Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Christianity And Science

One of my chemist co-workers at Thermo-Fisher Scientific once made the observation, “All I know is that everything evolved… and then Jesus came.” The comment has forever embedded itself in my consciousness because it so aptly illustrates the struggle the scientific community has with what I call “The Jesus Problem”. Evolution is not regarded as a matter of belief among most scientists, but rather a matter of observed fact. This deep rooted view of the world however stands in stark contrast to what also is regarded as the historical fact of Jesus. The historical person of Jesus is hopelessly entangled with supernatural accounts – miracles, resurrection, and claims that shake the common thinking among scientists that matter is the ultimate reality. I would venture to say that most scientists deal with the issue in one of two ways – either ignoring Jesus altogether or ‘compartmentalizing’ – where spiritual or religious matters occupy an entirely different region of their thinking than ‘real life’.

None of these solutions however address the problem in a truly satisfactory way. How can you ‘ignore’ established historical fact and also claim that ‘facts’ are the only reliable guide to understand reality? Or, how can you accept something as ‘truth’ that doesn’t extend to all of reality? Ultimately it only makes sense that ‘the truth’ must encompass and explain all established observations – both ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’. Facts themselves are unbiased and impartial, it is unfortunate however that they are too often segregated and categorized for the sake of maintaining a certain view of the world.

Anyone who claims to be both a Christian and a Scientist must accept that both Christianity and Science represent ‘truth’. If there is no compartmentalization in their thinking, the facts that underlay their understanding of Science must be completely compatible with the facts that underlay their understanding of Christianity. A Christian Scientist must therefore hold the view that the 'facts' regarding evolution are not incompatible with the 'facts' regarding Christianity. Different facts lend themselves to different theories, but the best theories explain and account for the most facts… 

Evolution - Thoughts From a Christian Scientist

The basic driving principle of evolution is the concept of natural selection. Natural selection is the process whereby nature ‘selects’ favorable traits that are passed down to succeeding generations of life. There is nothing spiritual or supernatural about this process, it operates solely on the idea that the ‘most fit’ organisms will survive and propagate their traits to later generations. The changing of species over time by this process is referred to as ‘evolution’. The changing of species over time itself is an established fact that few people would dare to challenge. Anyone who breeds animals uses the principle of natural selection to produce different variants in later generations. The controversy however is not with the ‘principle’ of natural selection, but rather with the idea that the ‘process’ of natural selection could produce all of the genetic diversity that composes life on this planet.

The Christian Scientist would argue that ‘adaptability’ or the capacity for life to respond to differing environmental pressures is a characteristic of ‘design’. For example, if we were to ‘create’ an organism of some sort – the best design for that organism would allow for it to ‘adapt’ to changes in the environment over time. If this adaptability were not present in the original design, the organism would be limited to the type of environment it was created to exist in. If adaptability was part of the original design scheme, it would need to have the genetic potential to change from the very beginning.

Where the Christian Scientist diverges in thought from much of the scientific community is in the idea that evolution is a refining as opposed to a creative force. Evolution could be compared to the knife that carves out a block of wood. The knife really isn’t creating anything – in fact it is taking away from the original block. The end result serves a unique purpose, but further refinement is limited. A good example of this is the many endangered species of big cats. These animals are extremely refined but lack the genetic diversity to change much further, which makes them extremely susceptible to environmental pressures. A block of wood whittled down to a pencil is not a good starting point to make something else!

The assumption that the process of natural selection has produced all life on earth from a single cell is inconsistent with the way natural selection works practically. Going back to the example of people who breed animals – they all are aware that traits are lost and not necessarily gained in the process of selection. The more refined an animal becomes through selection the more limited it is to respond to new environmental pressures. Logically then – what does this tell us about life as we look into the past? It seems to indicate that although past life forms may have been less ‘refined’, they were more genetically healthy than they are today. The logical trend for the future will be that genetic diversity will become more limited as further refinement occurs.

As a Christian the observed reality of natural selection is very consistent with the idea that all life is the product of creation. Life placed on the earth at the beginning of creation was at its optimum or peak in terms of genetic diversity, and over time this genetic diversity is gradually lost through selection. This view is really quite opposite to the commonly held view that time has and will continue to be a force in creating genetic diversity.

Atheism and Mysticism

“The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.” –Psalm 14:1

It seems ironic to me that atheists often choose as their god the intellectual byproduct of Christianity.  The scientific method of thinking resulted from the work of Christian theologians who sought to distinguish between material and spiritual elements in nature.  Pagan thinking prior to the 17th century failed to distinguish between god and nature, and hence all observations of nature were hopelessly entangled with mystical elements.  Science as we know it today did not exist, and the alchemists of the time relied heavily on astrology and spiritual elements they believed to be present in nature.  This type of thinking limited potential advances in technology because it introduced into nature a mystical or irrational component that could not be comprehended through the observation of cause and effect.

Christian thinkers asserted that nature was like a machine created by a rational God who was separate and distinct from nature.  This separation of God and nature allowed for the development of the mechanical philosophy, which was based in the idea that all natural phenomena could be understood as the result of matter in motion.  Under this thinking there was no need to invoke any spiritual or mystical elements to explain nature – God was a rational being who created a rational machine that could be understood rationally through the observation of cause and effect.  The entire basis for rationality and the scientific method was grounded in the assumption that nature was the created product of a rational God.

Contrary to popular opinion, the assumption that the Universe was created by God has always produced better science.  The reason for this is that when God is removed as the creator, the same irrational and mystical component once removed is reintroduced into our understanding of nature.  Nature is no longer the ordered and rational product of a rational God, but is a mysterious entity that must account for its own existence.  Modern science unfortunately is fraught with mystical beliefs that are presented as objective fact.  This trend began with the widespread atheism that spread in the scientific community in the latter half of the 18th century.  By the beginning of the 19th century the rationalist movement gave way to romanticism with its renewed interest in magic and the paranormal.

The forefathers of modern evolutionists were the advocates of spontaneous generation at the beginning of the 19th century.  Because God was removed from the equation as Creator these scientists had to suggest ways that nature could arise on its own.  Any observation in nature was now subject to the same mystical causes that once limited advancements in understanding among the alchemists.  These ‘scientists’ believed that frogs would spontaneously generate from muddy ponds, and that some ‘vital element’ in the air would cause maggots to spontaneously generate from decaying meat.  Like modern evolutionists, their theories were padded with legitimate observations that in reality obscured a mystical cause.

Louis Pasteur was a Christian not willing to accept mystical causes for natural observations and famously disproved spontaneous generation in 1859.  This paved the way for our current understanding of life through the Cell Theory, which states simply that all life must arise from preexisting life.  Since then atheism has always had the tendency to ignore or reduce complexity in life for the sake of maintaining an irrational view of the world.  Through the first half of the 20th century cells were regarded as being little more than ‘bags of chemicals’ – and now our understanding of even the simplest of cells reveals the ignorance of mainstream science then.  Of course if everything arose from itself at some point or another, how complex can life really be?  Just like anything else, science will only be as good as the assumptions that go into it.

Evolution and The Force

A family of ape-like creatures nestled around one another as the night cast shadows about the desolate wilderness they lived in.  It had been a normal day for these creatures, filled with the normal routines of searching for food and grooming one another.  The next morning however brought something unusual that the creatures had never before encountered.  There in the midst of their habitation a sleek rectangular object, black with well defined edges stood upright with a foreboding appearance.  The creatures, seized both with fear and fascination gathered around the mysterious object and began to cautiously poke and then carefully lay their hands on the strange form.  Later that afternoon one of the creatures sat nonchalantly amidst a pile of bones when the afternoon sun cast its shadow over the rectangular black object.  Suddenly the creature had an epiphany of some sort, and picking up one of the bones realized that it could be used as a tool to crush other bones.  This was the dawn of man.

This scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey is not the only example in our culture of the idea that the process of evolution is somehow driven by a mysterious force in nature.  Popular references to evolution often speak of it on a global level, with the idea that life is ‘trying’ to evolve.  This gives evolution a personal aspect that is very different from the impersonal process taught in high school biology courses.  Of course this should not really come as surprise since nature in modern thinking must also play the role of god.  The concept of God as being a separate entity from nature has been rejected for the most part by popular thought, and therefore nature must be responsible for its own origin.  Although evolution is taught as an impersonal process that requires no external influence, the logic behind this thinking fails when we consider what natural selection alone had to accomplish.  The idea that natural selection alone could have produced all the life on this planet is little different from the assumption that spontaneous generation could instantly produce frogs from muddy puddles.

The principle of natural selection itself is very sensible and pragmatic.  High school students are given very logical scenarios that demonstrate how the principle could operate in nature.  For example a pack of wolves suddenly encounter a change in the environment that causes a severe drop in temperature throughout their habitat.  Several members of the pack happened to have thicker coats that enable them to survive and reproduce more successfully in the colder temperature.  In time through natural selection the entire population of wolves has thicker coats.  After students have been instructed in this principle they are led to believe that this process was responsible for cells emerging from non-living elements, fish turning into salamanders, salamanders to lizards, lizards to birds, and so forth all the way to humanity.  At first glance this seems somewhat plausible considering similarities that are universal to all life, but could all this change really have occurred through a gradual step by step process?

Once again theories that remove God as creator have the tendency to oversimplify life, as if living creatures were no more complex than play-doh with an infinite capacity to be shaped and molded into other things.  But even if life were as simple as play-doh, the principle of natural selection requires that every change that occurs must be advantageous or confer some survival benefit in order to be transferred to the rest of the population.  It is very easy to point out the survival benefits of limbs and wings, scales and feathers, vertebrate and invertebrate configurations – but what about the intermediate stages between them?  A limb doesn’t turn into a wing overnight or through a single mutation, nor does a scale turn into a feather.  The question must be therefore, what would be the survival benefit for transferring a trait to an entire population that is not yet fully functional?  Evolution requires that every single mutation be beneficial in order to be transferred to a population.  It has been suggested that the reason the first ‘fish’ crawled out of the water onto land was to exploit a yet untapped ecological niche.  Once again this sounds reasonable, but at the same period of time invertebrate creatures were at their most highly evolved state with 3 meter scorpions and giant insects roaming around.  What competitive advantage would such a creature have had in those circumstances?

If evolution had occurred in the way it has been suggested then the entire fossil record would be filled with play-doh like creatures having intermediate characteristics between fully functional forms.  Although there are plenty of creatures that have variations of fully functional traits, these intermediate forms simply do not exist.  Some of the most famous examples of so-called transitional forms turned out to be fully functional!  The Coelacanth was once touted as the missing link between fish and land dwelling creatures with its fleshy limbs, until it was found still alive today.  The famous missing link between birds and dinosaurs, Archaeopteryx – appears to be a fully functional creature with developed wings and feathers.

The problems with evolution are well known among scientists and researchers who themselves aren’t bound by their own version of ‘blind faith’.  Really when it comes right down to it the battle over evolution is more of a philosophical debate about whether or not to acknowledge God.  Of course acknowledging God is an unthinkable option for many that carries with it many unwanted social and cultural ramifications.  If most scientists had to choose between God and aliens as the Creator of life on earth, hands down the choice would be aliens.  Not surprisingly of course the ‘seed theory’ of life is becoming more popular among scientists – which states that we were planted here by aliens!

Resolving Paradoxes

“If any man thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know.” –Paul, 1st Corinthians 8:2

Every so often I will look down at my own hand and consider how very little I know about it.  Moving my fingers I can see an array of bones working together in tandem, somehow tied together by a complex network of muscle and tendons.  The muscle is mysteriously activated by electrical impulses triggered by my brain, causing a cascade of molecular rearrangement that makes one of thousands of fibers contract precisely in such a way as to create an efficient movement.  The draft I feel as my fingers cut through the air results from millions of branched neurons scattered throughout my hand granting me the wonder of sensory perception.  The very flesh that encases my hand is composed of countless cells each containing their own biochemical factory rivaling all the industries on the face of this planet.  And for all this, my knowledge is limited to the vaguest generalizations of a reality that infinitely extends in complexity.

I could focus all of my attention on one aspect of one detail of my hand, and perhaps could suggest a reasonable theory for how it came into existence.  However brilliant my theory may be though, it would still be void unless it could also account for the rest of the hand.  The problem with theories of origin is that they fail to take into account the paradoxical arrangement of our universe.  From swirling galaxies to swirling electrons, everything is ordered in such a way that every aspect of detail requires another aspect of detail in order to exist.  For example when it comes to life on earth, the existence of every creature is dependent on the existence of other creatures in an elaborate ecosystem.  The earth’s environment is regulated by millions of different organisms that continually cycle carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen for their mutual survival.  Nothing on earth can survive on its own, and if we were to find life on another planet it is only reasonable to assume that we would have to find an entire ecosystem.

When studying theories of origin in college I was particularly struck by this lack of thinking when it came to the evolution of DNA and proteins.  Initially in the 1950’s there were theories advanced suggesting that the building blocks of proteins, amino acids ‘could’ have existed in some primordial soup billions of years ago.  However even if that were the case, and this ‘soup’ somehow produced functional proteins contrary to principles of dynamic equilibrium, how would those proteins be reproduced?  In our modern world, the information that encodes for proteins is found in DNA.  This means that in some form or another, DNA and proteins had to coexist or at least co-develop from the very beginning of time.  Proteins can’t exist without DNA, and DNA can’t exist without proteins!  Modern theorists have attempted to resolve the problem by suggesting that RNA, a functional hybrid of DNA and proteins was the first to develop.  This initially sounds plausible, but RNA can’t successfully perform the functions of DNA or proteins – and also requires DNA and proteins to exist itself!

Contrary to the critics of intelligent design, the chief argument in favor of the universe being created is not merely that everything is ‘really complex’.  Rather, it is the paradoxical arrangement of that complexity – such that everything depends on everything else for its own existence.  Such an arrangement could not have come about in a step by step process, but must have had some functional unity from the very beginning.  For anyone that is truly honest with their selves, and considers how little they really know – none of this should come as a surprise.  God never intended His reality to be questioned, but designed creation to be an open declaration of His existence.

Homologous Structures

I love my iphone – it has got to be one of the most useful devices ever created.  Not only can you listen to music, but you can also watch movies, check email, surf the internet and of course play games.  I must admit that the App Store has become one of my guilty pleasures of late, and have been continually amazed at the ever burgeoning supply of available applications.  There is an incredibly diverse array of applications ranging from file storage programs to photo editors to the most unusual of games.  I have smiled on the inside playing some of these games thinking about the creative gifts that God has blessed some people with.  There is nothing that pleases me more than to encounter something that is truly original, and the App Store has provided me with plenty of those moments.

As unique and vastly different as all of those iphone applications are from one another, if we were to ‘look under the hood’ and compare the raw binary sequences that compose these programs – there would be a very high degree of sequence similarity!  In fact, there would be vast and repeating regions of identical sequences common to all of the programs.  Why should this be the case?  Each application after all represents a unique effort by an individual or team of individuals to turn an idea into a functional program.  Although the ideas of these individuals may have been inspired by previous applications, every programming effort must begin from scratch.  The answer to the mystery lies in the fact that similar programming languages are used by all the programmers.  Programmers don’t program using raw binary sequences, but instead use languages that have been built up from those sequences.  Even the simplest commands used by programmers represent a huge binary sequence that will be repeated every time that command is used.

When we compare the raw DNA sequences of living things to one another there is also an astonishing degree of sequence similarity common to all life.  Like computer programs, the level of similarity between sequences will depend in large part on the types of living things we are comparing.  Life that is outwardly similar structurally will most likely share a greater degree of common sequences.  In the same way, a word processing program will share more sequence similarity with another word processing program due to the nature of the application.  This is a natural consequence of the programming language used to create the applications.  When the end result is similar, it is necessary that there will be a greater degree of common commands used to achieve that end result.

The programming language of life is proteins; proteins determine the chemical environment of a cell which in turn triggers developmental changes.  DNA could be compared to the binary sequences in computers, and its primary function is to encode for proteins.  You could think of the proteins as representing ‘commands’ in the programming language of life, and hence many of these ‘commands’ are found in almost every living thing.  It is therefore not surprising that similar proteins can be found in bacteria, plants, animals and humans!  Of course like computer programs, the degree or percentage of similar commands will depend on the type of living thing that will result from the program.  For example, as different as every human being is from one another, our DNA sequences are all 99.9% identical!  When compared to a mouse, we are 70% identical.

If we were to collect all of the different App Store applications and compare their structural and sequence similarities, we could create an evolutionary tree from that information!  We could determine which application ‘gave rise’ to other applications based upon ‘homologous structures’ structurally and ‘genetically’!  Of course we all know that would be utter nonsense, because each application was created from the ground up by a designer.  Even though applications can be ‘tweaked’ to a certain degree, once created they are limited in the amount of change they are capable of.  Life is no different – God created life with the ability to adapt to changes in the environment to a certain degree, but the degree to which life can change once created is limited.

Vestigial Elements

Going on the NUMMI plant tour in Fremont, CA reminded me of the scene in Jurassic Park where visitors to the island were driven past various dinosaur displays.  Seated in the front seat of a tram with about seven other coworkers my mind struggled to take in the immensity of detail being presented to me.  Giant robotic arms were visible over compartmentalized barriers as they swung into action constructing components that would be used in an automotive assembly line.  Self guided robots could be seen shuffling along magnetic strips carrying materials to different locations of the facility while sparks flew into the air past enclosures.  The tour guide explained that this auto manufacturing plant was unique in the world as it represented a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors.  In this facility Pontiac Vibe’s and Toyota Corolla’s were manufactured on the same assembly line!  I thought it was interesting how two completely different vehicles with different specifications and ‘personalities’ as it were could be manufactured on the same line using a similar process.

In order for both vehicles to be manufactured on the same line there needed to be enough compatibility between their basic frameworks for the process to move forward.  Toward the beginning of the process both models were more generic in structure but became more specialized with each stage of manufacturing.  This is the brilliance of the assembly line technique, as it allows vehicles ranging from cars to tanks to planes to be manufactured on similar lines with very little need to modify the line itself.  The technique itself is so efficient that it could be argued that its use in World War II for the construction of military vehicles allowed us to win the war.  There are some aspects of this manufacturing technique however that can give the final product some mysterious attributes.

Have you ever wondered why people have tailbones and men have nipples?  These are qualities that aren’t really functional, and may inspire imaginations about humanity’s distant past where we ran around as tailed unisex creatures.  These ‘vestigial elements’ however are really just the product of our own manufacturing process!  In the same way you may have noticed some empty spaces on your vehicle’s dash board or door handles and wondered what ‘could’ have been there.  Those empty spaces are there because the assembly line your car was manufactured on was adapted to produce more than one model of car.  As the vehicle progressed along the assembly line it hit various checkpoints that signaled for it to be manufactured in one way or another according to the final model.  The ‘blank spaces’ in your car are simply the remnants of that checkpoint!

The same is true for our own embryonic development.  We all begin somewhat generically in our own ‘manufacturing process’ and various chemical signals along that process trigger different developmental pathways.  Just like the assembly lines used to manufacture a multiplicity of different vehicle types, embryonic development is very similar across widely varying species from fish to humans.  This however speaks more of the efficiency of the process than of common descent.  In the case of gender development, the presence of nipples in men is somewhat like one of those empty spaces in your car’s dashboard with little functionality and represents a checkpoint in the developmental pathway.  The presence of tailbones in humans could be compared to the remnants of scaffolding used to construct the individual during development.

As efficient as assembly lines are however, they are not immune to errors.  If one of the robots on the assembly line fails to properly tighten a single bolt, then an entire build of vehicles can be compromised!  Of course there are quality control personnel constantly monitoring the machinery to prevent this from happening, but mistakes can and will happen.  Most of the time those mistakes will be either irrelevant or dangerous – but it is possible that a mistake will have some beneficial qualities.  Life is no different, and over the years of our existence we have accumulated mistakes in our own manufacturing process that account for various diseases and susceptibility to cancers.  Sometimes however a mistake will have a beneficial side effect as in the case of sickle cell anemia.  Those with this condition suffer with symptoms of anemia, but also have the benefit of not being able to contract malaria.  Thus many populations that have been seriously affected by malaria also have a high prevalence of sickle cell anemia.

Life like everything else is subject to breaking down and failure over time.  As time continues genetic diseases and disorders unfortunately will only become more common.  Oftentimes it is easy to focus on all of the disorders and disfigurement in life and forget the beauty and order that went into its creation.  Death is a reality that we are all accustomed to, but it was never meant to be part of creation’s order.  Scripture tells us that nature was subjected to death unwillingly, and that it ‘groans and travails in pain’ waiting for the day of its redemption.  But it is not just nature than is in pain, “but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.” –Romans 8:23