Have you ever been asked a question that, in answering, entirely changed either your, or another person’s perspective? Such a question, with the potential to affect one’s perspective of non-theism and naturalism, is asked of me occasionally: “as someone who doesn’t believe in god, and instead believes in a naturalistic interpretation of the universe, doesn’t it depress you to view the world as completely natural, cold and mechanical?”
Following probing in to why this question is asked, it is apparent that theists see non-theism/atheism as a self-assured nihilist proposition. That is, theists believe the non-theist/atheist assertion of a wholly naturalistic universe – i.e. one that is not effected by a benevolent, interventional/interactive creator whom you appease during your life in hopes of a blissful immortality in the form of an afterlife – is akin to claiming that the universe is dull and monotonous and ultimately pointless. It is as though they believe that without the focal point of a creator, there is no point in living. Thus, the prospect of living without belief in a god – and certainly without the belief in an afterlife – to many theists, is a terrifying proposition.
The Natural Nature of Nature
The argument from design – that all things exhibiting complexity must have a designer – is an elegantly simple proposal. After all, all you need to do is look at the human hand or brain to marvel at our own amazing complexity, or look into an electron microscope to view the remarkable intricacy of a red blood cell! The problem with this argument is two fold, however; firstly, we have an amazingly diverse fossil record documenting the millions of years of the evolution of hominin, among other traits, cranial capacity and hand positioning and decades of research into the genetic interrelationships of all living things. Secondly, logic dictates that if all things exhibiting complexity must have a designer, the designer must have a designer, which must also have a designer, and so on, and on. Nonetheless, if naturalism is to be treated as theoretically viable, we should be able to propose some evidenced hypotheses that support formation of life from natural elements, which provided a platform for evolution, by way of natural selection, to launch from.
Well, in 1952 two biochemists from the University of Chicago, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, created a sealed experiment that replicated the conditions found on our planet over four billion years ago. Using a host of chemicals, a heat source (replicating the sun and volcanism) and a source of electricity (replicating lightning and sources of radiation), Miller and Urey witnessed the formation of 20 of the essential building blocks of life. While ‘life’ was not formed during the experiment, the earth had billions of years prior to our arrival, and this experiment ran only for a short time.
In the 1980’s, scientists found a particular type of clay, Montmorillonite, which was abundant in the sea floor and in hot pools of water on land during the primordial earth. This actually formed the perfect catalyst for forming polynucleotides, or long chains that would eventually form RNA. These polynucleotide chains would acquire specific traits over time to better suit their environment and over hundreds of millions of years, RNA grew more and more complex.
Eventually, a single strand bonded to a second strand and DNA double-helix was born. Now, the major difference between RNA and DNA is that DNA requires proteins or amino acids to replicate. Luckily, the same Montmorillonite stew that formed the nucleotides was abundant all sorts of complex chemicals, including all sorts of amino acids. One of the abundant complex chemicals, lipids, has a natural tendency to form into spherical structures called micelles. RNA or DNA that attracted the lipid molecules would have been better protected inside the micelle structure and as such, had a better ability to survive and replicate more successfully. Here we have an analogous primitive single cell organism, doing nothing more than evolving to survive. The rest (i.e. the next 3.7 billion years) is history.
When you couple the above hypotheses of natural origins with the extensive fossil record and molecular genetics – illustrating the genetic origins and interrelationships between everything from an ostrich to an emu or humans and iceberg lettuce – you can see, quite definitively, that there isn’t much of a role for a benign, hands-on creator.
Cold and Mechanical?
Considering our origins as proteomic blobs of chemical slush, it isn’t much of a stretch to realise that humans have been using (and cultivating/domesticating) plants that produce specific biochemical reactions, for tens of thousands of years. Would it surprise you to learn that there is a well known psycotropic hallucinogen found in abundance around the area that Moses had a deep and meaningful with a burning bush? It shouldn’t! It is these very specific biochemical changes that take place in our bodies in response to these drugs – synthesised from the alkaloids of plants, fungus, bacteria and metals - that illustrate your own cold and mechanical nature.
In fact, you can chemically inhibit a chemical process in your body; next time you have a headache treat it with some paracetamol or ibuprofen. When you are injured, your body naturally produces a hormone called prostaglandin; ibuprofen, works by blocking the cyclooxygenase enzymes known as COX-1 and COX-2. Paracetamol works by selectively inhibiting the COX-3 enzyme, which is found in the brain and spinal column. All medications, in fact, are chemical compounds that produce a specific physiological reaction in the body.