It looks like we have hit a wall, when we can’t tell why, genetically, humans are different from flies, and we don’t know, neurologically, why we can recall a telephone number.
So, the scientific community has been compelled to acknowledge that the universe must have sprung into existence ab nihilo. It has subsequently emerged that the physical laws of the universe — e.g., gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces, the speed of light — are so finely tuned that the slightest alteration in their values would have rendered impossible the subsequent emergence of life on earth. It is very difficult to convey just how precise the values of those forces had to be, but physicist John Polkinghorne estimates their fine-tuning had to be accurate to within one part in a trillion trillion (and several trillion more), a figure greater by far than all the particles in the universe.4
As for the origins of life itself, the progressive delineation of the internal workings of its fundamental unit, the cell, over the past fifty years has revealed it to be “a world of supreme technology and bewildering complexity” in which many features of our most sophisticated machines have an analogue: memory banks for information storage and retrieval, elegant control systems regulating the assembly of parts, proofreading devices for quality control, and assembly processes utilizing the principles of modular construction.5 This “automated factory,” several thousand million times smaller than the smallest piece of functional man-made machinery, which in its various forms has the capacity to create every living organism that ever existed — from a giant redwood to the human brain — can replicate its entire structure within a matter of hours. The likelihood that the first cell’s many components might have arisen spontaneously from some prebiotic chemical soup is analogous to supposing, as the late astronomer Fred Hoyle observed in a memorable image, “a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.”6
How Little Science Can Explain
The most economical interpretation of these several instances of the inscrutable perplexities revealed by “refining and elaborating” on that overarching historical narrative would be that by illuminating how little science can truly explain, they have undermined (annihilated, even) the fundamental tenets of scientism. But there is more, for the findings of the two most recent and ambitious of scientific projects contradict, if inadvertently, any pretensions to an exclusively materialist account of the phenomena of life and ourselves.
These projects were predicated on two remarkable technical developments that promised to resolve the two major obstacles to a truly comprehensive account of our place in the universe: how it is that those genetic instructions strung along the double helix contribute to the multitudinous diversity of form and attributes of the living world; and how the electrical activity of the human brain “translates” into our subjective experiences, memories, and sense of self. Those developments were, first, the ability to spell out the full sequence of genes, or genomes, of diverse species — worm, fly, mouse, man, and many others — and, second, the sophisticated scanning techniques that permit neuroscientists for the first time to observe the brain “in action” from the inside — thinking, memorizing, and looking out on the world.
The ability to spell out the full sequence of genes should reveal, it was reasonable to assume, the distinctive genetic instructions that determine the diverse forms of the millions of species, so readily distinguishable one from the other. Biologists were thus understandably disconcerted to discover precisely the reverse to be the case. Contrary to all expectations, many DNA sequences involved in embryo development are remarkably similar across the vast spectrum of organismic complexity, from a millimeter-long worm to ourselves.7 There is, in short, nothing in the genomes of fly and man to explain why the fly should have six legs, a pair of wings, and a dot-sized brain and we should have two arms, two legs, and a mind capable of comprehending that overarching history of our universe.
So we have moved in the very recent past from supposing we might know the principles of genetic inheritance to recognizing we have no realistic conception of what they might be. As Phillip Gell, professor of genetics at the University of Birmingham, observed, “This gap in our knowledge is not merely unbridged, but in principle unbridgeable and our ignorance will remain ineluctable.”8James Le Fanu, in Between Sapientia and Scientia — Michael Aeschliman’s Profound Interpretation
Not good news, for atheistic materialists. It is not possible explain, using nothing but physical material, energy, and time, either how or why galaxies and fruit flies and people and mathematical formula come to exist.
That’s a pretty big loss for the “universal acid” of Darwinian-fueled atheistic materialism, having no explanation for reality as it is.
It has been a similar story for neuroscientists with their sophisticated scans observing the brain “in action.” Right from the beginning, it was clear the brain must work in ways radically different from those supposed. Thus, the simplest of tasks, such as associating the noun “chair” with the verb “sit,” cause vast tracts of the brain to “light up” — prompting a sense of bafflement at what the most mundane conversation must entail.9 Then the sights and sounds of every transient moment, it emerged, are fragmented into a myriad of separate components without the slightest hint of the integrating mechanism that would create the personal experience of living at the center of a coherent, unified, ever-changing world.
Reflecting on this problem, Nobel Prize-winner David Hubel of Harvard University observes, “This abiding tendency for attributes such as form, color and movement to be handled by separate structures in the brain immediately raises the question how all the information is finally assembled, say, for perceiving a bouncing red ball. They obviously must be so assembled — but where and how, we have no idea.”10
Meanwhile, the great conundrum remains unresolved: how the electrical activities of the billions of neurons in the brain are related to the experiences of our everyday lives — where each fleeting moment has its own distinct, intangible feel: where the cadences of a Bach cantata are so utterly different from the taste of bourbon or the lingering memory of that first kiss. The implications are obvious enough. While it might be possible to know everything about the physical materiality of the brain down to its last atom, its “product,” the five cardinal mysteries of the non-material mind, remain unaccounted for: subjective awareness, free will, how memories are stored, the “higher” faculties of reason and imagination, and that unique sense of personal identity that changes and matures over time but remains resolutely the same.11
The Standard Response
The standard response to such imponderables is to acknowledge that perhaps things have turned out to be more complex than originally presumed, but to insist these are still “early days” to predict what might yet emerge. Now, biologists could, if they so wish, spell out the genomes of each of the millions of species with which we share the planet, but the interesting question of what determines the unique form and attributes of such diverse creatures would remain unresolved. And so too for observing the brain “in action,” where a million scans of subjects watching David Hubel’s bouncing red ball would not progress understanding any further as to how those neuronal circuits experience the ball as being round and red and bouncing.
The contrast with that supreme intellectual achievement of the post-war years is striking. At a time when cosmologists can infer what happened in the first few seconds of the birth of the universe, and geologists can measure the movements of continents to the nearest centimeter, it seems extraordinary that geneticists can’t tell us why humans are so different from flies, and neuroscientists are unable to clarify how we recall a telephone number.James Le Fanu, in Between Sapientia and Scientia — Michael Aeschliman’s Profound Interpretation
So, it looks like the Western Faith in atheistic materialism is being increasingly found to be groundless.
Good. The ideology of atheism — “there is no law, no power, that stands above the will of politically powerful men” — has murdered enough people, stolen enough wealth, robbed us of enough time, and dignity, and liberty.
Not that this fact will change Western Academia an iota. They are committed to atheism for essentially religious/ideological reasons, and not because “that’s where the evidence leads.”
But that’s OK. Leave the dead to bury the dead.
The future calls to you, Christian. Time to pick up the phone.