Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #9
Ninth in a series responding to Antony Flew’s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.2
Origin of life is ‘not biology’
biologists’ investigation of DNA has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved.
The problem is in
explaining the first emergence of living from nonliving matter – especially where this first living matter already possessed the capacity to reproduce itself genetically… [There is] no satisfactory naturalistic explanation for such a phenomenon.
Flew is unconvinced by protobiologists’ theories to explain the evolution of life because
the latest work I have seen [my emphasis] shows that the present physicists’ view of the age of the universe gives too little time for these theories of abiogenesis to get the work done.
Unfortunately he does not identify what this ‘latest work’ is. It is intriguing though why physicists’ estimates of the age of the universe should matter more than, say, geologists’ or palaeontologists’ estimates of the age of the earth.
But this is by the by, as Flew’s real target is the ‘philosophical challenge’:
How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and “coded chemistry”? Here we are not dealing with biology, but an entirely different category of problem.
It is not immediately obvious where the boundary is between ‘biology’ and ‘philosophy’, or indeed why there needs to be one. But it’s these ‘intrinsic ends’ which start the alarm bells ringing.
Living matter, says Flew,
possesses an inherent goal or end-centred organization that is nowhere present in the matter which preceded it.
But surely this is asserting too much, too soon? Would it not be safer to say ‘living matter appears to possess an inherent goal…’?
Flew insists on staying categorical, paraphrasing Richard Cameron (of DePauw University) as maintaining that
Something that is alive… will also be teleological – that it is, it will possess intrinsic ends, goals, or purposes.
Contemporary biologists, philosophers of biology, and workers in the field of ‘artificial life’ have yet to produce a satisfying account of what it is to be alive, and I defend the view that Aristotle can help fill this gap… Aristotle did not hold life and teleology to be coextensive by chance, but defined life in teleological terms, holding that teleology is essential to the life of living things.3
Again this could be presumptuous. If a satisfying account of what it is to be alive has not yet been produced, that does not imply it will never be found. And until that time we need not be forced into a completely different kind of explanation – unless of course we have an independent positive reason for wanting it.
Besides, on a simple-minded level we do have a satisfying characterisation of what it is to be alive: perhaps to be alive is to have the capacity for self-replication? This is not an explanation though. Interesting that Flew almost seems to regard self-replication as a special rather than necessary feature of living matter (see …especially where this first living matter already possessed the capacity to reproduce itself genetically… in the second quotation – almost as if to be living is one thing but to be self-replicating is an optional extra).
Aristotle, according to Cameron, defined life in teleological terms. This is a significant move, because a definition (by definition) is not new information but a specification of how an expression is to be used. To define life in teleological terms is therefore not to discover that life is teleological in nature. If we keep that definition but subsequently discover that a particular organism, say a slime mould, turns out not to demonstrate teleological features, then we are committed to saying the slime mould is not alive.
Alternatively, the definition controls or qualifies what ‘teleological’ means in this context, and therefore what it is to ‘possess intrinsic ends, goals, or purposes’. We are therefore, in this context, free to talk about ‘intrinsic ends, goals, or purposes’ as long as it is understood that we only mean ‘intrinsic ends, goals, or purposes’ in the ways that all living things have them – from viruses to seaweed and dolphins. We need to be very careful not to import any unwarranted meaning or implications into these uses of ‘teleological’ and ‘intrinsic ends, goals, or purposes’ – for example anything about intention or deliberation.
So we have two key problems for origin-of-life theories to resolve: the origin of teleology (in the way that living things display teleology) and the origin of self-replication ‘by natural means from a material base’.4
Flew quotes David Conway‘s two challenges for origin-of-life theories:
[First is to explain] the very first emergence of living matter from non-living matter. In being alive, living matter possesses a teleological organization that is wholly absent from everything that preceded it….
[Second is to explain] the emergence, from the very earliest life-forms which were incapable of reproducing themselves, of life-forms with a capacity for reproducing themselves. Without the existence of such a capacity, it would not have been possible for different species to emerge through random mutation and natural selection. Accordingly, such mechanism cannot be invoked in any explanation of how life-forms with this capacity first ‘evolved’ from those that lacked it…
[Both biological phenomena] provide us with reason for doubting that it is possible to account for existent life-forms in purely materialistic terms and without recourse to design.5
Yet again we seem to be up against the same brick wall between two kinds of minds. (See Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #7.) If for whatever reason you already believe in or acknowledge a god, then you have bought into the idea of an entity for which little if anything is impossible. Then when faced with a very difficult explanatory challenge, the temptation must be enormous to meet that challenge by attributing it as the work of the god. Creating life would be a doddle for a god who can do anything. The issue though is what sort of explanation is best if you have no prior reason for assuming a god is in any way involved.
Yes of course divine design is a possible explanation, but is it the best or the only possible explanation? The materialist accepts the burden of proof to come up with credible mechanisms for how life began, and that proof is not yet available. But equally the theist or deist must accept the burden of proof to explain the prior existence of the designer god. If the only explanation is by definition (there is no explanation of the origin of the designer god and there does not need to be because by definition the designer god has existed for all time or exists outside space and time… etc) then the burden of proof has been side-stepped rather than shouldered, and the explanation becomes therefore one of last resort – something to explain the inexplicable.
We can however make some sort of progress by examining the two challenges.
The way they are worded is significant, as is also the way they are split into two. The second challenge assumes the possible and prior existence of life-forms incapable of self-replication. But it is hard to imagine what a life-form incapable of self-replication would be like. What would it do? How would it display teleological features (challenge 1)? The overall challenge is set as follows: first explain how life as a teleologically-organised phenomenon originated; and then explain how teleologically-organised living organisms developed the capacity to replicate themselves.
But there seems no justification for imposing this sequence – other than adding an unnecessary extra explanatory burden. The challenge could be reformulated as follows: explain how a self-replicating structure could have originated; and also explain how a structure exhibiting apparently teleological features could have originated; such explanation leading eventually to an explanation of how a self-replicating structure exhibiting apparently teleological features could have originated.
It is acknowledged that there is no satisfactory account yet of how self-replicating structures could have originated spontaneously. But nor is it self-evident that such an account will be unavailable for all time. If that replication was not 100% perfect each time, then we have variation and the possibility of natural selection. We do not need to assume these self-replicating structures exhibited apparently teleological features right from the start, only that they eventually evolved into structures exhibiting apparently teleological features.
This is not an explanation. But it does reword Conway’s challenge to make it less rigged in favour of the alternative ‘explanation’ of divine creation.
How we describe things is important: more on this next time…
© Chris Lawrence 2009.