Is Life an Accident?
Scientists often claim that the occurrence of life on Earth was an accident. Life is surely a statistical anomaly, as the observable universe contains much greater quantities of dead planets and inanimate matter than life. Perhaps “accident” is just a poor word choice. It presupposes that what has occurred was not expected to occur. Life is an accident implies that what has happened — life — should not have happened, and what has not happened — nothing — should have happened. To say life is unexpected and should not have happened is a human value judgment unworthy of impartial scientific inquiry.
The occurrence of life is rare but not necessarily accidental. Although the exploration of the universe is in its infancy, so far we have found no extraterrestrial life on other planets. UFO sightings around the globe are finally being acknowledged but their origins are not yet understood. Since life seems to occur so rarely in the universe, maybe even on this one planet only, we call it an accident.
Sparked by human curiosity, the rigors of physics reveal the predictable nature of much of what goes on around us. Evolution of living species by natural selection is theoretical, but it is almost unanimously accepted as scientific fact. It is believed that random mutations are the driving force behind evolution’s progress. But not quite enough evidence has been accumulated to elevate evolution from theory to law. And the character of future species cannot be predicted.
Also, the specific mechanism by which the very first living cells on Earth occurred is still subject to much debate. Scientists accept that evolution is a random process, unguided by a supernatural intelligence, so it is assumed life itself began by a rare unguided random conflation of conditions on a nascent Earth. But to call it an accident is a misnomer.
Perhaps the occurrence of life in the universe is inevitable. There is much evidence to support the evolution of chemistry in the universe, from simple hydrogen atoms to much more complex heavier elements like uranium, via the repeating cycle of star formation and supernovae. This evident increase in complexity, sometimes referred to as emergence theory, may extend from evolving chemistry to the advent of complex living organisms. If this is so, life cannot be an accident but rather a physics-based inevitability.
However, the emergence of greater complexity is offset by entropy. Complex systems wind down, wear out, and die. Although life on Earth has evolved from relatively simple single-celled organisms to cognizant humans, in the end our sun will supernova and exterminate us all. We will once again be reduced to inanimate chemical elements. Entropy wins. End of story.
But is it? It’s the end of a chapter in the story of the universe, but it’s not the end. The debris from exploded stars gravitationally recombine then eventually explode again and again. The universe is thought to have had a beginning in the big bang, so it’s logical to assume it will have an end. Nevertheless, we can’t know if that’s the end of everything because we are denied access to what, if anything, lies beyond our universe.
Although the pursuit of science is strictly rooted in evidence gathering, not mere speculation, conclusions drawn from evidence must be scrutinized through a process of rigorous examination. For example, entropy rules over emergence in the minds of many scientists. But entropy wins in the end of only closed systems and limited time frames. While some outsiders may anthropomorphically claim emergence is evidence of a superior intelligence imbued in the universe, scientists claiming entropy is the final word are guilty of anthropocentrism. We are aware of our own impending death, and we witness the death of stars, so we assume from this available evidence that the universe too must eventually die.
This assumption reveals an Achilles Heel in the scientific process. Confining ourselves to available evidence lacks imagination and stubbornly resists acknowledgement that important evidence is permanently unavailable to us. For example, we know the fabric of spacetime is expanding such that the outer reaches are moving away from us faster than the speed of light, which means significant galactic information is forever lost to us. Also, quantum uncertainty reduces absolute predictability to mere probabilities. We cannot know if the known universe is finite, how much of it is missing, or if there is an infinite series of universes. If some sort of infinity is the reality, we cannot reasonably conclude that entropy trumps emergence.
Einstein said the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible at all. The power of rigorous scientific enterprise has revealed many secrets in a mere 500 years. This is exciting and fuels inspiration that someday we will have all the answers. But as the evidence shows, many things can never be understood because much evidence is rendered inaccessible by the very nature of the universe. Drafting hypotheses from inherently limited information is an admirable but decidedly human trait. However, some hypotheses cannot be tested, proven or falsified.
Furthermore, we tend to believe we understand more than we do. For instance, the fact that we can reliably harness electricity does not mean we know what +/- charge is. Likewise our impressive knowledge of material processes has not brought us any closer to grasping the nature of human consciousness. We know consciousness is connected to brain activity, but human experience is a notably non-material phenomenon not subject to scientific measurement.
Then there is the problem of physics itself. Humans discover the complex physical laws of the universe by utilizing the invented — or discovered — language of calculus. Can a universe predicated on such highly complex principles have happened by sheer accident? If highly intelligent scientists can discover these complex principles, does it imply a greater creative intelligence preceded their discovery by sophisticated primates? This is a logical question but any conclusion either way is speculative at best.
Additionally, the two probable speculations — unintelligent accident or intelligent design — are each riddled with illogic upon further scrutiny. Undeterred, some scientists speculate that ours is a rare universe and that trillions of other less endowed universes exist, so this one’s complexity is merely a statistical anomaly, thus no big deal. It’s a more imaginative speculation than the concept of an intelligent designer, but there will never be any hard evidence to support it or its opposite.
So, when we say life is an accident, we’re assuming based on insufficient evidence and imprecise language. This is forgivably human because we’re hardwired as pattern seekers who draw from experience more than from studied evidence. Even scientists are subject to confirmation bias when speculating. But scientific rigor is predicated upon resisting jumping to conclusions just because they feel good. Therefore, the claim that life is an accident does not stand up to scrutiny.