Questions from Christian Students, Part 6

Sarah was recently invited, along with two other scientists, to take part in a panel discussion for a group of mostly Christian students. After the main discussion, students were invited to submit questions via text message; there was very little time to address them, so only a few were answered. The questions were quite good, so over the next few weeks, Surak and Sarah will answer most of them here. All of the questions are listed in the Intro to this series. See also: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4; Part 5

What’s the most common scientific argument you encounter against Christianity? How have you responded?

The most common scientific arguments against Christianity are the following:

1. The six days of creation are completely contrary to modern science.

This is false. See here for a thorough explanation of this.

2. Evolution explains everything and makes God ‘unnecessary.’

The first part of this statement is false; the second part is an extremely weak and silly argument. First, Darwinism in all of its forms has not provided answers for the most fundamental biological questions of all: how did life originate, what caused the tremendous explosion of life forms in the Cambrian explosion, why do different phyla of animal life share common genes, what is human consciousness, and where does human consciousness come from? Modern biologists who make grand pronouncements about God end up sounding like teenagers who discover where their mom and dad keep the car keys and the credit cards and then declare that their parents are no longer necessary. They are also like kids in their immature conviction that they know everything. They once confidently declared that they knew how life started: huge amounts of time in which nearly infinite random combinations of chemicals occurred solved the problem of the origins of life on Earth. Then the fossil evidence destroyed that argument by showing that life arose almost immediately after water formed on the Earth; there was no long period of time for random processes to work their magic (it really was a case of magical thinking all along).

Then the Darwinists said, well, never mind that we really don’t have an explanation for the origins of life; once life started, it developed and diversified without any supernatural help. According to evolutionary theory the various phyla of the animal kingdom all evolved separately according to the laws of random mutation and natural selection. That claim turned out not to be true either.

Sean B. Carroll is a current Darwinist biologist at the forefront of a new field of study known as evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). In his book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom, he announces the startling discovery that animal life forms as different as mammals and insects share interchangeable genes, something that Darwinists always believed was impossible:

[T]he prevailing view of the architects and adherents of Modern Synthesis was that the process of random mutation and selection would so alter DNA and protein sequences that only closely related species would bear homologous genes. … Virtually everything I have described … has been discovered in the past twenty years. … The insights provided by these discoveries … [have] forced biologists to rethink completely their picture of how forms evolve. (p. 285, emphasis added)

In other words, Darwinists (“the architects and adherents of Modern Synthesis”) are “completely” wrong about how life developed on Earth. With a track record like this, biologists should be humble enough not to make grand pronouncements that God does not exist or is unnecessary.

3. The idea of a creator god doesn’t provide any final or satisfying answer, because the question remains ‘who or what made God?’

This is more of a philosophical question with scientific overtones and implications.

Whether atheists like it or not (and they don’t), big bang theory necessitates the inclusion of the supernatural in all philosophical and scientific discussions about the origins of the universe and life. Something outside and greater than (super-) the universe (nature) must have caused it to come into being. Taking this logic one step further, there must be something outside our universe that has, as an inherent quality, the power to exist. In other words, at the bottom of everything is something or ‘someone’ that was not made by something else. We can’t understand this power or the nature of the thing that holds it, but we are living proof that it ‘exists’ in some unfathomable manner.

Rather than argue about the unknowable, we should pose the most obvious question worth asking, “Is this entity that possesses the power to exist conscious or unconscious?” These two alternatives seem to exhaust the possibilities and be mutually exclusive. If you can think of another possibility, let me know.

If one prefers to believe that the creative power behind the universe is unconscious, then the fundamental entity would be some form of eternal material universe based on equally eternal natural laws. Since we are reasonably sure this universe is not eternal, we would be forced to fall back on notions such as the multiverse. Because of the limitations of science, these ideas will never be anything more than unprovable speculation forever consigned to the realms of philosophy, science fiction, or anti-Christian dogma.

I find these unconscious alternatives not only emotionally and intellectually unsatisfying, but truly terrifying. Atheists generally take this idea just one baby-step further by grandly pronouncing that all we have is this one life, and we should courageously accept the truth and live that life to the fullest. But, why bother? According to them, all of humankind will be exterminated and nothing anyone does, feels, or learns will have any lasting significance. As bad as that sounds, the reality of an eternal universe is actually far worse.

One of the most annoying things about atheists who make this argument about ‘who made God’ is their inability to take an idea all the way to its most logical conclusion. Consider for a moment the two most fundamental aspects of their eternal material universe:

  1. Another word for eternal is infinite (in time).
  2. In the unconscious eternal material universe, everything would happen according to the laws of probability.

Put these two things together and the result is total weirdness that offends reason.

We don’t know what the exact probability of you existing in an eternal material world is, but we do know it is some positive non-zero value, because you exist. So, what is the probability that you could exist twice? According to the mathematics of probability, you can calculate that by multiplying the probability you will exist by itself. Well, a positive number multiplied by a positive number is … a positive number. In other words, you could exist in two or more places at the same time, and you will definitely exist again given an infinite amount of time. But it gets more complicated than that because an infinite amount of anything plays havoc with our sense of reality.

If the universe is eternal, you have already lived an infinite number of lives. You have already lived each of these lives an infinite number of times. Each life was lived and then completely lost—no memories, no lasting achievements, no personal growth, no enduring love. There is only an endless and pointless repetition. Really! I can imagine no more terrifying prospect than this utter and endless lack of purpose.

Science is ultimately incapable of proving anything either way. So, I chose for non-scientific but rational reasons to hope that the creative power behind the universe is conscious. That is the only chance we have for meaning, purpose, and love.

Questions from Christian Students, Part 4

Sarah was recently invited, along with two other scientists, to take part in a panel discussion for a group of mostly Christian students. After the main discussion, students were invited to submit questions via text message; there was very little time to address them, so only a few were answered. The questions were quite good, so over the next few weeks, Surak and Sarah will answer most of them here. All of the questions are listed in the Intro to this series. See also: Part 1Part 2Part 3

You mentioned the big bang.  In your interpretation, does the big bang coincide with the moment of creation? / How does scientific proof of the big bang line up with the biblical teaching of creationism?

The scientific theory of the big bang is in every way consistent with the Genesis account of creation. These two very different ways of understanding the origin of the universe agree on all of the basics:

  • The universe had a beginning.
  • The universe was created out of nothing (nothing material).
  • What came before the big bang is scientifically unknowable.
  • There was no matter in the universe just after creation.
  • Something scientifically inexplicable happened just after the big bang. Physicists believe that something unusual (and so far unexplained) happened, and they call this one-time event ‘inflation.’ In scripture this one-time act of God is a miracle.
  • After this one-time event, light came into existence.
  • Darkness was created as something more than just the absence of light—in science this phenomenon is studied as dark matter and dark energy.
  • Our universe is constructed out of what scientists call fluids and the Bible calls ‘waters’ (ancient Hebrew vocabulary was very limited—about 3000 words—and didn’t have a different word for fluids).
  • The stars and galaxies were formed after light appeared.
  • The Earth was formed after stars first appeared.
  • Bodies of water and continents formed on Earth.
  • Life almost immediately came into existence after these bodies of water formed.
  • There was a progression in life forms.
  • When the atmosphere became oxygen-rich it became transparent, which made the Sun, Moon, and stars visible from the Earth’s surface for the first time.
  • Life first developed in water and eventually spread to dry land.
  • Winged insects appeared.
  • Dinosaurs lived (in the ancient Hebrew of Gen. 1:21 they are called e·thninm e·gdlim—the reptiles great).
  • Other winged creatures besides insects appear.
  • Mammals appear.
  • Hominids appear.
  • Conscious man appears.

When convincing evidence for the big bang was presented in the 1960s, newspaper headlines declared that the Bible had been vindicated1.

However, we must be careful not to overstate what science has done or is capable of doing. Science has not and cannot ‘prove’ that the big bang occurred. There is nothing in any branch of science that has been proven once and for all. Anyone searching for finality in understanding will be disappointed with science. Scientists have found evidence of the big bang that is so compelling that the theory is now accepted by most in the scientific community. But like every other theory in science it has gaps and unanswered questions.

Most important of all, science is the study of our material universe. It cannot directly address questions about what may or may not be outside the universe. The existence of God is therefore not scientifically provable or disprovable. What has been accomplished since the discovery of relativity, particle physics, and the big bang is the overthrow of the false argument that science and scripture are incompatible. That is enough.


[1] Several newspapers reported on astronomical observations, presented at the Royal Astronomical Society’s February 1961 meeting, that appeared to rule out steady-state theory. The Evening Standard published an article with the headline “‘How it all began’ fits in with Bible story” (Peter Fairley, 10 February 1961), and the Evening News and Star featured an article headlined, “The Bible was right,” (Evening News Science Reporter, 10 February 1961).

Questions from Christian Students, Part 2

Sarah was recently invited, along with two other scientists, to take part in a panel discussion for a group of mostly Christian students. After the main discussion, students were invited to submit questions via text message; there was very little time to address them, so only a few were answered. The questions were quite good, so over the next few weeks, Surak and Sarah will answer most of them here. All of the questions are listed in the Intro to this series; Part 1 is here

Was Adam the first man created or was he chosen from an already existing population?

The answers to this two-part question are ‘yes’ and ‘yes.’

There is indisputable archeological evidence for the existence of what are popularly known as Cro-Magnon people (scientists prefer the label ‘European early modern humans’) dating back at least 43,000 years. Christians cannot ignore or deny the evidence for these biological ancestors of humankind without appearing hopelessly un- or even anti-scientific. If Christians take this unscientific route in defense of the Bible, they will lose the hearts and minds of more and more young people. Fortunately there is no need to do that.

There is a false conflict between scripture and science implied in the wording of the question. It occurs because people often read the Bible hastily and fail to notice important clues. Israeli physicist and theologian, Gerald Schroeder, points out something that is almost always missed even by serious students of scripture. Genesis informs us that man was first ‘made’ (Gen. 1:26). After that, man was ‘created’ (Gen. 1:27). The difference between the two words is crucial to understanding what the Bible is telling us (unless you think God would be clumsy or haphazard with words).

A thing is made by taking something else that already exists and fashioning it into a different form. That is what happened in the making of the biological life form we think of as the human species. Genesis lists the major categories of life forms as they emerged; vegetation, animal life in the oceans, flying creatures (winged insects), great sea creatures, life forms that crawl on land, every species of winged creature, land animals which became livestock (mammals), and finally man. There is absolutely no conflict here between scripture and the basic notion of evolution. As a result, as Darwin pointed out, a person can believe in evolution and be a devout Christian.

But, the Bible does not repeat the word ‘make’ in Gen 1:27, because something very different and non-biological happened after the human body was formed. Man was then ‘created’ in the image of God. Since God is not of this world, the human soul is not ‘made’ of anything material, it is not made of anything that already existed in this world, it was brought into this world out of ‘nothing.’ This was as much an act of creation as the beginning of the universe out of nothing (a singularity, in science-speak) with the big bang.

The New Testament agrees with this view of the origins of humankind. In Corinthians 1 we learn:

15:46   The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.

15:47   The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven.

15:48   As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.

15:49   And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.

On the scientific side of the hypothesis of a two-stage development of human beings, psychologist Julian Jaynes provided some important evidence of an amazing transformation in the human species that he believed took place relatively recently. In his remarkable book, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Jaynes argued that for most of their existence, humans were not conscious and functioned not as we do but as very smart animals. This change from smart animals to fully human evidently occurred only a few thousand years ago.

According to Jaynes, the sudden and mysterious emergence of the Hebrews and Greeks—two people remarkably different from all the other peoples who existed before them—marks the point when full-blown consciousness first flourishes enough to come to the attention of history. That consciousness, expressed in the human pursuit of philosophy, mathematics, science, the arts, spirituality, and human rights, quickly spread across the world and became dominant in the human domain. It is reasonable to conclude that consciousness may be just the most obvious result of people being endowed with a soul. There can be no doubt that conscious people have done what God told descendants of Adam to do:

Genesis 1:28: God said to them, ‘Be fertile and become many. Fill the land and conquer it. Dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every beast that walks the land.’

In any case, it is telling that ancient and medieval Jewish scholars of the Old Testament decoded the clues in Genesis and had no problem with the existence of other biological human beings at the time of Adam and Eve. The great Jewish scholar and authority, Maimonides, called these beings “mere animal(s) in human shape and form” [The Guide for the Perplexed, Part I: Chapter VII]. If true, this would solve many mysteries, such as questions about who the children of Adam and Eve mated with. Once the two-stage development of Man described in Genesis 1 is understood, the original question posed above can be answered. Yes, Adam was the first man created, and yes, his biological life form was chosen from an already existing population.

Questions from Christian Students

Sarah was recently invited, along with two other scientists, to take part in a panel discussion for a group of mostly Christian students. After the main discussion, students were invited to submit questions via text message; there was very little time to address them, so only a few were answered. The questions were quite good, so over the next few weeks, Surak and Sarah will answer most of them here. They are listed below, in no particular order. (Despite the title of this post, at least two of the questions appear to be from students who are currently struggling with belief.) 

Since becoming a Christian and living in an environment where your faith is tested every day, have you experienced doubt? If so, what has brought you through those doubts? (Part 9)

Was Adam the first man created or was he chosen from an already existing population? (Part 2)

Has an effort by students to share their faith with you ever made an impact on you in any way? (Part 3)

Have you ever had a student challenge an idea during class? (Part 3)

How does evolution relate to belief in a creator? And please address the time frame. / Please address the timing of evolution and the Bible. / How do you reconcile biologists teaching evolution and coming from apes with the creation story in Genesis? (Part 11)

What was it about Christianity that made you feel hostile towards it before you read the Bible? (Part 5)

Do you wish you could talk about your faith in the classroom / office hours? If so, what keeps you from doing it? (Part 3)

How do you account for the Higgs boson particle? (Part 1)

How hard is it to work in the field of academia in an anti-Christian environment from a faith perspective? (Part 9)

How do you recommend Christian students react to professors who are intolerant of their Christian faith? (Part 9)

You mentioned the big bang. In your interpretation, does the big bang coincide with the moment of creation? / How does scientific proof of the big bang line up with the biblical teaching of creationism? (Part 4)

Within your field of study what has been the most remarkable observation that you have made that reinforces your faith? (Part 1)

What was the most difficult specific objection to faith (particularly Christianity) that you had to get past? / What was the biggest stumbling block to faith that you had to overcome? / For new believers, how do you get past the line of ‘the Bible is just a story’ into faith? I’ve accepted that there is a God, but I’m struggling with accepting Jesus. (Part 7)

Outside of the creation story, have you found other parts of the Bible that support what you have observed scientifically? (Part 10)

What’s the most remarkable, undeniable discovery you have used to prove or disprove the faiths of different persons? (Part 1)

What’s the most common scientific argument you encounter against Christianity? How have you responded? (Part 6)

What is the most important piece of knowledge you have come to learn about evolution since becoming a believer? (Part 8)

What is your colleagues’ biggest reason for thinking the Gospel is not worth believing? (Part 5)

Would the discovery of intelligent life on another planet disprove the existence of God? (Part 8)

What would you say to someone who can’t believe in Christianity because of its exclusive claims, that no one enters the gates of Heaven without first meeting Jesus? (Part 12)

Evolution of flowering plants

Genetic evidence from studies of flowering plants is showing that their evolution didn’t proceed by random mutation, but proceeded by building on previous genetic structure. It’s like a genetic Lego set:

Though a rose, carnation or tulip each has its own distinguishing feel, look and smell, they all share one common trait: the flower’s petals adorn its perimeter while the reproductive organs sit in the flower’s center.

In fact, just about every flowering plant ever cataloged follows this same pattern. Until recently scientists didn’t understand how this occurred.

[Plant biologist Detlef Weigel] “Now, we show that the pattern arose through clever recycling of another pattern that plants had previously used in shoots, for other purposes. This is a big step toward solving the “abominable mystery,” as Darwin put it ” the evolutionary origin of flowers and flowering plants.

A blast from 20 million years in Earth’s past

After 20 years of drilling through miles of ice, Russian scientists are on the verge of tapping a subglacial lake in Antarctica that hasn’t seen the light of day in 20 million years.

Just as astrophysicists can get a glimpse of the development of the universe by probing unprocessed, primordial gas clouds, scientists are hoping to understand something about the development of the Earth, and even of moons in the solar system, with the samples they will collect from this ancient lake.

Mapping the human brain

Scientists are making strides in their understanding of how the human brain is wired, but given its complexity they’ve still got a long way to go:

Among the most complex structures in the universe, the average brain contains about 100 billion specialized cells called neurons—as many cells as stars in the Milky Way— linked by 150 trillion or so connections known as synapses. By current means, it could take researchers years to trace the 10,000 or so synapses that branch from just a single neuron. By comparison, the scientists who sequenced the first human genome had to map only three billion base-pair sequences of DNA.

Where in this structure will consciousness be found? It’s one of the greatest mysteries of existence.

This is Surak’s field of interest, but my thought on this is, as we improve our ability to build sophisticated machines and other functioning things, we’re producing closer approximations of what already exists in nature. Someday in the far future, when we’ve constructed the perfect machine, I think we’ll be shocked to discover that all we’ve managed to do is recreate the human body.

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Physicists untangle process involved in Parkinson’s disease

The protein alpha-synuclein in its normal state (above) and misfolded after the attachment of copper (below)

A team of physicists at North Carolina State University — led by my very good friend, Frisco Rose — has published the results of their study of the process that leads to Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder that affects the nervous system, manifesting in tremors and difficulty controlling motion. Actors Katherine Hepburn and Michael J. Fox are well-known sufferers of the disease.

The work involved simulations using the most powerful supercomputer in the world, the Jaguar supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to understand the way in which a protein associated with Parkinson’s gets tangled. The protein, called alpha-synuclein, is normally long and straight, but it becomes tangled, or misfolded, in patients with Parkinson’s (see figure above).

Proteins are the basic building blocks of life. They are comprised of long chains of molecules called amino acids that regulate biochemical reactions in living things. The shape of a protein — the way in which it is folded — dictates its function. Amazingly, these biochemical machines assemble, or fold, themselves1.

Most of the time this self-assembly proceeds without error. However, when a protein misfolds, it becomes tangled and clumped together with other protein strands, and this is believed to cause a number of diseases, including Parkinson’s, Mad Cow, cystic fibrosis, and some forms of cancer. In order to devise treatments for these diseases, it’s important to understand how certain proteins misfold.

Study of protein folding may sound like a job for biologists, but it has been an increasingly popular topic of study in physics, because the different ways in which a protein can fold are determined by equations involving forces and energy. For a typical protein, these calculations would normally require hundreds of thousands of computing hours, far more than is feasible. To get around this problem, Rose’s team devised a new tactic: focus the simulations only on the part of the protein where the tangling occurs. By reducing the region of study, they were able to successfully carry out simulations, and discovered that certain metals, such as copper, affect the folding by binding to the protein in a way that accelerates tangling.

“We knew that the copper was interacting with a certain section of the protein, but we didn’t have a model for what was happening on the atomic level,” says Frisco Rose, Ph.D. candidate in physics and lead author of the paper describing the research. “Think of a huge swing set, with kids all swinging and holding hands—that’s the protein. Copper is a kid who wants a swing. There are a number of ways that copper could grab a swing, or bind to the protein, and each of those ways would affect all of the other kids on the swing set differently. We wanted to find the specific binding process that leads to misfolding.”

The tactic allowed them to identify the most likely way in which copper binding to the protein leads to misfolding. This is a significant step toward finding a treatment for Parkinson’s.

Other researchers studying protein folding are getting around the computing problem using a different tactic: using thousands of volunteered home computers — your computers — to perform the calculations. If you’d like to get involved by donating some of your home computer’s run time to help these scientists do their work, check out Standford University’s Folding@home project.

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