What is life?
What is life? It seems like a very simple question. We see living beings all the time. We, as living beings, are fully immersed in life. In fact, we are made of trillions of tiny living beings called cells. However, we still do not know what life is. Even scientists- who have dedicated their whole lives to this question- do not know either. That is why Dr. Paul Nurse, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the Cell Cycle, decided to write a book to address this age-old question. Of course, he was neither the first nor the last person who attempted to define life. However, he is perhaps one of the most qualified given the fact that he has studied nothing but living cells in his lifetime. Does he have a definite answer? I’m not sure- even after reading his book.
The book is a perfect example of pure science mixed with a perplexing ideology. On the one hand, it provides an excellent narration of scientific discoveries about life. On the other, it injects readers with a carefully embedded ideology of materialism and naturalism. Even the very description of life is not ideology-free. The author considers evolution a necessary property of life. Why can’t we have life without evolution?
The book explores the answer to the “life” question through so-called five great ideas in Biology. The book begins with the Cell Theory talking about how scientists discovered the cell as the basic unit of life. Second, it discusses the gene as the collection of information that builds, maintains, and replicates life. Third, it discusses evolution by natural selection as a way for living beings to adapt to their environment. Fourth, it travels deep into the cell as a chemical factory as a basis of everything in living beings. Finally, the book points to the necessity of collection and analysis of information at the cellular level to maintain life.
Both the great and ugly sides of modern science are visible in the book. The part which only talks about scientific facts is amazing. In fact, it is through such science that we learn more about the inner world of cells. The discoveries of cells, DNA, and genes are indeed worthy of great praise. For that matter, scientists have done an excellent job in revealing WHAT is happening inside a tiny cell. The problem begins when they attempt to attribute this amazing works inside the cell to proteins, enzymes, or genes. In other words, scientists fail us as they try to answer the WHY question from a materialistic point of view.
The book provides a great narration in describing WHAT is happening inside cells. The story begins with the basic components of cells. Basic elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen come together to form amino acids. Then, 20 amino acids come together to form thousands of proteins which appear to be responsible for extremely complicated tasks that are coded in DNA. In fact, proteins are also built based on this information. It seems that what we eat ends up working as a team of amazing experts in the chemical factories of cells. As the book explains, a living cell is nothing but an amazing chemical factory. Proteins seems to work like brilliant workers building organs and tissues along with many other tasks. In fact, as we learn more about WHAT is happening inside a single cell, it is impossible not to be amazed. None of the high-tech factories today could be a match with the chemical factory running inside each cell. Let us listen together how Dr.Nurse explains WHAT is happening inside each cell:
" Purposeful behavior is one of life’s defining features, but it is only possible if living systems operate as a whole. Consider this at the level of the cell. Each cell contains a profusion of different chemical reactions and physical activities. Things would rapidly break down if all these different processes operated chaotically, or in direct competition with one another. It is only by managing information that the cell can impose order on the extreme complexity of its operations and therefore fulfil its ultimate purpose of staying alive and reproducing.
To understand how this works, remember that the cell is a chemical and physical machine that behaves as a whole. You can understand quite a lot about a cell by studying its individual components, but to function properly, the multitude of different chemical reactions operating within the living cell must communicate with each other and work together cohesively. That way, when either its environment or its inner state changes – perhaps the cell runs low on sugar, or encounters a poisonous substance – it can sense that change and adjust what it does, thereby keeping the whole system functioning as optimally as possible. Just as a butterfly gathers information about the world and uses this knowledge to modify its behavior, cells are constantly assessing the chemical and physical circumstances both within and around them, and using that information to regulate their own state."
It is impossible not to be amazed with the above narrated activities inside each cell. HOW does it all happen? This is where the author fails readers as he attempts to explain HOW those amazing activities are happening. He gives agency to certain components of the cell such as enzymes, genes, and proteins as if they have the consciousness to know how to read the coded information and perform extremely complicated tasks. Dr. Paul Nurse is not alone in making such a mistake. There are many scientists who explicitly or implicitly believe in the consciousness of cells. For instance, Dr. Jonathan Edwards from UCL published an article in 2005 in the Journal of Consciousness Studies arguing that “every neuron has a version of our consciousness.” Dr. Paul King from UC Berkeley thinks we can consider each cell, not just brain cells, as conscious given their awareness and communication with each other.
Do scientists have evidence of cellular consciousness? Of course not. They conclude this from the observed behaviors of cells since cells seem to act as if they have consciousness. Why do we have to attribute those actions to the cells? Can we not think outside the box by ascribing those acts to the All-Knowing, All-Powerful, and All-Wise Creator?
No, we can’t do that because we will be ridiculed by many scientists. In reality, it is more ridiculous to believe that the proteins in the food we eat suddenly become geniuses when they enter a living body. As the book explained well, protein is nothing but mix of certain basic elements that are unconscious, blind, and deaf. Let us think about it. Oatmeal contains a great amount of protein. Is it possible for oatmeal to learn how to work in a car factory and build cars? Of course, it is not. It is a ridiculous idea to think that way because oatmeal does not have any consciousness. A living cell is more complex than any car factory, according to science. Then, how is it that the same protein, once inside a human body, can work in cell factories like a great engineer? What is the magic of giving such amazing skills to those tiny components of food? Do food ingredients gain intelligence once they become components of living cells?
You do not need to be a Nobel Laureate to know that the ingredients of livings cells are not capable of doing anything on their own because they do not have any consciousness, knowledge, will, or power. They are no different than pebbles of sand. Amazingly, when they come together in a particular way, they seem to do brilliant work. Science is supposed to inform us about these amazing activities but stop there. As another Nobel Laurate, Richard Feynman, says “we cannot make the mystery go away by “explaining” how it works. We will just tell you how it works.” The book is great when it talks about WHAT is happening as non-living beings mysteriously turn into living beings and do amazing work. The mistake is to answer WHY questions by assuming that the mystery comes from material causes.
The book reminds me of Said Nursi’s mana-i harfi and mana-i ismi concepts. According to Nursi, everything is like a mirror which shows itself and reflects something beyond itself. Thus, when we look at a mirror, if we see glass, that is the mana-i ismi aspect. If we see a reflection in the mirror, that is mana-i harfi aspect. Obviously, we use a mirror to see a reflection of ourselves. Therefore, when we look at a mirror, we pay attention to the reflected images, not to its glass. Similarly, Nursi argues that we should reflect on the reflected meaning of beings more than their material composition. Of course, there is nothing wrong with paying attention to the glass of mirrors as well. In fact, we need to have someone who pays attention to the production and maintenance of mirrors. Thus, if pure science focuses on the mana-i ismi aspect of beings, that is perfectly fine. However, when science ascribes the mystery to material causes instead of describing how causes appear to work, it delves into the domain of mana-i harfi aspect using a mana-i ismi perspective. That is a serious problem. It is like claiming that the reflections in a mirror come from the glass of the mirror. Just as it is ridiculous to talk about reflected images without acknowledging the reflected objects, it is also ridiculous to talk about reflected knowledge, wisdom and power in cells without acknowledging the presence of the All-Knowing and All-Powerful Creator.
In short, we need to separate pure science from ideology. I understand the secular approach of not mentioning God in a scientific narration. Then, science should address the WHAT question by only describing what scientists discover. It should not address the HOW question through material causation. As discussed by some philosophers such as David Hume, science does not go beyond apparent phenomena. It can only explain what is observed. It does not know about the true causal mechanism. Assuming matter is the only reality and explaining the observed phenomena through material causes or natural laws is not a scientific answer. It is a materialistic ideology attempting to address the HOW question. Thus, we should either limit science to the WHAT question (or
mana-i ismi dimension of beings) or we should refer to philosophy and religion for the metaphysical questions of HOW and WHY (mana-i harfi dimension of beings).