Unsolved or Unsolvable?
Darwin himself didn't know what to make of this issue. He was aware that people would ask, "What kick-started the evolutionary process?" In some editions of the "Origin of Species", he refers to a "Creator" with a capital "C". In others, he just leaves the question open.
Well, this is how to start a Monday with my mind blown!
I love this piece and have over the years (very) superficially dabbled in the science and theories you refer to. The chicken and egg problem is usually where I abandon a subject befuddled and frustrated.
Every thread in my awareness of these questions leads to magical thinking. While in Egypt touring megalith structures or astoundingly perfect and symmetrical statues the only explanation my Egyptian guides had was that earlier civilizations' science had developed in different directions than ours. Hence they had methods unknown to us to manipulate stone.
This "different but unknown to us" is the standard answer I see over and over to explain the unexplainable. It leaves me as unsatisfied as a child whose parent responds to a question with "well, because, that's how it is!".
I grapple with this conundrum without a better solution than God, or Mind or Computer simulation or any other form of magical thinking. And, by the way, I use magical thinking all the time, practicing gratitude for instance - who am I expressing gratitude to?
My only glimmer of a direction is in reading about psychedelic drug experiences. When our cognition and interface with reality are significantly altered it hints at the possibility that reality might be interpreted in alternate ways. Perhaps in these alternate ways models of reality allow for leaps we cannot make yet.
This is, of course, just another form of magical thinking...
Thanks for your wonderful work.
Really loved the way you thoughtfully pointed out the enormous challenge the materialists have to even make their hypothesis plausible let alone possible. I wonder why there is so much resistance in the scientific world in admitting that we can’t explain something this big. When did mystery become anathema to people who are gifted wonderers?
Thanks to Josh for a thought-provoking essay.
I recommend Daniel Dennett’s book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” I’m pretty sure Dennett is a materialist, secular humanist, or whatever the fashionable term for those who don’t believe in a God currently is. That said, he presents some stimulating food for thought in that book related, tangentially at least, to the question of life’s origins.
Here’s a fundamental issue: That of first cause, also called infinite regression. Even if we could prove conclusively that God (or some other power/intelligence) created life on Earth, the very existence or nature of that Power would then become a valid topic of inquiry. It’s like peeling an onion: there’s always one more layer underneath. As finite mortals, this remains an inescapable problem: for those who believe in cause and effect (determinism), there has to be a prior cause. From my understanding, the best Science can claim at any given point is “This is as far back as we can trace the chain of causality; what came before is currently unknown, but (perhaps) not unknowable.”
I think the claim that DNA only exists “left handed” is incorrect. The vast majority of it yes, but some “right handed” does exist. Or so I recall reading.
Your question is correct. The concept even extends beyond whatever we call “life.” What is required is an answer to the question: How can an organism (a structure, really) reach such a state where it can produce copies of itself? This, largely, is the question asked in Dennett’s book. Of course he doesn’t answer that question. Perhaps, no one can.
However, he does propose a novel way to conceive of the issues. He envisions the process of natural selection as an algorithm. It’s a mindlessly simple one: the mission of the machine is simply to produce at least one copy of itself. Nothing more, nothing less. The processes of replication are not quite perfect, but very nearly so. The very slight error rate (random mutation and other factors) indeed is MANDATORY, otherwise new random “prototypes” would not be created. The fitness of each new machine is tested by the environment it finds itself in. The fit survive to produce another copy of themselves; the unsuccessful perish and are culled from the experiment.
Dennett uses the analogy of crane vs. skyhook. You can read the book for the full explanation. I explain it as follows. “Crane” argues the case for determinism: a slightly more complex piece of equipment (a new crane) can be built by an older, slightly simpler model. It must be reiterated that in this paradigm, there is no plan, no overseer. There is only the random building of mostly-faithful copies of the parent machine, but with unpredictable errors thrown in. It is the environment itself that will judge which machines are best suited to continue their lineage. This part of the process at least, is not magical. There is evidence of molecular biology etc. supporting it.
In start contrast is the skyhook, a magical device. This, of course, is Dennett’s placeholder for a belief in a supernatural actor in the background. The “skyhook” is a crutch used in some explanations, to evade the need to provide a more rational, logical, scientific (and testable!) theory of origin.
Dennett (or perhaps some of Dawkins) provide citations of computer simulations, etc. that shows how such a process could work. Real world biology, apparently, provides many examples too. For example, the eye is a marvelously complex and useful organ. Yet it has evolved independently several times in several vastly unrelated branches of the tree of life. There (apparently) is proof that this is so. If there were a Creator behind the whole process, would he be so inefficient as to “reinvent the wheel” countless times? Or does a simple, stupid algorithm better explain science’s findings?
Using the Dennett paradigm then, it becomes easy to answer some claims. For example, why Chirality? Why does life seem to prefer “Left handed” molecules (almost) universally? The answer might be as simple as that they simply “work better.” Perhaps very early in the process, Right-handed molecules came into existence but for reasons we don’t know, simply could not compete with the replication of others.
It’s a perfectly valid question why we haven’t yet found any such self-replicating molecules (outside of what we call living organisms.) Thus we know that their existence is possible, it is self-evident. An explanation of their origin may arise in the future, but it’s likely that will merely open new unanswered questions.
Continuing the algorithm idea: An algorithm (program) is rather useless without a “computer” to run it. I see the entire universe as that computer. In fact, some thinkers claim that everything is some vast computer simulation. Perhaps so, but how would we ever discern that? What’s important for my argument right now, however, is simply the observation that the universe has quite a few laws. For example, the laws of physics. Man has a pretty good understanding of some of them. But we have no power to change those laws. For example, a Carbon atom has a valence of four. That means that it “wants” to be linked to four other atoms. Other laws of chemistry dictate that it can bond to certain atoms (including other Carbon) but not others (e.g. Helium). I don’t claim to understand those laws. I’m sure more erudite do. But the underlying point I’m trying to make is that these are, so to speak, the Rules of the Game and we must live by them, indeed all existence is built upon them. Others would call these “emergent properties.” We live in a universe that operates by certain laws. We have the power to study and model those. We don’t, so far as I know, have any power to change them.
They even underlie the origin of life: more fundamental questions, the building blocks that Life is made from. They too are open to probing, but answers aren’t guaranteed.
One famous metaphor is to imagine how a tornado could move across a junkyard and leave a brand-new working Boeing 747 in its wake. Granted, that’s rather long odds. But the problem goes even deeper. Even granted the plane appeared after the cyclone, one could inquire into the provenance of the parts from which it was assembled. Surely they were in the junkyard prior to the twister. But it turns out that a computer chip, even a bolt, are complex in their own right. The origin of each sub-component must be explained, too. A few layers deeper we might need to explain how rare earth metals are extract3ed from ore and refined and shipped thousands of miles. Below that, we’d need an astrophysicist to explain how certain atoms are created by the explosion of supernovae or other astronomical processes. And so on. Turns out that the tornado through the junkyard was only the top level of an exceedingly complex causal sequence.
So, what’s at the center of the onion? Will we ever know? The theist can posit a God, a supernatural Creator and Maintainer of everything. Perhaps. The Materialist instead will insist upon looking under the hood, trying to understand how the complex machine works, and (perhaps) gain insights into how it originated.
So what is the origin of life? We simply don’t know. Perhaps we cannot know. But we can keep looking for it.
God is a Scientist. Created Scientific Universes is the Evidence of a Master Intelligence.
It is a mystery why there is any material world, and a greater order of mystery why life exists?
Parallel Universes allow for the Spiritual Realm, Jesus , the Great Spirit, and Life after "Death". Reincarnation explains why living a good or bad life carries over, with consequences.
This also explains why some people are born with talents and intelligence far beyond their age or experience.
There are many giant leaps of faith that evolution demands and are accepted without thought. So you have a protein, did it make a copy of itself? Single to multi cell organisms? A sexual to sexual reproduction to make a few. All giant leaps in complexity, time is not long enough for those to occur.
The megalithic structure thing as representing a prior technological civilization on Earth is the Silurian Hypothesis. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silurian_hypothesis
Assuming that life did not come about naturally, that it was indeed created by some previously existing intelligent beings, is that not just "kicking the can down the road" so to speak? Because the question then becomes how did those intelligent beings come about in the first place? They, in turn, would have had to be created by ANOTHER intelligent agent, and so on. This is called an infinite recursion in computer science.
In the Star Trek universe, all of the humanoid races of the galaxy were indeed of artificial origin in that there was a progenitor race that somehow set things up on all of the habitable planets of the galaxy such that it favored the development of humanoid species. I call this the Star Trek version of the origin of life. Maybe something like that really did happen.
The neolithic stones issue brings up some corollaries. Lets say there was a civilization more advanced than our own at some point in pre-history. Is it not likely they too would have gone to the Moon and explored and possibly settled the solar system (O'neill L-5 scenario)? Since things don't wear out in space like they do on Earth, it would make sense to look for artifacts of artificial origin on the Moon, Mars, and the asteroid belt since stuff there would presumably last for tens of thousands of years. Also, we would be finding the artifacts of advanced manufacturing such as alloys not found nature (Titanium and Vanadium containing alloys) and plastics that would most certainly last for ten thousands years or longer. These are the kind of artifacts that we should be finding if there was a previously existing technological civilization on Earth. AFAIK, none of these things have ever been found in any archeological dig on Earth or on the Moon (unless NASA is concealing evidence of such).
As far as the universe being finely tuned for life, this would be easily testable. Once we start expanding out into the galaxy, we should find that life is very common through out the galaxy. If life is not so common, then I would say that argues against the idea that the universe was somehow tuned for life.
Wow, what an amazing article! Thanks so much for compiling all of this information and publishing your conclusions.