Saturday, December 11, 2004

The Teleological Proof

Dr. Antony Flew, a lifelong atheist philosopher who argued against belief in all its forms, recently announced that, due to the weight of the teleological argument based upon the origins of life, he has converted to deism. While I find deism the most benign of all religious positions, so much so that I consider it a serious option for a rationalist, I do not find this argument at all convincing.

The argument is that while evolution may guide the development of life, it does not explain how life came to be in the first place. For this origin, you need an intelligent creator. However, I don't find anything particularly extraordinary in these origins. Scientists have been able to produce amino acids and cell-like structures, the building blocks of life, in conditions identical to those found in deep space. All that is required to get the wheel of evolution turning is the spontaneous appearance of a molecular Von Neuman machine--a self-replicating entity. While this is highly improbable given a small sample and a short span of time, any probability at all will reach a virtual certainty given a large enough sample.

That we have not observed this spontaneous event is to be expected. The sum total of all experiments on the subject would probably amount to a few months time in an area less than a hundred cubic meters in volume. Contrast this to hundreds of millions of years across the entire earth's surface. The problem with our experimental methods is that by their very nature they focus upon a very limited sample. It would be better to model the conditions and the properties of each of the elements and compounds in a computer simulation, and then derive all possible reactions in a broad distributed network, somewhat like Seti@home. This would not be easy, and the snag is that we often don't know the full properties of a novel molecule or structure until we actually create and observe it. Nevertheless, the discoveries provided by such a project, and their application to new materials and bio-chemistry, would probably be well worth the effort.

But the absence of proof does not constitute proof of absence. I can see nothing in the spontaneoous appearance of a self-replicating entity that requires divine intervention. Deism, like all religious propositions, is an article of faith. I see nothing in science that supports or denies it.

Update: No, Flew is still an atheist. Apparently he doesn't find the teleological proof very convincing either. I'm not sure how these rumours get started, but it sounds like another case of creationist spin.