Naturalistic Faith

Scientists have facts; religious people have faith, right? Life is one giant naturalistic process with no need for God—a big bang, stars forming, planets coalescing, continents drifting, life generating, and complexity increasing as we journey from microbe to man. So the story goes.

So you can imagine my surprise while scanning Scientific American, to find atheist John Horgan entitling his article on abiogenesis as follows: “Pssst! Don’t tell the creationists, but scientists don’t have a clue how life began.”[1] Twenty years ago the author suggested this headline, capturing how scientists were having a hard time agreeing on any details relating to life’s first emergence from non-life.  But that editor is gone.  And as Horgan argues, this headline is “even more apt today.”

The more we discover, the more there is to discover, and the greater our realization that life is phenomenally complex. As atheist cosmologist Fred Hoyle once stated, in regard to the fine-tuning of universal constants, “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.”

Well, how complex is ‘life’? Surely we can add the right ingredients and, hey presto, out pops a simple cell. Not quite. Let’s consider just one angle: chirality.

Hold out your two hands in front of you, palm down. (They’re beautiful, aren’t they—you could be a finger-jockey, mama!) Two hands: identical, yet symmetrical. Try shaking hands right to left, or left to right, and it won’t work. Obvious. But you may not know that every organic molecule has a handed-ness, or a chirality: levorotatory (left-handed), and dextro-rotatory (right-handed). In nature there is a racemic mixture, meaning a 50/50 combination of L- and R-handed forms. And there is no known natural mechanism to self-organize this chemical cocktail.

So what? The ‘simplest’ cell imaginable consists of 10,000 amino acids (all randomly left-handed) and 100,000 DNA nucleotides (all randomly right-handed). Let’s say we skip over how we generated these amino acids and DNA nucleotides in a hostile environment. And let’s ignore the precise sequencing of the twenty or so types of amino acids, and four nucleotide forms, necessary as information to code for essential life-maintaining proteins. Let’s grant all of this. How likely is it that by pure chance you could string together the cell with a handshake that worked? Just one incorrect handshake and the backbone of life is broken—back to square one.

Try flipping a coin to get 10,000 heads, then 100,000 tails. For the mathematically minded, this is 1 chance in 10301,029,996. That’s a 1 with over 300 million zeroes after it. Try winning 43,000,000 state lotteries in a row.[2] This is not just lucky: it’s impossible. Typically 1 in 1050 is set as the point of statistical impossibility. Pushing further, double PhD mathematician William Dembski argues that this ‘unlikelihood’ exceeds the “universal bounds of probability”: 1080 particles in the known universe all interacting together at 1045 times per second (Planck time) for 1025 seconds (the upper age of the universe) means the absolute maximum trials possible is 10150.[3] ‘Chance’ is not an explanation.

Now, some at this point will caricature my critique as ignorance inserting God in the gap. But isn’t this to presume that naturalism is right: that only natural causes are allowed to explain nature, and we will—nay must—progress toward a satisfactory mechanism. Yet even atheistic evangelist Richard Dawkins recognizes that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”[4] We can only climb Mount Improbable once we have first life, so neo-Darwinian mechanism is of no help here. Further, every code we know points to an encoder. So if life looks designed, then perhaps it is. Surely ‘creation’ must at least be admitted as a possible primary cause for all that is. Positively, life exhibits the hallmarks of design. Negatively, no natural mechanism can account for the sheer improbability.

What, then, do we make of scientists having facts, and religious people having faith? Simple. It’s a myth. There is no such divide. We all trust certain things in order to know. And when it comes to the origin of life, it’s not for scientific reasons that God’s existence and action is discounted. Can you smell the metaphysical rat? This is ‘naturalism-of-the-gaps’. This is naturalistic faith. This is an a priori commitment to materialism that seems “devised not to get in facts but to keep out God”.[5]

I have no need to put words in the naturalist’s mouth. Let me close with Dawkins’ response as part of the Edge Foundation.  When asked “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” he replied: “I believe that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all ‘design’ anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection.”[6]

We all seek facts, and we all have faith. As the highest form of sentient life on this finely-tuned planet, in what, or whom, do you ultimately place your faith?

Dave Benson


[2] Ralph O. Muncaster, A Skeptic’s Search for God (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2002), 98.

[4] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton, 1986), 6.

[5] C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry.”

[6] What We Believe But Cannot Prove, ed. John Brockman (London: Pocket Books, 2005), 9.

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3 responses to “Naturalistic Faith

  1. Thank you for this great reflection, Dave! It is a surprise for us to realize that naturalism is also a position of faith, and that scientific evidence may actually point away from it. It is so healthy to doubt our doubts.

    René

  2. Pingback: Universe from Nothing – a load of Krauss, part 3 « Wondering Fair·

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