Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Meditations on an eyeball: Part 3 --God in the Gaps?

Please read Parts 1 & 2 first meditations-on-eyeball-part-1

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that our God should not be the “God in the gaps”. Historically evoking God to explain the things that science can’t explain is a losing proposition—usually if you wait long enough science comes up with a credible answer. My grandparents grew up in an era when science couldn’t explain how the sun worked. I grew up in an era that couldn’t explain quasars. My kids have grown up in an era that can’t explain why the spiral arms in most galaxies, including the Milky Way rotate faster than scientists expected.

Astrophysicists theorize this phenomenon is due to “dark matter”, but it might as well be pixie dust for all they can say about it right now. I'm sure this gap in knowledge will be filled in the future. In a similar fashion science cannot explain much about living things now, but I suspect that will change too. Bonhoeffer states that God should be at the center of a Christian’s existence, not relegated to the fringes that science can’t currently explain. After all, Jesus did say that He was “The Way, the Truth, and the Life”

God avoids being seen in the astrophysicist’s telescope. It seems reasonable to me that God caused the “Big Bang” beginning of our universe to happen, but the mysteries of that event are well hidden by 14 billion years of elapsed time. Likewise, I don’t think God is going to be caught under the biologist’s microscope or DNA analysis. As we unravel the mysteries of life I predict we won’t expose the “Intelligent Designer”—instead we will uncover even deeper mysteries.

The Bible makes it clear that God did not just start things and wander off. He interacts with people, He challenges them, and He changed the whole fabric of our existence with His Son—but he does this in the spiritual realm. The spiritual realm is orthogonal to the infrastructure that physics and biology provide. Physics and biology provide the structure of God's creation, but the spiritual world provides its meaning.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Meditations on an eyeball: Part 2 --Why not a finger snap?

(please read "part 1" first, or this won't make much sense). meditations-on-eyeball-part-1

While I was contemplating the mysteries of jellyfish eyeballs another question came to mind. Why did God take 6 "days" to finish the creation? Why not put in place all at once with a snap of His fingers?

I don’t think it was because of lack of power. I think God could have created the universe in an instant—complete with red-shifted photons in transit from distant galaxies. But He chose not to--at least according to Genesis. It seems that something fundamental to God’s plan or His nature caused Him to go the stepwise creation route. God, as described in the Bible is does not seem to be the "start it and let it run" type. He interacts with us; he intervenes with miracles, He chooses, and He has saved us.

Today it feels like there is a stark difference between our understandings of the world's physics vs. the world of living things. Today’s physics provides the framework that everything else needs to exist. That framework, according to what most scientists believe now, with the "Standard Model", was established in the first few microseconds of the Big Bang. But the beginning and maturation of life on earth does not feel like something that was inherently established in the beginning of things. Our present understanding of physics does not explain everything, but it certainly explains everything we can interact with on a day-to-day basis.

Comparatively, our understanding of living things is at the stone knives & axes level. In drug development for example, we are just now starting to develop the ability to tailor drugs for specific tasks, rather than just creating lots of chemicals and trying them out to see if they have any useful effects. When we sequence chromosomes and look at the details it looks more like a train wreck than a designed solution.

Up until this point I had felt that it was highly contrived to suggest that the mind-numbing complexity of life spontaneously developed. With our early 21st century science we can barely explain sections of what is going on with life, much less brew it up in a test tube. Even photosynthesis, which all life directly or indirectly depends, is not understood or reproducible.

Part 3

Meditations on an eyeball: Part 1 -- If I only had a brain...

A few years ago I read an article in "Nature" about jellyfish eyes. I didn't even know they had eyes, but I learned that this particular type of jellyfish (Cubozoans) not only has eyes, they have twenty-four of them. While this particular species of jellyfish is well equipped with eyes there is one significant gap in their overall setup—there is no brain to use the eyes! The scientists involved with the study were pretty confident that these jellyfish manage to do something useful with these eyes other than actually look at things, but that is not the main point of their paper.

What surprised the scientists was not the quantity of eyes, but rather that some of the eyes are damn good ones. Specifically the lenses of the upper eyes are structured to support “well-corrected, aberration-free imaging, otherwise known only from the much larger eyes of vertebrates and cephalopods. The gradient in the upper eye lenses comes very close to the ideal solution.” Screwing this all up, even before we get to the brain part, is the fact the jellyfish retina for these eyes is located out of focus with respect to these well-corrected lenses. The perfectly formed image that the eye forms is out of focus by the time it reaches the retina. In the article the scientists go on to speculate how this setup is useful to the jellyfish.

My initial reaction to this section of the paper was to think how absurd it seems that this setup would evolve. What possible natural selection mechanisms would evolve a perfect eye in an organism with no brain to use it and then degrade it to boot? My friend John suggested that at one time the jellyfish might have had a brain and then lost it, but a brain does seem like overkill for a jellyfish. It seemed much more likely to me that this is just another example of God as the intelligent designer that re-used designs from other animals, and simplified them as appropriate. This would be analogous to using a GPS receiver/processor as the speedometer mechanism on a car—it’s overkill, but it would do the job.

Subsequent thoughts were more confused. Why would God be concerned about reusing designs? Why not use an optimized design for each organism? It is not like He has project deadlines to meet (running short of time on day 4?) , a lack of energy, or a crabby boss to appease. Is this jellyfish an example of intelligent design, or perhaps something way subtler?

Part 2

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

My mid-life crisis

Recently Nancy and I were talking about a man we know that appears be going through a mid-life crisis. Somewhat jokingly I said I was past my mid-life crisis. Nancy asked what my crisis had been (no motorcycle, sports car, or mistress being in evidence). Not being prepared for this question I flippantly replied that my mid-life crisis had been one of "existential despair". In retrospect, I think that was the truth. God has stripped away many of the world oriented things that I wanted to achieve in my life: to be a high level manager, be a rich investor, be a published writer. I still fantasize about being the scientific wizard, but that is pretty ridiculous. The bottom line, which has not been easy for me to find and accept is that I live in the moment to obey God's Will and His Word.

While I think it is certainly important to have plans and directions in our lives, fundamentally our lives should come down to these three things: loving God, doing justice, and walking humbly before the Lord (Micah 6:8). None of these things can be done "out of the moment"--they are intended to be the present tense attributes of our lives. The state of our existence can change (or end) in an instant. For us to pretend and/or expect that life will have a steady course or state (e.g. to be "happy") seems naive and inconsistent with God's calling and promises for us. Life is a sequence of choices--and there is always a best way. Jesus is the way, and he cannot be reduced to a formula, or a list of rules. He guides us everyday to choose good -- we "only" have to obey.