John Derbyshire has written an interesting article for National Review Online on the making of an artificial genome of a one celled creature. It is not quite artificial life, but it is close. Derbyshire's point is not journalistic, to report on a scientific advance, but philosophical, to declare the end of metaphysics and vitalism. This is a remarkable leap of logic. To say that because we can manipulate strands of DNA in the laboratory, and because we have "decoded" the genomes of several creatures, including man, that "life is essentially information" and thus we have removed any possiblity of mystery or of spirituality from nature and life. This is modern reductionism at its worst.
Mr. Derbyshire goes further, he invokes the Freudian view that religion is a delusion created to avoid the fear of death. Several generations of atheists have patted themselves on the back for being truly "courageous," completely rational, and fully accepting of the implications of modern science without ever questioning their own assumptions and the gigantic gaps in knowledge that their view of science prevents them from discovering.
At the top of this list is conscience and the sense of moral obligation. Immanuel Kant, in spite of his profound agnosticism, saw this as clear evidence of the existence of God. It is rather easy in your 20's and 30's to boast of your courage in rejecting religion, while never disclosing that your real motivation is to be free of moral restraint. Most people dislike the idea of God because they see Him as the enemy of their pleasures.
To return to the argument about the manipulation of the DNA of a single celled creature to make a new lifeform as a deathblow to metaphysics and vitalism. Just because we have acquired godlike knowledge that enables godlike power to manipulate lifeforms doesn't mean we have proven there is no God nor a non-physical, spiritual reality. We must keep in mind the fact that naturalism requires that DNA and all the creatures that inhabit this planet are the product of the random forces of nature. It is one thing for intelligent human beings, with all their equipment and technique to manipulate the chemistry to "create" a new single celled creature, it is another for the purely chance processes of nature to do the same thing. In fact, the chances of it happening accidentally is beyond any real possibility. It is unquestioningly accepted by evolutionists because they assume right from the start that there is no supernatural source thus it must have happened through natural processes. They allow themselves no other option than nature. We shouldn't be surprised, then, when they declare the end of metaphysics.
I am no fan of vitalism, but I understand the reason that many thoughtful writers, such as Gordon Ratty Taylor and Will Durant, have resorted to it. It provides a purposeful explanation for the amazing levels of organization and complexity we see in organic life. Even as great a critic of religion as Fredrich Nietzsche declared, "The development of matter into a thinking subject is impossible." He understood the utter inadequacy of pure materialism (matter is all that exists) to explain the world in which we live. There are far too many creatures, which all display levels of intricacy and design that defy any possibility of a chance explanation. Vitalism is the attempt to explain design and purpose by means of a "force," in other words without resorting to a personal creator God. The problem is that forces don't provide design or purpose. Forces are powers or tools that must be directed by intelligence which is ultimately personal. If we are going to invoke purpose and design, we are left with only one choice, a personal God.
Bio-engineering is a remarkable field. We certainly shouldn't deny its potential for curing disease, and improving life, but we must also be wary of its potential for abuse. We are not gods and we need to proceed very cautiously in assuming power over life, even the life of single celled creatures. In addition, our knowledge of nature is not as great as we think it is. We are basing many of our conclusions on unwarranted (and often unconscious) assumptions that we will surely come to regret. The Bible tells us, "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.'" (Psalm 14:1) Even in this era of dramatic scientific advances foolishness is alive and well.