Saturday, August 10, 2013

CREATING LIFE


If we were to fabricate a human brain, would it be alive?  Be conscious?  Have free will? 

Einstein would have referred to this as a thought experiment.  I’m not asking if we have the technology to do this.  I’m not even asking if we will ever have that technology.  I’m just asking what it would be like if we could.

Here perhaps is another way to put what I am trying to ask:  If we take a fresh human brain and start breaking it down into its constituent parts we see that it is organized as follows:  There are the major brain components--frontal cortex, temporal cortex, cerebellum, corpus callosum, etc.  These regions are in turn comprised of neuronal networks, which in turn are made up of neurons (of course), as well as various other types of supportive and connective tissue.  The neurons, which are essentially just very sophisticated cells, are made up of cell parts such as a nucleus, axon, dendrites, membrane, etc.  These in turn are made up of molecules--admittedly some very complex molecules, but molecules nevertheless, which in turn are made up of atoms.  At the end of the day what we have is simply a large collection of atoms (which, of course, are made up of subatomic particles, etc., etc., but I think you get the point).  And if you put a brain into a sealed container and just let it deteriorate, what you will have in time is nothing more or less than a soup of chemicals.

Sooo . . . theoretically we could take that chemical soup, rebuild the molecules, rebuild the cell parts, rebuild the cells and cell networks, and get back to a brain.

As I indicated, this sounds fantastically complicated and we humans just may not have the technological horsepower, if you will, ever to piece everything together.  And even if we do, we would seem to be a very long way from being able to.  

Because the human brain is so complex, maybe it would be better to think of something a bit simpler, such as the creation of a single-celled organism, like an amoeba.  What if one were to inventory the parts of an amoeba, collect all of the component molecules and piece them together?  Again, I’m talking theoretically, not practically.  This “artificial” amoeba would be physically indistinguishable from a random amoeba that one might find on the street, or in your soup.  No one questions whether the “natural” amoeba is living.  Why would it be any different for the artificially created one?  Since the natural and artificial amoebas are identical, atom for atom, whenever something happened, by reason of the laws of physics and chemistry, in the natural amoeba, the same would be happening in the artificial one at the same time.  I’m talking biochemical reactions here that are admittedly extremely complicated but that could theoretically be broken down into a large number of simpler chemical and physical interactions.  So if conditions led the natural amoeba to move in some direction, the same would be true for the artificial one.  This could be said for all of each amoeba’s behavior--locomotion, ingestion, digestion, reproduction.  If someone were to observe each side by side, it does not seem that the amoebas would be distinguishable.

Now, it’s a very long step from a one-celled organism (which we still aren’t close to creating artificially) to a human brain, but the differences are simply ones of size and organizational complexity.  Both are just collections of chemicals, really.

My point?  In my worldview life is simply an especially complex form of chemistry.  We get fooled by the fact of consciousness (more to be said about this at a later time), but at the end of the day all biology, including human brains, is nothing other than chemicals.  

So to answer the three questions that I posed originally:  Yes.  Yes, whatever that means.  Nope.

© 2013 John M. Phillips

12 comments:

  1. Well, what is one day we could put all those pieces together and as Sleeping Beauty, waiting for the kiss of life, that body, without decay??? would be ready to live...what then, where does life come from?

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  2. Hi, Lisa,

    It might be fair to say that what I was really trying to get at in this post was the idea that life is not something above and beyond the chemistry and physics that govern the material world. Rather, life is simply how we refer to the processes that take place when the complex of chemicals that we call life come into existence, through whatever means. There is no so-called life force.

    In your comment you asked, "Where does life come from?" My response is that life is the natural, indeed, inexorable, consequence of the rules of chemistry and physics.

    John

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  3. I think you are right in that chemistry and physics are major components of life. And yet get all those components right, and how without the creator, how does that spark ignite? We see life, we live...and there are many theories on why...but I have never seen anything that convinced me that it can happen spontaneously. You must believe it does, like fire ... fire as we know it is consuming...and yet the saved will be living in a place that is lit by God's presence...no sun necessary. Ezekiel 28:14,16 tells us that Lucifer, before his fall, used to walk among the “fiery stones” of God’s presence. Was this fire destructive? Maybe there is more to physics then we fully understand.

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  4. And then, of course, why does life end? Where does it go? Was life never suppose to end? Why does it...maybe like electricity is lost it's sustaining connection. We start with a battery charged, giving the opportunity to plug in to the source, but it's our free will to make the choice....it is never forced. Live is freedom.

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  5. sorry that should have read Life is freedom

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  6. Hi, Lisa,
    If by "spontaneously" you mean that life can suddenly appear out of a random collection of chemicals, then I don't think any biologists would agree that that could happen, at least during the timeframe of the existence of the earth (4-1/2 billion years or so). The key word here is "suddenly," as the origin of life involved a very long process (at least several hundred million years) where there was opportunity for a combination of chemicals that was self-sustaining.
    I'm afraid I don't understand where you are going with the fire analogy. In my mind, life is not like fire, so, to be honest, I'm not sure of the point you are making.
    You ask why life ends and where it goes. Keep in mind that I do not believe there is a "life force" or that we can "plug into a source." So when life ends, life doesn't "go" anywhere. It's just that the process has ended.

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  7. The process has ended...interesting...here we have the culmination of 41/2 billion years, give or take a few billion...jk... and the perfect vessel for life now exists...and yet at this point it ends? Don't you see something wrong with this picture...what gets in the way? What stops the cycles of water? or O2 and co2? Nothing. What stops the growth of a flower, the source of life...it gets cut, looks lovely in a vase for a few days then withers and dies...but if left to nature it produces seeds that fall into the soil and even more flowers appear the following summer...I suppose you can say that about humans too, we perpetuate life. Some even believe that scientists will come up with a way to bring people back to life...they want to be frozen at death, just in case..and yet there is a real possibility that humans will extinguish life on planet earth...we are capable. Will there come an intervention... that is the question of the hour!

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    1. Lisa,

      I have read your comment at least five times, and perhaps because of how dense I am, I just can't understand what point you are trying to make. My post concerned the nature of life and I tried to approach the topic by asking whether theoretically life could be made artificially. My idea was that this thought experiment would help to illustrate my position that there is no "life force." Rather, life is simply what we call the processes that occur when the right chemicals are put together in the right way. I would invite you to go back and reread my post.

      I'm sure a lot of people disagree with me on the idea of a life force, and I would expect them to disagree. But, of course, it is not going to help just to assert that we know that there is a life force because it comes from God, etc. That's simply circular.

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  8. Well, then let's see some scientist put everything together and let's watch life happen....even better kill something that is perfect.. and restore life once all brain activity is has shut down. What is it that when the sperm and egg join, cell division begins...the great debate is when does life begin? Is it intrinsic within the egg and sperm to allow for procreation...be fruitful and multiply. So then being the scientist that you are, does it then go back through the monkey stage ( still little evidence of the stage) and back to fish and the amoeba...from which life is suppose to have originated...that to me is even more farfetched than believing in a creator. And why isn't life still beginning at that stage? Why wouldn't it just go on and on??? We should see examples in every pond.

    By the way, John I am sure I am confusing, I am not a scholar...I don't prepare my responses as I am sure you prepare your blogs...my thoughts are just spontaneous. Based on what I have read and studied and experienced... I know you are putting real effort into what you write. And I admire your attempt at trying to explain your logic. It certainly makes me think. But I don't have that kind of time...I may get off topic, sorry about that. You are welcome to delete them...I won't take offense. Or I can stop responding altogether..and just read if that would be more comfortable for you. Just let me know.


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    1. Lisa,

      This was a thought experiment intended to introduce my point of view that there is no so-called "life force." Life is nothing more than what happens when the right chemistry is set into place. I know many people have a visceral negative response to the idea that life is not "special," but that is my (and, by the way, many scientists') point of view. I thought that by questioning what would happen if a brain (or more feasibly, an amoeba) could be duplicated atom for atom. Physics and chemistry would say that the "artificial" organism would be indistinguishable from the "natural" one.

      In your latest comment, I think you also were objecting to the idea that humans could have descended from simpler organisms. Frankly, evolution is so firmly established--and so logical--that there is no longer any credible point of view in the scientific community that questions it.

      Though I may have fancied myself one at some point in the past, I am certainly no scholar on these matters. But I do think about what I am writing, both as to the original posts to the blog and as to my responses to comments. As I've said, one of my goals with this blog is to refine my thinking on these issues, and it helps to have a brave soul willing to question what I have written. You represent a perspective that is at the other end of the continuum from mine, and that is exactly what I need to help me think through and either modify or at least clarify my point of view. It would be nice to have persons voice their agreement with what I am saying, but I need challenges to sharpen my thinking.

      In each of my posts I have intended to express a specific point of view on a subject, usually concerning religion but from a skeptical perspective. In many cases I have tried to introduce the subject with an anecdote to lighten up the subject just a bit. Maybe that has made things a bit too obscure; I'm not sure. When I am responding to a comment you have made, it is tempting to say something based on emotion. I have done my best to avoid that, but I'm am sure I have failed. My goal instead has been to consider and perhaps reconsider what I have written in light of the comments I have received.

      As I have said, I did not intend this to be an open forum for the expression of beliefs about religion. So . . . my request is that you continue to respond to the substance of my little essays--as well, by the way, to my replies to your comments--but that you consider carefully your point of view rather than reacting emotionally from the perspective of your religious sensibilities. Thanks, Lisa.

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  9. Sorry that I am such a frustrating responder....i don't know how to be anything else...don't mean to be...but I just am, I guess...I should probably just read and keep quiet. I am not a scholar.

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    1. Lisa,

      I don't want you to stop commenting! I am only asking that you consider what I have written and respond to it as best you can. Perhaps it was my legal training that gave me the discipline to develop my arguments in an organized fashion. One of the things I learned in law school was that just citing platitudes or familiar quotes doesn't cut it. Writing clear statements with point-by-point support does. I just wish I could do that consistently.

      I am certainly not a scholar. The difference might be that I have read more broadly on scientific and philosophical matters and, importantly, have been willing to entertain more diverse perspectives. Maybe they are wrong, but I have tried to give them a fair hearing.

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