The ever evolving nature of scepticism
OPINION: Life itself might confound science but neither scientism nor creationism is the answer
Scientists have from time to time been accused of scientism, that is, presuming that science can do no wrong and that it will eventually provide the answers to any questions worth answering. Such accusations have come from traditional opponents of science such as the creationist movement, but the downside of scientism has been pointed out in a more balanced way by others.
Massimo Pigliucci, in his book Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism and the Nature of Science, points critically to episodes of scientism in the writings of well-known and respected scientists such as physicist Steven Weinberg and biologist EO Wilson. Weinberg is scathingly critical of philosophy describing it as a waste of time and even as detrimental to science.
Wilson, in his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, argues in essence that social sciences, art, philosophy and even religion will all reduce to science in the end. Scientific knowledge will be the only knowledge.
The limitations of science are obvious to the majority of scientists, and to be fair to Wilson and Weinberg, despite their occasional scientistic statements, I believe that they are well aware of these also.
One question that has so far resisted resolution is that of abiogenesis – the emergence of life from inanimate matter. Through Darwin’s theory of evolution, we have an excellent account of the origins of the diversity of life via genetic mutation and natural selection. However, we remain largely ignorant of the origins of life per se.
Defining “life” in itself is a daunting task and there is no generally accepted formulation. Some fundamental attributes are an ability to replicate, an ability to engage with the environment and an ability to metabolise.
Many suggestions have been proposed as to how certain processes may have contributed to the emergence of life, but we are still some way from a satisfactory overarching theory.
Pigliucci, in an article in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, points out three reasons as to why an answer to this question is particularly important. Firstly, definitively ascertaining that life originated by natural means would have profound implications for any religious belief, further shrinking the role of any god in human affairs.
Second, should it prove to be the case that life arose elsewhere and was transported to Earth via cometary collisions, for example, it would be the most significant blow to our inherent anthropocentrism since Copernicus and Galileo knocked the Earth from the centre of the solar system. The idea that life may have come to Earth from outside the galaxy has been posited separately by Nobel laureate Francis Crick and by the astronomer Fred Hoyle.
Lastly, it would provide an answer to the age-old question, where do we come from?
While Pigliucci’s reasons are pertinent I doubt that religious believers would be overly disturbed at his first, in that even if it were convincingly demonstrated that life arose naturally from inanimate matter and even if this were replicated in the laboratory, it would no doubt be argued that in the former scenario, God influenced it.
In the early 1950s, Stanley Miller carried out some interesting experiments in which he produced a range of organic molecules, including amino acids, from an artificial atmosphere of inorganic compounds, constructed to resemble that which it was thought existed on the early Earth, a primordial soup that was the birthplace of life.
While the results of the Miller experiment generated much excitement, further similar work failed to progress beyond this basic stage. The life from matter question will be with us for quite some time yet.
* The Irish Skeptics Society, set up to promote science and critical thinking, will celebrate its 10th anniversary in December. We will host two upcoming lectures that may interest readers: on Tuesday, November 13th, Prof Senator John Crown, a consultant oncologist, will provide a sceptical analysis of the current health service, and on Wednesday December 12th, Prof Mike Gibney, director of the Institute of Food and Health, UCD will give a lecture titled Something to Chew On: Challenging Controversies in Food and Health. Details at irishskeptics.org.
Paul O’Donoghue is a clinical psychologist and founder member of the Irish Skeptics Society. firstname.lastname@example.org