Thursday, 17 April 2014

Our perception of reality, ancient and modern

In a sense humanity has come full circle. The world we live in today is just as inexplicable and full of the unknown and the unknowable as it was 50,000 years ago, despite all the knowledge and technology amassed over millennia.

Ancient homo sapiens would have been humbled and bewildered by the natural world around them. They would have learned that when something happens it has a cause. When they banged a hard stone against a soft stone a piece was likely to flake off, depending on how hard it was hit and at what angle. When they wrapped themselves in animal skins they felt warmer. When they ate fruit they enjoyed it and felt less hungry. When they heated meat it tasted better and was easier to chew.

But reasoning would have got them only so far. Fire, lightning, thunder, lakes, the sea, rain, clouds, trees, grass, flowers, bushes, lions, lizards, birds, butterflies, rocks, mountains, deserts, sun, moon, stars, comets. Where did they come from? How did they begin to exist? He had no chance of answering these questions.

The same questions applied to people. All humans came from the previous generation; but how did the first generation originate?  What happened when a person’s life left the body? Why did the corpse decay? Similarly with animals.

They were confronted with the terror of the unknown. With that which could not be tamed by logic.

Hence, the concept of the myth, the metaphor, the poem and the gods. All these attempt to make manageable the great unknown gulf outside of a reality governed by logic, although reason still played a role in seeking to understand the supernatural. The gods did things for reasons.

The gods made the world and the ancestors from which the people living originated. Reason dictated that these gods – hundreds of them – would expect something in return, just as all humans expected to receive from one another in exchange for giving.

Hence sacrifices. The more animals, crops and children you sacrificed the more you would please the gods and the better would be the yield from animals and crops. And the less likely you would be to suffer injury or premature death or the loss of a loved one.

Now jump forward tens of thousands of years to the present. Miss out the Greek philosophers, Hinduism, Buddhism and the Abrahamic religions. We are in essentially the same situation except that we have

  1. Developed the power of reason through philosophy and science.
  2.  Constructed scientifc models able to describe some of the natural world in terms of chains of cause and effect.

We can follow chains of cause and effect a long way back. A was caused by B was caused by C was caused by D……etc. Even when no cause can be found we have sufficient faith in logic and science to believe that eventually a cause will be found.

But there is a snag. If everything is the end result of a cause-effect chain what was the first cause?  Is the chain infinite? Have things always existed in their own right?  But infinity is a point you never reach and mathematically meaningless. So the first cause is never reached and so in effect is outside of reality. Which means reality never started which is illogical because we are living in it.

We have to acknowledge that the source of being is beyond investigation by any process of logic or science. Goedel’s theorem of undecidability proves beyond doubt that all logical processes must rest on assumptions which are unprovable.There will never be a true theory of everything.

 In a very real sense we are back to the same position as the ancients. Even without the basic problem of infinite regression of cause-effect there are no scientific models available to explain even the immediate cause of an increasingly large range of phenomena revealed by the science of the last few decades. Here are just a few:

  1. Cause-effect relationships between entangled quantum particles occur independently of space and time. For example: consider two entangled spinning electrons, one in your brain and one in the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago and 13.8 billion light years from Earth. If one changes its direction of spin so will the other, instantaneously.

  1. The universe originated from beyond space and time, which means outside of all natural laws we can ever know about – i.e. it originated supernaturally. This is a truism in cosmology.

  1. The end point of the creation event is conscious beings concerned about love, justice, truth, destiny and beauty.

  1. We still don’t know what life is. What is it in an organism that sustains the myriads of molecular processes even as the molecules themselves are continually replaced or damaged? See also 'ET life: what are we searching for?'

There is much else in this vein and other posts on this blog frequently deal with them.

Today more than half of humanity is cocooned in urban or suburban environments,  protected from the reality of  the natural world and almost oblivious to the rest of the universe except through the media. Astronauts are more aware of it than most of us.

 Yet as in the early days of humanity, we should be confronted with deep mystery; but instead of myriads of competing pagan gods, which had their place in the ancient world and still give us insights into the human condition,  spiritual evolution has taken us to discover that it all comes from one monotheistic Creator.

This, it seems to me, is an inescapable conclusion. Why do some people want to escape it? As a Christian I  believe we relate to this Creator through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

John Sears

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Our precious planet. Part 3. Built for civilisation (updated 14 April 2014)

Part 1 showed how the solar system is situated in a safe haven in the cosmos. Part 2  listed the factors which make the Earth itself unique for the development of life. (These parts can be obtained by clicking here .)

This post deals with the special terrestrial conditions which allowed civilization to evolve.

Here they are, as far as I understand them:

  • The oxygen content of the atmosphere is just right to allow fire (any more and the whole planetary surface would be ablaze, any less and we would freeze and not be able to breath). Fire has been an essential requirement for ore smelting, metal processing, cooking, medicine, heat engines, rocket motors and much else.
  • The atmosphere is relatively clear so that we can see celestial objects and so deduce our place in the larger scheme of things. The only other planets we know which give a good view of the stars either have air too thin for sentient life or no air at all. 
  •  Water in the form of rivers and oceans has allowed exploration, travel and trade in  bulk over large distances.
  • The climate and surface soil have been suitable for agriculture, the main facilitator of civilization through human history.
  •  Animals suitable for breeding, training and domestication (e.g. dogs, sheep, goats, oxen, horses, falcons) have been essential in allowing hunting and agriculture to develop. Even if animals had evolved on other planets they are unlikely to include these or even their equivalents. Dogs, e.g., have a unique genome which permits extraordinary variability through breeding.
  • Our solar system, unlike most star systems, is so placed in the Milky Way Galaxy as to give us a good view of the universe. It also enables us to measure the cosmic microwave background (‘snow’ on the TV screen) from the early universe, providing evidence of the Big Bang theory. Had the Sun been placed in most parts of our Galaxy we would be totally oblivious to most of the universe and its history (in a sense we still are because it comprises largely dark matter and energy; but at least we are aware that there is something there waiting to be discovered).
  •  The ordered movements of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars in the sky, from night to night, day to day, a consequence of the Earth’s rare stable rotation, inspired the ancients to develop mathematics and mark the seasons for agriculture. Largely unpredictable events such as exploding stars (supernovae), meteors and comets only served to emphasize the underlying order.
  •  The Moon is 400 times smaller than the Sun but 400 times nearer. This makes them appear to be the same size in the sky and in the extraordinary phenomenon of total eclipses which excited the curiosity of early man; and without curiosity, civilization can't develop.
  •  The resulting solar eclipses enabled modern man to learn about the Sun’s atmosphere,  and discover helium in the Sun before it was found on Earth.
  •  Freezing of ice over millions of years has provided ice cores giving evidence for solar, supernovae, magnetic, atmospheric, volcanic and pollen phenomena over this period. Cores of lake sediments have also proved valuable records of the past, especially climate change. This evidence would not have been available without water occurring as both liquid and ice for billions of years. No other planet we know allows this. Understanding of history is important in allowing a people to advance.
  • Fossils of creatures preserved in sea deposits turned to rock have given us the ability to reconstruct certain aspects of the evolution of life over billions of years.
  • Ores and minerals –e.g. copper, tin , iron, uranium and silicon - for materials technology have been made available through fine tuned plate tectonics. Hence the Bronze, Iron, Atomic and Silicon Ages (what next?).
  •  A few weeks ago a paper in Nature showed that the formation of the Moon has played a critical role in preventing the 'iron-loving' heavy  elements (gold, silver, iron, titanium and others) needed for civilisation  from migrating  towards the Earth's core which would make them unavailable for mining. See this article by Hugh Ross

These conditions, and probably many others, were key to the development of our civilization. No other planet discovered so far appears to have life; or, if it does, it has not evolved beyond bacteria or viruses, even over billions of years. Whatever the implications there is no doubt that humankind is an extraordinary phenomenon.


Sunday, 30 March 2014

Natural technology: the virus

see also Natural technology: the bacterium
a bacteriophage is typically 100 nm long (300 atoms)
one of thousands of highly efficient designs of virus
I recently followed parts of a YouTube course on virology by Professor Vincent Racaniello and was awestruck by one statistic on the first module.

 If you could take all the bacteriophages (a bacteriophage is a particular type of virus which destroys bacteria), and lay them end to end, how far do you think the line would reach? The Moon, the edge of the solar system, the nearest star?  These are orders of magnitude too small. In fact the line would be 200 million light years. This compares with about 2.5 million to the nearest galaxy, Andromeda.  ( I have calculated this independently and get about the same distance. I have also checked the figure of 10exp30 below which was initially regarded with skepticism by biologists. 200 million light years is indeed the right figure. JLS)

There are 10power30 (1 with 30 zeros) bacteriophage viruses in the world’s water supplies. (I am not sure how he defines ‘water supply’ but it doesn’t really matter in this context.)  Elsewhere it has been pointed out that the bacteriophages in soil, water, air and living organisms play a crucial role in maintaining the natural, life-friendly balance of bacteria in the ecosphere. 

 He also points out that there are 10power16 HIV  viruses , of which only a tiny proportion have been discovered and it is almost certain that there will be an HIV virus resistant not only to every anti-viral drug we know about, but to any anti-viral drug  that could conceivably be developed in the future.

More extraordinary than the number of viruses is their biodiversity, reckoned by him to be greater than that of the bacterial, plant and animal kingdoms put together. There were, for example, some 10,000 species of virus found by drilling into a frigid Antarctic lake trapped below a thick layer of ice (Lake Limnopolar, 2009). Many of these were previously unknown to science. No one knows the total number of species in the viral kingdom but they appear to fall into seven classes, each class being divided into orders, families, genus’s and species, as is the case with the other kingdoms. 

 A virion (a single particle of a virus) is only a fraction of the size of a bacterium and has no on board machinery for producing copies of itself. Neither is it able to propel itself – unlike the bacterium, which is much larger in size. It is, however, a complex and ultra efficiently designed molecular machine able to penetrate the membrane of a bacterial cell and use the machinery inside to its own end, to either the detriment or the benefit of the host cell. The internal structure of the cell, with its ribosome, nucleus and proteins, is utilised to make mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) which it needs to produce a replica of itself.

Having used the host cell’s machinery to produce a replica of itself the virion then has to have itself ejected from the bacterium. This in itself is a remarkable feat.

Virions also have the capacity to reassemble themselves if broken down into their constituent proteins, which means the proteins have been designed with a unique molecular arrangement out of an astronomically high range of possibilities. Only this one geometry allows the virus to spontaneously assemble itself under the right conditions. It reminds me of the fine tuning of the physical constants of the universe to enable biological life to form.

 Because a virus has less goal-oriented complexity than a bacterium could it be that life started off as viruses? This seems logically impossible given that viruses depend on bacteria for their duplication. However, the bacterial, plant and animal kingdoms also depend on viruses. It has been proposed (speculated?), for instance, that speciation - the creation of new species from existing ones - is achieved by the incorporation by viruses of genetically coded beneficial traits from various species into the germ cell of one species to create a new species carrying these traits.

A virus has a genome consisting typically of just 15 genes. Some have only a single gene, which makes their sophistication and intelligent behaviour all the more difficult to understand. In describing biomolecular phenomena one is forced to use words like

think, decide, employ, ensure, exhibit, store, encode, divide, assemble, manufacture, coordinate, orchestrate....

These all imply that intelligent willful decisions are somehow involved and strike fear into the heart of the neo-Darwinist. Prof Racaniello warns his students to steer clear of such words wherever possible and when forced to use them to hold in mind the (metaphysical) belief that there can be no intelligence because these molecules don’t have brains, as though molecules having brains would be the only way they could purposefully move and that intelligence could be involved in the processes in some way which is beyond present science, at least - if not epistemologically out of the realms of investigation.

He no doubt fears that believers in God will invoke a direct hands-on intervention by the Lord every time an unexplained phenomena or event is encountered. The professor need have no such fear from those who, like me, suspect that intelligence was built into God’s creation at the instant the universe was conceived in the original quantum event, along with space, time, energy and matter. Mind could have been  created as a fifth attribute of the universe. This would explain why there is so much order in the natural world, even where brains are absent. Moreover, since God is greater than the reality we live in I can imagine mind serving as a timeless, spaceless agent by which God pervades the universe

Once one accepts that the universe may have teleological characteristics built into it one can look for order in apparently random or unconnected phenomena by constructing experimentally verifiable hypothesis.  To reject faith in the underlying order and interconnectedness of all things is to risk the very future of science as much as would a belief in a god or gods of the gaps.

see also

 Intelligence without brains

Natural technology: the bacterium

author, 2077 AD
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