Monday, 26 September 2011

The Origin of Life - interesting but not a problem

I've just read an article by a Rabbi Moshe Averick attacking Dawkins for focusing on evolution rather than the origin of life and, essentially, having no evidence against "Intelligent Design" as a result. The original ancestor of all extant (evolved) life is itself incredibly unlikely, therefore needs an explanation, for which a deity (an "Intelligent Designer") is the best, or so the argument goes.

Rabbi Averick is entirely right that the issue of the origin of life is different from that of evolution. Dawkins and others argue about evolution because Creationists and IDers attack evolution, though, not because they are trying to create a smoke-screen. Dawkins acknowledges that we do not know how life arose, only that it did. Throw in a few chemists who calculate the probability of self-replicating molecules arising to be vanishingly small and the Rabbi considers his position solid enough to proclaim as if it is some new and revolutionary truth that will have atheists ducking for cover and/or converting to ID in their masses. It isn't and it won't.

We have no scientific explanation for the origin of life. (Yet?) True. This does not make ID right, though. Any derivation of probabilities are hand-waving in the extreme – this is a one-off (as far as we know) event that happened over 3 billion years ago in conditions very different from our own. It may well be that we never know how it happened. Does this mean it could not have happened? No. Does this mean that I need faith to believe that it did happen? No. It is simple extrapolation from current experience. No life that we have encountered needed divine intervention as an explanation. Nothing in the modern world makes more sense with a deity than without. Why should the past be any different?

By the way, the Bayesian probability of life spontaneously arising is 1.0 because we know that life exists, so all scrabble-board arguments are pointless. They only work if you are outside the system. (The fact that we are here taking about it alters the probability that it happened in our Universe/timeline to be a certainty.) Unless you know how many planets, galaxies and universes there are, it is impossible to say that a one-off event is so unlikely that it could not have happened by chance. In fact, as the number of planets and universes tends towards infinity, so does the probability of anything happening.

You also have to ask yourself the question: so what if a deity kicked everything off 4 billion years ago and then watched? This is fundamentally different to a deity-free universe how, exactly? There is no need to invoke such a being in the first place and, if you do, their existence is pointless. (And then there is the boring old chestnut of where did THEY come from and what is the probability of THEM spontaneously arising?) Is an ageless ever-existing deity REALLY more likely than an infinite number of universes? Not to me.

Hopefully, Creationists and IDers will read the Rabbi's article and leave evolution alone. (They won't - Young Earth Creationists need evolution to be wrong too.) Until they do, he cannot expect Dawkins and others to stop writing books about why evolution is a fact, irrespective of life's origins.

Location:Southampton, UK

1 comment:

  1. Your explanation of the probability argument is very clear. It's iron tight, life must be possible!


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