Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Question Beggar

VJTorley at Uncommon Descent serves up a dozen fallacies, with explanations, frequently encountered by those who argue against a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life.

His column is lengthy, but the first example on his list should serve as a suitable appetizer. It's a fallacy called "begging the question." This occurs when someone assumes the truth of the very claim he's trying to prove. For example, sometimes people will argue that miracles aren't evidence of a God because miracles are impossible. But one can claim that miracles are impossible only if one already knows there's no God. That's begging the question.

The phrase is often used in conversation to mean something like "raising the question," as in Joe's purchase of a new car begs the question where he got the money from, but that's not how the phrase is used in logic.

Anyway, here's Torley:
The first and most egregious fallacy regarding the origin of life is the fallacy of begging the question: since we’re here, life must have originated by some chemical process. This fallacy was committed by no less an authority than Professor John D. Sutherland, a chemist at the UK-based Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology....In an interview...Professor Sutherland stated: “We’re here on the planet, and we must be here as a result of organic chemistry.” In other words, we’re here, so abiogenesis (the origin of life from non-living matter) must be possible somehow. Of course, that conclusion doesn’t follow unless one assumes all of the following premises:

(1) Life began at some point in time during the history of the universe;

(2) The complexity which characterizes life must have had some cause; and

(3) The universe is a causally closed system during the entire course of its history: nothing and no-one outside it can interact with it in any way.

Finally, in order to rule out intelligently guided organic chemistry explaining the origin of life...(as I presume Sutherland would wish to do), one would have to assume an additional premise:

(4) Neither the laws nor the initial conditions of our universe were set by an intelligent being.

The first premise can of course be ascertained scientifically, and the second premise is an admission that the complexity of life requires an explanation of some sort – a point which even New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins readily concede. However, the third and fourth premises can only be described as blatantly question-begging metaphysical assumptions. We don’t know that the universe is causally closed, and we don’t know that it was not designed. Professor Sutherland’s assertion that “we must be here as a result of organic chemistry” is therefore without warrant: it simply begs the question.
There's much more in Torley's column. Some of the errors in reasoning he documents are very common in discussions of biological evolution and are worth becoming familiar with.