Sunday, August 3, 2008

Origin of life: Intelligent design theory and creating life in the lab

Over at Uncommon Descent, I responded to a commenter who thinksthat the ability to create artificial life would somehow prove that life got started on Earth by chance. I don't agree, and here is why:
... producing life in the lab is by definition not naturalistic, because the life designer is providing all the input in terms of selected chemicals, interactions, temperature, et cetera.

It would prove that life can be created on Earth by an intelligent non-divine designer.

That isn’t certain as yet - hence the number of great scientists who have flirted with panspermia.

We would never know if that was the path life actually took, or if any such path could occur by accident.
The commenter thought that I was "clinging on to" some human being involved, and I replied,
... "cling onto ’some human was involved’”? But that is a given if a human creates life in the lab!

If I understand what you are saying, you mean that if life could be created by human design in a lab, it could happen by natural selection on the early Earth too.

I don’t know that that follows at all.

For one thing, we may never be sure of conditions on the early Earth.

A real danger is that we will assume that they must have been like what happened in the lab because we made it work that way.

Not necessarily a valid inference, and maybe a dead end for future science!

The only thing that the creation of artificial life in the lab would show is that the level of design need not be God-like.

Failure to create life in the lab does not demonstrate the reverse, but suggests it (On the other hand, we might not have got the method right … ).

For the record, I believe it more likely that scientists will create life in the lab than that they will definitively show what happened on early Earth.

That is because it is easier to solve a present-day problem when you are allowed to use any method that works than it is to retrace a series of steps without much reliable information.

Here’s something to think about: We never see life getting started from nothing. It is always passed on from a previous instance of life.

That shows that starting life is very difficult - though obviously not impossible!

The commenter then suggested helpfully that we limit ourselves to the conditions on the early Earth. But agian,
..., if we do not know for sure what happened at the origin of life, how can we reasonably limit ourselves to those conditions?

Given the low probabilities of life’s origin, “likely” won’t cut it.

Actually, I think the whole OoL project a waste of time for precisely that reason.

If life (in the sense in which we normally use the term*) is created in a lab, that shows that intelligent (but non-divine) design can create life.

That’s all it shows.

The vulnerable theory, if someone wants to advance it, is that intelligence at the human level cannot create life.

ID says that a design input is required, and that is not refuted by lab life. Quite the contrary.

I should perhaps add that I think lab life unlikely. But not as unlikely as discovering exactly what happened at the origin of life.

PS: the assumption that the intelligence required to create life must - by its very nature - be a divine intelligence is additional to the design inference, so far as I can see.

Replying to another commenter,
I would consider a design hypothesis falsified if we saw life regularly arising from scratch under all sorts of conditions - provided we were certain that there was no underlying design in the universe that created that outcome.

Otherwise, how would we know?

But we never see life arising, and so far no one has created it in the lab.

So any claim that life can arise by chance alone, in accord with the presumed laws of the universe, is a claim based purely on faith at present.

I find surreal the fact that such a claim is considered “science” but any contrary assertion is considered “religion”.

I think a chance origin of life extremely unlikely in this universe, from what I have read, and also doubt that anything like life will soon be created in the lab.

But if it is, I would say it is a victory for design, not chance. After all, the creators only have the design. They do not have the chance.