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January 17, 2017 7:39 am

Challenging a Renowned Atheistic Scientist About the Origin of Life

avatar by Moshe Averick

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Dr. Paul Davies of Arizona State University. Photo: Facebook.

Dr. Paul Davies of Arizona State University. Photo: Facebook.

On June 28, 2015, Dr. Paul Davies of Arizona State University delivered a lecture at the Sydney Opera House on the “Origin of Life,” a subject on which he is a renowned expert. The italicized quotations below are taken verbatim from his lecture. The answers to the questions I hypothetically posed to him are my own renditions of what he would have said were he being totally honest and forthright.

Dr. Davies: “How did life begin? And I think I can be quite up front about this, we haven’t a clue! I mean we really do not know. And it’s sort of depressing to think we may never know…and part of the reason for that is that it all started such a long time ago…all traces of the early processes will have been obliterated a long time ago.”

Question: If you have no clue how life began — if you have no clue as to what were the processes that bridged the gap from non-life to life — how would you know if “all traces of the early processes” have been obliterated?

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Answer: Because no one has ever found any traces of “early” life; nor is there any scientific evidence of any type of process that could provide a pathway for non-living chemicals to become living organisms.

Question: If there is no scientific evidence of early life, and no scientific evidence of any “early processes” that could lead from non-life to life, how do you know there actually were any “early processes?” Maybe life was created, and that is why there is no evidence.

Answer: That, of course, is a very reasonable possibility, especially in light of the fact that the “simplest” living cell contains molecular machinery so complex that it boggles the mind and is beyond our current technological abilities to reproduce. The intuitive reaction is that it was created by some super-intellect; but we scientists a priori reject this possibility and refuse to even consider it, no matter how reasonable it may seem, because we are atheists and materialists and will therefore only consider a material/science-compatible explanation.

Question: Isn’t that like putting your hands over your eyes and pretending that you can’t see? Doesn’t that mean materialistic science is more important to you than discovering the truth about how life began?

Answer: Yes, you are absolutely correct – keeping a Creator out of the picture is much more important to us than finding the truth about how life began. As renowned Harvard University geneticist Richard Lewontin put it: “We cannot allow a Divine foot in the door.”

Dr. Davies: “[Even if we can’t know exactly how life began] we would be content to know simply was it a bizarre fluke, maybe unique in the observable universe, or is it a chemical inevitability, that is, is it bound to happen given enough time? Now during my career it’s been very curious, the pendulum has swung quite decisively. [When I was a student in the 60’s] it was widely assumed among all the sciences that life on Earth was a bizarre fluke unique to our planet. And no person said it better than Jacque Monod (Nobel Prize, Medicine- 1965). He said: ‘Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe out of which he emerged only by chance.’ That was in 1970…Francis Crick (Nobel Prize, Medicine – 1962), Mr. DNA, had a similar opinion, and in 1973 wrote, ‘Life seems almost a miracle so many are the conditions necessary for it to get going.’”

Question: Why did Monod conclude that we are “alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe?”

Answer:  Based on his research, Monod concluded that there did not exist a natural chemical or physical process that could possibly lead from a mixture of non-living chemicals to something as staggeringly complex as the molecular machinery of a living cell and its DNA-based genetic coding system, which is the most sophisticated digital information processing system in the known universe. Since there was no natural process, the only thing left was chance. He said, however, that while it is true that the odds of it happening were “virtually impossible…Lucky for us our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.” Since it was astoundingly improbable for life to start even once in the universe, he felt it was ridiculous to consider the possibility that it happened twice; hence he concluded we are alone in the universe.

Question: Why did Francis Crick say, “Life seems almost a miracle?”

Answer:  What he meant is that since we don’t know of any natural chemical or physical process that could lead from non-life to life, and since, like Monod, he acknowledged that a chance formation of life is astoundingly improbable, the best word he could come up with to describe the event was “miracle.” Of course, he was an atheist and only meant it metaphorically.

Question: Let me get this straight. Are you saying that Monod’s conclusion that (a) there is no natural chemical or physical process that could lead from non-life to life, and (b) that life happening by chance is “virtually impossible” and that Crick’s conclusion that “life seems almost a miracle” is based on painstaking scientific research – for which they were awarded Nobel Prizes — and examination of all the scientific evidence at their disposal?

Answer: Yes, that is absolutely true. Those conclusions are based on evaluation of the scientific evidence. I would add that Crick — who, together with James Watson, discovered the chemical structure of DNA — was so hard pressed to believe that life could start on Earth even by chance, he proposed a theory called “Directed Panspermia.” That is, life was seeded here by an advanced extra-terrestrial civilization — a theory for which there is no evidence at all.

Question: But even if it were true that life was sent here from another planet, that still doesn’t tell us how life began. Doesn’t it just push the question back a step? Isn’t invoking aliens from outer space almost like clutching at straws?

Answer: Yes, that is correct. It doesn’t really solve anything, and in a manner of speaking is clutching at straws. But once you understand how difficult the Origin of Life problem is, it should not surprise you that atheists will clutch at straws rather than bring God into the picture.

Question: If in Monod’s opinion there is no natural process that could bridge the gap between life and non-life, and if, in his own words, a chance formation of life is “virtually impossible” – wouldn’t the other remaining possibility of creation be “virtually certain?” Why wouldn’t Monod at least acknowledge the possibility?

Answer: Please pay attention. I answered that question already. We will only accept an atheist/materialist answer, even if we have to clutch at straws or close our eyes and pretend not to see.

Dr. Davies: “And so the idea that life is sort of a fluke…a bizarre aberration in the universe; that feeling has changed…Christian de Duve – a Noble Prize-winning biologist just like Francis Crick – drew a very different conclusion. He says, “Life is almost bound to arise wherever physical conditions are similar to those of Earth.” That was in 1995. And he’s got this wonderful phrase that, “Life is a cosmic imperative.” And so the question is: What is the case? Is life a bizarre fluke or is it a cosmic imperative?

Question: I’m a little confused here. You have said repeatedly in this lecture and in other lectures, and in your books, that we haven’t the slightest clue how life began. In fact, Christian de Duve himself has stated explicitly that we have no idea how life began. How, then, can he declare that “life is a cosmic imperative?” There is no scientific evidence for that declaration.

Answer: Yes, you are correct. However, de Duve and many others like him feel that the odds of life’s starting by chance are so outrageously improbable that it would be irrational even to consider such a possibility. What makes the problem even more difficult is that life would be absurdly improbable even if the time available were the entire 14.5 billion years from the Big Bang. But when you consider that the window of time actually available in between when the Earth cooled down enough to allow life and when we find evidence of the first living bacteria, is an incredibly short period; then the only possibility left is that life happens very quickly under the right conditions. As renowned paleontologist Stephen J. Gould put it: “Life on Earth evolved quickly and is as old as it could be. This fact alone seems to indicate inevitability, or at least, predictability, for life’s origin from the original chemical constituents of atmosphere and ocean.” Dr. de Duve enthusiastically agrees with that conclusion. Hence: “Life is a cosmic imperative.”

Question: But you’ve already stated that there is no scientific evidence that “life is a cosmic imperative.” No one has the slightest idea how it happened, and no one even knows if it happened through a naturalistic process. Doesn’t that mean that there is nothing scientific at all about that statement? How can you even mention it in a lecture about “science?”

On the one hand, we have Monod and Crick (and others) who scientifically concluded that life was “virtually impossible” or “seems almost a miracle.  On the other hand, we have de Duve and his followers drawing conclusions with no scientific evidence at all. If there is no supporting evidence, then all the scientists who have adopted that position, including de Duve and Stephen Gould, have taken a leap of faith that life is inevitable or predictable. Haven’t they considered that maybe life is not at all predictable or inevitable? After all, there is no scientist alive today who would claim in his wildest imagination that he knows the conditions under which life would inevitably begin. Maybe the obvious reason why life started so quickly is that it was created.

Answer:  Hey, I told you…

Question: I know, I know. Thank you very much, Dr. Davies, no more questions. Have a nice day…and uh, you can put your head back in the sand now.

Rabbi Moshe Averick is the author of The Confused World of Modern Atheism (Mosaica Press, 2016) available on Amazon and in fine bookstores. He was ordained as an Orthodox Rabbi in 1980 and has taught Judaic studies, spirituality, and Jewish theology for over three decades. He may be contacted at: RabbiMosheDavidAverick@gmail.com. If you would like to subscribe to his column, send an email to above address with the word “Subscribe” in the subject line.

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  • mcarp555

    No. Whenever you feel the need to refer to “god did it”, that’s just shorthand for “I have no explanation, so… magic”. It doesn’t actually explain anything at all.

  • AlexL

    > A gap implies a tolerable space that we expect to be filled in soon.
    No, it doesn’t. What a childish “argument”, good only for half-wits !

  • Moshe David Averick

    All current theories about a naturalistic origin of life are purely speculative, there is no conclusive evidence for any of them. Example: Robert Shapiro called the RNA First Theory about as likely as a golf ball playing its way around an 18 hole course by itself under par; Leslie Orgel wrote that Shapiro’s Metabolism First theory is based on “if pigs could fly chemistry” and George Whitesides of Harvard said that based on all the chemistry he knows it seems astoundingly improbable. Gunter Wachtershauser call Stanley Miller’s experiment a “dead end” and Miller said he doesn’t even understand why anyone would waste time on deep sea hydrothermal vent theories because they are so implausible. I, of course agree with all of them. If you do not realize that there is no plausible model for a naturalistic origin of life in existence, you are simply misinformed.

  • Moshe David Averick

    “The earliest stages of life started about 100 million years before that” – That is a statement that has zero evidence behind it and is pure speculation and assumption on your part.

  • Moshe David Averick

    If what you are saying is true, why are there still atheistic scientists? they should all admit they don’t know one way or the other and that there is a distinct possibility of Divine creation of life. Your comment itself reflects a very closed minded attitude: “god magicked everything into existence”. Ian, either God created life or you believe that somehow it magically happened by itself. There are only two possibilities here, (as Nobel Laureate George Wald put it) creation or it happened by itself. The bacterial cell shows astounding levels of sophistication and complexity; human technology is not yet advanced enough to engineer a bacterial cell. At the very least, Creation is a reasonable possibility; it certainly LOOKS like it was created by intelligence. If you want to say the jury is still out, I would disagree but would not argue the point; so by your own admission, atheism is an inherently dishonest position.

  • Moshe David Averick

    I’m well aware of what you wrote here, but it doesn’t change the fact that there is no evidence at all of early life, in fact no one has any clue when life began either. Did it begin a million years after the earth cooled enough or did it begin 5 minutes after the earth was cool enough? It is just as likely that it began 5 minutes after than a million years after, no one knows and no one can offer an intelligent opinion. What I wrote was absolutely true, no evidence of early life and no evidence of any process that would lead to life. Your conclusion that the early evidence was destroyed assumes there was evidence to begin with, a circular argument. In fact the point I was making was true: If there is no evidence of early life how do you know there was early life; Answer: You don’t know.

  • petergkinnon

    Davies (not unusually) is very wrong in making such assumptions. In fact even many reputable biologists still cling to “RNA first” and “cell first” scenarios which do indeed lead to the enormous improbabilities that spur Davies and other religiously oriented individuals to jump to the conclusion that “God did it”

    For reasons laid out many years ago by Robert Shapiro in ‘Origins, a Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth” simplistic models of molecular evolution loosely based on the primeval soup scenario just do not cut the mustard. The many and varied proposals are riddled with physical and chemical inadequacies that make the probabilities of their occurrence vanishingly small. Flow, concentration and energy gradients are among the numerous parameters which are wanting.

    These considerations apply, albeit to a lesser extent to the “tidal pools” and “volcanic fissures” models

    In recent decades, however, the discovery of the sub-marine alkaline hydrothermal vents (not to be confused with the very different “black smokers” ) have identified circumstances in which these conditions are met. The existence of myriad cavities in the superstructures which could serve as matrices for proto-cells has at last provided a plausible and coherent scenario for the CO-EVOLUTION of cell and its metabolic processes. At the same time bringing the probability issues within reasonable bounds.

    This model of abiogenesis is explored in chapter 9 of my latest book “The Intricacy Generator: Pushing Chemistry and Geometry Uphill”

    • Moshe David Averick

      This seems to be another speculative theory.. I would like to see how you can possibly bring even the formation of one functional protein into reasonable bounds of probability. I have seen other researchers dismiss the hydrothermal vent theories as being without any real evidence to back them up.

  • Joseph Feld

    In the 1960’s I did a course on evolution with Johns Hopkins Dean of Science Professor Carl Swanson. When all was said and done over the one year course, we boys asked Dean Swanson his view. He replied that when it comes to human evolution he is an ‘agnostic’, he doesn’t have a definite answer. Genuinely great scientists recognise there are still many problems with neo-Darwinism. Just to note I did my BA and MA in European History and Lit and the science course was specifically for non-science majors and free of the scientific jargon that puts off many non-science majors.

    • Moshe David Averick

      Just a point of information, this article was about Origin of LIfe, not evolution. There is no scientist alive today who claims to know how life began.

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