Monday, September 17, 2007

Thought Experiment


This post--ultraconserved-DNA describes an interesting subset of DNA research. There are sections of human DNA that are identical ("ultra-conserved") with a wide spectrum of animals (e.g. mice, rats). Scientists speculate that these sections are mission critical, and that any mutation in these areas would kill the host or the offspring and hence not pass on the mutation. The first pass attempt to verify this hypothesis failed miserably--mice with these sections deleted appear to do just fine.

I'm sure we will eventually get a good scientific explanation why this DNA is "ultra-conserved".

My thought experiment -- what if scientists discovered that encoded in the DNA of these sections were Hebrew passages from the book of Genesis that matched our best reconstructions of the original text. How would you incorporate that scientific discovery (after verification of course) into your belief system?

6 comments:

Vance said...

Before posting this blog entry I had a email conversation with my friend John on this thought experiment. He gave me permission to post his responses.
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Vance,

Well, after I (and several million other non-believers) picked up my jaw from the floor, I'd certainly have to concede that some intelligence had designed the universe and had (obviously) provided the text of the DNA to the Hebrews to be included in the Bible.

(Or, maybe those ancient Hebrews were so smart that THEY injected the text into the DNA thousands of years ago or maybe modern day Jews, as part of the "Jewish Conspiracy", slipped it in shortly after DNA was discovered! ... nah, I'm not going to head down that path)

Ultimately, the Judeo-Christian theists will call this intelligence "God" and the atheists will call this intelligence "The Intelligence" (although I'm partial to "The Creator" but it has too many religious overtones to stick. Maybe "The Creator" is still too big. Perhaps this intelligence WAS the intelligence that led the Israelis out of the desert and at THAT time modified the DNA as a sign of its knowledge).

Would the atheists be swayed in any way depending on which (all?) passages were encoded? Suppose that you could choose only one paragraph from Genesis to sway the atheists; which would you chose?

I think in the end, the atheists could still stand up with a clear conscience and suggest that this encoding remains a ruse, a little inside joke, perhaps a test that The Intelligence made to see how the species would react. Having this clear proof that some other intelligence exists (or maybe existed) in the universe might cause a redoubling of the effort to contact this intelligence, but atheists would seek scientific methods to affect this contact while the Judeo-Christian theists already know that prayer is the medium.

I don't know what the Hindus will think about the whole affair …

JK

Vance said...

Hi John,
Two responses, and one managed to be a conspiracy theory! Of course you're right, a master alien race giving earth a little DNA sculpturing and a riddle when earth evolution needed a jump start would also be a plausible theory except how could they know what the written version of the Bible would end up being? Must they have time travel too? Pick up a copy of the Hebrew Bible at Barnes & Noble and rush back to 60 million BC to do some DNA hacks? These aliens clearly have too much time on their hands (tentacles?).

With regards to which passage, it wasn't clear how big the ultra-conserved stretches are. I saw a 2 megabase number, which would enable all of Genesis to be included, but if I had to pick one paragraph I would go for Gen 3:1-7. I'm not sure if it would sway any additional people, but I think the introduction of good and evil and the fall is pretty important.

- Vance

Vance said...

John's response:

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Vance,

Your thought experiment and incredulous reply to my reply has really triggered some deep (?) thinking on my part. Any reasonable person would think it ludicrous for me to not believe in God if your thought experiment did happen. And yet, I'm going to remain ludicrous.

Would I believe that the God of the Old Testament exists if Hebrew text of Genesis was written into Earth's DNA?

No.

Let's take the thought experiment further, what the hell. Would I believe that the God of the Old Testament exists if "He" came down in a fiery chariot and revealed himself to the planet and passed any/every test Earthlings could devise to prove that this entity really was God? I mean, how could I NOT believe this? What if Jesus popped in and we were all allowed to get in line and put our hand into the wound where the spear pierced his heart? All doubting Thomases to the front of the line!!! Would I believe in Jesus after doing that?

No.

How can I possibly answer "No" in the face of all of this evidence to the contrary?

Because, in spite of the correlation with The Bible and our general agreement that these events did take place, it is still possible that the explanation for these events is ... wrong. Wasn't it Arthur C. Clarke who said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."? You aren't a big fan of the exponential curve of knowledge that Kurzweil is promoting, but it's pretty easy to look back at our past and extrapolate 100,000 years into the future and surmise that we will have technology which makes our current technology seem extremely primitive. Grant an alien race another order of magnitude or two of existence and we are into some serious "magic".

So, isn't it possible that a sufficiently advanced race could do everything (and more) that the Judeo Christian God could do? Isn't it possible that the aliens read the Bible and decided to visit us in the guise of "God", fiery chariots and all? Isn't it possible that if the Judeo Christian God could manipulate DNA, the advanced alien race could, too? Couldn't an advanced alien race shape the environment such that when language finally developed, they influenced the structure of Hebrew? Couldn't the aliens have created Hebrew? Couldn't the aliens just have given the Genesis to the Hebrews ... someone had to write it: how 'bout an alien posing as a Hebrew?

While this seems far fetched (and a classic "aliens among" us hypothesis!) , I guess it's not too far fetched that some entity, living outside of time, can so accurately predict the workings of a causal system (I won't even discuss the impact of free will on this discussion ..) as big as the universe so that it will know things like: mankind will evolve, mankind will create Hebrew as its language, the Bible will be written in Hebrew, specific Hebrew words will be arranged to create Genesis. The reason it's not so far fetched is it starts with a tautology that, evidently, you don't consider is far fetched: God is omniscient. We don't have any experience of omniscients in our lives, but I guess it's not too far fetched to assume some other entity is omniscient.

If you get to use an omniscient God as the explanation for your thought experiment, I should be allowed to use an advanced race as the explanation for your thought experiment. Both explanations seem pretty far fetched to me ...

So, even if all of these things DID come to fruition in the near future, I think the explanation for these hypothetical events is still built on a set of unprovable assumptions. Faith.

I've also been thinking about this idea: maybe the Judeo Christian God (and maybe all the Gods of the human race ...) is actually the alien who created this universe. Would that make being a Christian any different, knowing that the creator is really "just" an alien?

Maybe the true test for achieving eternal life is being a skeptic.

Hopefully these discussions are improving your faith. I know, ironically, it has improved mine.

JK

Vance said...

Hi John,
Actually I was not incredulous with your response. My hypothesis is that even with this sort of Genesis-DNA style discovery there would be reasonable/rational people that would choose alternative explanations (in any event, it's hard to imagine Richard Dawkins saying, "Gee--I guess I was wrong").
Clearly the Intelligent Design proponents would love a discovery of this sort that would force the scientific community into belief or non-naturalistic explanations.

Returning to our current reality, I'm betting the ID folks will be disappointed and faced with an ongoing defensive battle. I predict the next 20 years will not be kind to them.
This likely leaves the born-again Christian community with a tough decision, either face an ever increasing gap between their beliefs and generally accepted science (the Islamic model), or accept that they are stuck with just faith, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" Hebrews 11:1. It is one thing to have awe of the creation; it is another thing entirely to prove the Creator.

- Vance

Micah Tillman said...

*laugh* That would be awesome. You're writing the screenplay now, I hope!

Vance said...

Sorry Micah, not planning on writing the screen play. I find that I run out of gas on almost any topic after about a 1000 words. I'll sell the rights cheap... It is fun to speculate on how the world would react to a discovery like this. The blogosphere would really light up.