Scientists can describe to you the project of finding a “universal theory,” something that explains the whole of existence in its most basic terms. This generally involves some form of reductionism, usually collapsing the three great sciences into one another. Biology is to be explained by chemistry, and chemistry is to be explained by physics. In other words, the activity of our hearts and minds are the firings of neurons and the swirling of chemicals. Those chemicals are fundamentally the interactions of molecules, which are the interactions of atoms, which are the interactions of protons, neutrons, electrons. If you slice with a thinner razor, you come to quarks and leptons and bosons. The universal theory aims at getting to the center of these Russian dolls and explaining how the little one, and the forces that hold them together, governs everything else.
This is a real effort in the sciences. Darwinism is the greatest reductionist theory in existence, an alternative to a Designer. Next, scientists are looking for a source for the big bang, trying to come up with a viable alternative to a Creator. This is a real effort in the sciences – and it really isn’t going to work.
Renee Descartes tried to do the same thing with the mental world. He tried to break thought down into its smallest, most basic parts. If he imagined that the world around him didn’t exist, imagined even that the parts of his body didn’t exist, that with which he ultimately left was “I think therefore I am.” The criticism of his theory has always been, “Hey, where did this ‘I’ come from? What’s the ‘I’ that’s doing the thinking?” In other words, you can’t really separate thinking from the person who is doing it, so it’s hard to say what the tiniest little atom is in the sequence of mental events. You could try saying, “Thinking happens,” but that doesn’t really explain the fact that thinking is self-conscious. Our thoughts are part of a bigger story, a narrative, and no one thought can be separated out by itself from the others. Thoughts can’t be broken into atoms.
The same thing is true in the physical sciences. The problem with atomistic theory is that nothing in the real world can be dissected down to constituent parts that are actually separated from one another. The atoms are holding hands. Physics is a narrative. The fact that some atoms make up the point where my pencil ends and others make up the point where the paper begins constitutes a story about the atoms that the individual atoms can’t tell on their own.
Ultimately, materialistic, atheistic scientific efforts will keep hacking away at life looking for its smallest unit. But science is trying to grab hold of mercury. What it’s trying to contain will always slip away. Atoms will never by themselves tell the story of existence. The whole narrative is bigger than the sum of its parts.
The scientific reduction of biology into chemistry and physics tells us as much about life as dissection tells us about what it feels like to fall in love.