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July 6, 2012 2:29 pm

The Funny Things Scientists Sometimes Say

avatar by Moshe Averick

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Dr. George Whitesides, winner of the Priestley Medal for Chemistry - 2007

Skeptics and non-believers – particularly those with a scientific bent – are wont to accuse believers of clinging to irrational ideas. While it may very well be true that some believers espouse ideas that are not supported by meaningful evidence or rational investigation, it is important to realize that this reflects a human flaw and is by no means limited to theists.

In his acceptance speech for the Priestley Medal for chemistry in 2007, Dr. George Whitesides of Harvard University, one of the world’s greatest living chemists, said the following:

“The Origin of Life: This problem is one of the big ones in science. It begins to place life, and us, in the universe. Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth…How? I have no idea. Perhaps it was by the spontaneous emergence of “simple” autocatalytic cycles and then by their combination. On the basis of all the chemistry that I know, it seems to me astonishingly improbable. The idea of an RNA world is a good hint, but it is so far removed in its complexity from dilute solutions of mixtures of simple molecules in a hot, reducing ocean under a high pressure of CO2 that I don’t know how to connect the two [emphasis mine].”

If I were to publicly state that I “believe” God spoke to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai some 3,400 years despite the fact that based on all the investigations of Orthodox Jewish scholars in the last 100 years the actual occurrence of such an historical event seems to me “astonishingly improbable,” and that “I have no idea” how to go about backing up my belief with empirical evidence, Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, et al, would not be able to contain their hysterical laughter. What conclusions then should we draw from Dr. Whitesides’ remarks?  What do we call it when someone “believes” things that are “astonishingly improbable” with “no idea” how to back them up with evidence? Whatever the answer to that question, one thing is clear: It is definitely not Science.

When visiting a library I always look in the Evolution/Origin of Life section to see if there is interesting new information that I might have missed. On a recent visit to the Skokie Library I came across a book by Nobel Laureate, Dr. Christian DeDuve, entitled, The Genetics of Original Sin: The Impact of Natural Selection on the Future of Humanity. In Chapter 2 – The Origin of Life – Dr. DeDuve writes:

Dr. Christian DeDuve, awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine, 1974

“Thanks to the revolutionary advances of the last fifty years, we now understand and explain life entirely in natural terms. The same can’t be said of the origin of life, which is unknown so far. It thus remains permissible…that life was flipped into being by a Creator…As long as the origin of life can’t be explained in natural terms, the hypothesis of an instant divine creation of life cannot objectively be ruled out. But this hypothesis is sterile, stifling any attempt to investigate the origin of life by scientific means. The only scientifically useful hypothesis is to assume that things, including the origin of life, can be naturally explained [emphasis mine].”

I offer a brief analysis of the aforementioned paragraph:

  • “…we now understand and explain life entirely in natural terms. The same can’t be said of origin of life, which is unknown so far.” Translation: If the simplest living bacterium were a Formula-1 race car, we would understand how the motor burns gasoline to provide energy, how the drivers cockpit is constructed to maximize efficient high speed driving and yet protect the driver from injury, the special tires that are used, etc. However, we would have no idea how, where, when, or by whom, the car was constructed in the first place.
  • “It thus remains permissible that life was flipped into being by a Creator…the hypothesis of an instant divine creation of life cannot objectively be ruled out.” Hmmm…”Objectively” as opposed to what? Daydreaming? Just-So storytelling? Fantasizing? Hallucinating? Is there anything besides “objectivity” that should interest a scientist? How gracious of Dr. DeDuve to declare it “permissible” to think about Origin of Life “objectively!”
  • “But this hypothesis is sterile, stifling any attempt to investigate the origin of life by scientific means.” Could some rational human being out there please explain to me why should the consideration of an “objectively” reasonable explanation for a particular phenomenon be labeled as “sterile?” This question is especially puzzling in light of the fact that in our case there are only two possibilities to begin with: an unguided naturalistic process or divine creation. The notion of intelligent alien life in a far-off galaxy generates delirious excitement in the world of science; does the real possibility of a divine creation of life deserve less? For what possible reason would this prevent scientists from investigating the plausibility of a naturalistic, unguided process that could lead from non-life to life? Who or what would stop them? Does Dr. DeDuve perhaps fear that once scientists seriously contemplate the possibility of special creation they will realize it is the obvious answer?
  • “The only scientifically useful hypothesis is to assume that things, including the origin of life, can be naturally explained.” Is DeDuve interested in what is “scientifically useful” or is he interested in finding the truth? What strange universe does Christian DeDuve inhabit where scientific utility trumps the search for truth? Isn’t it obvious that the job of a scientist is not to make assumptions but rather to test assumptions? Again, does DeDuve fear that once scientists squarely face up to the fact that they are not investigating how the first life came into existence through an unguided naturalistic process, but if life came into existence through an unguided naturalistic process, they will realize the futility of their quest?

When brilliant scientists talk this way it elicits in me a profound sadness. It is a testimony to the ease with which pre-conceived notions and agenda compromise intellectual integrity. What scientific purpose is served (or any other purpose for that matter), by declarations of “belief” in hypotheses that at best lack any semblance of compelling evidence and at worst are astonishingly improbable? Why must the mention of the possibility of divine creation be accompanied with a stingy and begrudging caveat that it is a “sterile” idea? How refreshing and liberating is the attitude of another Nobel Laureate, Dr. Werner Arber:

Dr. Werner Arber, awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine, 1978

“Although a biologist, I must confess I do not understand how life came about…I consider that life only starts at the level of a functional cell. The most primitive cells may require at least several hundred different specific biological macro-molecules. How such already quite complex structures may have come together remains a mystery to me. The possibility of the existence of a Creator, of God, represents to me a satisfactory solution to this problem.” (Part 2 – Chapter 2)

For the die-hard skeptics, however, there is one consolation…remember, as Dr. DeDuve has pointed out, you only need consider a Creator of life if you choose to think about it “objectively.”

Rabbi Moshe Averick is an orthodox rabbi, a regular columnist for the Algemeiner Journal, and author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist. It is available on Amazon.com and Kindle. Rabbi Averick can be reached via his website. If you wish to be informed when new articles appear, send an email to moe.david@hotmail.com with the email address and the word “Subscribe” in the subject line.

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