Unwarranted researcher involvement consistently characterizes the prebiotic simulation studies carried out over the last 60 years. Even though these experiments are designed to validate a naturalistic explanation for life’s origin, they end up demonstrating the necessity of intelligent agency in creating life from inanimate matter. Yet, many in the scientific community continue to resist any suggestion that life’s origin stems from supernatural work. As a means to build a bridge with these skeptics, we apply the concept of hypernaturalism as a means to address the concerns of the scientific community
When I’m out speaking on behalf of RTB, one question I often hear is, how did God create the first life? Did He just “zap” the first organisms into existence? Or did He bring about the origin of life by some other means?
A recent guest article by theologian Daniel Dyke and physicist Hugh Henry proves helpful in addressing this question. Our guest authors introduced the concept of hypernaturalism, which they define as the extraordinary use of natural law by an omnipotent God. When God acts in a hypernatural way, He employs the laws of nature and natural phenomena in an extraordinary manner—with respect to timing, location, and magnitude—to accomplish His will. In their framework, hypernaturalism stands distinct from “supernaturalism,” in which God always operates outside the laws of nature. Nevertheless, a hypernatural act is as much a miracle as a supernatural one.
Hypernaturalism in the Laboratory
In a sense, God, though the only being capable of supernatural acts, is not the only one who can engage in hypernatural activity. Human beings can, as well. Consider the work of an organic chemist in the laboratory. These scientists set up a glass apparatus to contain the reaction of interest. With care they add the appropriate chemicals, in a specific order. They adjust the reaction temperature, control the composition of the headspace above the reaction, and regulate the reaction’s pH. In other words, chemists, operating within the laws of nature, manipulate chemicals in extraordinary ways to accomplish a specific goal (in this case the generation of desired chemical compounds).
In fact, this type of activity is typical for origin-of-life researchers who perform prebiotic simulation experiments. Origin-of-life investigators labor to understand how undirected chemical and physical processes could have generated life. Obviously, they can’t go back in time and directly observe the chemical evolution that many believe took place on early Earth. Thus, they have no choice but to perform lab experiments with the overarching goal of recapitulating life’s origin. At the very least, the hope is that the experiments will provide some understanding of how life could have conceivably emerged on Earth via evolutionary processes.
Intervening in “Natural” Processes
The problem is that scientists carrying out laboratory experiments are not passive observers of undirected processes. Instead, they become active participants who (1) design the protocol; (2) assemble the apparatus; (3) supply the media and reagents for the experiment; (4) adjust the initial conditions and regulate them throughout the study; and (5) monitor the course of the chemical and physical changes usually by withdrawing material from the apparatus. In other words, they interject themselves into experiments designed to demonstrate how life can emerge without assistance.
If poorly executed or too extensive, this involvement runs the risk of making the experiment artificial; it no longer reflects the presumed evolutionary events thought to have occurred on early Earth. Instead it reflects what is possible if an intelligent agent (in this case, the researchers) orchestrates physicochemical processes. Of course, this result is undesirable from a naturalistic viewpoint because naturalists believe that the physicochemical processes thought to have spawned life would have proceeded without any outside intervention from an intelligent agent.
As I discuss in my book Creating Life in the Lab, unwarranted researcher involvement plagues the design and execution of virtually every prebiotic simulation experiment performed to date. For example, physicist Paul Davies notes that researchers investigating the RNA world hypothesis (one of the most important ideas in the origin-of-life discussion) face significant challenges.
As far as biochemists can see, it is a long and difficult road to produce efficient RNA replicators from scratch…This conclusion has to be that without a trained organic chemist on hand to supervise, nature would be struggling to make RNA from a dilute soup under any plausible prebiotic conditions.1
Bridging the Gap between Science and Design
In my view, the work in prebiotic simulation studies provides empirical evidence that life cannot arise from simple chemical compounds without the work of intelligent agents who employ the laws of nature and natural phenomena in an extraordinary manner to produce a desired result. The Judeo-Christian scriptures describe humans as made in God’s image. If that is the case, then it could be said that when we step into the lab to run chemical reactions that we are mimicking, albeit imperfectly, the Creator’s hypernatural activity. In this light, these studies could give us a glimpse into how God may have created the first life-forms. Perhaps God functioned like a divine organic chemist when He brought life into existence.
I believe this proposal could help dissolve some of the philosophical barriers between many scientists and the belief that life stems from the work of a Designer. A remarkable number of researchers agree that unwarranted researcher involvement bedevils the design and execution of prebiotic simulation experiments—yet they persist in resisting any suggestion of a theistic explanation for life’s origin. One key reason for this resistance is a poor view of creationism and the Intelligent Design Movement. Many scientists see any appeal to the work of a Designer as an appeal to the supernatural and, thus, a strict violation of the principle of methodological naturalism, the philosophical framework undergirding the scientific enterprise. According to this view, all scientific models require mechanistic explanations. Any appeal to the work of an intelligent Agent is forbidden because if a Designer brought life into existence “supernaturally,” then there would be nothing for scientists to study.
However, I’d argue that hypernaturalism could eliminate the dichotomy between natural process chemical evolution and intelligent design. Based on hypernaturalism, we could posit that the Creator made use of physicochemical mechanisms to bring about life’s emergence. In this schema, the Creator does not suspend the laws and processes of nature (which He Himself designed and put in place) to create life, but rather works through these laws and processes. Thus, it is possible for scientists to investigate the origin-of-life question within the framework of methodological naturalism, even if life’s emergence is understood to be a miracle.
For a more detailed treatment of the origin of life and hypernaturalism go here.
- Paul Davies, The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life, paperback ed. (New York: Touchstone, 2000), 131.