Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #11
The final section of Flew’s Chapter 7 (HOW DID LIFE GO LIVE?) is titled THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY1:
[P]rotobiologists do have theories of the evolution of the first living matter, but they are dealing with a different category of problem. They are dealing with the interaction of chemicals, whereas our questions have to do with how something can be intrinsically purpose-driven and how matter can be managed by symbol processing.
Eleventh in a series responding to Antony Flew’s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.2
A glass half darkly
The assertion about purpose and symbol processing is presented with no justification, as if the reader’s agreement is taken for granted. But all we can actually say is that non-human life is apparently purpose-driven, not that it is intrinsically purpose-driven. It is difficult to imagine what would count as an intrinsically purpose-driven phenomenon, other than a deliberate human action, describable in the first person in terms of purpose. And then, as argued in the previous post, the fact that the genetic code can be interpreted as a symbolic system by human minds which possess the ability to process symbols does not justify claiming the genetic code is a symbolic system – particularly if we are tempted to use its apparently symbolic nature to deduce that a mind must have invented it.
Flew then quotes statements from Andy Knoll3 and Antonio Lazcano which both tell us again what previous quotations have already told us – that we do not yet know how life or genetic replication originated. Flew ends his quote from Lazcano with:
The exact pathway for life’s origin may never be known.4
I completely agree. Interestingly Flew does not quote what Lazcano says next in the quoted article:
Many gaps in understanding persist.
Yet, however imperfect it may be, today’s evolutionary framework is rich enough not to require any appeal to the supernatural or to religious accounts such as those based on “intelligent design.” Evidence of scientific incompleteness is not evidence for creationism. Although healthy disagreements on this subject will continue, scientists see such debates as challenges, not as reasons to abandon reason or data.5
Instead Flew goes on to quote John Maddox, who was twice editor of Nature magazine:
The overriding question is when (and then how) sexual reproduction itself evolved. Despite decades of speculation, we do not know.6
I must look up this reference when I get the opportunity. It seems to be taken out of context, which would be a bit unfair to the originator. Why the overriding question in Flew’s current context should be how sexual reproduction evolved I cannot imagine – is there not a prior and more fundamental mystery about the origin of asexual reproduction? I also expect the reference to ‘decades of speculation’ was pertinent in its original context. There were not decades but millennia of speculation about the nature of fire, the causes of disease and weather, the origin of the planets – all of which we can explain now, but had little clue about a few hundred years ago.
It allows me to make a general point though. Considering what is known now which was not known several generations back, Flew’s apparent obsession with current scientific ignorance seems a little suspect. It is as if he is assuming that what is not known now will never be known (possibly true, but an unwarranted assumption); and therefore is in principle unknowable by scientific method (false inference and unwarranted assumption).
We then get an unreferenced paraphrase of Gerald Schroeder who apparently
points out that the existence of conditions favourable to life still does not explain how life originated. Life was able to survive only because of favorable conditions on our planet. But there is no law of nature that instructs matter to produce end-directed, self-replicating entities.
Again the unargued assertion that we are dealing with a wholly different category of phenomenon – just because we do not yet know how self-replicating entities originated. Why instructs matter? Once you have entities which replicate themselves with inherited variation you have the conditions for apparently teleological behaviour. That is the challenge, and it is a huge one: how did self-replicating entities originate? Describing the challenge in terms of ‘instructing’ and ‘end-directing’ is needlessly and suspiciously prejudicial.
The section (and the chapter) end with Flew agreeing with the assumption of physiologist and Nobel laureate George Wald:
that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality – that the stuff of which physical reality is constructed is mind-stuff. It is mind that has composed a physical universe that breeds life, and so eventually evolves creatures that know and create: science-, art-, and technology-making creatures.7
The only satisfactory explanation for the origin of such “end-directed, self-replicating” life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind.
I genuinely want to understand what it feels like to think that that is any kind of explanation, let alone a satisfactory one.
Autobiographical note: I have just flown back from Auckland to Cape Town via Singapore. At Singapore Airport I picked up a copy of Why there almost certainly is a god by Keith Ward8. From what I have read so far it covers similar ground to Flew’s book, but the arguments seem much more cogent. That is not to say I agree with it, but arguing against it will be a lot more difficult. It reminded me that my initial response to Flew’s book – disappointment – hasn’t gone away.
Next time it’s back to cosmology…
© Chris Lawrence 2009.