Creationists vs. evolutionists on abiogenesis

Let this count as a typical articulation of abiogenesis in the creationist vs. evolutionist debate*:

Abiogenesis was a long process with many small incremental steps, all governed by the non-random forces of Natural Selection and chemistry. The very first stages of abiogenesis were no more than simple self-replicating molecules, which might hardly have been called alive at all.

For example, the simplest theorized self-replicating peptide is only 32 amino acids long. The probability of it forming randomly, in sequential trials, is approximately 1 in 1040, which is much more likely than the 1 in 10390 claim creationists often cite.

Though, to be fair, 1040 is still a very large number. It would still take an incredibly large number of sequential trials before the peptide would form. But remember that in the prebiotic oceans of the early Earth, there would be billions of trials taking place simultaneously as the oceans, rich in amino acids, were continuously churned by the tidal forces of the moon and the harsh weather conditions of the Earth.

In fact, if we assume the volume of the oceans were 1024 liters, and the amino acid concentration was 10-6M (which is actually very dilute), then almost 1031 self-replicating peptides would form in under a year, let alone millions of years. So, even given the difficult chances of 1 in 1040, the first stages of abiogenesis could have started very quickly indeed.

To sum up, the sides are fighting over there is a 10390th  or 1040th  chance of some process terminating in life before either side specifies what the process would be. It’s hard to understand what this means. Compare the debate to a time when we can actually figure out the chances of something happening, like Bingo. A clever seventh-grader can tell you your odds of selecting B5, but only after he knows the process by which bingo balls get selected. Without this, what sense does the question have? What are your odds of choosing B5 right now? To be clear, I don’t mean (your odds of leading a bingo game)(your odds of picking B5). That sees like a question with a possible answer. I mean the much more incoherent question that asks without specifying any process by which a given number gets picked, what is your chance of picking it? The contradiction practically has a siren on top: you can’t know how likely you are to pick something without knowing how you could pick it at all.

I assume that both sides are assuming that all there is to forming life is having molecules bang around and form stuff, but the problem with this theory is not whether its parameters of probability are acceptable or not, but that it is not a theory at all. Saying “things just bang around and stuff happens” is not a process, since a process is a specified set of steps toward a definite terminus while “things just bang around” is not a specified set of steps and “stuff” is not a definite terminus. If we could actually specify the bingo-machine that led to the number of life, neither side would need to figure out the probability of the number popping up, any more than any winner at a game of chance cares what his odds were.

The problem is that we don’t have an acceptable mechanism for abiogenesis and so we have no idea how probable it is. Creationists and evolutionists are fighting over something that neither one of them has.

*I have no dog in the fight between creationists and evolutionists: my own theory being that every substance – living nor not, human or not – arises from bottom-up natural causality tending toward top-down divine act of infusing substantial form. Nevertheless, the debate over abiogenesis is a good an example of what I find puzzling about both sides.






Nagel’s objection to theism is that it displaces the search for intelligibility outside the universe, and so seems to violate a version of the PSR.

But intelligibility is whatever allows us to understand things as they are, so if the existence of something is greater or less its intelligibility will be also. In the sense of “existence” that is the same as the actual we get just these different degrees of existence since some things are actual but not essentially (contingent substances) other things are essentially actual but contingent in their mode or operation (conserved quantities, basic particles, the universe, finite spirits) there’s another that is essentially actual in both substance and operation (members of the Trinity). On this account, relating the intelligibility of the contingent to the necessary and the necessary to the divine is not to abandon intelligibility but to account for it precisely as intelligibility.

Theists and Naturalists agree that explanations have to come to an end somewhere and so that an explanatory regress is impossible. That said, there seems to be an assumption that the place where explanations bottom out is an assumption or fact while the point of classical theism is that it is axiomatic or self-evident in itself. The confusion makes sense in light of the character of the self-evident, which is not the obvious or intuitive but any statement with a per se predicate. In this sense of per se, an extremely complex and very difficult definition of snow, intelligible to only a few physicists of crystals, would still be more self-evident than the claim that snow is white. In the same way, the claim that God exists is more self-evident than that the universe exists, even if we happen to be much more certain of the latter than the former.

The intelligibility of the universe is complete in itself in the same way that the intelligibility of anything is complete in itself: it is what it is and nothing more. But what is a cosmos?

The cosmos has gradually developed life, consciousness and openness to mind and so has gradually awoken to itself. It is cosmos-humanity, which is a sort of empty-angel that, due to his emptiness, needed to draw intelligible forms from outside of itself. Cosmos-humanity is a sort of symbiosis where cosmos opens to humanity in order to be known and humanity opens to cosmos as a source of forms.

The angel does not need the universe as a source of intelligible forms and so is epistemically a sort of universe-in-himself. All that he needs to understand this universe, himself, or any other angel is already innate to him. The angel is thus monadic, needing no windows to peer out in order to have his own perfect operation. For us, the monad is cosmos-humanity.

Aristotle’s interaction problem

After arguing that nous is not a physical organ, Aristotle objects that his account requires both that

a.) Nous is acted upon by physical objects.

b.) Nous is apathes and so unable to be acted upon.

His response is that (a) doesn’t contradict (b) but entails it since the way nous receives physical objects rules out its being physical.

Because all human knowledge falls under the principle of contradiction, nous receives physical objects as beings, but being is not finite. Since nothing finite as such could receive a non-finite, the kind of receptivity that nous has rules out having any finite structure.

Since they make knowledge of both the physical and the non-physical possible, physical objects as known are beings in a more general sense than physical beings. This arises because the physical is known by abstraction, i.e. by thinking of one thing and not another, and so it is the same object in which we know the physical and non-physical. Anything intrinsic to the physical: being concrete, being finite, etc can be abstracted by nous, giving us, for example, the abstract, the mathematical, the formal, the infinite, the absolute etc. Nous thus experiences the physical as both what it is and what it is not and so cannot encounter the physical in a categorical or finite way.





The structure of freedom

1.) Freedom gets distinguished into freedom from and freedom for, e.g. the Israelites were freed from Pharaoh so that (or “for”) they could worship God in the wilderness. One point of the distinction is to push us outside outside the sense that it is enough to simply remove impediments, restrictions or restraints. We also, and more fundamentally, need some sense of what goods persons should be pursuing when the restraints or taboos or unjust laws are removed.

2.) Freedom is the absence of impediments to something desirable, but impediments are of two kinds. If I want to play the violin one set of impediments would be, say, being imprisoned or being too poor to buy one; but a more significant set of impediments would be lacking the skill to play. The first sort of freedom might be called extrinsic freedom and the second an intrinsic freedom or freedom by skill.

3.) Freedom from seems indistinguishable from extrinsic freedom, which gives it three dimensions, all of which belong to it by definition. Given freedom is the absence of impediments to something you want you can consider either its extrinsic impediments (chains, circumstances) its intrinsic impediments (lack of skill, ignorance, vice) or its raison d’être from the thing one wants (worshipping God in the wilderness, having autonomy over one’s life, etc)

4.) There is a third morally relevant distinction of freedom from the two ways in which impediments to a goal might be absent. In one sense they are absent in that the road to the goal is open but not travelled; in another sense they are absent because the goal is totally obtained. The first sort of freedom is freedom in via, or the freedom that anything enjoys so far as it is separate from its ultimate good. The second sort of freedom is freedom in patria, or the freedom which consists in even the possibility of impediments to the goal being ruled out as logically impossible. Non-human animals seem to enjoy freedom in patria simply by being mature; human beings and angels enjoy it only in the beatific vision. God has only freedom in patria without ever having had freedom in via. This last distinction is essential to avoid various aporia about “God’s freedom to sin” or “whether the blessed are free to be evil” or about the relationship between freedom and evil in general. The aporia arise because if we include evil in the definition of freedom then God and the blessed are not free (and therefore no more worth praising than the result of an equation) but if we don’t include evil in the account of freedom then freedom does not seem to explain evil.

Notes on perverted faculty arguments

-If faculty is taken broadly to include any part of a person that does something like sweating, circulating blood, growing hair, powering cells, etc then most faculties can’t be perverted. Taking the class of pervertable faculties, relatively few of their actions are perverse. In other words, perverted faculty arguments (PFA) are targeting a very narrow band of human activity relative to the activities does by faculties.

-For the purposes of PFA’s a faculty is any definite physical or mental part of a person that he immediately wills to use, whether by exercise or by anticipation. It is precisely by being subject to will that we get a faculty in the relevant sense.

-There are relatively few faculties that we immediately will to use. The only sense in which I can will to sweat, release histamine, listen to a jackhammer when they are trying to sleep, etc is indirect, if at all. I suppose you could say I will to sweat if I will to run on a treadmill or will to release histamine if I stuff pollen up my nose, but both are obviously mediated acts of will. PFA’s thus have nothing to do with using antiperspirants, antihistamines, earplugs, etc.

-We’re interested in the will because PFA’s are moral arguments, morality is formally about goods, and nothing is good except to the extent it is willed.  Only virtuous actions are entirely willed or voluntary. If this were not so, then someone could eternally have everything he wants and nothing he doesn’t want while nevertheless not being happy or fulfilled as a person.

-Faculties are definite things in themselves and so have definite goods in themselves. Having a definite structure means that you are destroyed by a particular things and not by others,  preserved in existence by some actions and not by others, and that your operation is impeded or facilitated by some things and not others.  Call any such good E.

– To use a faculty while frustrating E is to will and not will the same thing simultaneously. The action is therefore partially involuntary and therefore incompatible with virtue.

-PFA’s therefore show formally that the perverted use of a faculty cannot be a part of virtue. This does not of itself show what degree of disorder is present in the use of such a faculty. To borrow a Catholic distinction, mortal sins, venial sins, and even non-culpable imperfections are incompossible parts of virtue.

-To put the PFA weakly, it shows that any frustrated use of a faculty is at least as bad as a non-culpable imperfection. To put it more strongly, they show that such use is incompatible with virtue and therefore with happiness.



1.) God knows all things distinctly in himself, we know it only by infinite abstractions, angels know by some number, and therefore are different species in virtue of different numbers.

2.) The perfection of the universe requires all possible species and each angel is his own species, so the number of angels is infinite. The universe is thus overwhelmingly angelic. If one saw the whole of creation he would not even know where to find its last part – the cosmos/human being (CH) – among the angels.

3.) CH is the limit of the multiplication of the angels. Like all limits, it is both different in kind (the way a curve is the limit of the straight) while somehow allowing for comparison.

4.) The least angel has more life, complexity, intelligibility, reality and dignity than CH. CH is like the last angel.

5.) CH is analogous to an angel turned inside out. We look out at the universe and try to gather it into ourselves, but the light that we have to gather it is so weak that it would take infinite time to assemble the whole together again.

6.)  Scattered intelligibility gives rise to matter.  The form needed some way to exist so as to be unintelligible in itself.

7.) The “fall of man” is the fall of CH, and the redemption is the redemption of CH. This redemption is spiritual to the extent that the CH is spiritual, physical to the extent that it is physical. The same is true of the heaven of the CH.


Angelic hierarchy

1.) Intelligences know being and thus know all things.

2.) God knows all things distinctly in his single thought of himself, since a failure to know something distinctly, or to stop thinking about one thing to think about another, would have an immediate result that the being itself would cease to exist.

3.) A human being knows all things distinctly only by an indefinite multiplication of abstractions, each one being its own idea.

4.) The fullness of intellectual existence requires beings that know all things distinctly by some definite number of ideas.

5.) The same fullness of existence also requires that the number of angels be equal to the natural numbers.

6.) As each number is its own species of quantity, with “four” being specifically the same among four ducks, thoughts, wheels, etc, so also each angel is his own species, resulting from whatever difference accounts for the number of thoughts required for him to know all of reality distinctly. It is no more possible not have a number of angels of one species than it is to have a number of  solutions to a set of equations all equal to seven.

7.) The number of universal causes is finite, since to be infinite is proper to causes within a genus that are therefore secondary.

8.) Because angels and material things are some finite number of genera and each genus has its own universal cause, there is some multitude of universal causes in the created universe that is less than the totality of the angelic species. Let the multitude be M.

9.) Angels who understand all things distinctly by a number of thoughts comparable to M have minds proportionate to the universal causes of all things. Those who know by a number far fewer than M exceed all proportion to the universal causes of the universe and know these causes in God himself, those whose number of thoughts far exceed the number of universal causes are disproportioned to those causes and are closer to human beings and material creation, even while being categorically different from it.

10.) Those who exceed all proportion to universal causes are either immediate to the God. The Seraphs are either identical to these or are the highest among those exceeding all proportion to the universal causes. They are angels seen as somehow around the divinity, announcing him as holy, holy, holy.

11.) Those immediately beneath the seraphs are immediate to the divine presence by being immediately under him. These are the Thrones spoken of in Col. 1:6 as the throne or mercy seat above the Ark.

12.) The Thrones are carried by the the cherubim, and so are seen as giving direction and power to the throne, which is why the ark is called by the name of the LORD who sits enthroned above the cherubim (1 Cr. 13: 6).

13.) The Seraphs, Cherubs and Thrones are thus the three genera of angels exceeding all proportion to the universal causes and seeing all things immediately in God.

14.) It’s not clear to me what or how many genera are beneath the Seraphs, Cherubs and Thrones. By the theory just given its possible that there can only be a higher and lower order of angels and not three choirs.


The first atonement theology

The disciples on the road to Emmaus give an account of the crucifixion:

[Jesus] was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.

It’s clear that they have already assimilated Jesus’s story to the prophets. Christ was a mighty prophet deserving canonical status, and whose story is in keeping with Elijah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Habakuk, Micah, etc. Like any figure in the Hebrew scriptures his story is about great promise and several significant works leading to the eventual fizzle. Adam names the animals, discovers women, and crashes; Abraham raises up the patriarchs and they collapse into infighting, intrigues, and eventual slavery; Moses sets the people free and they grumble and sin in the desert before Moses himself dies in exile; Joshua leads people into the land but they collapse into the kingship of Saul; Saul is conquered by David who seduces the wife of a subordinate before murdering him and handing the kingship to the child of the adultery; Solomon rebuilds the temple before falling into idolatry; the prophets replace the kings but usually die in exile or by violence. Now Jesus came and was another prophet great in power, but he died in a failed attempt to purify the temple and drive out the Romans. Maybe we can look forward to another prophet who will drive out the Romans and perhaps even give us a period of peace before it too collapses into ruin and defeat; and maybe after that God will raise another prophet who will bring peace to Israel before becoming fascinated with Ba’al worship at the end of his life.

Against this, Jesus:

“How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”

27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

Christ rejects any attempt to make his story just one more link in the Scripture, so Scripture is over. The last book in the Bible was already written and any further writing can only announce the fact that the goal of the project is accomplished. In keeping with this, the summary of Christ’s discourse on the road stresses universality and totality: beginning with the Pentateuch [through] all the prophets (i.e. starting at the beginning of the Hebrew scripture and going to what is now its end) He explained what all the prophets (not just some) said in all the scriptures (not just some) concerning himself. The unmistakable point is that we now have “all the prophets” and all the books of Scripture. The depressed disciples thought they had just one more familiar scroll to add to the collection when in fact they saw the end of history and the beginning of the kingdom of God. 

And so atonement theology is not a theory foisted on the gospels or developed after we have put them aside. Christ gives the first theory of atonement, and the disciples going to Emmaus had no clue that this was coming. They would have been happy to record his sermons and deeds in “The Book of Jesus”, and they certainly would have concluded with his resurrection and ascension, just as the story of Elijah ends with a similar ascension. What Christ’s disciples wrote instead was the good news that all time had ended and a new time had begun. In defense of their claims one can notice that no more books were added to the prophets, the idols that enthralled the world were broken, Israel’s God was worshipped to the ends of the earth, the faith of Abraham was adopted in all the nations, and an international monarchy arose for the succession of the apostles.

All atonement theology – and in some sense all christianity – is a footnote to Lk. 24: 27 and an attempt to reconstruct Christ’s speech. Luke gives no details of the speech even if one assumes it would have been easy enough for him to give a sketch of it. The sermons of the resurrected Christ seem to be beyond one’s ability to reconstruct in words, but the Emmaus story ends with the amazement of the disciples at what they took as incomparably good news: Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Bible to us?

Objection to “Against Heterosexuality”

We just argued that hetero-homo essentialism should be replaced with the view sexual preferences like other habits: virtue, alcoholism, smoking, studiousness, etc. The obvious objection to all this is that

(1) We have strong preference for sexual partners even when we have no sexual experience at all, but

(2) No one has the alcoholic’s preference for alcohol before he starts drinking.

The basic response is that (1) conflates sexual experience with sexual intercourse, the first being a necessary consequence of embodiment while the second is not.

Erotic desire is not limited to, and is probably not even primarily about the desire to have orgasms in a certain manner (say, in the presence of just any same-sex person) but to be related to and connected to another person. It takes no experience or even awareness of orgasm to understand unconditional connection or domination or submission or to be fascinated by the Edenic state of being naked and unashamed in the presence of another.

In other words, an innate hetero-homo program is not necessary to explain the determination of desire before intercourse because sexual experience is already substantially present before intercourse. Non-drinkers can’t be alcoholics because we need something more than our own bodies and social existence to experience intoxication, but virgins can have strong sexual preferences because simply being embodied and social is a sort of sexual experience. To be embodied at all is to already understand the thrill/terror of nakedness in ourselves and others and to be social is already to know there are taboos placing limits and fascinating and forbidden activities, knowledge, and kinds of touch. Children become aware of these limits and possibilities years before they have any concept of the mechanics of human reproduction, much less any experience of it.

One of the stultifying effects of hetero-homo essentialism is that it screens out all these pre-intercourse elements of sexual experience, attributing our desires not to an extensive experience an interpretation of  embodiment and its possibilities but to an overly-simple pre-programming like “love boys” or “love girls”. The essentialism is best replaced with a more interesting set of stories – note the plural – of the experiences and interpretations that led to whatever sexual habits formed from them. Calling them “interesting” doesn’t mean that all are equal: all might have beautiful and at least understandable parts but will also have a good deal of pathological unconscious motives and sheer naughtiness and vice.

On “Against Heterosexuality”

I revisited Michael Hannon’s Against Heterosexuality last week and followed his references to Foucault and this piece by Hugh Barbour.  The thesis is that sexual orientations are historical constructions.

To clarify, no one doubts that persons experience strong and habitual desires to have intercourse with persons of a definite sex, but we have all sorts of strong and habitual desires for definite things that aren’t traced back to something analogous to being “heterosexual” or “homosexual”. We don’t assume that persons who experience strong desires to steal iPhones are born with an interesting strain of klepro-orientation or explain the difference between Ray Charles and Scarface as heroin-orientation as opposed to cocaine-orientation. There are probably a thousand ways one can get into an activity and thereafter develop passionate attachments whose satisfaction becomes integral to our sense of self.

Briefly, Hetero-Homo essentialism violates parsimony by explaining sexual desires through first nature when second nature would do. Even those of us who are sold on traditionalist sexual ethics don’t have to think that men-wanting-women is natural in the sense that “heterosexuality” demands, since for us it is natural in the sense of being normative or ideal and not because sexual desire is subjectively experienced with a clear and definite object from the first moment it enters consciousness. The first stirrings of eros are probably not definite enough even to have persons as objects, and if they did they would probably be for a family member (who else is around?) for all that, we’re not born with an incest-orientation.

Like all innate desires our sexual ones are more or less vague urges growing over a trellis of environmental conditions, healthy or pathological desires, interpreted experience, historical-cultural values, and any number of things that will never arise again after the person who experiences them is dead. Given the intensity and near-universality of sexual desire it makes sense that satisfying sexual habits is more integral to our sense of self, but this is not because we suffer from some innate or naturally-developing orientation.

« Older entries