Saturday, December 16, 2017

Molecular Machines

Among the phenomena which support the claim that life is the product of intentional, intelligent design is the sheer number of complex molecular machines that operate in each of the trillions of our body's cells to ensure that these cells carry out the functions that keep us alive.

One of these machines is the system of proteins that synthesizes adenosine triphosphate (ATP) from adenosine diphosphate (ADP). Here's a short video animation that describes how this machine, called ATP synthase, works:
There are thousands of such machines in the cell, all of which, on the standard Darwinian account, somehow developed - through random, undirected, processes - not only their structure, not only the coordination with other systems in the cell necessary for proper function, but also the genetic regulatory mechanisms that control how and when the machine operates. If it happened, it's a near-miraculous achievement for blind, undirected processes.

David Hume, in his famous essay On Miracles, wrote that when we hear an account of a miracle we should ask ourselves whether it's more likely, given our experience, that a law of nature had been violated or that the witness was somehow mistaken. Hume argued that a mistaken witness is always more likely than that a law of nature had been violated, and we should always, he insisted, believe what's most likely. Applying Hume's principle to the present case, we should ask ourselves, what is the greater miracle, that an astonishing mechanism like ATP synthase came about by chance and luck or that it came about by intelligent engineering?

It seems to me that the only way one can assert the former is if they've already, a priori, ruled out the possibility of the existence of the intelligent engineer, but, of course, that begs the question. Whether the intelligent engineer exists is the very matter we're trying to answer by asking whether blind chance or intelligence is the best explanation for the existence in living things of such machines as ATP synthase.

If we allow the evidence to speak for itself rather than allow our prior metaphysical commitments to dictate what the evidence says then I'm pretty sure most people would agree that the kind of specified complexity we see in this video points unequivocally to the existence of a designing mind.

If this video has piqued your interest here's another that pushes us toward the same conclusion. It's an animation of just a few of the structures and processes in a living cell. Note the amazing motor protein that carries the vesicle along the microtubule:
How does the motor protein "know" to carry the vesicle along the microtubule and where to take it? What regulates the process? What's the source of the information needed to choreograph this phenomenon? How and why did such a complex system ever come about? Was it all just blind chance and serendipity or was it somehow a product of intelligence? On which of those possible explanations, intelligence or blind, purposeless, random processes, are such mechanisms more likely?

Friday, December 15, 2017

Christmas Mirror

A friend of mine writes a blog called Thought Sifter at which he posted a Christmas meditation last year titled The Christmas Mirror in which he suggests that how we celebrate Christmas is a reflection of who we are as a person. I'd like to share an excerpt with you:
For many, Christmas is the photo-negative of The Purge. Instead of angry people taking advantage of the temporary suspension of laws against violence to wantonly dish out pain and revenge on those they resent, these people get giddy over the once-a-year opportunity to express pent-up love and gratitude. These are those who get rapturous over the sight of outgoing party invitations and present tags with other people's names in the "to" line. Such are those who feel more hope than trepidation when even the most difficult family member comes to dinner. At Christmas, these people are like (some similes can't be improved) a kid at Christmas. It's just who they are.

Others have no interest in making a good Christmas but only a good Christmas card. These are people whose lack of interest in actively knowing and loving people through the year in no way dampens their zeal to send pristine, family Christmas cards and Facebook posts. These are the sentimentalists who love the feelings of Christmas even though they aren't interested in the relational realities that should be the basis for those feelings. They are the Christmas equivalents of students who are fixated on GPAs but uninterested in education. Such people are not excited that everyone's coming over to their house, but place great value on their (and everyone else's) awareness that Christmas was at their house. That's just who they are.

Then there are the true Grinches. They neither care about other people nor about what some people will think about them for not caring. And, of course, they are only so callous toward people because they have been so mistreated by the world, and so they spend Christmas as they spend the rest of the year, comforting themselves in indignant isolation with the knowledge that at least they have always been in the right. It is who they are.

Others will use Christmas as an excuse to party (that is, party in the empty-hearted, self-degrading sense). These are ones for whom "drunken debauchery" is a cute, condescending reference to the naive prudes who would use the same phrase to describe certain Christmas parties. Those who party hard at Christmas are a lot like someone celebrating their completion of rehab at a local bar, not because they falter, but with a smirk and a wink because all the cool kids know that rehab is a joke anyway. That's just who they are.

Others, with much more gravity and self-respect, don't mind having a glass of champagne and some dessert with friends, but are really perturbed at how the whole event fosters among the ignorant that religious fable that has been such a hindrance to "progress." They can't rationally comprehend how God could come as a child in a manger. And since their capacity of rational comprehension is the gold standard for determining what can and cannot exist, they're miffed, like an erudite, early-twentieth-century physics professor rolling his eyes at the gullibility of the stupid undergraduates who go on and on about the fad called quantum physics. They're way too advanced for such nonsense. That's just who they are.

But one of the things that makes the news of Christmas "good news that will cause great joy for all the people," is that the one who came to dwell among us has made it so that we don't have to stay the way we are. Christmas leaves us with two options; we can either stay who we are or allow ourselves to be transformed into the people we were meant to be.
Lovely thought, that, and one of the good things about it is that it's never too late to let the transformation begin. One of my favorite Christmas songs is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's rendition of What Child Is This on their album Lost Christmas Eve. The line that I find most poignant and hopeful is when an older man, though dying, finds his life transformed and cries out, "To be this old and have your life just begin!"

You probably have to hear it yourself which you can do below. The video, unfortunately, is only cell-phone quality. The relevant part starts at about the three minute mark and, as sung by Rob Evans, is deeply moving.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Rodney Stark on the Abolition of Slavery

One of the peculiarities of our current cultural moment is that many African Americans, associating Christianity with slavery, repudiate their "Christian" name and adopt an Arabic or Islamic identity. I say this is peculiar because according to Rodney Stark in his book For the Glory of God, Africans suffered as badly, if not worse, from Islamic slavery as they did from the European variety. This is especially true if Islamic slavery is compared to slavery as it was practiced in North America.

Muslim slave-trading began many centuries before Europeans discovered the New World and carried at least as many Africans into bondage, and probably more, as were shipped across the Atlantic. By 1600 more than 7 million Africans had been transported to Islamic countries, and another 1.2 million more were transported there between 1800-1900.

These numbers only reflect the number of Africans who arrived at the destination. The death toll while being transported (by African slavers, it should be noted) from the interior to the African coast was somewhere between 20%-40%. Another 3%-10% died while waiting to be shipped, and 12%-16% died in transit on hellish slave ships. Altogether, of those initially taken as slaves, 35%-66% died before reaching the Islamic slave markets.

This pic and the one below show the horrible conditions to which African slaves
were subjected on slave ships. The filth, heat, and stench would've been overpowering.

It's sometimes said that Africans were treated better by Muslims than they were in the West, but Stark argues that this is dubious. Although roughly equal numbers of Africans arrived in both the West and in the Islamic world there's no substantial black population today in the "land of Islam." This is attributed in large measure to very low fertility due to the practice of castrating black males and of killing any infants who show black ancestry. Castration not only meant that black males who survived it couldn't reproduce, it also created a very high mortality rate among males due to infection and blood loss.

Just as science arose only once, so too, did effective moral opposition to slavery, and, like science, it arose only in the West and by Christians. Slavery has existed in every society able to afford it, including Native American societies, but of all the world's religions only Christians developed the belief that slavery was a great sin and must be abolished.

Antislavery efforts began to appear in Christian theology soon after the decline of Rome and eventually led to its disappearance in all but the fringes of Christian Europe by the end of the 16th century. When Europeans subsequently instituted slavery in the New World they did so over strenuous papal opposition. Unfortunately, by this time in history Rome was too weak to exert its influence over slave-owners in the Western hemisphere.

It's an interesting detail that relatively few slaves were imported into North America. From 1626 to 1808 when it became illegal to import slaves in the U.S., the total number of imported African slaves was about 400,000. By contrast, 3.6 million went to Brazil, 1.6 million were imported by the Spanish colonies, and about 3.8 million wound up in the horrific Caribbean sugar plantations. Eventually, due to the efforts primarily of Quakers in North America and the Clapham Sect in England, most notably William Wilberforce, the slave trade was first abolished and then slavery itself was done away with in the West.

There was, however, no similar abolition movement in the Islamic world. Slavery was only ended in the Muslim world because of Western pressure to do so, but it persisted nevertheless well into the 20th century (Saudi Arabia banned it in 1962, Mauritania in 1981). The British navy embargoed Muslim slave ships and British and French colonial troops intercepted countless slave caravans, freeing the slaves and sometimes executing slave traders on the spot. In North America a catastrophic civil war was fought, primarily over the issue of slavery.

Stark notes how the people who finally ended the moral scourge were acting essentially altruistically. They themselves had nothing to =gain from their efforts and some paid dearly for their commitment to the cause of blacks.

He concludes that although a Christian culture was certainly not a sufficient basis for ending slavery, it was nonetheless a necessary one since it was almost solely Christian thinkers and activists, working within a Christian understanding of human rights and equality, who reached anti-slavery conclusions and sought to help the larger culture recognize that they were participating in a great evil.

Perhaps if this history were more widely known fewer African Americans would be inclined to reject their Christian identity in favor of an Islamic one.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Rodney Stark on the Rise of Science

I had read Rodney Stark's book For the Glory of God some years ago but sat down to read it again recently. Stark is a scholar, both historian and sociologist, at Baylor University, and his book is the story, as the subtitle says, of how monotheism led to the Reformation, science, witch-burnings, and the end of slavery.

It's all very interesting, but most interesting to me was how Stark debunks some of the enduring myths about the interplay and significance of Christianity for both the emergence of modern science and the abolition of slavery.

Ever since the 17th century opponents of Christianity have sought to perpetuate the myth that religion and science have been locked in mortal combat. The myth culminated in the work of Andrew Dickson White, author of A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), a book whose themes are still influential today even though they've been almost entirely discredited by subsequent scholarship.

Stark shows how White's account of Columbus being impeded by religious men in Spain who thought the world was flat is totally false, as is belief in an epoch of "Dark Ages" which descended upon Europe like a shroud over the minds of men. There were no "Dark Ages," nor did anyone with any learning in Columbus' day think the world was flat. His proposal to sail across the Atlantic to India was resisted because it was believed, rightly, that Columbus had seriously underestimated the circumference of the globe and that he would never be able to make it to his destination.

Indeed, he would not have made it had he not serendipitously come upon the New World.

So, too, traditional accounts of the theories of Copernicus and the persecution of Galileo by the Church are often riddled with misinformation intended to make Christianity and Christians look like benighted fools and frame the founders of modern science as secular heroes struggling against an oppressive Church.

The facts are otherwise. As Stark points out, 50 of the 52 men who were most influential in the development of modern science in the 16th and 17th centuries were Christians, and over 60 percent of these were devoutly so, including some of the greatest names in the scientific pantheon: Boyle, Brahe, Descartes, Gassendi, Hooke, Huygens, Kepler, Leibniz, Newton, Pascal, Vesalius, et al.

Stark observes that so far from being inimical to science, the Church made it possible for science to flourish by building and staffing universities where men could pursue learning centuries before the "Enlightenment," but perhaps even more important than centers of scholarship was the pervading worldview in Europe that gave rise to modern science.

The theological assumptions that the cosmos had been created by an intelligent being, that it was logical, law-like and designed, and that its secrets could be unlocked through the application of human reason, all provided the impetus to explore and investigate the world and led to the burgeoning of scientific discovery.

This, Stark argues, is why "science arose only once in history - in medieval Europe - because only there was found a culture dominated by a belief in a rational, conscious, all-powerful Creator," and only in Christian Europe were men free to investigate nature and to "think God's thoughts after Him."

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Three Options

The book A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely-Tuned Cosmos by cosmologists Luke Barnes and Geraint Lewis discusses the incredibly precise fine-tuning of the forces, parameters and constants that comprise the structure of the universe. Here's a video trailer that introduces the theme of their book:
The trailer suggests that there are four possible explanations for this incomprehensible level of precision, but for reasons I'll explain in a moment, there really are only three.

The first is that something about the universe makes it a logical necessity that the values cosmologists find are in fact the only possible values a universe could have. There is no reason, however, to think this is the case. There's nothing about the universe, as far as we know, that makes it impossible for gravity or the strong nuclear force, to take just two examples, to have slightly different strengths.

The second explanation is that even though it's astronomically improbable that any universe would be so fine-tuned that living things could exist in it, if there are other universes, all with different parameters, universes so abundant that their number approaches infinity, then one like ours is almost bound to exist. This option goes by the name of the multiverse hypothesis.

The difficulty with this idea is that there's no good reason to believe other universes actually do exist, and even if they do why should we assume that they're not all replicas of each other, and even if they're all different whatever is producing them must itself be fine-tuned in order to manufacture universes, so all the multiverse hypothesis does is push the problem back a step or two.

The third explanation is that our universe is the product of a very intelligent agent, a mathematical genius, which exists somehow beyond the bounds of our cosmos.

There are actually two varieties of the third option. One is to say that the designer of the universe is a denizen of another universe in which technology has advanced to the point that it allows inhabitants of that world to design simulations of other universes.

The trailer treats this as a fourth option but since it posits a designer who resides in some other universe it's actually a combination of the second and third options and suffers some of the same difficulties as the multiverse hypothesis. It also assumes that computer technology could ever simulate not only an entire cosmos but also human consciousness, which is certainly problematic.

The other version of the third explanation is to assume that the designer of our universe is not some highly accomplished computer nerd in another universe but rather that it is a transcendent, non-contingent being of unimaginable power and intellectual brilliance who is the ultimate cause of all contingent entities, whether universes or their inhabitants.

Which of these options is thought most attractive will vary from person to person, but philosophical arguments won't settle the issue for most people. Human beings tend to believe what they most fervently want to be true, and what they most want to be true is often whatever makes the fewest demands upon their autonomy and their lifestyle.

Monday, December 11, 2017

How Does an Embryo Do it?

Ever since I was an undergraduate biology major I have been intrigued by the mystery of how a zygote (a fertilized egg) develops from a single cell into a multi-cellular embryo and from there to a complete organism. The reason this is such a profound mystery is that the initial cell somehow "knows" to divide and the daughter cells somehow "know" to form different kinds of cells which somehow "know" to migrate around the embryo and form different kinds of tissue which somehow "know" to integrate with other kinds of tissues to form organs, and so on. So, how do cells with no brains "know" how to do all this? Where are the instructions located which choreograph this astonishing process and tell all the parts what to do and how to do it, and how are those instructions communicated? The information is not to be found in the genome or the epigenome, apparently, so where is it, what is its storage medium, and how is it stored and accessed? What mechanisms control it so that the entire assembly unfolds in a flawless sequence with each step occurring precisely when it must in order to successfully construct an adult organism? And how, exactly, does the zygote "know" to produce, say, a flower rather than a fish, or a bird, or a human? These questions are fascinating and they emerge again in an article at Uncommon Descent that quotes geneticist Michael Denton:
The earliest events leading from the first division of the egg cell to the blastula stage in amphibians, reptiles and mammals are illustrated in figure 5.4 (in his book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis). Even to the untrained zoologist it is obvious that neither the blastula itself, nor the sequence of events that lead to its formation, is identical in any of the vertebrate classes shown.
The blastula stage is an early step in embryogenesis when the zygote divides several times to produce a ball of cells. When those cells then evaginate and begin to take on the form of the early embryo biologists call that the gastrula stage.

Denton continues:
The differences become even more striking in the next major phase of in embryo formation – gastrulation. This involves a complex sequence of cell movements whereby the cells of the blastula rearrange themselves, eventually resulting in the transformation of the blastula into the intricate folded form of the early embryo, or gastrula, which consists of three basic germ cell layers: the ectoderm, which gives rise to the skin and the nervous system; the mesoderm, which gives rise to muscle and skeletal tissues; and the endoderm, which gives rise to the lining of the alimentary tract as well as to the liver and pancreas....

In some ways the egg cell, blastula, and gastrula stages in the different vertebrate classes are so dissimilar that, were it not for the close resemblance in the basic body plan of all adult vertebrates, it seems unlikely that they would have been classed as belonging to the same phylum. There is no question that, because of the great dissimilarity of the early stages of embryogenesis in the different vertebrate classes, organs and structures considered homologous in adult vertebrates cannot be traced back to homologous cells or regions in the earliest stages of embryogenesis. In other words, homologous structures are arrived at by different routes.
In other words, different types of animals follow different pathways in building morphological structures such as the arm of a man, the foreleg of a horse, the wing of a bird, and the pectoral fin of a fish, that are otherwise believed to be evolutionarily "related."

If they follow different pathways then there must be a different set of assembly instructions for the development of these "homologs," and thus all of the above questions arise again.

There is in the organism from the time it's just a single cell at least until it's fully developed, a massive amount of information that programs its development. The locus, nature, and modus operandi of this information are unknown, but one thing I think can be inferred: If information of such astonishing sophistication controls the progression of the cell's development, it seems very unlikely that that information is the product of blind, impersonal, random processes. Complex information such as we find in computer code or architectural blueprints are never the product of random processes like genetic mutation, but are always, insofar as we've ever experienced it, the product of a mind.

I leave it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The "Rational" Man

Philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, in her book The Sovereignty of Good (1970) describes in vivid accents the modern man who prides himself in his rational approach to life unencumbered by the silly superstitions believed in by gullible religious people. The modern rational man, typified in her telling by someone like the 18th century philosophical icon Immanuel Kant, is a man who ...
...confronted even with Christ turns away to consider the judgement of his own conscience and to hear the voice of his own reason . . . . This man is with us still, free, independent, lonely, powerful, rational, responsible, brave, the hero of so many novels and books of moral philosophy. The raison d’ĂȘtre of this attractive but misleading creature is not far to seek . . . . He is the ideal citizen of the liberal state, a warning held up to tyrants. He has the virtue which the age requires and admires, courage. It is not such a very long step from Kant to Nietzsche, and from Nietzsche to existentialism and the Anglo-Saxon ethical doctrines which in some ways closely resemble it. In fact Kant’s man had already received a glorious incarnation nearly a century earlier in the work of Milton: his proper name is Lucifer.
Lucifer? Why such a harsh judgment? Perhaps because the modern, "rational" man believes only what science and his senses tell him. The rational man looks at himself and his fellows as little more than flesh and bone machines, animals, whose only real "purpose" is to reproduce, experience pleasure and avoid pain. He regards morality as an illusion. His reason affords him no basis for caring about the weak or the poor, no basis for human compassion, no particular point to conserving the earth's resources for future generations. Whereas Kant thought that reason dictated the categorical imperative, i.e. the duty to treat others as ends in themselves and not merely as a means to one's own happiness, in fact, reason, unfettered from any divine sanction, dictates only that each should look to his own interests.

In practice modern man may care about the well-being of others, but he must abandon his fealty to science and reason to do so because these provide no justification for any moral obligations whatsoever. Indeed, the purely rational man is led by the logic of his naturalism to the conclusion that might makes right. The pursuit of power frequently becomes the driving force of his life. It injects his life with meaning. It leads him to build places like Auschwitz and Dachau to eliminate the less powerful and less human.

Would Kant have agreed with this bleak assessment. No, but then Kant wasn't quite in tune with the modern, rational man. Kant believed that in order to make sense of our lives as moral agents we have to assume that three things are true: We have to assume that God exists, that we have free will, and that there is life beyond the grave.

The modern man, of course, rejects all three, and in so doing he rejects the notion of objective moral value or obligation. That's why reason has led men to embrace ideologies that have produced vast tracts of corpses, and that's why, perhaps, Murdoch uses the name Lucifer to describe them.