Thursday, November 08, 2012

What Does The Origin of Life Say About Religion?

Paul O'Donoghue, writing for the Irish Times asks about The ever evolving nature of scepticism. He writes:
Scientists have from time to time been accused of scientism, that is, presuming that science can do no wrong and that it will eventually provide the answers to any questions worth answering. Such accusations have come from traditional opponents of science such as the creationist movement, but the downside of scientism has been pointed out in a more balanced way by others.

Massimo Pigliucci, in his book Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism and the Nature of Science, points critically to episodes of scientism in the writings of well-known and respected scientists such as physicist Steven Weinberg and biologist EO Wilson. Weinberg is scathingly critical of philosophy describing it as a waste of time and even as detrimental to science.
This was tackled some years back by a trio of authors from Calvin College in a book called Science Held Hostage, published by Intervarsity Press (when they were somewhat more open-minded than they currently are). This outlined three instances in which creationism was way off base, scientifically and then how scientists overreached their bounds in declaring no evidence for God. In it, they plead for all to leave science to the scientists and not try to use it to further either a theistic or atheistic cause.I thought the book to be very insightful and one that should sit on the bookshelf of every Christian.  Sadly, it has gone in and out of print in recent years and was not easy to find the last time I checked.

It is interesting that he mentions the somewhat conciliatory position taken by Pigliucci with regard to scientism because just a bit later in the article, we find that Pigliucci is letting scientism in the back door.  He writes:
Pigliucci, in an article in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, points out three reasons as to why an answer to this question is particularly important. Firstly, definitively ascertaining that life originated by natural means would have profound implications for any religious belief, further shrinking the role of any god in human affairs.
How? Given that we live in a physical universe, with physical laws and consequences of them, how else would it start? For those of us who believe in God and don't subscribe to a creation model of "divine fiat," it makes perfect sense for God to have created life in this fashion. Finding this out doesn't shrink God any more than it proclaims from the highest mountain tops that He exists. It just is. We take it on faith that this is God's means of creation. Despite his position earlier, Pigliucci has conflated ultimate causes with proximate causes and he tips his hand when he writes this.

O'Donoghue is correct that we may have the question of the origins of life with us for some time.  Despite what the folks at the Discovery Institute might say, this is no obstacle to evolution.   Even if there was evidence that the earliest life dropped down out of the sky, there is still mountains of evidence that it evolved since that time. 


  1. What does explaining the origin of life say about science is an interesting flip side of the question. The facts that science would need to go beyond speculation are out of reach. The precursor chemicals generated in the Miller-Urey experiment are pitifully simple compared with the molecules of life. If generation of life was a purely chemical process the molecules that led to a living cell are gone. If it was a one in a cazillion chance meeting of the right molecules science will never have the time and resources to reproduce the process. The inability of science to explain this most basic fact of materialistic theories of life shows one of its limits.

  2. Agreed. While I agree with Kenneth Miller that one should never "bet against science," there are definite limits, not necessarily on what science can say about how things happened but, in an ultimate sense, why they happened.

  3. Anonymous8:26 PM

    >not necessarily on what science can say about how things happened but, in an ultimate sense, why they happened.

    I think it was Lawrence Krauss that said that there is no ultimate why. Why do people assume there is some sort of "why." The HOW is the WHY.