RESPONDblog: Doesn’t Order in Nature Provide Circumstantial Evidence for God?

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I listened to a great discussion between James Croft and Calum Miller recently on the highly recommended “Unbelievable” Podcast. The topic of the discussion was, “Does theism or atheism best explain the universe?”. You can find and listen to their episode of the podcast here…  http://tinyurl.com/nxbqoxm

 

During the discussion, an interesting quote from Cosmologist Paul Davies was mentioned:

People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature – the Laws of Physics – is simply accepted as given … as brute fact. Nobody asks where the Laws come from. However – even the most atheistic Scientist accepts as a point of faith the existence of a law like order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us. So Science can proceed only if the Scientist adopts an essentially Theological world view.” – Paul Davies

 

James Croft, who describes himself as a Humanist community leader (and he’s a jolly nice chap to boot!) responded to this quote with a fascinating rebuttal to it. He said…

 

Interesting arguments. But I think they rely on some false premises. The person said that Scientists accept as an act of faith the law like regularity of nature without which they couldn’t do their work. I think this is flatly false. I think our ability to construct models which bring order to our experience…we do not discover order in the universe…we construct models to bring order to our experience. That does not speak to a faith in the inherent intelligibility and ordered-ness of the universe. Scientists can proceed in their work without assuming at any point that the Universe is ordered or inherently intelligible.

 

If I rephrase what I think James is saying here – he is proposing that Natural Laws and order in our Universe is the last thing on the mind of a Scientist. Rather – Science is all about OBSERVATION of phenomena and CREATION OF A MODEL which helps Scientists understand that phenomena. This is a completely human centric perspective.

 

Well – this is very interesting to me and I’ve got some thoughts on the subject.

 

I think that – in a very real and practical sense, James is absolutely right. But – in my humble opinion – I also think he is proposing a form of circular reasoning that takes us back to an assumption that our Universe is ordered. Let me explain.

As James says, an important and creative task for Science is first to observe something in Nature (a phenomena). And second, the construction of abstract models to help Scientists understand and make future predictions on that observed phenomena.

I think a great example of this is – weather forecasts. In the UK, the Met Office has constructed complex models to help them interpret weather patterns today for the purpose of predicting what the climate might do next Wednesday (and every day). They also use these techniques to better understand our planet’s unfolding climate change. The models help them understand what is happening now, and help them predict future outcomes. So that they can warn us what might be coming. Of course this all depends on how good the model is and how well they are interpreting the model. (I’m not going to mention Michael Fish…woops, sorry…I did!)

All this is true and necessary. And – frankly – the Met Office’s practice assumes the order and predictability of the planet’s climate. For the Met Office model to be useful in predicting outcomes (the weather next Wednesday), the climate IS assumed to be ordered and predictable. If the planet’s weather patterns were truly random (and British weather so often gives a convincing impression of this) then there would be no need for a model at all. Because you cannot predict random. That’s the nature of random. If weather is random then we are all just at the mercy of what it decides to do next.

I think James is right – we do construct models that bring order to our experience. And the models we construct are complex ones.

But I think James might be missing an important point. Surely the underlying reason for thinking in terms of models…not to mention the reason for people’s sheer hard graft of programming them…points to an underlying assumption of the order and predictability of nature?

Moving on from the weather – Science is discovering all the time that its models are simplistic at best and only apply in certain conditions. As James and Calum mentioned during their discussion – the Newtonian Laws of Physics might apply when we are driving a car, but not when we are watching the behavior of sub-atomic particles; like Mesons and their Quarks which are hard to understand. Yet we are able to build models and principles. For example, Schrodinger’s Cat points to problems we face when understanding Quantum reality. And Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle describes the effect of wave particle duality at the subatomic level.

I imagine both Mr Schrodinger and Mr Heisenberg came to nature just as they observed it…and I imagine they decided that, “I’m going to give my life to understand the Quantum reality whether or not it is understandable”. But I’m pretty sure they bet their life on an assumption that the Universe IS actually and truly ordered and understandable; not random. Why? Because if Quantum Mechanics turns out to be ultimately unpredictable then the end of their life’s work will simply be a confused shrug of the shoulders! I suspect they and many Scientists working today are betting on their ability to discover some order amidst observable and apparent Quantum chaos. And some will be driven by the hope that they will be recognized for discovering that order.

So – what I am saying is – I agree with James that Science builds models to bring order to our observations and experience. But for those models to hold up in the real world – and for the models to be ultimately useful to us – surely there must be a natural order in our Universe to begin with?

So we are back where we started… “Science can proceed only if the Scientist adopts an essentially Theological world view.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RESPONDblogs: The number of Biological Lego bricks isn’t random – it matters

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Evolutionary Biologists often criticize the Scientists who propose that Intelligent Design (ID) – rather than the blind uncaring + random laws of physics – caused life on Planet Earth. This is not surprising – these two views are completely at odds with each other. They are two different ways of looking at our World.

 

The Evolutionary Biologist studies life and looks for signs that animal groups are related; that over millions of years genetic mutations have amassed as life forms have gradually transitioned from one form into another form.

 

Advocates of Intelligent Design, however, study the same life and look for evidence that it has been carefully crafted on purpose for a purpose. That it contains specifically coded information for the maintenance of life.

 

These views are completely incompatible. So no wonder there are tensions between the two groups!

 

One of the common criticisms on ID is that it does not engage in proper Science. The way Science often works is – someone comes up with a prediction (perhaps about how the coding in DNA works) – and the Scientific community work together to discover whether this prediction is either true or false.

 

The criticism that ID is not proposing scientific predictions is not completely true. Because one Scientific Establishment doing ID research – the Discovery Institute – has made a number of predictions that are being studied by the Scientific community right now.

 

For example – Evolutionary Biologists have traditionally claimed that large portions of the DNA strand in our cells is just Junk. While some parts of our DNA contain instructions that code up proteins – the Junk regions don’t do that. Think of the Desktop Recycle Bin on your laptop. The rubbish just fills up the bin over many generations. But because no one has selected “Empty Bin” it just sits there in our DNA.

 

The Discovery Institute has predicted that there IS no such thing as Junk DNA. Their prediction is that – a genetic Rubbish Bin does not exist. Instead they have predicted that we just don’t fully understand what the apparently junk regions are for. BUT – they ALSO predict that – when we DO understand more – we will find that the regions of DNA will perform very important tasks for the management of the cell and the maintenance of life, etc.

 

This is a Scientific Prediction from ID that many Biologists are investigating on both sides of the fence.

And a peer reviewed non-ID sponsored paper from “D’Onofrio and Abel” was released back in May 2014 that points to ID’s prediction being right – there is NO GENETIC RUBBISH BIN.

What do they say in the paper? Well – they are talking about Codons.

Codons are like groups of DNA instructions that contain the code for building amino acids. Amino acids and Codons are like the biological Lego bricks that are used by the cell to construct Proteins. It has long been known that there is a lot of redundancy in the Genome around Codons. In other words – there are repeats of the same Codon over and over again in the Genome. And they all seem to point to the formation of the same Amino Acid.

Evolutionary Biologists have looked at this evidence and said – there you go. Here’s more evidence of junk in the system. But this junk is useful to evolution. As life evolves and some of the Codons are mutated into different Codons…the life form will still have some original Codons remaining. So the amino acid can still be constructed. Isn’t nature lucky?

Well – the scientific community is beginning to view redundancy in Codons in a different way following “D’Onforio and Abel’s” paper.

 

What they are reporting is that – rather than these redundant Codons just being a happy accident that works in evolution’s favor – there is a purpose behind the repeating of the Codons. There is information being conveyed by the number of repeating Codons.

 

They have discovered that – while the cellular machinery reads the Codon and creates the Amino Acid from the instructions it finds there – the number of repeating redundant Codons itself is also vitally important. Why? Because the repeating codons control the speed at which the cell builds the Amino Acid. Multiple repeating Codons are like a cellular pause button. The number of repeating Codons tells the cell how long to pause. This is a highly sophisticated timing mechanism in the cell which is very similar to mechanisms found in computer software (my own personal area of work and experience) and important for any machine. Electrical, mechanical…or biological.

 

Sophisticated coding of information – and precise control mechanisms – are both predicted and expected by Intelligent Design. Traditional Darwinian Evolution doesn’t expect specific design…just the accumulation of the selected, random jumble of chemicals that have crashed together to form life.

 

In the light of this latest discovery – which understanding of Biology seems the most likely?

 

 

Further details here:

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2014/08/paper_finds_fun089301.html

http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fgene.2014.00140/abstract

 

RESPONDblog: New Empirical Evidence Pointing Away from Darwinian Evolution

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An important experimental discovery has just been made that casts doubt on the traditional models of Darwinian Evolution. And instead, provides support for the existence of irreducibly complex – and by implication designed – mechanisms within Biology.

 

Biochemist Michael Behe does not believe that the incredibly intricate biological machinery in the cell has developed step by step, with natural selection acting on each viable mutation. Instead – he has contended that much cellular machinery is – like a mousetrap – irreducibly complex. In other words – if you take away the base or the spring or the lever or the trigger…the system fails to function as a mousetrap altogether. While the mousetrap example is hotly debated amongst Biologists – it is just a simple example. The real issue – is the incredible complex co-dependent mechanisms that we find, working away in the billions of cells that operate within our bodies.

 

And there is now some tantalizing experimental evidence that could just suggest that Behe has been on the right track all along.

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2014/07/so_michael_behe087901.html

 

The experiment was undertaken by the National Academy of Sciences, USA, and has focused on the proposed Darwinian process of Protein Evolution. While I’m no Biologist – I’ll explain what I know as simply as I can!

 

What are Proteins? They are the crucial biological machines that keep our bodies running. For example, Hemoglobin is the protein that allows oxygen to be carried thru your bloodstream. The protein is basically a precise, complex chain of many different amino acids. Proteins are constructed within cells – the protein has a distinctive 3 dimensional shape that determines its function. The instructions for assembling proteins from amino acids are found in our DNA, which lives in the nucleus of our cells.

hemoglobin

 

Since Charles Darwin, it has long been proposed that the evolution of life occurs one step at a time. Zooming down to the cellular level, it is proposed that protein evolution works something like this. An event causes the protein – which is composed of many amino acids – to randomly flip one of its amino acids in its chain. Assuming the newly mutated protein is still functionally viable – natural selection ensures that the system continues creating more and more proteins like the new mutated one for a while longer. Until the next new protein mutation occurs – and so on.

 

John Maynard Smith, Evolutionary Biologist, describes the process using a word game.

The object of the game is to get from one meaningful word to another meaningful word while only changing one letter at a time. Remember – each intermediate step must also be a meaningful word.

For example, to get from the word “WORD” to the word “GENE” takes 4 steps  –

WORD -> WORE -> GORE -> GONE -> GENE

 

This is the essential understanding of how protein evolution would work – one step at a time. Whenever an amino acid flips causing the intermediate to be non-meaningful (e.g. WORD -> WORQ) then natural selection ensures that that this latest protein does not continue to reproduce. This protein dies out.

 

This model makes sense – and it fits inside the wider cultural understanding of evolution in the West. Namely – day by day…step by step…we are getting better and better all the time.

 

So – what is the big deal around the latest experiments that perhaps point towards Design rather than evolution?

 

Behe has proposed in his book “The Edge of Evolution” that – for many functioning proteins, one could never ever arrive at its function by moving just one a step at a time toward it. Why? Because in order for the protein to survive – and maintain its meaningful status – more than one amino acid has to flip state simultaneously. In other words…two letters or more have to flip SIMULTANEOUSLY. Further, the nature of the protein is such that – were you to try to get to certain functions one step at a time – you would fail. The protein would die, it would become non-functional during the intermediate steps. UNLESS two or more specific amino acids flipped to the appropriate setting at the same time.

 

Behe was predicting that for the process of evolution to actually produce the complex protein mechanisms we find in life forms today – highly complex changes must happen in one evolutionary step. This is a massive problem for the theory of evolution – because science doesn’t believe the Universe is old enough to accommodate all the probabilities and random letter flipping involved. Darwin only works if we can get there one step at a time!

 

As you can imagine, many Darwinian Evolutionary Biologists have rejected Behe’s proposition. They choose instead to believe in a step by step approach to protein formation.

 

Well – this belief is now more tenuous than it used to be. The big deal this year is – Behe’s proposal of necessary highly complex mutation has been experimentally verified and documented by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA.

 

The experiment was related to how an important protein in the Malaria Parasite becomes resistant to anti-malarial drug chloroquine. They have proven experimentally that it cannot happen in a step wise fashion (WORD -> WORE -> GORE -> GONE -> GENE). Instead – for the protein to remain viable – it has to happen in a much more complex scenario (WORD -> GONE -> GENE). Two specific letters switching to a specific alterative SIMULTANEOUSLY. The Malarial Parasite does not become resistant to the drug unless this very rare and very specific complex mutation happens this precise way.

 

Now this is just one example where protein function requires highly complex mutation rather than stepwise mutation to arrive at a viable, new function. There are bound to be countless more. But it provides some experimental evidence that begins to support Michael Behe’s overarching thesis.

 

What is the overarching thesis?

 

The Universe is not old enough for all of life’s various proteins to evolve because more and more highly complex mutations would be required to get from one viable stage to another. The latest experimental results intensify this position – its not longer a theory, its experimental observation.

 

THEREFORE…maybe evolution hasn’t been the cause of these proteins after all. Rather – these irreducibly complex and co-dependent biological mechanisms are actually a small part of the work of an Intelligent Designer.

 

Does Human Reason Point Toward God’s Existence or God’s Absence?

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Human anatomy is a mind bogglingly amazing thing.

 

For example…

 

The cardiovascular system threads through your body. Hundreds of miles of plumbing carry 5 litres of blood around our frame every minute. Oxygen is distributed, nutrients shared, and cellular waste products are disposed of.

 

The digestive system converts food into energy, absorbs that energy and excretes the waste.

 

The skeletal system is like scaffolding that supports and protects our soft tissues. Each bone is a living organ; some featuring mounting points for muscles, many containing red marrow for the production of new blood cells.

 

And on – and on it goes. Amazing.

 

Now some think that your body and its systems are simply the product of the blind and purposeless forces of nature. Others feel that it is the intentional product of a supernatural (i.e. outside of time + space) Designing Intelligence. But both groups agree – there is clear purpose inherent in each and every one of our body’s systems.

 

 

 

We also have another incredible system.

 

I’m referring to our faculties of REASON. This is our capacity to think, to consider, to explore, to theorise and to speculate about whatever takes our fancy! I believe (or I reason) that our ability to reason has as much purpose as any of the other biological systems we have mentioned.

 

We can reason for a good reason.

 

So what is the purpose of our ability to reason? Surely it is there so that we can begin to understand. So that our choices are carefully selected from the options open to us. And we use reason in the hope that it will lead us to an important destination. Discovery of the truth!

 

If the purpose of the digestive system is to keep me energised and healthy – then the purpose of my faculties of reason are to allow me to move towards discovering the truth – in which ever topic takes my fancy.

 

I reason that it’s a pretty cool system. But it leads me to a question.

 

Why do you trust your ability to reason?  And why do I?

 

 

 

Okay – we might not feel very clever, or quick to reason. Yet I can guarantee that we are sharper than we think we are. Think of the smartest person you know. Perhaps you’ve read one of their books or listened to them talk. And you have been captivated by their ideas and their discoveries around life’s big questions. Why are we here? What is our purpose in life? My question is not why do you like their ideas – my question is is why do you trust their ability to reason in the first place?

 

“The fact that we human beings – who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature – have come close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our Universe is a great triumph.” — Stephen Hawking

 

Yes okay Professor Hawking – but why do we choose to trust your understanding of the Universe? After all, we did not create the Universe. Did we? We were born into it. We have found ourselves here and some of us are compelled to study it and reach some understanding about the truth contained within it. But here is an important thing to consider. My ability to reason does not define that truth – it simply seeks to understand it. However clever the reasoning is – these are just ideas and theories about how life works. How do I know the theories are right?

 

Ah – by using our senses. That’s the answer. By gathering evidence! But wait – evidence is simply an input to my system of reason. I’ve still got to draw conclusions about the evidence I have found. This takes me back to my original question. Why does anyone trust the conclusions that we make?

 

Is human reason capable of reaching objective truth? Think of it like this. Someone who sits down at a piano with no training – will quickly master the ability to make the sound of musical notes. But as they randomly press down on the keys, the result will most likely sound horrible! It takes time and training to master the instrument – to play a tuneful melody (altho what is tuneful to my teenagers right now, ain’t so to me!). My question is – we do we believe that human reason is able to reach the truth, in the same way that a pianist can work reach that tuneful melody?

 

To most people – the intuitive rightness of human reason is just assumed. But I am asking – why is that…and is it right?

 

 

 

It is common amongst many people today to assume that life is a big cosmic accident. That human beings are the product of millions of years of biological mutation and natural selection of the most appropriate mutants. This counts AGAINST our assumption that human reason is right and trustworthy. Why? Because if all of life’s an accident – then there’s every chance that my reasoning faculties are just compounding the mistake!

 

“if the thoughts in my mind are just the motions of atoms in my brain – a mechanism that has arisen by mindless unguided processes, why should I believe anything it tells me?” — J.B.S Haldane

 

Why indeed.

 

It seems to me – as I exercise my questionable faculties of reason – that if people are solely the result of blind, unguided, Darwinian evolution, then we lose any solid ground for rationality. Chaos leads to chaos – randomness leads to randomness not exquisite structure and information.

 

Further – if we are the product of evolution – why do people intuitively care about truth anyway? Why do we spend so much of our lives seeking for our own truth that will bring us security and happiness? Or running from that same truth? Why do so many spend their lives seeking a true understanding of how our Universe works? Surely if we really were the product of evolution – we would simply be a machine that prioritises survival above everything else. Genes are apparently selfish, not truth seeking!

 

 

 

I suspect the irony of atheism is that it may undermine the very rationality needed to understand, to study and to explore the Universe.

 

“If Dawkins is right that we are the product of mindless unguided natural processes, then he has given us strong reason to doubt the reliability of human cognitive faculties and therefore inevitably to doubt the validity of any belief that they produce – including Dawkins own science and his atheism.” — Alvin Plantiga

 

 

I am not painting a rosy picture here. If evolution is right – then human reason is broken.

 

 

 

Unless, however, Christianity is true.

 

 

 

If Christianity is true then we have a coherent explanation for why our Universe is rationally intelligible. Because God lovingly created everything – including my mind – to be rational and intelligible. He made me in his image – in other words, he has passed his rationality on to me.  This is precisely why I can trust the capacity of human reason. Because I’m built to reason my way toward the truth.

 

“we are faced, not with the choice between God and science, as the New Atheists would have us to think, but with the choice either to put faith in God or to give up on understanding the universe. That is, if there is no God there can be no science.” — Robert Spaemann

 

 

If there is no God – there is no designing first cause mind – therefore there is no guarantee of a rationally understandable universe.

 

And yet a rationally understandable universe is precisely what we find. Surely a Designing Intelligence is sure to follow?

 

Personally I believe that Christianity is true; that it makes sense of human reason and points to God’s existence. And I agree with CS Lewis, when he said:

 

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” — C. S. Lewis

 

 

 

 

 

If you have reached this far – you will be reacting to the argument that I am laying out. Namely that human reason points to the existence of a creator God. At this point – let me mention that we have also been provided with free will in addition to human reason. This means I am well within my rights to acknowledge God – or not. Some today happily stand on the firm ground he has provided – and declare him absent. Or shake their fists at him in anger. Or exercise their reason and communicate in a way that tries to obscure his presence for other people. I can choose to use my God given reason to deny him.

 

At least I can for now. But our window of opportunity for ignoring him is closing. The clock is ticking.

 

And frankly what an unreasonable exercise anyway? Cos I reckon the human faculties of reason point to the true, loving, patient and hope giving God that we are working so hard to avoid!

 

 

“His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him–though he is not far from any one of us.” Acts 17:27, NLT

 

 

A Curiosity Snap

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This might surprise you.

Above the door to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University is not a pithy quote from a forefather of Experimental Physics or Evolutionary Biology. No – the quote above the entrance to the Lab is from the Bible – Psalm 111 verse 2, to be exact.

“Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.”

If you are thinking – “Yea – I bet that was a decision made over hundred years ago at a far more religious time” – then you might be partly right. When the Cavendish Laboratory opened in 1874 the prescription above the door was indeed Psalm 111:2, written in Latin.

“Magna opera Domini exquisite in omnes voluntates ejus”

But before you dismiss these  naive people of a more ignorant time…think again. When the Cavendish moved location in the early 1970s, the decision was made for the inscription to remain above the door. And everyone who enters this seat of learning in Cambridge walks beneath it to this day.

So what? Why should I care?

Because that quote hits the nail on the head. Consider this:

Last week, 50 million miles away from where you are reading right now, on the surface of the planet Mars the Curiosity Rover stopped and turned its robotic eye to the sky. And it snapped a startling photograph. Someone has kindly tagged us all in that photograph. You can see it above

On its lonely mission, as it explores the Martian landscape, Curiosity snaps a picture of us. Or more accurately – it snaps a picture of the distant Earth.

That is mind blowing. An army of scientists and engineers from many disciplines worked long and hard for years to get the Curiosity Rover safely onto the surface of Mars in 2012. My mate Mike is one of them. And you can hear him talk about it here.

Why did they all put the effort in? The long days…weekends…late nights? Why did they allow themselves the torture of launching their carefully crafted rover into space in the hope that it would land safely on Mars months later?

Because these people delight in our Universe. They are filled with insatiable curiosity about how our Universe works and what is out there. And because they delight in creation – studying it is no chore to them. It is what they were born to do!

“Great are the works of the Lord, they are pondered by all who delight in them.” Psalm 111:2, NIV

Curiosity’s photograph reminds us how wonderful our Universe is – and how talented the engineers are who got that little guy onto that alien landscape in the first place! But it also points back to the Cavendish Laboratory inscription. The Bible makes a good point.

We passionately explore our solar system because it is there. We visit alien planets with unmanned spacecraft because we can…and because planets exist to be explored. We are so fortunate that we are the ones living at a technologically advanced time where space travel is possible.

But more than that – we are such fortunate people to be alive. To exist. To have been placed in this mind bogglingly beautiful yet mysterious Universe. We are indeed blessed to have the opportunity to delight in and to intensely study creation.

But it’s not our Universe. We are only placed here. We are only passing thru it. We live for a few short years in which to discover who we are, exercise our brains and our talents and our personalities. We discover and we theorize. And we pat ourselves on the back for being pretty smart.

But the One who created it and holds it all together – wow. His works are truly great in every sense of the word. And with all our cleverness – we are merely scratching the surface of His wonderful works.

Let me end with three brief points.

First – may I suggest humility and respect as we pass thru His creation; both personally in our own lives, and cosmically as we explore our Solar System. After all – we are not here to stay. We are the visitors here.

Second – even though it’s not the cool thing to ask for – may I suggest humility and respect for Him. There are those in 21st century Science who regularly pour scorn on people of faith. And in doing so – they are also criticizing the brilliant minds who started their own Scientific disciplines all those centuries ago.

  • Forebears like Johannes Kepler, who in the 17th century perceived intelligent design in the mathematical precision of planetary motion and the laws governing it.
  • Forebears like James Clerk Maxwell who discovered electromagnetic theory – and who quoted the Bible at the entrance to his Cavendish Physics Laboratory in Cambridge.

Surely these men and many more besides deserve respect from the current thinkers of today?

Third and finally I call for humility and respect towards the One who has made our lives – and our space exploration possible. Who has given us a Universe to travel thru and to wonder at. Because, as Psalm 111 says in closing…

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” Psalm 111:10, NIV