Unwarranted researcher involvement consistently characterizes the prebiotic simulation studies carried out over the last 60 years. Even though these experiments are designed to validate a naturalistic explanation for life’s origin, they end up demonstrating the necessity of intelligent agency in creating life from inanimate matter. Yet, many in the scientific community continue to resist any suggestion that life’s origin stems from supernatural work. As a means to build a bridge with these skeptics, we apply the concept of hypernaturalism as a means to address the concerns of the scientific community
When I'm out speaking on behalf of RTB, one question I often hear is, how did God create the first life? Did He just "zap" the first organisms into existence? Or did He bring about the origin of life by some other means?
A recent guest article by theologian Daniel Dyke and physicist Hugh Henry proves helpful in addressing this question. Our guest authors introduced the concept of hypernaturalism, which they define as the extraordinary use of natural law by an omnipotent God. When God acts in a hypernatural way, He employs the laws of nature and natural phenomena in an extraordinary manner—with respect to timing, location, and magnitude—to accomplish His will. In their framework, hypernaturalism stands distinct from "supernaturalism," in which God always operates outside the laws of nature. Nevertheless, a hypernatural act is as much a miracle as a supernatural one.
Hypernaturalism in the Laboratory
In a sense, God, though the only being capable of supernatural acts, is not the only one who can engage in hypernatural activity. Human beings can, as well. Consider the work of an organic chemist in the laboratory. These scientists set up a glass apparatus to contain the reaction of interest. With care they add the appropriate chemicals, in a specific order. They adjust the reaction temperature, control the composition of the headspace above the reaction, and regulate the reaction's pH. In other words, chemists, operating within the laws of nature, manipulate chemicals in extraordinary ways to accomplish a specific goal (in this case the generation of desired chemical compounds).
In fact, this type of activity is typical for origin-of-life researchers who perform prebiotic simulation experiments. Origin-of-life investigators labor to understand how undirected chemical and physical processes could have generated life. Obviously, they can't go back in time and directly observe the chemical evolution that many believe took place on early Earth. Thus, they have no choice but to perform lab experiments with the overarching goal of recapitulating life's origin. At the very least, the hope is that the experiments will provide some understanding of how life could have conceivably emerged on Earth via evolutionary processes.
Intervening in "Natural" Processes
The problem is that scientists carrying out laboratory experiments are not passive observers of undirected processes. Instead, they become active participants who (1) design the protocol; (2) assemble the apparatus; (3) supply the media and reagents for the experiment; (4) adjust the initial conditions and regulate them throughout the study; and (5) monitor the course of the chemical and physical changes usually by withdrawing material from the apparatus. In other words, they interject themselves into experiments designed to demonstrate how life can emerge without assistance.
If poorly executed or too extensive, this involvement runs the risk of making the experiment artificial; it no longer reflects the presumed evolutionary events thought to have occurred on early Earth. Instead it reflects what is possible if an intelligent agent (in this case, the researchers) orchestrates physicochemical processes. Of course, this result is undesirable from a naturalistic viewpoint because naturalists believe that the physicochemical processes thought to have spawned life would have proceeded without any outside intervention from an intelligent agent.
As I discuss in my book Creating Life in the Lab, unwarranted researcher involvement plagues the design and execution of virtually every prebiotic simulation experiment performed to date. For example, physicist Paul Davies notes that researchers investigating the RNA world hypothesis (one of the most important ideas in the origin-of-life discussion) face significant challenges.