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.
(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.
(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;
(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.
(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.