Kirk Durston, Ph.D. Biophysics
A recent study(1) published by Barna Research revealed that one out of five American teens below the age of 19 reject faith in God because they believe science has refuted too much of the Bible. The ratio may be even higher in other English speaking countries where faith is less prominent. In my own conversations with students, they express the urban belief that science has “pretty much” explained how nature works, removing the need for God as an explanation. The example they almost unanimously point to is evolution. In a previous post,(2) I showed why the advance of science does nothing to undermine the existence of God. Here, I want to address the misconception that science has explained the origin of life. Maybe it will one day find a reproducible explanation for how nature created life but, if even if it does, it does not logically follow that God could not have fine-tuned nature to produce that result. In reality, however, the scientific evidence just might be ruling out nature as an explantion.
If you wanted someone who hadn’t the faintest idea of what a book was, to make a book from scratch that explained how to make books from scratch, at least three things would be required.
- They would need to acquire the ingredients to make a book—raw material to make paper, something to make glue and thread to bind the book, and the ingredients for ink.
- They would require the information the book needed to contain and,
- They would have to find a way to assemble all the ingredients and the information together to produce the finished product.
Nature has been described as a “blind watchmaker”.(3) It is also mindless, with no plans or objectives for anything at all, including creating life. For over 60 years, thousands of scientists have tried to figure out how nature could have created life. It is kind of like making a book from scratch by someone who has no idea what a book is, we can divide the problem into three steps:
- discover out how nature can get the ingredients or “building blocks”, all at the same time and location.
- figure out how mindless natural processes could produce the digital code required for life,
- come up with a natural, testable, reproducible explanation as to how all these pieces came together to build the first living cell.
So what progress has science made over the past 60 years? I just counted the number of papers and articles on the origin of life I have filed on my computer—54, and that is only a small sampling of what is out there. Reviewing this collection, the news is not good … we are still working on a plausible, reproducible process for the first step.
“… we are still working on a plausible, reproducible process for the first step”
A recent review paper provides a current summary…
“The origins of life stands among the great open scientific questions of our time. While a number of proposals exist for possible starting points in the pathway from non-living to living matter, these have so far not achieved states of complexity that are anywhere near that of even the simplest living systems. … The hope is that a theory akin to our other theories in fundamental physics might one day emerge to explain the phenomenon of life, and in turn finally permit solving its origins.”(4)
But there is an elephant in the room.
We know that intelligent minds can build pretty amazing things and write digital software. We have even started designing artificial proteins ourselves–intelligent design in action, if you will.(5,6) Almost nobody is keen to talk about this possibility in the halls of science, but two Russian scientists have shown that the genetic code cannot have a natural origin. They summarize their results in the abstract of their paper in one of the most prestigious journals in the field of solar system studies ….
“Here we show that the terrestrial code displays a thorough precision-type orderliness matching the criteria to be considered an informational signal. … (the null hypothesis that they are due to chance coupled with presumable evolutionary pathways is rejected with P-value < 10^–13). … extraction of the signal involves logically straightforward but abstract operations, making the patterns essentially irreducible to natural origin.”(7)
The “p-value” in science is a way of calculating whether you should reject the “null hypothesis”, usually, if it is less than 0.05 (some argue for 0.005)(8). As you can see in the summary above, the hypothesis that evolution could produce the genetic code has a p-value so small that it must be soundly rejected by science. We can consider the theory that nature created the genetic code, as scientifically falsified.
“We can consider the theory that nature created the genetic code, as scientifically falsified.”
Science has only one testable, reproducible, and verifiable option on the table that can produce significant levels of functional information … intelligent minds. You can test this yourself by sitting down with a piece of paper and writing a short, meaningful paragraph. If you can pull off this feat, then you have just demonstrated that intelligent design can produce significant levels of useful information. Evidence of what intelligent design can do is all around us, from the smartphone in your pocket, to the jets you fly in, to the podcasts you listen to.
Just to put a finer point on this … intelligent minds can produce high levels of functional information; nature cannot. Since even the simplest life form requires levels of information that are impressive, and the only verifiable method of producing information is by intelligence, the scientific evidence for intelligent design in the origin of life is, quite simply, impressive. Scientifically, it is the only game in town. To avoid this elephant in the room, I have often witnessed peer reviewed science papers using language that attributes god-like creative and designing powers to nature.
“To avoid this elephant in the room, I have often witnessed in peer reviewed science papers, language that attributes god-like creative and designing powers to nature.”
Evolutionary biologist, Eugene Koonin has advanced a different idea, which he considers to be the only way to avoid intelligent design … a multiverse that contains an infinite number of universes. In this scenario, the most wildly improbable things would happen with certainty, including the origin of life and evolution (not to mention the neighbour down the street winning all the lotteries in the world, all the time). The final sentence in his paper ends with,
“… the present model sidesteps the issue of irreducibility and leaves no room whatsoever for any form of intelligent design.”(9)
Let’s just lean back in our chairs and think about this for a moment. In order to deny the “elephant in the room” (i.e., the obvious scientific observation that intelligent minds can produce information, write code, and build impressive stuff), he postulates an infinite number of unseen, untestable entities. Koonin’s proposal cannot possibly involve a bigger violation of Ockham’s Razor (“entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.”)(10) One way of establishing something as obviously true, is to argue that the only alternative is something that is utterly absurd–and other scientists have pointed out exactly that about Koonin’s multiverse proposal,(11) which leaves intelligent design as the only scientifically testable and verifiable option for the origin of life.(12)
The bottom line:Contrary to popular belief, science is not doing well at all in producing a testable, verifiable and repeatable method for nature to produce the first living cell. The only option science has on the table that can produce the level of functional information required for life, is an intelligent mind. Perhaps it is time for science to acknowledge the existence of the elephant in the room.
- Atheism Doubles Among Generation Z, January 2018.
- ‘Why the advance of science does nothing to undermine the existence of God’, Contemplations, April 2018.
- Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, W.W. Norton & Company, 1986.
- S. Walker, ‘Origins of life: a problem for physics, a key issues review’, Rep. Prog. Phys. 80, 2017.
- ‘De Novo Designed Proteins from a Library of Artificial Sequences Function in Escherichia Coli and Enable Cell Growth’, PLOS ONE, 2011. (Note: “designed” or “design” is used 40 times in the text, title, captions and abstract.).
- ‘Principles for designing ideal protein structures’, Nature 491, 2012.
- v. shCherback & M. Makukov, ‘The “Wow! signal” of the terrestrial genetic code’, Icarus, 2013.
- ‘One-size-fits-all’ threshold for P values under fire, Nature, 2017.
- E. Koonin, ‘The cosmological model of eternal inflation and the transition from chance to biological evolution in the history of life’, Biology Direct, 2007.
- Ockham’s Razor
- For an introduction to the “farewell to reality” that belief in the multiverse requires, read German theoretical physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder’s review, or my own post ‘Should we have faith in science? Part IV: Confusing fantasy with science’.
- ‘Defining and utilizing intelligent design in science’, Kirk Durston.