Wednesday, August 4, 2010

There is Grandeur in this View of Life

I recently overheard two women talking. One was discussing her pregnancy, and how she had undergone her first ultrasound. She then exclaimed, "God is so amazing!"

This seems like a nice spring board to discuss a common accusation against skepticism. The religious believer sees wondrous miracles inhabiting her life, and the cold, rational skeptic turns it all into mechanisms and equations. The religious person sees the divine gift of life, and the skeptic sees only chemicals and processes by reducing everything scientifically.

I'd beg to differ, though, about that caricature. The baby developing inside her began as one single cell, containing half her DNA and half her husband's DNA. That cell then began dividing. Now, each daughter cell and granddaughter cell would get the exact same DNA as the original one--and DNA, of course, comprises the instructions telling a cell what to do. The cells have to eventually take on different jobs, though, throughout the body. And so over time, the cells differentiate in terms of which genes they express, first into simple groups based on small chemical or physical differences. Over more time, the differentiations accumulate until you have liver cells, nerve cells, skin cells, etc, each of which expresses only some of the genes in its DNA and thus performs a different job. Incredibly, no one guides this process, even though it begins from one cell with one set of DNA. The differentiations flows from local rules, as if a paper filled with magnets in the right way would fold into a beautiful origami pattern on its own.

This child will then be born with innate cognitive functions developed by evolution over hundreds of thousands of years, for more complicated ones, and millions of years for more basic ones. It will begin imitating others rapidly after birth. It will form attachment with its mother in a particular stage. It will learn language in a later stage, in the same age range as other children. It will go on to develop a theory of mind around age four. All of this is programmed to unfold, with no one having programmed it.

When I consider all of this--not to mention, for example, the complexities of the DNA code written in only four bases on a more micro scale--I am filled with awe and wonder at the complexity involved. That this complexity could emerge on its own over thousands of millions of years via a simple algorithm--and go on to allow the love, pain, and friendship the child will feel at some point--is all the more mind-boggling.

In comparison, isn't reducing it to "God is so amazing" a little cheap? If one were struck by the processes involved and felt an immanent God equated with nature behind it all, that would be one thing. Or if "God is amazing" were just an expression of gratitude and wonder, great. But doesn't Someone magically getting the baby in and out--and I don't mean to belittle her excitement, but that's how she seemed to mean it--pale in comparison to the truth, which is itself quite wondrous and awe-inspiring?

There can indeed be grandeur in this view of life.

No comments: