The Programming of Life

December 19, 2012

There was a revealing article recently on ScienceDaily concerning a novel approach to determining how life originated. Up until now most scientists have been trying to chemically synthesize the organic compounds integral to the structures of life in hopes of determining how life might have originated through natural processes. To say the least this has been an abysmal failure. There is in fact no evidence that living organisms originated through unguided natural processes. One of the reasons it has been a failure is because scientists have attempted to reconstruct the chemical structures of life, while ignoring the fact that life at its core is an information processing system – something I have been pointing out for years. Now it seems that some scientists are finally coming to the same conclusion:

Now, a novel approach to the question of life’s origin, proposed by two Arizona State University scientists, attempts to dramatically redefine the problem. The researchers — Paul Davies, an ASU Regents’ Professor and director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, and Sara Walker, a NASA post-doctoral fellow at the Beyond Center — published their theory in the Dec. 12 issue of the Royal Society journal Interface.

In a nutshell, the authors shift attention from the “hardware” — the chemical basis of life — to the “software” — its information content. To use a computer analogy, chemistry explains the material substance of the machine, but it won’t function without a program and data. Davies and Walker suggest that the crucial distinction between non-life and life is the way that living organisms manage the information flowing through the system.

I for one applaud this change of strategy because at least it acknowledges the right problem. That being said, I am certain they will face the same frustrations those focused on the chemical origin of life have because information systems simply can’t originate apart from the intention of a mind.

Perhaps it will take a few more decades of failure for science to realize this obvious fact.

 


Bad is Bad

December 3, 2012

There is an excellent article on the Huffington Post (it’s not often you will hear me say that) called Why Bad Science Is Like Bad Religion which compares the bad thought processes that go into bad religion and bad science. As biologist Dr. Rupert Sheldrake notes:

Bad religion is arrogant, self-righteous, dogmatic and intolerant. And so is bad science. But unlike religious fundamentalists, scientific fundamentalists do not realize that their opinions are based on faith. They think they know the truth. They believe that science has already solved the fundamental questions. The details still need working out, but in principle the answers are known.

Here Sheldrake describes one of the most common thought processes I encounter in New Atheists. As I point out in our conversations the number of beliefs materialists hold as articles of faith, i.e. the naturalistic origin of the universe, our planet, life and consciousness, atheists often respond with the claim that they have confidence that science will explain these phenomena eventually because, well, science has already explained other phenomena. Sheldrake cites a term by science philosopher Karl Popper to describe this kind of thinking – he calls it promissory materialism:

Since the 19th century, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. Science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, nature is purposeless, and minds are nothing but brain activity. Believers are sustained by the implicit faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs. The philosopher of science Karl Popper called this stance “promissory materialism” because it depends on issuing promissory notes for discoveries not yet made. Many promises have been issued, but few redeemed. Materialism is now facing a credibility crunch unimaginable in the 20th century.

The effect of this dogma is to cause a replacement of experimental science which yields observable and testable results with highly theoretical science which sucks up time, money and minds with no tangible results. Atheists are attracted to this kind of science because they are desperate to justify their beliefs in the materialism which underpins their metaphysical beliefs. I can’t count the number of times I have seen highly theoretical theories presented as ‘evidence’ by atheists that life can spring from non-life or universes can originate from nothing, or morals can evolve from animal brains. They do this because to not do so would open up the possibility that fully explaining the nature of the universe requires something more than the mindless phenomena we observe inside the universe.

And as more scientists adopt a hardened metaphysical materialism, they are increasingly wedded to these scientific dogmas. It is a rapid downward spiral.

As a Christian, I agree with Shledrake that there can be a bad sort of religious thinking that is unwilling to be revised in light of new evidence – but I also recognize that this same sort of fundamentalism exists in atheism as well, and that it is in fact New Atheism’s raison d’être.


Observations

October 17, 2012

It’s always amazing to me how little the objections to Christianity have changed, and how enduring the answers to those objections are – from the immensely wise mind of G.K. Chesterton:

Dear Mr. Chesterton,
A famous anthropologist has recently demonstrated quite conclusively that the physiological formation of the ape and the human, including their brains, are almost exactly alike…
Don’t you think he proved something rather devastating to your philosophy?

Signed, Dr. K.

Dear Dr. K.,
If he was trying to prove that man has a merely material origin like the ape, he was proving exactly the opposite. If there are two motorcars, which a minute examination proves to be exactly alike in every mechanical detail, then we shall be rather more and not less surprised if one of them suddenly soars into the air like an aeroplane, while the other can only trundle along the road like a cart. The only way in which we can possibly explain it is to suppose that, at some time and in some way, some other more mysterious force came into play. But the more we prove that every cog and rivet in the two machines is identical, the more we are driven to the mystical explanation when their action is different. And the difference between a man and an ape does not need discussion, it does not allow of denial or even doubt. Man has stepped into a totally different world of imagination and invention; like a man turning into a god. If this startling and stupendous difference can co-exist with exactly the same material origins, the only possible deduction is that it does not come from the material origins. In other words, the only possible deduction is that by some special spiritual act, as in the ancient record, man became a living soul.

Your friend, G.K. Chesterton

(Illustrated London News, Oct. 15, 1927)

The Ancient Brain

October 16, 2012

One of the major contentions of evolutionary theory is that it explains how organisms become more complex over time. This is a critical aspect because it is unimaginable that complex organisms would spring forth fully formed as the product of natural unguided forces. So evolutionists imagine mutations and natural selection acting in concert to ratchet organisms up the scale of complexity in a step-wise fashion. In this scenario evolution is a tinkerer, not planning, anticipating and directing change but incidentally modifying structures and occasionally stumbling upon beneficial solutions. There are many solid arguments against this idea with more gaining traction all the time, but perhaps the biggest reason to doubt the orthodox evolutionary view is that it simply don’t describe what actually happened in the history of life. There are in fact two realities (amongst others) that weigh against evolution, and they are the evident early complexity of organisms and the enduring stasis of organisms over time. Both are seen in a recent fossil discovery from the Cambrian era:

Complex brains evolved much earlier than previously thought, as evidenced by a 520-million-year-old fossilized arthropod with remarkably well-preserved brain structures.

The remarkably well-preserved fossil of an extinct arthropod shows that anatomically complex brains evolved earlier than previously thought and have changed little over the course of evolution. According to University of Arizona neurobiologist Nicholas Strausfeld, who co-authored the study describing the specimen, the fossil is the earliest known to show a brain.

The researchers call their find “a transformative discovery” that could resolve a long-standing debate about how and when complex brains evolved.

“No one expected such an advanced brain would have evolved so early in the history of multicellular animals,” said Strausfeld, a Regents Professor in the UA department of neuroscience.

Of course no who believed brains developed according to ordinary evolutionary theory expected that an advanced brain would have evolved so early in the history of life and persisted for so long, but the reality poses no problem for those who believe life was intentionally designed. Such unexpected findings are found so often now that one becomes surprised when scientists are surprised – but as long as they cling to decrepit ideas about evolution, they will continue to be surprised at how complexity made an early appearance in earth’s history and persisted through the changing eons – which is exactly what one would expect if they had been engineered to live here on earth to begin with.


Fairness and the Monkey Mind

September 24, 2012

One ongoing contention by atheists is that God is unnecessary to ground morality because humans are naturally social and interdependent creatures who have inherited these characteristics from their evolutionary forebears. As evidence for this contention they often point to examples of certain social behaviors in apes and monkeys, our presumed nearest non-human cousins. We’ll ignore certain nasty behaviors by such animals (and why such behaviors aren’t equally ‘moral’ by this estimation) for now and examine instead a concept that is generally seen as moral in the Christian West – fairness.

In an August post called Where does morality come from? A demonstration with monkeys atheist and evolutionist cheerleader Jerry Coyne (who seems to be a big fan of these sort of studies) attributes the reactions of a capuchin to not receiving a grape in exchange for a rock during the course of an experiment to the monkey’s sense of ‘fairness’, a characteristic he considers to be a basis for morality:

This video is about as powerful a refutation I’ve seen of the notion that our morality is given by God rather than either evolved or a product of our culture. This is taken from a wonderful TED talk by Frans de Waal, primatologist and author of several popular books. His talk is called “Moral behavior in animals”, and is witty and full of insights (you can also watch it here if you don’t have the right Flash player).

Do watch the whole talk, as you’ll learn a lot about “morality” in our mammalian relatives, and there are several nice videos. In the one I show below, two naive capuchin monkeys display what looks for all the world like a reaction to “unfairness” (the video appears about 3/4 of the way through de Waal’s talk). As de Waal notes, cucumbers are okay food for the monkeys, but they really like grapes (de Waal claims that monkeys like food in proportion to its price at the supermarket). A pair of capuchins can see each other getting cucumbers and grapes (they have to give the experimenter a rock before they get a piece of food).

See what happens when one of them is given a grape for his rock, and the other a cucumber. Remember, this is the first time these monkeys have been subject to this procedure:

So in the estimation of Jerry Coyne the capuchin’s reaction is an offense to the monkey’s sense of fairness. How does he know this? Because the monkey appears to be reacting in a manner a human might act when they are frustrated by being treated unfairly. And from this appearance he comes to the conclusion that this sense of fairness humans concern themselves with can be understood to derive from our animal ancestors and we can dismiss with God.

Now its possible monkeys have some idea of fairness. It’s possible other animals do. I have a Golden Retriever that gets petulant when I don’t take her with me when I run an errand. The response is similar to that of a three year old that declares it’s “Just not fair” that they didn’t get to go to the park. There is no reason why I as a Christian would deny the existence of such sensations in animals – but is such frustration really the basis for our moral notion of fairness? This is where I think comparisons start to break down.

Fairness in humans of course is a much more idealistic concept than mere frustration at unexpected treatment. We have entire social and political system designed specifically to ensure fairness. We even have symbols of fairness like Lady Justice, a symbol which goes back to the Ancient Egyptians. It is the notion that there is an underlying moral order against which actions should be evaluated without regard for the individual conducting the actions. So the human notion of fairness or the closely related concept of justice is not merely an innate reaction, but a sense that there is way the world ought to be and certain circumstances contradicted this ideal. There is no evidence capuchins are motivated by such ideals.

Of course, Jerry Coyne is inclined to see the rudiments of these ideals in the grasping of a monkey for a grape because he has a belief system which is supported by interpreting monkey responses this way. Though he would call such observations scientific, the reality is such experiments are far from empirical since we have no idea what is happening in the minds of these animals as they react. Both Coyne’s ideas about what fairness is and how he interprets such reactions are highly subjective. Indeed these sorts of experiments have soiled the scientific reputations of other researchers like Marc Hauser who bet his career on interpreting the motivations of monkeys and ended up resigning his position at Harvard due in part to the inherently interpretive nature of such studies.

Atheist tend to cherry pick such studies. Because they have an a priori commitment to naturalism, they are forced to believe that human morality must have been the product of evolutionary development from ape-like ancestors. So any animal behavior that slightly resembles a human action motivated by a moral precept is interpreted as evidence for this notion. Of course, atheists tend to ignore studies that that indicate our presumed ape relatives actually have little interest in fairness, like the one recently published in Biology Letters aptly titled, Theft in an ultimatum game: chimpanzees and bonobos are insensitive to unfairness. In the study researchers set up a scenario where the apes could choose to leave a portion of grapes for the group mates. This is what Professor Keith Jensen, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences observed:

“In each scenario one ape had to choose whether to steal the grapes or leave a portion of grapes for the other. We found that consistently they would steal the food without taking into account whether their action would have an effect on their partner. Neither the chimpanzees nor bonobos seemed to care whether food was stolen or not, or whether the outcomes were fair or not, as long as they got something. Our findings support other studies of chimpanzees but also extend these to bonobos. Both apes have no concern for fairness or the effects that their choices may have on others; in stark contrast to the way humans behave. We can therefore conclude that our results indicate that our sense of fairness is a derived trait and may be unique to the human race.”

Presumed similarities between the behavior humans and apes always lead atheists to conclude they are related, but the opposite is never true – when their behaviors so obviously diverge, atheists never take from that fact that humans have instilled in them something unique that was not merely the result of naturalism.

But then again atheism is never a product of evidence.


A Primer on Intelligent Design

July 16, 2012

*This post was originally published June 8th, 2006*

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had long been interested in the science of life and its origins and I have spent a number of years exploring the intersection between science and faith. In recent years the conversation has centered primarily on Intelligent Design, a theory much talked about in the media, courts, schools and scientific circles. To that end I wanted to give those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the issue an overview of the discussion to date.

Below are a series of questions and answers about Intelligent Design. I attempted to be as even-handed as possible though I readily acknowledge that in general I support intelligent design as a scientific theory.

What is Intelligent Design (ID)?

Intelligent Design is the scientific theory that states that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause not an undirected process such as mutation and natural selection. It is a theory promulgated to answer this question, posed by William Dembski, an originator of the theory of ID, and one of its primary proponents:

Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause?

That question can be asked by anybody regardless of metaphysical belief; and the answer, presumably, wouldn’t require a particular belief either.

To that end, two main criteria have been proposed to determine the earmarks of intelligent activity in the formation of an object (or organism) – they are irreducible complexity, and specified complexity.

Irreducible complexity is drawn from a statement by Charles Darwin:

“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”
–Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species: A Facsimile of the First Edition, Harvard University Press, 1964, p. 189

Thus Michael Behe describes an irreducibly complex system this way:

“A single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning”
–Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, p. 9

In simpler terms if you have a mechanism (for example, a mousetrap) you can only reduce that mechanism down to a certain number of parts before it ceases to function in any useful way. In biological terms all the parts to a irreducibly complex biological system must be in place at once in order for it to function in any useful way and confer a survival advantage to the organism. Thus, such systems could not be formed by a series of gradual modifications as required by Darwinian evolution.

In the case of specified complexity, developed by William Dembski, the idea really centers on information patterns. If a pattern is both specified (that is fits a defined arrangement) and complex it is a reliable marker of intelligent activity. Thus a mountain side may be complex, that is made up of a variety of materials, but it isn’t specific in its arrangement. A crystalline structure like a diamond might be specific because its structure is organized in uniform a pattern but they aren’t complex.

Intelligence allows for patterns that are both specified (organized in discernible pattern) and complex, like written languages, computers codes and machines. In short, it allows us to discern the degree to which intelligence played a part in the formation of Mount Rushmore versus the natural formation of a cliff wall.

These two criteria form the basis of intelligent design theory.

Does ID disprove evolution?

ID is primarily a criticism of evolution on one specific point; primarily that undirected causes such as mutation and natural selection aren’t sufficient alone to account for the current genetic diversity we see in biological systems. Beyond that it allows for other evolutionary concepts such as common descent, adaptive radiation and natural selection.

Intelligent Design also acts as a critique of the natural origin of life and the universe though this is not a criticism of evolutionary theory per se  because evolutionary theory isn’t an attempt to explain the origin of life and the universe.

Is ID Creationism?

No – ID and Creationism have fundamentally different goals; creationism attempts to reconcile the narrative of Genesis with scientific theory while ID simply attempts to answer this simple question – Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause? Of course, creationists often find the information ID provides as useful (just as they sometimes find the information provided by other sciences as useful) but this doesn’t make ID and creationism the same thing.

Is ID science?

This depends how one defines science. If the standard definition is used that science is any idea arrived at through hypothesis, repatable observation, investigation and testing  then yes, ID qualifies as science.

If one adds the current addendum that all explanations must be the product of wholly natural phenomenon (that is, non-intelligent, or non-directed forces) as does methodological naturalism, then ID wouldn’t qualify as science. If methodological naturalism is a required assumption of science, then science itself conceivably prevents us from answering fundamental questions about the origin of the universe, life and the origin of species by dismissing viable explanations.

Didn’t the court rule ID wasn’t science?

In the Kitzmiller v. Dover case Judge John E. Jones III ruled that ID was not science and as such could not be taught in the science classroom. If one holds that courtrooms are where science is conducted, then yes, at least in the Middle District of Pennsylvania ID is not science,; though of course the court also ruled ID may be true.

It should be noted that to this day, evolution is the only scientific theory which requires court protection from detractors in order to maintain viability.

Aren’t all supporters of intelligent design Christians?

No, actually a number of them aren’t; among non-Christian ID supporters we have Anthony Flew (Agnostic), Michael Denton (agnostic), Mustafa Akyol (Muslim), Slade Gorton (Jewish). Of course, whether or not they are Christian is rather irrelevant; one could safely say 95% of atheists are evolutionists of one stripe or another, but that doesn’t really say anything about whether or not evolution is the best explanation for the existence and variety of life on earth.

Does ID hurt science or science education?

I have always been perplexed by this idea; that somehow if ID were accepted as a viable alternative to evolution that all critical thinking would end. This runs counter to two obvious facts, the first being that historically science in large part is the product of a Christian culture that had no problem reconciling the existence of a Creator with natural exploration. In fact many great scientists among them Newton, Kepler, Bacon, and Pascal were notable commentators on theology as well as scientific icons.

The second obvious fact is that the debate between evolution and intelligent design is perhaps one of the most vibrant scientific discussions of the twenty-first century. It has driven an interest and exploration into origins and genetic capability, and the very structure of life. There is really only one side who wants to shut down discussion in the debate, and that side isn’t supporters of intelligent design.

I hope this helps further the discussion now going on about Intelligent Design both for supporters, critics and the casual observer.


Fides Scientia

July 9, 2012

*  This month is our yearly ‘No Media Month’ where our family gives up television, the internet, video games and the like to devote out time to spending time together, reading, travelling and generally enjoying the brief warmth of a Minnesota summer. As a result I won’t be writing this month, but decided to republish some previous posts that I think have stood the test of time. This one first appeared May 5, 2006*

I have been, for as long as I can remember, a science geek.

I don’t know if I was born that way or if I am just the product of  some unique environmental factors but I am certain it was a tendency encouraged by my parents. One of my earliest memories is of my father calling excitedly for my mother so she could hear me spell zoology. Another time, when I was still quite young, our wonderful neighbor Mrs. Schaeffer had a party for the neighborhood kids (she was known for having fun little parties for no particular reason) where kids could come dressed according to what they wanted to be when they grew up. I came as a pterodactyl.

Of particular interest to me was paleontology and biology. I was an avid reader early on and my parents fed my habit with sets of encyclopedias – first the popular World Book Encyclopedia, then later a 20 volume set of the Encyclopedia of Animal life (written, interestingly, in the King’s English – which to this day will still occasionally causes me to give certain words their British spelling like colour and labour), as well as the entire Time-Life Nature library. 

One of my particular favorites in the Time-Life set was the volume Early Man. The volume included the obligatory multi-page centerfold timeline of the march of human evolution from a small ape-like ancestor to modern humans, as well as numerous illustrations of the same ancestors struggling for survival against hyenas, other proto-humans and starvation causing them to develop tools to hunt mammoths and protect themselves against predators. It was all so…convincing.

I think it was around that time science, in particular, the study of evolution became something more to me than a science theory; it became a faith. By faith I mean it became something that I held to be fundamentally and inherently true about life. It became more to me than a mere biological process; it was a worldview that explained why mankind was here and where we might be going.

As I got older, and increasingly discouraged about the state of humanity – the destruction of the environment, the potential for cataclysmic war and the greed and hatred I saw around me evolution also gave me hope. Buoyed by science popularizers like SaganAsimov and Clarke, as well as the science fiction they wrote like Childhood’s End and the movie that shared it’s themes, 2001 a Space Odyssey, I began to see evolutionary theory as the great hope of mankind. Just as we were once primordial ooze and became human so to we might overcome our earthly troubles and inherit the stars.

As a result what little faith I might have had in God was relegated to agnosticism; I wasn’t particularly hostile to the idea a god might exist, it just didn’t seem to matter all that much.

Occasionally I would run into a backward thinking person who still held to the idea that God created the world and that some evidence for this existed; if I didn’t automatically dismiss the person as uneducated or hopelessly wedded to some outlandish religious notions, I might attempt to dialogue. It usually wasn’t long before it became a debate – and I loved to debate; particularly when my faith was being called into question. I rarely found it difficult however to knock down most of their ideas.

In 1982 I began my University career as a biology major, with plans to go on to veterinary school. It just so happened that around the same time a rather radical proposal had been made on campus; a professor of engineering, Dr. John Patterson, had proposed at a department meeting that any student who proclaimed a belief that God created the world should be denied a science degree. In addition to his teaching job Prof. Patterson was also a widely known and very outspoken atheist – and his proposal was made in response to what he saw as the threat of creationism invading campus. Of course the proposal, once made public, created a furor on campus with debates going on in the student paper and among the faculty and staff. I was rather amazed that even at the University level some still questioned evolution until I became friends with someone who did, a fact I attributed to his small town upbringing.

But something else was happening that year; I was beginning to realize that whatever faith I had in nature it wasn’t sufficient to satisfy deep personal longings for meaning and purpose and change. While evolution might hold out some hope for the future of mankind it held little hope for me personally. We might grow as a species but I continued to fail even my own standards and expectations. I was as greedy and selfish as anyone else and change seemed beyond me.

The same friend whose science I dismissed had an answer when it came to purpose and change and that answer was Jesus Christ. Though I had early on dismissed Christianity I couldn’t deny my friend’s life – or the joy, love and peace I saw in it. After nearly a year of wrangling with myself and with a growing sense that Christ was real and present I surrendered my life to Him. I transferred my faith from a belief in the power of nature and myself to a faith in Christ.

That surrender while it brought about dramatic changes in me, didn’t alleviate all the questions I had. I still had a niggling feeling about the accuracy of Scripture, at least as much as it seemed to contradict my understanding of science. Thus, a lot of my twenty-plus years as a Christian has been involved with considering the intersection of science and Scripture and as a result, a lot of what I consider here concerns that as well – my science geekdom remains unabated, so my apologies to those whose interests lie elsewhere; you will have to endure the occasional technical discussion.