The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

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

  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.

This article was published on September 28, 2015.


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

  1. Andrew M says:

    Mathew – to be fair I will declare my atheism and scientific background upfront. My science is not cellular (but is physiology). I just thought that I would point out that you have tried to nullify the theistic gap-filling argument with the same…that there is no evidence of earlier viruses being able to create life (reproduce) you have just “ipso-factoed” it into your explanation and conveniently filled a gap of your own…much like the theists fill in the gaps with supernatural powers (magic?). You can’t just say there is evidence of continuity without referencing facts (other than the one used to more or less say “because magic does not exist (can’t be measured)” then clearly viruses used to self-replicate and the evidence of this is that there are cells… And, further, then point out that these self-replicating viruses don’t exist anymore, because, obviously they wouldn’t (because it is “inefficient”) as proof that they did! So you can’t say magic DOESN’T exist because there is a gap in our knowledge anymore than you can say that magic does NOT exist owing to the obviousness of things you have no alternate proof of (viral self-replication). Peace.

    • Mathew Goldstein says:

      Some of the equations of physics are important to chemistry, chemists rely on them to guide their work, and biologists similarly rely on chemistry to guide them. When people try to argue that there are inconsistencies or discontinuities, they invariable focus on mysteries or conundrums which reflect our ignorance. Our obligation is to say we do not know when we reach such mysteries or conundrums. When it comes to inferring, what we know trumps what we do not know as the stronger foundation.

      The ribosome that translate RNA into proteins in cells is a symbiotic single celled organism like mitochondria, but unlike mitochondria it lacks DNA, thus evidencing an ancient RNA world. This is what we should expect if abiogenesis is true, a step by step increase in complexity from a pre-DNA world. Creationists like to claim that micro evolution is not evidence for macro-evolution. It is similar here where creationists like to say that evolution is not evidence for abiogenesis. We have evidence for macro -evolution and for abiogenesis, the primary difference is that evidence for abiogenesis is not as complete as the evidence for macro-evolution. But everyone who follows the evidence should conclude that abiogenesis is likely simply because the available evidence from chemistry and biochemistry favors it.

  2. Gary Frazier says:

    Superstition and religion are dead ends. Both are rooted in man’s misunderstanding of the universe. Science, ultimately, is a dead end – it can’t explain or retest the origin of the universe or where it’s all headed to – it can only guess about these things. In the end, a person chooses, either explicitly or tacitly, between superstition/religion and science to help them through this 75 year ride. If there is a Creator, how could a person know this without it/him/her making itself/himself/herself known and available for knowing? The pot doesn’t say to the potter, “Hey, you must have created me!” But the potter can pick up the pot and use it to hold flowers of something or other. Not a great metaphor, I know, but, I’m just a creature.

    • Mathew Goldstein says:

      We can infer only from what is known. When it comes to supernaturalism there is nothing that is known. When it comes to naturalism there is la lot that is known. Therefore to compare the two as if they are the equivalents is a tremendous mistake. The reality is that we have a complete rout, a completely unbalanced context, our context is exclusively naturalistic. All of our knowledge is naturalistic, none of it supernaturalistic. The only issue that remains, as far as I can see, is to what extent our ignorance should preclude our concluding that our universe is exclusively naturalistic. We cannot know for sure that the sun will rise tommorrow, or that we were not all created two days ago with false memories. But common sense says that since empirical evidence has a good track record of revealing truth about how the universe functions, where truth is what guides to successful decisions, we are justified in taking the direction of the overall available empirical evidence seriously, especially when it is pervasive and consistent. So we are justified in believing the sun will rise tomorrow, it has never failed us, and we are justified in believing our universe is material, physical, mechanical, because this belief has also never failed us.

  3. Mathew Goldstein says:

    I agree with Kagehi that there is continuity between virus and single celled life and it is reasonable to think that the first singled celled life resembled a virus and that modern virus may have lost an ability to reproduce on their own. More generally, we see evidence for this kind of continuity and consistency everywhere, from physics to chemistry to biology. So when theists come along and insist we should be open minded to supernaturalism they do not appear to realize that they are introducing a discontinuity, an inconsistency, a different ontology, which is not evidenced, entirely unnecessary, and not justified. As far as I can see they do this for no other reason than that they are a-priori strongly committed to supernaturalism and desperate to insert it into our universe somehow, somewhere.

  4. Kagehi says:

    Hmm. Fairly typical argument. Its the whole “747 from a tornado” argument. “You can’t get to a cell from something simpler than that, so you have to aim for a complete cell. Since no evidence exists that you can do this, its simply not possible.” The joke here being, you can get viruses. The argument being, of course, that they don’t reproduce. Well.. maybe not modern ones. The thing is, just looking at modern cells you have a lot of crazy variations – some have nearly all code that was part of the mechanism that go back to much more primitive forms, including the RNA in viruses, buried in their nucleus. Others, are more 50/50. Still others lack the nucleus, and all of the code, which is, again, shared over nearly all species, despite where it is found, is free floating in the cell. One of the major things that define the two major types of “it is a living cell”, is purely whether or not the mechanisms exist to sequester processes, or if they all just free float, and, as a result, sometimes “swap out”, into the surrounding environment, where they can be picked up just as easily by other cells. And, yeah, there is RNA based life too, as a result. So.. its not a stretch to go from a virus with non-self replicating RNA, to a cell, which can replicate, and is still RNA, and we know that DNA is a, well, more stable, specialized system, whose function is a) to keep things from all happening at once, all the time, and b) can have wide variations in what it actually keeps sequestered.

    In short – its virus – virus that gains limited replication – RNA cell, cell with DNA, cell that incorporates another cell, becoming a nucleus, and finally – processes that “where” part of the host cell, eventually, to various extents, get “incorporated” into the nuclear DNA, so that, in cases like humans, for example, there is almost **nothing** left of the code that was once part of the mitochondrial ancestors left in them.

    We might not know how you get from virus, to one that can replicate precisely, or even what the simplest “viral” code would be, but.. we also don’t have to assume that the lack of viruses who have the code means they “never” had it. On the contrary, the code that does copies is damn buggy, and universal (hence the ability of viruses to hijack it in all species, as long as they can get past immunity, and the fact that nearly all species either need “buffer code” to prevent cutting off parts of the sequence being replicated, or something to “tack on” more telomeres, every time it makes a copy, to prevent this universal copy function from eating into the functional parts of the code.)

    So, if you are a successful cell, you “need” this replication. If you are a successful virus, you absolutely don’t. What ever variation once had “both” wouldn’t have been cost ineffective, once parasitism arose – having code to both reproduce yourself, and also hijack something else’s code to do it, as a energy resource saver, isn’t very efficient.

    The only “improbability” here is the odds of finding any living organism that fills both roles. They would have gone extinct long ago, and never reappeared. Why would they?

    But, its much simpler to say, “You can’t get there from here.”, and declare the gap too wide, than acknowledge that there “are” plausible steps between them, even if we may not know precisely what they are.

    • Agabu Ndhlovu says:

      In your blogspot response to proffessor Navarick, it is telling that you exhibit an antipathy to the supernatural underlying “natural” processes. You keep saying that there’s no evidence to that effect. Actually, there is. But you keep sidestepping it due to a fervent commitment to bare naturalism. The simple truth is the laws of nature sufficiently evince the supernatural empirically. The problem with your approach is that you begin with the material and end with the same. Unfortunately your argument for treating life as “a strictly material phenomena” is riddled with unwarranted bias, circular reasoning and question begging.

      Firstly you write: “Biogenesis prevails because of reproduction. Reproduction, like metabolism, is a natural process. There is a strong correlation between death and material deterioration or destruction from aging or injury. This is exactly the correlation we expect when the mechanisms underlying life are physical and material.”  The production of new living organisms by other living things (biogenesis) by reproduction is undoubtedly the way things ordinarily work. Reproduction is a natural process. So far, I agree. But then you take a leap in logic from life to death, and use this to justify the notion that materialism forms the basis for all natural processes. Yes things die, but how does that prove materialism underlying all natural things? That material things deteriorate or get destroyed through injury or aging, says nothing about them being definitively only physical. All it says from an observational standpoint is that things eventually run down. The correlation between life and death is to be expected not because materialism underlines natural processes but rather because material deterioration is what we see recurring on average for reasons beyond it. Clearly, you have a bias here, and an unwarranted one at that. The bias is plugging materialism as definitive when all we’re dealing with from an observational standpoint is descriptive. This bias operates with the working assumption that “the mechanisms underlying life are physical and material.”  This is nothing but philosophical naturalism imposed on the science. This skews the methodology for doing science such that only naturalism is assumed before, during and after the fact. Science provides facts about how things work and what they are like. Telling people that supernaturalism is allegedly empirically unverifiable or unscientific is an outside rule imposed on science about how science should be used. It bears repeating to say once more that science is about providing facts about how things are rather than how those things we’ve come to know should be used. We observe natural processes working the way they do. But what we observe is descriptive, not definitive. What we are able to see is on the surface of things. The deeper questions of what underlies the mechanisms when properly weighed yield considerations that go well beyond the material.

      It is clear that you believe that the material underlines the material. Or put in another way, naturalism underlines naturalism. This is obvious from your statement that the mechanisms underlying life are physical and material. In your schema the mechanisms are natural processes or material/physical themselves. On this premise, natural phenomena explain natural phenomena. This is nothing but circular reasoning. You begin with nature, and end with nature eschewing the supernatural even though it is the only meaningful and proper foundation for nature. Supernaturalism underlines naturalism is more sensible than naturalism underlines naturalism. Added to this, claiming physical life is material begs the question. While working with matter is a given, concluding that matter and its workings is definitive may be logically valid but is unpersuasive in that your line of reasoning fails to prove anything other than what is already assumed in the first place, which is naturalism. Sorry, but you don’t prove that materialism is all there is, you assume it from the get go.

      You ask, “Why would a god hide a massive ongoing divine intervention on earth…by so intervening only within the constraints of natural laws?” and further down, “And why would this god do this only on one lonely planet in one randomly selected galaxy in the vast universe?” This is interesting. It unfortunately reveals a very serious problem in your ideas. Who says God is hiding? Who says He only put life on earth and nowhere else, or that it is in a randomly selected galaxy without thought or regard to anything else? These are your assumptions. The Christian Bible for instance doesn’t teach anywhere that God is hiding and uninvolved with the nature or that He didn’t put life anywhere else. As an example, the Bible says, “He [God] created all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. Whether they are kings or lords, rulers or powers- everything has been created through Him and for Him. He existed before everything and holds everything together.” (Colossians 1:16-17, emphasis added). In Christian teaching, God created everything and holds it all together, hardly a hidden God, really. Nature reveals God as working in nature, while remaining above and beyond it. Is this detectable? Yes it is. How so you may ask? Let’s put it this way: we begin with the natural world around us. We observe what it is, its arrangements, intricacies of how things work within it, the scope of it, make inferences about where it all may be going based on how some things expire. Our observations yield knowledge, information that is. We organise all this data into a variety of disciplines.

      Science by and large is after all the practice of classification. Taxonomy, the science of naming things is how science gets done. The massive amount of data gathered up in the sciences requires people with a sufficient but limited measure of intelligence, skill, knowledge, capacity, aptitude or wisdom. But it doesn’t stop there. The massive amount of data that the sciences have yielded through discovery precipitated by human curiosity strongly suggests with a very high degree of probability that it was underwritten into nature by a supernatural being with the requisite intelligence, skill, capacity, knowledge, aptitude and wisdom by which an entire universe could be brought into being. This isn’t an unwarranted leap in logic, but a necessary inference due to interacting with the data that only someone with a mind (people) can make sense of and by extension only a mind (God?) can produce or spell out. But it doesn’t stop there. Consider natural processes. We observe a series of actions that produce something. A lot of what happens in a natural process is recurrent. In our experience of biogenesis for one, living organisms come from other living things. This is observably so. But what underlines this? That living organisms come from other living things is descriptive. However, the thing that underlines this process, which is prevailing generally by reproduction, is definitive. What defines the process should be regarded as distinct from the process itself albeit assumed to be very involved with the process. Why? It protects us from the pitfalls of unwarranted bias, circular reasoning and question begging. So what is the thing that underlines it, that is, what power keeps it going ensuring that it continues to do what it’s doing? Clearly, something is happening. There is a series of actions or a phenomenon marked by gradual changes that are leading to a particular result. It isn’t the addition of extra substances or chemicals. It isn’t anything artificial. It’s nothing so tangible for us that it may be quantified. It is rather more qualitative and therefore may only be categorised as such. The fact that it is invisible shouldn’t disqualify it from consideration. There is a principle that is making sure natural processes work like they’re meant to. This shouldn’t be confused with the laws of nature. This is rather the Law of Nature. The laws of nature give descriptions or explain how things work given a particular set of circumstances. The law of nature is the underlying reason of why something, or anything for that matter happens. Contrary to what you say, biology is itself not a product of the laws of nature. They may govern it, but that doesn’t mean they also produce it. Something holds everything else together. It can’t be nature itself that holds nature together. Saying so is circular reasoning. Nature must be held together by something beyond it, with its own distinct nature apart from nature that it can only be supernatural seeing as it is not nature itself. This makes sense. Nature and its array of mechanisms is ultimately the product of this supernatural reality. Saying so shouldn’t be treated as a chimera in science. It is rather the fruit of a solid research and analysis of nature itself. If the supernatural exists and is responsible for producing nature and keeping it going, then evidence for its reality in nature can only be detected and thus determined by an analysis of nature as an “effect.” This entails that nature has a derived substance to it that it was meant to have (something which is clearly the case). Nothing in nature is self-creating. Things come into being dependant on other factors or conditions such that things produce according to kind. In other words nature was purposely made to generate things within it that share a likeness. Secondly, nature has laws underwritten into it by which it operates. Life for instance abides by certain known laws of nature thus evincing a supernatural origin by decree that makes sense of the fact that things abide by nature’s laws by design. Thirdly, the mechanisms in nature offer a paradigm from whence we may draw conclusions that the supernatural is real, and is in the business of holding everything together because it has the authority and power to do so. This is a perfectly plausible and legitimate inference to make.

      Questions about the nature of the supernatural will inevitably arise. Your meandering into writing off God on the basis of moral gripes you have concerning His alleged hiding is more a phantom of your imagination that you would do well to discard. God isn’t missing in action in running this show. What I’m proposing isn’t magical thinking either. It is an analysis of the facts that yields a hypothesis of the supernatural from our observation of nature. People discern the supernatural from simply observing nature and its workings and drawing conclusions in that regard. The approach in this sense is empirical and not as you think, “strongly rooted in human intuition.” Notice, God’s originating and subsequent ongoing involvement in nature is understood from observing nature. You on the other hand look at nature and are led in the opposite direction drawing conclusions that matter is all there is. But on both counts observation and interpretation of the data reasoned from the observing occurs. Both are basically empirical approaches. I am persuaded that your approach is illegitimate due to being riddled with logical fallacies and overestimating what is possible within the constraints of naturalism. If God’s ongoing involvement is assumed or understood to be more of an extraneous circumstance in nature that explains why you misunderstand His role in nature thereby concluding He is not involved at all. The supernatural underlying the natural makes anything possible in nature. Utilising the top-down or bottom-up approaches to thinking through these issues is what most people are often engaged in consciously or unconsciously. The situation generally will determine which approach may be the most pertinent to use. Obviously there are correlations, logical implications and such involved but a reading and interpretation of the data is what warranting the supernatural is built on and is all about.

  5. John K WilliamsSon says:

    Thank you for writing, and sharing, something that can help us think about alternatives. This is not a black and white universe, so there is not just scientific truth and theological truth, one good truth, the other false truth; but there are other points of truth that are elsewhere in the spectrum of information, each one agreeing to some extent with some parts of scientific truth and to some extent with some parts of theological truth.


  6. J. Gravelle says:

    A far less verbose rebuttal to the “you don’t know how life started” ‘argument’ is: “So what?”

    Before we knew what made lightning, the Zeus hypothesis was as invalid an explanation as it is today.

    Our understanding of abiogenesis lends absolutely NO credence to theistic claims. None. They use these arguments to veil their argumentum ad ignorantiam:

    “YOU can’t tell us how life started, ergo God[s].”

    I suppose ‘STFU’ would be even more concise, if you’re reeeeally hard-pressed for time…


  7. skeptonomist says:

    Another attempt to reconcile science with “theology” or “religion” fails because it does not deal with real religion (among other things). Navarick’s “God” does not resemble the gods of any real religion – real religions consist of the belief that some entity like a real living organism is the ultimate cause of what is not otherwise understood. The analogous real living organisms of “primitive” religions once included animals and women, but modern religions seem to have evolved toward a single God who is an old man.

    The “God” that is defined by Navarick and other like apologists is of no use to either real religious believers nor to science.

    • Douglas Navarick says:

      The “God” construct is not intended to represent any specific religious concept of God. It could serve as an objective, evidence-based foundation for a wide range of theistic concepts.

      As a form of theism it’s saying that there may be a supernatural influence on natural processes that can be investigated scientifically. It’s inconsistent with deism–the idea that a supernatural being created the universe but did not become a part of it–and it is inconsistent with pantheism–that idea that everything is God.

      A belief in God could have two levels, an empirical level based on objective evidence and an intuitive level that reflects personal experience. The objective component is subject to scientific debate; the intuitive level is personal.

      Einstein famously stated: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Einstein was referring to the religious feeling of humility that one may get when investigating or contemplating nature’s complexities. We can use science to guide religious intuitions so that they are not “blind” to nature’s realities. At the same time we should not let science close our minds to anything because that would make it “lame.”

      • Mathew Goldstein says:

        A problem with that quote from Einstein is that it is one sentence taken from a paragraph and when quoted in the entire paragraph, and in the context of other comments by Einstein about religion, it becomes clear that Einstein was referring to religion as an aspiration toward truth and understanding, and not as theistic belief. Einstein rejected theism.

        “Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

      • Mathew Goldstein says:

        On the empirical level theism is a failure. We should be deeply skeptical of justifying our beliefs regarding how the universe woks on the intuitive level. One of the major lessons of science and modernity is that answers to how the world works questions are often non-intuitive and counter-intuitive and the only reliable way to avoid the pitfalls of fooling ourselves is to take an empirical evidence first approach of following the empirical evidence wherever it takes us and not going where the empirical evidence does not go.

        • Agabu Ndhlovu says:

          Contrary to your assertion, on the empirical level theism is not a failure. Individuals such as yourself with a priori naturalistic assumptions due to your atheistic precommitments assume that people simply insert supernaturalism (read: God) into our universe somehow, somewhere, which is actually rarely the case at all. Ordinarily, most folks who believe in God detect the supernatural from a simple ‘reading’ of the book of nature. The universe as an effect with a cause points to a being with great creative power as having flung it into being. From an observational standpoint, we may and most do discern certain invisible qualities like eternal power and divine nature, about the force that brought the cosmos into being and continues to keep it going. The whole theatre of nature becomes a great laboratory for all people everywhere to verify or disprove by observation and experimentation the regular and exceptional (i.e. miracles) workings of the supernatural. This isn’t a god-of-the-gaps theory by any stretch of the imagination, but the ‘God’ of creation theory that is worthy of further exploration. Remember, the burden of proof to show the absence of God in creation isn’t on every one else but on the elite few (often Scientists with atheistic presuppositions). There is a reason advancements in the sciences aren’t obliterating belief in the supernatural. There are many scientists who are embracing theism because of science. And please don’t narrow to merely the western world, think worldwide. Simply saying theism has been a failure, doesn’t make it so. All that says is you think it’s been a failure, which is another matter entirely.

        • Mathew Goldstein says:

          Supernaturalism is a complete failure empiricaly, that is the reason why supernaturalism is eschewed. I am not operating with any a-priori commitment to naturalism, neither is the scientific community. Our only criteria for what we believe regarding how the universe works is success and since naturalistic methods and outcomes are exclusively succeesfully we post-priori conclude that our universe appears to be exclusively naturalistic. What you are doing is arguing backwards, starting from an insistence for intelligent primary cause even though all of the evidence we have is that causes need not be the product of a willful intelligent agent. The equations of physics demonstrate that cosmic causes are mechanical, indifferent to humanity, arbitrary, following only the logic natural laws. The available evidence favors the conclusion that animals have no contra-causal free will, we are all mechanical. Since there is no libertarian free will there can be no “cause without a cause” creator god. Your argument is strongly rooted in human intuition, and we know that the functioning of our universe is counter-intuitive.

      • Mathew Goldstein says:

        If a supernatural intervention is detected then it would be identified as empirical evidence for supernaturalism by scientists. You are correct about that. But if the supernatural “influence” occurs only “through natural law” then it may not be detectable as something “independent of natural law” that would qualify as evidence for supernaturalism. From our point of view a supernatural influence that only occurred hidden behind natural law would be unevidenced and we should not believe in such a supernatural influence. After all, we are not gods, we are not omnipresent and omniscient.

        • Agabu Ndhlovu says:

          Once again, your contention that supernaturalism is a complete failure empirically betrays the facts. God’s ongoing involvement in nature is empirically verifiable, at least to a point. You say that I argue backwards, starting from an insistence for intelligent primary cause. Actually, I don’t. I said many people on average detect the supernatural from a simple “reading” of the “book of nature.” We observe nature and then detect God’s ongoing involvement in it and gain a measure of understanding of how this is so from what has been made. People discern the supernatural from simply observing nature and its workings and drawing conclusions in that regard. The approach in this sense is empirical and not as you say, “strongly rooted in human intuition.” Notice, God’s ongoing involvement in nature is understood from observing nature. You look at nature and are led into the opposite direction. But on both counts observation and interpretation of the data deduced from the observing occurs. Both are basically empirical approaches. If God’s ongoing involvement is assumed or understood to be more of an extraneous circumstance in nature that may explain your missing God’s ongoing involvement thereby concluding He is not involved at all. That some scientists, and yourself in particular eschew supernaturalism is actually the problem here. Why eschew it? There may be practical and moral reasons for doing so but that only goes to show that certain assumptions are brought to the science table as it were that have a bearing on how one reads and understands the data. This is quite clear from what you say that causes need not be the product of a wilful intelligent agent. This is a clear case of interpretation or reading of the data without supernatural considerations with the working assumption that we only got natural assumptions to go on not that the data necessarily evinces this mind you. You may tack on this allegation the assessment that the equations of physics demonstrate that cosmic causes are mechanical, indifferent to humanity, arbitrary, following only the logic of natural laws, but that again is not so much a case of empirical evidence but of mere conclusions drawn from an analysis of the data eschewing supernatural involvement at every turn and calling this an apparently non-intuitive approach to doing science. The pitfalls here should be obvious. Ignoring or disregarding supernatural involvement on the basis of an “I just don’t see it” rationale because I’m dealing with what I can observe becomes the copout. God’s invisible involvement is reduced to being merely imagined rather than gained through deductive reasoning as well as inductive analysis of a given set of data about our world or universe.


          The notion that cosmic causes are mechanical or arbitrary is problematic. Your interaction with the laws of physics has you treating the universe like a piece of man-made hardware. The universe isn’t a mechanical contrivance but is a cosmos i.e. a complex orderly self-inclusive system bearing the hallmarks of creative ingenuity. Some things in it may seem mechanistic and even arbitrary in their operation, but that doesn’t mean that they are. You speak of the functioning of our universe. Ironically, function suggests things such as purpose, activity, correspondence, variables and such. All this to say that since the universe has a pattern or structure to it, this means that it is actually far more dynamic, amenable to humanity (at least our planet earth is, and the immediate vicinity of space we are able to explore given our ability to be inventive), with laws of nature that are understandable. A consideration of these facts inexorably leads to the discernment of divine involvement in nature. Obviously, you may say all you see are natural processes without any hint of supernatural intervention. But that is just it. Supernatural involvement rather is detectable in the process itself while remaining distinct from it in that an obviously unseen yet no less real power is keeping it intact and working with purpose. Extraneous intervention is unlikely but not necessarily unexpected especially if one allows for the possibility of miracles. Ongoing supernatural involvement is far more organic, natural and as such intrinsic to the way all things work. Some things may seem unguided or arbitrary, but that doesn’t mean that in reality they are. In the things we know there still is an element of mystery. We may know how certain things work but that doesn’t mean that’s why they work that way. God is ultimately the reason they work, and the mechanics of how they work is how He does it. The mystery here is how He broods over everything so to speak thereby keeping it intact and working as elegantly as it does. This isn’t plugging God in the inexplicable and divorcing Him from the explicable, but simply grounding the natural on a supernatural foundation as a reason for being.


          I thought following the empirical evidence wherever it takes us was the point. You may allege that the empirical evidence does not get us to God, but for far too many people it evidently leads them to Him anyhow for reasons built on observing the natural world. You posit human intuition as the reason for this, and then say that scientists take an empirical evidence first approach in order to avoid the pitfalls of fooling ourselves due to entertaining intuitive or counter-intuitive predilections. I suspect you mean people just illogically leap to seeing the supernatural in nature no matter the evidence to the contrary if such exists. However, how things work “naturally” isn’t evidence of the absence of supernatural involvement. My friend that would be the unwarranted leap in logic on your part seeing as you are using yourself as the measure by which others must be measured. Detecting supernatural involvement in nature is within reason and the parameters of science. Like you said, it’s just eschewed by some doing science either a priori or as in your case post priori ad hoc. How so, because the only proof for you would be God acting extraneously to the process to “prove” His involvement. Your argument in the alleged lack of evidence in the supernatural underlying the way nature works are strongly rooted in simple unbelief which may have either practical or moral reasons or both lying behind it.

  8. Richard Baker says:

    D Navarick seems to be doing the typical ‘god of the gaps’ type rationalisation for the existence of a supernaturally created “first living cell” even though he attempts to discount this.
    Simplistically, anything that is not understood yet can and will be attributed to a “god” by his ilk.
    As he says “For millennia people have searched for God in meditation to erase the barriers that separate them from the greater reality” and they will continue to do so.
    On a spectrum with “supernatural” or “unexplained” things at one end and “explained with evidence” things at the other, human exploration and discovery will systematically reduce the unexplained things over time. Maybe one day 99.999% will be explainable with evidence but the .00001% will still be unexplained and therefore “supernatural”. The type of wishful argument that he proposes will continue ad nauseum until 100% is explained with irrefutable evidence!

    • Douglas Navarick says:

      I haven’t reached any conclusions on the origins of life –there simply isn’t enough evidence to decide between material and non-material (supernatural) interpretations–but Richard Baker and most other commenters on my article seem to have already made up their minds.

      What would constitute evidence AGAINST abiogenesis? In my article I suggest applying the standard of “evidence of absence”, and when you pull together several lines of research this evidence arguably points toward a supernatural interpretation.

      Maybe you could propose a better strategy. But there needs to be something, some way of falsifying abiogenesis or at least reducing its plausibility. Otherwise, abiogenesis becomes just another untestable religious creation story.

      • Mathew Goldstein says:

        Regarding the question: What evidence would count against abiogenesis? One answer is that almost any evidence against evolution, or naturalism more generally, would be evidence against abiogenesis. For example, science relies on methodological naturalism and naturalistic conclusions because they are successful while supernatural methods and conclusions always fail. If that changed, if knowledge was obtained via divine worship invoked revelation, if prayer to deity was shown to produce the intended results, if mammals were found to predate the first fish in the fossil record, etc., then that would be evidence against abiogenesis.

  9. Billy Ethridge says:

    Douglas Navarick’s article is full of miscellaneous out-of-context observations and partial, unformed conclusions. The net effect is that he makes a very weak case for unifying science and theology. “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.” Tentative is an insufficient characterization of Dr. Navarick’s article. “…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.” Recognition of a pattern is indeed the beginning of understanding. Is a “pattern of evidence” anywhere in Dr. Navarick’s scattered observations from other’s miscellaneous logical and scientific work?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how Akismet processes your comment data. Comments are closed 45 days after an article is published.

Skeptic Magazine App on iPhone


Whether at home or on the go, the SKEPTIC App is the easiest way to read your favorite articles. Within the app, users can purchase the current issue and back issues. Download the app today and get a 30-day free trial subscription.

Download the Skeptic Magazine App for iOS, available on the App Store
Download the Skeptic Magazine App for Android, available on Google Play
Download the Skeptic Magazine App for iOS, available on the App Store
Download the Skeptic Magazine App for Android, available on Google Play
SKEPTIC • 3938 State St., Suite 101, Santa Barbara, CA, 93105-3114 • 1-805-576-9396 • Copyright © 1992–2024. All rights reserved • Privacy Policy