Soft Theism: Do Living Things Have a Life Force?

Soft Theism: Do Living Things Have a Life Force? April 9, 2021

We’re responding to an imaginary dialogue that explores Soft Theism, which is basically Christianity without the unpleasant baggage. Can jettisoning Christianity’s crazy bits make it acceptable? Read part 1 here.

This is post 17 in this series, and the topic is the life force. Is this a mandatory theory that fills gaps that naturalism can’t, or is it unnecessary special pleading?

Life force

Atheist: It may seem to you like there’s some special “spark” that makes life different from non-life, but that’s not really the case. At the molecular level, it’s still just chemistry. Why would some intelligence be required for chemistry to progress to the point of what we call life?

Soft Theist: All I can say is . . . how could it not require it!? To me, it’s axiomatic, it’s obvious. No matter how long it took, consciousness emerging from rocks does not make sense to me, unless there is some conscious intelligence behind that whole process. . . .

Cross Examined Blog: You say, “it’s axiomatic, it’s obvious,” and I think that’s your problem. Lots of things seem obvious from our inexpert standpoint, but when experts have discarded those positions, we must remember that expert opinion trumps novice common sense. Let’s have a bit of humility.

You say that the conventional scientific explanation for consciousness doesn’t make sense to you, but do you have the background in the relevant fields for your intuition to count for anything?

You say that human consciousness can’t exist without a cause, and you solve that problem with a Creator that exists without a cause.

Must we posit a life force?

So, you think there is some sort of life force? But . . . the philosophy of . . . Vitalism . . . has long since been discredited. The theory that . . . life is dependent on some force distinct from chemical or physical forces.

Ahh, I think vitalism is a caricature of what is actually a sound idea. Agreed, that historically vitalism is nonsense; there are not magical forces behind this, that, and everything else. But the basic idea, that living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities, I think, is sound. There is a life force! There is a difference—a PROFOUND difference—between a live creature and a dead one!

A profound difference? Let’s think about that. A live thing is different from a dead thing like a wound-up mechanical clock is different from a wound-down clock. Or: water in a river shapes the river bank, but that stops if the river dries up.

You’ll say that dead clocks can be wound up again, and dry rivers can be restarted with rain, but a dead person is dead. You’re looking for a life force here, but “dead” is a moving target. Thanks to medical advances, people who would have been dead in the past from infection, scurvy, diabetes, cardiac dysrhythmia, and so on aren’t today. Does a life force leave the body when a heart stops and return after CPR and adrenaline? Or is this better explained by saying that quick action ensures that the body’s cells don’t die, and restarting the heart through mechanical action and drugs returns the body to a state where the heart pumps blood to keep those cells healthy?

I don’t see what’s magical about this. When a cell stops getting nutrients, it dies. The process of cell death in this way is well understood, and there’s no “and then the life force goes away” step. At a higher level, the various ways that an organ or a living being can die (such as injury or age) have no need for this idea.

I think the wound-down clock is an effective parallel. Wind it back up again and it does its job, and feed a starving person, and they return to health. A smashed clock is like a body smashed in a car accident. A digital clock with the battery sealed inside is like a person with a finite lifespan. You’d be right to say that we know a lot less about human health than about clocks, but if you want to image a life force, we need to see an argument.

Healing is unexplainable naturally

When I do yardwork and get a scratch on my arm, a few days later, it’s healed. There is some sort of life force.

I’m sorry. You lost me again. How can a well described and understood process, such as healing, be in any way supernatural? An unmeasurable force that animates us!? Science has never found such a force.

I disagree. You CAN measure an organism to determine whether it’s alive or dead. You can’t measure the life force in and of itself, but you can measure its effects, its results, like heartbeat, breathing and so on. So, if you can measure it, doesn’t that prove it exists?

I can listen to a mechanical clock to hear if it’s ticking. Am I detecting the mechanical equivalent of a life force, or can this be explained without that hypothesis?

It’s like gravity. You can’t measure the force of gravity itself, per se, but you can measure its effects and results, and therefore, we know it exists, and is active, even though the force itself, is an invisible, unmeasurable, non-isolatable thing. I’m not making forces up. There is clearly a difference between a live squirrel and a dead one. . . . You would say gravity is measurable. I say life force is measurable also!

We know that gravity is measurable because scientists have measured its force. They’ve also measured Higgs bosons, which are caused by the field that gives things mass. We turn to physicists for information about gravity, and if you want to argue your case for a life force, you must point to the biological consensus.

Imagine a complex domino pattern made of thousands of dominoes. The first domino is knocked over, and the process begins. It’ll eventually run out of upright dominoes, and the process will end. Sometimes, a domino misses its successor, and the process unexpectedly ends. Do we need to imagine a special force to explain this? That a force was in effect while the dominoes were tumbling but left when it stopped? True, human metabolism is more complex and harder to understand than dominoes, but this does nothing to argue for a life force.

Is this grounded in reality?

But if you believe things exist outside the physical laws of the universe, then you can believe anything.

I don’t think that follows at all. Positing a source for nature itself, is to me very reasonable. That doesn’t mean I’m going to believe in ghosts and goblins.

Are ghosts and goblins more fanciful or ridiculous than a Creator? The claims made for a ghost are much more modest than those for a Creator.

But in [the] last 100 years what we’ve learned in biology, genetics, etc. essentially leaves nothing for this supposed life force to do.

Yes, science explains the operation of that life force, but not its existence. Again, that subtle difference atheists never get. All the ingredients needed for life, do not equal . . . life. I think the life force is what makes all these biochemical reactions work. . . .

What life force? Show me this in a biology textbook. Without this, you’re no more credible than the Creationist. With abiogenesis and consciousness, you at least had real topics with open questions.

I, um, hate to give Christian creationists any credit but I heard one make an interesting point. He said no one has ever produced life in a lab, and if a group of scientists get together some day in the future and DO succeed, then what would that prove? . . . that life requires intelligence, to produce it.

Or that they’ve proven a plausible sequence of chemical reactions by which life on earth could’ve begun.

Ha ha. Or, just that you need to get the right ingredients together with a source of energy . . . over time. We haven’t completely mapped out the path from non-life to life yet . . . but we’re pretty close. All you need is basic physics to end up with chemistry, and the right chemistry leads to life . . . to brains . . . to human intelligence. Why would an outside intelligence need to be involved at any point?

What is the God hypothesis good for?

I agree—God is a solution looking for a problem. Has Soft Theism found such a problem, or will it always be at the frontier of science, pretentiously pointing to questions it didn’t uncover and saying, “Well then what about this?”?

I can only answer that by again asking the opposite question—How could [an outside intelligence] not be involved? Or maybe I should say . . . go ahead, prove to me you can create life from inanimate materials.

Prove to you? No, the burden of proof is yours. All you have is, “Science hasn’t explained abiogenesis. Maybe this is where God is hiding!” Yes, maybe a century from now abiogenesis will be the first question about which science throws up its hands and admits that the God hypothesis looks pretty good. But that’s certainly not the way to bet.

You’re being like the Creationists who argue some form of “Science has unanswered questions; therefore, God.” They’ll never stand their ground, saying that if you solve this scientific puzzle, they will reject their faith because that was part of their foundation. Science is never part of their foundation; they just attack things they think are in ours! They have no skin in the game.

Or better yet, prove to me that you can create matter out of nothing. Or show me you can create a law of nature. Or can create a human being with intelligence. I say there is logically an intelligent life force behind all these . . . phenomena . . . an entity commonly referred to, as God.

Create matter out of nothing? Maybe there’s no matter to create. With the zero-energy universe hypothesis, positive and negative energy cancel each other out, leaving a net energy of zero. Matter is part of the positive energy, and negative energy in the form of gravity cancels it out.

This is just a hypothesis at the moment and so doesn’t thoroughly resolve your challenge. But it is a nice reminder that naive intuition at the frontier of science doesn’t count for much.

Next: God’s role in physics and logic

Insanity in individuals is something rare,
but in groups, parties, nations and epochs,
it is the rule.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

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Image from Marco Verch Professional Photographer (license CC BY 2.0)
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