Monday, January 26, 2015

Does Naturalism Work?

Debates between naturalists and supernaturalists have become ever more popular. Often these topics become entwined with the evolution versus creation discussion. These topics progress to a variety of related cultural and personal issues. Debate events tend to order the audience along a spectrum of positions. Previously held positions are affirmed but minds are changed infrequently. Our recent posts of the Ruse/Rana debate on the origin of life and the complexity of cells highlighted significant differences.    

Dr. Ruse described the wonders of our scientific knowledge. For instance, he referenced the appearance of prokaryotes (early single celled microbes—simple in form, but marvelous in biochemical complexity), followed later by eukaryotes (multicellular organisms), and still later, the naturalists’ enigma, the unprecedented Cambrian Explosion. How is naturalism pragmatically justified, if not scientifically explained according to Ruse? “It works!” he claimed. We have discovered many truths of the workings of the natural world in recent decades using the naturalistic methods of science. With regard to origin of life and cell complexity Ruse stated: We will eventually discover much more truth, perhaps even the answer to how life first began. This is one way adherents of naturalism defend and justify their approach. It is known as “argument to the future.” Future generations will discover the secret, they claim.

Scientific knowledge has expanded beyond our dreams. This is fact, but not a pillar of support for naturalism or any other argument. On one occasion I heard a Christian leader, a well-known evolutionary creationist, voice an “appeal to the future” with respect to the potential discovery of a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life. In regard to the life origin question, appeal to the future is woefully inadequate in support of naturalism. 

Naturalists do not credit or even consider a supernatural miracle, according to Dr. Ruse: Naturalist scientists have a mind set where scientific laws rule. There are no miracles. We are slowly getting the picture. Even though science still faces difficulties, we are slowly grasping what is going on in the question of origins. What about volcanic vents, salt water, and clay minerals, he wonders.  

Naturalists like Michael Ruse do not envision an origin of life or cellular complexity “miracle.” Naturalists claim proposals of miracles are a “Bible position.” They propose that when we cite a creation miracle to account for life’s origin and complexity, we are no longer “doing science.” Naturalist scientists would discount persuasive creationist claims that proposals of intelligent agency to account for life origin and design of the cell makes full use of the established principles of scientific method.

Many organizations report statements uttered by scientists on both sides of the naturalism/supernaturalism question. One example is the IDEA (Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness) Center. Their “Origins and Complexity of Life” site contains hundreds of unedited quotes. This passage from H. J. Lipson (1910-1991), professor of physics at University of Manchester, is unusual in that it contains the word “creation:” 

If living matter is not, then, caused by the interplay of atoms, natural forces, and radiation, how has it come into being?…I think, however, that we must go further than this and admit that the only acceptable explanation is creation. I know that this is anathema to physicists, as indeed it is to me, but we must not reject a theory that we do not like if the experimental evidence supports it.”

Debate partner Dr. Fazale Rana’s presentation was sharply distinct from the case made by Dr. Michael Ruse. Whereas Ruse claimed those who appeal to a creation miracle are no longer “doing science,” it was Rana who gave a coherent, highly organized and credible scientific presentation of multiple instances from geologic history where the work of a supernatural intelligent agent was necessary and clearly evident. (We contemplate reporting on some of Rana’s salient points in future posts.)   The theological dimension is apparent. Likewise, the religious connection is difficult to deny. Creation acts initiated by God are indeed manifestations of religious belief. 

Notwithstanding the accommodation many scientists voice for private religious beliefs, most scientists are trained to disregard the relevance of theistic reality in their chosen professional field. Theistic realism is subordinate to scientific realism by agreed-upon policy.  Theistic realism is the proposal that methodological naturalism should be replaced by a philosophy which would allow certain supernatural explanations particularly in topics that impact theology. Scientific realism affirms that both observable and unobservable aspects of the world are described by the sciences. 

Theistic realism (sometimes acknowledging the supernatural) and scientific realism (reliance only on naturalistic science) are two different epistemic entities supported by two different world views.



Thursday, January 22, 2015

Reasonable Origins Accounts

When debates occur between supernaturalists and naturalists on the origin of life and the complexity of the cell, both sides search for reasonable explanations. Theistic supernaturalists collect evidence that the intelligent actions of a Deity seem reasonable to explain events surrounding origins of life as well as the explanation of cell complexity. This conclusion is based on an analogy. In the human realm, working intelligence results in ordered outcomes. For example, overview of a building project yields plentiful examples of intelligent input. The architectural plan for the structure, selection of a building location, preparation of the site, construction material choice, hiring of specialized laborers, coordination of the building sequences, foreman supervision, and mitigation of errors…these are just a few identifiable ordered outcomes of intelligence acting within a human-designed system.

Inspection of the first cells on Earth completes our building analogy. The production of complete cells with inherent complexity is virtually impossible to attribute to a chance event or a sequence of chance events. The appearance and achievement of functional cells, the launching of life on this planet, is a “building” phenomenon surpassing the reasonable expectations of even the most ardent naturalist. Naturalists cannot account for the origin of life and the design of the cell. They do not acknowledge the reasonableness of a supernatural designer. To their chagrin, the work of an intelligent agent suffuses cell origin events. But to a supernaturalist, the activity of a supernatural designer, an intelligent agent, is completely reasonable. Unlike many intelligent design advocates who fail to name the designer, we do not hesitate to name the God of Judeo-Christian Scripture as the Intelligent Designer.

Many naturalists claim the existence of a supernatural being is not reasonable. Therefore, the origin and function of an ordered physical object such as the cell is reasonable only as a happenstance of naturalism. Almost all scientists are indoctrinated with the firm principle that science is a completely naturalistic enterprise, investigating only naturalistic phenomena. Today’s scientists operate under the control of the doctrine of methodological naturalism (MN). This control virtually forbids acknowledging the possibility that an intelligent agent could be responsible for either the origin of cells or the exquisite design of the cell. It is an easy transition to the skeptical position that the Designer does not exist. This position is known as philosophical or ontological naturalism. Among the faith community in our churches, methodological and philosophical/ontological naturalism in science sometimes deters church members from appreciating the apologetic value of science.

Debates such as the Ruse/Rana event at Biola in 2013 generate diverse statements from the participants. Some are confident in the principles of scientific naturalism. Others endorse supernatural design based on evidence. Science is a discipline with high confidence in evidence but an exception to this principle sometimes occurs if the evidence points to a supernatural intelligent agent in the cause and effect chain. If the workings of the God of Scripture are highlighted in our study of the history of earth life, some voice the criticism that “religion” has captured the day. God as Designer and Creator does not seem reasonable to them. Dr. Fazale Rana presented a strong evidential case that cell origin and design is the product of an intelligent agent—the God of the Bible. Click “older post” below for the first coverage of the Ruse/Rana debate. 


Monday, January 19, 2015

Ruse and Rana Debate

In 2013 Biola University sponsored a lively debate between Dr. Fazale Rana, apologist from Reasons to Believe, and Michael Ruse, science philosopher and historian. They debated the topic of whether “Natural processes are sufficient to explain the origin and complexity of the cell.” The appearance of cells in the geologic history of earth is seminal to life itself on Planet Earth. Many debates between believers in creation and believers in evolution are featured on websites such as YouTube. Exchanges of views on this topic are not merely a descent into esoteric boredom. They inform knowledge seekers of the fundamental issues and instruct proponents of each position how arguments are developed. Familiarity with the issues under discussion is invaluable for serious apologists of traditional creationism.

Dr. Ruse subscribes to natural, evolutionary laws. Creationists and naturalists alike have discovered the question of origin of the cell does not have an evolutionary answer. As a believer in naturalistic evolutionary laws, however, Ruse depends on naturalistic evolution to supply the answer to this question as well as events in the intervening 3.8 billion years of life history. He believes no intelligent agent, no supernatural being, no designer has acted, notwithstanding the observation of Ruse and other naturalistic scientists who admit the cell appears designed, not randomly put together.

The debate did not address the intricacies of evolutionary theory concerning the process of evolution since cells first appeared. The two proposals concerning the origin and complexity of the cell supplied sufficient red meat for intellectual consumption. Our blog presents cell origin, complexity, and lastly, the long term process of evolution in the past 3.8 billion years to be a three-pronged entity. All of these topics invite lengthy and elaborate discussion.

Ruse accurately described events involving the cell’s origin and complexity during the mysterious time when Earth was a water world shrouded in clouds. Appropriate chemical compounds, early macromolecules of those compounds, RNA molecules, DNA molecules, proteins, a lipid enclosure (cell wall), and organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts suddenly appeared. This list outlines only the highlights of cellular structure, a mere glimpse into what scientists mean by “bio-chemical complexity” of morphologically simple microbial cells.

At this point in the origin and complexity of the cell discussion, Ruse briefly yielded to the temptation to discuss topics most evolutionary biologists prefer to address—the evolution of all life forms from those early moments of cell origin until the present. He claimed “natural selection takes over” from then on. The debate had progressed barely twenty minutes.

Underlying issues of the debate became better defined at this juncture. Details of what happened at the inception of life on our planet were subsumed under a far more important question. Even the later brilliant apologetic by Dr. Rana concerning the supporting evidence for a divine intelligence to get life started took a back seat to a more important issue at the heart of the debate. Rana inquired whether personal philosophy colors his position rather than supporting evidence. Upon questioning, Ruse admitted that philosophy plays a vital role. The role of scientific evidence, therefore, might be secondary.

In future blogs we will cover Fazale Rana’s evidentialist viewpoint of the theistic origin of cells and their complexity. Rana freely admits an intelligent agent, a miracle-producing God, has produced Earth’s origin of life event and the cell’s complexity. Beyond this, he does not believe in the evolutionary paradigm to account for the “fits and starts” flow of Earth life in the last 3.8 billion years. Instead, he unequivocally believes in periodic supernatural, miraculous creation interventions. 



Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Question of Cells

When we focus on the origin of life on Earth we deal with the initial appearance of cells. Most bio-science texts list approximately seven characteristics of life. The first characteristic is that living things are organized into cells. The cells manifest metabolism, the processing of pre-existing substances to yield energy and the manufacture of new substances to synthesize complex molecules. The issue of the origin of life, therefore, revolves around the answer to, “What is the origin of cells?”

No questions about life on earth are more significant than how cells came into existence. Modern bio-scientists devote much of their effort to promoting evolution—the development of present life forms from a common ancestor, a simple life form in the distant past from which all present complex life forms have descended. The evolutionary paradigm is firmly established in our culture. The terms evolution and evolutionary are repeated continually even when the the authors’ purpose is not explicitly scientific. 

If we define a cultural icon as “an idea with great cultural significance,” we might place evolution in this category. Bio-chemist Fazale Rana, Vice-President of Research and Apologetics at Reasons to Believe, has stated there is no more important question that Christians could answer within the science/faith interface. 

Many adherents of evolution deny that belief in evolution connects with core tenets of the Christian faith. This point of view is worth exploring carefully. One could offer that our spiritual relationship with the God of redemption and acceptance of foundational Christian theology impacting our faith, belief, and practice is not impacted by belief in the evolutionary paradigm. At some levels this is true, but at other levels it is not. At best, we could acknowledge that God as Creator is not limited to one view of the creation process. At worst, if we accept evolution, God may become superfluous if we subscribe to an intrinsic naturalistic flow of events to bring present life to its glorious reality.

So far as we know, life exists only on our small planet in this tiny corner of the universe. Cause and effect relationships in the universe outside our solar system are reasonably easy to explain compared with the cause and effect relationships present in life forms. Two examples are the mind/body “problem” of human life, and deeper questions of the origin of life.

Finally, the origin of life question is of vital importance. When cells first appeared in the form of microbial bacteria, a giant leap occurred. It is one thing to explain the natural evolution of the physical universe from the moment of the Big Bang to the moment when life arrived. It is quite another to explain evolution of life forms naturalistically. Pope John Paul II used the term “ontological leap” to describe the miraculous infusion of characteristics of the human soul into primates at some point in their history. (The Catholic Church believes in evolution of humans from LUA—a one celled last universal ancestor.) We take the liberty of pronouncing the transition of matter from non-life to life a more significant “ontological leap.” When Adam was created in the Image of God according to the Genesis 1 account, an “ontological leap”  from a previous existence was not necessary.

The sudden origin of life at the appearance of cells on Earth 3.8 billion years ago should be the cornerstone of evolutional theory. However, origin of life answers do not exist. Searching for this answer on the spectrum of theoretical evolutionary events, we encounter a virtual blank. Evolutionary scientists have been content with their hypotheses of mutation and natural selection. They are hypothesizing ever more creative explanations. Evolution is clothed with certainty by the bioscience community, a cultural icon to which we are counseled to offer obeisance in the name of science. Meanwhile, the question of life’s origin in the appearance of cells remains unanswered by the community of evolutionary scientists.      

Thursday, January 8, 2015

No Soup For You

Imagine a planet with general physical characteristics similar to Earth, but without life of any sort. Conditions unfolding on such a planet would assume a very different trajectory. Creative science fiction writers describing such a planet would have difficulty developing their story line. 

Our public schools teach an optimistic evolutionary scenario producing the wondrous multiplicity of earth life. The life development scenarios promoted routinely by our bio-scientists presumes virtually all past changes in the physical, bio-chemical, and physiological phenomena of life forms owe a debt to the all-pervasive modern theory of evolution. Since life first appeared 3.8 billion years ago millions of advantageous alterations to life forms over Earth’s evolutionary history have occurred. The theoretical model of evolution is offered as intrinsically explanatory.

Bio-scientists acknowledge there is no evolutionary explanation for the origin of life. Researchers do not have a coherent strategy for solving this intractable problem. Scientist Harold Lonsdale (1932-2014) spearheaded an effort in 2011 to award a prize for the best proposals for research in the field. Lonsdale stated, in his initial publicity for the prize, “My goal in supporting origin of life research is to help scientists solve one of the great remaining problems in biology. A solution will give every science teacher in the world from high school to college a fundamental understanding of how life probably (emphasis mine) began on earth. In time, the world will learn that the laws of chemistry and physics, and the principle of evolution by natural selection, are sufficient to explain life’s origin.”

Lonsdale, an avowed atheist, sought to explain life in terms of his naturalistic worldview and was willing to finance his effort to affirm a naturalistic origin of life. The effort has borne no fruit. It appears public financing is not in prospect to seriously research this question of ultimate significance. This lack of enthusiastic government and science community support is indicative of the despair among scientists that there may never be a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life.

The sudden appearance of morphologically simple but biochemically complex single celled microbes at the dawn of life on Earth is a startling event worthy of reverential awe. Some of the applicants for Lonsdale’s prize cited the potential for discovering the answer in a theoretical existence of a pre-biotic “soup” on the early earth. The possibility of a life-engendering soup fascinated scientists until recent decades. Researchers now know that no pre-biotic soup ever existed on earth. Harsh conditions predominated on early Planet Earth. We do not hesitate to proclaim the initial appearance of microbic life a divine miracle on our planetary home, second only to the creation of the universe itself. Neither do we hesitate to affirm that the historic geological record manifests many step-like sudden changes indicative of creation events.

Paleontologist J. William Schopf discovered 3.5 billion year old cyanobacteria microfossils in Western Australia in 1993. As an evolutionist, he confessed his preference that organisms such as cyanobacteria which make their own food and fix nitrogen needed for plant growth, would manifest a history leading from “primitive ways of living” to “advanced metabolic lifestyles.” It is easier for evolutionists to conceive of naturalistic gradual transitions from simple to more complex than to have complex microbes such as cyanobacteria appear in the fossil record with startling suddenness. My earlier post on this topic is linked here:

Pre-biotic Earth was not a hospitable place. Had a pre-biotic “soup” been present, the planet might have been somewhat more inviting. Enzymes and other molecules are presumed to have been forming spontaneously in the planetary soup bowl. It is easy to imagine such a soup if one is searching only for a naturalistic scenario for the inception of life.

We may imagine a visit to a lifeless pre-biotic planet. More than 1800 extra-solar planets have been discovered to date. A few may have intriguing conditions in their “habitable zones” surrounding the host star. It is even conceivable that such an exoplanet could possibly be similar to our Earth before life arrived. Our speculation may take us to the land of science fiction. However, our intuition may take us in a different direction—a feeling that planetary life is unique to Earth.

It is certain that billions of exoplanets exist in our Milky Way Galaxy. In our lifetime we may increase our knowledge exponentially. As evidentialists, we must be prepared to receive expanded knowledge of our universe. Some future knowledge gained may surprise us.

The truth and beauty expressed in Psalm 24:1-2 overwhelms our worship: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.” (NIV)     


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Life Sustaining Food

We begin discussion of what sustains life on Earth with a brief discussion of the origin of life on our planet. In the absence of belief in supernatural creation events, the question of how life began has baffled naturalistic scientists for centuries. Those scientists seek to describe and explain (1) the conditions on our planet under which life arose and (2) the scenario of the apparently sudden appearance of life once the proper conditions appeared.

Planetary conditions of four billion years ago are fairly easy to describe. At the time, earth was a water world. A thick layer of clouds surrounded a water encircled Earth. Light from the sun did not yet illuminate the surface. Earth’s water began to absorb volcanic gases released by tectonic activity. The oceans dissolved minerals from the solid crust of the earth. It is certain that earth’s water was never chemically pure—i. e., H2O without any dissolved substances. The dissolved minerals became food for the microbial life which appeared suddenly in the water world—morphologically simple but biochemically complex microbes. Theologians and theistic scientists see the wholesale arrival of microbes such as bacteria as a startling divine creation event on Planet Earth.

Virtually all of our life activities would cease without microbes. They are ever present in and on our bodies, in the ground we walk on, and in the water and food we consume. Our food would not grow, our bodies could not digest food, and our garbage would not decay. Living things on our planet would not survive without the sustaining action of microbes. In short, microbes supply the food on which all life depends.

Perhaps we do not acknowledge bacterial activity as the original source of life sustaining food. We must revert to our knowledge of the bacteria of the geologically early earth. Their food-producing functions still continue in our day. Early and contemporary earth bacteria are categorized as autotrophs or heterotrophs. Autotrophs make food through processes such as photosynthesis while heterotrophs live off other organisms.

Quoting from Todar’s Online Textbook of Microbiology: “The earth is a closed system with limited amounts of certain elements in forms that are utilized by cells.These elements are generally acted upon first by microbes to assimilate them into living matter. The total biomass of microbial cells in the biosphere, their metabolic diversity, and their persistence in all habitats that support life, guarantees that microbes will play crucial roles in the transformation and recycling of these elements among all forms of life…..The list of examples of microbial involvement in the cycles of elements that make up living systems is endless, and probably every microbe in the web is involved in an intimate and unique way.” Early earth bacteria are the original food producers.

Our conversation is far removed from the expected topics of the food needs of our contemporary human population. The science of agricultural food production and consumerism would dominate that conversation. At each level of discussion, however, we give glory to the Creator of all life from the original bacterial life on primordial Earth to the complexity of modern Earth life—millions of unique species dominated by one species—humanity over seven billion strong.