Evolution Icon Evolution
Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Philosophical Objections–Not Science–Guide Origin of Life Research

Michael Egnor recently wrote about the great difficulties faced by origin of life researchers and the great speculation they are willing to undertake to retain natural chemical explanations for origin of life. This reminds of events in the early 1900’s, when some leading scientists had philosophical objections to new ideas in cosmology. In 1931, leading cosmologist Sir Arthur Eddington wrote in response to Big Bang cosmology, “Philosophically, the notion of a beginning of the present order of Nature is repugnant . . . I should like to find a genuine loophole.” Even Einstein was troubled by the fact that his own theories showed “the necessity for a beginning.” In fact, he added a “cosmological constant” to his equations to avoid that necessity of a beginning to the universe.

Decades later, after the cosmological constant was disproved, Einstein called the way he allowed his personal philosophy to override science the biggest blunder of his life. (Note: the cosmological constant made a re-appearance just before the new millennium — not to prevent the universe from having a beginning in the finite past, but rather to account for the fact that the observed rate of the universe’s expansion was greater than what general relativity would predict without it.)

Now it’s Eugene V. Koonin’s turn.

Koonin, a biologist with the National Institutes of Health, is again letting philosophical preferences influence his cosmology. This time, however, it has to do not with the implications of the origin of the universe, but regarding the origin of life. In a recent article in Biology Direct entitled, “The cosmological model of eternal inflation and the transition from chance to biological evolution in the history of life,” Koonin realizes that the natural chemical origin of life is highly unlikely if there is only one finite universe. Koonin writes, “The RNA world faces its own hard problems as ribozyme-catalyzed RNA replication remains a hypothesis and the selective pressures behind the origin of translation remain mysterious.”

Koonin’s solution is not to figure out how, chemically speaking, the RNA-world may have arisen within our universe. Rather, his solution is to promote a new cosmology that allows for events that are “untenable” or only happen “rarely” in a finite universe to eventually occur:

Eternal inflation offers a viable alternative that is untenable in a finite universe, i.e., that a coupled system of translation and replication emerged by chance, and became the breakthrough stage from which biological evolution, centered around Darwinian selection, took off. A corollary of this hypothesis is that an RNA world, as a diverse population of replicating RNA molecules, might have never existed. In this model, the stage for Darwinian selection is set by anthropic selection of complex systems that rarely but inevitably emerge by chance in the infinite universe (multiverse).

(Eugene V. Koonin, “The cosmological model of eternal inflation and the transition from chance to biological evolution in the history of life,” Biology Direct Vol. 2:15 (May 31, 2007).)

In other words, Koonin’s view uses philosophy to stop scientific investigation into the origin of life by asserting a cosmological model where there are infinite chances for the entire complexity of life to arise in one fell swoop. Koonin’s premise is that, “[i]n contrast to the traditional cosmological models of a single, finite universe, this worldview provides for the origin of an infinite number of complex systems by chance, even as the probability of complexity emerging in any given region of the multiverse is extremely low.” Thus Koonin admits that he prefers an eternal multiverse cosmological “worldview” to a single finite universe because it increases the disastrously low probabilities of a natural chemical origin of life:

The plausibility of different models for the origin of life on earth directly depends on the adopted cosmological scenario. In an infinite universe (multiverse), emergence of highly complex systems by chance is inevitable. Therefore, under this cosmology, an entity as complex as a coupled translation-replication system should be considered a viable breakthrough stage for the onset of biological evolution.

(Eugene V. Koonin, “The cosmological model of eternal inflation and the transition from chance to biological evolution in the history of life,” Biology Direct Vol. 2:15 (May 31, 2007).)

Such philosophically-guided arguments get published in mainstream science journals, but last year Nature recognized that the multiverse hypothesis is unfalsifiable and “isn’t science.” Nature then affirmatively quoted anti-ID physicist Leonard Susskind stating, “It would be very foolish to throw away the right answer on the basis that it doesn’t conform to some criteria for what is or isn’t science.”

That these same scientists wrongly regard intelligent design as an unfalsifiable concept shows their double standard, which I observed last year: “Perhaps untestable theories are acceptable to [mainstream journals] when they can challenge intelligent design, but are not acceptable when they support design.” The publication of Koonin’s latest paper lends further support to that thesis.