Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Brain: Causes, Effects, and Design

Basic knowledge of the human brain is an appropriate launch point for a discussion of the currently popular concept of intelligent design. The brain is the control center of an elaborate living system. Knowledge of its anatomy and function are merely introductory to an in-depth understanding and appreciation of the design of the brain. Consider as an example the knowledge possessed by a young man or woman when considering the purchase of their first automobile. The prospective first time buyer knows the appearance he or she wants in the car. Next, awareness of how the car will perform becomes paramount. Unless the young person was mentored by a knowledgeable auto mechanic, most first time car owners are concerned about little else than the car’s appearance and how it will satisfy transportation needs.

Knowledge of the thousands of individual physical components of an automobile combined with familiarity of how the vehicle operates is a preliminary step in our automotive knowledge. Likewise, diagrams of the brain along with a general description of the brain as the body’s control center serves as an introductory account of the intelligently designed brain.

Internet search engines help us place the wondrous functioning ability of the brain and its design in perspective. The ExtremeTech website tells us, “The brain is a deviously complex biological computing device that even the fastest supercomputers in the world fail to emulate…..Using the NEST software framework, the team…succeeded in creating an artificial neural network of 1.73 billion nerve cells connected by 10.4 trillion synapses. While impressive, this is only a fraction of the neurons every human brain contains. Scientists believe we carry 80-100 billion nerve cells, or about as many stars as there are in the Milky Way.”

A Science channel article claims, “Humans can integrate information from many different variables and stimuli, and they can learn by experience, observation, and experimentation…..The things that make humans truly unique (emotion, empathy, self awareness, ambition) are beyond the capacity of computers.”

Stephen Smith, professor of molecular and cellular physiology, says the new images revealed the brain to be vastly more intricate than we had ever imagined: “One synapse (a junction between two nerve cells across which impulses pass by diffusion of a chemical neurotransmitter) by itself, is more like a microprocessor - with both memory storage and information processing elements - than a mere on/off switch. A single human brain has more switches than all the computers and routers and Internet connections on earth.”

Fruitful investigations of brain anatomy and function—both the what and the how—may be found in many fine AP biology textbooks. One example is Biology by Campbell and Reece—over 1200 pages. This resource deals extensively with multiple life science topics. This highly rated textbook handles the topic of naturalistic evolution as a presupposition to explain changes in every biological entity since life first appeared on earth. This means every living thing on earth has descended from a common ancestor through an evolutionary process, they intone.

The complexity of the natural world has long been cited as evidence of intelligent design. This term has not been formally promoted until the last quarter century. In  that time proponents such as William Dembski, who popularized “specified” complexity, and Stephen C. Meyer, who specializes in the origin of biological information, have risen to prominence in the movement.

In science, the issue of causes and effects has always been vital. As we study the human brain, one must ask, what is the cause for the incredible specified complexity of the brain? And what is the source of information by which information responsible for the appearance of the human brain arose along the timeline of bio-history from our purported first common ancestor until now?

Naturalist scientists obscure the importance of such questions as the naturalistic science community has difficulty answering them. Subjective intuition suggests to intelligent design theorists that the effect of the brain as a “deviously complex biological computing device” and the brain as “vastly more intricate than we had ever imagined” cannot be attributed to a naturalistic, natural selection-driven cause.

Many intelligent design theorists attempt to shield themselves from criticism in the scientific world by failing to identify the identity of the Designer - aka the Cause. They fear that to identify the Judeo-Christian God as the source of (1) specified complexity, and the source of (2) new biological information, insulates them from the accusation that ID is a creationist concept. Yes, actually, it is. We live with the reality that the science profession, especially the bio-science profession, has successfully established that theists and scientists may not cross each other’s borders. The naturalistic world view has declared victory in this border dispute. The close sibling relationship of creationism and intelligent design has been relegated to the status of distant relative. I recommend this post for related reading:






Friday, September 12, 2014

ID by Design

Our recent blog study of physical sound and human hearing is one of many subjects to inspire confidence that God intelligently designed the physical properties of sound energy as well as the human auditory sensory system. Our understanding of the production of compressions and rarefactions of air molecules is matched by fascination at our bodily ability to detect such sound impulses, interpret them, and react to the sound stimulus. Remaining sensory contact with our surroundings extends to vision, chemical senses of odor and taste, pressure detection, and sense of balance colorfully termed equilibrioception.

For this post we have chosen the topic of living things to highlight our discussion of intelligent design. ID is a relatively new concept. Cosmologist Fred Hoyle claimed in 1982 that, “…biomaterials with their amazing measure of order must be the outcome of intelligent design.” Some modern ID enthusiasts claim identity with such statements as their own. Hoyle, nevertheless, was an atheist who held some unusual beliefs such as panspermia—the belief that life originated from outer space.

Preceding Hoyle’s statement were utterances of scientist/philosopher Michael Polanyi. In 1970, shortly after the cracking of the DNA code, Polanyi anticipated the principles of intelligent design in several statements contained in a submission to PSCS, the journal of the American Scientific Association (ASA). He argued that the information in DNA could not be reduced to physics and chemistry. The statement seemed to reference a guiding intelligence operating in the design of material matter.

Three scientists, Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen jointly published The Mystery of Life’s Origin in 1984. Later Thaxton used the term “intelligent design” in an attempt to give the concept an empirical foundation. 

In the 1990s the Intelligent Design movement became more mainstream. Several of the notable players were Phillip Johnson, William Dembski, Michael Behe, and Stephen C. Meyer. All are prominent authors in the landscape of ID. For their efforts they have endured heavy bombardments from skeptics in both naturalist and theistic evolutionist camps. The exchanges between evolutionists and advocates of ID are often extensive and sometimes laced with derision. The foregoing brief discussion is obviously incomplete.

Intelligent design is a simple concept, as explained in this brief excerpt from a CSC (Center for Science and Culture) link. CSC is a program of Discovery Institute:

Intelligent Design refers to a scientific research program, as well as a community of scientists, philosophers, and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection….

The term intelligent design has burst upon the scene only in the last 25 years. Prior to the popularization of ID, theistic creationism was the primary counterbalance for naturalistic evolution. Young people may not recall when ID was not part of our lexicon. There is still confusion concerning the difference between creationism and intelligent design as these terms have been defined.

As we examine biological systems and read descriptive resources about them, intelligent design as defined above in the CSC passage is an easier concept to grasp than creationism. In our recent posts on sound and hearing, for example, the design conclusion seems unavoidable and compelling. We reason that the sensory system of audition from the outer, middle, and inner ear, the remarkable transduction of mechanical sound impulses to digital electrical action potentials prior to their arrival at the cerebral cortex, and finally the brain’s ability to translate the signals and interpret them for our conscious use—the conclusion that an intelligent agent designed the system is virtually impossible to deny!

No person alive today is the observer of past accomplished divine acts of creation, but we are able to physically observe thousands of intelligent design features which powerfully bespeak the work of the God of Creation. The message of Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is reinforced by our observations.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Electric Intellect

Our post title, Electric Intellect, is intended to be humorous, but it may be more realistic than humorous. “Electric” connotes something thrilling or exciting; intellect refers to mental powers.

Electric charges are possessed by virtually all matter. Electric charges occur in protons and electrons in the atoms and molecules out of which all matter is composed. These charges respond with attraction or repulsion in an electric field. The force of electric charges is ever present in all matter, including our bodies. As a former science teacher I still hear myself declaring to my classes, “All matter is electrical in nature.” Electricity, therefore, plays a role in every activity, every situation, and every event of our lives.

Our blog series on sound and audition established that mechanical sound impulses are converted to digital signals after traveling through the components of the outer, middle, and inner ear. From the cochlea to the auditory cortex and beyond to the lobes of the cerebrum, the impulses become entirely electrical. These digital signals manifest themselves as nerve impulses, or “action potentials.” We repeat: All matter is electrical in nature. Our human intellect, our mental powers, run on electricity. Human intelligence is electric!

The cerebral cortex is more recognizable than most other parts of the brain. It may be described in a number of ways. Visually, we could divide the cerebral cortex into four topographical areas. Each area is responsible for processing the various inputs received from the sensory systems. Other brain areas function in other ways. In our recent posts we followed the sound impulses to the primary auditory cortex. This small region of the brain is associated with the temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex. The temporal lobe is one of its four frontal lobes.

The auditory cortex is the most highly organized sound processing unit in the brain but knowledge of its physiological processes is not entirely clear. It is certain that pitch and other information about sound is preserved. Further processing of sound ensures that we detect and understand speech and subtleties of music. The temporal lobe also has a role in visual recognition of faces, objects, and scenes. Notwithstanding our pride in scientific knowledge, much of what happens in different areas of our brain remains speculative and uncertain. Our usual sense of thorough understanding must be replaced by pure wonder.

A second lobe of the cerebral cortex is the frontal lobe. It is the source of human ability to reason, use expressive language, and achieve higher level cognition. Motor skills are also related to frontal lobe function. The parietal lobe processes tactile sensory information such as pressure, touch, and pain. Verbal memory and certain language skills originate in this area. Finally, the occipital lobe receives messages transmitted from the retina of our eyes and interprets the visual stimuli.

Does our discussion do justice to the electrical wonders of human intellect? Hardly at all! Our treatment touches only minimally upon the field of brain anatomy and function. Textbook and web diagrams covey a bewildering array of graphics on brain anatomy. Written resources fill medical libraries with the expertise gained by specialists. Medical schools pride themselves on their practical knowledge. These sources are able to convey wonder at the complexity of the human brain. At the same time we experience surprise that so little is known about this difficult subject. 

We abide in reverence for the useful knowledge mankind has gained about the anatomical geography of the estimated 86 billion neurons in the human brain. The functional information bank stored in 3.3 pounds of human neural tissue triggers an electric response by those who choose to probe its mysteries. In the human brain abides the essence of the Image of God.     



Saturday, August 30, 2014

System Integration

Let’s explain one of the most common greetings we offer to those we meet. “How are you?” may signal our interest in the general well-being of our friends. Sometimes our query relates to their physical health, and may be expressed, “How are you feeling?” Notwithstanding the possible impertinence of this question, our acquaintances may actually be flattered by the personal interest expressed by the questioner. We may be inquiring about how the eleven physical body systems are operating. If all body systems are operating healthily, we also desire that they be integrated, coordinated, and cohesive. When we answer “I’m fine, thank you” to these questions, we should be aware of its potent meaning.

A breakdown in one body system is able to impede the integrated functioning of the entire body. Biology textbook resources instruct us concerning the circulatory, digestive, endocrine, excretory, immune, lymphatic, muscular, nervous, reproductive, respiratory, and skeletal systems. A visit to the hospital makes us aware of a throng of specialists eager to treat disorders related to these systems. The names of department specialties are posted over each office complex. General practice “specialists” understand the basic workings of all body systems and how the systems integrate.

In our recent series of posts we have focused on the auditory system—the ear and hearing. The human auditory system is but one of five sub-systems comprising the sensory system. The nervous system integrates the sensory organs with other body systems. Other sensory organs of the nervous system provide vision, touch, smell, taste, and balance. Auditory and visual senses provide the major portion of sensory information we glean from our physical world. However, we acknowledge the vital importance of touch, smell, taste and balance, not to mention our expectations concerning the healthy functioning of the other ten major body systems.

The outer, middle, and inner ear, together with the complex neural passageways for transmission of coded digital information from the ear to the auditory cortex consists of an integrated system in itself. But without the integration of other major body systems such as the circulatory system, sensory systems such as the auditory system would be non-functional. At every level of human bodily function, we understand the importance of system integration.

Maintaining effective integrated function of body systems relates to our adherence to healthy lifestyles. The more we understand the functional wonders of human body systems, the more we experience reverent awe of the Creator of body systems. Not only did God design each system, but he also designed the means of body system integration. Such knowledge is an example of the orderliness of God’s created works. Our expressions of awe and reverence are expressed in Psalm 29:2: “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.” (NIV) 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Wonderfully Made

A weak analogy to the human auditory system may be found in some of the more complex machines devised by man. An automobile is a highly integrated machine functioning for a generally singular purpose—transportation. The are 1800 parts in an automobile if we count units such as engines, themselves composed of many parts. If we count individual parts from which more complex units are built, the number rises by multiples.

Our auditory organs also exist for a singular purpose—hearing. This does not include how our conscious mind analyzes and processes physical sounds with which we are surrounded. Physiologists have revealed the complexity of physical processes entailed in successful hearing. Much as scientists recognize the human mind as a far more complex processing unit than any man-devised computer, we propose that the human auditory system is superior to the most advanced man-devised sound processing system. MIT professor Barry D. Jacobson has expressed, “The auditory system…far surpasses any sound reproduction system around. No artificial intelligence based system built to date can interpret sounds with the accuracy that the auditory system can.”

The Creator has consigned man to a physical world. We may describe phenomena such as sound and sound processing with respect to multiple interactions of physical matter. Humans study and understand these physical interactions. Physiologists recognize the capabilities of human-built machines do not compare with sensory systems of the human body. We use sound processing capabilities of the human body as our present example. In terms of understanding the physical processes of human hearing, God has enabled present day scientists to identify and describe what happens in our bodies when we hear, not to mention what happens in our brains when we process the sounds we hear. Believers in intelligent design do not stumble at the handiwork of an Intelligent Designer as we study the auditory system.

In previous posts we discussed the transduction of compressional waves to digital signals. Our discussion of the sequence of action, however, was incomplete. The impulses are first converted to digital signals in the cochlea where neural coding first occurs. Re-encoded signals then travel through the nerve known as the eighth cranial nerve on their way to the processing centers of the auditory cortex. There are several processing and integrating centers along the way, including the cochlear nucleus, superior olivary nucleus, inferior colliculus, and medial geniculate body. Finally, the newly encoded auditory impulses arrive at the auditory cortex. The auditory cortex is the brain’s most highly organized sound processing unit.

Reading just a phrase or two of this post on sound consumes far more time than we ordinarily need to react to sounds and process our responses. Campbell and Reese’s AP text Biology summarizes the beauty of our senses, not only our auditory sense, but also all senses: “It is customary to think of animal behavior as a linear sequence of sensing, brain analysis, and action—similar to a computer passively waiting for instructions before it acts. This is not the case. When animals are in motion, they are probing the environment through that motion, sensing changes, and using the information to generate the next action. This is a continuous cycle rather than a linear sequence, as the brain carries on background activity that is constantly updated as sensing and acting proceed.”

Our post title is a contraction of Psalm 139:14: “…I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Fearfully connotes a response “full of awe and wonder.” In this sense we may better understand wonderfully. We close with a quote of the full verse: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (NIV)  


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Digital Human Hearing

Digital electronic technology may have been an unfamiliar term just a few short decades ago in our science classrooms when I began teaching. When my science class members studied the physical qualities of sound, followed by basics of the ear and human hearing, I do not recall digital technology being part of our discussion. Perhaps we were more focused on learning the mechanical transmission of sound through the ear canal, eardrum, the auditory ossicles (small bones from the eardrum to the cochlea), and the cochlea where mechanical transmission of sound ended. We were at the cusp of the Digital Age. Many did not know what the Digital Age meant. It was triggered by the recent phenomenon known as The Digital Revolution which began after mid-20th century.

We now understand more fully the importance of digital technology. Whether or not many of our older citizens appreciate and understand it, digital technology now rules our lives. Virtually all of our communications media runs on discrete digits. We translate “digits” as Information transferred through millions of “on” or “off” signals. Often, information is conveyed as a series of zeroes or ones. On or off signals, or zeroes or ones, assume many different forms. In the human body, electrical impulse information transmitted in billions of neural passageways is also digital. 

After the transmission of sound waves from the outside world enters the snail-shaped cochlea, the auditory signals change from mechanical to electrical. The fluid of the cochlea surrounds multiple regions of hair cells each sensitive to a different frequency of sound. After the tiny hair cells are moved mechanically by compression waves traveling through the cochlear fluid, the sound transmission is transduced. That means the energy form converts from mechanical to electrical. On or off electrical impulse transmission comprises one of many different forms of digital information.

The cochlear hair cells transmit many forms of auditory information in addition to differences in the pitch of sound. For example, the ear distinguishes between loud and soft and also distinguishes directionality of sound sources. In addition, the brain interprets subtleties such as overtones, helping us distinguish among hundreds of different musical instruments. Overtones help us identify the voices of hundreds of acquaintances. A minimal scientific explanation of mechanical to electrical transduction is found in quotes such as “(hair cells)…are at the core of electro-mechanical transduction; the transformation of sound vibration into a neural signal that can be interpreted by the brain.”

Today’s young people are being raised in a digital culture. Digital technology has changed our culture in significant ways. Compared with wonderful advances in analog technology up until the digital revolution arrived full force in the latter half of the 20th century, digital technology is now a cause for jaw-dropping wonder at the onset of the 21st century. The explanation of how digital devices work and how to operate them still bewilders many people over 60 years of age.

My concern with this discussion of human hearing must not rest with stating that sound impulses through auditory neurons are simply “digital.” The real divine genius of the Creator in designing an auditory digital system which codes for communication of bewilderingly complex information in our human brain is a cause for worship. Perhaps we may better grasp what bio-science authors mean when they use the phrase the neural code. Codes are the product of a mind—God’s mind!   

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

An Ear for Truth

As we deal with the topic of sound and hearing, we would first do well to think deeply about God’s creation of our physical sphere and how the physical sphere is interlocked with the spiritual sphere. How is knowledge of the spiritual sphere interlocked? Man is created in God’s image. Our spiritual dimension enables us to contemplate God’s reality, both in sustaining our physical world from day to day and in understanding God’s original creation of the heavens and the earth. As we continue the discussion of topics such as sound and hearing, we become more aware of the Creator’s role in establishing how man accesses information about our world through sound and hearing.  

As creationists, we are reminded of Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Heavens and earth refers to all that exists. This phrase could also apply to God’s creative acts in the intervening eons of time. God created all physical matter, including hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars. In recent ages the phrase creation of heavens and earth might include periodic creative acts such as the origin of life and the origin of man. There is a quantitative difference between the enormous quantity of non-living matter in our universe and the relatively small amount of living matter to be found on Planet Earth. Certainly there is a qualitative difference between non-living and living matter.

God created all that exists. Genesis 1-2 stresses the creation of humanity in God’s image. The Genesis accounts underline the interaction of man with the physical creation. Humanity is immersed in a physical world. 

Humanity created in God’s image perceives two major spheres of reality. One sphere is the physical world of orderly matter governed by predictable physical constants. Another is the spiritual world—a divinely implanted God-consciousness with a deeply ingrained ability to contemplate present and future reality.

The Creator has gifted man with the ability to access information concerning the physical world through the five major physical senses. A study of the stimulus of sound energy and the sensory ability to detect it using our specialized organs of hearing triggers only the beginning of our sense of wonder. Physical sound traveling by compressional waves of air molecules transfers its energy through the canal of the outer ear into the solids of our eardrum and three small bones of the middle ear, and finally into the cochlea, the inner ear’s liquid medium.

In future posts we will extend our discussion of man’s ability to convert sound energy from physical waves of compressed molecules to billions of electrical signals called action potentials rushing to the brain from the cochlea through tens of thousands of neural circuits in the auditory nerve. This information reaches the brain in what is known as the “neural code.”

In the wisdom of God, humanity has been created to experience and enjoy both the physical world and the spiritual world. Before the creation of the heavens and the earth (all that exists), God existed as a spiritual entity. In the days of Christ on earth, he taught, “God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24 NIV). God still exists as a spiritual entity. The infinite Creator brought the physical heavens and earth into existence. Earth’s recently created humanity now enjoys both physical and spiritual dimensions of reality. Our dual existence is a divine gift to man and an expression of God’s love for his created works.