Friday, November 30, 2012

Remote Sight Sensing

As we consider the sense of sight, we may focus on the anatomy of the eye, how it functions to receive and transmit light-borne messages electrically to the brain and finally, what happens in our brains to integrate the electrical messages and provide conscious perception of the visual images. However, these events are only the last act in the drama of sight.

The story of vision begins with light stimuli generated from and transmitted across distant or nearby space. Human vision is an example of remote sensing. Remote sensing is a technological term applied to activities such as mapping, speed determination, collection of weather data, intelligence gathering, and other purposes. The technology makes use of electromagnetic radiation in most of its applications. Sound waves are also used to access information from remote locations. In all cases we gather information about the physical world from a distance, sometimes very great distances.

Less often the term remote sensing could be applied to human senses such as sight or hearing. Direct or reflected light is radiated at a distance from objects remote from us, finally to be captured by our vision sensors. Before the scientific advances of the past several hundred years, remote sensing would have applied only to human senses. The term originated in 1960. In the 21st century the term is used almost exclusively for technological marvels produced by man-made devices. “Reconnaissance at a distance” is an appropriate characterization of remote sensing for either application.

Lest we become overly enamored with modern inventions and technology, we wish to refocus attention on four aspects of the human sight sequence: (1) a distant source of light radiation, (2) the transmission of light radiation across distances of space ranging from very great to very close, (3) the bodily sensor organs, our eyes, and finally, (4) the processor of sight information, the brain, to which falls the responsibility of interpreting the electrical messages sent from the retina through the optic nerve and processing and converting the information into a conscious, meaningful experience.

In future posts we will focus on the astonishing physical processes of the human sight sequence. More remarkable is the plan of the Creator manifest in each aspect of the human sight sequence and collectively in the integrated process of sight from source to coherent intellectual recognition.

Many sources describe in detail knowledge of the physical and physiological events of the sight sequence. For laypersons interested in the science of light, sight, and the mental processing of visual signals, plentiful resources are available. Physical scientists have mastered the science of light production and transmission. The medical field has produced ophthalmologic knowledge and outstanding levels of patient care. Modern knowledge has progressed to an unheard of level within the last several generations.

The Christian view of the wonders of light and sight possesses a strong flavor of natural theology. Merriam-Webster defines the term as follows: “Theology deriving its knowledge of God from the study of nature independent of special revelation.” The term natural theology means different things to different people, notwithstanding that Merriam-Webster’s definition signals that knowledge of God and his attributes may be achieved by studying the wonders of nature. Very few scientists would avow that study of the natural world enables us to access knowledge of God. Their definition of the process of science precludes this acknowledgement. However, many Christians accept the Merriam-Webster definition.

Natural theology defined in this way provokes vocal objections from most professional scientists. Modern definitions of science, accepted by science professionals, would rule such a view out of bounds, because science has been declared to be an intrinsically limited discourse, limited precisely because its presuppositions are properly naturalistic.

We have digressed for a purpose, highlighting our knowledge of (1) the ability of matter to generate, under different conditions, virtually unlimited electromagnetic wavelengths, (2) the ability of a virtually infinite variety of electromagnetic energy to speed off through space, (3) man’s bodily and technological ability to detect thousands of different electromagnetic wavelengths and use them for multiple purposes, and (4) our ability to convert thousands of light data points to electrical images and mentally reconstruct the millions of electrical signals to produce a meaningful image. This is the extraordinary ability of the human body to convert light to sight.

Believing that light and sight is a naturalistic, random, purposeless effect, a progression of events without a cause, is irrational to an unimaginable degree. Even a fundamental understanding of just one bodily sense--the sense of sight--helps us to investigate and dismiss our doubts. Natural theology integrates the role of God as Creator with creation of the functional wonders of our natural world.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Light for Sight

We hesitate to assign sight to top ranking in the catalog of our bodily senses. That temptation, nevertheless, is strong. What wonders does our understanding of sight provide? And what of our marvelous subjective experience of sight, apart from understanding the physiology of how it works? For our sense of sight to be operative, there must be generation and transmission of light energy through space from a light source. In addition there must be an organ of vision to receive the light energy. In each case, wonderfully complex events complete the process. Complete understanding requires us to grasp physical processes of generation and transmission of light energy as well as the function of the eye and brain in making meaningful visual images spring to cognizance.

In 2009 we posted a series on light, just one manifestation of the bath of electromagnetic waves in which we are immersed each moment of our lives. Before we grasp the beauty of light, the energy form by which we experience vision, we must understand what processes produce light and transport light images to our eyes. Accordingly, I encourage my readers to review my 10-post series on light as a prelude to investigating vision. The series begins with this post:

Each additional article may be accessed with the “newer post” link at the bottom of each entry.

Visible light is transmitted to our eyes through space via “packets” of electromagnetic energy traveling at 300,000 km/sec. At this speed light travels the distance around earth’s equator more than seven times per second. While the speed of light is seldom expressed in speed units of miles/hr, the speed has been calculated as 670,616,629 miles/hr. At that speed light almost covers the distance to giant planet Saturn in the time we need to consume a leisurely evening meal.

How many “packets” of light energy enter our eyes each second? The answer depends on what color light we are observing. If we observe an object giving off red light, 430 trillion “packets” of light pass through our cornea each second. The “packets” of red light are about 1/40,000 inch in length. A physical scientist prefers the term “photons” to “packets of light.” The shortest wavelength is violet light. If we observe violet light, 750 trillion photons enter our eyes each second. Physical scientists tell us violet light has a frequency of 750 trillion hertz (Hz).

In our first lessons on atomic structure we learned that all matter is composed of electrically positive protons, neutrons without an electrical charge, and electrons possessing negative charges. The atoms of all matter are in constant motion from thermal energy. So also are their associated electrical charges. The constant motion of the electrically charged particles is the source of photons. Several types of electromagnetic waves, including light, are continually produced by ordinary matter. In addition physicists have discovered the means for artificially generating a virtually unlimited variety of electromagnetic wavelengths. Their multiple uses range from communications to medical applications.

Electromagnetic wavelengths of visible light, a miniscule fraction of all possible wavelengths, are used in our vision almost every waking moment. Modern technology also uses electromagnetic waves produced by scientists in multiple ways. It is interesting to contemplate what life was like barely two centuries ago before scientists began to make discoveries in respect to the electromagnetic spectrum. Their understanding of the nature, generation, and transmission of light was almost completely lacking but their lives were filled with the everyday luxury of their sense of sight.

The pioneers of the Scientific Revolution could only imagine what discoveries were in store for the human race. Their God-gifted talent, creativity, vision, and dedication helped them discover truths and applications originally conceived in the mind of the Creator and known by him since the universe was created.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sight Sense

Many people experience a well known age-related deficiency in our sight mechanism. The modern remedy for this sight deficit is within easy medical reach. We speak of the common problem known as cataracts, a minor malady providing fodder for humor relating to our golden years. Modern medicine has made cataract surgery a less invasive microsurgery affair these days. This ophthalmologic procedure introduces us to a more in-depth discussion of one of the most wonderful organs of the human body along with spiritual lessons our sense of sight provides.

Dirt-streaked house windows, foggy automobile windshields, or condensation-covered eyeglasses on a cold winter day, all illustrate the medical malady of cataracts. The eye’s focusing mechanism centers on the lens, located behind the pupil. This opening becomes larger or smaller to permit entry of different amounts of light. Contraction and expansion of the opening is accomplished by muscles in our iris. The flexible lens, in our youthful years, is also able to change its shape due to involuntary muscles. By so doing, light images from different distances are able to focus precisely on light-sensitive cells in the retina, similar to focusing slide images on the screen during our power point presentations.

Cataracts occur when proteins in the lens undergo changes and become cloudy, usually with advancing age. The cloudy lens is removed. A new artificial lens is surgically implanted to transmit the light rays and focus the image clearly on the retina once again. Some advanced multi-focal lenses enable patients to focus on images at different distances. Our youthful lens formerly accomplished the task by changing its shape with muscular contractions and relaxations.

The physical sequence of proper light transmission within our eyes is perhaps the simplest process to understand relative to our vision. We have mentioned only a few parts of the eye’s anatomy, including the lens. Treatment of cataracts is a relatively simple procedure when performed by the trained hand of an experienced surgeon. We must not compare the simplicity of cataract remediation with the divine genius manifest by our Creator when he designed an organ of vision as marvelous as the human eye. The cascade of processes enabling vision after the light image focuses sharply on the retina demands a different and enhanced understanding of chemical, electrical, and psychological processes of majestic complexity. This does not, however, minimize the simple beauty of the focusing and transmission capability of the eye’s lens.

Charles Darwin uttered a famous statement questioning whether the process of evolution could ever produce a functioning structure such as the eye. Darwin stated, “To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.” This Darwin quotation has been repeated many times as an indicator, from Darwin’s own mouth, of the absurdity of evolution. But in the same passage he goes further to propose that such a scenario is not unrealistic after all, if we could affirm numerous imaginative “What ifs?”

One of my favorite KJV passages is the translation of I Cor 13:12. Near the conclusion of the love chapter the Apostle Paul states “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face…” Many spiritualize this translation which more realistically speaks of looking back through a mirror at a distorted or fuzzy image. The spiritual application to blurry vision is appropriate. Sometimes our physical vision is impeded by age-related or illness-related handicaps.

Another application relates to the well-known scientific reality of aging physical systems. This universe is running down according to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Briefly stated, we observe that all physical systems are slowly deteriorating from a useful, high energy level to a less useful low energy level in our present frame of time. This includes emergence of cataract phenomena from protein deterioration. Welcome to the experience of aging!



Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fallibilism in Science

Science professionals working in natural science most often seem confident their interpretations are certain. The field of science has acquired the cachet of certainty. Science professionals promote this vision. As a science educator the appeal of science for my students consisted of confident discoveries about what the world was like and how things in the world worked. Along the highway of their science studies, we assumed most of our students judged the world was an interesting and fascinating place worth discovering.

Most discoveries of the “hard sciences” appear fairly certain as methods of their discovery become known. Physics, chemistry, earth sciences, and biology are considered hard sciences. Systematic observation and rigorous mathematically quantified experimental methods help us achieve the comfort of certainty. Apart from the intrinsic fascination for results at this level of discovery, even more satisfaction results from knowledge that the application of our science improves our everyday lives. How could our lives become more enjoyable? The progression to applied science is a natural transition making our science even more appealing.

Some hard sciences, especially earth sciences and biology, permit a somewhat more diverse range of interpretation, particularly when considering cause and effect within historical aspects of their study. For instance, climate scientists may interpret cause and effect of past climate changes differently, even as today’s climate scientists have widely different interpretations of today’s cause and effect. Biologists view the history of earth’s life forms according to an evolutionary or naturalistic mindset, or a creationist mindset, or perhaps some combination of both.

Perhaps trouble lurks underneath our optimistic idealism. One cannot read broadly about the history of science or the current state of affairs in the world of science and fail to become aware of a term popularized by an American scientist and philosopher of science who lived and wrote a century ago. Charles Peirce (1839-1914) coined the term fallibilism to describe the reality that man can be wrong about his understanding of the world and the beliefs he embraces. Peirce wrote “Any claim justified today may need to be revised or withdrawn in light of new evidence, new arguments, and new experiences.”

Many modern observers have not encountered the term fallibilist with respect to science. I have seldom encountered the term in my discussions with friends concerning science topics. The concept applies across all human experience in any field of knowledge, but the term is clearly not overworked. Proponents of personal views, rather, devote much of their energies toward defending conclusions based on their own research. Honest, careful science professionals are justified in presenting their research findings with confidence. Notable exceptions are fields where the scientists are clearly driven by heavy philosophical considerations. For example, many secular scientists freely acknowledge that science is a philosophy-driven enterprise. Daniel Dennett, one of the champions of the New Atheist movement and an evolutionary biologist, says “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”

Scientists and professional researchers in every field of knowledge are not fond of characterizing their work as controversial or subject to potential error. Personal pride sometimes prevents researchers from acknowledging errors or potential errors in their body of work, much less errors in their conclusions. The most honest researchers would acknowledge their work and beliefs are subject to error and revision. They would be considered fallibilists. When arguments are presented to support their beliefs, many researchers suppress evidence which could weaken their proposals. Were they to deal transparently with countervailing evidence, their tentativeness may signal a refreshing willingness to search for truth rather than to labor for a purely personal agenda.

Our human journey through life is filled with learning, unlearning, and relearning. The scope of knowledge is exceedingly broad. Our blog deals with two important spheres of knowledge and their interconnectedness. Knowledge of science connects with theology--God is the author of truth in both spheres. God has gifted us with tools of discovery to help us access truth in science and theology. Discoveries in science point toward God as the Creator of all things and reveal much about his nature. At the same time, our grasp of theological truth helps inform us about the workings of our physical world. It is important to willingly acknowledge interpretational errors in either science or theology as we discover them.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Soulish Avian Enthusiasm

Our previous posts on the collective enthusiasm of birds in our immediate Northern Illinois neighborhood need some updating. Along with my personal sharing of a few local adventures with birds, I must repeat a definition of soulishness from my summer post on that subject. Soulishness is a trait imparted by our Creator to the created animals described in Genesis 1:21--the endowment of mind, will, and emotions in order that these creatures may form relationships with members of their own species as well as with human beings. My yard has provided more than its share of soulish bird enthusiasm. Some of their behavior may border on deliberate humor.

This autumn I have been impacted several times by the diverse soulish behavior of our feathered friends. First I shall describe behaviors more obviously intended to please other members of their own species. One day a virtual passel of robins swooped in upon the ornamental fountain just outside my office window. It doubles variously as a drinking station and bird bath. Three or four robins bathed together in the small bath while others hopped around and scratched in the mulch below it looking for food. Many other birds observed from the nearby apple tree, their former springtime rivalries forgotten as many other birds flew in and out of the action zone. After ten minutes, the action ceased as quickly as it had begun.

Cedar waxwings, infrequent visitors to our birdbath, nevertheless put on a show of unity and precision one recent day. Four birds equally spaced at the quadrants of the bowl remained quiet and still while their flock mates watched from the nearby branches or flew in and out, presumably on inspection tours. Once again the action ceased suddenly, leaving our fountain deserted. At other times the bath has supplied opportunities for “mixed” bathing, servicing two different bather species at once while two or three separate species watched the action from a near vantage point.

The most fascinating exercise in diverse species cooperation occurs several times each autumn. Recently I counted seven different species flying in and out of the tree branches all at once in our nearby woods. They were sometimes feeding on small cedar cones or insects. Primarily the action consisted of seemingly irrational excited flights from tree to tree in mixed groups. I have described this group action as “going nutty again,” producing some collective excitement. The group consisted of robins, cedar waxwings, tufted titmice, bluebirds, chickadees, a purple finch, and one or two unidentified birds. This is an example of close cooperation between various species. It is reminiscent of human cooperation between diverse groups. The cooperative autumn behavior of robins at the fountain illustrates the willingness to put aside early season intra-species squabbles and join together in unity within their own species.

Perhaps the most people-friendly birds are chickadees. This tiny bird’s vocalization fills the seasons with audible joy. Years ago I succeeded in coaxing one bird to alight on my hand, a not uncommon experience of bird enthusiasts. A few days ago I heard close wing beats several times as a tiny bird approached closely before flying off. I suspected the chickadees had earlier scavenged the black walnut shells I had left behind. On this occasion the little birds approached closely to inspect my work, then retreated to nearby branches. Long after my work was done it was obvious the chickadees had enjoyed the leftover walnut fragments.

As I started writing this post, I heard crows vocalizing in a group through my closed windows. They are intensely social animals. A special treat a few weeks earlier was their display of chasing one another, diving and somersaulting out of apparent mischief or joy. A few miles from home, several dozen chimney swifts flew in and out of a country bridge culvert one evening last summer as our grandchildren watched the display. A nearby town’s industrial chimney supplies swift watchers with seasonal action as they enter and exit their overnight roost before retiring for the night.

Aside from the joy provided for us by our local birds, high level enjoyment is also provided for residents who take time to systematically observe. Most often the bird encounters I describe are accidental and unplanned. We have only to be alert to the multiple wonders around us. Neighborhood bird observations join with the wonder of plant life, mammals, insects and other animals, weather (sometimes frightening, but always interesting), or changing astronomical phenomena which beg to be studied and understood.

High on the list of human enjoyments are soulish animals, created with some qualities which abound in created man. These animals were made, to some extent, for man to observe and enjoy. During imaginative moments, I fancy that our soulish animals may perform for human enjoyment as well as their own. Among the spectrum of human experience from sorrow to ecstasy, we are exhorted to savor God’s gifts. The New Living Translation gives us a fitting reminder: “Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment.” (I Tim. 6:17)

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Natural Theology and Science

Alister McGrath is a theologian and scientist of high reputation. He has written a three-volume work on the relationship between Christian theology and the natural sciences entitled A Scientific Theology. McGrath approaches his subject from a position of creedal purity and orthodoxy, described by McGrath as a characteristic of evangelical faith. Many other books authored by McGrath express enthusiasm for the interface between Christian theology and the natural sciences.

McGrath delivered the Gifford lectures for the John Templeton Foundation in 2009. His topic was “A Fine-tuned Universe: Science, Theology, and the Quest for Meaning.” He would assert that the reality of the natural order helps us affirm the objective reality of God. This observation, however, falls short of McGrath’s extensive development and description of the connection between Christian theology and the natural sciences. Perhaps he would defer to his own commentary after volume 3 was written: “I have certainly not achieved real closure on the issues it aimed to address.”

The writings of McGrath address my personal query: Do we wish to describe objective reality only in human terms? Or do we wish, by our investigation, to help us identify the Creator and His works? Does our personal exploration of the natural order help us identify the objective reality of God? Above all, these realities are our primary concern.

McGrath speaks of the provisionality of the findings of science. The conclusions of science are known to change. Therefore, he seeks to address the interface of science and faith on a level positioned above the explicit timeline and origins questions. Stated another way, when questions emerge where specific events and processes on the historical timeline are raised, we may describe our responses in more general theological terms.

For the past few years I have conducted extensive high level email and in-person discussions with several evangelical friends, well-known professionals in their fields of science and education. Their insistence that science is viewed by nearly all of today’s scientists as a naturalistic enterprise is viewed with concern by McGrath in one of his recent writings: “Scientists, like all other professionals, are strongly territorial and resent intrusion into their territory by those who are not members of their guild. Natural theology, some of their members would maintain, represents such a scholarly trespass, opening the door to intellectual contamination.” Even some Christians practicing in scientific fields endorse the notion that the blending of modern science and natural theology represents a “scholarly trespass.” Their “territory” is not to be entered unless the password of naturalism and naturalistic is repeated and observed in de facto scientific practice.

Several exact quotations from the letters of my personal friends serve to illustrate what McGrath may mean by his concept of scholarly trespass: (1) Science is an intrinsically limited discourse, limited precisely because its presuppositions are properly naturalistic; (2) I believe modern science as such was always secular in the sense of embracing methodological naturalism; (3) They (science and religion) are not a single, self-consistent whole but two very different ways of viewing reality; (4) We are convinced, however, that standard science does not deal with God and his activities. It is not competent to do so. Science may reach a point where it throws up its hands and simply admits: We can’t figure out how humans emerged, at least not within the framework of our methodological naturalism. But for now, they do not believe they are at this point, and they consider bringing God into the picture violates their principle of methodological naturalism.

Dr. McGrath’s writings are a laudable effort to bridge the gap between science and theology. The dimensions of this discussion are broad, indeed. To the degree we embrace secular science with its naturalistic presuppositions, we will always experience impasse as we communicate our revelations concerning the science/faith interface with those who do not share our concept of God as Creator and Sustainer of all things.

Caution must guide us as we embrace the “provisionality” of contemporary science theory of “molecules to man” evolution. Many enthusiasts of the interdigitation between science and natural theology seldom warn of unanswered questions and controversies concerning evolutionary theory as a broad conceptual belief framework into which thousands of observations must fit. Brilliant proponents of the theology/science interface present biological evolution as a God-supervised process and explain how it is supposed to work according to a naturalistic process. On the other hand, explaining the sequence of developmental events of our “fine-tuned universe” since the original creation, complete with its God-ordained, front-loaded physical constants, is a relatively simple issue by comparison. But when earth’s complex bio-chemical life first appeared, followed by numerous “biological big bangs” over succeeding eons of time--that is another matter.

My discussion does not include a scientific rationale for transcendent creation events. Many scientists have produced such rationale. In particular, the writings of Dr. Stephen C. Meyer in Signature in the Cell have generated a powerful apologetic for sudden and supernatural production of coded genetics for earth’s multiple life forms. His writings harmonize science and theology. The Apostle Paul penned a brief description of his vision of a scientific theology. Its single verse simplicity and majesty are unmatched: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” (Rom. 1:20 NIV)