There is a remarkable thing about scientific discoveries in all fields. They generally tend to be surprising. Nobody expected that the universe had a clear beginning, and that space and time started at a particular moment, before which there was….. well, nothing. Not even time. How surprising was that?

The fact that the speed of light is a constant, whether you are moving toward it or away from it was a big surprise, and a very disturbing one at that. It made no sense at all, until Einstein came up with special relativity. Which is pretty hard to understand. But even Einstein never quite liked quantum mechanics, with photons playing tricks and going in all possible directions at once until they are observed. What is that all about? Quantum entanglement, “spooky action at a distance” makes relativity look simple.

And what’s the story with all these particles, and spin and color and dimensions. I mean what is matter anyway?

Biology is worse than physics. Genes are made of huge DNA polymers, and there is a code (where did that come from?) but when you look at genes, they are interrupted. Totally surprising. Why should genes be interrupted? We were pretty sure there had to be around 100,000 human genes, in order to code for all the stuff we have and do, but surprise!. There are only about 20,000, less than some plants and flies. How does that work?

So here is my point. Why is the universe so surprising? Why can’t we ever seem to predict what we are going to find out next? Doesn’t it seem that at some point we should get to a stage of knowledge where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel and say “OK, just a few more discoveries, and that will be that, we will fully understand….something, anything”. Nobody thinks that is ever going to happen. Our knowledge base is a fractal, it just keeps going on and on from one scale to the next, never showing any sign of reaching an end point, or even a plateau.

Recently it was discovered that photosynthesis is based on the quantum coherence of photons acting in the plant pigment to try out all possible pathways simultaneously before settling on the one with the highest efficiency. So all of life on Earth is based on the strangest phenomenon of physics.

How does this all point to God? I think a universe without God would be much more boring and ordinary. The wondrous complexity of everything, from galaxies to protein synthesis is a reflection of the immense majesty of the Creator. When we study molecular biology, we are doing theology. When we map the new exoplanets circling far away stars, we are learning about God’s infinite power. When we look into the eyes of our beloved, and see the love there, we are witness to the miraculous nature of God’s divine creative genius.

Evolution is a beautiful mechanism for the generation of millions of species, living creatures of every conceivable kind. But Who is the Agent that produced us, an animal with this strange gift of being able to understand the world and how it works. And to understand that as we learn more and more, as one discovery after the next surprises us, makes us wonder, forces us to think and work harder, we must grow closer to God from which all of this beauty comes. There is nothing “mere” about our world, there is nothing ordinary about any of us, everything you do is an experimental confirmation of the great idea that God made the world, and that we are loved by Him.

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About Sy Garte

Dr Sy Garte earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the City University of New York, where he also holds a bachelor’s of science degree in chemistry. In addition to publishing more than 200 scientific publications in genetics, epidemiology, the environment and other areas, Dr. Garte is the author of Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet (Amacom) and Genetic Susceptibility to Environmental Carcinogenesis (Kluwer) and is co-editor of Molecular Epidemiology of Chronic Diseases (Wiley).
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50 Responses to Surprise!

  1. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    The fractal simile is a good one: whatever scale you look at, there’s not only surprise, but beauty, wisdom and power.

    I know it’s slighty off-topic, but I’ve always (or at least, since 1971) had that same feeling about the other book of God – Scripture. I had to spend some time investigating the teachings of a cult (which one doesn’t matter), and had the feeling of being in a simulation: all very convincing, but dig down 6 inches and you hit a metal floor, or open a random door and find brickwork. Whereas the more you dig into Scipture, or nature, the deeper the truth becomes and the more consistent the interconections.

    I know many don’t see it that way – but then many (with the same naturalistic presuppositions, it seems to me) see nature as a botched job that hangs together by fluke and threatens to destroy us all at a moment’s notice.

  2. pngarrison says:

    A big surprise for me was just that there was mechanism in biology. When I was in high school I thought the study of biology amounted to no more than a boring classification, so I skipped it and took chemistry and physics instead. When I was in college, I had friends who were smart, interesting biology majors, so finally when I was a senior, I took sophomore biology as an elective just to see what they found so interesting. The course included the classic experiments of molecular genetics identifying DNA as the genetic material and proceeding to the discovery of protein synthesis and the genetic code. My mind was blown – I had up to then been an unconscious vitalist. I started reading the biology articles in Scientific American and it was one surprise after another. So I started down the path to becoming a biochemist. For the last 35 years molecular biology has for me been one surprising thing after another.

    It saddens me no end that for so many Christians this uncovering of how things work and came to be is something to fear, build silly defenses against, and deny. I have puzzled a great deal over why this should be. It sure makes Christianity look to unbelievers like it is shot through with self delusion.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I remember coming across enzymes when I was still close enough to school chemistry and rememmbering catalysis: it may have been A level zoology but I think it was probably in medical lectures. The overwhelming thought was that it was no wonder life was so complex and wonderful when it could pull tricks like doing specific chemistry at will in a cold environment.

  3. pngarrison says:

    Off topic, but I have just found that the ETS sessions on inerrancy and Adam and Eve are available as audio here – for $16.00 each. When I googled to find this one of the entries that came up was a site purporting to “prove” that Adam and Eve were aliens. I’ll leave it up to Jon to decide whether he wants to add this as an additional model. 🙂

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      On this 50th Dr Who anniversary (I watched the first episode avidly as a sci-fi nerd, even at 11 years old) we should of course include the idea of Adam and Eve as time travellers from the 23rd century. That cuts the gordian knot of the origin of sin by making them their own descendants. No less implausible than the evolutionary fall upwards, it seems to me!

  4. Avatar photo GD says:

    “Why can’t we ever seem to predict what we are going to find out next?”

    The Sciences are both exciting and perhaps to some bewildering. It is difficult to think that we can do research in any field unless we are convinced that we may not know it all! Additionally, science has so often been proven ‘inadequate’, more so because some adopt a grandiose attitude (the science imperium), that cause others to doubt science.

    It may perplex some, in that for all of the great achievements of science, medicine, and technology, that prominent scientists are willing to acknowledge that ‘they do not know’, and many are averse to enter ideological (cultural) wars that are properly in the Sociological domain.

    To enter the spirit of this post, I found science, especially chemistry, to provide an elegance that made me compare it to the finest poetry I could find. However, the stupendous performance of Nature, such as shown in the catalytic activity of enzymes (one example that bio-people may appreciate), is both exhilarating and humbling.

    So it is intellectually healthy to realise just how much more we need to know, as this increases our appreciation of the wonders of the Universe. However, I tend to see all of this overshadowed when I remember my wife holding our baby in her arms. It is then that we may begin to talk of the wonders that God has given to us.

  5. Lou Jost says:

    The surprise which Sy describes is actually evidence against the existence some popular versions of god. According to many of you, our thinking skills are a gift from a god, plopped down on us from on high, or these abilities are a target reached by god-directed teleological evolution. The view of most scientists is quite different–these skills are something which evolved over millions of years by a series of undirected accidents, which conveyed extra fitness on individuals who reasoned more accurately. On this scientific view, we would expect our thought processes to be a very imperfect reflection of physical reality. Advances would be hard-won, and and “surprise” should be the order of the day. If a god gave us our mental equipment, he deliberately did a poor job of it; as Sy says, there is no sign that we are coming to any kind of final understanding of the world. Indeed, our whole perceptual world is a useful fiction: things are not solid, colors are not what we think they are, space and time have no separate existence, the geometry of the world is not Euclidean, etc.

    For scientists, it is clear that this fictional representation in our heads evolved because it is useful. It takes hard work to escape this mental trap and think correctly about space and time, for example. We didn’t get much help from god-directed evolution. Most people still can’t escape their naive perceptual universe even when they are told how it goes wrong.

    Surprise also tells us something about the process of science itself. Many here (including Sy and Jon) keep insisting that science has an unjustified naturalistic prejudice. Yet the history of science shows that science is opportunistic in response to surprises, and quite willing to embrace major changes in philosophy or metaphysics if these changes lead to more coherent and accurate theories. Science seeks out surprises, and its precepts are always on the table ready to be discarded in the face of new surprises. The absolute nature of space and time was one of those deeply-held precepts we discarded in the face of new theories. Causal determinism was another (that was a hard one to let go). If there were ever real evidence of teleology, we would jump on it.

    That’s the difference between most scientists and most religious people, including many here. Scientists are usually thrilled when dogma is conclusively overthrown. Religious people are typically not so thrilled. From reading these comments and posts, I think most of you would not change your belief in a god regardless of what the world looks like, or what future discoveries we might make. It seems many religious people hold an even deeper metaphysical prejudice than the one they often accuse scientists of holding.

    • Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

      Oh brother.

      OK Lou, Im convinced. I hereby renounce faith, and accept atheism. There, are you happy Lou? You did it. Your impeccable logic and knowledge has won the day, and you have gained another convert for Jerry Coyne et al.

      Sorry for the sarcasm, but really, that comment was hard to take. You are actually quite right about us not changing our beliefs. So that raises the question that Jon has asked you. Why exactly are you here, Lou? You are sort of beating your head against a wall. We are all very stubborn people who will simply NOT see the truth of atheism no matter how hard you try to convince us. It must be frustrating for you. Especially since many of us are actual scientists, real ones, with impressive bibliographies, and books (Im sure you have googled or medlined some of us). So we actually already do know most of the stuff you keep trying to explain to us. (This is also true on Biologos, btw.). And beyond this blog there are quite a few other scientists (some of them much better ones than some of us, like Francis Collins and Jennifer Weisman, and John Polkinghorne and so on) who also are hardly likely to drop their faith thanks to the style of educational doctrine you are trying so desperately to convey. Don’t you think its time to take a break and ask yourself a pretty basic (indeed, I might almost say scientific) question. Namely, what can be going on here. Why are all of these scientists not responding to my well written, cogently thought out arguments, and dropping their faith? Why am I not convincing them?
      I am actually a second generation scientist. My father, a chemist, used to say, “answers are easy. Its finding the right questions that make progress in science.” Lou, you need to start asking the right questions. So far, you aren’t even close.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Maybe some readers actually haven’t made up their minds on some of these issues.

        Your responses to my comments are often sarcastic and rarely address my poor arguments. That’s fine. But
        you wrote “It must be frustrating for you. Especially since many of us are actual scientists, real ones, with impressive bibliographies, and books…” I am not particularly frustrated. I am also a “real scientist”, with articles in Ecology, Ecological Monographs, Molecular Ecology, Oikos, and many taxonomic journals, and currently with two book contracts. In my experience most real scientists like to debate the issues that concern them, and they usually try to make substantive responses in such debates.

        • Avatar photo Sy Garte says:


          I will try one more (last) time to make this clear. I will debate with you about evolution and biology on a scientific level. I will debate with Jon and GD about theology and faith. But I (and nobody else) will debate with you about faith on scientific terms, because your basic premise, namely that all truth must flow from scientific arguments, is one I don’t agree with. If people do not agree with basic premises, debate is useless.
          A monarchist who believes in the divine right of kings, cannot debate with a democrat, since their basic premises are in opposition. Since I don’t hold your premise of scientism to be valid, there is not point in further debate.

          And yes, I know that you are a working published scientist. My point is that so are we, and that not all scientists believe in scientism.

          I really don’t know what else to say on this matter. I wish you luck in your missionary endeavors.

          • James says:

            I have to echo your reply, Sy.

            Lou seems to operate constantly under the “warfare” conception of science and religion. His phrasing constantly gives this away, whether he consciously endorses the conception or not.

            For example, above, he writes: “That’s the difference between most scientists and most religious people …” as if there are two distinct groups, i.e., “scientists” and “religious people” that are somehow facing off against each other. But in fact, the categorization itself implicitly sets up a “warfare” scenario that does not exist by any logical necessity.

            A more logical opposition would be between “atheists” (whether scientists or not) and “religious people” (whether scientists or not), or between “scientists” (whether religious or not) and “non-scientists” (whether religious or not). But such accurate oppositions do not slyly enlist “science” on the side of “non-religious people” and therefore are of no use if one’s agenda is culture war.

            Similarly, when Lou writes that religious people accuse “scientists” of holding metaphysical prejudices, he misrepresents the situation, because very few religious people think that scientists *as such* are metaphysically prejudiced. Their criticism is aimed at scientists of a certain sort. Most “religious people” do not attack Francis Collins for being metaphysically prejudiced, for example. Nor do they think of Newton or Kepler or Clerk-Maxwell or Townes or Damadian as being “metaphysically prejudiced.” Religious belief rarely targets science as such, as opposed to certain conclusions, and more often, certain attitudes, held by many scientists.

            Why Lou likes to frame things in the “warfare” manner, I do not know. Most serious historians and philosophers of science who deal with the relationship between science and religion ceased using the “warfare” metaphor decades ago. Lou’s appeal to it gives his writing a quaint late-19th/early-20th century feel.

          • Lou Jost says:

            Many of you, including Sy, Jon, and James, have made specific empirical claims about biology in support of your ideas about god. Jon recently wrote a post saying that mimicry suggested teleological causation. Sy, you made some claims about surprise as evidence of god. James, you said that design was the best available explanation for the origin of life. The moment you make such empirical claims, science has something to say about them. But when I try to show that your claims are groundless, you guys retreat into the kind of NOMA arguments you are making now. If you really think religious claims and empirical scientific claims have nothing to do with each other, why do you keep making these empirical claims? In fact, some faith-claims really do have empirical consequences, and these can be tested using the methods of science. Your charges of “scientism” are a distraction from the real issue, which is that your empirical claims are not supported.

            • James says:

              My claim about the origin of life is not “groundless,” but based on the latest information we have. Yes, I said that design was the best explanation at the moment for the origin of life — allowing that what counts as the best explanation could change. And I stand by that. To the best of our current knowledge, life could not have originated without the involvement of intelligence.

              I do not claim to have demonstrated that life required intelligence; I claim only that all explanations involving chance chemical combinations thus far adduced have proved very inadequate, whereas intelligence is known to be able to produce ordered, complex feedback systems, and life is characterized by such systems. You have said not one word in reply to either of these two propositions, and until you do, I assume that you grant their truth.

              And given such truths, a truly metaphysically neutral person, who literally did not care one way or the other whether God existed, or whether a higher intelligence existed, but simply judged on the basis of current data, would conclude that intelligent design by a mind or minds unknown is (tentatively) a better explanation than no-design. But one who had a strong private inclination to disbelieve in the existence of higher intelligences would of course hold out for the “accidental” explanation indefinitely, hoping that new evidence for it lies just around the corner.

              I replied to your strange comment about Bach and the Taj Mahal on the other thread.

              • Lou Jost says:

                I see why you thought my Bach/Taj Mahal comment was strange. I had misunderstood what you meant by “natural causes”. I’ve responded to that on the other thread. Will respond to the rest here when I have a bit more time.

              • Lou Jost says:

                I agree that we do not have an explanation for the beginning of life. I’ve told you that before. But there is a problem with your second statement, that design is known to produce complexity. The correct statement should be “Real, actually-existing physical agents are known to produce complexity through design. And they are NOT known to break any laws of physics when they do so.”

                You are claiming that a non-physical designer exists, and this hypothetical designer caused a miracle (ie violated physical laws) to get life started. You claim this is a more likely explanation than natural causes, without even knowing the degree of complexity is required for life to begin. You are saying that it is more reasonable to posit the existence of an immensely complex nonphysical entity with superpowers, than to assume (as a default, and subject to revision when we know more) that the natural causes that underlie all other known phenomena, probably also explain this. That’s not rational or unprejudiced.

          • Lou Jost says:

            James, the theistic position commonly taken by posters and commenters here is indeed a fringe position among American and UK scientists, especially biologists (the relevant science for most of the claims made here). So it is accurate to say “most scientists” disagree with your religious positions (at least of we are considering biologists and physical scientists, the ones relevant to our discussions here).

            By the way, the “warfare” model started in earnest in the 1920s, when Protestants in America began to try to outlaw the teaching of evolution. See the recent BioLogos post and linked Christian History magazine:
            This war continues today, as just yesterday in my former home state, the Texas Board of Education textbook committee recommended non-adoption of a widely-used text on evolution.

            • James says:

              No, the “warfare” model started in earnest much earlier, when two Americans, Draper and White (one of them the co-founder of that intentionally godless institution, Cornell), started writing about science and religion in that manner, and when Brits of the same period, like Thomas Henry Huxley, started to take a public delight in bashing bishops and so on. The assault came from the side of “science” (actually scientism making use of the reputation of science). If American fundamentalists 50 years later swallowed the “warfare” notion and made use of it to attack evolution, who taught them the warfare model in the first place? Not Newton. Not Boyle. Not Kepler. Not Clerk Maxwell. Not the Archbishops of Canterbury. Not the English country clergy who were eagerly collecting shells and beetles and studying stars and rocks in the belief that they were honoring God by doing so. It was the forerunners of today’s New Atheists who created a false history of science and encouraged polarized and counterproductive thinking. Don’t try to lay at our doorstep the ideas generated by your Victorian intellectual ancestors.

              “Fringe position” is an inaccurate phrase. “Fringe” would suggest that only 2% or 3% etc. of scientists are theists, but in fact, all the surveys I have seen of scientists in general (as opposed to those focused on narrow groups, i.e., NAS members or scientists teaching at “elite” universities), indicate that believing scientists (including Jews, Hindus, Muslims, etc. as well as Christians) make up anywhere from 20% to 40% of the scientific community, depending on the subject-matter, nationality, etc. That is not “fringe” territory. Minority, yes, but not “fringe.”

              • Lou Jost says:

                The war of words began immediately after Darwin’s book, which was not combative. But a real war begins when there are something more than words. When people started to outlaw the teaching of evolution, it became a war. And post-Darwinian science is very definitely in conflict with both the content of Christian revelation as ordinarily understood, and the way in which Christians uncritically weigh the evidence for their beliefs.

                My “fringe” comment was made about your Christian ID position, and it referred to scientists in the relevant fields (biology, physics). That really is a fringe position among biologists and physicists. The surveys I have at hand are of the elite scientists. Fewer than 3% of the biologist members of the Royal Society even believe in a personal god. Surely only a fraction of these believe in an actual Christian god who tinkers with the evolutionary process or designed or created life. You are certainly right, though, that the more you water down the pool (add social scientists and others who don’t know much about evolution, and add people who are not discovering things or not active), the percentage will be closer to that of the general population.

                Of course, truth is not a popularity contest. But the arguments you and others have been making here are mostly based on personal incredulity, not real arguments.

          • Lou Jost says:

            Sy, getting back to your post and my first comment on it, just a few days ago there was a post on Uncommon Descent claiming this:

            “We can infer that the rules which are embodied by objects in the natural world must be tailor-made to fit the minds of intelligent beings that are capable of contemplating their Creator. In other words, the universe is designed to be knowable by us.”

            I merely pointed out in my first comment (the one you replied to with “Oh, brother…”) that the surprise you speak of, and the fact that we seem no closer to a final theory, is evidence against this common view of god. I stand by that claim, which has nothing to do with scientism or even atheism.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

              You have a logic problem there, Lou. Being surprising isn’t at all incompatible with being knowable – indeed it presupposes it.

              Being confused or rendered insane would be the hallmark of complete unknowability. Reaching limits, whether final or temporary, to our understanding just reminds us we are mortal. We don’t actually seem to have reached them yet, though, despite straying far from how to hunt mammoths into the realms of quarks and space-time.

              Simple universe, rational beings – you’d expect us to work it out in our armchairs and die of boredom.

              Complex universe, stupid evolved animals – you’d expect it all to be beyond us.

              Complex, but largely conprehensible universe that nevertheless confounds our predictions: that’s high art, which is why great minds are doing science and not just going to concerts.

              • Lou Jost says:

                No, you are ignoring Sy’s observation that we seem farther from the end than ever before. Complex universe, stupid evolved animals slowly becoming less stupid through natural selection, struggling hard to grasp more insights into reality–that is what we see. And progress has mostly come (especially in physics) by fighting our “common sense”. We are not predisposed to figure this stuff out.

              • Lou Jost says:

                Oh, and I never said that being surprised is incompatible with the world being knowable. What I claim is that we are evidently not specially designed to know it, and it is not specially designed to be known. Our progress is hard-won and often achieved by fighting our predispositions, not embracing them.

  6. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Sy,

    It is difficult to reason, or even dealing with aggressive atheists who place on themselves the authority of the Science. I have mentioned Max Velman’s, review of Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness (that argues for Darwinian evolution) in another comment. In this Velman also performs straightforward experiments involving an audience (who, from what is said, are certainly not-religious), to test the notions regarding natural selection and the naturalistic myth of how consciousness evolved. The vast majority gave answers that clearly contradicted the NT myth; yet this is scornfully dismissed by Darwinians, who then proclaim they are open minded, reasonable, and willing to overthrow ideology and dogma.

    One is left with only one response – they lack the intellectual courage that scientist need, which is to ask the right questions and discard wrong answers.

    But then they can always escape into some nonsense they have parroted concerning theology (and I have yet to come across any of these people who have any grasp, let alone a deep understanding, of Christian theology) and of all things, faith shown by many people in their lives.

    I guess you and Jon (and others) may appreciate why I have so little patience with people such as Lou.

  7. James says:


    Once again, an invisible “width limit” that seems to automatically erase the “reply” option forces me to reply further down the page, rather than right below your comments, which is a nuisance, but that’s life.

    You remark about surveys is by your own admission based on surveys of “elite” scientists — but such tend to be a self-selecting group of heavily secular humanist leanings, which leads to a renewal of those leanings with each new generation. In the broader group of scientists — and I mean natural scientists, not social scientists, so your reference to social scientists, which I was never talking about, is an inappropriate (I hope not deliberate) misdirection — the numbers I have seen on several surveys are more like 30-odd percent religious, even for biologists, and that’s not “fringe.” Even if it’s only 20% it’s not “fringe.” And many of these religious biologists obtained their Ph.D.s from biology etc. departments just as venerable as the departments you studied in. I’m sorry, but those are just the facts. Many of your biology colleagues, equally as professionally competent as you as measured by the standards of secular graduate programs in biology, are religious, and see no conflict between their religion and good biological science. And the same applies to physics, chemistry, etc. That doesn’t prove that religious belief is true; it proves that being religious doesn’t make one a scientifically incompetent dunderhead.

    Regarding evolution and legal challenges in the American educational system, there is no need to attack religion all over the world just because American popular religion is in some respects backwards and anti-intellectual. There is no movement to ban evolution from the schools in the former British Commonwealth countries, in the EU, etc. And there are plenty of Christians in those other countries. For that matter, most Catholics and Eastern Orthodox in the USA, and even most of the mainstream Protestant denominations, do not mount public opposition to teaching evolution in the schools. This shows that Christianity per se, or theism per se, is not the cause of the particularly American anti-evolution movement. Yet your criticism of Christianity and theism is universal, which shows that your motivation is not primarily to solve a problem in the American schools.

    On the comments in your other post: I never claimed that a non-physical designer exists. I happen to believe that, but it formed no part of my argument, and if you think it did, you have not read my words carefully. What I said was, in effect, that the existence of a non-physical designer (although the designer of life on earth could be a physical being, e.g., an alien from another planet or even another universe, but let’s leave that aside) should not be ruled out, and that it was unreasonable to do so. You think it’s reasonable to rule such a possibility out, and therein your metaphysical prejudice is demonstrated. I think that both design and non-design explanations should be regarded as possible, for as long a time as both explanations are compatible with currently known facts, and therein I appear to be less prejudiced than you.

    You say that you admitted that we have no explanation for the origin of life. Big deal! I knew that without your admission. It’s no admission at all, since it’s a fact you have to accept whether you like it or not. The admission I’m trying to get you to make is more consequential than that.

    I am trying to get you to admit that you do not know, and that no one on the planet knows, whether or not the first life required the planning of an intelligent designer. And the further admission I’m trying to get you to make is that, since neither you nor the best scientists on the planet can show that non-intelligent causes could have done the job, or are even close to showing this, it is unreasonable of you to feel a “subjective certainty” that eventually a non-intelligent causal path will be found. You have no basis for that subjective certainty — no basis that a rigorous philosopher would accept.

    “We’ve been able to come up with non-intelligent-cause explanations for lots of things, so sooner or later we’ll come up with a non-intelligent-cause explanation for the origin of life” is astoundingly lousy as a formal argument. That’s like saying, “Every high jump record has been surpassed eventually, so some day someone will be able to high jump 100 feet.” Unless we have established that the human frame has the physical possibility of high jumping 100 feet, the argument is invalid. Similarly, we simply don’t have adequate knowledge about the causal powers of unintelligent chemicals in unguided reactions to be sure of their capacity to generate life without instruction or guidance. To feel a subjective certainty that they have such a capacity is therefore unreasonable, and anyone who feels that subjective certainty is motivated by something other than pure natural science, i.e., is motivated by metaphysical or religious commitments against the idea of intelligent design.

    Note that I have never argued that chance combinations of simple molecules didn’t lead or couldn’t have led to the origin of life. I have argued only that it is unreasonable *to feel certain* that they did lead or could have led to the origin of life, and unreasonable to rule out the design alternative. I have argued for keeping all explanatory options open, for as long as the evidence permits those explanatory options. It is the person who wants to close down on explanatory options, before the evidence forces such a closing down, who is unreasonable. C’est tout.

    • Lou Jost says:

      You’ve badly misrepresented or misunderstood my main points.

      First, the fringe position I referred to was not mere “religiousness” but rather your particular belief in a Christian god that guides evolution and created the first life. In my experience this is indeed a fringe position, but let’s not argue more about that, since I only have numbers for elite scientists.

      More important is your continuing misrepresentation of my main point. Your central claim was “design was the best explanation at the moment for the origin of life”, and you claimed that a neutral person “would conclude that intelligent design by a mind or minds unknown is (tentatively) a better explanation than no-design.” Contrary to your repeated claims, I never ruled out design. I said that in the absence of any information about the degree of complexity needed to get life started, it was a much bigger metaphysical leap to invoke the existence of a nonphysical designer with superpowers capable of altering the laws of physics than to suppose that the laws which currently operate are adequate to explain it. In the absence of knowledge about the conditions needed to get life started, you have no justification whatsoever for opting for your explanation. This could change if we really knew what kind of molecular arrangement was needed to get life started, and if it turned out such an arrangement could not arise by chance. But we are nowhere near this situation.

      The whole last part of your comment is addressing a straw man of your own invention. I never ruled out a designer, and I have no certainty that a designer does not exist. I claimed (as a default, and subject to revision when we know more) that the natural causes which underlie all other known phenomena probably also explain this. Only a deeply prejudiced person would think that a non-physical designer with superpowers (something which violates every physical law we know) is currently the best explanation for the origin of life, even though we don’t even know how complicated the first life had to be.

      You are also subtly retracting your most egregious earlier claim, for which I thank you.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Oops, that last line was not supposed to be there….I thought I had deleted it. It’s wrong.

      • James says:


        You have unnecessarily confused issues by conflating different parts of my reply which pertained to different original discussions.

        Any comments I made about a specifically Christian God or religious scientists were addressed to your comments about surveys of religious beliefs of scientists, not to your comments regarding the most reasonable answer regarding the origin of life. In my comments on the first life I have restricted myself to speaking of a designer of some kind, which could be God or for that manner aliens doing a doctoral project in biochemistry. And even if the designer were somebody’s God, the designer wouldn’t have to be the Christian God.

        I stand by my original claim as quoted. Note, however, that I was careful to include the word “tentatively,” to indicate that I regarded this as a provisional judgment based on current evidence, as opposed to an inexorable conclusion of science or logic or reason.

        You are also leaving out something else I have said (and remember always to check both threads, since the argument is crossing back and forth between two columns now). I have always left open another option for the neutral person, beside the one you quote. I have said that alternately, a neutral person might say that we do not know whether or not the first life involved design, that it would be premature to judge, and that science per se is not at this moment capable of rendering any verdict on the subject. But even that more modest alternate statement, you have refused to endorse. You have continued to either assert or imply that the reasonable person would regard the accidental origin of life as the best explanation.

        Another way of putting my position, combining my two alternatives, would be this:

        Where the evidence is non-conclusive, but appears to tip in one direction, a reasonable person, and a metaphysically neutral person (i.e., one who has no prejudice for or against the existence of a designer) will opt for the conclusion supported by the preponderance of available evidence (while always indicating that this conclusion must be regarded as tentative). This conclusion I call the “best explanation.” (Not the “true” or “correct” or “certain” or “scientifically compelling” or “logically compelling” explanation.)

        It is also possible that at a given state of knowledge, there may be no “best explanation,” i.e., the evidence may be so scanty and/or so balanced on each side that there appears to be no clear preponderance. My view is that our current situation (which may change) is either one in which there is no preponderance and therefore no “best explanation” regarding design versus non-design, or one in which the preponderance of evidence tips somewhat in the direction of design — not far enough, to be sure, to make skepticism about design wrong, but far enough to make design the “best explanation” (albeit an uncertain explanation) available.

        You wrote: “In the absence of knowledge about the conditions needed to get life started, you have no justification whatsoever for opting for your explanation.” On the contrary, I have justification — note that I say not proof, not demonstration, but justification — and it doesn’t come from religion, but from current science regarding origin of life, and from our general observation of the world.

        First, current science can provide no plausible pathway from ammonia and methane etc. molecules to the first life. It is not even close to doing so. That is a factual report about the state of contemporary science, not a religious or metaphysical prejudice of my own. Second, we know of nothing in the universe capable of building, say, a wristwatch, or a factory that produces men’s shirts, other than intelligent design, and we know as empirical fact that even the simplest forms of life known to us are factories (and much more than factories) thousands if not millions of times more complex than the most complex objects, factories, industrial and social systems, etc. designed by man. It is therefore not unjustified to incline to the view that the even the simplest life-forms known to us required design at some level, design input by means unknown by designers unknown. And note that I carefully say “incline to the view” — not “conclude with firmness.”

        There is therefore “justification” for holding the view that I hold — which is not to say that there could be no “justification” for holding the opposite view. But perhaps we are disagreeing over what “justification” means. I mean “reasonable grounds,” nothing more. I say there are “reasonable grounds” for preferring design over non-design as an explanation of the origin of life. That no more makes me a religious dogmatist than saying there are “reasonable grounds” for preferring the Copenhagen over the non-Copenhagen interpretation of of quantum theory or “reasonable grounds” for rejecting string theory.

        The larger issue, of course, the one underlying this discussion and many of your other discussions, is your continued statements and/or implications that Christians are metaphysically biased whereas you are neutral, objective, and fair. I have shown the absurdity of such statements many times now, and won’t repeat my arguments. What I have asked for from you on that score is something very simple, something which I would expect anyone with serious academic training to concede, i.e.: “Atheists also have their biases in approaching the question of the origin of life; bias is not a weakness peculiar to Christians or theists. Thus, I, Lou, have a bias of my own.” But you have not, over the course of the past few days, been willing to make that simple and reasonable concession. You cannot yet see that the continued assertion or implication — that you and your atheist friends are entirely fair and neutral in the way you assess evidence, and that religious people, including even well-trained scientists and philosophers and so on, are biased in assessing evidence because of their religion — is a conversational irritant which puts me (and probably others here) into a non-receptive frame of mind regarding the actual substance of your arguments. Even reasonable arguments, if accompanied regularly by the refrain (“and my arguments aren’t biased by religious convictions, as yours are”) are not going to be received very well. I do not know why you cannot see this, but it is a very serious blind spot in your intellectual interaction.

        • Lou Jost says:

          Addressing your last point first, where have I ever said I was free of bias? I do not have biases based on poorly-evidenced beliefs in gods, but I am fully aware I have other biases derived from my culture, my language, and the current state of science and mathn.

          Returning to the main argument, you say “we know of nothing in the universe capable of building, say, a wristwatch, or a factory that produces men’s shirts, other than intelligent design”. You left out some very important things. For all the products of design we know in the world, the designer was physical and obeyed all physical laws. The designer made these products without using miracles.

          If someone said the best explanation for, say, ball lightning (a poorly understood but reasonably well documented phenomenon) was that a god makes each blob of ball lightning for his amusement, would you claim that is the best explanation, just because our current physics seems to indicate these ball lightning objects should not exist? I doubt it. Especially since we really don’t know much about what ball lightning is. If we really knew all their details, and could actually prove that they violate physical laws, then we have a real problem.

          Your “best explanation” for the origin of life jumps the gun in two ways. First it assumes, without a proof, that known laws were broken. Second, your “best explanation” requires inventing a nonphysical designer, breaking more laws than it fixes! Third, it does not really answer the question, since we would still have the old question of who designed the designer. Based on all our experience of nature, and considering that we don’t know anything about how life began (certainly not enough to say that laws were broken), the best explanation is the same as the best explanation for ball lightning: provisionally we should assume the laws which apply everywhere else also apply to these things. I think that is the rational default position when we don’t know something. The burden of proof has to be on those who claim to overthrow old laws with new laws or mechanisms or entities. This is the case in every science I can think of. It is not specific to design arguments.

          • James says:


            I don’t know whether your continual attempt to skirt the main issues is deliberate, or whether you don’t understand what I’m saying.

            You give examples of biases you are vulnerable to. You mention culture, language, the current state of science and math. Yet you must know that these “socially-generated” biases are not the sort of biases I am talking about. You must know, now, after a hundred repetitions on my part, that I am talking about personal metaphysical or theological biases regarding the existence or nonexistence of God or or a designer or of some other teleological principle behind the workings of the universe.

            You have said that I and other very bright people, including Christian scientists who are your peers in education and publication record, are metaphysically or religiously biased regarding the existence of God, a designer, etc. I have said that you as an atheist are not beyond the reach of such metaphysical or religious biases. Just as we allegedly have a bias that causes us to interpret the data of nature in a way favorable to God, and to minimize aspects of nature which seem to point away from God, so you may well have a bias that causes you to interpret the data of nature in a way that is favorable to no-God, and causes you to minimize aspects of nature which seem to point to a God of some sort.

            It is this sort of personal bias, a freely-chosen or at least freely self-reinforced disposition to believe or not believe, that I am talking about, not the sort of biases that one can blame on one’s culture. And you project the image of a man who thinks he is above personal metaphysical biases regarding the existence or nonexistence of God or a designer, but thinks that Christians and theists generally wallow in such biases.

            This is not only a condescending dialogical attitude (“I’m intellectually disciplined enough to have no personal metaphysical biases, and to base all my conclusions regarding the origin of the first life on reason and evidence alone, whereas are you too intellectually undisciplined to control yours, so your arguments are partly corrupted by your wishes”), it’s utterly naive. You are mortal clay, not an inhuman thinking machine. And it’s evident to everyone here that you have a personal disinclination to disbelieve in God, that is at least as strong as the personal inclination that I and others have to believe in God. If you can admit to this personal bias, we could get along. But as you insist on telling time and time again that we have a personal bias, while implying that you don’t, serious dialogue is not possible. We can’t have a conversation if the working assumption is that you have the metaphysical neutrality and objectivity of the Deity, whereas we are incapable of such neutrality because of our backwards religious views.

            Is it clear enough to you now what I am asking you to concede here? It has nothing to do with origin of life per se; it’s a matter of your fundamental self-conception and your fundamental attitude to your dialogue partners.

            I want to know whether you really believe what you seem to believe — i.e., that your conclusions regarding God are immune from your personal wishes or inclinations because you have disciplined yourself to take into account nothing but evidence, or whether you are aware in yourself (as every thoughtful scientist, poet, politician, philosopher, novelist, historian, etc. that I have ever met is aware of in himself) of desires that reality should be a certain way and not a certain other way, and whether you are willing to admit that such desires put you on the lowly level of us Christians and theists with our opposite desires.

            I can’t be clearer. And there is no point discussing the details of the origin of life until you acknowledge a fundamental equality of atheists with Christians and theists when it come to the danger of “personal God-bias” and “personal anti-God-bias.” If you do not acknowledge an approximate equality between us on this matter, then I have no interest in debating the origin of life, or anything else, with you.

            • Lou Jost says:

              If this is about how I feel rather than about real arguments of substantive issues, then it is time to stop.

              • James says:

                No, what it’s about is that you keep insisting that “how we feel” about the existence of God prejudices us, while maintaining that “how you feel” about the non-existence of God doesn’t prejudice you at all. That’s completely unacceptable as a starting-point for good-faith dialogue, and it’s epistemologically naive as well, as any philosopher, historian or sociologist of science would tell you.

              • Lou Jost says:

                Do you think that a bias against the existence of the Greek gods is equivalent (in terms of respecting evidence) to a bias in favor of their existence?

                I do think biases for or against a deist god are approximately equivalent.

  8. James says:

    Jon and others:

    Sorry for the length of my reply to Lou above. I will keep replies shorter in the future.

  9. James says:

    Lou wrote:

    “I do think biases for or against a deist god are approximately equivalent.”

    Well, assuming I have the correct understanding of what you mean by a “deist God,” I agree. But your sentence could be read to mean: “these biases, where they exist, are equivalent, but I’m not admitting that I personally have any such bias.” What I’m waiting to hear from you is an admission that you personally have a bias against the idea of a God or a great designer, a bias that is perhaps as strong as the bias in favor of a God or designer that you are imputing to rest of us here, and that this bias colors your interpretation of the evidence of nature just as our bias colors our interpretation of the same evidence. If you are willing to grant that, then we can have a respectful intellectual conversation about the origin of life; if you’re not, then we can’t.

    As for the Greek gods, it depends entirely what interpretation of the Greek gods you are insisting upon. If for you “believing in the Greek gods” means “treating the stories told about the gods in Greek mythology as accurate history,” e.g., believing that Gods fought in the Trojan War, or that Atlas sustained the dome of the sky on his shoulders, then I agree that such beliefs are subject to empirical investigation, and I agree that there is very little evidence that Gods fought at Tory or that the sky is held up in that way, and I would not call someone metaphysically biased for being skeptical about the historicity of such stories. But if you realize that Greek mythology and Greek religion were two different things, and if, regarding Greek religion, you take a sophisticated interpretation of the Greek gods, e.g., that offered by Walter Otto, then the situation is quite different.

    In any case, when we are talking about whether the origin of life required intelligence, we are not dealing with stories from Greek mythology, nor even the story of Genesis. We are simply trying to discern the relative likelihood that intelligent causes, as opposed to wholly unintelligent causes, were involved. And we can discuss that without any appeal to revelation or religious authority, whether Greek or Christian. We can discuss that wholly in terms of the known capacities of mindless chemicals, and the known capacities of intelligent agents to produce extraordinarily complex integrated systems of interacting parts. That was the discussion I was trying to have. But if you are going to insist that the “default” position is that non-intelligent chemicals can do it all, then there is no point having the discussion at all. There is simply no way of maintaining that that should be the “default” position without slipping in a metaphysical bias — which I why I wanted to bring the question of metaphysical bias up front and center.

    • Lou Jost says:

      OK, I’ll admit to the following evidence-based bias:
      Given any unexplained and poorly documented historical event, the default position (subject to change when more information is known) should be that the event most likely followed the known laws of physics unless there is detailed evidence to the contrary.

      By “poorly-documented” I mean that we don’t have detailed knowledge of the sequence of events, so that we can’t even say “This step is where a law was (probably) broken”.

      I also have other related metaphysical biases that I believe are evidence-based and that are relevant to this discussion. For example, I think it is bad science to propose the existence of a non-physical designer with superpowers as the default explanation for gaps in our understanding of nature. I don’t rule out that this may be the best explanation when more evidence is uncovered (in fact I used to believe in a designer). But it shouldn’t be the default explanation.

      And I want to remind you again that your analogy with human designers is not relevant. Humans are physical agents obeying the laws of physics and chemistry. The main objection to your design explanation for the origin of life is not that it involves a designer, but that it involves a non-physical agent able to break the laws of physics and chemistry. There is no analogous thing we observe today. So your analogy misses the most important aspect of the problem.

      • James says:


        First, I never said that design should be the default explanation. It was you who introduced the term “default.” In fact, the whole setup of my original comments should have made clear that I wanted to avoid awarding either design or non-design the status of default explanation. I don’t think there should be a default explanation in the case we are talking about. Again, keep your eye on the ball: the question is whether the origin of life required intelligence, or could have happened without any intelligence at all. If either of those positions is the “default” one, then the discussion is biased from the outset.

        The way I want the question to be approached is: What are the reasons for thinking that life could have arisen through blind and random chemical action? What are the reasons for thinking that life would have needed some intelligence to get started? What are the difficulties with the first option? What are the difficulties with the second option? And when all is said and done, does one or the other of the options emerge as the (tentatively, and always subject to revision) “best explanation” at the moment? Or is it more or less a dead heat? And if one of the options seems on balance more in line with the available evidence than the other, which option is that?

        I think that if the question is approached in this way, instead of talking about “default” explanations — useless because the theist’s default will be the opposite of the atheist’s default, and there is no neutral judge between the two — it becomes more tractable. By eschewing default explanations, and in general by avoiding unnecessary a priori assumptions, we can talk about evidence and explanations that fit or do not fit the evidence.

        You talk about “bad science.” I never spoke of “science” in this connection, and for a very good reason. If it turns out that the first life was designed, and if it turns out that the designer was not some alien biochemist, but God, then it is quite possible that the design was input in non-natural ways; and science can only deal with natural ways. If our goal is to try to figure out what really happened in the past, we have to concede that we may not be able to give a scientific explanation — which does not mean that we could not give a good or persuasive explanation.

        And of course, if the usual, restricted definition of “science” is insisted upon — as it usually is, by atheists — any “scientific” answer to the origin of life will automatically rule out some genuine logical possibilities, i.e., those that involve non-natural inputs of biological information. So insisting that the explanation for the origin of life must be “scientific” begs the question; it assumes exactly what need to be proved. That is like deciding whether or not the Bible or the Koran is true by using the Bible as the standard for measuring the veracity of the Koran. A reasonable person must be open to the possibility that the origin of life cannot be explained in fully scientific terms.

        Yes, I am fully aware that the intelligent agents we have direct experience of (humans, and possibly beavers and other animals) make use of natural laws; but to assume that no other kind of intelligent agent exists, i.e., to assume that there are not and never have been intelligences that can work outside of natural laws, is to introduce a metaphysical bias. And note the word “assume” here; I am not saying that it is wrong to try to “argue” that there are no such intelligences; I am saying that it is wrong to “assume” that there are no such intelligences, as one’s starting point.

        In any case, you still are not saying all that in your mind and heart. You are still telling us that we let our conclusions about origins be improperly biased by what we deeply want to believe, i.e., that there is a God; and you are still not admitting, or even hypothetically granting the possibility, that you personally might let your conclusions about origins be guided by something you deeply want to believe, i.e., that there is no God. You continually speculate about our private religious motives and how they negatively influence our rational judgment, but any acknowledgment that you have private anti-religious motives and that they at least possibly could be affecting some of your judgments is nowhere to be found in your writing. Argumentative fairness requires that you either retract all your charges regarding our alleged religious motives, concentrating only on our arguments, or, if you insist that our personal religious motives are relevant, that you lay your own personal religious motives on the table, as equally relevant.

        Surely my position ought to be clear to you by now. Yet I seem to be having to repeat myself here more than people over on BioLogos have to repeat themselves for that confused Roger guy. I seem to have to clarify over and over again what I am claiming and what I am not claiming. And I don’t think the reason for this can lie entirely in the badness of my writing. Most people tell me my writing is pretty lucid. It’s a mystery to me why these clear, basic and very general points about dialogical procedure and about metaphysical assumptions are meeting with so much intellectual resistance. They aren’t that hard to understand, and they can easily be granted to me without surrendering either your private (anti-) religious beliefs or your particular conclusions about the origin of life. You can still argue that non-intelligent, random chemical interactions are the “best explanation.” You just can’t assume it. You can still accuse us of being religiously biased in our reading of the evidence. You just can’t keep on exempting yourself from religious bias. My position has never been any more complicated than this.

        • Avatar photo Sy Garte says:


          There is nothing wrong with your writing, it is clear and lucid. The problem is that it really isn’t possible to dialog with someone whose basic premises are so different from our own. I still fail to understand why Lou is here, unless he really is on a missionary quest from Jerry Coyne (on whose blog he often hangs out), to convert some of us to atheistic materialism. Sort of a lost cause. As the author of this post, I do feel a responsibility to answer commenters, but I have a strict three and out rule (well, maybe not very strict) that after three responses and clarifications, I stop. Which is why I am no longer responding to Lou’s points on this thread. Enough is enough.

          As for the origin of life, I know a lot more about the science of it that I believe Lou does (from what I read in his comments.) Like the majority of experts in the field, I can see that problem with the origin of life is not the lack of data, but the total lack of any plausible theory than can explain the formation of an accurate genetic code in the absence of a selection mechanism. That is not about a gap of knowledge, its about a basic scientific conundrum, that really appears to have no answer.

          • Lou Jost says:

            I wonder why I am here too. Sy has pretty much come out and said that nothing could make him and his readers change their minds about these issues. Maybe that is true. But in case there are readers here who might still have open minds, I’ll still point out what I see as misleading or wrong statements about evolution or science generally. (I have no interest in the posts about pure theology and don’t comment there.)

            Sy is right that I don’t know very much about the origin of life. He probably does know more than me, but neither he nor anyone else knows enough about it to claim that abiogenesis violates some physical law. In the absence of that, saying god did it is like the Greeks saying that Zeus must throw lightning bolts just because they couldn’t figure out a naturalistic explanation for lightning. It actually took a couple thousand years of slow advances in mathematics and physics to explain that phenomenon. It might take even longer for us to figure out a pathway for the origin of life. But based on all of our past experience, it is reasonable to think that the laws which govern everything else will also turn out to apply to that, in the absence of proof to the contrary.

            James, in your last comment, in spite of all my clarifications, you continue to misrepresent my position and misrepresent what science is:

            “And of course, if the usual, restricted definition of “science” is insisted upon — as it usually is, by atheists — any “scientific” answer to the origin of life will automatically rule out some genuine logical possibilities, i.e., those that involve non-natural inputs of biological information.”

            I have said, countless times, that I don’t rule out non-natural inputs. (So why do you keep repeating that??) Such inputs are just not the best explanation, in the absence of evidence that some natural law is violated, because there is an enormous epistemic cost to positing the existence of a nonphysical mind with superpowers which violate every law we know. Don’t you see how odd it is to propose that many known physical laws can be broken, just to explain something you can’t figure out? Such an explanation would need to be backed up with solid positive evidence in order to be the “best explanation” for a phenomenon, because it implies throwing out well-tested natural laws.

            Your claim about science is one I have argued against many times both here and in BioLogos: there are no limitations on the kinds of explanations admissible in science. I have repeatedly explained that science is only about giving powerful explanations of the state of the world, and is opportunistic rather than rigid about its metaphysics. If the god hypothesis really led to solid, surprising predictions, we’d jump on it. But right now, it just looks like a “Get out of jail free” card, which theists use whenever we can’t figure out the answer to something.

            • James says:


              Nobody here claimed that abiogenesis violates any physical law. Certainly I did not. The question is whether, given what we know of the properties of basic molecules, anyone has a plausible account of how such molecules could come together, in the absence of intelligence, to form the first life. I maintain that no has provided such an account. I also maintain that, in the absence of such an account, it is unreasonable to assume that such an account will one day be forthcoming. Again and again you make me repeat that it is the assumption I’m objecting to, not the speculative possibility, of a non-intelligent origin of life.

              You misdescribe science as currently practiced. What Lou Jost thinks science is or should be, is not necessarily what science is. You can speak for yourself, but you cannot speak for other scientists. I am quite certain that Coyne (his insincere protests notwithstanding), Moran, Myers, etc. would never under any circumstances accept design inferences regarding the origin of life or biological evolution, because I am quite convinced that they hate the idea of God with every fiber of their being and are determined to try to stamp the idea of God out of the human mind and soul.

              Also, the statements on the nature of science made by Eugenie Scott, the NCSE, etc., and the general consensus of the sort of people who write on Panda’s Thumb, etc., all make it clear that these people believe that design inferences don’t belong in science because (in their mind) they all amount to God of the gaps — postulating supernatural intervention merely because we don’t yet have a natural explanation — and such postulation is (they say) to be uniformly condemned in scientific explanation.

              Also, I defy you to produce a single example from the hundreds of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published in secular biological journals in the past 75 years, where a scientist, in considering a question of origins, has seriously (i.e., at some length and not in a slighting or sarcastic manner) considered design as a candidate for the origin of something, and then argued against design in a way that indicates that he recognizes design as a scientifically respectable possibility in principle .

              So you will have to take this complaint about my alleged misdescription of science to your fellow atheists and materialists, and to your scientific peers who never mention design as a possibility in their work, not to me.

              The point about well-tested natural laws is completely irrelevant, because, if there is an all-powerful designer, then ex hypothesi that designer is not bound by any laws, even if the designer chooses to leave them completely in place and inviolate after his creative work is done. So unless you can prove that there never has been and cannot possibly be an all-powerful designer (which would require metaphysical argumentation, not scientific argumentation), you cannot rule out the possibility that natural laws were violated in order to get life started. That would be a metaphysical ruling — and one which you have repeatedly told religious people they should not be making.

              I have never used the hypothesis of design lazily, as a substitute for inability to find natural-law explanations. I think there is positive evidence for the design of life, and I have indicated in rough outline what it is. Life bears the characteristics of things that we know to be designed. It is not unreasonable (I don’t say the inference is certain, but it’s not unreasonable) to argue that similar results may well have similar causes (the cause in this case being intelligence).

              And on the negative side, if life is indeed the result of a series of cosmic accidents, then according to all our experience, that series of cosmic accidents was utterly unique, because it, and it alone, produced complex integrated self-reproducing systems beyond anything the most advanced technology of man can produce. In all other cases known to us, particles bouncing around due only to natural laws and chance don’t produce anything nearly so complex or interesting. So it seems to me the onus is on the one who believes that such marvelous complexity could have arisen by chance, to show how it might have done so. And origin-of-life theorists have (so far at least) signally failed in their efforts in this matter.

              That is why my skepticism of “chance” origin-of-life theories is entirely reasonable. I don’t say they are false; I don’t say they are impossible; I say that, based on our current knowledge of what methane, ammonia, etc. molecules can accomplish when left on their own, they are implausible, and that this leaves the field open for design as a competing explanation. There is nothing unreasonable or illogical in saying that much. And certainly such a suggestion does not imply any religious dogmatism or acceptance of any metaphysical a prioris. To say, “Maybe life was arranged by a mind; it sure as h— looks like it” is not to rule out the opposite possibility. It’s merely to keep all possibilities on the table.

              • Lou Jost says:

                As I keep saying, all options ARE on the table. (Why do you keep ignoring that?) We are only arguing about which option is more plausible.

                Here is your plausibility argument:
                “I say that, based on our current knowledge of what methane, ammonia, etc. molecules can accomplish when left on their own, they are implausible, and that this leaves the field open for design as a competing explanation.”
                Elsewhere you make the stronger claim that it is the best available explanation. But look at what you are proposing: you are saying that since a naturalistic explanation seems implausible to you based on our current knowledge of chemistry, it is more sensible to posit a new kind of nonphysical entity (for which we have no precedent) with superpowers that DEFINITELY violate our current knowledge of chemistry and physics. I am not saying this is impossible but it sure as heck is not the best available explanation, because it comes with this huge metaphysical cost (the invention of something far more complex and that violates far more laws than the thing it is trying to explain).

                You also attack my view of science, but the history of science supports me. Science is opportunistic and quite capable of incorporating god when it seems useful. Ted Davis’ many posts on BioLogos show that clearly. I agree that after Darwin, the idea of god as a scientific hypothesis became very much less useful. But every option is always on the table in science, and if the god hypothesis is not generating much interest these days, it is because it is not a productive path. Even those who believe in it seem not to take it very seriously as a research guide, and ID journals like Bio-Complexity are nearly empty.

                Both Jerry Coyne and Larry Moran agree with my view that ID is a valid scientific hypothesis that is rejected because it has not panned out. I think all three of us have published scenarios that would convince us that god is real. Can you do the same? Can you specify what it would take to prove to you that there was no god? Or are you like Sy and presumably Jon, unwilling to change your opinion no matter what?

                You are right that Jerry’s, Larry’s, and my thoughts on this contradict those of the NCSE. Here I am agreeing with you against them, and you still give me a hard time.

                You challenged me to find a scientific discussion from the last 75 years that seriously considered design. Your choice of years is significant. There was discussion of this in the years immediately following Darwin, 150 years ago. You are right that it would be very hard to find such discussions recently, at least in the biology literature. That is the fault of ID proponents who have not made productive proposals, even in their own journals. There might however be some discussions of Behe’s hypothesis. I don’t have time to look. There is also discussion of design in the cosmological literature surrounding the anthropic principle.

          • James says:


            Thanks for your encouraging words about my writing. I agree with you entirely that postulating design for the origin of life is not making an argument from gaps in knowledge. There are some serious theoretical and empirical problems with all current origin-of-life suggestions, and on the other side, information theory suggests that intelligent design is a very real possibility.

            I don’t know the extent of Lou’s knowledge of current origin-0f-life research. From statements he has made elsewhere, I infer that it is not a field in which he has done any work, and that his judgments are based more on his general reasoning than on any intimate knowledge of the scientific literature in the field. And one’s general reasoning is never completely untouched by one’s metaphysical biases. That’s true of the reasoning of theists, and it’s equally true of the reasoning of atheists. If Lou could simply concede that he has a personal bias that colors the way he approaches the origin-of-life question, as we theists concede our personal bias, we could get somewhere. But I don’t think he ever will concede that, so I guess it’s time to stop.

            I’m sorry if I’ve hogged the space here, Sy, but I’ve tried not to behave rudely toward Lou or to embarrass you in any way by the style of argument of my contributions. Thanks for your column, and for your other columns here.

            • Lou Jost says:

              You’ve been quite civil.

              Before you go, could you tell us what evidence would convince you that there is no theistic god?

            • Avatar photo Sy Garte says:


              No need to apologise. I am honored by everyone who chooses to spend time commenting on my post (yes, Lou, you also), and I do think your points are cogent and well worth reading. And thanks for the compliments.

  10. James says:


    Quick clean-up replies to your last:

    1. Since it seems that you, Jerry, and Larry are the only three atheist scientists in the world you can name who take your position regarding design as a potentially scientific hypothesis, I maintain my stance — your position is not typical of modern atheist scientists in general, and you should stop representing your view of what “science” is or ought to be as the view that most atheist scientists actually practice.

    2. To blame the modern intelligent design movement — which dates back to only 1995 — for the lack of serious consideration of design explanations in biology journals for the past 75 years is ridiculous. 75 years would take us back to 1938. Where are the articles, which according to you should have been abundant (since scientists, according to you, have always been open to all approaches, including design approaches), between 1938 and 1995, in which scientists, in explaining the origin of this or that thing — whether of the camera eye or the bat’s sonar or the origin of life itself — take seriously the hypothesis of design, and give reasons for preferring a non-design explanation after a comparison with a design explanation? The fact is that over the past century biologists have simply dismissed design solutions in practice (and have mostly regarded them as illegitimate even in theory), and have considered only non-design solutions. You are simply misrepresenting millions of pages of peer-reviewed biology literature if you don’t acknowledge its omission of serious discussion of design explanations.

    3. It does not surprise me that design is touched on in physics in relation to the anthropic principle. Physicists taken as a group have always been more open to broader philosophical considerations than biologists taken as a group. It’s no surprise to me that among the TEs, the most thoughtful are Gingerich, Polkinghorne, Russell, etc., people trained in physics/astronomy, and the least thoughtful are Venema, Falk, Applegate, etc. — people trained in genetics and other branches of biology. And when the most brilliant modern physicists — Hoyle and Heisenberg and so on — had gotten over physics’ romance with Laplacian ideals, and were starting to talk about God again, the leading biologists of the period — Monod, Gaylord Simpson, Mayr, Gould, etc. — were running in the opposite direction, back into the materialism and reductionism of the 19th century. Biology has had metaphysical tunnel vision for pretty nearly a century now, to the point where “philosophical biologist” is almost a contradiction in terms.

    4. Regarding what it would take to cause me to question my belief in God, for starters, you could prove to me that God is a redundant hypothesis regarding the origin of life by showing me a plausible pathway to a simple living organism from methane and ammonia and water and oxygen and nitrogen molecules, where only chance collisions and natural laws are used to get there. And after that, you could prove to me that Hawking isn’t just blowing atheist smoke (most likely reefer smoke) when he claims that you can generate universes for free out of the “quantum vacuum.”

    5. The idea of design in itself does not imply the breaking of any natural laws. However, there is no cost at all to the practice of science, even if God or some other intelligent designer literally broke natural laws in order to create the first life. Science could still go on its merry way, charting how life worked after God created it. For example, population genetics would be completely unaffected even if geneticists knew for a certainty that the first life on earth was created by a miracle of God. They wouldn’t calculate the spread of alleles through a population any differently than they would under the assumption that the first life occurred by accident. Biology doesn’t need the assumption that the first life occurred by accident. Biology takes life as it finds it, and elaborates its laws. Biologists should therefore have no axe to grind one way or the other regarding the origin of life — unless metaphysical biases rather than scientific needs are driving them.

    And now that I’ve done my clean-up, I’m exiting. It’s clear you aren’t ever going to admit that you have a personal bias against God’s existence, and yet you won’t promise to refrain from accusing all of us of having a personal bias in favor of God’s existence, so we don’t have a level playing field, and I won’t argue on anything but a level playing field. You don’t get to design the playing field to your advantage, or to make any other rules of the debate unilaterally. If you want to do that, I suggest you start your own blog.

    • Lou Jost says:

      This shouldn’t be an argument about who is more biased, but about the details. I’m not designing the playing field here.But anyway thanks for the final responses. Short comments on them to end this for me:

      1. You said “it seems that you, Jerry, and Larry are the only three atheist scientists in the world you can name who take your position regarding design as a potentially scientific hypothesis.” This is a snide and inaccurate comment. Many thoughtful scientists and philosophers agree with my position. (E.g. look up Maarten Boudry’s philosophical work.) It may be a minority view, but it is philosophically justified.

      2. You say I blame the modern ID movement for not producing much research. But it is you who added the qualifier “modern” (meaning, for you, post-1995!) The ID movement has been around for longer than Darwinian evolution. It is dishonest of you to give them the excuse that there hasn’t been enough time. You just ignore my point that the design hypothesis was dealt with early on, and you insist I should be able to show you lots of articles considering ID after 1938. By then, their ship had sailed. Darwin himself had dealt with some of the examples you gave, and subsequent work has supported the evolutionary view, not the ID view.
      It is not my fault that the ID hypothesis lacked explanatory and predictive power and was constantly refuted when closely examined. As I keep telling you, scientists want to discover stuff and are opportunistic, and if design had been a productive hypothesis, scientists would have jumped on it. Look how quickly scientists left the Newtonian causal paradigm and the deeply-ingrained ideas about the absolute nature of space and time. These are huge metaphysical shifts but they were made very quickly, because they worked and led to lots of new insights and predictions. ID didn’t. Don’t blame scientists–blame reality.

      3. Finally I can agree with you. Yes physicists, and especially cosmologists, are bolder about new metaphysics than biologists. For what it is worth, my graduate school training was mostly in physics, focussing on the metaphysical implications of quantum mechanics. You can’t begin to imagine how weird that gets.

      4. Thanks for answering my question about what it would take to convince you that there (probably) wasn’t a theistic god.

      5. “The idea of design in itself does not imply the breaking of any natural laws.” That’s not quite right when, as here, the designer is non-physical (we had agreed to set aside the idea that the designer was an alien, since that would only lead to the question of how the aliens arose). Then, you misunderstood or misrepresented my comments on the metaphysical cost of ID. I did not say hypothesizing a designer would impede science. My point was that you were trying to resolve what you regarded as a physically-implausible pathway, by inventing a more-physically-implausible pathway which breaks more laws than the original conundrum (which in fact apparently breaks no laws at all but is only “implausible” to you).

      “…You aren’t ever going to admit that you have a personal bias against God’s existence” I don’t have such a bias. I used to believe in a god. Then I realized the evidence was just not there.

      • James says:

        Mere footnotes, Lou:

        On your prefatory paragraph: If this shouldn’t be an argument about who is more biased, then your habit of mentioning Christian biases is one that you should abandon.

        On your 1: I was speaking only of scientists, not philosophers, and I had in mind mainly those scientists (and science grad students, etc.) who engage in internet debates on these matters, or otherwise publish or speak popularly on religion/science issues. Most of them seem to believe that design inferences do not belong in science. You and I agree that this is wrong, but I was not attacking your position, only disputing your characterization of what most the partisans on your side think. And I didn’t mean to be “snide”; it was more like a friendly elbow to the ribs, but tone doesn’t always come across on the internet.

        On your 2: We got tangled up in words. By ID I thought you meant Phil Johnson, Mike Behe, etc., since that is usually what “ID” (as opposed to generic “intelligent design,” which could include Paley and some ancient Greeks) refers to. My point was that design hypotheses, whether of a design guiding evolution or of a design of the first life, are almost never even discussed, let alone refuted, in biological literature, and haven’t been for at least 75 years (and that’s a conservative estimate). If biologists in the past 100 years were really open to design hypotheses, as you say, they would be discussed (if only to be rejected) more often than they in fact have been, in the technical literature. But in fact the whole effort of modern biology has been to find non-design hypotheses, and when most biologists speak of scientific accounts of origins, they mean (without saying it explicitly) accounts in which chance and natural laws, without any planning, produce life, new species, and man. Design hypotheses are tacitly excluded, even where no statement of principle against design hypotheses is pronounced. I think this is a wholly accurate description of the scientific literature.

        On your 3: Glad to hear about your physics. And actually I can “begin to imagine how weird it gets” as I’ve read a fair bit; but of course I make no claim to understand the math involved, or to be able to visualize the “quantum world” in the normal 3-D picture thinking that we all use in everyday life. It’s strange stuff.

        On your 4: You’re welcome.

        On your 5 paragraph 1: My statement, as I qualified it, remains correct; but I agree that in some versions of creation the designer “breaks physical laws.” In others, the designer establishes the physical laws, and then never breaks them, but has so designed them that the appearance of life and man is inevitable. Thus, for Stephen Meyer, the designer must break physical laws, at least once, to create life, whereas for Michael Denton, the designer’s only supernatural (“pre-natural” would be more accurate) act is to establish the physical laws and the first matter, after which breaking laws is unnecessary, because of the front-loaded design. But my point was that even if the designer broke physical laws to create life, that does not stop biological science from proceeding — which is, as you know if you follow these debates, an extremely common charge against ID, that believing the first life was specially created would bring modern science to a standstill, throw the USA behind third-world countries in science education, etc. This is of course a hysterical overreaction. I’m glad that you do not share it.

        On your 5, paragraph 2: If I thought that you were merely skeptical about the existence of God, if I thought that your position was merely that there is not enough evidence to convince you, I would have no problem with your position. Skepticism in the proper sense (as opposed to the twisted sense employed by Michael Shermer and others) is rational, and a good thing to have in the world. So if people were constantly bothering you, trying to get you to be Christian, and you responded with skepticism to their claims, I would defend your right to tell the door-knocking evangelists to buzz off and leave you alone. But from your wholly voluntary, self-initiated, (and, if I may say so) almost obsessive activity on internet websites which you know to be frequented by Christians, it seems that you are not merely “unmoved until convinced by better arguments,” but actively campaigning against belief in God, and it also seems to me that you resist granting even reasonable arguments (and I fully admit there are plenty of unreasonable arguments for God, especially from American fundamentalists) any value, with a doggedness that suggests an a priori dislike of the conclusion that God exists.

        My other point on this is that you very often tie in your rejection of God to your scientific training, and very often imply that a rational, scientifically-trained thinker should find belief in God impossible, or at least implausible; but of course many top-of-the-line or at least very competent scientists (Collins, Clerk Maxwell, Townes, Polkinghorne, etc.) do not agree with that, which suggests that it is not scientific rationality per se that is opposed to belief in God, but only the attitude which certain scientists bring to the question of God. That attitude will, willy-nilly, have some metaphysical biases at its foundation, as all attitudes toward God do. I thus find it hard to imagine that your “scientific” rejection of God is not guided in part by a personal metaphysical inclination. I do not believe that all your thinking about God proceeds from the golden empyrean of pure Reason, utterly untainted by the religious (or anti-religious) biases we normal mortals have. If it does, you are perhaps the first human being in history who has obtained such metaphysical objectivity.

    • Lou Jost says:

      I can’t resist (and will probably regret) one last observation, regarding your answer to my question about what would persuade you that there is no theistic god. You said you would not be persuaded until every detail about the origin of life and the cosmos was filled in by naturalistic science. I just want to point out what an enormous pro-god bias this reveals. The naturalistic paradigm has been extremely successful, and there is abundant positive evidence in its favor for everything we see happening today. There is zero evidence that god manipulates the physical world today. Yet you place a heavy burden of proof on the naturalistic paradigm, and assume the truth of the god-hypothesis in the absence of any positive evidence for it in the world today. This is not equivalent to a naturalistic bias, which is just a bias in favor of what we see working successfully every day.

      • James says:

        A final-final response to your final comment, Lou:

        Where did I say that I “would not be persuaded until every detail about the origin of life and the cosmos was filled in by naturalistic science”? If all the “big” origins questions could be settled in a way that makes the idea of God redundant, I would not insist on every detail. Further, I don’t demand verification of the actual historical sequence, but only ask for plausible pathways. There is no pro-God bias in asking for plausible pathways when someone proposes a hypothetical process for the emergence of life that, on the surface at least, seems quite far-fetched and implausible. (Any more than there is anti-God bias in your asking why there are features in nature that don’t seem well-designed.) If you are being rational in withholding belief in a designer until you have more evidence, I am being rational in withholding belief that random motions of methane, hydrogen, oxygen, water, etc. can generate a living creature, until I see more evidence of what complex things such a process can build.

        You say you are not rejecting God in a biased way, but merely waiting for more evidence before you believe in his existence. Well, I am not rejecting the origin of life by the unguided motion of chemicals, but merely waiting for more evidence before I will believe that it happened that way. I don’t deny; I merely refuse assent in the absence of strong positive evidence in its favor. That is perfectly rational, even perfectly scientific behavior.

        Next, I’ve never questioned “the naturalistic paradigm” — indeed, I think that scientists should be looking primarily for natural causes, as I think that nature in its current form works regularly. But even if we assume that the natural entitites we have today work with 100% regularity, there is no reason to assume that natural causes can explain the origin of every natural entity. They may or may not be able to explain the origin of life, for example. That’s something to be proved, not to be assumed.

        Finally, I do not “assume the truth of the god-hypothesis”; I have repeatedly said that we should assume neither God nor natural causes only, or, to put it more accurately, that we should assume neither intelligent design nor emergence out of random motions of matter, in matters of origins. Living things certainly look like things that could only have arisen due to intelligence; even a hard-bitten unbeliever like Dawkins says that up front and center in his writing. It is therefore not unreasonable to incline to the view that they owe their origin to intelligence. However, it is also not unreasonable to entertain the view that apparent design is not actual design, and that natural processes can serve as a designer-substitute. It should come down an examination of the evidence of nature, and a judgment which explanation is more intrinsically plausible, does justice to the most data, etc. But there are many imponderables, and weighting possibilities is very difficult. Thus, there is plenty of room for metaphysical biases to creep in. I’ve just said that atheists need to guard against their biases as much as believers do. That should be a truism, not something anyone should have to argue for.

        • Lou Jost says:

          Thanks for these last comments. I do agree with your last couple of sentences above. And your clarification about not needing every detail of a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life is helpful. Seems a good place to end this discussion. Until the next issue,

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