Tag Archives: science

Evolution vs. Creationism (IT DOESN’T MATTER)

Alright, before all of you think I’ve been sucked in by the recent Bill Nye vs. John (I mean Ken) Ham, I did not watch it. I like Bill Nye and grew up watching him, though I was a little mad he replaced Square One (which featured Mathnet). And Mr. Ham and I may have a very few things in common, but a literal interpretation of Genesis and a 6000 year old Earth is not one of them.

I’m personally very comfortable with the idea that evolution was part of the creation process, one kicked off by an intelligent designer (one might even say programmer since evolutionary systems have been modeled in programming).

But I’m not here to talk about that, because Christians and non-Christians alike are missing the point when they argue about creationism.

Let me speak to Christians for a couple minutes (but if you’re not one please feel free to listen in):

1) The most central point in our faith is not God creating the world in six days. It’s Jesus Christ! Christ and his death for our sins is the single most important part of our faith, and it has nothing to do with this debate. His resurrection and promise of return is hopeful, and a sign that he conquered death.

2) This debate makes us look dumb. And we’re not. But it doesn’t help to contradict scientific evidence. Is evolution fully explained? No. But let’s not lean too heavily on the whole “it’s a theory” thing, because that misunderstands what the scientific community means when they say theory. It’s the whole “this all happened randomly” thing, especially when everything else in the world seems to tend to entropy that gets me questioning some aspects of evolution. But the process itself? Not so much.¬†You can be a scientist and still believe there are things out there you can’t understand, like heaven and the price of sin, or exactly how random mutations work or occur.

3) There are so many other valuable things we could be (and some of us are) doing! Let’s reach out a hand to those in our community, love in a Christ like way. Our church has a food-pantry every Saturday which serves 75 households (we’re a 60 person church).

Okay everybody, lean in, cause this one’s important:

4) It doesn’t affect your day-to-day lives. For Christians, how is believing in a literal six day creation helping you to live in a Christ-like way? For non-Christians, does knowing we evolved from monkeys and lesser creatures affect any of your daily choices? Who to date, what to eat, etc?

5) But what about thinking critically? Absolutely. But, I’d be more of a fan if we taught exactly what evolution can prove and show than what I’ll call for lack of a better term the “evolutionary belief system”. I’ll admit, we have not scientifically proven that a creator was involved in the evolutionary process, but we have not dis-proven it either. When it comes to things like “how or why does evolution work?” “how do simpler things reorganize into more complex things”, random mutation is kind of a lousy answer. What exactly causes mutations? Answering “we don’t fully know” here is an acceptable (and preferable) way to go.

6) We’re not changing anybody’s mind anyway. We can talk at each other all we like (apparently Ham and Nye went on for nearly two hours before the Q and A), but pretty much everybody’s leaving that room believing what they did before. You know what I’d like to see? I’d like to see a Christian who believes in evolution argue with a Christian who doesn’t. That would be a conversation I haven’t seen, and one that might get us to look better, and get the outside world to realize we don’t all think the same way about this. But really, I’d like to just move on.

So let’s have the debate that really matters: Which is better Star Trek or Star Wars? Please cite your sources.

The correct answer is Babylon 5.

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You Almost Lost Me: Creation Care

One of the six reasons David Kinnaman outlines for young Christian’s leaving the church is that the church is perceived as being anti-science. (You can read an overview of the other reasons in my Dad’s post here).

My experience here is a little unique. My Dad works with grad students who work in all sorts of fields including physics, chemistry, engineering, etc. I’ve known many people who practice their faith and their science alongside each other. My workplace is full of lots of technical people, engineers of all stripes and programmers. And faith is in the house there as well, both in my little group and in conversations with other people. In other words, I know lots of smart people who believe as well, and who practice their faith in their work as well as in their church.

But here’s where I get tripped up, global warming or climate change, or just general care for the environment.

Here’s a little of what I’m talking about (Warning this is Louis CK so there’s quite a bit of language):

Somewhere along the way it became less about taking care of the planet God gave us, and more about keeping the economy going.

Now I know climate change isn’t exactly settled science, but there is definitely reason for concern. Even if our burning of oil is not changing our atmosphere, things are measurably different than they used to be. I’ve heard the argument that this might just be a planet cycle and we have nothing to do with it. That may be true (though I kinda doubt it), but whether we’re the cause or not, we need to be part of the solution, because it could be our survival we’re talking about.

Okay, lot of maybes and what ifs there. I recognize this is an area for discussion. What bothers me is the outright rejection of that discussion.

And unfortunately I have seen a lot of what CK is talking about, both at times in my church, and in my work.

This kind of anti-science mentality is more damning I think than evolution. The debate about evolution and creationism is an esoteric one. At the end of the day, does it really affect our day to day lives which is true? And for that matter, many Christians, myself included, are perfectly comfortable with the idea of evolution as part of creationism.

But if weather patterns change, if water levels and temperatures rise, that’s going to matter to our real lives, even the economy. Rejecting climate change and creation care kind of makes Christians hypocrites. We’re called to take care of what God gave us, to be faithful stewards of this world. That doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want with the Earth’s resources. We’ve driven hundreds of species to extinction, we’ve mined the ground and stripped the forest. And because America set such a good example, the emerging world is doing the same thing, and getting smog filled air in return.

Ultimately I’m still in the church because I do see some good examples of people who care about this stuff (my Dad and my pastor), but I know plenty of places where this is not true. The church needs to take a hard look at its stance on issues like this, and pull themselves away from the viewpoints of a “Jesus and” mentality. I’m not asking you all to be democrats (because I’m not one, neither am I a republican), but I am asking you to think about our responsibilities here, and the potential dangers as well as the potential good that come from clean energy, and turning climate change around.

Okay, now that I’ve riled you up I’ll pass you back to Dad ūüôā

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There are always possibilities…

Believe it or not there are some scientists who believe in the possibility that science will one day prove (or at least strongly suggest) the existence of a god. Probably not the one that all the world’s religions have been talking about, but a god nonetheless. This group of scientists call their belief system creatively enough, “possibilianism” a term coined by¬†J√ľrgen Schmidhuber, an AI researcher who blogs from time to time on Ray Kurzweil’s singularity site.

Suffice it to say there are many who feel that this ignores a preponderance of scientific thought. Their argument basically goes, just because a thing is possible doesn’t mean it’s likely, especially if all experimentation to date seems to lead to the conclusion that the thing is not possible. Gary Marcus in his New Yorker piece, likens this to a belief in flying reindeer. Stating it is possible if there are sleighs we have not seen ignores the fact that all evidence points to the fact that reindeer do not fly.

Unless you are younger than 7. Then you can ignore what I just said.

Here’s the thing, I do think that an understanding of science, mathematics and the physical world can help to solidify a belief that this world was divinely made, but I also think it’s possible there are reasons why science is not the best tool to answer this question.

One possible reason is related to the Tower of Babel, the story of which you’ll find in Genesis 11: 1-8, and alluded to in a recent story on this blog. I’ve always found this story fascinating, both in blaming it for the fact that I had to learn different languages in high-school, but also the goal of the people building the tower in the first place. They wanted to build a tower that “reaches to the heavens” or put another way, to touch the face of God.

Now it’s pretty obvious that the technology of that period of human history probably couldn’t even have scratched the surface of moderate high-rises in Columbus, let alone the buildings in Dubai, or the fact that we’ve reached out into space. There was no actual possibility, even if heaven were a place that could be reached simply by building upward, that these humans would ever reach God in this fashion.

Why then does God react the way he does, taking their one common tongue and changing it so none of them can understand each other? Verse 6 refers to the fact that if they all speak one language, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

I have a feeling God wasn’t just talking about these particular humans, but about us as well. And I don’t think it’s that he perceived us as a potential threat. It’s just that this is not how we are to get to know God. The basic goal of the people building the Tower of Babel was to bring¬†prominence¬†and prestige to themselves, not to have a real understanding of God.

If we were to prove God’s existence, or even to meet him in a living context (leaving aside for the moment that most belief systems say we’d be struck dumb with awe) there’d be a sense that we did something. Certainly the scientist who proves the existence of God will have untold wealth and fame. But is this really the basis for a belief, for a relationship with God, for salvation. I actually give the human race a lot of credit. If we spoke with one language, and one mind, I bet we could literally find God. But that might not actually do us any good if it did nothing to change our hearts.

Even simple things we cannot prove like love are valuable to our lives, in many ways precisely because they exist on faith, not only blind belief, but the desire to act out of love, to keep love alive, and the desire to experience it.

It’s certainly something for a scientist to say God is possible. It’s something more for us to believe it as individuals.

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Doctor, Doctor, Cut my throat!

No, this isn’t a cry for help, merely proof that Isaac Asimov has written about everything.

While browsing through the labyrinth of stacks at the Acorn Bookshop last Friday, I came upon a collection of Asimov’s science essays from about 40 years ago. Typically, Asimov afficiando though I am, I don’t tend to pick up out of date science articles from the 70s. But this collection had an interesting title, The tragedy of the moon, and one article in particular with the unfortunate title I repurposed for today’s post.

Seems Asimov and I both had thyroid trouble, though his tumor was benign and only required the removal of half his thyroid. Here’s the difference forty years makes, apparently his Doctor cut an incision ear to ear, and was poking around for four hours! Asimov’s response to this, largely under the influence of anaesthetic, was the following:

Doctor, Doctor, with green coat,
Doctor, Doctor, cut my throat
And when you’ve cut it, Doctor, then,
Won’t you sew it up again?

Suffice it to say my original reaction, under less dire circumstances (namely a 3 inch cut), was not quite so sanguine.

Asimov continues the article with a fascinating historical tale of the discovery of hormones in the early 20th century, and how they came from research on nerves.

A few tidbits you might enjoy:

– Pavlov, known for his salivating dogs and conditioned responses, got his start, and his Nobel, from nerve research on dogs. These dogs did not make out quite as well as the ones in his later research.

– Thyroid pills, in Asimov’s time anyway, are made from the thyroid glands of slaughtered livestock. If this is still true, I don’t want to know.

– Thyroid means ‘shield-like’.

– Asimov did not care much for Doctors, and Doctors seemed bemused with him.

You can read the rest of the article in the aforementioned book, or the August 1972 issue of F&SF, or possibly on the web. Anyone dug up any good books lately, particulary ones that are personally relevant?

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Forty Minute Story “Blind Date”

“Will sir be dining alone this evening?”

The Ma√ģtre D shook Allen out of his stupor. He’d been standing in line for what felt like an hour, though in reality it was really only ten minutes.

“No. I have a reservation for two under Greenly.”

“Ah, excellent sir. Right this way.”

It had been a while since Allen had been to a restaurant like this, and judging from the menu it would be an even longer while til he did again, but tonight was about trying something new. Someone new.

The table was the same as the ones at every other restaurant in town. A long line of single booths looped all along the wall of the restaurant. Each was barely wider than the person sitting in it, and they ate from tables attached to the booth in front of them. This restaurant tried to make it a little fancier than the rest, the booths were carved wood instead of metal, and curtains were used for privacy instead of the usual glass sliding doors.

The host drew the curtain aside to reveal a small headset resting at Allen’s table.

“If sir would like to put this on I can seat you with your party.”

Allen nodded.

He slipped the band on in front of his eyes and adjusted the headphones larger. Apparently the last person who’d used this set couldn’t have been much bigger than a child. The cold metal table in front of him was replaced with an elegant white table cloth, with polished silverware and crystal glasses. His fellow diners were seated at other tables around him, though their conversation was just a simulated white noise to add to the atmosphere. The only conversation he’d be able to hear would be that of his dinner companion.

“Would you like anything to drink?” The waiter asked Allen.

“I’ll have a glasses of Pinot Noir, the Coppola will be fine thanks.”

“And for Madam?”

“Yeah, I’ll have a large, no make that an extra large diet coke.”

“Very good.”

Allen’s date had come into focus on the other side of the table. While he waited for the waiter to bring his wine, a plastic cup with a long straw appeared in front of Diane, his date and she took a long drag.

“Sorry, just had a lot of Chinese for lunch, and that General Tso’s is giving me heartburn. You must be Allen. You look the same as your profile, only cuter.”

Allen blushed, it had been a long time since he had been on a date, and he wasn’t ever sure how react to someone as forward as Diane. Actually most people were forward, it was Allen who was unusual. Something about the anonymity of not actually being in the same physical location gave most people the license to say whatever they’re really thinking.

Fortunately he didn’t have to think of anything to say as Diane was just getting started.

“Wow, fancy place you’re going to. Must have wanted to impress me, but really I’m a pretty easy girl to please. As long as it’s meat I don’t care if it’s been ground and put between two pieces of bread, or glazed with a red wine reduction. So what do you do that brings in the big bucks anyway?”

“I’m … an accountant.”

“Wow, I’ve never dated an accountant before. Is it really as boring as they say?”

Allen chuckled, “Probably more.”

The waiter tapped Allen as the shoulder as he laughed, “I’m sorry sir, but if you could refrain from speaking out loud. The sensors will pick up your thoughts just fine.”

“Oh, right. Sorry.”

“Are you ready to order?”

“Well … my date’s having a double quarter pounder with cheese and a large fries so whatever’s your equivalent.”

“Very good, surf and turf with hasselback potatoes.”

Diane smiled, “So that was your real laugh, huh? I’ve never been a fan of those thought laughs myself. Laughter’s about an uncontrollable burst of expression. It’s not something your brain registers internally. It’s your whole body, and they haven’t made the sensor that can pick up on that.”

“No, I suppose not. So what do you do?”

“Telemarketing. Just going from one cube to another. Don’t even need to change headsets.”

“What’s it like being in so many people’s heads?”

“‘Bout what you’d expect. Half of them are thinking about what I’d look like naked, and the other half want to rip my head off. It’s the ones that want both that I worry about.”

Allen thought about laughing, and he laughed.

“See that’s not the same is it. Next time go to a place with kids. There’s no way they can keep the little buggers quiet, so you can use your real voice whenever you want.”

“You’re probably right. You’ll have that burger eaten before my steak ever arrives.”

“Well you can always share my fries.”

Allen chuckled, briefly for real, then more in his head as the waiter shot him a look.

“So which are you thinking about?”

“Hmm… excuse me?” Allen asked.

“Are you wondering what I’d look like naked or are you really just wanting to hang up on me?”

Allen smiled, “I think I’d like to hear more.”

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A Wrinkle In Time (15 and 50 years later)

Though I have no shortage of books to read on this Kindle, I am always looking for more. Madeleine L’Engle has always been someone whose thoughts on writing have been invaluable to me, and her early stories some of my first forays into fantasy and Science Fiction. I recently revisited A Wrinkle in Time, a book I have not read for at least 15 years, and thought I would share a few of my thoughts on it now as an adult.

Deep Language, Deep Concepts: L’Engle doesn’t shy away from complex aspects of physics, nor the vastness of human literature, right down to a character who speaks mostly in quotations. That said her explanations are eminently elegant, describing the folding of space and time as an ant traveling across a crease in a skirt.

Evil is presented without pulling punches as well. The seductive, powerful and empty qualities are all explored as well as freezing cold and blackness. While a giant brain might be a rather literal metaphor for a force of pure logic, it nonetheless conveys the lack of heart and the disgusting aspects of evil.

Memorable Characters: The three women, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which are a hoot while at the same time revealing their higher nature. Charles Wallace is beyond precocious, a child adult who speaks in his own form of lateral logic. Even as a small child you can tell he is something different and it will be interesting to see how he grows up in the later books.

Meg as the main character is going through her own journey, seeing the fallacies in her father while also learning about her strengths, and the appeal she has for others. I do think the romantic aspect of her relationship with Calvin moves a little faster than seems logical with these characters (I didn’t know anyone who was 12-13 who pulled someone in for a passionate kiss). It almost seemed like what someone at that age would fantasize about romance, instead of the real thing. That said, Meg changes a lot in this story and her growth is only bound to continue.

50 years later: There were definitely aspects of the planet Camozotz that felt like other things of its time. The planet reminded me some of The Village from The Prisoner and a couple of Star Trek: The Original Series episodes. The planet lives on conformity, every decision made by IT and every irregularity harshly dealt with. That said the story ages well, both from the time it was written, and from the time I first read it.

Not Christian Fiction: L’Engle’s best work incorporates some aspects of Christian faith without making them the main thrust of the story. Later works of hers are not as well balanced, but in this story she is in fine form. This balance is the same I try to strike in my work, and one that will take time and reading more great works like this one.

In short an uplifting and exciting young adult story that still resonates with adults. Recommended.

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This Doesn’t Mean War

I’m a Christian and I believe in science.

It’s a strange day we live in when that sentence (or its reverse) seems to be a contradiction in terms.

On Monday I finally got a chance to clear a NOVA program on fractals from my DVR. For those of you not familiar, Fractals are complex geometric shapes. They have self similarity (if you zoom in or out the shape looks basically the same), and are often produced by a simple algorithm or equation which is iterated (fancy math talk for repeated) thousands of times. Fractals can be used to describe all kinds of things in nature, from a bolt of lightning to mountain ranges, to the capilaries in your hand to the leaves on a tree. In many ways fractals are the mathematics of nature.

Fractals have been an interest of mine since elementary school. As a programmer they offer me a way to express visual art and provide unique programming challenges. The NOVA program was right up my alley but one thing one of the scientists said bothered me. The thought was basically this, “[Fractals are] all over in biology. They’re solutions that natural selection has come up with over and over and over again.”

Let me just make it clear I’m not bothered by evolution or the idea of natural selection. In fact, I’m quite comfortable with these being the mechanisms that God used to create man (more on this later).

What bothered me is that it seemed to be completely irrelevant to the discussion. What we know is that fractals can describe nature, and they are present all around us. But nothing in the rest of the program, or the science as I understand it, gives any reason why this is evolutionarily advantageous. I have a speculation as to why but it only goes so far. Basically fractals are really simple ideas that give rise to complex structures (in other words it doesn’t take a whole lot of information to make a complex object). This is why fractals were and are commonly used in computer graphics. Instead of mapping every crag in a coastline or mountain, a simple algorithm can generate something that looks real and takes far less memory. This enabled one of the first CGI sequences “The Genesis Effect” from Star Trek II.

This is a very digital way of thinking, we have limited space and resources and so we need to describe things as simply as we can. But is nature digital or analog? It would seem to me that nature does not have “memory limitations” in the sense we understand them in computers. It is certainly elegant that a leaf has the same basic structure as the tree it is attached to, but is elegance an inherent¬†property of evolution?

I believe that the statement was an expression of faith, a faith that natural selection is a force that can use fractals as a solution to practical evolutionary problems. Again, this faith doesn’t bother me, it’s when it is expressed as fact that I grow concerned.

Natural selection is proven scientific fact, a force of nature. But is that force of nature something that is a random or inherent property of the universe. Did natural selection rise up on its own or was it a rule designed by a creator?

Science doesn’t answer this question as proven fact, and neither does religion. Their answer is based on faith.

Science is one way that we as humans increase our knowledge of the universe, religion (in my case Christianity) is another. Why do we as humans seek to limit our understanding to one or the other? I’m not just calling out scientists, there are far too many of my Christian friends who dispute global warming and climate change despite the Bible’s call for creation care. I understand that science produces measureable facts, and I think it is unwise to dismiss such things as pure¬†hokum. Inferances from data can be wrong, but that’s why there is peer review, and more study.¬†But no scientist would say that they could definitively prove God does not exist, and it would be a fool’s errand to try.

So why make the statement that fractals are a solution natural selection uses? Regardless of the mechanism behind it, it is simply fascinating that nature which we once thought to be complex can be described in a such an elegant way. Why not leave it at that? From my perspective, I find it deeply fascinating that science and mathematics has enabled us to understand our world in better ways with each generation. We are getting to see a little of God’s engineering, God’s design. If it’s different than what we first thought, that’s because we are only growing in our understanding.

Faith in God and Faith in Science are not a contradiction in terms. Let’s play nicer on both sides, let’s prove what can be proven, and leave the rest to faith.

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