Tag Archives: Science

Why is the universe so big, and why is so much of it hostile to life?

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

Review: In case you need a refresher on the cosmological and fine-tuning arguments, as presented by a professor of particle physics at Stanford University, then click this link and watch the lecture.

If you already know about the standard arguments for theism from cosmology, then take a look at this post on Uncommon Descent.

Summary:

In my previous post, I highlighted three common atheistic objections to to the cosmological fine-tuning argument. In that post, I made no attempt to answer these objections. My aim was simply to show that the objections were weak and inconclusive.

Let’s go back to the original three objections:

1. If the universe was designed to support life, then why does it have to be so BIG, and why is it nearly everywhere hostile to life? Why are there so many stars, and why are so few orbited by life-bearing planets? (Let’s call this the size problem.)

2. If the universe was designed to support life, then why does it have to be so OLD, and why was it devoid of life throughout most of its history? For instance, why did life on Earth only appear after 70% of the cosmos’s 13.7-billion-year history had already elapsed? And Why did human beings (genus Homo) only appear after 99.98% of the cosmos’s 13.7-billion-year history had already elapsed? (Let’s call this the age problem.)

3. If the universe was designed to support life, then why does Nature have to be so CRUEL? Why did so many animals have to die – and why did so many species of animals have to go extinct (99% is the commonly quoted figure), in order to generate the world as we see it today? What a waste! And what about predation, parasitism, and animals that engage in practices such as serial murder and infant cannibalism? (Let’s call this the death and suffering problem.)

Here’s an excerpt for the size argument:

(a) The main reason why the universe is as big as it currently is that in the first place, the universe had to contain sufficient matter to form galaxies and stars, without which life would not have appeared; and in the second place, the density of matter in the cosmos is incredibly fine-tuned, due to the fine-tuning of gravity. To appreciate this point, let’s go back to the earliest time in the history of the cosmos that we can meaningfully talk about: the Planck time, when the universe was 10^-43 seconds old. If the density of matter at the Planck time had differed from the critical density by as little as one part in 10^60, the universe would have either exploded so rapidly that galaxies wouldn’t have formed, or collapsed so quickly that life would never have appeared. In practical terms: if our universe, which contains 10^80 protons and neutrons, had even one more grain of sand in it – or one grain less – we wouldn’t be here.

If you mess with the size of the universe, you screw up the mass density fine-tuning. We need that to have a universe that expands at the right speed in order for the matter to clump together to form galaxies, stars and planets. Too fast, and you get no clumping. Too slow, and the whole thing re-collapses into a hot fireball. You need stars and planets to have a place to form life – a place with liquid water at the surface, and more.

And an excerpt for the age argument:

(a) One reason why we need an old universe is that billions of years were required for Population I stars (such as our sun) to evolve. These stars are more likely to harbor planets such as our Earth, because they contain lots of “metals” (astronomer-speak for elements heavier than helium), produced by the supernovae of the previous generation of Population II stars. According to currently accepted models of Big Bang nucleosynthesis, this whole process was absolutely vital, because the Big Bang doesn’t make enough “metals”, including those necessary for life: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and so on.

Basically, you need heavy elements to make stars that burn slow and steady, as well as to make PEOPLE! And heavy elements have to be built up slowly through several iterations of the stellar lifecycle, including the right kinds of stellar death: supernovae.

Read the rest! These arguments come up all the time in debates with village atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. It’s a smokescreen they put up, but you’ve got to be able to answer it using the scientific evidence we have today. They always want to dismiss God with their personal preferences about what God should or should not do. But the real issue is the design of the cosmological constants that allow life to anywhere. That’s the part that’s designed. And that’s not a matter of personal preference, it’s a matter of mathematics and experimental science.

What got me started on apologetics? William Lane Craig debate transcripts

William Lane Craig lecturing to university students
William Lane Craig lecturing to university students

Yes, William Lane Craig debate transcripts. In fact, I still read them from time to time to keep up my skills.

Here’s one of my favorites, the Craig-Nielsen debate on grounding morality without God

Summary:

THE CRAIG-NIELSEN DEBATE: GOD, MORALITY, AND EVIL
William Lane Craig and Kai Nielsen
with annotations by William Lane Craig
February 1991, University of Western Ontario

Best part:

Finally, he raises the issue of immortality and says, “Death doesn’t undermine moral values. In fact, things that we value become all the more precious.” Well, in one sense he’s right. It’s the absence of God that undermines the objectivity of moral values, not death. But let’s suppose that there are objective moral values. What would be undermined by the lack of immortality? I think two things.

First, I think there would be no reason to adopt the moral point of view. Since you’re going to die, everyone ends up the same. It doesn’t make any difference whether you live as a Hitler or a Mother Teresa. There is no relationship between your moral living and your ultimate fate. And so in that sense, death undermines the reason for adopting the moral point of view rather that just being an egoist and living for self.

Second, there’s no basis for self-sacrifice on this point of view. Why should an atheist, who knows everything is going to end in death, do things that are morally right that go against self-interest? For example, a few years ago there was a terrible mid-winter air disaster in Washington, DC, as a plane crashed into a bridge spanning the Potomac River, spilling its passengers into the icy waters. And as the helicopters came to rescue these people, attention focused on one man who again and again passed by the rope ladder rather than be pulled to safety himself. Seven times he did this, and when they came again, he was gone. The whole nation turned its eyes to this man in respect and admiration for the noble act of self-sacrifice that he did. And yet on the atheistic view, that man wasn’t noble. He did the stupidest thing possible. He should have gone for the rope ladder first, pushed others away, if necessary, in order to survive! But to give up all the brief existence he will ever have for others he didn’t even know? Why? It seems to me, then, that it’s not simply the absence of God that undermines objective moral values, but ethical living is also undermined by the atheistic point of view because you then have no reason to adopt the moral point of view and you have no basis for acts of self-sacrifice.

By contrast, on the Christian view, where you have both God and immortality, you have the necessary presuppositions for the affirmation of objective moral values and for consistent living of the ethical life.

And another of my favorites, the Craig-Taylor debate on the ontological grounding of morality.

Summary:

Is The Basis Of Morality Natural Or Supernatural?
Richard Taylor and William Lane Craig
October 1993, Union College, Schenectady, New York

Sample Craig:

(2) I argued that moral accountability also exists under the supernaturalist view, and Professor Taylor didn’t deny the point.

(II) What about my critique, then, of naturalism? I said that naturalism doesn’t provide a sound foundation for morality, and here I made two points:

(1) On the naturalist view, objective right and wrong do not exist. Again, Professor Taylor doesn’t deny this point; he just says, “Well, to say that they’re conventional doesn’t mean they’re contemptible.” Well, granted; but it does mean they’re arbitrary, they’re non–objective. There’s no more difference between moral right and wrong than driving on the right–hand side of the road versus the left–hand side of the road. It’s simply a societal convention. And the modern evolutionist thinks these conventions are just based in socio–biological evolution. According to Michael Ruse, a professor of the philosophy of science,

The position of the modern evolutionist…is that humans have an awareness of morality…because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation, no less than are hands and feet and teeth…. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, [ethics] is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves…. Nevertheless…such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction and…any deeper meaning is illusory….{26}

This is essentially the same view as Professor Taylor’s. Moral values are simply rooted in socio–biological evolution, that have passed down as certain taboos and certain commands, but they have no objective validity in terms of their moral rightness or wrongness. Professor Taylor says, “But I have a high regard for people who are truly moral and decent.” I don’t deny that. Of course he does! But the point is that in his ethics, in his philosophy, he has no basis for that affirmation. What I bring is not a new set of values—I think we pretty much hold those in common—but I’m offering a secure foundation for those values that we all want to hold dear.

You see, on Professor Taylor’s view, there really isn’t any objective morality. I think every one of us here tonight would agree that it’s wrong to kill babies and that the holocaust was morally wrong. But in his book Professor Taylor says, “The infanticide practiced by the Greeks of antiquity did not violate their customs. If we say it was nevertheless wrong, we are only saying that it is forbidden by our ethical and legal rules. And the abominations practiced by the Nazis…are forbidden by our rules, and not, obviously, by theirs.”{27} I submit that that is simply a patently false view of moral values and that naturalism, therefore, can’t provide any objective basis for right and wrong.

And another of my favorites, the Craig-Tooley debate on the problem of evil.

Summary:

A Classic Debate on the Existence of God
Dr. William Lane Craig & Dr. Michael Tooley
November 1994, University of Colorado at Boulder

Sample Craig:

(2) Christian doctrines increase the probability of the coexistence of God and the evils in the world. Let me just mention a couple of these.

(i) On the Christian view, the purpose of life is not happiness as such in this life. Rather it is the knowledge of God—which will ultimately produce true and everlasting happiness. What that means is that many evils occur in this life which might be utterly pointless with respect to producing human happiness. But they might not be pointless with respect to producing the knowledge of God. Dr. Tooley assumes when he talks about changes that would make this world a better place, that the purpose of life is basically to be happy in this life. And I certainly admit that you could make changes that might appear to make this life a better place, make it happier. But that’s not God’s purpose. So if you understand that the purpose of life is not happiness as such, I think that you can see that the existence of evil doesn’t necessarily cast any improbability upon God’s existence.

(ii) It’s also the Christian view that God’s purpose spills over into eternal life. In the afterlife God will bestow a glory and happiness upon us that is incomparable to what we’ve suffered here on earth. And the longer we spend in eternity with Him, the more the sufferings in this life shrink by comparison to an infinitesimal instant. Dr. Tooley admits in his article that it is possible that immortality could justify such evils. But, he says, it’s “very unlikely” that there is life after death. Well, I have two comments. First, I’d like him to prove that it’s unlikely that there is life after death.{26} Second, I suggest that the resurrection of Jesus gives us grounds for hoping in life after death, and I’ve attempted to justify that historically. So given these Christian doctrines, I think you can see that the existence of God and evil is not so improbable after all.

[…]

(4) Finally, I think that there is actually an argument for God from evil. It would go like this:

(i) If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. If there is no God, moral values are either socio-biological by-products or just expressions of personal preference.

(ii) Evil exists. That’s the premise of the atheist. There is real evil in the world.

(iii) Therefore, objective values do exist. Some things are really wrong.

(iv) Therefore, God exists.

Thus the presence of evil in the world actually demonstrates God’s existence because in the absence of God, there wouldn’t be any distinction objectively between good and evil, between right and wrong. So although evil in one sense calls into question God’s existence, in a much deeper sense, I think, it actually requires God’s existence.

So in the light of these four responses, I think that the argument from evil, as difficult and emotionally pressing as it might be, in the end doesn’t constitute a good argument against the existence of God. So I think the four arguments given against the existence of God by Dr. Tooley are inconclusive. You’ve still got my six arguments for God’s existence, and therefore I still think that on balance the evidence favors theism as the more rational worldview.

There are more debate transcripts on Craig’s Reasonable Faith web site.

John C. Sanford’s genetic entropy hypothesis

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

JoeCoder sent me a recent peer-reviewed paper by John C. Sanford, so I’ve been trying to find something written by him at a layman’s level so I could understand what he is talking about.

Dr. Sanford’s CV is posted at the Cornell University web page.

I found this 20-minute video of an interview with him, in which he explains his thesis:

The most important part of that video is Sanford’s assertion that natural selection cannot remove deleterious mutations from a population faster than they arrive.

And I also found a review of a book that he wrote that explains his ideas at the layman level.

It says:

Dr. John Sanford is a plant geneticist and inventor who conducted research at Cornell University for more than 25 years. He is best known for significant contributions to the field of transgenic crops, including the invention of the biolistic process (“gene gun”).

[…]Sanford argues that, based upon modern scientific evidence and the calculations of population geneticists (who are almost exclusively evolutionists), mutations are occurring at an alarmingly high rate in our genome and that the vast majority of all mutations are either harmful or “nearly-neutral” (meaning a loss for the organism or having no discernible fitness gain). Importantly, Sanford also establishes the extreme rarity of any type of beneficial mutations in comparison with harmful or “nearly-neutral” mutations. Indeed, “beneficial” mutations are so exceedingly rare as to not contribute in any meaningful way. [NOTE: “Beneficial” mutations do not necessarily result from a gain in information, but instead, these changes predominantly involve a net loss of function to the organism, which is also not helpful to [Darwinism]; see Behe, 2010, pp. 419-445.] Sanford concludes that the frequency and generally harmful or neutral nature of mutations prevents them from being useful to any scheme of random evolution.

[…]In the next section of the book, Sanford examines natural selection and asks whether “nature” can “select” in favor of the exceedingly rare “beneficial” mutations and against the deleterious mutations. The concept of natural selection is generally that the organisms that are best adapted to their environment will survive and reproduce, while the less fit will not. Sanford points out that this may be the case with some organisms, but more commonly, selection involves chance and luck. But could this process select against harmful mutations and allow less harmful or even beneficial mutations to thrive? According to Sanford, there are significant challenges to this notion.

Stanford is a co-author of an academic book on these issues that has Dembski and Behe as co-authors.

Now, I do have to post something more complicated about this, which you can skip – it’s an abstract of a paper he co-authored from that book:

Most deleterious mutations have very slight effects on total fitness, and it has become clear that below a certain fitness effect threshold, such low-impact mutations fail to respond to natural selection. The existence of such a selection threshold suggests that many low-impact deleterious mutations should accumulate continuously, resulting in relentless erosion of genetic information. In this paper, we use numerical simulation to examine this problem of selection threshold.

The objective of this research was to investigate the effect of various biological factors individually and jointly on mutation accumulation in a model human population. For this purpose, we used a recently-developed, biologically-realistic numerical simulation program, Mendel’s Accountant. This program introduces new mutations into the population every generation and tracks each mutation through the processes of recombination, gamete formation, mating, and transmission to the new offspring. This method tracks which individuals survive to reproduce after selection, and records the transmission of each surviving mutation every generation. This allows a detailed mechanistic accounting of each mutation that enters and leaves the population over the course of many generations. We term this type of analysis genetic accounting.

Across all reasonable parameters settings, we observed that high impact mutations were selected away with very high efficiency, while very low impact mutations accumulated just as if there was no selection operating. There was always a large transitional zone, wherein mutations with intermediate fitness effects accumulated continuously, but at a lower rate than would occur in the absence of selection. To characterize the accumulation of mutations of different fitness effect we developed a new statistic, selection threshold (STd), which is an empirically determined value for a given population. A population’s selection threshold is defined as that fitness effect wherein deleterious mutations are accumulating at exactly half the rate expected in the absence of selection. This threshold is mid-way between entirely selectable, and entirely unselectable, mutation effects.

Our investigations reveal that under a very wide range of parameter values, selection thresholds for deleterious mutations are surprisingly high. Our analyses of the selection threshold problem indicate that given even modest levels of noise affecting either the genotype-phenotype relationship or the genotypic fitness-survival-reproduction relationship, accumulation of low-impact mutations continually degrades fitness, and this degradation is far more serious than has been previously acknowledged. Simulations based on recently published values for mutation rate and effect-distribution in humans show a steady decline in fitness that is not even halted by extremely intense selection pressure (12 offspring per female, 10 selectively removed). Indeed, we find that under most realistic circumstances, the large majority of harmful mutations are essentially unaffected by natural selection and continue to accumulate unhindered. This finding has major theoretical implications and raises the question, “What mechanism can preserve the many low-impact nucleotide positions that constitute most of the information within a genome?”

Now I have been told by JoeCoder that there are many critical responses to his hypothesis, most of which have to do with whether natural selection can overcome the difficulty he is laying out. But since this is not my area of expertise, there is not much I can say to adjudicate here. Take it for what it is.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

Stephen C. Meyer and Marcus Ross lecture on the Cambrian explosion

Cambrian Explosion
Cambrian Explosion

Access Research Network is a group that produces recordings  of lectures and debates related to intelligent design. I noticed that on their Youtube channel they are releasing some of their older lectures and debates for FREE. So I decided to write a summary of one that I really like on the Cambrian explosion. This lecture features Dr. Stephen C. Meyer and Dr. Marcus Ross.

The lecture is about two hours. There are really nice slides with lots of illustrations to help you understand what the speakers are saying, even if you are not a scientist.

Here is a summary of the lecture from ARN:

The Cambrian explosion is a term often heard in origins debates, but seldom completely understood by the non-specialist. This lecture by Meyer and Ross is one of the best overviews available on the topic and clearly presents in verbal and pictorial summary the latest fossil data (including the recent finds from Chengjiang China). This lecture is based on a paper recently published by Meyer, Ross, Nelson and Chien “The Cambrian Explosion: Biology’s Big Bang” in Darwinism, Design and Public Education(2003, Michigan State University Press). This 80-page article includes 127 references and the book includes two additional appendices with 63 references documenting the current state of knowledge on the Cambrian explosion data.

The term Cambrian explosion describes the geologically sudden appearance of animals in the fossil record during the Cambrian period of geologic time. During this event, at least nineteen, and perhaps as many as thirty-five (of forty total) phyla made their first appearance on earth. Phyla constitute the highest biological categories in the animal kingdom, with each phylum exhibiting a unique architecture, blueprint, or structural body plan. The word explosion is used to communicate that fact that these life forms appear in an exceedingly narrow window of geologic time (no more than 5 million years). If the standard earth’s history is represented as a 100 yard football field, the Cambrian explosion would represent a four inch section of that field.

For a majority of earth’s life forms to appear so abruptly is completely contrary to the predictions of Neo-Darwinian and Punctuated Equilibrium evolutionary theory, including:

  • the gradual emergence of biological complexity and the existence of numerous transitional forms leading to new phylum-level body plans;
  • small-scale morphological diversity preceding the emergence of large-scale morphological disparity; and
  • a steady increase in the morphological distance between organic forms over time and, consequently, an overall steady increase in the number of phyla over time (taking into account factors such as extinction).

After reviewing how the evidence is completely contrary to evolutionary predictions, Meyer and Ross address three common objections: 1) the artifact hypothesis: Is the Cambrian explosion real?; 2) The Vendian Radiation (a late pre-Cambrian multicellular organism); and 3) the deep divergence hypothesis.

Finally Meyer and Ross argue why design is a better scientific explanation for the Cambrian explosion. They argue that this is not an argument from ignorance, but rather the best explanation of the evidence from our knowledge base of the world. We find in the fossil record distinctive features or hallmarks of designed systems, including:

  • a quantum or discontinuous increase in specified complexity or information
  • a top-down pattern of scale diversity
  • the persistence of structural (or “morphological”) disparities between separate organizational systems; and
  • the discrete or novel organizational body plans

When we encounter objects that manifest any of these several features and we know how they arose, we invariably find that a purposeful agent or intelligent designer played a causal role in their origin.

Recorded April 24, 2004. Approximately 2 hours including audience Q&A.

You can get a DVD of the lecture and other great lectures from Access Research Network. I recommend their origin of life lectures – I have watched the ones with Dean Kenyon and Charles Thaxton probably a dozen times each. Speaking as an engineer, you never get tired of seeing engineering principles applied to questions like the origin of life.

If you’d like to see Dr. Meyer defend his views in a debate with someone who reviewed his book about the Cambrian explosion, you can find that in this previous post.

Further study

The Cambrian explosion lecture above is a great intermediate-level lecture and will prepare you to be able to understand Dr. Meyer’s new book “Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design“. The Michigan State University book that Dr. Meyer mentions is called “Darwin, Design and Public Education“. That book is one of the two good collections on intelligent design published by academic university presses, the other one being from Cambridge University Press, and titled “Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA“. If you think this lecture is above your level of understanding, then be sure and check out the shorter and more up-to-date DVD “Darwin’s Dilemma“.

How the WMAP satellite confirmed nucleosynthesis predictions and falsified atheism

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

Prior to certain scientific discoveries, most people thought that the universe had always been here, and no need to ask who or what may have caused it. But today, that’s all changed. Today, the standard model of the origin of the universe is that all the matter and energy in the universe came into being in an event scientists call “The Big Bang”. At the creation event, space and time themselves began to exist, and there is no material reality that preceded them.

So a couple of quotes to show that.

An initial cosmological singularity… forms a past temporal extremity to the universe. We cannot continue physical reasoning, or even the concept of spacetime, through such an extremity… On this view the big bang represents the creation event; the creation not only of all the matter and energy in the universe, but also of spacetime itself.

Source: P. C. W. Davies, “Spacetime Singularities in Cosmology,” in The Study of Time III, ed. J. T. Fraser (Berlin: Springer Verlag ).

And another quote:

[A]lmost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the big bang.

Source: Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, The Nature of Space and Time, The Isaac Newton Institute Series of Lectures (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 20.

So, there are several scientific discoveries that led scientists to accept the creation event, and one of the most interesting and famous is the discovery of how elements heavier than hydrogen were formed.

Nucleosynthesis: forming heavier elements by fusion
Nucleosynthesis: forming heavier elements by fusion

Here’s the history of how that discovery happened, from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) web site:

The term nucleosynthesis refers to the formation of heavier elements, atomic nuclei with many protons and neutrons, from the fusion of lighter elements. The Big Bang theory predicts that the early universe was a very hot place. One second after the Big Bang, the temperature of the universe was roughly 10 billion degrees and was filled with a sea of neutrons, protons, electrons, anti-electrons (positrons), photons and neutrinos. As the universe cooled, the neutrons either decayed into protons and electrons or combined with protons to make deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen). During the first three minutes of the universe, most of the deuterium combined to make helium. Trace amounts of lithium were also produced at this time. This process of light element formation in the early universe is called “Big Bang nucleosynthesis” (BBN).

The creation hypothesis predicts that there will be specific amounts of these light elements formed as the universe cools down. Do the predictions match with observations?

Yes they do:

The predicted abundance of deuterium, helium and lithium depends on the density of ordinary matter in the early universe, as shown in the figure at left. These results indicate that the yield of helium is relatively insensitive to the abundance of ordinary matter, above a certain threshold. We generically expect about 24% of the ordinary matter in the universe to be helium produced in the Big Bang. This is in very good agreement with observations and is another major triumph for the Big Bang theory.

Moreover, WMAP satellite measurements of mass density agree with our observations of these light element abundances.

Here are the observations from the WMAP satellite:

Scientific observations match predictions
Scientific observations match predictions

And here is how those WMAP measurements confirm the Big Bang creation event:

However, the Big Bang model can be tested further. Given a precise measurement of the abundance of ordinary matter, the predicted abundances of the other light elements becomes highly constrained. The WMAP satellite is able to directly measure the ordinary matter density and finds a value of 4.6% (±0.2%), indicated by the vertical red line in the graph. This leads to predicted abundances shown by the circles in the graph, which are in good agreement with observed abundances. This is an important and detailed test of nucleosynthesis and is further evidence in support of the Big Bang theory. 

“An important and detailed test”.

For completeness, we should learn how elements heavier than these light elements are formed:

Elements heavier than lithium are all synthesized in stars. During the late stages of stellar evolution, massive stars burn helium to carbon, oxygen, silicon, sulfur, and iron. Elements heavier than iron are produced in two ways: in the outer envelopes of super-giant stars and in the explosion of a supernovae. All carbon-based life on Earth is literally composed of stardust.

That’s a wonderful thing to tell a young lady when you are on a date: “your body is made of stardust”. In fact, as I have argued before, this star formation, which creates the elements necessary for intelligent life, can only be built if the fundamental constants and quantities in the universe are finely-tuned.

Now, you would think that atheists would be happy to find observations that confirm the origin of the universe out of nothing, but they are not. Actually, they are in denial.

Here’s a statement from the Secular Humanist Manifesto, which explains what atheists believe about the universe:

Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.

For a couple of examples of how atheistic scientists respond to the evidence for a cosmic beginning, you can check out this post, where we get responses from cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, and physical chemist Peter Atkins.

You cannot have the creation of the universe be true AND a self-existing, eternal universe ALSO be true. Someone has to be wrong. Either the science is wrong, or the atheist manifesto is wrong. I know where I stand.

Positive arguments for Christian theism