Friday, April 12, 2013

On the origin of life...

I've just been listening to last week's Unbelievable podcast addressing the question "How did life begin?" 

While the debate between (atheistic scientist) Adam Rutherford and (theistic evolutionist) Fuz Rana was fairly interesting, I felt that their discussion didn't really address the question posed.

Put simply, you cannot invoke pre-existent life (i.e. God) as an explanation for the origin of life, as that is a contradiction in itself. If a living entity creates another living entity, this is not the origin of anything. It may be the start of a new phase, as it were, but it cannot be the origin.

The philosophical question at the root of the discussion should not have been "How did life begin?" but rather "Did life begin?" - was there ever a time before life, or has life existed from eternity, with no beginning and no end?


Tim said...

Spot on, Ricky. "An eternal unseen supermind done it" is no explanation at all.

Mike Blyth said...

Probably the usual understanding of "origin of life" is "origin of biological life," so I think the question is still meaningful. Can known physical processes result in the origin of biological life?

The lack of an adequate model for abiogenesis does not imply that there are supernatural causes, though it would be consistent with them.

Ricky Carvel said...


Yes, I understand that the focus of the debate was on biological life, or specifically, biological-terrestrial life, but I think the water gets very muddy if you try and separate that out from life in its broader form.

If, in order to get life from non-life, you need to have the action of some pre-existant other form of life, then we're not really talking about the origin of life, we're talking about an agent adding some of its own attributes to a biological system in order to change the system.

Regarding your question "Can known physical processes result in the origin of biological life?" - No, as far as I know. But can known supernatural processes result in the origin of biological life?

Sipech said...

Perhaps then the more basic question should be "What is life?" Perhaps there is talk at cross purposes here. It's been over a decade since I last formally studied biology, but even then it was considered a grey area, particulaly with reference to whether viruses could be classed as living things.

Ricky Carvel said...

The follow up Unbelievable programme actually gave an answer to this question. They defined a living system as basically being "a system which resists decay".

Now that definition raises some very interesting theological questions. It presupposes that decay is the 'natural' default process and life is that which fights against this. But what then of God? I guess most theists would not suggest that God even could be subject to decay, so in what way is his 'life' a resisting of decay?

Also, many Christians would probably say that decay itself is a consequence of 'the fall' and that without sin there would be no decay. But using the definition given, that would mean that without sin there would be no life... and eternal existence with no decay wouldn't be life. Hmmm.

Anonymous said...

Justin read out a similar question on his show (perhaps it was yours) and I immediately thought "this guy has missed the point". The show dealt with the origins of organic life on this planet. I'm not sure how your question gets applied to a Being that is by definition uncreated.

Ricky Carvel said...

Hi Anon,

Yes it was my email. But the more I think about it, the more I think my point is valid.

Suppose we humans create a machine and somehow imbue it with life. This will be the start of 'mechanical life' but it will not be the origin of life. Life will pre-exist before this new phase of life begins. The same is true for the theistic argument here. Yes, maybe the question can be reduced to 'how did biological life begin?' but the question is not 'how did life begin?'

If biological life is requred in order to bring about mechanical life, and if supernatural life is requred in order to bring about biological life, the logical deduction must be that some other form of life was required to initiate supernatural life... and so on, in infinite regress.

The only alternative to this line of thinking is that life itself has no origin, Life has always existed. This is, essentially, the theistic position,

So the question I posed has value - is life something that had an origin, or is it something that has always been?

Did life originate with biological life, or did life exist before that?

Anonymous said...

By way of repeating myself - the question being addressed in the show wasn't "who created the creator". It was about the origin of biological life on this planet. This is why they had two people with backgrounds in biology talking to each other. Quite how a scientist could apply scientific methodology to answer a question that in principle lies outside the purview of science is beyond me.

If the discussion was about the origin of supernatural "life" then that would be an entirely different question - one better suited to theologians and metaphysicians. Moreover, from the perspective of classical Christianity it would be incoherent question to ask about God because God is uncreated.

What you are doing is, in some way, equivalent to complaining that in a conference dedicated to new developments in cosmology that they hadn't first determined the origin of the things we codify as the "Laws of Nature".

But I suppose we will have to agree to disagree

Ricky Carvel said...

I don't want to be too pedantic here, but the title of the show was "How did life begin?" not "How did biological life begin?"

One of the participants believes that life originated from non-life at some time in the past. The other believes that life is eternal. So one of the participants was truly addressing the question "How did life begin?" while the other was (merely) addressing the question "How did biological life begin?" - which is a different question.

To ask how God began is not an incoherent question. You cannot invoke a man-made, dictionary definition of God to prove His attributes. But that's wandering away from the topic of the show. As I said, a far more interesting question (as you say, better addressed by philosophers) would be Did life begin or is it eternal?

Georgi said...

Dear Colleague,
I am sending you information. Have a look at it please.
Georgi Gladyshev
Thermodynamics of origin of life: Why is there life?

(Why does life originate and exist now? It is the main question! How does life originate? It is the second question!)
The transition between the animate and inanimate matter is a slow. It was predestined by the action of "thermodynamic principle of the substance stability" ( ) which describes the forward and backward linkages at the transmission of information between structural hierarchies during the chemical and biological evolution.
See: Thermodynamics and the emergence of life.
The phenomena of life can be explained on the basis of quasi-equilibrium hierarchical thermodynamics of dynamic systems which stands at the solid foundation of thermodynamics of JW Gibbs. Theory can be constructed without using the concept of dissipative structures of I. Prigogine and his ideas about negentropy.
From the point of view of thermodynamics, the phenomenon of life is defined as: "Life is the process of existence of constantly renewed polyhierarchical structures during cycles of transformation of labile chemical substances in the presence of liquid water on the planet."
Hierarchical thermodynamics establishes a common genetic code of life in the universe
Thermodynamic mechanisms of formation and evolution of living systems On the sculpting living organisms and systems
Georgi Gladyshev
Professor of Physical Chemistry
P.S. Biodiversity - See: Thermodynamic mechanisms of formation and evolution of living systems On the sculpting living organisms and systems