Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Affirming God for Children

Parents of young children hope for positive responses in their efforts to instill appropriate behavior and value systems. They train their offspring to be obedient, cooperative, cheerful, and encourage a host of other positive self-disciplines. Parents divert the young people from selfishness, meanness, and lying, making sure they understand the downside of such negative behaviors for themselves and the people around them. 

At some point in a young child’s training, perhaps in partnership with the church’s religious education program, parents introduce the concept of God’s reality. The time to teach awareness of a divine Being is a matter of the child’s readiness. We need inspired parental judgment fueled by divine wisdom. Scripture exhortations to “teach your children” in several Old Testament Scripture passages do not come with suggestions concerning the ages of the children. We may speculate on specific details of the manner in which their teaching unfolded. Parents teach their children simple prayers to repeat before mealtime or bedtime. As a followup to thanking God we wonder how we may explain to a child that the Heavenly Father is ultimately responsible for gifts of food for which we thank Him? God is invisible. How, then, does an invisible God supply our food? 

The child has observed that Mom and Dad purchase and prepare food for their table. How is God responsible? One effective strategy would be to plant seeds, observe them sprouting, watch leaves developing, blossoms appearing, and plants later producing their fruit. Systematic observation could be encouraged at an early age. One late autumn day our grandchildren shelled kernels from a corn cob and covered some of the seeds in the mulch under our front yard walnut tree. After many months buried in frozen ground covered by layers of winter snow, some of the seeds sprouted and emerged the following spring. Grandpa transplanted several plants to flower pots. One grew to nearly 18 inches. The hybrid seeds did not bear fruit, but we did observe the miracle of sprouting and growth. This “planting” incident was unintentional. Many truths about God’s design and process features in the world of nature are revealed both incidentally and as a result of deliberate inquiry.

Spring provides many other opportunities to observe renewal of life from sprouting seeds, annual leaf-out of deciduous plants, and regrowth of perennial plants. Parents concerned about inspiring God-awareness in their children have ample opportunities during the development of the spring season to point out gradually changing colors of the forest, development of leaf buds, formation of near identical shapes of all leaves on a particular tree, and the diverse shapes of leaves on different species of neighborhood trees. Our family’s treasured front yard black walnut tree, in addition to its early production of buds, produces immature pea-sized walnuts early in its annual growth cycle. Grandpa lifted his grandkids up to the low hanging branches to inspect them. A few months later we harvested mature walnuts from the ground and enjoyed cracking and consuming left-over walnuts from the previous year.

We previously posted “Springtime Renewal” a few years ago:

The above linked post deals with a few of the plant’s physiological processes related to the onset of spring. Physiological processes are not apparent but visual changes are observable and potentially interesting to young children. Wise parents should not overload the young child with too much information about plant growth. They could offer the suggestion that God initiated the idea to create plants, to make them grow and develop for our enjoyment, and to utilize them as food for humans. Introductory discussions about God, even though He is not visible to us, may inspire young children to think more deeply about the reality of the Heavenly Father to whom we pray at mealtime and bedtime. Parents may be surprised by their insightful questioning.      


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Exoplanet Science Fiction

Exuberant optimism abounds when certain popular ideas are proposed. One example is the idea by Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for the SETI Institute that “…the universe is replete with real estate on which biology could both arise and flourish.” Shostak calls this idea “a growing conviction.” Many scientists claim mankind needs a new mission such as discovering habitable planets and demonstrating that intelligent life actually exists on these planets.

Rod Serling became famous as an imaginative science fiction writer and television producer of The Twilight Zone during the mid 20th century. This weekend program even captivated my parents and me for a time in the early 60s. Serling stated “Fantasy is the impossible made probable…..Science fiction is the improbable made probable.” The recent discovery of seven earth-sized planets around the TRAPPIST-1 star system thought to be in the “habitable zone” where temperatures could be fitting for humans may be in the category of “fantasy.” Saying “improbable made probable” is enough for many observers to mentally shift from “improbable” to “possible” and even to “certain” based on astronomers’ confidence that billions of exoplanets lurk in our Milky Way galaxy. Adding to the exuberance of many people are fiction writers such as Annalee Newitz who claims, “Science fiction lags way behind science.” Newitz's statement means the achievements of science sometimes exceed the speculative musings of science fiction.

Belief in the existence of innumerable inhabited worlds, or even belief in innumerable habitable worlds may be an exuberant stretch of reality. With the disclaimer that these worlds are at least possible, we posit that the existence of both inhabited and habitable worlds outside our Solar System may be ideas “remote beyond comprehension.”

We cite two examples of ideas we consider “remote beyond comprehension” currently gripping the belief system of many scientists: (1) The naturalistic origin of life. No one has ever explained how life on Planet Earth originated short of a supernatural miracle. Popular biology textbooks such as the Seventh Edition AP text Biology by Neil A. Campbell and Jane B. Reese, described as “the most successful biology majors text in the world” speculates how conditions on early earth may have generated life on earth. After proposing possible favorable scenarios already existing on the planet, the authors then generously supply phrases like could have formed, can discharge, if…then, probably, can make, provided that, may have occurred, perhaps, might have, would have, and could have. (2) The multiverse theory hypothesizes an infinite number of existing universes: One of them, our own, just by chance possessed every one of the hundreds of precise conditions necessary for existence of Earth’s complex life according to this theory.

Astrophysicist Hugh Ross on February 23, 2017 questioned, “Earth’s Seven Sisters: Are They Really Similar?” His answer: They are thoroughly uninhabitable. Among many reasons, Ross stated (1) TRAPPIST-1 is a fast-rotating star with huge solar flares accompanied by strong X-ray and ultraviolet radiation, (2) the seven planets are tidally locked to their star, meaning that (3) each planet’s side facing the star is perpetually illuminated and blazing hot while the opposite side is perpetually dark and extremely cold, (4) the presence of liquid water is hypothesized but extremely unlikely, and (5) gravitational influences from one planet to another are harmful.

In contrast, Seth Shostak’s “growing conviction” that biology could arise and flourish on these nearby planetary worlds is the product of unabashed, unrealistic optimism. Hugh Ross’s careful analyses of favorable technical conditions on our planet seem more realistic. He propounds these ideas about our familiar Earth: “The number and complexity of the astronomical and geological, chemical, and biological features recognized as essential to human existence have exploded within the past decade.” His recently published volume Improbable Planet, Baker Books, 2016, details his claims and is well worth our effort to read and understand.

We argue that Planet Earth is absolutely unique in its ability to sustain life. We also propose that other planets, including all the newly discovered exoplanets, do not come close to fulfilling the requirements for intelligent life possessed by Earth. If future discoveries show this to be in error, we will amend our proposal. Our Creator could choose to create life on other planets. Currently Planet Earth seems to be unique in harboring its marvelous life forms and the conditions supporting life. Our “growing conviction” consists of increased certainty about the uniqueness of conditions on Earth and life on our home planet.   


Friday, March 17, 2017

3537 Exoplanets and Counting

Depending on which source of information we quote, the number of exoplanets—planets orbiting stars other than our sun—is experiencing an exponential population explosion. The longer we wait, the more exoplanets are discovered. Their number has roughly doubled every 27 months from the discovery of the first exoplanets in the 1990s. The population explosion is a function of the enhanced information sensing capabilities of our equipment. As time passes, we see farther; we see more clearly. Best of all, information concerning conditions on these exoplanets is revealed.

We have advanced from the days of early telescopes which could only detect and magnify images of visible light. The Spitzer Space Telescope, launched in 2003, works by observing certain wavelengths of infrared radiation, thereby making optically dark objects visible. All bodies in our universe emit infrared radiation at all times. Visible light is a minuscule portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. We observe wondrous images of our environment in visible light, but there is far more information available to scientists studying our universe by observing other wavelengths. There are many wavelengths longer and shorter than visible light. However, the human eye cannot see them. 

In February exciting news hit the press. Around a fairly close ultra-cool star a mere 39 light years distant, scientists discovered seven generally earth-sized planets rapidly orbiting very close to their parent star named TRAPPIST-1. This star is less than one tenth the size of our sun and less than one quarter as warm. The Spitzer Space Telescope produced its images from infrared wavelengths emanating from the TRAPPIST-1 star and planetary system. 

The most exciting element of this news focused on the planets’ existence in a possible “habitable zone.” The seven planets orbit quickly in a matter of days at a close distance from their cool parent star. They all revolve at less than the distance Earth’s planet Mercury orbits our Sun. Therefore, if some of the planets contain water, it is likely the water is liquid because of the not too hot, not too cold temperature on their surfaces. Scientists believe liquid water is necessary for any planet to sustain life.

We recall the excitement generated when the existence of first exoplanet was affirmed in 1992. Many students in my classroom had imagined that life, perhaps similar to Earth life, almost certainly existed somewhere else in our universe. The students of 25 years ago would be even more excited to know that some of the 3537 exoplanets in the immediate neighborhood of our huge Milky Way Galaxy in the past quarter century may have potential for intelligent life. This gripping notion seems more probable considering that many more billions of stars in our home Milky Way Galaxy certainly harbor planets. The possibility of other sites for intelligent life in our universe seems even more likely given our knowledge that over 100 billion galaxies exist in our vast universe!

Passion for the notion that many other sites of intelligent life exist on orbiting planets  has been dampened, at least in our cosmic neighborhood. The stunning uniqueness of Earth life becomes increasingly obvious as we grasp the improbability that hundreds of just right physical planetary conditions must be present to support our vast array of life. Upwards of nine million species of complexly functioning organisms are embedded on this special planet. Eliminating even one required physical planetary condition precludes the possibility of human life, not to mention the life of nine million other species.

Whenever a discovery such as the science fiction-like TRAPPIST-1 discovery is made, scientists and laypeople alike rush to speculate on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. When my students inquired about my belief or disbelief in life anywhere else in the universe, I responded with an answer such as: “Not one intelligently produced signal has ever been received from outer space. If there are billions of instances of intelligent civilizations in our universe, at least one of them may have acquired the knowledge to communicate via radio or light signals if they were curious about the existence of other intelligent beings. But we have heard nothing at all.” For the past 150 years since the discovery of the electromagnetic spectrum and the invention of radio, Earth’s scientists have released billions of electromagnetic signals into space. Some signals have already reached the 3537 exoplanets discovered so far. 

In February Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for the SETI institute noted “…The SETI Institute used its Allen Telescope Array (in 2016) to observe the environs of TRAPPIST-1, scanning through 10 billion radio channels in search of signals. No transmissions were detected although new observations are in the offing…” SETI stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Nevertheless on February 22, 2017, Shostak wrote that the TRAPPIST-1 “…discovery has underlined the growing conviction that the universe is replete with real estate on which biology could both arise and flourish.” Read more about SETI and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence here:

We contrast Shostak’s unbridled optimism with our personal view. There are abundant reasons for dismissing the likelihood that any other planetary site in our universe could harbor life, even if it were blessed, for example, with the presence of liquid water and a reasonably friendly temperature. As we discover more and more stunning requirements for life possessed by Earth together with the absence of that array of requirements on even the most promising planetary systems, we realize anew the truth of Psalm 104:24 (The Message Translation): “What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side, made earth overflow with your wonderful creations.”           


Monday, March 13, 2017

Youth Science/Faith Apologetics

Recently I was challenged to create posts affirming the usefulness of science to promote faith--belief in the existence of God and the past and present action of the Creator to sustain our present existence. In particular, the request was framed with young people in mind. Presenting evidence for the existence of God and his ongoing works in our present creation is a vital foundation for acceptance and establishment of a Christian worldview. Science as an apologetic tool does not provide proof for God’s existence, but we consider the discoveries of science to be faith strengthening evidence for the existence and attributes of God, the Creator.

Faith, as used in the above paragraph, is meant to convey a life-encompassing belief system. Used in this manner faith connotes “complete confidence or trust.” A secondary definition includes a belief system not supported by any specific evidence. In discussing two variant definitions of faith, we illustrate a characteristic of language: some words possess different shades of meanings. Linguists are faced with a challenge of presenting meanings of words and interpretations of language as clearly as possible.

We could have (1) faith, a belief system of complete confidence or trust based on supporting evidence of one sort or another, or (2) faith, a belief system supported by little or no supporting evidence. The latter faith could be strengthened by personal presuppositions. We could believe because our parents or someone else believed a certain way and we adopted their beliefs as our own. Or we could believe because of what are termed “properly basic beliefs” which require no evidence. By this standard, belief in the existence of God and the author of the created features of our Earth is essentially intuitive.

Truth—correspondence with reality—is a constituent of both definitions of faith as outlined above. Does an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God exist? Did he create all things and does he sustain all things from moment to moment? Within the limits of their children’s maturity level and their ability to understand, wise parents wish to instill in their children an answer in the affirmative. Our position has been that the knowledge of science is an important apologetic for the existence of a caring God of order and purpose. To offer substantiation for the existence of God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son we humbly beseech God’s wisdom in offering an age-appropriate apologetic for strengthening the faith of our own children and grandchildren at various ages. This includes the age when children first learn language and continues through elementary school, middle school, high school, and college age.

Parents, pastors, teachers, and counselors who wish to strengthen personal faith in the existence of God search for strategies to accomplish their goals. Comprehension of our orderly and purposeful physical system as created by God and sustained by him from moment to moment is supported by the discoveries of science. Understanding of our environment is a goal of science, not only as an end in itself, but also in support of our belief in the existence and ongoing role of the Creator.

The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy is full of intense instruction to the Hebrews for firming up their faith structure. The book contains three separate Mosaic sermons to establish the belief system of the Hebrew nation before they entered the promised land. On two occasions Moses instructed parents regarding how they should train their children to believe in, honor, and obey the Lord their God. We quote Deuteronomy 6:5-9 (NIV): “Love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” In Deuteronomy 11 identical sermon points were made concerning children. What a powerful set of instructions for the spiritual training of children!

We take poetic license in interpreting how Hebrew parents may have implemented these remarkable commands of Moses in the days of their wilderness wanderings. We trust that our sanctified imagination may have basis both in historical fact and contemporary validity for faithful parents raising their children in the 21st century. Parents and supporting leaders bear a heavy responsibility to focus their children’s awareness on lessons to be acquired from observing their environment. What were they talking about with their children when they sat at home, walked along the road, when they went to bed, and when they got up? There were many lessons from the natural world; animals and insects manifested beauty and design. In Deuteronomy 4:19 Moses referred to looking up at the sky and seeing the sun, the moon, and the stars, together with all the heavenly array. In the context of Moses’ sermons, the animals and  heavenly array call attention to the God of creation. In those days technological distractions of our modern life were non-existent. There was ample time for parents and religious instructors of that day to observe such wonders while walking along the road and contemplate what they discovered before they went to bed.

In future posts we plan to elaborate on opportunities for devoted parents to affirm the reality of God and the beauty of His creation using the support of scientific knowledge. In Moses’ time there was no formal “science” as we have in our day. Observation and study of natural wonders, however, inspired worship and devotion and affirmed God’s attributes—a sort of natural theology. The 21st century provides potential to make use of myriad discoveries of modern science in a faith-strengthening manner.   



Sunday, March 5, 2017

Old- or New-Fashioned Winter?

Climate change is really a metaphor for global warming in today’s conversation. The warming of our planet is perceived by many citizens as undesirable. Many less informed citizens think any departure from the climatic status quo is a source of worry. More specifically, since the last three years have produced, by some metrics, a succession of “hottest years on record,” we are heading for calamity, we are cautioned. It is true that in the last several years we have experienced a small “uptick” of temperatures. When a year is described as “the hottest on record” we may be talking about a small fraction of a degree “hotter” than the previous record. We note that the last several years have been warmer than the average temperatures of the previous 100 years. More broadly, the Earth is now about 1ºC warmer than we were in pre-industrial times. In 2016 the planetary temperature was 0.75ºC above the 1960-1990 period average. In about 1850 Earth entered a slight warming trend, ending what was termed the “Little Ice Age” of the previous five centuries. Alpine glaciers gradually began to melt and continue to melt to this day.

Early US industries and transportation strategies used hardly any CO2-producing fossil fuels. Average temperature change relates to many other causative factors. Today’s average temperature rise, occurring together with a 50% increase in CO2 atmospheric concentration from pre-industrial days, is of uncertain importance. It is, however, a factor in increased and healthier plant growth. Slightly warmer temperatures may benefit human habitation in other ways. Atmospheric CO2 levels and Earth temperatures have been somewhat elevated in the last century, but societal and political anxiety have been elevated exponentially in the last few decades. 

The Los Angeles Times reported in 2015 that in a group of 13 countries analyzed in 2015, of 74 million deaths, 7.3% of the deaths were attributed to cold; 0.4% were attributed to heat. Cold weather caused 18 times as many deaths as hot weather.

Before the recent succession of the three “record hottest years” was announced beginning in 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Temperatures have been flat for 15 years—nobody can properly explain it.” BBC News claims the average temperature rise between 1951-2012 was 0.12ºC per decade. But in the years 1998-2012 the average temperature rise was only 0.05ºC per decade. We hasten to remind readers that the three “record hottest years” from 2014-2016 experienced temperature rises of small fractions of a degree “hotter” than the previous years—hardly a cause for concern. Do we remember how many times we have read or heard from the alarmist media that global warming was causing Earth’s temperatures to advance during those “Earth’s hottest years?” This is circular argument. Of course we understand the earth is warming. It is important to explain why and how much the earth is warming.

We take the liberty to cite an interesting pair of weather phenomena we experienced in Northwest Illinois during the winter of 2013-2014 compared with the current year 2016-17. On March 7, 2014 we posted:

The first paragraph of this post is reprinted here in entirety: “Relentless cold describes the winter of 2013-2014 in the central and eastern United States. Accompanying the cold have come frequent snows. In our region this winter has gifted us with over two dozen snowfalls and 43 daily below zero readings so far. Snowfall approaches highest seasonal totals in our area since climate records commenced in 1850. Statistics for record lows and record “low highs” in February augment the recent record low high for March which surpassed the low high for any day in March in meteorological history by three degrees.”

Fast forward to the winter of 2016-17. The February 23 Dubuque Telegraph-Herald had an article headlined, “Record-setting heat—in February.” Its lead paragraph reported, “Dubuque’s high temperature rose to 71 degrees Wednesday afternoon, making it the warmest February day in the city’s recorded history.” Dubuque Accuweather published the high temperatures in the six-day February spell of warmth “for the ages:” 65º-64º-64º-59º-61º-71º—an average of 64º for the six day period Feb. 17-22, 2017. It was a heavy dose of spring during a traditionally cold winter month.

Was the winter of 2016-17 an old-fashioned or a new-fashioned winter? I argue the question is moot. As a life-long weather-fascinated observer, I understand that weather and climate are intricately complex but immensely fascinating. Our planetary weather is a gift of our Creator. His created climate system provides a place to thrive for a population of over seven billion people early in the 21st century. This population figure is up from one billion at the start of the 19th century. In my personal memory I recall many extremes of weather from unseasonable cold to unseasonable warmth and many events beyond those parameters. There were many stretches of unseasonable cold during warm seasons and unseasonable warmth during cold seasons. We acknowledge the beauty and benefit of usual, unusual, and even occasionally severe meteorological events. Ultimately they contribute to Earth as “a place to thrive.”

Unusual weather phenomena inspire us to make an investigation of cause and effect. Has CO2 concentration increased and has climate change occurred? If the answer to both questions is “Yes,” does this support the fallacy of “After this, therefore because of this?” If we identify multiple causes we are obligated to study carefully the effects of those multiple causes. There are many causes for the Earth’s climate change and many causes for unusual weather events. Atmospheric CO2 is a relatively minor player when multiple causes are investigated. Important climate oscillations are recognized and studied today such as cyclical atmospheric or oceanic temperature or pressure fluctuations. Some oscillations are short; some are long. Short term oscillations such as El Nino, La Nina, and others are definitely related to the brutal winter of 2013-14 and the surreal 2016-17 February warm spell described above. These fascinating phenomena are more aptly explained as unusual short term weather events occurring within the usual, long term and ever-present climate change.