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As far as I'm aware, almost everyone (from Dawkins to Lennox to Hovind) agrees that at some point in the past there was no life in our universe, and currently there is. Therefore life somehow arose in an environment of non-life.

What does current mainstream science think about the statement "life arose from non-life by purely material processes"? What I mean is, is that statement an a priori assumption, a potential conclusion, an actual conclusion, a wish, a research program guideline, ...?

  • #1 We assume a priori it is true, because science assumes materialism: one cannot really be a scientist unless one is a materialist, 'real scientists don't believe in God.'
  • #2 We assume a priori it is true, because science is about material processes: the statement might be very well be false, but in that case it falls out side the realm of science and should be studied under the heading of religion of some such: 'you can't talk about miracles here.'
  • #3 We make no assumption either way, but draw conclusions based on the evidence: for example, can we find evidence of natural processes that have led to life, processes powerful enough to overcome the natural processes that we know are hostile to life?
  • #4 We want it to be true, because many scientists happen to be materialists, and therefore we discard, ignore, or even censor any evidence against this statement; 'it must have happened naturally, anything else is religious nonsense.'
  • (other)

(Options numbered for easy of reference.)


The reason I'm asking, is that current origin-of-life research seems to be mostly involved in storytelling, or at least that is what it feels like to me: 'It must have happened; what if this behavior in this lab experiment helped to naturally bring about one piece of the puzzle, millions of years ago?' And it seems to ignore natural processes continuously trying to break down life, and again to me it feels like: 'It must have happened, so some process was strong enough to break through any opposition, so we don't have to look at that evidence.'

But I might be mistaken there. I'm not a biologist, not even a scientist, and not even a philosopher. :-)


(Note that I'm avoiding the term 'abiogenesis' here because some, like Wikipedia [1], define this to be a natural process; while all dictionary definitions I could find, e.g. [2], [3], just define it as 'life arising from non-life'; and some even say it is hypothetical, e.g. [3], [4]. Also, many dictionary definitions, like [3] and [4], equate it to spontaneous generation, while at least one encyclopedia takes care to distinguish the two [5].

Note also that I'm not sure that a precise definition of 'life' would be relevant here. You can read 'DNA-based life' instead if you want, or 'the whole process that we all recognize as stopping whenever a human being or animal dies'.

Update. What I mean with 'mainstream science' is just scientists, I guess mainly biologists, and what most of them they say and do in their work and papers and conferences. I don't mean any theoretical ideal of what science should be in the eyes of scientists, philosophers, judges, lawmakers, or anyone else.)


[1] Abiogenesis, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Abiogenesis&oldid=1100445628 (last visited Aug. 11, 2022).

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/abiogenesis

[3] https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=abiogenesis

[4] http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=abiogenesis

[5] https://www.britannica.com/science/abiogenesis

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    Any historical reconstruction is "storytelling", we develop speculative theories consistent with natural laws and the known outcome and then try to find their experimental/observational confirmations or refutations. It worked the same way with the Big Bang theory. That X happened through natural processes is a methodological assumption of science for any X too, it is a precondition of scientific study. The prevailing current theory of abiogenesis seems to be the RNA-peptide world, and it is pretty detailed for a mere "story".
    – Conifold
    Aug 11 at 10:34
  • 3
    I find it more useful to think of it as life coming from proto-life, and proto-life coming from non-life. Then you get a spectrum of less lifelike to more lifelike instead of a "giant leap". Is a virus alive? Depends on your definition. It occupies an in between state between being fully alive and fully non-alive.
    – CJ Dennis
    Aug 11 at 23:05
  • 11
    Science doesn't assume materialism, nor is it necessarily about material processes. If ghosts were real, and we could empirically detect their existence and study what they do or how they work, then this study would be scientific, but not materialist. Materialism is a conclusion of science, not a premise: everything science studies can be explained well by the theory that things are made up of material components such as particles or waves. The success of this materialist theory in explaining and predicting things gives it credence.
    – causative
    Aug 12 at 0:53
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    @MarnixKloosterReinstateMonica For me "material" and "real" are synonymous. My definition is that something is real we can somehow get it to move a dial. If the tales in the Bible are true, then God can make dials move. In which case, he is real/material. Aug 12 at 12:55
  • 2
    One important clarification: if the first life on Earth arrived from outer space, would you consider that falsification of the hypothesis, or another way for life to appear on Earth through natural processes?
    – Davislor
    Aug 13 at 1:37

7 Answers 7

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First, please refrain from terms like 'mainstream science'. There is science, based on reproducible processes with empirical evidence, and there are other human practices. Some science may be known better but the standard is set.

Abiogenesis is a hypothesis of science. This hypothesis is scientific since it is based on available evidence and testable with scientific methods eventually. And it is still only a hypothesis since nobody was able to show that all processes needed for abiogenesis are possible in a natural environment and how yet. If all this were added (experimental evidence and, more importantly, explanations and mechanisms with predictive power for every step and process needed), it would become a fully fledged scientific theory.

Hypotheses are effectively guidelines for scientific practice: They provide a frame of what to look for in terms of further empirical evidence. This scientific inquiry may solicit evidence against the hypothesis, in which case it has to be discarded or modified.

Incidentally, I am not aware of any other scientific hypothesis about the genesis of life. Since for that, we would need to suggest a different reproducible, empirically accessible process and at least some existing evidence, processes, and explanations that support the hypothesis. A claim isn't a scientific hypothesis just because it touches the same subject as one.

Could divine genesis become a scientific theory?

Let's play this through...

Let's assume a group works on scientific abiogenesis and conducts a long series of experiments, trying all possibilities they can imagine. Ultimately, they experience divine revelation and God basically tells them "Well, you've tried so hard but there's nothing to be found since I did it!".

Could they publish that in a scientific, peer-reviewed journal? Never say never but highly unlikely. It lacks a crucial element of scientific practice: reproducibility.

Now, let's assume a different group conducts the same series of experiments either by chance or because God said they'll tell equally dedicated people the same and the same thing happens. Would this change things? Oh hell (sic!) yeah!

It means there is a reproducible process with the same verifiable, empirical outcome. Also, we would probably see a stark rise in the number of scientific validations because many people will want to undergo that process. Science wins, always! 😉

We do not have the slightest reason in the form of existing reproducible evidence to assume that hypothesis though. And thus, it is unscientific.

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    Technically, panspermia is a scientific, physicalist-friendly hypothesis that might be favored by an exobiologist unconvinced by abiogenesis, but I doubt it has much political support.
    – J D
    Aug 12 at 0:02
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    @JD That does not explain the origin of life as such (as opposed to life on earth), which is the real question as I take it.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Aug 12 at 4:58
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    @csstudent1418 Winning doesn't always require conflict; it just requires success. As I read it, it's science v.s. not-science; just because some of that not-science happens to be part of some religions doesn't mean this answer is pitting science and religion against each other.
    – wizzwizz4
    Aug 12 at 10:43
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    @csstudent1418 For once, the smiley is part of the assertion and designates it as not to be taken too serious. Also, this is meant as "Science profits because of its consistent success as a methodology." It won't take away belief from faithful people. There isn't any real competition as they are different domains of human practice. And I am clearly for not mingling statements from science and religion on the same subjects either way. Religion should not act as if it offered an alternative science, science should not try to say anything on religious questions. Truth is domain-bound anyways.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Aug 12 at 10:51
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    @csstudent1418 I beg to differ. Science can say something on morals with the very same entitlement as religion can. If it has something substantial to say, for example if natural sciences found that certain practices solicit a certain neural reaction pattern that is linked to extremely negative feelings across cultures and the very same extremely negative feeling patterns highly correlate with moral practices, why should any religion be in the position to claim that they and noone else would be allowed to say that science had 'no right' to say this about morals? There's no special right.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Aug 12 at 14:34
7

This topic has been beaten to death in many many forums. A quick net search on abiogenesis would yield a very large amount of hits. There is even a web site with a FAQ on it at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/abioprob/ This web site grew out of the old usenet newsgroup talk.origins. Caveat: That website is dedicated to the confrontation between scientists and creationists, so you will see a certain stance quite heavily evidenced.

In any meaningful interpretation of the term, life is a "purely material process." We don't see life without matter. When we manipulate the matter life is made of, the life responds as material stuff. "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" Merchant of Venice, (Act III, scene I)

Life can turn non-living stuff into living stuff. Plants, for example, can produce more plants from quite simple chemicals. This shows that converting non-living to living stuff does not violate any laws of physics.

There is an entire generation of experiments that show many of the steps required occur spontaneously in conditions we believe would exist on the Earth before life arose. The archetypal example is the Miller-Urey experiment. There are many variations with a large variety of conditions and parameters. The trend is very strong. Non-living stuff such as water, oxygen, nitrogen, CO2, methane, etc., when exposed to energy such as ultraviolet, electrical discharge, etc., will produce molecules normally associated with living things. This includes such chemicals as amino acids which can spontaneously assemble into proteins.

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    I'm not sure how this answer the question? First, I'm not asking if life came from non-life naturally. Second, I'm not asking if life is a material process. Third, in this question I'm not interested in specific evidence for the 'life from non life naturally' statement. I was trying to ask whether (as used in mainstream science) that statement is an assumption or a conclusion or something else, and why. [I might clarify the question, but I'm not sure how, I thought it was clear enough already. :-)] Aug 11 at 18:22
  • In any meaningful interpretation of the term, Trump is a wave of electrons in my TV set, since I never see Trump except on my TV.
    – yters
    Aug 12 at 0:27
  • @yters You seem to be responding to my initial comment, but I'm not at all sure what you mean? Aug 12 at 6:36
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    @MarnixKloosterReinstateMonica tongue in cheek response to BillOnne's answer.
    – yters
    Aug 12 at 20:07
  • @MarnixKloosterReinstateMonica As other have already said, it would be helpful if you were to explain what you mean by "mainstream science" Aug 13 at 7:50
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The answer lays somewhere between "2" and "3," in your numbered list. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that depending on how you define the words, it's either one of the two, and the other is nonsense.

I'm taking a philosophical approach about what I believe the opinion of "Science" is on the question. If you ask individual biologists, physicists, organic chemists, etc. the question, you will get as many answers as people.

Defining Science

One definition of science is say it is study of the predictive power of patterns in verifiable observations. Breaking this down:

  • "Verifiable observations" are things which can be observed consistently by multiple people.
  • "Patterns" are trends in those observations, such that observing one thing affects the probability of also observing another thing.
  • "Predictive power" means that good science only cares about patterns that can be used to predict observations before they're made. Looking at historical data is a useful exercise for building hypotheses, but to test our hypotheses, we have to make new observations and see if they also fit the model.
  • "The study of..." means that science looks at lots of different patterns and determines which ones have predictive power and which ones do not, eventually rejecting inaccurate models for more accurate ones.

Defining "The Origin of Life on Earth"

I will define the origin of life on Earth as "There was some time t1 at which no forms of life existed on Earth. After that, there is another time t2 at which at least one form of life did exist on Earth." The origin of life is the phenomenon that took place between those two times that led to life's existence on Earth at t2.

Science supports the idea that the origin of life on earth did occur

Given that we do not exist at time t1, we cannot observe it. We can only inspect the indirect evidence, such as the composition of rocks at various geological strata.

However, the indirect evidence shows that there was indeed an origin of life on Earth: That is to say, there is evidence in the geologic record that there was some time t at which there was no life on Earth. These observations have predictive power, in that we can take new samples from the geologic record and study them, and patterns based on the idea that life did not exist at certain periods will be able to predict the composition of those samples.

Science also supports that life exists today. This, too, has predictive power: we can look out the window and see plants, birds, insects, etc. depending on location.

Since science supports the ideas that life exists today and did not exist at some point in the past, science supports the idea that at least one origin of life on earth must have occurred between those two times.

Alternative explanations exist, such as the idea that we're all in a computer simulation (in which case "earth" may not exist), or that the Earth was created 6000 years ago and already had life on it at that time (in which case time t1 did not occur), however, those explanations do not have any more power to predict future observations to justify their added complexity, so they are not considered scientific.

If a non-physical process has physical consequences, science observes the consequences

All science can operate only on the observable; however, unobservable processes can have observable consequences. Psychology, which studies the inner workings of the mind, can make observations by asking people questions. The processes that cause a given person to answer one way versus another are (with current technology) mostly unobservable, those answers, once given, become physical things that can be observed: ink exists circling one answer on the questionnaire instead of the other. Patterns found in what answers people circle on the questionnaire can be used to make predictions about how other, similar people, will answer similar questions in the future. Those predictions can be tested. Thus, psychology is scientific.

Similarly, if the origin of life on Earth involved an unobservable process, science does not care about the unobservable parts of it. Its consequences are physical (we observe evidence for times t1 and t2). Something must have happened that led to primitive organic molecules existing even if that something is that they appeared out of nowhere (possibly as the result of an unobservable omnipotent creator causing them into existence from nothing by fiat).

All that science cares about is whether a given explanation can be used to predict future observations.

At the moment, abiogenesis is somewhat lacking in predictive power. It is "scientific" in that other (much more predictively powerful) scientific models show that abiogenesis could have occurred on Earth (though not necessarily that it did).

Those same models rebuke other explanations. For example, Physics can say with 100.00000% certainty that organic molecules do not spontaneously appear from nothing. Astronomy can say that we have not discovered any other planets that are sufficiently more likely to have had life appear there first and then been imported to Earth by spaceships or meteorites (there are planets that could easily have had abiogenesis events of their own, but they are unlikely to have been responsible for Earth if you consider the probabilities of those spaceships or meteorites, and the lack of evidence for spaceships or life-bearing meteorites).

But what about the unobservable?

Abiogenesis, if it occurred, could have occurred under the direction of an unobservable creator or by random chance. Science is silent on that (though Occam's Razor is not). That is, unless we start seeing patterns in the data and that lead to predictions about when, where, and the unobservable creator will exert its influence and what the consequences will be, at which point it becomes a predictive model, and thus a real science in the same way that quantum physics or psychology is.

At the moment, I think most scientists agree that hasn't happened - even those that believe there is a creator would agree that we cannot predict the creator's actions.

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    +1 Welcome! Well reasoned.
    – J D
    Aug 12 at 0:19
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Science Isn't a Monolith

Science doesn't think about anything; nor does it have a stance. In fact, more accurate would be to use "sciences". The sciences are technology-practices of people, called scientists, and the number and variety of sciences and scientists is staggering.

Doubtless, there are scientists out there, even biologists, who might have religious beliefs that endorse creationism and intelligent design, but scientists are far less religious than the average person according to Pew. To philosophers of science, these views are not scientific. In fact, the US court system has rejected intelligent design as a scientific theory and classified it as religious. Research on the beliefs of scientists have shown that biologists even more strongly than physical scientists reject religious explanations, so that leaves scientific explanations. So, many scientists are comfortable with religion, but for those who reject supernaturalism, there aren't a lot of choices but abiogenesis.

That being said, in contemporary biology, where natural selection and evolution are the linchpin of the entire discipline, it's relatively uncontroversial to accept abiogenesis. There is no competing hypothesis that is scientific, except panspermia, which some might consider fringe, but is addressed by some famous biologists like Francis Crick. From WP:

Directed panspermia would be the deliberate transport of microorganisms in space, sent to Earth to start life here, or sent from Earth to seed new planetary systems with life by introduced species of microorganisms on lifeless planets. The Nobel prize winner Francis Crick, along with Leslie Orgel proposed that life may have been purposely spread by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization.

In short, if life didn't find it's way to our rock from outer space, of course it came from non-life here. What other non-supernatural explanations are there?

Philosophy and Science.

What role does philosophy play in this acceptance?

Science itself has been tremendously successful at dealing with questions that arose during the period of natural philosophy. Hence, natural philosophy is the progenitor of modern science, and a number of scientific questions that have been settled, like the rejection of vitalism, have played a key role in moving science away from its roots. The rejection of the supernatural has been key in trying to find physicalist explanations, and the marriage between philosophy and science under naturalized epistemology (SEP) has affected both philosophy and science.

Second, philosophy, in particular the philosophy of science, helps to address the demarcation problem of science and keep pseudosciences at bay. The US court system rejected intelligent design, for instances, ensuring that a state like Kansas can't teach religious doctrine as scientific theory. Since religion isn't allowed to masquerade as science, and supernatural causes are ruled out, abiogensis is really the only possibility, noting that even if panspermia is true, life had to start somewhere sometime after the Big Bang.

Third, philosophy still helps with the scientific unknowns. For instance, discussion of emergence and supervenience are tremendously popular metaphysical views in the physical sciences. "Emergence" is the philosophical heart and soul of life coming from non-life. And it makes sense already if one considers a popular explanation of the origin of the chicken and the egg. Animals evolved that laid eggs, and eventually one branch of life became a chicken, so the chicken evolved from an ancestor and came after. But when did the ancestor become a chicken exactly? Never, a point made by the paradox of sorites. Clades are abstractions, just like our categories.

Some argue that the category of non-living (self-replicating RNA) jumps over to living by process of categorization, invalidating notions of natural kind (SEP). That "living" comes from non-living, and "conscious" comes from non-conscious is just another form of emergence. This has roots in Aristotle's notions of cause. Matter, form, agency, and purpose are intuitive notions. There are still vigorous debates over philosophical questions that have an impact on science. Natural kinds and scientific instrumentalism are two examples.

Why Many Scientists Accept Abiogenesis

Biologists of science, as shown by research, do not uniformly reject religion or religious experience, and the majority of the typical scientist may have have positive regard for religion. Philosophers and eminent scientists may have a stronger streak towards atheism (catholic.com) and that may exert some institutional influence to reject supernatural explanations. And, among scientists who reject supernatural origins of life on earth, there is really one strong contender for explanation, abiogenesis which has empirical grounding in Miller-Urey and contemporary research.

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    @yters Of choose they do. When ID advocates and biologists disagree and lawsuits occur, the courts resolve the conflict. The courts decide v what can and can't be taught as science. I'd read the decision. It's informative.
    – J D
    Aug 12 at 4:04
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    Panspermia isn't an alternative, it just pushes the question back to how did the life that travelled to Earth originate.
    – Barmar
    Aug 12 at 13:29
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    @JD so if the courts decide Lysenkoism is science, then it is science?
    – yters
    Aug 12 at 20:06
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    How does panspermia explain the transition from non-life to life?
    – phresnel
    Aug 13 at 5:57
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    @phresnel Point already conceded. See Barmar above.
    – J D
    Aug 13 at 13:59
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Materialism and religion don't need to be mutually exclusive. If you're a materialist and also believe in God, you can simply define God as part of the material universe. Like dark matter and dark energy, we simply don't yet know what God is actually made of and how it does what it does.

This can be seen as an alternate view of the "God of the gaps" argument for religion. Humans have always had an incomplete understanding of the universe, and religion was often used as an explanation for the things we didn't understand. Over the centuries, the scientific process has been used to formulate better explanations for many phenomena, so we've reduced the size of these gaps significantly.

Scientists don't claim to have complete explanations for everything. They mostly believe that it's conceptually possible to explain anything, and the scientific method is the best process to find those explanations.

Dualism is an arbitrary distinction -- if God affects the universe, what makes it "super" natural? It's just a natural process that we don't understand (yet?). If God created life from non-life, that was a natural process by definition.

A related concept is Clarke's Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This figures in many science fiction stories where advanced aliens are treated as gods, as well as von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods, where he proposed that aliens gave technology to ancient humans, and humans revered them as gods.

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  • I think this is the most sensible position to take in regards to the defense of a god. Superadvanced agency that simply outstrips our understanding of the universe at the moment. It's a wonder more religious people don't advocate it.
    – J D
    Aug 14 at 15:56
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If scientists want to be truly scientific, there is no a priori reason to accept a material origin of life. First, we have to understand the nature of what life is. If by its nature it cannot be material, then it cannot have a material origin. Saying it is material because it must have a material origin is putting the cart before the horse.

The following is not meant as an argument against the idea that life is not material in origin. It is meant as an example of the sort of analysis scientists need to do to create a scientific hypothesis, instead of assuming a certain position a priori. It also illustrates that this sort of analysis does not of necessity conclude that life has a material origin. The point is to show this analysis comes before drawing any conclusions about the origin of life, not visa versa as is currently the case.

To use a computer science analogy, if we analyze life and determine it is no simpler than a Type-0 language on the Chomsky hierarchy, i.e. not reducible to Type-1 or simpler, then we know it cannot be produced by a finite state automata. One life form, humans, speaks a Type-0 language, so life in general cannot be reduced to something simpler. Physical processes, at their most complex, are merely finite state automata. Therefore, physical processes cannot generate life, and hence life does not have a material origin.

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  • "One life form, humans, speaks a Type-0 language, so life in general cannot be reduced to something simpler." -- please show your work
    – philosodad
    Aug 15 at 16:25
  • To be more clear: finite state automata cannot match parentheses. But wait! We can match parentheses with physical computers, which are (being physical) finite state automata! How is this done, and why does the same principle not apply to humans?
    – philosodad
    Aug 15 at 16:30
  • The point is it's at least possible in theory life is not the sort of thing that can have a physical origin. So, that's the sort of question scientists should answer before devoting all efforts to finding the physical origin of life.
    – yters
    Aug 15 at 17:32
  • well, no. First you would have to establish that it is possible for some other origin to exist.
    – philosodad
    Aug 15 at 21:51
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    I think there's a lot of work left to do to establish that possibility.
    – philosodad
    Aug 17 at 16:33
-1

A very, very strong consensus of science--we have observed every necessary step in a lab, but not the entire chain together, because the entire chain would take millennia at minimum without outside interference, and outside interference would invalidate the experiment--is "life can arise from non-life by purely material processes".

For that "can" statement, it is a category 3.

One key point here is the existence of things that are not-really-life and not-really-not-life. The classic example is viruses, the most famous example here is RNA, but there are much simpler molecules capable of some degree of self-replication in an abiotic environment. You could call these "living molecules."

We have definitively observed living molecules arising from no-living-molecule situations in a lab. We have definitively observed that living molecules can undergo evolution. We have definitively observed a fossil history of life going back a long time to early animals, a variety of extant species between bacteria and viruses, and a diversity of bacteria and archaea that strongly suggest that an evolutionary pathway from bacteria to animals is at least possible. Showing the existence of an evolutionary pathway between living molecules and cells is more difficult, and an active area of research, but I don't think anyone really believes it is impossible given the number of precursors of cells (micelles, sugars, amino acids, etc.) that can arise in abiotic environments.

Whether that is actually what happened is not something current science can have an opinion on beyond the statistical, and anthropic statistics is not mature enough a field to make strong claims.
For example, I would say that, because the universe is a simulation with probability=1, it is very plausible that waiting billions of years for abiogenesis was skipped over to save computational resources, and an outside-simulation power interfered.

Science is in no way tied to materialism--the only thing it is tied to is the claim that the past can be used to predict the future. This implies a vague, statistical form of cause-and-effect.
This does not preclude souls or anything, it just requires that we don't have a universe that is fundamentally unknowable and not predictable--even sometimes and approximately--because almost everything happens for no reason, and not even in a random way that can be represented with probabilities.
Most religions don't make that claim.
(Sadly, not making that claim isn't compatible with what many people want "free will" to mean--that decisions are made without influence from which the decision can be predicted.)

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