“Is Life Just a Chemical Reaction?” Joseph Wood Krutch asks this question in an excellent article in the Saturday Review (May 4, 1968). He faces the developments scientists think they see growing out of DNA and the possibility of the creation of living organisms in a test tube. And he also faces an old, old philosophical puzzle.

As all philosophers know, Plato was a realist. What most people do not know is that Plato was not “realistic” in the way we use the word today. A man today prides himself on being realistic when he deals with the here and now, the material at hand, things evident to the five senses. But Plato was realistic in an entirely different way. For him, the real was beyond the realm of the senses. He was more interested in the eternal than in the temporal and found those things immediately before the senses as only passing illustrations of The Real. He believed that The Real had to do with such things as the Beautiful, the True, the Good. One may speak glowingly of a beautiful woman, a beautiful sunset, a beautiful horse, or even a beautiful double play, but these are merely passing instances of the abiding reality that is Beauty itself.

Aristotle threw an emphasis on the individual cases and pointed out that what Plato would call The Real is simply a name to cover a group of similar things. Thus the word “dog” is a useful name for all the dogs we ever see. Because of this approach, Aristotle was rightly called the first scientist. Generally speaking, the scientist likes induction, though he is not limited to this method, and the Platonist likes deduction.

The debate between the reality of the seen and the unseen has never downed in either religion or philosophy. It appeared again in the dualism of Descartes and was answered in one way by the mechanism of Hobbs and in another way by the idealism of Berkeley. It was the genius of Kant to attempt to pull these two worlds together, at least in our ways of knowing. Closely related to this perennial debate have been arguments about the natural and the supernatural, or the body and the mind, flesh and spirit, matter and thought.

Back in the twenties, many people thought behaviorism had had its day. (Behaviorism was an effort, primarily by Watson and his school, to reduce man to nothing but matter; “the brain produces thought as the liver produces bile.”) But it has returned, allying itself with the philosophy of logical positivism, and it is hard to find any great university center where behaviorism in psychology and logical positivism in philosophy are not in control. In a popular way, this has sifted down into what is called scientism.

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The climate and atmosphere of opinion in our day is the scientific one. The emphasis is on material, on induction as a method. “Everybody knows” that no knowledge is valid unless it can be proven in the laboratory or drawn out of laboratory testing by necessary inference. This sort of thinking plays havoc with much that we call religious. Talking about God is talking nonsense. Anything like metaphysics is dismissed as absurd. This set of mind adjusts easily to the notion that science can now take over man because he is nothing more nor less than matter that can be handled mechanically, if only we know enough. The “hidden persuaders” in advertising and the use of propaganda in national and international affairs illustrate how neatly all this sort of thing works. By 1984, any Big Brother who is smart enough will probably be able to control mankind by computer. In this situation, such ideas as freedom and moral choice would seem to be illusions.

It is of such things that Krutch writes. Like others, he has been led to believe that all our answers can be found scientifically. But the old debate is on. If we accept matter as the clue to reality (and science likes matter because it is always scientifically controlled), we have still, as Krutch says, those nice questions of “pleasure or pain, interest or boredom, love or hate, and all those other phenomena which depend upon that consciousness which will remain for us the most important consequence of being alive, even if it is ultimately dismissed as nothing but a chemical reaction.” Krutch finds it too easy “to define the living in terms that will enable” the scientist to ignore many of the obvious characteristics of life that make it worth living—and, of course, what will we do with the word “worth”? Is a completely materialistic answer enough to down the traits and values of which man is capable? A man might argue this in a class in philosophy and then go home and kick the cat viciously or play with his children gladly just like someone who does not know any better.

Krutch quotes with approval a McGill biologist, N. I. Berril: “If mind and spirit grow out of matter, they are nonetheless what they have been thought to be. It is our conception of matter which needs revision.” This indeed may be the solution to the whole matter and may lead us right back to the dualism that Descartes supported. If behaviorists and others are going to insist on “nothing but” matter as the proper view of man, then matter becomes something far more complex and, indeed, interesting than merely stuff. I have always wondered about that first molecule that came alive out of the primordial slime, supposedly through millennia of accidental combinations. Allowing for the appearance of this molecule at some point in time, we must allow that potentially there was bound up in this molecule and its environment everything that has come out of it—such as Michelangelo’s art and Bach’s music. If you prefer the idea of accidental molecules to the idea of God, then you have to posit some molecule. Most mechanists fail to realize that even if we start with “nothing but” a live molecule, we still have to decide where all the laws of its relations to its environment arose. I think they did not arise out of the molecule.

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By the same token, if we are going to insist on “nothing but” conglomerations of atoms constantly bumped by other conglomerations of atoms, then we shall have to allow in those atoms and their relationships what awkwardly keeps pushing itself to the fore, namely, all those things that are finally put under the heading of “consciousness.” So nothing material has changed.

With the increasing reduction of the atom to something more akin to energy than stuff, perhaps what has finally happened in our day is an awareness that stuff is much more than stuff. Maybe the whole universe is dust, but might it not be dust “inbreathed with the breath of life”? Will Durant quoted Bruno with approval:

Every particle of reality is composed inseparably of the physical and the psychic. The object of philosophy, therefore, is to preserve unity in diversity, mind in matter, and matter in mind; to find the synthesis in which opposites and contradictions meet and merge; to rise to that highest knowledge of the universal unity which is the intellectual equivalent of the love of God.

It seems to me that the second chapter of Genesis is dead right. Man is matter, sure enough, but matter “inbreathed with the breath of God.” This can well mean that every single cell in him is alive with something more than matter. In the last analysis, all life may well be sacramental, “visible signs of invisible spiritual realities.”

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