Monday, February 27, 2017

Weather or Climate Change?

Weather change or climate change? It may be more appropriate to use weather change more frequently. Climate change is seriously misunderstood, particularly in the last several decades. Climate change is one of the important topics du jour at present. One can barely read or listen to media commentary without encountering the term global warming or climate change as a part of reportorial cachet. The term “global warming” has been transitioning to “climate change.” Real or perceived changes in animal or plant populations or behavior on land or sea? Heat waves, cold spells, droughts, or floods? Long or short term trends in our weather? Memories of deep snows from our childhood? Retreat of glaciers or changing habits of polar bears? Increased occurrences of tornadoes or hurricanes? Seldom is discussion of these issues   raised without coupling it with climate change. We are highly interested in weather and climate phenomena, but we long for more sanity and realism in our analyses of these vital topics. 

Of course the climate is changing. Long term changes have occurred for millennia. Some changes are subtle; others are more dramatic and impactful. With respect to global warming, we recall our recent discussions on the birth of civilization and its coincidence with the waning of Earth’s latest Ice Age. The cessation of the last major Ice Age beginning roughly twenty thousand years ago relegated our contemporary concerns about global warming insignificant in comparison. A large area of the northern US, Europe, and Asia was covered in thick layers of ice back then. In just a few thousand years the bulk of the ice sheet had melted. We now exist in a period of relative climate favorability and stability. Periodic changes in the shape of Earth’s orbit, the axial tilt, and the precession of our planet’s axis and orbital plane brought about most of the warming. A more recent theory posits that in addition, melting glacial ice caused a disruption of deep ocean currents leading to release of trapped CO2 in the southern hemisphere and intensified the warming. As with all weather and climate, uncertainty and complexity are difficult to untangle and separate.

The theorized events related to the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age are only moderately related to climate change concerns which have intensified in the last few decades. Carbon dioxide is presently receiving much of the blame for Earth’s current slight warming. This naturally produced trace gas, vital for thriving plant life, has been labelled a “pollutant” by the EPA. Even if it deserves a modicum of “credit” for a small amount of Earth warming, we cannot attribute a rise of 8º C since the Ice Age began its retreat to increased amounts of CO2 released by human consumption of fossil fuels since the onset of the Industrial Age. Since the Ice Age began its retreat our Earth has gained 8º C in average temperature. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the significant rise in human use of fossil fuels, Earth’s temperature has risen less than 1.5º C. Some scientific organizations claim the slight climate and weather changes of the past several decades have been natural and that human beings cannot delay or stop the progress of these changes. We are able only to adapt to them. We concur with this statement. (These organizations are disparaged as “climate deniers.”) These changes are related to natural cycles which occurred in human history many times before. The current evangelistic zeal of many citizens is rooted in questionable science.

Recently our Northern Illinois environment experienced a noteworthy weather event. For now we withhold the details of this weather event, except to say that it was a rare February weather phenomenon. Our question remains: Was it “Climate change?” or was it an unusual “weather change” event? Our analysis: It was both. (We report in more detail in a future post.) Our population has an insatiable urge to consume news analyses and information on a broad spectrum—weather and climate change events ranking near the top. This is a commendable objective sometimes with an undesirable downside. Journalistic zeal for the story sometimes overwhelms measured, realistic analysis. Details of the story are selectively and disproportionately reported to accomplish a specific agenda. As “producers” of the news, scientists have a sober responsibility to investigate and report free of personal and political agendas. As “consumers” of the news readers must read, listen, analyze, and conclude using the same standards. Never have these guidelines been more important than in our quest for the truth about weather and climate change.

Earth’s weather and climate systems are of paramount concern as they relate to human well-being. Weather and climate processes are beautiful partners with the physical matter composing our planet. This partnership is the venue for our total existence and supplies all of man’s nutritional requirements for healthy physical sustenance. Acquiring a correct and appropriate knowledge base of our systems of weather and climate is of utmost importance. Our physical planet with its interacting systems is one of humanity’s beautiful gifts from the Creator of all things. “The Earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, The world, and those who dwell in it.” Psalm 24:1 (NASB).  



Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Consciousness in Animals

Human consciousness is on a higher plane than consciousness in animals. Nevertheless, biologists acknowledge that mammals, birds, and perhaps a few lower animals possess the “neurological substrate” to experience consciousness. Anyone who has owned a pet, most especially a dog, would recognize the presence of conscious feelings. Their feelings are not simply explained by the action of atoms and molecules. Stated differently, consciousness in humans or animals is not a reductionist phenomenon. We cannot explain consciousness in either humans or animals by citing simple physical causes and effects. 

Consciousness is one of the ultimate mysteries of the universe. Presently consciousness is beyond the ability of science to explain. We have posited that our omnipotent and omniscient God/Creator is the ultimate supernatural entity of consciousness. We may acknowledge this statement to be true, but in terms of explaining consciousness with cause and effect reductionism, science does not even come close.

Our post title refers to consciousness in animals. Coming from the blurry cloud of speculation, we descend to the realm of clear observation: We are able to observe intense feelings of consciousness in our pets. They express strong devotion to their masters and a desire to please them. They have a sense of playfulness, even humor. They are sensitive to our feelings. On occasions they sense danger for their masters and warn us of the danger.

Many animals are capable of thought and able to plan. Our evidence? Have you ever seen your dog suddenly get an “idea?” Sometimes pets will suddenly scurry off to “parts unknown” for reasons known only to them. Perhaps they thought of the joy of exercise, hunting down prey, or meeting up with one of their friends. (We confess this is pure speculation.)

In their devotion to their masters dogs show emotions such as happiness and shame. Some dog breeds and many other animals do not experience the same positive feelings of consciousness in their interactions with humans. They are cantankerous, even vicious. Their owners would do well to control and curb their conscious, unpleasant outbreaks. God has created animals with a diverse spectrum of consciousness. Humans are able to observe, describe, react, and enjoy these traits.

Because of the many dimensions of consciousness in animals, we must treat our pets, cattle, and domesticated or wild animals with humane respect. A passage in the Old Testament indicates ancient people possessed divinely given freedom to harvest animals for food: “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything” (Genesis 9:3 NIV). Ancient residents were probably not concerned with deeper existential questions in days when survival was more challenging.

Dr. Hugh Ross has written about soulishness in animals. Many higher level animals have “the capacity for a limited range of thought, choice, and feeling, but without the spiritual qualities possessed by humans.” They have mind, will, and emotions and form relationships with their own species and with man. Soulishness is a concomitant of the fascinating trait of consciousness in many animals. Consciousness, either in humans or in animals, is a product of God’s creative work and is given for our enjoyment.                  

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Systems Integration

In a healthy person the eleven interconnected biological body systems function normally as a single system. The brain, part of the central nervous system, controls and coordinates the functions of the other ten systems. Electrical messages pulse through the spinal column and into a network of neural branches toward the organs of the individual body system. This action is a regulatory response to information received from outlying sensory systems in the body. The control and coordination system is an incredible wonder of living things. Our use of a few descriptive words or phrases does not adequately explain the phenomenon of the integration of biological systems in living creatures.

With this disclaimer we attempt to draw several analogies between human body systems and the world of technology. Modern humanity operates in an age of complex machines. We cite two examples: In our home’s heating/cooling system and our personal automobiles, we are beholden to machines. They provide the ability to control our dwelling’s temperature and our personal transportation system automatically. In the pioneer days of our nation, our great-grandparents supplied the regulatory systems for home temperature control and personal transportation manually. They piled more wood on the fireplace, opened the windows, and used a manual accelerator pedal.

In our home’s temperature controlled environment thermostats sense rising or falling home temperatures and activate the cooling or heating system. According to our preset preferences, home temperatures remain in our chosen narrow range of comfort. In winter we desire a comfortable level of warmth. The control system raises the air temperature automatically—the furnace is programmed to go “on” when a certain limit is reached. In summer our bodies cry out for cooling to the desired temperature. The air conditioner kicks in to supply the desired cooling. Does this sound simple? It is simple to check the thermostat to affirm it is set correctly. If it is malfunctioning we call the experts to modify the system. In our day of “miracle” technology this is a minor inconvenience.

Our functioning brain has systems of sensory neural receptors with the ability to respond and react. Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) accomplishes the desired outcome. When we become overheated by exercise, the brain responds with complex physiological processes instructing the body to generate perspiration—a cooling phenomenon—neither too much nor too little. Perspiration is mostly water. When water evaporates, heat is removed from the body. On cold days our body calls for more heat. Reflexively, the body engages its “shivering” response—a good thing—because it forces the body to move about to generate more heat. In this case the body reaction is involuntary and automatic.

Speed control in our automobiles, also known as cruise control, is analogous to many brain functions which control various rates. A partial list includes (1) heart rate, dependent on increased rate of heart muscle contraction, (2) digestive function, also controlled by changing rates of muscle contraction and release of digestive juices, (3) respiration rate, summoned by a need for additional oxygen in working cells due to increased bodily activity, (4) salivation rate, controlled both voluntarily as well as by conditioning from food odors or other sensory cues, and (5) multiple glandular secretions such as adrenaline which appropriately heighten our response to stress. The human brain performs multiple functions controlling and integrating the biological systems of the body. 

Our brain, the control center of our body system and the acknowledged seat of human consciousness, is sometimes characterized as computer-like. Its capabilities, however, extend far beyond the most capable man-made computer. Yes, the brain and the neural network of the central nervous system are storms of electrical activity as are computers. But analysts say computers work in a manner foreign to biological systems. 

The Creator has produced humanity in His Image. This image is integrated with the mystery of consciousness by which we perceive divine reality.              



Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Superbowl Control Systems

“Over the years my enjoyment of the game of football has been increasing. This game offers a level of complexity which I had not realized in my earlier years. The offensive and defensive options are fascinating because they are nearly limitless.” (This quote originated from our May 17, 2009 post.) After the incredible Superbowl LI, we cannot resist offering parallels between football, one of the most popular participation and spectator sports ever conceived by sports-minded humanity, and the operation of our eleven biological body systems. Our 2017 post-Superbowl game musings comparing team football strategies and our knowledge of biological body systems may be instructive for both sports fans and students of biology as well as those who look for parallels in the spiritual realm.

Never before had a Superbowl team come from more that 10 points behind to win. The New England Patriots were behind by 25 points, but finished with a 34-28 victory, posting 31 “unanswered” points. It was the first overtime game in Superbowl history. For more than half the game, the Atlanta Falcons dominated and took a 28-3 lead.

Among spectators watching Superbowl LI it is likely that only a very few grasped the number and scope of personnel who provided the support system for the two top  professional NFL teams. Coaching assignments on each team number 15-20, not counting physical conditioning specialists. In addition, there are many management positions emplaced by team owners. Most of the millions of spectators watching on television may be unaware of the range and variety of personnel functioning in so many diverse roles behind the scenes. Parallels to the adventure of living things and living systems are abundant.    

On a professional football team there are many different coaches tasked with various roles. The head coach receives a majority of the public attention. While not responsible for every decision, he is the “main man” who sets team philosophy and strategy. On a team level there are multiple coaches who have responsibility in different areas including offensive and defensive coordinators and coaches, special teams, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, all-important quarterback coaches, and many assistants.

NFL teams operate with far less complexity than the human body. The brain is the command center for the body. It receives input in the form of electrical impulses from many outlying body regions on what conditions exist a few inches or feet from the brain. As a whole, the brain delivers its responses. The cerebellum controls balance, coordinates speech, and balances muscular activity. The brain stem controls the flow of messages between the brain and the rest of the body and regulates breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. One tiny organ, the pituitary gland, is known as the master gland because it supplies directions for proper functioning of virtually all other glands in the body including the thyroid and adrenal. The pituitary may be tantamount to the “head” coach of body chemistry. The hypothalamus prompts the pituitary either to stimulate or inhibit hormone production. This array of “coaches” trusts its communication system—nerve impulses coded with coherent instructions sent out along the axons of neurons. One may draw the parallel to electronic communication delivered to assistant coaches on the football practice or game field.

How do the players execute their training to win on Superbowl Day? February 5, 2017 was the culmination of many months, even years of preparation. For the Atlanta Falcons, there were several instances of lack of critical execution in the last quarter of their game which resulted in a heartbreaking loss. Quarterback Matt Ryan at 4:40, with the ball in the range of an easy field goal near the opponent’s 20-yard line, dropped back to pass. He was sacked for a big loss. Two plays later a holding call pushed them back for another big loss. Hundreds of hours of coaching meant nothing as the Falcons were forced to punt, thereby forfeiting a near certain field goal which would have produced a two-score game at 31-20. With that score they could have held the lead and won the contest even with the incredibly heroic late drive and two-point conversion later executed by New England.

Victorious quarterback Tom Brady overcame a dreadful start for almost three quarters. But the control and execution system—the master coaching staff and their talented players—prevailed on the front line of battle. In the end victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. Brady passed for a record 466 yards and completed 43 passes, both records.

The human body has an even more magnificent control and execution system—the controlling brain with its ability to effect healthy bodily function, the systems ultimately working their phenomenal activity at the body’s periphery. One bodily ability deserving of highest wonder is its ability to remedy and repair malfunctions and achieve bodily healing using the directives of the brain as its control and coordinating system. At the level of the Superbowl, the New England Patriots’ 25-point deficit well into the second half expresses “healing” at the level of a sporting contest better than most examples. 

The Falcons made several crucial game errors, mentioned above, costing them victory in the world’s ultimate football contest. At the level of professional medicine we cite success by many doctors who help us overcome bodily neglect or even a physical body deficiency or illness over which we may not have control. There are nearly unlimited object lessons we could draw from the ultimate championship football contest to parallel human body function as well as the more important spiritual warfare in which we are involved throughout our lives. We mention the importance of physical conditioning, vital for sports competitors, briefly mentioned by the Apostle Paul in I Cor. 9:24-25: “Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training” (NIV).

The occurrence of a “fluke” play dictated by chance may play a part in defeat on the athletic field; likewise, errors of judgement characteristic of ordinary error-prone humanity. For these, we do not offer a fool-proof solution. Our favorite athletic team members, however, may appreciate exercise of the gift of patience and forbearance from their fans!          


Saturday, February 4, 2017

Consciousness--A Fundamental Property?

Human consciousness is usually not a coffee table topic of conversation. Consciousness is fairly easy to define. Awareness of self and surroundings is a common definition, but the simplicity of the definition belies the complexity of the topic. Historically, scientists and philosophers have devoted plentiful attention to understanding the phenomenon of consciousness. Ironically, as we unlock even more information on the brain—the seat of consciousness—the subject may grow ever more mysterious. In spite of our burgeoning knowledge of the physical brain, cognitive scientist David Chalmers thinks the scientific explanation of consciousness might still be dozens of years away. We reiterate that some researchers claim that with the “hard problem of consciousness” we may have reached the limits of what science can explain. 

Chalmers, one of the foremost “consciousness” gurus of our time, analyzes problems of consciousness realistically and is well known for his articulate clarity of thought. He states consciousness is a subjective phenomenon. In contrast, science is objective. Scientists would delight to offer a scientific explanation of consciousness by outlining a credible, reductionist, cause and effect analysis. To cite examples, is human creativity explained as the product of simple identifiable causes? Could the subjective experience of pleasure, pain, joy, sorrow, confidence, or fear be reduced to or explained by straightforward sequences of neural electrical signals? Synapses—inter-neural connections in the human brain—outnumber the number of stars in our Milky Way. Scientists do not suffer from a lack of empirical data. Neuroscientists observe some correlations between brain events, but the totality of the resulting conscious experience remains unexplained.    

Everyday functioning of the ten body systems is generally understandable in terms of the duality of observable causes and effects. Ordinarily we are healthy and sound in body and mind. On some occasions we must visit our family doctor or another medical specialist. One of their most fascinating medical skills is their diagnostic ability, not to mention their ability to treat patients’ symptoms. Skilled diagnosticians possess one of the medical profession’s most treasured gifts. Such medical professionals have mastered the understanding of cause and effect, especially with respect to human body systems. Human consciousness, however, is in a different league. Science is unable to explain consciousness. 

Switching focus, we review the basics of universe history to reinforce a point we made in our first paragraph relating to “the limits of what science can explain.” Perhaps the most famous Bible verse of all is in the very first chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth” (Genesis 1:1). The chronology of the first two verses of Genesis includes a gap of nearly ten billion years from the initial creation event (Gen. 1:1) to the following verse. Genesis 1:2 describes our planet a few billion years later as a body “formless and empty,” with darkness over the surface of the deep. This describes a liquid water world shrouded in darkness by thick clouds. But “…the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Creator had something wonderful in mind almost four billion years later. The “formless and empty” earth became the beautiful planet we currently observe. Conscious humanity, body, soul, and spirit, now inhabits this unique planet. Christian theology recognizes the timelessness of God according to human reckoning. 

In our human time frame the universe was created 13.7 billion years ago. Scientists often refer to this creation event as the origin of several fundamental building blocks of nature—our time, space, matter, and energy dimensions. In our human comprehension we do not experientially understand the absence of time, space, matter, and energy. We struggle conceptually to grasp the reality of “before time began.” Some Bible translators use phrases like “before time began” or “before the beginning of time” to express deep concepts of the origins of man’s future redemption in the mind of God (I Cor. 2:7, II Tim. 1:9, and Tit. 1:2). Most scientists see the Big Bang event 13.7 billion years distant as the inception of “fundamental building blocks” of nature.

God, eternally existing before the beginning of our universe, was omnipotent and omniscient. If we could describe God (a difficult assignment for humans) we may describe Him as having ultimate consciousness. We reiterate: cognitive scientists have wrestled with the thought that consciousness may be beyond the reach of science to explain. Chalmers posits that consciousness may be a “fundamental building block of nature,” in the same league as space, time, matter, and energy. Consciousness exists, but it cannot be explained reductively. We may study the correlation of physical events in the mind, electrical impulses for example, as they pertain to our conscious experience. But at this point explaining the scientific causes and effects of consciousness is beyond the reach of science. Perhaps it will always be beyond the reach of science because science dictates all phenomena must be explained naturalistically.  

Before time began, God existed eternally—the ultimate supernatural Entity of consciousness. God created the heavens and the Earth in the beginning. He later linked consciousness with the physical matter of the human body. Matter is one of the fundamental building blocks of nature gifted to sentient humans in our realm of existence. This connects with the theological truth that God made man IN HIS IMAGE.

We are fascinated by scientific and philosophical pondering concerning consciousness. Scientists and philosophers both generate commentary on this captivating topic. Some commentators wear the hats of scientist and philosopher simultaneously. Perhaps theologians should actively join the arena where talented minds discuss this profound topic, especially if we recognize consciousness as a fundamental building block of nature with strong supernatural overtones.