Commentary

Cliff Goldstein

is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His next book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity is set to be released this fall by Pacific Press.

Cliff’s Edge – Why is Water Wet?

Remember chemistry class in high school? I remember the class better than the chemistry, except for the molecular formula of water, H20, which, we were told (by those who have never seen one) is two hydrogen atoms attached to an oxygen atom.

Fine, I’ll take it on faith. But that assumption does lead to an issue. I don’t know much about hydrogen atoms, or oxygen atoms, or about the forces that bind them into the H20 entity itself, but I would guess that none of them are wet. I’d say that even a single H20 molecule is not wet. However, when enough of these non-wet entities are bunched up they acquire an attribute that none have individually: wetness. Somehow the whole is not only greater than the sum of the parts, but qualitatively different from the parts as well. That is, the whole takes on attributes not found in any, or even all, of what creates it to begin with. (Think, perhaps, of piling up pennies until they turn into an ATM machine dispensing crisp $20 bills.)

This process is called “emergence” and, congratulations, because if you’re reading these words, then you’re experiencing first-hand what’s perhaps the most powerful manifestation of emergence known to humanity.

This process is called “emergence” and, congratulations, because if you’re reading these words, then you’re experiencing first-hand what’s perhaps the most powerful manifestation of emergence known to humanity.

After all, the stuff that you are made of is what? Only three matter particles and three forces. There are electrons, which in the atom are bound to the nucleus by electromagnetism. The nucleus of the atom is protons and neutrons bound together by the strong nuclear force. And lurking behind it all is good old gravity (actually, we can get even more fundamental, things like up quarks, down quarks, and gluons, but for present purposes we’re fundamental enough).

As far as anyone knows, none of these particles and forces can think or read, as can you. And when they combine to form the atoms of which we are made, none of those atoms can read, either. When atoms merge into complex molecules, these molecules have nothing close to the consciousness that we, composed of these molecules, experience. Even when these molecules become the chemicals swirling and sloshing about in our brain cells, these chemicals cannot think or read. And when those chemicals emerge into living neurons, what neuron by itself can experience love, hate, the color red, or the meaning of these words on your computer screen? Yet here you are, the end of the road, essentially a bundle of atoms and the few fundamental forces that hold atoms together, reading these words and wondering, perhaps, Where is Goldstein going with this?

Goldstein’s going here: if the current scientific understanding of reality is correct, then we have to believe, contrary to common sense if nothing else, that human consciousness needs no more ingredients than electrons, protons, and neutrons obeying the laws of physics, because in the end, human consciousness is nothing but electrons, protons, and neutrons obeying the law of physics. Maybe, but it just doesn’t seem adequate, kind of like using acoustics alone to explain Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, only much worse.

If you’re reading these words, you’re experiencing first-hand perhaps the most powerful manifestation of emergence known to humanity.

In contrast, the wonder of the biblical worldview is that, while certainly incorporating the physical world, even celebrating it (“God saw all that He had made, and it was very good” [Gen. 1:31]), the biblical perspective is not limited by it. On the contrary, it posits a dimension of reality far richer, broader, and deeper than what the study of quarks and the force that binds them alone can reveal, which might help explain why so much of the physical world remains inexplicable to us, including not just the existence of conscious minds that can read, but even why water is wet.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book is tentatively titled, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity.

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