Challenging a Renowned Atheistic Scientist About the Origin of Life
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?
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@gma