Is Life Material or of Another Order?
Ralph H. Armstrong
The biology professor eyed me impatiently as he mentally weighed my manuscript, a loose leaf bound 250 page draft of my book Christianity inEvolution. “You’ve done a lot of work,” he mused, almost to himself. I nodded, thinking to myself that the real issue was whether or not its points and conjectures were valid. My ideas in the book were not mainstream, and biology is not my first language, so I was not sure of what I had created. Thumbing through the draft, he whispered, “What do you want me to do with it?” I looked him in the eye and said firmly, “I want you to shoot it down.”
From close readings of biological and evolutionary science, the Scriptures, and the tenets of Christianity, I had set out in Christianity in Evolution: Discovering the Harmony of Science and Faith to put together a rapprochement. I sought a better understanding of the processes of the creation, as well as the whys of suffering and conflict. I wondered how the astonishing findings of cell and molecular biology pertained to Christianity. From my career as a physician Christian, I brought with me an assumption that Life and its animation was extraordinary, and I was aware that modern biology largely attributed Life to solely material and mechanical processes. I have long felt that all living is animated by the breath of Life, cell respiration being a necessary but not sufficient explanation for Life’s continuous motion.
At our follow up meeting at the coffee shop in his community, the day was hot, and we sought a table in the shade to go over his critique. The first third of the draft was liberally marked with red ink. He had very graciously noted various mistakes and areas where he disagreed with my thinking. Then he settled back in his chair, and said that he found my idea of animation opaque. His tempo increasing, he defended his mechanistic view of Life as he said, “What we need are more experiments, our technical capabilities are increasing, and the field of computational biology is in its infancy. ” Then he reached into his brief case and pulled out a page he had printed out from Wikipedia. It was an essay on Animism, and it read, in part, as follows:
Animism encompasses religious beliefs that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) worlds, and souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in all other animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment. Animism may further attribute souls to abstract concepts such as words, true names, or metaphors in mythology. Animism is particularly widely found in the religions of indigenous peoples, although it is also found in Shinto, and some forms of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Pantheism, Islam, Christianity, and Neopaganism.
Throughout European history, philosophers such as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, among others, contemplated the possibility that souls exist in animals, plants, and people; however, the currently accepted definition of animism was only developed in the 19th century by Sir Edward Tylor, who created it as “one of anthropology‘s earliest concepts, if not the first“.
Fig. 1.An example of animism in the extreme. ‘Famous Bedik diviner just outside Iwol, southeast Senegal (West Africa). He predicted outcomes by examining the color of the organs of sacrificed chickens. The person consulting him here came all the way from Dakar — a long trip.” Courtesy Ghaku and Wikimedia Commons.
“ According to religious scholar Robert Segal, Tylor saw all religions, “modern and primitive alike”, as forms of animism. According to Tylor, animism often includes “an idea of pervading life and will in nature”; i.e., a belief that natural objects other than humans have souls. As a self-described “confirmed scientific rationalist”, Tylor believed that this view was “childish” and typical of “cognitive underdevelopment”, and that it was therefore common in “primitive” peoples such as those living in hunter gatherer societies.
Here then is the gulf between Christianity and “confirmed scientific rationalists” such as the professor. The biblical idea of the Breath of Life, or Breath of God, as the animating principle in Life is dismissed as primitive, childish, and indicative of cognitive underdevelopment. It appears that Tylor’s definition, reinforced by an emerging mechanistic Darwinism, won acceptance by most biological scientists. Apparently, the prevailing worldview is that there is only one explanation for Life, a mechanistic one, and anyone who holds an extraordinary view is deemed infantile or at worst delusional. The trouble is that the concept of animism, as described by Wikipedia and as intimated by the professor, though having grains of truth in it, utterly fails to do justice to the Judeo-Christian idea of God’s breath animating life on earth, or to Native American spirituality, which it condemns as infantile and primitive.
A Look at the Evidence
A drawback of animism as defined above is that it can be based on the subjective intuitions, experiences, traditions, religious practices, and worst of all, the frank superstitions of individuals, groups, and cultures. Religions and hunter gatherer societies that endorse animism have little if any scientific, or objective, evidence with which beliefs can be tested. My biology professor, on the other hand, drew from the rich well of cell and molecular biology and concluded that Life is material because there is no scientific evidence that it is transcendental. But, as Huston Smith once argued, lack of evidence is not evidence of lack (italics mine). The fact is that there is at this time no direct evidence that Life is either solely material or transcendent. It is simply an emotional and visceral assumption we make, without even realizing it.
But an abundance of evidence in the fields of cellular and molecular biology and genetics is in fact compatible with a worldview of Life as transcendent:
- Compared to nonliving machines, living organisms are qualitatively entirely different. They fuel themselves, organize and regulate themselves, defend and repair themselves, reproduce, and on the molecular level, exist as layer upon layer of complex and exquisitely choreographed networks. The central organizer is the creature itself in its totality.
- Living organisms are in constant motion; cell respirations— the Krebs cycle and oxidative phosphorylation— are necessary to fuel motion, but are not sufficient to explain it. Consider the ideas of philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnstone: She writes that “a mechanical concept of nature is foreign to a complete understanding and explanation of emergent organization from the level of cells to the level of intact organisms-animate forms.” In this paper, she asserts that a “principle of motion or animation informs biological nature.” In other words,” the fundamentally dynamic character of biological form at all levels exemplifies the kinetic character of living matter.” ” She complains that our notion of matter “fails to account for the fundamental kinetics of living systems. There is a dynamic principal undergirding living matter that contradicts construing biological life as machine.” She states emphatically, “To understand living systems is to understand animation, from the level of cells and neurophysiological happenings to the level of intact organisms, that is, animate forms. Animation-movement-is present at all levels in living systems… animation is fundamental to a veridical account of living forms, not an add on, and certainly not an incidental possibility or property.” I would only add that all matter, not just the biological, is in motion. Electrons whirl and strings vibrate, ceaselessly.
- In my book Christianity in Evolution (CIE), I cite extensive scientific evidence and commentary from scientists that Life is intelligent, learns, can modify itself, exists cooperatively in community on multiple levels, and can trade genetic information between individuals in minutes. Life is not clay acted on by God or molded solely by natural selection; rather, Life is an agent in its adaptations. All living creatures are sentient.
- Life strategizes. Random genetic mutations leading to variations in organisms have long been touted as proof that Life is only material and ultimately meaningless. But this worldview is only one of two ways of looking at randomness. Random variation can alternatively be seen as a strategy for coping with changing and challenging circumstances. Richard Colling, in his book Random Designer, presents a worldview in which God has used randomness to fashion creatures capable of connecting with him. The bioengineering method of directed evolution generates an array of novel proteins that otherwise could not be fabricated.
- Furthermore, Life is intensely innovative and creative. By molecular tinkering, Life can, by making Lego-block like rearrangements, create new and more adaptive forms in evolutionarily brief periods of time. It is plausible that punctuated equilibrium events such as the Ediacaran and Cambrian explosions took place in such a manner. In addition, the outcomes of tinkering, much as the inventiveness of humans, are unpredictable.
- In cell operations such as chromosome replication and repair, molecular repair molecules move with uncanny accuracy to damaged areas to perform surgical excisions, followed by patching, almost suggesting that the molecules are flexible and capable of choice. The whole process of DNA repair, though under tight control from higher networks, appears intelligent. Mentioning molecular intelligence brings to mind chaperone proteins in bacteria. Chaperonins are cup shaped proteins into which other proteins in the process of fabrication are shielded so that they can fold properly. They even have a cap that closes over the soon-to-fold protein; it comes off to allow the now-folded protein to escape into the bacteria’s cytosol. They are objects of intense study; little is known of their origin. Fig. 2 illustrates it. Fig. 2. Chaperone protein, essential in protein folding. Image from BiOpinionated. For a beautiful animation of a chaparone protein participating in protein folding, click on the following link: http://www.archimedes-exhibitions.de/exhibits/animationen/_/chaperone.html or go to “Chaparonin Video” on the right margin under “Blogroll.” This will take you to “Archimedes.” To see the link in English, click on “English” on the lower left
- .There is evidence that even the molecules have agency. Small groups of DNA and RNA—specifically transposons and viruses– act autonomously to parasitize living organisms. Viruses strategize: The human immunological deficiency virus (HIV) rapidly and randomly changes its coat with every replication, making it a particularly difficult moving target. Transposons are widespread and are thought, due to their mobility, to be important generators of evolutionary change. These two entities have no respirations or metabolisms, yet exhibit exquisite intent.
- Living creatures are sentient. Animals express sentience in their ability to move, whereas plants show through phenotypic plasticity their awareness of their environment. Though animals do not possess the overt self-reflective consciousness of humans, they do, based on the development of their central nervous systems, exhibit varying degrees of consciousness.
- Life is in intense conflict, both within itself and with other creatures. Humankind suffers grievously with conflicts within individuals. Witness psychoanalyst Karl Menninger’s classic book, Man Against Himself. Such self-conflict, as well as the often brutal clashes between creatures, must be explained. In Christianity in Evolution, I cite extensive evidence that conflicts extend down to the genomes of all living.
10. In stark contrast to non-living objects, all living things die.
In summary, living creatures are clearly distinguished from non-living matter. Given the consciousness, intelligence, agency, creativity, conflictual nature, and mortality of living creatures, it is clear that the living possess a quality that the non-living do not.
The Explanatory Gap
How do we get from organic molecules to the organized complex systems of molecules that make up living things? Furthermore, how do we get from these systems of molecules to sentience, consciousness, agency, intelligence, creativity, and choice? How do we go from molecules to systems to the propensity to attack the other? Franklin Harold, emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at Colorado State University, raises this question, as he writes:
One senses that something is not accounted for very clearly in the single-minded dissection to the molecular level. Before cells were taken apart . . . they displayed capacities that go beyond chemistry. Homeostasis, purposeful behavior, reproduction, morphogenesis, and descent with modification are not part of the vocabulary of chemistry but point to higher levels of order . . . here we touch, if not the very secret of life, at least an essential stratum of that many-layered mystery. . . . How do millions, even billions, of molecules come to function in a collective, purposeful mode that extends over distances orders of magnitude larger? This, in essence, is the problem of biological order..
Now we see that up to now we have no way to fill this explanatory gap. At this moment, science can take us no further. The professor holds to his implicit opinion that Life is only material, and he plans more experiments, while at the same time implying that I am delusional for thinking otherwise. Stuart Kauffman, in his book Redefining the Sacred, (Look under “Book Reviews” elsewhere on this site for a review of Kauffman’s book), offers a gentler position. He argues that the ten item list above constitutes a worldview that can be a meeting ground for scientists, skeptics, and people of all faiths. Kauffman declares that Life as defined above is God enough for him, but in suggesting this middle ground he is granting to religious persons everywhere their right to interpret it otherwise.
On the other hand, I wonder if what we are seeing is matter made animate by the Ruach, the breath of God and of Life. As I look over the ten item list above, it seems to me very plausible that Life is transcendental. But in the end, it is a matter of assumption, though for each of us the assumption is admittedly visceral and emotional. But there is yet another possibility; could it be that what we see as matter is in essence matter and breath as a single, indivisible entity? Think of all we see in the tangible universe as animationmatter. Is there any evidence for such radical speculation? There is indeed very interesting evidence, in origin of Life experiments on the one hand, and Jesus in the Gospels, on the other.
Origin of Life Experiments
At first glance, it would seem that the idea of Life as transcendent can be called into question if science can create Life in the laboratory. And scientists the world over are racing to do just that. Go to the National Library of Medicine at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed and search for “the origins of life.” The search brings up 1,274 papers (as of September 2010) looking at various aspects of the subject, including several papers specifically addressing the question, “What is Life?” Perusal of journal publisher SpringerLink’s specialty publication Origin of Life and Evolution of Biospheres shows papers on such subjects as prebiotic chemistry, prebiotic amino acids, theoretical modeling, homochirality,[i] and defining Life. I focus below on the work of the team of Nobel laureate molecular biologist Jack W. Szotak[ii] and its efforts to create Life, particularly as set forth in the article “The Origins of Cellular Life.”[iii]
The authors, drawing on an enormous amount of research worldwide, are looking for plausible pathways for the transition from complex prebiotic chemistry to simple biological assemblies able to propagate themselves and evolve. These “protocells” require two key components—a membrane to make a compartment and a lengthy molecule able to transmit functional information to progeny. Their laboratory has focused on vesicles made up of fatty-acid membranes, by which protocells could take up nutrients, grow, and divide. They have experimented with an array of genetic polymers to understand their potential for genome replication within encapsulating membranes. Their goal is to create a laboratory model of a protocell to understand possible paths for the emergence of Life on Earth. Basically, they are investigating the advanced biochemical properties of enzymes, catalysts, and the self-assembly and self-organization inherent in some carbon-based molecules. How close are they to synthesizing life? I am convinced that it lies within the realm of the possible. What will it mean if they succeed?
If scientists can, through their sophisticated manipulations of biochemistry, coax selected molecules to assemble to create Life, I believe they will have pushed the issue of animation—- Life’s consciousness, agency, intelligence, and creativity— back from organisms to the molecules themselves. I think they will have shown that the very molecules of the Earth and the Universe have agency, confirming what I have already written above about viruses and transposons exhibiting molecular intent. This suggests to me that the Ruach is not confined to Earth and its living things. Rather, the Ruach will prove, in my opinion, to be an intrinsic property of everything that is.
I am by no means the first to consider the breath as pervading all matter and the universe. The early 20th century naturalist John Burroughs, in his 1916 book The Breath of Life, writes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said he would not feel threatened or insulted if a chemist should take his protoplasm, or mixes hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, and makes an animal, swimming and jumping before his eyes. “It would only be evidence of a new degree of power over matter which man had attained to. It would all finally redound to the glory of matter itself, which, it appears, is impregnated with thought and heaven, and is really of God, and not of the devil, as we had too hastily believed.” (Italics mine)
Fig. 3 Ralph Waldo Emerson
With these thoughts in mind, let us take a fresh look at the miracles of Jesus, as described in the four Gospels.
The Miracles of Jesus
Substantial portions of all four Gospels document Jesus as performing an array of miraculous healings, transformations, exorcisms, and personal feats. In our present era, we tend to focus on Jesus’ teaching, compassion, and messages of tolerance, love, forgiveness, salvation, and reconciliation with the Father, and his miracles are treated as signs pointing to the reign of God’s kingdom. The fact remains, however, that Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, was the ultimate miracle worker. Whole segments of religious commentators dismiss accounts of his miracles as fabrications, and many believers simply avoid the issue. But the fact that so many Scripture writers attest to so many different kinds of miracles suggests that maybe there is some validity to what is written about him. In the end, each of us chooses to either avoid the question, or believe, or disbelieve the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracles.
Suppose we accept at face value the accounts of Jesus’ miracles. I then ask, “Well, how did he do these things? What can we say about the bases of his miracles? What do they have in common? Would the idea put forth above—that the molecules of the universe are imbued with his breath—shed any light on his miracles?”
Let’s start by classifying the miracles; they can be grouped as follows:
- Miracles regarding living non-human organisms: the cursing of the fig tree, and the schooling of the fish at the calling of Peter and the other fishermen.
- Transformations of food matter: water into wine, multiplication of loaves and fishes.
- Miracles regarding the elements: walking on water, calming the winds, stilling the storms.
- Healing miracles: lepers, paralytics, withered limbs, blind persons, chronic bleeding, fevers.
- Casting out demons.
- Raising the dead
This is an utterly astounding list of accomplishments. There are differences between these categories: some are living, some once alive but not now living, some are inanimate, some are supernatural (the demons). What commonality, aside from the demons, do they share? They are all made up of molecules. They are part of the material world. Let’s take these in order.
The cursing of the fig tree is described in Matthew 21:18 and Mark 11: 12-14; both accounts occur following Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and end with a discourse on faith and prayer. The miracle directly supports the idea that his breath animates the fig tree; with the curse he withdraws his breath, and the tree withers . Notice that Jesus speaks to the fig tree. Speaking is derived from breath; for one to speak, one must breathe. It follows then, that the Word issues from the Breath. His action is foretold in Psalm 104 and Job 34:
“If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust.” (Job 34:14–15)
“When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.” (Psalm 104:29)
In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus tells us that we can perform similar miracles, or even cast mountains into the sea, if we, in prayer, ask in faith. So, how does the breath connect to faith in Jesus, on the one hand, and the efficacy of prayer, on the other?
The second miracle concerning living but non human organism is the schooling of fish at the calling of Peter (Luke 5:1-11). Like the cursed fig tree, the fish are alive; both have the breath of life, which has been lent them. In other words, in God they live, and move, and have their being. When Peter and the others are fishing, but catching nothing, Jesus calls the fish to a higher purpose, to be a sign to the world, and because it is his breath that animates them, they come swimming. Jesus here is a fish whisperer.
The miracles in categories 2 and 3 above involve nonliving entities. The water, wind, and storms are molecular, as is the water at the wedding in Cana, and as are the elements of the cooked fish and bread, at the feeding of the thousands. Here is evidence that the Ruach is not reserved for the living, but also are intrinsic to nonliving molecules and their various networks. Because the molecules of the universe are suffused with God’s breath, they submit to Jesus. “Who is this that even the winds obey him?” Because he has lent his breath to the molecules of the universe, he has dominion over the elements that they make up. They hear and respond to the master from whom their breath issues. Think here of animationmatter. What we think of as the material of the universe are molecules made animate by the breath. Wait, one might argue that the desk upon which my computer sits is not animate. But think again; every molecule of the wood is in constant motion. In these examples of Jesus and the nonliving, Jesus is a whisperer of molecules!
Fig. 5. Christ in The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Ludolf Bachhuysen 1655
In category 4, the healing miracles, it is the diseased tissue that responds. Diseased tissues, like the fish or the fig tree, are molecular; the networks that make up diseased organs are composed of damaged molecules. Again, the molecules respond to his voice, or touch, even his spittle. In some cases, but not all, the faith of the person is commended as restorative. It would appear in these cases that the faith referred to here is the person’s openness to Jesus, leading to a wholeness, or holiness, or restoration of the whole person, not just the molecular.
In Category 5, the demons are interesting. The Scriptures don’t tell us much about demons, where they come from, etc. They apparently take their cues from the devil, and we know they possess people, causing maladies that today we would call psychosis or epilepsy. But their most remarkable characteristic is that they consistently know who Jesus is! How do they know him? Could it be that they are elements of his breath, lent out as he has lent out his breath to all of Life and the universe, but a breath that has gone over to the other side? Could it be that they know him because they came from him?
The second mystery is, where have all the demons gone? There are reports that there are some still around, but they seem nowhere near as ubiquitous as in Jesus’ time. The explanation most consistent with the gospel narratives is that in the presence of Jesus, everything moved with lightening rapidity, and he drew out the hidden powers of the world, making everything extraordinarily manifest . In my own work as a psychiatrist, I have seen several people who seemed to have an alien presence in their psyches, but in each case the alien turned out to be a rejected part of the self. These aliens, then, needed to be invited in, not cast out. If one regards demons as elements of the breath gone to the dark side, it stands to reason that the main intent and power of demons is to induce fear, frighten, influence, tempt, or deceive. Thus, their presence would be quite subtle and difficult to detect. C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, and St. Paul, in Ephesians 6:10-20, take this view. But, beware of a “the devil made me do it” attitude. We are responsible for our own actions, and we should not be deceived into believing that we have no power to correct them. That said, it is not easy. I understand and believe in Steps 1 through 3 of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The last category is the raising of the dead. All that is said above is true of the resurrection of Lazarus. “Lazarus, come out!” The breath, via the Word, enlivens his molecules, and he lives.
Fig. 6. The Resurrection of Lazarus. Vincent Van Gogh. Courtesy Batchheizer and Wikimedia Commons.
Finally, with the idea of the molecules and elements of the universe being suffused with the Breath, a variety of Scriptural passages we take as metaphoric may be more literal than we realize. For example, as Jesus rides the donkey into Jerusalem and the crowds sing “Hosanna,” (Lk 19:38), the Pharisees object to the shouts, and Jesus answers, “I tell you, if these keep silence the stones will cry out.” (Jerusalem Bible). In the light of this study, Native American spirituality, with its animation of the physical and animal world, and its plea that we are all brothers and sisters of heaven and earth, does not look primitive at all.
We have examined the question of the nature of Life: Is Life only mechanical, or is it of another order altogether? There is an explanatory gap between arrangements of molecules and their animation. From close readings of biology, evolutionary science, and the Scriptures, Life is, in contrast to mechanical objects, agentive, intelligent, creative, and in conflict with itself. There is yet another explanatory gap, one between organisms and intelligence. If Life is mechanical, it possesses some distinctly non mechanical aspects. This statement, if you look at it closely, is contradictory. Furthermore, there is evidence that some organic molecules exhibit agency and intent; I describe the actions of viruses and mobile genetic elements, or transposons.
I therefore assert that it is Life’s molecules, suffused with the Breath of Life, that generate animation, agency, intelligence, choice, and free will. Life and the molecules that compose it is made agentive and intelligent by the Ruach, the breath of the Almighty. This is a religious assertion and cannot be proven by science. But can it be disproved? If science can create Life in vitro, does that falsify our premise? Or does it imply that the very molecules that science has coaxed to Life have the Ruach enlivening them?
This last idea, that the molecules of the universe are suffused with the Breath, has explanatory power. With this idea I explore the Gospel accounts of the miracles of Jesus. What does all this tell us about prayer, about how Jesus prayed, and about how we can pray?
 I thank the Very Rev. Jerome Kahler, for this idea.
[i] Homo = alike. Chirality = the handedness of an asymmetrical molecule. Life uses only left-handed amino acids and only right-handed sugars. How and why in the world did Life come up with these choices? Creationists who argue that homochirality points to a creator are posing a god-of-the-gaps argument.
[ii] Jack W. Szostak is professor of molecular biology at the Department of Molecular Biology and Center for Computational and Integrative Biology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. His Nobel Prize was for his work on the protective function of telomeres, the tips of genes.
[iii] Schrum JP, Zhu TF, Szostak JW. “The Origins of Cellular Life.” Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol (May 19, 2010): doi: 10.1101/cshperspect.a002212.