When we uncover our DNA, our genes, the predispositions and inherent mistakes in our genetic code are we uncovering all that we really are? Are we just deterministic beings controlled by genetics and/or environment? Are we smart machines of nature? Some say that we are. They saw we are just blood and bones and cells and electrical pulses so complex that it only seems that we are conscious of the world. If that is true then the universe is a dark place where life is the animation of chemicals. The stars, the engines and factories of this place, make the complex stuff of life (like carbon) and things we hold so precious (like gold) out of simple hydrogen and helium folded upon itself a thousand times over. Then what of free will? Is there such a thing or does determinism take the fun out of life. If it is right, then determinism means that without free will and randomness, if you were able to stand outside the universe and know every position of every atom and every minute part of the atom then you can predict exactly what will happen in the future. Like a pool table with billiard balls are bouncing around each other, if you know what force began that motion and then know all the forces acting on that system of balls like friction, gravity, air, etc. then you can calculate exactly where every ball will go. But you have to know it all, from the minute discrepancies on the pool table surface to the heat generated by the rolling balls to the mass of the balls and the list goes on. I am sure that we can do this with a very minor margin for error with current science because the system of that pool table is so small compared to the rest of the universe. If we are as inert as the billiard balls on earth, bouncing off each other since the beginning of our time here then we can definitely determine the future. The future can be predicted unquestionable. Imagine that the human brain is just a sequence of movements based on atomics. Everything depends on the actions of everything else but as such a high speed that we are fooled into thinking that we exist outside of the universe we inhabit with a distinct personality that survives us after we die and the constituent parts of our bodies break down. If only that were true then we could all be happy little billiard balls. I want to be the green-striped 14 ball. I call it! We can end our conversation there if it weren’t for that annoying little thing called quantum physics. In quantum physics we have a tiny realm where probability rules supreme. As a matter of fact, quantum physics relies on the fact that people pretty much take a leap of faith and believe in it because the experiments work and they show that all kinds of crazy things can happen. It’s been said that if you understand quantum physics then you really don’t get it. Richard P. Feynman said that "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics." Kind of like my wife. Quantum chance says among other things that the definite position of an electron and its speed can never both be experimentally determined. Yep. That’s right an electron can be measured for where it’s at or how fast it’s going but never both at the same time with accuracy. This means that if you know how fast an electron is going, its position is a blurry wave of probability but if you know where an electron is at then how fast it’s going is a set of probabilities. It can be one of many places (The galaxy of Andromeda) or going as fast as the speed of light (but never more). Ahh, to be an electron zipping around the highways of American with impunity because even if a cop caught my speed on radar he’d never find me. (I could be here. Or over here. Or both!) Even if he did see me then he’d never know how fast I was going. (I could be going backward!) If I take that theory out past the size of the electron then I can even realistically make myself a quantum wave. Yes. Even my body if a probability wave. I exist in many places at once going at many speeds. But since I am so large, the probability is so low that it makes very little sense. Almost none. (If only I could tap into this power, I’d be Quantum Man!) Of course there are skeptics who say that all the experiments that prove quantum physics like the double-slit experiment are the result of information that we cannot know. That there is a deterministic nature even on the quantum level. (Those skeptics really can ruin a good thing for Quantum Man.)
O.K. so say we have someone who can know everything. Someone like say my Mother or G-d. In Jewish scripture, G-d knows all. (Like a Jewish Mother!) He knows everything we do or will accomplish. There is nothing that a man will, can or does do that G-d does not know, see or can figure out from the evidence. He is the one outside the system that has the deterministic quality. He has all the info on everything. And he started it all. (Think Jewish Mother!) If that’s the case then in genetics he has encoded this knowing so that he too can figure out what we will do, each of us, individually and as a species.
But what about randomness and quantum physics? What is that emergent element that makes us “feel alive,” conscious, the self or soul, if you will. Did G-d place our spirits in these genetically deterministic organisms so he can know all that we will do is only he can read our genetic structure?
Can we alter our reality? Or is that our purpose? If we were somehow designed through influence and evolution, natural selection and well-timed mutation to become these imperfect, obviously readable creatures, are we to always strive as individuals and a society to become better than our programming? When we map our DNA will we find G-d embarrassed? He coded our genes and we found out his secret. Or will he say that we have found what it is that he hid from us on purpose. We resist our coding, our primal urges. That is what separates me from my neighbor’s dog. If we couldn’t resist those urges and place civility above instinct then we’d be going around greeting each other with more than a handshake.
In Genesis, Adam bit the apple and doomed us all. The apple is self-consciousness that enables us to make our own decisions. Before, we were no better than animals. Though we ate from the vine and slept in nature, we knew no better. Our aspirations were few and simplistic. If this is what we were, then it was a time before humans. Our ancestral link in evolution. When we were just smart monkeys. That is until G-d bestowed on us the apple. The knowledge that allowed us to make decisions based not on instinct but on reason. We tend to think of this time in the story of genesis as a fall from grace yet overlook all that it has delivered. Were there no apple there’d be no Moses, no great leaders, no philosophers, no Plato or Socrates or Pythagoras, no Newton, no Einstein, no Heisenberg or Hawkings. There’d be no need for the great fearless pioneers. No John Glenn or Magellan. No Patton or Mother Theresa. You see how such a small choice that seemed so wrong at the time can affect a race or people. How a small mutation that allowed us to stand upright or use tools effectively or speak and make clothes made us human in all the senses of the word. More than biology but our souls too.
Look we had no choice. Who can resist a shiny, delicious, red apple? G-d made the apple tempting. We had no choice to resist. There was no modern soul to speak of. We were predetermined to choose that apple. It’s in our genes.
When we succumbed, we changed. The mutation occurs in nature all the time but the extent of it, the significance is encapsulated in that one fable.
Like Uncle Ben said in Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.” But there’s also suffering. (Thanks Uncle Ben, why couldn’t you be more like Yoda. At least he lays it on the line.) Within our genes are the codes to determinism. It’s what makes us like G-d and also like the creatures of the earth.
So why resist? Why outlaw genetic testing as long as it’s done responsibly. We can make great changes in the world. How we live and the quality of our lives. There will always be than quantum flux, the probability wave that makes life interesting. So to think that we are “playing G-d” with genetics is laughable. Can we make a particle that appears in two places at once? Can we make a universe from tiny vibrations that look like chance? Like music? Let me think about it…Not! Now, that would be playing G-d.
Tuesday, September 06, 2005