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Only an Immaterial Mind Can Ask “How Does Life Work?”

Science writer Philip Ball, facing cancer surgery, struggles to find meaning and purpose in a wholly material world. He is looking in the wrong place

Science writer Philip Ball found himself in an ironic as well as painful and precarious situation recently: “Just as I was about to publish a book called How Life Works, my own life stopped working as it should.” The imminent publication of his new book on the ways in which our understanding of biology is being radically transformed has been overshadowed by a cancer diagnosis. That has forced him to think in a rather more personal way about how life works (or doesn’t).

In the book, he explains that he has come to see the field of biology, about which he has written many books and articles, as undergoing a profound transformation. From the publisher:

Several aspects of the standard picture of how life works—the idea of the genome as a blueprint, of genes as instructions for building an organism, of proteins as precisely tailored molecular machines, of cells as entities with fixed identities, and more—have been exposed as incomplete, misleading, or wrong … Ball explains that there is no unique place to look for an answer to this question: life is a system of many levels—genes, proteins, cells, tissues, and body modules such as the immune system and the nervous system—each with its own rules and principles. How Life Works explains how these levels operate, interface, and work together (most of the time).

How Life Works: A User’s Guide to the New Biology (University of Chicago Press 2023).

Facing cancer surgery has given him a chance to reflect on his interpretation. He sees our cells as operating according to a “cell logic” because a merely genetic basis for life would be much too brittle:

We can see the genes “letting go” as life’s complexity deepens; eukaryotes, and especially metazoans (complex animals), have more of these fuzzy committee-style unions, more protein disorder, more regulatory RNA, than bacteria and other prokaryotes. To risk an anthropomorphism, evolution chose to work this way.

Philip Ball, How Life Really Works, Nautilus November 6, 2023

But wait. His interpretation all works until we are told that evolution “chose to work this way” That doesn’t just risk anthropomorphism; it is anthropomorphism. Either all that order arose from some random drift of the universe as Ball, an atheist, seems to think or an intelligent agent chose it. He muddles in the middle, hoping that a metaphor will somehow stand in for a reality that must be avoided.

There is so much order in the universe that — contrary to our expectations — there is order even in cancer, he tells us:

Yet the cancerous state of cells is not, as once thought, a condition of sheer anarchy, but has its own plan and logic. The fuzzy rules still apply; they just produce a different result. Cancer cells aren’t selfish individualists; rather, tumors typically have complex structures akin to those of normal development. They contain a variety of cell types that can collaborate with—one could say exploit—normal healthy cells to, for example, grow a blood supply. Tumor growth is not a featureless orgy of replication but a kind of deranged development. The derangement can of course kill us.

Ball, Nautilus

We are, he contends, “self-sustaining patterns that become imposed on matter,” like hurricanes and whirlwinds. “Life is the spinning itself, while it lasts.” It all works as poetry but then suddenly spins to a stop at the logic gate:

For what truly distinguishes living organisms as self-organized knots of energy and matter, spinning in the universe, is that they acquire meaning and purpose. Those can often seem like taboo words to many biologists because they convey teleological and even theological connotations. But this is not merely a mistake; it is a fundamental misunderstanding of what life is, of why we are not “nothing but atoms.” Not only can meaning and purpose be scientific concepts, but they need to become that if we are to get to the core of what life is.

Ball, Nautilus

Sorry but no. The biologists who want to banish meaning and purpose from science do so because they are materialists. They know perfectly well that only an immaterial mind can recognize meaning in anything. That’s in the nature of what meaning is. If Ball finds he cannot do without meaning, then he cannot do without the very thing that materialist biology cannot give him, however things may whirl and spin.

Finally, he makes a serious attempt to create meaning and purpose out of evolution theory:

It starts with salience: There are things organisms notice and respond to, generally because doing so is beneficial (or expected to be), and other things that they can sense but which they ignore. (The choice of what to sense, meanwhile, is largely made in the process of evolution itself.) They know what matters, by both hard-wiring and experience. By attending to and differentiating what is around them, they create meaning.

Ball, Nautilus

No, organisms don’t create meaning. They simply survive another day in their current state. Cells and meaning are different types of entities, material vs. immaterial; the one does not produce the other. The problem of getting them to do so is not unsolved, it’s unsolvable. Immaterial human minds contemplate meaning, purpose, and agency. Material cells do not.

As he prepares for surgery, Ball hopes to continue to be one of the “whirlpools of meaning” in years to come and his many readers surely hope for that too.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Only an Immaterial Mind Can Ask “How Does Life Work?”