Life as a cruise

Way back in 1968, for reasons I couldn’t fathom even then, I found myself as a Lower Sixth form student on a school cruise somewhere in the Mediterranean, being asked to join a “Brains Trust” panel to entertain the other students. Mercifully I remember little about it, apart from its being chaired by a well-known journalist from the Daily Mirror (we didn’t take the Mirror so I’d never heard of her). The most memorable thing was that she took us panel-members for an illicit alcoholic beverage in the ship’s lounge, strictly off limits to the broad masses of students, afterwards. It was my first and last experience of academic privilege.

One adult member of the panel was the ship’s chaplain – a nice kind of guy in an Anglican way. The only question I can remember was one to which he gave a thought-provoking reply (saving me, as a Christian zoology student of immature views, from putting my foot in it theologically). The question referred to recent “advances” in the study of the origin life (perhaps the Miller-Urey experiments) and the claim that before long life would be made in the test-tube. Wouldn’t that show that God was unnecessary?

The context of the question wasn’t, I think, anything about baiting the priest. Then, far more than now, the prevalent layman’s view was still essentially vitalist: life was a very special divine creation, rather than just complicated chemistry. The chaplain’s reply was astute for the time: if such an event ever happened, he said, it would be done by clever people using careful planning, and so would show only that life required such input. Put into more academic terms, that could have been translated along the lines that “the origin of life is absolutely dependent on highly specific boundary conditions”. Or perhaps, nowadays, it might have been stated in information terms.

Forty-six years on the question (and the journalistic claims about the imminence of artificial life that presumably prompted it) seems quaintly optimistic, and the task a lot more daunting than it seemed then. But the chaplain’s answer remains as valid. The only way any artificial life one could conceive could dismiss an intelligent creator (and conceivable mechanisms seem even more remote than in 1968) would be if it were found that there were no tightly constrained boundary conditions for life at all, or more probablistically, that the required boundary conditions are so ubiquitous as to appear unproblematic.

On that last point: interesting things that are common in the universe – for example the peculiar properties of water, or iron – are the basis of all natural science. Science is about reproducibility. But in terms of teleology even such common events only push the boundary conditions issue back to the origin of creation. Why does water, or iron, or life, have those extraordinary properties? In the end, as for the universe itself, the only alternatives are design or chance, and it is certainly a valid question to ask how big a chance there is of life forming, given the local conditions we find here on earth. Yet the issue of how big a chance there is of our local conditions themselves existing in the first place is fundamentally the same question, pushed further up the causal chain. This, of course, is the issue of cosmic fine tuning that emerged decades after my chaplain anwered the question by unconsciously invoking it –  decades in which the necessary boundary conditions for life have proved to be more tightly constrained than ever.

The task for the origin of life investigator would seem to be, simply stated, to discover those boundary conditions of life. If one could create life in a laboratory, one could at last say what it requires. That would put one in a better position to determine whether those conditions could ever plausibly arise in the natural situation.

One can do that already in a small way with the Miller-Urey experiment. It has now been shown both in the lab, and in studies on meteorites containing organics, that extended time will not give any greater opportunity for amino-acids to polymerise further into polypeptides because they’re not an end product of the reaction, but an intermediate product leaving only traces. The reaction always proceeds by the Maillard reaction to produce tars. In other words the amino acids cook long before they can polymerise.

The question is then whether science can, in principle, say that some set of boundary conditions is impossible in nature. One clearly could seldom discount it by conclusive proof. Perhaps there is a natural process somewhere that can uncook steak and turn burnt toast into a fresh loaf. But empirical science is based on probabilities, not logical certainties. As I’ve said before, most statistical science, eg in medicine, is happy to call events outside three standard deviations “chance association,” not “causal link.” One would not normally argue that, since Rich Tea biscuits have been produced in quantity by Nabisco, the same is possible in nature. In that case, surely science is not so rigidly defined as “empirical” as to insist on asking the philosophers to rule on the matter?

These thoughts are prompted by the current series on Stephen Meyer’s book, and Intelligent Design in general, on BioLogos. The core issue of disagreement, emphasised in the 15th September piece by Alister McGrath, seems to be that whilst it’s OK to extrapolate to design from belief in God, to extrapolate to God by inferring design is not. He doesn’t mention if it’s legitimate for Christians to extrapolate from belief in God to non-design in nature (if your God is willing to fully-gift your creation sufficiently), which seems common enough, as does its reverse, ie that there is evidence of non-design in nature that precludes God as its designer, such as inefficiency, evil effects and so on.

Be that as it may, in point of fact my experience from 1968, quite apart from multiple examples down the history of both the Church and Western culture, suggest that whether legitimate or not, multitudes of people since Aristotle have seen design in life and extrapolated its source to God, long before either Meyer or McGrath had opinions on the matter. If it’s an error, it’s a near-universal one, and so one wonder why it deserves such opprobrium.

But on the evidence of that series the modern TE’s position can be said to start from his belief that “God designed the universe”,  so that he has no need to prove it to anyone, least of all himself. It’s unconnected with any actual observations, and is rather one of his working axioms, unless he keeps one set of axioms for work, and a completely different one for weekends.

So if he were cornered by spotty sixth formers on a cruise ship and asked whether creating artificial life would remove the need for God, his answer would surely be “No it would not, for without God there would be no universe, and hence no life, and hence no scientists to synthesize it artificially.”

Now to my mind he’d do well to stop at that. But suppose he were to attempt to differentiate his position from the chaplain in the next seat, who agrees with that answer, but appears to have read too much William Paley and invalidily compared life to a human scientist’s experimental design.

“Yes,” the TE might say, “I’m a biologist and a Christian, and I rejoice to be able to see the creation of God daily in my work. I’m convinced that God’s love and wisdom are behind all the teeming wonder of life. But scientifically it would be quite wrong to see life as evidence for God, and indeed it’s scurrilous to say that nature gives evidence for God’s existence. Although creating life in the lab is a daunting task, there is likely to be some perfectly natural explanation for life’s origin, which doesn’t require an intelligent designer.”

“But didn’t you just say,” interjects the spottiest student of all, “that without without God’s design neither the universe, nor life, would exist at all? What is this “natural” that exists apart from God? Isn’t your answer like saying that the life-synthesis experiment doesn’t require a scientist to design it and run it because it doesn’t work by magic?”

How would you answer? I think I’d suggest it was time to get to the bar.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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