Roger White is interested in the way scientists think, in particular, those researching the origins of life (OOL). As is appropriate for a philosopher, he has no axe to grind regarding the technical details.
"Let me be clear at the outset about the aim and scope of this paper. It is not my purpose to evaluate specific scientific proposals on the origin of life. My discussion will be very abstract, not entering into any of the details of cutting edge research. The reason for this, as I hope will become clear, is that my concern is with an abstract epistemological question which arises prior to detailed investigation, and does not hinge on the details of research."
He introduces his argument by considering three pebble patterns: scattered in a disorderly fashion, ordered on a beach according to size, and arranged to form a smiling stick figure. This allows him to discuss Chance, Law and Design as causal explanations (those familiar with Dembski's design filter will not struggle to grasp this).
Some OOL researchers belong to the "Chance" school, described here as the "Almost a Miracle Camp". Quotes are provided from Crick, Mayr and Monod. But this group is in the minority.
"What interests me is just why the 'Almost a Miracle' camp is so small. Why is it that the vast majority of researchers in the field agree with Dawkins that we cannot credibly suppose that life arose by spontaneous random generation if the chance of this happening was extremely small."
So White develops his argument by looking at the grounds for thinking that Law ("non-intentional biasing") must be invoked. This involves some logic analysis and a critical appraisal of what the OOL researchers are saying. Very quickly, this leads to comparisons with "intentional biasing" by an external agent. Interestingly, White does not give much credence to those who declare this option to be a science-stopper and alien to the scientific mind. Philosophically, it is a perfectly reasonable option to consider. The major objection to it is identified as the Preference Problem: how can we possibly know how such an external agent might act?
But non-intentional biasing does not fare well either. White looks first at physical parameters: "Does the fact that certain values are necessary for life make them more likely to be favored by laws? [. . .] Blind physical laws are no more naturally drawn toward states of affairs with value than blind chance is." He then goes on to discuss complexity.
"What has struck scientists with such awe is that even the very simplest cell is an enormously complicated piece of machinery, more intricate and complex than any machine made by humans. No doubt life began in a somewhat simpler form, but it is widely held that the kind of systems required for a process of natural selection to get going would also have to be extraordinarily intricate and complex. It might seem that this alone is what stands in need of explanation, whether or not the machinery happens to be living or life-producing."
The ensuing argument is highly reminiscent of Behe's definition of irreducible complexity. The conclusion is that non-intentional biasing does not take us beyond Chance in the discussion of causation. "Why then are most scientists so reluctant to allow too much chance into their accounts of life's emergence?" The explanation offered is that they have a "gut reaction to the data".
As far as the overall conclusion is concerned, White comments:
"That molecular replicating systems appear to be designed by an agent is sufficient to convince us that they didn't arise by chance. But in scientific reasoning, non-intentional explanations are to be preferred, if possible (some would say at all costs), to intentional ones - hence the motivation to find a non-intentional explanation of life. [. . .] If the reason we doubt the Chance Hypothesis is that we suspect that life is due in part to intelligent agency, this by itself gives us no reason to expect there to be a non-intentional explanation for life. If on reflection we do not find the hypothesis of intentional biasing acceptable, then we are left with no reason at all to doubt that life arose by chance."
White's paper covers ground that is familiar to ID advocates and it is refreshing to read the analysis and conclusions. White cannot be dismissed as a mere philosopher, for there are a number of biologists who are coming to similar conclusions. One of these is Koonin, who has recognised that explaining the OOL is "a puzzle that defeats conventional evolutionary thinking". He appeals to infinities embedded in multiverse theory to find a mechanistic answer, thereby avoiding the need to make design inferences. I wonder what White would make of Koonin's argument?
Does Origins of Life Research Rest on a Mistake?
Nous, 41(3),(September 2007) , 453-477. | doi:10.1111/j.1468-0068.2007.00655.x
No abstract. From the Introduction: What puzzles me is why, if appeals to intelligent agency are not on the table, we should be so reluctant to attribute the origin of life largely to chance. My purpose is to question a common approach to the subject of life's origin. Very roughly, this approach consists in an aversion to appeals to chance in accounting for life's origin prior to an evaluation of alternative hypotheses.
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