Some of us are hearty and confident and think we are almost there [in explaining life]. Others think there is still a revolution in our future if we are to make sense of intelligence, or of life, as a genuinely natural phenomenon.
What kind of disagreement is this? To my mind it is foolish to cast it as a standoff between those who embrace science and admit its stunning achievements and those who reject the project of natural science itself. It is not a conflict between those who know and those who are confused.
Certainly how such a description looks may depend on which side of the standoff one is on. But Michael Weisberg (Penn) and I continue to be puzzled by Noe's position, both in his original quasi-defense of Nagel and this new piece. Michael gave me permission to post his response:
All parties agree that we don't know how life got started, but most scientists, contra Noe, see this as a problem of historical reconstruction. The event in question was almost 4 billion years ago, and since the historical record is so limited, we have to construct plausible hypotheses about what happened. There are plausible mechanisms for each major step in the origin of life (including inorganic molecules to organic molecules, achiral to chiral molecules, chiral molecules to self-replicating systems, cellular encapsulation, RNA to DNA, etc.) The real problem is not having a plausible account, it is knowing which plausible account is correct since more than one is consistent with the data. We might never be in a better epistemic situation, but I don't understand why we would need dramatic theoretical innovation as opposed to more data.
It is also strange that Noe thinks we are very far from making life in a test tube. We can already construct novel DNA-like systems from scratch. Synthetic DNA has been inserted into cells. We seem to be close to making the first artificial cells (all the parts have been made, but functional integration is still an obstacle). If we put all these pieces together, will we not have life in a test tube?
In sum, this does seem to be in part a "conflict between those who know and those who are confused," at least about some important aspects of the science.