Louis Pasteur discovered that life comes from life

‘Life comes from Life’ is posed by some modern bhakti sects as a key challenge to science.

Portrait of Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur. Photograph by Nadar

However, Louis Pasteur, the father of microbiology, summarized his scientific experiments in the phrase “Omne vivum ex vivo“, which means ‘Life [is] from Life’. Here is a bit from wikipedia:

Biogenesis is the production of new living organisms or organelles. Conceptually, biogenesis is primarily attributed to Louis Pasteur and encompasses the belief that complex living things come only from other living things, by means of reproduction. That is, life does not spontaneously arise from non-living material, which was the position held by spontaneous generation.[1][2] This is summarized in the phrase Omne vivum ex vivo, Latin for “all life [is] from life.” A related statement is Omnis cellula e cellula, “all cells [are] from cells;” this conclusion is one of the central statements of cell theory.

Cell theory, and hence the concept of ‘life comes from life’ is the foundation of all modern cell biology, biochemistry, molecular biology and evolutionary biology.

Spontaneous generation, the belief that life comes from non-living matter, was common among the ancient Greeks. This concept was conclusively disproved by Pasteur’s scientific experiments, and is one of the triumphs of modern science.

Life [ātman] does not come from life [Kṛṣṇa]

According to the scriptures, life is defined as the conscious, indestructible, beginningless  ātman. Life is eternal and has no beginning and no end. Kṛṣṇa emphasizes that the ātman is never born nor does it ever cease to exist (न जायते म्रियते वा कदाचित्).

The living entities were not created by Kṛṣṇa. Therefore, according to the scriptures, life does not come from life. It is eternal and beginningless.

Now we examine some “Life comes from Life” arguments that have been used to criticize science and dismiss scientists as ‘rascals’.

One type of argument is that the child has a parent, and the parents have their own parents, so life comes from life, and not from matter. Of course this is just a restatement of Louis Pasteur’s scientific discovery which was made way back in 1864. It does not prove that life is the ātman, it only states that material bodies come from material bodies, an observable fact.

Another argument is that a scientist cannot synthesize chemicals to create life, so how can they claim that life comes from matter? Here the criticism is that scientists reject the presence of the ātman in bodies. Of course the reason scientists and science reject the ātman is that there is no scientific evidence of the ātman. How can one expect scientists to accept something without evidence? Also important is the fact that scientists have indeed mixed chemicals and brought dead bodies back to life. Here is Craig Venter’s experiment. Nor is it unexpected that this could be done- the Bhagavatam describes how King Prthu was ‘created’ out of Vena’s body. Sounds like mixing chemicals to me!

Important in this ‘scientists cannot synthesize chemicals to create life’ trope is that the word ‘life’ is not clearly defined by the proponents. As these arguments are supposed to be motivated by the Vedas, one would assume they mean ‘scientists cannot synthesize chemicals and create the ātman’. However, that is not the scientists’ claim. Their observation is that bodies are assembled by matter self-organizing itself in the form of cells and replicating itself. These are facts for anyone who has ever used a microscope to see dividing cells. Taken with fossil evidence that all life came from a common ancestral cell (called LUCA), it is only logical to posit that the original cell was assembled through the emergence of self-replicating molecules. Noteworthy of course is that the proponents of these criticisms of science have no explanation for the fossil evidence. Scientists, however, are interested in understanding the natural world. They are not interested in validating or invalidating religious beliefs.

Matter does not come from life

Science bashers also claim that matter comes from life. The curious thing is that the proponents of these criticisms use arguments that are completely predicated on observations concerning material bodies. For example, to prove that matter comes from life, one argument is the ‘observation’ that nails grow on human bodies, but not on inanimate matter. Arguments of this type are fallacious. Nails are made of keratin, and they are synthesized by cells, not the ātman. If the argument is that growth (addition of matter onto bodies) is a property only of cells or living bodies (life), then that concept was discovered by scientists. Science can also explain it- growth is a property of DNA which self-replicates, and manifests itself in the form of metabolism.

Crucially, Kṛṣṇa teaches that matter, prakrti, is eternal. He says – प्रकृतिं पुरुषं चैव विद्धि अनादि उभावपि – both matter and the ātman are without beginning. Matter does not come from ātman nor from Kṛṣṇa. It is without beginning.

Religious critics of science, in order to accept scientific discoveries they like (which made possible microphones, cameras and computers), and to reject discoveries they dont like (like the fossil record), distinguish between science and ‘scientism’. They emphasize that scientists have no business making statements about God or the ātman, which is the domain of scripture. That is fine, but then it cuts both ways. As Daniel Dennett puts it, “when it comes to [observable] facts and explanations, science is the only game in town”. There is no need to criticize science for its discoveries and explanations or for expressing opinions on scientific topics in which one has neither expertise nor training.

The theology of Jiva Goswami and the Bhagavatam is beautiful and deep. To get bhāva which is the goal of bhakti, Jiva Goswami does not require one to live life like a conspiracy theorist, hating science and society at large. This ought to be obvious given that the scriptures are not concerned with science at all.

An ‘us versus them’ mentality in the context of science might be useful for preaching purposes, but such preaching creates psychological scars in a person, and ultimately distorts the personalities of normal, thoughtful persons, making paranoid bigots out of them.

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