Archive for the ‘Science and Faith’ category

Intelligent Design: Legos, Star Trek, and iPhones

November 17, 2009

Here are two stories that are intended to illustrate a point. The first story is an original parable and the second is by another author.

The Parable: Consider the following imaginary conversation between two biologists as they stroll through Legoland. (www.legoland.com) With a hat-tip to Bunyan, one of the biologists is named Christian and the other is named Darwin.  As they stroll through Legoland Christian remarks to Darwin that the myriad of Lego sculptures they are seeing obviously did not just appear but were designed and assembled by intelligent beings. Not missing a beat, Darwin agrees that there seems to be the appearance of an intelligence being the Lego creations and that they both know that they were designed and assembled by intelligent beings. However, adds the alternative explanation that a large volume of Lego pieces were loaded into a cement mixer and then dumped that, given sufficient time for many attempts, that the sculptures could have randomly self assembled.  Christian had to concede that the probability of that happening was not zero but was extremely small and that Darwin’s explanation could not be completely ruled out.  Neither of the two men noticed that standing behind them was a child (I’ll call him Andrew). Andrew carefully walks up to the two grown men and says, “Excuse me sirs but I think you’re missing something.  How do you explain the Legos?”

Now the tale by another storyteller. Do you remember Star Trek Episode #118, Lizard man vs Kirk? (you can watch it at http://www.fancast.com/tv/Star-Trek/96413/619861545/Star-Trek%3A-The-Original-Series—Arena/videos )  It was based on a short story by Frederic Brown. A  Gorn spaceship kills a human colony on a distant planet. The Enterprise pursues the Gorn ship but the Metrons intervene as arbiters of the battle and transport Kirk and the Gorn captain to the plant’s surface. Kirk and the Gorn captain (a lizard-like creature are told that everything they need to make weapons is available to them, presumably placed there by the Metron. The Gorn has superior strength but Kirk makes gunpowder and packs the gunpowder and some large diamonds into a length of bamboo and fashions a crude mortar. He lights a strip of cloth from his uniform with a fuse and fires the crude weapon at the Gorn captain. He then refuses to kill the stunned and wounded Gorn captain. The Metron intentionally provided the pieces of an invention and left them lying around for Kirk or the Gorn to find and fashion into a weapon.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Rex, a colleague, about invention platrforms. Most inventions in our daily lives are built on “invention platforms”.  Take the iPhone for example. It is a wonderful invention platform for which many apps are being written every day. The problem is that we usually focus on the apps and take the invention platform for granted and fail to acknowledge the genius of the creator of the invention platform. Which is a greater achievement, the creation of a new invention platform or the use of that invention platform to construct a new invention? I submit, it is the creation of the invention platform. In the same manner that the iPhone app is built on the iPhone operating system which is built on a microprocessor language, which is built on the design of a microprocessor, which is built on chip technology, which is built on digital electronics, etc. I think you get my point. Every bit of technology we used is built on an underlying technology that was also invented by an intelligent inventor. The more versatile and flexible the platform, the greater the genius of the inventor of that platform. Why do we assume that chain is broken at the level of the physical world. Why don’t we view the universe and it’s basic physics as God’s invention platform, incredibly versatile and flexible and designed by an intelligence so great that we can’t comprehend. Since we can’t comprehend so great an intelligence we assume that it all “just happened by itself.

The point I am trying to make is that, in my opinion, the intelligent design debate misses the mark when it stops merely at biology, the Lego sculptures, and does not press to the basic question, why is the universe the way it is with its particles and laws of physics. These were conceived and created by God and are the basic invention platform for all of mankind’s inventions. You see, the fundamental question in the intelligent design debate is really the one raised by Andrew in the parable at the beginning of this essay, “how do you explain the Legos?”  The only response to the amazing genius of the creator of the invention platform we call creation is worship of it’s inventor who created it by his word out of nothing.

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Karl Popper’s 17 Theses

February 4, 2009

Karl Popper is regarded as the father of critical rationalism. In a nutshell critical rationalism “assumes that there are some arguments that many or even most rational people will find convincing, even though there is no argument that will be persuasive to everyone regardless of viewpoint.” The quote is from Tim Keller’s book, Reasons for God.  In Popper’s book , Myth of the Framework (which I have not read but have added to my list of books I should read) he gives 17 theses regarding scientific knowledge. Here they are for comment and discussion.

Karl Popper’s 17 theses regarding scientific knowledge


1. All scientific knowledge is hypothetical or conjectural.
2. The growth of knowledge, and especially of scientific knowledge, consists in learning from our mistakes.
3. What may be called the method of science consists in learning from our mistakes systematically: first, by taking risks, by daring to make mistakes–that is, by boldly proposing new theories; and secondly, by searching systematically for the mistakes we have made — that is, by the critical discussion and the critical examination of our theories.
4. Among the most important arguments that are used in this critical discussion are arguments from experimental tests.
5. Experiments are constantly guided by theory, by theoretical hunches of which the experimenter is often not conscious, by hypotheses concerning possible sources of experimental errors, and by hopes or conjectures about what will be a fruitful experiment. (By theoretical hunches I mean guesses that experiments of a certain kind will be theoretically fruitful.)
6. What is called scientific objectivity consists solely in the critical approach: in the fact that if you are biased in favour of your pet theory, some of your friends and colleagues (or failing these, some workers of the next generation) will be eager to criticize your work — that is to say, to refute your pet theories if they can.
7. This fact should encourage you to try to refute your own theories yourself — that is to say, it may impose some discipline upon you.
8. In spite of this, it would be a mistake to think that scientists are more ‘objective’ than other people. It is not the objectivity or detachment of the individual scientist but of science itself (what may be called ‘the friendly-hostile cooperation of scientists’ — that is, their readiness for mutual criticism) which makes for objectivity.
9. There is even something like a methodological justification for individual scientists to be dogmatic and biased. Since the method of science is that of critical discussion, it is of great importance that the theories criticized should be tenaciously defended. For only in this way can we learn their real power. And only if criticism meets resistance can we learn the full force of a critical argument.
10. The fundamental role played in science by theories or hypotheses or conjectures makes it important to distinguish between testable (or falsifiable) and non-testable (or non-falsifiable) theories.
11. Only a theory which asserts or implies that certain conceivable events will not, in fact, happen is testable. The test consists in trying to bring about, with all the means we can muster, precisely these events which the theory tells us cannot occur.
12. Thus, every testable theory may be said to forbid the occurrence of certain events. A theory speaks about empirical reality only in so far as it sets limits to it.
13. Every testable theory can thus be put into the form ‘such and such cannot happen’. For example, the second law of thermodynamics can be formulated as saying that a perpetual motion machine of the second kind cannot exist.
14. No theory can tell us anything about the empirical world unless it is in principle capable of clashing with the empirical world. And this means, precisely, that it must be refutable.
15. Testability has degrees: a theory which asserts more, and thus takes greater risks, is better testable than a theory which asserts very little.
16. Similarly, tests can be graded as being more or less severe. Qualitative tests, for example, are in general less severe than quantitative tests. And tests of more precise quantitative predictions are more severe than tests of less precise predictions.
17. Authoritarianism in science was linked with the idea of establishing, that is to say, of proving or verifying, its theories. The critical approach is linked with the idea of testing, that is to say, or trying to refute, or to falsify, its conjectures.

Providence and Probability

January 15, 2009

Let me begin with a disclaimer about this blog entry. This entry falls into the category of speculative as opposed to certainty. That is to say, I’m holding at least some aspects of this entry loosely in my hand as compared to the death grip I use for those things that are absolutely certain such as the deity of Christ and the authority of scripture.

For some time now I have struggled with the tension between the concept of God’s sovereignty in the universe and with what little I’ve learned over the years as a scientist. First of all I’ve come to see that the concept of God’s sovereignty is not that of the ultimate puppet master–consciously, directly, and specifically determining and controlling the location and energy of every proton, neutron, electron (and all those sub atomic particles with the cool names that I don’t understand). In establishing the universe, God clearly set up rules for much of it to function autonomously. By these “rules” I mean what we call the laws of physics. Chemistry and biology are built on the foundation laid by the fundamental laws of physics. For example, chemical reactions are governed by thermodynamics and kinetics. They are reproducible and predictable and because of that reproducibility chemical processes can be developed and biological systems can be sustained.

At the atomic/molecular level there is a degree of what I will call ordered randomness. For example, there is a distribution of the velocities of gas molecules in a container at a given temperature, pressure, and number of gas molecules. The “temperature” of the gas is a measure of the average velocity of the gas molecules in the container. The shape of the velocity distribution plot is predictable and governed by basic statistics.  Which molecule is traveling at what direction and at what velocity at any given time is randomly determined. Yet in that randomness there is order.  The dynamic equilibrium that occurs between a liquid and it’s vapor is also “ordered randomness”. The partial pressure of the vapor above the liquid can be predicted using theory and experiment. However, which molecules are in the liquid and the vapor phase at any given time is constantly changing because the equilibrium is dynamic.

On the macro-scale we also see randomness that ranges from what clothes I put on in the morning to what lane I drive in on the tollway on my way into work. Granted, these choices are limited by the clothes in my closet and drawers and the number of lanes that are open (i.e. not under construction) on the tollway. In experimental data, the underlying randomness is often referred to as noise. Sometimes it is an artifact of the measuring instrument and other times it is inherent in the system being studied.

Thus to varying degrees this stochastic background noise permeates the universe on all levels. It obeys the laws of probability but it is random nevertheless. The first thesis I propose in reconciling this stochastic background noise with the sovereignty of God is that God has ordained this stochastic background noise in creation for at least two reasons. The first reason is that in a system with many moving parts, it is necessary, and secondly it gives Him freedom to work his sovereign plan in a “stealth” manner that most of the time appears to be completely natural-like riding with no hands appears to a small child  like the bicycle is steering itself.

First of all, let me offer two arguments as to why this stochastic background noise is necessary. The first argument is based on analogy. I am fully aware that arguments based on analogy are never sufficient to prove a point but they do serve to make us feel more comfortable with a point that at first makes us feel uncomfortable. Consider an automobile engine. In order for that engine to work there has be some tolerance in the dimensions of the moving parts. Pistons cannot fit too tightly in the cylinder or they will not move and there has to be some allowance in the design of the engine for dimensional changes due to frictional wear, erosion, and corrosion. These tolerances result in a limited randomness to the location and dimensions of the engine components at any given time. It is a necessary component of the engine design. The number of “moving parts” in the universe is an extremely big (but finite) number and requires a degree of tolerance in the design for it to function.

The second argument is that designing a universe that runs semi-autonomously or semi-automatically with a degree of stochastic randomness from the subatomic to the cosmic scale is an incredible feat. There are no sloppy patches or kludge fixes, it is an elegant system that speaks volumes about the power and wisdom of its designer (more on this in a future post). In short, it glorifies God.

In discussing how God uses this stochastic background noise to stealthily work his sovereign will I will use two scripture passages, one from the old testament and one from the new testament.  In I Kings 22:29-37 King Jehoshaphat of Judah goes into battle alongside  King Ahab of Israel against the Syrians.  To make himself less of a target, Ahab disguises himself as a common soldier while Jehoshaphat goes to battle wearing royal battledress. The Syrians had orders specifically to kill Ahab and for a while pursued Jehoshaphat (recognizable as a king by his garments) until they realized that he was not King Ahab. While this was going on in verse 34 it states, “But a certain man, drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate. The would proved fatal and as the words of the prophet had spoken when the washed the blood out of the bottom of his chariot, the dogs licked up his blood and the prostitutes bathed in it (verse 38). In this passage God clearly superintends a “random” event (the arrow shot) to work his divine will. Prophecy ahead of the event called attention to the seemingly random event as in fact the specific will of God.

A similar event occurs in the Matthew 17: 24-27. In this passage Jesus instructs Peter to go to the sea (of Galilee) cast a hook and take the first fish he catches. He then tells Peter that when he opens the mouth of the fish he will find the exact amount of money (one shekel) to pay the half-shekel tax for Jesus and himself. Jesus did not tell him where to stand or where to cast the hook. He demonstrated complete control over a random event. It was regarded as a miracle because no one but God could achieve such a feat.

It is my opinion that God directly intervenes regularly in the realm of the stochastic background noise in our lives to work His will. Doing so in this manner exhibits an amazing degree of artistry and finesse because although the hands are not on the handlebars, He is still able to direct the bicycle in the direction he chooses. We do have freedom in the realm of stochastic background noise but those that think that the stochastic background noise is all there is are like those who leave the concert hall right after the cacophony of the orchestra tuning concludes and the buzz in the audience subsides mistakenly assuming that the concert is over. They are in fact missing out on hearing and playing in a magnificent symphony composed and created by master of the universe.