Sunday, September 06, 2009

Sunday Quote: Francis Crick on Origin of Life

"An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going. But this should not be taken to imply that there are good reasons to believe that it could not have started on the earth by a perfectly reasonable sequence of fairly ordinary chemical reactions. The plain fact is that the time available was too long, the many microenvironments on the earth's surface too diverse, the various chemical possibilities too numerous and our own knowledge and imagination too feeble to allow us to be able to unravel exactly how it might or might not have happened such a long time ago, especially as we have no experimental evidence from that era to check our ideas against."

- Francis Crick

18 comments :

Mike Felker said...

Unfortunately, in the naturalist worldview there is no possibility for miracles. An evolution-of-the-gaps will always be invoked to preserve this worldview.

Great quote, Brian.

Brian said...

Interestingly enough, on the back cover of Dawkins' new book he calls evolution "the only game in town," showing that he first assumes there to be no God, therefore evolution is the only option.

Leslie said...

Yeah, I do like this quote, because it shows just how much of a double standard there often is in atheistic circles as Mike suggested. Whenever we make an argument that God did it, they say "oh, you imbecile, you can't just say goddunnit (i hate when people use use that "word") and think you've won." On the other hand, whenever we point towards something and suggest that God is a good answer, they give the science-of-the-gaps argument, where even if we don't know, we surely one day will, and even if we don't find out, the God answer still won't do. The presuppositions involved in this discussion are so often blatantly ignored, and while I'm not totally a fan of presuppositional apologetics, I do think it makes some very important arguments at this point.

I believe this is particularly poignant in relation to something Christopher Hitchens mentioned when debating WLC. He suggested that it's silly to use current science to argue for God, because science changes so much. Yet he will turn right around and say evolution is enough and we don't need God. Again, there's just a double standard here so often.

Jonathan West said...

Christian apologists do their reputation for honesty no end of harm when then engage in out-of-context quote-mining, of which this is a perfectly typical example.

That quote doesn't have quite the same meaning when you add a bit of context, in the form of the next sentence of the book in which the quote appears. Allow me to provide it.

"But this should not be taken to imply that there are good reasons to believe that it could not have started on the earth by a perfectly reasonable sequence of fairly ordinary chemical reactions."

To be fair to you Brian, I don't think that you personally are being dishonest - I suspect that you have simply copied the quote from some other Christian website because it sounded good, you were unaware of the context and you didn't trouble to look it up.

Far too many Christian apologists spread untruths in this way. A few are actively deceitful, by deliberately selecting quotes out of context. A far larger number see these out-of-context quotes and believe that they are true because they sound like they ought to be, and so they repeat them.

In pursuit of truth, a little more skepticism would be in order. If a quote sounds like it is too good to be true, then it probably is.

If you want to set a good Christian example of honesty and obey the commandment against bearing false witness, I recommend that for each and every scientist you quote on your site, you check the quote in the original publication and see whether your selected words accurately express the scientist's views, before you publish it here.

This of course is not limited to religious issues - we are all subject to the temptation to believe things that agree with our preconceptions. I've described several other examples here.

http://scepticalthoughts.blogspot.com/2009/02/sceptics-anonymous.html

It's a question of whether spreading the word of God justifies spreading untruths. Certainly there are some apologists who believe that it is. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether you want to be one of them.

Brian said...

Thanks, Jonathan.

Someone else has already pointed this additional context out to me this morning, which I was hoping to add to the quote. However, you have corrected me publicly before I had the chance to amend it.

Fair enough. I am fully comfortable with adding Crick's fuller thoughts...

". . . so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going. But this should not be taken to imply that there are good reasons to believe that it could not have started on the earth by a perfectly reasonable sequence of fairly ordinary chemical reactions. The plain fact is that the time available was too long, the many microenvironments on the earth's surface too diverse, the various chemical possibilities too numerous and our own knowledge and imagination too feeble to allow us to be able to unravel exactly how it might or might not have happened such a long time ago, especially as we have no experimental evidence from that era to check our ideas against."

Brian said...

By the way, Jonathan...

What are your views on the origin of life? How do you think that life arose?

Thanks again for stopping by.

Jonathan West said...

Brian
That's a good and honest response. All credit to you for making it.

Unfortunately, looking back through past Sunday Quotes, it appears that you are a serial offender in this respect.

Could I ask that you do a blog article in addition on the recent quotes from others such as Ed Harrison, Stephen Hawking, Fred Hoyle, Nelson Glueck, Antony Flew, putting all of those quotes in their proper context? I know enough of the writings of several of these people to regard it as highly likely that quote-mining has been engaged in with regard to them as well. Again, I don't accuse you of any deliberate attempt to promote untruths, but the fact remains that by unwittingly repeating these, you are doing your cause no end of harm.

If you are genuinely a seeker after the truth, then you should be keen not to permit your blog to be used to spread untruths, even though they may only be lies of omission rather than commission, and even if in the past you have been spreading these untruths unwittingly.

I would also recommend that in future you avoid quoting scientists and philosophers altogether, unless you have yourself checked the source and context of the quote that you are providing, and are satisfied the your selection fairly and accurately reflects the point being made by the person you are quoting.
Under no circumstances should you regard as authoritative any quote of a scientist or philosopher in any book or article on apologetics.

While I wouldn't wish to say that all such quotes are taken out of context or invented, the regrettable habit of other Christian apologists to engage in quote-mining means that such a large proportion are misleading that none of them can be regarded as trustworthy without independent checking.

Take for example the original version of the Francis Crick quote. If you take just the sentence "An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going" and do a Yahoo search on it (putting it in quotes) you get 793 hits, mostly from Christian apologetics websites.

But a Yahoo search on a quote which includes both that and the sentence following drops you down to a mere 34 hits. Even if you just search the sentence starting "But this should not be taken to imply..." by itself, you only get 59 hits.

So there are about 734 websites that engage in quote-mining of that specific quote, most of them engaged in Christian apologetics. Of course, there are far more such sites that have engaged in quote mining of other scientists.

I hope that you intend not being counted amongst that group in future.

Jonathan West said...

Brian
The short answer is that we don't yet know the details of the origin of life.

But that doesn't mean that there is any need yet to postulate a supernatural cause. There is much science and investigation yet to be done to find out how it happened, and we may never know the details.

However, the chemistry of producing simple organic molecules from their component parts is now thoroughly known, and the process of combining those simple organic molecules into longer chains is also known to a considerable extent. Therefore, we know in principle that plausible natural routes exist for the creation of organic molecules capable of self-replication. Of course, the early self-replicating molecules will have been far less efficient than DNA/RNA, but that doesn't matter, the molecules that are better at replicating would (inevitably) be the ones that replicate themselves more, until we reach the point at which DNA first existed.

Whether that happened in mid-ocean volcanic vents, or in the clay of riverbanks, or any of a hundred possible other environments we don't yet know.

People go on about the improbability of it, but in doing so they neglect the vast durations of time available for the process, and the mind-bogglingly huge numbers of atoms available, and therefore the huge variety of possible collisions and interactions of those atoms. Even a one-in-a-billion chance event ends up being quite probable if you actually have an opportunity to have a trillion goes at it. Given that a single litre of water contains about 3x10^24 atoms, I think you will see that talking or mere trillions of opportunities is something of an understatement

And it is noticeable that there is evidence for the existence of the simplest forms of life in some very ancient rocks, suggesting that life got started pretty quickly (at least in terms of geological time) once the earth cooled enough for the appropriate chemical reactions to get going and for the more complex molecules not to be torn apart by the extreme heat. That suggests that life is quite probable given the appropriate earthlike conditions.

(By the way, my latest post on the Swinburne thread hasn't shown up yet. Any problem with it?)

Brian said...

Could I ask that you do a blog article in addition on the recent quotes from others such as Ed Harrison, Stephen Hawking, Fred Hoyle, Nelson Glueck, Antony Flew, putting all of those quotes in their proper context?

I have gone back and now amended those quotes with their citations, as you rightly point out that I should have done to begin with. However, I will leave it to those who are skeptical to go do the digging to prove that they are out of context or prove that context negates the point being brought out in the excised portions. Thank you for making me more rigorous!

Under no circumstances should you regard as authoritative any quote of a scientist or philosopher in any book or article on apologetics.

That's a pretty strong statement. Does that mean that even if they quote the context, as you asked me to do, that I still should not believe it?

Brian said...

Jonathan,
Regarding the origin of life, that's a thoughtful reply and I acknowledge the time that it took to compose. Thank you for being thorough and thoughtful.

You mentioned that we don't yet know the details of the origin of life.
But my question is more along the lines of what you believe to be the case. Do you believe that things arose in the way you described?

And regarding any other comments you have posted, I have published exactly all of them. On arriving home from work I see only this thread and another on the teleological argument.

Take care, and blessings to you and yours.

Jonathan West said...

Brian
On the matter of quoting philosophers and scientists, my point is that when quoting, you should take care to include enough of the quote to accurately represent the point they are attempting to make.

The Crick quote as you originally had it (i.e. just the first sentence) is a perfect example of how not to do it. By taking that sentence out of the context of the paragraph in which it was written, it conveyed the impression that Crick believed that the origin of life was supernatural in nature, since it was too improbable to have occurred naturally.

And no doubt that is why you thought it was a good quote and why you put it up on your site.

Now, I'm assuming that you found that quote on some other apologetics website, in the form in which you originally posted it here. The vast majority of cases of the posting of such out-of-context quotes are relatively innocent. People see a good quote and they copy it, because it confirms their own beliefs.

But somebody, presumably some Christian apologist, read Crick's words in the original book, and decided that that quote, deliberately taken out of context, would misrepresent Crick in such a way as to suggest his scientific discovery had confirmed his belief in creationism, and would therefore advance the cause of religion by attaching the authority of an eminent scientist to religious ideas.

That unknown person in essence decided that it was appropriate to lie for Jesus. He or she probably thought that it wasn't really lying, because the words were accurately quoted, but nonetheless the misleading selection of the words, ripping them out of the context of the larger argument Crick was making contrived to tell a lie by misrepresenting his argument.

Such lies get repeated in all innocence by hundreds of people like you all over the internet. You repeat the lies because you believe them to be true, and you believe them to be true mostly because you want them to be true. As a result you neglect to do the proper checking.

Such lies are so common and widespread that except for quotations of a few outspokenly Christian scientists (e.g. Collins or Polkinghorne), it is safe to assume that any quotation of any scientist on any apologetics website is misleading in this way. It really is that bad, and you (quite probably entirely unwittingly) have played your part in spreading those lies.

My request was not concerned with stating where the original quote came from, though it is a good idea to do that as well. It was a request to ensure that the words selected for quotation do not misrepresent the scientist concerned.

The Crick quote in its misleading form is on several hundred Christian websites. The quote with the next sentence added is on less than 40 sites (most of them trying to debunk creationist lies) according to the Yahoo search I conducted.

If you are genuinely interested in the truth of such matters, this is why you should never copy such quotes from Christian websites without consulting the original book or article from which the quote was taken.

You are most welcome to conduct web searches of quotes of other scientists to confirm this. Dawkins, Darwin, Hawking, Crick, Deutsch and dozens of others have been traduced in this way. (Quite why anybody would ever imagine that quoting Dawkins out of context would help further religious arguments is beyond me, but it happens very frequently.)

Having done that, you will now be in a position to know how thoroughly most Christian websites misrepresent scientists. You then have a choice, either to continue as you have done up to now, or to stop the practice on your own site and do what you can to discourage it on others.

If you continue as you are, then even before God (should he exist) you will no longer be able to claim that you didn't know you were lying.

Jonathan West said...

Brian
You mentioned that we don't yet know the details of the origin of life.
But my question is more along the lines of what you believe to be the case. Do you believe that things arose in the way you described?


An admirable characteristic of scientists which I try to emulate is that when there is insufficient data to give a definite answer to a question, to truthfully and honestly say "I don't know".

As far as the details of how life came about, I don't know, and nor does anybody. More research is needed so that we can find out.

At present, I see no reason to believe that there is a need to posit supernatural intervention. As I described before, there are plenty of plausible natural mechanisms worthy of study, and they should be (and will be) thoroughly investigated.

Brian said...

I already know that you don't know with certainty.

What do you think is more probable?

Jonathan West said...

I avoid using the word "probable" in contexts such as this, because it gives the misleading impression that there is a statistical and mathematical basis for my views. I know well enough that you can't do statistics on a sample of 1.

All I can do is repeat that on the basis of the evidence so far available, I see no need to posit supernatural intervention. If in future other evidence comes to light that gives me reason to revise that view, I will do so.

Brian said...

So do you believe you are sufficiently certain there is no God? Would you be open to changing your views if more evidence came to light?

Jonathan West said...

If you really wish to, you can classify me as an agnostic, in as far as I acknowledge the impossibility of proving the nonexistence of God with the same degree of rigour with which it is possible to prove the existence of an infinite series of prime numbers.

But to do so would in practice be misrepresenting me. I am a de facto atheist in that I am sufficiently certain of God's nonexistence that I live my life and make all my decisions on that basis.

I have explained this in more detail in an article I wrote on the Guardian website a while back I'm an atheist, OK?

If you are interested in the sort of evidence that would persuade me to change my views, you might also wish to read another article I did for the Guardian, The cosmic detective

Eric said...

Jonathan, while I certainly agree with you when you demand, in the interests of intellectual rigor, that quotes be contextualized (and I commend Brian's classy and honest response to you), I wonder if you're just as indignant when you encounter skeptics who take biblical quotes out of context?

Jonathan West said...

Eric
I take exception to anybody who quotes the Bible out of context - skeptic or Christian.

I apply that principle equally to all quotations irrespective of their source and who is doing the quoting. The Bible has no lesser or greater status in this respect than any other book.

Why did you think this would not be the case?

I am aware however that quoting the Bible has its own peculiar issues, not because of any difficulties in quoting in context, but because such a huge amount of mutually conflicting commentary has grown up around it that quoting any part of it in support of almost any argument will run counter to one or other of these commentaries. The same of course applies to other religious texts such as the Koran. Different people take different views as to what is meant by a particular passage and whether it was intended to be read literally or metaphorically.

Take a simple but topical example. It is possible to quote Paul and come up with what you regard as a solid Biblical condemnation of homosexuality. But it is also possible to review the gospels, and find that they report not one word from Jesus on the subject, and moreover a consistent theme of the Gospels is how Jesus sought out and gave comfort to the lowly and marginalised members of society. From this is it possible to derive the principle that it is a Christian duty to folow Jesus' example and do the same with all of today's marginalised members of society, and that of course includes homosexuals. Which is the correct context?

(By the way, Brian's "classy response" hasn't quite gone as far as to say that he will place quotes in proper context. All he has said so far is that he will indicate the source, which isn't quite the same thing.)

Post a Comment

Thanks for taking the time to comment. By posting your comment you are agreeing to the comment policy.

Blog Archive

Amz