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The “God” Construct:
A Testable Hypothesis for Unifying Science and Theology

In this article from Skeptic magazine 20.3 (2015), California State University, Fullerton Psychology Professor Douglas J. Navarick presents the case that the current pattern of evidence for the origin of life is consistent with the interpretation that life started just once in one place and was not the result of natural and random processes.

Although philosophers and scientists have long struggled to define “life,” most scientists would probably agree with astrobiologist Caleb Scharf1 that “it’s a natural phenomenon.” For physicist Victor Stenger2 “natural” means “material” and “supernatural” means “non-material.” So if we concurred with Scharf’s view, we would essentially be saying that life is reducible to material reality, to the elementary particles that make up matter and energy and operate in accordance with the laws of physics.

But if we weighed the evidence from diverse lines of research on the origin of life (as distinct from the origin of species after life started, and defining life in terms of a living cell meeting all seven of the generally recognized criteria for life), the evidence arguably could point us in precisely the opposite direction—toward a supernatural force that animates the machinery of living cells in accordance with the laws of physics but is itself not constrained by those laws. In other words, the evidence could point us back to the ancient philosophy of vitalism, widely regarded as anachronistic and discredited but still seemingly viable and increasingly plausible.

Vitalism is implicit in biology’s fundamental principle of biogenesis—life comes from life. In contrast, if life is a natural phenomenon, then it originated by chance from fortuitous combinations of organic compounds, a process called abiogenesis.

Abiogenesis must be considered speculative considering that every living cell ever observed has come from another living cell. It thus falls into the same evidentiary category as extrasensory perception, which has similarly failed every rigorous scientific test of its existence. Moreover, in each case there is no clearly established mechanism through which the phenomenon could occur. So while abiogenesis is science’s preferred explanation of the origin of life, and research on its presumed underlying processes is a highly developed specialty3, the evidence actually tells a very different story.

The “God” Construct: A Bottom-Up Approach to Testing Theistic Conceptions of God

A precondition for conducting a scientific analysis of the evidence for God is an acknowledgment that science is capable of identifying supernatural influences in the natural world. Traditionally, scientists have sought to separate the domains of science and theology on the grounds that the processes of the natural world carry no implications for any conceptions of God or the supernatural.

Stenger4 rejects such a view as dogmatic and makes a compelling case for extending to theological issues the traditional scientific attitudes of openmindedness, skepticism, and reason grounded in empirical evidence. That is also the position taken here. However, I approach the question of God’s existence from a direction opposite to Stenger’s, from what I would characterize as a bottom-up, minimalist position rather than Stenger’s top-down, elaborated position derived from preconceived religious ideas about the nature of God.

Stenger assesses the evidence for a variety of religious beliefs, especially those derived from the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, including intentionality, intercession brought about by prayer, miracles, and various forms of creation. In contrast, a minimalist construct of God that would be consistent with all of the theistic theologies, could be stated as follows:

A force that operates both through and independently of natural laws.

The strategy would be to use existing methods and lines of research to assess the viability of this construct and apply standard principles of theory development to infer related, testable properties.

It is noteworthy that Stenger argues persuasively against all forms of divine creation except one—the creation of life. In the absence of a demonstration of abiogenesis, he argues that there is no reason to assume that life could not have come from a material source. But there is also no reason to assume that life could not have come from a supernatural source. Rather than construct arguments from assumptions, a more productive approach might be to consider the decades of relevant evidence that are available from a variety of sciences. We may then be able to assess which side of the issue science actually favors at this point.

Evidence of Absence: A Reliable Outcome of Research on Abiogenesis

The premise of Stenger’s tests of models of God is that a model must accurately predict an observable phenomenon that could not be accounted for by other means. The premise is framed in terms of evidence for the presence of expected phenomena, such as events foretold by biblical prophecies or health benefits for people for whom others have prayed. Rigorous tests consistently show that the predicted events are absent.

But evidence for the absence of a phenomenon can also be used to support a model if the model predicted the absence of that phenomenon. This strategy follows from a principle of logic succinctly described by logician/philosopher Irving Copi in this oft-quoted statement:

In some circumstances it can be safely assumed that if a certain event had occurred, evidence of it could be discovered by qualified investigators. In such circumstances it is perfectly reasonable to take the absence of proof of its occurrence as positive proof of its non-occurrence.5

An evidence-of-absence strategy can be difficult to apply because it brings into play several sorts of subjective judgments:

  1. How many times must a prediction fail before it is reasonable to conclude that the phenomenon does not likely exist?
  2. How do we distinguish between evidence of absence and its reverse, absence of evidence, when qualified, conscientious investigators have searched for evidence but may have used inappropriate procedures due to gaps or errors in the available data base? (SETI scientists, for example, have not given up the search for alien signals because they have yet to detect any. In this case most believe that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; rather they hold that we are early in the search, the cosmos is a big place with a lot of empty space in between planets, and ET could be rare and hard to find. So they continue searching.)
  3. Even when there is a clear-cut case of absence of evidence—no one has even looked for the phenomenon—it could provide indirect support for evidence of absence if it appeared that the scientific community simply did not expect to find the phenomenon and chose not to invest the resources into investigating it.

Rather than look for “proof” that a phenomenon does not exist, it would seem more fruitful to weigh the evidence and assess the trends, with the understanding that everything could change tomorrow with some dramatic discovery. In other words, the approach suggested here is to treat abiogenesis as an empirical question, subject to scientific assessment strategies, rather than as an assumption that will inevitably be confirmed.

This is no “God of the Gaps” argument that seeks to use the current status of research on abiogenesis to claim that life must have had a supernatural origin. Rather, it is suggested that the available evidence makes it reasonable to treat abiogenesis as an empirical question that has two sides to it. Negative evidence on the natural side is potentially interpretable as positive evidence on the supernatural side. As evidence accumulates, the “God” construct could become increasingly plausible, better defined, and more useful for both science and theology.

Abiogenesis and the Improbability Hypothesis

Considering the staggeringly complex chemistry and organization of living cells, for abiogenesis to have occurred it would have to have been an extraordinarily rare event. Richard Dawkins6 estimates that the probability that any given planet selected at random would harbor life is no greater than 1 in a billion. However, if we considered only life-friendly planets like Earth, then the odds would be considerably better. Dawkins7 reassures us that “This should give encouragement to our chemists trying to recreate the event in the lab, for it could shorten the odds against their success.”

Let’s call this view the Improbability Hypothesis (IH). It states that with enough time and recombinations of molecules, life will eventually appear. The IH is useful here because it gives us an additional, independent means of assessing the viability of abiogenesis without having to rely on the ingenuity and luck of the chemists—we can enlist the assistance of Mother Nature. For billions of years she has been toiling away, blindly throwing molecules together. With billions of galaxies to work with, and at least a billion planets in each galaxy, she must have come up with many millions of successes, possibly an average of 1 success per billion planets.

However, as physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies8 argues, there are actually two places where we can look for evidence of life through random processes: distant planets in the form of radio signals sent by alien beings reaching out, and right here on Earth in the form of organisms with a genetic makeup so different from ours that they must have come from a different genesis event from all other organisms. A separate genesis event would support abiogenesis indirectly because it is predictable from the random processes required for abiogenesis. The question then becomes: How closely does the pattern of evidence from Mother Nature’s efforts match that of the chemists?

What the Data Show

I have summarized the evidence in a table (below) that sorts phenomena into three categories: synthesis of living cells from chemicals or dead cells, synthesis of viruses from chemicals (a control group consisting of biological entities that are almost alive9), and multiple genesis events, both on Earth and elsewhere. For each issue I have offered judgments on three kinds of evidence: evidence of absence, absence of evidence, and evidence of presence.

Evaluation of Evidence for Abiogenesis and the Improbability Hypothesis
Evaluation of Evidence for Abiogenesis and the Improbability Hypothesis

Synthesis of a living cell from molecules. Since the pioneering experiment by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey in 1952, demonstrating the synthesis of amino acids from inorganic chemicals that were then believed to make up the early atmosphere of Earth (water vapor, methane, ammonia, hydrogen), there have been many similar studies based on updated models of the prebiotic atmosphere. The trend in the findings has generally been toward a greater density and variety of amino acids but often with the wrong combinations of chemical variations (left-handed and right-handed optical isomers). Has progress been made? That’s debatable, but the bottom line is that in over 60 years of increasingly sophisticated attempts, no living cell has ever been produced. The rundown:

Evidence of Absence: Yes; Absence of Evidence: Yes (because new models of the prebiotic atmosphere and environment could some day be used to synthesize a living cell); Evidence of Presence: No.

Revival of a dead cell. They have been called “Frankencells,” but like Mary Shelley’s creation they live only in our imagination. Seemingly dead cells have been revived but they were actually alive and hibernating, sometimes under conditions exceedingly hostile to life. In a particularly dramatic case, in 2012 a research team led by Fabrice Chrétien at the Pasteur Institute in France reactivated dormant stem cells from muscle tissue and bone marrow of people who had been dead for 17 days and whose bodies had been kept refrigerated to prevent decay.

Evidence of Absence: Yes; Absence of Evidence: No (it’s an active area of research); Evidence of Presence: No.

Synthesis of a virus from chemicals. Viruses are widely viewed as biological entities that are not quite alive.11 They contain genetic material (RNA or DNA) and some structure (a protective protein coat) but when they are outside of a living cell viruses are inert (they are unresponsive to stimuli and lack any metabolic activity) and they cannot reproduce. It has been shown that viruses can be synthesized directly from chemicals without mediation by living cells. In 2002, a research team led by Eckard Wimmer at SUNY Stony Brook synthesized the relatively simply poliovirus by artificially stringing together all 7,500 bases of its RNA code. The technology for synthesizing viruses has since then steadily advanced, with potential applications to vaccine production and new forms of medical treatment involving the insertion of the engineered virus’s genetic material into diseased cells.

Evidence of Absence: No; Absence of Evidence: No; Evidence of Presence: Yes.

Signals from extraterrestrial intelligences. Since 1960 a program has been underway to monitor electromagnetic radiation from space for signals that could have been sent by civilizations seeking to let others know they exist. Started by astronomer Frank Drake at Cornell University, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has grown markedly over the years, now encompassing hundreds of radio astronomers in some 60 countries. None of these searches has succeeded in detecting a signal that would suggest life on another planet.

The negative results could be the result of a flawed strategy. As discussed by Davies,11 astronomers have based their searches on the assumption that an alien civilization has beamed their signals directly at us over a narrow band of frequencies. Davies points out that it is intuitively unlikely that a civilization some 1,000 light-years away would make the effort to reach out to us because they would have no basis for expecting that we would be capable of receiving their signals. Based on the maximum speed of light, for us to receive their signal now, they would have had to have sent it 1,000 years ago during our Middle Ages. If they had the means to observe us at that time (actually if they looked at us then, they would be seeing us as we appeared 1,000 years before the Middle Ages), we could hardly have seemed like a good bet to pick up their signals a thousand years into our future. In principle, a successful detection could still occur at any time but the current state of the evidence is definitively negative. Therefore,

Evidence of Absence: Yes; Absence of Evidence: No; Evidence of Presence: No.

Beacon signals from space. According to Davies,12 an alternative contact strategy that an alien civilization could use would resemble the regular pulses of light that lighthouses generate and could be seen by any mariner from any angle within its visible range. The signals from space would analogously be pulses sent out over a broad range of frequencies. In contrast, SETI is set up to detect continuous signals within a narrow, targeted range. So it is possible that an advanced civilization is out there but a new search strategy would be required for us to detect it. Therefore,

Evidence of Absence: No; Absence of Evidence: Yes; Evidence of Presence: No.

Extraterrestrial life or its by-products (e.g., biotic methane). As astronomers search for life in the form of alien radio signals, spacecraft and roving robots are sniffing the atmospheres and scouring the surfaces of planets and moons for other sorts of signals, indications that life could have existed at some time or perhaps still does exist there. To actually discover a microbe, living or dead, would itself be a highly improbable event, but on Mars, at least, the rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity have uncovered plenty of evidence that the environment there could at one time have supported life.

Most recently, Curiosity drilled into rocks and discovered nitric oxide, a common byproduct of the breakdown of nitrates, which contain the form of nitrogen that organisms use. Nitric oxide is also produced by most life forms, from bacteria to plants and animals, and it is intriguing to speculate about whether that nitrogen had actually been used by a Martian life form. A complementary discovery by Curiosity reported in December 2014 was high concentrations of methane rising in discrete wafts from the surface of Gale Crater. On Earth, methane is most commonly biological in origin, but like nitrates and nitric oxide, it can also result from nonbiological chemical reactions.

As tantalizingly suggestive as such findings may be, they do not add up to a demonstration of alien life because the molecules discovered could have had abiotic origins. But as research continues, a pattern of evidence could eventually emerge that would make a reasonably persuasive case for the existence of life on Mars or elsewhere. In sum,

Evidence of Absence: No; Absence of Evidence: Yes; Evidence of Presence: No.

Multiple genesis events on Earth. Davies13 has argued that Earth itself could provide the breakthrough that researchers have been searching for in distant worlds. There is no known planet that is more life-friendly than Earth. If life started spontaneously elsewhere, why not here again—and again—after the first time?

Biological science represents the ancestries of all known species as branches of a single tree, a conceptualization that is compellingly supported by multiple, converging lines of evidence. At the molecular level, all known species have cellular structures and maintenance processes that are so similar that they could reasonably be explained only in terms of a common origin. Most remarkably, the DNA triplet code that ribosomes use to sequence the amino acids to form particular proteins is the same for all cells of all species. That is no coincidence.

But what we’re considering here are all the known species. No systematic effort has been made to seek out species from a different tree of life. And we would not have to look far to find them because the life forms that are most promising are also the most plentiful—bacteria. As Davies explains, it would be necessary to develop new techniques to distinguish between a fundamentally new species that grew out from a different tree of life (e.g., a species that uses a different triplet code) and a run-of- the-mill species that happens to be unresponsive to existing identification techniques and ends up in the researcher’s trash.

The absence of systematic efforts to develop entirely new identification techniques suggests that researchers do not expect that their efforts would likely be successful. It’s a case where an absence of evidence suggests evidence of absence, and so in the table I have linked the two forms of evidence:

Evidence of Absence: Yes; Absence of Evidence: Yes, but this also suggests evidence of absence; Evidence of Presence: No.

Overall, the current pattern of evidence is consistent with the interpretation that life started just once in one place and was not the result of random processes.

It should be emphasized that this interpretation is tentative. It could be refuted by research at any time. But at a minimum the evidence suggests that it is more reasonable to treat abiogenesis as an empirical question than as an assumption.

Conclusion: Is the God Hypothesis a Delusion?

The evidence summarized in the table makes a reasonable case for the existence of a supernatural force that produced the first living cell and since then has continued to produce cells in such numbers that they now penetrate virtually every nook and niche of the planet. As suggested by 18th century Scottish naturalist, James Hutton, “Father of Modern Geology,” Earth is a planet saturated with life.

Is life God? That seems one reasonable way to characterize a supernatural force that evidence suggests may be responsible for creating the first living cell and then replicating it in endless variations. It’s debatable, but in Dawkins’14 terms, it’s not delusional.

Whatever philosophical or religious elaborations one may choose to add to a minimalist construct of “God,” it is intriguing to contemplate its implications. For millennia people have searched for God in meditation to erase the barriers that separate them from the greater reality. But there could be an easier way to “reach out to God”: just shake a hand or touch a leaf. Objectively speaking, that may be as close to God as one could ever get in this life. END

References
  1. Scharf, C. 2012. Defining life (blog entry). Defining Life (July 9).
  2. Stenger, V. J. 2008. God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
  3. Schopf, J. W. (Ed.). 2002. Life’s Origin: The Beginnings of Biological Evolution. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  4. Stenger, op. cit.
  5. Copi, I. M., Cohen, C., & McMahon, K. 2010. Introduction to Logic (14th ed). London: Pearson.
  6. Dawkins, R. 2006. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  7. Ibid., pp.165–166.
  8. Davies, P. 2010. The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  9. Rybicki, E. P. 1990. “The Classification of Organisms at the Edge of Life, or Problems with Virus Systematics.” South African Journal of Science, 86, 182–186.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Davies, op. cit.
  12. Davies, op. cit.
  13. Davies, op. cit.
  14. Dawkins, op. cit.
  15. Rybicki, op. cit., p. 182.
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