Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Fifth Fundamental Force (2012)

From The Philosopher, Volume 100 No. 1
Centenary Special 1913-2012

By James McBride

The God that Whispers
The God that Shouts

'But in his [primitive man's] conception of nature and life all these differences are obliterated by a stronger feeling: the deep conviction of a fundamental and indelible solidarity of life that bridges over the multiplicity and variety of its single forms.'

An Essay on Man, Ernst Cassirer (1944)

Is this a philosophical paper? Certainly. I wondered how to write it. I'm a lawyer used to writing with authority. But I have no authority for what follows. There will be no footnotes. I am a novice writing about subjects experts study for a lifetime: science, theology, and philosophy. I have no comparable credentials. Many may dismiss me as presumptuous, and not even bother to read further. Notwithstanding, I cannot get the subject off my mind. I want to summarise my reflections in ordinary, unprofessional language. That mode of expression best suits my incertitude. Am I on the right track? What do you think?

For me, it started about 30 years ago. I enrolled in a correspondence course on physiology. I wanted to learn about the body to better represent clients with injuries, medical issues. I wanted to learn the vocabulary of patient charts. Reading the textbook, I came to a sentence that stopped me 'dead in my tracks.' Like a star sparkling in the dry scientific discussion of cells there was a sentence mentioning that DNA is found in all forms of life. I re-read that sentence several times and considered the implications. Of course DNA is the well-known mainspring of cell life. But the significance for me came in the realisation that humans don't have an exclusive monopoly on DNA nor are physiologically exceptional. Recognition of that incontrovertible fact changed my world view.

I have a scholarly interest in religion. I read the Bible and books on comparative religion. My interest is not faith-oriented. I don't attend church. I never took seriously the idea of a personal god in heaven, nor the efficacy of prayer. But I nonetheless find religion most interesting. I feel there is a spiritual side to life which is apt to attach to just about anything, even to a secular political system, such as, for example, Marxism. The religious leader Meher Baba radiated spirituality, but did not speak. Without words, he wandered to and fro as a 'god intoxicated' figure. I never took him seriously, but I wanted to know about him.

The problem with religion, many say, is that it is out-of-step with modern science. I cannot hold it against people like Jesus, Moses, Paul or Buddha. They knew nothing of physiology, much less DNA. The general public is light years ahead of those venerable prophets in understanding life processes. I look forward to a religion based on current science, but scientists are reluctant to cross the bridge from science to god. They would be ostracised, lose grant money, be deemed cranks. On the other hand, I don't have such constraints. Philosophers are historically a profession not afraid to be called cranks. I borrow a leaf from their book.

To reflect about god a logical place to begin would be the study of other life forms. All have in common the basic imperatives of birth; survival by eating, fighting, self-protection; reproduction; and death. Those four characteristics of life comprise a destiny programmed in the DNA molecule, along with a mass of collateral instructions to guide everyday behaviour in the direction of the major imperatives of life. While there is infinite variation in the outward appearance of life forms, for all of them it is DNA that governs their destiny.

Fifth Fundamental Force in Nature

I cannot believe the imperatives are unplanned, random, fortuitous. Circumstantial evidence can be 'compelling,' as attorneys sometimes say to prove a point. I think something I'll call the 5th Fundamental Force of Nature is behind cellular life and DNA variation. Individuals are of no consequence. The evanescent quality of life is what's important. It's a current that flows everywhere.

There are four other Fundamental Forces in nature: gravity, electromagnetic, the strong and weak forces. Frankly, I don't know much of anything about those Forces, except that gravity attracts everything from a feather to celestial bodies and scattered matter across the universe. That's all I know. Scientists don't think the 4-Force list is complete. They anticipate the inevitable discovery of other Fundamental Forces. Fundamental Forces operate everywhere simultaneously, even outside earth. The life force is likely to extend throughout the entire universe, which means that life will be found anywhere conditions are suitable.

Something makes cells live. Correct me if I am wrong, but I don't think science has identified what it is that animates cells. Now and then there is a report of a scientist who claims to have created life. I don't believe it. Science can manipulate DNA, but that is not the same as making cells live. Life is an intangible quality, perhaps not even measurable. It is everywhere at the same time, considering the huge number of living species, animals, plants, insects, etc., every individual laden with billions of cells radiant with life. A quality that makes the entire organic world live can be nothing other than a Fundamental Forces of Nature.

But the 5th Force does more than animate cells, I believe. It modifies the structure of DNA. The moment of adjustment probably falls precisely when an organism reproduces. At that point, the organism is a single cell called a zygote. Soon it will burgeon into billions of differentiated cells as the organism develops, but at the beginning it is a single cell. That is the optimum time to adjust DNA, either to modify the characteristics of an organism or to create a new species.

Some commentators contend the rationality of life forms is the result of 'intelligent design.' 'Intelligent' is an unfortunate adjective not least as it implies that humans can understand the process, because humans are intelligent. The life force is not human, however. It is not even close to being human. It is unspeakably immense in its scope yet tiny in size, without dimensions, inexplicable, eternal, presiding simultaneously over billions of life forms within a coherent matrix of relationships. The process is so far past human understanding that another word instead of 'intelligent' is needed. Naturally, I cannot find a word in the dictionary that would fit it.

Eternal Life Force

Or we might approach the question starting from the other end. Why is death an imperative? It is a nonissue in the overall scheme of the life force. The flow of life is an aggregate phenomenon, not an individual thing. Individuals are the mere indicia of the underlying omnipresent life force. The unlimited supply of individuals turns over perpetually. For there to be an ongoing process of DNA modification, new life forms replace the old. What is more, virtually every living thing survives by feeding on something else that perishes. Even vegetarian species live by the death of living plants. The beauty and splendour of the McKinley or Yellowstone National Parks are also good places to behold the 24 hour reality of predation. Individuals are expendable; that could not be more evident.

Here is a likely reason there is a great diversity of life forms. The life force anticipates the threat of mass extinction. There have been several extinction events in the history of earth, e.g. asteroid collisions, ice ages, volcanic eruptions. Biologists say we are in the middle of the 'sixth mass extinction'. This one, alas, caused by us. At least in the past, after the extinctions, a remnant of life survived in safe niches. After conditions of extinction dissipate, the life force rebuilds the inventory by modification of the remnant DNA.

A whole new spectrum of life forms covers the earth, in readiness for the next cataclysmic extinction event. How does the life force know about extinction threats? I have no idea, but it is obvious the life force prepares by means of a diversity strategy, like a diversified investor who acquires stock in many companies. Some companies prosper, others don't, while the portfolio survives.

The God that Whispers vs. the God that Shouts

There is more than one god, as I see it. The god of the life force is the god that whispers. It is a god that operates at the molecular level, that's why I say it 'whispers.' Another god is behind the inorganic world. I call that force the god that shouts because its actions are accompanied by bold actions, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, hurricanes. The two don't collaborate. Indeed, the god that shouts willy nilly annihilates life forms. It is probably oblivious to the presence of fragile life forms clinging to the inorganic landscape. The god that whispers occupies a subordinate role. If both forces were under a single management we would see some marks of a cooperative joint venture. It may look like a partnership between the two gods, but it's not.

Religion presents god as a personal saviour. But the life force god that whispers is nobody's friend. Consider that the life force is also behind germs – DNA driven micro-organisms that may prove lethal. Why would a god that whispers kill us with germs? With small pox, plague, or malaria…

Perhaps it is because the life force does not have a myopic view of the world. Perhaps it is because it has a wide perspective that takes into account all forms of life at the same time. This comprehensive perspective ultimately requires a balance among all interdependent life forms. Unfortunately, when any species - such as home sapiens - distorts the balance, it becomes necessary to restore equilibrium. Plagues might be one means of reducing population. That's how a power that's wielded only at the molecular level can influence history. If germs don't work, what will come next?

Medicine sometimes works at cross-purposes with the god that whispers. In a small way doctors re-write the script of life when they stand up to death on behalf of their patients. We count on doctors to prolong life and even sue them for neglect of professional duty. While it may be their sworn duty to postpone inevitable death of the aged, it could be said that, in doing so, they work against nature's program based on the expendability of individuals. Could it be that sometimes esteemed doctors thwart god!

In fact, Christian ideals don't align with nature's rough and tumble paradigm. For example, the dignity of the individual. That's fine for a legal system, but it's definitely counter to the whispering god's view that individuals don't count. Christianity exhorts people to be compassionate and live by the 'Golden Rule.' While DNA may be coded for mothers (especially) to love their children, much of the rest of animal behaviour seems to be a story of single-minded self interest. Pursuit of advantage is the ruthlessly frank theme of life. The god that whispers gives its creatures everyday power struggles by 'tooth and claw.' I cherish civilisation and do not want to defenestrate Christianity and morals, but let's not kid ourselves. Religion is a manmade construct that (at best) softens human relations, but does not explain the ultimate mysteries.

When atheists deny god and stand by their independence, I believe it is mainly organised religion they cannot swallow. For that matter, neither can I. But we should keep an open mind about the mystery of life. There is 'something because of which there is not nothing.' I offer Atheists a god they won't deny, a god that whispers, even if it's not a god one would be inclined to embrace. What is more, the god that whispers gives us many happy moments - the humble joys not to be disdained. Our glass is half full and that's better than empty. Too bad we cannot quite see the purpose of life, or the meaning of the universe. Is there an answer somewhere? Yes. Could we understand it? Probably not.

Modern Man: If you are inquisitive like I am, you probably want to know more about the mysterious governing force that whispers.

Primitive Man: Certainly I do. Frankly, I am surprised you can't give me anything more than a few inferences after all these years.

Modern Man: Well, believers hold fast to the notion there is no more than one governing force. They mistakenly put a benign face on it. Others say the governing force cannot be 'intelligent.' It's not easy for people to reconsider.

Primitive Man: I see the modern world has finally gotten around to verifying my primitive view of the solidarity of life. What's next?

Modern Man: I don't know. Can the scientists answer for us?

Address for correspondence: James P. McBride, writing in Hayward, California, U.S.A.


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