Fazale Rana recently debated Michael Ruse on the topic of the origin of life. Essentially, the question of the debate was whether the origin of life is best explained by naturalism or design. Here, I will provide brief comments on the debate.
Please note I make no claims to being a scientist and I am fully aware that I evaluate this debate as a lay person.
Michael Ruse Opening
Michael Ruse was careful to note that he is not keen on saying design is not possible. Rather, his claim is that naturalism is the most plausible explanation for the origins of life.
Ruse’s argued that design is implausible. Specifically, he noted that if design is the hypothesis put forward, there are any number of ways that one might consider that hypothesis. Is the designer a natural being within the universe or a supernatural being like God? Is there only one designer, or was there a group of designers (and he notes that a group of designers seems more plausible because automobiles require many designers to bring them about)? Finally, he raised the issue of bad design choices. He asked why, if there were a “hands-on” designer, would that designer not grant immunity to HIV and the like.
Ruse also argued that one can fall into the fallacy of selective attention- if one focuses upon only one example in isolation, then one might come to a conclusion that certain laws/theories may not be correct. But placing these same problems in context shows that they can be explained against “the background of our knowledge.”
Finally, Ruse ended with a number of examples for how problems which were seemingly insoluble were explained by naturalistic means. He also argued that one of the popular arguments for design, the flagellum, has so many different varieties (and is sometimes found to be a vestigial organ), and so cannot be shown to be designed.
Fazale Rana Opening
The problems which must be accounted for within an origins of life model are numerous. One must account for self-replication, the emergence of metabolism, the formation of protocells, the synthesis of prebiotic materials, the formation of life’s building blocks, and more.
Rana then turned to some primary models used by researchers to explain origin of life (hereafter OOL). First, there was the replicator-first model, which was problematic because in order for a molecule to be a self-replicator, it must be a homopolymer. But the complexity of the chemical environment on early earth rendered the generation of a homopolymer on the early earth essentially impossible. Next, the metabolism-first model runs into problem due to the chemical networks which have to be in place for metabolism. But the mineral surfaces proposed for the catalytic systems for these proto-metabolic systems cannot serve as such; Leslie Orgel held that this would have to be a “near miracle” and Rana argues that it is virtually impossible. Finally, the membrane-first model requires different steps with exacting conditions such that the model is self-defeating.
Rana argued positively that OOL requires an intelligent agent in order to occur. The reason is because the only way that any of these models can be generated is through the work on OOL in a lab. Thus, they can only be shown to be proof-of-principle and the chemistry breaks down when applied to the early earth. The fact that information is found in the cell is another evidence Rana presented for design. The systems found in enzymes with DNA function as, effectively, Turing machines. Moreover, the way that DNA finds and eliminates mistakes is machine-like as well. The fact that the needed component for success in lab experiments was intelligence hinted, according to Rana, at positive evidence for design.
Finally, Rana argued that due to the “fundamental intractable problems” with naturalistic models for the OOL and the fact that the conditions needed for the OOL and the processes required to bring it about have only been demonstrated as in-principle possible with intelligent agents manipulating the process.
First Cross Examination
At this point, Ruse and Rana engaged in a dialogue. Ruse first challenged Rana to show how the OOL model based on design could actually be based upon Genesis, as he quoted from Rana’s book (written with Hugh Ross), Origins of Life. He pointed out a few difficulties with using the Genesis account in this manner. Rana answered by putting forth his view of the Genesis account as an account of the origins of life on earth–a view which sees the Genesis account as corresponding with the scientific account (concordism). Yet the Genesis account is itself written from the perspective of a hypothetical observer found on the face of the earth rather than a perspective above the earth.
Rana asked Ruse for his thoughts on how much impact philosophy has on the debate over the OOL. He noted that it may be a presupposition of naturalism which lends itself to interpreting the OOL. Ruse answered by saying it is a good point and that philosophy cannot be denied a role in the discussion. But the question is not simply one of “gut commitments” and that one has to also take into account the scientific evidence and a “pragmatic reason” for holding to naturalism: naturalism works. It continually explains problems, even if it takes time.
The difficulty with the OOL debate is that it is too easy to take things out of context in order to show how many problems there are with a model. He argued that it is “peculiar” to take the results of a group of researchers and yet somehow go “flatly” against the “overall interpretation that each and every one of these people” would have taken from the research.
Despite all the difficulties, Ruse argued, researchers are starting, slowly, to get some view of how to explain the OOL. He pointed to some successes within the OOL sciences to show how eventually we may discover a naturalistic explanation.
Rana began with the notion of a creation model. He argued that models are not always drawn from the data, but rather models and theories are constructed from a number of different points.
Regarding the science itself, Rana noted that there is no established source of prebiotic materials on the early earth. The popular theories for how these materials might be generated fail for a number of reasons.
The argument, Rana said, is not a god-of-the-gaps argument. Instead, it is an observation of the breadth of scientific evidence which shows that in-principle experiments have been successful, but when applied to the scenarios for the early earth, the only way for success to be achieved is through intelligent agency (scientists in a lab manipulating the conditions).
Rana asked Ruse to respond to the notion that OOL research is similar to literary criticism in that all the different theories continue to be debated but none have come into dominance or can be established over the others. Ruse responded by noting that OOL research does have some “just so” stories but that science has taken seriously the criticisms and come towards the possibility of answering some of the questions.
Ruse asked why God would not intervene for things like cancer. Rana answered by noting that in the broad scope of a model with intelligent agency, poor design is no problem. But because Rana believes it is the God of the Bible, he says it may be a legitimate criticism of the design position. However, things which appear to be bad designs can turn out later to have some reason for the way they are used. Moreover, once a creator has put in place designs, they are subjected to the laws of nature and so they could become decayed or break down.
Ruse Closing Argument
Ruse argued that when one takes a “Biblical position” one is “not doing science any more.” If one wants to assert that the science points to miracles, then Ruse said he would argue that the nature of our experience is not “blank” in relation to the OOL, but rather that the previous successes of naturalism means we should fall back upon naturalism regarding the OOL because it has worked in so many other areas. Thus, the problem with the OOL is not with the problems themselves but rather with our own ability to solve the problems.
Rana Closing Argument
The OOL and complexity of the cell require an intelligent agency in order to account for the OOL on earth, Rana maintaned. The problems with naturalistic accounts appear to be intractable, and the role of intelligent agency in lab work cannot be ignored because that same agency is what leads to the allegedly naturalistic successes. The information found in biological systems also give evidence for design.
Finally, methodological naturalism turns science into a game to be played in which the goal is always to find a naturalistic explanation, even if none is forthcoming. Instead, science should be, in practice, open to the possibility of agency within the natural world. Ruse’s argument is essentially an appeal to the future in which the notion is just that one day the answers will come forth.
First, I would note how pleased I was with the nature of this dialogue. Unlike some other debates, Ruse and Rana were largely cordial and even amiable towards each other. It is clear that they each had respect for the other’s work and arguments.
The debate itself was very interesting. Fazale Rana continually went back to the science and pointed out the difficulties which remained, while Ruse seemed to continually appeal to the overall success of the naturalistic paradigm. Regarding Ruse’s position, I think it was perhaps disingenuous to conflate naturalism with science, particularly considering that very point was largely at the center of the debate. Is it indeed the case that we must be methodological naturalists? It seems that even Ruse agreed that our answer to this question will largely shape one’s interpretation of the problems and reactions to the problems brought up.
Regarding the science itself: Ruse brought up several successes which scientific research has yielded, but it seemed clear that none of these offered evidence which countered Rana’s arguments of the intractable problems for the OOL. Rana did an excellent job showing how the models which are in vogue right now for the OOL all fail on a number of levels to account naturalistically for the OOL.
Moreover, the fact that current research does rotate around the actions of intelligent agents. Given that such intelligent agents are necessary to bring about even the in-principle results for the OOL, it seems that Rana’s argument that this hints at an intelligent agent in the overall OOL schema was largely successful. It seems to me to count as positive evidence for design.
Overall, I have to say this was a great debate. I think one’s conclusions regarding the outcome of the debate largely will come down to a matter of worldview.
Be sure to check out my extensive writings on the origins debate within Christianity.
The debate can be found here. It is worth a watch/listen due to the complexity of the issues involved. Or you could just watch it here:
Be sure to check out the Reasons to Believe web site, which is the organization Fazale Rana is part of.
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