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1. The Twin-Gods of Science

Akhbar the Great, the 16th Century Moghul emperor of India, had a wise minister named Birbal with whom he frequently conversed and sparred on matters of state. On one occasion Akhbar boasted with pride to his minister how all aspects of the Holy Koran are practiced by the subjects of his kingdom and he illustrated by reference to the subordinate role which married women have rightfully accepted in relation to their husbands. Birbal’s challenged this assertion, so Akhbar asked him to justify his disbelief. Birbal, therefore, instructed the general of the army to assemble all of the married men of the city before the palace gates, so that he could ascertain from them directly whether their wives were properly obedient and submissive to their husbands. When all the husbands were assembled, Birbal instructed them to form two lines in front of the gate, one line for all those who ruled as masters of their own households and another for those who were subject to the dictates of their wives. To Akhbar’s great surprise and annoyance, all but one of the men joined the second line with their heads lowered, confessing their subordinate position at home. A single man stood in the line reserved for husbands whose rule at home. The emperor tried to find some hope in this dismal situation by eulogizing the manliness of this one strong soul who ruled the domestic roost. Birbal, who had stood silently trying to suppress all signs of superior wisdom, stepped forward and asked the sole hero why he was standing in that particular line. The man responded, ‘My wife told me to.’

This story illustrates the age-old quest of humankind to discover the real determinants in life. As Akhbar found in this instance, the real answers can sometimes be surprising and unsettling to our conventional view of things. During the 20th Century, the quest for fundamental determinants has preoccupied the minds of great scientists in many fields. In physics, relativity theory and quantum theory emerged as very powerful conceptual and predictive tools, so powerful that the formulation of a single theory that could unify the four fundamental physical forces seems to be within reach. In biology, the unraveling of the genetic code has led some to believe that the secret of life will soon to be deciphered. In neuro-medicine, advances in understanding of the brain and nervous system have convinced some scientists that the mystery of consciousness itself is almost resolved.

These achievements have been so impressive and the hope of arriving at ultimate answers regarding the nature of matter, life and mind is so exciting that there has been a tendency to overlook the fact that all these current theories are only superstructures built on the common foundation of a more fundamental theory of determinism in the material universe. Much like Akhbar’s stylized view of marriage relations, this theory of determinism is unquestioningly accepted by most as established truth and rarely re-examined in the light of new ideas and further discoveries to reconfirm its validity. Yet unless the foundation is confirmed to be both fully rational and fully valid in practice, there is no firm edifice on which a final theories of matter, life and mind can be constructed.

Current scientific thought is based on a dualistic theory of creation implicit in all its formulations. The theory can be briefly summarized in the following manner:

All phenomena in the universe are the result of the interaction of two factors, Necessity and Chance, a factor which determines the orderly fixed pattern of things and a factor which results in apparently random variations in those determinations. Necessity is responsible for the laws of Nature discoverable by science as well as the characteristic properties of energy, matter and life forms. Chance is responsible for the apparent randomness and variation, for the evolutionary mutations and differences found within each category of occurrence. Science lives in a world in which things are rigidly determined, yet in some manner are free to vary randomly from those rigid patterns.

Although efforts have been made from time to time to formulate a monism of Necessity based on Natural Law or a monism of Chance based on pure randomness, neither by itself has proved satisfactory to explain the diversity of natural phenomenon. The compulsions of natural law are quite suitable to explain the immutable sameness in Nature, the limited number and type of material forces, atomic elements, chemical molecules, and biological species, their uniformity of design and characteristic patterns of behaviour. But this Necessity, whatever its source or power, fails to explain the enormous variation we find within each group of phenomenon down to the uncertain movements of subatomic particles and the infinite variation in the facial characteristics, fingerprints and personality traits of human beings. Chance easily explains the variations and individuality of phenomenon, but fails to account for the commonality of types and categories, be they types of molecular structures, categories of star clusters, genus of the same animal species or distinct types of human personality. Although it convincingly accounts for differences within groups, Chance fails to explain the evolutionary direction apparent in Nature, the continuous unfolding of higher, more complex and adaptive forms. Why does randomness result in a progressive evolution of complexity rather than a progressive slide into chaos? Chance fails also to explain how the long evolutionary spiral of life on earth should result in the manifestation of the human mind, whose natural propensity is for order, classification and organization. Only when they are both taken together can science hope to account for both the apparent orderliness and the apparent randomness of nature.

Chance and Necessity, according to this implicit view of science, are the twin Gods which have given rise to all material energy and substance, life forms and varieties of conscious experience in the universe. A combination of quantum mechanics and uncertainty characterizes the behaviour of subatomic particles. A Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest augmented by a neo-Darwinian principle of random mutation of DNA molecules characterizes the mechanism for the evolution of all species of living things. The random impact of sensory and physiological stimuli on the electrical circuitry of the human nervous system and its computer-like brain account for all mental activity. The interaction of inherited propensities with random environmental impacts determines the character of human personality. All properties are derived from these twin gods as well as all variations from those properties. Stated philosophically, all things appear to be governed by a set of fundamental determinates, yet possess some degree of freedom or indeterminate quality that accounts for variations within a common pattern and evolution from one pattern to another.

These twin hypotheses rarely comes up for scrutiny, despite the fact that fundamental questions remain unanswered regarding the adequacy of the underlying assumptions. Thus accepted, science perceives its primary task is the discovery, cataloguing and elucidation of laws, qualities and properties, their variations and exceptions, and the mechanisms through which randomness introduces new variations. The most fundamental question is, of course, that of the religionist who asks, “What is it that determines the nature of the determinates?” Science responds by insisting that such a question cannot be answered and therefore need not be asked. The laws of nature and properties of energy and substance are simply the given conditions from which the universe has arisen. They are what they are. But this answer is unsatisfactory. Science does not know the given conditions from which the universe arose. It knows or theorizes only about the conditions that may have existed sometime more than 10 or 15 billion years ago shortly after the Big Bang from which our present universe was born. It knows in those first few instants of the universe, neither matter nor energy as we know it today existed. There were no atomic elements, no molecular structures, and certainly no life forms or conscious beings. Scientists may surmise the temperature, energy and other properties of that primordial existence, which is the material origin of all that has since manifested. But how can it be said that all the properties, laws, qualities and characteristics of what has since manifested are somehow contained in that primordial existence?

If the types and classes of phenomenon in nature are somehow determined, we are forced to postulate that the laws governing the combination of oxygen and hydrogen to form water as well as the individual and resultant properties of these substances were somehow present or determined before either their separate elemental or their combined molecular forms existed in the universe. More troubling, we are forced to conclude that the characteristics of living forms, including the various species of plants and animal are also implicitly governed by determinates that existed before the first appearance of life in the universe. Taken still further, it would mean that the pollination rituals of bees, the imprinting behaviour of baby geese, the hunting instincts of the lion and the common behavioural characteristics of human beings such as anger, greed, ambition, aspiration, affection, loyalty and courage are all the results of determinates implicit at the time of the Big Bang.

Alternatively, we may say, that such determinates were not present and existent at that time, but have arisen over time on the basis of earlier determinates. But this explanation only aggravates the problem, for its supposes that higher order, more complex laws of nature somehow spontaneously emerged from lower order, less complex laws. It is one thing to say that an animal is composed of cells which are constructed from organic molecules which themselves consist of chains of atoms composed of whirling units of subatomic particles. It is quite another to state that all the characteristics of the animal, including its size, shape, and instincts are somehow predetermined by properties inherent in the primordial subatomic particles and their resultant combinations.

The emergence of higher order, more specific determinates from lower order, more general determinates presents a serious problem to the rational mind which cannot be readily addressed by resort to science’s second God, Chance. For chance may adequately explain variations from a given pattern, but how can it explain higher order patterns that are not implicit in the lower order phenomenon from which they arise? Chance may explain why one person’s hair is blond and another’s is black, but how can it explain the instinctive sexual attraction of either colour hair among animal species or the aesthetic value which human beings accord to the length, shape and color of hair, which represent higher order behaviours, not just variations in color? What combination of primordial chance and necessity can account for the symbiotic relationship between bees and flowers?

The same difficulty arises in explaining the emergence of the forms of the tree, fruit and flower from the seed. Science may trace the process by which that primordial single cell divides and multiplies. It may detect the mechanisms by which it synthesizes various chemicals and differentiates into stem cells, root cells, flower and leaf cells. But when we strive to understand what determines that process of differentiation and what makes it occur in an orderly manner, we come back to the same phenomenon of lower order general determinates in the seed giving rise to higher order, specific determinates in the leaf, fruit and flower. We are forced once again to call in the God of randomness to explain the process of differentiation to higher order forms. The fact that we can reproduce this process under certain conditions in the laboratory only proves that such differentiation does occur, but does not explain the underlying process of determination that makes it possible. Again we risk mistaking knowledge of the process and its mechanism for a discovery of their ultimate source. We fall back on the gods of Necessity and Chance to explain how such a marvellous mechanism and capacity have manifested. We have uncovered the extrinsic how without getting any closer to the intrinsic how or why that determine it. We know the formula but we do not know how it was determined.

The problem of determination pervades all fields and aspects of science, yet it is often cloaked by confusion between the description of processes and the explanation of causes. Science has acquired profound insight into many of the processes of nature. It knows precisely how atoms of oxygen and hydrogen gas bond to form molecules of liquid water, yet that description does not adequately explain why water possesses properties and qualities that are not found in either of its parent elements. This question is of much more than mere academic interest. Take, for instance, this observation by a distinguished scientist about some of the fortuitous but inexplicable properties of matter.

The fact that ice floats is utterly bizarre. Most liquids shrink in volume and increase in density when they are cooled. If it did not float, the oceans would freeze from the bottom up and probably never unfreeze and life would not be possible. Because it floats, the ice on the surface captures and retains heat in the water. This property of water is due to the nature of the hydrogen bond, the weak attraction caused by the unprotected proton in the hydrogen nucleus (unprotected because its one orbiting electron cannot fully neutralize its attraction) for an orbiting electron in oxygen creates a weak bond that makes water molecules ‘sticky’. They tend to cling together rather than vibrate freely, so when water is heated, it retains its liquid state at much higher temperatures than other liquids and it forms an open lattice crystalline structure when cooled.

The categorization of the properties of the elements in the periodic table adequately describes there common and divergent characteristics, but does not explain why these and not some other characteristics are the result of their differences in subatomic structure. Often such a description passes for an adequate explanation. For example, the excited quantum energy state (resonance state) of an electron in carbon and oxygen are just right for the creation of stable carbon atoms needed for the creation of stars and life on earth. Minor changes in the excited energy state of beryllium and of alpha particles by even one percent would mean that no carbon or heavy metals ever form in the universe, because there would be no resonance to make carbon stable. Resonance enables the electrons of carbon to absorb the extra energy of an incoming alpha particle without bursting apart until it subsides into its normal energy state. If the excited energy level of oxygen were one percent higher, all carbon would be converted to oxygen. There would be no stable organic molecules or life forms as we know them in the universe.

So too, there is no apparent reason why the force of gravity is not very different from what it is. If the force of gravity were 10 billion times stronger, it would still be only 10 28 the power of the electric force. But in this case, the density of stars would be much different and they would burn out within one year.

What determined the precise value of these constants? Can it be adequately explained as chance?

The emergence of life forms poses a more serious challenge to this world view. For we are forced along with the scientist to conclude that all life forms are simply mechanical assemblies of physical parts that have spontaneously assembled themselves and commenced operating in such a manner as to sustain the integrity of their structure, nurture its growth, reproduction and adaption. Biology with the help of genetics has discovered the entire list of material ingredients needed to create life forms as well as the overt mechanism for reproduction and evolution by mutation, but what combination of chance and necessity could possibly account for the ingenious complexity of such a mechanism? As yet there is also no substantial evidence that a combination of material ingredients mixed ever so long could possibly constitute itself as a living organism.

Science knows the ingredients, but not the recipe for life. It has placed itself in a position like that of a fictitious space traveller who is the first to arrive on a barren planet void of life and discovers a TV and VCR powered by solar cells playing the movie Gone with the Wind. Confident that no space craft or life form had ever visited the planet in the past and that no TV could pass through the planet’s atmosphere without self-destructing, the traveller pulls out his computer and writes a program to calculate the probability that the TV, VCR, solar cells and film could have spontaneously constituted themselves out of the material stuff of the planet and its atmosphere and commenced playing. Unsurprisingly, he finds that such an event is so unlikely that it could have occurred spontaneously only once or twice in 10 billion plus years since the Big Bang. Undismayed, our traveller recognizes that this is approximately the same probability that has been estimated for the spontaneous emergence of life and conscious life forms in the universe that are capable of constructing scientific theories and producing romantic historical films, a similar improbability that has already acquired acceptance as scientific dogma.

The challenges posed by extending the materialist formula to life forms has spurred the search for a third factor that could account for the orderliness, adaptation and capacity for evolution so apparent in Nature. This search has led to examination of the capacity of material energy for self-organization. Systems science sees all matter, living and nonliving, as fundamentally ordered and organized. It explains the emergence of life forms out of inanimate matter by showing that what we regard as ‘living’ is actually a self-generating network, a self-organizing open physical system in active relationship both with the components of which it is the whole as well as the environment of which it is itself a part. All the order we witness in life is the result of spontaneous thermodynamic processes. It views all living systems, be they living organisms, ecosystems or social systems, as integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts. Systems theory attributes the characteristics of living organisms to self-organizing properties inherent within them and to their capacity to respond and adapt to the context in which they are placed.

Yet systems theory still leaves us to ponder unsatisfied over the question which is insufficiently addressed by more mechanistic theories. How are these systems so determined or constituted in the first place? We find ourselves forced to resort back to the original Gods of Necessity and Chance. Nor does its explanation of all creativity as the spontaneous emergence of bifurcation points resolve the issue. The theory merely describes an apparent characteristic of material systems without revealing the underlying determinate that makes it so. Systems theory is an admirable attempt to show that the evolution of complexity does not follow a pre-established plan and need not result from the intervention of a conscious will in Nature.

Still more troubling are those questions pertaining to the emergence of consciousness out of an inconscient and inanimate energy and substance. Consciousness, according to the prevalent current view, is a mere extension and elaboration of sensation, sensation a product of energy transmission and chemical reaction triggered by impact of inconscient energy from the environment on inanimate material substance in our bodies. Granted that such an explanation may prove adequate to explain a simple electrical circuit with sensors, what determined the formation of the circuit or the sensors in the first place. And assuming it did somehow occur spontaneously, still we must enquire by what properties of material energy and substance do higher mental faculties such as perception, symbolic language, abstract thinking, association, judgement, memory, values and imagination arise, which only by a far stretch of that imagination can be reduced to electrical circuitry? By what combination of chance, necessity and self-organization do human minds synthesize the grandeur of Beethoven’s symphonies, the illuminating insights of Einstein, or the dramatic poetry of King Lear? What inherent determinates in material energy and substance account for these creative faculties?

Taken individually and together, these difficulties must compel rational minds to explore alternative hypotheses in the search for more satisfactory explanations. Rather than striving to fit everything within the ill-fitting formulas of material necessity and chance, we are compelled to ask whether there is any alternative hypothesis that will more adequately account for both the fixed patterns and infinite variation in Nature. Thus far, religion and philosophy, those allied fields of humanity’s quest for knowledge, may have failed to project a rational hypothesis worthy of contention, but that is no reason to stop the search. Chance and necessity may be relegated to the realm of philosophy by practical and experimental scientists fascinated by the power of technology and the predictive power of its theories. But no one in search of ultimate answers and rational understanding of the universe can afford to dispense with an inquiry into the soundness of the theological basis for modern science.

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