Wednesday, April 30, 2008

THE FINGERPRINT OF GOD: Why complex life requires information, and why all life is complex

On a personal level, one of the most startling single facts about our origins is that life arose so quickly on the new planet Earth. As soon as the Earth’s surface cooled about 3.8 billion years ago, single-celled life was there. This fact was quite a shocker to modern evolutionary theorists, who, up until that point, had figured that Life had several billion years to create itself. Given that amount of time, they assumed it was only inevitable that molecules would arrange themselves into something resembling a living cell.

Suddenly the theorists found themselves with a problem. How do you account for something as complex as a living cell, given that you have virtually no workable timeframe to account for time and chance to play a role? For all appearances, life seems to have arisen by “cosmic imperative” of some sort. I use that term because Nobel Laureate Christian De Duve, a cell biologist, used it as the subtitle of a book. In other words, life arose because it had to… it was built into the equation, it was chemically "pre-destined."

De Duve, of course, attacked the problem from an agnostic viewpoint, but clearly understood the scope of the problem. For those who have read his books, you know that he typically addressed the metaphysical aspects of biology with a fairness rarely found in scientific writings.

The appearance of life is the original version of the “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” conundrum. We know that to build a living cell, we need DNA, which carries the blueprint of life. DNA quite literally provides the instructions needed for molecules to arrange themselves into all the amazing things that make up a living cell. Without DNA, you simply have a mess of chemicals and proteins. But DNA only exists within a living cell. And a living cell only exists because of DNA. So which came first?

I’ve read the works of many scientists who propose how the cell arose through purely natural forces. For the most part, no one can really agree on a logical path that’s supported by science. The position that it happened naturally is based upon circular reasoning, as noted in the previous post. Essentially, the scientist says: The cell came to be, and we don’t believe it had any supernatural assistance, so therefore it had to have somehow happened through natural causes.

But that doesn’t get very far when we consider the scope of the problem. DNA contains a vast amount of complex information in a code that far exceeds anything dreamed up by Mankind. And that’s the million-dollar question. Where did the information come from? How does such complex information imprint itself upon the very particles that make up all matter?

From a purely logical point of view, the answer is simple. The information had to come first. Unfortunately for science, this creates an insurmountable problem. Information capable of building a living cell just doesn’t create itself by chance, no matter how much Science insists that it must have. But it’s important to keep in mind that just because a single cell is small, it isn’t simple. It’s a hugely complex piece of work, and even at its most basic, functional size, it still requires vast amounts of information to build.

I’m a huge fan of Gerald Schroeder and his three books on the subject of God, Science and the harmony between them. In the last of the three, The Hidden Face of God, he talks about life and how it far exceeds the simple properties of its building blocks, and how it also exceeds the physical laws which govern the matter that it’s made of.

I wrote to Dr. Schroeder recently and was delighted to get a personal reply from him. I posed the question of how the information for life could have been built into the equation, and his reply blew me away. I’d never thought of it before, but it suddenly all made perfect sense.

"My guess is that the information [for complex life] was somehow contained within the first forms of life, but it did mutate and give rise to variations. But the basic information with which complex life developed was already there. Gilbert Goller notes that the initial energy of the Big Bang was highly related to electro-magnetic radiation. Vast amounts of information can be imprinted on electro-magnetic radiation, as we know from what we humans do with it. Hence a super-intelligence could put all the information ever needed onto that initial burst and somehow imprint the ability to have it read out and implemented."

In a nutshell, he confirmed what I already suspected. The difference was that he explained how it could have happened. DNA is a code, and the code was there from the beginning, imprinted upon the very particles that would form the matter that would someday become life. The information was there from the beginning, and imprinted upon the electro-magnetic radiation released in the Big Bang. As he noted, we do the same thing today with electro-magnetic radiation; we send information through space to cell phones, radios, televisions, and even imprint this information upon matter, such as hard drives and mag-strips on credit cards. Information can be stored and transferred so easily. Why couldn’t a super-intelligence do the same?

And then, in what can only be described as an “Aha!” moment, it all sunk in. I remembered seeing a photo back in 2006 of a newly-discovered nebula in our own Milky Way galaxy (the photo is shown at left in both infra-red and regular imagery). It was twisted into a double-helix, just like the strands of a DNA molecule. Only this double-helix was about 100 light years long. It blew my mind, especially when I read that scientist were baffled by the amazing amount of order that must be present for something like this to take place. I was surprised, but I wasn’t baffled. And it all made sense.

The information and order needed to hold this Universe together was present from the first moment of Creation. In the DNA nebula was simple confirmation that whatever creates the tiniest bits of substance also creates the largest. All is One, and we are part of It.

In the most beautiful five words I’ve ever read—and the five words most loaded with meaning— we find the answer to why everything is as it is: “In the beginning, God created...”

And we are the privileged witnesses to His handiwork.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

EGGS, FLOUR AND MOZART: A short course on how the ingredients of Life became more than the sum of their parts

Did life arise by chance, or by design? To describe it problem in very simple terms, lets use a very simple analogy. While it may seem laughable to some, it's nonetheless accurate and demonstrates the problem in a very real way.

Let's assume you're going to bake a cake. You assemble the ingredients, knowing that flour, eggs, baking soda, sugar, water and a few other ingredients will produce a thick mess that when heated will be a cake. All this is predictable. You know that adding these ingredients together will produce cake batter, and taken to its conclusion, a cake. Nothing about this concoction exceeds the limits of the ingredients.

Let's take it a step farther, for the sake of explaining the position of the naturalist camp, or those who believe Life happened without cause or intent. Let's assume that the ingredients are all assembled on the counter, sitting uncovered, side-by-side under ideal conditions, and you get a call that takes you from your home. While you're gone, an earthquake hits. All the ingredients are mixed together in the quake, which tears at your electrical wiring and starts a fire which burns your kitchen counter (and bakes your cake in the process). You return home to the mess of charred cabinets, to find a bowl containing something that resembles a cake. It was simply a case of everything being in the right place at the right time.

A highly unlikely chain of events, but it happened nonetheless. And what happened was predictable. Not likely, but given the right set of conditions, it still falls within the realm of predictable. Ingredients, mixed properly, with heat added, produce something resembling a cake. While improbable, the end result was predictable because it didn't exceed the abilities of the ingredients. No matter how long it sits there, it can never become more than what it is... the total sum of its parts.

But now imagine this...

You receive a call that takes you from your home. The same events takes place: the earthquake hits, the ingredients get mixed, the fire starts and the cake gets baked. You return home to find this baked cake. But something's very different this time. It's not a charred accidental mess (as you'd expect from such random events), but it's already decorated and sitting at the piano playing Mozart (with its new appendages and opposed thumbs), and on the counter is a picture it has painted...of you, no less! And dinner simmers away on the stove. All in all, it's quite an impressive cake.

This scenario, needless to say, does not fall into the realm of the predictable. What has taken place falls outside the bounds of probable events. Eggs, sugar, flour, water and baking soda (and by extension, all the elements of which they're composed) do not, on their own or mixed together, contain the ability to walk to the piano and play Mozart. No matter how many different ways we arrange them, we cannot produce anything other than a thick batter under normal temperatures, or a cake when heated. This holds true whether we give it an hour, a year, or 15 billion years. The outcome simply cannot exceed the inherent properties of the ingredients. So what we're witnessing in this impressive cake is an emergent property of matter that cannot be explained through process or scientific law. Yet there it sits, a living, breathing piece of matter that can play and appreciate music (and paint pictures of you!).

When we take this simple analogy and apply it to the natural world and the creation of complex life, we have to ask ourselves this question: Everything physical thing we encounter is composed of particles which formed into atoms, which formed into molecules, which formed into the very matter that we're made of. How do we get from tiny electro-magnetic pulses to living, breathing, thinking matter without some help and direction? One thing we know for sure... whatever took place within the initial burst of energy that created the Universe, the driving force behind the emergent properties of matter was present at that very moment... and imprinted itself upon those particles. The very deterministic information that gave rise to matter in all its forms appears to have been present before the Creation event itself.

Even when we reduce this to the lowest common denominator of life, the individual cell, the problem remains just as unfathomable. Why, when we take all the necessary ingredients of a cell and place them together in the most optimal possible position, do we still come up with nothing? Without the deterministic information contained in DNA to run the show, no amount of cajoling or manipulating can push these ingredients into anything even remotely resembling a living, functioning cell. In fact, to most biologists, the emergence of the first cell still seems somewhat miraculous (their own words, by the way). Which leads to the questions: If we're just matter, then why do we appear to be so much more than just the sum of our parts? And since DNA only exists within a cell, and a cell can only exist because of its DNA, which came first?

Science has no term for these emergent properties, other than to note that in addition to the ingredients, it also requires a tremendous input of information (found in DNA). Believers call the source of that information by a name: God.

Life was no accident, and no amount of circular reasoning on the part of the naturalist can overcome this fact. Naturalist thinkers often accuse the faithful of circular reasoning, and think of our position something like this: "We're here and we're pretty amazing creatures, so God must have done it." The truth is, the naturalist thinker is the one engaging in circular reasoning, and does it by being intellectually dishonest, essentially saying: "We're here, and because I refuse to consider the option of a Creator, it MUST have happened naturally." The naturalist thinker eliminates a valid option before starting the thought process, and therefore must accept the default position on faith, that of natural origins. Yet when we consider the problem posed above, it's very easy to take a side based purely on logic.

In the end, I look at my own position and feel that my decision, although based upon faith, is ultimately the more logical one. We're not here by chance. The great Catholic thinker G.K. Chesterton stated the scope of the issue quite succinctly in this famous quote: "To an atheist, the universe is the most exquisite masterpiece ever constructed by nobody."

Amen, brother. You said a mouthful. Cake, anyone?

FALLING DOWN: The continuing collapse of Mankind's relationship with God

One of the most powerful (and hotly debated) stories in the Bible is the account of the Fall, where Adam and Eve are tempted, sample the forbidden fruit, and are banished from the Garden of Eden and their perfect relationship with the Almighty. Is this a literal story, with real characters, or simply an allegory to explain the corruptness that lurks in the heart of mankind? Personally, I believe it is both, and here's why...

Francis Schaeffer, in his book “Genesis is Space and Time,” notes that above all, many of the Bible’s truths are communicative truths; stories that may be difficult to read literally, but that are used to communicate a larger, more universal truth about God’s will. The Creation story told in Genesis might be one example. In describing the days of Creation, the emphasis isn’t on the timeline or the manner in which God created, but on the fact that God was there before the Universe began, and was responsible for it coming into being. When we fight over the literalness of the words, we lose sight of the communicative truth it delivers...that God is transcendent and above all, the Creator of all that is.

We see many of the same battles over the literalness of Genesis 2 and 3. We learn that the last of God’s creations, Man & Woman, were created in His image. Many members of the monotheistic faiths take this to mean that the first humans were created in the fairly recent past. The Bible never tells us whether or not hominids existed before Adam, but we can be fairly certain from paleontology that they did. If we read Genesis carefully, we discover that Biblical Man was created in God’s image, and God is a spiritual being. While Adam and Eve were most certainly homo sapiens, the Bible never explicitly states that they were the first homo sapiens. They were simply the first (and only) creatures in which God’s spirit was an integral element of the final product. Insisting on a more definitive interpretation requires us to twist the words of Scripture to suit our purpose. While science and Scripture can both describe the creation of a Universe, the language used to do so doesn't give us a neat apples-to-apples comparison—and because we so often insist on trying to match up the literalness of scientific discovery with very literal interpretations of Genesis, our belief in God often becomes weakened in the process, often to the point of abandoning any real faith in God.

All this brings me to a recent comment I came across while reading about the new Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a huge particle collider, set to start operation sometime this summer in Europe. This incredible piece of machinery is designed to answer some of Science's biggest and most important questions about our origins. Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg, of the University of Texas at Austin, says, “The goal is to find signs of an elusive particle called the Higgs boson—also known as the "God particle"—because it might ultimately lead to a grand theory of the universe.” In other words, a Universe that has no need of God as an explanatory mechanism.

What’s particularly interesting about this project is its focus on searching for the Higgs boson, and how its anticipated discovery might impact religion. Weinberg clearly feels that religious faith is simply an invented thing used to explain the unexplainable, and as science explains how things work, there’s increasingly little use for religion. Weinberg also feels, as evidenced in his answers to questions asked by a Newsweek reporter, that the discovery of the Higgs boson would finally allow a unified theory of everything, and once and for all put to rest any doubts that science is lord of all when it comes to explaining the world and why everything works the way it does.

For those who have already bought into Weinberg’s worldview, everything he says makes sense. But for those of us who happen to believe in a Creator, his comments ring with scientific hubris, and intellectually dishonesty at that. Explaining how the Universe works the way it does is what science does very well, but explaining why things are the way they are is quite possibly beyond the reach of science. Carl Sagan was famous for assuming that the limits of science are the limits of reality, but we know from studying the Big Bang that this simply isn’t true. And even if we do discover this elusive “God particle” that seems to hold the Universe together, have we really eliminated any need for God as an explanation? Or simply pushed Him out of the picture and placed ourselves on His throne?

The fact remains that the Universe is an incredible piece of work that defies logical explanations for why it's the way it is, such as why the laws of science, all seemingly balanced on a razor’s edge, provided us with such a perfectly-tuned Universe. If the Universe really came about by pure chance, why are the laws of science so deterministic, and what gave particles the ability to gather together into increasingly complex bits of matter, some of which eventually became living, breathing, thinking creatures capable of pondering the very origins from which they arose?

What I find so contradictory about the position of Science toward religion is this: Scientists claim that their scientific discoveries replace the need for God as an explanatory mechanism. But their discoveries only serve to show us how incredible the workings of this Universe truly are...the formerly mysterious, with light shed on them, become the truly fantastic. As an example, men of science once assumed the cell was simply a blob of organic goo. But then we learn that the cell contains molecular machines nearly identical to those we build ourselves, and that everything in this cell was built according to the informational blueprint found in the DNA molecule.

As an example, just compare the propulsion system of the bacterial flagellum (shown at left), a molecular "machine" found within a cell, to any rotary engine built by man. It contains a motor, a drive shaft, bearings, a universal joint and a propeller. According to scientists, it built itself through natural selection (which apparently now works on molecules, too, and not just living creatures). Yet now that we know how a cell works, even more questions are raised. An incredible amount of information is necessary for a cell to create an amazing mechanism such as this. Where did this incredible amount of information come from? Did it just emerge by sheer dumb chance, without any direction? Yes, more or less... according to the responses of scientists. To imply that there was any sort of direction or intent is to admit to design, a no-no in the biological world.

The Biblical Fall described in Genesis was an act of turning away from God, of thinking that we are equal to God, and therefore capable of discovering all the answers for ourselves. God becomes a cast-off as He's no longer needed. In this Fall, Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and from that point forward Man developed a very strong inclination to set himself above everything else. Worldly knowledge replaced Godly Wisdom. Science has become the New Religion. Man is lord and ruler of the planet, and doing a terrible job of it (yet loves to blame religion as a cause of it). In the need to find an “ultimate answer” to why things are the way they are, we look for ways to explain away a God that was presumably invented by Man. This isn't a diatribe against scientific discovery, which I feel is an incredible endeavor as it provides us with glimpses into the mind of God. It's simply to point out that we increasingly use scientific discoveries as an excuse to push God from our lives, rather than welcome Him in as the originator of everything that is.

In the final analysis, we discover that the Fall is an ongoing process, that Adam and Eve are us. We are them. Mankind continues to take bigger and bigger bites of the apple daily, and turns farther from God in the process.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

UNDER THE INFLUENCE: The narcotic of war and why so many Christians are addicted to it

One of the most annoying things about email and the Internet is the apparently endless stream of obnoxious, unsolicited socio-political commentary that finds its way into my mailbox every day. From friends, no less. But from a psychological point of view, however, few things reveal so much about a person’s leanings as the email they forward to me.

One such vein of thought is the Christian stance on the war in Iraq, and why it varies so wildly from Christian to Christian. Almost daily, I receive emails from Christian friends—some born-again, some merely cultural, but all professing to believe—who are adamantly supportive of the war in Iraq, and still see it as the major front in the war on terror. Never mind that violence and retribution are strongly rebuked by the Christ they claim to believe in. This attitude is reflected in the patriotic (but often militant and jingoistic) emails that circulate endlessly, speaking of God and country, sacrifice and honor. War is painted in a dangerously noble and romantic light, and some of these emails compare the deaths of our soldiers to the substitutionary death of Christ. We're always good, and the enemy is always evil, and God is on our side. Problem is, no matter where I look in the email, once God is mentioned, He just seems to disappear from view and the rest of the email worships the idols of nationalism and military might. God, it appears, was simply used as a prop to support their ideology, and His call to follow Him is ignored.

Compounding this problem is that so few of these emails have their facts straight. The basis for my friends' strong beliefs about the Iraq war rely—quite unfortunately—on the marketing and sales pitches that come from the current administration, those sound bytes and blurbs about noble sacrifice for a greater cause, about good (us)-versus-bad (them), and how we must stop the terrorists at any cost.

That would all be fine if it were true. But it’s not. In fact, most of it is a terrible lie. Terrorism is an ideology carried out by small cells of extremists from all over the globe, not the act of a sitting government using its standing army. The war on terrorism is best fought through covert international police actions. Iraq wasn't behind 9/11... that's a fact. All the terrorist attacks in the past twenty years have been carried out by non-Iraqis. In fact, not a single terrorist from the 9/11 attack was Iraqi. Fifteen of them, however, were from Saudi Arabia, a country we call our friend. Why didn’t we invade Saudi Arabia? The remainder were from other countries with which we have strong diplomatic ties: United Arab Emirates (2), Lebanon (1) and Egypt (1). Again, why didn't we invade those countries? We weren't attacked by the state-supported army of any country. Why did we use ours to invade a country that wasn't even involved?

The press also fell victim to this deceit by accepting the military's offer to travel "embedded" with combat units in Iraq. Once the media said "Yes," truthful reporting of the facts became a casualty of war. If a reporter covered anything that cast a negative light on the invasion, they were pulled from their embedded position. As a reporter, you either toed the party line, or you lost your ticket to the big dance. In the competitive world of broadcast journalism, you dare not lose your ticket to the big dance, or it could mean the end of your job.

Attacking Iraq to stop terrorism was an absurd proposition from the start. Justifying the invasion of Iraq as a means to confront terrorism was akin to burning down a barn to kill a few mice—there was nothing logical about it. The excuse for invading was built on lies, all well documented by now, but we charged in anyway. After no weapons of mass destruction were found, the administration changed it’s tune: Saddam was a brutal dictator who needed to go. The focus changed to “regime change,” a political marketing term if there ever was one.

If that was the case, then why did we prop him up during the 1980s, giving him money and weapons? He was a brutal dictator then as well. The US (and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, then a special envoy under the elder Bush, seen shaking hands here with Saddam in 1984) knew then that he was killing his own people, and yet we turned a blind eye. But our hypocrisy didn’t stop there. Just listen to our current vice president, Dick Cheney, speak about Iraq in 1994 and what a disaster it would be to invade...prophetic words, proudly ignored just nine years later. It’s true: in time of war, the first casualty is the truth. Hubris is king, and a selectively blind one at that.

The sad fact is this: Iraq was invaded for purely political and financial reasons, to advance the causes of the neo-conservative movement. As Alan Greenspan, the highly-respected former Chairman of the Federal Reserve noted in his autobiography: “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.”

In the final analysis, the citizenry was sold an idea that was false, and most bought into it, including many Christians. Our dedicated soldiers, trusting the motives of politicians, are being misused, their lives put needlessly at risk. Over 4,000 have becomes victims of the violence. Over one hundred thousand Iraqi citizens have died violent deaths because of the madness set off by our invasion. We have essentially helped focus the hatred of the Arab Muslim world against us, and it’s only a matter of time before the extremists among them attempt something big again. Trillions of dollars have been spent fighting a conventional war against an ideology, and now, when directly pressed for an answer about what constitutes “success” in Iraq, our generals have no answer.

In the end, all Christians who support the war must ask themselves these simple questions: Who would Jesus bomb? Who would Jesus invade? Who would Jesus torture? Even more pressing, what dictator would Jesus have propped up, fully aware that he was killing his own people? And which government would Jesus have supported, knowing that it was selling a false idea to the masses to advance the political ideology of the few?

God came to earth incarnate in Christ. In the person of Jesus, God said, “Here’s how the world would operate if everyone was to do it My way. Listen carefully to me. Then watch me and remember. Then go transform the world in My name by acting like Me.”

If we claim to be Christians, then we claim to be followers of Christ. But as the apostle John tells us, if we say we’re followers of Christ, but don’t walk as He walked, then we’re liars and the truth is not in us. That’s the harsh litmus test of a true Christian, and the test we most often fail.