10/16/2006 01:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Trouble With Genes (Part 3)

Although genes are incapable of explaining human intelligence, or the intricately organized operations within cells, they must be included in any final explanation. We can't call genes themselves intelligent because that leads us to say that molecules are intelligent, and then there's no reason not to say that atoms are intelligent, or quarks. Each step takes us further away from a plausible answer.

Can we claim that intelligence is simply an illusion? This sounds absurd, but it seems to be a prevailing attitude among certain philosophers and many neuroscientists. Their notion is that consciousness has no ultimate reality but is instead a property thrown off by brain chemicals--the way heat is thrown off by a car engine--creating the illusion of a mind simply because the processes involved are so complex.

I don't think this theory can stand the test of common sense, because human intelligence is millions of times too complex to be generated by random chemical interactions. Also, as one respondent pointed out, the Cartesian split between mind and body is no longer tenable. The mistake this responder makes, however, is to believe I uphold such a split. I don't. I am looking for a fusion of ideas that will allow us to have a single brain-mind system. Chemicals can't give us one, but consciousness can. If the entire universe is an arena of consciousness, there is no need to isolate human intelligence or to argue futilely if genes are smart. By analogy, when a radio plays Mozart, we don't have to claim that the radio is Mozart, or that Mozart is the radio. The two are meshed--machine and genius find a meeting ground.

Instead of a mind-matter split, we have a hierarchy of domains, each with its own flavor or quality of consciousness. Already there are intriguing theories about a self-aware universe, which is self-organized and coherent from top to bottom. Information theory over the past few decades has postulated that information fields may exist in Nature, and the information they contain may precede matter and energy while being as indestructible as both. This puts a new twist on the age-old religious concept that the universe is happening in God's mind.

In medicine it was long considered absolute that the brain is the seat of intelligence, but now we find extraordinary intelligence in the immune system, not to mention neuronal activity in such diverse places as the heart and digestive tract (there's a sound physiological reason for why gut feelings can be so accurate). In other words, bit by bit a unified theory of consciousness may be evolving to forge a mind-body link far more satisfying that mind and body on their own.

It won't satisfy the skeptics at present, but despite their iron-clad objections, a strictly materialistic view of biology, evolution, and cosmology won't hold water. Over the next few weeks I will post a consciousness-based argument for life after death. This is a subject where matter and spirit directly clash, and if we can find a way to account for the afterlife that satisfies both, a genuine advance will be made.

As for genes, one can predict that their interface with intelligence is fast approaching. Each of us is ultimately an activity of the universe, and the genetic code embodies eons of memory and evolution. We are self-conscious beings, and there is a strong implication that genes also represent a way for life to examine itself, to remember what it has learned, and to move forward into the unknown. Nature wears a mask of matter, but when it comes down to it, it's truer to say that thoughts learned to build a physical body than the opposite, that a physical body invented thinking. The universe is thinking us at every moment, and in return we constantly think about it.