As a cultural Jew, I’m especially embarrassed when someone of my “faith tradition” (there, Dr. Ecklund, you can count me among the religious!) makes stupid arguments. Evangelical Christians can be as moronic as they want, but when a rabbi says something dumb, well, that sets my DNA on edge.
Sadly, it happens all too often. Over at PuffHo, Rabbi Adam Jacobs offers “A reasonable argument for God’s existence.” The good rabbi was prompted to post by repeated assertions that “most, if not all, religious systems rely solely on wholly unsubstantiated faith to support their beliefs.” So he offers up what he sees as an airtight argument for god’s existence.
Here it is in one sentence: Because we don’t understand how life originated on Earth, god must have done it.
The longer version:
And there’s the rub: There just is no evidence for it [the material origin of life on Earth]. Not one of them has the foggiest notion about how to answer life’s most fundamental question: How did life arise on our planet? The non-believer is thus faced with two choices: to accept as an article of faith that science will eventually arrive at a reasonable, naturalistic conclusion to this intellectual black box or to choose to believe in the vanishingly small odds that the astonishing complexity, intelligence and mystery of life came about as a result of chance, which of course presents its own problems:
“Suppose you took scrabble sets, or any word game sets, blocks with letters containing every language on Earth and you heap them together, and then you took a scoop and you scooped into that heap, and you flung it out on the lawn there and the letters fell into a line which contained the words, ‘to be or not to be that is the question,’ that is roughly the odds of an RNA molecule appearing on the Earth.” (Dr. Robert Shapiro, Professor Emeritus and Senior Research Scientist in the Department of Chemistry at New York University)
Ask yourself, do you believe in the RNA molecule? Do you accept Dr. Shapiro’s scrabble analogy as an actual possibility? Most people intuitively recognize that it’s not a reasonable position to hold. . .
. . . I posit to you that all the evidence points, in an obvious and inextricable way, to a supernatural explanation for the origin of life. If there are no known naturalistic explanations and the likelihood that “chance” played any role is wildly minute, then it is a perfectly reasonable position to take that a conscious super-intelligence (that some of us call God) was the architect of life on this planet. Everyone agrees to the appearance of design. It is illogical to assume its non-design in the absence of evidence to the contrary.
Not only does Rabbi Jacobs make the common error that life’s origin was purely a “chance” event (once a molecule was capable of replicating, the manifestly non-chance scenario of natural selection would take hold), but he pulls the old creationist trick of taking a quote out of context to make it seem that a speaker said the opposite of what he really meant. Jacobs gives this quote from Francis Crick to imply that that eminent scientist couldn’t accept a naturalistic origin of life:
“An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle.” (Francis Crick)
That snippet is soon to take its place in the pantheon of misused quotations of scientists, alongside Darwin’s truncated quote about the eye* whose use P.Z. Myers regards, correctly, as a touchstone of idiocy. Let’s look at the full quote by Crick from Life Itself (p.88)
“An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going. But this should not be taken to imply that there are good reasons to believe that it could not have started on the earth by a perfectly reasonable sequence of fairly ordinary chemical reactions. The plain fact is that the time available was too long, the many microenvironments on the earth’s surface too diverse, the various chemical possibilities too numerous and our own knowledge and imagination too feeble to allow us to be able to unravel exactly how it might or might not have happened such a long time ago, especially as we have no experimental evidence from that era to check our ideas against.”
Notice how Jacobs not only truncates the first sentence (that’s terrible scholarship, and a bit dishonest), but, even more dishonestly, leaves out the last part, in which Crick cautions against taking our scientific ignorance as proof of a miracle. That’s exactly the same kind of truncation that creationists perform with Darwin’s quote. And Crick, by the way, was pretty much an atheist, though I think at times he described himself as agnostic.
Nope, we don’t yet understand how life originated on Earth, but we have good leads, and abiogenesis is a thriving field. And we may never understand how life originated on Earth, because the traces of early life have vanished. We know it happened at least once (and that all species descend from only one origin), but not how. I’m pretty confident that within, say, 50 years we’ll be able to create life in a laboratory under the conditions of primitive Earth, but that, too, won’t tell us exactly how it did happen—only that it could. And if it could, then we needn’t postulate a much less parsimonious celestial deity, especially one who forbids you to eat bacon, or enjoy meat and cheese at the same meal.
Rabbi Jacobs, you make me ashamed to be a cultural Jew.
*”To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree”. P.Z. Myers notes, “As everyone who has read the Origin knows, what he was doing there was setting up a rhetorical question, which he then followed by three pages of detailed description of exactly how such an eye could have evolved.”