Chapter 5. The First Life: Natural Law or Divine Awe?
In this chapter, G&T defend a design argument focused on the first life. They also present a variety of objections to scientism and materialism.
I will provide a very brief summary of their points, before providing my critique.
(i) Argument to Design of the First Life: G&T argue that the origin of the first life is evidence favoring theism over naturalism. They emphasize the following points: (1) all life, including the first life, contains specified complexity; (2) only an intelligent cause could generate the specified complexity required for the first life; (3) objections to naturalistic explanations for the origin of life; and (4) the impossibility of life arising from nonlife by chance alone.
(ii) Some Critical Comments:
(a) Straw Men: This chapter is an instance of a familiar feature of anti-atheism apologetics: caricaturing the actual beliefs and arguments of atheists to make them look as stupid as possible.Consider, for example, G&T’s portrayal of evolution: “This, of course, is the theory of macroevolution: from the infantile, to the reptile, to the Gentile; or from the goo to you via the zoo” (###). This strategy is pretty much beneath contempt.
(b) Naturalistic Explanations of the Origin of Life: Another problem with this chapter is the extremely biased presentation of alternative theories. G&T consider two naturalistic explanations: spontaneous generation and panspermia. But G&T provide no reason to believe that these two explanations are representative of naturalistic explanations in general. Furthermore, one of these explanations, spontaneous generation, is probably rejected by every scientist working on the origin of life.
(c) The Origin of Life and the “Naturalistic Fallacy” Fallacy: Why would anyone believe that the origin of life has a naturalistic explanation? According to G&T, there is only one reason: such a person must rule out even the possibility of an intelligent cause. This is why they make statements like: “their preconceived ideology–naturalism–prevents them from even considering an intelligent cause” (119).
While such statements are red meat for G&T’s partisans in the intelligent design community, G&T commit what philosophers Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos Colombetti have dubbed the “Naturalistic Fallacy” Fallacy: the fallacy of dismissing objections to theistic arguments on the basis of the myth that these objections presuppose a naturalistic ideology, viz., the supernatural does not exist. G&T falsely assume that only naturalists believe that life has a natural origin because G&T rule out even the possibility of an empirical case for a natural origin, a case which might impress both naturalists and theists. This case is based largely on the fact that naturalistic explanations have a much better track record than supernatural ones. Prior to scientific investigation of the origin of life, this fact makes it very likely that the cause of life is natural, not supernatural. Furthermore, this is true even on the assumption that God exists. So naturalists are not the only ones who are justified in predicting that the origin of life is natural, not supernatural. Supernaturalists, including theists, are also justified in making this prediction.
Indeed, as Paul Draper explains, theists presumed
… that natural events have natural causes existed long before the rise of modern science. Indeed, even in the Bible, explanations appealing to God, even if they are not the last resort, are often not the first (e.g., 1 Samuel 3).
Because it is unlikely that the authors of the Bible are guilty of some anti-religious metaphysical bias or that they believe that a faithful or generous God would never act directly in the world, what is the source of this pre-scientific presumption in favor of naturalistic explanations? No doubt it is a simple induction from past experiences. In very many cases, a little investigation reveals natural causes for natural events, even unusual ones. Thus, it follows inductively that, prior to investigation, the probability that the immediate cause of any given natural event is itself natural is high. We did not need science to teach us this.
Furthermore, as Draper points out, science has greatly strengthened this presumption of naturalism.
In many cases in which no naturalistic explanation seemed particularly promising, sufficient effort in searching for one turned out to bear fruit. This is presumably why even William Dembski (1994, 132), a leading critic of methodological naturalism, claims that one should appeal to the supernatural only when one has good reason to believe that what he calls one’s “empirical resources” are exhausted. Thus, although Dembski attacks the view that naturalistic explanations are better than non-naturalistic ones, he does not deny that, prior to investigation or even after considerable investigation, they remain more likely to be true. On this point almost everyone will agree. For example, what philosopher or scientist, no matter how deeply religious, believed or even took seriously the sincere claim of some members of the Cuban community in Miami that God miraculously prevented Elian Gonzalez from getting a sunburn while at sea (rather than that his fellow survivors lied when they claimed he had been in the water for three days after his boat sank)? It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, almost all natural events have other natural events as their immediate causes.
This strong presumption of naturalism does not, however, justify an absolute exclusion of supernatural causes from scientific explanations. As Draper explains, it justifies a modest methodological naturalism.
A strong presumption of naturalism based on everyday experience and the success of naturalistic science justifies a modest methodological naturalism: the reason scientists should not look for supernatural causes is that natural causes are much more likely to be found. A methodological naturalism justified in this way is “modest” because it implies that scientists should look first for naturalistic explanations, and (depending on how strong the presumption of naturalism is) maybe second, third, and fourth, too, but it does not absolutely rule out appeals to the supernatural. … We can state this more modest methodological naturalism as follows: scientific explanations may appeal to the supernatural only as a last resort. Both Meyer (1994, 97) and Dembski (1994, 132), two leading opponents of methodological naturalism understood as an absolute prohibition, seem to agree with this principle, which does not depend on any metaphysical or anti-religious bias.
It should be emphasized, however, that even this modest form of methodological naturalism does not sanction god-of-the-gaps theology. It does not imply that an appeal to the supernatural is justified simply because scientists fail after much effort to find a naturalistic explanation for some phenomena. Very strong reasons to believe there is no hidden naturalistic explanation would be required as well. In other words, the search for natural causes should continue until the best explanation of the failure to find one is that there is none.
The upshot is that the past success of naturalistic explanations justifies the prediction, made by both theists and naturalists alike, that the origin of life has a natural cause.
(d) The Origin of Life and the Poverty of Theistic Explanation: G&T’s entire chapter presupposes that intelligent design (ID) is not just an explanation for the origin of life, but the best explanation. But ID cannot be the best explanation if it is not even an explanation. So why should anyone think that intelligent design explains the origin of life?
Contrary to what some atheists have argued, the problem is not that it is impossible for theism to be an explanation of anything; I believe it is possible for a theistic explanation to be a scientific explanation. (In other words, I’m not offering an “in principle” objection to theistic explanation.) Rather, the problem is that ‘the’ theistic ‘explanation’ for the origin of life isn’t well defined. I have read a decent amount of the latest ID literature, including Stephen Meyer’s book-length treatment of the origin of life (see here and here), and I still haven’t found a well-defined statement of the (theistic) ID explanation. Allow me to explain.
A personal explanation explains one or more observations by positing a person with certain goals who uses a mechanism to achieve those goals; a theistic explanation just is a personal explanation where the person is God. In order to have a theistic explanation for the origin of life, it follows that we need to know (1) why God designed life (“God’s goals”); and (2) how He did it (“God’s mechanisms”). If we don’t have both of those things, then we don’t have a theistic explanation.
So what, then, is the theistic explanation offered by G&T for the origin of life? All they provide are vague references to an “intelligent cause.” But in order to explain the origin of life, it’s not enough to posit the existence of an intelligent designer (God). G&T must also describe God’s goals and mechanisms. Here their argument absolutely breaks down because they say nothing about God’s goals or mechanisms for designing the first life.
It gets worse. The problem is not just that their “explanation”—if we can even call it that—is poorly defined or incomplete. The implied mechanism is mysterious. To paraphrase Gregory Dawes,
A theistic [intelligent design] explanation, in order to be an explanation, presupposes a mechanism—the action of a spiritual being within the material world—that is entirely unlike any other mechanism with which we are familiar. Not only does this mechanism lack analogy; it is also wholly mysterious.
Mystification is the opposite of explanation.
But if G&T’s intelligent design “explanation” is incomplete in this way, it is not (yet) an explanation. And therefore it cannot—yet—be be the best explanation. Indeed, to simplify matters, suppose we were offered only the following two choices:
(1) Biological information in the first life is the result of an unknown, naturalistic (undirected) mechanism.
(2) Biological information in the first life is the result of an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism used for an unknown purpose.
It’s far from obvious that (2) is a better explanation than (1). Perhaps G&T might reply that (2) is a better explanation of (1) in light of our background knowledge that the creation of messages (i.e., ‘complex specified information’) requires an intelligent being. But that reply understates the evidence, viz., the relevant background knowledge. All non-question-begging examples of conscious activity are dependent upon a physical brain, which is itself dependent upon matter. So a better description of the relevant background knowledge seems to be, “the creation of messages (i.e., ‘complex specified information’) requires matter.” This shows that once the background knowledge about the creation of new information is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that it favors a theistic explanation over a naturalistic explanation.
Furthermore, G&T, like other ID theorists, neglect the track record of theistic explanations. But we need to compare the track record of supernatural explanations to that of purely naturalistic explanations. Here is Dawes:
Not only are they in competition, but a comparison of their track records will count against theism. For the naturalistic research programme of the modern sciences has been stunningly successful since its inception in the seventeenth century. Again and again, it has shown that postulating the existence of a deity is not required in order to explain the phenomena. Sir Isaac Newton (1642—1727) still required God to fine-tune the mechanics of his solar system, but by the time of Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749—1827), the astronomer notoriously had no need of that hypothesis. Until 1859, it seemed that the diversity of living organisms could not be accounted for without reference to God, but Charles Darwin offered us a more successful, natural alternative. … From a Bayesian point of view, you might argue that the past failure of the tradition of theistic explanation lowers the prior probability of any proposed theistic hypothesis.
So, again, even if we grant Meyer the crucial premise that “creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity,” it’s not clear that that fact offsets the other facts, listed above, which count against conscious activity as the cause of biological information.
(iii) Objections to Scientism: In a debate with William Lane Craig, Peter Atkins claimed that “science can account for everything.” G&T summarize Craig’s response to Atkins, which is that science cannot prove the following five rational beliefs: (a) mathematics and logic; (b) metaphysical truths; (c) ethical judgments; (d) aesthetic judgments; and (e) science itself. G&T then add, “Atkins’s claim that science can account for everything is not false only because of the five counterexamples Craig noted; it is also false because it is self-defeating” (##). Craig, Geisler, and Turek are correct. Atkins’s scientism is not only false, but also self-defeating.
(iv) Arguments against Materialism: They emphasize the following objections to materialism: (a) it’s unable to explain specified complexity in life; (b) human thoughts are not comprised only of materials; (c) scientists are unable to create life using all the materials of life; (d) spiritual experiences; and (e) arguments from reason.
Regarding (a) (specified complexity), we’ve already addressed that.
Regarding (b) (human thought), this argument–assertion might be a better word, since it is not much of an argument as it stands–simply begs the question against the materialist. The refutation of this argument is similar to one of the earlier refutations of their design argument. G&T can conclude that human thought is not comprised only of materials only by assuming that materialism is false. But G&T also claim that the fact that human thoughts are not completely materially based is supposed to lead to the conclusion that materialism is false. So the presupposition that materialism is false is both an assumption and a conclusion of this argument.
Regarding (c) (creation of life in a lab), G&T argue that our inability to create life is evidence against theism. This argument does nothing to refute the previous objections of this chapter. Again, the past success of naturalistic explanations justifies the prediction that the origin of life has a natural cause, consisting solely of pre-existing material ingredients.
|Factor||Applicability to Theistic Experiences|
|Specificity||Basic claims about theistic experiences are highly specific.|
|Significance||Basic claims about theistic experiences are highly significant.|
|Nature of (Allegedly) Experienced Object||God is an extraordinary object.|
|Mode of Perception||Theistic experiences are nonsensory. Basic claims about theistic experiences are “claims to perceive something by means of an extraordinary mode of perception.”|
Taken together, these four factors show that, accordingly, claims about theistic experiences “should be treated with initial skepticism rather than initial credulity” or trust. To be more precise, Draper concludes that while theistic experiences “confer some prima facie probability on” claims about such experiences, they are not “strong direct evidence for such claims – that they make such claims prima facie more probable than not.”
While spiritual experiences are some evidence for theism, G&T once again understate the evidence. The fact that people throughout history have had such experiences hardly exhausts what we know about such experiences, however. Draper identifies three additional facts about the distribution of religious experience.
First, we also know that many people never have religious experiences and those who do almost always have a prior belief in God or extensive exposure to a theistic religion. To paraphrase Draper, “it seems rather one-sided to argue that spiritual experiences are evidence for theism and not consider whether the fact that many people never have a theistic experience is evidence against theism.”
Second, we also know that the subjects of spiritual experiences pursue a variety of radically different religious paths, none of which bears abundantly more moral fruit than all of the others. As Draper notes, this is “much more likely if these experiences are all delusory than if some or all are veridical and so is much more likely on naturalism than on theism.“
Third, we also know that many victims of tragedy do not seem to be comforted by spiritual experiences. Again, paraphrasing Draper, “While this fact is compatible with theism—it’s logically possible that God exists and has some unknown reason for allowing us to suffer alone—it is still much more probable on naturalism than on theism.“
Once the evidence about spiritual experiences is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that it favors theism over materialism.
Regarding (e) (arguments from reason), G&T actually present three related but separate arguments. The first is a version of the so-called “argument from reason.” The second is an argument that reason cannot be justified if materialism is true. The third is an argument against the evolution of consciousness.
Regarding the first argument, I think G&T are being incredibly uncharitable to materialists. Let me quote their argument in its entirety.
Finally, if materialism is true, then reason itself is impossible. If mental processes are nothing but chemical reactions in the brain, then there is no reason to believe that anything is true (including the theory of materialism). Chemicals can’t evaluate whether or not a theory is true. Chemicals don’t reason, they react. (129)
The word “chemicals” conjures up the image of a scientist wearing a white lab coat pouring liquids from one beaker to another. No one, not even eliminative materialists, believes that such simple, inorganic chemicals have the ability to reason. G&T are either attacking a straw man of their own creation (by equating materialism with the belief that minds are nothing but simple, inorganic chemicals) or committing the logical fallacy of composition (by assuming that what is true of the individual chemical elements of the brain must also be true of the brain as a whole). Materialists do not believe that “mindless matter” has the ability to reason; rather, materialists believe that we might call “mindful matter”—i.e., minds that are nothing but matter configured into physical brains—has the ability to reason. Simple slogans about “chemical reactions” do nothing to refute that. They especially don’t establish the ‘impossibility’ of “reason itself.”
The second argument, which I take to be very similar to the transcendental argument for God’s existence, is equally fallacious. They write:
As J. Budziszwewski [sic] points out, “The motto ‘Reason Alone!’ is nonsense anyway. Reason itself presupposes faith. Why? Because a defense of reason by reason is circular, therefore worthless. Our only guarantee that human reason works is God who made it.” (130)
Budziszewski is correct that “a defense of reason by reason is circular,” but it hardly follows from that fact that “our only guarantee that human reason works is God who made it.” If we’re allowed to start outside of what can be justified by reason alone (and instead go with presuppositions), then it’s far from obvious why the belief, “reason is justified,” is any less worthy of being presupposed than, say, the belief “God exists.”
In their explanation of Budziszewski’s argument, G&T present what I interpret as a third, unrelated argument. According to this argument, the fact that we are intelligent is much more probable on theism (and our intelligence arose from preexisting intelligence) than on naturalism (and our intelligence arose arose from mindless matter). They support this claim with two supporting arguments. According to the first supporting argument, the emergence of intelligence is surprising on naturalism because
… it contradicts all scientific observation, which demonstrates that an effect cannot be greater than its cause. You can’t give what you haven’t got, yet materialists believe that dead, unintelligent matter has produced intelligent life. This is like believing that the Library of Congress resulted from an explosion in a printing shop! (130)
It is, of course, beyond reasonable doubt that the Library of Congress cannot result from an explosion in a printing shop. But this example is not of obvious relevance to materialism, which gives us no reason to expect that intelligent life has such a sudden, abrupt origin. In fact, a moment’s reflection reveals that this sort of explosive start for intelligent life is virtually impossible if materialism is true. Given that intelligent life exists, the gradual emergence of intelligent life is antecedently likely on materialism, for two reasons. First, there are no plausible materialist alternatives to evolution, which entails that complex living things are the gradually modified descendants of less complex living things. Second, materialism gives us strong antecedent reason to believe that intelligence plays the same sort of biological role as other organic systems and so has the same evolutionary origin as these other systems, an origin which rules out the abrupt appearance of intelligence.
Another worry I have about this argument is that it cuts both ways. If “you can’t give what you haven’t got,” then that means also means that God cannot give what He hasn’t got, namely, physical matter. God is, by definition, an immaterial being. Theism asks us to believe that an immaterial being can somehow interact with matter to make it intelligent. It’s far from obvious that “the immaterial can interact with the material” is any more plausible than “intelligence can come from nonintelligence.”
According to the second supporting argument, the emergence of intelligence is probable on theism because our minds are “made in the image of the Great Mind—God” (130). But this argument is multiply flawed. First, appealing to the doctrine that humans are made in the image of God is ad hoc. At this point in the book, G&T are arguing for what we might call ‘mere’ theism, not Christian theism. It’s far from obvious that the content of ‘mere’ theism would lead one to expect that God would create human minds in His image. At the very least, this much is clear: G&T give us no reason to think that it does.
Second, this argument also understates the evidence. Let’s assume that the existence of intelligent beings (qua conscious beings) is evidence favoring theism over naturalism. The fact that such intelligent beings exist hardly exhausts everything we know about conscious beings. Given that there are intelligent beings, the fact that there are no known (physical) creatures much more intelligent than humans favors naturalism over theism. Paul Draper explains.
… I am not denying that human beings are impressive in many ways. But examined from the perspective of what is possible for an omnipotent being, we are, in terms of intelligence, a hair’s breadth away from monkeys. Again, one would expect this on … [materialism] because the more intelligent the life, the less likely it is that naturalistic processes would produce it. Of course, if one believes in God and, looking around, finds nothing more impressive than human beings, one will be forced to conclude that God wanted to make beings with very limited intelligence. But surely one would not have predicted this beforehand. There are indefinitely many different kinds of creatures that an omnipotent being would have the power to create and that, other things being equal, would be more valuable to create than humans. Antecedently, a God would be more likely to create these more impressive creatures than to create us.
Moreover, we also know that conscious states are highly dependent upon a (physical) brain. While this fact is logically compatible with the existence of an immaterial “soul,” given that intelligent creatures exist, this fact is more probable on naturalism than on theism.  So, again, once the evidence is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that it favors theism over naturalism.
 “Spontaneous generation” is the hypothesis that at least some organisms (such as fleas or maggots) originated suddenly and directly from inanimate matter (such as dust). Spontaneous generation was experimentally discredited long ago; I am not aware of any scientist specializing in origin of life studies who is a proponent of spontaneous generation. In contrast, “chemical evolution” is the hypothesis that the first self-replicating genetic molecules originated by a series of chemical processes involving organic compounds.
 Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos Colombetti 2013, 15.
 Paul Draper, “God, Science, and Naturalism” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (ed. William J. Wainwright, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 296.
 Draper 2005, 296.
 Draper 2005, 297. I have added the italics to the last sentence.
 Stephen L. Meyer, The Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperOne, 2009).
 Gregory Dawes, Theism and Explanation (New York: Routledge, 2009), 9, 108.
 Dawes 2009, 128.
 Dawes 2009, 130-32. Italics are mine.
 Paul Draper, “God and Perceptual Evidence,” Philosophy of Religion 32 (1992): 149-65.
 Draper 1992, 159.
 Draper 1992, 159.
 Draper 1992, 160.
 Draper 1992, 161.
 Draper 2002, 204-205.
 Paul Draper, “Cumulative Cases,” in Charles Taliaferro, Paul Draper, Philip L. Quinn, Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Religion (John Wiley and Sons: 2010), 414-24 at 421; Paul Draper, “Seeking But Not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic,” in Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (ed. Daniel Howard Snyder and Paul K. Moser, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 204-205.
 Draper 2002, 204-205.
 D. Gene Witmer, “Atheism, Reason, and Morality: Responding to Some Popular Christian Apologetics,” talk given to the Atheist, Agnostic, and Freethinker Student Association, University of Florida, September 26, 2006.
 Paul Draper, “Collins’ Case for Cosmic Design” in God or Blind Nature? Philosophers Debate the Evidence, The Secular Web (2008), http://infidels.org/library/modern/paul_draper/no-design.html.
 Paul Draper, “Seeking But Not Believing: Confessions Of a Practicing Agnostic,” Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul Moser, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 197-214 at 202-203.