Lucas Mix studies the intersection of biology, philosophy, and theology. A writer, speaker, professor, and Episcopalian priest, he has affiliations at Harvard, the Ronin Institute, and the Society of Ordained Scientists. He is currently studying long-term trends in biology with support from the John Templeton Foundation. Lucas blogs on faith, science and popular culture.
Eight years ago, my intestines stopped working. They’d been grumbling for years, but who really expects their body to go on strike. It was painful and, occasionally, messy. My body ached and my life contracted. Doctors told me it was stress, or the flu, or food poisoning, but the pain grew worse and I started missing work. My personality changed.
After three years, I got a diagnosis: Crohn’s disease. Communication can break down between the immune system and bacteria living in the gut. We usually get along with these “symbiotes,” these creatures living with us and within us. Even the famous E. coli usually lives in harmony with human hosts, part of a vast digestive ecosystem. Countless tiny organisms—bacteria, archaea, and protists—help us tackle our food. Except, sometimes they don’t.
In Crohn’s disease, something disrupts the delicate balance, causing inflammation and allowing bacteria to grow out of control. In severe cases, they eat their way out of the intestines, cutting holes that doctors have to stitch together. More often, drugs can keep them contained, though no one knows exactly how. Much of biology, even human biology, remains a mystery. Five years experimenting with medicine and diet restored some normalcy, but I have become more mindful of “my” body and my relation to it.
Body and Soul
At first, the Christian view seemed simple. My earthly body is a temporary home for my eternal soul. When everything worked, I viewed my soul as a mind, driving a body. Like my car, my body might be unresponsive, but I always knew the difference between me and it. Didn’t Jesus say that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41)?
But with Crohn’s, I wasn’t steering. Nor was my car. It was the passengers, the bacteria. By changing my body, they changed my mind. Pain ruined my mood and colored my choices. I became less patient, less kind; I was irritable and resentful. Strangely, my will became a matter of consensus.
Before getting sick, I thought my will was the most important part of my self. Even when it failed to rule my flesh, it was still free to seek the good. But what if my will was not free? What if it was bound to my body and my bacteria? What if my decisions were always communal?
Worse yet, if I was not distinct from my body, how could I understand suffering? I was no longer distinct from the world; I was part of it all. To be a body is to be limited, bound to suffering and death. If my will was so linked to the bacteria, was the very core of me also bound? What then became of eternal life? I gained a visceral appreciation for my limits, for pain and suffering and insufficiency. I found it hard to forgive God this indignity, this loss of self.
Body and Biology
I needed a new story, a new way to speak of body and soul. I have a doctorate in biology from Harvard and spent many years working with NASA on the search for life in space. Surely this could help me understand life and self. What story could I tell as a scientist?
I began looking into organisms and individuality in science. Life appears intimately tied to metabolism—the chemistry of nutrition and growth—and to reproduction. In both, organisms are surprisingly interdependent. Biologists can speak confidently about the processes, but not as much about the boundaries of life.
Over the long-term, the biological story seems to be ruled by entropy and symbiosis. Entropy is a fancy word for disorder, formally the energy in a system unavailable for work. “Entropy” may also be shorthand for the long-term increase in disorder within a system (Newton’s second law of thermodynamics). Disorder increases unless you add work. Think of your home. You put food in the kitchen and clothes in the closet so that you can eat and dress when you want to. You stock up on order, use it all up, and then stock up again. Life does this in the universe. The physicist Erwin Schrodinger called life negentropy, local stockpiling of order and energy in organized systems, “organisms.”
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Source: Christianity Today