Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ubiquitous Radiant Energy

"Pulsing through our classroom walls and through your bodies at this very moment are hundreds of different forms of electromagnetic radiation! How are you feeling as a result?" This attention-grabbing statement produced mainly quizzical expressions on my students’ faces. But it also triggered fascination and an investigative frame of mind. When the electromagnetic spectrum unit was complete, I hoped it had also evoked a sense of wonder.

One of my favorite topics of study during my years as a classroom teacher was the electromagnetic spectrum. In multiple ways we are continually impacted by it. Where, then, do we begin in our explanation? The matter surrounding us is composed of elements or compounds of elements, or mixtures of elements and compounds. The smallest units of elements are atoms.

Little more than a century ago, the structure of the atom was discovered: a dense nucleus containing one, or more often, a cluster of electrically positive protons, together with electrically neutral neutrons. Surrounding the nucleus is a cloud of negatively charged electrons. In the early 1900s it was shown that most of the atom is just empty space. Different elements were composed of different numbers of protons, neutrons, and electrons.

To understand the nature of the ubiquitous radiant energy surrounding us, we must realize that all atoms possess kinetic (motion) energy at all times. All substances, therefore, possess heat. The higher their temperature, the greater their kinetic energy. Even objects from our kitchen freezers have heat: they are hundreds of degrees above absolute zero--the coldest temperature possible. Atoms may be energized further in many other ways.

As atoms move, their electrically charged particles move with them. When electrical charges move, they release packets of energy called photons. These packets behave like particles, but they also have characteristics of waves. Each instant of our lives we are constantly impacted by a flood of photons or waves, also known as electromagnetic radiation.

Light, a tiny fraction of the many hundreds of forms of electromagnetic radiation, is visible to humans. Most of the remaining forms are not detectable by our human senses. But the multitude of tasks for which they have been harnessed in our era of advanced technology challenge the imagination. In upcoming posts I will discuss more details of the importance and fascination of the electromagnetic radiation which surrounds us.

The Apostle Paul wrote of God’s creation of invisible as well as visible things. For him the invisible things were no less real: “For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…” (Colossians 1:16 NIV). Scientists of the 21st century are making more and more discoveries of the reality of the invisible.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

William Whewell, Polymath

One definition of Renaissance man is “one who has a wide range of accomplishments and intellectual interests.” The seldom used term polymath conveys a much stronger meaning: a very learned person with broad and comprehensive knowledge in many fields. In our day of narrow academic specialization, rare is the modern person worthy of such a description.

William Whewell (1794-1866) was a true polymath. A priest in the Anglican Church, he was better known for achievements in fields other than theology. He possessed expertise in mathematics, architecture, educational reform, moral philosophy, astronomy, mineralogy, and history and philosophy of science, to name a few. In the latter area he is known for defining what he termed “fundamental ideas,” supplied by our own minds. Scientists formulate such ideas midway between the purely ideal (mind) and the purely empirical (experience), drawing upon both.

An important historian of science, Whewell, an early advocate of design theory, has received less attention than he deserves. His writing reminds us of better-known modern science philosophers such as Karl Popper, Michael Polanyi, and Thomas Kuhn. Whewell coined the terms “scientist” and “physicist” as well as other well-known science terminology. He consulted with famous science figures as diverse on the theological spectrum as Charles Darwin and James Clerk Maxwell.

He used the term “colligation” to describe the bringing together of isolated facts to form a unified concept or relationship and coined the term “consilience” to mean a joining together of concepts in order to achieve an even broader conceptual framework. These are terms used by today’s science philosophers to describe how the discipline of science works.

Within his concept of natural theology Whewell described our human ideas about the world as “shadows” of Divine ideas. Our explanations of nature’s laws, therefore, should preclude seeing those laws as “an accident on a cosmic scale.” Many of Whewell’s proposals may qualify him to be recognized as the originator of intelligent design theory, a term formally in use only in the last several decades.

Whewell was commissioned, in 1839, to write one of the eight Bridgewater treatises. These were scientific writings which purposed to speak “on the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as manifested in the Creation.” His standout treatise was titled “Astronomy and General Physics, Considered with Reference to Natural Theology.” Each treatise was book-length, suffused with arguments to demonstrate design in nature. In just a few introductory pages, Whewell used dozens of poetic terms for God, including Divine Governor, Intelligent Author, and Supreme Ordainer.

A reading of several dozen pages demonstrates the enormous changes in scientific writings from the early 19th century to the early 21st. This change is a mirror of the secularism progressively imposed upon our society beginning in the 19th century and accelerating in the 20th and 21st. Whewell wrote, “It may be interesting…to show how the views of the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, which natural science opens to us, harmonize with our belief in a Creator, Governor, and Preserver of the World.”

Whewell’s theology leaned toward Christian universalism. As such, it differed from the orthodox views of brilliant contemporary scientist James Clerk Maxwell. But his concepts of a Creator/Sustainer were, nevertheless, very strong, as evidenced in this statement: “It will, we trust, be difficult or impossible to exclude from our conception of this wonderful system, the idea of a harmonizing, a preserving, a contriving, an intending Mind; of a Wisdom, Power, and Goodness far exceeding the limits of our thoughts.” Most of the treatise was purely scientific without additional devotional statements. The scientific concepts of his treatise were far more advanced than one would think possible for that generation.

One may only imagine what sort of reaction would greet the submission of a similar scholarly scientific article to a popular publication in the 21st century. I found Whewell’s Bridgewater treatise to be inspirational. But while reading most of today’s science writings, we must remember that seeing overlap of the domains of science and religion is an application we, as readers, must make on our own.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bird Exuberance

Hidden in the verses of Psalm 148 is an unusual directive to sea creatures, all ocean depths, weather phenomena, mountains, trees, and wild animals to “Praise the Lord from the earth.” This instruction applies to “small creatures and flying birds.” So I applied these verses to my observations of the unique behavior of birds in our wooded, northwestern Illinois neighborhood.

For several years I have noticed that there are periodic episodes of collective, ebullient behavior among the feathered friends inhabiting our property. The behavior may be described as pure exuberance, having little purpose except obvious enjoyment. Several species of birds, primarily cedar waxwings, robins, and a few others, collect together in treetop crowds and fly noisily and swiftly from tree to tree, frolicking and feeding. After a few minutes the bedlam ceases, only to be resumed later. When this occurs, I tell my wife the birds are “going crazy” again. I’ve seen mixed groups of warblers exhibit similar behavior, especially in autumn.

Other bird behavior provokes amusement in me as an observer. With sanctified imagination, I could speculate that our birds are obeying the poetic directive of the psalmist that even the animals should give praise to their creator. If inanimate heavenly bodies like the sun, moon, and stars are called upon to offer praise, merely by displaying their beauty and glory, we might also view the deliberate antics of neighborhood avian entertainers in the same way.

Some members of a large group of young cedar waxwings recently showed off their joie de vivre in our leafless black walnut tree. They entered and exited a deserted nest structure, pulling off dead leaf stems and deliberately dropping them to the ground. Then, closely facing each other, opened and closed their bills as if speaking with each other. Cedar waxwings are known to pass food items down a row of birds sitting on a branch until one bird finally eats it. Other bird species soar in groups on rising air drafts, cool and clean themselves in water puddles, or gather in social groups to fly off deliberately toward destinations known only to them.

I could continue to describe the entertaining antics of crows, hummingbirds, owls, blue-jays, and many more. A strong case could be made that if the antics of our avian entertainers amuse and entertain, our own human emotions of praise are heightened.

A previous post described spring bird behaivior in our area:

Horatius Bonar, known as the 19th century prince of Scottish hymn writers, wrote, “Thus the air is vocal. It has a hallelujah of its own. The ‘flying fowl’ praise him. This is creation’s harp…which each sunrise awakens, “turning all the air to music.” Charles Spurgeon, 19th century “Prince of Preachers,” wrote in The Treasury of David, “Birds of every wing are called upon to join the universal worship. No one can become familiar with insect and bird life without feeling that they contribute a wonderful chapter in the history of divine wisdom.” I encourage readers to take quality time to observe the praise-givers.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Is Intelligent Design Science?

Would you like to foment a lively discussion? Just ask a few friends if intelligent design (ID) theory is scientific. Probably most creationists would say, “Yes.” A few will say, “No.” And others won’t be sure--possibly because they do not understand what scientific means. My discussions with several theistic friends on this topic have resulted in a lively exchange, but not much agreement.

If you like surprises, consider that some prominent atheists consider ID to be both scientific and constitutional to discuss in the classroom. Prominent professor of law and philosophy Thomas Nagel of New York University, a prolific author and brilliant thinker, has stated, “I suspect that the assumption that science can never provide evidence for the occurrence of something that cannot be scientifically explained is the principle reason for the belief that ID cannot be science; but so far as I can see, that assumption is without merit.”

In his article “Public Education and Intelligent Design” in Philosophy and Public Affairs, he continues: “A purely semantic classification of a hypothesis or its denial as belonging or not to science is of limited interest to someone who wants to know whether the hypothesis is true or false.” Nagle also states, “The denier that ID is science faces the following dilemma. Either he admits that the intervention of such a designer is possible, or he does not. If he does not, he must explain why that belief is more scientific than the belief that a designer is possible.”

In previous posts I have quoted atheist philosopher Bradley Monton and agnostic philosopher David Berlinski. Monton maintains the legitimacy of viewing ID as science and feels we need to ask a more important question: Is ID true?

Evolutionary scientists poke fun at theistic creationists and believers in ID. Their well-publicized statements encourage an army of supporters to endorse their naturalistic worldview. They become enthusiastic cheerleaders for the cause of philosophical naturalism. This cheerleader squad takes comfort from many evolutionary scientists who endorse a naturalistic worldview.

It is ironic that some of the best thinking is being done by a few atheist philosophers such as Thomas Nagel and Bradley Monton. Analyses of the ID/creation vs. evolution discussion should not be based on simplistic, default positions that ID and creationism are irrational and unscientific. Dr. Nagel’s detailed analysis illustrates this well.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Issues of Intelligent Design

The Intelligent Design (ID) proposal has come under heavy fire ever since it was put forward two decades ago. Supporters of ID claim the features of the cosmos and living things are best explained as the work of an intelligent designer rather than by natural happenstance. Researchers such as William Dembski and Michael Behe have further refined ID concepts, expanding the discussion with proposals such as “specified complexity” and “irreducible complexity” to bolster the case.

Naysayers shoot down ID with clever arguments. They say ID supporters use ambiguous terminology or fail to recognize all possible mathematical alternatives. When I read the creative suggestions attempting to explain away Behe’s idea of irreducible complexity, I realize that the debate will not end with one side or the other “proving” its point. Many important theories in science do not come close to achieving a standard of proof acceptable to all parties. This is not a weakness of the process of science. Rather, it is an indication that scientific knowledge sometimes changes as new evidence comes to light. Ideally, the revisions bring us ever closer to truth.

The most well-known think tank promoting ID is Discovery Institute in Seattle. They have been accused of promoting the “wedge strategy,” an organized program to overcome the naturalistic, materialistic, evolutionary worldview with one characterized by open belief in Christian theistic principles. The accusers imply that there is a stealth quality inherent in Institute activities, perhaps with political overtones.

In a telephone conversation with a Discovery Institute staff member, I mentioned the term “supernatural” in connection with an article I was writing. “Intelligently designed” was preferable, he stated. Discovery Institute staff members make no overt claim that the intelligent designer is the Judeo-Christian God of scripture. This is consistent with the stated goals of one of Discovery Institute’s programs--the Center for Science and Culture (CSC)--which challenges neo-Darwinian theory and supports “scholars developing the scientific theory of intelligent design.”

Discovery Institute’s failure to name the God of the Bible as the designer may work against their underlying goals. Secularists accuse the Institute of concealing their real purpose--promoting the Christian view of creationism, and therefore, having an explicitly religious purpose. Secularists, particularly in the field of education, see religion, or any proposal with a flavor of religion, as threatening the purity and integrity of the science enterprise.

Instead of the “respectable, loving concordat between our magisteria,” as spoken by the popular evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, it is disheartening to note that the two magisteria (authoritative schools of knowledge), science (as rigorously and naturalistically defined by many science professionals), and religion are not permitted to intersect. Sadly, this situation indicates a clash of worldviews more than an inherent incompatibility between the two magisteria.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Subdue the Earth

In Genesis 1:28, God instructs man to “multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” Virtually all Bible translations render the identical imperative: subdue the earth. The term is sometimes misunderstood, especially in a day when we are becoming more aware of the need for prudent care of our planet. In this context, the meaning suggests that both humanity and the earth will benefit from our action, while neither will be harmed.

How should we understand "subdue" in this application? Consider how a vineyard must be pruned to control unwanted and detrimental growth, or how a garden needs to be weeded, cultivated, and supplied with water and nutrients at appropriate times. Think of methods of taming rivers: using them for irrigation, flood control, energy production, or travel. We have devised internal combustion engines to convert chemical energy to useful motion, combining many simple machines to fashion complex functioning units. In modern times we have understood electromagnetic theory, and have now harnessed the energy of many different electromagnetic waves for multiple applications, including the transfer of nearly limitless quantities of information through space almost instantly. In the last fifty years scientists have unlocked the DNA code, applying that knowledge to man’s benefit in the fields of medicine and agriculture. This summary barely scratches the surface.

From the moment of the creation of man, all of earth's raw potential existed untamed, waiting for man to discover how to subdue it. In many cases the wait lasted thousands of years. The spectrum of electromagnetic radiation has existed throughout the timeline of cosmic history. But man has learned how to tap its potential a mere moment ago in terms of the timeline of human history. In the Old Testament there are many descriptions of agricultural discovery, from tending and working the Garden to maximizing productivity by letting the land lie fallow periodically--the equivalent of taking a rest break to regain one’s strength. The captive Hebrews observed and no doubt participated in Egyptian construction projects which amaze even modern building technologists.

Subdue the earth. Does this mean conquer, subjugate, overuse, or abuse? Or does it refer to acts of intelligent discovery and management--sometimes activating, at other times restraining and controlling? The Genesis directive to “subdue” was an imperative to apply principles we now consider scientific in order to benefit man while tenderly caring for the environment. Man has been gifted by God to accomplish this task.