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.