Genome and the freedom of choice: A philosophical enquiry
When we imagine life as a permutation of four letters that determine the functionality of every single organism on this planet, the idea of free will and choice are brought into question. If the fate of a cell is predetermined by the genetic memory and apparently the cell can exercise no freedom upon it, then how can individual organisms, us included, which are the summation of these microscopic systems have any authority over choice and action?
The science of the genome has given us profound ability to literally change the course of our life system, but have we really tried to introspect upon the deeper questions that lurk somewhere in our quest for answers to problems in biology? Philosophy, as Martin Heidegger said, is about “finding a way out of the fly bottle” and we are ‘flies’ after all. Our scientific pursuits have a subtle entanglement with our eternal quest for meaning in this cosmic tapestry. Therefore, the question of choice is as relevant to genetics as the exploration of a molecular mechanism in the cell. We know that life evolves and also evolved from a single cell, both in terms of ontogeny as well as phylogeny. An embryo, for example, forms from the fusion of an egg and sperm. They transfer genetic information carried on through generations, often times with certain random mutations, to the newly formed unit of life. The entire life story of the new individual is written in the ATCG codes inside the cell, from his hair colour to his psychology and behaviour. Certainly there is a sense of flexibility in it after all, but is there really a power of choice? Isn’t choice merely a combination of possibilities in an otherwise deterministic framework of reality? Take a bacterium for example. Through its genetic memory, it has learnt to retort back when its flagella sense an obstruction on its path. Could it choose to head on instead of tumbling back? Again its choice could turn out to be just another possibility of cause and effect within that ecosystem. Its fate seems to be determined by the laws of probability and mathematical uncertainty.
The human genome is a hundred times more complex than that of bacteria. But if causal-determinism holds true, this greater complexity leads to a more complicated maze of possible cause and action, eventually vitalizing our illusion of choice and free will. More interesting though, is the fact that our body has about ten times more bacteria than human cells and each of these bacterial cells invariantly govern the chemistry of our biology. We think we are a person but more than that we are a microcosm of cellular life- the microbiome. The question is- where does determinism fall apart and choice begins?
The search for purpose has always been an endeavour that has failed us in the past. Our grand ideas of a cosmic entitlement and privilege have been utterly challenged by new empirical discoveries. Science has stripped us of faith and hope in a greater providence. Nihilism and the crisis of human existence seem to be staring at us on the face. Nonetheless, as a species we have evolved a kind of consciousness which, despite all this uncertainty and morbidity, has elevated us intellectually. The very nature of these enquiries suggests a progressive march of human awareness, no matter how futile or insignificant. Free will or no, we know that our pursuits have enabled us to contemplate on our own existence and question the very basis of our experience as a living organism. This, I believe, is what should motivate us to seek greater depths of our questions while being equally content with the absence of any final answer. The science of life is perhaps way beyond the boundaries of science itself.