Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Spectrum of Elements

Flashback to your high school chemistry classes. Early in the course we were privileged with the discussion of chemical elements. In the context of our studies we found that all matter is composed of chemical entities—pure substances called elements, the primary constituents of matter. The smallest unit of an element is the atom. Atoms, however, have constituent subunits called protons, neutrons, and electrons. An element is a pure substance consisting of only one kind of atom. Most matter we encounter is composed of combinations of two or more elements. As you read this paragraph, keep in mind that every word or phrase is worthy of a book-length elaboration. Our short blog post does not remotely do justice to the wonder of chemical “elements.” We must select but a few fascinating facts about elements to supply a source of wonder.

In our universe there are less than 100 elements occurring in nature—98 to be exact. Nuclear scientists have created a few more synthetic elements existing only fleetingly in minute quantities. Hydrogen and helium are far and away the most common elements in the universe, followed by oxygen, neon, nitrogen, carbon, silicon, magnesium, iron, and sulfur. Chemical elements are not merely accidental random assemblages of coincidental particles. Rather, their construction is a logical and organized hierarchy. Intuitively we perceive a divine creative mind at work.

Two millennia ago some early thinkers conceived of small, discrete bits of matter. From their concept comes the Greek term atomos, meaning indivisible. Two centuries ago empirical evidence for atoms was revealed. Present day introductory chemistry courses now teach subatomic particles—protons, neutrons, and electrons which constitute all atoms of the 98 elements. We return to the hierarchy concept: The number of protons and electrons in elements with atomic numbers 1-98 increase sequentially. Electrons in each element are also arranged in an energy level hierarchy. This phenomenon enables elements to combine into millions of different and unique substances called compounds. 

We inquire why two elements such as carbon and nitrogen whose atoms are remarkably similar could manifest such startlingly different characteristics. Carbon (atomic number 6) has six protons and six electrons. Nitrogen has seven protons and seven electrons. A schematic drawing of these two elements would manifest little difference. However, carbon is a black solid while nitrogen is a clear gas at room temperature. Their atomic weights are similar, but they are very different. “Why,” we may ask, “do such differences exist?” The question could be asked from either a naturalistic or a supernaturalistic vantage point. Naturalists may focus on detailed investigations of how chemical phenomena work—a noble endeavor. Supernaturalists might additionally concentrate on apparent intelligent design and divine purpose evident in the world of chemical matter. The latter focus adds an additional robust dimension to our investigations. 

Depending on the degree of depth in the chemistry teachers’ pedagogy, their students will learn of the formation of compounds from the elements they study. A compound is a substance formed by chemical combination of two or more elements in fixed proportions. Chemical bonding of elements occurs under prescribed conditions. Up to ten million compounds have been described. These include man-made substances as well as those nature has put together. One estimate states one million “inorganic” compounds exist along with nine million “organic” compounds. Organic compounds are formed from the the all-important versatile element carbon and are associated with life processes. Inorganic compounds are non-carbon based. Many compounds have been synthesized by chemists for human use. Chemical mixtures also exist. Unlike compounds, they need not be combined in fixed mathematical proportions. The number of possible mixtures is limitless.

We resist the temptation to discuss wonders of chemical bonding and many other highlights of a course in basic chemistry. Our purpose is more devotional than pedantic. The created world is filled with lessons on how the Creator, in divine wisdom, has designed the cosmos to bring honor to Himself, but with us in mind as beneficiaries. Colossians 1:16 speaks of God’s creative design plan for our universe. “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him (NIV). 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Bottom Up or Top Down?

Bottom up or top down? In many conversations in science, economics, government, and a great number of other human endeavors, this dichotomy factors into the discussion. One way to describe bottom up is the progression of knowledge from the general to the specific. For example, we might cite any number of human conventions such as economies or political systems. In human history, early humans attempted to eke out a living by his primitive fabrications or agricultural production, trading his products with neighbors for something he needed. Over time this practice morphed into a more complex economic system. Human political systems emerged when simple early human social relationships gradually became more organized and elaborate. We may say these traditions “evolved” from the bottom up. There are multiple parallels throughout human history.

Well known agnostic, science historian, and founder of the Skeptics Society Michael Shermer wrote an essay in 2011 entitled “Think Bottom Up, Not Top Down. His commentary claimed “Almost everything important that happens in both nature and society happens from the bottom up, not the top down.” His evolutionary worldview is driven by this belief. In addition to examples from economics and politics, he voices hearty support of the concept that the natural world is completely the product of an evolutionary bottom up process. Shermer declares, “Life is a bottom up, self- organized emergent property of organic molecules that coalesced into protein chains through nothing more than the input of energy into the system of Earth’s early environment…..Evolution itself is a bottom up process of organisms just trying to make a living and get their genes into the next generation; out of that simple process emerges the diverse array of complex life we see today.”

Shermer’s proposals have tremendous intellectual appeal for many in our modern world. His ideas are strongly grounded in the major worldview of Naturalism. Some would call Naturalism and Theism the two major world views prevalent in our time. The essay by Shermer pinpoints the dichotomy of one aspect of bottom up/top down proposals. He says many people intuitively examine objects and conclude that the objects are designed by an intelligent agent, a human being. In fact, it is counter intuitive not to believe these objects were designed. Intuitively, people examine the natural world and believe that apparent design in nature looks that way because of a top down phenomenon, Shermer opines. We take the liberty to interpret his statement as tacit recognition, if not an endorsement, that top down is a legitimate conclusion: the natural world manifests powerful evidence of intelligent design! Consequently, people  look for other top down manifestations in economics, politics and many other realms. Shermer counsels, on the other hand, that bottom up is the appropriate view to almost everything.

The theistic worldview our blog has advocated is that multiple life sustaining physical constants were designed by the Creator of all things, that life on Earth began with an act of God, that Earth’s complex early living cells are the product of a top down miracle, and that novel life forms were periodically introduced. In contrast, naturalistic evolutionists like Michael Shermer and countless others in the community of science advocate their bottom up philosophy with religious fervor. They seem oblivious to the need for multiple natural “miracles” to give their proposals traction and credibility. Naturalistic evolutionists confidently intone the term evolution, sometimes disguised as “bottom up” explanations for everything we observe, as if the very mention of that term explains everything we want to know.       

Friday, February 13, 2015

Suffused with Intelligence

The accomplishments of the youngest members of humanity manifest remarkable intelligence almost from birth. God’s image is apparent in a powerful relational quality in their existence. Infants begin to relate to their surroundings and their caretakers in a meaningful way just a few weeks after birth. From that day forward signs of innate intelligence are increasingly evident. They relate to their parents, smiling and responding to their touch. They investigate and babble. Later they thrive on play and stimulating experiences such as exposure to books and exploring cause and effect. They develop social skills and their need for validation and approval increases.

Recollection of early traits in our grandchildren is merely a prelude to our memories of their intelligent achievements in the first 13 years of schooling. These years equip them with skills for a productive career and application of their intrinsic intelligence throughout life. Their most remarkable achievements, however, are but a shadow of the divine intelligence of the God of Creation. God’s intelligence suffuses the physical creation, the existence and unique characteristics of material matter, and the capabilities of all living things embedded in this material sphere. In a sense we borrow divine intelligence from the Creator. When humans create art, music, and literature, and produce technical achievement we become “mini-creators,” employing gifts from the Creator of all things.

One of the most startling examples of ancient creative human intelligence is Petra in Jordan, a city with structures and monuments carved from solid rock. My wife and I visited the site in 2009. We were astounded by the Nabataean civilization and their technical ability several hundred years before Christ. 

Intelligence is a hallmark of humanity since the infusion of the image of God at the creation of man. Other living things are gifted with intelligence of a different quality. Our blog has referenced the intelligently designed origin of life—the sudden appearance of complex microbial bacteria from lifeless matter some 3.8 billion years ago. A separate case could be made for the intelligent design of material matter long before the initial appearance of any life in this universe. The spectrum of chemical elements possesses incredible order and design. The intelligent origin of matter is easy to understand for those who believe in divine, universal fine-tuning from the Big Bang until the present.

We quote from  Fazale Rana’s The Cell’s Design concerning humanity: “They are mini-creators. Being a reflection of their Maker implies that the hallmark characteristics of humanly designed systems will mirror those that were divinely designed. The expectation, however, is that humanly designed systems would, at best, be an imperfect reflection. If biochemical systems are indeed the the product of a Master Creator who made man in his image, then the defining characteristics of those systems should be analogous to the hallmark characteristics of humanly crafted systems. At the same time, the cell’s chemical systems should be clearly superior to anything produced by the best human minds.”

We thank God for the intelligently designed achievements of the Master Designer, the God of the Bible. We are thankful that he gifts humanity with intelligence to a marvelous degree. Human intelligence is but one characteristic of the Imago Dei, the image of God, applied uniquely to humanity.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Supernaturalism Works!

We conclude our recent discussions of the Ruse-Rana debate on origins by giving Dr. Rana the last word. We have endeavored to cover a diverse range of issues. We trust our readers appreciate the complexity of the issues as well as the complexity of related arguments springing from them.

Dr. Rana’s response to Dr. Ruse consisted of many points from his 2004 volume Origins of Life. In Chapter 4 Rana describes the many chemical conditions necessary for the existence of protocells. These are the original, earliest, first cells on our planet. They (1) have a confining membrane, (2) possess metabolic capability to extract energy and resources from the environment, and (3) have the capability to self-replicate.  

There are two possible pathways to the production of the first protocell—naturalistic and supernaturalistic (intelligent agency). We cite Rana’s opening page of Origins of Life, Chapter 4, entitled “The Naturalistic Approach.” Were we to embrace a naturalistic pathway to the first functional protocell, Rana lists the necessity of (1) synthesis (combining) of prebiotic (pre-life) molecules, (2) concentration of prebiotic molecules, (3) formation of life’s building blocks, (4) assembly of building block molecules to form complex biomolecules, (5) development of self-replication, (6) emergence of metabolism, (7) aggregation of biomolecules to form protocells, and (8) evolution of protocells to form LUA, the last universal ancestor of all present living things.

One of the prominent discussions among origin of life researchers is which came first— the cell membrane, the emergence of metabolism, or the ability to self-replicate? Bioscientists choose sides on this question, but each is invalidated. Modern researchers in synthetic biology have discovered the necessity of intelligent agency in every step of their work. The assumption of a naturalistic cell origin is commonly assumed. Supernaturalism is not even considered by convention of the science profession. How the first cell came into being is a matter of speculation since this event cannot be duplicated in the laboratory. Research into synthetic processes is desirable but bioscientists impose their own intelligent agency at each step. They are unwilling, however, to rationally and open-mindedly consider that historic cell origin and design have the hallmarks of intelligent agency.

Origin of life debates usually pit naturalists against supernaturalists. Sometimes naturalists favor a “bottom up” approach—discovering naturalistic early chemical pathways leading to life. Bottom up proposals describe simple chemical reactions transitioning to more complex reactions. Complexity is gained slowly with the passage of time. Naturalistic researchers propose numerous hypotheses outlining how simple chemistry became complex. One may term this phenomenon the out-workings of a potent “religious” faith.

Supernaturalists usually advocate a “top down” explanatory approach. Essentially, they propose a miraculous origin for bacterial microbes. In the intervening eons, the fossil record manifests dozens of sudden appearances of new life forms. This parallels the sudden appearance of microbial life and is consistent with top down creation acts. In Genesis 1:30 and 2:7, the scripture writer uses “breath of life,” presumably to indicate a supernatural life-initiating miracle, first for the lower animals, then for man. We might extend the phrase “breath of life” to the creation of protocells, the first life forms on Planet Earth.

Dr. Fazale Rana’s volumes Origin of Life (2004) and The Cell’s Design (2008) are invaluable resources for discovering a supernatural perspective on the origin and complexity of cells and the creation of non-human and human life. Dr. Rana is a biochemist and is Vice-president of Research and Apologetics at Reasons to Believe. 


Monday, January 26, 2015

Does Naturalism Work?

Debates between naturalists and supernaturalists have become ever more popular. Often these topics become entwined with the evolution versus creation discussion. These topics progress to a variety of related cultural and personal issues. Debate events tend to order the audience along a spectrum of positions. Previously held positions are affirmed but minds are changed infrequently. Our recent posts of the Ruse/Rana debate on the origin of life and the complexity of cells highlighted significant differences.    

Dr. Ruse described the wonders of our scientific knowledge. For instance, he referenced the appearance of prokaryotes (early single celled microbes—simple in form, but marvelous in biochemical complexity), followed later by eukaryotes (multicellular organisms), and still later, the naturalists’ enigma, the unprecedented Cambrian Explosion. How is naturalism pragmatically justified, if not scientifically explained according to Ruse? “It works!” he claimed. We have discovered many truths of the workings of the natural world in recent decades using the naturalistic methods of science. With regard to origin of life and cell complexity Ruse stated: We will eventually discover much more truth, perhaps even the answer to how life first began. This is one way adherents of naturalism defend and justify their approach. It is known as “argument to the future.” Future generations will discover the secret, they claim.

Scientific knowledge has expanded beyond our dreams. This is fact, but not a pillar of support for naturalism or any other argument. On one occasion I heard a Christian leader, a well-known evolutionary creationist, voice an “appeal to the future” with respect to the potential discovery of a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life. In regard to the life origin question, appeal to the future is woefully inadequate in support of naturalism. 

Naturalists do not credit or even consider a supernatural miracle, according to Dr. Ruse: Naturalist scientists have a mind set where scientific laws rule. There are no miracles. We are slowly getting the picture. Even though science still faces difficulties, we are slowly grasping what is going on in the question of origins. What about volcanic vents, salt water, and clay minerals, he wonders.  

Naturalists like Michael Ruse do not envision an origin of life or cellular complexity “miracle.” Naturalists claim proposals of miracles are a “Bible position.” They propose that when we cite a creation miracle to account for life’s origin and complexity, we are no longer “doing science.” Naturalist scientists would discount persuasive creationist claims that proposals of intelligent agency to account for life origin and design of the cell makes full use of the established principles of scientific method.

Many organizations report statements uttered by scientists on both sides of the naturalism/supernaturalism question. One example is the IDEA (Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness) Center. Their “Origins and Complexity of Life” site contains hundreds of unedited quotes. This passage from H. J. Lipson (1910-1991), professor of physics at University of Manchester, is unusual in that it contains the word “creation:” 

If living matter is not, then, caused by the interplay of atoms, natural forces, and radiation, how has it come into being?…I think, however, that we must go further than this and admit that the only acceptable explanation is creation. I know that this is anathema to physicists, as indeed it is to me, but we must not reject a theory that we do not like if the experimental evidence supports it.”

Debate partner Dr. Fazale Rana’s presentation was sharply distinct from the case made by Dr. Michael Ruse. Whereas Ruse claimed those who appeal to a creation miracle are no longer “doing science,” it was Rana who gave a coherent, highly organized and credible scientific presentation of multiple instances from geologic history where the work of a supernatural intelligent agent was necessary and clearly evident. (We contemplate reporting on some of Rana’s salient points in future posts.)   The theological dimension is apparent. Likewise, the religious connection is difficult to deny. Creation acts initiated by God are indeed manifestations of religious belief. 

Notwithstanding the accommodation many scientists voice for private religious beliefs, most scientists are trained to disregard the relevance of theistic reality in their chosen professional field. Theistic realism is subordinate to scientific realism by agreed-upon policy.  Theistic realism is the proposal that methodological naturalism should be replaced by a philosophy which would allow certain supernatural explanations particularly in topics that impact theology. Scientific realism affirms that both observable and unobservable aspects of the world are described by the sciences. 

Theistic realism (sometimes acknowledging the supernatural) and scientific realism (reliance only on naturalistic science) are two different epistemic entities supported by two different world views.



Thursday, January 22, 2015

Reasonable Origins Accounts

When debates occur between supernaturalists and naturalists on the origin of life and the complexity of the cell, both sides search for reasonable explanations. Theistic supernaturalists collect evidence that the intelligent actions of a Deity seem reasonable to explain events surrounding origins of life as well as the explanation of cell complexity. This conclusion is based on an analogy. In the human realm, working intelligence results in ordered outcomes. For example, overview of a building project yields plentiful examples of intelligent input. The architectural plan for the structure, selection of a building location, preparation of the site, construction material choice, hiring of specialized laborers, coordination of the building sequences, foreman supervision, and mitigation of errors…these are just a few identifiable ordered outcomes of intelligence acting within a human-designed system.

Inspection of the first cells on Earth completes our building analogy. The production of complete cells with inherent complexity is virtually impossible to attribute to a chance event or a sequence of chance events. The appearance and achievement of functional cells, the launching of life on this planet, is a “building” phenomenon surpassing the reasonable expectations of even the most ardent naturalist. Naturalists cannot account for the origin of life and the design of the cell. They do not acknowledge the reasonableness of a supernatural designer. To their chagrin, the work of an intelligent agent suffuses cell origin events. But to a supernaturalist, the activity of a supernatural designer, an intelligent agent, is completely reasonable. Unlike many intelligent design advocates who fail to name the designer, we do not hesitate to name the God of Judeo-Christian Scripture as the Intelligent Designer.

Many naturalists claim the existence of a supernatural being is not reasonable. Therefore, the origin and function of an ordered physical object such as the cell is reasonable only as a happenstance of naturalism. Almost all scientists are indoctrinated with the firm principle that science is a completely naturalistic enterprise, investigating only naturalistic phenomena. Today’s scientists operate under the control of the doctrine of methodological naturalism (MN). This control virtually forbids acknowledging the possibility that an intelligent agent could be responsible for either the origin of cells or the exquisite design of the cell. It is an easy transition to the skeptical position that the Designer does not exist. This position is known as philosophical or ontological naturalism. Among the faith community in our churches, methodological and philosophical/ontological naturalism in science sometimes deters church members from appreciating the apologetic value of science.

Debates such as the Ruse/Rana event at Biola in 2013 generate diverse statements from the participants. Some are confident in the principles of scientific naturalism. Others endorse supernatural design based on evidence. Science is a discipline with high confidence in evidence but an exception to this principle sometimes occurs if the evidence points to a supernatural intelligent agent in the cause and effect chain. If the workings of the God of Scripture are highlighted in our study of the history of earth life, some voice the criticism that “religion” has captured the day. God as Designer and Creator does not seem reasonable to them. Dr. Fazale Rana presented a strong evidential case that cell origin and design is the product of an intelligent agent—the God of the Bible. Click “older post” below for the first coverage of the Ruse/Rana debate. 


Monday, January 19, 2015

Ruse and Rana Debate

In 2013 Biola University sponsored a lively debate between Dr. Fazale Rana, apologist from Reasons to Believe, and Michael Ruse, science philosopher and historian. They debated the topic of whether “Natural processes are sufficient to explain the origin and complexity of the cell.” The appearance of cells in the geologic history of earth is seminal to life itself on Planet Earth. Many debates between believers in creation and believers in evolution are featured on websites such as YouTube. Exchanges of views on this topic are not merely a descent into esoteric boredom. They inform knowledge seekers of the fundamental issues and instruct proponents of each position how arguments are developed. Familiarity with the issues under discussion is invaluable for serious apologists of traditional creationism.

Dr. Ruse subscribes to natural, evolutionary laws. Creationists and naturalists alike have discovered the question of origin of the cell does not have an evolutionary answer. As a believer in naturalistic evolutionary laws, however, Ruse depends on naturalistic evolution to supply the answer to this question as well as events in the intervening 3.8 billion years of life history. He believes no intelligent agent, no supernatural being, no designer has acted, notwithstanding the observation of Ruse and other naturalistic scientists who admit the cell appears designed, not randomly put together.

The debate did not address the intricacies of evolutionary theory concerning the process of evolution since cells first appeared. The two proposals concerning the origin and complexity of the cell supplied sufficient red meat for intellectual consumption. Our blog presents cell origin, complexity, and lastly, the long term process of evolution in the past 3.8 billion years to be a three-pronged entity. All of these topics invite lengthy and elaborate discussion.

Ruse accurately described events involving the cell’s origin and complexity during the mysterious time when Earth was a water world shrouded in clouds. Appropriate chemical compounds, early macromolecules of those compounds, RNA molecules, DNA molecules, proteins, a lipid enclosure (cell wall), and organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts suddenly appeared. This list outlines only the highlights of cellular structure, a mere glimpse into what scientists mean by “bio-chemical complexity” of morphologically simple microbial cells.

At this point in the origin and complexity of the cell discussion, Ruse briefly yielded to the temptation to discuss topics most evolutionary biologists prefer to address—the evolution of all life forms from those early moments of cell origin until the present. He claimed “natural selection takes over” from then on. The debate had progressed barely twenty minutes.

Underlying issues of the debate became better defined at this juncture. Details of what happened at the inception of life on our planet were subsumed under a far more important question. Even the later brilliant apologetic by Dr. Rana concerning the supporting evidence for a divine intelligence to get life started took a back seat to a more important issue at the heart of the debate. Rana inquired whether personal philosophy colors his position rather than supporting evidence. Upon questioning, Ruse admitted that philosophy plays a vital role. The role of scientific evidence, therefore, might be secondary.

In future blogs we will cover Fazale Rana’s evidentialist viewpoint of the theistic origin of cells and their complexity. Rana freely admits an intelligent agent, a miracle-producing God, has produced Earth’s origin of life event and the cell’s complexity. Beyond this, he does not believe in the evolutionary paradigm to account for the “fits and starts” flow of Earth life in the last 3.8 billion years. Instead, he unequivocally believes in periodic supernatural, miraculous creation interventions.