A Chemical Dream

Everything is going along just fine. He is walking confidently through his workplace, greeting everyone he knows with a smile, when he suddenly realizes he is only in his underwear – then he wakes up. Some people are like this fellow – walking through life under the illusion of a reductionist mindset – taught that all of life can conveniently be explained in terms of chemistry. We are nothing more than a series of chemical reactions, and all our behavior is predetermined by the interactions of matter.

The deep passion between lovers is only a surge of hormones in the bloodstream. The desire for a double-bacon cheeseburger is nothing more than a neurochemical signal in the brain. Your choice to make oatmeal for breakfast was really no choice at all – it was predetermined by environmental cues interacting with long established neural pathways. Sounds convincing at the outset because, well, you know, its science. But play this kind of thinking out a little further, and you will suddenly realize you aren’t wearing much at all.

The reductionist mindset sustains an atheistic ideology which must explain everything in terms of material processes. In this viewpoint, your emotions and behaviors are not only explained as a result of chemistry, but actually predicted. But if that is true, then not only is your decision to go to college predetermined by your genes and hormones, but must equally be attributable to the combination of properties of the amino acids contained within the particular proteins. In turn all your hopes and dreams must be predicted based on the properties of the electrons, neutrons and protons contained within the atoms of these amino acids. All the vagaries of life are answerable to the relationship of quarks combined within these same subatomic particles. It truly becomes a reductio absurdum.

This absurdity is understood as we realize our thoughts and intentions, plans and designs proceed from more than mere chemical reactions. Life is more than just a sum of its parts. A brain which sustains massive trauma during a car accident still possesses all its cells, but coordinated thought processes have ceased. A cell culture whirred in the blender has not lost any of the biomolecules present before hitting the switch, but now there is no life. A protein heated beyond normal body temperature becomes denatured – it has not lost any of its amino acids, but it is functionless. Structure weighs heavily when it comes to functioning systems, and it is much harder to come by.

The properties of even a simple molecule such as water could never be guessed by examining the properties of the hydrogen and oxygen gases which combine to form it. The product of a glucose molecule would not be guaranteed by the presence of six carbon atoms, twelve hydrogen atoms and six oxygen atom – any one of a million combinations could be made. The structure and function of a protein cannot be predicted by the sum of properties of the amino acids contained within it. Its function is only realized with a particular sequencing of those amino acids followed by the proper folding of the amino acid chain by cellular nano-machinery (it can’t fold by itself). The structure in living systems so essential to life cannot be predicted or obtained merely from the properties of its components. Something beyond matter itself must be at work to permit this structure to come into existence.

It is time for anyone steeped in reductionist thinking to see things as they really are, and wake up from their chemical dream. A great deal more has been attributed to chemistry and physics than natural laws permit. Life in this world can only reasonably be constructed by means of intelligent agency – not merely an impersonal force which generates biological function, but someone who can instill passions, intent, purpose and meaning into lifeless matter.

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