Reasons to Believe

Connections 2008, Vol. 10, No. 2



Explaining a Great Cosmic Coincidence
Jeff Zweerink, Ph.D.

During graduate school I used a telescope in southern Arizona. The long, winding mountain road to the ridge where this telescope sat passed a twenty-foot boulder that had fallen off its perch and slid down the mountain. The somewhat weathered (but easily discernible) trough it formed during its fall caught my eye. Because a rock this size falls infrequently I was fortunate to witness the consequences of its slide before they were completely weathered away. It would have been even more improbable to see the rock as it fell, since the boulder spends the vast majority of the time either on top of the mountain or at the bottom. Picturing the universe as that boulder, cosmologists witness an amazing "timing coincidence": they see the rock barreling down the mountain.

Throughout the universe's history, different components have dominated the cosmic energy budget even though the total energy of the universe remained unchanged. The diagram below (using different colors) shows these different epochs. During the earliest periods (a fraction of a second after the big bang), whatever caused the inflationary expansion dominated the energy budget. After inflation but before the generation of the cosmic microwave background (380,000 years after the beginning), electromagnetic radiation dominated the energy budget. For the next several billion years matter dominated. And now the universe is transitioning to an epoch where the space-energy density dominates. As illustrated in the diagram, any randomly chosen time likely falls into one of the epochs where a single form of energy dominates. However, our observations place us right in the middle of a transition period—much like seeing the rock rushing down the mountain.

A recent Astrophysical Journal article offers one explanation for this coincidence.1 "Any random time" implies that no constraints exist for when observers could measure the cosmic energy budget. It's like saying that observers can measure the energy at any time in the universe's history. However, in reality, observers need a planet on which to live. Additionally, observers require that sufficient time must pass in order for the numerous planetary transformations to occur. The article's authors argue that the only time period when planets capable of hosting observers exist is during the transition from a matter-dominated universe to a space-energy-dominated universe.

Before the transition occurs, not enough elements heavier than helium will have been produced to make habitable planets. After the transition finishes, star formation will have ceased, meaning that no habitable planets can form.

Coincidentally, the time period that permits observers corresponds with the time period where those observers can measure all the energy available in the universe. After the transition, matter will be too thinly dispersed to accurately measure the energy density. Before the transition, the space-energy density was too small to be detected.

Not only do we (the observers) get to witness the proverbial boulder rolling downhill, but we also see the rock clearly enough to precisely measure its size, history, and composition. Such a cosmic coincidence seems consistent with the notion of a Creator who has deliberately timed observers' arrival and equipped them for spectacular discoveries.

Reference:
1. Charles H. Lineweaver and Chas A. Egan, "The Cosmic Coincidence as a Temporal Selection Effect Produced by the Age Distribution of Terrestrial Planets in the Universe," Astrophysical Journal 671 (December 10, 2007): 853-60.

 


Functional DNA amid Piles of Junk
Fazale "Fuz" R. Rana, Ph.D.


Sometimes my daughters' bedrooms are unbelievably messy. Junk everywhere. It often looks like a clothes bomb detonated. I have no idea how they can find anything in the aftermath of such devastation.

Like a teenager's sloppy bedroom, evolutionary biologists regard the genomes (the entire genetic makeup) of organisms as a mess—with functional DNA sequences buried amidst piles of "junk" DNA. This seemingly useless DNA varies from organism to organism, ranging from 30% to nearly 100% of the genome.1

New work, however, indicates that researchers have overlooked a significant amount of functional DNA in genomes, mistaking it for genetic rubbish.2

Evolutionary biologists consider junk DNA to be one of the most potent pieces of evidence for biological evolution.3 According to this view, junk DNA results when undirected biochemical processes and random chemical and physical events transform a functional DNA segment into a useless molecular artifact. Junk pieces of DNA remain part of an organism's genome solely because of its attachment to functional DNA. In this way, evolutionists say, junk DNA persists from generation to generation.

Evolutionists also highlight the fact that in many instances identical (or nearly identical) segments of junk DNA appear in a wide range of related organisms. Frequently, the identical segments reside in corresponding locations in the creatures' genomes. For evolutionists, this consistency indicates that these organisms shared a common ancestor. Accordingly, the junk DNA segment arose prior to the time the creatures diverged from their shared evolutionary ancestor. Such scientists then ask, "Why would a Creator purposely introduce nonfunctional, junk DNA at the exact location in the genomes of different, but seemingly related, organisms?"

Recent studies on junk DNA provide a response to this question—one that evolutionists find surprising, yet hard to deny. Junk DNA possesses function.4

And the latest research adds to this important insight. It now appears that the computer programs used to search for functional DNA sequences in genomes may miss a significant fraction. Researchers demonstrated the holes in the search routines by evaluating their effectiveness at recognizing useful DNA sequences in the regions before and after the gene phox2b. (This gene plays a role in brain development.) The functional sequences associated with this gene regulate its activity. Standard search protocols missed 39 to 71% of the operational DNA elements associated with phox2b. And this estimate is most likely the tip of the iceberg. According to the researchers, "The noncoding functional component of vertebrate genomes may far exceed estimates predicated on evolutionary constraint."5

Even though evolutionary biologists see the genome as a mess, mounting evidence continues to reveal an underlying, elegant structure that points to the work of a Creator. Come to think of it, somehow my daughters always manage to find the clothes they are looking for in their bedrooms. Maybe there's an underlying structure to that disorder, too, that I just can't perceive.

References:
1 Wen-Hsiung Li, Molecular Evolution (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 1998), 379-84.
2 David M. McGaughey et al., "Metrics of Sequence Constraint Overlook Regulatory Sequences in an Exhaustive Analysis at phox2b," Genome Research published online December 10, 2007, DOI: 10.1101/gr.6929408.
3 Edward E. Max, "Plagiarized Errors and Molecular Genetics: Another Argument in the Evolution-Creation Controversy, (accessed March 10, 2008).
4 For a detailed discussion of some of these discoveries see the book I coauthored with Hugh Ross, Who Was Adam? These advances are also discussed on the Today's New Reason To Believe feature at www.reasons.org.
5 McGaughey et al., "Metrics of Sequence."

 


Designed to Shake
Hugh Ross, Ph.D.


My family lives in one of the fastest-rising neighborhoods in the nation—not economically, but topographically. Our home rises by an average of 9 millimeters (1/3 inch) per year. Sometimes the elevation gain (via earthquake) seems a bit disturbing. Sometimes it's destructive. Nonetheless, I tell my wife and sons we should be thankful for all the uplift we get. Specifically, we can thank God for designing Earth for vigorous and virtually constant plate tectonic activity. Why? Because such movement is essential for life.

Earth has experienced robust plate tectonics for four billion years. Without it, our planet would possess no continents, no mountains, no stable water cycle, and nothing like the diversity and abundance of life we enjoy.1 In fact, without tectonic activity, Earth would have no mechanism to compensate for ongoing changes in the Sun's luminosity, and all life would be driven to extinction.2 Without such large-scale motions, nutrient-restoring cycles would fail to provide for life's basic needs3 and humanity would lack the abundant biodeposits (like coal, oil, natural gas) on which civilization depends.4

For some time now scientists have recognized the importance of plate tectonics, but only recently have they discovered the degree to which Earth's tectonics reflect exquisite fine-tuning. This understanding was greatly enhanced when two planetary physicists, Diana Valencia and Richard O'Connell at Harvard University, developed detailed models of the internal structure of massive rocky planets.5

Their research showed that as the mass of a rocky planet increases, the thickness of its crustal plates decreases, and so does its resistance to tectonic motion. Therefore, the greater the mass of a rocky planet, the higher the probability for plate tectonic activity and the more aggressive that activity will be.

Valencia and O'Connell's study helps explain a solar system enigma—why only Earth, of all the planets in our solar system, manifests plate tectonics. Liquid water is the key. If it weren't for Earth's abundant surface water, its crust wouldn't crack and move. Water lowers the yield strength of certain crustal minerals. For example, water cuts in half the yield strength (resistance to crumbling) of olivine, a primary constituent of Earth's crust.

For permanent, strong plate tectonics to be possible on a dry rocky planet, the planet's mass would have to be more than twice that of Earth. (At such a mass, the planet approaches the boundary between rocky planets and gaseous planets.) And even though the presence of liquid water lowers the mass boundary for strong and ongoing tectonics, Earth's mass represents the lower limit, according to the Harvard team's calculations. (Previous studies put the plate tectonics limit at one-third the mass of Earth, but such a low mass allows only for weak or ephemeral plate tectonic activity.)

This finding becomes especially remarkable in light of the fact that from a physiological perspective, Earth's mass could not be any larger and still be suitable for life (specifically for respiration). The problem for a planet more massive than Earth is its atmosphere. The more massive a planet, the thicker the atmosphere it accumulates during its formation. And, the atmospheric thickness rises geometrically with a planet's mass. For example, Venus, with seven times the mass of Mars, has an atmosphere more than 600 times thicker. In fact, Earth's atmosphere would be too thick for breathing if it weren't for its low-velocity collision with a Mars-sized object early in its history, a collision that blew away most of the thickness.6

As Valencia and O'Connell's research points out, a planet's mass must be virtually identical to Earth's for that planet to have a chance at sufficient-for-life tectonics. It also must be as wet as Earth but no wetter. (A wetter planet would lack continents and critical nutrient cycles.) It seems the more researchers learn about planets, the more evidence they find for the purposeful shaping of Earth for life.

References:
1 Hugh Ross, Creation as Science (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006), 129-38.
2 Ibid., 129-36.
3 Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos, 3rd ed. (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), 187-99
4 Ross, Creation as Science, 128-29, 140-41.
5 Diana Valencia and Richard J. O'Connell, "Inevitability of Plate Tectonics on Super-Earths," Astrophysical Journal Letters 670 (November 20, 2007): L45-L48.
6 Robin M. Canup, "Simulations of a Late Lunar-Forming Impact," Icarus 168 (April, 2004): 433-56; Robin M. Canup, "Dynamics of Lunar Formation," Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, vol. 42 (Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews, 2004), 441-75; M. Touboul et al., "Late Formation and Prolonged Differentiation of the Moon Inferred from W Isotopes in Lunar Metals," Nature 450 (December 20, 2007): 1206-9; Kaveh Pahlevan and David J. Stevenson, "Equilibration in the Aftermath of the Lunar-Forming Giant Impact," Earth and Planetary Science Letters 262 (October 30, 2007): 438-49; T. Kleine et al., "Dating the Giant Moon-Forming Impact and the End of Earth's Accretion," American Geophysical Union Meeting 2005, abstract #P41E-04 (December, 2005).




Is Faith in God Merely Wishful Thinking?
Kenneth Richard Samples


Sigmund Freud (1859-1939), the father of psychoanalysis, formally developed the psychological theory that human beings invented God out of desire to find security in the midst of a fearful natural world.1 In his book The Future of an Illusion (1927) Freud developed the theory that human beings face a frightening world full of natural calamities and, ultimately, the terrifying fear of death itself. Therefore just as a child looks to his father for comfort and solace during frightening times so adults do the same thing with regard to God. Out of fear and a desire to be protected human beings project a belief in an imaginary cosmic father figure (God).

Freud viewed religious beliefs as lacking any rational foundation, so the concept of God is merely an illusion arising from human wishful thinking. He identified belief in God as an "infantile neurosis" (a disorder of the mind) because the adult refuses to mature.

Freud thought that the mature person would embrace a more rational perspective on reality and cast off the illusions of religion. However, he was pessimistic about the prospect of most people overcoming their infantile state of mind. In a similar vein, outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins has called religious beliefs a "mental virus" that resulted from a genetic defect in human evolution.

Freud's Worldview Though Dawkins views religion as the world's most pernicious force, Freud saw benefits from religion and even admitted that his theory about how belief in God originated cannot be proved. In fact, he apparently believed that the truth or falsity of religious claims could not be rationally verified, though he presumed them to be unreliable and false. He also granted that his theory of religion was not derived from clinical evidence. Scholars have asserted that Freud embraced a strictly naturalistic worldview without a careful evaluation of the rational arguments for grounding faith that religious thinkers offered over the centuries.

Critiquing Freud's Wishful Thinking Theory
Freud's projection of a cosmic father theory to explain religion is weak and open to many valid criticisms, including these five:2

    Freud's theory commits the genetic fallacy. It confuses the supposed 'origin' of belief in God with its epistemological warrant (justifying reasons). In other words, the crucial question is not how the belief originated, but rather whether the belief is true or has a rational basis. Additionally, even if belief in God had come about through human fear (a doubtful assumption), plenty of arguments still offer logical justification for a rational belief in God.

    The God of the Bible is not necessarily the kind of God one would want to project. While God is loving and gracious, he is also perfectly holy, just, and wrathful (Isaiah 6:3; Psalm 89:14; Romans 1:18). A person could certainly find a tamer deity to invent.

    What people want and desire by nature sometimes does exist. C. S. Lewis's "argument from desire"3 reasons thusly: The intrinsic needs of human beings (e.g., hunger, thirst, sexual desire) are fulfilled by extrinsic realities (food, drink, sexual intercourse). Since the vast majority of human beings have an intrinsic need to experience transcendence, there is likely an extrinsic transcendent reality (God) to fulfill this need. Rather than committing the wishful thinking fallacy, Lewis's argument may be viewed as a type of inference to the best explanation about human nature.

    Freud's theory, rather than refuting the objective existence of God, may instead identify a reasonable explanation for how God naturally reveals himself to human beings. The Bible uniquely speaks of God as a loving Father. In fact, Jesus Christ spoke of God as Abba, literally meaning "daddy" (Mark 14:36). It seems natural that people would reason analogically from their earthly father to their heavenly Father. None of the other world religions focus upon God as a loving, caring Father who can be intimately known.

    Freud's theory can be turned on its head and used to critique atheism. New York University psychologist Paul Vitz sets forth in his book, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, that atheists are more likely candidates for projection than religious believers. He argues that many atheists seem to have rejected God (a projective denial) because they have suffered from either weak, abusive, or absent fathers. Vitz presents biographical evidence that the major atheists from the Enlightenment to modern times (including Hume, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Freud, Russell, and Sartre) had either weak, abusive, or absent fathers. He also shows that most of the major theists over the same period (including Pascal, Berkeley, Wilberforce, Newman, Chesterton, and Barth) by contrast had loving, nurturing fathers. The argument is that if a child has no father or has a troubled relationship with his father then it is difficult to transfer trust to a heavenly Father (God).

Psychological attempts to explain away belief in God as illusion seem logically weak and lack authentic explanatory power. While Christian theological beliefs involve the human psyche, the truth and reality of the faith itself rests not upon wishful, but on objective thinking.

References:
1 For an evaluation of Freud's theory of religion, see "Freud and Religious Belief," in William L. Rowe, Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1993), 103-14; and John A. Hutchison, Living Options in World Philosophy (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1977), 92-112.
2 For thoughtful Christian critiques of the projection theory, see J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 228-31; and Paul Copan, That's Just Your Interpretation, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 110-17.
3 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 120.


Angling for Better Measurements
David H. Rogstad, Ph.D.


Triangulation1 may sound like a horrible way to die (on par with the rack), but in fact the term refers to a method for measuring distances to faraway objects. As far back as 600 BC, the Greeks used the technique to determine astronomical measurements such as the size of the earth and the distance to the Moon and to the Sun.2 It involves measuring the baseline and angles of a triangle whose sides extend out to the object in question. From these one can determine the triangle's height, which is the distance to the object.

In recent years scientists have developed an extremely precise technique for measuring the angles in very large triangles extending into space. Very Long Baseline Interferometry3 (VLBI) obtains the angle by measuring the difference in the time-of-arrival of a radio wave at two widely spaced (hundreds, or even thousands of miles apart) radio telescopes. If the two telescopes are equidistant from the object (for example, a quasar) giving off the radio wave, then the arrival time will be the same. However, if the object is off-axis by a small angle, then the difference in arrival time will be proportional to the size of that angle. The larger the distance between the telescopes, the more precise that angle measurement becomes. For pairs of telescopes operating at millimeter wavelengths and at separations of thousands of miles, the measurement precision can be as good as a millionth of a second of arc—it's like determining the width of a dime on our Moon.

Applying this VLBI tool to measure the angles of a triangle where the baseline of the triangle is the distance across Earth's orbit around the sun (the angle measurement taken seasonally, or six months apart), astronomers can derive the height of the triangle with reasonable certainty out to distances up to a few million light-years.4 Scientists refer to this kind of measurement as obtaining an object’s parallax5 and it provides a direct measurement of distance.

In order to use triangulation out to greater distances, it is necessary to either gain greater precision in the angle measurements or to make the base of the triangle longer. Both are hard to do, but researchers have adopted a clever approach for achieving the latter in recent years. If the object being observed moves across the line-of-sight and scientists can measure its change in angle and infer the actual distance it travels in a given period of time (typically a few years!), then that distance can be used as the base of the triangle. If the distance is much larger than the diameter of Earth’s orbit, then direct distance measurements can be useful to proportionally larger distances. By this method, astronomers have made direct measurements out to the galaxy NGC 4258,6 at a distance of about 23 million light-years.

Greater precision at greater distances allows astronomers to learn much more about the features of the universe. And scientists continue to develop and improve upon modern instruments brke VLBI. Humans are fortunate to live at a time when such advances reveal the wonders of the cosmos and point to the work of a cosmic Creator.

References:
1 The technique is described here.
2 See here for a partial history of astronomy
3 Learn about the technique here.
4 This site demonstrates the technique.
5 Learn about parallax here .
6 Learn about milestone distance measures here.