When we checked on them last week, origin of life researchers were feeling a bit glum about their progress. Some of us can think of at least one reason why:
Life is a state, an experience that everyone has and thinks he can recognize in other people and things. We think life is very important, yet no one can define it.
It would help if there was some natural law that just “naturally” produced life but
The theorists do not at present have any idea what factors underlie such a law or how it has worked. Or why it is not working now, so far as we know (in the sense that new types of life are not self-assembling around us). They know that the law exists because life exists, chance is powerless to create it, and devotion to the philosophy of naturalism rules out design.
And then, of course, naturalism has no sell-by date:
Disconcertingly, there is no built-in expiration date for this position. There is no point at which, all natural options having been exhausted, we are free to reconsider it, even if we fail to find a naturalistic answer indefinitely. More.
On this view, naturalism is not just a tool of science, it is its only justification. Well then, let’s go back and have another look at origin of life theories based only on chance. We will try to find one that we feel could possibly have happened, and order tee shirts for the project.
We will start with one of the first, comparatively easy hurdles that any such theory faces:
Life started quickly. Some recent research has identified life on land over two billion years ago, consisting of a fungus whose central cavity was filled with symbiotic bacteria. Some Australian fossils are said to date back to 3.5 billion years old, not long after the cooling of Earth’s crust from the bombardment by planetesimals (rocky objects) at 3.85 billion years ago. Of course, some such current findings may be revised. But the general trend has been to the discovery of ever-earlier instances of life on Earth. That means that very complex and precise sequences of events must have taken place in a short period of time. Also, we don’t know in detail what the conditions on early Earth were like so it is difficult to refine the search by ruling out whole classes of theories. More.
Coming up with plausible chance scenarios that get around these problems might be easier than we think, certainly compared to the next, steeper hurdles. For them, we will simply have to order new shirts; perhaps they will say:
Oh wait … Let’s work on the wording of this one on the right side a bit. Anyway, wish us luck.
Is there a good reason to believe that life’s origin must be a fully natural event?
Does nature just “naturally” produce life?
Can all the numbers for life’s origin just happen to fall into place?
The Science Fictions series fingertips (origin of life)
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