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Science by Assumption and Assertion 

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The big science story in July 2015 was the announcement by Prof Stephen Hawking that it was time to commit to finding life beyond Earth. The £75million project in astrophysics, which also involves Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal, and Yuri Milner, a Russian philanthropist, will survey the million closest stars to Earth for signs of alien intelligent life [1].

The rationale given by Prof Hawking for this initiative was intriguing:

We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth. So in an infinite universe there must be other occurrences of life.

The project is clearly destined to succeed, until you reflect for a moment on what he actually said. If you thought the starting point was scientific evidence, then look again. It is, as the Prof says, a matter of belief. ‘We believe’ does not indicate a scientific fact but merely a conjecture – interestingly, a kind of statement of faith!

Mind you not long ago his colleague Lord Rees suggested that the development of life on Earth was probably a ‘fluke’ [2], but Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, was more cautious and admitted that it would take ‘almost a miracle’ [3] to get life started on Earth.

It is remarkable, though, how quickly an assumption becomes an assertion – ‘there must be other occurrences of life’. Actually, if you look again you’ll notice that Prof Hawking makes two assumptions: ‘life arose spontaneously on Earth’; and the universe is ‘infinite’. He clearly believes these things, but neither of his assumptions is underpinned by unambiguous scientific data and he has not, therefore, demonstrated that either is true.

In the case of the spontaneous generation of life, the data is definitely against Prof Hawking. It’s not scientific data that underpins the belief in the spontaneous generation of life on Earth, but a prior commitment to materialism. The current difficulty with the science of origins is that the scientific establishment cannot think out of this naturalistic box.

Why does Prof Hawking believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth? Probably because the alternative is unthinkable. The Harvard geneticist Prof Richard Lewontin is quite unequivocal about this:

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door. [4] (my emphasis)

This, then, is the basis of how assumptions become assertions, and the parlous state of science education is such that students and academics cannot recognise that, in the area of origins, they are not doing real science but promoting a counter-intuitive and highly speculative secular dogma. In this connection, Thomas Nagel, the renowned American philosopher, makes a telling observation:

Whatever one may think about the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine - that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation of physical law - cannot be regarded as unassailable. It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis. [5] (my emphasis)

Interestingly, the Cambridge astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle took a different view. Here is what he said about the origin of life on Earth in 1982:

If one proceeds directly and straightforwardly in this matter, without being deflected by a fear of incurring the wrath of scientific opinion, one arrives at the conclusion that biomaterials with their amazing measure of order must be the outcome of intelligent design. No other possibility I have been able to think of … [6] (my emphasis)

More recently Stephen Meyer has argued cogently, from the scientific data, that the approach of ‘inference to the best explanation’ leads to the recognition of an intelligent cause for the origin of life on Earth. [7] He is not alone in that proposition. [8]

We need a much more honest approach to origins and one which is based on evidence, not on blind faith in the kind of materialistic assumptions which underpin Prof Hawking’s latest project. An understanding of where life on Earth came from matters hugely because it raises the bigger question of whether we are here for a purpose.

I wish Prof Hawking and his colleagues well in their initiative. There may be life on other planets, but from what we know about the immensely complicated chemistry of life on this planet and especially the genetic information it carries, it is certain it will not have originated spontaneously.

Dr Alastair Noble
Director, The Centre for Intelligent design UK
August 2015



[1] See eg The Daily Telegraph, 21st July 2015
[2] The Daily Telegraph 8th Jan 2015
[3] Crick, Life Itself, 88
[4] New York Review of Books, Jan 9th, 1997
[5] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, OUP, 2012, p11.
[6] Hoyle, Fred, Evolution from Space, Omni Lecture, Royal Institution, London, 12 January 1982 p27–28
[7] See Signature in the Cell – DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, Stephen C Meyer, HarperOne 2009, and esp chaps 10 & 15
[8] See eg Debating Design Cambridge University Press, 2004

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