Chapter 4: Matter and Life

The Cosmic Adventure: Science, Religion and the Quest for Purpose
by John F. Haught

Chapter 4: Matter and Life

One of the striking ironies of our age is that while physics, formerly the "hardest" science, is becoming increasingly less materialistic, biology (and to some extent physiology and brain science) are now the strongholds of materialism in science. While the notion of matter has been progressively "dematerialized" by quantum and relativity physics, the life sciences still cling to a rather Newtonian concept of the physical. Whereas the dichotomy of subject and object has been challenged by experiments in modern physics, a Cartesian dualism still provides the philosophical background of modern molecular biology and, more recently, sociobiology. At a time when the physical sciences have dissolved the atoms of Democritus, the particles of Newton and the mechanisms of Descartes into downy abstractions, biology has become more and more atomistic and mechanistic. And, finally, as the notion of "field" has assumed primacy in the explanation of physical phenomena, it is only rarely employed in biological and neurophysiological theory. The sciences that deal explicitly with life and mind are more materialistic than those that deal directly with the physical universe.

In the previous chapter I proposed an alternative to the notion of physical reality espoused by scientific materialism. My proposal was heavily influenced by ideas of Whitehead and Hartshorne. In the present chapter I shall utilize the thought especially of Michael Polanyi to challenge the kind of materialism that dominates the life sciences. I shall be discussing primarily the contemporary attempts to reduce life and mind to "matter" as it is understood by a physics and chemistry that may themselves be out of date. I shall argue here that though the temptation to reduce life and mind to "matter" is quite understandable today given the amazing advances of molecular biology and brain science, it is, nevertheless, a temptation that must be avoided in the name of simple logic.

Francis Crick, one of the pioneers in molecular biology, wrote in his widely read book, Of Molecules and Men:

The ultimate aim of the modern movement in biology is in fact to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry.(Emphasis original)1

And Crick’s colleague, James Watson, was convinced that not only genetic but other aspects of life as well are reducible to explanation at the molecular level:

Complete certainty exists among essentially all biochemists that the other characteristics of living organisms (for example, selective permeability across all membranes, muscle contraction, and the hearing and memory process) will all be completely understood in terms of the coordinative interactions of large and small molecules.2

This opinion is echoed in numerous scientific essays today. Richard Dawkins, in his celebrated book, The Selfish Gene, exemplifies the same position.3 And a similar reduction of biology to a molecular science may be found in the writings of E.O. Wilson, Ernst Mayr, Jacques Monod and numerous other highly respected scientific writers.4 In Chance and Necessity, for example, Monod gives one of the most forceful renditions of the view that biochemical analysis is "obviously" the sole avenue to understanding the secret of life.5 Decades ago Jacques Loeb had already set forth the program of inquiry still emulated today by many biologists:

Living organisms are chemical machines consisting chiefly of colloidal material and possessing the peculiarity of preserving and reproducing themselves. . . . The essential difference between living and non-living matter consists in this: the living cell synthesizes its own complicated specific material from indifferent or non-specific simple compounds of the surrounding medium, while the crystal simply adds the molecules found in its supersaturated solution. This synthetic power of transforming small "building stones" into the complicated compounds specific for each organism is the "secret of life" or rather one of the secrets of life.6

If this removal of the boundaries between the life sciences and the physical sciences is not the conventional wisdom among biologists today, then it is at least a sufficiently influential position to deserve closer examination.

Needless to say, many biologists are uncomfortable with the stark reduction of their discipline to what are often considered "lower" and "harder" sciences. Yet they are not often able to clarify conceptually why biology should be given the status of an autonomous science. In this chapter I shall urge them not to give up their persistence in clinging to the distinctiveness of their field of inquiry in spite of the apparent inroads made into it by the physical sciences. There are good logical, and not merely psychological, reasons for their stubbornness.

It might not be immediately obvious, though, how our discussion of the question of biology’s independence relates to the general theme of this book. How does the apparently innocuous question "Is biology reducible to chemistry and physics?" fit into the whole issue of whether the universe is in any sense a purposeful one?

In response, let us momentarily suppose, with the teleologically biased traditions of religious and philosophical wisdom (the so-called "perennial philosophy"), that the universe is a hierarchy of "levels," or "dimensions" (or "fields" of influence, if we wish to employ a more contemporary metaphor). For the sake of convenience I shall use the more traditional term "levels" in my discussion even though I have serious reservations about doing so. The vertical imagery associated with the idea of a hierarchy of levels can be quite misleading. However, since the reader by now has learned to "mistrust simplicity," I may assume that he or she will at least first allow me to seek it.

In any case, traditional thought pictures the universe as a hierarchy of levels. These levels are, in ascending order, the material, the living, the conscious and the transcendent: matter, life, mind and God (or however the ultimate is named). In this cosmography life processes transcend material ones, mental processes transcend living ones, and the divine transcends the totality giving purpose and order to it. In this picture there is an ontological discontinuity as we move from one level to the next. There is an intuition that some factor is present at the level of life that is not present at the level of matter, and that there is a qualitative difference distinguishing mind from life, and so on. The traditional academic division of disciplines is governed by this sense of ontological discontinuity, and so biology departments have been separated administratively from those of chemistry and physics.

Today, however, a serious question has arisen as to whether there is any logical justification for this division. And where custom dictates that for the sake of convenience we keep to the traditional academic structure, the philosophical question still remains as to whether biology (or psychology or any other human science) has a genuine right to autonomous existence.

The reasons for this suspicion are clear. The obvious physical continuity of atomic and molecular make-up that runs from the level of rocks to that of brains compels us to wonder whether it is still feasible to cling to the intuition of ontological discontinuity. Something in us still insinuates that there is a world of difference between a rock and a frog, but molecular biology and neurophysiology see only chains of atoms everywhere. In the face of this physical continuity that cuts across the traditional lines of demarcation and alleged qualitative leaps in the hierarchy, can we still logically hold to the sense of ontological discontinuity?

Our discussion of the question of biology’s reducibility to the physical sciences is, therefore, a kind of test case. It is a question which holds the key to whether the entire hierarchy should or should not be collapsed to the level of matter. It therefore bears directly on the issue of purpose in nature.

I think it is highly questionable whether a complete dismantling of the hierarchy can be consistently and logically executed. I agree with Polanyi that it is possible to hold together the fact of physical continuity with the hierarchical conception of ontological discontinuity. And a discussion of biological reductionism may be our best access to formulating a defense of the hierarchical view as well as some version of the teleological vision of the cosmos.

However, before undertaking any such defense of the notion of ontological discontinuity today we must acknowledge that the traditional hierarchy has to be considerably modified in the light of modern science. In the first place evolutionary theory demands that we unleash the hierarchy from its rigid verticality. The emergence of life comes chronologically billions of years after the birth of matter. And the appearance of mind (in the sense of consciousness, not in the sense of the pervasive mentality that constitutes all actualities) is a relatively recent development in our corner of the universe at least. To the materialist the late, apparently accidental, precarious and localized entry of life and consciousness onto our planet fortifies the view of physical continuity. Consequently we must take this "historical continuity" into account if we are still to affirm an ontological discontinuity. We must ask whether the physical and historical continuity that evolutionary theory posits, in its picture of life and consciousness arising from a soup of chemicals, rubs out the hierarchical distinction of levels.7

In the second place the traditional hierarchy may have to be altered to fit the "general systems" view of physical reality according to which there are countless levels of organization in physical reality and correspondingly numerous leaps and qualitative distinctions throughout the universe. General systems theory sees autonomy in biology but also recognizes discontinuity in prebiotic patterns of organization. In a sense there is just as much discontinuity of patterning between an electron and an atom or an atom and a molecule as there is between a molecule and a living cell. The leap from matter to life is only one of many leaps in nature’s evolution.8

In the third place we must keep in mind the proposal made earlier that beneath the physical continuity of nature there is a deeper processive continuity that is perceptive or "mental." What we normally take as physical reality is composed of a continuous, dynamic process of occasions of experience inheriting one another through a mode of activity that can best be called "feeling." This aspect of feeling is the deepest root of the continuity that binds all things together. In fact the point of view taken in this book is that the mutual continuity of all actualities is much deeper and more cohesive even than that postulated by materialists. The organic, sentient cohesiveness in all of nature, however, does not eliminate the possibility of qualitative leaps in the emergence of higher and more complex organismic arrangements.

In the fourth place we must fully acknowledge the recent discoveries pertaining to the chemistry underlying the life process. It is clear today that life does in fact have a molecular basis that can be specified by chemical analysis. The "secret" of life, growth and heredity seems to lie in the movement and combination of nucleic and amino acids. These acids in turn are merely complex chains of atoms (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen). It is little wonder, therefore, that some scientific thinkers would be tempted to the view that life is reducible to a molecular basis.

The most important molecule involved in living things is called DNA. The DNA molecule, made up of four types of nucleic acids (signified by the letters A, C, T and G) constitutes a code, of which the four nucleic acids in various triadic arrangements are the alphabet. The manner in which the letters of this code are patterned determines the way in which the proteins of an organism (composed of amino acids) will be structured. Through a messenger and transfer process involving a group of acids called RNA, the genetic code inscribed in the DNA molecule will give rise to determinate living beings such as bacteria, mice or humans. The whole process seems utterly physical and chemical. Life appears to be not the result of miracle but rather of blind and impersonal material laws.

By using the language of chemistry modern biology has also given us an updated version of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Occasionally, according to the neo-Darwinist, the chain of nucleic acids in DNA undergoes an accidental modification. A portion of the chain is perhaps eliminated, inverted, or repositioned. This modification is called a mutation, and it is apparently the result of blind chance. The result is that in the translation process the proteins of the coded organism will be restructured according to the mutated DNA. If this restructuring is advantageous, nature selects the organism for survival; if the restructuring enfeebles the organism, as happens with most mutations, the outcome may be extinction. The organisms selected by nature for survival will pass on to their offspring the favorable genetic characteristics. And in this fashion new species periodically come into existence.

The DNA molecule is for the most part very stable and conservative. But occasionally the pull of entropy, a cosmic ray or some other (unknown) factor will bring about a mutation in the genetic code. This miniscule chemical aberration may cause a large or small change in the encoded organism. Then nature selects those mutated organisms which can accommodate themselves most readily to a particular environment. Eventually, as a result of chance mutations in DNA, accidental modifications subjected to the pressure of natural selection, there emerge the "higher" animals and, at last, man.

According to many biologists today this chemical explanation of life and evolution has no need to resort to the idea of purpose or to what Aristotle termed final cause. In other words modern biology has no use for "teleological" explanations. Mechanical-chemical explanations are sufficient. As Wilson says:

. . . no species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history. Species may have vast potential for guidance and mental process but they lack any imminent [sic] purpose or guidance from agents beyond their immediate environment or even an evolutionary goal toward which their molecular architecture automatically steers them.9

And Richard Dawkins adds a Darwinian emphasis:

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is satisfying because it shows us a way in which simplicity could change into complexity, how unordered atoms could group themselves into ever more complex patterns until they ended up manufacturing people. Darwin provides a solution, the only feasible one so far suggested, to the deep problem of our existence.10

Dawkins begins his book, The Selfish Gene, with the question: Why do we exist? He tells us that Darwin’s theory, brought up to date by modern molecular biology, provides the only sensible answer to this question. Thus chemistry (in the guise of genetics) is given the burden of answering the questions formerly reserved for seers, metaphysicians and theologians. Our four-level hierarchy has completely collapsed. Any considerations of teleology are deemed to be childish and intellectually obscurantist. We see in Dawkins, Wilson, Monod, and their many colleagues the implementation not only of Crick’s proposal to reduce biology to the "harder" sciences, but also the hope of answering all questions -- even metaphysical-religious ones such as "Why do I exist?" -- in terms of the meandering of molecules, without any reference to final causal considerations. Therefore, our question whether biology is reducible to physics and chemistry is not as innocent as it may initially appear to be. It bears directly on the question of purpose in evolution.

The Irreducibility of Life11

It is doubtful, though, whether life can be decisively reduced to the level of matter. If it could, then chemistry (and physics) would be able, eventually at least, to provide an adequate explanation of it. We must ask, then, whether the science of chemistry can exhaustively explain what life is, even in principle. Most biologists would agree that chemistry has not yet sorted out all of the "mysteries" in the life process. But many of them cling to the expectation that it will do so progressively as our techniques of analysis become more advanced.

That such a hope may be destined for frustration lies in the simple fact that the DNA molecule essential for life functions primarily as a code. As even mechanistic biologists admit, the DNA molecule is a code capable of containing and transmitting information. It is instructive to dwell on these notions of code and information, for it is questionable whether chemistry is appropriate as a science to understand them adequately.

A code is a set of elements that can be arranged and rearranged so as to bear specific information. Our alphabet is a clear example of a code. Its twenty-six component letters can be maneuvered into an endless variety of patterns containing meaning or information. The information resides not in the letters themselves but in the specific sequence that is given to the letters in a piece of writing.

The same also may hold in the case of DNA. The letters of this code are nucleic acids (A, C, T and G) arranged sequentially in triadic formations. It is not the acids themselves that contain the information in DNA. Rather it is the specific sequence of base pairs that bears the "meaning." So we must ask whether chemistry (or any physical science) can specify the overall sequence of nucleic acids that determines the kinds and shapes of organisms existing in the biosphere.

With Polanyi I shall argue that the sequence of base pairs in DNA is in fact extraneous to the chemistry underlying the life process.12 Chemical activity is of course a necessary condition for the emergence and existence of life; But it is not a sufficient condition. Materialism founders on the logical confusion of necessary with sufficient conditions.

In order to clarify this point of logic an analogy may help. Letters appear on the page before you because there is a certain chemical property in ink that compels it to bond with paper. Without this deterministic, invariantly stable property you would see no letters and, therefore, would not be able to grasp what I am trying to communicate to you. Consequently, we may safely say that, in this context at least, chemical forces, operating impersonally, blindly, deterministically are a necessary condition for the transferral of information to you, the reader. But there is certainly more involved here than chemistry. The letters on the page before you have a very specific sequence. (Sequence is the most important term in our discussion in this chapter.) Does chemistry determine the sequence of letters on this page? Or is there not something extraneous to chemistry that gives the specific sequence? Again, chemical reactions or properties are a necessary condition for my communicating information, but are they a sufficient condition? Is not something else involved here?

It is clear that the meaning or information you are receiving now is primarily a result of the specific sequence of letters on this page and not of the chemistry of ink and paper. And while you the reader and I the writer are both relying on the workings of invariant chemical processes, the meaning is extraneous to the chemistry. You do not go to the chemist as such to discern the meaning of a chapter in this book. The meaning of this chapter has been made "incarnate" by the author in a specific sequence of letters of a code whose variability has allowed him to arrange them in the pattern you see before you. And while he is relying on the stability of chemical processes to inform you, he would no doubt be insulted if someone told him that an analysis of the chemistry of ink and paper would yield an adequate understanding of this chapter.13

Now are we sure that the case of DNA’s information-bearing ability is completely different from this example? Granted, there are obvious disparities. Still is it not possible that the specific sequence of base-pairs in a DNA molecule is extraneous to the chemistry which bonds the nucleic acids to one another? I think the question is at least left open. Our analogy of letters on a page, derived from Michael Polanyi, makes us wonder whether we can dogmatically state that life is nothing but the result of chemical forces and that biology is reducible to chemistry and physics. Can we rule out the presence of some sort of "extraneous" causation operating somehow at the level of DNA’s sequence, communicating "information" through the instability of the code, writing its meaning into the cosmos?14

But let us stop for we are getting outrageous. There is no tangible evidence of such an agency. We cannot locate any cosmic informer at the interstices of the loosened and readjusted acids in the DNA chain. Moreover, we know now the degree to which chance seems to enter into the evolutionary process. "Chance" appears to be the scribbler, eraser and communicator. How can we talk about extraneous agency without trailing off into mystification?

In this chapter I have taken only a small step toward a response to this question, but it may turn out to be an important one. I have tried to show that it is not altogether obvious that the sequence of base pairs in the DNA molecule is determined only by chemistry or that chemistry alone can illuminate this sequence. In other words, it is not clear that biology is a molecular science, reducible to chemistry and then to physics. I cannot prove that there is any extraneous causation at work, but in subsequent chapters I shall try at least to explain why it is that any such causation would not be accessible to our efforts at verification.


Marjorie Grene summarizes our critique of the reductivist project:

What makes DNA do its work is not its chemistry but the order of the bases along the DNA chain: It is this order which is a code to be read out by the developing organism. The laws of physics and chemistry hold, as reductivists rightly insist, universally; they are entirely unaffected by the particular linear sequence that characterizes the triplet code. Any order is possible physico-chemically; therefore physics and chemistry cannot specify which order will in fact succeed in functioning as a code.15

Is it not legitimate to go beyond the chemical factors involved and to ask what factors may be involved in determining the specific sequence in the code of life? Can the answer possibly be chance alone?

But let me be more positive. At times in the past the cosmos has been compared to a "teaching" or to a book. Throughout most of human history our universe has been viewed as a repository of meaning. It is not entirely out of the question that modern molecular biology is but one of several recent scientific developments that have made it possible for us to rehabilitate this intuition in a fresh way. It is in the order or sequence of the components of the cosmos that its meaning would reside. The specific sequence of vibrations gives an electron its character or an atom its properties. The specific sequence of nucleotides determines the various kinds of life that appear in evolution. Perhaps our universe is closer to an embodiment of "intelligence" than we have been accustomed to think. Science in the usual sense does not deal adequately with the factor of coded sequence; it does not often even advert to it, though the use of computer models is beginning to enhance our understanding of the many possible patterns of information at every level of matter and life. Generally, however, science formulates the laws binding one component to another without explicit consideration of the overall sequence of cosmic components or events. The reasons for this reticence will be discussed in the next chapter.


1. Francis H.C. Crick, Of Molecules and Men (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966), p. 10.

2. J.D. Watson, The Molecular Biology of the Gene (New York: WA. Benjamin, Inc., 1965}, p. 67.

3. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

4. E.O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1975.); Ernst Mayr, "Evolution," Scientific American CCXXXIX (Sept. 1978), p. 50; Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity.

5. Monod, p. 28.

6. Quoted by John Hermann Randall, Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), p. 479.

7. Cf. Marjorie Grene, "The Logic of Biology," in Marjorie Grene, ed., The Logic of Personal Knowledge (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1961), p. 199.

8. Cf. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory (New York: Braziller, 1968); Ervin Laszlo, The Systems View of the World (New York; Braziller, 1972).

9. Wilson, On Human Nature, p. 2.

10. Dawkins, p. 13.

11. I am indebted here and elsewhere in this book to Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964), esp. pp. 327-405; The Tacit Dimension (Gar. den City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1967); Knowing and Being, ed. by Marjorie Grene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), pp. 225-39; and Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch, Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975).

12. Polanyi, Knowing and Being, p. 229.

13. Ibid.

14. The positing of such extraneous causation should not be interpreted vitalistically as a reversion to dualism. Instead it may be taken in the sense of the metaphysical principle of order and novelty that Whitehead’s organismic philosophy requires (and which I shall discuss subsequently), or in the sense of formative causation (which will be introduced in the following chapter). The term "extraneous" should not be understood as "separate" or "extrinsic" but rather as "distinct" both logically and ontologically from other causal factors such as material or chemical or mechanical.

15. Marjorie Grene, "Reducibility: Another Side Issue?" in Marjorie Grene, ed., Interpretations of Life and Mind (New York: Humanities Press, 1971), p. 18.