Physicist and prolific science writer Paul Davies wrote a book in 1999 entitled The 5th Miracle: The Search For the Origin and Meaning of Life. The title is a little misleading because the book has more to do with the search for an explanation as to how life might have arisen through purely mechanistic processes than it does with the question of the meaning of life. Even so, it's a good book and contains a lot of information on the matter of why the problem of abiogenesis seems so intractable.
The fifth miracle of Davies' title refers to Genesis 1:11: "Let the land produce vegetation." (The first four Biblical miracles are the creation of the universe, the creation of light, the creation of the firmament and the creation of dry land.), and Davies tries to explain how this might have occured without invoking an actual miracle.
Davies' book is especially noteworthy for two things: First, he acknowledges what a lot of anti-IDers want to paper over which is that evolutionary science is believed by many of its practitioners to be antithetical to belief in the God of Christianity, and secondly, he recognizes that natural mechanisms are wholly inadequate to explain how life could have arisen. He doesn't come out and say that life seems to have required intelligent input to have emerged, but he may as well have. He doesn't go all the way because he doesn't want to accept the logic of his own argument, but it's hard to escape it.
About the alleged incompatibility between God and materialistic science he writes:
Science takes as its starting point that life wasn't made by a god or a supernatural being: it happened unaided and spontaneously, as a natural process. p.28
This is an interesting claim, actually, given the number of commentators who have been at pains lately to convince us that there's really no conflict at all between the established theories of science and Christian religious belief. Technically, this is true, but there is certainly a substantial conflict between what many scientists think their science implies and the religious beliefs of most Christians.
Elsewhere, for example, Davies says this:
Darwin's...Origin of Species...sought to discredit the need for God to create species..... p.83
...atoms...accomplish ingenious marvels of construction and control, with a fine-tuning and complexity as yet unmatched by any human engineering. Somehow nature discovered, on its own, how to do this. p.98
For three hundred years, science has based itself on reductionism and materialism, leading inevitably to atheism and a belief in the meaninglessness of physical existence. A bio-friendly universe would mark a decisive shift. p.263
Davies himself doesn't seem to know what to think about all this. He's impressed by the apparent evidence for teleology and unimpressed with the arguments of some materialists that life is common in the cosmos. The laws of nature, they aver, make it inevitable. Davies disagrees. The laws of chemistry and physics don't make life inevitable, because they can't produce organized, specified complexity or information, and if there are other laws, still unknown, which lead ineluctably not only to life but to mind, then where did such astonishing things come from? How did a mindless universe give rise to algorithms which program matter to be sentient?
Davies asks the question from several different perspectives:
We are then confronted by the ultimate question: where did the information content of the universe come from? p.60
The problem of the origin of life reduces to one of understanding how encoded software emerged spontaneously from hardware....It is like trying to explain how a kite can evolve into a radio-controlled aircraft. Can the laws of nature as we presently comprehend them account for such a transition? I do not believe they can. p.115
This viewpoint (that intelligent life is common in the cosmos), though prevalent, again conceals a huge assumption about the nature of the universe. It means accepting, in effect, that the laws of nature are rigged not only in favor of complexity, or just in favor of life, but also in favor of mind. To put it dramatically, it implies that mind is written into the laws of nature in a fundamental way. p.271
The dilemma for the materialists is this: If life is inevitable, that fact points to a purposeful universe, but if it's contingent, accidental, then the improbability of it ever coming to exist is absolutely staggering and as close to miraculous as anything can be without crossing the line.
How did something so immensely complicated, so finessed, so exquisitely clever, come into being all on its own? How can mindless molecules, capable only of pushing and pulling their immediate neighbors, cooperate to form and sustain something as ingenious as a living organism? p.30
He wants to hold on to naturalism at all costs, of course, because the philosophical and professional price to be paid for allowing a non-natural agent in the door is too dear:
The living cell is the most complex system of its size known to mankind. Its host of specialized molecules, many found nowhere else but within living material, are themselves already enormously complex. They execute a dance of exquisite fidelity, orchestrated with breathtaking precision. Vastly more elaborate than the most complicated ballet, the dance of life encompasses countless molecular performers in synergetic coordination. Yet this is a dance with no sign of a choreographer. No intelligent supervisor, no mystic force, no conscious controlling agency swings the molecues into place at the right time, chooses the appropriate players, closes the links, uncouples the partners, moves them on. The dance of life is spontaneous, self-sustaining, and self-creating. p.29
But why does he think the choreographer should be in evidence? Does the audience see the choreographer onstage in the midst of a musical? His last two sentences above are sheer affirmations of his materialist faith which he senses is to be at odds with so much of what he's written in this book and which he feels he must reinforce to himself:
[I]t is the job of science to solve mysteries without recourse to divine intervention. Just because scientists are still uncertain how life began does not mean life cannot have had a natural origin. p.31
It is worth repeating that, in spite of the appearance of purpose, the participating molecules are completely mindless. p.107
Unfortunately, "meaning" sounds perilously close to purpose, an utterly taboo subject in biology. So we are left with the contradiction that we need to apply concepts derived from purposeful human activities (communication, meaning, context, semantics) to biological processes that certainly appear purposeful, but are in fact not (or are not supposed to be). p.121f
Davies certainly gives the reader the impression that he's teetering on the brink of thinking that the universe is governed by something that seems awfully close to the designer posited by the ID folks:
Might purpose be a genuine property of nature right down to the cellular or even the subcellular level? p.122
...shunting the problem off into outer space does nothing to address the central problem of biogenesis - the problem that has plagued researchers in this discipline for decades - which is that life seems just too good to be true. p.243
He quotes physicist Freeman Dyson in this connection:
"The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming." p.245
The book concludes, inconclusively, with these words:
The search for life elsewhere in the universe is therefore the testing ground for two diametrically opposed world-views. On one side is orthodox science, with its nihilistic philosophy of the pointless universe, of impersonal laws oblivious of ends, a cosmos in which life and mind, science and art, hope and fear are but flukey incidental embellishments on a tapestry of irreversible cosmic corruption. On the other, there is an alternative view, undeniably romantic but perhaps true nevertheless, the vison of a self-organizing and self-complexifying universe, governed by ingenious laws that encourage matter to evolve towards life and consciousness. A universe in which the emergence of thinking beings is a fundamental and integral part of the overall scheme of things. p.273
It's hard to see how this second alternative differs from the fundamental claim of ID that life and the cosmos show evidence of having been designed with a purpose. That being so, we can be sure that the thought police in the ACLU will certainly fight hammer and tong to prevent The 5th Miracle from being read in the science classrooms of American public schools. More's the pity because it certainly does give the reader an excellent education in the difficulties involved with trying to imagine a naturalistic origin of life.
See also Phillip Johnson's excellent review of The 5th Miracle.