Thinking About Falsifiability and Abiogenesis

Continuing the discussion from Is Abiogenesis an hypothesis in distress?:

As we are getting ready to start the conversation, Clinton Ohlers: Two Parables on Divine Action with @rcohlers (the thread opens tomorrow morning), I’ve been thinking about a conversation with @Ronald_Cram on abiogenesis.

In this case, I mean the origin of life by exclusively natural means, without input from God other than setting up the laws of nature. This, to be clear, is not what science has concluded or teaches. Science is silent on God. Instead, we are talking about a larger question, whether or not science can tell us if it is implausible to think that abiogenesis (without God’s input) took place.

To some extent, I’ve already answered this question:

I also explained that abiogenesis by natural processes (though silent on God) is an axiom in scientific inquiry, not a hypothesis.

For this reason, it does not seem likely a priori that science can answer this questions. It would beg the question.

Rather than a mere arbitrary rule, this seems to be a deeper problem, unresolvable with a simple rule change. I’m not sure we have a way of weighing (A) hypotheses with natural causes one vs. (B) hypotheses that invoke unconstrained power of an omnipotent and nonintuitive God. B class explanations will always perfectly fit the data, resolving all problems, it seems, even when the A class explanation is correct. There just does not ever seem to be grounds to reject B class hypotheses.

The problem, it seems, goes the other way too. It does not seem, at least in abiogenesis, we can ever enumerate, let alone reject, all A class hypotheses. In fact, it might even be difficult to reject most the prevailing A class hypotheses. Perhaps in some cases we can reject variants of these hypotheses, but it is always easy to modify them slightly to fit the scant evidence on the table.

On a basic level, this just means we really don’t know how the first cell arose. Science is going to study this question, and it has made real progress (despite the critics pessimism). It is, however, very difficult for me to imagine it establishing every step from non-life to life. Moreover, even if a plausible story can be found, that is a far distance from demonstrating that this in fact is what happened.

It seems determining the plausibility of abiogenesis (by natural processes alone) is beyond the purview of science, even if we got rid of methodological naturalism. All that getting rid of MN would do in this case is include B class hypotheses within science, a goal for which I see no justification, and much unintended consequences.

To help demonstrate my point, I’d like to see if anyone can succeed in one of the two things (without out invoking omniscience):

  1. Construct a scenario by which scientists could falsify (using the rules of science) abiogenesis by natural processes alone (including both known and unknown natural processes). This amounts to falsifying all Class A Hypotheses, both known and unknown.

  2. Construct a scenario by which scientists could falsify God’s action (intelligence, intervention, preloading, etc.) in abiogenesis. This amounts to falsifying all Class B Hypotheses, both known and unknown.

It boggles the mind of this mere scientist to know how anyone could possibly accomplish either of these tasks. Even limiting this to known natural processes, I’m still gob-stopped at the difficulty of this endeavor. Frankly both tasks independently seem impossible. I’m a good scientist, but I can’t imagine how to accomplish this. Both claims seems entirely unfalsifiable.

Perhaps that is why science just ignores Class B hypothesis, to see what progress it can make in Class A. That is, at least for me, the science I’ve found in my work. It doesn’t deny God’s action, but it has no means to make theological questions like this tractable.

Can any one prove me wrong by providing even “in principle” falsification scenarios for these two scenarios?

Before we are off to the races, keep in mind that this is false:

I do not take kindly to be called an atheist. Let’s not repeat that mistake.

  1. The way I have defined it, I’m sayin that abiogenesis is an axiom in science, but outside of science we have a freedom to think about it in different ways. That is methodological naturalism (though it is incorrectly named).

  2. I do not deny that God was involved in creating the first life, I’m just not sure how He did it.

  3. I think it is perfectly reasonable to think He created the first cell, and it is entirely possible that abiogenesis by natural means is 100% impossible.

So please, if we pick up this conversation again, let’s not just call this approach philosophical naturalism. That is not what it is. Rather it is methodological naturalism, because a philosophical naturalist would not likely grant #2 and #3 (unless they were willing to gran uncertainty in their position).

I’ll observe too that @Ronald_Cram has a strong falsification view of science (very Popper of him), but that is not how I understand science to work. Though, from this point of view, he needs to show how it is possible to rule out God’s action in origins. If not, he is putting forward an unfalsifiable view (and I think he is). So that becomes an absurd reason to reject abiogenesis research. Rather it demonstrates that the question he has concerned himself with is outside the bounds of science, even by his own standards.

That, however, is not a coherent rule in my understanding. We have no way of observing or studying “long-tail events”, and abiogenesis (if it were true) is the longest of long tail events on the table. We can’t assess regularity in this context. There is no way to appropriately compute probabilities.

Which brings us to the key point:

Absolutely not. That is just a math error.

First of all, there is no way to compute that 10^{-50}, and if the multiverse is 10^{50} times bigger than the context where that number was computed, well then the probability starts to approach unity (100% likely to occurs). What is being proposed here is a uncomputable number, that is unnormalized, and tightly depending on information that we just do not have.

@Ronald_Cram, I hope you understand why this is a just a math error. An uncomputable but finite probability multiplied by an independent potential infinity is 100% likely to occur. The fact that life is rare in the galaxy only makes this fact more clear.

And yet CHUCK NORRIS has done both of them twice!

1 Like

I will address two issues: 1) methodological naturalism and 2) standards of science.

  1. Methodological Naturalism
    A, MN is different from PN. If a scientist doesn’t understand that, he’s doing it wrong.

Here’s a definition from the book Naturalism and Its Alternatives in Scientific Methodologies:

“Philosophical naturalism states that naturalism … is the way that things really are. There is no God and no spirits… It is the belief that every cause is a “natural” cause.”

“Methodological naturalism, on the other hand, doesn’t pretend to know what exists or doesn’t exist. Rather, methodological naturalism simply states that, when doing science, we should all behave as if naturalism were true. That is to say that, as part of its methodology, science should exclude all subjects that are not valid subjects within naturalism.”

I think that most scientists would accept these definitions but many would not accept the implications of the definitions. For example, it would be a violation of methodological naturalism for a scientist to say “I’ve studied cosmology and now know where God comes from.” All scientists would agree this is a violation of methodological naturalism.

However, I do not believe it would be a violation for a scientist to say “I’ve studied cosmology and concluded that the universe has a beginning which could not have occurred through natural processes.” Currently, Dr. Swamidass would not accept this statement.

 <B>B. Scientists who understand MN correctly, such as Sean Carroll, admit that it is possible for phenomena to arise that cannot be explained by natural processes.</B>

During his 2014 debate with William Lane Craig, Sean Carroll said:

“There would be no problem for me to be persuaded out of naturalism … I think it’s a matter of what is the model that best fits the data … Some people try to sometimes say that science or naturalists start from an assumption of naturalism so they just simply won’t consider alternatives. I’m very happy to consider alternatives. I think if there were some phenomena in the world which really looked exactly like some religious tradition was saying should happen and was miraculous, was seemingly violating the laws of physics - what would scientists do in that situation? They would not say “Oh, we are not allowed to think about this because we agreed yesterday at faculty tea we that the world was a natural world.” I think they would try to come up with the best explanation. If the best explanation is not naturalism, then I would buy that.”

If one takes the position that no amount of scientific evidence could ever show that a miracle occurred, then that position is equivalent to philosophical naturalism. Not all philosophical naturalists are necessarily atheists.

 <B>C. Because scientists often misunderstand/misuse MN, science should reject MN and return to Regularism.</B>

Methodological naturalism must be open to the idea that some set of phenomena may be unexplainable by natural processes or the laws of physics. That said, it is not uncommon for scientists to misunderstand their own commitment to methodological naturalism and they slide into a philosophical naturalism mindset.

Some had tried to distinguish between “closed rigid methodological naturalism” and “open flexible methodological naturalism.” See

Others have tried to accept MN-Science if coupled with MN-Humility. This recognizes that if an event really does have a non-natural cause, MN-Science will necessarily be wrong or incomplete. In such a case, MN-Science does not allow the scientist to follow the evidence where it leads. See

None of these proposals have worked. At the 2016 Conference on Alternatives to Methodological Naturalism, Tom Gilson suggested a return to the position used by scientists in the past - Regularism. Regularism is completely unbiased in regard to metaphysical concerns. Regularism recognizes that nature responds in the same way under the same conditions. There is no real difference between Regularism and Methodological Naturalism, except Regularism removes the metaphysical bias.

  1. Standards of Science
    Origin of life researchers are not upholding the standards of science. One of these is to be skeptical of your own hypothesis. Admittedly, this is difficult for many people. People invest years of their life into a particular hypothesis and it becomes very difficult for them to evaluate it skeptically. Origin of life researchers have taken their biases to extreme levels. They commonly conduct their experiments in very unnatural settings to maximize yields at each step (temperature and atmospheric pressure going up and down to extreme levels) and conducting purification steps which are highly unlikely in natural settings while assuming just-in-time delivery of pure chemicals for the next step in the process. Then they report their findings and extrapolate the data in ways that are not warranted. These violations of the standards of science have been criticized by Dr. James Rice.

The issue that bothers me the most, however, is the failure of the researchers to attempt any falsification of the hypothesis. If a hypothesis is not falsifiable, then it isn’t scientific. It is that simple. I’ve already recognized the fact that scientists don’t like to falsify their own models. So I am calling on OOL researchers to falsify other models. For example, researchers who favor the RNA World hypothesis could attempt to falsify the DNA First model or the metabolism first model or the cell membrane first model. Any falsification would be true progress for science. Researchers could then turn their attention from the failed hypothesis to a more promising hypothesis. If I’m correct, all possible models of abiogenesis will ultimately be falsified.

Now I would like to address the issue of playing fair with science. Dr. Swamidass attempted to falsify the RTB Creation Model, an attempt I applauded. In fact, he initially claimed to have falsified the model and later had to retract that claim. But when I asked him to endorse my call that OOL researchers begin to falsify the different hypotheses, he balked. He tells me that science doesn’t work that way. I don’t wish to be or to appear to be argumentative, but I don’t see how this position can be maintained. It appears to be special pleading of a most severe kind.

1 Like

I’ll leave aside the claims about MN, though I disagree with them. I’d hope @Ronald_Cram you could try engaging what I wrote about this instead of repeating the same things over again. But that can be for another day :smile:.

So we can focus there. That is just not how science works. Let’s apply that (incorrect) standard to your position:

If you can’t falsify it, it isn’t science (by your standards). Can you falsify this claim?

You misunderstood me. It is not possible to falsify all hypotheses, and OOL researchers already do work to falsify their work where possible. However, many of the things we are dealing with in OOL are long-tail and unknown, and therefore unfalsifiable. It is not possible to falsify all know and unknown theories in a large class like “abiogenesis by natural processes” as I explained this above in detail. It is not possible, even in principle, so no one attempts it in science.

As for fair play, it turns out that we stubbled on upon a new analysis that can test the current RTB model, for the first time ever. If the model fails that test, it is likely a small adjustment will enable it to remain standing. If RTB is willing to make that change (and the data requires it), the model will improve. That is how science works. I’m not sure its possible to falsify “Every Possible Model Acceptable to RTB” as this class is vast and poorly defined. We can only falsify specific collections of claims (hypotheses along with ancillary hypotheses). We cannot easily falsify large poorly defined variations, such as is required for @Ronald_Cram to make his case against abiogenesis.

So there is a misunderstanding in how science is being applied to the RTB model.

@Ronald_Cram you might have too much faith in science. I just don’t think it is nearly as powerful as you imagine. I can’t see how it could adjudicate this claim.

Did you catch this too? That is a math error. You see it I hope?

I attempted to add three headers to the section on MN to clarify my thinking. Unfortunately, the software is not operating consistently. Can you fix that?

I think the issues I raised regarding MN are significant. I know that your position is different from that of Sean Carroll’s and I would like to see you defend your position over his.

I understand the desire to turn my own standards and use them against me, but it doesn’t work. Science deals with nature. Because it is limited to the natural realm, it is not able to comment on or falsify metaphysical claims.

I disagree. OOL researchers consistently put their model in the best possible light, In fact, they do so in ways that are dishonest. This is the point James Tour has made in a number of articles he’s published.

This is simple and straight-forward. If you have an hypothesis that is not testable in some way, then it is not a scientific hypothesis. My call to attempt to falsify RNA World, DNA First, Metabolism First and Cell Membrane First models is a call for OOL research to enter the scientific realm.

I’m sorry, but it is possible. Something has to come first: RNA, DNA, metabolism or cell membrane. Each of them are falsifiable by themselves. If they are not falsifiable, then they are not yet scientific hypotheses. If they are all ruled out, I don’t see how abiogenesis can be considered credible any longer.

Sometimes science works that way. And sometimes models are falsified and given up for good. For example, the YEC model has been falsified by the distant starlight problem. No attempt to modify or save that model will ever be successful.

I’m not sure that’s true. I’m certain that you know it is sometimes the case that models are falsified and given up. I know that you were very interested to hear how Hugh Ross and Fuz Rana felt about their model being falsified when you thought you had falsified it.

I would like to draw your attention to comments by Dr. Robert Shapiro, called Dr. No by his students. He has pointed out the odds of RNA or DNA forming on its own are “astronomical” and the idea is a “fantasy.” Because of this, he put forward his idea of metabolism first. No research team has attempted to falsify this proposal. I see no reason why that shouldn’t be done.

Why should a scientist find it acceptable to attempt to falsify a proposal he doesn’t like but rejects falsification for proposals he does like? That simply isn’t a scientific attitude.


Then we agree: “God did it” is not a scientific claim, theory or hypothesis. That means you have no alternative offer science. We are just stuck over here with abiogenesis.

Because it is often not possible. Case in point:

Silence from you. No surprise. This is an impossible task.

Turns out that establishing the limits (or lack of limits) of natural processes like this requires making metaphysical claims. It is therefore is outside science to falsify abiogenesis.

Methodological Naturalism

Yup I’ve done that several times. I’ve even explained it to you. Perhaps you can try restating my position? It’s not clear you’ve actually understood what I am saying, because I haven’t actually seen you engage it.

Briefly, I talke CS Lewis’s view that science is a dream, and theology is the waking world:

I am echoing a position synthesized from Francis Bacon, Blaise Pascal, Richard Boyle, and several other of the early scientists, all of whom justified their position from Christian theology, as do I. I’ve written about this in several places already: (1) Methodological Naturalism, So Falsely Called, (2) The Creator-Creation Distinction - #2 by swamidass, and (3) Why Methodological Naturalism?. @TedDavis has added a historian’s voice too (responding to @pnelson):

I’m just recovering this older understanding of what science is, grounding it in theology. We are exploring this in more depth right now too! So, once you’ve caught up a bit on the readings, maybe you could bring a couple questions. We are mapping a “new” way forward, though it is a forgotten old way really. Maybe you’ll find it better than repetitive arguments?

No, I don’t think we do agree. My point is that science can comment on nature. Science can say when a particular event cannot be explained by natural processes or that a particular result violates the laws of physics. This is something that Sean Carroll and I agree on, but it appears to me that you wish to deny that. Science can establish the limits of nature. Science cannot establish the limits of God. Do you see the difference?

I do think it is possible for science to show that God is not necessary, but that is not the same thing as disproving his existence. If science could show how the universe came into existence in the absence of matter, energy, space or time, then God would not be needed for the Big Bang. If science could show that life could arise from chemical evolution, then God would not be needed for the creation of life. Under current data and models, science can do neither of these.

But I wasn’t silent. I explained that it is possible to falsify each of the models currently being worked on: RNA World, DNA First, Metabolism First, and Cell Membrane First. Something has to come first. If we rule out the possibility for each of these came first, then OOL researchers are out of options.

I don’t remember you ever explaining why you think Sean Carroll is wrong and you are right. Certainly Carroll holds to methodological naturalism, but he understands it differently that you do. I would characterize your view of MN as rigid and his as flexible. I provided a link on these views in my first post on this thread.

You don’t seem to recognize the fact that it is at least theoretically possible for phenomena to arise that cannot be explained by natural processes. Carroll does recognize this. Did you watch the Carroll video I linked? Or read the transcript I provided?

1 Like

I’ve been troubling about this since I read it. The question is more or less “Is a 1:10^50 event impossible?” I believe the 10^50 figure may be based on the estimated number of particles in the observable universe - Dembski’s Universal Probability bound takes a number of previous estimates of the entire number of Planck-scale events in the known universe since the Big Bang, which is, I think, something like 10^80.

But no matter: Joshua’s point is that, if the real universe is much larger, the probability approaches 1 as the size approaches infinity. I believe this is wrong, because it proposes an “absolute probability”, and not just because it speculates on an infinite universe. Probabilities are comparisons between specific pieces of information and, especially our knowledge of them.

Here’s an opposite case: We expect to find hydrogen commonly because 75% of the matter in the universe is hydrogen. But what if that is a local aberration in the observed universe, and that there is no hydogen at all in the rest of a near-infinite universe? Does that reduce our expectation of finding sources of hydrogen? Of course not, because our probability is based on the conditions we observe, not on what may exist unobserved in totality.

On an island with no snakes, the fact that the rest of the world is full of them does not increase the risk of finding one, unless there is some reason to suppose communication with the outside world - and the observable universe is predicated on the speed of light excluding communication.

So a specific event that was shown to have a probability of 1:10^80 is still effectively impossible, whatever may be going on in some inaccessible part of the multiverse. And a particular event in our observed universe of probability 1:10^50 is vanishingly unlikely to happen in our observed universe. Maybe self-replicating molecules are commoner than hydrogen out beyond the known universe, but that makes them not a whit more likely to occur here.

If that were not the case, then we could not put low probabilities on finding unicorns or high probabilities on theories being true, because all statistics could be local anomalies.


I don’t think that you are up to date enough on the science to state the above. Much progress has been made.

1 Like

So much progress has been made that he can, in fact, more clearly state the inadequacies of each. Aren’t you paying attention? There: I’ve gotten my morning dose of neener neenerism taken care of; thanks!

Nonsense. Much foolishness in the field has been exposed and no real progress made. And even if progress had been made, my statement would still stand. Everyone agrees that abiogenesis has not been demonstrated.

And it is an axiom that something had to come first. There are four proposals before us: RNA first, DNA first, metabolism first or cell membrane first. If they are all ruled out, then abiogenesis is falsified.

Regarding the foolishness in OOL research that has been exposed, see:

I have considered this statement from as many different perspectives as I possibly can. I cannot put into words how unreasonable I believe the claim to be. Not only is abiogenesis an unscientific proposal in that it cannot be tested, it doesn’t meet any of the normal characteristics one would think of an axiom would have.

An axiom is thought to be strongly self-evident. It is sometimes defined as “an accepted statement of fact.” If confidence in the truth of a proposition is so great that a system of ideas can be built upon it, then it can be considered axiomatic.

Note that an axiom is not defined as “a controversial claim that is not falsifiable.” That would be the definition of a non-scientific hypothesis.

Let’s look at an example.

The first of Euclid’s axioms is: “Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” People consider that claim to be non-controversial. Can an axiom be proven? I think so. 3+1 is equal to 4. 2+2 is equal to 4, Therefore, 3+1 is equal to 2+2. A proposition is taken to be axiomatic if people don’t commonly ask for a proof.

Is abiogenesis self-evident? No. In fact, it was first proposed about 150 years ago by Darwin. At the time people didn’t know how complex life is and so the proposal sounded possible, maybe even reasonable. But as we have learned more about the complexity of the cell and documented so many barriers to abiogenesis, it no longer seems plausible.

Is abiogenesis non-controversial? Not at all. Of all of the tenets of Darwin’s philosophy, abiogenesis has the greatest number and most outspoken opponents. Perhaps Darwin is correct about evolution as the cause of the diversity of life, but he is most certainly wrong about life arising from chemical evolution in some “warm little pond.”

The belief that abiogenesis is axiomatic can only proceed from a prior philosophical commitment that has absolutely no basis in science.

Abiogenesis is the axiom WITHIN modern scientific work. OUTSIDE science, however, it is a different story.

Think of it like the “rules of a game.” You don’t have to agree with the rules, but you have to play with if you claim to be playing the game defined by these rules.

Not true.

Sometimes it can be the starting premise of the conversation. We can also take at as merely the “rules of the game.” There is no way in checkers to justify the rules of how checker pieces move. That is just the starting premise. You can move pieces different, but then it would be a different game.

Though I wonder if I might have pinned the confusion. When you are making these claims, are you thinking they are WITHIN science or OUTSIDE science? If they are OUTSIDE science, you might have a point (in fact you do). If they are WITHIN science you do not. Can you clarify where your discourse is situated?

Of course the answer is “no/” You are right. Science might be wrong in this axiom. That doens’t mean it isn’t an axiom. It just be an incorrect (and unchangeable) axiom.

Correct, which is why it is important if science might be wrong on this axiom. This might be one of the many places we should not trust its conclusions without careful reflection OUTSIDE of science.

Yup, it is the prior philosophical commitment that we inherit from Christians like Bacon. I think you missing that in this case, science is the Red Team (Red team - Wikipedia). Do you know what that is? It’s purpose is to come up with alternate explanations, even if none of them are valid. As soon as you convince the Red Team you are right (there are no valid alternate explanations), then they are no longer the Red Team. They are, by definition, seeing how far they can get with an alternative to special creation. That doesn’t mean they will get very far, but that is what they are. They are the Red Team.

Instead of pulling your hair out because the Red Team is playing Red Team, why not just play Blue Team? You might even win!

Within science, abiogenesis is controversial. I think I have pinned the confusion, just as I did early on. Your view of what is “within science” or not is very different from my own. For example, I clearly think Sean Carroll is within science while you apparently do not think so.

I think it is clear that your view of methodological naturalism is at fault. A rigid, closed view of MN is completely undistinguishable from philosophical naturalism. Carroll has not made this mistake and holds to an open, flexible view of MN.

Please explain to me then how a philosophical naturalist me affirms the Ressurection.

It might be also worth explaining how @AJRoberts (from Reasons to Believe) affirms the Resurrection, as we both hold a strict view of MN (Swamidass is Inescapably a Philosophical Naturalist - #5 by AJRoberts).

How do we believe miracles if we are philosophical naturalists?

You are attempting to change the subject. Why not explain why you believe your view of MN is correct and Sean Carroll is wrong? You never have done that.

It is not changing the subject. It is material to the question.

Sean Carroll is not publishing papers (WITHIN science) on special creation as an alternative to abiogenesis. He is, in his personal reflections (which are OUTSIDE science), pointing out correctly that MN should not apply. I agree with Carrol on this. OUTSIDE science, MN does not apply, WITHIN it does apply. Notice he uses the word “scientist” not “science” That is a monumental difference, because scientists move back and forth between WITHIN and OUTSIDE science. I read him much differently than you. The enterprise of Science is bound to MN, but ScienTISTS, are not bound to MN in their non-scientific reflection on science.

And you have told me several times that I am a philosophical naturalist. You are calling me an atheist that does not believe in miracles. I want to either hear (1) how a philosophical naturalist affirms the Resurrection OR (2) a a clarification or retraction of the implication that I am a philosophical naturalist.

The same questions applies to @AJRoberts, as she and I hold the same view as Carrol, as I’ve explained it here.