The religious apologetics of naturalistic materialism

James Tour, as many of you will know, is a noted chemist who wears his Christian faith on his sleeve, unashamedly engaging in apologetics alongside his groundbreaking research, particularly that involving nano-particles.

He achieved some notoriety in Evolutionary Creation circles by asking somebody, anybody, to explain to him – in scientific detail – how evolution could actually work. He has interacted with my friend and erstwhile writing colleague Josh Swamidass, cordially but without, I believe, reaching agreement.

Tour has more recently been concentrating on the origin of life, and eventually issued a 60 day challenge to named leaders in the OoL field to answer five key questions essential to explaining life naturalistically. Given that he only received one constructive reply – an invitation to debate in the future – he considers the challenge successful, and so will not be taking down his videos on the Origin problem as he conditionally promised.

Now, this exercise was certainly pure apologetics rather than the sober pursuit of science “by the accepted rules.” But given the way the game is, in practice, structured, I think it was a valid exercise. Public disputation on scientific matters has a long and scientifically respectable history, as is demonstrated by the continued use of the debate between Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce on Darwin’s theory in order to to validate natural selection, though the disputation was held 163 years ago and was not quite as one-sided as we are usually led to believe.

It is certainly telling when, as happened to Tour, a leading researcher (Steve Benner) says you are wrong, claims to be able to prove it easily in one hour, and then pleads pressure of work and poor health to refuse.

Now, I haven’t followed James Tour’s video series closely, but I already had a working knowledge of the current state of OoL play from my reading since around 2010, and I’m bound to agree with Tour that apart from speculation the question is no further on than it was when the Miller-Urey experiments were performed in the year of my birth. All that new knowledge has done is, in fact, to reveal ever more hurdles to be overcome.

Still, I suppose it is possible that Lee Cronin’s planned encounter with Tour will change all that, and show a clear path to some rather different form of life that could have begun to undergo variation and selection under non-laboratory conditions to result in the biosphere we know today. But personally my first seventy-one years have offered nothing to convince me of that. But today I want to summarise, and critique, some of the reasons I’ve been given over the years why I should still believe in RNA-world, or any of the other competing hypotheses that might, if they had sufficient evidence, explain one or two pieces of the massive jigsaw.

The first “rule of the game” seems to be that it is legitimate to base present scientific assurance on possible future discoveries. When considered dispassionately this is an extraordinarily religious attitude, only of course without a corresponding belief in a God who might well promise to reveal truths in the future. It is the equivalent of Galileo’s critics saying, and so putting in the text-books, “We can’t currently prove that the sun moves round the earth, but undoubtedly the next few decades will provide the necessary evidence.” The last seven decades of my life suggest otherwise with OoL.

The second, hidden, religious (or strictly, metaphysical) assumption behind this claim is that naturalistic materialism is the true faith, and that science is its infallible prophet, and ergo the answer will turn up on principle. Neither assumption is particularly well-founded. But it leads to extraordinary blind-spots, even amongst scientists claiming to be Christians, whose reasons for disenchanting the theistic Creation appear to me to require some very convoluted philosophising. I remember a British theistic evolutionist (whose name I forget, though it’s buried somewhere in this website) responding to Steve Meyer’s Signature in the Cell by saying that we can’t yet explain the origin of life, but when we do it will certainly prove to have occurred by some natural process.

He didn’t define “natural,” and I doubt he could have done in any watertight way. But as I’ve often pointed out in the past, the word’s only plausible meaning in a theistic universe is that which happens regularly and predictably. In fact that’s the only useful meaning even in an atheistic one. But the origin of life has proven to be the antithesis of regular and predictable, since spontaneous generation was finally debunked long ago.

The third, and most pernicious, “rule of the game” in science, though, is the refusal to accept, or at least admit acceptance, of agnosticism on natters where there is no definitive science. I don’t know how often I’ve heard that it is illegitimate for ID proponents to point out the shortcomings of naturalistic theories without substituting better-substantiated ones (those involving God being, of course, inadmissible because of the second “rule of the game”). RNA-world may have no evidence to make it more than speculation, but if it’s the best we’ve got, it is “the science” until a better theory turns up.

I suppose what is in mind is the way that geocentrism was accepted science until better evidence for heliocentrism displaced it. But in fact there was very good evidence for geocentrism compared to RNA-world, in addition to which it appeared to be in tune with the experience of mankind from time immemorial. The best analogy would be that from time immemorial mankind has believed that God created life, and that seems to include Charles Darwin in the final chapter of his Origin of the Species. Why, then, should it not be legitimate to assume this time-honoured special creation as answering the case until a “regular and predictable” pathway might be found?

If special creation must be rejected, however, (on a priori religious grounds) the insistence that a bad theory is better than no theory is guaranteed, and perhaps intended, to convey the impression that scientists know what they do not know. This is what Tour’s challenge exposed to the public eye – you claim, he said, to be on the brink of explaining life in detail, already knowing the principles, but in fact you know less than you thought you did after Miller-Urey seven decades ago.

But we do not insist, in this way, on the absence of a vacuum in other walks of life. The scientist who gives the reason for disbelief in God as the amount of human evil in the world (and there are many such scientists) is never called to account for not producing an explanation for the moral absolutism that led them to reject God.

When I was a police surgeon I dealt with a particularly brutal murder, for which no perpetrator has ever been found. Imagine the outrage if some acquaintance of the victim had been banged up for life (or in a former age executed) without good evidence, pending the discovery of a better culprit. In fact, when a crime becomes a cause celebre, the pressure to maintain one’s reputation, or the opportunity to further one’s career, has been known to lead investigating officers to fabricate wrongful convictions rather than admit the fallibility of their police methods.

But of course, although so much in the justification of Origin of Life research has a religious character, we are dealing in that matter with Science™ and Scientists, so we can dismiss any consideration of reputations or careers being significant factors in the matter. Can’t we.

Laboratory abiogensis is close to a solution
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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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