evidence of God’s existence: say, God’s signature on the back of a leaf (the way an artist signs a painting).

    What I have offered instead is more like negative evidence … but it is evidence nonetheless. According to the ever-logical Sherlock Holmes, when you have eliminated other possibilities, the remaining possibility must be true, however unlikely it may appear.

    That’s the sort of argument I’m making here. If life did not arise naturally — if that is demonstrably impossible — life must have arisen supernaturally.

    Some people see no evidence of God’s existence whatsoever. (You’re in that camp, I know.) Others of us, as I’ve said before, see evidence of God’s existence under every rock and in every blade of grass. If you ask me for evidence, that’s where I’ll point you: to paraphrase Jesus, Let him who has eyes to see, see.

    The alternative is for someone to tell me how life arose from non-life without the intervention of a Creator. Offer me a theory; then supply some evidence in support of that theory.

    Nosugrefneb at least offered an argument, to his credit. I reject the argument, but kudos to him for at least rising to the challenge.

    Reply

  15. Jamie
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 19:00:27

    Nosugrefneb:
    Wait, what evidence exists that supports the claim that life arose non-spontaneously? That someone wrote a book once saying that’s so?

    Just a clarification: I said nothing about there being evidence that life arose non-spontaneously (i.e. supernaturally). I was referring to evidence (like Stephen presented in his post) that life did not arise spontaneously. Those arguments represent two sides of the same coin, but it’s the difference between a negative argument and a positive argument.

    Reply

  16. Stephen
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 19:24:28

    • Nosugrefneb:

    The problem becomes particularly acute when we recognize that a long series of events must occur in a precise sequence. The resultant complex molecules will hold together for a very short time. And they appear in trace concentrations.

    Let’s say that nine highly improbable chemical reactions must occur in sequence at a specific point in the process of the journey toward life. The first reaction happens after a million years of it not happening. The next highly improbable chemical reaction has to happen in the right sequence (it won’t do to reverse steps three and two). It must occur immediately after the first reaction (before the resultant molecule breaks apart). And it must occur extremely close by, in order to come into contact with the first molecule (remembering the low concentration levels).

    But the first reaction took a million years. What is the probability of the second reaction happening, in sequence, precisely then and there? What is the probability of the whole sequence happening nine consecutive times, and meeting the other criteria as outlined each time?

    Cairns-Smith estimates that at least 140 events would have to happen in sequence (he calls this “a safe oversimplification”.) He estimates the odds of this occurrence at 10 to the 109th power. He mentions that all the electrons in the visible universe are numbered at 10 to the 80th power, so we are talking about a very large number indeed (p. 47).

    And note: in that calculation he is dealing only with the problem of sequence. He isn’t taking into account the other criteria I listed.

    Increasing the amounts of time and space don’t make such an improbable event significantly more likely.

    Reply

  17. nosugrefneb
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 20:19:15

    Fair enough, and well-said too.

    But, to continue to be fair, I was merely offering up some figures to show that 13.5 billion years is a long-ass time. What’s much more likely, though, is that those reactions aren’t actually taking a million years (at the absolute longest in my example, statistically-speaking), but probably more on the order of several (hundred?) times every hour to day. Sure, there are other things that are working against it, like the extremely low concentrations of these novel molecules and their proximity to one another, but there’s also the benefit of both the amplification of each set of new molecules and the basic laws of chemistry. That is to say, the likelihood of a certain molecule being used to create its expected reaction product is much higher when that molecule is indeed that molecule rather than a heap of useless atoms. In other words, hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) are inordinately more likely to become hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) when they are H2 and O2 than when there are merely two hydrogens and two oxygens floating around.

    Forgive me, though. Chemistry is not my profession, per se, so I could be slightly off or entirely wrong here, but that’s the way I see it. Also, call me Ben; you’ll save a lot of time that way.

    Reply

  18. whig
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 20:21:01

    I had a philosophy professor with whom I shared many conversations on the nature of consciousness. He was truly of the belief that consciousness itself is only an illusion, and we are mechanisms.

    That is principled atheism, I think. It is also a desperately depressing perspective, for if there is nobody “there” doing the perceiving and conceiving, we do not exist, we are dead matter.

    Helpfully, I think his view is uncommon. Most self-described atheists do seem to believe at least in their own consciousness, and act to preserve it. They don’t call it God because they’d be saying that they were God, and that’s an awfully uncomfortable thing to think until you get past it and understand that we are all God.

    Reply

  19. nosugrefneb
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 20:48:07

    Whig, I often find myself in your professors camp as well. I’ve commented as much here.

    Reply

  20. Stephen
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 21:00:42

    At bottom, there isn’t much that anyone can prove. Whig’s point illustrates that rather nicely: we don’t even know for certain that we exist (as conscious selves).

    I’m prepared to assume that I genuinely exist and work outwards from there! But I acknowledge, it’s an assumption: not something I could prove to the satisfaction of a philosopher.

    That’s why I’m astonished that so many people are so certain that they’re right — and about the most difficult questions conceivable.

    Thanks, Ben, for acknowledging there’s room for doubt about your position. And for supplying me with a shorter name! For someone who may not even exist, that’s quite a blogger ID you have!

    Reply

  21. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 21:02:30

    Maybe this will be a fair question, maybe not. I’m going to ask it anyway. Why should I believe that some may-be god MIGHT have supernaturally created an amoeba on earth three or four billion years ago?

    By the way, why are we insisting on saying that life did or did not arise “spontaneously?” Surely everyone realizes that chemical reactions do not happen randomly, but according to fixed laws that science has discovered. Whether life was created or came about through other means, there was nothing “spontaneous” about it.

    There are unanswered questions in every field of research. That’s why they are researched – because it’s very likely that there are answers to our questions.

    Should I understand your argument to mean that there might be a god because some questions are hard?

    Reply

  22. whig
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 21:05:34

    Ben, if determinism is the way it works, then there is no point even discussing, or if we do it is only because we are somehow compelled.

    I think a lot of philosophers are still living in the classical worldview, the idea of physical laws operating at medium scale and distances. Quantum mechanics and cosmology lead to very different worldviews where prediction is far more chancy.

    Consciousness is the quantum-mechanical observer, and free will is the choosing among the quantum alternatives.

    Reply

  23. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 21:16:31

    I’m prepared to assume that I genuinely exist and work outwards from there! But I acknowledge, it’s an assumption: not something I could prove to the satisfaction of a philosopher.

    Et tu, Brute? Another dig against philosophy! Where do you think your notions of rationality and what constitutes good evidence come from?

    Reply

  24. John
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 02:31:04

    Stephen,

    I don’t think it’s quite right to present the Atheist position as a strong positive claim to the effect that life and the cosmos arose spontaneously from natural causes. Rather, I think the atheist, much like Russel’s teapot atheist, is not making a ‘truth claim’ (as you wrote in your last post), but a judgment based on relative probability. For if – like you said – we can’t really prove anything to be absolutely true, than all claims are of this character.

    What the atheist does, then, is to weigh the probability that such a chain of unlikely events might occur (Cairns-Smith actually presents this argument in an effort to suggest the first life was a sort of clay…take that how you will) against the probability of the existence and specific actions of a creator.

    I don’t see how the Cairns-Smith argument, if we accept it, at all damages the actual atheist position.

    Reply

  25. juggling mother
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 06:38:48

    “The atheist is putting forth claims: (1) that the cosmos arose spontaneously; (2) that life arose from natural causes”

    No, No, No, No and, i’ll say it again, No! Tis is where theists always seem to get stuck about atheism. As I am fond of pointing out, atheists believe as manay different things as theists do – the just don’t believe in God!

    I have certainly NEVErRput forward any claims as to how the universe aroise – spontaneusly or otherwise. I have heard dozens of differing beliefs, some totally outlandish imo (I’m afraid your come’s into that group Stephen) and some more likely imo, but ALL just beliefs, suppositions or possible theories.

    As for the start of the universe, as I said, I know little and care less:-) Obviously, I like that someone somewhere is working on finding this out, because knowledge is good, but is it likely to make a jot of difference to me? I don’t think so! Perhaps it was a spontaneous big bang, perhaps there was no start & infinity exists (I’m not good with the concept of infinity either). Perhaps Universes are constantly growing & shrinking & growing & shrinking. Perhaps it;s actually a childs plaything to some supernatural entity – even if that is so, I don’t see how it proves any God figure in te Earth’s history!

    Moving onto the origins of life, which i expect will be far more useful to know if we ever find out, we still don’t know! Maybe it was a totally freak accident of molecules. Maybe it was a matter of just having the correct combination and a lightning strike. Maybe a meteor dumped a load of RNA into the primeval soup. Maybe Rincewind dropped his ham sandwich while time travelling*. All of those are actually more likely than God, because the God concept requires ongoing interest in Earth, Life and specifically humanity (or in some cases, parts of humanity), none of which seem to be true (imo) from the evidence of our current world.

    Reply

  26. juggling mother
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 06:42:09

    Apologies for the spelling errors – my keyboard is getting stickier and stickier!

    *A Pratchett reference

    Reply

  27. Jamie
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 09:29:48

    JM:
    No, No, No, No and, i’ll say it again, No! Tis is where theists always seem to get stuck about atheism. As I am fond of pointing out, atheists believe as manay different things as theists do – the just don’t believe in God!

    You’ve lost me here.

    If all atheists agree in their belief that God doesn’t exist, then don’t all atheists necessarily believe that the cosmos arose spontaneously, and life arose through natural causes? I suppose if you grant the possibility of an infinite universe, then maybe not everyone believes the cosmos arose spontaneously, but they believe the cosmos exists purely by naturalistic means (which I think was Stephen’s point).

    And certainly all atheists must agree that life arose through natural causes. Whether it was a freak accident of molecules, a meteor dumping a load of RNA into the primeval soup, or a timetraveller dropping his ham sandwich, those are all natural causes. (Unless Rincewind has supernatural powers, in which case he’s more like a god.)

    At any rate, the fact that atheists might have 20,000 different beliefs about the origins of the cosmos and life does not detract from Stephen’s point: You all believe they came about naturalistically. Right?

    Reply

  28. juggling mother
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 09:53:54

    I suppose it depends on your meaning of the word “naturalistic”. I would say that time travellers dropping ham sandwiches, giant insectoid space aliens seeding planets and infinite universes with no beginning or end are all fairly “un-naturalistic” if not “super-naturalistic” which i guess is what Stephen’s God counts as.

    My personal understanding of a “natural” universe is one where, if you did the same thing again, the same basic outcome would happen (ie, matter would form, gravity exist, life begin etc) requiring no guiding presence to push it along in the right direction.

    At any rate the fact that all monotheists believe that a single God created the Earth does not detract from the fact that there isn’t any evidence for this does it? Although the fact that many religions DO NOT believe this to be true must surely say something about theists?

    Reply

  29. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 10:26:45

    Jamie,

    You asked, don’t all atheists necessarily believe that the cosmos arose spontaneously, and life arose through natural causes?

    I think – I don’t want to put words into Juggling Mother’s mouth here – but what I think she is trying to say is that it’s not the case that every atheist has formed an opinion about the origin of the universe, and when asked they will simply say, “I don’t know,” because they have not formed a belief.

    A good illustration of the same thing would be if I asked a theist how god created the universe – meaning by what means or process (as opposed to, say, the order of creation). The theist would likely say “I don’t know.”

    The theist likely has reasons for being a theist that have nothing to do with understanding how God created the universe. The question is irrelevent in regards to that person’s theism.

    Likewise, some people may be atheists for reasons that have nothing to do with the question of how the universe came into being.

    Reply

  30. Stephen
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 12:30:35

    • John, Juggling Mother, Michael … et al.:

    Whether you are doing so intentionally, I don’t know. But in effect you’re attempting to change the subject.

    Let me put it this way: if you don’t know how the cosmos came into being, and you don’t know how life got started, and you don’t know how human beings came to be conscious, then you

    CAN’T KNOW THAT GOD DOESN’T EXIST.

    You may claim, as John does, that naturalistic explanations are less improbable than the claim of creationists. But at bottom you have to embrace the fact that you’re an agnostic, not an atheist.

    You can only conclude, “I don’t know”. You can’t logically eliminate God as a possible answer without having some better answer to set in its place.

    If you’re happy to accept the label “agnostic” than this post doesn’t speak to your position. I’ve acknowledged that I can’t prove God exists; I didn’t set out to prove that God exists. My own position is not far removed from agnosticism. I don’t know for certain that God exists; I think God may exist, I hope s/he does, and I choose to live my life as if s/he does.

    At least some of you claim to be atheists; which necessarily implies that you know that life formed naturally; which necessarily implies that you have a reasonably solid explanation as to how that event occurred; which means it is perfectly reasonable for me to ask you to share your explanation with me and adduce evidence in support of it.

    Atheism may not make explicit claims about the origins of the cosmos and of life, but it necessarily involves implicit claims. I am astonished — astonished! — that any of you can sincerely deny it.

    Instead of dealing with the argument of this post, you’re trying to change the subject. You would rather debate whether God is at work in people’s lives today. No doubt we can have another fulsome debate on that topic some time; but it is not the topic of this post.

    • btw, Michael:
    Perhaps you were just making a joke but, to be clear, I was intending no slur on philosophers.

    Currently I’m reading Bertrand Russell, questioning whether we know that the table in his room really exists. I doubt very much that I could prove the existence of a table. Maybe I could to Russell’s satisfaction, but certainly not to the satisfaction of an idealist.

    So it was just an observation, not intended as a slur.

    Reply

  31. Simen
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 12:39:51

    I’d like to point out that is possible to be superstitous and still be an atheist. You can still believe it was some sort of supernatural event that created the universe or life, just not that it was directed by God. How many actually believe that is questionable, though.

    Reply

  32. juggling mother
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 13:19:25

    Only a very few atheists claim to know

    Reply

  33. juggling mother
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 13:24:23

    Where did my comment go? Grrr!!!!!!

    Only a very few atheists claim to know God doesn’t exists. I am pretty sure that I, and nobody here, has said that we know this, due to the whole “how can you prove non-existance” thing!

    Most of the atheists I know irl & in cyberspace only claim to believe that there is no God, in the same way as you do not believe in the flying spaghetti monster Stephen. I find it so highly improbable that god exists, i the same way that i find it higly improbable that god exists, that i am happy to live my life as though they don’t.

    humph. I’m sure that was written with better syntax the first time round:-(

    Reply

  34. juggling mother
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 14:27:27

    AND – that last sentance should have read:

    I find it so highly improbable that god exists, i the same way that i find it highly improbable that fairies exist, that i am happy to live my life as though they don’t.

    Reply

  35. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 14:37:43

    if you don’t know how the cosmos came into being, and you don’t know how life got started, and you don’t know how human beings came to be conscious, then you

    CAN’T KNOW THAT GOD DOESN’T EXIST.

    That depends on whether knowledge requires certainty. It doesn’t.

    At least some of you claim to be atheists …

    Yes.

    … which necessarily implies that you know that life formed naturally …

    This is misleading because of an ambiguity in the word “naturally.” Juggling Mother already answered this when she wrote:

    I suppose it depends on your meaning of the word “naturalistic”. I would say that time travellers dropping ham sandwiches, giant insectoid space aliens seeding planets and infinite universes with no beginning or end are all fairly “un-naturalistic” if not “super-naturalistic” …

    If we don’t believe that God exists, of course we don’t think God created life.

    … which necessarily implies that you have a reasonably solid explanation as to how that event occurred; which means it is perfectly reasonable for me to ask you to share your explanation with me and adduce evidence in support of it.

    That logic is tenuous to say the least. I see no reason to accept the argument above. We have resisted you every step of the way, and quite reasonably. I don’t know what else to say other than, if you read the comments on another day you may see them in a different light. Or else, we will just have to agree to disagree.

    Atheism may not make explicit claims about the origins of the cosmos and of life, but it necessarily involves implicit claims. I am astonished — astonished! — that any of you can sincerely deny it.

    The only implicit claim is that we don’t believe God is responsible (as we do’t hold him responsible for anything, because we don’t believe he exists).

    In the end, I think it comes down to the question of what constitutes good justification for a knowlege claim.

    If we are to accept your argument, then it is literally impossible to know anything – anything at all – because there’s always the chance we could be mistaken. And yet we have knowledge. Therefore, knowledge does not require of us the certainty you demand.

    Reply

  36. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 14:42:33

    btw Stephen,

    I’m gratified to know you’re reading Russell. My comment was tongue-in-cheek. The book arrived today, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

    Reply

  37. Stephen
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 15:30:33

    I think it was inevitable that you folks would wear me out eventually (the sheer numbers taking the atheist position against Jamie and I), and I’ve reached that point.

    Michael, I think my argument is reasonable, whereas the position the atheists have taken in this debate — We don’t have to explain the origins of the cosmos or the origins of life; we just know God isn’t responsible — is utterly unreasonable.

    Re knowledge vs. certainty: I think there’s a little semantic sleight of hand going on here. There is ambiguity in the way people use the word “know”. When someone says, “I know God doesn’t exist”, the implication is that they’re quite certain of their position. You can drive a wedge between “I know” and “I’m certain” if you like, but the distinction doesn’t hold up in the way the language is actually used.

    (Nonetheless, I look forward to discussing “The God Who May Be” with you. I need to explore the philosophical side of this debate in greater detail, and at least this is an author who is sympathetic to my position! But I’m still waiting for my copy to arrive. 😦 )

    Reply

  38. John
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 15:43:03

    I assure you, Stephen, I had no intention of changing the subject, please bear with me. Your reply speaks directly to what I want to claim.

    I alluded briefly to Bertrand Russell’s teapot as a way of countering the charge of agnosticism I expected. For those of you who are unfamiliar: Russell posited a china teapot orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars. In his example, when asked to prove its existence, the teapot-ist would reply that it is far too small and distant to be detectable by any telescope but nonetheless, it is most certainly there. What he sought to point out with this thought experiment is that neither the teapot-ist nor the a-teapotist can prove the presence or non-existence of the teapot. Thus we all must be teapot agnostics.

    My contention, as well as Russell’s, is that we are all in fact teapot atheists exactly because of the improbability of there being a china teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. So too with respect to a creator. We can’t empirically prove or disprove its existence, but its improbability, coupled with the incredible explanatory power of science and naturalism, should persuade us all – to a strong degree of certainty – that it does not, in fact, exist.

    Reply

  39. Stephen
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 16:54:29

    The existence of a creator may be improbable from a certain point of view. But so is the atheist’s claim that the cosmos and life came to exist naturally.

    Why should I believe the atheist’s improbable story, when atheists refuse to back it up by supplying any evidence? “The incredible explanatory power of science and naturalism” stops short of answering the questions I’m asking.

    God may be. In my view, the hypothesis of a Creator is less improbable than the naturalist alternative.

    Reply

  40. whig
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 17:10:31

    The interesting thing about thought experiments is that they are the lifeblood of science, scientists are not mere observers and recorders of data, they make predictions and perform experiments to confirm or refute them, and/or to refine or replace their models. This is how it works with religion too, but over longer time spans than can be observed in a single lifetime. We create models to define our consciousness and bound it in ways that make better outcomes, but the proof of the pudding is always in the eating.

    We posit a God as an active and observable principle of the universe, but not one detectable with non-living instruments. You can test the theory out for yourself or decide it not worth considering, but if you dismiss out of hand you are not undertaking science.

    Reply

  41. Stephen
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 18:11:04

    Thanks, Whig. I appreciate your take on this topic.

    Reply

  42. whig
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 18:31:57

    By the way, if you want to test for existence and consciousness of God, take cannabis. If you decline, you choose not to undertake the experiment.

    Reply

  43. John
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 18:41:00

    The existence of a creator may be improbable from a certain point of view. But so is the atheist’s claim that the cosmos and life came to exist naturally.

    Indeed. But we can assign a probability to the naturalist account of life, while a positive belief in a supernatural creator can’t be assessed in probabilistic terms. So although your question Why should I believe the atheist’s improbable story[?] is a good one, which biologists, physicists and chemists are able to answer more and more fully, the converse is much more damning to the theist position.

    I accept the naturalistic account because it has the highest probability of any coherent explanatory theory. These values are and can be assigned based on solid empirical research and findings. Assigning a probability value to the existence of a creator is impossible, or at least imprecise to an unacceptable degree.

    However improbable the naturalistic account is in absolute terms is unimportant. What is important is the extremely high value of its probability relative to the non-existent or meaningless probability values of a creator existing.

    As an aside, it’s worrisome that you would cite empirical research (poorly recieved and harshly reviewed research, mind you) to claim a low probability for the naturalistic account, and then go on to say that in your view “the hypothesis of a Creator is less improbable than the naturalist alternative.” All the while saying that atheists need to explain why the naturalistic account should be believed. Before that comment you’d been careful to say ‘god may exist’, but here you make a much stronger claim about the explanatory power of the theistic account. And you do so without supporting it in the slightest.

    Reply

  44. Jamie
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 20:16:28

    JM:
    I suppose it depends on your meaning of the word “naturalistic”. I would say that time travellers dropping ham sandwiches, giant insectoid space aliens seeding planets and infinite universes with no beginning or end are all fairly “un-naturalistic” if not “super-naturalistic” …

    Pardon me if I’m completely missing the mark here, but EITHER those time travellers and space aliens have properties other than matter/energy and are self-generating or eternal, OR you still have to explain where the time traveller/aliens came from (in which case, the appeal to time travellers and aliens explains absolutely nothing about the origin of life and our cosmos).

    Given that you yourself posited those explanations as possibilities, and given that Stephen’s definition of God was something with a nature different than matter/energy that is either self-generating or eternal, are you not revoking your atheism and agreeing that God may very well exist? I realize you reject the existence of a specific kind of God, but you seem very much to be positing the existence of a God of sorts as being a very real possibility. What gives?

    John: But we can assign a probability to the naturalist account of life, while a positive belief in a supernatural creator can’t be assessed in probabilistic terms.

    If the probability of the naturalist account is impossibly low, and the idea of a supernatural creator fits with the evidence, then what? Do you hold to atheism anyway, simply because you can scientifically quantify its impossibly low probability? I don’t mean to be derogatory; it’s just that this logic makes no sense to me.

    Reply

  45. John
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 21:46:32

    Jamie: nothing with a positive probability greater than zero is impossible. So I don’t understand what it is you think you are claiming when you say that “the probability of a naturalistic account is impossibly low.” You also seem to seriously misunderstand what it means for and explanation to fit with evidence. The probability value of a naturalistic explanation is a measure of how well it fits with evidence. Until you can come up with a probability value for a creator that is greater than that assigned to naturalism, don’t expect me to take your claims very seriously.

    Reply

  46. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 09, 2007 @ 22:09:26

    What it boils down to, for me … is that atheists withhold their belief/acceptance of the god-concept on groundsother than their understanding of the “origin” of the universe/matter.

    It is therefore unreasonable for you to insist that we must either 1) explain the existence of the universe, or 2) become agnostics on the grounds that we don’t understand the “origin” of the universe, since our belief/non-belief in some particular account of origins had little or nothing to do with our atheism in the first place.

    Reply

  47. juggling mother
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 05:16:55

    Jamie, imo the liklihood of there being space aliens playing marbles with universes, old geezers with long white beards pointing fingers, time-travellers dropping ham sandwiches and some “energy consciousness” creating life are all equally unlikely, so I do not believe in God in the way I do not believe in anything else patently ridiculous with no evidence than “some bloke said it was true”!

    As I said right at the satrt of this thread, I have absolutely no idea how the universe came to be, and don’t find it a particularly important issue in my daily life. I can not provide any evidence for my hypothesis of the beginning of it all because I do not have a hypothesis. That does NOT mean I have to accept every creation concept ever invemnted as equally likely! Howver, anyone who presumes to tell me God did it, AND that od continued to have a regular impact on how things continued DOES need to show me some evidence to back up their hypothesis.

    And we’re back to burden of proof. Sorry Stephen.

    Reply

  48. Stephen
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 06:47:46

    By the end of the day yesterday, I was getting damned annoyed by you all. I’m feeling a little (only a little!) more charitable this morning. I’m trying to figure out what constructive data I can take away from this seemingly fruitless debate. More on that in today’s post.

    • Juggling Mother:
    You continue to maintain that theists alone bear the burden of adducing evidence in support of their position. I continue to maintain that that’s a prejudicial way to frame the debate. The main reason I’m annoyed is because the atheists want to stack the deck in their favour, yet you all seem to believe you’re playing fair.

    John:
    As an aside, it’s worrisome that you would cite empirical research (poorly recieved and harshly reviewed research, mind you) to claim a low probability for the naturalistic account ….

    “Harshly reviewed” means nothing to me: the academic community doesn’t like to have its cherished dogmas challenged any more than anybody else likes to have their pet beliefs challenged. Academic debates are neither disinterested or dispassionate!

    The author is an organic chemist and molecular biologist. That doesn’t prove he’s right, of course. But if you reject his research, say so: provide your reasons and supply your own probability estimate. That would certainly be a reasonable response to my post.

    … and then go on to say that in your view “the hypothesis of a Creator is less improbable than the naturalist alternative.” … Before that comment you’d been careful to say ‘god may exist’, but here you make a much stronger claim about the explanatory power of the theistic account.

    I think this is fair criticism. In particular, you point out that I haven’t put forward a probability estimate for my hypothesis of a Creator. The truth is, I’m not competent to do so.

    My admittedly rudimentary hypothesis is accurately summarized by Jamie: “Stephen’s definition of God was something with a nature different than matter/energy that is either self-generating or eternal”. I deliberately opted to begin there, rather than posit 1001 attributes of God, each of which would be contentious in its own right.

    You’re assuming that no one can quantify the probability of God’s existence. That may be true, particularly in the rudimentary form that I’ve offered it.

    On the other hand, I’m not a mathematician. On the probability of the naturalist account, I can only rely on someone like Cairns-Smith to propose an estimate. Maybe someone with a different field of knowledge than mine can do the same for the supernatural account — I dunno.

    Which all boils down to, I can’t substantiate my claim that the God hypothesis is more probable than the naturalist hypothesis. So I have to retreat to my less robust claim: it seems reasonable, in my view:

    (a) to conclude that the naturalistic account of existence and life is extremely improbable, to the point of impossibility; and
    (b) to posit that God may exist: meaning, by “God”, an entity with properties different from the known properties of matter/energy.

    Claims against which my atheist readers have not mounted much of an argument. They prefer to hold a debate on some other issue: the problem of evil, or whether God is active in the world today, or the 1001 attributes of God that I have made no claims about. As Michael admits, unapologetically:

    What it boils down to, for me … is that atheists withhold their belief/acceptance of the god-concept on grounds other than their understanding of the “origin” of the universe/matter.

    Fair enough, I guess. But that’s a tacit admission that you can’t dent the argument I mounted in this post.

    Reply

  49. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 09:31:10

    Stephen,

    Your argument is a non-argument. When you characterize God as a nebulous “entity” with “properties different from the known properties of energy/matter,” what are you saying, exactly? It proves nothing, says nothing. Tell me what it is you are asking me to admit the possibility of! God is only one of a million and one imaginary entities that could fit that description. Until you give me a real reason to accept the possiblity of god over the possibility of those other million-and-one possibilities, then don’t insist that I have to call myself an agnostic rather than an atheist.

    Look, if I have to be agnostic about god because of this, then I also have to be agnostic with regards to the possiblity that blue dwarves from the thirteenth dimension caused the big bang.

    I have to be agnostic of the possiblity that the universe was created by insects that live mid-way between this universe and a parallel one called Fromork, just before I wrote this sentence. Or this sentence. Or this sentence.

    I’m sorry Stephen, it just doesn’t fly.

    Reply

  50. Stephen
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 11:52:58

    You put me in a no-win situation. If I tell you 1001 things I believe about God, you’ll quibble with the attributes I ascribe and tell me that no such being exists. But if I ask you to consider the possibility of an entity with properties different than the known properties of matter/energy, you reject that because it isn’t enough information.

    I was trying to begin from first principles. Remember Descartes, how he set out to establish that he actually exists and then worked outwards from there? I was trying to do something similar: beginning from the fact that a naturalistic explanation for the cosmos and for life simply doesn’t exist, and proposing that we posit the existence of an entity with different properties.

    If you aren’t open to that, I’m at a loss to know how to proceed. I’m certainly not going to start arguing for a full-blown Christian version of God; I know that would be utterly futile, because I’d be assuming far too much. Here I tried not to assume anything but rather to begin, as I said, from first principles. I regret that you aren’t open to that approach.

    Still, I think the dialogue has been useful in helping me to sort out the issues.

    Reply

  51. whig
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 13:59:55

    Stephen, let me ask you a question — are you an agnostic yourself, do you consider God a probability (or possibility) of which you have no direct knowledge or proof sufficient to convince yourself of his (or her, or its) existence?

    Reply

  52. John
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 14:20:29

    the naturalistic account of existence and life is extremely improbable, to the point of impossibility

    You’ll recall what I wrote in reply to a similar comment from Jamie: “nothing with a positive probability greater than zero is impossible”

    The problem, I think, is that it is not simply beyond your expertise to assign a probability value to a creator, it is impossible. Think of how it is we go about calculating probability values. I can say the the probability of a flipped coin landing on heads is P=0.5. I can say this because I know that a coin has exactly two sides and that gravity has no preference for one over the other. The P value of a naturalistic account of life is much more difficult to calculate, but we can agree that it is not impossible. Admittedly it hasn’t been done to a high degree of accuracy or in a way that produces much scientific consensus, but this is unimportant because thus far I’ve been willing to accept Cairns-Smith’s low value (though taken with his larger body of work, you’re using this particular claim of his wildly out of context as he is only doubting a particular naturalistic account. He assigns a MUCH higher probability value to his preferred account). So my objection is not that you have not provided a P value for a creator, but that it is impossible to assign a probability to a metaphysical entity for which we have no empirical evidence. Dismissing the naturalistic account because of a low P value is deeply problematic and evinces a poor understanding of the laws of probability and the law of large numbers.

    Reply

  53. Stephen
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 15:12:57

    Dismissing the naturalistic account because of a low P value is deeply problematic and evinces a poor understanding of the laws of probability and the law of large numbers.

    I think that’s a bit overblown! I guess Cairns-Smith doesn’t understand the laws of probability, either. And I know he has an alternative theory to propose. But I suspect his calcluation of probability is based on hard data, while his alternative theory is highly speculative.

    I didn’t mention the probability calculation in the post — only in the comments. I know I’m out of my depth on that topic.

    But I don’t think I’m guilty of not understanding the reality. Look at the post itself: the interlocking systems, the low concentrations, the necessity of having pure chemicals before proceeding to the next step, etc. The probability is exceedingly low, to the point of impossibility, for all of the solid reasons Cairns-Smith supplies.

    That’s what I’m hanging my hat on. But I invite you to explain it away.

    Reply

  54. Stephen
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 15:34:29

    • Whig:
    I self-identify as a theist; a Christian, even. But admittedly mine is a weak form of theism / Christianity.

    I think it’s virtually impossible to point to objective, positive evidence of God’s existence. For example, I know of people who have been healed as a direct consequence of prayer. But maybe that’s just “mind over matter” or something; it still doesn’t quite cut it as objective evidence of God’s existence.

    I agree with your argument from subjective evidence — there’s no reason people should feel that they have to justify their subjective experiences to anyone else’s satisfactions. If someone prays for me, and I get healed, why should I second guess whether God responded to prayer?

    (Even your THC suggestion has merit. It has always intrigued me that LSD was seriously regarded as an avenue to God in the 1960s — expanded consciousness and all that!)

    I think of faith as “hope” and “allegiance”. I hope there is a God, and in practice I try to live in accordance with the teachings of Jesus. (Not some narrow, fundamentalist version, but a more Liberal Protestant take on the Gospels.) “Living in accordance with Jesus’ teachings” is what I mean by “allegiance”.

    I also think it is reasonable to believe in God, which is really the point of these last couple of posts.

    But I don’t need certainty. And, as I shared elsewhere, I don’t think one has to reject other ways of knowing in order to be a Christian.

    I don’t think anyone (atheist, Christian, Buddhist, etc.) has a corner on the market when it comes to truth. So I try to learn from everyone, and allow divergent worldviews to critique one another, and complement one another.

    I hope that’s a satisfactory explanation!

    Reply

  55. whig
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 16:51:57

    Stephen, one quick remark. I did not say THC, I said cannabis. Just because THC is one of the active constituent chemicals present in cannabis which is known to produce a psychoactive effect does not mean it is all there is to a whole herb. Our modern synthetic society doesn’t seem to believe that nature has anything better than human chemistry. Very arrogant, I think, and it is part and parcel with disbelief in God at some level.

    What I’m saying is that God proves his existence (or it might not be a “he” to you, I do not mean to constrain your own perspective) every time you are willing to make the simple leap of faith required to test for his presence.

    Cannabis is one of God’s creations, like humans, it is a living being with consciousness (but a very different kind of consciousness). You should not trust me or take my word for it, but test for yourself, or do not and don’t pretend you’ve tried to find God and failed.

    Reply

  56. Stephen
    Jan 10, 2007 @ 17:04:23

    I didn’t say cannabis because I couldn’t remember how to spell it! And I didn’t anticipate that the distinction would be so important to you.

    I’m a little disappointed that that’s the only part of my comment you responded to. 😦

    Reply

  57. John
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 00:34:52

    Stephen,

    It had been a long day, I may have come across more intensely than I intended.

    That said, I still think you’re misreading my point. First, “The probability is exceedingly low, to the point of impossibility” is a logically unsound sentence. Is you can give a probability a magnitude (as you do: “exceedingly low”) then that event is by definition possible. There is no “point of impossibility.”

    Further, and more importantly, my impression is that you are appealing to a form of Occam’s razor. That since the probability of naturalism is low, we ought to accept the god hypothesis, or some version of it. What I have been claiming for the last few days is that this argument is unsound on the basis that it ignores a whole side of the equation: if P(x)>P(y) then we ought to prefer x as an explanatory theory (this isn’t exactly Occam’s razor, but for the purposes of this it fits). So, even if you establish that P(y)=0.0000000001, you need to also establish that P(x)>0.0000000001, if your argument is going to carry any weight.

    Ultimately, the fact of the matter is that neither of us are biologists. So we’re simply not well qualified to estimate such probabilities or even to assess how Cains-Smith estimates his. Given this, I think it verges on willful ignorance to ignore other estimates calculated by well qualified scientists. That is why my argument doesn’t rely on the particular P value of naturalism; only that there IS one, and it is a positive value. So long as scientific consensus persists that there is a probability value for naturalism, and so long as you posit a probabilistically unassailable and unquantifiable creator, my argument holds and there is no reason to believe yours or those of other theists.

    Reply

  58. whig
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 02:35:21

    Stephen, I wouldn’t want to disappoint you but it was the thing that struck me as requiring a response to clarify what I’d said, and yes the distinction is very important. Synthetic THC is even legally prescribable, but nobody seems to want it or benefit much from it especially compared to herbal cannabis.

    The problem with responding to the rest is that I’m left with a kind of inchoate, undefinite sense of what you believe God to be, and that’s fine with me. But what do I say to clarify except that we build whatever models work for ourselves, and some of them are better than others, insofar as they have better utility for understanding how God relates to us.

    You “hope” there is a God but you do not perceive God, I think, or you do not know you perceive God even when you are looking right at him but not recognizing his face. All of us are God when we choose and understand, and even when we do not, but then we are not acting with the same intention.

    What is also important to understand is how we ourselves are created or evolved, what we are made up of are living cells with each their own microcosm of life in the universe of your body, each obeying physical laws which constrain them but acting out of their own will within those constraints. And how these cells differ from simple yeasts is trivially related to an accident of birth. Some cells are born to be human and some to be bread.

    Reply

  59. juggling mother
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 06:34:55

    Whig – I have been known to partake of cannibis on more than one occasion. No God there for me:-)

    Reply

  60. Stephen
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 11:12:30

    • John:
    my argument doesn’t rely on the particular P value of naturalism; only that there IS one, and it is a positive value. So long as scientific consensus persists that there is a probability value for naturalism, and so long as you posit a probabilistically unassailable and unquantifiable creator, my argument holds and there is no reason to believe yours or those of other theists.

    I’ll say the same thing to you that I said to Michael: I think this is one of the most constructive things anyone has contributed to our dialogue. It constitutes a specific, concrete criticism that provides me with direction, at least theoretically, as to how I might proceed to build a better case.

    However, it takes us back to the topic I raised elsewhere, that there are limits to what science can investigate. It’s true, I think, to say that God is “unquantifiable”. If a being of the sort I have in mind exists, it isn’t possible to put him/her/it under a microscope, or bombard him/her/it with electrons or whatever.

    Does that constitute proof that no such entity exists? Remember, all I set out to establish is that such an entity may exist.

    Perhaps there are questions that science simply cannot investigate. In which case, agnosticism remains a more logical conclusion than atheism.

    We agree on at least this much: it is extremely improbable that the universe came about naturalistically. I proposed an alternative hypothesis, and we both agree it cannot be falsified by science. My hypothesis may (or may not) be more probable than yours. It ultimately comes down to the question of whether absolute allegiance to the scientific method is the only valid way of life.

    If 40% of American scientists believe in G/god, clearly they are able to compartmentalize: the scientific method applies in certain spheres but not in all.

    • Whig:
    I find your perspective interesting. You approach the issue from a very different angle than I do, and I always find it stimulating to try to see the world from a novel perspective. I look forward to further dialogue with you.

    Reply

  61. whig
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 14:39:27

    Juggling mother, that’s fine. Some people aren’t looking for God when they take cannabis. Some just want to relax, and put serious thoughts out of mind. Some just want pain relief.

    Reply

  62. whig
    Jan 11, 2007 @ 14:43:11

    Stephen, I’ll make sure to link you from my blog in a bit, I was meaning to do so but had not yet. We are building here a little network of consciousness, our links are like connections between cells, or threads of yeast making the bread that is the blogosphere rise. Our descendent, humankind, awakens.

    Reply

  63. Jamie
    Jan 12, 2007 @ 15:49:08

    John:
    The P value of a naturalistic account of life is much more difficult to calculate, but we can agree that it is not impossible.

    I’m going out on a limb here, but…

    We may not be able to prove that it is impossible, but do we know for sure that it is possible? I know next to nothing about how probabilities are calculated, but I’m really wondering if anyone can actually calculate the possibility of life forming naturalistically any more than we can calculate the possibility that the supernatural exists.

    I mean, does anyone actually know for sure what makes life happen, or what would be required to actually “jump start” life? I realize we can talk about the probability of certain chemical reactions occurring in primordial soup, but even if those reactions occurred, do we know for sure that they would produce life? If we don’t know for sure, then presumably we can’t identify any P value for a naturalistic account of life.

    (Just for the record, I am totally out of my league with this comment, so I apologize if what I’ve said is completely naïve. Educate me. ☺ )

    Even if it is legitimately possible to calculate a P value for a naturalistic account, I’m still a little unsure about your claim that we should only accept an account for which we can calculate a P value, even if that value is very low. That implies that science (and math) are the only legitimate arbiters of truth, but that’s not something that can be taken for granted.

    Reply

  64. Stephen
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 05:15:07

    I’m really wondering if anyone can actually calculate the possibility of life forming naturalistically any more than we can calculate the possibility that the supernatural exists.

    That strikes me as a reasonable question. There is an appearance of legitimacy to John’s calculation, because it deals with physical objects, which appropriately come within the domain of math and science. But is the calculation falsifiable? Unless it is falsifiable, it is just as unscientific as theists’ metaphysical claims.

    Arguably, science is only on solid ground where hypotheses can be tested via experimentation. I’m aware that Urey and Miller set out to create life from non-life experimentally, but I’m not persuaded they achieved any such thing.

    What is life? This is a question that lies unanswered in back of the whole subject. Naturalists assume that life is just molecules arranged a certain way. If so, the challenge consists solely in reaching a certain level of complexity, at which point the molecules will “naturally” begin to self-replicate.

    For non-scientists, that claim is quite a stretch. It seems to us that life is something separate from matter, something additional to it. Arranging molecules in a certain formation, like so many building blocks, will never bring inanimate matter to life.

    Science ought to be able to demonstrate in a laboratory that molecules arranged a certain way will live. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think anyone has demonstrated it yet.

    Reply

  65. Simen
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 11:46:40

    There’s nothing suggesting that life is something besides matter besides the feeling of conscious beings that there’s something special about them. I don’t think there is. No observations of simple organisms, such as bacteria, suggest that there’s anything to these organisms than what we see. If simple organisms are not dualistic, where does this extra something come from? Somewhere in the evolutionary chain that ultimately lead to humans?

    Arguably, science is only on solid ground where hypotheses can be tested via experimentation.

    Right. This is the cornerstone of science. This is why ID can never be science: it is unfalsifiable.

    Science ought to be able to demonstrate in a laboratory that molecules arranged a certain way will live. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think anyone has demonstrated it yet.

    The challenge is proving that this could have occured naturally.

    Reply

  66. whig
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 13:04:41

    Simen, why would you presume that simple organisms are not dualistic, if you believe that humans are?

    Reply

  67. whig
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 13:08:07

    I also want to make a point that there is nothing inherently unnatural about consciousness or God, just exterior to our limited three dimensional medium scale perspective.

    Reply

  68. Simen
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 13:56:26

    I don’t think any organisms are dualistic. But simple organisms are the ones we have the best chance of fully understanding, and as far as we understand them at this point, they’re nothing more than matter. I don’t think there’s anything supernatural about life or consciousness. I don’t presume it is just because we don’t understand them fully at this point.

    Reply

  69. addofio
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 14:48:35

    First, a confession: I haven’t read all the comments on this thread. It’s getting to be a realy l-o-o-o-o-o-o-n-g thread.

    But the use of the word “know” keeps popping up, and I think it might be worth some discussion.

    First, I think it’s being used in at least two different ways: one, personal knowing, and two, public knowledge. Stephen in particular is conflating the two meanings when he expresses frustration with what he perceives as atheists’ claims that “I don’t know, but I know”. There’s nothing irrational about the claim if it is taken to mean “I don’t know (public-type knowledge) how the universe/life began, but I know (personal-type knowledge) it wasn’t God.”

    So let me try to explain what I mean by the two kinds of knowing. First personal knowing: this is when I know something to my own satisfaction, based on whatever kind of evidence or argument satisfies me. Second, public knowledge: this is when there is sufficient publicly visible or shared evidence, or arguments convincing to pretty much everyone, to establish something as known. (There’s a third kind of “knowing” that’s popped up in the thread as well–inarguable, absolutely certain knowledge–but that’s pretty rare and limited to some rather useless things, so I’ll leave it aside. Unless someone else wants to discuss it. . .)

    For instance, I know that yesterday I had a sandwich for lunch. I even know this to the point of personal certainty. My evidence is my own memory of the event. Could I be mistaken? Sure–I could be having a false memory (an increasingly likely event these days, I’m afraid–sigh.) Nonetheless, I remain sure–I stick to the claim that I know this happened.

    However, this is not public knowledge, nor is there any conceivable way for it to become public knowledge (in the sense I intend and am attempting to explicate here.) For it to be public knowledge, there would have to be publicly available and sharable evidence–and I ate the evidence (assuming the event happened), or else I made the whole thing up for the sake of argument and it never happened (maybe I fasted yesterday, or had an omelet for lunch instead of a sandwich). Since I was alone at the time, we can’t even bring personal testimony to bear, except mine–and I’m deliberately trying to bring my own testimony into question here in order to clarify the meaning of “public knowledge” I’m trying to convey.

    Scientific knowledge is the most reliable and refined form of public knowledge we have. Scientific knowledge rests on two legs–sharable, shared, agreed-upon data, and publicly refined reasoning, refined through public discourse. One of the implications of this, I think, is that there’s a lot we “know”, each of us individually, that is not “known” scientifically, because it either has not been or cannot be put through the scientific process. That does not, however, make this kind of knowledge useless–in fact, no one of us, not even the most dedicated scientist, could get along without it.

    To return to my previous example, whether or not I had a sandwich for lunch yesterday is not susceptible to the scientific process, nor is it knowable even by me in any absolute sense. Nonetheless, I still say it makes sense for me to say “I don’t KNOW I had a sandwich for lunch yesterday (or perhaps better, I can’t prove it, I can’t establish it as public knowledge), but I know I had a sandwich for lunch yesterday”, using the two different meanings of the word.

    It’s not that simple, of course, so there’s lots of room for discussion. Anyone else want to take a whack at it (“it” being what it means to know something?)

    Reply

  70. addofio
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 14:56:18

    I should probably add to my previous comment that it is a fallacy to cite one’s own personal knowledge, in the sense of “personal knowledge” I was trying to convey, to forward a claim about public knowledge–that is, “my certainty is an argument that should persuade you of the truth of the matter.”

    Reply

  71. whig
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 15:38:26

    addofio, that was quite well stated, and I agree. So many things we know through personal experience and our recollections, and Science has nothing to say about them. This does not make scientific reasoning wrong or invalid, only constrained to a domain of things that it can describe. We have different languages to express different truths.

    One thing that we do have is recipes, whether written down or merely remembered, so if you take certain ingredients and combine them in a specified way, you will obtain another sandwich much like the one you had for lunch.

    That’s really what scripture is too, a bunch of family recipes.

    Reply

  72. Jamie
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 16:19:50

    Simen:
    There’s nothing suggesting that life is something besides matter besides the feeling of conscious beings that there’s something special about them.

    This seems like a strikingly unsupported statement. Everything about our experience would suggest that there is indeed something about life that is different than mere matter.

    As Stephen said, naturalists assume that life is just molecules arranged a certain way. But is there evidence to back up that assumption?

    Reply

  73. Stephen
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 17:18:40

    Addofio:
    I think [the word “know” is] being used in at least two different ways: one, personal knowing, and two, public knowledge.

    That’s a constructive way of framing the issue. I really appreciate this sort of observation, that gets in behind the disagreement to show where the dialogue has gone off the rails.

    However —

    Stephen in particular is conflating the two meanings when he expresses frustration with what he perceives as atheists’ claims that “I don’t know, but I know”.

    Actually, I’m talking about private knowledge in both instances. Atheists admit that the naturalistic explanation of origins is extremely improbable, and they admit they don’t know how such a thing occurred. In this case, they probably mean the word “know” in both of your senses: there isn’t a public consensus on the issue, but they also don’t know at the personal level.

    It’s not like your sandwich scenario, where you have private knowledge but cannot provide evidence to substantiate, publicly, what you had for lunch.

    On the other hand, atheists claim to know (again, privately) that there is no God who brought the cosmos into existence. And that’s the inconsistency that I’m trying to underline. If you have no alternative explanation (“don’t know”) for the origins of the cosmos and of life, how can you exclude the possibility (“know”) that a G/god did it?

    Whig:
    That’s really what scripture is too, a bunch of family recipes.

    That’s a very interesting way of putting it. In the transmission of the traditions about Jesus, for example, there was a long period (likely decades) during which those traditions circulated orally: passed on from one family member to another; from one community member to another.

    Throughout that period the traditions presumably changed shape depending on who was rehearsing the story to whom. Only later did the traditions assume a fixed form, when they were reduced to writing.

    Very much like recipes, although I’m sure you meant that analogy to apply more broadly than my narrow observations here.

    Reply

  74. Stephen
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 17:24:34

    • Simen / Jamie:
    Inevitably, we’re returning to the problem of who bears the burden of proof. No doubt Simen will ask Jamie and I to prove that life consists of something more than mere matter, organized to a certain level of complexity.

    Jamie and I will no doubt reply by asking Simen to demonstrate that you can piece together a bunch of inanimate molecules according to a certain chemical formula, and an organism (however simple it may be) will suddenly spring to life.

    The point I wanted to make is simply this: that we don’t even agree on the definition of “life”, let alone know how it got started.

    Reply

  75. whig
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 17:37:14

    Stephen, your “narrow observations” are spot on. This is either a rehearsal or a performance, in each generation. See it as a play, and a script for a jester’s tear.

    Reply

  76. Jamie
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 17:55:14

    Stephen:

    Yes, I thought of that too (after I posted my comment), and it’s probably not worth arguing over the burden of proof problem any more. I didn’t actually mean to return to that dilemma anyway; I was really more interested in the point that if no one has definitively demonstrated the possibility that life could form naturalistically, then it’s impossible to calculate a P value for the process. That, to me, is an intriguing issue.

    Reply

  77. whig
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 18:39:29

    Jamie, easy, just define life differently. Water is conscious, but passive life. It is a quantum flux, a fluid, which forms naturally from the combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms with whatever other elements or compounds might also be absorbed and dissolved into the forming water of life.

    Okay, you might find that an unreasonable definition, and it surely makes assumptions that are not established as true — the consciousness of water is subject to some doubt. But I put it forward only as a way of presenting a possible origin, a story which might be useful if it seems to be consistent with observed reality and can be applied to obtain desirable results.

    This is what I call a “working model” and I would pick up any of them to consider for at least a moment, even if for the purpose of showing why it is wrong.

    Reply

  78. whig
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 18:43:13

    It comes down the the question of when does life begin, at conception? No far earlier than that, since the beginning of the universe, but clearly even if you doubt this you cannot doubt that you were not the first life form to crawl out of the soup in your present incarnation. Life began with the first act of will.

    Reply

  79. Jamie
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 20:34:03

    Whig:

    So, using that definition, can you calculate a P value for the probability of life arising naturally?

    Reply

  80. whig
    Jan 13, 2007 @ 21:27:51

    Well, I think it depends on what you take as a given. The existence of the universe is as it is perceived, and the probability of it now existing is approaching 1. God is perfectly natural, even if beyond nature as we can ordinarily perceive it. God and life are one and the same thing. Does life exist?

    See, we can just define our terms and understand one another without warring over our interpretations.

    Reply

  81. John
    Jan 14, 2007 @ 14:35:10

    But is the calculation falsifiable? Unless it is falsifiable, it is just as unscientific as theists’ metaphysical claims.

    I don’t understand why you think the naturalistic account is unscientific. Once scientists have a fully fleshed out account of how life formed, all they would need to do is replicate those circumstances in a laboratory in order to substantiate or falsify their hypothesis. Now this hasn’t happened yet, but what does it do to your argument if and when it does?

    Reply

  82. Stephen
    Jan 14, 2007 @ 14:52:00

    • Jamie:
    Using that definition [of life], can you calculate a P value for the probability of life arising naturally?

    I don’t think Whig is trying to support John’s probability calculation. I think she’s taking a complete different approach to the issue than anyone else who has posted.

    You and I subscribe to the idea of the ghost in the machine, in one form or another. I think Whig is taking the same idea and applying it one step further: that even seemingly “inanimate” matter possesses this “ghost” — consciousness, life.

    • Whig:
    Water is conscious, but passive life.

    I read your comment last night, but I wanted to mull it over a bit before I responded. I finally arrived at the idea expressed above, that you are taking the idea of the “ghost in the machine” and applying it universally, even to seemingly “inanimate” matter.

    That’s my way of acknowledging that your construct goes beyond the way that I view the cosmos; and yet, it is consistent with some of the assumptions that I make about things.

    I wonder, if I describe your position as “pantheism”, would you be comfortable with that? I’m not trying to put words into your mouth, or make assumptions about what you believe. On the contrary, I’m asking because I want to allow you the dignity of defining your worldview in terms that you are comfortable with.

    Can I take this discussion back to the small misunderstanding that occurred between us earlier? (When I annoyed you by referring to THC instead of cannabis.) “Water” is a word for a substance that can also be described in terms of its chemical formulation, H2O. In your view, water/H2O has consciousness.

    Wouldn’t THC also have consciousness, then? How is it fundamentally different from cannabis?

    Please understand, I’m not trying to challenge your position, I’m just seeking a better understanding of it. I think too much dialogue takes an adversarial form. I’m aware that I only partly understand where you’re coming from, and I’m asking questions in order to understand better. No negative judgement implied!

    In a day or two, I think I’ll post separately on this question, “What is life”? We’ve started a new thread here, and I think most commenters stopped reading a couple of days ago. Might as well move the thread up as a new post.

    Reply

  83. Stephen
    Jan 14, 2007 @ 15:02:33

    John:
    Once scientists have a fully fleshed out account of how life formed, all they would need to do is replicate those circumstances in a laboratory in order to substantiate or falsify their hypothesis.

    Jamie’s point is, your probability calculation is based on a certain definition of life that is assumed but has not yet been confirmed in a laboratory. In short, your probability calculation is grounded in an unproven assumption.

    Now this hasn’t happened yet, but what does it do to your argument if and when it does?

    It would constitute a setback. Would it be the final nail in the coffin of theism? I don’t know, I’d have to look at the data after the experiment has actually taken place and see where the data lead.

    As always, I would turn the question back at you. What happens to your argument if scientists try and repeatedly fail to demonstrate that life does not consist of anything more than molecules assembled a certain way?

    In other words, our hypothesis is no more vulnerable to falsification than yours.

    Reply

  84. Jamie
    Jan 14, 2007 @ 15:43:21

    Stephen (and Whig):
    I finally arrived at the idea expressed above, that you are taking the idea of the “ghost in the machine” and applying it universally, even to seemingly “inanimate” matter.

    I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around this idea. Why is this concept of life useful? Would it somehow make it less problematic for life to have arisen naturally? (This is why I asked Whig about the P value.)

    Also, even if water is alive and conscious, it seems like there would still be the problem of getting from that form of life to something that has DNA, grows, replicates itself, etc. In other words, isn’t there still the issue of demonstrating the possibility that life (in the more traditionally understood sense) could form naturalistically?

    Reply

  85. John
    Jan 14, 2007 @ 16:40:36

    Stephen,

    In other words, our hypothesis is no more vulnerable to falsification than yours.

    I’m not so sure about that. It seems to me that the naturalism hypothesis occupies somewhat unfair territory in relation to your hypothesis. Consider what scientifically disproving naturalism would entail: either 1) evidence of god, however you define that word. This we can both agree is unlikely, so I’ll leave it aside; or 2) the failure, under laboratory conditions, of every conceivable hypothetical process which might be described as natural. Hundreds of individual experiments may conclusively fail, but to say that naturalism itself fails as an explanation is something else entirely, likely requiring positive (see #1) rather than negative verification.

    leaving that aside:
    I’m interested to read coming posts (you mentioned another ‘The god who may be’ in the works) on this line of thought. Particularly, since I’m done hammering the probability argument in comments, I’d be intrigued to hear what sort of theism follows from an assertion that that god may be, especially given the somewhat scant nature of the god your argument seeks to establish. What I mean is: you self-describe as a christian, no? How does an argument for what you’ve agreed is little more than a ‘god of the gaps’ lead to anything resembling Christianity?

    It’s been mentioned already, but it striked me that the argument you’ve presented leads to a sort of agnosticism, rather than theism.

    Reply

  86. whig
    Jan 14, 2007 @ 20:28:53

    Stephen, my position is consistent with Panentheism, not pantheism.

    Reply

  87. whig
    Jan 14, 2007 @ 20:33:52

    On the matter of consciousness, not all matter is equally conscious, or possessed of life. I think that is pretty obvious, that even if God is immanent within a drop of water, there is no active principle, it is entirely passive.

    Likewise, THC as a synthetic chemical has no active principle, however cannabis is a living growing organism.

    Reply

  88. whig
    Jan 14, 2007 @ 23:13:45

    Jamie, life evolves. I think that’s well established. If we have some unit or quantum of intelligence capable even of influencing the probability of future events, life will grow from the smallest beginning to any complexity.

    Reply

  89. Stephen
    Jan 15, 2007 @ 11:15:00

    • John:
    Hundreds of individual experiments may conclusively fail, but to say that naturalism itself fails as an explanation is something else entirely, likely requiring positive rather than negative verification.

    I can see some validity in the reasoning: you wouldn’t want to abandon a hypothesis until a better alternative is on offer.

    On the other hand, the scientific method involves proposing hypotheses and then trying to falsify them via carefully constructed experiments. Surely if hundreds of individual experiments agreed that the hypothesis failed, the cumulative effect would be a powerful argument against naturalism.

    Theists would say, You have an alternative hypothesis to consider, you just don’t like the implications of it. But I know, that hypothesis isn’t subject to falsification and can’t be brought within the realm of science. How would we decide between a hypothesis that has repeatedly been falsified and one that is outside the domain of science?

    I will return to The God Who May Be, as promised. Whether I will address the specific questions you raise remains to be seen!

    • Whig:
    Thanks for pointing out the distinction between pantheism and panentheism. The Wikipedia link is interesting, since it explores some Christian forms of panentheism. For me, it brings a specific text of scripture to mind: “in him [Christ] all things cohere” (Col. 1:17).

    Again, thanks for explaining your perspective on THC and cannabis. Clearly you’ve thought this through. Very interesting.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: