At the website of a weekly newspaper called the Algemeiner Journal, described by Wikipedia as “a New York-based weekly newspaper, covering American and international Jewish and Israel-related news,” we found this interesting article by an orthodox rabbi: A Belated Reply to Dr. P.Z. Myers.
It’s a thoughtful piece in which the rabbi hopes to challenge PZ to a debate. He talks a lot about “specified complexity” and “functional complexity,” but then he gets away from that. He frames the debate by acknowledging that the universe is billions of years old, and that evolution has been occurring on Earth for a very long time, and a few other items, such as:
4. At the present time there is no conclusive evidence to support any particular scientific theory which would explain how the gap between non-organic chemicals on the early Earth and the first living bacterium was crossed.
5. The fact that at present there is no plausible scientific theory to provide a naturalistic explanation of how life emerged from non-life does not, in and of itself, mean that it did not happen and does not preclude the possibility that such a theory will be discovered in the future. Almost all origin-of-life researchers believe that one day such a theory will be discovered.
6. The fact that such a scientific theory does not exist, does not in and of itself lead to the conclusion that life was created by some sort of intelligent creator.
The ultimate question he wants to discuss is this:
What is the most reasonable explanation for the origin of life on Earth: An intelligent creator or an unguided, naturalistic process?
That’s a good question, intelligently asked, and it’s worth some thought. We have no intention of stepping on PZ’s toes here. He’s a big boy and he can certainly handle his end of this debate — if he chooses to become engaged. But whether he does or doesn’t (he may be doing so even as we speak), we thought the rabbi’s question was worthy of some attention, so we herewith offer a few thoughts that occur to us.
Our guess is that the rabbi is basing his incredulous attitude about the natural occurrence of life on his notion that it’s an unlikely and therefore (to him) an inherently incredible happening. Okay, we understand that, but does it justify even considering the conclusion that life’s origin was supernatural?
What is a supernatural event? To us, it’s something that — quite simply — cannot happen according to natural law; it requires supernatural intervention to bring it about. Scripture abounds with such events — talking serpents, Noah’s Flood, the burning bush, turning water into wine, and of course the Resurrection. Those are miracles, no question about it.
The rabbi must concede that the combining of organic molecules into a self-replicating molecule isn’t literally impossible — it doesn’t contradict anything we know about chemistry and physics. Indeed, scientists keep getting closer to producing synthetic life in the lab (see Synthesis of Self-Replicating RNA Molecules).
If the rabbi concedes, as he should, that the natural emergence of life isn’t impossible, then we’re left with two facts in his favor: (1) we haven’t done it yet in the lab; and (2) we haven’t observed it happen in the wild. Number one doesn’t prove anything, and the rabbi recognizes this. Scientists engaged in such work confidently predict that they will accomplish their goal, perhaps within a decade, or even sooner — see Venter says ‘synthetic life coming’.
As for item number two, just because we haven’t seen organic molecules self-assemble into something that could be described as life doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. The circumstances may be so unusual as to be a once-in-a-billion-years event; but with all the organic material drifting around in the oceans, it could be something that routinely happens from time to time — perhaps it happens quite often. However, given all the competing life that already exists, anything new that shows up probably doesn’t have much of a future, so we’re unlikely to ever become aware of it. Whether or not totally new life sometimes develops in the murky depths, we don’t search all the millions of cubic miles of ocean for such things, so they’re never seen. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen naturally, or that it hasn’t happened.
We conclude that because the possibility of life occurring naturally is not something contrary to the laws of nature — regardless of the rarity of such an event — it’s therefore not a miracle. That being the case, there is no need to resort to the rabbi’s “intelligent creator” to account for the existence of life. This is, perhaps, an extreme example of Occam’s razor, but it’s applicable nevertheless.
We’ve said before (see Creationism’s Fallacy of Retrospective Astonishment) that everything is improbable, including our own individual existence. But no one would rationally conclude that everything is a miracle. The origin of life is no different, in principle. Thus we reject the rabbi’s question.
There’s much more to be said about this topic. We’ve obviously only scratched the surface. We’ll leave it to you to offer your own thoughts.
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