A thoughtful piece from a generally thoughtful science writer:
Reductionism is a successful way to explain the universe, but it cannot replace experience. This is part of the mystery of life.
If the question is, “Can science explain life?” then the answer I think someday will be “mostly yes,” if what we are aiming for are the processes at work in life. Science has already successfully deployed the technique of reduction to see the building blocks of life. Reduction means looking for explanations or successful predictive descriptions of a system by focusing on its smaller-scale constitutive elements. If you are interested in a human body, then reductions lead down from organs to cells to DNA to genes to biomolecules and so on. That approach has obviously been spectacularly successful.
It has not, however, been enough. The frontier now seems to be understanding life as a complex adaptive system, meaning one in which organization and cause occur on many levels. It is not just the atomic building blocks that matter; influences propagate up and down the scale, with multiple connected networks from genes to the environment and back. As I have written before, information may play an essential role here in ways that do not occur in non-living systems.
But the deeper question remains: will this ongoing process of explanatory refinement exhaust the weirdness of being alive or the mystery of life that I described in the opening? I think not.Adam Frank, “The mystery of life cannot be solved by science” at Big Think
Couple of thoughts: We many never discover how life actually began because — in the absence of many planets whose life forms we can study — we cannot derive universal laws. Thus, the origin of life must be treated as a historical event. Many historical events cannot be definitively understood because key facts are lost to followup.
It’s not a question of what science can do, as one complacent textbook put it. The information still available to science may not enable us to draw a firm conclusion.
In any event, as Frank says, life turns out to be a complex, adaptive system, among other things, which resists the kind of “explanation” that many researchers used to seek.
What is the “explanation” for Tokyo or New York City? Of course there are many explanations on many levels but no single explanation exhausts everything or lays the question to rest. Or ever could. And that’s part of the nature of life.