By guest writer Jason K.
From a purely scientific point of view, we are all slightly-discolored bags of water, contaminated with a smattering of minerals and various carbon-based organic compounds. These carbon-based compounds are in turn wondrously-complex. Query any chemist on the likelihood of these appearing by chance on the street, and he would maintain that their existence in a purely-random world would be extremely unlikely, if not almost impossible.
Yet, here we are. A miracle of randomness, perhaps? Or the design of a benign Creator? There are those who subscribe to the first view – that life is nothing more than a result of chance. Millions and billions of years of chance, no more unlikely than a randomly-formed monkey with a randomly-formed typewriter typing out the complete works of a randomly-formed Richard Dawkins.
Their argument is this – there has been quite a few millennia since the beginning of time (and indeed there has been), long enough for molecules of space matter to bump into each other in just the right way to produce a molecule a step up in complexity. This happens over and over again, over a long period of time. And with each passing millennium, a more complex molecule is formed. Up till the aggregation of such molecules learns to move, to consume, to procreate… to live.
And from that very first bacterium, life then underwent many more billions of years’ worth of evolution to arrive at what we have today. Infinitely more complex, yet still no more than a bunch of intertwined chemical reactions in bags of water.
That chemical reactions are needed for life to occur is not a new concept, nor is it controversial. The very thing responsible for the production of most food for life on earth is nothing more than an extremely convoluted chemical reaction: carbon-dioxide-plus-water-gives-you-glucose-and-oxygen-equals-photosynthesis. The very thing that allows you to run, to jump, to laugh and to cry has its origins in little tiny membrane-bound organelles in every cell of your body called mitochondria. Glucose-plus-oxygen-gives-you-carbon-dioxide-plus-water-plus-energy. Respiration. So it is not wrong to talk about chemical equations being an essential part of life.
But what about feelings, emotions, thoughts, free will? If bodily actions can be reduced to a mere smattering of colliding compounds, why not the decision whether to eat-in or take-away? For Science, there is no conflict. If what controls a cell is a series of very many (albeit tremendously complex) chemical equations, then it makes no difference to the nerve cells of the brain, firing electrical impulses to one another and conducting chemicals across their synapses. Every time molecules collide, a thought is produced.
Free will, in that case, is an illusion. Whenever one is faced with a choice, the many molecules in the brain collide in a certain way that produces a thought. The thought that yes, although one is on a diet, one can very well have chocolate ice cream for dessert if one goes for a five-kilometer run afterwards. It is an illusion that one has a choice, when in fact it has been predetermined by those dastardly molecules in your neurones which were always going to collide in that specific way because, well, kinetic energy and Brownian motion.
So, for those who believe in life being chance, it also is predetermined. Because those molecules are always going to collide in a certain way, there are no choices to be made. There is no need for goodness, for mercy, for justice, for altruism. No suffering, no pleasure, no meaning.
A murderer is as innocent as a saint. What they do is nothing more than the bidding of their molecules colliding. Me typing out this article, going over my paragraphs over and over and tweaking them just-so is simply a result of a series of furiously-colliding molecules. (I do wish they’d make up their mind, though. All that bumping around and getting me to retype things is making me rather annoyed.)
But what if there was an alternative? More than just chemicals, more than life being an illusion of free will? What if our decisions were controlled by something outside of our water-bag-bodies?
Perhaps that is what we call a soul.
Jason K. is a biology teacher in Singapore who enjoys reading Pratchett, playing board games, and immersing himself in Japanese culture. He has taken temporary vows as a third-order Dominican.
Image: Human Cell / PD-US