Written by Gideon A Dunkley III, B.S.[divider]
Dr. Michael Ruse is a philosopher of science with a particular focus on the philosophy of biology, writing from the standpoint of scientific naturalism. He has written on the relationship between science and religion, the creation-evolution controversy, and the demarcation problem in science. Dr. Ruse has taught at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada for 35 years and since then has taught at Florida State University. Dr. Ruse was a key witness for the plaintiff in the 1981 test case (McLean v. Arkansas) of the state law permitting the teaching of Creation Science in the Arkansas school system. Dr. Ruse founded the journal Biology and Philosophy, of wich he is now Emeritus Editor, and has published numerous books and articles. He is well known amongst creationists for his book “Darwinism and its Discontents.”
— From wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Ruse
Dr. Fazale Rana is the Executive Vice President of Research & Apologetics at Reasons to Believe. He is an Old Earth Creationist and has a PhD in chemistry with an emphasis in biochemistry at Ohio University. Dr. Rana has also undertaken postdoctoral studies at the Universities of Virginia and Georgia. Subsequent to that he has worked for seven years as a senior scientist in product development for Procter & Gamble. Today Dr. Rana travels widely speaking on science and faith issues at churches, business firms, and universities.
A debate took place at the University of California, Riverside between Dr. Michael Ruse, a prominent Darwinian philosopher, and Dr. Fazale Rana, a PhD chemist affiliated with Reasons to Believe on May 16, 2013. The title of the debate is, “The Origin of Life: Evolution vs. Design.” In this article I will cross examine the arguments presented by both interlocutors to demonstrate the deficiency of the naturalistic approach to the question, articulated by Dr. Michael Ruse, and the strengths and weaknesses of Dr. Rana’s presentation. I begin by cross examining Dr. Ruse.
Analysis of Dr. Ruse’s Position
Dr. Ruse at the outset endorses methodological naturalism as his method, a position referred to as “provisional atheism” by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. We can see this is the case simply because it asserts that the only causal agents that exert any effect in the world are “natural” meaning that their ontology derives from the physical universe of which they are a part. This means that at the outset any effect or phenomenon in the universe is predetermined to exclude God’s activity and is said to originate within the processes, objects, and events that take place in the autonomous universe. We are thus beginning with an implicit metaphysic (viz. metaphysical naturalism) that automatically excludes an answer to the origins debate. The influential Dutch philosopher, theologian, and apologist Cornelius Van Til argued that in debates of this kind, the starting point, method, and conclusion all interact with and influence one another. Thus, Dr. Ruse’s combination of metaphysical naturalism (starting point) and methodological naturalism (method) has ipso facto guaranteed some form of anti-transcendent process (evolution) that produces the form, function and appearance of all things in the universe (conclusion). This is exactly what Dr. Ruse wants as he says, “Naturalistic evolution gives us the kind of evolution that we want; everything takes place through unbroken law.” Consider this in light of the remarks made by the Presbyterian theologian, Robert L. Dabney, that “if you persist in recognizing nothing but natural forces… it will land you, if you are consistent, nowhere short of absolute atheism.” 
Dr. Ruse undoubtedly credits random mutation and natural selection as having, through deep time, produced the wonder, awe, and beauty of the living world around us. He says that mutation is “random” not in the sense of being uncaused, but in the sense of not having some immediate intent—not consciously designed toward a specific end. Later on in his opening statement he wishes to assert that evolution and design are not necessarily mutually exclusive—it is possible to have them both; what he wants to exclude, however, is design by “miracles.” However it is clear that he is already contradicting himself—if mutation and natural selection are both, by definition, non-intentional processes that happen without regard for a specific end (the crux of evolutionary theory), and design necessarily implies goal oriented efforts (regardless of how they are undertaken), then the two approaches cannot be reconciled. This is nothing short of an attempt to keep God out of the picture, while retaining some element of “quasi-design” (without identifying the designer) that is intended as a rescue device used to remedy the obvious difficulties of orthodox evolutionary theory—this is colloquially described as trying to have one’s cake and eat it too.
He further identifies a fallacy he terms the fallacy of “selective attention” or “misplaced focus.” In other words, we’re not just to look at the cell in abstraction, but must look at it in the context of all background knowledge, including knowledge of evolution through natural selection at the macro-level. In other words, since we know that all life developed by non-intelligent means, therefore the origin of life must likewise be explained in terms of non-intelligent means. But if the debate is about the adequacy of those means to be extended even to the case of the origin of the simplest and most basic life forms (comparatively speaking), how is the perceived deficiency of the theory’s central mechanism remedied by an appeal to those same mechanisms explaining the origin of significantly more complex life forms? Does this sound logical? It is nothing short of a non-sequitur embedded in a circular argument (as it assumes what is a contention in the debate).
He likewise throughout the debate wants to assert that an appeal to God as a designer renders all elements of the design hypothesis non-scientific. He says “If you want to bring in miracles because of your faith in the Bible, then fair enough. I won’t stop you, but I will say that you are not doing science now.” This tactic used by scientists and philosophers like him is frustrating—it is nothing short of the fallacy of hasty generalization, making a general description of the design hypothesis as religious or metaphysical, without considering all of the scientific details presented. Let’s take a neutral party in this debate. Here’s a rough and ready sketch of how science works by the philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith (who, by the way accepts evolutionary theory). He says, “The scientific way of handling an idea is to try to connect it with other ideas, to embed it in a larger conceptual structure, in a way that exposes it to observation… Scientific versions of [theories generally regarded as unscientific or pseudo-scientific] are produced when the main principles are connected with other ideas in a way that exposes these principles to testing.” 
This is not hard to do at all, and in fact was done in the context of the debate. Dr. Rana argued in his opening statement that origin of life research has only revitalized the watchmaker argument. He points out that there are certain characteristics in human designed artifacts that show up in living systems (thereby connecting the proposed idea with other, well established ideas). For example, Leonard Adelman described enzymes that operate on DNA as mini Turing Machines (hypothetical devices that represent computing machines). Donald Mac Donald identified a bit-by-bit parity code built within the DNA—computer scientists use such codes to detect error in data transmission. In my own engineering training I frequently found process control literature describing biochemical processes with engineering terminology: circuits, feedback control, feed-forward control, multiple input-output loops, etc. (embedding the idea in a larger conceptual structure). The heat-shock response in bacteria, bacterial chemotaxis, and the mammalian circadian clock rhythm are a few examples used to demonstrate biological versions of control principles used by chemical, electrical, and mechanical engineers (exposure to observation). Needless to say such features of engineered systems do not originate on their own, but are only observed to be put in place with conscious intelligent oversight. Q.E.D., there is nothing unscientific about the claim that all life forms were designed—I just dealt with that claim in a way that satisfies Smith’s description of a scientific procedure. The implications are unwelcome to Dr. Ruse, because no other causal agents other than a deity are acknowledged to have the power and know-how to create the endless array of life forms we see on this planet, and he therefore must dispense with design in nature, no matter what the evidence is, or dispense with the argument (by classifying it as non-scientific).
Much more could be said, but it is already evident that Dr. Ruse is logically inconsistent, doesn’t reason correctly, and is arbitrary in his definitions of what counts as science. I now proceed to examine Dr. Rana.
Analysis of Dr. Rana’s position:
Dr. Rana does a pretty good job arguing that natural processes are not sufficient to explain the origin of life and the complexity of the cell; I learned quite a bit from his contributions in this debate. He argues four points: all avenues taken to explain the origin of life have led to dead ends; the work done in prebiotic chemistry indicates the critical role of intelligent agency in setting up and running these experiments; work in synthetic biology indicates the critical role of intelligent agency in generating artificial cells; and the structure and function of biochemical systems revitalizes the Watchmaker argument. Dr. Rana identifies three main scenarios for chemical explanations for the origin of life, replicator first, metabolism first, and membrane first, and subsequently argues that each scenario has intractable problems.
In the replicator first scenario, he points out that the replicator must be a homopolymer (as opposed to a copolymer) with a single type of repeat unit (e.g. a nucleotide or amino acid)—the formation of which in a large homogenous mixture of endless types of chemical compounds is thermodynamically uphill and therefore will not occur spontaneously. Not to mention, on top of that, many biotic polymerization reactions precipitate water, and by Le Chatelier’s principle in chemistry, whenever a stress is placed upon a system to displace it from equilibrium, the system will shift in the direction that alleviates the stress and restores a new equilibrium. Therefore, a dehydration reaction in an aqueous environment (which produces the added stress of more water) will immediately shift toward de-polymerization by means of hydrolysis (removing water from the system).
In the metabolism first scenario he argues that there must be catalytic materials present for proto-metabolic systems. The proposed mineral sites have limited metabolic range and thus involve migration of molecules to the mineral surface, which is very unlikely. A little chemical engineering insight is helpful here. There is a well-established relationship in chemical engineering called Fick’s law, which states that molecular flux is directly proportional to the concentration gradient; this law therefore depends upon the system geometry. There is no plausible configuration of a proto-biotic system with the precise geometry required for these chemical components (wherever they came from) to diffuse to the catalytic surface, spontaneously—recall that a major category of biological proteins are involved in transport to bring both extra and intracellular ligands to their target destination (usually a thermodynamically uphill process)—the reality is vastly more complex than these simplistic accounts can handle. Catalyzed reactions are also very precisely engineered, depend upon a sensitive choice of catalyst-reagent pair, reactor configuration, temperature, and are susceptible to catalyst poisoning, rendering the reaction inoperable.
In the membrane first scenario, he argues that each step in the process requires exacting chemical and environmental conditions for each step. Such proposals really fly in the face of current knowledge about biological membranes. For example, biochemists Nelson and Cox state: “Membranes are not merely passive barriers. They include an array of proteins specialized for promoting or catalyzing various cellular processes. At the cell surface, transporters move specific organic solutes and inorganic ions across the membrane; receptors sense extracellular signals and trigger molecular changes in the cell; adhesion molecules hold neighboring cells together. Within the cell, membranes organize cellular processes such as the synthesis of lipids and certain proteins, and the energy transductions in mitochondria and chloroplasts.”  Thus biological membranes aren’t just “lipid bubbles” as Dr. Ruse describes them; they’re indispensable to the integrity and operation of the cell.
Dr. Rana does a great job explaining the chemistry that renders non-teleological explanations defunct, but where he runs into trouble is in his compromise with the Biblical account. In the cross examination, Dr. Ruse asked him how his model of design fits with what the Bible says is God’s activity during creation—the two accounts don’t resemble each other at all and he undermines the case he made in his opening statement by not coordinating his scientific arguments with a polemic for the Biblical doctrine of God’s fiat creation. All we heard was groveling as Dr. Rana tried to avoid the plain reading of Genesis 1 and 2—but what could you expect from a colleague of Hugh Ross?
Nevertheless, putting that aside, I was surprised to see his handling of the philosophical components of the debate—it was much better than Dr. Ruse’s performance. For example, Dr. Rana quoted Paul Davies as saying that the starting point for any origin of life research must be the assumption that life emerged naturally. He asked Dr. Ruse what justifies this artificial constraint that the evidence can only lead to naturalistic scenarios of life’s origin, to which Dr. Ruse responded that it is for pragmatic reasons, viz. that naturalism works. The question is, works toward what end? Obviously toward the end of furnishing an atheistic theory of origins, by his own admission! To repeat, Dr. Ruse said, “Naturalistic evolution gives us the kind of evolution we want; everything takes place through unbroken law.” He misrepresents the opposing view by implying that those who believe, as a matter of fact, that God created all living things are prohibited from systematic study or a lawful conception of the universe. We have different inductive expectations from what the naturalist has because our starting points are different; that doesn’t vitiate systematic study. The Biblical worldview supplies the answer to origins at the outset—it is upon that foundation that a systematic approach to study can be built. By contrast, the naturalist begins with absolutely nothing (save his unacknowledged use of Christian epistemic capital), and must expect that at least some day some principle will be found that is capable of supplying what is sufficient to explain not just the origin of life, but the origin of everything (and then turns around and accuses the Christian of intellectual laziness). This gives the veneer of open-mindedness when in reality it is closed-mindedness with respect to one type of explanation, thereby belying the popular image of scientists as neutral parties.
What this illustrates is how competing paradigms or worldviews produce different answers to questions raised, lead us to have different expectations, and restructure the nature of explanation. Here’s a perfect example from the history of science, from the insightful philosopher of science, Harold Brown. He says:
“The first major step toward a new physics was taken by Galileo with the introduction of the concept of inertial motion: if a terrestrial body were in motion with no force acting on it, it would continue in its motion indefinitely. This thesis, once accepted, eliminates the old problem of projectile motion. The idea that objects have a natural motion remains, but in the case of terrestrial objects natural motion is no longer finite but indefinite, and it becomes necessary to explain why motion stops rather than why it continues. In the case of projectile motion the old problem of why the arrow continues to move after it leaves the bowstring is dissolved: this is the natural thing for it to do; no explanation is required…[Galileo] offered what Toulmin has called a new ‘ideal of natural order,’ a new fundamental conception of how nature acts, and as a result he changed our understanding of what phenomena require explanation and of what questions can legitimately be asked [emphasis added].” 
Thus we can see from this insight that Dr. Ruse has transferred what is a deficiency within the worldview of naturalism (viz. the possibility of a naturalistic account of the origin of life) into a Biblical worldview with its own “ideal of natural order” so to speak by saying that adopting the Biblical account hinders discovery of a possible mechanism for the origin of life. No explanation is required (from the standpoint of regular instances of “unbroken law”) because the understanding of what phenomena require such explanations and of what questions can legitimately be asked with respect to origins is given at base in the Christian worldview with the revelation of the creative activity of God; the problem of the origin of life is dissolved. It is just as fruitless to require of a Christian a naturalistic account of life’s origin as it is to require of Galileo an Aristotelian explanation of natural order. Therefore, from the Christian perspective, there is no expectation of a successful, forthcoming naturalistic account of the origin of life (nor a need for one), and the consistent failure of naturalists to present one continues to indirectly reinforce the Christian worldview’s account of origins.
Finally, I was pleased to see Dr. Rana challenging Dr. Ruse’s contention that it is solely data which leads to new theories, and that holding to a Biblical conception of the universe will only stifle scientific discovery. This is a surprisingly ignorant position for a philosopher to hold, given all of the literature generated over what is called the “context of discovery” in the philosophy of science. Even evolutionists have admitted that discovery in science is more so an art form , and is impossible to describe by means of the application of some cherished scientific method. For example, August Kekulé discovered the ring structure of benzene after he had a dream wherein he saw a snake coiling around itself to swallow its tail . Additionally Neils Bohr, in his development of the modern atomic model and quantum theory, was influenced by views about truth he developed in his youth along with a desire for a theory that placed bounds on human knowledge in the waning influence of enlightenment rationalism [7-8]. What this illustrates is that philosophical convictions may contribute to discoveries in science; and to the extent that Christianity has an implicit philosophy of reality, knowledge, and human conduct, it cannot be said that Christian thought stifles discovery—the real contention is what type of discovery is expected. Thus Dr. Ruse’s comments cannot be accepted in light of the history of science.
Dr. Rana did an okay job in this debate—he does great chemistry and good philosophy, but poor exegesis and little better theology. His case could have been much stronger had he stuck with what God revealed in scripture. As for Dr. Ruse, his arguments were ineffective and self-vitiating, demonstrating the Biblical point that the self-conscious desire to dispense with God in our knowledge produces a worldview characterized by incoherence and folly, and is only remedied by the redemptive work of the Triune God.
References:. Quoted in Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen, On Worshipping the Creature Rather than the Creator, in Journal of Christian Reconstruction, available online at http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/PA012.htm#n71 accessed August 11, 2014 . Peter Smith, Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, University of Chicago Press (2003), p. 71 . David L. Nelson, Michael M. Cox, Principles of Biochemistry 4th ed., W. H. Freeman and Company (2005), p. 269 . Harold Brown, Perception, Theory and Commitment, University of Chicago Press (1977), p. 114-115 . Stanley A. Rice, Scientific Method, in Encyclopedia of Evolution, Facts on File Science Library (2007), p. 354-355 . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_Kekul%C3%A9#The_ouroboros_dream, accessed August 10, 2014 . George Musser, A New Enlightement, in Scientific American vol. 307 no. 5 (Nov. 2012), p. 81 . Tom Sigfried, When the Atom went Quantum, in Science News July 13, 2013 p. 23