Campus Life ask a-theist

Without a “higher power,” how did life start?

Ask A-theist is a new column by Aaron Scheinberg, an atheist, and Stephanie Lam, a Christian, which uses contrasting worldviews to explore questions and misconceptions about philosophy and religion. This week, Aaron chose a question from your submissions. Send us the burning questions you have always wanted answered by an atheist or Christian (or both), and we’ll tackle them!

Q: How do matter, light, energy, etc. come out of nothing?
Aaron’s answer:

Scientists have made progress on both topics, but let’s assume we didn’t have a clue about either one. Does a worldview have to assert an answer to everything to be coherent?

We are all in the position of knowing very little about our universe. The best we can do is differentiate what we know about reality from what is speculation or fiction. That requires we be honest with ourselves. To paraphrase Richard Feynman, I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that I have no reason to think are true.

But imagine if, rather than patiently observing, theorizing and experimenting, I rashly invent the following explanation of life’s origins. I decide life began when a chunk of granite turned into a bacterium through a natural chemical process never observed before or since. We’d call that ridiculous, but can we articulate why? Is it because it’s unverifiable? Inherently divorced from what we know about physical laws? Unexplanatory, with no predictive power?

Yet the same points apply when introducing a higher power. Even the original question remains mostly unanswered: by what mechanism did it create life? The same transubstantiation I described, but more believable because a sentient being did it? Wait, isn’t a sentient being life already? How did that life arise?

We’ve only seen consciousness occur in a brain. If we’re already introducing new phenomena like minds without matter, why not simply believe my relatively self-contained magic rock hypothesis?

There are many questions we can’t answer — that’s why scientists still have jobs. A century ago, we had no viable hypothesis for how the sun shone. No one knew elements could become other elements. It was as inconceivable as non-life becoming life. Back then, one might have asked, “Without a higher power, how could the sun shine?” I’d reply, “I don’t know — maybe someday we will.” Today, we can answer “fusion.” To paint over unanswered questions with divine intervention does a disservice not only to our hunt for truth, but also to any religions that offer supernatural explanations for natural phenomena and thus lose credibility upon each exciting new discovery.

Stephanie’s response:

Is divine intervention “unexplanatory, with no predictive power”? God is not a mechanism, but a person. Mathematical physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne offered two explanations as to why a tea kettle boils: first, because burning gas heats the water, and second, because someone wanted to make a cup of tea. So which answer is right? Do they not complement each other?

To say that faith hinders the search for truth is to mistake the latter for the former type of explanation. This is what I mean when I say that science and faith are complements in the search for truth. One gives mechanism, the other, purpose. There is a reason Genesis did not begin with Maxwell’s equations. The Bible was never meant to be a textbook for modern physics — probably something everyone (religious and non-religious alike) should keep in mind. But Christian faith asserts that there was a definite beginning to the universe, and a design and purpose to creation which I argue has great explanatory and predictive power for our lives. Nothing in modern science contradicts that.

My faith does not hinge on the lack (or presence) of a mechanistic explanation for the origin of life. Neither, it seems, does Aaron’s. It’s refreshing to see enough humility on both sides to admit that there is a lot we do not know. A Christian believes that, though the details are unclear, somehow God was behind creation. Similarly, an atheist believes that, though the details are unclear, God cannot be behind creation. Neither belief can be experimentally validated, only inferred based upon other evidence. Even if science were to fill in some gaps in details, it would not change either side’s underlying assumptions. Either nature alone or God is responsible. Science only helps to elucidate how. The causal question is not one of science, but one of reasoned belief. In other words, faith.

There are indeed many questions we cannot answer. Science will not and cannot answer them all. And this should not be inherently surprising. After all, the claim that all knowledge must be scientifically proven is not, itself, a scientifically provable statement.

Anonymous about 11 years ago

Thanks to both of you for this!

Cuttlefish about 11 years ago

blockquoteA Christian believes that, though the details are unclear, somehow God was behind creation./blockquote

Well... some Christians believe that some of the details are known with certainty--7 literal days, and all that. Stephanie's compatibalist Christianity is one which, historically, arose because Christianity changed to accommodate scientific discovery; thus far, science has not had to bend to Christian discovery.

We may or may not ever know the origins of the universe, but we know quite a bit about the origins of Christianity, and there is no reason at all to think that this particular set of myths has any more credence than any of the other competing myths. And Stephanie, you don't just posit "a god" is behind it, but the Christian God ("a person"), which implies so much more than simply "somehow God was behind creation". Depending on which Christian sect you identify with (and how closely you hold to its tenets), there are elements to Christian faith that are not merely "no one knows", but stand in stark opposition to the observed universe.

When you say "either nature alone or God is responsible", remember that a broader statement would be "one or more gods", not "God". Now your Christian faith is on equal footing with the thousands of religions you idon't/i think got it right.

Your "God may have done it" argument works just as well for a thousand other mythologies. Not one has convincing evidence in favor of it, and each makes specific and non-specific claims that would require evidence to be taken seriously. In the absence of such evidence, "the causal question" certainly cannot be answered--the question is, should it even be asked? Before we ask "what is the cause?", we need to ask "does there need to be a cause?"

So religion gives us a thousand different answers to a question that might not need to be asked. It tells us less than nothing about how life started.

Anonymous about 11 years ago

articles like this make me love MIT even more. keep it up!