Sunday, December 29, 2013


Why focus on emergentism, a term obscure to most people who profess interest in science? Many initially profess their interest in science. When interested adults discover that some science concepts are difficult and obscure instead of merely interesting and fascinating, they sometimes shrink back. Young people pose a similar scenario. Young children have a natural curiosity concerning events in their environment. Parents and science teachers must insure they do not become overly pedantic with young children. The result could smother the child’s natural tendency to question and thereby hinder the budding scientist.

Adult non-scientists may react to the difficult scientific concept of emergentism in a similar way. John Polkinghorne, a physicist who later became a theologian, has thoughtfully connected many difficult concepts such as emergence and reductionism in two fields of knowledge--science and theology. He has written about reductionism in which a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts. That is, accounts of everyday phenomena can be “reduced” to accounts of its individual constituents. Everyday examples include events in our kitchens or the workings of our automobiles. If some things are working well (or poorly), there is a cause and effect sequence responsible for their workings. If the meal burns or the automobile stalls, there are causes and effects. We are, therefore, reductionists.

Consider acquired human knowledge in life science. Polkinghorne says although the observable universe contains ten sextillion stars, cosmology is a great deal simpler than human biology. For many questions we pose in life science, we are reductionists. We reduce an effect to a cause occurring at a lower level in the event sequence. In many cases, reductionism functions effectively to explain events. High level events are explained by events at a lower level. In other cases reductionism proves completely inadequate to explain reality.

We now introduce a more difficult science concept. The “emergentism” model had its origin back in the nineteenth century. The Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy says, “…emergent entities (properties or substances) ‘arise’ out of more fundamental entities and yet are ‘novel’ or ‘irreducible’ with respect to them.” The encyclopedia continues with the example that “consciousness is an emergent property of the brain.” Human consciousness is not “reducible” to the activity of atoms and molecules in the brain. It is fundamentally a mystery. Claiming that consciousness “emerges” does not explain the phenomenon; it merely describes it.

The sudden origin of life and the sudden appearance of new species on earth are additional examples of emergence. Bio-science literature frequently repeats principles describing emergence. For instance: Complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Also, complex systems, novel and coherent, “self-organize” into novel and coherent systems. Another example: “Sudden evolution.” In the geological history of the earth, paleontologists would describe most evolutionary events as “sudden,” affirming to the record of paleontology told by fossils. Gradual evolution is not a feature of the history of earth life.

Naturalistic scientists poke fun at theistic beliefs held by creationists. They insist upon naturalistic explanations and strive to achieve them. What accounts, therefore, for abrupt changes in complexity in the phenomena of the natural world? Theistic believers leave the door open for belief in occasional miracles of divine intervention. But there are no scientific explanations for divine intervention according to the naturalistic view of science because naturalistic scientists investigate only natural phenomena.

Sociologist Christian Smith has written in The Secular Revolution on the subject of the struggle between religious and secular activists for institutional control and authority over the broad field of science. The Christian view of God as Creator permits miraculous interventions in our temporal sphere. Theistic scientists acknowledge some miraculous interventions along the timeline of earth history. Naturalistic scientists, on the contrary, rule such acknowledgements out of bounds. The interventions accord with the scientific search for truth, nonetheless. “What really happened?” is a perfectly valid question for the scientist. Sadly, this question is often subsumed under the philosophy of the strict worldview of scientism.

Many authors have commented on the interplay among science, theology, and philosophy. They have wrestled with these related issues in countless volumes of commentary, asking how science relates to theology. Scientific definitions and descriptions of reductionism and emergence connect with the laws and activity of the Creator. Questions and answers on these topics should engage thoughtful Christians at a profound level.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


One colorful English language word has become obsolete as a scientific term. Vitalism was never a theological term used to describe the essence of life God implanted in all living things. It was thought instead to embody a mysterious non-physical principle distinct from physiochemical forces. Early scientists used it to describe organic substances. They thought living material had a vital principle inorganic chemicals did not possess. Another colorful term was élan vital, coined by French philosopher Henri Bergson in 1907.

Humanity has the ability to contemplate mysteries of our universe, including its existence, how it originated, how it sustains itself from moment to moment, and humanity’s place in this temporal sphere. Hundreds of other questions spin off from these basic queries. The unique characteristics of living things is but one example.

We inhabit a nearly infinitely miniscule corner of our enormous universe. Human inhabitants inquire, “Is there a God who created this universe in all its grandeur and immensity? Does he sustain its function? Is he involved in the lives of humanity? What special quality separates living creatures from non-living in this miniscule corner of the cosmos?” Such questions occur only in the neural structures of the human brain. Similar inquiries do not occur in neural structures of any other living creatures populating our solar system. We are unique in this type of inquiry.

What essential difference exists between living things and non-living things?  The quantity of matter supporting life on our Earth is vanishingly small when we consider the quantity of matter in the universe which supports no life. Scientists describe life and life processes better than they explain it. We repeat the characteristics of life found in most biology textbooks. It is far more descriptive than explanatory: Living things (1) are organized into cells, (2) manifest metabolism--processes of energy use for construction or breakdown, (3) respond to stimuli, (4) have homeostasis--the ability to maintain their internal stability, (5) grow and develop, (6) reproduce, and (7) change and adapt.

After reviewing a large volume of material it is apparent most life scientists search out a naturalistic cause and effect for virtually every function manifest in living things. Many life processes yield their secrets to this inquiry, but many do not. Reductionism (see previous post) is adequate for many explanations. Many fundamental secrets of life, however, remain unanswered. Bio-scientists confess that many life processes are clothed in fundamental mystery.

In the 19th century the well-established concept called “vitalism” was endorsed by many bio-scientists. Essentially it posited that a “vital spark” or “something special” existed in living things. Vitalists were not necessarily theists proposing God’s sustaining power. They claimed all living things had materials or substances giving them special properties of “aliveness.” The term has fallen completely out of favor among today’s bio-scientists. Daniel Dennett, science philosopher and evolutionary scientist says, concerning vitalism, “The insistence that there is some big, mysterious extra ingredient in all living things—turns out to have not been a deep insight but a failure of imagination.”

The Creator infused the “breath of life.” (Genesis 2:7) We do not subscribe to vitalism as did many biologists the last few hundred years. Naturalistic and theistic scientists alike, however, both acknowledge special qualities living things manifest which non-living things do not. The tiny fraction of physical matter on Planet Earth comprising living things possesses a quality clearly demarcating living from non-living matter. We no longer use the term vitalism, but living matter is distinct from non-living matter. The Creator supplied the “breath of life” for living matter. Modern scientists step around this mystery. They prefer to propose the principles of reductionism or cite the mysteries of “emergent properties” of living things, mysterious properties which emerge at a previously unknown level of complexity.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


Broad topics should be approached with cautious care. Scientific reductionism is such a topic. Characteristics of living things is a multidimensional topic often connected with the concept of reductionism. We’ll begin with the characteristics of living bacteria which began suddenly to inhabit the earth several billion years ago. So far as we know, living things exist only in our Solar System. Planet Earth is the only known life site. Scientists agree that life on earth began suddenly several billion years ago in our water world--morphologically simple, but bio-chemically complex life such as bacteria. Scientists have not solved the problem of life’s origin on Planet Earth on the strength of methodological naturalism. They continue, however, to propose a naturalistic explanation for the initial self-assembly sequence of billions of atoms and molecules in bacteria.

One bacterium contains 100 trillion atoms according to one estimate. Morphologically simple in terms of earth’s most primitive life means a single celled bacterium is a relatively simple structure (except when we carefully inspect the internal structures of the cell). The way the 100 trillion chemical atoms are arranged, however, describes complexity--“biochemical complexity.” Bacterial DNA is bio-chemically complex, not simple. One genus of bacteria contains “only” 159,662 base pairs of DNA and “only” 182 genes. Most bacteria have many more.

What do bacteria have to do with reductionism, we ask? Most definitions of reductionism say, “Everything is to be explained in terms of its smallest constituent parts.” We characterize reductionism as an “explanation” of bacterial life to be somewhat startling. There is so much more unexplainable mystery to the existence of life even at this level of simplicity. Most “explanations” are inadequate descriptions of complex processes or structural complexity, the subject of ongoing research. Understanding structure and function are vital components of the science process. Understanding how a machine works or how a structure functions is a different story entirely.

To explain the underlying forces and energy which caused early earth bacteria of 3.8 billion mya to produce today’s mineral resources from a few simple chemical elements is beyond our capability to adequately explain. To propose that atoms and molecules of early earth bacteria are the “constituent parts” enabling us to understand the essence of how bacterial processes “worked” (and still work) is more descriptive than explanatory. The life forms on Planet Earth as they have appeared in subsequent eons, likewise, seem to obey a mandate beyond the mere physical interactions of atoms and molecules--their smallest constituent parts. Our concern as creationists is the inadequacy of methodological naturalism to arrive at a naturalistic explanation for the unique properties manifest by our earth’s life forms, from simple bacteria to complex humanity. The mystery is much deeper.

Reductionism in its purest form is a naturalistic pillar upon which naturalistic scientists depend. Many scientists struggle to overcome the stigma of scientific reductionism which some Christians use to heap scorn on the endeavor of mainstream science. Reductionism, if defined as a strong component of the scientific principle of cause/effect, can be useful in gathering truth concerning our world. But we must guard against oversimplification with cautious wisdom.

Neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles (1903-1997) maintained “…that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition…we have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world.”

“Something special” sets living things apart from non-living entities in the physical world. Not only is this true in the spiritual world, but also in physical processes as well. We revel in the “special” trait, feeling that the Creator has implanted a “special” quality to living creatures not attributable to “reductionism.” Ultimately, we discover many scientifically unknowable facts pointing to the work of the Creator.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Spectrum of Soulishness

Hebrew scholars have identified 754 uses of the noun nephesh in scripture. A majority of these uses are translated soul in our English Bible. There are a number of other translations. Soul probably comes closest to the correct meaning for most readers of scripture. We resist the temptation to define the term in English, not to mention the complexities of Hebrew. Suffice to say the term soul extends to a defining characteristic beyond mere physical life--that “something special” possessed by many life forms. Most people may agree that soul is a characteristic of most pets and domesticated animals, but the human possession of spirit (let’s call it God-consciousness), sets humans apart from even the most soulish of animals. The categories of body, soul, and spirit, help us distinguish between simple life forms without a soul, more advanced life forms with body and soul, and humanity in possession of body, soul, and spirit.

Nephesh describes an array of life-forms which manifest a combination of intellect, will, emotion, and volition. These characteristics did not characterize the simple life which persisted before the Cambrian Explosion nor did such characteristics apply to the many complex creatures which appeared suddenly at the onset of the Cambrian Explosion, 530 mya. Moreover, in the approximately 400 million years following the Cambrian Explosion, most animals did not possess soulish characteristics. Many animals of the Cenozoic period, extending from the extinction of the dinosaurs, 66 million years ago until the present, may be most clearly categorized as soulish.

Reasons to Believe scholar Hugh Ross has produced provocative thinking about soulishness in animals and the origin of this characteristic. Ross defines the Hebrew verb bara as a special category of God’s creative activity: the transition from non-existence to existence. In Genesis 1 the verb is used for the creation of the universe (verse 1), the creation of soulish animals (verse 21), and the creation of humans (verse 27). The creation of soulishness, therefore, is in a special category. Evolutionists consider the acquisition of this characteristic a gradual outcome of an evolutionary progression, an outcome explained by natural processes. Evolutionists consider “advances” in earth’s creatures as gradual changes in degree, a slow accumulation of traits having origins in prior generations. Creationists, on the other hand, see soulishness as a divine, creative innovation supernaturally imparted to certain animals but not to others.

Some evolutionary scientists note the discontinuity with respect to cognitive abilities in animals, and between animals and humans. Evolution does not explain the phenomenon. They see the evolutionary notion of cognitive continuity as an error. We broaden our proposal as follows: Our Creator has implanted a special trait in many created animals. The trait has been termed “soulishness.” The soulish trait is actually the product of a transcendent miracle, not the product of an ill-defined, gradual evolutionary process.

Hugh Ross has catalogued the “Top Ten Nephesh” from Job 38-39 for special attention in his volume Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job. As we observe the hundreds of created animals, Job’s list is impressive but certainly incomplete. Most readers would probably list dogs and cats as near the top of their preferred categories of soulishness. Job, however, lists a select group of animals as examples of nephesh creatures. The catalog includes the lion, raven, goat, deer, donkey, wild ox, ostrich, horse, hawk, and eagle. All of these animals appeared on Earth during the Cenozoic, a term which means “new life.” Most of these animals appeared fairly late in the Cenozoic era, mostly within the past 10-15 million years. Soulish animals, therefore, were present prior to man’s creation in very recent times, soulishly interacting with each other. When humanity arrived, these beautiful animals were already present to give pleasure, provide service to him, afford companionship, and contribute a source of admiration and amusement (Genesis 2:19).

On a personal level, I have learned to exult in the wondrous antics of our northwest Illinois wildlife, especially our neighborhood birds which exhibit a riveting degree of soulishness. This 2012 blog entry is worth reposting for the benefit of our readers:


Squirrel Sense

The concept of soulishness in animals other than humans has become a source of personal study and fascination. In several posts during the past few years, we have returned to this discussion. The splendor and appeal of animal life on our planet is powerfully related to the notion that many of earth’s created creatures have a soulish trait unexplained by a naturalistic, evolutionary flow of events. Our rural, suburban, and urban neighborhoods are plentifully supplied with animals manifesting this trait.

We introduce a humorous expression with origin in the habits of likely the most commonly observed rural or urban mammal--the squirrel--in particular, the eastern gray squirrel. When the term squirrelly is used, a wide variety of mostly negative meanings come to mind. Negative connotations include odd, nutty, silly, foolish, sneaky, unpredictable, jumpy, eccentric, and strange-acting. A search for this word’s meanings and its uses was entertaining. My observations have affirmed all of these characteristics in our neighborhood squirrels. Their behavior has given rise to this humorous slang expression sometimes applied to people. Squirrels, however, have multiple admirable behavior traits.

The squirrel is a source of childhood fascination. When young people befriend a dog or cat, it is not surprising that their fascination with animal pets is transferred to the common neighborhood squirrel. Alas, squirrels do not respond to human efforts of domestication, much to the disappointment of children. Rather than responding to kindness as dogs and cats do, squirrels may answer with a nasty nip from the animal’s incisors more adapted to gnawing hard shells of acorns, hickory nuts, and black walnuts. The upside of this childhood disappointment may be parental opportunity for teaching discrimination and observational skills.

On the morning I decided to complete my post on squirrels, I observed one of the squirrels in my backyard red cedar tree. Several weeks ago I had observed an adult pair of squirrels busily constructing their winter den from sticks, leaves, and a variety of other building material in the fork of our tree branches. Now it was time for a pre-dawn foray, perhaps to find their day’s food. Squirrels are diurnal and do not hibernate. They must find food regularly all winter, perhaps from their buried caches. They over winter in their leaf dens and sometimes share their dens with their mates or other family members.

In the category of nutty behavior, last summer I observed a lone adult squirrel performing somersaults for about ten minutes at the base of our black walnut tree. The animal flipped from the trunk to the ground, repeating the action again and again. No purpose was apparent except expression of sheer joy as far as I could tell. Perhaps the animal was celebrating last year’s bumper crop of 8000 walnuts from that tree.

Last year I had piled up a row of several thousand black walnuts on the ground next to my garage. These were the walnuts over and above my personal walnut collection and storage needs. After several months they all vanished, probably carried off and buried to provide winter nourishment during the colder months to follow. Several weeks ago two squirrels, one with a large black walnut in its mouth, entertained themselves chasing each other up and down in my back yard walnut tree. One participant finally settled on one branch and proceeded to gnaw away the thick shell while his partner retreated. He consumed the large walnut in its entirety in about a half hour.

Reference books and articles are filled with the lore of squirrels and dozens of other types of wildlife. We recommend that personal observations be supplemented by the wealth of literature available. One blogger’s comments on squirrels used these animals to illustrate their wonderful traits of persistence, playfulness, preparation, protection, peacefulness, and production. Scripture commentators draw a wealth of practical applications based on habits of wildlife and the wonders of living bodily systems. Christ’s reminders about sparrows instruct us about God’s care for these small creatures and about his care for humanity even more.

Even though these animals do not make good pets or relate to humans as do many higher animals, their ability to relate to other members of their own species, nurture their young, and co-exist with other forest residents puts them into the privileged category of soulishness. Rural, suburban, and urban residents are privileged to enjoy the wonders of living creatures each day of their lives. “God made the wild animals according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:25)

Our brief discussion of the soulish qualities of just one of thousands of species of animals is a reminder of several transcendent miracles including the creation of life itself. The creation of interactive and volitional life forms is a step up the stairway of the transcendent miracles we identify in God’s creation of this universe. Our Creator supplies abundant evidence of his existence, his creative acts, and care for his works of creation.