Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

New study: scientists discover that inverted retina / blind spot is not a “bad design”

Here’s what atheist Richard Dawkins says about the inverted retina:

Any engineer would naturally assume that the photocells would point towards the light, with their wires leading backwards towards the brain. He would laugh at any suggestion that the photocells might point away from the light, with their wires departing on the side nearest the light. Yet this is exactly what happens in all vertebrate eyes. Each photocell is, in effect, wired in backwards, with its wires sticking out on the side nearest to the light. This means that the light, instead of being granted an unrestricted passage to the photocells, has to pass through a forest of connecting wires, presumably suffering at least some attenuation and distortion (actually probably not much but, still, it is the principle of the thing that would offend any tidy-minded engineer!)

Source: Dawkins, Richard (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. London: Penguin Books; pp. 93-94.

Now let’s look at a new study reported in Science Daily.

They write:

From a practical standpoint, the wiring of the human eye — a product of our evolutionary baggage — doesn’t make a lot of sense. In vertebrates, photoreceptors are located behind the neurons in the back of the eye — resulting in light scattering by the nervous fibers and blurring of our vision. Recently, researchers at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology have confirmed the biological purpose for this seemingly counterintuitive setup.

“The retina is not just the simple detector and neural image processor, as believed until today,” said Erez Ribak, a professor at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology. “Its optical structure is optimized for our vision purposes.” Ribak and his co-authors will describe their work during the 2015 American Physical Society March Meeting, on Thursday, March 5 in San Antonio, Texas.

Ribak’s interest in the optical structure of the retina stems from his previous work applying astrophysics and astronomy techniques to improve the ability of scientists and ophthalmologists to view the retina at high detail.

Previous experiments with mice had suggested that Müller glia cells, a type of metabolic cell that crosses the retina, play an essential role in guiding and focusing light scattered throughout the retina. To test this, Ribak and his colleagues ran computer simulations and in-vitro experiments in a mouse model to determine whether colors would be concentrated in these metabolic cells. They then used confocal microscopy to produce three-dimensional views of the retinal tissue, and found that the cells were indeed concentrating light into the photoreceptors.

“For the first time, we’ve explained why the retina is built backwards, with the neurons in front of the photoreceptors, rather than behind them,” Ribak said.

You can read more on some other reasons why the inverted retina is not a bad design in this article by agnostic scientist Michael Denton. But this study is a good reminder of why Christians need to keep up with science and how we need to talk about science.

The importance of having a narrative

All Christians should be familiar with the following basic pieces of evidence which fit the war between science and naturalism narrative:

  1. The origin of the universe
  2. The cosmic fine-tuning
  3. The origin of life (biological information)
  4. The sudden origin of the Cambrian phyla
  5. The habitability/observability correlation

It’s very important to present these five basic evidences to non-Christians in the historical context. And here is the story you must tell: “In the beginning, there was the naturalism, and the naturalism tried to argue from ignorance that God was not Creator and God was not Designer. And then came the science, and now people have to give up their naturalism in order to not be crazy and irrational”. That’s the narrative you use when talking to non-Christians about science.

In the beginning was the naturalism:

  1. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the universe was eternal
  2. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that a life-permitting universe was as likely as a life-prohibiting universe
  3. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the cell was a simple blob of jello that could spontaneously emerge in some warm pond
  4. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the sudden origin of the Cambrian phyla would be explained by subsequent fossil discoveries
  5. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that there was nothing special about our galaxy, solar system, planet or moon

But then science progressed by doing experiments and making observations.

Here are some examples of discoveries that undermined the primitive atheism:

  1. Scientists discovered redshift and the cosmic microwave background radiation (evidence for a cosmic beginning) and more!
  2. Scientists discovered the fine-tuning of gravity and of the cosmological constant and more!
  3. Scientists discovered protein sequencing and exposed the myth of “junk DNA” and more!
  4. Scientists discovered an even shorter Cambrian explosion period and the absence of precursor fossils and more!
  5. Scientists discovered galactic habitable zones and circumstellar habitable zones and more!

Atheism, as a worldview, is not rooted in an honest assessment about what science tells us about reality. Atheism is rooted in a religion: naturalism. And the troubling thing we learn from looking at the history of science is that this religion of naturalism is insulated from correction from the progress of science. Nothing that science reveals about nature seems to be able to put a dent in the religion of naturalism, at least for most atheists. Their belief in naturalism is so strong that it repels all scientific evidence that falsifies it. Atheists simply don’t let science inform and correct their worldview.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

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Stephen C. Meyer: does the Big Bang cosmology support the existence of God?

Here’s the 66-minute video featuring Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, who holds the Ph.D in philosophy of science from Cambridge University, and other degrees in the hard sciences.

The lecture starts really, really slowly. You can just fast-forward to the 12 minute mark, or you might die of boredom.

Topics:

  • Up until the the last 100 years or so, everyone agreed that the universe was eternal
  • This is at odds with the traditional Christian view that God created the universe
  • Materialism, the view that matter is all there is, requires eternally existing matter
  • Discovery #1: Hubble discovers that the universe is expanding (redshift observation)
  • The expanding universe was resisted by proponents of the eternal universe, like Einstein
  • Some naturalists even proposed speculative static models like the steady-state model
  • However, not of the speculative models fit with observations and experimental results
  • Discovery #2: Penzias and Wilson discover the cosmic microwave background radiation
  • Measurements of this background radiation confirmed a prediction of the Big Bang theory
  • The steady-state theory was falsified of by the discovery of this background radiation
  • The oscillating model was proposed to prevent the need for an absolute beginning
  • But the oscillating model is not eternal, it loses energy on each “bounce”
  • A paper by Alan Guth and Marc Sher from 1982 proved that our universe will not bounce
  • In addition, experiments reveal that the universe will expand forever, and not contract
  • The beginning of the universe is more at home in a theistic worldview than an atheistic one
  • The beginning of the universe fits in well with the Bible, e.g. – Genesis 1, Titus 1, etc.

In case you are wondering about what the evidence is for the Big Bang, here are 3 of the evidences that are most commonly offered:

Three main observational results over the past century led astronomers to become certain that the universe began with the big bang. First, they found out that the universe is expanding—meaning that the separations between galaxies are becoming larger and larger. This led them to deduce that everything used to be extremely close together before some kind of explosion. Second, the big bang perfectly explains the abundance of helium and other nuclei like deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) in the universe. A hot, dense, and expanding environment at the beginning could produce these nuclei in the abundance we observe today. Third, astronomers could actually observe the cosmic background radiation—the afterglow of the explosion—from every direction in the universe. This last evidence so conclusively confirmed the theory of the universe’s beginning that Stephen Hawking said, “It is the discovery of the century, if not of all time.”

By the way, Dr. Meyer also does a great job of explaining the problem of proteins, DNA and the origin of life in this lecture. And you can hear him defend his views in this debate podcast with Keith Fox and in this debate podcast with Peter Atkins. He does a great job in these debates.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

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Stephen C. Meyer lectures on intelligent design and the origin of life

A MUST-SEE lecture based on Dr. Stephen C. Meyer’s book “Signature in the Cell“.

You can get an MP3 of the lecture here. (30 MB)

I highly recommend watching the lecture, and looking at the slides. The quality of the video and the content is first class. There is some Q&A (9 minutes) at the end of the lecture.

Topics:

  • intelligent design is concerned with measuring the information-creating capabilities of natural forces like mutation and selection
  • Darwinists think that random mutations and natural selection can explain the origin and diversification of living systems
  • Darwinian mechanisms are capable of explaining small-scale adaptive changes within types of organisms
  • but there is skepticism, even among naturalists, that Darwinian mechanisms can explain the origin of animal designs
  • even if you concede that Darwinism can account for all of the basic animal body plans, there is still the problem of life’s origin
  • can Darwinian mechanisms explain the origin of the first life? Is there a good naturalistic hypothesis to explain it?
  • there are at least two places in the history of life where new information is needed: origin of life, and Cambrian explosion
  • overview of the structure of DNA and protein synthesis (he has helpful pictures and he uses the snap lock blocks, too)
  • the DNA molecule is composed of a sequence of proteins, and the sequence is carefully selected to have biological function
  • meaningful sequences of things like computer code, English sentences, etc. require an adequate cause
  • it is very hard to arrive at a meaningful sequence of a non-trivial length by randomly picking symbols/letters
  • although any random sequence of letters is improbable, the vast majority of sequences are gibberish/non-compiling code
  • similarly, most random sequences of amino acids are lab-proven (Doug Axe’s work) to be non-functional gibberish
  • the research showing this was conducted at Cambridge University and published in the Journal of Molecular Biology
  • so, random mutation cannot explain the origin of the first living cell
  • however, even natural selection coupled with random mutation cannot explain the first living cell
  • there must already be replication in order for mutation and selection to work, so they can’t explain the first replicator
  • but the origin of life is the origin of the first replicator – there is no replication prior to the first replicator
  • the information in the first replicator cannot be explained by law, such as by chemical bonding affinities
  • the amino acids are attached like magnetic letters on a refrigerator
  • the magnetic force sticks the letters ON the fridge, but they don’t determine the specific sequence of the letters
  • if laws did determine the sequence of letters, then the sequences would be repetitive
  • the three materialist explanations – chance alone, chance and law, law alone – are not adequate to explain the effect
  • the best explanation is that an intelligent cause is responsible for the biological explanation in the first replicator
  • we know that intelligent causes can produce functional sequences of information, e.g. – English, Java code
  • the structure and design of DNA matches up nicely with the design patterns used by software engineers (like WK!)

There are some very good tips in this lecture so that you will be able to explain intelligent design to others in simple ways, using everyday household items and children’s toys to symbolize the amino acids, proteins, sugar phosphate backbones, etc.

Proteins are constructed from a sequence of amino acids:

A sequence of amino acids forming a protein

A sequence of amino acids forming a protein

Proteins sticking onto the double helix structure of DNA:

Some proteins sticking onto the sugar phosphate backbone

Some proteins sticking onto the sugar phosphate backbone

I highly, highly recommend this lecture. You will be delighted and you will learn something.

Here is an article that gives a general overview of how intelligent design challenges. If you want to read something more detailed about the material that he is covering in the lecture above related to the origin of life, there is a pretty good article here.

UPDATE: There is a good breakdown of some of the slides with helpful flow charts here on Uncommon Descent.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

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Stephen C. Meyer and Keith Fox debate intelligent design and evolution

From Justin Brierley’s “Unbelievable” podcast.

Details:

Stephen Meyer is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design who directs the Centre for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. His [first] book “Signature in the Cell” claims to show that the DNA code is the product of intelligent mind, not naturalistic processes. Keith Fox is Professor of Biochemistry at Southampton University. He chairs the UK Christians in Science network but disagrees strongly with ID. They debate how life could have originated and whether design is allowed as an explanation in science.

Summary: (stuff in italics is my snarky paraphrase)

Meyer:

  • background and how he got interested in intelligent design
  • his research focus is on the origin of life – the first replicator
  • summarizes the history of origin of life studies
  • authored the book “Signature in the Cell”
  • the DNA enigma: where did the information in DNA come from?
  • naturalistic explanations of the DNA information have failed
  • but intelligent agents are known to be able to produce information
  • the best explanation of the information in DNA is that an intelligent agent authored it
  • Meyer’s book was named by atheist philosopher of science Thomas Nagel as a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year in 2010
  • why is design so controversial? Many people think that Darwin explained why nature appears design
  • the Darwinian view is that nature can create the appearance of design using mutation and selection
  • however, Darwinian mechanisms cannot explain the origin of the first living cell, it assumes replication, and the origin of life is about where the first replicator comes from

Fox:

  • Meyer’s argument is not about the evolution of life after the first cell
  • Meyer’s case for design is about the origin of life
  • naturalists do not know a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life
  • there are a number of naturalistic hypotheses for the origin of life, like the RNA-first hypothesis
  • maybe in a few years one of them will turn out to be correct
  • what intelligent design is arguing from a gap in our current naturalistic knowledge to infer that God intervened in nature

Meyer:

  • that’s not what intelligent design is at all
  • the approach ID theorists use is the inference to best explanation
  • you evaluate all explanations, non-intelligent causes and intelligent causes
  • you prefer the best possible explanation
  • we know that minds are capable of producing information just like the information we find in DNA

Fox:

  • living cells replicate, so they have the ability to introduce mutations as they replicate and then some of those mutations can be selected
  • so maybe the process of replicating that living cells do created the first living cell
  • maybe the first living cell created itself, X brought X into being, self-creation, what’s irrational about that?

Meyer:

  • the issue is the origin of life – where did the first living cell come from?
  • you cannot appeal to the operations that a living cell can perform to explain the origin of the first living cell
  • there was no first living cell operating before the first living cell
  • there was no replication, mutation or selection before the first living cell
  • in fact, in my book I show that there is no known naturalistic mechanism that is able to produce the information needed for the first living cell
  • nothing can create itself, that is self-contradictory
Fox:
  • Well, you are just saying that because something is complex that God did it
Meyer:
  • Sadly, no. What I actually said needed to be explained was the information, not complexity
  • And we know from software engineering that the process of adding information to code is performed by programmers
  • in the absence of any adequate naturalistic explanation for information, we are justified in taking the explanation that we are familiar with – namely, intelligent agency – based on our uniform, universal experience of what causes information
Fox:
  • well, maybe we can appeal to the mutation and selection in existing living cells to explain the origin of the first living cell
  • maybe there were living cells before the first living cell, and then these other living cells created the first living cell
Meyer:
  • we can’t keep invoking mutation and selection when those processes are not operating prior to the origin of the first living cell
Fox:
  • well maybe some bare-bones self-replication molecule was a precursor to the first living cell
Meyer:
  • even to generate very limited replicator would require a large amount of information
  • the argument I am making is – where does the evolution come from?
Fox:
  • well, maybe we will think of an explanation for information that is naturalistic in 20 years
  • we’ve thought of explanations to things that were NOT information before
  • so maybe we will be able to think of something to explain information based on our ability to explain NOT information before

Moderator: Change topics: the Dover decision

Meyer:

  • the Discovery Institute opposed the policy that causes the trial
  • the wording of the statute was poor
  • the judge was completely wrong in his decision
  • young earth creationists used the phrase “intelligent design” to cover their agenda
  • intelligent design is an inference using the normal methods of science
Fox:
  • intelligent design is a science stopper because it stops looking for a naturalistic explanation
  • everything in nature must have a naturalistic explanation
  • everything has to be explained using matter and time and chance
  • it just has to be that way!!!!
Meyer:
  • well, what luck would you have explaining an effect like Mt. Rushmore?
  • can you explain that using matter,time and chance?
  • Mt. Rushmore was the product of intelligence, not wind and erosion
  • similarly, there is information in the cell, and we know that intelligence causes information
Fox:
  • So you are saying that we don’t understand and therefore an intelligence is necessary?

Meyer:

  • no I am saying we DO understand and we are making an inference based on that understanding
  • you are the one who is insisting on a material explanation because you pre-suppose materialism
  • we know that minds have causal powers, and we can infer mind as an explanation from information
Fox:
  • well nature is a seamless chain of material causes and effects
Meyer:
  • agents can act without violating the laws of nature
  • even humans can act as intelligent agents to create information in books, and they don’t violate the laws of nature
  • intelligent causes are real, and they explain effects in nature
Fox:
  • you’re trying to impose on science something to do with meaning and purpose
Meyer:
  • no that’s not what we’re doing, we’re inferring from from the fact that we ourselves are known causes of information to the fact that an intelligence cause is the best explanation for information in the cell
Fox:
  • but I am a materialist, I need a materialist explanation
Meyer:
  • mind IS an answer to the how question
  • we infer to mind in many other scientific disciplines, like cryptography, archaeology, etc.
  • a materialist might accuse an archaeologist of engaging in a “scribe-of-the-gaps” argument, but the best explanation of an artifact with information is a scribe
  • we are inferring that mind is the cause from the nature of the effect: information
Moderator: is it appropriate to call DNA “information”

Fox:

  • well DNA is just a molecular polymer, any reference to information is just by analogy
Meyer:
  • DNA is a molecular polymer, but it also exhibits the property of specified complexity
  • the arrangement of bases, which function as machine instructions in a software program, for performings task in the cell
  • we have observed that the property of specified complexity always comes from an intelligence
Fox:
  • well, maybe there are other sequences that would work, so maybe it’s really not uncommon to develop functioning sequences by chance alone, without an intelligence
Meyer:
  • you can measure how precise the functional specificity is in DNA and proteins

Moderator: is Shannon information the same as functional information

Meyer:

  • Shannon information refers to the sequences of digits or symbols that do not necessarily have any function, i.e. – a four character string QSZX has as much Shannon information as WORD. However, only the latter is functional against the pattern of the English language. There are arrangements of DNA bases and amino acids that have the same number of symbols/characters as a functional sequence would have, but they have no biological function – they do not exhibit specified complexity
Fox:
  • Well, maybe there are lots and lots of sequences of DNA and proteins so that it is fairly easy to get a functional one by chance

Meyer:

  • DNA sequences that are functional are extremely rare, protein sequences are even more rare
  • this is not my opinion, this is what the research shows – functional protein sequences are rare
Fox:
  • well maybe there are other functional sequences that are occur before the first functional sequence that are precursors to the first functional sequence
  • maybe there are billions of years of replication, mutation and selection before the first replication, mutation and selection

Meyer:

  • you can’t get to the first selectable functional sequence by appealing to precursor selectable functional sequences – there are no selectable functional sequences before the FIRST one
  • you have to get the first selectable functional sequence by chance alone, because there is nothing to mutate or select before the first replicator
  • the chance hypothesis has been rejected because the minimal amount of information for the simplest replicator is too high to get by chance alone, given the resources, including time, that are available

Moderator: Keith are you confident that naturalism will be able to substantiate these naturalism-of-the-gap speculations that you offer in response to Meyer’s actual science that we have today? 

Fox:

  • well, it is hard to know for sure because it was just a fluke event
  • but there’s nothing irrational or unscientific or miraculous about it – the fluke would have a material explanation
  • there is nothing that we can detect that would implicate God, my speculations about a fluke which I cannot observe or measure or test would all be compatible with an atheistic worldview that omits God as a causal entity

Meyer:

  • where are those material processes that could account for this fluke then?
  • the whole point of this argument is that the information in DNA transcends the material components in the sequence
  • it’s the arrangement of the material parts/letters/characters/symbols/instructions that needs to be explained
Fox:
  • Well, I just have a different philosophy of science that rules out intelligent causation a priori

Meyer:

  • Yes, that’s the difference between us – you pre-suppose that all explanations of natural phenomena must exclude intelligent causes

There is a bit more where Meyer talks about how parts of the cell are implementations of various design patterns (Gang of Four design patterns) that are used by software architects who design software.

Find more posts on Stephen C. Meyer here.

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Will robots and machines ever have consciousness like humans?

There is a very famous thought experiment from UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle that all Christian apologists should know about. And now everyone who reads the Wall Street Journal knows about it, because of this article.

In that article, Searle is writing about the IBM computer that was programmed to play Jeopardy. Can a robot who wins on Jeopardy be “human”?Searle says no. And his famous Chinese room example (discussed in the article) explains why.

Excerpt:

Imagine that a person—me, for example—knows no Chinese and is locked in a room with boxes full of Chinese symbols and an instruction book written in English for manipulating the symbols. Unknown to me, the boxes are called “the database” and the instruction book is called “the program.” I am called “the computer.”

People outside the room pass in bunches of Chinese symbols that, unknown to me, are questions. I look up in the instruction book what I am supposed to do and I give back answers in Chinese symbols.

Suppose I get so good at shuffling the symbols and passing out the answers that my answers are indistinguishable from a native Chinese speaker’s. I give every indication of understanding the language despite the fact that I actually don’t understand a word of Chinese.

And if I do not, neither does any digital computer, because no computer, qua computer, has anything I do not have. It has stocks of symbols, rules for manipulating symbols, a system that allows it to rapidly transition from zeros to ones, and the ability to process inputs and outputs. That is it. There is nothing else.

Here is a link to the full article by John Searle on the Chinese room illustration.

By the way, Searle is a naturalist – not a theist, not a Christian. But he does oppose postmodernism. So he isn’t all bad. But let’s hear from a Christian scholar who can make more sense of this for us.

Here’s a related article on “strong AI” by Christian philosopher Jay Richards.

Excerpt:

Popular discussions of AI often suggest that if you keep increasing weak AI, at some point, you’ll get strong AI. That is, if you get enough computation, you’ll eventually get consciousness.

The reasoning goes something like this: There will be a moment at which a computer will be indistinguishable from a human intelligent agent in a blind test. At that point, we will have intelligent, conscious machines.

This does not follow. A computer may pass the Turing test, but that doesn’t mean that it will actually be a self-conscious, free agent.

The point seems obvious, but we can easily be beguiled by the way we speak of computers: We talk about computers learning, making mistakes, becoming more intelligent, and so forth. We need to remember that we are speaking metaphorically.

We can also be led astray by unexamined metaphysical assumptions. If we’re just computers made of meat, and we happened to become conscious at some point, what’s to stop computers from doing the same? That makes sense if you accept the premise—as many AI researchers do. If you don’t accept the premise, though, you don’t have to accept the conclusion.

In fact, there’s no good reason to assume that consciousness and agency emerge by accident at some threshold of speed and computational power in computers. We know by introspection that we are conscious, free beings—though we really don’t know how this works. So we naturally attribute consciousness to other humans. We also know generally what’s going on inside a computer, since we build them, and it has nothing to do with consciousness. It’s quite likely that consciousness is qualitatively different from the type of computation that we have developed in computers (as the “Chinese Room” argument, by philosopher John Searle, seems to show). Remember that, and you’ll suffer less anxiety as computers become more powerful.

Even if computer technology provides accelerating returns for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t follow that we’ll be replacing ourselves anytime soon. AI enthusiasts often make highly simplistic assumptions about human nature and biology. Rather than marveling at the ways in which computation illuminates our understanding of the microscopic biological world, many treat biological systems as nothing but clunky, soon-to-be-obsolete conglomerations of hardware and software. Fanciful speculations about uploading ourselves onto the Internet and transcending our biology rest on these simplistic assumptions. This is a common philosophical blind spot in the AI community, but it’s not a danger of AI research itself, which primarily involves programming and computers.

AI researchers often mix topics from different disciplines—biology, physics, computer science, robotics—and this causes critics to do the same. For instance, many critics worry that AI research leads inevitably to tampering with human nature. But different types of research raise different concerns. There are serious ethical questions when we’re dealing with human cloning and research that destroys human embryos. But AI research in itself does not raise these concerns. It normally involves computers, machines, and programming. While all technology raises ethical issues, we should be less worried about AI research—which has many benign applications—than research that treats human life as a means rather than an end.

When I am playing a game on the computer, I know exactly why what I am doing is fun – I am conscious of it. But the computer has no idea what I am doing. It is just matter in motion, acting on it’s programming and the inputs I supply to it. And that’s all computers will ever do. Trust me, this is my field. I have the BS and MS in computer science, and I have studied this area. AI has applications for machine learning and search problems, but consciousness is not on the radar. You can’t get there from here.

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