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What About the Origins of Life Itself?

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Over at his Website, Debunking Christianity, John Loftus has put up a very brief post titled, What About the Origins of Life Itself? It reads as follows:

We know that we descended from a common ancestor. We know this. Evolution is a fact. Many believers agree about this, even a growing number of evangelicals. But what about the origins of life itself? The answer is simple. Ready? Since the evolution of life has a natural explanation then so also does the origins of life, we just don’t know how yet. Give science time. Don’t punt to a god explanation just as believers shouldn’t have done before Darwin. Comprende?

A commenter named formerlutheran responded:

Science has yet to figure out exactly how the first little spark of “life” began, so the honest answer is “don’t know, but we are working on it.” The apologists trumpet “You don’t know, therefore God.” The inevitable question is then, “Okay then, where did your God come from?” The apologist answer is, “It is a mystery.” (Translation) the apologist is “don’t know, but if we can shout loud enough and use really, really big words people won’t notice.”

Loftus then posted a follow-up reply, praising science at the expense of theism:

The difference between the mysterious answer the theist offers and science is that theists have no way to solve that mystery, which has remained a mystery from the beginning and will always remain a mystery. Science however, has a method and just might figure it out.

Another commenter named Luiz Fernando Zandra posed another objection to the theory of Intelligent Design:

Let’s not forget that we can’t argue for the fine-tuning argument and for a miraculous origin of life. If we need a miracle for life to start in this universe, then the universe is not fine tuned for life. Period. If the desire of the believer is to support the idea that the universe is fine tuned for life in order to produce evidence for a designer, then he must abandon the idea that life can’t occur naturally.

In this short post, I’d like to set the record straight.

First, the conclusion of the argument is not “ergo, God,” but “ergo, an Intelligent Designer.”

Second, the argument for an Intelligent Designer does not seek to establish that there can be no natural pathway from inanimate matter to life. Rather, what it attempts to show is that unguided natural processes cannot account for the origin of life.

Third, the critical premises of the argument for an Intelligent Designer of life are that:

(i) any astronomically unlikely configurations of matter which are at the same time capable of performing useful, specific tasks – e.g. proteins, which are essential to all life-forms known to us, or for that matter, RNA, the alleged precursor of proteins – require an explanation;

(ii) a good explanation is one which would eliminate this unlikelihood, by appealing to something which isn’t inherently unlikely; hence

(iii) explanations for the origin of life that appeal either to laws of Nature (whether they be laws of the universe or multiverse is irrelevant here) or to initial conditions of the universe, which are themselves inherently unlikely, merely defer the problem of accounting for the origin of life by “kicking it upstairs”; but on the other hand,

(iv) explanations which appeal to causes that are known to be adequate, and that do not explicitly invoke unlikely conditions, are legitimate places to halt our search for the origin of life.

Since

(v) intelligence is known to be a cause which is adequate to account for the origin of life, and since intelligence per se does not require unlikely conditions in order for it to exist, then the existence of an unidentified Intelligent Designer is a legitimate explanation for the origin of life in the cosmos.

Of course,

(vi) an inherently unstable Intelligent Designer would not be a satisfying explanation for the origin of life, as its continuation in existence would be unlikely;

similarly,

(vii) an Intelligent Designer with a beginning in time would not be a satisfying explanation for the origin of life, as we would then have to explain where it came from.

However,

(viii) since we know of no reason in principle why an Intelligent Agent should either have a beginning in time or be structurally unstable, then we are entitled to posit the existence of an Intelligent Designer of life Who is free of these limitations.

(Incidentally, the fact that human intelligence is highly fragile and time-bound tells us nothing about intelligence per se, as it is based on a sample of just one intelligent life-form: ourselves.)

For all we know, the Intelligent Designer could have rigged the initial conditions of the universe to guarantee the subsequent emergence of life. Alternatively, the Designer may have performed a special act that generated life at a subsequent point in the history of the universe.

Fourth, commenter Luiz Fernando Zandra is incorrect in asserting that “if we need a miracle for life to start in this universe, then the universe is not fine tuned for life.” If the laws of this universe permit the continued existence of life, once it appears, and if the vast majority of alternative possible universes have laws which would immediately destroy any life that emerged, then it is perfectly reasonable to speak of our universe as being fine-tuned to support life, even if it is not fine-tuned to bring about life.

Fifth, all scientific explanations have to stop somewhere, which means that “mystery” is something we can never entirely eliminate. Science does indeed have a “method” of figuring out mysteries, as John Loftus correctly observes, but that method presupposes the existence of a cosmos whose behavior can be modeled by mathematical laws. Should we take this fact as an ultimate “bedrock fact” in our scientific inquiries? I would argue that we should not. Any ultimate scientific explanation should be one which doesn’t invite any further scientific questions. Laws of Nature are not a good “ultimate explanation,” because they are arbitrary: we can always ask, “Why these laws?” The same goes for initial conditions (of the universe). “Intelligence,” on the other hand, does not share these defects, as it does not designate any particular process, but simply the direction of suitable means in order to generate some end or goal whose nature can be specified in some language. There’s nothing arbitrary about this definition. While intelligence is inherently bound up with the production of forms, it doesn’t necessarily presuppose the existence of any particular kind of matter. Since “intelligence” refers to something non-arbitrary, it makes for a much more reasonable stopping-point in our scientific search for the origin of life than any set of laws or conditions. Hence the existence of intelligence, per se, is and always will remain a scientific mystery, but that’s not a bad thing.

Sixth, the argument for an Intelligent Designer is not an argument from ignorance, since what it attempts to show is that any purported explanation for the origin of life which appeals to particular laws and/or initial conditions of the cosmos cannot be an ultimate scientific explanation, since we can always ask why these laws and/or conditions obtain.

Seventh, John Loftus’ demand that we should “Give scientists time” invites the questions: “How much time?” and “What for?” If Loftus is not prepared to stipulate when he would give up looking for an unguided explanation for the origin of life, then his naturalism is unfalsifiable. Additionally, Loftus should at least provide an outline of what kind of explanation for the origin of life would satisfy him, and why it would. Until then, the ball is in his court.

Finally, I would recommend that John Loftus read Professor William Dembski’s fine essay, Conservation of Information Made Simple, in order to properly appreciate why scientific explanations for the origin of life are essentially question-begging. I shall leave readers with a few choice excerpts:

…[I]t’s possible to characterize search in a way that leaves the role of teleology and intelligence open without either presupposing them or deciding against them in advance. Mathematically speaking, search always occurs against a backdrop of possibilities (the search space), with the search being for a subset within this backdrop of possibilities (known as the target). Success and failure of search are then characterized in terms of a probability distribution over this backdrop of possibilities, the probability of success increasing to the degree that the probability of locating the target increases.

For example, consider all possible L-amino acid sequences joined by peptide bonds of length 100. This we can take as our reference class or backdrop of possibilities — our search space. Within this class, consider those sequences that fold and thus might form a functioning protein. This, let us say, is the target. This target is not merely a human construct. Nature itself has identified this target as a precondition for life — no living thing that we know can exist without proteins. Moreover, this target admits some probabilistic estimates. Beginning with the work of Robert Sauer, cassette mutagenesis and other experiments of this sort performed over the last three decades suggest that the target has probability no more than 1 in 10^60 (assuming a uniform probability distribution over all amino acid sequences in the reference class).

The fitness landscape supplies the evolutionary process with information. Only finely tuned fitness landscapes that are sufficiently smooth, don’t isolate local optima, and, above all, reward ever-increasing complexity in biological structure and function are suitable for driving a full-fledged evolutionary process. So where do such fitness landscapes come from? Absent an extrinsic intelligence, the only answer would seem to be the environment.

…Okay, so the environment supplies the information needed to drive biological evolution. But where did the environment get that information? From itself? The problem with such an answer is this: conservation of information entails that, without added information, biology’s information problem remains constant (breaks even) or intensifies (gets worse) the further back in time we trace it.

If biological evolution proceeds by a gradual accrual of functional advantages, instead of finding itself deadlocked on isolated islands of function surrounded by vast seas of non-function, then the fitness landscape over biological configuration space has to be very special indeed (recall Stuart Kauffman’s comments to that effect earlier in this piece). Conservation of information goes further and says that any information we see coming out of the evolutionary process was already there in this fitness landscape or in some other aspect of the environment or was inserted by an intervening intelligence. What conservation of information guarantees did not happen is that the evolutionary process created this information from scratch.

One final question remains, namely, what is the source of information in nature that allows targets to be successfully searched? If blind material forces can only redistribute existing information, then where does the information that allows for successful search, whether in biological evolution or in evolutionary computing or in cosmological fine-tuning or wherever, come from in the first place? The answer will by now be obvious: from intelligence. On materialist principles, intelligence is not real but an epiphenomenon of underlying material processes. But if intelligence is real and has real causal powers, it can do more than merely redistribute information — it can also create it.

Indeed, that is the defining property of intelligence, its ability to create information, especially information that finds needles in haystacks.

Comments
Loftus atheism has nothing to do with lack of of evidence for a Designer or God and everything to do with being angry at God for bad things that happened to him. In fact, he very obviously still believes.lpadron
May 19, 2014
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Eric Anderson @1:
Remarkable that Loftus could make so many mistakes in so few sentences.
But not to be left out of the running, we have another contender: Acartia_bogart @13. More mistakes. He's in the lead! Oops, but he used more words . . . ----- We'll call it a draw.Eric Anderson
May 18, 2014
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Arcadia_bogart, Fine Tuning is real - and it's spectacular https://uncommondescent.com/fine-tuning/nuclear-physicist-asks-why-is-pz-myers-so-dumb-and-slams-victor-stenger-to-boot/ Fine Tuning how's & why's are Major Mysteries in HEP these days. Deep questions that will reveal deep physics.ppolish
May 18, 2014
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bogart,
Scientists clearly admit that they don’t know how life originated ... But they will narrow it down to a small number if good contenders.
This rhetoric requires intellectual delusion. Science "clearly admits" one and only one explanation for "how life originated". That one allowable explanation is it was not designed.
And intelligent design won’t be amongst them because that still leaves the question of how the intelligent designer originated.
This is a logical deformity. OoL on earth was a temporal event. If a cause is isolated to be the origin of that event, then not being able to explain that cause's ultimate origin does not effect the evidence. You might also remember that when materialists thought the universe was a steady state, they generally had no problem with the concept of a thing being eternal and needing no explanation from where it came. Only when it is suggested that perhaps an intelligence or an intelligent being is eternal do they begin rocking back and forth in their seats and mumbling indignation about eternity. To suddenly act aghast that something might be eternal is inconsistent with the recorded history of materialism. Moreover, if you came to me and said Experiment-X demonstrates that the origin of life was an unguided event describable by physical law -- then using your logic -- it could not be included as acceptable knowledge because it doesn't explain the ultimate origin of the laws. This was VJ's point, which apparently went right over your head.Upright BiPed
May 18, 2014
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Acartia_bogart, Atheists and multi-universe advocates argument of the anthropic principle is really just a cop-out that makes everything meaningless. If there was a giant neon sign that glowed in the middle of the sun, that said, I am the creator, and there is only one world, and this is it, the anthropic principle would allow you to disregard that, by simply saying, well of course in this one world we SEE there is a magical sign like that, but that is because there are many OTHER universe that don't have a sign that says that, so we of course are in the one that says that. It doesn't mean there is any non-material creator, just that every possibility already exist in infinite universes, so of course one would have one with a sign, duh. A silly point indeed.phoodoo
May 18, 2014
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Acartia_bogart:
Fourth: the fine tuned universe argument has always been a non-starter. Of course the universe is fine tuned for life. It has to be. There is life in the universe. If the universe were tuned any differently, life may still exist, but it would be very different that we see now.
That's simply false.
If the universe were tuned any differently, life may still exist, but it would be very different that we see now.
You even admit it's false.Mung
May 18, 2014
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Third: are you seriously saying that conjuring up an intelligent designer is not “kicking it upstairs”?
Yes.Mung
May 18, 2014
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First: if an intelligent designer isn’t god, then how did it originate?
It's intelligent designers all the way down my friend!Mung
May 18, 2014
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Upright Biped, Indeed!phoodoo
May 18, 2014
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bogart, Design theory cannot identify the designer because a means to do so is not in the material evidence. Mankind's inability to name the intelligence does not suddenly increase the capacity of inanimate to organize itself into a semiotic translation apparatus and fill a medium with functional form when translated. Yet, the living cell cannot be organized otherwise. Design theory posits the only verifiable source for a semiotic system based on a finite set iterative representations arranged in a linear dimensional code. It can be falsified by a single example of such a system rising without intelligent guidance. On the other hand, a theory that is ultimately defended by "We don't know how it happened yet, but we know it wasn't guided and we'll prove it someday" is a theory that can never be falsified, and therefore must be taken on faith alone.Upright BiPed
May 18, 2014
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First: if an intelligent designer isn't god, then how did it originate? Second: science currently has several theories on how life originated, all of which are being tested, and many will fail. But intelligent design proposes one, which is completely untestable. So it is no more valid than proposing that life never originated, it was seeded on earth by time-travelling future humans. Third: are you seriously saying that conjuring up an intelligent designer is not "kicking it upstairs"? Fourth: the fine tuned universe argument has always been a non-starter. Of course the universe is fine tuned for life. It has to be. There is life in the universe. If the universe were tuned any differently, life may still exist, but it would be very different that we see now. Fifth: " Any ultimate scientific explanation should be one which doesn’t invite any further scientific questions." This simply demonstrates a complete lack of understanding about what science is. Science can never prove something, it can just propose something that is, to a high degree of probability, correct. A theory is as close to a fact as science can ever get. To date, every scientific discovery has just raised more questions. Sixth: refer to the fifth. Seventh: this argument is laughable. In the 10th century, nobody could have given you timeline for landing on the moon. In fact, most would probably say that it is not possible because the moon is in the heavens and the Intelligent Designer only allows the dead into heaven. Finally: Scientists clearly admit that they don't know how life originated, and will never know (unless they invent time travel). But they will narrow it down to a small number if good contenders. And intelligent design won't be amongst them because that still leaves the question of how the intelligent designer originated. By definition, an intelligent designer must be alive. You can call it a spirit, a god, the Holy Ghost, whatever. It thinks, it plans, it is alive.Acartia_bogart
May 18, 2014
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@Eric Anderson (#1):
"Remarkable that Loftus could make so many mistakes in so few sentences."
That's always the end-point of blind dogma, is it not? What I find supremely ironic is that this is the exact same attitude as was held by the medieval churchists that the materialists claim to have rejected, be opposed to, and thereby differentiate themselves from. @JDH (#11):
"What is really interesting to me is not that they miss by a mile on all their arguments, is that they do it with such arrogance."
Indeed. That seems to be the function of dogmatic assertion; to lend arrogant certainty to the flimsiest of arguments and the least warranted of conclusions.ScuzzaMan
May 18, 2014
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What is really interesting to me is not that they miss by a mile on all their arguments, is that they do it with such arrogance.JDH
May 17, 2014
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VJT: A good job as usual. Those who propose to explain life on blind chance and mechanical necessity need to provide empirical warrant for the origin of functionally specific complex organisation and associated information per such means in our observation. That's simple vera causa. Absent that, appealing to anti-God prejudice and issuing lab coat clad evolutionary materialistic ideological IOUs does not make the grade. Where, in fact on observation, FSCO/I as just identified is a reliable sign of intelligent design. So, we have good reason to hold that we are looking here at a signature of design that is being ideologically resisted rather than any firm basis for materialist claims. KFkairosfocus
May 17, 2014
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"We know that we descended from a common ancestor. We know this. Evolution is a fact. Many believers agree about this, even a growing number of evangelicals. ... Since the evolution of life has a natural explanation ..." What disjointed logic is this? Universal Common Descent has been called "the fact of evolution". However, UCD does not automatically imply "natural explanation". I accept UCD, albeit loosely, I very much do not accept "natural explanation". Behe holds the same position. We must be very clear to declare that UCD does not prove "natural explanation", not even close!Moose Dr
May 17, 2014
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@Mapou... God is not a god. He is THE God. The only being that even has the right to be called God. That spiritual realm you're talking about where you think he resides as a different type of matter than ours... IS HIM. As to your assertion about spirits (aside from God) being uncaused, here's a link, with audio if you wish to listen instead of reading the transcript. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/transcript/s8-20VunderGuy
May 17, 2014
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I believe there are two complementary, Yin-yang realms, a physical realm in which things can be created and destroyed and a spiritual one in which nothing can be created nor destroyed. Our bodies are in one realm and our spirits in the other. Spirits just are because there is no other way for them to be. Some spirits have the power of creation. I'm Christian but, unlike other Christians, I believe that my god (Yahweh) created his own physical body, although of a different type of matter than ours. He was first among the other gods. Yes, there was a beginning.Mapou
May 17, 2014
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"How does it follow from God having no cause of His coming into existence that the continued existence of God is un-caused?" Simple. Because God DID NOT come into being, because he DID NOT begin to exist. In philosophical terms, he's a brute fact or reality, much like a past-eternal multiverse is. If he DID have a beginning to his existence, that's a different story, but since he didn't, the matter is a non issue.VunderGuy
May 17, 2014
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How does it follow from God having no cause of His coming into existence that the continued existence of God is un-caused? It's like saying that because the universe began to exist, it's continued existence requires no cause.Mung
May 17, 2014
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A Universe fine-tuned for miracles makes sense to me. That is even finer than tuned for extremely improbable/impossible stuff to happen. Heck, why would THAT even require fine tuning? Fine-Tuning and Miracles go hand in hand:)ppolish
May 17, 2014
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Eric Anderson @ 1:
Non sequitur.
Yeah, it's like saying, "Well we've flown to the moon, so in time interstellar travel is bound to be common." Uh, no. You have explained the variations in finch beaks, and that's about it. A feat more akin to spitting in the creek than to interstellar travel.jstanley01
May 17, 2014
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" “Okay then, where did your God come from?” The apologist answer is, “It is a mystery.” (Translation) the apologist is “don’t know, but if we can shout loud enough and use really, really big words people won’t notice.” " Actually, if the apologist was any kind of descent, they would assert the past eternality and uncaused nature of the God of Abrahamic Theism. They would further say that God himself IS a reality, and would inform the atheist that they are anthropomorphizing God too much to point where they think of God as 'just some chap.' It's true that anything that BEGINS to exist must have a cause, but things that that NO NOT begin to exist, by definition, no not have a cause. If the atheist tries to object and suggest that the the idea of uncaused realities is 'ludicrous,' then the apologist should mention scientists who try to posit the idea of a past eternal multiverse (I.E., a multiverse with an infinite regress of events). A past eternal multiverse is a reality (what the Apologist would call 'physical reality' in relationship to the transcendent reality that is God) that is, by definition, uncaused no matter how predictable or not predictable its cycles are. Furthermore, the Apologist should also mention that Nihilism, and not Secular Humanism, would be the form of atheism likely to swell up if a past eternal multiverse is indeed true since it would have a far greater logical appeal than Secular Humanism would. Furthermore, the only way to stop it would be to appeal to emotions or authority, which would be ineffectual for the thinking Nihilists and at best only keep them contained for so long, to get rid of the free will of human beings, or to lie and make up a new religion or quasi-religion that will keep people from asking questions that would lead them inevitably to the logical conclusion of Nihilism.VunderGuy
May 17, 2014
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vjtorley: You sure read a lot of nonsense stuff from materialists! How can you stand it? :) Loftus:
Since the evolution of life has a natural explanation
Nope. Unsupported assumption based on unproven materialistic premises.
. . . then so also does the origins of life . . .
Non sequitur.
. . . we just don’t know how yet.
Well that is certainly true. But it is worse than that for the materialist. Much worse. There is strong evidence that OOL is not amenable to a naturalistic explanation.
Don’t punt to a god explanation just as believers shouldn’t have done before Darwin.
Loftus misunderstands both the science and the argument. The argument against materialistic OOL is based on what we do know, not what we don't. Loftus is standing on the wrong side of the evidence. But he wants us to just trust him. Surely there is a materialistic explanation, he says, just give us more time. Yet, the more time that goes on the worse the evidentiary situation becomes for the materialist creation myth. Remarkable that Loftus could make so many mistakes in so few sentences.Eric Anderson
May 17, 2014
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