Saturday, August 6, 2011

We Cannot Know About The Lost Past Without Evidence

For the past week I've been engaged in a long discussion at Greg Laden's blog about whether or not we could know anything about the origin of life, the way in which life first arose from non-living matter, what life was like and other aspects of that problem. Here is the link to that discussion for anyone who is interested in it. A long answer to Stephanie Z, one of my antagonists in that brawl has been caught up in moderation for a while now so I am posting it here and will attempt to notify her that it is here. Please note that, as in my argument with Sean Carroll last year, I've tried to get some questions answered by Greg Laden, so far he has been unwilling to respond to them. The last version of those were asked at comment #202 at the link, I will post them in a note after the comment

Stephanie Z. anything that creates a scenario and action and proposed organisms would be the creation of a narrative. Which isn't bad in itself, to some extent it is necessary to do that. But when you want to call your narrative science you have to be able to bring it farther, you have to compare it to the part of the actual universe you want it to represent. Science is all about making assertions about aspects of the actual universe, as it is or as it was. That is used, among other things, to make predictions that can be tested. Though, in this case, you can't go back and retrospectively make predictions about the origin of life and turn those into science because you can't compare what you might discover against the now lost evidence of what that was.
The famous Miller-Urey experiment succeeded in synthesizing amino acids in a laboratory. They were successful in showing that those would form under the conditions they set. That's what they proved could happen in the part of the actual universe they created in their vessels, with the chemical and physical conditions they created. Any narrative description of that experiment would be almost completely reliable as science.
If the assertion is that they recreated natural conditions on the early Earth, that is embroidering the narrative of the story with far less reliable content. No place on the early Earth was just like the conditions inside their vessel, I doubt there was anyplace like the inside of their vessels with exactly those contents and under the kind of electrical charges and temperatures, anywhere. However amino acids formed on the natural Earth, it wasn't under the same conditions they created in their experiment. The suggestions people took from their experiment that they had successfully shown how the synthesis of some building blocks of life had, in fact, happened, is the creation of a narrative about the natural world. One which can be told in a pretty far fetched manner.
Unfortunately, narratives created about that natural world need something more to become reliable enough to be considered science, they need to be able to be matched to observations of what they are purported to represent. And in this attempt, there is almost nothing to go on in that regard. So the narrative remains a narrative instead of a representation of the natural world and universe. Only a lot of people, some within science, most outside of it, mistake that narrative for a representation of the earliest glimmerings of life, as it happened on the early Earth when it isn't. If they want to believe that, that's their right, if they want to say they've nailed it down as it happened on the early Earth, they can do that but they really haven't.
Let me go farther. Just as the I.D. ("Intelligent Design") industry wants to use science to support their favored narrative of the origin of life, including divine intention, materialists have wanted to refute that idea with science, many of them within science, most of them merely sci-fans. Of course, science only being legitimately able to address physical evidence and what you can say about its physical properties, it can't clear up the question of divine intent in evolution or anything else. Trying to use science to put God in the picture or to take God out of the picture is not a scientific effort, science is incompetent to do either. It is an ideological abuse of science.
I contend that a lot of the less reliable science of the past century and a half have been attempts to nail down the proof of ideological materialism with science. Sometimes, as in Francis Crick's crusade to "put the nail in the coffin of vitalism" something like that is a stated goal. Things like that have been claimed for science from the beginning of science. Claims that science supports the presence of God are also made but not as often, at least not until the rise of pseudo-scientific creationism. With the possibilities of profits and financial backing, the ideological abuse of science will likely flourish. Look at what it did for some of the most blatantly absurd assertions in psychology.
All of those narratives about the universe, both the ones with God and the ones putting the nail in God's coffin are the creations of stories in the name of science and, in so far as they claim to be science, the people telling them are lying. There would be no way to know if the universally accepted triumph of the ideological materialists would have precluded the possibility that what they hadn't discovered had merely been the real way God created life on Earth, as opposed to the Genesis narrative. Being quite as naive about that as the creationists, materialists overlook that before God is said to have created life, that God created the material universe, all of it, at every scale of resolution, including molecules, atoms, subatomic particles and even whatever might fill it way, way, way down at the Planck scale. And God was said to have set it in motion. Which would include the motions of planets and stars and the combinations of atoms and molecules. Materialists, in the end, are stuck with the exact same tools to use to convert people to their point of view, they have to convince them. No matter how much they want to use science to do that, no matter how many ignorant people they might convince with their sciency narrative, that narrative is not reliable as science, it falls outside of what science can do.
Given the naivety of creationists and others unaware of science, they might be forgiven for believing the hype that it has powers which it doesn't. There isn't any excuse for highly educated scientists to believe that it does except that there are obvious holes in their educations.
You can't deal with God with science, it is outside of the only legitimate subject matter of science, it can't be done with its methods and tools which are not designed to look at or for anything but that part of the physical world that are susceptible to its methods and tools. Everything else falls outside of its competency, any claims made that extend outside of those are unreliable, they don't cut the mustard as science. Or, honest science, at any rate.
Whatever the scientists who think they are working on this problem do s that they can show that they could produce whatever results they have produced, in the way they did it. Lacking evidence of the real beginning of life, as it happened in the natural world, claims about the applicability of their work to that problem are speculations, they can't be known to be reliable, they can't even be tested for unreliability against the real thing. No more than claims which have, actually, been made about life in the distant reaches of the universe. Dawkins has claimed those farthest reaches of the universe for natural selection when there is absolutely no way to know if that is true. It's possible that natural selection has happened on only one planet in the entire universe. His claim is ideological it isn't scientific. It is no more legitimate than a claim that a six day creation happened on another planet. It's his preferred creation myth.
Note: These are the questions mentioned at the top of this post.
Greg Laden, I can't find that you've answered my questions about what you are asserting. Would you answer them now?
1. When you talk about "the origin of life" do you mean the actual event that happened in the way it did and only in the way that it did, resulting in exactly the organism that it did result in, or do you mean something else.
2. Do you also agree that if you are not talking about that, specific, event you are not talking about something that really happened but something that didn't happen?