Monday, 7 July 2014

Teleportation: science fiction or science fantasy?

Science fiction novels and movies often assume teleportation as standard. I doubt whether there has been a single episode of Star Trek in which  at least one person or alien is not turned into a beam and transmitted more or less instantaneously from A to B.

I was inspired to think about this by an article in the UK journal Prospect (July 2014) entitled ‘If your brain is vaporised…’, an interesting review by Jim Holt of two recent books dealing with teleportation and related subjects.

The standard view of the SF fan is that while this technology is way beyond us at present this may not always be so. Never say never in science. However, there are difficulties with two aspects of this phenomenon, or more accurately thought experiment, which seem fundamental to me and which were not discussed in the review:

1/  encoding and decoding the material structure of a person.

2/ the nature of the entity animating this structure and holding it in place over time.

Once the body-brain system is encoded into, say, a digital stream of electromagnetic pulses, this encoded data can be transmitted as a beam to a receiver which decodes the beam and constructs a replica of the brain-body system from chemicals stored in the receiver.  To avoid having two identical persons the original one would have to be destroyed or, alternatively, the atoms themselves would have to be transmitted through some kind of ether or converted into some form of energy which could be transmitted and decoded at the receiving end.

The assumption is that the original person is defined purely by configurations of matter. Even if this were so much of the structral information is at sub-molecular level and so subject to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and so beyond the reach of any attempt to measure and encode it.

 Unfortunately for the credibility of this thought experiment, but fortunately for us as living creatures with free will, a person is not, in any case,  just a pattern of atoms and molecules. Life is a dynamic, transcendent process, not a static pattern.

 The essence of a person is some entity which not only holds the constituent particles in place at any one instant but orchestrates their arrangement over time, conducts millions of repairs to damage (e.g. radiation or copying errors during translation and transcription within a cell) each day and replaces the enormous variety of atomic and molecular systems with new ones from outside the body-brain system. Over a period of ten years all the matter in your body-brain is completely replaced. We have no idea what this entity is in scientific terms but some people call it a soul and when it stops orchestrating and repairing the body-brain system there is death.

Not only does the soul have to repair and maintain the existing patterns and processes. It has to make them grow and develop in size, structure and function in response to, and in conjunction with, the environment, which includes other organisms. It is ‘in charge’ from the moment it inhabits an embryo – perhaps even before since it may actually choose, or play a part in choosing, its own embryo out of thousands of fertilised eggs.

This is a crude attempt to give the flavour of the total scheme involved in life and death.

Could the soul (or whatever you want to call it) actually be the result of the particle arrangements? Just throw the particles together and you have an embryo with a soul to manage it. No chance. Each embryo is in some way the product of billions of years of evolution, an intelligent process, preplanned from outside of space-time (i.e. prior to the Big Bang creation event), by which our biosphere and its constituent life systems have survived and developed over the aeons. Each body-brain system plays an integral part in the biosphere. Just as the body-brain system is governed by the life giving soul so is the biosphere governed by a larger soul – otherwise it could not thrive the way it has, despite five or six mass extinctions during the 3.8 billion years of life on Earth and a solar radiation input that has increased by up to 30% as the sun has become more luminous.

Teleportation may be a legitimate concept of SF. But only if ‘SF’ stands for ‘science fantasy', not 'science fiction’. There is a literary genre distinction between the two. Science fiction is based on visions of a future employing novel technology in which the laws of physics have been pushed to the limit. In science fantasy there is no attempt to remain within the domain of even the frontiers of physics – in effect one is introducing the supernatural. Teleportation requires us to suspend the laws of physics so it is really a science fantasy concept, albeit an entertaining one which enables characters to be transferred from place to place as part of an intergalactic story line.

For teleportation to be possible in any shape or form there has to be a soul. It will be this soul that decides whether to permit teleportation and governs how it is achieved, a soul guided by the Creator.

John Sears
Author, 2077: Knights of Peace

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Transhumanism: staring into the abyss (revised 25 June 2014)

Never in the history of humanity have we needed so much to be in touch with the divine, with the Holy source of creation from outside of space-time. Never has this been so crucial to human destiny.

Transhumanism & Christianity
By copying and adapting the mind boggling designs, schemes and systems of God’s natural order we are, it would appear, within sight of being able to alter, for good or evil, the body and brain of a person, before or after birth. As a layman who follows popular science stories it appears to me that dramatic reductions in the cost of sequencing a genome and rapid progress in genetic technology (mainly mimicking nature) could arguably allow us to

  • Achieve life spans of hundreds of years
  • Impart immunity to many diseases
  • Enhance mental abilities
  • Increase physical strength
  • Alter the body’s appearance

Some of these are already beginning to happen and no doubt there will be mistakes and unforeseen consequences. We are tampering with a miraculous work of heavenly engineering having the God-given property of life. Hubris and its consequences are inevitable, especially if we ignore  factors such as the transmission of learned information and environmental influences from generation to generation via the epigenetic mechanisms and meta-mechanisms which govern the switching on and off of genes as well as the function, shape, size and folding characteristics of the proteins which are encoded by some genes. These factors have only recently been discovered and are barely understood. It is also a sobering, if not terrifying, thought that resistance to antibiotics is growing yearly and we may soon be faced with horrific diseases that medicine can do nothing about.

The human body-brain system is orders of magnitude more labyrinthine and multi-layered , complementary and competitive in function and mysteriously diverse in the way it relates to the environment than was thought only a decade or so ago. In fact, with the discovery of quantum entanglement and recent findings on the molecular scale of undreamed of hierarchies of complexity in a person it is becoming apparent that not only does the body-brain system interact with the present world around it but, quite likely, with both past and future and potentially all parts of the universe (this follows from quantum entanglement). We have not adjusted to this idea let alone thought about its implications.

And what is life? We have absolutely no idea and much of the time are not even aware that we don’t know. It is more of a mystery than in the early days of homo sapiens sapiens. All we can say is that some all pervading agency holds the continuously changing flux of living systems in being, so that atoms, molecules and cells are continuously arranged, rearranged, repaired and replaced to result in functioning organisms which jointly give rise to a biosphere which has remained benevolent even as the sun’s luminosity has increased by 25- 30% over 4 billion years, mass extinctions by asteroid impacts have occurred repeatedly and cosmic rays have bombarded the whole planet (albeit mitigated by the Earth’s apparently unique magnetic shield).

Not only is the nature of life unknown. Its extent in the universe is also totally unknown. Even on our own planet we are finding viruses and bacteria miles below the surface not only of the ocean but of the surface soil. 

‘Functioning organisms’ includes homo sapiens sapiens (the extra ‘sapiens’ is needed because the latest paleoanthropic findings indicate more than one species of homo sapiens) made in the image of God, the Imago Dei. These organisms question their own existence, explore the nature of the world and the universe, construct theories of science and philosophy, deduce the limits of their own knowledge, invent, make and distribute ever-better technology, create art, poetry and music, set up civilisations, have concepts of divinity, experience love, truth, justice and beauty and seek out the Creator and sustainer of the universe. A supernatural universe because it came into existence prior to space-time itself.  Everything from quarks to abstract ideas and works of art are, ultimately, from outside of our universe, from a realm not susceptible to scientific investigation.

So in practice what do we do with the burgeoning knowledge of the human brain-body system? Copy it or improve it? Given that certain human beings suffer because of a bodily disfunction there does not seem to me to be any reason why we should not use any means possible to restore function. But when it comes to improving a brain-body system we hit a problem.

What constitutes an improvement? Every time a system is altered it immediately impinges on other systems in the body-brain complex, potentially on the whole organism and even by some amount, not necessarily minute, on the biosphere or even beyond. How do we know the overall result is an improvement?

An analogy might be to consider a chimpanzee which does not understand the working of an automobile (along with many human drivers) except that bad fumes come out of the exhaust pipe. So he improves this state of affairs by sticking a banana up the exhaust pipe, not realising that this will not only reduce emissions but completely stop the whole engine functioning, possibly killing driver and passengers in the process.
Suppose, for example, we have the ability to prolong life to 300 years (an incidental theme in my forthcoming novel, 2077: Knights of Peace). This would have a Noah’s’ ark full of ramifications:

  1. Individuals full of evil (e.g. Hitler types) would be able to do much more evil in their lifetime; conversely, those filled with goodness would have more time to do good. E.g. people harbouring grudges for 300 years could do a lot of damage, while those doing charity work could do a lot of good. Would good win over evil in this scenario? Or vice versa?

  1. Family structure and rules of marriage would have to change. Ways of bringing children to maturity would have to change. The education system would need completely restructuring and morality would need to be given more emphasis.

  1. Travel to and from distant planets within our own solar system would become possible in a human lifetime even without a quantum jump in propulsion technology.

  1. Some individuals may become wiser than any hitherto, causing knowledge and technology to grow even faster than it has done since the Renaissance. New biotechnology could cause life spans to be further increased. Conversely, the long lived individuals may become stagnant and resistant to new concepts. Progress could be brought to a halt by intellectual stagnation. Some long lived people may become bored and question the point of life.

  1. New strains of virus and bacteria could appear to attack the long lived members of the race and these variants might be so powerful that they would find those not having had life extension treatment (probably the majority of people) easy targets.  
  2. Individuals with the ability to earn high incomes might be able to amass more wealth in their extended lifetimes, making their relative wealth even higher. A steep wealth hierarchy could emerge. Those not able to have life extension (e.g. because they can’t afford it) may be regarded as inferior and expendable. New socio-economic and political systems could evolve.

I am sure there are many more possible implications of longer life spans. The point of drawing up this list is to show that ramifications and consequences will abound and rebound from any attempt to ‘improve’ humans. Given that increased life span is likely to occur in conjunction with intended or unintended changes in other factors such as personal appearance, intelligence and physical attractiveness together with new technologies for creation, destruction, communication, education, subjugation and exploitation, the scope for unintended consequences is multiplied.

The above assumes that all the longevity techniques actually work without unforeseen and undesirable side effects at the biological level. Given that the human body incorporates not only trillions of body and brain cells working together in unknown ways and in unison with bacteria and viruses more numerous by orders of magnitude, and this meta-system varies continually with the environment in which the organism finds itself and that no mortal being knows the nature of consciousness, this seems more than likely.

In addition to the potential for Transhumanism there is now the real prospect of technology driving us into the colonisation of the solar system and the possible terraforming into benign environments of some of the extra-terrestrial environments we encounter. This could lead to new nations on different planets. If each nation decided to use transhumanistic  technology in different ways there could be totally different descendents of the race. Is this meant to happen? In a sense it would be a repeat of Genesis chapter 11’s early verses which portray the scattering of humanity over the Earth after building the Tower of Babel  after the Flood (probably tens of thousands of years ago) , when the survivors were concentrated  in one place and spoke only one language. God made them all speak different languages to prevent them advancing too much too quickly. Perhaps this time the break up of humankind, English speaking and homogenized in western ways, into different cultures on different terraformed planets will slow down progress to a rate we can deal with spiritually. Just a thought.

So we need to maintain humility and move slowly and carefully in a spiritual way, with humanity and divinity united in our being. God manifest Himself as Jesus Christ, to sanctify humanity, conquer spiritual death and take us forward to a New Heaven and a New Earth. Most Christians believe this and if they are right nobody can ignore the consequences – every single particle or quantum of energy or living being is affected.

Science on its own can’t answer the questions we face.

So look into the abyss, empty yourself of pride and pray for guidance.


Saturday, 7 June 2014

ENCODE turns DNA junk into treasure (updated 7 June 2014)

 It is well known that the DNA which resides in a living cell houses a genetic code, stored in binary form. These genes store digital instructions needed to manufacture the proteins which are needed by the organism, anything from a fly to a blue whale, from a pea to a giant redwood. The architecture of these systems is so sophisticated and efficient that biochemists and bioengineers seek to copy and use it.

When the genetic coding scheme of the human being was first announced around AD 2000 the popular science media and the evolutionary biology establishment gave the impression that all manner of genetic diseases would now be curable and that all the useful DNA was concentrated in about 1.5% of the DNA in the nucleus of a cell.  This 1.5% was the part of the DNA which has protein- coding genes – i.e. instructions for the protein manufacturing process which occurs within the ribosome, a kind of factory, located in the cytoplasm which exists within the space between the nucleus and membrane of a cell.  The rest was believed by many evolutionary biologists to be junk and evidence of the inefficiency of nature in evolving life – evidence, many said, that evolution is a blind, mindless process, a story of self-replicating machines running amok and creating the illusion of order and purpose.

Within only a few years the initial hubris was found to be entirely unjustified. There was little progress in dealing with heredity disorders and diseases and it became obvious that processes were occurring which could not be explained by the extant models.

The naming of 98.5 % of the DNA as junk was bad science, i.e. a dogmatic adherence to a blind watchmaker view of evolution rather than a strong suspicion that this so-called junk may well have a function. Those who did suspect this were proved right.

Common digital signatures were detected in junk DNA from different specimens of different species, from different generations of the same species and from patients with the same genetic disorders. It rapidly became clear that meaningful processes of some kind were occurring in what many had  thought to be a functional desert; but nobody could have predicted just how breathtakingly complex and orchestrated were these processes.

The reality of this paradigm shift in perception of the sub-cellular, sub-genetic and  epigenetic  processes which go on inside a cell is now being assimilated as the findings of the ENCODE project attract the attention of biologists, science journalists and the public. My impression is that the findings are so worldview-shattering that many evolutionary biologists are stunned into a (hopefully temporary) state of denial.

ENCODE stands for the encyclopaedia of DNA elements, and this programme was devoted to studying just the human genome. It was started in 2003 and involved over 1600 research projects by 400 scientists in 32 labs in the USA, UK, Japan, Spain and Singapore and the bulk of the results were released early in 2012.

 It showed that 80% of the genome consists of 4 million genetic switches together with mechanisms for controlling where, when, in what dynamic configuration and how much of a particular protein will be produced. Over 300 years of computer time were used and there was deep cross referencing via the internet between the open access journals Nature, Science, Genome Research and Genome Biology. The fact that there is a highly structured set of data open to any researcher to use should lead to a cascade of new findings in quite a short time.

This shows the complexity of just one part of an orchestrated process by which genes are turned on and off at a particular time and place in response to information from the environment and that of previous generations (not yet fully proven but looking increasingly likely).
.  Transcription is the process by which a segment of DNA is read and copied by a messenger RNA molecule, the first step in making a particular protein with a particular function at a particular time. No process of this sophistication and functionality could evolve by chance even over the lifetime of the universe.
This project, together with others on non-human genomes, has shown that the microscopic processes in the cell nucleus and its surrounding plasma are similar in purposeful complexity to those of the natural world we see around us.  The rich variety of trees, plants, animals, fish and insects we witness forming an ecological network are the out workings of a hitherto unknown sub-microscopic universe inside each cell as well as data transfer between cells and some means of orchestrating  both the cells and their interiors to produce living organisms. Plants and animals are not made up of simple self-duplicating jelly-like blobs.

This still leaves about 20% of the human genome totally unexplored and no doubt scientists are already working on it. And when some of the present mysteries have been 'solved' another whole layer of mystery will unfold before us. Given the history of science I think that is a reasonable assumption.

How the theory of evolution will itself evolve is impossible to say but I suspect that ENCODE, and similar projects on DNA and the thousands of processes that go on in the cell,  will reveal that learning from the environment can be passed down the generations, i.e. that evolution is far from a blind, chance-driven mechanism. Evidence along these lines is already emerging in mainstream journals and falls within the province of epigenetics. In particular  each gene is not a single entity but comprises dozens of functional units.

On the medical front research is now able to move very fast because we now know that the genes themselves are only a small part of the overall picture. Treatments will be able to be tailored to individuals both for rare diseases involving single genes and for more widespread ailments associated with groups of genes.  

Stand by for some startling insights over the coming years.

Author 2077 AD

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