Today’s Atheist Parable (Refuted?): To What Shall We Liken an Amino Acid?

Forget the mustard seed. Behold the amino acid, the building block of the protein, lifeless in itself, and yet, given enough time and chance, it self assembles into the greatest tree of all: the Tree of Life. So is the kingdom of—.

Hold it right there, atheist prophet!

Over at Uncommon Descent yesterday, I thought that Gil Dodgen crisply and admirably stated the problem of dicing time accounting for the origin of life:

The important thing to keep in mind concerning probabilities and the origin of life is that proteins, and everything else in a living cell, are manufactured by machinery which is controlled by an abstract-representation digital coding system. Proteins not only don’t self-assemble, they cannot self-assemble, because basic chemistry drives the process in the opposite direction.

Once this is taken into consideration all arguments that assert, “But it could have happened by chance,” are rendered ludicrous on their face.

By way of analogy, the basic Darwinian argument for the origin of life goes something like this:

1) Clay occurs naturally.
2) Bricks are made of clay.
3) Therefore, there is some (given enough time) probability that houses made of clay bricks came about by stochastic processes and the chemistry of clay.

While I think that Dodgen overstates his case (by using the word “ludicrous” with regards to chance formation hypotheses), and while I also think that chemical processes do show themselves capable of going, under some conditions, in the generally right direction, towards life (think of the amino acid chains produced by the Miller-Urey experiments), I think that Dodgen nevertheless arrives at a startling analogy: proteins are to amino acids as brick houses are to clay. Of course, the first living cell would have been far more complex than a brick house, but this doesn’t hurt the case for telos in the universe, does it?

File:Aleksandr Oparin and Andrei Kursanov in enzymology laboratory 1938.jpg

Wiki Commons: “Aleksandr Oparin and Andrei Kursanov in enzymology laboratory 1938”.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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30 Responses to Today’s Atheist Parable (Refuted?): To What Shall We Liken an Amino Acid?

  1. This is yet another false analogy and credulous people just soak it up like sponges without recognizing one of the simplest logic fallacies. Houses can not self-assemble. This is obvious. But cellular components DO! Put some lipid into water, give it a quick shake and – voila! – you have simple cell membranes. The first protocells would not, in fact, have been all that complex. A lipid bilayer encapsulating a piece of self-replicating RNA. Read some of Jack Szostak’s papers. Most people who object to abiogenesis look at a cell and can’t figure out how it could have come to be spontaneously. What they don’t realize is that the first protocells were nowhere near as complicated. There were no mitochondria, no DNA, no nucleus, so secretion ports – these came much later.

    This blog entry is an argument from ignorance. Can’t figure it out, must have been a designer. Most unimpressive. When are you coming out of the closet? You’re no agnostic. Indeed, I am beginning to suspect you are a stealth theist.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Shamelessly:

    A stealth theist? Can you give me an example (apart from me, as you believe) of one of these stealth theists? Someone who devotes their blog to pretending that they are an atheist (for example) or agnostic, but has been exposed as a fundamentalist Christian? I find the very use of the phrase “stealth theist” paranoid (like someone who thinks that there are stealth communists in the Obama administration, or “stealth aliens” among us from the Planet Frynu).

    As to your observation of the first “protocells” not being “all that complex”—you do realize that they would have to reproduce and transmit information (to get any kind of selection going)? I think you’re downplaying the seemingly intractable nature of the problem. That doesn’t mean it won’t perhaps be solved, it means it’s very, very puzzling.

    My view is that you are saying it’s not a problem because you are emotionally vested in an indefensible position (atheism). A sensible person would be an agnostic in the face of such a difficulty. But not you. You’ve got a side—you’re on a team.

    Go team.

    —Santi

  3. You certainly take positions which are consistent with theism (I didn’t say Christian). Anyone who gleans dishonest websites like Uncommon Descent is not going to get a free ride from me. Why not AiG while you’re at it? At least they’re honest about their dishonesty! I can’t see how you can deny that. And there is no question in my mind that you want to believe in a god. It’s clear that you simply haven’t chosen one. You certainly don’t represent any form of agnostism I am aware.

    As to your observation of the first “protocells” not being “all that complex”—you do realize that they would have to reproduce and transmit information (to get any kind of selection going)? I think you’re downplaying the seemingly intractable nature of the problem. That doesn’t mean it won’t perhaps be solved, it means it’s very, very puzzling.

    Only to those unaware that the problem has been solved. Like I said, look at Jack Szostak’s (for instance) work. He has got his protocells to reproduce in the lab. The problem isn’t that we have no mechanisms for generatingn protocells – the problem is there are too many ways. There is nothing special about the chemicstry of life. We will probably never know the exact path to life on this planet, but that is not because it is an intractible problem. It is because there are too many possibilities. Was it by a heterotrophic or autotrophic mechanism? Both are possible. And each class has many possibilities within.

    What amazes me is that people think that information is a problem for evolution. It isn’t. It is equivalent to saying that the entropy is decreased, something that happens in nature all the time. Every snowflake represents a decrease in entropy, for instance. The amount of energy required to overcome the sum total of entropy loss is so minute we have no hope of measuring it against the enthalpy added to the Earth by the sun (or even generated by radioactive decay in the Earth’s mantle).

    My view is that you are saying it’s not a problem because you are emotionally vested in an indefensible position (atheism). A sensible person would be an agnostic in the face of such a difficulty. But not you. You’ve got a side—you’re on a team.

    Actually, no. I go where the evidence takes me. No evidence, no explanation. I do not jump to supernatural explanations just because we have no current naturalistic one. That is irrational. Nor do I reject supernatural ones for the same reason. I view abiogenesis as a problem to be solved. Whatever the answer is, is. But there is nothing barring a natural explanation, which is where we in scioence look to first (and for good reason). And that hasn’t failed us yet.

    That is where my emotional investment lies – that the problem be solved, whether natural or supernatural. Yours is not. You clearly WANT there to be a supernatural explanation. I care not either way, but I do recognize that since there has never been a phenomena for which a supernatural agency has been demonstrated to be causal (this is quite possible to test), a natural explanation is infinitely more probable than a supernatural one. However, should we find evidence that (for instance) prayer to a particular version of a deity heal an amputee, I would again follow the evidence and become a believer in that religion. The idea that I am somehow locked into a particular belief system is ludicrous. I am an atheist because there is no evidence for any god that interacts with the universe where there SHOULD BE said evidence. That pretty much leaves the deist god, for which I must be agnostic about, but then that god is indistinguishable from being a placeholder for our ignorance.

    You accept this false analogy (from a very dishonest website) as accurately portraying the case for cellular construction without even a cursory glance as to whether it is appropriate. Nor have you commented on this. Your whole criticism contained in this blog entry is based on a logic fallacy that any theist would fall for. Again, most unimpressive.

    • cgreen86 says:

      >”He has got his protocells to reproduce in the lab.”

      I have not been able to verify this, Szostak’s site explaining his work states that he has not gotten the protocells to work in a lab. Is there another site that has a more recent update perhaps?
      “Although a working version of a protocell has not yet been achieved in a laboratory setting, the goal appears well within reach.”
      http://exploringorigins.org/protocells.html

  4. santitafarella says:

    Shamelessly,

    I have a problem with your use of the term dishonest in association with ID people. I don’t think that they are any more or less dishonest than atheists or agnostics. I think the language of demonization and alienation of others, and attributing to them evil motives, is unhelpful, and distorts the discussion. I think it is fair to say that people have desires and want certain ideas to prevail. I’m happy to admit that I’d like to believe, when I die, that I will be pleasantly surprised to find an afterlife (as I would be pleasantly surprised to learn of life on Mars). I don’t like the bleak implications of a godless universe at all, but I’m an agnostic because I don’t think that the evidence for God’s existence is at all very good. I really wish it were better.

    As to abiogenesis, I think that you are vastly overstating your case. If you want to provide a link to the scientist—Jack Szostak—that you think has a lot of the problem solved, I’m happy to have it. If you don’t provide it, I’ll look him up, so it’s okay if you don’t have a specific link that you have in mind.

    Thanks for the name—I don’t know of his work.

    —Santi

  5. ogatoprecambriano says:

    Shamelessly Atheist

    The idea that I am somehow locked into a particular belief system is ludicrous. I am an atheist because there is no evidence for any god that interacts with the universe where there SHOULD BE said evidence.

    I couldn’t say it better.

    Stealtheist Santi

    I have a problem with your use of the term dishonest in association with ID people. I don’t think that they are any more or less dishonest than atheists or agnostics

    You just can’t stop whining can’t you? Don’t play dumb. If we were talking about bank robbery, or wallets steal, maybe you would have a point. We’re not. Dishonest is as dishonest does and that’s a precise definition of what ID (you have no problem with this real movement have you?) propaganda is: dishonest.

  6. santitafarella says:

    Ogato:

    I don’t see myself as a “stealthiest” but I have to admit that it is a brilliant coinage. I love the word! Did you make it up, or if I Googled it, is it in common usage? It’s quite a wonderful word. People who might stop and help you change a tire, then push a tract in your hand just before they leave, might be a good example of a stealthiest. Someone who knocks on your door and invites you to a rock concert that’s actually an evangelism concert might be another example.

    You may have a good meme there, Ogato.

    Me? I’m not doing stealtheism. I say what I think. Because I’m agnostic, I say things that displease everybody. I can’t hide—all you have to do is search my blog and I’ve fretted over questions in all sorts of different ways. That’s what agnostics do. At least, it’s what I do.

    —Santi

  7. santitafarella says:

    As for Shamelessly saying—“I am an atheist because there is no evidence for any god that interacts with the universe where there SHOULD BE said evidence”—I say, horse hockey.

    If you weren’t told in advance what kind of a universe an atheist universe would look like, you would guess it to be one without physical laws, without life, without mind, without love or symmetry or beauty or philosophy or Shakespeare or language. The universe has properties that are surprising on the atheist thesis. They’re not the things that you would expect to find in a universe without telos of some sort prior to it.

    I mean, damn, look how beautiful—and frightening to contemplate—the galaxies are! That in itself needs explanation.

    —Santi

    • If you weren’t told in advance what kind of a universe an atheist universe would look like, you would guess it to be one without physical laws, without life, without mind, without love or symmetry or beauty or philosophy or Shakespeare or language. The universe has properties that are surprising on the atheist thesis. They’re not the things that you would expect to find in a universe without telos of some sort prior to it.

      Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG! The universe we observe is exactly how we would expect it to be in the absence of ‘outside’ (a non sequitur in itself) influence. The conservation laws are a result of the guage symmetry of the universe, not dictated by anything. The energy density of the universe is exactly zero, which means it did indeed come out of nothing. Learn some cosmology, man!

      I mean, damn, look how beautiful—and frightening to contemplate—the galaxies are! That in itself needs explanation.

      And yet we can simulate their formation on a computer! We know EXACTLY how they formed! This just gets more and more of a display of ignorance.

      And you STILL make no comment on the false analogy! The mechanism by which cell walls form bare no resemblence to how a house is built of bricks. This is why they are so dishonest.

      And, yes, they are dishonest. They have an agenda (ever heard of the wedge document?). They LIE. Behe and Dembski have been told why their arguments are wrong. Yet they continue to spout them without acknowledging this. This is DISHONEST. In fact, I would call it lying. Behe in particular MUST know his irreducible complexity idea is wrong. Every example he gave in that Hindenberg of a book Darwin’s Black Box that he claims was irreducibly complex has been shown to be reducible. The evolutionary path for most were already known before the book was published, but Behe never bothered to look in the literature. That’s not just bad scholarship, that’s dishonesty. Heck, the blood clotting cascade is already incomplete in dolphins and whales, yet their blood clots just fine!

      • Holocaust Jew says:

        I would just like to point out that we DO NOT know how the universe formed, nor do actual physicists attempt to. It’s mostly imagination when it comes to the actual creation of our universe. The big bang was the result of a mathematical equation and fit evidence. But how the universe itself came into ‘banging’ is completely unknown.

        Also please do not try to make symmetry sound so inherent, because the fact that this massive universe exists is a major violation of some of the basic phenomenon you attempted to use to support our conservation laws. If the world was symmetric, there would be no mass, there would be no separate forces. How these things split is a mystery to physics and most certainly does not dismiss the possibility of God

        Also, you should note that in the universe, there is a significant amount of room for what some physicists call “divine intervention.” Due to some of the uncertainties and permissions of momentary fluctuation in the universe, any law could be subject to breaking for a certain amount of time.

        We do know about the world we live, but do not think that we know enough to dismiss something higher than ourselves. This world is complex beyond our comprehension, and while it is perfectly acceptable to not believe in God, to use THIS argument to disprove his existence is a major fallacy.

        However, I do not blame you for your beliefs, as most scientists write about what they know rather than what they do not. Simply try to realize that the ‘do not’s far out way to ‘do’s.

  8. AFAIK “stealtheist” just came out of my mind, but as I’m the result of the interactions between the “atoms and the void” I can’t take credit I suppose. 😦

    The universe has properties that are surprising on the atheist thesis.

    Really? Tell me what property the Universe should have that would completely rule out God? Anyone?
    And what “atheist thesis” are these? You mean that “atheist (sic) thesis” that you just pull out of your ass? That BS about no love, no life, no beauty, etc?
    Have I already said that you are getting more and more silly? I’m concerned about you. 😐

  9. santitafarella says:

    Gato:

    I’m not saying that atheism can’t account for music, mind, the first cell, Shakespeare. I can do it in one sentence from the Bible: “Time and chance happeneth to them all.” My point is that these are surprising properties for an atheist universe to produce. You would anticipate, conservatively, maybe some goo or atoms rustling about randomly—if there was anything at all—but instead you’ve got us, and the laws of physics, and the novels of Jane Austen. It’s surprising.

    As to what would rule out God, I’d say the Holocaust. It seems to me hard to believe that God let the Holocaust happen. All the other suffering in the world, too. It seems so spectacularly excessive. Not a good sign that God exists (in my view). But if (and it’s a big if) there is something that goes on in the human being after death, then I think the problem of evil could be overcome. There might be poetic justice in the afterlife. That’s the best I can do on that question. That’s the best, I think, anyone can do on that question.

    —Santi

    • As to what would rule out God, I’d say the Holocaust. It seems to me hard to believe that God let the Holocaust happen.

      The argument from evil does not disprove the existence of all gods, just the benevolent ones. Even when you are going in what I would call the ‘right direction’, you get it wrong.

      I’m not saying that atheism can’t account for music, mind, the first cell, Shakespeare. I can do it in one sentence from the Bible: “Time and chance happeneth to them all.” My point is that these are surprising properties for an atheist universe to produce. You would anticipate, conservatively, maybe some goo or atoms rustling about randomly—if there was anything at all—but instead you’ve got us, and the laws of physics, and the novels of Jane Austen. It’s surprising.

      No, the argument from ignorance from you is no longer surprising. “Can’t see how matter can produce us, must be due to an intelligent agent (or whatever it is you believe generated us).” This is just bad reasoning. I suppose no one ever said that we are rational creatures, but we can at least make an effort at it!

      • Holocaust Jew says:

        The argument from evil does not even rule out a benevolent God. There is the possibility that what we think to be good and evil is not the true nature of it. Also, and more convincing, is the idea of relative states of good. Many religious organizations maintain that God allows humans to employ free choice and choose to accept or deny him. Without variant degrees of good (the lower variants being what we see as evil), it would not be possible for us to choose to deny God, as everything good (what we consider good) would be only the nature of God. So, consider free-will and think harder.

  10. Pingback: Intelligent Design and mechanical explanations | Noumena

  11. santitafarella says:

    Holocaust Jew:

    Since you adopted an offensive moniker in one of the Holocaust image threads, and you’ve told me that you are not a Holocaust denier, if you are going to join in on any other threads on my site, I expect you to change your moniker to something non-offensive. If you choose not to, then you must expect future comments to be deleted. I’m a liberal, and I do not want antisemitic vibes lurking in the threads of my site. Also, any expressions of antisemitism will be deleted. And any future postings under your current moniker will be deleted.

    —Santi

  12. Holoc

    The argument from evil does not even rule out a benevolent God. There is the possibility that what we think to be good and evil is not the true nature of it.

    If so, then we cannot say that God is good, evil, or anything else. But then that means you cannot say anything at all about god as you simply doesn’t frankin know what you are talking about.
    I can’t agree more.

    Santi

    As Samelessly Atheist said, no the Holocaust don’t rules out (any) God. And that’s the point be it God, or any supernaturalistic claim in Science: nothing in our experience, or in the Universe as a whole is incompatible with some sort of God, or anything supernatural. Supernatural is ..you know..super-natural. It just happens that Science can’t work properly this way.

    • Holoc says:

      What it means is that we cannot say anything about the absolute nature of good and bad, but we can still speak relatively. If you think the lack of an absolute standard means you “cannot say anything at all” about whatever you’re talking about, then you’d make a terrible scientist. Ever heard of GENERAL RELATIVITY. One of the most important ideas in science is that things are not absolute but relative to something else. Just because we cannot know absolute certainties does not mean we cannot compare. And even if we could not know anything about the goodness of God, there is still far more to investigate. I was talking strictly about benevolence and the nature of good and evil. How exactly does that encompass absolutely everything?

  13. santitafarella says:

    Gato:

    You wrote: “Nothing in our experience, or in the Universe as a whole is incompatible with some sort of God . . .” because it’s not subject to reality testing—it’s supernatural—beyond access in nature.

    I’m all for reality testing, and I advocate it for all ideologies, but the reality is that anyone perverse enough to hold a prejudice deeply enough can find epistemic justification for what they believe—and that’s true for atheists as well. For example, no amount of “fine tuning” in the physics constants converts atheists to theists—it just sends them outside this singular universe into a multiverse hypothesis (so that you can get a greater probability of “time and chance” working its magic). This move is quite akin to theist supernaturalism. It’s an inference to account for our universe’s apparent “good luck”, and has no experimental means of verification. These universes, if they exist, are forever inaccessible to us. We cannot, even in principle, ever visit them.

    Another example is strict naturalism itself, which is a philosophical, not a scientific position. Like any other philosophical position, atheism rests on epistemic assumptions not verifiable by science. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

    I’ll probably just go ahead and make this comment a post (because you raise an interesting issue).

    —Santi

  14. Holoc boy

    I s-t-u-d-y p-h-y-s-i-c-s i-n c-o-l-l-e-g-e (and graduated), so please, spare me of this mambo-jambo about “relativity of things”, that shows in a spectacular fashion that you really, really, don’t know what you are talking about.

  15. Santi

    As I already said, you should stop to talk “atheists this…atheists that”. I have no idea what ALL atheists think about a lot of stuff. To be an atheist just means that I don’t believe in god, it doesn’t entail any position about comoslogical hypothesis.
    Yes, probably most atheists are naturalists, and not only in strict sense, but within a full range of variations. However atheism IS NOT naturalism, as you seems to think. In fact we can’t, except in a very broad sense, talk about atheism, as there is no such thing. It’s not a doctrine, it’s A-theism. Get it?
    As for the “fine tuning” I don’t buy it, as it’s based on many speculative assumptions, and it frankly begs the question. I, WE don’t know, NOBODY knows if the physics constants can be “tuned” at all. If they can, NOBODY knows what is the range of this suposed “tunning”. Even if they can be tuned in a very wide range, so the “fine tunnig” argument makes sense, it’s an argument for Deism, not Theism. You couldn’t say ‘the universe is fine tunned, so…Jesus!’
    Beyond that I don’t think the idea of “fine tunning” makes sense from the start. It betrays a very poor or naive at best, understanding of the Universe we live in and of its nature. We don’t live in an Universe “fine tuned” for life (lets say us). We live in an Universe where life is possible. Barely.

  16. santitafarella says:

    Gato:

    If you said, “I’m unmarried, but don’t call me single,” what do you suppose the proper response is? I think the proper response is this: “Of course you are single. You have not taken any woman or man to your bosom for life, so you belong to the postitive category of single—with all that entails.”

    Likewise, if you say that you are an atheist you mean that you don’t embrace any gods or telos (mind) as prior to, or making possible, the material universe—you have taken none of these posited intelligent beings to your bosom—and that means that you are a one world (or multiverse), non-teleological, strict naturalist, with all that entails. How could it be otherwise? You’re either a strict naturalist or you’re a theist of some variety (or you’re an agnostic like me, torn between competing claims for my attention).

    A nonstrict naturalist is like someone who is half pregnant or half married. You either are or you are not. Softer naturalist claims amount to a hedging agnosticism or obfuscation (from yourself) of the implications of your own position (if you are an atheist).

    —Santi

  17. You are the one who keeps talking “stict naturalism”. If naturalism can only be “strict”, them makes no sense to say “stict” naturalism at all.
    I’m atheist because, as a consequence, of naturalism. Naturalism is a philosophical position, to be atheist (I won’t say “atheism”) is not.
    I can still be a naturalist and notwithstanding became a theist, or deist, if I have naturalistic reasons to be so.
    I suspect that you are still an agnostic (or a theist wannabe) because of the lacking of naturalistic reasons to be a theist. You are not so hostile to naturalism after all .

  18. santitafarella says:

    Gato:

    I accept your term naturalism. I needn’t use the word strict. You’re right.

    But I think that you are wrong about how you could conceivably decouple atheism from naturalism. Atheism is a synonym for naturalism. It puts you in the tradition of Lucretius and the atomists. Once you’ve said that there is no undergirding telos in the world, you’ve got nowhere else to go (except my Socratic straddling of the “I don’t know” position—agnosticism).

    Let’s turn it around to illustrate: If you came up to somebody and gave them a naturalist tract that explained how wonderful naturalism is, and how people can become naturalists, and the person refused the tract from your hand, saying, “I’m sorry. I’m an anaturalist,” you might say (logically) this: “Oh, then that means that you’re a theist of some sort—a supernaturalist.”

    Why yes, of course that is what it means. But wait. What if the person said this to you?:

    “No! I don’t know what you are talking about! I just reject naturalism. That’s all anaturalism is—the rejection of naturalism. My anaturalism possesses no positive content.”

    You would look at the person rather oddly, yes?

    —Santi

  19. I don’t say that “there is no undergirding telos in the world”. I say I don’t believe that there is one. Give me evidence and I may change may mind.
    Look, the existence of an “undergirding telos in the world” it’s not obvious, it’s not self-evident, it’s not a fact.
    My stance is more on the Materialism: I believe there is a world outside of me, and that largely independs on me, it don’t vanishes everytime I close my eyes. I call it Nature, or Reality. I’m part of it. I’m inside it.
    This is an assumption I can’t prove of course, but I think it’s a reasonable one. On this I don’t need to put the extra assumption that there is some sort of extra-reality, supra-natural, or whatever you call it.
    Materialism/Naturalism are more economic.

  20. The point is that your didn’t choose a god to worship (yet?). But you have something very important in common with theists: you think, from the start, that you are very special, to special to be accounted only by Nature. Nature is too small, too ordinary, to account for you. So it MUST be something else.
    It’s a kind of arrogance in fact.

  21. santitafarella says:

    Gato:

    You said: “the existence of an ‘undergirding telos in the world’ it’s not obvious, it’s not self-evident, it’s not a fact.”

    That is also true of philosophical naturalism: “it’s not obvious, it’s not self-evident, it’s not a fact.”

    Naturalism is an inference (as is supernaturalism). Naturalism says the universe might look designed in many respects, but it is not. It’s not “self evident”—it entails inferences and assumptions.

    —Santi

  22. santitafarella says:

    Gato:

    You’re conflating philosophical naturalism with science. Science works. It asks a material question of nature, constructs an experiment to retrieve a material answer, and nature return a material answer. Of course science works. It’s a material tool for asking material questions of material nature. Philosophical naturalism is an inference that goes beyond the kinds of questions that science, as a material instrument, can address. Philosophical naturalism may be a reasonable inference (and I think it is, though not the only one), but it is in excess of the empirical.

    —Santi

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