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It Takes Great Faith to Be an Astrobiologist


NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine, funded with taxpayer dollars, illustrates the mystical view — what else to call it? — of nature in the astrobiologist community. In Elizabeth Howell’s article, "How the Code of Life Passed Through Primitive Kinds of Cells," we see Harold Fellerman of the University of Denmark showing his mystical streak:

"I’m very interested in the creative potential of nature," he said. "Nature in general seems to be fertile with creativity that outperforms any human imagination. We find solutions to problems in nature that no engineer would envision." [Emphasis added.]

The statement is hardly distinguishable from animism. To see why, we need to nail down some rules. These rules should be uncontroversial to any modern scientist, because they follow logically from naturalism.

  1. "Nature" to a materialist has no spirit, imagination, or goal.

  2. Inanimate matter has no "desire" to become animate; vitalism is out.

  3. "Building blocks of life" have no obligation or desire to assemble into a living thing.

  4. A lucky accident in one part of the origin-of-life scenario has no obligation or desire to join forces with another lucky accident somewhere else.

  5. A random chain of building blocks is not "information" in a biological sense, nor is a "pattern" of building blocks, nor are copies of a random chain or a pattern.

  6. Investigators are not allowed to interfere with natural processes in origin-of-life scenarios, because this sneaks information into the system.

  7. Wishful thinking is not science. One needs evidence. Putting the evidence into the future, "i.e., further research is needed," is a cop-out.

  8. The complex functions of living cells cannot be used to infer origins in inanimate matter without begging the question raised by Rules 2 and 3.

Go ahead and call foul any time someone violates one of these rules in Howell’s story:

  • "Life’s origins are a mystery, but every year scientists get a little bit closer to understanding what made life possible on Earth, and possibly on other planets or moons." [Violates Rules 1, 4 and 7]
  • "We only have one known case study of life so far, on our own planet, but microbial life is considered possible in many other areas around the Solar System, such as on Mars, Jupiter’s icy Europa, and on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that erupts water as geysers." [Violates Rule 7]
  • "One large wish of scientists these days is to create artificial cells that closely mimic what biological ones do so that it would be easy to create laboratory conditions to test out how they evolve." [Violates Rules 2, 6, 7, and 8]
  • "Researchers would be happy to create an artificial protocell, but that’s far from easy. Figuring out how inheritance work [sic] — how traits of a parent protocell are passed on to the next generation — is one of the largest problems facing scientists today." [Violates Rules 6, 7, and 8]
  • "The researchers brought in a hypothesis from three decades ago that assumed that any sequence of polymers (chain of small molecules) can encode information, and can be copied from one polymer strand to another using a process called template directed replication." [Violates Rules 5 and 7]
  • "When simulating information strings in the computer simulation, the researchers came up with a surprising discovery. Replication occurred as expected, with information strings duplicating themselves, but the scientists were surprised to see shorter and longer strings being created in strikingly regular patterns." [Violates Rules 3, 4, 5 and 6]
  • "Over time, the simulation showed the information strings were occurring in equal proportions of long and short lengths in predictable patterns. While the scientists can’t say for sure that this was a step along the road to life, they said it bears further investigation as they work to create artificial protocells." [Violates Rules 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8]

You get the idea. Check the rest of the article by the rules as an exercise in critical thinking. So what remains after the violations are stricken? Essentially, nothing. There is hardly a sentence in this article that does not violate one or more rules.

This stripped-down remainder is sheer mysticism, as expressed in the Fellerman quote:

"I’m very interested in the creative potential of nature," he said. "Nature in general seems to be fertile with creativity that outperforms any human imagination. We find solutions to problems in nature that no engineer would envision."

It takes great faith to be an astrobiologist.

Image credit: temari 09/Flickr.

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