Reality Check for the Scientific Vision of Life

by Ted Christopher

Abstract - Below are some brief quotes offering the skinny on the scientific model of life. As that model provides a foundation for the modern educated purview it is worth digesting. The article will then argue that that vision is seriously flawed. Final discussions will consider the significance of the resulting mysteries, including their potential relevance to religious perspectives. 

Keywords: scientific materialism, science, genetics, religions, terminal lucidity, Ursula Goodenough, Julian Barnes, Caleb Scharf. 

Discussion - Three Educated Perspectives

  Critical to our basic understanding and perspective is the contemporary scientific understanding of life - materialism. If accurate - as seemingly assumed by almost all scientists and most intellectually active individuals - that has profound implications. 

  The psychologist Steven Pinker provides a number of confident portrayals of this vision, naturally embedded within his sunny science-centered perspective. But for a relatively uncompromising depiction of that vision the work of one prominent biologist stands out. The depiction:

[A]ll of us, and scientists are no exception, are vulnerable    
to the existential shudder that leaves us wishing that the   
foundations of life were something other than just so much 
biochemistry and biophysics. The shudder, for me at least, is 
different from the encounters with nihilism that have beset my contemplation of the universe. There I can steep myself in cosmic Mystery. But the workings of life are not mysterious at all. They are obvious, explainable, and thermodynamically inevitable. And relentlessly mechanical. And bluntly deterministic. My body is some 10 trillion cells. Period. My thoughts are a lot of electricity flowing along a lot of membrane. My emotions are the result of neurotransmitters squirting on my brain cells. I look in the mirror and see the mortality and I find myself fearful, yearning for less knowledge, yearning to believe that I have a soul that will go to heaven and soar with the angels [Goodenough, pp.46- 47]. 

Notably, other than an appeal to “cosmic Mystery”, this description is shorn of any of the Pollyanna-isms that commonly infiltrate the bottom-lines of popular scientists. Additionally, it is noteworthy that that depiction is somehow found in Ursula Goodenough’s arguably neo-religious book, “The Sacred Depths of Nature”. 

   An additional source of insight is the very fine 2008 book by novelist Julian Barnes, Nothing to be frightened of [Barnes]. Barnes’ book deals with his take on death and with it quite a bit of life. The book opens with the sentence, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him” [p.3]. The es-essential backdrop to the work is that Barnes has opted for an intelligent understanding which of course means science, and this is not surprisingly rather limited. With this perspective Barnes can still intellectualize and philosophize around a bit - including taking some shots at atheists, philosophers (his brother is one), and more generally modern trends (although there he short-changed what has become frenetic distraction-ism in favor of traditional “frenetic [commercial] materialism”), but to little end as he surmised. A relevant quote: 

We discover, to our surprise, that as (Richard]) Dawkins (i.e., “Mister Meaninglessness”) memorably puts it, we are “survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes”. The paradox is that individualism - the triumph of free-thinking artists and scientists - has led us to a state of self-awareness in which we can now view ourselves as units of genetic obedience. My adolescent notion of self-construction - that vaguely, Englishly, existentialist ego-hope of autonomy - could not have been further from the truth. I thought the burdensome process of growing up ended with a man standing by himself at last - homo erectus at full height, sapiens in full wisdom - a fellow now cracking the whip on his own full account. This image ... must be replaced by the sense that, far from having a whip to crack, I am the very tip of the whip itself, and that what is cracking me is a long and inevitable plait of genetic material which cannot be shrugged or fought off. My ‘individuality’ may still be felt, and genetically provable; but it may be the very opposite of the achievement I once took it for [Barnes, p.93-94]. 

Further, “[n]ow, alone, we must consider what our Godless wonder might be for” [p.93]; Christianity is a “beautiful lie” [p.53]; and modern alternative pursuits - the “secular modern heaven of self-fulfillment” - and their purported realization of happiness is “our chosen myth” [p.59]. And of course, “[t]he air has been let out of the tires of free will” [p.181]. 

   The final science-framing comes from black hole research can be found in a Scientific American article by Caleb Scharf, “The Benevolence of Black Holes” [Scharf]. In it Scharf laid out some evidence of the apparent dynamic existing between the structure of a galaxy and its central black hole, and ultimately for the resulting potential to support the development of life. Scharf pointed out that:

The connection between the phenomenon of life and the size and activity of supermassive black holes is quite simple. A fertile and temperate galactic zone is far more likely to occur in the type of galaxy that contains a modestly large, regularly nibbling, black hole rather than a voracious but long since spent monster. 

After cringing around the associated why-is-the-universe-amenable-to-life (or anthropic) question, Scharf went on to report that our Milky Way galaxy happens to be “smack dab in the [life habitable] sweet spot of supermassive black hole activity”. Furthermore, Scharf went on to write that: 

[t]he entire chain of events leading to you and me would be different or even nonsexist-tent without the coevolution of galaxies with supermassive black holes and the extraordinary [matter and energy] regulation they perform. 

Thus many of the details of the universe’s galaxies appear to have been dependent on black hole dynamics and this can be viewed as adding to the truly staggering evolution- and conception-based odds against the existence of “you and me”. 

  The article concluded with a reverential paragraph: 

This fertile corner of the cosmos has been governed by all that has gone on around it, including the behavior of the black hole at our galactic center. The very places that have sealed themselves away from the rest of the universe have served as one of the most influential forces shaping it. We owe so much to them. 

It also opened with: 

[o]ur existence in this place, this microscopic corner of the cosmos, is fleeting. With utter disregard for our wants and needs, nature plays out its grand acts on scales of space and time that are truly hard to grasp. Perhaps all that we can look to for real so-lace is our endless capacity to ask questions and seek answers about the place we find ourselves in. 

That is, we can find meaning in following the speculative details of astronomy’s investigations of unimaginably distant, lifeless phenomena. Notably of course, is that “we” and “meaning” here simply constitute patterns of neural firings. 

The Supposed Language of Life

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is of course essential to that scientific vision of life and with it the modern intellectual purview. Steven Pinker in an essay introduced that vision in stating that: 

In making sense of the world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede “It just is” or “It’s magic” or “Because I said so”. The commitment to intelligibility is not a matter of brute faith, but gradually validates itself as more and more of the world becomes explicable in scientific terms. The processes of life, for example, used to be attributed to a mysterious elan vital; now we know they are powered by chemical and physical reactions among complex molecules [Pinker 2013]. 

The presumed director of those molecules is of course the DNA molecule. Consistent with this, Pinker went on to add that science’s “understanding consists not in a mere listing of facts, but in deep and elegant principles, like the insight that life depends on a molecule that carries information, directs metabolism, and replicates itself”. 

In fact, the pioneering geneticist Craig Venter answered the question “What is life?” with the expression, “DNA-driven biological machines” [Venter 2014, p.6]. Also Venter in his 2007 book, A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life, extrapolated that vision in practical fashion to declare that the Human Genome Project: 

has charted a landscape in which we will discover the most intricate workings of our species, the particularities of our own individual genetic makeup, and the promise of novel approaches to health and medicine that will mark a new stage in human development, one in which inherited biology is no longer destiny [Venter 2007, inside cover]. 

Richard Dawkins characterized our genomic nature with “DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music” [Venter 2014, p.1]. Additionally, the late prominent biologist Ernst Mayr pointed out, “[o]ne can never fully understand the process of evolution unless one has an understanding of the basic facts of inheritance, which explain variation” [Mayr 2001, p.89]. That inheritance assumption is equivalent to the assumption that DNA provides an organ-ism’s conception-beget blueprints. 

  An additional practical take on this situation is suggested in some statements provided by the Nobel laureate James D. Watson. In a 2003 interview, Scientific American asked how much “is left for us to do” after having “largely worked out” the human genome? Watson replied: 

[relevant research] seems to moving pretty fast. You don’t really want to make a guess, but I’d guess that over these next 10 years, the field will be pretty played out. A lot of very good people are working on it. We have the tools. [Watson 2003]. 

Next, when Scientific American asked Watson, “[i]f you were starting out as a researcher now”, Watson interjected, “I’d be working on something about connections between genes and behavior. You can find genes for behaviors…”. The term “field” in the above quote which was to “play” itself out, likely included behavioral genetics and personal genomics (reflecting our individual behavioral and health tendencies, respectively). 

  Further, a significant aspect of the contemporary scientific mindset was also suggested by Watson in his self-characterization: 

I was born curious. … And so if you wanted an explanation for life, it had to be about the molecular basis for life. I never thought there was a spiritual basis for life; I was very lucky to be brought up by a father who had no religious beliefs [Watson 2003]. 

And in commenting on a promotional line used for the genetics-inspired movie Gattaca - “There is no gene for the human spirit” - Watson wrote, “[i]t remains a dangerous blind spot in our society that so many wish this were so” [Watson et al 2017, p.440]. I will spare readers further readily available, super-confident quotes. Pinker’s alone could fill a book. 

  Also, a reminder here is that “gene” denotes a subset of DNA which provides a template for the construction of protein molecules and “genome” denotes the collection of such genes (and sometimes effectively as the entire DNA molecule). 

  One recent study of note involved a polygenic score effort trying to make DNA-sense about the occurrences of homosexual sex. That study and its findings were described in an article by Pam Bullock [Bullock 2019] and an accompanying article by two researchers, biologist Steven M. Phelps, and sociologist and geneticist Robbee Wedow [Phelps and Wedow]. 

  Bullock’s article pointed out that the study, “was conducted by first-rate scientists”. The re-searchers not only labored on the requisite scientific analyses, but also apparently in putting together a sensitive presentation of findings. The investigation was billed as a success but contrary takes were expressed in the Readers’ Picks comments for the Phelps and Wedow article. One read: 

[t]his research clearly shows that there is no straight answer - pun unintended. If looking into the DNA of 500,000 people didn’t help, what will? 

Another reader got a bit animated: 

[l]ess than 1% of variation! 

I almost choked on my pork and beans when I read that. 

Less than 1% of variation is risible, not even the beginnings of understanding the phenomenon. 

Dudes, get back to us if and when you have something to report.

I now let the findings as given in Bullock’s article speak for themselves. After some generalities the article reported that:

[r]esearchers specifically identified five genetic variants present in people’s genomes that appear to be involved. Those five comprise less that 1 percent of the [inferred] genetic influences, they said. 

And when the scientists tried to use genetic markers to predict how people in unrelated data sets reported their sexual behavior, it turned out to be too little genetic information to allow prediction. 

In fact, they really didn’t find anything and this is representative of efforts to confirm that we “can find genes for behaviors”. Even other far-reaching polygenic score efforts - including the apparent small successes in topics like educational attainment - were subsequently undermined in follow-up studies [Cepelewicz]. 

  After the stunning failure of the initial “tour de force” search through the common DNA/genetic variants (2008-ish), the subsequent decade plus of search efforts in personal genomics and behavioral genetics have essentially consisted of a sequence of pseudo successes (and every few years a geneticist will acknowledge this). Given the presumed playing field - little variable DNA in our genomes, very impressive search capacities, and many clear differences between humans (and you don’t need elaborate twins studies to appreciate this) - the unexpected broad failure of the genetic model appears to be a practical fiasco and also a big wakeup call suggesting that the modern molecular-only vision of life is coming up short. Something else is going on. 

  The historical backdrop is that the DNA molecule was supposed to provide a physical basis for the evolution of life. And thus an 814 page evolutionary track like Evolutionary Analysis is first and foremost an ode to DNA’s presumed ability to transcribe the working of natural selection, and behavioral dynamics were supposed to be key. In a simple example, among the Hawaiian genus of crickets, Laupala, there appear to be 38 separate species and the distinguishing aspect is the males’ mating song along with the corresponding females’ song preference. Those songs consists of simple series of pulses and the species-distinguishing feature appears to be the pulse frequency! Additionally of note here is that this dynamic has “astonishing[ly]” evaded efforts to isolate its genetic basis [Herron and Freeman, pp.625-626]. 

  Furthermore, many profound behavioral conundrums abound including that some birds have demonstrated an innate knowledge of their migration routes [Watson]; a number of animals - in-cluding dung beetles - appear to utilize the positions of nighttime stars in order to navigate [Sokol]; humans appear to come equipped with elaborate spiritual/religious beliefs [Barrett; Luhrmann]; and emerald jewel wasps carryout “[e]pic, absurdly complex [an understatement]” attacks on American cockroaches [Catania 2021]. How much of this is really plausible given the observed haphazard and ambiguous nature of genomes? I suggest here that a number of these innate capacities have genomic demands on par with the out-of-this-world capabilities demonstrated by some (human) prodigies. Demands which even given success in the generic behavioral genetic searches would appear impossible. 

More Conundrums for Science

  I add a little bit more to this brief tour of reality checks for the super confident materialist model. Consider some more direct evidence in the form of terminal lucidity. That phenomenon was discussed in a Scientific American blog piece by the psychologist Jesse Bering entitled, “One Last Goodbye/ The Strange Case of Terminal Lucidity” [Bering 2014]. In his write-up Bering considered something that was perhaps officially first characterized by a German biologist Michael Nahm in a 2009 article [Nahm 2009]. Nahm described terminal lucidity as: 

The (re-)emergence of normal or unusually enhanced mental abilities in dull, unconscious, or mentally ill patients shortly before death, including considerable elevation of mood and spiritual affectation, or the ability to speak in a previously unusual spiritualized and elated manner. 

In a subsequent Nahm article, written with Bruce Greyson, it was mentioned that in a study of 49 cases, 41 of them involved surprising verbalizations during the last week of life [Nahm and Greyson]. Additionally, in 21 of the cases the verbalizations came on the same day as death. In some cases severely mentally impaired individuals had gradually returned to near normal lucidity before dying. Bering mentioned one case involving a man who had been catatonic for nearly 2 decades before his reemergence to a near normal state. 

  Other cases involved sudden lucidity. In one case Bering reported that a 92 year old woman “with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, …, hadn’t recognized her family for years, but the day be-fore her death, she had a pleasant bright conversation with them, recalling everyone’s name … [and] was even aware of her age and where she’d been living all this time”. But the most striking case involved a severely disabled young woman named Anna (“Kathe”) Katherina Ehmer and it occurred in 1922. Her case had substantial verification in that as a patient in a mental hospital her sudden lucidity episode was observed by that hospital’s chief physician Wilhem Wittneben and also its director Friedrich Happich. The two men independently and consistently (reportedly, “[o]ver the years”) communicated Kathe’s remarkable spontaneous event. Kathe had been severely disabled and Happich described her as having been from birth on: 

seriously retarded. She had never learned to speak a single word. She stared for hours on a particular spot, then fidgeted for hours without a break. She gorged her food, fouled herself day and night, uttered an animal-like sound, and slept … never [taking] notice of her environment even for a second. 

She also apparently had suffered a number of bouts of severe meningitis infections which were thought to have damaged her cortical brain tissue. She also experienced a bout of tuberculosis which led to the amputation of a leg. 

  Shortly after the removal of her leg, Kathe was lying in bed approaching death. At this point a number of staff members, including Wittneben and Happich, gathered to observe her stunning rejuvenation. As Happich described it: 

Kathe, who had never spoken a single word, being entirely mentally disabled from birth on, sang dying songs to herself. Specifically, she sang over and over again, “Where does the soul find its home, its peace? Peace, peace, heavenly peace!” For half an hour she sang. Her face, up to then so stultified, was transfigured and spiritualized. Then she quietly passed away. 

Terminal lucidity obviously poses a conundrum for materialism and is suggestive of the presence of a soul. To his credit Jesse Bering - with a job in psychology and at one point a blog at Scientific American - wrote in understated fashion that, “on face value, one has to admit that the story of Kathe Ehmer is something of a puzzle”. Bering had some personal connection in the matter since he had been with his dying mother who had managed “five minutes of perfect communion with me when, ostensibly, all her cognitive functions were already lost”. 

  Other phenomena that offer possible strong evidence for the existence of souls include near death experiences [Holden et al] and medium-based investigations [Carter]. I add some on the latter reference as that book by Chris Carter, Science and the Afterlife Experience, contains truly remarkable - and remarkably corroborated - accounts of medium-based communications with deceased individuals. These accounts offer what appears to be a consensus on a life-after-life dynamic with strong karma-like moral underpinnings. That dynamic also appears to involve the potential advancement amongst incarnations - either in terms of species or ultimately planes of existence. The accounts appear to have been communicated without reference to existing religions.
  The final, big conundrum to consider here is the existence of our natural religion. It turns out that humans appear to come equipped with simple religious beliefs or inclinations. Justin L. Barrett’s book, Born Believers - The Science of Children’s Religious Belief, presented evidence that infants tend to possess an innate understanding of the existence of souls/God/gods, to be be believers, in what Barrett termed, a “natural religion” [Barrett]. The book contained a number of striking examples including ones in which the positions of atheists’ had been rebutted by their young children. As Barrett expressed “[c]hildren are prone to believe in supernatural beings such as spirits, ghosts, angels, devils, and gods during the first four years of life” [p.3]. He later added: 

Exactly why believing in souls or spirits that survive death is so natural for children (and adults) is an area of active research and debate. A consensus has emerged that children are born believers in some kind of afterlife, but not why this is so [p.120]. 

This framework was also discussed in an article at a popular news site where they stated:

Olivera Petrovich, an Oxford University psychologist, surveyed several international studies of children aged 4 to 7 and found that the belief in God as a "creator" is "hardwired" in children and that "atheism is definitely an acquired position." 

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and director of the Mind and Development Lab at Yale University, writes, "The universal themes of religion are not learned... They are part of human nature... Creationism – and belief in God – is bred in the bone" [Wallace]. 

Barrett additionally, included a chapter listing some basic features of our natural religion. These had been gleaned from interviews with young children and they suggest that we are born inclined to hold several beliefs including: 

1) That there are “[s]uperhuman beings with thoughts, wants, perspectives, and emotions.” 

2) That “[e]lements of the natural world such as rocks, trees, mountains, and animals are purposefully and intentionally designed by some kind of superhuman being(s), who must therefore have superhuman power.” 

3) That “[s]uperhuman beings generally know things that humans do not (they can be super-knowing or super-perceiving, or both), perhaps particularly things that are important for human relations.” 

4) That “[s]uperhuman beings may be invisible and immortal, but they are not outside space and time”. They also “have character, good, or bad.” 

5) That “[l]ike humans, superhuman beings have free will and can and do interact with people, sometimes rewarding and sometimes punishing them.” 

6) That “[m]oral norms are unchangeable, even by superhumans.” 

7) That “[p]eople may continue to exist without their earthly bodies after death” [Barrett, pp.138-139]. 

Together then, this suggests that children are inclined to believe that there is sort of a parallel, unseen complementary living realm. That realm is also believed to somehow to make design-oriented contributions to the natural realm. 

  Barrett went on to qualify these findings. In particular he emphasized that such beliefs are conceptually primitive and that their extension into agreement with more typical religious theology is at best crude. Young children then (and as Barrett suggested adults too) might be naturally religious in a primitive way, but on the other hand they are not inclined in a theological sense. 

  Justin Barrett did not address the possible validity of these beliefs, including the afterlife belief which was nominally an “area of active research and debate”. These striking findings were simply framed within the materialist framework, as fallout from evolution and nurture - or “biology plus ordinary environment”. Barrett, in fact, went so far as to suggest that research into “systems of the human mind” “make belief in some kind of god almost inevitable” [p.20]. This statement and Barrett’s follow-up, as well as similar content in T. M. Luhrmann’s How God Be-comes Real [Luhrmann], appear to be good examples of the intellectual hegemony of materialism, since confidently concluding that our innate religious beliefs were the “almost inevitable” outcomes of evolution seems rather absurd. For additional context here, Steven Pinker succinctly described our particular slog through evolution as having been akin to a “camping trip that never end[ed]” [Pinker 1997, p.207]. 

  Barrett and fellow researchers apparently found some satisfaction, though, in rebutting the common argument that with regards to religious beliefs, people simply parrot what they’ve been taught. Barrett did provide an alternative explanation that he heard from an Indian man who had explained to him (in Barrett’s words): 

[T]hat on death, we go to be with God and are later reincarnated. As children had been with God more recently, they could understand God better than adults can. They had not yet forgotten or grown confused and distracted by the world. In a real sense, he explained, children came into this world knowing God more purely and accurately than adults do [Barrett, p.2]. 

The basis of these innate religious or spiritual beliefs would seem to constitute the 64,000 dollar religion-versus-science question. If they truly are somehow stored in DNA (and then realized in young brains) this would appear to be a strong confirmation of the scientific (or null) understanding of religious perspectives. If on the other hand, they are not genetically-based then that could be consistent with the existence of God/gods/souls as commonly taught in religions. In connection with that possibility would be an apparent earlier interaction or observation by the soul of those religious elements. Thus, these two possible explanations for our natural religious instincts would then be that they reflect either some haphazard evolutionary-genetic fallout, or that they represent our earlier observations of these entities in a previous disembodied state, respectively. These two explanations provide profoundly different perspectives on life and death. 


  The opening descriptions the scientific vision of life are simply matter-of-fact facts for many people allied with science (including nominally religious ones like the biologist Goodenough). In fact in a New York Times review of Barnes’ book Garrison Keillor simply commented, “[a]ll true so far as it goes, but so what” [Keillor]. Perhaps excepting his deflation of the “modern secular heaven”, isn’t Barnes’ take on life what else is supported in modern secular educational systems? 

  For those interested and willing to question this “biochemistry and biophysics”-only vision of life, I have offered some potential avenues. Acceptance for such efforts within academia, though appears to be very limited. 

  Investigations of the phenomena of our natural religion, and secondarily, terminal lucidity could be very useful to any understanding of possible deeper aspects of life. They represent big challenges to materialism. Good scientific/physical explanations of such phenomena appear un-likely. 

Acknowledgments: The author gratefully acknowledges the Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County. Several significant books were obtained there and the library also provided a good work space. The efforts and funding came solely from the author. 

Conflicts of Interest: The author declares no conflicts of interest. 


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Ted Christopher lives in Rochester.  He has held a variety of jobs including some academic-based, biomedical ultrasound research efforts.  Post-high school, his formal education has been mostly technical and included a PhD in Electrical Engineering.  Concurrent with these efforts he has tried to make sense of some basic aspects of life, perhaps influenced by his involvement with Buddhist practices and more generally his religious instincts. He is the author of, A Hole in Science and Why Science is Wrong About Life and Evolution. You can find his work on Amazon, here.