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Saturday Feature
 
Art of begging the question
Syed Fattahul Alim
5/27/2006
 

          Science has dispelled the darkness of ignorance and superstition from many corners of the realm of human existence. As light is shed on new areas of the yet unknown, man stakes his claim to those as part of his domain of knowledge. But what is his real progress so far?
He has conquered the seas, the mountains and all the corners of the green planet he lives in. He has sent his scientific missions into near space. He has set foot on the nearest heavenly body, the earth's only satellite, the moon. Now his probes are on their way to conquer the solar system and have already landed space missions on the red planet outside the earth's orbit, Mars. The space missions are now scouring the interplanetary space and dreaming to venture into the deep space beyond the solar system in the not-so-distant future. These are about the external world that he has been out to explore and conquer.
However, it is not simply the external world that he has ventured into. He has also made his journey into the heart of matter by breaking it into smaller and smaller parts. He has gone on vivisecting it until he lost the distinction between the big and small, the part and the whole. His expedition into the micro-world within and the macro-world has undoubtedly expanded his horizon of knowledge. He has not even left the world of the living unexplored either. The human body and many of the secrets of how it ticks are at his fingertips. The smallest art of living organisms, the genes, are now at his disposal. He is even tinkering with this smallest unit of life by splicing different kinds of genes to create hybrid seeds that promise more productive and better crops and plants. He has even grown so proud as to claim that he is now in a position to create new form of life thereby triggering strong controversies and debates over the ethical and moral dimensions of carrying out such experiments.
Is he now complacent about his achievements and exploits so far as the world of knowledge is concerned? In fact, there is still no room for complacency about his achievement. As for example, has he found any answer to the deepest of all mysteries, life itself? Well, he has studied the living organisms and followed closely the process of the dynamics of its growth. The structure of the organic parts that go together to make different life forms he has traced to their core. No one would question that, for he at least knows, very partially though, how the living world works. Still, the question that continues to nag him, as it did thousands of years ago when he began wondering about the secret of his own existence. The simple query he made at that time remains unanswered-how did it all come about? To trace the dynamics of the growth of any organism that has already come into being is not a very hard task to perform. To cut a life form into pieces and then learn about the units that make it is a very old-fashioned process of learning that every child knows. The whole exercise has remained limited, as if, to tracking the movements of an animal by following the footprints that it has left on the ground. But that was not the real concern of even the most primitive human who asked the question, 'how did it begin in the first place?' In other words, that is like asking, 'how did life cross the threshold of existence and non-existence-the fine line that lie between 'when it was not' and 'when it was'?'
A similar question about the origin of his abode, the universe, he has already hypothesised. Though still a hypothesis, it has so far proved very effective in explaining many riddles about time, space and the building blocks of the universe. 'Big Bang' is the name of that theory. The theory has mathematically predicted that the present universe started some 15 to 20 billion years ago from a point of singularity. That singularity was the grey area between the beginning of the present form of the universe and the abyss of darkness before that point of singularity. Did life, too, have a similar singularity in time since when it all started with a 'bang' of some sort?
The theory of evolution has tried to show how life might have begun its long journey progressively from its lower forms into higher one. Evidently, the intelligent life it has traced back to the families of the apes and in a similar fashion to a lower and still lower orders of life. Through this method of induction, the beginning of life can be traced to the world of the non-living, the inert matter. In the ultimate analysis, this is a circular kind of reasoning that cannot lead the questioner to any clear-cut destination. It is merely an exercise in drawing an analogy too far. One can compare it to the pre-relativistic era of physics and astronomy that tried to comprehend the universe and the mystery of its origin in terms of a static model. It said that the universe was there timelessly. The question of its beginning, growth and end, if any, can be attributed to the boring repetition of its everyday chore of going round and round itself. Well, though it resisted the intervention of any theological god in the business of searching for a scientific answer to the problem of creation, the god of chance was allowed a free hand to do all the miracles. Therefore, it was a matter of pure chance that one fine morning it all did become.
Einstein's relativistic interpretation of time and space provided a dynamic model for the astronomers and the astrophysicists to look at the universe from quite a new angle. Still the darkness over the question of its birth, the preponderance of the 'Big Bang' notwithstanding, and that of its death has not been dispersed totally. This is the state of things in the arena of exact sciences that deal largely with inert matter. The biological sciences, on the other hand, have not progressed much farther, so far as the problem of the origin of life is concerned, since the time of Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century. Darwin at least brought the possibility of succession of life from the lower to its higher order to the fore through his groundbreaking work, the Origin of Species. Then again, it was necessity and chance that had to play their major roles to cross each step of the evolutionary journey. A lot of theological disputes have been raised against the theory of evolution since its inception, which are still raging even in the blessed land of science and technology, the United States of America, to be frank. That apart, no serious objection could be raised against the theory of evolution from the mansion of science proper. However, the branch of biological science known as Genetics (Gregor Mendel being the father of this branch of biology) has from time to time tried to challenge the provision of selection guided by necessity in the evolution theory that has supposedly dictated the course of the evolutionary progression.
Ironically, the science of genetics itself is a prisoner of its own inertia of the boring repetition of the very ancient and given seed of life, the gene, with the godly factor of chance again appearing from nowhere at the opportune moment to break the monotony of relentless duplication and so there was the light of 'mutation.' Hence is the transformation from the lacklustre to the more intelligent form of life. This process of reasoning, far from simplifying the problem, raises more question than it can answer. There is no attempt here to answer the fundamental question of how such a very complicated structure like the gene evolved in the first place.
As it is in the case of the exact sciences, so it is also with the biological sciences. They can only tell what is going on in terms of what is already given tautologically. Put differently, it is running on the same spot, if one is talking about answering the first question that the ancient forefather asked after coming out of the realm of the unconscious and ignorance. The cause of why things are the way they are is an unsolved enigma. The philosophers of old tried to shed some light on this grey area of human enquiry in a speculative manner. Nevertheless, so far science, as we know it, has cautiously kept itself aloof from such questions terming them as purely of teleological nature. The unconvinced may still argue, if the pursuit of knowledge that looks for meaning or purpose of things implied by teleology, how can then science justify weird notions like 'necessity' or 'chance' to explain away the occasional junctures or crises in the forward march of knowledge dictated by the dominion of science?

 

 
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