Does finding the origin of life matter?

Does it matter if we never learn for sure exactly how the universe and the life in it – including our own – started?

A number of recent articles address what Michael Shermer calls “arguably the biggest Big Question of them all,” and it’s worth our time to look at why the answer may well be “No.”

In the New York Times (February 21st), Dennis Overbye reported on a recent “origins” conference, where two dozen experts – chemists, biologists, geologists, physicists, and planetary scientists – met “to ponder where and what Eden might have been.”

Speculation ranged from the proverbial “primordial ooze”; to a steaming volcanic vent; to a number of extra-terrestrial origins, from flaming comets to prosaic microbial dust stirred up from the surface of Mars by ancient meteor impacts.

The current favourite is RNA, since it has a dual-capacity which DNA, its better-known cousin, lacks:

RNA is more versatile, being able not only to store information, like DNA, but also to use that information to catalyze reactions, a job now performed by proteins. That solved a sort of chicken-and-egg problem about which ability came first into the world. The answer is that RNA could be both.

Given the right conditions, thanks to RNA complicated molecules can assemble themselves spontaneously, in an automatic – and autonomous – chemical reaction, eliminating the need to search for or explain an origin for the origin. That this process would lead to a self-sustaining system of Darwinian evolution is a rather remote possibility, scientists admit, but not an impossible one – and the existence of a species with the mental capacity to question the likelihood of the event argues that the sequence of events, however unlikely, happened at least once.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and the author of Why Darwin Matters, addressed the origins question in “The Biggest Big Question of All,”  published by Big Questions Online in October. Shermer offers ten popular answers to the question of where the universe and its life came from. Several answers are metaphysical, including the notion that we’re asking the wrong question:

Asking why there is something rather than nothing presumes “nothing” is the natural state of things out of which “something” needs an explanation. … The laws of physics themselves are shown to correspond to what one would expect if the universe appeared from nothing. There is something rather than nothing because something is more stable.

The other metaphysical answer is, of course, “God.” But Shermer correctly points out that a deity that created the universe had to, by definition, exist outside of it – that is, outside of space and time. If this is so, then we have no means by which to interact with, understand, or demonstrate the existence of so alien an entity:

In both the Judeo-Christian tradition and the scientific worldview, time began when the universe came into existence, either through divine creation or the Big Bang. God, therefore, would have to exist outside of space and time, which means that as natural beings delimited by living in a finite universe, we cannot possibly know anything about such a supernatural entity. The theist’s answer is an untestable hypothesis.

The rest of Shermer’s answers are the stuff of contemporary physics, ranging from the relatively familiar “Big Bang” to the more esoteric postulations of multiverses, branes, and M-theory overlaps. As he notes, most of these theories are potentially or actually testable, and all of them exist within the framework of some sort or other of entirely material reality:

The theory that new universes can emerge from collapsing black holes may be illuminated through additional knowledge about the properties of black holes. Other bubble universes might be detected in the subtle temperature variations of the cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the Big Bang of our own universe. … If there are other universes, perhaps ripples in gravitational waves will signal their presence. Maybe gravity is such a relatively weak force (compared to electro-magnetism and the nuclear forces) because some of it “leaks” out to other universes. Maybe.

It is Shermer’s position – and here I agree with him – that a physical “maybe” is a better answer than a metaphysical assertion with no physical basis. As he correctly points out, uncertainty is one of science’s greatest strengths.

In a more recent article, also for Big Questions Online ,The ‘Point’ Is Beside the Point,” Shermer approaches the origins question from a somewhat different angle, answering the theistic objection that an entirely physical Universe would have no point, no purpose. Shermer’s response is a variation on the “Wrong Question” argument above:

Why are these [theistic] arguments irrelevant to the question? Because whether there is a God or not, the universe per se cannot have a purpose in any anthropomorphic sense for which that term is usually employed. The universe is simply the collection of galaxies, stars, planets, comets, meteorites, and other solar system detritus, plus whatever dark matter and dark energy turn out to be. The universe is governed by laws of nature that themselves have no purpose other than what they inevitably dictate matter and energy to do. Stars, for example, convert hydrogen into helium, and they have no choice in the matter once they reach a certain size and temperature. Stars are not sitting around thinking “my purpose in life is to convert hydrogen into helium so I better get on with it.”

Shermer suggests that our very human need to find and understand purpose is not a reflection of the divine plan but more simply – and more plausibly – a product of the evolution of the human brain:

Humans have an evolved sense of purpose — a psychological desire to accomplish a goal — that developed out of behaviors that were selected for because they were good for the individual or for the group. Although cultures may differ on what behaviors are defined as purposeful, the desire to behave in purposeful ways is an evolved trait. … How we define our purposeful lives may be personal, but there is an inherent structure to the human condition that helps delimit our search.

(Shermer devotes the rest of his article to an assertion of the kinds of purposes we develop and the ways we implement them, but that’s not particularly relevant to the focus here.)

We are unsure now how the universe began. And thanks to the limitations of science we may never know beyond a (we hope) high level of probability. Should this bother us? No, it shouldn’t. We know now all we can know now; we will know then all we will be able to know then. Nothing within our apprehension is hidden. The universe’s ways are not mysterious, even if understanding them is a monumental challenge.

Certainly that challenge is enough to satisfy our evolved sense of purpose, isn’t it?