Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dismissing Design

People of many different belief persuasions dismiss the concept of intelligent design. The discussion is not just a scientific question, but also a philosophical one. Did a super-intelligent agent act supernaturally within our present dimensions of time, space, matter, and energy? Are we able to detect such actions using scientific methods? Or must we explain all phenomena since the beginning of time in terms of natural processes?

Beliefs regarding intelligent design contrast sharply, whether operating in the pre-life universe, at the sudden appearance of complex life, or in its subsequent profusion. Even atheists and agnostics acknowledge the presence of hundreds of apparent design features in the physical cosmos from the beginning until the present. But they offer speculative explanations for these features such as the currently popular multiverse hypothesis.

This purely speculative hypothesis poses the possibility of the generation of an infinite number of universes in addition to our own. The idea of an infinitely large number of universes provides the possibility that at least one of them, just by chance, would manifest all the life-favorable conditions possessed by our universe. This reduces the possibility that the actions of God explain the presence of thousands of apparently ordered design features in our own universe. The multiverse hypothesis titillates the thinking of people leaning toward naturalistic explanations and away from supernaturalism.

Astrophysicist/theologian Hugh Ross discusses cosmic multiverse models in More Than a Theory. Ross’s proposals of a testable creation model based on examination of evidence contrasts sharply with multiverse proposals being advanced today. Multiverse concepts originated in philosophical and fictional writings decades ago. Refined models are now granted currency when proposed and discussed. The distinction between solid, testable science hypotheses and speculative, popular science is often difficult to make.

Ross writes, “When leading proponents of a model use irrelevant evidence and/or arguments, their efforts hinder science and confuse the public.” He continues, “Multiverse models are purely speculative, not based on any measurable or scientifically testable evidence.” There is no hope of demonstrating the truth of the multiverse hypothesis. Design features in our universe are ubiquitous. But so are imaginative proposals to deflect our focus away from considering and demonstrating evidence for the reality of God as the Creator.

Under the heading “All Size Scales Great and Small,” Ross states, “…the more cosmic or galactic details astronomers discover, the more fine-tuning evidence they see. The same outcome occurs for living cells, subatomic particles, and all the rest. If everywhere scientists can measure design they do detect design—and if the degree of detected design consistently increases with their measuring capabilities—it seems irrational to discount all this design evidence by appealing to that which can never be detected or measured.”

As measurements of precise physical constants have been refined and knowledge of fine-tuning features have beome better defined, more creative naysayers have attempted to cast doubt on the reality of the Creator. The side of the discussion one embraces relates more to supporting one’s previously held worldview than to a desire to embrace the best evidence. Human tendency to support our previously existing beliefs often overwhelms our desire to change our beliefs in order to conform to the truth.

The Apostle Paul encourages us to change our thinking when necessary. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2 NIV). This instruction applies not only to doctrinal purity and personal holiness, but also to the discovery of general truth concerning creation.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Life Site Preparation

In a home building project, we could highlight two time frames. First, the site on which the home is to be built must be prepared in multiple ways, including proper surveys, approvals, payment, assignment of title, and lot clearing, to name a few. Second, previously conceived architectural plans are printed and distributed. Workers lay the foundation, erect the frame, install walls, flooring, and electrical circuitry, fabricate ducts, set doors and windows, and complete the finishing work.

One may ask what connection this story might have with our blog’s focus on creation of the universe and its life forms. Did the Creator adhere to the pattern of preparation followed by execution in bringing our planet to its current state of life-abundance? Did God follow the sequence of the creation of time/space/matter/energy, and then much later in cosmic history intervene to suddenly establish life on Planet Earth? Can we recognize that the universe possessed an original condition of acute fine-tuning and retained that condition during the onset of earth life and continuing until this moment?

Even atheistic and agnostic scientists realize the universe must possess an almost unimaginable degree of precision fine-tuning in order for life to exist at any time in cosmic history. For example, the precise rate of expansion must be matched by a precise quantity of mass in the universe. Translated, this means both must be perfect. The latter has been declared by scientists to be much less than the mass of a dime. There are dozens of additional environmental characteristics scientists know must fall within the same degree of precision.

Alan Sandage, noted astronomer, sums up the sentiments of dozens of well-known, secular scientists by saying, “I find it quite improbable that such order came out of chaos. There has to be some organizing principle. God to me is a mystery but is the explanation for the miracle of existence, why there is something instead of nothing.” We might say “life-site earth” was being prepared.

Then, about four billion years ago, life quickly burst upon the scene, remarkably complex. Previous posts deal with this phenomenon:

Paleobiologist J. William Schopf, confesses he would prefer that earth’s earliest life forms such as cyanobacteria would have a history leading from “primitive ways of living” to later “advanced metabolic lifestyles.” Instead, plentiful, morphologically simple but biochemically complex bacterial life suddenly appeared. Stuart Kaufmann, theoretical biologist, expresses what all origin-of-life researchers know, but cannot adequately explain: “Life emerged…not simple, but complex and whole, and has remained complex and whole ever since.”

From its initial arrival, even single celled bacterial life possessed DNA, with its remarkable ability to replicate and its coded instructions for protein synthesis. This brilliantly conceived code could not have been an evolutionary accident of the random mixing of molecules in the “warm little pond” conceived by Darwin. The problem of life’s origin remains one of the profound enigmas of naturalistic science. There is no naturalistic explanation for life’s origin.

The appearance of life on Earth marks the line of demarcation between eons of a life-absent, but fine-tuned universe, and a suddenly life-plentiful, tiny pinpoint of matter named Planet Earth. Perhaps the second verse of the Book of Genesis locates that point of demarcation this way: “…and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1:2 NAS).

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Creator of the Code

Several sources of wonder and awe concerning cells have been addressed in recent posts. These include their complexity, organization, design, information content, replicating capacity, and synthesizing ability. So far, we have not specifically dealt with the most fascinating question of all with regard to the cell’s ability to synthesize proteins: How does the cell do that?

The cell is the lowest organizational structure with ability to perform all activities necessary for life. Biology’s focus, therefore, centers on understanding how a cell works. How, for example, does growth occur from a single cell to a complete living organism possessing trillions of cells? How are the instructions for completion of such a task given and followed? The answer is found in understanding how the cell’s genetic code works. That code contains the instructions for assembling the twenty existing amino acids into the tens of thousands of different proteins needed to build the complete, efficiently functioning organism.

The cell’s molecular chain of command reads DNA --> RNA --> proteins. In addition to preserving and passing inheritance along through multiple generations, DNA is also the template for producing an even more versatile molecule--RNA, containing the code for the protein production. A long strand of RNA consists of a sequence of only four nucleotides, abbreviated A, G, C, and U for short. The sequence may be thousands of nucleotides long. They occur in any order. The same letter may sometimes occur multiple times consecutively. Example: UUGUUUGGCUCA. Embedded in the long RNA strands are sections thousands of nucleotide letters long.

Now the story becomes more fascinating and needs more explanation. If one nucleotide letter were to signal one amino acid, only four amino acids could be specified. A two-letter code using arrangements of the four letters in any order, with possible repeated letters, could code for as many as sixteen amino acids--still not enough for the existing twenty. But if a three-letter code is used, making use of all possible arrangements, it is possible to achieve 64 different groupings, more than enough to specify all twenty amino acids. These three-letter sequences are called codons. Several of the codons signal “stop” or “start” in the translation process.

Consider a modern supermarket analogy. In the bulk foods section of our local supermarket there is a wonderful selection of products which customers may self-dispense and self-package. Once I have bagged my product I proceed to the scales and type in the proper digital code for that product. Let’s say the digital code is 313 for our favorite sesame oat bran sticks. That number code, along with the proper equipment, has been programmed by the store manager to “synthesize” a gummed label with specific details of product name, weight, unit price, total cost, and store name.

Imagine supermarket customers claiming such an event sequence is merely the result of blind chance. No, the supermarket bulk purchase department is obviously intelligently designed as is its coding system. The process of coding for the appropriate amino acids, followed by the synthesis of tens of thousands of specific proteins by the cell’s manufacturing centers-- ribosomes in the cell’s cytoplasm--makes the accomplishments of our supermarket’s bulk purchase department minimal, by comparison.

The proteins produced are not just any proteins. They are the correct proteins needed to produce a specimen of a particular species. The conclusion that the cell’s protein coding apparatus is intelligently designed is inescapable as is the rational belief in the existence of the Creator described in Holy Scripture.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made” exults King David in Psalm 139:14. In his extensive commentary on the Psalms, 19th century Prince of Preachers Charles H. Spurgeon wrote that the science of anatomy was quite unknown to David. Had he been aware of the details of nerves, sinews, blood vessels, and organ structure, his awe would have been multiplied. Beyond that, we may wonder what David would have thought and written had he known of body cells and their role in making tens of thousands of different proteins in the human body and assembling them precisely into various body tissues, organs, and complex organ systems.

Scripture uses Hebrew verbs to state that the Creator initially produced the cosmos ex nihilo, out of nothing existing previously. Theologians describe such miracles as transcendent. At the creation event, God also created matter to obey a multitude of physical laws governed by physical constants--fundamental, invariant quantities observed in nature. We may say the cell was created and coded with the ability to make our bodies and the bodies of all living things. This ability clearly has the hallmark of an intelligently designed process since codes are always the product of a mind.

King David the psalmist pronounced the human body “fearfully and wonderfully made” three thousand years ago. Knowledge of human anatomy advanced slowly and did not flourish until the 17th and 18th centuries. But detailed knowledge of cell function and how we are made has been acquired only within the last few decades.

Psalm 139, according to Spurgeon, “warns us against that practical atheism which ignores the presence of God, and so makes shipwreck of the soul.” With our present knowledge of the protein manufacturing ability of the cell, the phrase “fearfully and wonderfully made” becomes even more powerfully meaningful.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What's in a Code?

In earlier days, before the onset of social networking and ubiquitous electronic gadgetry, many of today’s mature adults were entertained by toy coding devices offered by radio adventure programs or commercial food marketers. These devices enabled us to send intelligent messages using mysterious signals which needed translation in order to “decode” the message. Someone had to devise the meaningful message, the code signals to carry it, and the means to translate the code. The supplier of the devices sometimes included a coded message consisting of a set of instructions we were encouraged to follow.

Today’s young people, and perhaps many adults, do not grasp the impact of “breaking the genetic code” which occurred during the early years of the 1960s. The cell, the basic functional unit of all living things, contains the instructions and the means for the manufacturing the thousands of different proteins which make up those living things. The human body is composed of 50,000 to 100,000 proteins. The genetic code directs the synthesis (manufacture) of these proteins by providing the instructions for protein synthesis. In the first few years of the 1960s, molecular biologists broke the “code of life.” That is, they figured out how protein synthesis occurs.

In the building of a skyscraper or even the building of a house, there are thousands of different substances, mostly chemical mixtures and compounds, integrated in a prescribed and orderly manner into the whole structure. Likewise, the bodies of animals, including humans, are composed of multiple substances, mostly organic compounds, which must be manufactured and organized into a functional whole.

It is a fairly simple matter to write a description of such a process. A simple description, however, belies the intricacy and wonder of what actually happens when living things progress from a single cell into a complex, integrated, functional unit containing trillions of cells.

What’s in a code? The blueprint for a skyscraper or a home contains many symbols, instructional shorthand which means little or nothing to the casual onlooker. The blueprint codes were produced by an intelligent agent--the designer. Taken by themselves, the code symbols are meaningless. In the hands of the builder, however, the information contained is interpreted and its instructions followed to produce the desired final product.

We honor the designer of a beautiful, functional home. We marvel at how the coded blueprints were read and correctly executed by the builder and we delight in the final product. How much more exciting is the assembly of a functional living being which has received the Creator’s breath of life? Enabling this miracle is the genetic code which directs the detailed assembly of every living thing.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Design in Different Contexts

Examining a skyscraper, an automobile, or a fine sculpture, we would have little difficulty recognizing that they are designer-conceived and artisan-executed. One could also admire the “beauty” of each achievement, especially in the case of the sculpture.

When we consider a cell in the human body, most people would recognize its design features. This recognition is based on clues that its structures seem systematically fashioned and organized, complete with passageways and enclosures analogous to those in a skyscraper or automobile. We correctly infer a causal agent, a designer.

Some physical systems manifest great beauty but do not signal design features in quite the same manner. For example, weather phenomena exhibit majestic patterns: the shape of a snowflake, the structure of a hurricane, or the deposition of sediment at a river delta. We could experience a sense of worship observing a mountain range, a colorful sunset, or a spiral galaxy seen through a telescope. Each of these systems obeys the determinate laws of physics now in effect in our cosmos. The design inference relates to the original establishment of “rules of the game,” the definite physical laws and constants established from the beginning of time.

Physical scientists revel in the causal logic of physical systems. They experience satisfaction dealing with causes and effects which can be described mathematically. They appreciate order and predictability, a characteristic quite evident as they discover more about how the universe operates.

Biological systems manifest design and order at a different, perhaps higher level. Physicist Walter M. Elsasser (1904-1991), recognized for proposing the dynamo theory to explain earth’s magnetism, became interested in biological issues late in his life. Elsasser recognized the overwhelming complexity of the cell, realizing that its functions could not be explained in a reductionist manner as could physical systems. He became interested in a new field, today called systems biology, in which the complex cellular interactions are explained holistically. Stated another way, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Some naturalistic bio-scientists take this idea even further, assigning aggregates of molecules the ability to "think," or even self-organize.

Walter Thorson, writing in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF), journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), states “Elsasser realized that the phenomena of greatest importance for biology arise from highly coordinated functions of structurally complex systems.” Biological (living) systems manifest a different type of logic--“bio-logic.” Thorson calls it abstract logic contrasted with the causal logic of physical systems. More simply stated, there is something about living systems which transcends the operation of even the most complex physical mechanisms. Living systems function, reproduce, and grow using information programmed by a code--always a sign of the operation of an intelligent mind.

The Creator reserved unique capabilities for living entities, especially the highest form of living beings--man. “And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (Gen. 2:7 NIV) Reflecting on these truths is an occasion for the most reverent worship.