What do Neanderthals Tell Us about Human Uniqueness?

Both archaeology and palaeontology give evidence for hominid creatures that lived before human beings. For example, the species called Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal) seems to have existed between 200,000 years and 30,000 years ago in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Almost thirty complete skeletons have been discovered.[1] Evidence of Homo sapien (Human) civilization dates back to about 80,000 years and so there is an overlap between Neanderthals and humans in ancient history and there may even be some evidence of interbreeding between these two species in our contemporary human genome.[2]

It is often said that there is an evolutionary connection between Neanderthals and humans. But what if there was a fight for dominance between Neanderthals and humans? Either could have survived. What if both species fought for survival and it just happened to be that the humans won? I think there is good evidence to suggest both these ideas are wrong.

A big reason for saying that is that there is a massive difference in the capability of the first humans in comparison to the Neanderthal. While Neanderthal capabilities were very basic and appear to remain consistent for 100,000 years or more, when humans suddenly appeared they had capacities that far exceeded everything that had come before. Human exceptionalism is evident, the human super-predator, the unique being who is made in God’s image.

 

Use of Fire

There is evidence of charcoal and primitive hearths in Neanderthal sites. But does this mean Neanderthals mastered pyrotechnology? Not to the various researchers who recently concluded that Neanderthals made opportunistic use of natural fire when it became available to them. They used it when it presented itself, rather than had mastery over it. But humans were uniquely able to create and curate fire in a sophisticated way.[3]

 

Creation of Tools

It appears that Neanderthals were able to produce and use tar as an adhesive when making spears. Does this suggest complex cognitive behaviour? The method they used is thought to be very basic and naturally occurring. They would not have to discover a precise method for distilling the tar. Also, when we compare the Neanderthal behaviour to current Chimpanzees and observe they too produce spears from tree branches using a six step process, make stone tools to open nuts, form insect repellent and exploit wildfires. So the Neanderthal behaviour isn’t so exceptional compared to Chimpanzees. [4]

Human behaviour is much more sophisticated, involving analysis of different tar production methods and choosing the most efficient production method for the maximum production yield. Human cognitive ability was superior to Neanderthals.

 

Cooking Food

Humans have always had the capacity to gather, but also to cook our food and to use implements. Based on some chemical residue at a Neanderthal site, Smithsonian paleoanthropologists concluded that the Neanderthals also cooked. But – age could have resulted in the sort of chemical residue. Worse, no grinding implements have been found to prepare matter for cooking, and there is evidence that they had not mastered fire. So – it seems we lack evidence that Neanderthals intentionally cooked their food.[5]

 

Use of Medicine

Humans do medicine. It appears that Neanderthals consumed plants that had no nutritional value, but had anti-inflammatory properties. So perhaps they did have a primitive type of medicine. But so do chimpanzees, who will eat certain leaves to cause vomiting to rid their digestive system of parasites.

 

Cave Paintings

There are many sites dated to between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago. But Neanderthals were dying out by then. It seems more likely that humans were the cause of the case paintings. Painted shells have been found which are dated to around 45,000 years ago. Again – this is around the time Neanderthals were disappearing. “All claimed evidence for symbolic activities among Neanderthals is highly debatable. ..currently there is little compelling reason to conclude that Homo neanderthalensis was a symbolic creature in the same sense as modern Homo sapiens.”[6]

 

Symbolic Thought

Many studies have shown evidence suggesting Neanderthals lacked the cognitive sophistication of humans. For example, anthropologists notice human societies have the concept of division of labour, specialization based on sex and age. This promotes economy and allows human society to thrive in harsh environments.

The evidence suggests Neanderthals only hunted large game. By way of contrast, humans hunted a wide variety of creatures and developed many types of tools to assist them and clothing as well. This suggests a division of labour in human society that was lacking in the Neanderthals. It is thought that an inability to divide labour in this way led to small population groupings in fewer locations and the eventual demise of the Neanderthal species.[7]

 

The Use of Language

There is disagreement about whether Neanderthals could speak. Anatomical features remain inconclusive and while the Neanderthal genome appears to contain certain key genes, this doesn’t mean they used language. Animals communicate in many ways, but they don’t use syntactical language in a sophisticated way as humans do.[8]

The evolutionary paradigm doesn’t explain the appearance of language. Often it is linked to the ability of the species to vocalize and make sounds. But humans have a language capability that is independent of vocalization. Vocalization is necessary, but not a sufficient condition for language. The best way to study the appearance of language seems to be through evidence of symbolism and symbolic cognitive capabilities. And this is unique in the record to the human species, appearing around 80,000 years ago. While basic Neanderthal capabilities remained consistent for hundreds of thousands of years, humanity and its language capability appears suddenly.

 

Conclusion

There seems to be a good argument to suggest that humans are exceptional, of a different order from the start. So the idea that humans competed with Neanderthals for survival does not seem to be supported by the evidence. Neanderthals were very limited in their abilities, and when the human super-predator arrived, there was no comparison between them. This is consistent with the Biblical teaching that man alone is made in God’s image – the imago Dei.

Also, the evolutionary ideas of gradual improvement struggle to account for the large sudden appearance of human sophistication. Combining this with the related but different anatomy of human and Neanderthal species, it seems that we must make the data fit the evolution theory rather than the data suggesting an evolutionary connection between humans and Neanderthals. And this is not a good way to explain anything.

 

[1] Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Who Was Adam A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Humanity, 2nd ed, (Covina: RTB Press, 2015),184

[2] Rana and Ross, 267

[3] Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “Timing of the Appearance of Habitual Fire Use,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 108 (July 19, 2011), E298, doi:10.1073/pnas.1106759108Paul Goldberg et al., “New Evidence on Neandertal Use of Fire: Examples from Roc de Marsal and Pech de l’Azé IV,” Quaternary International 247 (2012), 325–40, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2010.11.015; Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “On the Role of Fire in Neanderthal Adaptations in Western Europe: Evidence from Pech de l’Azé IV and Roc de Marsal, France,” PaleoAnthropology (2011), 216–42, doi:10.4207/PA.2011.ART54.

[4] Fazale Rana, Did Neanderthals Make Glue?, Reasons to Believe, January 10, 2018, accessed July 22, 2020, https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/01/10/did-neanderthals-make-glue.

[5] Rana and Ross, 315

[6] Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey H Schwartz, “Evolution of the Genus Homo,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37 (2009): 81, quoted in Rana and Ross, 319

[7] Rana and Ross, 321

[8] Rana and Ross, 323

Can We Blame God for a COVID-19 Pandemic?

If God exists, then why do people die from disease? There have been many pandemics in human history. The worst in recorded history may have been the Black Death in the 1300s. One estimate claims it killed around 60% of the population of Europe.

It is always a heartbreaking tragedy when people die as a result of disease. Covid-19 is at the top of our minds right now. But there are also other natural disasters going on, like tornadoes, earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis.

Here’s my point – I’m not convinced we can blame God for the death of people in these situations. There may be good reasons for all this.

 

We Can’t Blame God for COVID-19

I heard the biochemist Michael Behe talk about Corona Viruses this week. No one knows why viruses exist, but we do know that they are an important part of nature, and have a positive role to play. They keep bacteria at bay, and they break bacteria up into its constituent parts.

He then used a metaphor. He likened viruses and the cells that makeup life to water. Water is vital for our survival, we need to drink it, and our bodies are composed of it. There are large oceans on our planet that are necessary for life. Water is all good. But – if one day we find ourselves on a sailing boat in the middle of the ocean in a storm, it would be natural to ask why storms have to happen. We’re in danger! But if the laws of nature exist, and oceans are a necessary good, then from time to time storms will arise. It’s just a consequence of these good things.[1]

In the same way, viruses do a lot of good in nature. They coexist with organisms, and given their large number, the way they interact with life there will sometimes be a storm in the “virosphere.” The virus does something unintended like a storm in the ocean. So in the middle of an epidemic…it’s bad…but it’s simply part of how nature is built. It’s an unpleasant side effect of something that’s good.

But – things WILL calm down. We just need to hang on. Behe advises this is a good way of thinking about the Covid-19 crisis right now. Hang on in the storm – stay sensible, follow guidelines and wash your hands. This will pass. The sun will come out again.

 

We Can’t Blame God for Natural Disasters Either

First – if God’s responsible for setting up the universe, the matter, energy and physical laws that comprise it, then there are going to be some parts of nature that are essential for our survival, yet also lethal if we get too close. For example, the cosmos if full of suns. Cosmologists estimate that important materials were cooked in suns during the early eras on our universe. Suns are where the essential elements of matter were prepared. Also, clearly, the energy given off by our particular sun is vital to our survival on this planet today. But what would happen if we got too close? Crispy! Not good for us.

Second – if we choose to walk around or live close to areas of natural risk, then we make a personal, conscious choice. I have many friends who live out in California in the US. They live close to the San Andreas fault. If there’s an earthquake, then they have chosen to live there and put themselves in harm’s way. You can’t blame God for the San Andreas fault line. Plate tectonics is just how nature operates. But if we choose to get too close – it’s possibly not going to be good for us.

Thirdclimate change is probably going to be the cause of many human deaths as time passes. That’s a tragic thought. But it seems that here, we are reaping the results of our own societal choices. You cannot blame God for that either. If he gave us a climate, we broke it. Not him.

Fourth – for one reason or another, one day you and I will die. We cannot stop it.

 

Why God Usually Does Not Always Save People from Disease and Natural Disaster

But if God loves people (as Christians claim) then why doesn’t he miraculously rescue people from disease and natural disaster?

Well – I think sometimes he does choose to rescue people. I’ll give you a personal experience that may point to this at the end of this blog. But – I’ll be honest. I think God rescuing people from these situations is unusual, it’s not the normal flow of events. It’s a miracle. It’s abnormal.

So why doesn’t God want to rescue us?

Well – the Bible tells us that the core problem of the human condition is that we have chosen to reject God’s sovereign role in our lives. God’s created us to relate to him as God. And we have chosen to make ourselves God instead. We worship people and ourselves instead of God. Think of that as cosmic rebellion.

If God was always to rescue people from every potentially harmful event in life, what would this do? If a divine hand prevented every avalanche, every disease and oncoming car…what might happen?[2]

First – it would take away the consequences of our rebellion towards God. We would be deceived about the consequences of our separation from God…which is not a good thing. It’s not good to live as if I am my own God. If the real God were to encase us in cotton wool – and prevent us from experiencing the consequences of our choices – then we would never experience the reality of these consequences. If we want to live apart from God then – fine. But, there’s a risk for us in doing so.

Second – it would FORCE people who DO NOT want to worship God, to worship God!! Cos there is a big hand in the sky. People who don’t want to bow the knee, suddenly find themselves thinking they better bow the knee to God. They have to…because of the sky hand…so resentfully, they do. No – that’s not how God works. He wants us to come to him willingly, not under coercion.

Third – as I understand the God of the Bible, I don’t think he wants us to stay comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to live separated from him by our rebellion against him. He doesn’t want us to think humans can live successfully in separation from him. So – the risk of natural disaster may be a possible event that encourages us to come to God to get right with him. Why? So that when we DO eventually die, we will spend forever with him afterwards as he intended. There’s a hint toward this in the New Testament. Check out Luke 13 for some hints there.

 

 

A Time God DID Save ME From a Natural Disaster

Here’s a final thought. Earlier I said that – sometimes, for his own reasons – God DOES rescue people from natural disasters. So – what’s my evidence for saying this?

It was 21st October, 1971. I was 3 years old. My mother intended to take my baby sister and I to Clarkston shops in Glasgow. My dad had taken the train into work that day, leaving our brand new car at home so we could use it for our shopping trip.

Around lunchtime, my mum got us ready and bundled us into the car, strapping us in for the short journey from East Kilbride to Clarkston. She climbed into the driver’s seat, and put the key into the ignition and turned it. Nothing. She tried again. Nothing happened. What was going on? My Dad had used the car yesterday! It was – a new car!! They had never had troubles with it before. She pumped the gas pedal, she waited a while and tried again. The car was dead. Frustrated – she realised she wasn’t going to the shops that day. She bundled us OUT of the car again and went back into the house.

A few hours later on the radio, news of a devastating gas explosion in Clarkston broke on the radio. Twenty-two people were declared dead at the scene. It was later described as the worst peacetime explosion in Scotland’s history. And – with a deep sense of shock – my mother realised that if we had managed to get to the shops that day, we would have been in the middle of it.

My Dad came home from work, and my Mum told him the shocking news. They both felt great relief that we had not managed to go shopping that day, and we were safe. And then – a thought occurred to them. What about the car?

My dad took the car keys from my Mum, walked down the drive and opened the car door. He sat in the driver’s seat and turned the ignition. The engine burst into life on the first attempt.

 

I think – sometimes, and for his own reasons, God decides to save some people from the effects of natural disasters. I think on 21st October, 1971, that may have been what happened to me, Annie and my mum.

[1] Intelligent Design the Future Podcast, Michael Behe on COVID-19 and ‘Why Are There Viruses, Anyway?’, Monday 16th March, 2020.

[2] Peter van Inwagen, The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy, in Philosophy of Religion A Reader and Guide, General Editor: William Lane Craig, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), 370 – 393.

Might COVID-19 Disprove God’s Existence?

Hey there – I hope you are feeling well and you are not suffering the effects of the Corona virus. And – if you have done, I’m hoping and praying you have recovered quickly. I’ve not knowingly contracted the virus at this stage. I’m not worried about myself, I am more concerned about my elderly parents and parents in law who have other health conditions. I will do all I can to help them and support them at this time of uncertainty. And – I hope you can do the same for the vulnerable in your life.

But – you know – every day is a time of uncertainty. Today is really no different in that sense. That there’s a pandemic in progress doesn’t change that fact. If we think we can control what happens in our lives – we are sadly mistaken. The unexpected is always around the corner for us.

What the pandemic might do, however, is cause some people to pose the question, “where is God in the midst of a pandemic?” Do viruses disprove God’s existence? My response to that question is – no they don’t. Rather, viruses serve as evidence of a Designer of nature. Covid-19 points to the existence of God.

In what way?

First, viruses point to the exquisite complexity and beauty in nature. If you want an interesting look at how Covid-19 attacks human cells, have a look here. All life is composed of cells. Viruses are different from cells because a virus cannot reproduce by themselves. It must enter and transform a healthy cell to reproduce.

That means a virus depends on the incredible and beautiful complexity of the cell for its existence. All of the incredible molecular machines that process information, build new proteins and assemble them – all this staggering cellular complexity is required for the existence of a virus.

Fazale Rana is a biochemist who says, “the cell’s complexity, elegance, and sophistication coupled with the inadequacy of evolutionary scenarios to account for life’s origin compelled me to conclude that life must stem from a Creator.”[1] I would agree with him. The complexity of the cellular machinery, and the viruses that interact with them, point to a Creator of this highly complex and finely balanced biological system

 

Second – viruses are thought to have important roles in nature. Bacteria are complex, single celled organisms. Scientists are still learning many things about viruses. For example, we have bacteria living inside of our guts, and bacteria is actually critical to the existence of life. They harvest inorganic compounds, and make other compounds that serve other biological life.[2] Bacteria can reproduce very quickly indeed. Yet, some types of bacteria are harmful to life. If there was nothing keeping bacteria in check, then the world could simply be inhabited by bacteria and nothing else. How incredible then that there is delicately balanced system involving bacteria, and a system to keep that bacteria in check. What does that? The virus! An important role of the virus, is to stop bacteria from dominating life in destructive way. So, we have viruses to thank for breaking up bacteria and stopping us being overrun by them.

Also, when a virus infects a bacterial cell, it breaks that cell up producing raw materials that can be usefully consumed by other life forms. So – again – the virus is serving nature in a positive way by creating food for life to consume.

 

Third – Christianity predicts the breakdown of nature. A tiny fraction of known viruses are dangerous to humans. Covid-19 is one of those. There are vast numbers of different viruses in nature and only a tiny fraction of them can harm us. Of course – if my loved ones are at risk of even just one of those viruses…it’s a big deal. But how does Christianity predict something like this?

Well, the beginning of the Bible recounts humanity’s rebellion against their Creator, and this rebellion resulted in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and God’s subsequent cursing of the ground. You and I were not involved in that rebellion directly. But – we have inherited the consequences of it, and we live our lives in the light of rebellion against God. There are consequences to all this. Nature is broken, and this has happened as a consequence of our rebellion against God.[3]

So, what? Why a diversion into theology? Well, there are a tiny number of viruses that threaten humanity. Of course there are. This fact is consistent with the idea that nature has become broken as a result of humanity’s Fall. It’s not a nice and comfortable truth, but it is there all the same.

 

Four – Christianity suggests that God may allow human suffering to draw us to think about eternal things. We are built to live for ever. That’s what the Bible says. Even when our current bodies die, our spirits will survive and we will receive new bodies beyond the grave. And – we will live there forever. Yet, few people actually live their lives considering their eternal destiny. We are so wrapped up in the issues and problems of our current lives here and now. Yet – if we have an eternal future beyond the grave, perhaps we would be wise to consider that future and how to orient ourselves towards it? Why? Because while this life is momentary, that future life will last forever. So why might God use suffering? As a way to wake us up to our destiny. As Sean McDowell says, “God may allow us to suffer so we move beyond our momentary pleasures and focus on what lasts forever.”[4]

Don’t get me wrong – I want to do all I can to protect the vulnerable and to help them. But – I do that in the knowledge that their ultimate destination – and mine – is actually beyond the grave. And so it is good to remind ourselves of that. When life is good and going along without any problems – its easy to forget this fact. Suffering isn’t caused BY God, but I wonder whether he permits it to waken us up to the eternal future awaiting us all.

 

 

Conclusion

This pandemic is not a good situation, and my prayer is that you and your loved ones come safely through it with minimal disruption and suffering. Yet – at the same time, I think this difficult time right now points to the amazing design of nature, the seriousness of the consequences of mankind’s rebellion against God, and our future destination in eternity. And for all of those things, I am thankful for Covid-19. As C S Lewis once said, ““Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[5]

[1] https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design

[2] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/august-web-only/why-zika-and-other-viruses-dont-disprove-gods-goodness.html

[3] Genesis 3:14-24.

[4] https://seanmcdowell.org/blog/why-does-god-allow-the-coronavirus-4-christian-insights

[5] C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain.

Evolution and the Origin of Information Problem

My smartphone pings and the screen lights up. What do you do when you notice a message? Well, if I know the language it’s written in, I can’t help but read the message so I can understand what it is saying to me. What do I assume about this message? “Someone wrote it for a reason.” What thought NEVER crosses my mind? “This message arrived out of the ether without someone having written it first.” I’ve never ever considered that as a possibility. Even automated messages from my phone carrier company Vodaphone…were originally conceived by a person, even if they were sent automatically.

The message was from my wife. “What time are you home tonight for tea?”

It seems to me we make consistent assumptions about the personal source of messages, and this holds in virtually every area of life … except maybe one. Biology.

I was having a conversation with someone recently about the Darwinian theory of evolution and I brought up the problem of the origin of the information that is embedded in life’s biological structures. “Where does this information come from? Doesn’t this matter?” These questions seemed to be no barrier to believing that life occurred in a naturalistic evolutionary way for my friend. The origin of the information did not seem an issue, biological change and adaption of different species was the important thing to him. He seemed happy to accept that life developed naturally, simple single celled organisms all the way up to complex animals with skeletal structures and body plans.

One of my big problems with naturalistic evolutionary models is the origin of information problem. We know so much more than Darwin did in the 1860s. We’ve discovered that life carries a staggering amount of digital information around within it. Instructions like DNA, managing the production of proteins, systems to correct the errors that occur in the copying of the genetic code through natural means, and the hardwired instructions for building a particular animal body plan. This is a problem for evolutionary theory.

I’m not alone in being sceptical about naturalistic evolution as an explanation for the presence of life on this planet. Stephen Meyer puts it like this:

“Whenever we find functional information – whether embedded in a radio signal, carved in a stone monument, etched on a magnetic disc, or produced by an origin-of-life scientist attempting to engineer a self-replicating molecule – and we trace that information back to its ultimate source, invariably we come to a mind, not merely a material process. For this reason, the discovery of digital information in even the simplest living cells indicates the prior activity of a designing intelligence at work in the origin of the first life.”[1]

It seems to me that the issue is not whether genetic mutations and natural selection both occur. They certainly do. There is much natural evidence of both of these phenomena, although mutations tend to have a negative influence on particular beings (one dreads a cancer diagnosis in a family member). No – the question is, can random mutation and natural selection account for the rich volumes of digital information that scientists read and interpret in the various genome projects underway today?

Information theorist Henry Quastler observed this – “The creation of information is habitually associated with conscious activity.”[2] Information can’t find it origin in naturalistic processes. This is simply a category error. There are multiple categories of explanation available to us when explaining anything. Something may happen as a result of natural causes – or an agent may cause the event to occur. When it comes to explaining the origin of information, the rational way to go here – is to assume the originating influence of a conscious agent.

Lennox is fond of explaining it this way. To explain the car engine, we might discuss the physics of internal combustion, or we might talk about Henry Ford. Both are rational explanations and both are necessary for accounting for an engine. In terms of life origins, we can therefore expand out the analogy to say this. God no more competes with science as an explanation of life than Henry Ford competes with science as an explanation of the car engine. God’s an Agent-Creator explanation of the universe, not a scientific explanation.[3]

Evolutionary theory has great influence on how people think about and understand the world and its history. There are many different forms of this theory, and not all struggle with the problem I am pointing to in this blog – the origin of information. But naturalistic evolutionary theories – the ones that want to render God unnecessary in nature – certainly do. It’s a headscratcher for sure.

[1] Stephen Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, (London:Harper Collins, 2013), 72

[2] Quastler, “The Emergence of Biological Organization,” 16, quoted in Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, (London:Harper Collins, 2013), 72.

[3] John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything, (The Good Book Company, 2019), 384.

How Can You Justify the Claim, “Nature is Fine Tuned for Life”

Can you reasonably claim that nature is fine-tuned for the existence of life? I’ve been discussing this question with some folks this week, and I’ve noticed that there’s some scepticism about this claim.

This is interesting to me as astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle discovered the “fine-tuning” phenomenon last century, and the tasks of scientists ever since has been to try to account for such a state of affairs. Can you claim the universe is fine-tuned for life? Yes.

 

What does “fine-tuned” mean?

It does NOT mean designed. This has been an area of confusion in my discussions. When I say the Universe is fine-tuned for life, I am not initially saying the universe is designed for life (tho I do go on to form an argument suggesting it is).

“The term ‘fine-tuning’ is used to characterize sensitive dependencies of facts or properties on the values of certain parameters.”[1] The parameters we are talking about here are the parameters that appear in three categories of nature:

  1. The laws of nature.
  2. The constants of nature.
  3. The initial conditions of the universe.

In all three categories, there is a very sensitive dependency on many values in nature relating to the existence of carbon-based, biological life. These are just highly specific settings in nature, just numbers. These numbers are not set by natural laws, they are numbers discovered by scientists that operate and setup these laws.

Fine-tuned does not mean designed. It means set up in a highly particular and dependent way

 

Is “fine-tuning” Controversial Among Scientists Today?

It seems that most scientists concede that the universe is setup to support life. This is not a controversial topic. For example:

The late Stephen Hawking – “The laws of nature form a system that is extremely fine-tuned … [o]ur universe and its laws appear to have a design that both is tailor-made to support us, and if we are to exist, leaves little room for alteration.”[2]

Freeman Dyson – “The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.”[3]

 

What is the evidence for “fine-tuning”?

There’s a lot of evidence in nature for fine-tuning. Much of it appears in some amazing coincidences that appear in nature. One example is the formation of the carbon atom in the heart of stars. Carbon is the building block for life in the universe.

Hoyle realised that carbon should not, under nuclear physics, be able to form. That is, unless there was an amazing resonance that just “happens” to prolong the lifetime of an unstable beryllium nucleus for 1 hundred billion billionths of a second, long enough for the chemical reaction to proceed and for Carbon to be the result. If it wasn’t for the fact that nuclear resonance exists at just the right energy, there would be virtually no carbon in the universe, so probably no life.[4]

Hoyle went on to describe a series of surprising “put up jobs,” coincidences that occur in nature. There are many, many of these. If these coincidences did not occur, then this would change the basic parameters of physics, and this would prove lethal to life. It’s worth pointing out the following.

First – physicists cannot create an alternative universe with alternative cosmological constants. We have to view the universe from our vantage point within it, not outside. However, the point about the mathematical predictability OF the universe is, we can observe the effect of a possible change to the constants in the mathematical equations themselves. And the results are startling. “The cliché that ‘life is balanced on a knife edge’ is a staggering understatement – no knife in the universe could have an edge that fine.”[5]

As scientist Paul Davis has said, you can claim that these parameter values are simply a given, “but that attitude seems a bit unsatisfactory. We can certainly imagine a universe in which [the constants are set differently]. The facts that the value[s] … are just right for life (like Goldilocks’ porridge) cries out for an explanation.”[6]

Second – there are over thirty of these fine-tuned parameters. Not all are life dependent, but many of them are.

 

 

What if the fine-tuning is Controlled Be Another Super-Law?

Someone might just say, once physicists discover an overall theory of everything (TOE) then the fine-tuning problem goes away. The TOE will explain the fine-tuning.

Will it? If a TOE is found (and there’s no guarantee it will be) then won’t that just shift the subject under discussion? It will no longer be, “Why are the parameters finely tuned for life?” Instead it will be, “Why is the TOE fine tuned to set the cosmological constants in the parameters that lead to life?” In other words, a glorious TOE would bring together the physical laws under one theory, but it won’t explain there is such a state of affairs in the first place. The “why” question remains open.

 

Couldn’t the Universe Just Have Looked Different If It Had Different Cosmological Constants?

Could other laws permit other life forms? If the fine tuning looked different, could other types of life be evident? Possibly! But that’s not really the point. The point to draw from the finely tuned cosmological constants is that the region of life permitting values in nature is incredibly small compared to all the possible values for these parameters in nature. And this state of affairs cries out for an explanation.

But am I just presupposing that life must be as it is, because that is what we have to work with? Isn’t it possible that life would simply have been different if the coincidences had lined up a different way in nature? We wouldn’t have carbon based life, we would have had some other form of life?

One problem with this idea is that many of the fine-tuned cosmological constants do not require carbon-based life. Yet there appears to be careful dependencies between the many cosmological constants that set up different aspects of the universe’s ability to support life. For example, Robin Collins observes the cosmological constant, which controls the formation of stars. “If the cosmological constant were much larger … no stars could exist. Without stars, however, there would be no stable energy sources for complex material systems of any sort to evolve. So, all the fine-tuning argument presupposes is … [life] in our universe require[s] some stable energy source.”[7] So we aren’t just saying here that the laws determine the form of carbon based life we are familiar with, but rather that the overall finely tuned system of nature is setup very particularly to form any type of life that could exist at all. The universe isn’t just finely-tuned for us … but for any kind of life.

Besides, whether or not we are comfortable with the idea of fine tuning, we must be careful about playing the “science fiction card” to avoid its implications. “Any genesis of life we consider must be based in science, not science fiction. Any universe in which life can arise must provide the conditions for the storage and processing of information; a thin soup of only hydrogen and helium simply does not provide this.”[8]

 

Conclusion

The universe is finely-tuned to support the existence of life.

Why? Well, there appear to be 3 options:

  • Natural necessity (it had to be that way and there’s no reason)
  • Chance (we are lucky it is this way)
  • Design (it is intentionally this way)

Hoyle’s famous quote gives you his knee-jerk “why” response to his discovery of fine-tuning:

“Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly miniscule. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”[9]

[1] Fine-Tuning, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, published 22nd August, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fine-tuning/.

[2] Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam, 2010), 161-162, quoted in Melissa Cain Travis, “Science and the Mind of the Maker”, (Eugine: Harvest House Publishers, 2018), loc 847.

[3] Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 250, quoted in Melissa Cain Travis, “Science and the Mind of the Maker”, (Eugine: Harvest House Publishers, 2018), loc 847.

[4] Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma, (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 153-155, summarised.

[5] Davies, 170.

[6] Davies, 157.

[7] William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2012), 276.

[8] Lewis and Barnes, A Fortunate Universe, 13, quoted in Melissa Cain Travis, “Science and the Mind of the Maker”, (Eugine: Harvest House Publishers, 2018), loc 896.

[9] Fred Hoyle, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Hoyle.

Can You Reject Christianity Based on Religion’s Possible Benefit to Survival?

Sometimes I’ll hear people try to discredit Christianity by saying religion has only natural causes and, so it simply gives you survival benefit. That is why religion and Christianity have thrived. It has nothing to do with whether or not God exists.

For example, lets suppose that the early humans on planet earth evolved the creative ability to form tools and to learn the principle of cause and effect in nature. That set them apart from the animals. It allowed them to create tools that gave them the ability to influence their environment, and begin to understand their environment. When you strike two stones together, it creates a spark. If that spark is harnessed the right way with the right materials, it can be used to start a fire that can be used for positive reasons (cooking dinner or scaring animals away).

Well – the story continues. Because people intuitively understood cause and effect and understood nature, we then invented a God that looks like us. A personal being that we just placed all our hopes and aspirations onto. And humans began to pray to that God. Prayer made them feel better! And so, these humans survived longer than the ones that didn’t. So, religion becomes embedded in our genes. The person concludes. “I’m sorry – religion isn’t based on anything true. Rather, it is just inherited circuits in the brain.”[1]

 

The Genetic Fallacy

There is a fundamental problem with this whole idea. It is built on a logical fallacy of irrelevance called the GENETIC FALLACY. Logical fallacies are examples of faulty reasoning. The genetic fallacy happens when you try to demonstrate why an argument is true or false based on the origin of its premises. But that doesn’t follow logically, that’s simply incoherent. You need to measure the truthfulness of an argument based on the CLAIMS of the argument’s premises, rather than the ORIGIN of its premises.

The genetic fallacy “judges a claim good or bad based on where it came from. This avoids the claims of the argument … leveraging existing negative perceptions to make someone’s argument look bad.”[2] This is fallacious because it is a distraction from the original argument and draws us away from the claims of that argument.

So why is the idea about the source of religion logically fallacious? Well, isn’t it saying this?

 

The Human Tools Argument Against Religion:

The origin of religion is found solely in the ability of early human tool makers .

Therefore, religion is false.

 

Well – that is simply a logically false argument. The early humans could very well have harnessed tools, sought to influence the environment and some cultures absolutely did point to natural phenomena and suppose those things were gods. And they might very well have tried to project their aspirations onto the idea of a supposed God idea. But – what relevance is this to the question of the existence of God and Christianity?

Whether or not any or all of that is a true account of human beginnings, this has no bearing on the truthfulness of Christianity. It is all simply irrelevant. You need to asses the actual truth claims of Christianity to decide whether it is true or not. For example, the historical testable claims of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the historical foundation of Christianity. That is an important area to assess when determining the truth of Christianity. The supposed cause of early human religious ideas has no bearing on whether Christianity is true because it has no relevance to it. It’s a logical fallacy.

[1] Is God a Delusion?, Reasonable Faith, accessed 22nd November, 2019, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/debates/is-god-a-delusion/.

[2] Genetic, your logical fallacy is, accessed 22nd November, 2019, https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/genetic.

 

Rise of the Machines?

This summer, I had lunch with Doctor Mihretu Guta at Biola University. Mihretu specialises in the areas of metaphysics and the philosophy of mind. That particular day over lunch, he was speaking to us about his assessment of the field of artificial intelligence. And he has some fascinating observations to make here. You can listen to Mihretu talk about AI on Sean McDowell’s recent podcast.[1]

I would summarise his important points like this:

 

First – today we enjoy the benefits of weak AI.

We’ve got very useful computer based tools available to us today. Our phones incorporate facial recognition technology, self-driving cars are coming on line, we use SIRI to help us talk to and locate people, and we can order products from Amazon that get to us incredibly quickly. These are partly to do with computer tools, or weak AI.

What is weak AI? It is a machine which is fed an algorithm, a set of instructions that we gave it. It follows those instructions correctly, quickly and hopefully reliably!

By convention, we call these things AI. But these technologies are not thinking machines. They are not engaging in conscious thought. They are simply doing what we told them to do, and triggering on certain events to achieve certain tasks.

 

Second – strong AI is what some people are trying to get to.

In strong AI, people are talking about a conscious machine. Something that becomes creative and begins to spawn its own machines. But it is hard to see how you can get from a machine following an algorithm to a machine creating brand new algorithms out of its own creativity.

 

Third – we sometimes speak of weak AI like it is strong AI.

A confusion occurs in culture.

The AI we are talking about today is purely functional. It is doing tasks within a very specific context. It is not a thinking, creative machine that decides what it wants to do and works out its own way to do it. But – we begin to talk like it is. We import ideas from books and movies we like, and sometimes we fool ourselves that our cool gadgets are strong AI.

We may talk of strong AI, but there are issues to face when trying to create it:

1 – We are the thinking beings here, and we are the ones inventing machines. Thinking always requires a thinker to be somewhere. We therefore have ONTOLOGICIAL SUPERIORITY over machines. We are always the ones that built them.

2 – However clever our machines appear to be, they cannot take away from us our ontological superiority over them.

3 – Miharetu does not think people have a metaphysical property as rational beings to bring about a conscious being that is similar in kind to us.

4 – Miharetu is joined in this scepticism toward strong AI by John Searle, who is a naturalistic philosopher of mind. Searle also rejects the notion that we can invent a strong AI.

 

Fourth – an important step to strong AI is an understanding of consciousness.

We have to understand what consciousness is before we can create machines that are conscious. Yet no one is even thinking about this. He observes that the AI researchers today usually dismiss the subject of consciousness in 3 lines. They haven’t even tried to grapple with this area.

Part of the problem is that consciousness is something we have. It is deeply subjective and requires someone to be conscious. It is not something we can dissect from a third person perspective. Rather, it is something we experience. Thinking always requires a thinker.

Machines aren’t conscious. We cannot even articulate what our consciousness is, never mind imbue some machine with it.

 

Five – we are simply of a different order from our machines.

Whoever we are, we have the ability to navigate our way through life, following our own thoughts and ideas and intentions. We create opportunities and respond to events that occur from our own rational, creative and conscious selves. We have general intelligence. We live in our environment and we cope within it, we adjust. We establish a social network, we conduct our lives appropriately.

Machines are different order from us. They lack this general rationality. We give them rules to follow and they don’t think about it, they just do it. We are simply of a different order from them. We can build them to mimic human characteristics, but they are not thinking as they do so. They are simply following the instructions we programmed them with.

[1] Artificial Intelligence and Our View of Human Persons, Think Biblically Podcast, accessed 19th November 2019, https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/artificial-intelligence-our-view-human-persons-mihretu/id1300837524?i=1000453915653.

 

Faith of the Scientist

I’ll often hear people say things like, “I have no time for faith. I live my live on reason, observation and evidence.” Really?

I see. Well – let’s see how that works, shall we?

 

Lets imagine a scientist is doing some rigorous analysis, studying something in nature. How about, the behaviour of enzymes in the human digestive system. Well – I agree. That scientist is going to use reason, she’s going to make observations and also appeal to the evidence she gathers as she reaches her conclusions. But – what else is going on as she does so?[1]

 

1 – She BELIEVES that her senses are trustworthy. In other words, she has faith that as the facts reveal themselves to her, that she has the abilities to detect them via her senses. That she can know facts using human senses.

2 – She BELIEVES that her mental faculties are trustworthy. And – she believes the peer group that reviews her work – also have trustworthy mental faculties. These scientists trust their rational faculties. They just take for granted, for example, that their rational faculties allow them to perceive, compare, combine, remember and infer. In other words, these people believe their mental faculties are reliable and can be used to reach legitimate conclusions.

3 – She BELIEVES certain critical truths that she has NOT learned thru scientific observation alone:

  • Every effect must have a cause
  • The same cause under like minded circumstances will produce the same effect.

4 – She BELIEVES it is moral and right to use her rational faculties, not to manufacture and make up things, but to accurately observe the behaviour of these enzymes, and report them as honestly and rigorously as she can.

 

That’s a lot of faith / belief before we start our scientific analysis. Don’t you think? Perhaps you and I are in the same boat whether we do science or not. People often appeal to science because it holds a lot of authority in our culture today. But what is science actually grounded upon?

Sir John Polkinghorn has said:

“Science does not explain the mathematical intelligibility of the physical world, for it is part of science’s founding faith that this is so.”

Professor of Mathematics, John Lennox, has continued.[2] You cannot begin to do physics without believing in the intelligibility of the universe. And on what evidence do scientists base their faith? Lennox observes the following:

1 – Human reason did not create the universe.

2 – Humans did not create our own powers of reason either. We can hone them, but we didn’t originate them.

How odd then that what goes on our tiny heads actually gives us anything near a true account of the behaviour of the staggering universe in which we inhabit? This is truly an unreasonable conclusion…from the perspective of atheism.

BUT – for a theist – the grounding beliefs of the scientist and the observations above make perfect sense. And they resonate perfectly with:

In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God … All things came to be through him.” (John 1:1,3)

[1] Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism, (New York: Trinity Press International, 2007), 33-34, summarised.

[2] John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything, (Oxford: The Good Book Company, 2019), loc 526.

The Meaning of the Pale Blue Dot

It was 1990.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft was 4 billion miles from home. And as it left the solar system, it turned round for one last look at the Earth. That planet where a team of smart engineers constructed it, and continued to control its actions…tho not for much longer. The Voyager 1 camera caught sight of a pale blue dot.

Planet Earth.

The thing we think is the centre of our existence, our experience and our home is actually just a tiny blue speck amongst seemingly infinite vast, hostile, empty space. We think home is meaningful. Clearly – its hardly anything at all, a shard of blue caught in star light.

So – given that is true, then why would human beings think they were special? Sure, primitive humans might engage in religious activities and write religious texts. But they knew nothing about what’s actually going on in the Universe. Now – thanks to Voyager 1 – we know something. And what’s going on is – we are virtually nothing and of no apparent significance amongst billions of galaxies that occupy a hostile Universe.

Carl Sagan put it like this:

“Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”[1]

Christians think humanity is special, but isn’t this just solipsism? Mistakenly thinking too highly of oneself, acting in a self-centred, so unhealthy way?

I completely agree that selfishness is harmful and should be stopped. But I want to challenge the notion that the pale blue dot picture REALLY tells us the Earth, and the human race is NOT special.

First – how does the vast hostility of the Universe argue against God? Doesn’t the existence of the beautiful earth, and the incredible degree of fine tuning involved for the support of carbon based life on our planet, suggest the reverse? We have the right density of atmosphere, at the right distance from the sun, with a moon…and the life permitting parameters continue on. Given all the odds against life being here, and the hostility of cosmic the environment, doesn’t the fact we are here and smart enough to build and launch space probes…provide evidence that argues FOR divine intervention? Not against it?

Jim Wallace goes further. He asks, doesn’t the pale blue dot within a hostile cosmos, “show us the need for the intervention of a creator?”[2]

 

Second – imagine this for me. You are walking thru a desert. There are sand dunes in ever direction, and around you there’s an endless desert filled randomly with rocks and gravel. And as you are walking along, sun beating down on you, you stop. You reach down, and you turn over one particular rock that is lying in front of you. And you find writing on it! In dried blood, you find the words “Help, I’ve been kidnapped and I’m being held against my will a mile away in a red shack.”

Who in their right mind is going to ignore this stone and claim it is of no consequence? Who would shrug and throw it back on the ground amongst the countless rocks in the desert? Why would the stone with writing on it be special among millions of desert stones?

Wallace again suggests the size and age of the desert, and the number of the stones filling it has no bearing on the importance of that one stone. Because when you are holding that one stone, it shows evidence of design and intelligence. Someone had to write that message on the back of that one stone. What does the message do? It causes an urge within us to find the one who wrote it. Right?

Now think again about our planet.

Biologists are discovering just how much information is transcribed throughout biological life. An example of this information is the DNA molecule found throughout the life forms who inhabit on our planet. Even evolutionary biologists claim that life LOOKS designed, even tho they don’t agree that it is. It doesn’t matter how vast or how old our universe is, and it’s irrelevant how many star system and galaxies fill it. When we consider our beautiful, blue, life filled home, we are considering a place literally COVERED and FILLED by with information. And its hanging amidst an empty, hostile and barren vacuum. Like the rock in the desert, doesn’t that points to an originating design and intelligence?

Doesn’t the biological information covering the rock of our planet cause an urge within us to seek out the author of it?[3]

[1] Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, (Random House Publishers, 1997).

[2] J Warner Wallace, Quick Shot Responses to “Earth is Just a Pale Blue Dot in a Huge Hostile Universe” [Cold-Case Christianity S5E19], Cold-Case Christianity with J. Warner Wallace, accessed 9th August 2019, https://coldcasechristianity.com/podcasts/quick-shot-responses-to-earth-is-just-a-pale-blue-dot-in-a-huge-hostile-universe-cold-case-christianity-s5e19/.

[3] Wallace.

I Need a Soul To Do Science

Some of my friends are real science geeks … and I like them a lot. Usually whenever the subject of the human soul comes up with them, I detect a rolling of the eyes. “Come on Stuart,” they say. “People are just physical, biological machines. We have brains, we are alive, we can think, and that’s enough. Why bother with religious, metaphysical stuff like the soul that cannot be proven scientifically?”

Not all science geeks think like that. I happen to be in this different camp. In fact, I would go so far to say you NEED a soul to do science in the first place.

Why?

What’s a soul? Moreland describes it as a substantial, unified reality giving form to its body. It’s fully present throughout the body, and immaterial, relating to the body in a cause-effect way. One of the properties of the soul, is the mind.[1]

What is science? There are a billion definitions. But we usually agree it involves making a set of observations that we analyse in order to come to some sort of (usually material) conclusion. Everyone will probably have their own definition of the scientific method as it is applied in their field. But – notice that:

1 – We need to be able to make free choices as we follow the scientific method. We are assimilating lots of data from various sources and deciding which are important and, crucially, what conclusions we can freely draw from them.

2 – We need to apply reason and judgement to form conclusions based on this information.

 

Given that using the scientific method involves us thinking in these ways, if I am just a biological machine with a physical brain and no immaterial mind, this makes the practice of the scientific method impossible. If I think I am being cleverly scientific to say that people have brains but no souls, then I need to think again.

 

Why do I claim this?

 

Blaise Pascal, 17th century French mathematician, explains:

“[W]e are composed of two opposite natures … soul and body. For it is impossible that our rational part should be other than spiritual; and if any one maintain that we are simply corporeal, this would far more exclude us from the knowledge of things … [it would be nonsense to say] matter knows itself. It is impossible to imagine how it should know itself. So, if we are simply material, we can know nothing at all.”[2]

 

He’s saying that if I’m just a brain, this doesn’t just destroy my ability to engage in science, but it also kills any and every form of rational thought. If I’m just physical matter and the inevitable behaviour of matter, I cannot know anything at all. Why?

 

First, because a physical brain alone is just controlled by the activity of physics and chemistry. As atheist philosopher Nagel points out, “There is no room for agency in a world of neural impulses, chemical reactions, and bone and muscle movements.”[3] Science requires the thoughts of an agent, and physical brains are incapable of free thought. We might think we are free, but actually our conscious choices are “produced by inevitable physical processes in the brain over which we have no directive control.”[4] If we aren’t freely observing, categorising and theorising, then surely we aren’t doing science? Physicalism undermines our ability to do these things.

Second, the activity of free agency cannot come from brain states, but must come from mind or soul. This is because physical brain states are always dependant on prior physical brain states. They are therefore not freely chosen by an agent, but are again determined. In order for me to make freely chosen choices, I need an “immaterial ‘I,’ a self who can intervene in the physical workings of the brain according to a conscious intention.”[5] But if I am a physical brain and my mental life is constrained to the properties of my brain alone, I’m locked in and do not have this freedom.

Third – if I’m just a physical brain, then I can never know that is the case! If my thoughts are physical and physically determined, then they are controlled by chemistry and not the laws of logic. “Blind chemical processes cannot take principles of good reasoning into account and therefore do not constitute genuine rationality (even though such processes could accidently produce a result that conforms to the laws of logic.”[6] If I’m a determined being and have no freedom, then I can never break out of this state to discover that I am determined. There is no vantage point outside that I can reach to observe this fact. So – to say I’m only a brain is actually self-refuting. I can never know that.

Fourth, if my thoughts are controlled by the motions of matter, I have no reason to claim that my mind is aimed at understanding truth. Motions of matter are just motion of matter, there is no truth about it. But we cannot live this way, we operate from an assumption that we are rational beings and “rationality requires a mind that can consciously direct its own activity to arrive upon the truth (such as mathematical solutions) through correct reasoning.”[7] Science is supposed to be all about finding out the truth. Well, none of this appears to be available to us if I’m just a physical brain in a body without a soul.

 

If I don’t have an immaterial mind or soul, then rational free thought is off the table, and so the practice of scientific methods becomes impossible. I need a soul to do science. So – because science geeks love to do great science – this points to them (and us) being embodied souls.

I think we need a soul to do science.

 

 

[1] J. P. Moreland, The Soul How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014).

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensees, Great Books of the Western World, vol 30 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 184.

[3] Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 111.

[4] Melissa Cain Travis, Science and the Mind of the Maker, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2018),  kindle edition, loc 3069.

[5] Travis, loc 3080.

[6] Travis, loc 3130.

[7] Travis, loc 3109.

 

Photo by Hans Reniers on Unsplash