Target Article

What Difference Does It Make? A Neurologist’s Perspective on What It Means to Be Human

Back to Dignitas Issue


“What difference does it make,” a medical student once asked me, “if my patients are nothing but bags of molecules?” Health, he argued, consists of proper functioning of biological molecules that are assembled into organs, and medicine is the procedural task of diagnosing and correcting their disrupted functioning. His question would have come across as nonsensical to my own medical school class, years before he was born. And yet none of his classmates seemed surprised. No one spoke up to challenge him. How can it be that in this age of increasing knowledge, someone who aspires to become a physician could confidently assert that the patients soon to be under his care are in the same category as things?

If the student’s question seems to strike a nerve, it is because it challenges one’s assumptions about what it means to be human. One can approach this topic in various complementary ways, depending on the discipline of study and the lens of one’s personal experience. From the perspective of biological science, to be human is to be born a member of the species Homo sapiens. A number of distinctive attributes may be observed. The human organism walks upright and is composed of a highly organized arrangement of differentiated cells, each containing a configuration of chromosomes common to the species but with genetic variations specific to the individual. Relative to other animals, the human brain is endowed with elevated cognitive capacities for abstract thought, symbolic language, agency, empathy, and anticipation of potential future consequences. These scientific descriptions, though accurate, are but a partial portrait. This is because the scientific enterprise is reductive and methodologically presupposes a materialistic, and thus incomplete, worldview. But although the scientific method of measuring empirical data is appropriately limited to factual evidence, the conclusions that reason may draw and the understanding that one obtains when considering all sources of truth need not be confined to the “nothing but” sector of material knowledge. Facts are not the only truths out there.

On Origins and First Causes

Among the theories that seek to explain how human beings developed as a species are naturalistic and theistic accounts that continue to be debated. Biblically faithful and reasonable Christians hold differing views on evolutionary theories. Which account is accurate or whether a materialistic account of human origins is plausible will not be argued here. Rather, the focus of this essay is the particularity of the cosmos and what that means for an understanding of humanity.

Before us lies a set of physical data upon which all can agree. Cosmology, physics, and chemistry have gifted everyone who has scientific curiosity with a set of settled facts that have stood the test of empirical verification. This evidence concerns the fundamental conditions that were in place prior to any theory of biological evolution and prior to events, whether natural or miraculous, that have occurred during the history of the universe. The origin of this evidence precedes time. Its beginning is bound up in the very structure of the cosmos. That the initial conditions of the cosmos are exactly what they are, and not different, is a signature of intentionality that points to a divine intelligence, an intelligence who, from the very beginning, in my view, must have had human beings in mind.

The medical student who looked at his patients and saw “bags of molecules” drew inspiration from the exact sciences, so it is in the exact sciences where this analysis will begin. A response to his question will probe the scientific evidence in ways typically overlooked by medical science curricula. Proceeding to the interrogation of molecules essential to life, this essay will move from particles to particularity and from probability to profundity. What takes shape is the outline of a mystery. The astonishing discovery is that we inhabit a universe that, within an extremely narrow margin, happens to be configured just right for the possibility of human life on Earth.

Admittedly, scientific methodology cannot prove that a transcendent Creator chose the precise physical parameters necessary for human life to exist. However, for those willing to accept this possibility, scientific evidence does not refute it but provides much to encourage it. Science has convincingly shown that, had the initial conditions and physical parameters of the universe been even slightly different, humans could not have existed at any place or at any time. This is known as the “anthropic principle,” which I believe, on reasonable grounds, points strongly to the God of the Bible. To appreciate this connection has profound implications for understanding what it means to be and live as a human.

Thanks Be to Molecules

Breath, a telltale sign of human life, can be described as the flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules through the respiratory tract. The heartbeat and pulse are signs that hemoglobin molecules are transporting oxygen to the cells. Interruption of any of these processes leads rapidly to death. Within cells, which are the basic structural and functional units of living organisms, proteins, enzymes, carbohydrates, lipids, nucleic acids, and other organic molecules conduct the chemical processes necessary for life. Joining these cells together is connective tissue, while antibodies, neurotransmitters, and other microscopic constituents circulate and interact. All matter within the human body is composed of molecules. Thus, at all levels of cellular organization, human beings can be described in intricate detail by their molecular arrangements. Discoveries of the molecular determinants of life processes and diseases have fostered a perception that molecules have ultimate explanatory power.

The most profound advance to date toward a comprehensive molecular understanding of human nature was the first sequencing of the full human genome two decades ago.[1] For molecular biology, its publication was the defining achievement of our age. Equally, it was a reminder of the humility that is the proper response to such knowledge. The week it was announced, my preschool daughter Emily, who had just learned the alphabet, cracked open my thick, weighty, unabridged dictionary and was delighted to discover that, upon whatever page she looked, she could recognize all the letters. It would take her many more years to learn what words those letters spell and what meaning the words carry. Similarly, we now have the ability to measure the unique sequence of DNA base pairs that encode each individual human being’s cellular identity and that direct his or her development from the moment of conception, but so far, we know how to interpret only a tiny fraction of that sequence.

Whence Molecules?

My student thought he had come to understand the foundation of medical science, but his words suggest that he had been seduced by the philosophy of materialism. According to the materialist model of human nature, the human individual is completely described as a conglomerate of atoms arranged as molecules. These bits of matter mingle, cling together at strategic receptors, and act within the physical body in an ongoing series of blind chemical processes resulting from random causes and necessary effects.

To the materialist, the brain is a physical object composed of three pounds of matter, and it can be nothing more. Though complex, the brain is essentially mechanical, a computer that happens to be based in carbon rather than silicon. Ideas consist of specific arrangements of macromolecules. Thoughts reduce to electrochemical flux through synaptic circuits. To the materialist, all delight, love, desire, remorse, reasoning, and aesthetics are completely described by an outpouring of neurotransmitters in response to accidental stimuli. The materialist’s conceptual box can no more accommodate all that is true of human beings than a two-dimensional drawing can fully describe a three-dimensional sculpture. Consciousness, free will, purpose, and moral responsibility, according to strictly materialist philosophy, were cozy illusions of a prescientific age that has been supplanted by a supposedly factual understanding of human nature.

No less a scientist than Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, asserted “that ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules” (emphasis mine).[2] Echoing what Crick called his “astonishing hypothesis,” the philosopher Patricia Churchland regards the mind to be fully reducible to the physical brain.[3] Any special quality distinct to humanity “does not connote a matter of fact,” writes Churchland, adding that “human dignity is not a precise concept in the way that ‘electron’ or ‘hemoglobin’ are precise.”[4]

As a neurologist, I share these scholars’ admiration for the breathtaking molecular intricacy of the body. Consider the human brain. Its plan is present from the moment of conception in the unique DNA sequence of the new human embryo. Its primordial structure first becomes visible in the embryo’s neural crest, which is a thin layer of cells that grows, differentiates, and undergoes an elaborate sequence of folding and reshaping to culminate in what is arguably the most complex structure in the known universe. Ripples of gyri and sulci sculpt the cerebral cortex, which is optimized for cognitive function within the confined space of the human cranium. By adulthood, the cerebral hemispheres enfold a surface area 1.4 times that of the front page of the Wall Street Journal.[5] Each cubic millimeter of the human cerebral cortex contains four kilometers of axons joining 15,000 neurons with 400 million synaptic connections capable of performing 1015 synaptic operations per second.[6] All this from molecules.

Such physical descriptions are necessary toward understanding what it means to be human, but are they sufficient? Can molecules adequately explain the brain? What exactly is the nature of matter? Is there more to being human than can be explained by the language of the exact sciences?

To Be More Precise

Churchland’s appeal to precision merits careful scrutiny. Her choice of the electron as a quintessential precise concept conjures an image of a discrete dot of matter encircling the nucleus of an atom in the way that the moon encircles the earth in a continuous series of positions, exact in location and velocity. However, such a model would be outdated. Ever since Heisenberg formulated his uncertainty principle in 1927, science now understands the electron to behave not only as a particle but also as a cloud with a wave function in which we cannot measure both its exact location and its speed with perfect accuracy. Any measurement of matter at the subatomic scale finds that its behavior and its location are fundamentally imprecise. The electron behaves as a cloudlike orbital in which its energy at any point in space is expressed as a probability distribution. Thus, there is a necessary incompleteness to any empirical description of a physical system at the molecular level. Taken to a larger scale, by implication, any exclusively physical description of the human being that aims to be precise will be ineludibly incomplete.

From the perspective of quantum physics, efforts to understand the electron as a precise entity seem bewildering. An implication of the wave nature of the electron is the phenomenon of quantum tunnelling, in which an electron disappears from one side of a potential energy barrier and appears on the other side without having sufficient kinetic energy to penetrate the barrier. Quantum tunnelling is of crucial importance to electron transport in the metabolic processes of living systems, including the transfer of oxygen in hemoglobin.[7] In order for hemoglobin to transport the right amount of oxygen to human cells for metabolism, allowing cells to utilize oxygen in a form that is neither too inert nor too reactive, quantum tunnelling must function at precise efficiency.[8] Moreover, optimization of hemoglobin function requires precise fine-tuning of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in order for advanced living systems relying on oxygen to be possible.[9] If the uncertainty in the position of an electron were much greater or much smaller, hemoglobin would be unable to donate one electron at a time to the oxygen molecule it transports. The energy derived from oxidation would be unavailable to living cells, and no advanced carbon-based life forms, including humans, would exist on Earth or, for that matter, anywhere in the universe.[10]

A Precise Fit

On this point, examination of the criterion of precision pivots from the elusive challenge of defining human nature precisely to consideration of how precisely arranged are the physical conditions necessary for human life to have come into existence. This is the realm of the anthropic principle: the fact that the various constants and laws of nature happen to be, as if by coincidence, exactly what is required for the possibility of human life anywhere or at any time in the universe. If any of these quantities were slightly altered, complex life in any form could not exist. A few examples are highlighted below, drawing from the scholarship of the physicist Hugh Ross.[11]

In order for the elements of life to exist and bond together to form molecules, a number of physical conditions must be met. Chemical bonding requires a delicate balance of the strength of the electromagnetic force and the ratio of the electron mass to the proton mass. It is important to note that their values are constant throughout the universe. If the electromagnetic force were stronger, electrons would cling to atoms too tightly to interact with other atoms, and if it were weaker, electrons would fly off; in either case, the chemistry necessary for life would not be possible.

Further, the conditions present in the very beginning of the universe had to be exquisitely balanced to generate the elements necessary for life chemistry. If the strong nuclear force, which holds protons and neutrons together in atomic nuclei, were slightly stronger, protons and neutrons would adhere so tightly that only heavy elements would form, and there would have been no hydrogen, which stars need to produce energy. If the strong nuclear force were slightly weaker than what is observed, nuclei with multiple protons would not hold together. Carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen would be unstable, and hydrogen would have been the only element in the expanding universe. Either way, life in any form would have been impossible.

The strength of the gravitational force also must be precisely tuned for life to be possible. If the gravitational force were slightly stronger, stars would burn up too quickly for their light and heat to sustain planetary life. If the gravitational force were slightly weaker, stars could not become hot enough for nuclear fusion, and no elements heavier than hydrogen and helium would have been generated.

The list of fine tuning continues. If the neutron were just 0.1% more massive than what is observed, too few of them would have remained after the initial expansion of the big bang for the heavy elements essential to life to have formed. If the neutron were 0.1% less massive, all of the stars would have collapsed into neutron stars or black holes, and a star like our sun would not have formed.

The list becomes more extraordinary when one considers the electron, which Churchland considers an exemplary model of precision. In the beginning of the universe, the number of electrons generated had to equal the number of protons to an accuracy of one in 1037 or better. Otherwise, electromagnetic forces would have so overpowered gravitational forces that galaxies, stars, and planets could not have formed. To illustrate the magnitude of that number, Ross offers the following analogy:

Cover the entire North American continent in dimes all the way up to the Moon, a height of about 239,000 miles. Next, pile dimes from here to the Moon on a million other continents the same size as North America. Paint one dime red and mix it into the piles of dimes reaching to the Moon. Blindfold a friend and ask him to pick out one dime. The odds that he will pick the red dime are one in 1037.[12]

Note that these precisely fine-tuned conditions necessary for human life to exist were not parameters selected by a gradual evolutionary process during Earth’s development. They were built into the plan of nature from the very beginning of the universe.

Turning to biology, one finds additional evidence of fine tuning for the possibility of human life. For one, the human brain is structurally optimized near the absolute maximum possible for cortical information processing, which depends on interneuronal distance, axonal conduction velocity, and synaptic transmission speed.[13]

A prime example of biological fine tuning is the genetic code, which is universal among all living organisms on planet Earth. Along each strand of DNA is a sequence of four chemical base pairs abbreviated as A, G, C, and T. The specific order of these alphabet-like base pairs encodes the information that instructs living cells how to assemble all of the polypeptides that compose their structure and enable their function. For every human being, within the nucleus of each cell is that person’s genetic identity encoded in 3.1 billion base pairs along a molecule of DNA. The physician-geneticist Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project, refers to the genetic code as the language by which God created life.[14]

A key feature of the genetic code is its capacity to communicate precise information through countless cell divisions and down through generations with a remarkably high degree of fidelity, minimizing error and correcting for mutations that otherwise would be lethal. The genetic code could have been different. It turns out that the vast majority of all possible genetic codes would lack this crucial error-minimizing capacity. The biophysicist Hubert Yockey has calculated that, if our genetic code had arisen by chance or by natural selection, 1.4 x 1070 possible codes would have had to be tested before arriving at the universal genetic code found in life on Earth.[15] By implication, no random process of natural selection would have had adequate time since the formation of the earth to find this code that works so reliably.[16]

Discoveries of fine tuning on Earth include the right proportions of atmospheric oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. Air has just the right density and compressibility for human lungs to extract oxygen with efficient gas exchange by 500 million alveoli across membranes measuring just 0.2 microns thick. The temperature range on Earth accommodates water in solid, gaseous, and liquid phases, and the physical properties of liquid water happen to be just right for a functioning cardiovascular system. Earth also has the right amount of gravity to allow humans to stand upright.

Scientific research in a multitude of disciplines has identified hundreds more parameters for the universe, the solar system, planet Earth, and living cells for which physical values must fall within a narrow range for life of any kind to exist. The conditions favorable for intelligent life are even more finely tuned. The mathematical weight of these different improbabilities, when added up, staggers the imagination.[17]

Meaning in Tuning

Starting from the presumption that human life is reducible to so many molecules and the assertion that an accurate understanding of it must be limited to precise physical descriptions, closer examination of the physical evidence has led not to confirmation of a tidy nothing-but-a-bag-of-molecules theory of human life, but rather to perplexing questions. Why is nature exactly the way it is and not different? What can be concluded from this long list of apparent coincidences in nature that align so precisely with the possibility of human life existing?

To be human, at least, is to be an astonishingly complex living organism whose existence and ancestry are contingent on a set of many precisely calibrated conditions woven into the fabric of the universe from its very beginning. Those conditions define every cell and every molecule. Moreover, the probability that all of the initial parameters essential for life have lined up perfectly is so infinitesimally small as to favor the conclusion that, in the history of the universe, the arrival of humanity, indeed, the birth of every human person, cannot reasonably be accidental. What it means to be human is to be a special entity on a divinely chosen trajectory. We, like all creatures, have been placed precisely when and where we are in time and space.

Confronted by the brutal exactitude of so many parameters of the universe that are exquisitely calibrated for the existence of human beings, the astronomer Fred Hoyle, an atheist, wrote:

A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.[18]

What may Christians think of such things? The physical parameters of the universe are measurable in numbers that point beyond numbers. They point to a grand design. Design is a feature of intention and purpose. These are attributes of a rational Mind. Moreover, beauty in nature’s design is a display of divine love, and love does not abandon. It matters, then, what instruction this infinitely wise and ever-present Creator has given humanity to live by.

Dust That Ponders

To be human is also to reach beyond ourselves, to be the kind of creatures who, unless impaired by injury or disease, have the rational capacity to investigate, measure, evaluate, and comprehend nature and ourselves. The unique cognitive capacity of humans to engage in science is one feature that distinguishes humanity from all other animals. Humans develop mental models corresponding to the behavior of the universe. Humans design and build rockets, satellites, and telescopes that acquire images of stars, planets, galaxies, and the bending of space-time from black holes many light-years from us in the far reaches of outer space. Humans design and implement electron microscopes and magnetic resonance scanners that can measure the finest details of biological phenomena. Humans decipher the sequences of genomes. From these and other data, humans develop and test theories in an ongoing search for knowledge. Humans are unique among animals in being able to think about such things, even to ponder our origins from a time before we existed. Even to wonder about and worship our Creator.

Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”[19] Much of our comprehension of the physical world’s exact specifications relies on mathematics, the abstract logic of which extends to applications beyond those for which it was initially conceived. The physicist Eugene Wigner referred to this as the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.”[20] Many a scientist has been captivated by how mathematical models that fit most closely with experimental observations are not chaotic but exhibit remarkable simplicity, symmetry, and aesthetic elegance surpassing practical utility.[21] Thus, in 1619, the astronomer Johannes Kepler was inspired to write that, by discerning the laws governing the motion of planets, he was glimpsing the mind of the Creator and thinking his thoughts after him.[22] Through mathematics we comprehend the anthropic principle.

Furthermore, the human capacity to reason cannot be fully explained within the perspective of materialism. The author and literary scholar C. S. Lewis, in his “argument from reason,” wrote that the human mind that reasons must be able cognitively to stand apart from nature to comprehend nature. If mental processes were dictated solely by a deterministic chain of causation within what my student described as a “bag of molecules,” then the scientist could have no reason to believe that scientific insights into nature are true and trustworthy rather than just a reflection of the way the brain’s molecules happen to interact.[23] On this basis, Lewis considered philosophical naturalism, and by implication materialism, to be self-refuting because it undermines the validity of reasoning, on which all possible knowledge depends.[24]

Dust in Awe

To be human is to long for mystery when bleak materialistic accounts disappoint, as they invariably do. Hints of mystery abound in nature. These hints catch us by surprise when we encounter the brilliant display of colors as rays of sunlight peek through clouds. They titillate our ears when we hear the roar of ocean surf rhythmically crashing against a sandy shore or the quiet patter of raindrops falling in an evergreen forest. They excite our imagination when we behold starry swirls of strange galaxies far beyond our reach but visible through telescopes pointed at the night sky. To be human is to experience delight and to feel a sense of mystery in all these things and more.

To be human is to look upon the wondrous discoveries of science and to feel inspired to gaze higher. In observing the elegant design in nature in which so many parameters are exquisitely fine-tuned for the possibility of human life, one rightly responds with awe. Along with the psalmist, we pause, take a deep breath, and exclaim that such knowledge is too wonderful for us (Ps 139:6). More than an emotion, awe is like a breath of transcendence felt on the cheek.

To be sure, materialists experience awe, but materialist philosophy cannot adequately explain the experience. For the Christian, the human endeavors of science and medicine are much more than the means to survival; they are a form of worship. For through Christ all things were made (John 1:3). When we behold the heavens through scientific instruments, launch satellites mounted with powerful telescopes, or send probes to peer into distant quarters of the solar system, all that we see declares the glory of God (Ps 19:1). When we examine the inner details of the human body, marvel at its unified complexity, and ponder the elaborate structure of the brain, we find that the human being is fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139:14). The psalmist acknowledged that, before he was born, God formed his inward parts, knitting them together in secret with an intricate weave in, poetically, the depths of the earth (Ps 139:13-16). This passage is often interpreted as a picture of embryogenesis, but its meaning might also extend to the specific conditions of the universe, even in the depths of foundational molecular structures and forces, prepared long in advance for human life.

Consider that each of the hundreds of parameters of the universe that have been exquisitely calibrated for the possibility of human life began as a thought in the mind of the Creator. Psalm 139 continues in verses 17–18: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand” (ESV). The number of possible permutations of biological systems such as the neuronal states in the human brain, the DNA code, and even the construction of proteins exceed the number of atoms in the universe.[25]

The Hebrew word for “sand” (חוֹל or chol) in Psalm 139 derives from the root word (חוּל or chul) which can mean to whirl (as in the dances in Judg 21:21), to writhe (as in Job 15:20), or to be shaken (as in Ps 29:8). Considering these nuances of the Hebrew language, the Psalmist’s image of grains of sand seems to be more than specks of dirt sitting idle on the shore, but rather a cloud of bits stirred up, agitated, and whirling. This image of sand in motion is like the electron’s orbital that dances around nuclei and mysteriously leaps across barriers in the quantum realm. To compare God’s thoughts to grains of sand is to appreciate not only their number but also that they are vigorous and active. The same root word from which sand is derived is translated “tremble” in Psalm 96:9: “Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth!” Here, too, the human mind responds in awe.

Dust for Purpose

To be human is to have a moral nature. Moral beings have the capacity to discern (albeit imperfectly) right from wrong, and to choose to act wisely, with intention and with purpose. Moral agency beyond the means to practical gain would not be possible if the assumptions of the materialist were absolutely true, that is, if physical matter were all there is and humans were nothing more than biological assemblies of atomistic parts animated only by external efficient causation. Atomic clocks can measure the passage of time with great precision, but one looks in vain for atomic signals that can distinguish right from might or noble purpose from sheer efficiency. In a strictly materialist universe, all action would be mechanism. Human free will would be, as many have argued, an illusion.[26] Materialists may be well-intentioned, but the logic of their philosophy leads to a view of the world where there could be no genuine ethics, the category of moral value having been relegated to oblivion.

But humans do have a moral nature. This moral nature manifests in every decision to be a trustworthy steward of nature, to conserve the earth’s natural resources, and to protect wildlife and its habitats. This moral nature shines forth in every act of loving one’s neighbor (Lev 19:18; Mark 12:31) and to consider others, not as means to ends, but as ends in themselves. To be human is also to inherit the sinful nature common to all humanity; our sense of outrage at evil acts is also evidence that we have been given a moral nature.

Medicine is a moral enterprise. Those who are called to serve in the health professions dedicate themselves to living out the moral imperative to care for others who are ill or in need. The Christian healthcare professional is inspired by the eyewitness accounts of Christ’s healings recorded in the Gospels and by the example of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). To the Christian healthcare professional, the Scriptures are more than dots of ink molecules on a page. The Scriptures are the Word of God, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). Thus motivated, the Christian healthcare professional looks on the sick with compassion and regards others as image-bearers of God (Gen 1:26) who are deserving of our respect and care.

The moral basis of medicine, writes physician Edmund Pellegrino, who draws from the wisdom of Aristotle and Aquinas, entails living out a set of virtues. These include fidelity to trust (Exod 23:8), which is a binding promise to help, to seek the good of the patient, and not to submit unquestioningly to the good as defined by the patient, but to be faithful to higher levels of charitable beneficence. These virtues include compassion (Matt 9:36; Luke 10:25–37), which is more than pity or sympathy, but the capacity to feel and suffer with the sick person. Essential also is phronesis (Ps 111:10; Jas 1:5), a practical wisdom that is oriented toward beneficence and, Pellegrino adds, in a way pleasing to God. The moral basis of medicine also includes justice (Mic 6:8), which has many facets. For Pellegrino, the principle of justice is not a blindfolded weighing of interests among individuals, but a charitable justice motivated by mercy, taking into account the needs of the patient, including the claims the weak and marginalized have on their fellows and on society. To these Pellegrino adds fortitude (Deut 31:6), temperance (Gal 5:22–23), integrity (Prov 10:9), and self-effacement (Phil 2:3-4), which for the Christian physician are infused by the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and agape love.[27] These spiritual moral values, according to Pellegrino, “do not impose obligations at odds with nature. They confirm that what is good by nature is good because created and willed by God.” No materialist account of human nature can explain away the importance of these ennobling virtues in those who endeavor, though at times imperfectly, to live up to them in order to heal the sick.

Dust to Pray

To be human is to be a person created by, in need of, and loved by God. Every man, woman, and child is an enigma: a mixture of molecules, yet also a spiritual being. To be human is to exist as a unified whole of body and spirit who can wonder about the universe, appreciate its beauty, and pray to its Creator. In ecstatic expression, the English poet George Herbert wrote: “O that Thou shouldst give dust a tongue to cry to Thee.”[28] In the next line, Herbert laments, “And then not hear it crying!”—but with the confident expectation that, in time, his prayer would be heard. Patients and their physicians share in such anxious waiting for healing that has not yet come. Christian faith transforms this anxiety into faith, looking forward to the day when all things will be made new (Rev 21:5).

The physical parameters of the universe reveal something of God’s character (Rom 1:20). He who, in creating the universe, arranged numerous finely tuned parameters that made human life possible is the same God who, Scripture tells us, calls each of the stars by name (Ps 147:4) and numbers the hairs on every human head (Luke 12:7). Surely God also watches over each of the brain’s 100 billion neurons. The same Creator who designed the conditions of the universe with meticulous attention is the living God who is concerned with the details of our lives today. He who began a mighty work by arranging the initial conditions of the universe so precisely is able to bring his purposes to completion in the lives of people even now (Phil 1:6). Just as the parameters of the universe converged for the possibility of human life, all things continue to work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28).

To be human is to be a finite creature made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). Knowing that, one has the option—indeed, the invitation—to respond by worshiping the infinite God. Our heavenly Father is near to the brokenhearted (Ps 34:18). His Word and his salvation are also near (Rom 10:8; Eph 2:13). What St. Augustine knew long ago, each generation learns anew, that the deeply human longing for transcendence is restless until it finds its rest in God.[29]


The preceding commentary might seem, in the mind of my student, to be merely the behavior of a number of synapses firing within the three pounds of neurons within my cranium. If I shared his belief and regarded him and the other students in the lecture hall as nothing more than collections of churning molecules, I would not have gone to the trouble of traveling hundreds of miles to speak to them in person and to be present to answer their questions.

My prayer is that those who have fallen into a materialistic way of thinking will awaken to the exhilarating truth of a larger reality. The evidence speaks loudly. The problems of the world and suffering in illness also speak loudly and can startle the most faithful materialist out of complacency. Considering the evidence, the implications of the anthropic principle for understanding what it means to be human do not negate what the materialist knows about science or medicine. They illuminate. To quote Lewis once more, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[30]


[1] J. Craig Venter et al., “The Sequence of the Human Genome,” Science 291, no. 5507 (2001): 1304–51,

[2] Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (New York: Touchstone, 1994), 3.

[3] Patricia S. Churchland, Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2002), 42.

[4] Patricia S. Churchland, “Human Dignity from a Neurophilosophical Perspective,” in Human Dignity and Bioethics, ed. Edmund D. Pellegrino (Washington, DC: President’s Council on Bioethics, 2009), 100.

[5] William P. Cheshire, “Glimpsing the Grey Marble,” Ethics & Medicine 23, no. 2 (2007): 119–121; William P. Cheshire, “The Origami Brain: From Neural Folds to Neuroethics,” Ethics & Medicine 27, no. 2 (2011): 79–83.

[6] Michael Denton, The Miracle of Man: The Fine Tuning of Nature for Human Existence (Seattle, WA: Discovery Institute Press, 2022), 165.

[7] Don Devault, “Quantum Mechanical Tunnelling in Biological Systems,” Quarterly Review of Biophysics 13, no. 4 (1980): 387–564,

[8] Kasper P. Jensen and Ulf Ryde, “How O2 Binds to Heme: Reasons for Rapid Binding and Spin Inversion,” Journal of Biological Chemistry 279, no. 15 (2004): 14561–69,

[9] Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Latest Scientific Discoveries Reveal God, 4th ed. (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2018), 173–74, 237; Hugh Ross, “Quantum Uncertainty and Relativity Especially Fine-Tuned for You,” Reasons to Believe, May 30, 2017,

[10] Nick Lane N, Oxygen: The Molecule That Made the World (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[11] Hugh Ross, Why the Universe is the Way It Is (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008); Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos.

[12] Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos, 172.

[13] Peter Cochrane, C. S. Winter, and A. Hardwick, “Biological Limits to Information Processing in the Human Brain,”, November 16, 2004,

[14] Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), 1–3.

[15] Hubert P. Yockey, Information Theory and Molecular Biology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[16] Fazale Rana, “FYI: I.D. in DNA Deciphering Design in the Genetic Code,” Reasons to Believe, January 2, 2002,

[17] Denton, The Miracle of Man; Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos; Ross, “Quantum Uncertainty and Relativity Especially Fine-Tuned for You”; Hugh Ross, “RTB Design Compendium (2009),” Reasons to Believe, November 16, 2010,

[18] Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections,” Engineering and Science 45, no. 2 (1981): 8–12,

[19] The attribution, although widely quoted, is uncertain. The quote may be a paraphrase of Einstein’s written statement, apparently citing Kant, “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.” Albert Einstein, “Physics and Reality,” The Journal of the Franklin Institute 221, no. 3 (1936). Reproduced in Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (New York: Bonanza Books, 1954), 292.

[20] Eugene P. Wigner, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics 13 (1960): 1–14,

[21] Russell W. Howell, “The Matter of Mathematics,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 67, no. 2 (2015): 74–88,; Jason Wilson, “Integration of Faith and Mathematics from the Perspectives of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 67, no. 2 (2015): 100–110.

[22] Johannes Kepler, Harmonices Mundi: Libri V (Linz, Austria, 1619).

[23] William P. Cheshire, “Till We Have Minds,” Ethics & Medicine 25, no. 1 (2009): 11–16.

[24] Victor Reppert, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

[25] Hoyle, “The Universe.”

[26] Daniel M. Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2002).

[27] Edmund D. Pellegrino and David C. Thomasma, The Christian Virtues in Medical Practice (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1996).

[28] George Herbert, Denial, 1633.

[29] Augustine, Confessions, Book I.

[30] C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperOne, 1980), 140.