Abiogenesis and Arguments From Ignorance

I listened to your recent conversation on Jonathan’s program Apologetics Academy. I want to say that I heartedly agree with what you’re saying about being honest and straightforward in discussions. I wish that was always the case with everyone whatever the topic. Unfortunately as humans, whether unintentionally or not, that is not often the case. This is something that I guess we all have to deal with.

One question I have is, at the end of the conversation you were discussing abiogenesis and how “we just don’t know” how it happened. What I have a hard time with is the fact that it seems that science has discovered quite a lot of things that arguably would indicate that, at least from “what we do know”, it is extremely unlikely that it happened by natural processes.

Here is one such argument by Dr. James Tour a world renowned synthetic chemist who among other things does work in synthesis of single-molecule nanomachines . He makes a case based on evidence from the decades of scientific research into the subject of abiogenesis. Now to say as you did, that we “lack knowledge” which seems to imply that therefore we cannot make a judgment, doesn’t seem quite right to me if indeed there is enough scientific evidence available, which there seems to be, to make a convincing case that it is highly improbable that natural causes can account for the beginning of life from nonlife.

Wouldn’t it be more precise to say that as science has progressed in this area of study the more problems it has uncovered. And from the “knowledge” we have from quite a considerable amount of scientific investigation to date it seems to be saying that it is highly improbable for natural causes to account for the origin of life.

Now this may seem like being nitpicky, but I think it’s important to note that, rather than the argument and it’s tentative conclusion (subject to change in lieu of new evidence) being based on a “lack of evidence,” i.e., a god of the gaps argument from ignorance; as I see it, it is in reality an argument based on quite a significant amount of scientific knowledge/evidence that we do have, and sound reasoning. I’m suspecting you might disagree with me on this. If so, why? Either way, I’d be grateful for your response to the issue I’m raising here.


What’s a lot? And name em


I’m just a layperson. But I did watch the presentation I linked to and there was plenty of evidence presented there. If you don’t think what was presented as evidence is evidence, maybe you could enlighten me on what it is that’s not evidence. Otherwise it appears to me that there’s a significant amount of evidence from what was presented in the presentation.


Thanks for the question @jim.

Thanks. I think we can all do better, and this is good common ground.

I suppose I don’t see this. What I see is that it is a really hard problem for a long list of reasons. We have made only small amounts of progress, but it is far too early to make confident claims about what is or is not possible by “natural” processes. Much more research needs to be done to make sense of this. It is a hard enough problem that even with more research we may not know in our life times.

I certainly resist any claims that OOL is a solved problem. It is not.

At the same time, we certainly do not know enough to tell us it was not a fluke natural event.

Tour is a friend of mine.

We can certainly agree (all of us!) that we do not know how from currently understood process how life arose. That is why research is ongoing. We are looking to understand processes that could make sense of it. So, no, I don’t think we have evidence that it is not possible, but just evidence that we do not know how it happened or if it required help.


I agree with this. How can a message like this be developed for public consumption?


It would help if ID proponents stopped overstating the case. Rightly or wrongly, that provokes overstatements the other way. Instead just state the fact that just about everyone agrees to: we just don’t know how large parts of the OOL played out.

This neither is a point for abiogenesis or for ID, and trying to claim it as evidence for ID just undermines the credibility of iD.

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OK. So I take it that you don’t agree that Tour has made a convincing case from current research that from what we do know to date it can be reasonably concluded that it would be highly improbable that life came from nonlife.

As I know Tour, that is not even his case. He is not always clear about it, but he himself says he does not know, and that he is not ID because he does not think science can tell us.

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Hmm. I guess I’ll have to listen to his talk again. Cause I was certainly under the impression that he was making the case that from current research there is no way that he could see how life could have come from nonlife. To me that translates into no known natural explanation. But I guess I’ll have to watch again to see if I’m mistaken. Unless I’m misunderstanding what you meant in your last post?

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That is probably correct. Science often feels like dead end when our imagination fails. Others are not done imagining yet. Even if we never find the answer, it might just be outside our view.

We all agree that the known natural explanations are not complete. That is what open problems look like. This one is really hard too, so it will take a long time to crack, if we could ever possibly crack it.

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Tour claims that we know from chemistry that life should not exist. Which you will remember I responded to back here: Rumraket: Response to Dr. Tour on Abiogenesis (notice all those IDcreationists having got the same impression as Jim did here above)

“LIFE SHOULD NOT EXIST. This much we know from chemistry.
Beyond our planet, all the others that have been probed are lifeless, a result in accord with our chemical expectations. The laws of physics and chemistry’s Periodic Table are universal, suggesting that life based upon amino acids, nucleotides, saccharides and lipids is an anomaly. Life should not exist anywhere in our universe. Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth.17
- James Tour

He may also be saying his usual designed-to-be-sorta-deflating nonsense about not being ID because he doesn’t think science can tell us.

Look, I’m tired of giving this guy the benefit of the doubt, or pretending to be more stupid than I actually am. If you take a step back it’s all obvious. Tour is a Christian apologist using his chemistry credentials to claim that life could not possibly originate without some sort of intervention.

Anyone who thinks something else is going on is deluding themselves. Why do all these IDcreationists and theists keep coming here thinking Tour has shown that the origin of life is basically impossible? It’s no god damn mystery why, they got the forking message. It’s obvious, plain as day. That is what Tour is saying. Well if life can’t originate, then… wink wink ^^

It’s all part of an apologetic designed to appeal to a theistic audience. What is Tour’s message? What does he believe? Simply look at what the people who watch his presentations or read his articles come away believing. Put aside what Tour says of himself to try to distance himself from IDcreationism, and simply look at what the religious people who come here take away from his writings and presentations. How many of these have we had now in the last six months? Ten? They all got the same impression. An impression you’re now insisting Tour didn’t intend.

BULLSHIRT. He’s not being unclear at all. He’s PERFECTLY obvious and articulate. There’s nothing to be confused about.


Heh, reading that previous thread I now recall that I’ve seen so many creationsts be awestruck by Tour and his credentials I’d somehow managed to convince myself the man had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. It’s ridiculous.


It’s worth noting that we’ve only probed two other planets, and we can’t be certain either of them is lifeless. Sampling 3 out of an estimated 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 is not statistically significant. Tour is really overstating the case here.


“…we certainly do not know enough to tell us it was not a fluke natural event”
Is this a misprint, a metaphysical assumption, or just a malaprop?
I would make the case, along with Tour, that we can and do know better, and that it’s a peculiar form of postmodern denialism to say otherwise.

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Then make that case please.


We are like a modern “cargo cult,” both in denying what “nature alone” can accomplish, and also not being honest about what requires more than fluke occurrences.
Study the case of the Melanesian cargo cults to understand the metaphorical allusion better.

No, that is apparently Tour’s claim, but it is not correct. None of the putative facts Tour invokes to support this claim entail that conclusion, and the extent to which they could be taken to imply it are extremely weak at best.

There’s nothing from current research that says life could not have come from non-life. From the standpoint of statistical mechanics, life in the form of almost any known organism could originate literally on the tip of your nose right now and there’d be no physical or chemical law against it. It would merely be very very unlikely. As you say, it could in fact be how life originated, a statistical “fluke”. Which there is no law against, rational, mathematical, physical, or otherwise. It IS possible to roll a million sixes in a row. There is no number of sixes in a row that is impossible. It will never cross over form merely being more and more unlikely to suddenly being impossible with one more six rolled.

So your “case” amounts to merely re-stating the claim in more words, and combining it with an additional claim that disagreement with the claim amounts to a “cargo cult”? That isn’t a case at all im sorry to say.

You responded to Swamidass saying “we certainly do not know enough to tell us it was not a fluke natural event”, that you would make the case that we do know better and it’s a form of denialism to say otherwise. A case I asked of you to make.

So please make the case that we know “enough to tell us it was a not a fluke natural event”.


The problem is, there is no kind of argument other than that which can begin to crack open a prior philosophical commitment. Ask yourself honestly --what would you accept as evidence, much less proof?

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I only have philosophical commitments to properly using reason, and basing my beliefs on evidence.

Ask yourself honestly --what would you accept as evidence, much less proof?

Evidence or proof of what, specifically?