Does Empirical Science Explain the Origin of Life?

Photo by Amanda Leutenberg

Photo by Amanda Leutenberg

We have made remarkable strides in our scientific knowledge over the centuries. We have dispelled many myths and clarified how the natural world works. We have gained an amazing grasp on the material reality of the world, as vast and intricate as it is.

We have so much knowledge about how the natural world works, in contrast to the speculations of the past, that we are tempted to jump to some conclusions that are still beyond our reach.

We can see all the way back to the beginning of space time. We know with detail the constants of the laws of physics that have operated from that very beginning. We now know the physics behind many of the phenomenon that people once attributed to gods or God. Many bright people conclude, therefore, with self-righteous confidence that the natural world is all that is.

Is that really all there is?

We can see the beginning of space time, but we can’t see the end. We can see the beginning and progression of life forms, but we can’t predict how they will continue to progress, and we can’t see the end of all life. The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that entropy will lead to conditions that can no longer sustain life. We know there will be an end to life as we know it, but mysteries remain to be discovered as the end unfolds.

We can see the beginning of space time, and the beginning and progression of life as it plays out; we can even “see” how the end will play out in basic (though not great) detail;  but we can’t see before the beginning.

The knowledge that we have about the formation and “evolution” of the universe and the formation and evolution of life tempts us into thinking that we know and understand the origins of the universe and life. All we see are natural causes, and so we attribute the origins to natural causes, though we really don’t have an adequate naturalistic explanation.

Scientists used to say that the natural world always existed (is eternal) and, so, simply is. We now know that isn’t true. A variation on the theme that has been suggested, however, is that the universe exists by necessity. Basically, it is because it is.

I am oversimplifying, of course, but these answers are essentially non-answers. Scientists who subscribe to a naturalistic worldview often equate (or conflate) the empirical scientific evidence with an explanation of the origins of the universe. They might say something like this: the laws of physics explain the origin of the universe.

But, the idea that the laws of physics explain the origins of the universe is illusory. We can trace the Big Bang back to the beginning of space time, but that doesn’t explain where the matter came from that became the universe. It doesn’t explain where the laws of physics originated.These laws were set in place from the moment of the Big Bang, but they didn’t exist, as far as we know, before that point.

Empirical science doesn’t give us the answers to these questions.

The currently popular idea of a multiverse is just another illusory answer, and not a very scientific one at that. The multiverse idea assumes something for which we have no empirical evidence – that an infinite number of universes exist. While it’s a possibility that don’t we live in the only universe, we have no empirical evidence that any other universes do exist.

The arguments from necessity and and the proposition of a multiverse are what we call abductive reasoning. They are conclusions reached by inference. There is nothing inherently wrong with this type of reasoning, but we need to recognize that these conclusions take us beyond empirical science into logic, philosophy and speculation. As conclusions of empirical science, they are not well supported.

Further, when we do abductive reasoning, we want to infer to the best possible explanation. The question becomes, then: are these the best possible explanations to be inferred from the evidence?

In my opinion, the inference to intelligent design is by far the best possible explanation to be inferred from the empirical scientific evidence. Stephen Meyer explains the intelligent design inference to Dennis Miller below:

The origin of the universe is often confused with the evidence for the way the universe works. People conflate the observable laws of physics with an explanation of the origin of the universe. That would be like a person concluding that the laws of combustion explain the origin of a Model T Ford.

The laws of combustion explain how the Model T works, but they don’t explain the origin of the Model T. The Model T was designed by Henry Ford and built according to his design in a Ford factory. We can know everything there is to know about the workings of a Model T Ford, including all of the laws of combustion and motion and the mechanics of it, without knowing anything about Henry Ford.

We don’t need to know anything about Henry Ford to understand the Model T, but we would never confuse our knowledge of the Model T for the explanation of its origin.

All of this does not necessarily mean that the origin of the universe and the life that developed in it is caused by God. An intelligent cause, however, is a better explanation to be inferred from what we know than a non-answer like necessity, which is the equivalent of “just because”. It is a better explanation, in my opinion, than the multiverse.

We have no evidence whatsoever of any universe/world other than the one in which we live. We do have evidence, and plenty of it, of intelligent causes creating information and complex structures that we see in the world. It isn’t a stretch to infer that intelligence may have created the universe. Intelligent causes explain much of what we see in the world, including skyscrapers, libraries, computers, airplanes and much, much more, and an intelligent cause, therefore, is a legitimate inference for the origin of the universe.

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