Moshe Averick’s Nonsense of a High Order as a Model of the Flaws of Biblicist Denial of a Naturalistic Origin of Life (2019)
The Argument from Design
“Origin of Life and Darwinian Evolution are Two Completely Separate and Unrelated Issues”
“There is No Such Thing as Simple or Primitive Life”
“The Origin of Life Field is a Failure”
Creation by a Spirit Should Be Adopted as a Scientific Hypothesis
Scientists Versus Science
Naturalism and Science as Religions
Averick Abuses His Sources
In an earlier critique of Orthodox rabbi Moshe Averick’s Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused World of Modern Atheism, I noted that Averick’s book is typical of recent popular works attacking “atheism” in leaning on various informal logical fallacies. (When no author name is cited in the present review, too, page numbers refer to this book.) Chief among the substantial theses that Averick endorses here are the existence of a spiritual realm and its interaction with nature, that human beings have nonphysical souls, that a deity exists and is concerned with human behavior, and that naturalistic accounts of human minds, the meaning of life, and morality all fail. In this follow-up critique I want to focus specifically on what Averick has to say about the “failure” of naturalistic accounts of the origin of life.
Forty-eight percent of the text of Nonsense of a High Order is devoted to an attack on the concept of a naturalistic origin of life, one predictably supplemented with an argument for its creation by God. The present essay critiques this part of the book alone. The principal purposes of this follow-up critique are to demonstrate that:
- the author is ignorant of the nature of science and its principles;
- he is either ignorant of, or does not understand, the standard scientific explanations of the topics that he addresses;
- his ignorance or incomprehension causes him to invent odd notions that completely misrepresent the standard scientific view;
- he arbitrarily rejects standard scientific explanations without providing any substantial argument against them; and
- he repeatedly asserts that something is true without offering any argument for its truth.
The Argument from Design
Averick recycles the “a watch has to have been made by a watchmaker” argument exemplified by the book Natural Theology by the 19th-century Anglican bishop William Paley (a work Charles Darwin studied assiduously in his youth). But he does not understand the concept of an argument from design. There is no such argument about artifacts such as a watch; no one doubts that they are the result of design or intention. In contrast, the perception of design in nature is a construction, an attribution; this is why people must try to support it with arguments that are not needed for artifacts. The argument from design exists only in the context of alleging that nature is an artifact. (Nowadays it is used almost exclusively to attack concepts of biological, geological, and cosmogonic evolution, with the purpose, as in Averick’s book, of opposing religious doctrines to scientific facts or theories.)
Averick, however, defines his use of the argument with the principle “[s]uits, poems, and watches do not make themselves” (p. 45). He writes: “[N]obody disagrees with the Argument from Design…. [T]here is no one in his right mind who does not agree that the suit proves the existence of the tailor, the poem the existence of the poet, and the watch the existence of the watchmaker” (p. 49). But suits, poems, and watches are not subjects of any argument from design. Averick states: “The Argument from Design … has been distorted and misrepresented” (p. 44). His own misrepresentation of the concept makes it appear that the allegation of design in nature is no more than a concomitant of the common knowledge that suits and other human artifacts are made.
The author then begs the question by stating that the “atheist” holds that the Argument “does not apply to the design observed in living organisms” (p. 49; cf. pp. 65-66, 83-84, 140). This is advancing his case by presupposition: structural and functional complexity are taken to be proof of design (pp. 146, 153-54).
Averick believes that organisms are “in the category of a suit, poem, or watch” (p. 45; cf. p. 84). He extrapolates from artifacts to organisms (pp. 46-49), ignoring the fundamental difference that organisms are not objects for use. They are not tools, objects for comfort or convenience, or productions that give pleasure. Moreover, the processes by which artifacts are produced can be observed and described. There is no such knowledge substantiating the hypothesis that organisms are artifacts of some superhuman being. Also, there are no relics of a culture of which the supposed past artificer was a member; and “his” supposed biological works have an ability to change themselves that artifacts lack. It is logically invalid to draw an analogy between the origins of artifacts and the origins of organisms.
Further along, Averick states that the argument concludes that “functionally complex machinery and specified information [as in cells] are always the result of intelligent causation” (p. 64, cf. p. 125). The word machinery here is either a metaphor or an expression of a presupposition that a cell is an artifact. Cells do not contain machines, which are artifacts. They contain structures and systems that are not obviously artifacts, and for whose complexity there are naturalistic explanations (which I will now proceed to outline). Function, used in relation to artifacts, is a synonym of purpose, and a purpose is set up by an intelligent purposer. But with respect to organisms, function means “any of a group of related actions contributing to a larger action” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary) and does not imply “intelligent causation.” The perception of purposes—things intended—in organisms and their parts is, like the perception of design, an attribution, and has the same effects of necessitating by default a fabricator and forestalling evidential reasoning about the origin of organisms.
Next, if one assumes, as Averick does, that the universe was manufactured, then stating that information is a result of intelligence is true, but trivially so. If one does not impose the concept of intelligent design, then there are numerous instances of information that is part of the normal functioning of organisms and their components, and is not directed by intelligence (Kauffman, 1993, pp. 411-642; Mitchell, 2009, pp. 169-185).
The “Origin of Life and Darwinian Evolution are Two Completely Separate and Unrelated Issues”
In making a valid distinction between the “Evolution of the Species” and the “Origin of Life” (pp. 42-43), the author seems not to comprehend the fact that the Darwinian principle of natural selection, which describes progressive increase in adaptation to the environment in a population of replicating entities, is an intrinsic part of theories of the origin of life. “Life precedes evolution” of species, but so does the expression of the Darwinian principle. The Darwinian process requires neither sexual reproduction nor genes. By failing to distinguish the principle from its expression in organisms with genes (p. 64, 83, 146; cf. p. 136), the author discards an important component of biological theories of the origins of life. Evolution is a correct term to describe aspects of the development of life before there were species of organisms, and what are called “chemical evolution” and “prebiotic evolution” have been studied for decades (Burmeister, 1998; Deamer, 1998; de Duve, 1998; Ferris, 1998; James and Ellington, 1998; Kimball and Oró, 1971; Knoll, 2015, pp. 72-84; Rauchfuss, 2012, pp. 87-124; Schwartz, 1998; Wächtershäuser, 1998).
Averick takes “atheists” to task for absurdly imagining that “the simplest forms of life”—bacteria are his example—could have arisen spontaneously (p. 38). These “simple” organisms are, after all, very complex (pp. 56-59). This attack is against a straw man. After Darwin (p. 134), when people extrapolated the fact of biological evolution back in time and began to make theories about the origin of life, they sometimes postulated primal organisms less complex than any now existing, just as extinct species of long past ages commonly were less specialized in their structure and physiology than their present-day descendants.
Averick does acknowledge that “no scientist alive today would claim that evolution started with bacteria” (p. 52; but see p. 77). Although he devotes 127 pages to attacking the concept of a naturalistic origin of life, he never presents an explicit statement of that concept. Here is his notion of it:
[I]t is even possible … to believe that the first bacterium which is more functionally complex and sophisticated than any machinery ever produced by human technology could actually assemble itself. (p. 38; cf. pp. 52-53)
[H]ow did the original non-living, non-organic chemicals coalesce and form the first living cell, along with its complex molecular machinery…? (p. 44; cf. pp. 65-66)
[A] purely naturalistic origin of life must begin with some form of simple self-replicating molecule that would somehow evolve into a fully functioning living cell. (p. 53)
The notion that the awe-inspiring levels of functional complexity and specified information found in the “simplest” living bacterium are the result of some mysterious, unguided, undirected process is an extraordinary claim. (pp. 148-149; cf. pp. 46, 118, 151, 155)
These are gross misrepresentations of the naturalistic concept. Scientists do not state that the first organisms assembled themselves, or that cells were formed by a coalescence of “chemicals,” or that one kind of molecule became cells. They postulate that the appearance of the first organisms was preceded by the chemical production of complex molecules that interacted to form systems that in turn interacted to form increasingly complex systems. “[C]omplexity was built up, step by step, from some initial simple entity” (Pross, 2012, pp. 123-124). The process was governed by the “laws” of chemistry and physics, which are not “mysterious.”
Some of the resulting classes of molecules caused the formation of duplicates, by acting as templates, providing a chemical microenvironment, or other means. At this point the Darwinian principle began to act. That principle is not “blind” (p. 51) and its results are not “unguided” (pp. 61, 65, 83-84, 115, 146, 155). It is operative during the replication (reproduction) of particular entities in particular environments, and has a single effect on the relation of the entities to their environment, namely, adaptedness (Kauffman, 1993, pp. 33-120; McFarland, 2016, pp. 230-233). And “natural selection can fashion complexity from simplicity as long as all intermediates are functional” (Knoll, 2015, p. 85; cf. McShea, 2001; Pross, 2012, p. 131). Chemist Addy Pross states: “[C]omplexity is not the cause nor the essence of the life phenomenon, complexity is its consequence” (Pross, 2012, pp. 165-168).
Averick repeatedly tries to use arithmetic to support his caricature of naturalism. He cites calculations of the huge improbability that “chemicals” would spontaneously have “assembled” to form a bacterium (pp. 52-53; cf. p. 63), or that a bacterium could appear spontaneously on the primordial earth (p. 84; cf. pp. 47-48, 65-66). All such arguments are irrelevant to the subject of the origin of life because no one pretends that the present-day products of 3½ billion years of evolution are the same as the initial biological materials (p. 112). No one avers that random assortments of complex molecules assemble themselves into organisms.
Similarly, on the level of chemistry, the author cites calculations of the huge improbability that individual proteins or amino acids or nucleic acids would assemble themselves into the functional sequences found in organisms (pp. 77, 106-107, 111-112, 275-283). Here is a rejoinder from a chemist:
[C]alculations of how improbable life would be that are based on total randomness make big, impressive numbers that mean absolutely nothing. All of these calculations are at heart the same: a lot of time is taken to delineate the many components of a biological system, and then the calculator assumes they assemble randomly. This results in multiplying tiny fractions together and implies that the odds of life forming from chemistry are astronomical.
Whether with protein sequences or elements or supposedly irreducibly complex assemblies, all of these leave out the fact that we are not dealing with isolated numbers here. We are dealing with chemicals that attract each other through chemical rules. Self-assembly defies simple probability calculations. You have to drop your calculator and run the experiment. (McFarland, 2016, pp. 91-92)
Averick endorses opinions that the emergence of life was accidental (p. 71), improbable (p. 73, 76, 102), or a “(near) miracle” (pp. 66-67, 74, 80, 81) (see also “Scientists Versus Science” below). He writes: “there is no scientist alive today who would claim, even in his wildest imagination, that he could predict how life would inevitably arise under any particular set of naturalistic circumstances” (p. 136; cf. p. 112). However:
- In 1993 the theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman presented an argument (Kauffman, 1993, pp. 287-402) that “life is not improbable. On the contrary, I believe it to be … expected” (Kauffman, 1993, p. 287).
- The chemist Pross, in a book that Averick cites, writes: “[T]he transformation of inanimate matter to simple life should not be viewed as a collection of haphazard and contingent events, but rather as a coherent process governed by an identifiable driving force” (Pross, 2012, p. 148).
- At about the same time as Averick’s book, there was published a comprehensive and detailed study of the origin of life by physicist Eric Smith and biologist Harold Morowitz. It states that, given the character of the earth some four billion years ago, the emergence of life there was probable or even inevitable (Smith and Morowitz, 2016, pp. xix-xxi, 150, 424-538).
“There is No Such Thing as Simple or Primitive Life”
A postulate of biological theories of the origin of life is that in the past there were simpler forms of life than those now existing, and still earlier entities that possessed some but not all of the properties of organisms (Schopf, 2001, pp. 139-43). “The simplest forms of life” known to paleontology were already the result of many millions of years of evolution during which there were countless intermediates between them and the precursors of life. Averick, however, states that “there is no such thing as simple or primitive life. No human being has ever seen such a thing” (p. 59). He continues: “nor is there evidence that ‘simple’ or ‘primitive’ life has ever existed” (cf. p. 131). The concept that there ever were protoorganisms and organisms simpler than bacteria he calls a “speculative assumption” (p. 60).
By refusing to consider an essential component of the naturalistic view, Averick is telling the reader, I offer two concepts of the origin of life: the naturalistic theory and my creationist story. And I tell you on my authority that the naturalistic theory is false. He ridicules such arbitrary behavior on pp. 100-101.
Here are some responses to this way of thinking:
- It is a principle of science that events occur as part of a continuous succession. This principle is violated if one postulates that organisms suddenly appeared without any precursors.
- It is an empirical principle of any historical discipline (including scientific history itself, cosmogony, geology, paleontology and anthropology) that one must postulate that there were precursors that no longer exist in order to explain the development of the earliest things of which we do have direct knowledge.
- Absence of vestiges is not proof that something did not exist, especially when there is an explanation of that absence. It is unlikely that either fossil or chemical evidence of prebiotic entities and precellular life will be found, first because those precursors would not have been suited to preservation, and second because the crust of the earth at the time of the origin of life has been altered by geological processes and bombardment by meteorites, so whatever record might have been present has been erased (Glikson and Golding, 2011, p. 7; Knoll, 2015, p. 30; see also Averick, 2016, pp. 130-131 and Smith and Morowitz, 2016, p. 58).
- The principle Averick is advocating is: “A theory about past events may be disregarded if there is no physical evidence remaining from that past time that supports the theory.” This could be a powerful tool for creationists: “no human being has ever seen” atoms forming at the start of the universe; or the primeval, molten earth without a moon; or the separation of the continents and their movements to their present positions. But the principle must apply also to historical theories, and requires disbelief in most of the Jewish scriptures. No human being has ever seen a river that is the source of, or joins, the Euphrates and three other rivers (Genesis 2:10-14). Where are the remains of an ancient Egyptian army in the floor of the Red Sea? Where is there a 3300-year-old cenotaph inscribed with the name “Moses”?
It is of course true that no one “has ever seen” the first organisms that existed. But no one asserts that the earliest things that might be regarded as organisms, and their precursors that were on the boundary of the nonliving and living, still are present (p. 130). They are not present first, because the environment is much different than it was when they existed, and second, for the same kinds of reasons that extinct species of organisms are extinct, or that Pop Warner children’s football teams do not compete in the National Football League.
The statements quoted above, and many others, show that Averick does not understand the naturalistic theory of the origin of life that he is attacking.
Averick regards this naturalistic theory as “a point of conjecture and speculation” (p. 53). But the concept of a natural origin of life is not a conjecture—”a conclusion deduced by surmise or guesswork” (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary). It is a necessarily hypothetical but fact-based extension into the past of known processes and principles. Any scientific hypothesis or theory of the origin of life must agree with the facts of chemistry, physics, biology, paleontology, and geology, and be mathematically sound.
In contrast, the notion of an indemonstrable, immaterial person who thinks and acts like a human being, and is able to cause matter to come into existence just by wishing, is beyond speculation—it is fantasy. Because the notion has no basis in fact, it exists in countless variations about which believers quarrel endlessly. Averick’s hypothesis that such a being “somehow” created the first organism(s) is “a point of conjecture and speculation” based on a tale in an ancient Levantine book. Moreover, “no human being has ever seen” an organism being created by magic. The theist’s response to this, of course, is that this event occurred long ago, before there was any possibility of observation. But that applies also to the origin of life by natural processes (p. 114).
To parody Averick’s argument: there are no historical records or archeological remains of human beings learning how to smelt iron and make hard tools. There are no such remnants of human beings learning how to quarry and dress stone. There are no such remnants of human beings learning how to make mortar. No one has ever seen human beings spontaneously learning to do these things. Therefore, all synagogues must have been constructed magically by God.
“The Origin of Life Field is a Failure”
Since Darwin’s time, scientific theories about the origin of life have become increasingly informed, specific, and plausible (Mesler and Cleaves, 2015, pp. 117-251). The author’s statement, “Origin of Life research [has] made zero progress” (p. 82; cf. 120, 135, 137, 156) is simply false, and a person who had made even a small effort to become familiar with this research (Schopf, 2001, pp. 108-113, 120-131) could not have made such a statement. (The author of this essay has been able to observe the progress since he read Aleksander Oparin’s The Origin of Life nearly 60 years ago.) Averick evidently is ignorant of the fact that since 1968 such research has been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, presently titled Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, as well as in many books, of which only a few are cited in the present essay.
Averick observes that “the essential scientific discipline required for Origin of Life research is Chemistry” (p. 44). But he gives no evidence of having looked at the extensive literature about the chemical origins of life (McFarland, 2016). Relevant facts include:
- There are various processes by which organic molecules (the kind found in organisms) can develop spontaneously. These molecules and others like them are present in vast quantities throughout the universe (Cronin, 1998; Delsemme, 1998; Massey, 2018; Maurette, 1998, pp. 165-169; McFarland, 2016, pp. 88-89; Schopf, 2001, pp. 131-134) and conditions for their formation were present on the earth some four billion years ago (Holm and Andersson, 1998; Kasting and Brown, 1998; McFarland, 2016, p. 106; Miller, 1998; Rauchfuss, 2012, pp. 87-124; Williams et al., 2011). They include amino acids (the components of proteins), carbohydrates, lipids, and precursors of nucleic acids.
- Such molecules can interact to form more complex molecular structures (Knoll, 2015, p. 81; McFarland, 2016, p. 105; Rauchfuss, 2012, pp. 131-138, 160; Schopf, 2001, pp. 134-137).
- Long molecules that are chains of similar chemical groups can form spontaneously (e.g., Fraccia et al., 1998). Such chains of not quite identical units are the carriers of information within cells (Averick, 2016, pp. 54-56; Rauchfuss, 2012, pp. 215-222).
- In a suitable extracellular environment, some organic molecules can direct the assembly of identical molecules; that is, they can replicate (Burmeister, 1998, pp. 297-307; Knoll, 2015, pp. 77-79, 81; Pross, 2012, p. 65; Rauchfuss, 2012, pp. 139-142, 157).
- In a suitable extracellular environment, some organic molecules can direct the assembly of complementary molecules (Burmeister, 1998, pp. 296-297; Knoll, 2015, p. 80), which is the molecular mechanism of the transmission of information within cells.
- The basic processes of metabolism (the internal chemical processes of organisms) are continuous with naturally occurring geochemical processes (Holm and Andersson, 1998; Smith and Morowitz, 2016, pp. 170-272)
And the chemist Pross observes, “though one can safely conclude from experimental results which chemical reactions are possible, it is logically unsound to conclude what reactions are not possible” (Pross, 2012, p. 97).
There are descriptions of mechanisms of the origin of life in the setting of the primitive earth that agree with scientific knowledge in chemistry, physics, biology, geology and mathematics (Kauffman, 1993, pp. 287-402; Rauchfuss, 2012, pp. 222-235; Smith and Morowitz, 2016, pp. 340-423).
The author gives a string of 81 quotations, mostly of scientists, to the effect that people do not know “how life began” (pp. 68-82), and provides similar quotations elsewhere (pp. 42, 60, 101-102, 106, 130, 132). Such statements about the ongoing state of research on the origin of life commonly refer to the obstacles inherent in attempting to reconstruct events occurring long ago and under conditions that have not existed for a long time. They do not mean that there is no prospect of:
- additional direct evidence, such as the further discovery of remains of very ancient organisms (Glikson et al., 2011; Schopf, 2001, esp. p. 140);
- relevant new information, such as the discovery of undersea communities of organisms around fumaroles, whose source of energy is the heat of earth’s core (Golding et al., 2011; Hofmann, 2011; McFarland, 2016, pp. 99-101; Miller, 1998, pp. 76-77; Rauchfuss, 2012, pp. 185-190; Smith and Morowitz, 2016, pp. 140-167);
- new techniques of investigation (e.g., Miller, 1998, pp. 59-67; Pross, 2012, pp. 97, 132-134; Rauchfuss, 2012, pp. 87-89, 199-200; Schopf, 2001, pp. 122-128); or
- new hypotheses (e.g., Pross, 2012, pp. 128-130; Rauchfuss, 2012, pp. 193-204).
Opinions that it may never be possible to develop a satisfactory theory of the origin of life (pp. 102, 113-114, 130-131) do not mean that no conceivable theory can be correct or that the principles underlying present research are wrong (Smith and Morowitz, 2016, pp. 609-610).
Before the discovery of atomic physics, Averick could have assembled an impressive set of quotations from astronomers and physicists who acknowledged that they do not know, even that they have no idea about, the source of the sun’s energy. It seems that had he done so, the author would have concluded that solar energy can never be explained by science and that its “explanation” is “Elohim made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day.”
Let us make a comparison of the scientific effort to describe the origin of life with an activity that should be of major interest to Rabbi Averick: the scientific effort to describe the development of Tanakh, the Jewish scriptures (pejoratively labeled by Christians the Old Testament). Averick possesses texts that have existed nearly in their present form since the 10th century. But it is known that there were earlier versions of these texts, and since the 19th century there has been an ongoing effort to construct a history of the development of Tanakh (e.g., Carr, 2011; Miller et al., 2014). This effort is conducted using scientific methods of archeology, preservation and restoration of ancient documents, comparison of documents, analysis of texts, and linguistics.
To create a coherent picture of Biblical development, scientists have to postulate that there were precursor texts that no longer exist, and copyists and editors of whom there is no record. If Averick were to follow the procedures he uses with respect to research on the origin of life, he would state that there were no precursor texts, because no one has seen them, and that the copyists and editors did not exist—they are “an assumption that completely lacks any supportive evidence” (p. 60). Therefore the whole theory of the development of Tanakh is unscientific and merely a “leap of faith” (p. 38), or a matter of belief. But the texts are obviously artifacts; does this mean that God directly created the words in the earliest manuscripts we possess?
Averick does not know who wrote the books he regards as holy, when or how they originated, or details of how they acquired their present form. If he does not believe that they appeared miraculously in that present form, he must accept the facts that his knowledge of these matters is fragmentary, and that theories and hypotheses about the development of Tanakh do not present a comprehensive picture and may never do so, that they have been and remain subject to change over time, and that they are matters of disagreement among competent scholars. He regards these as disabling defects in scientific study of the origin of life. Do they not also disable study of the genesis of Tanakh? Should scholars abandon their efforts to learn more about how these texts originated and simply say, “God did it by some miraculous means”? (cf. p. 118).
Creation by a Spirit Should Be Adopted as a Scientific Hypothesis
Averick presents a long argument (pp. 90-139) against the idea that “an intelligent designer [of life] is not in the category of science” (p. 90). His premises have the form of a false dichotomy:
- Life originated by “natural processes fully consistent with the laws of physics and chemistry,” or
- life originated by “intervention” by a “Divine,” “intelligent designer outside of the material universe” (p. 100; cf. pp. 115, 154-155).
In presenting his argument, he adopts a pose of offended neutrality. He states: “One would think that the next step would be to explain how the rational truth seeker should go about investigating and deciding between these two possibilities.” Then he begins a prolonged harangue denouncing scientists for not including a spirit in their theories. He berates an author he is quoting (Robert Hazen) for choosing “to ignore the possibility of a supernatural creator” (p. 100). Later he asks why biologists would not “at least consider the possibility that a creator/designer of life is at work here” (p. 112; cf. p. 118). He states that one chemist who rejects “supernatural forces” “throws the quest for truth under the bus” (p. 125). He concludes that “science has … discarded the search for truth” (p. 116; cf. p. 129, 132).
Here Averick is asserting that the two options he presents are of equal validity with respect to the principle(s) for determining truth. But the theory of a natural origin of life is an instance of science, whose success in discovering the causes of things is indisputable, and which uses explicit principles and methods for making those discoveries. The alternative Averick offers is a hypothesis that organisms were created by an immaterial and indemonstrable spirit. Accepting the probable truth of the natural theory is a result of considering evidence; belief in divine and/or other spirits is an expression of credulity (see “Naturalism and Science as Religions” below). A “rational truth seeker” has no obligation to accept Averick’s belief in spirits as a valid principle for determining facts (pp. 118-119, 125, 126, 129, 132, 137), or to regard his alternative to science as rational. Averick offers no reason to accept his hypothesis except his criticisms of the scientific theories and their proponents, and his allegation that he offers the sole alternative to science.
Here are some notable responses to Averick’s argument:
- The assertion of an “intelligent designer” is not specific for any agent. Averick prefers the “One God” that embodies his personal religious beliefs (p. 34). But Christians, Muslims, Mormons, and adherents of other monotheistic sects would substitute their “one God” for his. And the story of the creation of life in Bere’shit/Genesis is only one of numerous traditional tales from many cultures, and philosophical and theological notions, about how life began (Mesler and Cleaves, 2015, pp. 1-24; Rauchfuss, 2012, pp. 3-8). About forty-five percent of humankind do not profess belief in monotheistic gods, and Hindus, for example, attribute the origin of life to other gods. To validate his choice of his “One God” as the agent of creation (pp. 34, 154-55), Averick must prove that the other creation stories are false, and that there is no other spirit who could have created life in a supernatural manner. He must do so “beyond a reasonable doubt” (pp. 29-31) with “coherent, compelling arguments based on logic, reason, and evidence” (p. 137).
- Science studies the “material” universe; anything “outside” it cannot be detected or characterized by observation, experiment, or calculation, and is therefore not an object of science.
- The “intervention” that Averick postulates as the origin of life was a brief, unique series of magical acts (Genesis 1:11-12, 20-27). It cannot be observed, nor can it be related to any event known to have happened or to the regularities (“laws”) in nature on which science is based. Therefore it cannot be studied, or be the grounds for any hypothesis, using the principles and methods of science.
- The purpose of Averick’s argument is not to establish facts about the origin of life—he has none to offer—but to promote his religious beliefs (pp. 15, 161, 264-266, 284). He plainly is “motivated by pre-conceived notions and/or personal agenda.” “Scientific expertise is not transferable,” but he thinks that his expertise as an Orthodox rabbi qualifies him to judge that “Origin of Life researchers routinely draw conclusions in areas outside of their expertise,” although he manifests no knowledge of the scientific facts produced by that research. He will “defer to the physicist exclusively on the subject of physics,” but evidently he does not think that physicists, biologists, chemists, and geologists deserve deference on their subjects when they consider the origin of life (pp. 98-99).
These considerations show the irrationality of Averick’s insistence that scientists incorporate his hypothesis about the origin of life into their scientific approach to the question. For scientists to accept the idea that a spirit created life would impose on them the necessity of demonstrating that a spirit or spirits exist and had the ability to fabricate organisms. These are propositions that cannot be supported by objective evidence. As soon as one introduces an element of magic, science is no longer science.
Therefore, scientists are not “arbitrary” (p. 102), unscientific (p. 101), “non-scientific” (p. 103, 104, 134), “anti-scientific” (p. 103), neglectful of “intellectual integrity” (p. 117, 126), or “motivated by pre-conceived notions and/or personal agenda” (p. 99) when they refuse to put Averick’s god on the roster of causes of natural events. It is not scientists who are arbitrary in rejecting the notions that nature is an artifact (p. 49, 83) and that indemonstrable, bodiless entities are capable of causing events (p. 100, 102, 103, 113); it is their principle not to consider hypotheses unless they are supported by evidential reasoning. It is Averick who is arbitrarily rejecting the application of biology and chemistry to the question of how organisms came into being, and refusing to examine the scientific arguments.
Averick writes: “It is not the job of a scientist to make assumptions; it is the job of a scientist to test assumptions” (p. 116), and “the present scenarios hypothetically describing the origin of life are not in the category of science; they are in the category of speculation and conjecture, which is exactly what science is not” (p. 120). From where does Averick think the “assumptions” that scientists “test” come, if not from scientists? He evidently does not understand the role of hypotheses in science. Nor does he acknowledge that scientific hypotheses are restricted by having to agree with presently known facts, both specifically about the subject under consideration and about the universe in general.
In contrast, hypotheses about a supernatural “intelligent designer” are determined primarily by the proposer’s religious beliefs (such as Averick’s Jewish beliefs), and the believer selects for his scenarios ideas that match those beliefs. Thus the disproof of the Biblicist creationist doctrine that the universe is only 6000 years old, by the existence of galaxies so distant that billions of years were required for their light to reach Earth, is dismissed by the fantasy that God “supernaturally enabled the light to traverse those vast expanses of space immediately” (MacArthur, 2001, p. 118). If everything is the result of miracle, the creationist is free to invent miracles to evade facts he dislikes.
In the end, Averick simply does not understand the nature of science (pp. 116-117). He is unable to comprehend the “worldview” of “Scientific Naturalism” as anything more than an “atheistic belief” (p. 117; cf. p. 137)—an example of the common behavior by the devout of perceiving everything in terms of (their) religion. Now, sincere theists can be good scientists and they may interpret their scientific work in terms of their religious beliefs; but science itself is necessarily nontheistic. Humankind has always wondered why things are as they are. The primitive answer is: “The gods will it to be so.” Science was born 2600 years ago when a few Greeks in Ionia became dissatisfied with this answer and said, “Let us consider the things we perceive with our senses, and by using our reason try to determine why things are as they are.” If these men believed in gods, they did not invoke them to explain nature.
Finally, the existence of organisms is proof that life originated. The question is not whether this occurred but what was the process by which it occurred. And if one is not willing to invoke magic as a pseudoexplanation, then the process by which life originated was natural and explicable by science. These are logical propositions, and a corrected version of Averick’s dichotomy cited at the beginning of the present section. He is unwilling to accept this reasoning. But his personal credence in a particular supernatural idea creates a preference, not an argument; and he can refuse but not refute the evidential reasoning of the scientific alternative.
Scientists Versus Science
Averick has been helped in his project by some scientists whom he quotes, who are misguided (for instances, see Smith and Morowitz, 2016, p. 150) or careless with the words (such as miracle, faith) or ideas that they use, or are ignorant when they characterize the origin of life (pp. 66-67, 69, 74, 80, 101, 105, 110, 116, 119, 133, 155) or characterize science itself (pp. 120-125); or who express personal opinions that do not represent the consensus of biologists on the subject (pp. 59-60, 81, 103-106, 111, 117-118, 126-127, 150-152). Their inappropriate or individualistic statements, however, do not alter the true nature of the scientific effort to describe the origin of life, or of science.
Averick uses scientists’ comments to obscure the consensus of biologists about the origin of life. Phrases such as “how life started” (p. 102) are imprecise and lend themselves to misinterpretation and misrepresentation. Does this phrase refer to a long-age process or processes, a hypothesis about that process, a partial theory, a comprehensive theory, or a statement of present ideas? (pp. 156-157) Stating that one “does not know” (see “The Origin of Life Field is a Failure” above) has a very different import depending upon what kind of information is being referred to. A scientist’s statement that biologists do not know how life began does not mean that they are devoid of any ideas at all about the subject, or that they lack specific hypotheses that are subject to assessment using evidence—or that this knowledge can never be acquired.
Naturalism and Science as Religions
Devout persons tend to reduce their disagreements with nonreligious ideas to the status of sectarian disputes (an activity in which many of them have experience). For example, persons who deny the fact of evolution because it contradicts their religious doctrines commonly try to obfuscate the nature of opposition between the scientific theory and their doctrines by labeling acceptance of evolution “a religion” (or similar words). Averick uses this technique against concurrence with the concept of natural origin of life. He repeatedly calls this concept, or naturalism in general, a “faith” (pp. 125, 129, 134-136), “a leap of faith” (p. 38, 101, 103, 155), or “an article of faith” (pp. 105, 112-113, 148), and says it “fulfills the same purpose as a religious gospel” (p. 117; cf. p. 135).
This manner of arguing demonstrates religionists’ ignorance of or inattention to the criteria people use to determine the truth, or factuality, of propositions. These criteria can be conceived as only two in number, and can be expressed as principles. The evidential principle may be stated as follows: the objectively best way to determine the degree of credence to give to a proposition is to examine the evidence for and against the proposition. The other principle is the authoritarian principle. It states that the judgmentally correct way to determine the truth or falsity of a proposition is to compare it with a body of statements that one accepts as an authority for this purpose. Propositions that accord with the body of statements are true (or at least not definitely false), while those that are contrary to the body of statements are for that reason to be regarded as false. (Averick hints at these principles on p. 140.)
Many people, especially the educated, use the evidential principle in their everyday affairs. It is the principle of naturalism and hence of science. The authoritarian principle is used chiefly in the context of religious and political ideologies, where most often a text or texts (such as Tanakh) are accepted as the authority. Now, even if a person supporting a proposition on the basis of the evidential principle supports it zealously she is not adopting an authoritarian, religious stance. If she rejects contrary arguments that are based on the authoritarian principle, she is not adopting an authoritarian, religious stance; she is remaining true to her principle of determining factuality. Religionists obfuscate the issue by pretending that “belief in” a scientific fact or theory is logically the same as “belief in” a religious doctrine (p. 101, 179, 186). The phrase in each case denotes concurrence, but it does not identify the principle under which concurrence was granted, and that differs in the two cases.
Averick touches tangentially on criteria of factuality in a mention of the verifiability/falsifiability criterion of significance of a proposition (Ayer, 1936/1952, pp. 35-38):
The concept of “falsifiability” is crucial in scientific research; it is a critical factor in determining whether a hypothesis can even be considered scientific at all…. “A statement is called falsifiable if it is possible to conceive of an observation or an argument which proves the statement in question to be false…. [W]hat is un-falsifiable is classified as unscientific, and the practice of declaring an un-falsifiable theory to be scientifically true is pseudoscience.” (p. 104)
Propositions about the existence and acts of spirits including gods cannot be falsified, because there are no “observations [that] would lead [a person], under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false” (Ayer, 1936/1952, pp. 35, 114-116). A theist’s “assertions cannot possibly be valid, but they cannot be invalid either. As he says nothing at all about the world, he cannot justly be accused of saying anything false” (Ayer, 1936/1952, p. 116).
If Averick is like most theists, his belief in his god was imposed by indoctrination during childhood, and cemented by familial and social approval. He probably would acknowledge that no argument whatsoever would cause him to become an “atheist” or to reject his scriptures. Hence his belief that an indemonstrable spirit is responsible for the origin of life, as described in those scriptures, cannot be falsified; it “is nothing more than an article of faith” (p. 105); and his insistence that it be considered as scientific is, by the criterion he cites, “pseudo-science.” Moreover, because his belief is not scientific, he himself denies the validity of his allegations that scientists who do not consider divine creation as a scientific theory are for that reason unscientific (p. 101, 103, 134).
Averick Abuses His Sources
Averick states that he spent “day after day, hour after hour” reading “[f]or several months” (p. 14) in preparation for writing this book, and his publisher alleges that the work is a “well-researched masterpiece” (back cover). But earlier parts of this essay have demonstrated how Averick does not understand, and misrepresents, the naturalistic concept of the origin of life. He also misrepresents the work of individual authors whom he cites, with the effect of promoting his own argument (pp. 102-103).
Just one specific example of Averick’s misuse of his sources is his treatment of the book What is Life? by the chemist Pross (pp. 132-133). The purpose of Pross’ book is to “demonstrate that a general law … underlies the emergence, existence and nature of all living things” [italics added], and that “Charles Darwin in his genius and far-sightedness was right” when he wrote that “the principle of continuity renders it probable that the principle of life will hereafter be shown to be part, or consequence, of some general law.” Pross proposes “a general (or extended) theory of evolution, encompassing both biological and pre-biological systems” (Pross, 2012, p. xiii). Averick’s use of this work gives no clue either of Pross’ specific argument, or of his underlying thesis of a naturalistic origin of life. Consider Averick’s following misrepresentations of Pross:
- To illustrate the conceptual difficulty of making a theory of the origin of life, Pross observes that no one finding a functioning refrigerator would believe it had appeared “spontaneously through natural forces.” Similarly, the spontaneous formation of a living cell is “inconceivable” (Pross, 2012, pp. x-xi). Averick misrepresents these remarks by writing, “Dr. Pross and I are in agreement” that “[t]he notion of a naturalistic origin of life seems ‘absurd’ and ‘impossible'”—a statement that is the opposite of Pross’ ideas.
- For many years, creationists who do not understand the second law of thermodynamics (“when energy changes from one form to another form, or matter moves freely, entropy (disorder) in a closed system increases” [Simple English Wikipedia, 2019]) have falsely asserted that it precludes the natural formation of complex systems. Pross discusses this law and its role in thinking about the chemical basis of biogenesis (Pross, 2012, pp. 6, 25-27, 58-62), and describes how complex systems develop in accord with the law (Pross, 2012, pp. 76-81, 155-158, 163-164). Averick, however, quotes just a single sentence from these discussions: “Certain basic laws of physics preach the same sermon—systems tend toward chaos and disorder, not toward order and function” (p. xii). Then he paraphrases this quote to argue that “natural forces” do not “push in the direction of … functionally complex systems,” and states that “[t]he notion of a naturalistic origin of life seems to contradict the most fundamental principles [read “a fundamental principle”] of physics” (p. 133). He thereby ignores the body of Pross’ presentation and misrepresents the author’s ideas.
- Averick again states: “Dr. Pross and I are in agreement” that “[n]ot only is the notion of a Creator of life the obvious ‘common sense’ conclusion but it is also in consonance with basic principles of physics” (p. 133). Nowhere in his book does Pross write about “a Creator of life,” and it is very unlikely that he would regard this hypothesis as consonant with physics (see “Creation by a Spirit Should be Adopted as a Scientific Hypothesis” above).
- Pross makes statements that are relevant to some of the issues raised by Averick, and refutes some of the latter’s arguments (Pross, 2012, pp. 123-124, 131, 148, 165-168, and the citations elsewhere in this present section). Averick does not mention any of this. Either he is ignoring it, or did not read all of Pross’ book, or did not understand it.
- Pross criticizes “proponents of intelligent design” (such as Averick), likening them to peddlers of ideas (Pross, 2012, p. xii). Adverting to his own erroneous understanding of the sentence about “basic laws of physics” that he quoted, Averick describes this as making “a blatantly self-contradictory and non-scientific statement in order to pay homage to the faith of Scientific Naturalism” (p. 134). Neither in his comments about the second law nor in his argument is Pross self-contradictory or nonscientific. Averick seems unaware of the entirety of the chemist’s remarks about thermodynamics.
This behavior is exhibited throughout Averick’s text. He does not read to learn about scientific ideas concerning biogenesis (or other topics). He reads to find snippets he can quote as material for his attack on science and naturalism. The books and articles on the origin of life named in the endnotes to chapter 3 (“How Does Life Get Started?”) were used in this way. Averick commonly ignores the ideas that the work he cites was written to express (for examples, see chapter 3 endnotes 32, 35, 38, 49, 74, 77, 86, 101, and 109); and when he does refer to them, he often does not understand, or misrepresents, them (here, blatantly). Is this the author’s notion of an “honest battle of intellect” (p. 13)?
To express the grounds for beliefs such as watches having been made by watchmakers, Averick writes:
In light of the sum total of human experience and observation, in light of the totality of human experience and repeated observation that has taken place over thousands of years, we have extracted and formulated an operative principle that has been tested, applied, and found to be true without exception. It has been applied, observed, and tested so many times that it has the same status as any of the accepted laws of physics or chemistry. (p. 46)
Very well. Here are some operative principles, formulated as described by Averick, but based not on everyday experience, but rather on repeated scientific observation that has taken place over hundreds of years:
- Events in nature occur as part of a continuous succession. The hypothesis that organisms suddenly appeared, independently of antecedent conditions, contravenes the observations of humankind.
- Specifically, paleontology demonstrates that for more than three billion years, the organisms present have been preceded by others that were structurally and physiologically simpler. The hypothesis that complex organisms suddenly appeared, without any precursors, contravenes the observations of humankind.
- Evolution following the Darwinian principle is the process by which species of organisms have come into existence since the time of the earliest known organisms. As a basic fact of science, this principle can be applied to prebiotic events. The hypothesis that it somehow was not operative in the genesis of organisms ignores the observations of humankind.
- Countless structural and functional characters of organisms clearly have been modified or assembled, during evolution, from characters that previously subserved different structures or functions (e.g., Knoll, 2015, pp. 86-87; Schopf, 2001, pp. 143-163). The hypothesis that complex characters (such as the structure and function of cell membranes and walls)—especially those that show evidence of pre-existing elements—suddenly appeared in their present-day form, without precursors, contravenes the observations of humankind.
 Naturalism may be defined as the empirical thesis that the facts of the universe are explained by its material character, and by general regularities in the behavior of matter-energy and space-time that result from their intrinsic properties.
 Averick never defines what he means by ‘life’; he may think that its meaning is so obvious that it needs no discussion. In most uninformed use of the term, ‘life’ has a vague, unspecified meaning. It often is perceived as some kind of “force” or “energy,” or else as a property conferred by an indwelling spirit, the departure of which from the organism is death (and which can be infused into a corpse to reanimate it).
Discussion of the nature of life is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that life is an abstraction, a concept; it is not an immaterial entity that interacts with matter, or a capability of organisms. For some definitions of life and remarks on this subject, see Pross, 2012, pp. 39-42, 164; Rauchfuss, 2012, pp. 12-15; and Smith and Morowitz, 2016, pp. 541, 553, 589-593.
 The principle of natural selection is used in the design of artifacts and systems in many fields, including aeronautics, cybernetics, engineering, telecommunications, economics, decision-making, visual art, and music (examples can be found in Mitchell, 2009, pp. 129-130). It is a “law of nature.”
 The concept that populations of replicating molecules evolve is developed by an author whom Averick cites (pp. 62, 132-133), Addy Pross (Pross, 2012, pp. 78-79, 128-130, 182-184). Pross states: “Abiogenesis and biological evolution are one continuous process…. The emergence of life was initiated by the emergence of a simple replicating system” (Pross, 2012, p. 162).
 Averick quotes an article by Iris Fry in which she characterizes “the continuity thesis” as “a philosophical presupposition” in the “scientific investigation of the origin of life” (pp. 103-105). But continuity—a “series of causes and effects” (p. 154)—is an observed fact throughout science; in Averick’s words, it is “an operative principle that has been tested, applied, and found to be true without exception” (p. 46). And the “presuppositions” given by Fry are in fact evidential propositions based on observed continuities.
 Eric Smith and Harold J. Morowitz state that in “the study of the origin of life, … the scientific foundation … is enormously richer than it was fifty years ago” (Smith and Morowitz, 2016, pp. 608-609). They list seven “profound changes in point of view,” some of which “are now fundamental,” that have occurred recently.
 Consider: “Most of the experiments carried out on prebiotic chemistry cannot be carried out under ‘prebiotic conditions’, since we do not know exactly what these were…. It is not even sure that this will be possible in the future” (Rauchfuss, 2012, p. 161; cf. Pross, 2012, p. 95). For specific instances of difficulties, see Rauchfuss, 2012, p. 193, 209.
 “Improved hypotheses” include “something that no one has thought of yet.” Averick derides this idea (pp. 149-150, 258), but earlier, in a critique of scientists, he has given a general statement and several instances in which a hypothesis no one had thought of before was not just correct, but groundbreaking (pp. 93-98; see also p. 103). It seems that he is unwilling to accept the idea that such a thing is possible in research on the origin of life.
 Note that “explanations” such as this do not explain anything, in the ordinary meaning of “to explain”: they do not state any causal process that could be verified. They are attributions, not explanations.
 Averick states: “Divine intervention in the origin of life is either true or it is not true” (p. 102; cf. p. 115). Analytic philosophy’s assessment of statements about indemonstrable entities, however, is that they cannot be validated or refuted, and therefore no truth value can be assigned to them (Ayer, 1936/1952, p. 116). See “Naturalism and Science as Religions” above.
 Averick acknowledges this point (pp. 141-142) and attempts to evade the need to provide reasons by repeating his belief that “perception of design” is proof of design, and repeating the argument that “Darwinian Evolution” cannot explain the origin of life (p. 146).
He then mentions and dismisses a third idea of biogenesis, the philosophical-scientific concept of innumerable universes (pp. 150-152). He is wrong in suggesting that no one believes this theory (Vilenkin, 2006, pp. 111-113).
 Since the author has raised the issue of intellectual integrity, one might ask: Is it intellectually honest to write a polemic (p. 44) about a scientific topic without first informing oneself adequately about the science? Before repeating “It’s impossible! It’s impossible!” for 127 pages, shouldn’t Averick have acquainted himself with the literature that demonstrates that it is possible? He states: “Judaism has its own guidelines, parameters, and traditions regarding the study, interpretation, and applications of the Torah…. If an individual wants to criticize the Torah worldview, he should first and foremost take the trouble to find out what it actually is” (p. 36). It is regrettable that he did not apply such a principle in his treatment of science and scientific theories about the origin of life.
 Persistence of the primitive “explanation” is not benign. An instance of applying the “God did it” mindset to the determinations of science is the Inquisition’s treatment of Galileo. And what one presumes is that Averick’s particular type of “God did it”—”Genesis is factual”—has been used for a century to prevent or impede the teaching of scientific facts in America’s public schools.
 Averick took his title, Nonsense of a High Order, from a 1981 article by astronomer Fred Hoyle (p. 111; see also p. 161), whom Averick calls “one of the great scientific minds of the twentieth century” (p. 84). Hoyle was neither a biologist nor a chemist, so his biological opinions were not necessarily informed; as Averick himself observes, “[s]cientific expertise is not in any way transferable to other disciplines” (p. 98). Hoyle promoted several controversial biological hypotheses that were rejected by the scientific community. For example, he thought that the initial microorganisms on earth were brought there by debris from extraterrestrial homes of life (Averick labels a similar idea “science fiction” on p. 113). (Hoyle also offered calculations showing the improbability of the spontaneous appearance of organic structures [p. 84], an erroneous procedure discussed above.)
Perhaps the most notable of Hoyle’s astronomical opinions were that the “Big Bang” (a nonfactual name he invented for the primal expansion of the universe) did not occur, and that matter is continuously appearing spontaneously throughout the universe. Both these have been rejected due to contrary evidence.
 The distinction of these two principles answers Averick’s question: “If what I am seeking is the truth, what possible reason would I have for caring … if it was within the realm of science or not?” (p. 116). The “truth” people find in his scriptures includes indemonstrable beings, magical events, and counterfactual histories.
[NB: The dates of the references cited by Averick in the endnotes to chapter 3 (“How Does Life Get Started?”) extend from 1973 to 2015, so presumably he had access to other works published during this period.]
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