Explaining Life

What it Means to Explain

Scientists notoriously struggle with an explanation for the origins and destiny of life on earth. In the past week or so some novel suggestions have emerged. As for origins, life spread from other planets – we descend from aliens (here). The primordial soup theory might be correct, it just might not be an earth bound soup. In a galaxy far far away a soup produced an organism that hopped on an asteroid and traveled to other planets, including our own, and infected them with living things. Of course this doesn’t explain life; it merely tries to tell a convincing story as to how rocks don’t breathe and animals do. If “life” is simply being animate, then this story is all we need. But if human life has intrinsic worth, is purposeful and is not merely matter on the move, one still needs to explain what it is about an alien critter that can explain that kind of life.

As for our destiny, time will stop, apparently in a kind of freeze frame (here). Time wound up at the beginning (of course this might contradict our alien theory) and so it will wind down or perhaps wind up so far that it runs out of juice. I must say this theory seems plausible when time seems to run out far to quickly before a deadline or go so very slowly when I am bored. But then perhaps there is no such thing as time; maybe it’s all in my head, a leftover, perhaps, from my alien heritage.

Of course the Christian story has become less and less convincing for many people. It states that all life on earth was made by God. Human life was endowed with the image of God, explaining why human life is of such worth and is capable of consistently amazing us. Our destiny is in the hand of God – he determines it’s future and it’s purpose. The Christian story also has a good reason for scientific fantasy. If we suppress the truth of God, we do it because of unrighteousness (a concept only really possible within the Christian story), our rebellion against God’s explanation of his creation.

I don’t know how many will accept our new theories – that we are descended from aliens and that one day, probably when I am making a very silly face, we will all get stuck and stay like that for ever – but I am sure that they don’t explain as much as they would like to. To explain something one needs more than a cause and an effect. My being married to my wife was, at least secondarily, caused by a series of events – ring, kneel, plead, eat, pop cork (from bottle of Asti). But that doesn’t explain  my being married. For that one needs to know the value of marriage, the love for another human being, the knowledge we have of there being a purpose for being married beyond our own self-satisfaction, the sanctity of marriage, it’s holiness, it’s mystery. Likewise, just because one can come up with a story as to how there is apparent life on earth, it does not mean one has an explanation for life on earth. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.