Abiogenesis: An unsolved mystery is not evidence of a creator

“Where did life come from?” It is a question people have thought about for millennia, and it is a question that is worth trying to answer. Nevertheless, not everyone is interested in looking for that answer. Indeed, many people prefer to simply insert god as the answer rather than actually wrestling with the question. Even worse, young earth creationists, intelligent designers, and some theistic evolutionists cite the current lack of a scientific answer as evidence that there is no scientific answer. In other words, they use the gap in our knowledge as an argument for a creator, and insist that since science doesn’t currently have an answer, the answer must be god. In reality, however, this argument violates fundamental concepts of both logic and science. Therefore, I want to talk about it and explain why it is not valid to say, “science can’t explain this, therefore god did it.”

Note: As always, this post is about science, not whether or not god exists. If you are a Christian or any other form of theist, I do not want you to read this as an attack on your religion. All that I am doing is addressing one particular, flawed argument. For the sake of this blog, I don’t really care what you believe as long as it does not cause you to reject science. That isn’t to say that debates about whether or not god exists aren’t worth having, but simply that this blog isn’t the place for them.

Abiogenesis is not the same as evolution

Before I can talk about the argument itself, we need to get our terms straight. Abiogenesis refers to the formation of a living cell from non-living matter. Evolution refers to the changes that occurred to life after the first cell formed (technically speaking, evolution is simply a change in the allele frequencies of a population over time). So, abiogenesis and evolution are not the same thing, and you cannot use them interchangeably, nor can you use an argument about one as evidence against the other. To put that another way, the theory of abiogenesis deals with how life formed, and the theory of evolution deals with what happened after life formed. They are not related to each other, nor do they depend on each other. Therefore, even if you could somehow prove that it was impossible for a cell to form from non-living matter (which you can’t, btw), you would have done nothing to discredit evolution. In other words, you would have shown that a creator had to make the first cell, but you would not have shown that evolution did not take place following that initial creation (indeed, that is precisely what some groups of theistic evolutionists believe).

Argument from ignorance fallacies

Now that we have our terms straight, let’s turn to the argument itself. It is true that scientists currently do not know exactly how the first cell formed. We have made a lot of progress in understanding it, but we have yet to get all the pieces together and actually make a living cell. Keep in mind, however, that the chemistry of life is exceeding complex, so it is hardly surprising that we have yet to complete such a complicated puzzle. Nevertheless, the current lack of a scientific explanation leads to the exceedingly common argument that since science does not currently have an answer, the answer must be god. That argument is, however, fraught with problems, the most obvious of which is the blatant argument from ignorance fallacy. I realize that tossing around the names of logical fallacies tends not to convince people, so let’s talk about this. I want to explain what that means, and why it is a problem.

An argument from ignorance is basically just an argument that fallaciously uses a lack of evidence as evidence of something else. In other words, it takes a gap in our knowledge, then inserts an assumption into that gap and attempts to use the gap as evidence that the assumption is true. Let me give you a few examples.

“No one has proved that Bigfoot doesn’t exist. Therefore, it exists.”

This argument is an argument from ignorance fallacy because it because it takes the gap in our knowledge, and inserts an assumption as if it is a fact. Do you see how that works? The fact that we have not proved with 100% certainty that Bigfoot doesn’t exist does not in any way shape or form constitute evidence that it does exist. Indeed, this example (and many others like it) attempts to shift the burden of proof. The person making the claim is always responsible for providing evidence to back up their claim. Thus, if you want to claim that Bigfoot exists, you have to provide actual evidence for its existence. You can’t simply appeal to the fact that it has not been 100% disproven. To use a related example, if someone believes in unicorns and you ask them for evidence that unicorns exist, they clearly can’t respond by simply saying, “prove to me that they don’t exist.” A claim has to have actual evidence to support it, not just a lack of evidence against it.

Now, let’s look at an example that is a bit closer to the topic of abiogenesis.

“Scientists can’t explain dark matter. Therefore, it is being created artificially by aliens.”

Hopefully you can see why that is a problem. I obviously cannot take our current lack of understanding and just insert aliens. Rather, I would need to provide actual evidence that the aliens existed, and I would need to demonstrate that science truly can’t explain it rather than simply showing that science hasn’t explained it yet (more on that in a minute).

Now, let’s get back to abiogenesis and compare it to the examples. You should notice that it is logically identical to my absurd alien argument. Indeed, we can state it simply as,

“Scientists can’t explain abiogenesis. Therefore, life was created by god.”

The same problems that existed for the alien argument exist for this argument. You can’t insert god into our lack of understanding about abiogenesis any more than I could insert aliens into our lack of understanding about dark matter. You must provide actual evidence that god exists before you can use him as an explanation, just as I would be required to provide actual evidence that the aliens existed before I could use them as an explanation.

Indeed, this particular argument is what is known as a “God of the gaps” argument. These are just special cases of argument from ignorance fallacies where you insert god (or a supernatural force more generally) as the explanation for an unknown. In the days before science, these arguments were abundant, and almost everything had some supernatural explanation. As science gradually provided explanations for our natural world, however, these arguments slowly fell out of favor, and today, even most creationists eschew them. Or, at least, they claim to eschew them, because this abiogenesis argument is clearly nothing more than a God of the gaps argument. It takes a gap in our knowledge and it inserts god as the explanation, which makes it, by definition, a God of the gaps argument, whether creationists like it or not. This brings me to my next major point.

“No explanation” and “no current explanation” are not the same thing.

If you are struggling to understand why creationist’s argument is problematic, think about this way: for everything that science can currently explain, there was a point in time at which the explanation was unknown. Imagine, for example, someone before the discovery of DNA saying, “science can’t explain genetic inheritance, therefore god is causing it” or, before we understood tides saying, “science can’t explain the tides, therefore god is causing them.” In hindsight, those arguments are obviously flawed, and it is clear that science simply hadn’t explained them yet rather than science being incapable of explaining them. Abiogenesis is no different. The fact that we haven’t explained it yet doesn’t mean that there isn’t a scientific explanation. It just means we haven’t found it yet. Indeed, we do science precisely because there are still unknowns. If we had scientific explanations for everything, then there would be no reason to even bother doing science. Thus, you can’t make a statement like, “science can’t explain abiogenesis.” Rather, all that you can say is, “science hasn’t explained it yet.

To put all of this another way, imagine that, in the past, every time that scientists encountered something that they couldn’t explain, they simply gave up and said, “well, we can’t explain it, so I guess god must have done it.” That would obviously have been terrible, because science would never have progressed. Nevertheless, that is exactly what creationists are doing. Rather than actually looking for a scientific explanation for something that is currently unknown, they are content to attribute it to the divine.

I really like the Socratic method, so let me phrase this as a question. If you agree that it would have been logically invalid for past generations to insert the supernatural as an explanation for things that they did not understand, then why do you think it is ok to insert god as an explanation for what we don’t understand (e.g., abiogenesis)? That strategy would clearly have failed in the past, so why do you think that it is ok now?

No, scientists aren’t making an argument from ignorance

Finally, I want to address a rather creative, albeit misguided, tactic that I sometimes see people use at this point in the conversation. Upon realizing that their position commits a fallacy, they try to flip things and assert that scientists are also committing an argument from ignorance fallacy, because scientists are “assuming” that a natural explanation exists. In other words, they claim that scientists are saying, “creationists haven’t proved that god did it, therefore it is natural.” At a quick glance that might seem like a correct assertion, but if you examine it more closely, you’ll quickly realize that it is actually ignoring basic concepts about how science works.

First, science always “assumes” that a natural explanation exists. That “assumption” is fundamental to science and indeed necessary for it, because science is, by definition, the study of the physical universe. If we didn’t “assume” that natural explanations exist, then there would be nothing for us to study. We’d be back to shrugging and saying, “god did it.”

Let me give you an example. My PhD research is focused on understanding why some populations/species recover from disease outbreaks while other, seemingly similar populations/species don’t. Several previous researchers have worked on my study system, but so far, no completely clear answer has emerged. Much like abiogenesis, we have some of the pieces of the puzzle, but we haven’t put it all together yet. Now, obviously, I am operating on the “assumption” that a natural explanation exists. Am I committing an argument from ignorance fallacy? Of course not! It would clearly be crazy for someone to say, “scientists can’t explain why these populations recovered. Therefore, god performed a miracle.” I doubt that even the most ardent creationists would consider that to be a rational argument. Thus, the rational position is clearly to operate as if a natural explanation exists, and, indeed, that is how all science operates. So why should abiogenesis be any different? Creationists are holding abiogenesis to a different standard than all of the rest of science.

This brings me to my next major point. “Assuming” that a natural explanation exists should be the default, because natural explanations are all that we have ever found. Think back to my initial examples of argument from ignorance fallacies. They all assumed the existence of something that there was no actual evidence for (Bigfoot, god, aliens, etc.). In the case of science, however, natural explanations have always been the answer to every mystery that we have ever solved. That’s why I keep putting the word “assumption” in quotes. Thinking that a natural explanation exists is not an “assumption” in the normal sense of the word, because it is blatantly obvious that a physical universe exists and follows natural laws.

To put that another way, you have to provide evidence that something other the natural universe even exists before you can criticize the “assumption” of a natural explanation. It would obviously be absurd, for example, to criticize a scientist for “assuming” that that the answer wasn’t magical unicorns. You would need to provide evidence that magical unicorns exist before you could even propose them as a valid explanation. Even so, you can’t even propose god as an explanation for a scientific unknown unless you have first provided evidence that such a being exists.

 Summary

In short, using our current lack of understanding about how life formed as evidence of a creator ignores the rules of both logic and science. It is nothing more than an argument from ignorance fallacy (specifically a god of the gaps argument), and, as such, is not logically valid. The fact that science hasn’t found the answer yet simply means that science hasn’t found the answer yet. Nothing more. You can’t insert god as an explanation any more than you can insert aliens, unicorns, multi-dimensional beings, the tooth fairy, etc. You have to provide actual evidence for those things rather than simply saying, “we don’t know, therefore god.” For every mystery that science has ever solved, there was a point in time when the answer was unknown. Further, when those mysteries were solved, the answer was always a natural explanation. Therefore, a current lack of a scientific answer is clearly not evidence of the divine, and there is no reason to treat abiogenesis any differently than any of the thousands of other mysteries that scientists are currently trying to solve. For essentially all of those unanswered questions [except abiogenesis], even the most adamant creationist would agree that we are correct to assume that the answer will be a natural one. So why should abiogenesis by any different?

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14 Responses to Abiogenesis: An unsolved mystery is not evidence of a creator

  1. Graham says:

    thanks for this, seems very straight forward to me and I can’t see how anyone could argue with your logic. I know the focus of your blog is science which is great, but I wonder if you might ever be tempted to apply your logical reasoning to the really strong philosophical arguments about the logical necessity for there to be a God. A bit removed from science perhaps but of critical importance to putting scientific knowledge in the appropriate context, and indeed might be necessary to support the notion of science in the first place (when you consider the alternative philosophical positions which negate there being God, also negate the principles upon which science is founded…..)

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      I won’t debate the existence of god here, but to directly answer your question, as I’ve talked about more elsewhere, I was raised in an extremely religious home, and was myself very religious until I got to college. At that point, i began studying philosophy and learning to think critically. So I have actually spent a great deal of time studying the various “proofs” for god’s existence, but I haven’t found any of them to be compelling, and the arguments that god is necessary to have the logic and mathematics on which science is based are even more problematic (at least all the ones that I have read are)
      .

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  2. vastergotland1 says:

    I think a much better way to phrase a creationist position would be to say: Science may one day be able to explain how God did abiogenesis, similar to how science has already taken large steps towards explaining how God created species.

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    • foodnstuff says:

      In other words, you’re agreeing with creationists that god created species? They’re gonna love that!

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  3. Anissa says:

    I apologize for putting this post here but comments are closed on an article written June 2015. I understand why but if you allow for articles to still be shared then you should allow for comments to still be made. You know the whole consistency in logic is mice.honestly, I just wanted to comment in order to keep from some poor soul sharing your article thinking it is correct in its use of the law when it’s
    I love the law of non-contradiction. But it’s not abstract in its application. Like the examples giving to define the law of contradiction. Easily put it’s either/or and can’t be both. Like the God of the Bible and the god of the Quaran. If it’s the same God, He can’t in one Bible say love thy neighbor and in the quaran kill all infedils. It’s either/or not both. So which one is the right God. Now that’s relative to an individual belief system. In his article, is he substantiating one is definitively correct therefore making the other claim non contradictory. An pro choice medicine individual isn’t making both claims. They are making one claim based on their information which is different than the claims of others. Their claim in its self is not contradictory so therefore this article is inaccurate beginning with its use of using the Law of Non Contradiction. This is why people just can’t believe everything they read until they have thoroughly research the data on both sides. What breaks my heart the most is that parents shouldn’t be fighting against parents. The only things parents can do corporately and with unity is to fight the institution that has allowed this to go on for too long. You can not and should not discredit any parents loss of a child or the maiming of a child on either side of the fence but encouraged both to demand better from the institutions in place that are entrusted with the care of our children.

    Please don’t add me to your subscription.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      I can only assume that you are referring to this post https://thelogicofscience.com/2015/07/13/10-hypocrisiesdouble-standards-of-the-anti-vaccine-movement/ (comments close automatically after 1 month, because otherwise I would spend all of my time answering a never-ending wave of comments rather than writing new material; I don’t see anything even remotely inconsistent about allowing people to share posts but not comment).

      Assuming that is the post that you are referring to, you seem to have missed the point, because my examples are in fact situations where anti-vaccers are making self-contradictory claims. Consider, for example, the claim that “only parents know best.” As I explained, while anti-vaccers routinely make that claim, they also claim that pro-vaccine parents don’t know best. Those two claims are mutually exclusive. They cannot both be true. If it is true that only a parent knows what is best for their child, then it must also be true that pro-vaccine parents know what is best for their children, and from that, it must be true that vaccines are best for their children. Do you see how that works? Those two things cannot both be true, thus believing both of them is a violation of the law of non-contradiction.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      PS I chose to respond rather than deleting your comments because I prefer not to censor people, but, as per my comment rules, I also want the discussions on a given post to stay on topic. So I am going to polity ask that you refrain from taking this conversation any further. If you have specific questions that you would like answered, you can always message me via the facebook page for this blog.

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  4. Anissa says:

    I apologize once again for posting this comment here but the articles people are using today is from articles you wrote 2 years ago.
    Toxic-metabolic encephalopathy
    Toxic-metabolic encephalopathy is a result of infections, toxins, or organ failure. When the electrolytes, hormones, or other chemicals in the body are off their normal balance, they can impact the brain’s function. This can also include the presence of an infection in the body or presence of toxic chemicals. The encephalopathy usually resolves when the underlying chemical imbalance is restored or offending infection/toxin removed.
    here is the chart on how the vaccine injury fund compensates based on the injury from vaccinations.

    Notice the word encephalopathy or encephalitis. One cause of this is toxin.
    https://www.hrsa.gov/vaccinecompensation/vaccineinjurytable.pdf.

    Uremic encephalopathy is a result of kidney failure. It is believed to be caused by the buildup of uremic toxins in the blood. This condition can cause mild confusion to deep coma.

    http://www.healthline.com/health/hepatic-encephalopathy#longterm-outlook8

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4717322/#!po=3.23741

    The CDC on their own accord know vaccines cause encephalopathy/ encephalitis it is the common denominator/word for Austim without having to use the word Austim. Bill Clinton made the play on words the vital part of getting away with adultry. THE CDC pays VACCINE INJURED children for encephalitis. I don’t understand why there is a debate between the link. Some children may suffer some may not but at the end of the day the vaccine does cause encephalitis. Put the bullet in the gun spin it put it to your head and hope you make it.

    If you make comments active on all post I will try to comment appropriately.
    I’m typically on my phone so my grammar is horrible.

    Since you live research and your citations are impeccable (I praising the thoroughness of the paper not the unbiased validity of it) would you want to help finish constructing a letter I’m writing in regards to the current situation of the vaccine model. Email me but I still don’t want to be on your email list. Hope you understand.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      There are numerous things to note here.

      First, the CDC is not involved in payments for “vaccine injuries.” That happens through the VICP.

      Second, the VICP is basically a no fault system. You don’t have to actually provide compelling evidence that the vaccine was the cause in order to get money. So most of the cases reported there probably aren’t actually the result of the vaccine (remember, the fact that event A happened before event B does not mean that event A caused event B). I explained in more detail here https://thelogicofscience.com/2016/07/25/vaers-package-inserts-and-the-vicp-do-not-prove-that-vaccines-are-dangerous/
      Indeed, it is not at all clear that vaccines actually cause encephalopathy
      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2603512/

      Third, don’t forget that encephalitis is also caused by many of the diseases that vaccines prevent (e.g. measles).

      Fourth, a causal relationship between encephalitis and autism has not been established. There is a correlation, but we have not come even close to ruling out the possibility of a common cause for both, rather than one causing the other, and there is mounting evidence that autism is largely driven by genetics.

      Fifth, I to wonder why there is still debate over the “link” between autism and vaccines, but I wonder that for opposite reasons. I wonder that because this topic has been extremely well studied with numerous enormous studies (the largest of which had over 1.2 million children), and they have consistently failed to find any evidence that vaccines cause autism. I wrote a detailed post about those studies as well as anti-vaccers list of studies that supposedly show that vaccines cause autism here https://thelogicofscience.com/2016/04/28/vaccines-and-autism-a-thorough-review-of-the-evidence/

      To sum all of that up, there is scant evidence that vaccines cause encephalitis and we know that vaccines prevent many causes of it, there is no evidence that encephalitis causes autism, and there is an enormous body of evidence showing that vaccines don’t cause autism.

      PS I chose to respond rather than deleting your comments because I prefer not to censor people, but, as per my comment rules, I also want the discussions on a given post to stay on topic. So I am going to polity ask that you refrain from taking this conversation any further. If you have specific questions that you would like answered, you can always message me via the facebook page for this blog.

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  5. boammarruri says:

    Well written post on “god of the gaps argument” although I have a few objections. Are creationists the only people you have come across who deny that life could originate from non-life? Are there no philosophical or empirical arguments that you have come across that try to show that life could not have originated from non-life other than creationists?

    “First, science always “assumes” that a natural explanation exists. That “assumption” is fundamental to science and indeed necessary for it, because science is, by definition, the study of the physical universe.”

    1. What does a natural explanation mean? Does it mean a mechanistic explanation in terms of physical parts and properties only? For example mental states such as intentionality which have the unique property of having “aboutness”; being directed towards other objects; having content and meaning. I can have thoughts which are about evolution, stars, rocks or mathematical equations. Mental states like intentionality are natural capacities of human beings however they are not physical. Does this mean then that mental states like intentionality are not natural, If natural only means what is physical rather than in the Aristotelian sense of the principle within objects that determine their properties, capacities and potentialities?

    2. When you say science by definition is the study of the physical universe, who has defined science to be that? Is there a universally accepted definition of what science is? Has the demarcation problem of science been solved?

    3. You go onto say that, “If we didn’t “assume” that natural explanations exist, then there would be nothing for us to study. We’d be back to shrugging and saying, “god did it.”” This seems to be a slippery slope. Admitting that no physical mechanistic explanation is possible for some particular historical event or aspect of nature does not necessarily mean or lead to admitting that all aspects of nature have no physical mechanistic explanations. There are plenty of natural explanations in fields such as history, philosophy, economics which are not scientific and yet people are not consistently retorting “god did it”. Scientific explanations are not the only “natural” explanations there are.

    4. Thus, the rational position is clearly to operate as if a natural explanation exists, and, indeed, that is how all science operates. So why should abiogenesis be any different? Creationists are holding abiogenesis to a different standard than all of the rest of science, perhaps creationists and others who are skeptical of abiogenesis think so because of the following:

    Firstly because of the objects of inquiry involved. Life and non-life are two different categories of nature and to assume the one can cause the other because science has been successful in explaining other unknowns begs the question because it assumes that the methods of science apply in explaining all phenomena. Its like saying metal detectors have been successful at detecting metals, therefore we must assume all materials are metals and can be detected by metal detectors. Science has been successful in explaining certain phenomena precisely because that phenomena is susceptible to scientific explanation. The question is – can the origin of life be explained by science? If the answer is yes -the reason cannot be because science has explained other phenomena.

    The second reason abiogenesis is different from explaining tides, inheritance, gravity is the historical dimension involved. We observe tides occurring currently, we observe genetic inheritance occurring currently – the explanations are for observable empirical phenomena. Abiogenesis is a historical event that occurred some time ago and the naturalistic assumption is that it occurred by physical means alone. What we actually empirically observe is life coming from life; cells coming from cells. That is not to say that science cannot reconstruct historical events and infer how they happened – however we must acknowledge that difference.

    5. I would like to offer two arguments why life cannot originate from non-life and hence why a physical and mechanistic explanation is not possible.

    Life is not reducible to physics and chemistry. Take the origins of the DNA code where a particular set (3 of them) and order of nucleotides represents a particular amino acid (which happens to be left handed). How could you in principle explain the origins of code on the basis of the chemical properties and behaviour of the molecular parts. At what point of the chemical reaction does it produce a code where three nucleotides represent and mean some particular amino acid? How is the origin of a code with meaning and representation in principle capable of being explained by chemical bonding theory and organic chemistry principles?

    It would be like trying to explain the origin of the meaning of the word CAT written in ink on a piece of paper on the basis of the chemical properties of ink and paper. Chemistry in principle cannot give you semantic content, representation, meaning, information, language which is what is seen in the DNA code. Chemistry is intrinsically lacking in representation, language and coding capacities.

    The 2nd argument is a philosophical one from David Oderberg (https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B7SKlRTfkUieV0ZvSTRub2Vka3M/edit)

    He argues that difference between life and non-life is that life displays immanent causation while non-life displays transient causation. Immanent causation means “causation that originates with an agent and terminates in that agent for the sake of its self-perfection.” Self-perfection simply means the proper flourishing and functioning of the organism as the kind of organism that it is. He offers three key hallmarks of organisms that illustrate immanent causation. (1) metabolism – where the organism takes in nutrients to produce energy to sustain its activities. (2) Homeostasis and (3) Adaption. More features of life could be added that all illustrate immanent causation.

    Transient causation is where “the activity terminates in something distinct from the agent”. A does F to B. The combustion of natural gas with oxygen would be an example of this. He then argues that a chain of transient causation regardless of complexity simply cannot lead to immanent causation given the nature of the two kinds of causation.

    The point whether you find the argument persuasive or not is that one would need to engage with the philosophical arguments prior to concluding that a physical explanation exists rather than assuming there is one. Thus it is not a rational position to simply assume it which is precisely what you have done without engaging philosophical arguments such as these.

    6. Lastly I do agree that a god of the gaps diminishes the role of God in creation by setting him up as a competing explanation to nature. Classically God has always been understood to be an explanation of the things like (1) existence of causal relations (2) the intelligibility and rational order of the universe – hence the universe was thought of as obeying laws because there is a rational law giver directing and sustaining it. How one makes sense of “laws of physics” in the absence of a rational law giver beats me.So arguments for God should rest on metaphysical truths that science assumes and takes for granted rather than competing with science.

    7. I enjoy your blog and continue to learn quite a bit from it and am always challenged to think. Thank you.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      Regarding your opening question, every person who I have ever personally encountered who objects to abiogenesis has ultimately had religious motivations for doing so. They often try to dress it up with philosophy or empirical arguments, but at the end of the day, those arguments fail and they are left with religion. Maybe there is an exception out there, but I have yet to encounter it.

      1. You seem to be stating the existence of non-physical mental states as a fact, but their existence has not been established. I make no pretence of being a philosopher, but I have read enough philosophical literature to be pretty confident that the matter of dualism is still very much debated. I personally see no reason why a mental state cannot simply be the end product of entire physical processes in your brain. Even if it’s not though, we are going down a philosophical side-tangent with no real bearing on the topic at hand, because if there are actually non-physical states, they would be outside of the realm of science. So science still could never assume them as the explanation (see next point). To put that another way, I couldn’t propose a non-physical mental state as the explanation for why my populations are recovering.

      2. Yes, the idea that science is by definition the study of the physical universe is accepted by (as far as I can tell) all scientists and philosophers of science (at the very least, by the vast majority). Within that broadest of definitions, there is still some debate about what methods of studying the physical universe constitute science, but the broad definition itself is not contested. Think about it this way, science requires repeatable observations and measurements. It needs quantitative data, and that, by definition, requires things to be physical. Something non-physical cannot be quantified or measured, and therefore cannot be studied by the methods of science. If it has mass, energy, etc., then we can study it, but anything that has those properties would be physical.

      3. That is not at all a slippery slope fallacy. I’m not saying that action A will inevitably lead to some unlikely and bad event D, rather, allowing the assumption of the supernatural undercuts the very foundation of how science works. The whole goal of science is to set up a falsifiable scenario that controls all variables so that only one explanation makes sense, but allowing the assumption of the supernatural nullifies that. Let’s just use the classic example of a drug trial where we have two large groups, we controlled for confounding factors, randomized, etc., and gave one a placebo and the other the drug, then we measured the outcome. Now, we have a falsifiable prediction: if the drug works, outcome X will be greater in the experimental group than the control group, and if it does not work, the groups will be statistically the same or the control will be greater. We can then see which prediction came true and determine whether or not the drug works, but we can only do that because we are limited to physical assumptions. Let’s imagine that we weren’t. Let’s say that we could make supernatural assumptions. At that point, we are no longer limited to those two options (it works or doesn’t). Now, we have a third option that is impossible to control or discredit (it was supernatural). At that point we can’t reach an answer. Now, you may say that is silly because no one would attribute a drug trial to the supernatural, and you’re right, but that’s kind of my point. Assuming the supernatural rather than the natural is absurd and undercuts science, and it is just as absurd to do it for abiogenesis as it is to do it for a drug trial.

      You said, “There are plenty of natural explanations in fields such as history, philosophy, economics which are not scientific and yet people are not consistently retorting” but here you are committing an affirming the consequent fallacy. I said that science always assumes a natural explanation, not that only science assumes a natural explanation. Indeed, history and economics also always assume natural explanations for the same reason. If you could just invoke God to explain a historical event whenever you wanted, there would be no point in looking for natural causes because you would never be able to demonstrate that it wasn’t actually God that caused it.

      4. You said, “Life and non-life are two different categories of nature,” but that is a huge and unsubstantiated assumption that you are making. Scientifically, there is no reason to think that life is anything other than a complex biochemical interaction. Indeed, we all arose from non-living matter. Eggs and sperm cells are formed by non-living chemicals being strung together to make them. Yes, it is living cells that is doing that construction, but those cells are themselves complex biochemical machines. The idea that living matter is somehow different form non-living matter is not at all supported by science. It is a massive assumption, and you can’t base your argument on an assumption.

      “The question is – can the origin of life be explained by science? If the answer is yes -the reason cannot be because science has explained other phenomena.” Why not? Again, science can already explain how non-living chemicals are brought together to make living cells. In the case of abiogenesis, all we are missing is the biochemical machine to do that, and it need not be a complete cell.

      Finally, the fact that it happened in the past does not in any way shape or form justify an assumption that it is supernatural. So I’m not sure what your point is with that one.

      5. “Life is not reducible to physics and chemistry.” Sure it is. That’s another unmerited assumption. The rest of your comment here seems to be a misunderstanding of chemistry. For example, you said, “How could you in principle explain the origins of code on the basis of the chemical properties and behaviour of the molecular parts.” What do you mean by this? Nucleotides are just chemicals. They interact with each other according to the laws of chemistry (forming and breaking bonds, exchanging electrons, etc.). There is no reason that it has to be any more than that. Indeed, there are plenty of examples in nature of extremely complex chemical reactions that don’t involve living things. Questions like, “At what point of the chemical reaction does it produce a code where three nucleotides represent and mean some particular amino acid?” don’t make any sense because the information is inherent in the molecule because the configuration of the molecule will automatically trigger other specific chemical reactions. In other words, chemicals inherently have information because of their electrons. They automatically interact with each according to specified rules. So, by stringing together the right set of chemicals, you can code for whatever you want, because those chemicals will trigger reactions.

      “Chemistry is intrinsically lacking in representation, language and coding capacities.” Again, that is a huge and bizarre assumption that is totally discredited by biochemistry. Indeed, it is obviously false by simple virtue of the fact that DNA (which is 100% chemical) obviously contains vast coding information. Again, it does this simply because of the chemical properties of the molecules that make it. This is where your analogy with the word CAT completely falls apart. The letter C, for example, has no intrinsic properties. In contrast, the nucleotide C has inherent properties because of the atoms that it consists of. Their electrons give it defined properties that cause it to automatically react in predictable ways with other chemicals.

      Regarding Oderberg’s argument, first, I fundamentally disagree with you that we have to consider philosophical arguments of this nature when discussion science. More importantly, that argument makes no sense because, once again, all living things are biochemical machines. Right now, your body is functioning because it is taking oxygen and glucose and performing cellular respiration to produce ATP which it can use as fuel. You are a result of chemical reactions that are no different from interactions of oxygen and natural gas. To be clear, I’m not saying that this dismiss the notion of dualism, rather, my point is that there is a very clear causal chain of biochemical reactions that result in a living organism. That is a demonstrable fact. Think about a bacteria, for example, to completely bi-pass any discussions about dualism or consciousness. Take any function of that bacteria that you want and examine it, and you will find a biochemical pathway. So, clearly, “transient causation” can lead to “immanent causation.” Maintaining homeostasis, for example, is purely chemical. If the pH get’s to low, for example, that automatically sets of a chain of chemical reactions to release a buffer and bring it back up. It’s pure chemistry.

      6. I’m not really sure what your point is here, because my concern is about the science, not the effects of god of the gaps argument son theology.

      PS I just realized that throughout this I have talked about “automatic” chemical reactions, and I should specify that they do require energy from somewhere. So the reactions are automatic, give the right temperatures and conditions.

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  6. boammarruri says:

    1. ” I personally see no reason why a mental state cannot simply be the end product of entire physical processes in your brain”

    I think you have misunderstand what is meant by mental states possessing properties such as intentionality (the state of aboutness, having content, to mean; or represent something beyond itself). Physical things have properties such as mass, charge, electronegativity, dipole moments etc which in principle are not about, or representative of anything beyond themselves. For example the red light at a traffic “means or represents” stop however the meaning of the red light is not based and derived in any way on the physical properties of light such as wavelength, frequency, photons etc. The physical properties themselves do not have any meaning, aboutness, or representation. It is not intelligible how any complex physical process such as the covalent bonding where an electron pair is shared between molecules can also have a property like content such as “red means stop”. Rather humans have imposed the meaning onto the red light. We could have easily used a blue, purple, white, green colour to mean stop (because the meaning is not dependant on the physical properties of light) even though a physical medium such as light must always be involved.

    The point is relevant to distinguish between physical and mental properties. The fact that a physical medium (like light) is necessary for carrying some meaning/semantic content does not mean that the meaning being carried is derived from the physical properties of that medium. When discussing the properties of DNA this point will become relevant.

    However the point here is mental states are non-physical (not quantifiable) and yet they would still be natural simply because they are capacities that humans naturally possess. As you admit science would not be the appropriate tool to explain these mental states even though they are completely natural. My point was science clearly then cannot explain all things that are natural which you agree with.

    2. Yes, the idea that science is by definition the study of the physical universe is accepted by (as far as I can tell) all scientists and philosophers of science (at the very least, by the vast majority). Within that broadest of definitions, there is still some debate about what methods of studying the physical universe constitute science, but the broad definition itself is not contested. Think about it this way, science requires repeatable observations and measurements. It needs quantitative data, and that, by definition, requires things to be physical. Something non-physical cannot be quantified or measured, and therefore cannot be studied by the methods of science. If it has mass, energy, etc., then we can study it, but anything that has those properties would be physical.

    3. That is not at all a slippery slope fallacy. I’m not saying that action A will inevitably lead to some unlikely and bad event D, rather, allowing the assumption of the supernatural undercuts the very foundation of how science works. The whole goal of science is to set up a falsifiable scenario that controls all variables so that only one explanation makes sense, but allowing the assumption of the supernatural nullifies that. Let’s just use the classic example of a drug trial where we have two large groups, we controlled for confounding factors, randomized, etc., and gave one a placebo and the other the drug, then we measured the outcome. Now, we have a falsifiable prediction: if the drug works, outcome X will be greater in the experimental group than the control group, and if it does not work, the groups will be statistically the same or the control will be greater. We can then see which prediction came true and determine whether or not the drug works, but we can only do that because we are limited to physical assumptions. Let’s imagine that we weren’t. Let’s say that we could make supernatural assumptions. At that point, we are no longer limited to those two options (it works or doesn’t). Now, we have a third option that is impossible to control or discredit (it was supernatural). At that point we can’t reach an answer. Now, you may say that is silly because no one would attribute a drug trial to the supernatural, and you’re right, but that’s kind of my point. Assuming the supernatural rather than the natural is absurd and undercuts science, and it is just as absurd to do it for abiogenesis as it is to do it for a drug trial.

    3. For an argument from analogy to work the two cases need to be similar in the relevant properties – it is not clear to me how the analogy works. In the case of a drug trial – you already know what a drug is and how its physical mechanism works (it is a chemical which targets specific chemicals and processes in the body to bring about some effect). This is based on current observations of how chemicals work and is not a unique once of historical event being reconstructed. In the case of abiogenesis there is no physical mechanism that works and creates life from non-life that we currently observe. It is a unique once-off historical event which is being reconstructed and assumed to have occurred. The question is in fact whether such a physical mechanism is possible in principle. So the analogy is faulty. Your argument is that: Drugs trial have property X which places them within the category of scientific explanation.
    Abiogenesis has property X also.
    Therefore abiogenesisis is also placed within the category of scientific explanation.

    You also say: ” The whole goal of science is to set up a falsifiable scenario that controls all variables so that only one explanation makes sense”
    It is not clear how then a falsifiable experiment for abiogenesis could ever be setup if the assumption is that there is a physical mechanism for how life came from non-life. Materialists can always say just because physical mechanism A was falsified – mechanism B or C or D or E could work. There could never be a decisive falsifiable experiment that shows that life did not originate from non-life – precisely because it is assumed to begin with. Therefore abiogenesis is not falsifiable and therefore not scientific as well.

    4. “Scientifically, there is no reason to think that life is anything other than a complex biochemical interaction”

    I don’t think is an assumption to say there are clear differences between things that are alive and those that are not. To say life is nothing but complex biochemical interactions is precisely to assume that life is reducible to biochemistry principles – precisely the question we are asking. It seems then you are making an assumption as well – that life is reducible to biochemistry. Perhaps our concept of reduction is different. What I mean by life not being reducible to chemistry is that the principles of biochemistry are necessary but insufficient for describing and explaining the basic behaviour of life and its processes.

    For example if we took an ice sculpture of a dragon and one of a tiger they would have identical chemical properties (water, covalent bonds between oxygen and hydrogen, melting points, heats of fusion etc) however their form would be completely different. So you would need some additional principle to the chemical properties to explain the form/structure/organization of the ice sculpture. Ice sculptures are therefore not reducible to chemical properties of water (although the properties are necessary).

    Similarly with life: biochemistry is necessary but insufficient for explaining the behaviour and attributes of life. For one thing there is structure, organization and functions inherent in life which are not reducible to biochemical interactions alone.

    If life is complex biochemical interactions – what precisely do you mean by complex? What is your scientific definition of complex biochemical interactions exactly? What is the quantifiable measure of complex biochemical interactions?

    5. You say “chemicals inherently have information because of their electrons” not sure what this means. Are you saying that when oxygen reacts with methane that they possess information that determines whether they react or not? Chemical reactions and mechanisms as far as I know are determined by things like electronegativity, activation energy, bond energies, enthalpies, bond polarity etc not information. What information does oxygen or nitrogen or hydrogen possess inherently that determines how it will react?

    6. ” In contrast, the nucleotide C has inherent properties because of the atoms that it consists of”

    The point here is how exactly do chemical properties and mechanisms produce codes? Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine giving a DNA strand to a chemist who knows nothing about biology and asking them for a full analysis of all the properties DNA has. The chemist would tell you stuff like molecular weight, the types of bonds involved, activation energy required to break the bonds; type of orbitals between molecules (whether sigma or pi); nucleophiles and electrophiles involved; bond angles etc. However the chemist could never tell you that on the basis of those chemical properties there is a code where three nucleic acids represent some specific amino acid. The chemist could never tell you for example that based on the chemical properties between adenine, thymine and thymine (ATT) that it means “stop”.

    I am at a loss how the intrinsic chemical properties of adenine and thymine such as their bond angles and lengths, activation energies, orbitals lead to them meaning “stop”, or representing some amino acid like glycine and why specifically that amino acid and not some other one. To put it differently, what chemical properties (electronegativity, bond polarity, bond lengths and angles, activation energy) are present in a set of three nucleotides that are not present in two or one or four nucleotides that give that specific set the capacity to “represent” some specific amino acids?

    7. ” I fundamentally disagree with you that we have to consider philosophical arguments of this nature when discussion science”

    Again philosophical arguments are necessary and preliminary in determining whether science can indeed explain the phenomena. To simply say phenomena X can be explained by science because science has already explained phenomena Y and Z is not valid. One would need to offer non-scientific reasons why phenomena X falls in the domain of science to begin with, which is precisely what philosophy does. So by saying phenomena X is a physical mechanism and science explains physical mechanisms is precisely a philosophical argument.

    “Take any function of that bacteria that you want and examine it, and you will find a biochemical pathway. So, clearly, “transient causation” can lead to “immanent causation.”

    Oderbergs argument to state it better is that life essentially displays immanent causation which means some action which originates with an agent for the sake of the agents self-perfection. Self-perfection broadly referring to the flourishing, survival of the organism. The agent is both cause and the effect. Immanent causation has nothing do with consciousness or dualism as well. When an agent undergoes metabolism (it originates and terminates with the agent for the flourishing of the organism) it is precisely immanent causation. When an organism undergoes photosynthesis ( set of clearly defined chemical reactions and pathways) it originates with the organisms and its effect is for the flourishing of the organism and is therefore immanent causation. Ditto with homeostasis it is an excellent example of immanent causation– its cause is the agent and the effect ( a set of chemical reactions ) for the agent to maintain a certain equilibrium allowing it to flourish. Immanent causation does not mean that biochemical reactions are not involved. When an agent (my body) takes in oxygen and glucose and performs cellular respiration to make ATP and uses it as fuel it is precisely for its self-perfection as an organism – another excellent example of immanent causation.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      I do not have time to go through this point by point in great detail, so I hope that you will forgive me if I just comment briefly on a few things that I consider to be the most important.

      Regarding point 3, you seem to have misunderstood the situation in several important ways. First, you said “you already know what a drug is and how its physical mechanism works” that is not, however, true in every case, nor is it at all required. We could do the experiment with a total unknown that we didn’t know anything about and it would still be just as invalid to assume the supernatural.

      Next, you said, “In the case of abiogenesis there is no physical mechanism that works and creates life from non-life that we currently observe.” This is, however, question begging. Again, you are simply saying, “science can’t currently explain it, therefore God.” Imagine, for example, a drug that clearly works in clinical trials but the mechanism through which it works is totally unknown. We clearly couldn’t assume that the answer was god just because we had never observed a mechanism that would allow the chemical to work. Indeed, the entire field of organic chemistry is largely devoted to unravelling currently unknown chemical mechanisms, but it can never assume the existence of God.

      You also said, “It is a unique once-off historical event,” but I would contest this as a baseless assumption. It is entirely possible (I would even say likely), that this has happened thousands of times on thousands of planets.

      I would actually agree that it is impossible to prove that life could not have arisen naturally, but this is simply because of the assumption of a natural cause that is inherent in all of science. Going back to the drug example (specifically the drug with an unknown mechanism), the notion that the mechanism is natural is not falsifiable (for exactly the same reasons that abiogenesis is not falsifiable). This is actually the key point that I’m trying to emphasize: the assumption of a natural cause is inherent in all science, and abiogenesis is no different.

      Regarding point 4, you said, “For one thing there is structure, organization and functions inherent in life which are not reducible to biochemical interactions alone.” Again, this is entirely an unsupported assumption. Let’s take, for example, response to the environment (a trait that is generally considered to be one of the defining features of life) and let’s talk about it in a bacteria. The surface of a bacteria is coated with tons of little chemical receptors. When one of them encounters a chemical found in that bacteria’s food source, that receptor reacts to that chemical, setting off a cascade of chemical reactions, each one triggering the next, ultimately resulting in a reaction in the bacterial flagellum that causes it to swim towards the food. It is 100% a biochemical reaction. Nothing but chemistry is necessary to explain it.

      Regarding 5 and 6, this is now just a debate over how we define “information.” Yes, the things that you described are what control the interaction (most of those are a result of the electrons), and as far as I am concerned, that is information, or at the very least, it codes for information. This is where the DNA stuff comes in. Spend some time studying how proteins are formed. Each base pair results in a specific reaction with the chemicals that are brought into the ribosome (again based on the inherent properties of that chemical). ATT, for example, causes the process to stop because those base pairs react with the other chemicals in a way that sets off a cascade ultimately changing the shape of the enzymes and shutting down the process. It’s pure chemistry. Your statement, “The chemist could never tell you for example that based on the chemical properties between adenine, thymine and thymine (ATT) that it means ‘stop’” is totally, 100% false. An extremely, extremely knowledgeable chemist could look at the chemical properties of those bases and the chemical properties of all of the other chemicals involved and figure out that those bases will react with chemical X, causing it to react with Y, causing it to react with Z, etc. ultimately shutting down the enzymes that are running the reactions. Again, all of this is just chemistry. DNA base pairs form the amino acids that they do because those bases react in a predictable way with the other chemicals in the ribosome and those reactions form a specific product (i.e. amino acid).

      Regarding point 7, I truly fail to see how that argument is distinguishing between biochemical pathways in an organism and biochemical pathways in a puddle of primordial goo. Similarly, this concept of “self-perfection” seems to be an entirely artificial and unnecessary concept. Finally, what do you mean when you say things like photosynthesis “originates with the organisms”? It originates with CO2 and water which are formed outside of the organism. Photosynthesis is simply a biochemical reaction in which non-living chemicals react to ultimately produce the properties that we call life (if you follow the chain of its chemical products all the way through to conclusion). I truly do not see how you are distinguishing that from chemical reactions that would have formed the first cell.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      To out my objection to point 7 another way, it seems like this argument inherently assumes that life is more than simply the product of biochemistry, but that is an assumption that I reject as baseless.

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