By Mathew Goldstein
A recent article from Skeptic magazine 20.3 (2015) titled 'THE “GOD” CONSTRUCT: A Testable Hypothesis for Unifying Science and Theology', written by California State University, Fullerton Psychology Professor Douglas J. Navarick, argues that the empirical evidence is a best fit with the conclusion that life is a supernatural phenomena. He claims that the available evidence favors vitalism, which is the conclusion that a supernatural force animates the machinery of all living cells. He posits that this supernatural force acts both through, and independently of, natural laws and is consistent with theism.
He cites the fact of biogenesis as evidence for vitalism. He contrasts this with the evidence for abiogenesis which he claims is of the same poor quantity and quality as the evidence for extra-sensory perception. In both cases, he claims, there is no established mechanism through which the phenomena could occur. He also claims that the available evidence favors the conclusion that life started once in one place and this is a better fit with biogenesis via supernatural vitalism than with abiogenesis via naturalism.
The available evidence that suggests life may have started only once in one place is limited and inconclusive. It is possible that life started more than once, but then went extinct before leaving evidence of its multiple origin events. Or that multiple origins of life resulted in similar biochemistry with subsequent exchanges of genetic material further blurring the distinct origins over time. Or that life started different times on different planets but this alien life, because it is physically distant, remains undetected. We do not know how often and in how many places life originated.
His claim that abiogenesis and extra-sensory perception are both equally lacking a plausible mechanism is so exaggerated that it warrants being considered false. Life functions within the constraints of known natural laws, while extra-sensory perception would function outside of the constraints of known natural laws. The laws of nature are an archetype of established mechanisms. When we examine life closely we always find organic chemistry abiding by all known laws of nature, thus evidencing that biology is itself a product of the laws of nature.
The remaining question for abiogenesis is filling in the details regarding a viable pathway for the organic chemistry to become sufficiently complex to draw in the energy needed to be self-sustaining and to become self-replicating. There are multiple proposed origin of life scenarios that are taken seriously by biochemists because there is supporting empirical evidence for those scenarios. Professor Navarick, by dismissing all such scenarios out of hand because they are conjectures, is ignoring the empirical evidence that supports those conjectures. He is also mistaken when he claims these scientists are adopting a lopsided top down approach while reasoning about naturalism, they are equally following the available evidence bottom up. The fact that a virus exhibits at least some of the capabilities we associate with life and a functional infectious virus has been manually built by physically placing RNA in "cell-free juice" is significant evidence that life is a strictly material phenomena.
His claim that the ubiquity of biogenesis is evidence for supernaturalism is a weak argument. 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. Vitalism, in contrast, requires that the supernatural force be acquired by every newly living cell and removed from every cell that dies. The only mechanism for these transfers suggested by Professor Navarick is undetectable magic by a hidden god.
Why would a god hide a massive ongoing divine intervention on earth that animates all living cells, including all deadly human disease bacteria and all fungus and insects that killed crops and livestock that caused human starvation, by so intervening only within the constraints of natural laws? And why would this god do this only on one lonely planet in one randomly selected galaxy in the vast universe? If such a capricious god exists than that god is an amoral god who is effectively hiding from us. Professor Navarick's claim that his vitalism hypothesis is rationally consistent with theism is dubious. People who are rational obtain their beliefs by following the available empirical evidence because that is the one method that has a solid track record of success. Therefore rational people should not believe in a hidden god undetectably intervening only on earth even if this imagined god exists.
Biogenesis always starts with a complete set of the physical machinery needed for life to function within the laws of nature. What explains the existence of the initial cell containing the requisite machinery for it to be supernaturally animated while otherwise operating within the constraints of natural law? The moment that Professor Navarick concedes that the first living cell was built supernaturally he has contradicted his premise that the supernatural force acts only through the laws of nature. The moment he concedes that the first living cell assembled itself naturally before it could be supernaturally animated we are left wondering - what is the value added of biogenesis over abiogenesis as an origin of life hypothesis and where is the evidence that this final divine animation step was also needed? He argues that abiogenesis is implausible because the machinery of life is too complex to originate naturally yet he completely ignores that his vitalism hypothesis, because it functions through natural laws to animate already existing cells, fails to resolve this same problem.
Our lack of knowledge of the details of abiogenesis is not surprising and therefore does not qualify as evidence for the absence of abiogenesis. We have multiple plausible explanations for this lack of evidence. Conditions on early earth when life first appeared were substantially different from conditions that prevailed later. Life may have started billions of years ago as a result of those temporarily existing past conditions. After life populated the oceans the presence of life could interfere with the origin of life process or with the survival of newly started life. The evidence of the abiogenesis event or events is lost in history. The inability to create life appears to reflect the needle in a haystack complexity of finding a viable path to life given the much larger set of non-viable paths.
The lack of radio signals from other planets is indeed puzzling if we assume that the universe should be teeming with intelligent life. But this is far from sufficient to justify supernaturalism over naturalism. After all, if supernatural vitalism is true then why wouldn't there be many other habital planets all featuring intelligent life, both in our galaxy and in many other galaxies? If naturalism is true then there are plausible explanations for why we have so far not found indications of intelligent life elsewhere.
The conditions that prevail in our universe overall are inhospitable to intelligent life. Radiation bursts from nova, supernova, and black holes, and collisions with meteors, comets, and asteroids promote repeated extinction events. Earth has had a magnetic field that shields it from the sun's radiation since its infancy, our solar system has large middle orbit planets that reduces the number of earth collisions with large meteors, we are located out in one arm of the Milky Way distant from other exploding stars in the more crowded Galaxy interior, we have plate tectonics and oceans, there are heavier elements needed to support life from prior supernova. Yet it took billions of years to go from single celled life to multiple celled life to intelligent life on earth. Multi-celled life could be much rarer than single celled life. Furthermore, intelligent life can destroy itself by war or by environmental destabilization, and it could rely on technology that does not produce radio waves. Intelligent life may opt to try to hide its presence to avoid risking conflict with other intelligent life that may travel within or between galaxies.
We do not know much about the origin of life or how frequently life is residing elsewhere in our universe. We know that life on our single planet appears to have a common ancestor and intelligent life with technology could be rare. Professor Navarick claims there is sufficient evidence here for concluding there is a supernatural, life giving force. His unbalanced argument is rooted in underestimating what is possible within the constraints of naturalism. He is also understating the large distance between the existence of such an animistic supernatural force and the existence of a god that humans are properly justified to believe exists, let alone that humans should worship.