The Beginning What'sNEWNor is anything gained by running the difficulty farther back.... Our going back, ever so far, brings us no nearer to the least degree of satisfaction upon the subject. — William Paley (1)
How did life begin in the first place? It's a natural question. Yet science is nowhere near the answer to this question. In fact, the question may be flawed. Maybe there was no beginning. This possibility cannot be logically ruled out.
I have been looking for spontaneous generation during twenty years without discovering it. No, I do not judge it impossible.... You place matter before life, and you decide that matter has existed for all eternity. How do you know that the incessant progress of science will not compel scientists... to consider that life has existed during eternity and not matter?
In 1914, BAAS President William Bateson suggested that life may have evolved from an original complex that already included all of its ensuing variety (3.5). How could that begin? And in 1926, Russian geochemist V. I. Vernadskii observed (4):
None of the exact relationships between facts which we know will be changed if this problem has a negative solution, that is, if we admit that life always existed and had no beginning, that living organisms never arose at any time from inert material....
If the physical universe begins with a cosmological big bang, the potential for the big bang had to exist already. If many universes are created continually by many big bangs, how can that process have a beginning? With or without a beginning, the physical world is a miracle. Life seems the same way. How could we possibly explain its origin? Life is a miracle, too.
If life has lasted since forever, that would imply that it will last forevermore. So even if life on our own planet were to expire before we became Cosmic Ancestors, somewhere, probably, life will continue.
If life has always existed, and may always exist in the future, does that make our part infinitely small? Are we nothing again, after all? The progress of science has had a humbling effect before, as when we found out that we are descended from lower animals. It was humbling for people to learn that Earth goes around the sun, that there are other planets, other suns, other galaxies, now maybe other universes. But are we, after all, robbed of dignity? No. By Cosmic Ancestry, we're connected to the whole. We belong here.
Even if life is eternal in both directions, mustn't there be some logical ground on which it stands? Or some supernatural god, outside of time or before time, behind it all? It is natural to wonder about these things. But how could we know? Such questions take us beyond the reach of scientific knowledge. "We must stop somewhere...," says David Hume. "Nor is it ever within the reach of human capacity to explain ultimate causes or show the last connection of any object. It is sufficient if any steps, so far as we go, are supported by experience and observation" (5).
In the early twentieth century, some mathematicians wanted to place mathematics on firm ground, to perfectly secure the footings of mathematics. In January, 1931, with a precise technical proof using arithmetized syntax, Kurt Gödel showed that it can't be done. Mathematics is inherently incomplete. This logical principle supports the broader understanding that completeness and groundedness are incompatible. We cannot get around this problem. This is, perhaps, the difference between religion and science: religion seeks completeness, science seeks groundedness.
Cosmic Ancestry gives groundedness to our existence. If one still sometimes feels a deep wonder and longing, perhaps Walt Whitman's poetry is sufficient consolation:
And you O my soul where you stand,
References1. William Paley, Natural Theology (1802), New York: The American Tract Society. p 19.
2. John G. Burke, Cosmic Debris: Meteorites in History, University of California Press, 1986. p 170.
3. René Dubos, Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science, Da Capo Press, Inc., 1950. p 396.
3.5 William Bateson, BAAS Presidential Address, 1914, posted 12 Mar 2012.
4. V. I. Vernadskii, Biosfera, Leningrad, 1926: cited in The Origin of Life, 3rd edition, by Aleksandr I. Oparin, Academic Press, Inc., Publishers, 1957. p 48.
5. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). Hafner Publishing Company, 1969. p 48.