Nanotechnology and Abiogenesis: Investigating the Origin of Life from a Tiny Perspective

(system) #1
New scientific advances may help us understand how life first began. For Christians, this is cause for praise, not fear.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at


Hi @jstump,

The inference from a known technology to someone who invented and used the technology (Intelligent Design) is a very natural one to make. It does not involve a “gap” argument. So if the evidence is that there is already nanotechnology in nature, long before we started using it, then the inference is that somebody was using that nanotechnology, and perhaps invented it.

If one wants to contend that nature somehow invented nanotechnology, such as the ATP Synthase, go ahead. But it is an inference that does not follow from past experience. To insist that Christians or Jews must not infer ID from nanotechnology, but must instead believe that somehow nature invented nanotechnology is a theological prejudice.

(James Stump) #3

This is missing the point or mischaracterizing my point. You’re introducing a false dichotomy by suggesting that either nature invented it or a designer did it. Evolution is the scientific description of development of life; the doctrine of creation is the theological description of the same thing. If a viable scientific theory of abiogenesis ever emerges, it too will be the scientific explanation of another facet of the theological doctrine of creation. One does not supplant the other.

It does involve a gap argument if you’re saying “there can be no scientific description of process x; therefore the best explanation is that a designer is directly responsible for x”. If instead you’re saying, “a designer is responsible for x; and we might be able to describe that process scientifically as well” then there is no gap argument (and no quarrel between you and me).


One can make a deductive inference to ID, based merely on the definition of technology. But let’s give nanotechnology a much broader definition…one that does not imply a designer based merely upon definition. In that case, we can construct an inductive inference. All known cases of technology were inventions by intelligent agents. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that the nanotechnology we discover in nature was also invented by an intelligent agent. It matters not whether you want to call such an inference “scientific” or not. It is a very reasonable inference.

Now if you wish to believe that God created nature with the ability to invent nanotechnology, you’re welcome to do so, though so far you do so without any evidence. But to deny that the existence of nanotechnology in nature offers evidence for ID is, in my view, preposterous.

(James Stump) #5

You continue to frame your comments in what I’ve claimed to be a false dichotomy: either God did it or nature did it. My claim continues to be that discovering a scientific explanation for something does not mean that God had nothing to do with it. To claim otherwise is essentially deism (God must sit idly by while nature goes about its business), so I’d like to hear you address this.

Thus when you say nanotechnology in nature is evidence of ID, I’d like you to give a definition of ID for that instance. If we had a camera rolling, what would we see? Something poof into existence, or a process that could be described scientifically? As such, I don’t think it preposterous at all to think the existence of nanotechnology in nature to be evidence of the remarkable providence of God–just like I’d claim the birth of a baby, photosynthesis, and stellar synthesis of heavy elements to be.

Note that I’m not claiming everything to have a scientific explanation. But the normal processes of nature (into which I would put the development of nanotechnology and bacterial flagella and eyes), I think it is most reasonable for us to expect that there will be scientific explanations.


Let’s bracket “the birth of a baby, photosynthesis” - all events for which we do not have good scientific explanations for their origin - from “synthesis of heavy elements” - something whose origin I believe scientists think they do have a good scientific explanation.

Now it may or may not turn out that we someday obtain good scientific explanations for the items in the first bracket. Assume that we do: in that case, theists will claim that God created nature with the ability to originate those things. However, atheists and agnostics might find our claim hard to believe.

Now let’s turn to the subject of nanotechnology. Normally, any type of technology implies, by definition, that an intelligent agent invented it. That’s just what technology means. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that nanotechnology in nature might be a different: a case where a technology was not invented by an intelligent agent. In that case, we can still make a very reasonable inductive inference from all the other cases of technology that nanotechnology in nature was also invented by an intelligent agent. And I would think a reasonable atheist or agnostic might find it a little more difficult to deny our inference. Now it could be that God created nature with the ability to invent nanotechnology, in which case nature is the proximal cause, and God the ultimate cause. And since you think everything in nature must have a scientific explanation, you are welcome to believe that, even though you have no evidence for your belief. Meanwhile, nanotechnology is evidence for ID - the belief that an intelligent agent invented it, whether that agent be God, a demiurge, space traveler, or something else. And the means of invention doesn’t really matter for the inference to be reasonable. We don’t need to know what events were or were not observable. What we would reasonably believe is that whatever they were, their origin was ultimately mind-dependent.

(James Stump) #7

My bad: a very important “not” was inadvertently left out of my previous comment (which you might have gathered from the context of that sentence). I’ve just edited it.

(James Stump) #8

Perhaps we’re starting to move toward common ground here… but not all the way yet. I don’t think we should say that nature invents things. “Inventing” is the sort of thing that an agent does. Nature is not an agent. God is an agent. Agents act for reasons, for purposes; their actions are described with final causes. Scientific explanations are given in terms of efficient causes. To say that nature is the proximal cause and God the ultimate cause could be construed as claiming that God started the chain of efficient causes, and then lets nature do the rest. Hence my concern about the latent deism in your view from a couple of comments ago.

But if instead we take God’s action as an agent to be the final cause and the scientific description of God’s action to be the detailing of efficient causes, then there is no problem acknowledging both kinds of cause to be operative at the same time (hence no false dilemma between nature did or God did it).


Hi Biblo,

Nanotechnology, as you mentioned, includes a word that implies an intelligent agent by definition (techne has the original meaning of “craftsmanship”, and the cognates in English have not lost the sense that a craftsman is to be implied). The obvious conclusion is that to call some complex of proteins in our body “nanotechnology” and then to use this as a platform to argue that its creation must therefore involve an intelligent agency is very obviously a fallacious argument. Applying the word to such structures can only be done by analogy in the first place (they are complex and they perform highly specific functions, making the analogy solid enough).

From what I understood, I think you probably see that such an argument is circular (we are including the implied existence of a craftsman by definition as soon as we use the word technology) and can’t be legitimately used, so you have moved on to the inductive argument. The inductive argument is no less problematic.

If we said that all technology is created by an intelligent designer, restricting technology to its original definition, then the statement would be true. We could then say little more than that these protein complexes in nature have certain parallels to technology, but it would be impossible to say what more could be implied by these parallels. The reason that the analogy is not a good basis for any argument in this case is that there are also a large number of obvious differences: these protein complexes are made of continuous or discontinuous strings of units (amino acids) folded into complex tertiary and quaternary structures, an approach not employed for human technology, and they are apparently generated and modified by known natural mechanisms, changing and adjusting to novel functions organically, also unlike human technology. The differences hardly end there (leaving room for the fact that some human technology is inspired by organic structures or makes use of organic materials), but the bottom line is that any argument from analogy is stuck at this point since there are enough differences to make any inference extremely doubtful.

The inductive argument that you use is implicitly merged with this faulty argument from analogy when you say “…inductive inference from all the other cases of technology…”. The use of the term “technology” as an umbrella term to cover everything that is complex and has a function confuses the issue. It plays a double game by allowing us to include proteins (and other biomolecules) while automatically referring us back to what we commonly think of as technology (evoking the thought: “everything made by a designer”) in order to make the induction work.

Yes, it is true that all cases of technology are known to involve an intelligent agent, but it is entirely false that all other instances of functional complexity are known to involve intelligent agents. Naturally occurring complexity pervades the universe and results in complex interactions and unique outcomes. This is not in doubt. We only tend to identify functions when it comes to technology for the simple reason that we produce and consume the stuff, so we know exactly why it’s there and what it’s used for. It is similarly easy to identify function for organic beings, since for known reasons, most of their structures contribute in some way to survival and reproduction within a given environment, an outcome that is wholly explicable in evolutionary terms. When it comes to anything outside of technology and the organic world, “function” becomes a relative term. The elaborate pattern making up our solar system can be said to serve the function of providing an ideal environment for life on earth, just as the complex and periodic patterns underlying basic chemistry may be said to have the function of enabling the same outcome. Complex nutrient cycles and weather patterns are all contributors to what we as humans consider to be favorable outcomes (except for freezing rain;-). Not just complexity, but function as well seems to pervade the universe; although just how we define any given function seems to be almost entirely relative to our own needs and wants or to needs that are analogous to our own.

In any case, even just restricting our consideration to organic structures, there are far more “machines” in nature than in our technology, so it is only a small sliver of all functional complexity, only the limited subset which is known to have been man-made, is known to have been directly produced by designers. We don’t have any other examples outside of what humans have produced that could support this induction and we seem to have a large number of counter-examples. Given that natural mechanisms are well known to have produced so many of the arguably functional complex patterns in the universe, that we have a well tested and characterized mechanism for producing functional complexity in biology, and that all of this natural complexity was definitely not produced by man (the only identified agency on record from a scientific standpoint), the argument from induction completely fails to gain traction.

I think that making use of the Aristotelian categories of efficient versus final cause is probably the best and most theologically sound way of dealing with these issues, and it moves us beyond the so-far unrewarding task of looking for God’s activity as a competing cause in the natural world.


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(James Stump) #12

Yes, I’m aware, and it is a misunderstanding (no doubt fostered by infelicitous comments by some). I have addressed this directly on more than one occasion in blog posts (start with this one). The only way you can get deism out of what we say is if you combine it with scientism. And we completely disavow the latter. Yes we think it is the right approach to look for scientific explanations. No, we don’t think science can explain all of reality. It only explains the part of reality that is susceptible to being explained with efficient causes.

Just because I invoked the Artistotelian notion of final causes, please don’t saddle me with everything he said. I don’t think the brain is just a radiator; I do think moving objects have inertia; and I think women are fully human. Accepting ID is not a necessary consequence of accepting that agents act for reasons.

Your “no I’m not, you are” defense to my question to Bilbo about deism doesn’t answer the question, which seems to be the same one you’re pressing me for. Unless you are invoking divine interventions almost continuously, you too need an account of God’s continuous involvement in the world to keep from lapsing into episodic deism. What is it? I suspect we could come to agree on that kind of account on purely philosophical/theological grounds, and then our disagreement over interventions would be reduced to the efficacy of scientific explanations.

I wish you’d ease up on the sweeping generalizations about what BioLogos believes. If it doesn’t say it in our What we believe statement, it’s not fair to say we believe it. There may be individuals who have some connection to BioLogos who do, but that doesn’t make it an organizational commitment. As for the fact-value distinction, we explicitly deny it in the introductory section of this Common Question. And I myself have published on the topic, claiming the distinction to be highly problematic.

Finally, stick around for two weeks. The first part of May we’re launching a major series on divine action with some of the leaders in the field contributing posts.

(Dennis Venema) #13

Eddie, in your view does God have a “substantive” role in how planetary systems form? In how carbon atoms are made?


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(James Stump) #16

Let me try one more time (this will be my last attempt) to extract from you an account of what you’re demanding from me. How much supernatural causation (of the efficient variety) do you invoke to explain the way things are in the world? Presumably this isn’t happening constantly, or the regular interventions of God become indistinguishable from laws. But then you have the same problem of needing to say what else God is doing lest he be relegated to a deistic observers gallery. Right? What am I missing about your position that is any different in this respect than mine? If you have God occasionally intervening in the chain of causes, then you have stretches of time that God is not doing that, right? And spread over an infinity of time, there is no difference between that and what you accuse me of. And in a finite amount of time, there will only be a (small) difference in degree rather than a difference in kind. So we both need an account of God’s creatio continua. I’ve yet to hear anything from you on this.

I (I’m not speaking for BioLogos here, just as an individual philosopher who espouses evolutionary creation) think the problem is more linguistic than usually admitted. The scientific and the personal (or what Sellars called the “manifest”) are two different discourses that have developed. Each have their own ontology in a sense, and they cannot be reduced to each other. One appeals to particles and forces and efficient causes; the other to intentions and will and reasons. We will not get one seamless account that integrates the concepts derived from each. So, I’m going to keep saying “God intentionally created humans” and “evolution is the best scientific description we have of the process by which human beings developed.” Each discourse has its own history, methodology, and logic (in the Hegelean sense). God as an agent does things, and we can talk about them theologically. And we have scientific explanations for some things.

That is only a paragraph summary of what needs a monograph to unpack. But please stop saying no TE/EC people treat this problem seriously.


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(Martin Mayberry) #18

Of course God a has a big role and he needs to have one! Evolution could NOT do it!It is considered by atheist a “mindless un-directed process”.!

(James Stump) #19

So I think we’d make some further headway on our disagreements if when you’re objecting to “BioLogos” you’d confine that to the people who are actually part of BioLogos now (unless you’re addressing history). These include the staff members, our Board of Directors, and members of the Advisory Council. These people don’t agree on every point, but they are the only people who have publicly identified with BioLogos and with whom BioLogos has publicly identified. I don’t mean this in the silly “distance ourselves from our founder” way that these guys tried to spin it, just that we are an organization that develops (and adapts?!) over time.

I don’t think you’ll find anyone on those lists who disagrees with my claim that God intentionally created humans. And I don’t think you’ll find any “BioLogos leaders constantly exhibit horror” about the possibility of supernatural causation in origins. Our blog is intentionally a place for conversation among people who are interested in these topics. I’d guess that the majority of our blog authors largely agree with our positions, but their blog posts aren’t somehow determining BioLogos doctrine. And certainly the “commentators” are speaking for themselves, not the organization.

Fair enough?

I’m still curious about your view of divine action, but I promised to stop asking. I’m sure it will come up again. By the way, Bob Russell is one of the contributors to our forthcoming series on divine action.

Differences within EC... Classic Providential Naturalism?

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