Are Human Beings Just Atoms?

In a previous essay on materialism, I discussed the bizarre nature of phenomena on the subatomic level, in which particles have no definite position in space until they are observed. Referencing the works of several physicists and philosophers, I put forth the view that reality consists not of tiny, solid objects but rather bundles of properties and qualities that emerge from potentiality to actuality. In this view, when one breaks down reality into smaller and smaller parts, one does not reach the fundamental units of matter; rather, one is gradually unbundling properties and qualities until the smallest objects no longer even have a definite position in space!

Why is this important? One reason is that the enormous prestige and accomplishments of science have sometimes led us down the wrong path in properly describing and interpreting reality. Science excels at advancing our knowledge of how things work, by breaking down wholes into component parts and manipulating those parts into better arrangements that benefit humanity. This is how we got modern medicine, computers, air conditioning, automobiles, and space travel. However, science sometimes falls short in properly describing and interpreting reality, precisely because it focuses more on the parts than the wholes.

This defect in science becomes particularly glaring when certain scientists attempt to describe what human beings are like. All too often there is a tendency to reduce humans to their component parts, whether these parts are chemical elements (atoms), chemical compounds (molecules), or the much larger molecules known as genes. However, while these component parts make up human beings, there are properties and qualities in human beings that cannot be adequately described in terms of these parts.

Marcelo Gleiser, a physicist at Dartmouth College, argues that “life is the property of a complex network of biochemical reactions . . . a kind of hungry chemistry that is able to duplicate itself.” Biologist Richard Dawkins claims that humans are “just gene machines,” and “living organisms and their bodies are best seen as machines programmed by the genes to propagate those very same genes,” though he qualifies his statement by noting that “there is a very great deal of complication, and indeed beauty in being a gene machine.” Philosopher Daniel Dennett claims that human beings are “moist robots” and the human mind is a collection of computer-like information processes which happen to take place in carbon-based rather than silicon-based hardware.

Now it is true that human beings are composed of atoms that are the basis of chemicals and molecules, that are the basis of chemical compounds, such as genes. The issue, however, is whether describing the parts that compose a human being is the same as describing the whole human being. Yes, human beings are composed of atoms of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorous. But these atoms can be found in many, many places throughout the universe, in varying quantities and combinations, and they do not have human qualities unless and until they are organized in just the right way. Likewise, genes are ubiquitous in life forms ranging from mammals to lizards to plants to bacteria. Even viruses have genes, though most scientists argue that viruses are not true life forms because they need a host to reproduce. Nevertheless, while human beings share a very few properties and qualities with bacteria and viruses, humans clearly have many properties and qualities that the lower life forms do not.

In fact, recognizing the very difference between life and death can be lost by excessive focus on atoms and molecules. Consider the following: an emergency room doctor treats a patient suffering from a heart attack. Despite the physician’s best efforts, despite all of the doctor’s training and knowledge, the patient dies on the table. So what is the difference between the patient that has died and the patient as he was several hours ago? The quantity and types of atoms composing the body are approximately the same as when the patient was alive. So what has changed? Obviously, the properties and qualities expressed by the organization of the atoms in the human being has changed. The heart no longer supplies blood to the rest of the body, the lungs no longer supply oxygen, the brain no longer has electrical activity, the human being no longer has the ability to run or walk or jump or talk or think or love. Atoms have to be organized in an extremely precise manner in order for these properties and qualities to emerge, and this organization has been lost. So if we are really going to accurately describe what a human being is, we have to refer not just to the atoms, but to the overall organization or form.

The issue of form is what separates the ancient Greek philosophers Democritus and Plato. Both philosophers believed that the universe and everything in it was composed of atoms; but Democritus thought that nothing existed but atoms and the void (space), whereas Plato believed that atoms were arranged by a creator, who, being essentially good, used ideal forms as a blueprint. Contrary to the views of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, however, Plato believed that the creator was not omnipotent, and was forced to work with imperfect matter to do the best job possible, which is why most created objects and life forms were imperfect and fell short of the ideal forms.

Democritus would no doubt dismiss Plato’s ideal forms as being unreal — after all, forms are not something solid, so how can anything that is not solid, not made of material, exist at all? But as I’ve pointed out, the atoms that compose the human body are found everywhere, whereas actual, living human beings have these same atoms organized in a precise, particular form. In other words, in order to understand anything, it is not enough to break it down into parts and study the parts; one has to look at the whole. The properties and qualities of a living human being, as a whole, definitely do exist, or we would not know how to distinguish a living human being from a dead human being or any other existing thing composed of the same atoms.

The debate between Democritus and Plato points to a difference in ways of knowing that persist to this day: analytic knowledge and holistic knowledge. Analytic knowledge is pursued by science and reason; holistic knowledge is pursued by religion, art, and the humanities. The prestige of science and its technological accomplishments has elevated analytic understanding above all other forms of knowledge, but we remain lost without holistic understanding.

What precisely is “analytic knowledge”? The word “analyze” means “to study or determine the nature and relationship of the parts (of something) by analysis.” Synonyms for “analyze” include “break down,” “cut,” “deconstruct,” and “dissect.” In fact, the word “analysis” is derived from the New Latin word analyein, meaning “to break up.” Analysis is an extremely valuable tool and is responsible for human progress in all sorts of areas. But the knowledge derived from analysis is primarily a description and guide to how things work. It reduces knowledge of the whole to knowledge of the parts, which is fine if you want to take something apart and put it back together. But the knowledge of how things work is not the same as the knowledge of what things are as a whole, what qualities and properties they have, and the value of those qualities and properties. This latter knowledge is holistic knowledge.

The word “holism,” based on the ancient Greek word for “whole” (holos), was coined in the early twentieth century in order to promote the view that all systems, living or not, should be viewed as wholes and not just as a collection of parts or the sum of parts.┬áIt’s no accident that the words “whole,” “heal,” healthy,” and “holy” are linguistically related. The problems of sickness, malnutrition, and injury were well-known to the ancients, and it was natural for them to see these problems as a disturbance to the whole human being, rendering a person incomplete and missing certain vital functions. Wholeness was an ideal end, which made wholeness sacred (holy) as well. (For an extended discussion of analytic/reductionist knowledge vs. holistic knowledge, see this post.)

Holistic knowledge is not just about ideal physical health. It’s about ideal forms in all aspects, including the qualities we associate with human beings we admire: wisdom, strength, beauty, courage, love, kindness. As mistaken as religions have been in understanding natural causation, it is the devotion to ideal forms that is really the essence of religion. The ancient Greeks worshipped excellence, as embodied in their gods; Confucians were devoted to family ties and duties; the Jews submitted themselves to the laws of the one God; Christians devoted themselves to the love of God, embodied in Christ.

Holistic knowledge provides no guidance as to how to conduct surgery or build a computer or launch a rocket; but it does provide insight into the ethics of medicine, the desirability or hazards of certain types of technology, and the proper ends of human beings. All too often, contemporary secular societies expect new technologies to improve human lives and pay no heed to ideal human forms, on the assumption that ideal forms are a fantasy. Then we are shocked when the new technologies are abused and not only bring out the worst in human nature but enhance the power of the worst.