We have arrived at an astounding conclusion, at a complete reversal of the customary way most scientists and laymen understand Homo sapiens and nature: Our entire life is a consequence of human mind and Divine Mind, not of the interactions of little bits of matter. Mind is primary, not matter.
In scientific circles, the suggestion that the soul is not an outmoded concept is typically greeted with disbelief, ridicule, or laughter, because virtually every scientist holds that the laws of physics and chemistry either now or will in the future explain everything. For most biologists, their discipline is an extension of the science of matter.
Biologist Peter Medawar asserts that “biology is not ‘just’ physics and chemistry, but a very limited, very special, and profoundly interesting part of them.” Biologist Edgar Mercer agrees: “Most scientists in practice behave as if they believed that only matters of convenience or convention separate physics from biology; or to put it another way, they act on a belief that there is really only one science.” The discovery of the helical structure of DNA, the so-called “master molecule of life,” is taken by scientists and laypersons alike as overwhelming proof that life results from physics, not a nonmaterial soul.
Surprisingly, the prevailing opinion that biology is just complicated physics does not hold up to rigorous scientific examination.
Mercer assigns the origin of the belief that biology is resolvable to physics to Newton: “Inevitably the idea spread that all the sciences could be brought together and integrated in terms of particle dynamics using Newtonian methods.” In the preface to his Principia, Newton set out the goal of modern science: “I derive from the celestial phenomena the forces of gravity with which bodies tend to the sun and the several planets…. I wish we could derive the rest of the phenomena of Nature by the same kind of reasoning from mechanical principles.”
During the Enlightenment, the mechanical understanding of life seized the imagination of philosophers, scientists, and the man on the street. Jacques Vaucanson, in 1738, exhibited in Paris a mechanical duck that ate, digested food, and defecated. The clockwork mechanism of the duck consisted of numerous levers and interlocking gears; each wing alone had more than four hundred moving parts. The inventor described his duck as an animal “made of gilded copper, who drinks, eats, quacks, splashes about in water, and digests food like a living duck.” The duck took kernels of corn from Vaucanson’s hand and swallowed them with a quick, realistic gulping action of its flexible neck. Inside the duck a “chemical laboratory” digested the food. The chyme passed into the bowels, then to the anus, where a sphincter permitted it to emerge. (For a mistaken representation by an American observer of how the Defecating Duck worked, see illustration.)
Vaucanson’s duck was a sensation in Paris. To see the mechanical marvel of the age, poor people paid a week’s wages. The great Voltaire pronounced the digesting duck and its inventor a fulfillment of mankind’s ambition to create life and thereby displace the gods: “A rival to Prometheus, Vaucanson seemed to steal the heavenly fire in his search to give life.”
Forty-five years later, the magician Eugéne Robert-Houdin (the conjuror from whom Houdini took his name) discovered the duck was a fraud. The corn eaten by the duck, instead of being digested, simply was stored in a container at the base of the throat. The substance emitted from the anus was pre-stored “feces,” dyed green breadcrumbs, pumped out of the duck and in the public demonstrations by Vaucanson collected with great care on a silver platter.
Today, in every grade school, students are taught that life is a mechanical phenomenon. Rain falls; water seeps into the ground; its absorption by a seed starts a chemical reaction; the seed sprouts, eventually sunlight impinges upon the new leaves; the resulting photochemical reaction supplies the energy for further growth. In a similar mechanical manner, the plant reaches maturity, reproduces, and dies. The development of an animal fits into the same mechanical scheme; a fertilized ovum replaces the seed and food plays the part of sunlight.
After Newton, of course, the mechanical outlook in biology became greatly expanded to include electricity traveling along nerves, chemical reactions in cells, and photons striking the retina. The enlargement of Newton’s mechanical principles is now simply called “materialism,” the philosophy that holds that every object as well as every act in the universe is matter, an aspect of matter, or produced by matter.
Materialism has become so embedded in the modern consciousness that to come up with a contrary understanding of life we must look to a different era or culture, for instance, ancient Greece. Aristotle thought that plants and animals possess an inner agency that causes them to emulate the Prime Mover (Aristotle’s version of God); every plant and animal desires full actuality and that is what causes seeds and fertilized ova to grow into adult organisms. Furthermore, each plant and animal desires immortality, but the instability of matter prevents that, so a plant or an animal settles for what is second best, reproduction of itself to continue its species, and that explains the cycles of generation and corruption found throughout nature. The great principle of nature is not mechanical causation but love. Every living organism yearns for full existence forever.[1*]
Our materialistic view of life, like many cultural beliefs, blinds us to the obvious: Living organisms and inert matter are fundamentally different in five crucial ways.
Every part of an organism contains the whole in some way.
An open encounter with any organism reveals that each part, in some way, always contains the whole. Consequently, a part is not separable from the whole, for if it could be separated, the part would no longer exist. For example, consider a jack rabbit in the desert Southwest. The DNA in every cell of its body is unique to this jack rabbit.
The entire jack rabbit is contained in every cell of its body, and if the whole could be removed from the part, the jack rabbit would be destroyed. Similarly, the world the rabbit lives in is present in some way in its parts. The coyote is present in the rabbit’s powerful back legs, desert plants in its sharp teeth, the earth’s gravitational pull in its bones, an oxygen-rich atmosphere in its lungs. Even the history of the universe is present in the rabbit. The calcium atoms in its bones, the iron atoms in its red blood cells, indeed, every chemical element in its body came from stars that exploded billions of years ago.
The matter of the rabbit is literally star stuff, and therefore the Big Bang, galaxies, and stars are present in the rabbit. Take all traces of the atmosphere out of the rabbit, then its ears, lungs, and blood would no longer exist. Remove the earth’s gravity from the rabbit, then its bones would vanish. Remove the Big Bang, and nothing exists.
Unlike the organic wholes of biology, the wholes of physics and chemistry are composite in that they can be separated into parts without destroying or altering the whole.[2*] In Newtonian physics, the motion of a whole body is determined by the motion of its parts. Manmade objects do not possess the unity that organisms have. A lug nut from a 2003 Toyota Land Cruiser does not uniquely determine the individual vehicle it came from, while the DNA in a drop of your blood or in a swab of your saliva uniquely identifies you.
Carl Woese, a biophysicist and the discoverer of archaea, a new domain of life, admonishes biologists to “stop looking at the organism purely as a molecular machine. While a machine is a mere collection of parts, some sort of ‘sense of the whole’ inheres in the organism.”
A part of an organism is meaningless without the whole.
Unlike physics and chemistry, where deep insights into nature are gained by studying the part isolated from the whole, biology advances by understanding the part in terms of the whole.
Consider the units of heredity, genes embedded in DNA. A gene on a chromosome is divided into several pieces separated by large stretches of DNA known as introns that have nothing to do with the expression of the gene. Like strings of letters taken from the entire alphabet, the chemical sequences (bases) that make up DNA have no meaning in themselves. The meaning or meaninglessness of a string letters is determined by a whole. Information theorist Hubert Yockey points out that “O singe fort! has no meaning as a sentence in English, although each is an English word, yet in German it means O sing on! and in French it means O strong monkey!” Similarly, what particular sequences of bases have meaning as a gene can only be determined by looking to a whole—to the cell, to the organism, or to the pedigree of the offspring.
For example, Huntington’s disease, characterized by jerky, involuntary movements called chorea, and by mood swings, slurred speech, and eventually dementia, was first diagnosed, in 1872, by New York physician George Huntington. He realized it ran in families. Geneticists, later, traced the disease back to two brothers from Suffolk, England, who immigrated to America in 1630. Huntington’s disease follows the classic Mendelian pattern of inheritance: Given a family history of the disease, Mendelian genetics can assign a probability to an offspring getting the disease but cannot predict with certainty who will.
In 1993, six research teams, comprising 52 investigators from ten institutions, announced that the Huntington gene had been found. The gene responsible for the havoc wrought by Huntington’s disease is carried by all human beings; however, people with the disease have a defective version. One end of the defective gene repeats too often, what is in effect the molecular equivalent of a stutter.
The successful search for the Huntington gene clearly shows that for a physicist or a chemist, a gene is simply a sequence of chemical units, but for a biologist the function of a gene is determined by looking to some whole. No biochemist or geneticist could have looked solely at the chemical structure of a defective Huntington gene and concluded that it was the cause of Huntington’s disease.
Even DNA, in and of itself, is meaningless. Discovering the physical structure of a DNA molecule was a problem in physics and chemistry. Through the analysis of x-ray crystallography data, Francis Crick and James Watson determined that the DNA molecule is a double helix. But why DNA has the form of a double helix can be answered only by looking to the whole, to the cell in this case. When a cell divides, the DNA in the cell replicates itself by unzipping into two helical strands and incorporating new bases from the surrounding medium in precisely the right order to form two identical copies of the original double helix. (See illustration.) Thus, in biology, the physical structure of a part, DNA, is understood in terms of the whole, the cell.
The form of an organism is not dictated by physics.
Another way that physics and chemistry differ from biology is that the form of inorganic substances arises from physical necessity, while no organism has a form dictated by physical laws alone. Only seven stable subatomic particles exist: the photon, the proton, the electron, the neutron, and three kinds of neutrinos.[3*] The interaction of subatomic particles produces the nearly hundred naturally occurring elements which exhibit far more variety than their constituents. Atomic elements and chemical compounds, each with its own special properties, arise by physical and chemical necessity. Hydrogen and oxygen, for example, have a natural inclination to form water.
Atomic elements and chemical compounds do not grow or reproduce. They do not have an “inside,” and like all nonliving things, they act only when they are acted upon from without. Crystals, for instance, increase in size by addition from the outside, involving no transformation of outside material as in plant and animal growth. In a perfect crystalline solid, the same pattern is repeated in three dimensions. The interior of the structure has no function; the crystal develops by the addition of components to its surface. Because crystals are made up of exceedingly small structural units, repeated side by side, indefinitely in all directions, their structures are limited in number, dictated by geometry. Mathematics allows only thirty-two possible classes of crystal symmetry. The 230 types of crystal structures that occur in nature fall into one of these classes. The laws of physics and chemistry produce the same crystals over and over again, in a predictable manner.
Viruses prefigure certain life functions and are considered by some to be rudimentary living things. Closer inspection, however, indicates otherwise. About a thousand times larger than a protein molecule, the average virus is visible only through electron microscopy. Viruses have no cell membrane to receive materials selectively from without, no way to assimilate food, and no way to produce energy—all functions of the simplest cell. Consequently, viruses cannot carry out true life activities.
Reproduction is the only living activity viruses appear to perform. But here also it is not genuine reproduction as found in animals and plants where the parent, without self-destruction, produces another being like itself, either by changing itself as when a paramecium divides into two, or by producing a seed or egg that can independently develop into an adult of the same species. Viruses have no eggs or seeds, and they do not multiply by division. They are necessarily parasitic.
Because they have no metabolism, viruses cannot replicate themselves outside of a living cell. To replicate itself, a virus, or at least its nucleic acid, must be absorbed into the cell whose materials and energy sources the foreign nucleic acid commandeers to produce identical copies of itself. And, unlike reproduction in plants and animals, replication in viruses requires the disintegration of the “parent” virus. Chemist Linus Pauling argues that a virus is nonliving:
If… we require that living organisms… have the property of carrying on some metabolic reactions, then the plant viruses would be described simply as molecules (with molecular mass of the order of magnitude of 10,000,000) that have such a molecular structure as to permit them to catalyze a chemical reaction, in a proper medium, leading to the synthesis of molecules identical with themselves.
The form of a virus is determined by the requirements of physics and chemistry; true growth in animals and plants produces forms not dictated by physical laws alone, as the great variety in the shapes of tree leaves show. Molecular biologist Salvador Luria points up the contrast:
Scrutiny of the organization of shells of many viruses with the electron microscope proves that their protein molecules are assembled according to well-known principles of solid geometry, the same ones employed by roof builders to construct quasi-spherical shells of maximum strength using uniform building elements. The shells of viruses bear close resemblance to Buckminster Fuller’s domes…. The shape of a virus is simply the outcome of the assembly of protein molecules tending, like all molecular structures, to reach a state of minimal energy.
Physical systems tend to the lowest energy states, such as a ball rolling down a hill, a radium atom radioactively decaying into lead, or the coming together of macro-molecules to form a virus, while the end of a fertilized seed or ova is an adult organism, not some minimal energy state. The lowest energy state of a cat is a dead cat, not a living cat.
An organism exists only in activity.
We all know that we breathe, our hearts beat, we take in food and eliminate wastes, that our hair and nails never cease growing, and that we age. Still most of us think of our body as a house that we inhabit; we believe that wear and tear causes the house to age and that the material substance of the house remains unchanged for years—a totally inaccurate picture.
Consider the human body. The skeleton seems permanent, but atoms pass back and forth through its cell walls, and by that means the body acquires a new skeleton every ten years. The liver is new every 400 days or so; the skin every two weeks; the stomach lining every four days; the surface cells of the stomach lining that contact food are renewed every five minutes. The average cell carries out one hundred thousand chemical reactions every second and can reproduce itself every twenty minutes. It is as if a person lived in a house whose foundation, roof, rafters, joists, floors, clapboards, windows, and heating and plumbing systems were being continuously replaced every year. The new house may look identical to the old, but physically it would be totally different. A person, clearly, is not a material object like a house. His or her body is a stable pattern riding on a sea of material flux, much like an eddy in a rushing river. “Organisms are resilient patterns in a turbulent flow—patterns in an energy flow.” The belief that our bodies are molecular machines is clearly false, for “machines are not made of parts that continually turn over, renew.”
Biological life is a process, an activity, not a thing; an organism is a being-in-activity, produced and maintained through an inwardly directed activity. Hence, physics and chemistry differ fundamentally from biology in the sense that a macro-physical system is inert, while an organism exists only in activity.[4*]
An organism is built from matter and information.
Unlike atomic elements and chemical compounds that arise by physical or chemical necessity, organisms are built according to genetic instructions. Matter does not need special instructions to manufacture a snowflake or a sodium chloride crystal, but matter has no innate inclination to produce a petunia or a cat, any more than it has an innate inclination to produce a chair or a microchip. Matter must be directed to produce a petunia or a cat cell by cell, protein by protein, through a blueprint and instructions encoded in DNA. “What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life’,” Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, acknowledges. “It is information, words, instructions.”
The absence of a code in nonliving things led theoretical biologist Lila Gatlin to offer a new definition of life. Aristotle defined life as the capacity for self-nutrition and growth, both of which are self-initiated and self-directed. Gatlin defines a living organism “as a system that both stores and processes the information necessary for its own reproduction.” She adds that “under this definition a virus would not be regarded as alive, since it can only store but cannot process information.” A living cell is necessary to process the information stored in a virus.
The four ways objects come into being can be classified in terms of information.
A living organism comes from a fertilized seed or ova that stores and processes information. A virus results from an identical virus that stores information but cannot process it; a host cell must act as the processor. An artifact, such as a screwdriver, a chair, or a microchip, comes about from information stored and processed outside the object. Finally, a nonliving, naturally-occurring object, such as a chemical compound, a snowflake, a mountain, or a planet, comes about by physical necessity and thus requires no information for its production.
Like all information, the blueprint and instructions encoded in the DNA of an organism are nonmaterial. Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, proclaims, “Information is information, not matter or energy.” That information is nonmaterial is seen by looking at what all codes have in common. Consider Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” which can be spoken in English or German, written in Arabic or Chinese, tapped out in Morse code, or given in raised dots of paper (Braille). Clearly, a code is arbitrary, not natural. There is no logical or necessary physical connection between a code and what is encoded. The meaning of “four score and seven years ago” is not sounds, black marks on paper, or raised dots. Without a decoder, the patterns of raised dots of paper are meaningless. The raised dots, shown here ⠋ ⠕ ⠥ ⠗ ⠎ ⠉ ⠕ ⠗ ⠑ ⠁ ⠝ ⠙ ⠎ ⠑ ⠧ ⠑ ⠝ ⠽ ⠑ ⠁ ⠗ ⠎ ⠁ ⠛ ⠕, are not the meaning they encode—the first six words of the “Gettysburg Address.”
“Four score and seven years ago” has two elements—the meaning and the medium of the encodement. The medium is material, while the meaning is nonmaterial. The meaning of the “Gettysburg Address” cannot be reduced to the mere arrangement of sounds or impressions on paper, nor can it be measured in terms of mass, length, time, and electric charge; and, the same is true of all information, including the information written in the genetic code: “Information is information, not matter or energy.”
The distinguished evolutionary biologist George Williams observes that biologists fail to “realize that they work with two more or less incommensurable domains: that of information and that of matter…. These two domains will never be brought together in any kind of the sense usually implied by the term ‘reductionism.’” The two domains are incommensurate, because information is measured by bits, not by mass, extension, and charge. A galaxy and a particle of dust are in the domain of matter, since both have mass and extension; but a petunia and a microchip are in domain of information, because what is needed to build them is measured in bits, not in grams and centimeters.
Williams points out that “a gene is not a DNA molecule; it is the transcribable information coded by the gene,” or said another way, “a gene is a package of information, not an object. The pattern of base pairs in a DNA molecule specifies the gene. But the DNA molecule is the medium, it’s not the message.” Yockey concurs: “The genetic message… is nonmaterial but must be recorded in matter or energy.”
Williams cautions that unless the distinction between the message and the medium is kept clearly in mind, an absolute muddle will result in biology. Most scientists fail to see that the nonmaterial does not mean ethereal, spooky, or that the nonmaterial necessarily can exist separate from matter.
That matter and information are separate domains yet can coexist together is clarified by an everyday object, the computer. In principle, any computer program can run on hardware made of vacuum tubes, transistors, or integrated circuits. Every program, say Microsoft Word, can exist in a manual or in a single programmer’s mind, but in neither location can the program be executed. To be operational, Word must be installed in hardware, and this is possible because logic can be embodied in physical systems. Such basic logical functions as AND and OR are easily implemented using diodes or transistors as electronic switches.
The information stored in a computer is stored in “switches” that are either open or closed, and denoted by 0s or 1s. The phrase “four score and seven years ago” is stored on my computer (and yours) as a string of 0s and 1s, incomprehensible to you and me without a decoder. To read the sentence, I call upon Word to process the 0s and 1s into English characters and display them on my computer monitor. My mind, then, processes the characters I see on the screen into meaning. The entire process of decoding the 0s and 1s to me grasping the meaning of the characters I see on the monitor is nonmaterial, although every step in the process is embedded in matter—the medium is not the message.
Just like Word, the blueprint and instructions to make a cat encoded in DNA are nonmaterial. If scientists mapped the cat genome, in biochemical notion, it would look something like this: ACCTGG… and so on for some 3 billion bases. (The exact meaning of the bases A, C, T, and G are irrelevant here.) These encoded blueprint and instructions are the same as those in the cat; however, the chemical-notation code can never make a cat, because of the absence of an information processor. This identical information inside a fertilized cat ovum is written in terms of chemicals that are potentially active, and occurs in a cell that can read and process information. When the proper conditions are present, the material of the fertilized ovum becomes active, beginning complex chemical processes headed toward the production of a kitten. In summary, biology differs from physics and chemistry in five principal ways.
First, every part of an organism contains the whole in some way, while a nonliving object is a collection of parts. Second, unlike dead matter, a part of an organism is meaningless without the whole. Third, the form of an organism is not determined by physical laws alone. Fourth, unlike an inanimate thing, an organism exists only in activity. Finally, plants and animals come from fertilized seeds or ova that contain blueprints and instructions for their construction; like all information, the blueprint and instructions encoded in DNA are nonmaterial.
The nonmaterial in modern biology can be easily related to the soul of ancient thought. The blueprint and instructions encoded in DNA are the “governing source of living things,” which is Aristotle’s working definition of soul. His precise definition of soul is the “form of a natural body having life as a potency.” Here form does not mean mere shape, the outward look of an organism, but rather its invisible “look,” its very nature. Potency refers to the material. A soul plus particular material produces a living organism. Said in modern terms, the nonmaterial blueprint and instructions encoded in the DNA contained within a fertilized seed or ovum will produce a living organism, given the right conditions. Said in ancient terms, but still valid today, a living organism is an ensouled body.
The DNA inside of every cell of a cat contains the blueprint and instructions for building a particular cat. By itself, DNA cannot produce a cat; an entire cell is needed to process the blueprint and instructions stored in the DNA. In the words of physicist Douglas Hofstadter, DNA is a “big fat, lazy, cigar-smoking slob of a molecule. It never does anything. It is the ultimate ‘lump’ of the cell. It merely issues orders, never condescending to do anything itself, quite like a queen bee,” quite like one of Aristotle’s unmoved movers.
Indeed, biophysicist Max Delbrück argues that “unmoved mover perfectly describes DNA. DNA acts, creates form in development, and it does not change in the process.” Delbrück, himself a Nobel Laureate, proposed that if the Nobel Prize Committee had the liberty of awarding prizes posthumously, “they should consider Aristotle for the discovery of the principle implied in DNA.”
The likelihood that biologists will re-introduce the word “soul” into science is practically nil; the word goes contrary to the prevailing materialistic outlook that all biology is reducible to the workings of matter, a belief inherited from the outmoded philosophical past of Newtonian physics. The terminology used in biology to represent the nonmaterial is probably not that significant. The advantage of “blueprint,” “body plan,” and “instructions,” already current in biology, is that all three terms are concrete, yet convey a sense of the universal and the nonmaterial. Ironically, without realizing it, many biologists use daily the Aristotelian concept of the soul, without evoking disbelief, ridicule, or laughter.
Instead of being the crowning victory of materialism, DNA is the triumph of the nonmaterial. The existence of just one plant or animal demolishes the doctrine of materialism; for without the nonmaterial, the biological world would not exist; nature would then be simply rocks, sunlight, planets, and stars, the dead world of physics and chemistry. (See illustration, the surface of Mars.)
The genetic code embedded in DNA shows that at the core of the storytelling of modern science is a faulty understanding of the cosmos: Nothing could be further from the most important discoveries of contemporary biology than the belief that “the universe, including all aspects of human life, is the result of the interactions of little bits of matter.” Physics and chemistry examine the piping, the infrastructure of life, and do not explain how a plant or an animal arises from the workings of little bits of matter.
What lies at the heart of every living thing is “information, words, instructions.” When we awaken from the fantasies of reason, from the Dark Ages of Science, we grasp that the correct beginning point for biology is “all living organisms result from the nonmaterial embedded in this world.”
The seemingly infinite variety of objects that surround us arises either from matter acting out of physical necessity or from the nonmaterial directing matter to some end.
For example, last week I went hiking near Santa Fe, New Mexico, my hometown, and almost immediately, I came across a tiny quartz crystal several feet from an inch-square piece of clay with black, narrow stripes. The quartz, a crystal formed from silicon–oxygen tetrahedra, if my memory of solid state physics is correct, is a consequent of a geological process, obscure to me, a physicist. The clay piece, a fragment of a pot fashioned by some Pueblo Indian hundreds of years ago, is the outcome of human intelligence, a product of a human mind directing matter to some end, I safely concluded; for nature has no inclination to fashion pottery.
Later in the day, I examined a Texas orbweaver spider at the center of its web. A friend of mine, an entomologist, nicknamed the Insect Lady by her students, had once lectured me over coffee on the properties of spider webs. The strength of spider silk is double that of steel and more elastic than nylon. Some threads of a web are not sticky, so the spider does not get caught in its own web. Embedded in every live spider is a nonmaterial genetic code that directed matter to build a particular spider, and later directs it to construct a web.
I compared the Texas orbweaver with the potshard; matter had no innate inclination to produce either. By analogy, I drew the most straightforward conclusion—both were expressions of intelligence, one of human mind and the other of Divine Mind, obscure to me, nevertheless the underlying ground of every living organism, including me. I, as well as every other human, then, inhabit two worlds, nature and the manmade, products of Divine Mind and human mind, respectively.
I thought back to the week before when I went to the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe to see the exhibit on Alexander Girard, the premier American designer of the twentieth century. Walking through the galleries that housed the show, I was surrounded by beautiful textiles, furniture, and sculptures, as well as numerous sketches, drawings, and collages, all the embodiment of a mind that delighted in originality and playfulness. I turned my attention away from the Texas orbweaver to the piñon and juniper trees, the sparse desert grasses, and the ravens squawking in the distance. I stood in a natural gallery; every living animal and plant about me embodied the nonmaterial—“information, words, instructions.” I lacked the hubris to characterize the Creator, but rested in the fact that I, too, owed by presence to this Being, and offered thanks in my own way for all life, including mine.
The chamisas in golden bloom in my front patio, the turkey vultures I occasionally see circling overhead on an afternoon updraft, the coyote that snoops around my garden every morning, and I embody the nonmaterial in different ways. We humans express the nonmaterial in a fuller way than any animal.
When the philosophy of materialism is stripped from biology and neuroscience, the heart of human living is revealed as nonmaterial. Physicist Carl von Weizsäcker gives a killer argument that materialism is incapable of explaining even how we see:
Light of 6,000 Å wavelength reaches my eye. From the retina, a chemicoelectrical stimulus passes through the optical nerve into the brain where it sets off another stimulus of certain motor nerves, and out of my mouth come the words: The apple is red. Nowhere in this description of the process, complete though it is, has any mention been made that I have had the color perception red. Of sense perception, nothing was said.
Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, too, acknowledges that explaining perception in terms of brain function alone is an impasse for neuroscience, and for materialism in general: “No matter how detailed and accurate [the] outside-objective description of color cognition might be, it has a gaping hole at its center because it leaves out” the experience of redness and all other perceptions. He laments that the impasse results from a limit of present-day science:
Perhaps, science will eventually stumble on some unexpected method or framework for dealing with qualia—the immediate experiential perception of sensation, such as the redness of red or the pungency of curry—empirically and rationally, but such advances could easily be as remote from our present-day grasp as molecular genetics was to those living in the Middle Ages.
Science is mute about hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching. Mechanical, chemical, and electrical changes in the brain are not thoughts, desires, and emotions. The reason is obvious: the interior life of a person is nonmaterial—perceptions, emotions, and thoughts cannot be touched, smelled, tasted, heard, or seen.
We have arrived at an astounding conclusion, at a complete reversal of the customary way most scientists and laypersons understand Homo sapiens and nature: Our interior life, our perceptions, emotions, and thoughts, the world we experience, is nonmaterial; our biological life originates in the nonmaterial; our political, economic, and cultural life stem from the nonmaterial; our technologies are fruits of the nonmaterial—we live, act, and have our being in the nonmaterial world. Our entire life is a consequence of human mind and Divine Mind, not of the interactions of little bits of matter. Mind is primary, not matter.
Human beings are privileged creatures. I step through the outside door of my office and see bushy, gnarled junipers and grey-headed juncos nesting in those trees. I understand that the trees, birds, and I are expressions of the nonmaterial, that I am an integral part of Creation, that “the human soul is, fundamentally, everything that is.”
Only I or another human being can offer gratitude for the goodness and beauty of Creation. You and I can go outside at night and wonder about the stars, or in summer pick up a dandelion and behold it, or gaze into the eyes of another person. Unlike the other animals, you and I can experience the mystery of nature and encounter poetry, drama, and music that touch the transcendent.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
1* Every time I taught Aristotle’s Physics to undergraduates, I discovered that students were true believers in a mechanical cosmos and vociferously argued that love as the source of motion in nature is absurd.
2* The relationship of a whole to its parts in quantum physics is more like that present in an organism. For example, an ordinary table salt molecule is not a composite of one sodium atom and one chlorine atom. Sodium alone is a highly explosive metal and rarely found unbound to another material. Chlorine alone is a very toxic, greenish-yellow gas. But sodium chloride is transparent, non-explosive, and non-toxic.
3* The free neutron, of course, is not stable; its mean lifetime is about sixteen minutes.
4* On the sub-microscopic level, matter is active. Elementary particles continually emit and re-absorb particles, but this activity is not inwardly directed to some end.
1 Peter Medawar, “A Geometric Model of Reduction and Emergence,” in Studies in the Philosophy of Biology, ed. F. J. Ayala and T. Dobzhansky (Los Angeles & Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 62.
2 Edgar Howard Mercer, The Foundations of Biological Theory (New York: John Wiley, 1981), p. 1.
3 Mercer, p. 14.
4 Isaac Newton, Principia, trans. Florian Cajori (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1934), p. xviii.
5 For the history of Vaucanson’s duck see David F. Channell, The Vital Machine: A Study of Technology and Organic Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 42-43; Etienne Benson, “Science Historian Examines the 18th-Century Quest for ‘Artificial Life’”; and Gaby Wood, “Living Dolls: A Magical History Of The Quest For Mechanical Life.”
6 All illustrations are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
7 Carl R. Woese, “A New Biology for a New Century,” Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews (June 2004) 68 (No. 2): 173–186.
8 H.P. Yockey, “Information in Bits and Pieces,” BioEssays 17, no. 1 (1995): 85-88.
9 Linus Pauling and Peter Pauling, Chemistry (San Francisco: Freeman, 1975), p. 444.
10 Salvador Luria, Life—The Unfinished Experiment (New York: Scribner’s, 1973), p. 92.
11 See Kirsty L. Spalding, Ratan D. Bhardwaj, Bruce A. Buchholz, Henrik Druid, and Jonas Frisén, “Retrospective Birth Dating of Cells in Humans,” Cell (15 July 2005) 122: 133-143.
12 Woese, “A New Biology for a New Century.”
14 Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton, 2015 ), p. 159. Dawkins, an evangelical atheist, is one step from a modern reading of Genesis. Arguably, when “God said,” He embedded the world with information, words, and instructions, the heart of every living thing.
15 Aristotle, On the Soul, trans. Joe Sachs (Santa Fe, NM: Green Lion Press, 2001), 412a15.
16 Lila L. Gatlin, Information Theory and the Living System (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972), p. 6.
18 Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: or Control and communication in the Animal and the Machine, (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1961), 2nd edition, p. 132.
19 George C. Williams, “A Package of Information,” in The Third Culture, ed. John Brockman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 43.
20 George C. Williams, Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 11.
21 Williams, “A Package of Information,” p. 43. Italics added.
22 Hubert P. Yockey, Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Pres, 2005) 2nd edition, p. 7.
23 Aristotle, On the Soul, 402a 8.
24 Ibid., 412a 20.
25 Douglas Hofstadter, “Is the Genetic Code an Arbitrary One, or Would Another Code Work Just as Well?”, Scientific American 246 (March 1982), p. 26.
26 Max Delbrück, “How Aristotle Discovered DNA,” in Physics and Our World: A Symposium in Honor of Victor F. Weisskopf, ed. Kerson Huang (New York: American Institute of Physics, 1976), p. 129.
28 See H. Allen Orr, “Awaiting a New Darwin,” The New York Review of Books, 60, No. 2 (February 7, 2013).
29 For a detailed discussion, see George Stanciu, “Atheism: Disproved by Science?”
30 C.F. von Weizsäcker, The History of Nature, trans. Fred D. Wieck (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), pp. 14243.
31 V.S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human (New York: Norton, 2011), p. 248.
32 Ibid., p. 249. Ramachandran’s definition of qualia is on page 248 and is incorporated in this quotation.
33 For a detailed discussion of the nonmateriality of our interior life, see George Stanciu, “Materialism: The False God of Modern Science.” Here is a short amusing example of why our interior life does not result from brain function alone. During the day adenosine builds up in the brain to register the amount of time that has elapsed since a person awoke. When adenosine concentration peaks, a person feels the irresistible urge to sleep. The concentration of adenosine and the feeling of sleepiness are incommensurable. No matter how much a neuroscientist probes the brain with scans and chemical assays, she will never find sleepiness.
34 Aristotle, De Anima, Bk. III, Ch. 8, 431b. For a fuller discussion, see George Stanciu, “Wonder and Love: How Scientists Neglect God and Man.”
Editor’s note: The featured image is a human DNA model in a double helix (2016) from Pixabay, under the license of Creative Commons Zero. The imaginary rendering of Vaucanson’s digesting duck (1899) is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; the methylated strand of DNA (2006) is by Christoph Bock, courtesy of Creative Commons 3.0; and the image of the rocky surface of Mars features the Twin Peaks, discovered on the first panoramas taken by the IMP camera on the 4th of July, 1997, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.