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Daniel Dennett and Secular Creationism

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secular creationism

“This,” says an article in The New Yorker profiling materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett, “to a first approximation, is the secular story of our creation.” Here it is:

Four billion years ago, Earth was a lifeless place. Nothing struggled, thought, or wanted. Slowly, that changed. Seawater leached chemicals from rocks; near thermal vents, those chemicals jostled and combined. Some hit upon the trick of making copies of themselves that, in turn, made more copies. The replicating chains were caught in oily bubbles, which protected them and made replication easier; eventually, they began to venture out into the open sea. A new level of order had been achieved on Earth. Life had begun.

The tree of life grew, its branches stretching toward complexity. Organisms developed systems, subsystems, and sub-subsystems, layered in ever-deepening regression. They used these systems to anticipate their future and to change it. When they looked within, some found that they had selves—constellations of memories, ideas, and purposes that emerged from the systems inside. They experienced being alive and had thoughts about that experience. They developed language and used it to know themselves; they began to ask how they had been made.

Life, Dennett thinks, “created itself, not in a miraculous, instantaneous whoosh, but slowly, slowly.” So it’s not a matter of a “miracle” exactly, but you might say, and some have put it this way, a “near miracle.”

On such “near miracles” and the origin of life:

Israeli philosopher of science Iris Fry has written very insightfully about the concept. She argues that the “near miracle” position, widely held in evolutionary theory (e.g., by Crick, Mayr, Dawkins, Monod), amounts to what she calls a kind of secular creationism. Note the language in The New Yorker that comes close to acknowledging this. In fact, she goes further, contending that “near miracle” actually implies creationism, and renders impossible any empirical study of the origin of life.

When someone says, “The origin of life was a near-miracle,” or words to that effect, what they mean is this:

Well, abiogenesis happened, somehow, but I haven’t a clue how, and the evidence points away from a discoverable natural process or pathway. BUT IT WASN’T INTELLIGENT DESIGN. And I reject out of hand any argument or evidence that suggests otherwise.

Such a position shuts down scientific inquiry absolutely. For more, see Fry’s paper, “Are the Different Hypotheses on the Emergence of Life as Different as They Seem?” in Biology & Philosophy 10 (1995), pp. 389-417.

Image: Galaxy UGC 12591 via Hubble Space Telescope, ESA/NASA.