Being Human: The Relationship between Mind and Brain

This is the 6th Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  The previous blog is The Genetic Side of Being Human (II).  We are now considering  some of the ideas and claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.

Le Fanu accepts many parts of the theory of evolution but remains unconvinced that the theory of evolution alone can adequately explain many of the developments that are said to be part of human evolution or which can be seen in the historical record (for example, the historical record shows a sudden extinction of many species and the unexpected explosion of new species rather than the theory expected gradual appearance of new species over time).

Any one thing which happens in the evolution of a species requires many other evolutionary changes as well.  For example in humans, the large brain requires that a mother’s pelvis and birthing canal must be capable of giving birth to a baby with such a  shaped head AND it requires that much of the brain’s development occurs after birth so that human babies are born almost totally helpless as compared to other primate babies.  Thus the evolution of a larger brain requires the evolution of the pelvic region of human women, the evolution of a bone structure to support the top heavy head over a bipedal body, and the delay of the brain’s development until after birth.   Many “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” type dilemmas for evolution theorists to explain.

“Similarly, the elusive workings of the human brain would seem to defy any simple evolutionary explanation.”  (Kindle Loc. 770-71)

It is the brain itself which captured much attention from Le Fanu as he considered the mystery of what it is to be human.  The relationship between the brain cells and conscious thought for example are not yet resolved.   Here again he thinks despite huge advances in scientific knowledge about the brain, there are huge gaps in our understanding which speak to the limits of science and the profound mystery of being human.

“‘We seem as far from understanding [the brain] as we were a century ago. Nobody understands how decisions are made or how imagination is set free.’”  (Kindle Loc. 458-59)

Though new methods of doing brain scans have made visible to us areas of the brain involved in various mental activities, how these processes actually work is not totally known.   Brain functions can be spread through large portions of the brain and how the various areas of the brain work together and the fact that even “silent” portions of the brain are essential for these functions is little understood today.   In addition how DNA works to make the brain what it is remains a mystery.

“…  the dominant features of the brain remain its ‘silent’ areas, with their capacity to integrate and unify thoughts, sensations and emotions into a continuous stream of conscious awareness.”  (Kindle  Loc. 3732-34)

Le Fanu says it is the existence of continuous conscious awareness – a real fact of being human which though related to the material brain is not coterminous with the brain –  which speaks to us of a non-materials aspect of our being (see also my blog Is This Your Brain on God?).

“… unprepossessing three pounds of brain tissue confined within our skulls, like a vast intellectual black hole absorbs the most searching forms of scientific investigation.”  (Kindle  Loc. 3747-48)

The brain is able to deal with information and abstract concepts – non-material reality.  The human is capable of successfully relating to this non-material reality of information, knowledge and emotions, which for Le Fanu is evidence of why evolutionary theory based solely in materialism is inadequate for understanding what it is to be human.  One needs to look beyond materialism to begin to grasp the truth about life and humanity

“… first, how just a few thousand genes might instruct the arrangement of those billions of neurons with their ‘hardwired’ faculties of language and mathematics; and second, the physical basis of that all-encompassing property of neuroplasticity by which the brain incorporates into itself the experiences of a lifetime.”  (Kindle Loc. 3738-40)

The mystery of being human will not, according to Le Fanu be resolved by scientific materialism, because part of being human involves non-material characteristics – consciousness and conscience, processing information and knowledge, experiencing the world through emotions.

“… the central enigma is clear enough: how to reconcile what the brain is with what it does?”   (Kindle  Loc. 2984-85)

The relationship between mind and brain is a mystery that Le Fanu thinks materialistic science cannot resolve because it introduces the non-material reality into scientific study  and science says it is limited to physical realities.

Of course the secular scientist will object that this is nothing but another “god of the gaps” objection which will be over come in time.    Or perhaps it really does point to a truth about being human – the non-material aspects of human existence are every bit as real as the material.

Next: Being Human: The Relationship between Mind and Brain (II)

The Genetic Side of Being Human (II)

This is the 5th Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  The previous blog is The Genetic Side of Being Human.  We are now considering  some of the ideas and claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.    In the previous blog we encountered part of Le Fanu’s objection to trying to understand humans only through evolution:  there is still great mystery it what it means to be human, many would say a purely chemical/protein/DNA analysis of humans does not come close to describing what it is to be human, and evolution itself cannot completely account for the complexities in human development.

As one example of a question for which current evolutionary theory cannot give a full explanation is the appearance of specific species on the planet.

“Further, the suddenness of the cultural explosion that signalled the arrival of Cromagnon man argues against a progressive, gradualist evolutionary transformation. It suggests rather some dramatic event – as if a switch were thrown, the curtain rose, and there was man …”  (Kindle Loc. 766-68)

The sudden disappearance of species and the sudden appearance of new species has been raised as a question by many scientists themselves.  (see for example the comments of evolutionist Lynn Margulis in my blog An Evolutionary Alternative).   The historical record shows these “explosions” of new species, not a long and slow evolutionary change.   So on this count Le Fanu is offering a critique of evolutionary theory shared by some prominent evolutionary thinkers.   His thinking follows similar criticisms of evolutionary theory raised by Michael Behe and others, namely that some things which appear in a species are meaningful only in their developed complex form and it would be hard to account for their appearance through a gradual process of development since the individual parts would serve no purpose alone – they are irreducibly complex.

“…might seem plausible, in the way of all evolutionary explanations, and would indeed be reasonable if language simply ‘facilitated the exchange of information’. But, as Chomsky pointed out so persuasively, language is also an autonomous, independent set of rules and meanings that impose order, make sense of the world ‘out there’. Rules and meanings cannot evolve from the simple to the complex, they just ‘are’. The structure of sentences is either meaningful or meaningless. The naming of an object is either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. An elephant is an elephant, and not an anteater. Hence Chomsky insisted, against Pinker, that those seeking a scientific explanation for language could, if they so wished, describe it as having evolved ‘so long as they realise that there is no substance for this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief. This, of course, is no trivial controversy, for language is so intimately caught up in every aspect of ‘being human’ that to concede that it falls outside the conventional rubric of evolutionary explanation would be to concede that so does man.”  (Kindle Loc. 959-66)

Le Fanu believes that there are real developments in humans and really all species that cannot be reduced to scientific materialistic explanations.  There are forces that work on us and in us – thought processes, the development of language which Le Fanu thinks points to elements in our human development that cannot be explained by materialist science alone.  In this he questions whether the study of DNA could ever explain all there is to know about being human.  Le Fanu thinks that focus is too narrow and misses important elements about what it means to be human.

“‘No one has ever been able to relate any aspect of human social behaviour to any particular gene or set of genes,’ observes the geneticist Richard Lewontin. ‘Thus all statements about the genetic basis of human social traits are purely speculative.’”  (Kindle Loc. 2918-19)

Le Fanu points out that certain aspects of evolutionary theory which are supposed to be based only in scientific materialism are in fact based in the beliefs and speculations of certain scientists who have committed themselves to atheistic materials and so who cannot allow certain observations about the non-material forces impacted not only humans but all species on this planet.

Finally Le Fanu challenges some of the basic assumptions of Darwin based on observations of humanity and even of other species.

“‘All nature is at war, one organism with another,’ claimed Darwin – but it is not so, for the most striking feature of the natural world is not the competitive struggle for existence, but its antithesis – cooperation.”  (Kindle Loc. 4282-83)

Thus for Le Fanu, evolutionary theory which assumes scientific materialism cannot fully deal with the the universe that we know and in particular with our own experience as humans with one another and with the planet as a whole.

Next:  Being Human: The Relationship between Mind and Brain

The Genetic Side of Being Human

This is the 4th Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  The previous blog is The Mystery of Ourselves.  We are now looking at some of the ideas and claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.   Le Fanu raises some serious questions regarding the limits of evolution to explain the how and why of genetics.   He argues that there really is much more mystery to being human than evolutionary theory admits.

“… there is not the slightest hint in the composition of the genes of fly or man to account for why the fly should have six legs, a pair of wings and a brain the size of a full stop, and we should have two arms, two legs and that prodigious brain. The ‘instructions’ must be there, of course, for otherwise flies would not produce flies and humans humans-but we have moved, in the wake of the Genome Project, from assuming that we knew the principle, if not the details, of that greatest of marvels, the genetic basis of the infinite variety of life, to recognising that we not only don’t understand the principles, we have no conception of what they might be. We have here, as the historian of science Evelyn Fox Keller puts it: one of those rare and wonderful moments when success teaches us humility…”  (Kindle Loc. 413-19)

One of Le Fanu’s insightful questions has to deal with “why?”   Whereas geneticists might be able to link a particular gene or series of genes with a particular body trait (2 arms, large brain, etc), still that doesn’t answer the question why it is so.   Le Fanu sees in humans, as well as in all creatures, an awesome mystery.  We have discovered genes, the genetic code, the genome, but we have no way of knowing the principles which govern how the genes “know” what it is they are to reproduce.  This is a mystery which causes Le Fanu to marvel, and to criticize science for not recognizing the awesomeness of what it built into nature.

“Why then, one might reasonably ask, is there not the slightest hint in the Human Genome of those unique attributes of the upright stance and massively expanded brain that so distinguish us from our primate cousins?”  (Kindle Loc. 545-46)

All genes for all living species basically are made up of the same few proteins.  Yet in those same  few chemical components are all of the codes which enable the genes to make not only a particular organ but to have it be in the exact right location of a particular life form.  But what makes it just so, remains a hidden marvel.

“So, while the equivalence of the human and chimp genomes provides the most tantalising evidence for our close relatedness, it offers not the slightest hint of how that evolutionary transformation came about – but rather appears to cut us off from our immediate antecedents entirely.”  (Kindle Loc. 874-76)

These are the questions which Le Fanu believes evolutionary theory and genetics cannot answer.  He sees this as a serious limit to the theory, but more importantly they raise issues whose explanation may lie far beyond what science is capable of answering.  They suggest that there are forces at work in the gentic code which are not physical/material but which are real and essential to life.

“The elegant spiral of the Double Helix, like Newton’s law of gravity, combines great simplicity with phenomenal power. But the practicalities of what it does, how it imposes the order of ‘form’ and all the complexities of life on the fertilised egg, are of a qualitatively different order – and for the obvious reason that ‘life’ is immeasurably more complex than ‘matter’.”  (Kindle Loc. 2112-15)

The amazing capabilities of genes give Le Fanu pause – is not life more than simply matter?

“This automated factory carries out almost as many unique functions as all the manufacturing activities of man on Earth … but with one capacity not equalled in any of our most advanced machines – it is capable of replicating its entire structure within a matter of a few hours.”  (Kindle Loc. 2137-39)

Of course science often responds to such claims of wonder and marvel with the words “yet.”   We cannot answer the questions “yet” but one day we will.   And many are convinced that the answers will be found in matter since the empirical world is the only world which exists.   The questions Le Fanu raises are sometimes thrown into a category of being questions that focus on the “gaps” in our knowledge, and believers often attribute these gaps in our knowledge to God.  Which causes some to characterize these doubts about evolution as the God of the gaps.  But then the scientists believe that in due time our scientific efforts  will fill these gaps.

And some scientists do marvel at nature.  The November issue of DISCOVER magazine (“The Bug with Built-in Sidekicks”) reported the marvel of the citrus mealybug, which contains within it the bacteria Tremblaya princeps.  Neither species can live without the other.  But then within this bacteria is an even smaller microbe Moranella endobia and again all three species are interdependent on each other for survival as they each contribute some of the amino acids that are necessary for all there to survive – no one of the creatures is capable of making all the amino acids necessary to live.   The scientists studying the bug-within-a-bug have no idea how this arrangement evolved or how it works.  “It’s a fascinating quirk of evolution,” said one.   Indeed, life in its most simple forms (Tremblaya has the smallest genome of any living thing) elicit wonder.

Next:  The Genetic Side of Being Human (II)

The Mystery of Ourselves

This is the 3rd Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  In the previous blog, Christianity and Science, we looked at some of the comments of Dr. Gayle Woloschak in her article “The Compatability of the Principles of Biological Evolution with Orthodoxy” in the ST. VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, Vol 55, No. 2, 2011.   With this blog we begin our look at some of the claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.   Part of Le Fanu’s criticism of science is that it is so focused on materialism that it misses the greater mysteries which are visible in the science itself.

“We have lost that sense of living in an enchanted world. We might now, thanks to science, comprehend the universe of which we are a part, only to discover that its properties, as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins puts it, ‘are precisely those we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good – nothing but blind, pitiless indifference’. We have lost, too, sight of the most significant factor of all – the exceptionality of the human mind.”   (Kindle Highlight Loc. 4195-98)

Some scientists who reject the idea of a Creator are hostile to Le Fanu’s thoughts as they are to theists who embrace many of the claims of science.   I, however, do not think that believers should feel so threatened by atheistic science.  According to modern physics, a little less than 5% of the universe is made up of matter,  about 25% is dark matter, and about 70% is dark energy.  So when we are looking at biology, we are to begin with looking only at that 5% of the universe which constitutes matter that we can study through the biological sciences.  And then we realize that the total percent of the matter in the universe which is properly the realm of biology and evolution is a much smaller portion of the total matter in the universe.  On the grand scale of things any theory of evolution is talking about a disproportionately tiny part of the known universe.   So for all the bluster evolutionary theorists like to muster against theists, they are talking about a small fraction of the universe anyway.  Theists are holding to ideas that take the entire universe into consideration not just that that miniscule portion of our planet that is the limit of evolutionary science.  Evolution at best describes a small fraction of the entire matter of the universe.  Of course it is the matter that is important to us, because it is our story and our history which is being discussed.  But for those who embrace scientific theism, there is a whole lot more to the universe than is being described or accounted for by evolution.  As Harvard science professor Lisa Randall says in her article on dark energy and matter, “If the history of science has taught us anything, it should be the shortsightedness of believing that what we see is all there is.”  (DISCOVER, November 2011, p 59)

Nevertheless, the fight between faith and reason, science and religion is mostly led on the religious side by fundamentalists and biblical literalists  as is obvious in such articles as the 17 October 2011 NY Times  The Evangelical Rejection of Reason by Christian authors and college professors Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens.  They belong to an evangelical tradition but distance themselves from those fundamentalists who reject science and reason.

“Americans have always trusted in God, and even today atheism is little more than a quiet voice on the margins. Faith, working calmly in the lives of Americans from George Washington to Barack Obama, has motivated some of America’s finest moments. But when the faith of so many Americans becomes an occasion to embrace discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas, we must not be afraid to speak out, even if it means criticizing fellow Christians.”

So while the anti-scientific and anti-reason rhetoric belongs mostly to fundamentalists and literalists, the rest of Christianity cannot just look askance and avoid the discussion.   We have a responsibility to make the effort to bridge the gap between those who claim to embrace Christianity but who fear and oppose the claims of science.  It is the same science which made computing possible which measures the age of the universe.  While some people’s faith rests on the claim that Genesis is literally true, Genesis itself was not written to be a modern scientific study.   Namely, it doesn’t present claims that can be verified by tests of falsification.   It is a document that rests on faith, and doesn’t itself require that it be read literally.

James Le Fanu takes on the atheistic claims of some scientists and basically charges that some scientists have lost sight of their objectivity and the limits of science.  These scientists make atheistic assumptions about the universe and then try to conform the facts and reality to their assumptions, which is the opposite of the intellectual rigor which the falsification process in science demands.  Rather scientists should follow the facts to whatever truths can be derived from them.

“But that Fall of Man, toppled at last from his pedestal to confront the meaninglessness of his existence, has resulted, as we have seen, first in the most grievous social policies and, second, in his being deprived of his freedom, to become no more than a plaything of his genes. The source of all this mischief lies in the necessity to portray man not as he is, but as he has to be in order to incorporate him into an evolutionary theory that requires him to be different ‘only in degree but not in kind’ from his primate cousins.”  (Kindle Highlight Loc. 2947-50)

So Le Fanu claims to set out what man is, not what evolutionary theory needs him to be, and thus he reads the scientific evidence in a way different from the atheist.

Next:  The Genetic Side of Being Human

Christianity and Science

This is the 2nd Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  In this blog we are looking at some of the comments of Dr. Gayle Woloschak in her article “The Compatability of the Principles of Biological Evolution with Orthodoxy” in the ST. VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, Vol 55, No. 2, 2011.   Woloschak is upfront that she is in the science camp which accepts the basic assertions of evolution as enjoying firm support from scientific evidence.

“Despite recent challenges, there is an overwhelming body of support for biological evolution in the scientific literature that comes from protein and DNA data, from the fossil and geological records, physiologic and functional studies, and much more…  Theodosius Dobzhansky, the son of an Orthodox priest, a practicing Orthodox Christian, and a noted evolutionary scholar wrote the following:

‘Let me try to make crystal clear what is established beyond reasonable doubt, and what needs further study, about evolution.  Evolution as a process that has always gone on in the history of the earth can be doubted only by those who are ignorant of the evidence or are resistant to evidence, owing to emotion blocks or to plain bigotry.  By contrast, the mechanisms that bring evolution about certainly need study and clarification.  There are no alternatives to evolution as history that can withstand critical examination.  Yet we are constantly learning new and important facts about evolutionary mechanisms.’”  (Woloschak, p 212)

Dobzhansky when he was alive was an Orthodox Christian and a noted evolutionary biologist whose work is still highly respected in the scientific community.  He had no doubt about evolution and maintained his faith in God.  Admittedly his acceptance of faith and reason is unusual in the world of evolution.    Woloschak however defends this scientific avoidance of God:

“While many feel confused and even angered by the fact that scientists can discuss creation without putting God into the story, these same people do not appreciate that there is humility in not discussing God.  There is a limit to what science can define, and that limit is based on the objective scientific approach of performing hypothesis-driven experimentation.  God is not subject to such testing…”  (Woloschak, p 225)

Woloschack rejects a notion embraced by some theists that God is simply the ultimate cause of the endless series of cause and effect that we know of as the universe.  Those who hold to God as simply the original cause of all that exists in fact according to her play into the hands of those who believe in complete scientific determinism (such as Einstein did).

“For example, if all around us are ‘effects’ and God is the only ‘cause,’ then deterministic responsibility for everything lies with God—he is ultimately responsible (and perhaps blameworthy) for all that occurs in the universe, while our ability to cause any changes in or around us fades into insignificance. . . .  Bulgakov argues that the proper description of God’s relationship to the world is that of Creator and creation, and that this is not the same as ‘The One Who Causes.’ ”  (Woloschak, p 226-227)

God is not merely the original cause of all the effects that now exist.  Woloschak quotes Theologian Sergius Bulgakov:

“’In general, the idea of the Creator and creation does not need to be translated into the language of mechanical causality, for it has another category, its proper one, that of co-imagedness, since the creature contains the living image of The Creator and is correlated with Him.  … The world does not have a cause, since it is created; and God is not the cause of the world and not a cause in the world, but its Creator and Provider.  God’s creative act is not the mechanical causation through Himself of the world’s being, but His going out of Himself in creation…’   This co-imagedness fits well with the Genesis context of humans being made in the image and according to the likeness of God.  Humans bear the imprint of their Creator, the icon of God.  We acknowledge this liturgically by censing the people during all liturgical services, censing the image of God in each person.”   (Woloschak, p 228)

The world is not all pre-determined by an original act of God.  There is both free will in humans and the uncertainties presented to us by quantum mechanincs that free the universe from pure determinism.

A few final points from Woloschak on evolution:

“…denying evolution is impoverishing the understanding of creation, which is one of the few expressions of God that humans are all able to perceive while still on this earth.”  (Woloschak, p 231)

“’…individual organism do not evolve. … Biological evolution, then, does not act upon individuals but rather on populations.” (Woloschak, p 211)

“…there is no theological justification for a view of God as the direct cause of small individual events.”  (Woloschak, p 224)

We don’t need to look to God as the cause of every little event on the planet for God empowered creation itself with creativeness to bring forth life.  What is being worked out on our planet is we humans cooperating with God to fulfill His will.

Next:  The Mystery of Ourselves

Science and the Church: Are the facts in?

One reason why I became interested in theology was my own seeking for truth.  No doubt in my younger years I had a simplistic idea about truth – truth would be so obvious that no one could resist or refute it.  Probably the idea was based in my own self-arrogant notion that if the truth was convincing to me, then eventually everyone else would recognize it as well.   In my eyes both science and Christianity were interested in truth, and there was no difference between scientific truth and the theological truth of Christianity.  Truth is truth.  All truth, even scientific truth, is Christian truth.

Such naïve thinking hit a wall with the notion of evolution.  The topic of evolution was for many a divide pitting Christianity against science.  It confronted my own ideas of Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”   (John 18:38)      For many on both sides of the evolutionary debate, the truth of science and Christianity were irreconcilable.  Some on each side denied the other had anything to do with truth.

For my part, my ideas on the nature of truth kept evolving as I tried to incorporate in my thinking the issues raised by the debate on evolution.  While not abandoning the love of and pursuit of truth, I have come to recognize the complexity of the issue and that for some the notion of truth in science and religion will never be reconciled partly because some don’t want such a reconciliation.  They want either science or religion to be true.  (See also my blog Well Reasoned Words for further thoughts on the relationship between faith and reason, science and religion.)

Recently I read James Le Fanu’s  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves .  I appreciated the book’s critical evaluation of evolutionary theory.  It raised for me some of the most serious challenges to evolution that I have read.  On the other hand, I was unimpressed with the concluding chapters of the book as I felt he over reached on his conclusions which weakened the book.

At the same time that I was reading Le Fanu, I also read Dr. Gayle Woloschak’s “The Compatability of the Principles of Biological Evolution with Orthodoxy” in the ST. VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, Vol 55, No. 2, 2011.   Woloschak as the article’s title implies defends both evolutionary theory and its compatibility with Orthodoxy.

In this blog series I want to explore  the ideas these two authors raised.  For my part, I am still at peace with the search for truth represented by theology and science. I continue to read the debate with interest even if I hold little hope that the debate can be resolved.   Evolution for a theist is  nothing more than the scientific description of the mechanisms at work in our world which describe the unfolding of life since God brought life into existence.  Once creation existed it follows properties and laws which can be observed – and that is the nature of science to test these observations against the theories describing how the empirical world works.

Woloschak’s article has no connection to Le Fanu’s book.  I bring them together solely on the basis that I happened to read them both at the same time.   Both accept many of the basic claims of evolution.  Woloschak’s take is that evolution is dealing with a discovered truth about life on earth which is heavily supported by scientific evidence especially DNA.   Le Fanu’s argument is that human life as can be understood through the study of genetics and the human brain is far more complex than can be explained by evolution alone.   He argues that evolution simply cannot account for some of the greatest wonders of the human brain and of how genetics actually works.  While his book raises in my mind serious questions as to whether the theory of evolution fully explains what has unfolded on planet earth, no doubt his questions are still in the realm of pointing out gaps in the theory – not completely refuting the theory, but pointing to pieces of the puzzle that just don’t quite fit (and some scientists would add an emphatic “YET!”).

First I will look at the thinking of Dr. Woloschak.

“Often in everyday language, people equate the world ‘theory’ with ‘speculation’ or a ‘conjecture.’  In scientific practice, however, the word theory has a very specific meaning – it is a model of the world (or some portion of it) from which falsifiable hypotheses can be generated and verified (or not) through empirical observation of facts.  In this way, the concepts of ‘theory’ and ‘fact’ are not opposed to each other, but rather exist in a reciprocal relationship.” (Woloschak, p 210)

Charles Darwin

For the sake of the discussion on evolution the implication is that evolutionary theory is not implying speculation but rather forms a way of seeing and understanding the world that is based in observable facts that have gathered and explanations that have been tested against the facts that come to form the best picture that can be offered to account for the known facts.  Theory is our best approximation of accounting for the known facts.  Science is that process by which hypotheses are tested against empirical data in order to determine which ideas are false and thus can be dismissed.  In theological terms one can argue that the falsification process of science is really an apophatic way to come to the knowledge of the truth.  Science is forever skeptical and works to deny hypotheses in order to form the best understanding of the truth.

As Corey Powell, Editor in Chief of DISCOVER noted in the magazines November 2011 issue:

“Science is relentless this way.  Its practitioners are fallible and often mistaken, but over time its process holds all ideas and hypotheses accountable to the same standard of proof.  It is a beautiful paradox:  Uncertainty as the optimal path toward certainty, or at least the closest thing to certainty we can get.”

That is the beauty and awesomeness of science – two descriptive words that might make some scientists cringe for their unscientific standards.  But they are words that continue to convince me that science’s own interest in truth is a pursuit worthy of God.  Powell’s emphasis on uncertainty as helping us get as close as we can to certainty is welcomed by theistic scientists.  The troubling issue for theists is when some scientists proclaims themselves absolutely certain, embracing a determinism not completely supported by the facts, and then push that certainty to rejecting theology as well.

Next:  Christianity and Science

The Word, The Information, The Bit (II)

This is the 2nd Blog in this essay series reflecting on James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD.   The first blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (1).

Socrates (d. 399 BC) according to Plato (d. 347 BC) worried that humans would become increasingly forgetful due to the invention of writing.  The written word would mean memorization was obsolete.  There would be nothing for students to learn.

Repetition was the mother of all learning, learning mostly meant memorizing the wisdom of the past.   The written word was a technology that though making  a more permanent record (memory!),  threatened the very nature of what learning was thought to be.  You no longer needed to memorize to be wise if you knew how to read and how to research.  And the written language allowed not just memorization but also analysis.

“In the ancient world, alphabetical lists scarcely appeared until around 250BCE, in papyrus texts from Alexandria.  The great library there seems to have used at least some alphabetization in organizing its books.  The need for such an artificial ordering scheme arises only with large collections of data, not otherwise ordered.  And the possibility of alphabetical order arises only in languages possessing an alphabet: a discrete small symbol set with its own conventional sequence…” (p 58)

Hieroglyphics

Ordering letters and then books by alphabetizing helped make the written language even more useful since greater quantities of information could now be found even in large collections of writings.  There was then a leap from the technology of writing to the technology of machines which could reproduce, use and code writing.

Charles Babbage (d. 1871) became fascinated by a loom whose weaving pattern was controlled by punch cards.

“Inspiring him, as well, was the loom on display in the Strand, invented by Joseph-Marie Jacquard, controlled by instructions encoded and stored as holes punched in cards.

What caught Babbage’s fancy was not the weaving, but rather the encoding, from one medium to another, of patterns.” (p 109)

An artist designed the cards, the weaver could use different threads and colors to produce the artist’s patterns.   A machine that could convert abstract ideas into physical things, and cards that could store memory – the artist’s patterns.  The basis for computing was being formed.  And collaboration between art and science was being established.

“The invention of writing had catalyzed logic, by making it possible to reason about reasoning—to hold a train of thought up before the eyes for examination—and now, all these centuries later, logic was reanimated with the invention of machinery that could work upon symbols.  In logic and mathematics, the highest forms of reasoning, everything seemed to be coming together.”  (p 177)

The use of machines gave rise to a mechanical view of the universe.  Everything was following a pattern, perhaps pre-determined, and science was intent upon discovering those patterns in order to explain the universe.  But then these machines opened to our observation the atomic world and sub-atomic world, and suddenly the world was not quite as predictable as thought.

“It used to be supposed in Science that if everything was known about the Universe at any particular moment then we can predict what it will be through all the future. . . .  More modern science however has come to the conclusion that when we are dealing with atoms and electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms and electrons themselves.”  (Alan Turing  d 1954, p 212)

What science was becoming aware of is the notion of entropy – randomness that was actually related to the idea of information.    Randomness which could be measured – it contained information.  Heat for example is caused by the random motion of atoms.  That randomness can be measured, and so can the “unavailability” of energy be measured.   Such randomness and “unavailability” actually contain information! (pp 270-271)

Next:  The Word, The Information, The Bit (III)

Information Time Change

I was very impressed when I visited the In the Great Hall of the Library of Congress one can view the Giant Bible of Mainz and the Gutenberg Bible,  two books together in one room which represent a moment in history in which our human world changed dramatically.   At one end of the room, the Giant Bible of Mainz is one of the last great handwritten Bibles made in Europe.  The scribe who wrote it began his work on April 4, 1452, and ended on July 9, 1453 – he recorded the dates.   At the other side of the Great Hall of the Library of Congress is displayed the Gutenberg Bible which was made in 1455.

I wrote about this in a previous blog, Paradigm Shifts and Intellectual Revolutions: Who Knew?    In one room really was a “moment” in history, not recognized immediately at that time, which changed the world.   It changed communications, and made it possible for us to transform our thinking about information.

As in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress a moment of change in human history is present right on my desk.    The 526 page book on the left, THE INFORMATION, is perhaps the last of its kind for me – for on the right side of my desk sits my new e-reading Kindle.   History in the making – switching from one 526 page book to the Kindle which claims to hold 3,500 books. Despite laptop, cell phone, Kindle, and tablet, the digital devices which are supposedly changing randomness into information has not replaced the paper mess, just added to the piles on my desk.

THE INFORMATION  offers an explanation, a history, of how our thinking about information has changed, and made all of these digital computing devices possible.  And the reality is I gleefully understand virtually nothing about how it all works.  And yet I live in this moment.  More digital everything, more computing, and still piles of paper, and an occasional meeting missed.  The information on the desktop moves toward order and meaning, while on the top of the desk entropy is nearly reached.

“… data compression likewise encodes the information …. Satellite television channels, pocket music players, efficient cameras and telephones and countless other modern appurtenances depend on coding algorithms to compress numbers – sequences of bits…”  (p 344).”

Yes, they do, and more is yet to come:  “In quantum computing, multiple qubits are entangled.  Putting qubits at work together does not merely multiply the power; the power increases exponentially.”  (p 369)

Say what?

 

 

DNA: A Written Record of God’s Hand Writing

“Our DNA, the instruction book of human creation, may well come to rival religious scripture as the keeper of the truth.”   (James Watson, DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE)

One of the extraordinary facts of life is that our DNA, which encodes all of the genetic information for human reproduction, is both a chemical process and a record of the history of humanity.  For the secular scientist, DNA opens doors into the past evolution of humanity.  For the believer in God, DNA does serve as another kind of scripture – for in that DNA is recorded what God has been working out with humanity for the continuation of the human race as well as for the salvation of the world.

Dr. Frances Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and current director of the National Institutes for Health, is also a believer in God.  Despite his being a notable and accomplished scientist, he has been criticized by some non-believers because he does not shy away from affirming his faith in God.  In Collins book, THE LANGUAGE OF GOD, he notes that when the Human Genome Project finally sequenced the DNA of humans, there was a tremendous sense of scientific accomplishment in unlocking one of the hidden truths of nature.   President Bill Clinton said of the accomplishment:

“Today, we are learning the language in which God created life.  We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift.”

Collins himself characterized the scientific accomplishment in this way:

“It’s a happy day for the world.  It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring, to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”

That nature itself can be read as another text speaking to us about God is an ancient idea.   St. Paul writes:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (Romans 1:19-20)

Evangelist Mark

Clearly visible in the created world is the characteristics of the Creator.  The science of DNA however has unlocked some of the hidden revelation of God and brought this knowledge to the light.   Recorded in the DNA is both the genetic code for reproducing humans and a history of humankind.    The unveiling of the genetic code gives us further insight into what God has been working out for humanity.   This genetic “scripture” has to be interpreted just as does the Bible.  It opens to us a mystery and yet simultaneously reveals to us that what it means to be human is contained in mystery and only partly revealed in science.

See also my blog –  DNA: The Secret of Life

Brainy Optimism and Realism about the Future

To the Future

Studies show that humans have a tendency toward optimism as they look to the future.  And it doesn’t take any studies for us to realize people’s memory of the past is often murky.   Tali Sharot in the 6 June 2011 issue of TIME magazine, The Optimism Bias, explores some of these ideas from the basis of human evolution.  Sharot  asks:

Where did these mistakes in memory come from?

Scientists who study memory proposed an intriguing answer: memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events, the researchers claimed. It is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process, and occasionally, details are deleted and others inserted.

So in this thinking, memory lapses may actually be part of an evolutionary survival tool.  We don’t simply record the past, we re– member it, adding and deleting elements in a reconstructive process that also serves to help us survive and want to survive.  We re-create the past to allow us to have hope for the future.

 To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one’s mind.  . . . It is easy to see why cognitive time travel was naturally selected for over the course of evolution. It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward. It also lets us forecast how our current behavior may influence future generations.  . . .  While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. Ajit Varki, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism. Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.

Death is a frightening stumbling block to thinking about the future.  Yet even in Genesis where death is a bad consequence of human choices and behavior, the text does not despair about humanity.  The text is always pushing toward the future, toward a better time and place which becomes part of the woof and weave of the scriptural fabric.  There is exile from a better past, but a hope of a better future.  Death is not an obstacle to what God is doing and what He hopes humans will do.   God continues to work with His people and the people continue to try to figure out what direction God is leading them.  By the time of Christianity, there is total hope in the defeat of death, and the promise of a blessed life with God.  The mistakes and sins of the past will not prevent the better future from materializing.

While humans seem to have developed an unrealistic optimism about the future, some suffer from depression.  Mild depression, which can be debilitating to anyone person, can serve a purpose within the human community: it can help us be more realistic about the future.

While healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it ends up being, people with severe depression tend to be pessimistically biased: they expect things to be worse than they end up being. People with mild depression are relatively accurate when predicting future events. They see the world as it is.

This may explain why some people with mild forms of depression are often viewed as being pessimistic by others (those unduly influenced by an unrealistic optimism!), while these people often see themselves as not being negatively pessimistic, but rather as being realists.  They are clairvoyant in a way that the unrealistic optimist does not like.

A final point that caught my attention in the article:  when subjects in a study were primed with words that would make them think they would do poorly on a test, “the brain…did not show signs of surprise or conflict when it made an error. A brain that doesn’t expect good results lacks a signal telling it, “Take notice — wrong answer!” These brains will fail to learn from their mistakes and are less likely to improve over time.”  Those in the study who were primed with positive reinforcement had activity in the parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that are associated with reflection and correction.  The brain “remembered” the mistake and attempted to use that information to help deal with the future.  The brain thus generates its own optimism – it is possible to learn from mistakes.