Can Naturalists Explain Where Life Originated?

In my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Homicide Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, I make a comprehensive case for the existence of God from eight pieces of evidence in the universe. In Chapter Three (The Origin of Life: Does the Text Require an Author?), I describe the futility scientists have experienced when trying to identify the location in the universe where life might have originated without the intercession and involvement of an Intelligent Designer. The origin of life requires the emergence of pre-biotic molecules (amino acids and nucleotide bases). Where could this have happened? Could life have originated from “inside the room” of the natural universe? If so, where, and is there a better explanation for the origin of life “outside the room” of the universe? (For more on this “inside the room” or “outside the room” investigative analogy, please refer to the Opening Statement of God’s Crime Scene). Naturalistic scientists have repeatedly failed to identify an evidentially reasonable location for the origin of life, despite a concerted effort over many years. Here is a very brief summary of the failed attempts to locate a reasonable naturalistic point of origin:

Could Life Have Started in the Atmosphere?
You may remember the famous 1952 Miller-Urey experiment from your high school or undergraduate biology class. Stanley Miller and Harold Urey mixed ammonia, methane, water vapor, and hydrogen and passed an electric charge through the circulating gases. Within a week, they found several types of amino acids had been created. This experiment later became the “poster child” for a naturalistic explanation of the basic building blocks of life. Many believed it proved amino acids could be formed naturally in the atmosphere of the early earth. But with the evidence we now have about the conditions of the early atmosphere, we know the gases used by Miller and Urey were not present in the quantity or proportion they used. While this experiment may have some historical significance, it does not prove life could originate in the atmosphere. In fact, scientists now believe the early atmosphere simply could not produce amino acids at any significant or necessary level.

Could It Have Started in Water?
Like the Miller-Urey experiment, the concept of an ancient “primordial soup” is an iconic fixture in most entry-level biology textbooks. Soviet biologist Alexander Oparin first proposed the idea in 1924, arguing “chemical evolution” took place in the Earth’s early waters, resulting in the formation of amino acids, then primitive proteins. But aside from the fact we have no physical evidence to support the existence of a “primordial soup,” we now know the “chicken and egg” relationship between proteins and polymer chains (DNA) makes their simultaneous appearance in water extremely unlikely (to put it mildly). In addition, the absence of significant sources of phosphate for the early formation of DNA, RNA or ATP is prohibitive in this environment. Worse yet, there would be no way to limit the proportion of left and right “handed” amino acids, nucleotides and sugars in the “primordial soup”, making the formation of DNA and RNA molecules exceedingly difficult.

Could It Have Started On Land?
Some researchers have proposed a scenario in which local terrestrial conditions, such as those occurring in clay, might capture water on occasion, allowing the necessary molecules to form and interact. But when trying to recreate these conditions in the laboratory, scientists have come to realize the impossibility of stabilizing the environment to allow for the formation of the necessary cellular components.

Could It Have Started In the Earth?
Some scientists have proposed an underground location for the origin of life where molecular formation would be protected from water and atmospheric interference. But the underground locations available in the early earth would have been incredibly hostile to the formation of bio-chemical precursors, proteins and RNA. Just as problematic would be imagining a scenario in which these primitive forms of life could then transition from their underground origin to their eventual homes above ground.

Could It Have Started In Space?
Some scientists, frustrated with the lack of progress locating a reasonable earthly source for pre-biotic molecules, have turned their attention to outer space. But even if the basic building blocks for life, amino acids, were delivered to earth in a meteorite, this would still fail to explain how the simple molecules formed into the more complex proteins and nucleic acids necessary for life, given the “chicken and egg” problem (refer to Chapter Three of God’s Crime Scene). And if these more complex organic elements came to us from space, how did they originate there and how could they survive the entry into earth’s atmosphere?

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Can Naturalism Account for the Appearance of Fine-Tuning in the Universe?

The just so appearance of “fine-tuning” in our universe is rather uncontroversial amongst scientists and cosmologists. Even physicist Paul Davies (who is agnostic when it comes to the notion of a Divine Designer) readily stipulates, “Everyone agrees that the universe looks as if it was designed for life.” In my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Homicide Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, I investigate this fine-tuning in great detail. The foundational, regional and locational conditions of our universe, solar system and planet are delicately balanced and finely calibrated. The slightest modification of these conditions would be disastrous for life. The delicate requirements for the existence of galaxies, star systems, and planets capable of supporting “intelligent observers” are incredibly fragile.
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Are Moral Truths Human-Specific Biological Facts?

How are we to account for the existence of objective, transcendent moral truths? Some philosophers, like Sam Harris, believe “moral values are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” Well-being (also described as human “flourishing”) is, according to Harris, the purpose of our existence as human beings. Since human biology transcends human culture, moral truths (if they are rooted in human biology), would also transcend culture. As a result, we can account for the existence of objective, transcendent moral truths without having to ground them in a transcendent moral truth-giver (like God). Harris believes these kinds of truths are simply grounded in the well-being of our entire species, and according to Harris, can be ascertained and apprehended by simply studying the science of human flourishing. Harris argues “that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. There are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.” But this attempt to ground objective, transcendent moral truths in human biological flourishing is misguided for several reasons:

This View Assumes a Moral Definition of “Well-Being”
What is Harris’ definition of “well-being” in the first place? Is it merely survival, or is it a particular kind of survival? Even philosophers who hold this view readily admit some behaviors (like subjugating slaves and stealing the resources of opposing groups) can actually aid in the survival of a people group. But these same thinkers simultaneously believe these kinds of behaviors are detrimental to the group’s well-being. This implies, however, there’s a right way to survive and a wrong way. Did you spot the logical inconsistency here? Those who believe the pursuit of human well-being is the origin of moral truth, begin with a definition of well-being already infused with moral truth. Who gets to determine the right or wrong way to survive or flourish? This approach to moral truth argues for something more than mere biological survival of the fittest. It argues for a kind of moral survival (described as “well-being”) before it has adequately explained the source for moral truth.

GCS Chapter 07 Illustration 07

An Illustration from God’s Crime Scene

This View Confuses Facts with Norms
The majority of psychologists and neuroscientists, even those studying moral reasoning, understand the difference between scientific facts and moral norms. Philosopher and psychologist Jerry Fodor explains it this way: “Science is about facts, not norms; it might tell us how we are, but it couldn’t tell us what is wrong with how we are. There couldn’t be a science of the human condition (emphasis mine).” It’s one thing to describe what is (where in the brain, for example, one might find synapse activity corresponding to a moral choice), but it’s another thing to explain why a moral choice is either good or bad. As J. P. Moreland notes: “Moral properties are normative properties. They carry with them a moral ‘ought.’ If some act has the property of rightness, then one ought to do that act. But natural properties… do not carry normativeness. They just are.” Facts about how guns work, for example, cannot tell us whether or not you should use one to murder a rival. In a similar way, facts about how our brains work cannot tell us about the value or nature of our moral norms.

This View Fails To Determine Which Behaviors Are Actually Beneficial
Even if we believe moral truths are nothing more than biological facts about human flourishing, it’s not always easy to determine which behaviors are beneficial to our well-being in the first place. If the value of every action is to be determined by the consequence the action has on human well-being, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to make these assessments with certainty. How can one truly know if an act will have a positive or negative impact on human flourishing many years down the road?

This View Fails to Determine Whose Well-Being Is Most Important
Why would any of us consider the well-being of strangers prior to the well-being of our own families and communities? If history is any indicator, humans are far more inclined to care for themselves than for others, even when the activities of their own group may ultimately harm the survivability of the entire species. Who gets to define “flourishing” when cultures and individuals disagree about notions of happiness, compassion, contentedness, or physical and psychological health? When competing interests collide, whose definitions (and whose well-being) warrants our consideration? As philosopher Patricia Churchland observes, “no one has the slightest idea how to compare the mild headache of five million against the broken legs of two, or the needs of one’s own two children against the needs of a hundred unrelated brain-damaged children in Serbia.”

Even if we are only interested in the well-being of an isolated group, should we be more concerned about total well-being or average well-being of the group? Those concerned with total well-being prefer a world in which the most people possible are able to live with at least moderate well-being. Those concerned with average well-being prefer a world in which smaller groups maximize their well-being, even if others suffer, so the average for the species is elevated. If we derive moral value from an action’s impact on the well-being of the entire species, why should I, as a law enforcement officer, care at all about murdered gang members such as Jesse’s victim? Shouldn’t I be more focused on the fate of those better educated, wealthier or more intelligent contributors to our society than those who are actually preying on our society? Aren’t those in the first group more likely to contribute to the well-being of our species than those in the second? Assessing an action’s moral value on the basis of its ultimate consequence is nearly impossible to accomplish and leads to disturbing discrimination.

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Is A Divine “Intelligent Designer” Just a “God of the Gaps”?

In my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Homicide Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, I make a comprehensive case for the involvement of a Divine, Intelligent Designer based on eight attributes of design seen in biological organisms. Many skeptics believe intelligent design inferences are premature and impulsive, however, driven primarily by those who are impatient with the explanatory power of science. As our scientific understanding has increased in the past two centuries, much of what was once a mystery is now a matter of scientific knowledge. Skeptic Michael Shermer argues, “Just because Intelligent Design theorists cannot think of how nature could have created something through evolution, that does not mean that scientists will not be able to do so either.” When we infer the existence of an Intelligent Designer, are we simply inserting such a Being because we presently have a gap in our scientific understanding? Are we defaulting irrationally to a “God of the gaps”? No:
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Can Naturalism Account for Human Dignity and Value?

In my latest book, God’s Crime Scene, I examine eight pieces of evidence in the universe by asking a simple investigative question: “Can I explain the evidence ‘in the room’ (of the natural universe) by staying ‘in the room’?” This is a question I ask at every death scene to determine if I actually have a crime scene. When evidence in the room can’t be explained by staying in the room, I’ve got to consider the involvement of an intruder. If the evidence inside the universe can’t be explained by staying “inside” the natural realm of the universe, we must similarly consider the involvement of a cosmic intruder. One critical piece of the evidence in the universe is the existence of moral obligations. Can we explain these obligations by staying “inside the room”? Can naturalism account for the human dignity and value necessary to ground moral obligations?
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Does the Cumulative Case for Design Point to a Divine Designer?

Much has been written about the evidence for design in biological organisms. In fact, the appearance of design is largely uncontroversial. Even famed atheist and evolutionist, Richard Dawkins has written, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” But what, precisely, are the attributes of design most of us believe (either consciously or unconsciously) are most reasonably explained by an intelligent designer? In my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for A Divinely Created Universe, I make a case for Intelligent Design based on the contributions of many great scientists and thinkers, my own experience as a designer (my education and training is in design and architecture) and my professional investigative career as a detective. The result: a cumulative case approach to the appearance of design and the reasonable inference of an Intelligent Designer. I believe there are eight attributes of design we employ when reasonably inferring the existence of a Designer. To make them easier to remember, I’ve assembled them in an acronym (DESIGNED):

D- Dubious Probability (Given Chance)
Is random chance an insufficient explanation for the formation and assembly of the object we are examining?

E -Echoes of Familiarity
Does the object resemble other structures we know (with certainty) were designed by intelligent designers?

S- Sophistication and Intricacy
Does the object display specificity, sophistication and intricacy consistent with the involvement of an intelligent agent?

I - Informational Dependency
Is there any evidence the object was directed and created by way of instructional information?

G - Goal Direction (and Intentionality)
Does the form and assembly process of the object process to be goal-directed?

N - Natural Inexplicability (Given Laws of Physics or Chemistry)
Are the laws of physics and chemistry insufficient to account for the form and function of the object?

E - Efficiency / Irreducible Complexity
Does the object display efficient, irreducible complexity reflecting the involvement of an intelligent designer?

D - Decision / Choice Reflection
Does the object display evidence of conscious choices indicative of an intelligent designer?

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What We Mean When We Say, “God Created Everything From Nothing”

Even as an atheist, I understood the challenge offered by the “Standard Cosmological Model” (the Big Bang Theory) when examined from my naturalistic worldview. This model infers a “cosmological singularity” in which all space, time and matter came into existence at a point in the distant past. In others words, “everything” came from “nothing”. I knew this presented a problem for me as a naturalist; if the universe had a beginning, the “principle of causality” inclined me to believe there must have been a cause. But, what could cause something as vast as the universe? Could it have caused itself to come into existence, or must the first cause of all space, time and matter be non-spatial, atemporal and immaterial? How could “everything” come from “nothing”?
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Why We Know Our Universe, And Everything In It, Had A Beginning (Free Bible Insert)

My career as a Cold Case Detective was built on being evidentially certain about the suspects I brought to trial. There are times when my certainty was established and confirmed by the cumulative and diverse nature of the evidence. Let me give you an example. It’s great when a witness sees the crime and identifies the suspect, but it’s even better if we have DNA evidence placing the suspect at the scene. If the behavior of the suspect (before and after the time of the crime) also betrays his involvement, and if his statements when interviewed are equally incriminating, the case is even better. Cases such as these become more and more reasonable as they grow both in depth and diversity. It’s not just that we now have four different evidences pointing to the same conclusion, it’s that these evidences are from four different categories. Eyewitness testimony, forensic DNA, behaviors and admissions all point to the same reasonable inference. When we have a cumulative, diverse case such as this, our inferences become more reasonable and harder to deny. Why did I take the time to describe this evidential approach to reasonable conclusions? Because a similar methodology can be used to determine whether everything in the universe (all space, time and matter) came from nothing. We have good reason to believe our universe had a beginning, and this inference is established by a cumulative, diverse evidential case:

Philosophical Evidence (from the Impossibility of Infinite Regress)
Imagine a linear race track with a start and finish line. Now imagine you’re a new police recruit and I’ve asked you to put on your track shoes and step into the starting blocks for a physical training (PT) test. The finish line is one hundred yards away. As you place your feet in the blocks and prepare to run, I raise the starting pistol. Just before I fire it, however, I stop and tell you to move the start line and blocks back six inches. You reluctantly do that. Again I raise the pistol to the sky—only to command you, once again, to move the line back six inches. You grudgingly comply. Imagine this continues. Question: Will you ever reach the finish line? No. Unless there is a beginning, you’ll never get to the finish. In a similar way, time also requires a beginning in order for any of us to reach a finish; unless time has a beginning, we cannot arrive at the finish line we call “today.”

Theoretical Evidence (from Mathematics and Physics)
Albert Einstein’s calculations related to the general theory of relativity 1916 indicated the universe was dynamic (either expanding or contracting). The notion of a static universe was so common at the time, however, that Einstein applied a mathematical “constant” to his calculations to maintain the unchanging, uniform nature of the universe he hoped for (he later referred to this effort as “the biggest blunder he ever made in his life” ). Einstein’s calculations suggested the universe was not eternally old and unchanging. Alexander Friedmann, a Russian mathematician working with Einstein’s theories in the 1920’s, developed a mathematical model predicting an expanding universe. This conclusion inferred the universe must have had a beginning from which it was expanding.

Observational Evidence (from Astronomical Data)
Vesto Slipher, an American astronomer working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, spent nearly ten years perfecting his understanding of spectrograph readings. His observations revealed something remarkable. If a distant object was moving toward Earth, its observable spectrograph colors shifted toward the blue end of the spectrum. If a distant object was moving away from Earth, its colors shifted toward the red end of the spectrum. Slipher identified several “nebulae” and observed a “redshift” in their spectrographic colors. If these “nebulae” were moving away from our galaxy (and one another) as Slipher observed, they must have once been tightly clustered together. By 1929, Astronomer Edwin Hubble published findings of his own, verifying Slipher’s observations and demonstrating the speed at which a star or galaxy moves away from us increases with its distance from the earth. This once again confirmed the expansion of the universe.

Thermal Evidence (from the Second Law of Thermodynamics)
Imagine walking into a room and observing a wind-up toy police car. The longer you watch it roll, the slower it moves. You realize the car is winding down—that is, the amount of usable energy is decreasing. It’s reasonable to infer the car was recently wound up prior to your entry into the room. The fact the toy car is not yet completely unwound indicates it was wound up recently. If the car had been wound much earlier, we would expect it to be motionless by the time we entered the room. In a similar way, the fact our universe still exhibits useful energy—even though the Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates we are on our way to a cosmic “heat death”—indicates a beginning. Otherwise, and if the universe were infinitely old, our cosmos should have run out of usable energy by now. We can reasonably infer it was once tightly wound and full of energy.

Quantitative Evidence (from the Abundance of Helium)
As Astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle studied the way elements are created within stars, he was able to calculate the amount of helium created if the universe came into being from nothing. Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe (Hydrogen is the first), but in order to form helium by nuclear fusion, temperatures must be incredibly high and conditions must be exceedingly dense. These would have been the conditions if the universe came into being from nothing. Hoyle’s calculations related to the formation of helium happen to coincide with our measurements of helium in the universe today. This, of course, is consistent with the universe having a moment of beginning.

Residual Evidence (from the Cosmic Background Radiation)
In 1964, two American physicists and radio astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson detected what is now referred to as “echo radiation”, winning a Nobel Prize for their discovery in 1978. Numerous additional experiments and observations have since established the existence of cosmic background radiation, including data from the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite launched in 1989, and the Planck space observatory launched in 2009. For many scientists, this discovery alone solidified their belief the universe had a beginning. If the universe leapt into existence, expanding from a state of tremendous heat, density and expansion, we should expect find this kind of cosmic background radiation.

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Moses and the Tent of Meeting

The third and final post in the series on Moses’ supernatural encounters with God is a personal favorite in scripture.

Why the Case for Christianity Is More Important Than Ever

Much has been written and discussed about this year’s Pew Research Center poll, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, and I’ve also weighed in on the findings. The percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. When statistics like these are released, it’s tempting to panic and respond without properly examining the trends. The devil is always in the details, however, and a careful analysis of the data ought to energize rather than discourage us. Opportunities abound, and the case for Christianity is more important than ever.

While more and more people say they no longer identify as Christians, the ranks of atheists and agnostics are not growing in equal percentages. During the same seven year span, as Christian affiliation dropped by 7.8%, those claiming an atheist affiliation only grew by 1.5%. So where did all the Christians go? They went to the ranks of those claiming no affiliation with any established Christian denomination or belief system (a category affectionately called, “the nones”). Importantly, those who no longer claim a Christian attachment, have not yet jumped in with the atheists or agnostics. They haven’t even jumped in with other religious groups (such as Jewish, Muslim or other believers). This is an important reality for all of us who seek to make the case for Christianity. We sometimes mistakenly think our culture is becoming more and more atheistic. It isn’t. Instead, it’s simply becoming less and less Christian.

People are not nearly as resistant to the existence of God as the more liberal, atheistic media would like us to believe. In fact, 92.9% of the country rejects atheism and is open to the existence of God in one form or another. We are a country of theists, even though we might be divided on which form of theism (or deism) is true. That’s why the case for Christianity is more important than ever.

Those who believe in the existence of God, yet reject Christianity, can still be reached for Christ. I sometimes think this group of “nones” has rejected their experience in the Church rather than their belief in Jesus. That may simply be a reflection of the sad, non-evidential nature of the Church rather than a reflection of the strong evidential nature of Christianity. Some of those who have left our ranks may never have heard anything about the evidence supporting the Christian worldview in all the years they were attending church with us. My own anecdotal experience, as I speak at churches around the country, supports this uncomfortable hypothesis. Most churches are still uninterested in making the case for Christianity, while more and more Christians want to know why Christianity is true.

Now is the time to make the case for the reliability of the New Testament, the historicity ad Deity of Jesus and the reasonable inference of the Resurrection. People are still hovering in the “nones” category, open to the existence of God, but skeptical of their past experience in Christianity. Now is the time to show them a new way forward and a reasonable path to belief. The reasonable, evidential case for Christianity is more important than ever.

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