• Bags of Molecules

    Yesterday I went to the First Annual (hopefully) Lone Star College Book Festival in Houston. They put on an impressive 3 day event. It’s a bit of a trek for me to get there, so I only went yesterday.

    Dr. Jerry Coyne was one of the keynote speakers promoting his relatively new book Faith vs. Fact. Instead of a lecture, he was interviewed by Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (who was promoting his book God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction). Still, it was mostly Dr. Coyne speaking about his book and thoughts on the subject of faith, religion, and science. Fortunately, they allotted a great deal of time to audience questions.

    Most were not notable, except for a commonality to them. The average person seems to have difficulty expressing their views on these difficult subjects. I don’t know if it’s a lack of education in the subject which makes them struggle to express difficult concepts or a lack of skill in argumentation. I do run into this at times as well (even in blog articles).

    Most everyone has seen this, the majority of questions at events like this (even at Comicons) see to be mostly stuttering and semi-incomprehensible gibberish.

    Anyway, there was one standout question. I later found out that it was from Don Mcleroy of the Texas state school board fame. He asked what I assume to be one of the creationist “gotcha” questions.

    (paraphrase) “Do you mean to tell us that when you look at each other, you just see bundles of molecules talking about morals?”

    Jerry’s reply, “Yes”.

    I presume that McLeroy was trying to get Jerry to admit that there was something more to us, something that somehow made us special or different or was the cause of the intelligence. I’ll refer to that something from here on out as “the soul”.

    The Bible promotes this idea that without this mystical energy from god, we would be nothing more than animals. But that’s a claim. And the evidence is against that claim.

    We know that chemicals can alter a person’s personality, memories, and attitudes. In some cases permanently. We know that physical damage can do the same.

    If what makes us special weren’t tied directly to the physical existence of the brain, then physical changes to the brain wouldn’t affect who and what we are.

    We depend on other parts of our body as well. Hormones generated in glands all over the body have a direct impact on our thinking (or in the case of teenagers, lack of thinking). We cannot separate our ability to think, reason, and feel emotion from our physical body. This is one reason that I think the idea of heaven is simply silly. Even if a soul exists and even if it does go to heaven, it can’t be recognizably “you” because we depend on our physical bodies.

    But to get directly to McLeroy’s question, what is the brain and those hormones? They are all molecules (and some ions and elements). Signals are moved through individual neurons as fluctuating amounts of sodium and potassium ions inside the cell. When that propagation of chemical changes reaches the end of the neuron, it triggers a chemical cascade that results in the release of other chemical (neurotransmitters), which flow into the space between cells. Some of those molecules trigger a reaction in neighboring neurons that sends more signals.

    Other chemicals can increase or interfere with all of these processes, resulting changes to how someone thinks.

    So, yes, we are just big bags of molecules that have developed enough complexity to say that we are “intelligent”. I put that in quotes because there is not, in my opinion, a reliable and robust way of defining intelligence. But that’s a whole ‘nother conversation.

    I would like to thank DocBill for having Dr. Coyne and myself over for dinner. I had a great time.

    A future post will go towards a review of Faith vs. Fact.

    Category: ChemistryCulturefeaturedReligionSkepticism


    Article by: Smilodon's Retreat

    • thompjs

      I thought Don would have had a followup for that question. Did you get a copy of Don’s essay that he was passing out?

    • Don McLeroy

      I went to the event to meet Dr. Coyne; he was the very gentleman I expected him to be. My question was very simple, I just wanted himto say “yes” to the fact that they were just a bunch of molecules that enjoy talking to each other.

      This was to help point out to some folks-not the true Skeptics of course-that this was the implication of what they were saying.

      • SmilodonsRetreat

        Hi Don, welcome.

        I hope you got what you were looking for. Was my assessment of the reason for your asking accurate?

        BTW: A friend of mine sent me a copy of your handout. I’ll give it a good once over when I get a chance.

        • Don McLeroy

          No, your assessment is incorrect. All I wanted was what I stated in my first comment.

          I know, of course, that Dr. Coyne only considered himself a bunch of molecules and that he would answer truthfully. I disagree with Dr. Coyne about faith and facts but I have a lot of respect for him.

          I agree with him about snowflakes and Israel!

          • SmilodonsRetreat

            So you asked a nonsensical question that you already knew the answer to.

            OK then.

            The implication, of course, is that all we actually are is a collection of molecules talking to each other. Which is literally true.

          • Andreas Geisler

            Hello Don.
            I don’t think it’s correct to say we’re “bags of molecules”, as those “bags” are also molecules.
            We might be “piles of molecules” or “lumps of molecules”, though.
            Arguably, those molecular bags are full of mostly water, so that’s another option for you.

            But what does it matter that we are that? In your view, are we not just gross vessels for “souls”? How is that better?

            • Doc Bill

              That’s one of my favorite B.C. cartoons. Thor and Curls are arguing whether The Fat Broad is a “fat old bag” or a “bag of fat.” It goes back and forth like that until The Fat Broad clobbers both of them with a club. I guess we’ll never know.

      • Rikki

        Could you expand on what you mean by “not the true Skeptics of course” ? Also, what you mean by “true Skeptic” ?