Andrew Fulford Archive Philosophy Reformed Irenicism

The Metaphysics of Biogenesis

The ongoing debates between “science” and “religion” over biology and cosmology have well-worn groves, and the wheel of the discussion probably won’t skip out any time soon. But there’s no historical necessity about this. There could always be another angle we haven’t quite considered before.

One possible contender for the title of “different kind of argument than we’ve heard of late” comes from the philosophy of nature, more specifically of a neo-Aristotelian type. Dr. David S. Oderberg proposes in his essay “Synthetic Life and the Bruteness of Immanent Causation” that “immanent causation can never arise, in any way, from transient causation. …[N]o amount of transient causation can ever, over time, give rise to immanent causation.” (217) Below I will summarize some of the premises for this conclusion, but the short of it is that on metaphysical principles alone we can demonstrate life cannot arise from non-life. For those who want to explore his argument further, do take a look at the essay itself, which Dr. Oderberg has kindly provided for free on his website.

Dr. Oderberg enumerates well-known identifiers of living things. Three key hallmarks he mentions (among others) are (211):

1. Homeostasis: an organism’s control of its processes so as to stabilize itself.
2. Adaptation: changing to overcome obstacles to flourishing.
3. Metabolism: capacity for a thing to take matter from outside itself so as to sustain its life.

He suggests that immanent causation is the essence of beings with these characteristics. By immanent causation he means: “causation that originates with an agent and terminates in that agent for the sake of its self-perfection.” (213) This contrasts with transient causation, wherein “the activity terminates in something distinct from the agent.” (213) He elaborates further on the parts of this definition. One part of an organism acting upon another part falls into the former category, because in acting upon a part one acts upon the organism, and so the cause still terminates within the living thing. (213) And self-perfection means action for the end of a thing’s proper function, for the end of its own good. (216) That the action must be for the sake of self-perfection rules out accidental effects that conclude within the agent, as well as self-destructive effects. (213-214)

Dr. Oderberg then turns back to the hallmarks of life and argues they all exemplify the more fundamental immanent causality (214-215):

1. Homeostasis: living things regulate themselves internally and thereby preserve themselves.
2. Metabolism: the living being takes in external matter/energy and uses it to sustain itself.
3. Adaptation: the organism changes its internal condition so as to maintain itself in its environment.

From these points Dr. Oderberg launches his metaphysical argument against abiogenesis:

Start with some transient causation of the simplest kind: A doing F to B. Add to it: A doing G to B; A doing F, G, H … to C; C acting on A and B; all of these acting jointly on D, E, F… . At some point [according to abiogenesis], if the right transient causal chains are in operation, there will come into being a substance consisting wholly, exclusively, of parts engaged in transient causal relations, but which itself engages in immanent causation – doing F, G, H … to itself for itself. At what point? No one knows, of course; but my claim is that no one could know. For immanent causation just is causation of a wholly different kind from transient causation. (217)

He elaborates on this point a little later:

There is no single transient causal chain, whether linear, cyclical, with multiple causes and/or effects, or of some other complexity, with which any kind of immanent causation could be identified, since no causal chain can be immanent and transient at the same time. By definition, they are two essentially different kinds of causation: transience and immanence are mutually exclusive. For instance, when a person eats they act immanently. They do not act transiently, although a multitude of transient causal relations subserve the immanent action, in particular the chemical reactions that take place from the time food enters the mouth to the time it is fully absorbed into the body. The same is true for any immanent activity of any organism. Just as the chemical reactions and physical interactions are not immanent, so the immanent action is not transient. (218)

He voices a number of potential replies to his argument, but I will only note two. The first is the suggestion that immanence could be identified not with a transient causal relation, but rather with a system of such relations. (220) This amounts to a bare contradiction of his argument, however. The self-organization thesis argues that

if enough elements engage in enough of the transient causal interactions in which they already engage or are capable of engaging when they are in a non-immanent state, they will be in the state of immanent activity. But all they are engaged in in the non-immanent state is, precisely, transient activity. So, all the claim amounts to is the bare assertion that immanence can arise from transience, which is where we started. (220-221)

He elaborates further upon the problem here:

…it is not that the inorganic elements just do more of the same… . It is, rather, that these characteristics now all, without exception, define activity that, also without exception, subserves an entirely different way in which the system operates, distinct from anything transient either in the parts taken alone or collectively. The system is now operating for itself. (221)

The second potential reply to his argument takes the preferred position of the ostrich, and denies immanent causation is real at all. He does not take this reply seriously (225), but notes for the sake of argument that this reply abandons the appearances. “[T]he hallmarks of life most commonly noted in the literature do certainly appear to have something in common.” (225) That is,

There is… widespread agreement on a core set of features such as metabolism, growth, homeostasis, and self-repair, all of which have immanence in common. And there is widespread agreement that non-living things do not display such features. If you take biology seriously… then you should take immanence seriously. (225)

He then concludes his essay by spotlighting the question of life’s origin. He lays out the options: if the universe is eternal, then life has no beginning. But if the universe had a beginning:

then life came into existence at that beginning, and since the Big Bang model seems to exclude this, then some other cosmogony is needed. … If the universe began in time, but life appeared sometime after that origin, but not through abiogenesis, then a theistic explanation looks like the only option. (227)

No doubt this argument will not convince everyone; what philosophical argument of importance ever has? But the reader should note what makes this different from the standard fare in popular debates over the origin of life. Dr. Oderberg reaches a theistic conclusion here, but he does not at any point appeal to special revelation to do so. Neither does he make use of probability judgments such as those found in Intelligent Design arguments. Rather he argues from the qualitative metaphysical distinction between immanent and transient causation, a distinction which both seems obvious from observation, and yet exacting in the consequences it entails for proponents of abiogenesis.