Two articles, based on my recently published book Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist, provoked a heated response from many non-believers who strongly disagreed with its contents. The first was an excerpt that appeared on Aish.com, and the second was an article written by Rabbi Adam Jacobs, managing director of Aish Hatorah, NYC, and columnist for the religion section of the Huffington Post, entitled “A Reasonable Argument for God’s Existence.” That blog elicited an avalanche of 8,000 “Liked this” postings to Facebook and 6,500 comments.
Dr. Jerry Coyne, the well known atheistic/evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, took some potshots at both Rabbi Jacobs and myself on his own blog. In a post that was long on sarcasm and short on substance, he ridiculed the idea that one could draw conclusions about the existence of God from the complete bafflement of scientists regarding a naturalistic origin of life. He also accused Rabbi Jacobs of misrepresenting a statement by the late Nobel Prize winning scientist, Francis Crick.
It would have been worthwhile for Dr. Coyne to have attended the recent Origins Conference at Arizona State University; there he could have heard Origin of Life expert, Dr. Paul Davies, explain the disputed statement of Crick in the same way as Rabbi Jacobs.
Invariably the main objections from readers fell into one of the following seven categories:
- Rabbi, this is just the old “Argument from Ignorance” or a “God-of-the gaps” argument.
- Rabbi, you ignored the implications of Darwinian Evolution.
- Rabbi, you ignored current Origin of Life research, particularly the RNA-World research.
- Rabbi, you are “quote mining” (i.e. presenting statements by scientists out of context and misleading the readers).
- Rabbi, this is just the “Argument from Incredulity.”
- Rabbi, you are “primitive, backward, superstitious and anti-science.”
- Rabbi, we must have unwavering faith in science and scientists.
In the spirit of reasoned discourse and seeking the truth, I present my response below to each of these objections.
1. “Rabbi, just because science does not know how life started does not mean that God did it.” (The Argument from Ignorance, or God-of-the-gaps)
If the argument being presented was in fact: “We do not know how life started, ergo it was created by God,” this objection might very well be valid. However, this is not the argument being presented.
The argument is as follows: All human beings from time immemorial have, based on reason and experience, operated under the principle that highly specified information (i.e. drawings on cave walls, inscriptions in stone, poetry, computer code, etc.), and functional complexity beyond a certain level (bicycle, tape recorder, computers, etc.), are always the result of intelligent purpose and intervention. This principle is not based on what we don’t know; it is based on what we do know and experience about the sources of specified information and functional complexity.
This is the reason why SETI scientists sit and wait for purposeful patterns of radio transmissions from outer space. If these scientists detected a radio transmission from the great spiral galaxy delineating in perfect Morse Code the exact chemical formula of the DNA of a fruit fly, there would only be one of two conclusions: A. We had made contact with ET, or B. Someone at NASA was playing a colossal joke on everyone. The one possibility that would not be considered, at least not by those with a reasonable grasp on reality, is that the transmission was the result of some naturalistic process guided solely by the laws of chemistry and physics that took place over a period of 300 million years, and which clothed the message in an “illusion of design and purpose.” (For those who are familiar with Dawkinspeak: Designoid transmissions)
Illya Prigogine, (Nobel Prize-Chemistry, 1977), once wrote that, “let us have no illusions…[we] are unable to grasp the extreme complexity of the simplest of organisms.” The DNA of a bacterium (the simplest type of living organism known to have existed) contains an encyclopedic amount of pure digitally encoded information that directs the highly sophisticated molecular machinery within the cell membrane.
“The machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like…DNA characters are copied with an accuracy that rivals anything that modern engineers can do…DNA messages are pure digital code.” (Please forgive me for quoting the well known creationist and proponent of ID, Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden.) The obvious conclusion is that both the code and the sophisticated molecular machinery are the result of intelligent purpose and intervention. In other words, just as the highly specified hypothetical message discussed above is itself the evidence of its intelligent source, the highly specified genetic information and the extraordinarily high level of functional complexity of the bacterium, are themselves the evidence of its Intelligent Designer.
There is nothing even approaching conclusive evidence that any life form “simpler” than a bacterium ever existed. To get a range on the enormous challenges involved in bridging the gaping chasm between non-life and life, consider the following:
“The difference between a mixture of simple chemicals and a bacterium, is much more profound than the gulf between a bacterium and an elephant.” (Dr. Robert Shapiro, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, NYU)
and distinguished biologist, Dr. Lynn Margulis:
“To go from bacterium to people is less of a step than to go from a mixture of amino acids to a bacterium.”
If you wish to assert that this quantum leap was the result of some as yet unknown, undirected naturalistic process, then demonstrate it conclusively using empirical evidence like any other scientific hypothesis. If you feel that Darwinian Evolution challenges these conclusions, please see the next section.
“Rabbi, aren’t you aware that Darwinian Evolution shows us that undirected processes can produce astounding functional complexity?” (In Dawkinspeak, extrapolating from the Darwinian Evolutionary process to understand Origin of Life is called “Consciousness Raising.” In fact, as we shall see below it would more accurately be described as “putting the cart before the horse.”)
Darwinian Evolution (the truth of which I will concede for arguments sake) is based on mutations that occur in the genetic material contained in the DNA of a self replicating organism. Since Darwinian Evolution is not operative or relevant until a DNA based self replicating system is in place, it obviously cannot explain the existence of the first self replicating bacterium that contains DNA. The very best that Darwinian Evolution can tell us is the following: Once you have in place a dazzlingly sophisticated piece of molecular machinery and an astoundingly sophisticated digitally encoded system of control and self replication (DNA), the interactions between this living system and its environment (natural selection) can produce an astounding variety of living systems. All forms of life are possible if - and only if - this piece of machinery is in place.
Darwinian Evolution is testimony to the unimaginably awesome potentials and capabilities contained in the genetic material of the first living bacterium.
A paradigm-shifting insight emerges from all this. Contrary to popular belief, Darwinian Evolution is not a testimony to what can emerge from undirected processes as the skeptic would have us believe; it is a testimony to the unimaginably awesome potentials and capabilities contained in the genetic material of the first living bacterium. In other words, the process of Darwinian Evolution is not the cause of the first living bacterium; Darwinian Evolution is a process which is a result of the staggering functional complexity of the first living bacterium.
Where did it come from? Professor Thomas Nagel, distinguished professor of law and philosophy at NYU (and who describes himself as “just as much an outsider to religion as Richard Dawkins”), puts it this way:
“The entire apparatus of evolutionary explanation therefore depends on the prior existence of genetic material with these remarkable properties…we have explained the complexity of organic life in terms of something that is itself just as functionally complex as what we originally set out to explain. So the problem is just pushed back a step: how did such a thing come into existence.”
The entire façade of scientific credibility for atheism is built on Darwinian Evolution. As it turns out, Darwinian Evolution is completely irrelevant to the question of the existence or non-existence of a creator. The issue that must be confronted is Origin of Life. If you assert that the answer to this question is provided by the prior existence of an RNA World, please see the next section.
2. “Rabbi, of course a DNA-based bacterium did not just pop out of the prebiotic soup. The functional complexity of the bacterium and its genetic material is the result of a step by step process starting from a less complex RNA World, and then transitioning to a more complex DNA World." (“It goes without saying that the emergence of this RNA and the transition to a DNA world implies an impressive number of stages, each more improbable than the previous one.” Dr. Francois Jacob, microbiologist and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Medicine - 1965)
In April of 2010, two leading Origin of Life researchers, Dr. Gerald Joyce and Dr. Michael Robertson, in an article entitled “The Origins of the RNA World,” stated categorically that there is as yet no “realistic” scenario for the emergence of an RNA World and “the details of this process remain obscure and are not likely to be known in the near future.” They also candidly informed us that “this concept does not explain how life originated.”
Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at NYU, Dr. Robert Shapiro, agrees, but he is not so polite. At a lecture at the Harvard University Origins of Life Initiative he declared that “any abiotically prepared replicator before the start of life is a fantasy.” In an article for Scientific American entitled, “A Simpler Origin of Life,” he compared it to the notion of a gorilla sitting down at a keyboard containing the alphabets of every known language of mankind and typing out, in English, a “coherent recipe for the preparation of chili-con-carne.”
Interestingly enough, Dr. Leslie Orgel, (a proponent of the RNA World theory) in a posthumously published article, declared that Shapiro’s “Metabolism First” origin of life theory was based on “if pigs could fly chemistry.” Because of my deep respect for scientists, I agree with both of them. If you think you know better than Doctors Joyce, Robertson, Orgel and Shapiro, then please present a conclusive empirical demonstration. If you think that my information is not up to date, then see the following article (2/28/11) by veteran Scientific American writer, John Horgan (non-believer), entitled: “Pssst, don’t tell the creationists, but scientists don’t have a clue how life began.”
Dr. Paul Davies (atheist, physicist) was a chosen to be a member of the distinguished panel of scientists at the recent ASU Origins Conference that took place in February, 2011. Here is an excerpt from his address:
“When I was a student in London in the Swinging sixties…the prevailing view at the time was summed up by Francis Crick who said that life seems almost a miracle, so many are the conditions necessary for it to get going. What he meant by this was that it’s entirely possible that life on earth was a bizarre freak event, an aberration unique in the entire universe. That really was the feeling in those days. Today you scarcely open a newspaper without reading that scientists think that the universe is teeming with life. What, you may wonder has changed, do we now know how life began so that we can confidently say, yes, it’s everywhere? Well, we don’t know how life began…We know the mechanism whereby life evolved; we don’t know the mechanism that turned non-life into life. It doesn’t mean that it was a miracle, but it means that we have many theories, many conjectures but we don’t know what happened…What we’d really like to know, was it very likely or was it very unlikely?”
If you feel I am “quote mining” please see the next section.
3. “Rabbi, you are using the old creationist trick of quote mining.”
And I say that when you quote expert opinions in your atheistic articles, you're guilty of “quote mining.” Gee, it seems we are at an impasse. What I am trying to illustrate, of course, is that the accusation of “quote mining” is childish and trivial. Not only does it not contribute to an adult-level exchange of ideas, but it actually inhibits such an exchange.
It is perfectly valid to claim that a citation has been taken out of context, as long as you can back it up with a reasoned argument. If you have nothing more to contribute than hurling unsubstantiated accusations of “quote mining” please go back to high school and shoot spitballs.
Many times atheists back up their “quote mining” accusations by stating that despite what a scientist might have written about the difficulties in discovering the Origin of Life, he/she still believes in a naturalistic/scientific solution. This is not a valid objection. For example, Dr. Paul Davies writes in his book The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life: “The miracle of life is not that it is made out of nanotools, but that these tiny diverse parts are integrated in a highly organized way…with a fine tuning and complexity as yet unmatched by any human engineering…many investigators are uneasy about stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they freely admit that they are baffled…The problem of how and where life began is one of the great outstanding mysteries of science.”
He then later states: “Just because scientists are still uncertain how life began, does not mean life cannot have had a natural origin.”
His first statement is a description of the scientific facts and realities on the ground. Life is unimaginably complex and we have no clue how it came about through a naturalistic process. The second statement is declaring his own personal belief or faith, that science could still find an answer. The first statement is fact; the second statement is faith and/or conjecture.
Just because a scientist personally denies the existence of a creator or believes (“I agree that conventional Origin of Life theory is flawed…I believe that better science will provide the needed answers.” - Dr. Robert Shapiro on the Panda’s Thumb website) that science will “triumph,” his personal beliefs have no weight in the objective courtroom of the intellect. Despite what many skeptics and non-believers seem to strongly feel in their gut, there is no guarantee at all that scientists will come up with a naturalistic solution to the origin of life. A feeling in one’s gut is “faith;” it is not science.
4. “Rabbi, this is just another worn out presentation of the Argument from Incredulity.”
If what you mean by this is the following: That by asking me to believe that something which exhibits the awe-inspiring level of functional complexity as a bacterium and its digitally encoded DNA could emerge through an undirected process in a prebiotic swamp - without anything even remotely approaching conclusive evidence to back up such a claim - you are straining my credulity beyond the breaking point, then you are absolutely correct. The incredibly heavy burden of proof is on you, not me. I do not have to prove that functional complexity and specified information are the results of intelligent purpose and intervention; that is a given. I also do not have to disprove the possibility of a naturalistic origin. The burden is on you to offer actual evidence that it happened. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell: I would not believe your claim that there is a china saucer in orbit between the Earth and Mars even though I could not disprove it and I don’t believe in your claim about the naturalistic origin of life without conclusive evidence.
5. “Rabbi, you are medieval, superstitious, and anti-science.”
Many atheists seem to be under the impression that we are still living in the middle ages. Scientists like Galileo are being thrown in prison for heretical scientific claims, and superstitious pagans are running around screaming that thunder is the result of the gods bowling or Zeus hammering in a nail to hang up a picture in his living room at Mt. Olympus Towers. (As an orthodox rabbi, I remind the skeptics that we moved past that stage about 3,000 years ago.)
Our current discussion is not about particular religious scriptures, dogmas, or practices. It is also not about the biblical description of creation in the book of Genesis. That is a completely different topic and must be dealt with separately. It is also not about the veracity of the revelation at Mt. Sinai. The fact that ancient peoples may have had differing beliefs about reality has no bearing at all on the fundamental question of the origin of life. Talmudic sources record debates between Jewish Rabbinic Sages and Greek and Roman skeptics that took place over 2,000 years ago. The issue under question then was exactly the same as it is now: How did life begin?
And the scientific answer is:
Dr. George Whitesides (Organic Chemist, Harvard University, highest Hirsch-index rating of any living chemist): How? I have no idea. Based on all the chemistry I know it seems astonishingly improbable
Dr. Chrisopher Mckay (Astrophysicist, NASA): The origin of life remains a scientific mystery…we do not know how life originated on earth
Dr. Werner Arber (Molecular Biologist, Nobel Prize-Medicine, 1978): Although a biologist, I must confess that I do not know how life came about…How such already quite complex structures may have come together remains a mystery to me.
Dr. Harold P. Klein (1921-2001), Astrobiologist, NASA): The simplest bacterium is so damn complicated from the point of view of a chemist that it is almost impossible to imagine how it happened.
Dr. Christian DeDuve (Cytologist, Biochemist, Nobel Prize-Medicine, 1974): How this momentous event happened is still highly conjectural, though no longer purely speculative. (If this statement by Dr. DeDuve is unclear, the following might be helpful: Wordnet Online Dictionary: Conjecture: (A) Noun - a hypothesis that has been formed by speculating…usually with little hard evidence. (Synonym - speculation) (B) Verb-to believe on uncertain or tentative grounds (synonym - speculate)
Professor Richard Dawkins (Biologist): (A) Nobody knows how it happened (Climbing Mt. Improbable). (B) “I told you I don’t know…nor does anyone else” (From the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed).
The more scientists learn about the seemingly endless layers of complexity in the simplest living cells, the more vexing the puzzle becomes.
It is critical to note that the daunting challenges scientists face in discovering a naturalistic origin of life is not due to their ignorance about the chemistry of the simplest living organisms; it is exactly the opposite. The more scientists learn about the seemingly endless layers of complexity in the simplest living cells, the more vexing the puzzle becomes.
6. “Okay rabbi, so who created the Creator?”
“Who created the Creator?” presents us with the philosophical dilemma of the infinitely regressing series of creators. Ultimately, both Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (and perhaps Jerry Coyne also), base their denial of a Creator on the assumption that there is no answer to this question and we are therefore stuck with a naturalistic beginning. In other words, even though they admit that everything I have said up until now might be perfectly sensible or at least worthy of consideration, this particular philosophical question leaves us with no choice but to accept, that despite the utter improbability of a natural emergence of life it happened at least once because here we are. In the final analysis, the atheist denial of God is based not on science, but on philosophy.
In fact, there is a rather elementary and obvious solution to the dilemma of who created the Creator. Professor Michael Yarus, a distinguished microbiologist from the U. of Colorado, poses this dilemma in his book, Life From An RNA World, and casually mentions this elementary answer: “So how then did the designer arise? Sometimes this gambit is declined by intelligent designers who explicitly acknowledge that they are thinking of the [One, transcendent, infinite] Judeo-Christian God.”
Simply put, the philosophical dilemma of the infinitely regressing chain of creators is only applicable to a material being, not a transcendent being that exists in neither time nor space. A full presentation and elaboration on this idea is slightly beyond the scope of this essay. For a more comprehensive explanation see Chapter 5 in Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist, or the excerpt on Aish.com.
7. “Rabbi, we must have unwavering faith in science and scientists.”
From Dr. Jerry Coyne’s website, Why Evolution is True: “A rabbi proves God” (3/7/2011)
“Nope, we don’t yet understand how life originated on Earth, but we have good leads, and abiogenesis is a thriving field. And we may never understand how life originated on Earth, because the traces of early life have vanished. We know it happened at least once (and that all species descend from only one origin), but not how. I’m pretty confident that within, say, 50 years we’ll be able to create life in a laboratory under the conditions of primitive Earth, but that, too, won’t tell us exactly how it did happen—only that it could.”
In my official capacity as a rabbi, I give Dr. Jerry Coyne (yes, he’s Jewish) the traditional blessing that he should live until a 120 years. Be that as it may, I have no intention, based purely on Dr. Coyne’s proclamation, of sitting together with him in a nursing home when we are both well over a hundred years old drooling into our plastic cups, while waiting for “The Good News” that the grandchildren of his students from the University of Chicago have finally discovered the Holy Grail of Atheism: A naturalistic origin of life.
Dr. Coyne, you should live and be well. If in 50 years (and we’re both still around) you find the answer you’ve been looking for, I promise to do my best to appraise it with all the integrity and honesty I can muster. In the meantime, it is clear to me that it is the theist who has the overwhelmingly decisive intellectual advantage. May we all follow the truth wherever it leads us. I’m sure we can at least agree on that.