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Is the Universe “Rigged” for Life? Conversation with a Theistic Evolutionist, Continued


This is the second part of my discussion with theistic evolutionist Hans Vodder about my book, Undeniable. See this earlier post for background. Hans replied to the response I gave there as follows:

In one sense, I might agree with you that “accidental explanations for life necessarily invoke unbelievable coincidences.” But I’m not sure this says anything definitive about the particulars of life’s history, specifically with respect to the question of whether or not some form of biological evolution occurred.

Continuing the Sahara scenario, a successful search would defy the odds and require an explanation. However, because there’s more than one way to “rig the game” (i.e., there are various possible restrictions which might all lead to a successful search), the historical particulars of those explanations may look very different. In other words, “design” is a multiply realizable concept.

If the ancient Earth’s conditions were conducive to biological evolution, this would be a form of restricted search. Biological evolution might be within the realm of possibility given the conditions of the early Earth (i.e., the specific restrictions), even if the very possibility of life in the universe still requires an explanation. In this way, empirical considerations and accurate probability measurements might be relevant for determining the restrictions that enable evolutionary searches to work, assuming they do.

Two questions suggest themselves here. First, would evolutionary explanations that depend in this way on restricted searches still qualify as “accidental explanations for life”? Or would they more accurately be considered the outcome of design once removed (or design “displaced,” as Dembski might put it)? Second, and related to the first question, is the primary target of probabilistic arguments biological evolution or metaphysical/philosophical naturalism?

I hope that clarifies my approach a bit and gives a sense of how I currently think about these things.

Yes, this is very helpful, Hans. We may have to circle back to these two questions in order to understand better how we think about “rigging the game.”

However the various kinds of life on Earth first came to exist, we agree that the physical circumstances that enable life to work — everything from the stable orbit of our planet to the extraordinary properties of water — seem remarkably well suited for life. As theists, you and I attribute these circumstances to God.

But as necessary as these circumstances are for life to work, I think it has become very clear that they aren’t at all sufficient to explain how the various kinds of life came to exist in the first place. So, I disagree with Francis Collins’s view that God’s role in creating life is hidden from our view by having been woven into the physical backdrop of the universe. In The Language of God, he put it as follows (p 205):

God could in the moment of creation of the universe also know every detail of the future. That could include the formation of the stars, planets, and galaxies, all of the chemistry, physics, geology, and biology that led to the formation of life on earth, and the evolution of humans…. In that context, evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified. Thus, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process.

Contrary to Collins, I say random and undirected processes are clearly and obviously incapable of inventing new living things. God’s creative activity is therefore clearly attested to by each distinct form of life over and above his action in specifying a universe that produced a planet where life could flourish once it did exist.

I’m unclear where you stand on this, Hans. When you say “conditions” on early Earth may have been conducive to biological evolution, I’m thinking you’re referring to planetary conditions — prevailing aspects of the atmosphere, surface, crust, etc., under the influence of the sun and moon. And by “conducive to biological evolution” I take you to mean sufficient to cause biological evolution.

But I could be misreading you. Can you clarify this for me, Hans?

Photo: Morning view of Earth as seen from the International Space Station, via NASA.

Douglas Axe

Maxwell Professor of Molecular Biology at Biola University
Douglas Axe is the Maxwell Professor of Molecular Biology at Biola University, the founding Director of Biologic Institute, the founding Editor of BIO-Complexity, and the author of Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. After completing his PhD at Caltech, he held postdoctoral and research scientist positions at the University of Cambridge and the Cambridge Medical Research Council Centre. His research, which examines the functional and structural constraints on the evolution of proteins and protein systems, has been featured in many scientific journals, including the Journal of Molecular Biology, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, BIO-Complexity, and Nature, and in such books as Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer and Life’s Solution by Simon Conway Morris.



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