Young earth creationism (YEC), in my humble opinion, is both wrong and dangerous to Christianity. I’m writing this, because of a recent conversation with a knowledgeable man, who is also a young earth creationist. Yes. We politely disagreed on whether evolution is true or not. To win the debate, he started to claim that young earth creationism was central to the gospel.

Whether or not you think young earth creationism is true, I hope you’ll agree with this is a very dangerous way to argue. The gospel is that Jesus Christ died for our sins, to restore our relationship to God. It is salvation through faith alone in God which saves us. So equating the gospel with YEC views is simply wrong.

But equating Christianity with opposition to evolution is not just wrong, it’s dangerous. If you equate being anti-evolution with being Christian, what happens when you discover there’s good reason to believe evolution is true? All of a sudden you’re convinced there’s good reason to not believe the gospel.

I won’t harp on about Christianity being compatible with evolution. There’s websites dedicated to pointing that, and they do it in a much more eloquent way that I could. I’m also partial to a series of podcasts by Thomas Hopko, which discuss it in an intelligent way. In addition there’s also several books, such as those by Francis Collins or by Karl Giberson.

What I did want to do is respond to a couple of YEC/intelligent design arguments, which I don’t think any thinking Christian should offer. The first is this

New information can never be created

This argument is, quite frankly, obviously bunk. Information increases all the time.

Since Shannon in the 1950’s we’ve known how to measure information. We measure it as entropy. Entropy measures average the number of bits (say, on your harddrive) which would need to be used to store something (be that a message or the state of a physical system).

Imagine you have a very boring, predictable message you want to store on the hard drive.

00000000…000000

You don’t need many bits to do that. You can just store on the hard drive: “The message is always 0 one million times” and you’re done. It uses almost no space on your hard drive.

On the other hand if the signal is really random, you need lots of bits to store it. Imagine a million random zeros or ones:

0110010001101001…

If there’s no pattern all, then the best you can do is to just record the values which are sent. If the signal is something in between, then you use a program like “zip” to compress it. You’ll find the more ordered the message is, the smaller the zip file. The less ordered it is, the larger the file. Entropy is like a measure of how large the file would be with the perfect zip program.

The same concept applies to physical systems. Think of a simple physical system, which could be in one of several different states. If it is very disordered, you need more bits to store it. If it’s not disordered you need fewer bits. Entropy is what we use to measure that. If something is more disordered, it needs more bits to store it, and so has higher entropy. If something is more ordered, and needs fewer bits to store it, and so has less entropy.

Broken egg

So now it’s obvious the argument information never increases is just wrong. If you drop an egg on the floor, becomes more disordered. In physics, we’d say the entropy has increased. And you now know that just means the information needed to describe it has increased.

Information (or entropy) increases all the time. In any closed system it will increase. It’s such an important that we’ve made it into a physical law, the second law of thermodynamics.

So simply saying information is never “created” is simply wrong.

Specified information never increases

The next thing my YEC friend did was tell me specified complexity never increases. I’ve read and listened to enough intelligent design literature and exponents to have some idea where they’re coming from. The idea seems to be that any information which is created is always useless, and can’t have a role in producing something useful, like an eye.

Well, again, I have to simply disagree. Natural selection provides an obvious way for specified complexity to increase. We’ve already agreed (I hope) that information does increase. The question is whether that information can be useful for anything.

Before people get all annoyed – “natural selection” is not atheism. It does not imply atheism. It’s something very simple, which I hope we can all agree happens, and happens a lot.

Natural selection is simply the idea that weaker animals are more likely to die out. They’re less likely to have lots of healthy children, and if they pass on the gene that makes them weak to their children, they’re even less likely to have grandchildren. Think about it. Which is more likely to have lots of surviving children – a healthy animal or a sick one? Obviously the healthy one. That’s all there is to it. No atheism. No magic.

The simple idea is that animals which are fitter, better suited to their environment, able to run faster and further are the ones that get the chicks. They’re the ones which have lots of kids. They’re the ones that (at least on average) don’t die early. It’s not atheism, it’s just common sense.

So how does natural selection help? Well, let’s say you have an animal which has a gene for better sight. Well then that gene helps them see both predators and prey better. It helps them survive, and (on average) they have more offspring than one which has worse sight. Their children have better sight, and because they survive better, over time there’s more and more animals with good sight. Specified complexity is naturally selected for because it helps animals survive.

So we (I hope) agree new information can come into existence, and specified information can come into existence because specified information helps animals survive.

That evolution has never been observed

Finally, my YEC friend repeatedly said that what I was saying was impossible, and had never been observed in the real world. At the time I didn’t know what to say, and just pointed out that bacteria in hospitals build up resistance to drugs, and that plants we grow are very different now to their wild versions a few thousand years ago.

Next time this comes up I will be able to give better examples. Among the many excellent essays on biologos were two by Dennis Venema. He describes his path from intelligent design to evolution, and how he thought about it as a Christian. But he also gives examples of “specified complexity” coming about due to evolution which you can read here.

E-Coli

One example he gives is of the Long Term Evolutionary Experiment (LTEE). It started in 1988, with twelve identical strand of e-coli. E-coli (apparently) is a simple bacteria and it reproduces by simply dividing, which produces two clones of itself. That’s important, because the only changes which occur to their genetic make-up are through mutations. There’s no way you could claim “it was already there”.

As Venema describes:

Each day, each of the twelve cultures grow in 10ml of liquid medium with glucose as the limiting resource. In this medium, the bacteria compete to replicate for about seven generations and then stop dividing once the food runs out. After 24 hours, 1/10th of a ml of each culture is transferred to 9.9 ml of fresh food, and the cycle repeats itself. Every so often, the remaining 9.9 ml of leftover bacterial culture is frozen down to preserve a sample of the population at that point in time – with the proper treatment, bacteria can survive for decades in suspended animation.

So basically, grow ecoli every day for years and see how 12 different strands of it change. All twelve strands quickly adapted to their petri-dish environment (and in fact they evolved in a similar way):

All 12 populations improved quickly early on, then more slowly as the generations ticked by. Despite substantial fitness gains compared to the common ancestor, the performance of the evolved lines relative to each other hardly diverged. As we looked for other changes—and the “we” grew as outstanding students and collaborators put their brains and hands to work on this experiment—the generations flew by. We observed changes in the size and shape of the bacterial cells, in their food preferences, and in their genes. Although the lineages certainly diverged in many details, I was struck by the parallel trajectories of their evolution, with similar changes in so many phenotypic traits and even gene sequences that we examined.

And it just continued on like this. I’m sure at this point all the intelligent design people are with me. It’s just “micro-evolution”, right? The same thing for month after month, year after year. But then one day, something new happened! Lenski (a scientist who was involved in the project) writes,

Although glucose is the only sugar in their environment, another source of energy, a compound called citrate, was also there all along as part of an old microbiological recipe. One of the defining features of E. coli as a species is that it can’t grow on citrate because it’s unable to transport citrate into the cell. For 15 years, billions of mutations were tested in every population, but none produced a cell that could exploit this opening. It was as though the bacteria ate dinner and went straight to bed, without realizing a dessert was there waiting for them.

But in 2003, a mutant tasted the forbidden fruit. And it was good, very good.

Amazing! Totally new specified information. They were able to go back to the frozen samples and see exactly which gene mutations led to the ecoli being able to eat citrate. The gene that allows it actually mutated long before it was actually used. The first e-coli able to eat citrate did so very badly, but they got better very quickly. And finally, there’s essentially two strands left. One strand eats both citrate and glucose, the other just gets very good at eating glucose:

Despite the “takeover”, a fraction of the population unable to use citrate persists as a minority. These cells eke out a living by being “glucose specialists” – they are better at using up glucose rapidly and then going into stasis before the slightly slower citrate-eaters catch up.

And that, it seems to me, is an example of specified complexity evolving.

So why aren’t I into all this intelligent design stuff? Well it’s simply because the arguments they put forward are wrong. They’re wrong about the arguments they make about evolution. But perhaps more importantly, they’re wrong about why we’re saved. We’re not saved through believing in evolution or not. We’re saved through faith in Jesus Christ.

Physicist, and author of “God the Failed Hypothesis”, Victor Stenger, suggests that quantum mechanics is the reason why there is something rather than nothing. I would like to explain some of the reasons why his reasoning is not convincing to me.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Everyone of us who wants to live an examined life asks themselves this question at some point. For theists, that the universe exists makes good sense. But take away God, and I’m totally unsure why the universe should exist at all. I don’t know why the beautiful physics of this universe should take place. Why not nothing? Nothing at all – with no properties, no physics, no nothing. Why doesn’t the universe (along with us in it) simply not exist?

I have seen many unsatisfying responses by atheists to this question. Here, for example Peter Atkins arguing that the universe itself is actually “nothing”.

Things with properties, such as you and I, the earth, atoms and electrons, photons, electric and magnetic fields, sticky tape and the woman next door are not nothing. Peter Atkins reasoning fails. He is equivocating. He’s redefining “nothing” in a way which is convenient for himself, but has a different meaning to the question. For anyone genuinely searching for an answer, that is incredibly unsatisfying (if not dishonest) way to answer the question.

Victor Stenger’s redefinition of nothing

Victor Stenger redefines what is meant by “nothing”. Instead of meaning…. well nothing, he redefines it as the vacuum state of a quantum field. He writes,

This suggests a more precise definition of nothing…

After which he treats the words “nothing” and “vacuum state” as synonymous. Immediately he runs into exactly the same problem as Peter Atkins. This isn’t what people are asking when they ask why there is something rather than nothing. The question is not why we’re not in the vacuum state, but why there’s a quantum field (or indeed, anything at all) in the first place.

To plug the growing gap (and seemingly obvious equivocation) between the question and his answer Victor Stenger assures his readers that the vacuum state is, in fact, the same as nothing. He says,

Nothing [the vacuum state] is a state that is the simplest of all conceivable states. It has no mass, no energy, no space, no time, no spin, no bosons, no fermions—nothing.

A vaccuum state doesn’t have no energy

In his attempt to defend his definition, Stenger appears claim the vacuum state has no energy. That’s simply wrong, and I can only assume he made a typo. He rightly tells his readers the exact opposite only a few short paragraphs before,

Stepping down the ladder you find that the bottom rung corresponding to a field of zero photons is not zero energy but rather E/2.

So energy is one property which vacuum state does have. Quantum fields (of a particular frequency) do have a ground state whose energy is

\frac{1}{2} \hbar \omega

A particular mode also has a corresponding frequency related to the energy by the above equations. Having parameters to describe both its energy and frequency, it is hard to see how a vacuum state is the same as “nothing”.

Phase and amplitude

There are other important properties of the vacuum state which Stenger conveniently doesn’t mention. Let me explain.

Quantum mechanics only makes predictions about the probabilities of measurements (such as whether a photon is or isn’t detected at a dector). We describe the possible outcomes of an experiment with the wavefunction. Born’s rule says that the amplitude squared of the wavefunction gives the probability of a given outcome, and so quantum mechanics just tells us a set of probabilities for outcomes of different experiments. This uncertainty manifests itself in funny ways. Famously Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle says that if you know position of a particle, its momentum will be less certain and vice-versa. There are many similar relationships in quantum mechanics (in fact for any non-commuting variables there’s a similar expression). The equivalent for light is the amplitude (how bright the light is) and the phase (where the dips and peaks are). You can’t measure both the amplitude and phase of light at the same time.

Even for field in the vacuum state, it has these uncertainties. We can manipulate these probability distributions, but we always have to obey the uncertainty principle. For a particle it’s possible to become more certain about where a particle is, but only at the of becoming less certain we can be about its momentum. Similarly, in quantum optics, the more certain we are about light’s amplitude, the less certain we are about its phase. These are properties even of the vacuum state, and properties which can and have been manipulated in the lab.

These can even be and have been manipulated in experiment. The top trace here, is from a vacuum state, and the third is from a phase squeezed vacuum state. That is, we have good knowledge of where the peaks and troughs are, but not how so much information about how big they are.

A vacuum state measurable consequences

There’s a strange effect which relies on the vacuum state which you might have heard of. If two objects are near each other, they attract each other. They do so because of the standing waves which are set up between them. It turns out that if they move together they actually lower the total energy. And so, there’s an attractive force (because, like a ball rolling down a hill, two ships will try to move together to reduce their potential energy).

The is true of quantum mechanics, and has been observed. Two objects near each other set up standing waves between them, and feel an attractive force. This effect is known as Casimir effect. This effect occurs precisely because there are standing waves between the two objects. If these didn’t exist, there would be no force. In other words, if, instead of a standing wave, there was nothing between the objects, you’d expect no force. But in reality, you do measure a force in the lab, precisely because the field described by the vacuum state is not nothing.

Why Stenger’s answer isn’t satisfying

Stenger has redefined the word “nothing” to suit his answer, but in a way which makes a mockery of both the question, and of the science. The vacuum state (of a particular quantum field) is a particular quantum state, it has properties, such as an energy, a corresponding frequency. It also has uncertainties in both amplitude and phase quadratures which can be measured and manipulated in experiment. The vacuum state plays a fundamental role in the Casimir force between two objects. Stenger’s redefinition makes two very different beasts the same thing. Like Atkins, it is convenient for Stenger to redefine words to suit his cause. But when he does that, he answers a question nobody is asking.

That is why I find Victor Stenger’s answer to why there is something rather than nothing so unsatisfying.

As always comments are welcome and criticism is encouraged!

The atheist propaganda

This Youtube video says he’s being not sensational, but that there’s a scientific study which says that:

Religion can and does cause literal brain damage, and that that damage can be difficult if not impossible to repair if not addressed early in life.

It has copied and pasted into the atheist blogosphere here, here, here, and on an agnostic blog here. Sadly, whoever is repeating this didn’t bother to read or understand the study.

The scientific study

In contrast to the atheist blogosphere, the actual scientific article is quite interesting. The study was conducted by the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development at Duke University Medical Center. They took older patients (58 years old and older) and performed fMRI brain scans. From these they were able to image part of the brain, and determine the size of the hippocampus. For those of us who aren’t biologists, the hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for memory. As people get older one thing that can happen (but doesn’t necessarily always happen) is that the hippocampus shrinks, and memory is impaired.

The study looked at the rate of decline (atrophy) of the hippocampus as a person aged. They did this by taking more than one scan of each person’s brain (on average the scans were taken around 4 years apart). Then they considered if religion had any effect on the brain’s rate of decline.

So what were the results of the study? I’m going to give the “b” values from their regression analysis, for left and right sides of the brain. Basically the higher a “b” value, the less brain rot. The more negative, the more rot. All the numbers are all in comparison with mainstream protestants, who would get a value of b=0.0.

The best group, on a par with the mainstream protestants, were those with “other” religious beliefs, such as Eastern Orthodox, Jewish or Muslim people (b=0.06,-0.05). Catholics fared okay (b=-0.12, -0.22). “Born again” protestants were split into two groups: those who were recently born again (b=-0.05, -0.21), and those who had been born again for some time (b=-0.15,-0.15). Finally, there were those who claimed to have a Life Changing Religious Experience (LCRE). These too were split into two. Those who claimed to have recently had the experience did well (b=-0.01,-0.15) and those who claimed it was a long time ago did badly (b=-0.45,-0.38). This was the only religious group to perform worse than those of no religion (b=-0.28,-0.20).

The authors of the study suggest that perhaps being part of religious minority (such as atheists or those who have had a significant life changing experience) could causes long term stress – and this type of stress might lead to degradation of the brain.

Conclusion

So does religion give you brain damage? No. The study considers natural decline of the brain during aging. It shows that the brains of mainstream protestants, born again Christians, Catholics and those of “other” religious belief all experienced slower decline in comparison with those of no religion.

A recent study by Kanasawa published in Social Psychology Quarterly claims a difference of six IQ points (103 for those “not at all religious” to 97 for those with who describe themselves as “very religious”).

The study shows that both education has virtually no effect either way on a person’s beliefs about God, and that atheists and theists have almost identical levels of intelligence. A difference of six points is so small that it is imperceptible in everyday life. To put it into perspective: six IQ points is the same average difference in IQ found between identical twins (such as these two beautiful and intelligent young women).

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Kenneth MillerThere an interesting article written on June 10, by biologist Kenneth Miller which is relevant to the relationship between science and religion. He hits back at Jerry Coyne who has been publicly both misrepresenting and critisizing him.

Kenneth Miller is a catholic and a well known critic of intelligent design. But apparently for the atheist Coyne that’s not enough. Coyne is vitriolic at anyone scientist considering philosophical or theological issues, apparently unless that is done in favour of atheism. As Miller elloquently puts it: “The tragedy of Coyne’s argument is the way in which it seeks to enlist science in a frankly philosophical crusade — a campaign to purge science of religionists in the name of doctrinal purity. ”

Throughout his vision of the relationship between science and religion was clear:

The true vow of a scientist is to practice honest and open empiricism in every aspect of his scientific work. That vow does not preclude the scientist from stepping back, acknowledging the limitations of scientific knowledge, and asking the deeper questions of why we are here, and whether existence has a purpose. Those questions are genuine and important, even if they are not scientific ones, and I believe they are worth answering.

Check it out here.