Opinions of Scientists
This recording was part of a set of slide show presentations illustrating modern and ancient views of the natural world and life’s origins. In this presentation, Thompson examines existential perplexities identified with contemporary reductionist theories that focus on life as a “chemical and organizational structure of patterns.”
TRANSCRIPT: Opinions of Scientists. Vaisnava Ministries: What is Life? 1 – c. 1977-78 / (103)
Vaisnava Ministries presents “What is Life?” – a series of slideshows discussing modern and ancient views on the nature and origin of life and their implications for human society. In part one, we will discuss the modern scientific conception of life. We will largely present this in the words of prominent scientists with the aim of giving an unambiguous portrayal of the prevailing scientific view of life and its practical implications for the lives of individual persons.
What lies behind the phenomena of life? What is the reality underlying sensation, feeling, and purposeful activity? What is the origin of the complex bodily forms of living beings? And by what principles do these forms operate and carry out systematic and meaningful functions? What is consciousness? What is beauty? What are hope, fear, and desire? What is the relation between these contents of consciousness and the physical structure of the brain?
Modern scientists have committed themselves as a group to a very decisive and clear cut answer to these questions. Briefly, this answer is that life per se does not exist. It is only in appearance, an epiphenomenon, an illusion generated by the interplay of atoms and molecules, inanimate entities that have no life at all. We will begin by citing some scientific authorities on the topic of life.
According to the Nobel Prize winner, James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, complete certainty now exists among essentially all biochemists that the characteristics of living organisms will all be completely understood in terms of the coordinated interactions of small and large molecules. This certainty is reflected in the definitions of life given in standard textbooks of biology.
For example, in Biology by Elliot and Ray, we learned that “Life means chemical and physical organization of pattern and design, which has the capacity for growth and reproduction.” In Principles of Life Sciences by Dylan, we hear that “Living things are, of course, physical objects composed of chemicals.” Or again in Contemporary Perspectives of Biology, we are told that “Living systems can then be described as chemical systems capable of elaborate polymeric synthesis directed in specific patterns by the presence of information, itself in a polymeric form, that is capable of changing to other controlled patterns at more efficient levels of environmental exploitation.” And in Biological Principles and Processes we learned that “One of the basic tenants of modern biology is that all of the phenomena of life are governed by and can be explained in terms of chemical and physical principles.”
These textbook definitions have a negative as well as a positive side. They not only assert that life is a pattern of chemical reactions, but they also declare with great emphasis that life involves nothing else. In general, the word ‘vitalism’ is used as a blanket term designating any entity, process or principle outside of the domains of chemistry and physics that might be thought to have something to do with life. Thus in Biology: A Human Approach, we hear that “Superstition and vitalism were early attempts to explain away things that could not be understood at the time because physics and chemistry had not yet advanced far enough.” And in Weisz's Elements of Biology, we learn that “A mechanistic interpretation of life actually is entirely justifiable and the interjection of touches of vitalism is entirely unjustifiable.”
Francis Crick, the Nobel prize-winning biochemist, confirms these ideas by asserting that “Exact knowledge is the enemy of vitalism,” and Weisz adds an aggressive note by going on to say, "And those today who may still be prompted to fill gaps in scientific knowledge with vitalism must be prepared to have red faces tomorrow."
It is true of course, that not all eminent scientists have subscribed to these views. One notable exception is Louis Pasteur, who was famous for his arguments against the possibility of spontaneous generation of living organisms. Pasteur observed, “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? You pass from matter to life because your intelligence of today cannot conceive of things otherwise. How do you know that in 10,000 years, one will not consider it more likely that matter has emerged from life?”
Likewise, Albert Szent-Györgyi who won the Nobel prize for his work in biochemistry commented, "I have always been seeking some higher organizing principle that is leading the living system towards improvement and adaptation. I know this is biological heresy." However, as Szent-Györgyi observed, these are minority views at the present time.
The majority view holds that life is simply a chemical process and has come about historically simply through the action of molecular interactions. Now, one might think that this was simply an academic question, a subject matter for sterile pedantic discussion with no practical implications for our day to day lives. However, Nobel Prize winner, Francis Crick seems to think differently. According to Crick, “People with training in the arts still feel that in spite of the alterations made in their lives by technology, by the internal combustion engine, by penicillin, by the bomb, modern science has little to do with what concerns them most deeply. As far as today's science is concerned, this is partly true, but tomorrow's science is going to knock their culture right out from under them.” What doess Crick have in mind?
To get some inkling of this, let us consider the idea of purpose and meaning. Normally people try to live their lives in a context of purpose and meaning. They tend to think that there is some purpose to this world and that their own lives have some significance, but what does modern science have to say about purpose? As we shall see, scientists are not mute on this subject.
Thus in the text Elements of Biology, we learned that "Being a vitalistic, an experimentally untestable concept, the notion of purpose and natural events has no place in science." From Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod, we learn that “The cornerstone of the scientific method is the postulate that nature is objective. In other words, the systematic denial that true knowledge can be got at by interpreting phenomena in terms of final causes, that is to say of purpose.” And the prominent evolutionist Ernst Mayr, emphasizes that "There is no need whatsoever, indeed there is no excuse whatsoever, for considering adaptation as evidence of purpose."
We should note, that given their premises, these statements are not at all illogical. Indeed, the idea of purpose cannot even be formulated in terms of chemical reactions. So, if life is really nothing but chemical reactions, then all talk of purpose is meaningless. Now, one might say that whether we can define purpose or not, life is there so let us simply live and not worry about abstruse philosophical problems. Yet these questions of meaning and purpose are not mere abstractions removed from practical life.
Consider these observations of Charles Darwin, "But then with me, the whole doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?"
Actually, the supposition that we are nothing but chemical reactions undermines completely the basis of our lives; it even undermines the basis for our understanding of the various scientific work which is cited as the justification for this supposition. According to the noted biologist John Maynard Smith, "The individual is simply a device constructed by the genes to ensure the production of more genes like themselves." The very idea of personality is actually eliminated by the mechanistic view of life. In the more popular presentation of Richard Dawkins, "We are survival machines, robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."
Looking at the question from a different angle, the noted physicist Erwin Schrodinger had this to say about personality, "No personal God can form part of a world model that has only become accessible at the cost of removing everything personal from it." We can only live in a depersonalized world if we avoid thinking about it. If we do think, then the inherent implications of an impersonal worldview spring forth and we can only conclude with Niels Bohr that "No, the meaning of life is simply that there is no meaning saying that life has no meaning."
Jacques Monod realized that although we may try to avoid this, the worldview of modern science has heavy implications for the wellbeing of human society. In his Chance and Necessity Monod wrote, "Armed with all the powers enjoying all the riches they owe to science, our societies are still trying to live by and to teach systems of values already blasted at the root by science itself." Monod went on to say that “The philosophy of modern science has reduced life to an anxious quest in a frozen universe of solitude.”
In the last few slides, we have seen a depiction of the destruction of the world. Yet, from a chemical point of view, there is no difference between these scenes. From the point of view of an atom, if an atom has a point of view, that does not matter whether the atom is part of a human being or a speck of dust. Concerning the message in modern science, Monod says that "If man accepts this message, accepts all it contains, then he must at last wake out of his millenary dream and in so doing wake to his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. Now does he at last realize that like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world – a world that is deaf to his music, just as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings or his crimes."
In this last slide, you see an atomic bomb caught by a high-speed camera, just a fraction of a second after detonation. To get a sense of scale, note the silhouetted trees in front of the fireball. It may seem trite to present yet another threatening picture of the dangers of nuclear annihilation, yet here we intend this picture to have a broader symbolic meaning. The scientific annihilation of meaning and purpose pulls the foundation out from under human society and it is just a matter of time before the effects become fully manifest. In the words of the famous physicist Wolfgang Pauli, "In western culture, we may well reach the point in the not too distant future where the parables and images of the old religions will have lost their persuasive force even for the average person. When that happens, I am afraid that all the old ethics will collapse like a house of cards and the unimaginable horrors would be perpetrated. Our present stability, such as it is, is simply a matter of momentum".
Returning again to Jacques Monod, "But henceforth who is to define crime? Who should decide what is good and what is evil? All the traditional systems have placed ethics and values beyond man's reach, but he now knows that they are his and his alone and no sooner do they come into his possession then lo', they seem to melt into the world's uncaring emptiness. It is then that modern man turns toward science, or rather against it, finally measuring its terrible capacity to destroy not only bodies but the soul itself."
In his book, Monod could offer no solution to this problem that he had so eloquently described. If the worldview of modern science is correct, as Monod, felt then it is indeed hard to see where a solution is to be found. But is this worldview correct? It is the thesis of this series of slideshows that the modern scientific view of life is, in fact, seriously shortsighted. The mechanistic worldview of modern science leads by inexorable logic to a voidistic philosophy that denies all purpose and meaningful direction to human life. et, this view is mistaken. By correcting its errors we will show step-by-step that a logical, scientifically reasonable view of life can be attained that does have a genuine place for meaning and purpose.