Finding God: A Guide for Atheists

I think if I were to meet an atheist I would ask him or her if she or he had looked in the closet for God. The purpose of this odd and possibly insulting question would be to express my skepticism as to whether or not atheists really seek God in all possible places.

The first step in finding God is to understand that God is not knowledge but experience. The arguments between Christians and atheists have focused on the possibility of knowing for sure whether God does or does not exist. This shift, in effect, moves finding God into the realm of philosophy. A wise Roman Christian in the time of Constantine, Lactantius, told his fellow Christians to avoid arguments with philosophers and let them argue among themselves, which they were always eager to do.

Experience, though it is the way to find God, is not an easy path to follow. For one reason, it is not transferrable. I enjoyed my dinner last night but I cannot give you that experience, although you might accept that I did enjoy the meal. Other people’s experiences of God not only cannot be provided to you but can, in most instances, be discounted for one reason or another. In the same way you have probably been exposed to Christian preaching and teaching and found a way to reject the information about God given to you.

There are logical arguments for believing in God. Blaise Pascal put one of these arguments in the form of a bet. He said that the Christian believer bets on God and when he or she dies goes on either to eternal glory or nonexistence. The atheist places his or her wager on nonexistence but may face annihilation by a righteous God. Much of the force of Pascal’s proposal has been removed by so many Christians abolishing hell and thinking everybody will go to glory. Still the possibility of nonexistence probably doesn’t sit too well with you or most people. Most of us very much like our existence and wish it to continue.

If knowledge, logic or others experiences are not the way to God, what about the possibility of a religion other than Christianity? The twentieth-century novelist W. Somerset Maugham wrote novels dealing with the human condition, one was even titled Of Human Bondage. He found in his own life that he was unable to accept Christianity so he explored the other major religions. He came to think Buddhism the best but he could not practice it. This is not the place to compare religions but it does lead to discussing finding God in Christianity.

First, we need to note the distinction between the Old and New Testaments in the Christian Bible. In the Old Testament, God comes to the Jewish people and gives them his instructions for living. The Old Testament is used by many people as an excuse not to seek God. And it is true that it is difficult. It has to be. It shows that everything people think might make them right with God, except for faith, is insufficient.

In the New Testament, God sends his son, Jesus Christ, to the Jews and everybody else so that anyone who seeks God can find him through the person and teachings of Jesus. At this point, I think I need to tell you that many Christians believe that the desire to seek God is itself an act of God and thus, if you are to have this desire, you must be given the grace of God before you have it.

Asking for something from somebody requires putting ourselves in a position of need. This is not easy for most people and may be even harder for atheists, as rejecting the existence of God requires an ego large enough to put aside the religious understanding common to almost everybody.

The author of The Tales of Narnia series, C.S. Lewis, wrote elsewhere that if we took a hard, honest look at ourselves we would see a small dirty thing and so it was better to look at Jesus Christ. How much you are brought to see yourself as God sees you before he enables you to seek him is a matter between you and God. What seems certain is that if you are truly to seek God you must change your thinking probably by beginning to shrink your ego and then opening yourself to the revelation concerning God contained in the New Testament. Jesus said that those who believed in him were able to see God and to see in this sense is to have found God.

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Adapting to Climate Change

Before writing about our adapting to climate change, I think I need to clarify something we need to keep straight in our minds: We live in the daily weather, plants and animals live in the climate. Plants and animal are affected by long term temperatures. We live in the day because we have the ability to control our indoor climate. We do not integrate, in the mathematical sense, the daily weather. It matters somewhat to our comfort, when we are outside, whether the day is warmer or cooler than the daily average but its effect does not carry over to the next day.

Now, let’s look at the significance of the daily average. The daily temperatures when plotted for a long time, for more than one hundred years at most places in the United States, form a bell curve having a normal distribution. The bell curve for high temperatures on a given date where you live  looks like a bell.

The high point on the curve is the mean or average temperature for that day. The width of the curve is based on what is called its standard deviation. Assuming that the climate change taking place is a warming of 2 degrees Fahrenheit, the average daily temperature would move 2 degrees toward the warmer end of the scale. This also means the extreme temperature at the hot end would go up 2 degrees. This is not as bad as it sounds because 95 percent of the daily temperatures are within 2 standard deviations of the mean so most high temperatures you experience will be in your usual range. Only once about every 10 years will a record high temperature occur.

If climate change also results in larger temperature variation, then the bell curve will be squashed down and the ends of the curve moved outward. This means there will be more daily variation in temperatures and a more extreme outlier at the end. Still temperatures on the vast majority of days will be what we experience now. There may be little you need to do about the higher temperatures as far as maintaining your indoor environment is concerned. Most air conditioning systems have more cooling capacity than is strictly required by current temperatures.

Moving outside where climate change does make a difference, the effect of higher average temperatures will in effect move your dwelling south. The United States contains ten climate zones based on normal minimum winter temperatures. Zone 1 which exists in central Alaska has minimums below minus 50 degrees. Zone 10 occurs in the southern deserts of California/Arizona and the southern tip of Florida where minimums are balmy 30 to 40 degrees. Unless you live in an exceptional place or have plants particularly sensitive to heat, there is only a small chance the grass, flowers, shrubs or trees in your yard will notice the change. You, however, will probably notice spring growth coming earlier and winter arriving later.

Where there may be difficulties for us with climate change is in wind speeds and precipitation amounts, either those associated with storms or extending over a period of time. You should probably make yourself aware of what vulnerabilities you have and do common sense things to mitigate them. There are too many possibilities to mention but you know what has happened and what might happen in your locality. The main focus of your concern when adapting to this aspect of climate change should be your personal safety and that of others near you.

A generally unmentioned aspect of adapting to climate change is living on less money. Unfortunately all the things that have been done, are being done, and will be done to mitigate climate change will raise the cost of our existence. There is a price to be paid in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and it is we the people who will ultimately have to pay it. Let us hope this cost to us produces some useful benefits.

 

 

 

 

Life Is Spectacular

I think life is spectacular and also very, very complex. Each living organism has three separate but intertwined aspects of its being. The first is its shape and structure, its morphology. There is something in us that shapes our ends, and our other body parts. The second is its biochemistry. There is both a commonality and a differentiation in the chemistry of living organisms. For example, grass has chlorophyll and you and I do not. The third is its operating system. This is much like the operating system of a computer. My first computer used MSDOS as its operating system, my present one runs Windows 7. There have been vast improvements in the capabilities of my computers over time but they all operated using fundamentally similar binary codes. It is the same in regard to all the different organisms and their differences in capabilities.

Going back to morphology (and including within it appearance and behavior), biological classification (taxonomy) and also mineral classification effectively had their beginnings with Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). His three kingdoms were animal, vegetable, and mineral, so he can also be regarded as making a contribution to the game Twenty Questions. There are presently, though there weren’t always, five (or six, if you count viruses) kingdoms used in classifying organisms. There are also now two or three domains, which are classifications more inclusive than kingdoms.

When we turn to the chemistry of life we find the same pattern as we did with the shape and structure of organisms. For example, proteins, which are formed by genetic expression from twenty standard amino acids, are essential to all organisms and are used in virtually every cellular process. Proteins catalyze biochemical reactions; they have structural and mechanical functions; they are part of the scaffolds that give cells their shape. They also participate in immune responses; cell signaling, cell adhesion and cell division. Proteins are often modified after their formation to alter their chemical and physical properties by addition of non-amino molecules, and in the way they are folded.

In proteins we see order among complexity. We also see in protein the linkages in life. We need proteins yet we cannot create in our own bodies all the amino acids necessary for the formation of proteins. This means we have to eat other organisms that do contain the amino acids we need. Fortunately, readily available organisms from various parts of the biological classification can supply people, even with widely varying diets, the amino acids they need.

Now for another characteristic of proteins, the ones that are good for us must be folded correctly. Misfolded proteins are called prions and can cause various fatal diseases such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, or mad cow disease or scrapie in livestock. This shows us there is more to biochemistry than simply atoms assembled into certain molecules in a particular arrangement. We see that biochemistry has in both the width of life and the narrowness of necessity.

Each cell in our bodies (except for egg and sperm cells) contains about 40,000 protein-coding genes. This seems a very large number but it is less than microbiologists expected and actually only accounts for approximately 1.5 percent of the genome. The rest of the genome consists of regulatory DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), non-coding RNA (ribonucleic acid), separators, and sequences whose functions are not known.

Things really get spectacular when we come to the numbers regarding our genomes, each of which contains a complete set of genetic information concerning us. Our mothers had an egg cell containing three billion base pairs and our fathers contributed a like number. These base pairs are contained within 23 chromosome pairs. Other organisms have different numbers of chromosome and base pairs but all life has at least some impressive number base pairs.

I started this post with morphology and ended with genomic biology. Morphology was the biology of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Linnaeus and Darwin. The twentieth century was the era of biochemical biology which tended to see life and its functions as products of organic chemistry. We are now in the period, possibly only at the beginnings, of genetic biology.

Life is a matter of spectacular complexity but common to it all is DNA and RNA. Although the Urey-Miller experiment showed that the production of amino acids and other organic chemicals could be done in simulated natural conditions, as far as I can tell no one has done an experiment producing nucleic acids. Even if they had, it would not probably not explain the coding, folding and other functions contained in the molecules as they are found in organisms.

I think the tasks ahead for microbiologists include arriving at a genomic theory of life to replace the present theory of evolution, and not to allow that catch-all explanation to be morphed into something called neo-Darwinism, and so to claim it now explains everything about life. Another task for genomic biologists is to show there is an actual process that takes matter and energy and in some way produces nucleic acid with a coding for some form of life.

I think those of us who are not microbiologists deserve a new theory of life based on the reality of what life is and how it works because life is truly, truly spectacular.

 

 

 

Biology 2.0

I think the comments I wrote concerning an article published in the June 17, 2010 edition of The Economist news magazine titled “Biology 2.0” is a good place to begin a discussion of the creation of life. If we are to think accurately about the topic, we must have some common understanding of what we are thinking about. If, as I think, evolution is obsolete then we need to have a new biological paradigm to replace it. The following comments propose a start towards a new way of thinking about life.

The Economist writer first writes of a division of biology into pre- and post-genomic eras and then defines biology 2.0 as a post-genomic biology www.economist.com/node/16349358. Does he or she mean the 10-year period since the decoding of the human genome was the genomic era. Unlikely. It would be clearer to designate the previous biological era as that of evolution and the present one as genomic. With this clarification we can proceed to examine the question as to whether a paradigm shift has occurred or should occur.

Vitalism

According to the Economist writer “no biologist has really believed in vitalism for more than a century.” Too bad. Various philosophers and theologians from Aristotle on have believed that life is more than machinery. Had Henri Bergson used a term for his creative force in life something like “de nueve animel” rather than elan vital we could have acclaimed him for his remarkable insight. This is because it is DNA and quite possibly other coding systems that constitute the driving force of living systems. The Economist moves in this direction by allowing biology 2.0 to be neo-vitalistic. This is a small shift in the right direction.

More than Proteins

Living things are more than proteins. So much more. So much more that it is impossible to find a simple enough example to use as an illustration. Every thing that has life has a mind boggling complexity. This is why the old evolutionary biology seems hopelessly outmoded. To have rejected the creativity of an infinite God and replaced it with a very finite natural selection can now be seen as a choice that should be revisited. This is not to bring God into biological understanding but to set the bar of knowledge high enough to give due respect to its subjects.

Ghosts in the Machine

Physicists have been actively looking for the ghosts in their machine. Presently, in Switzerland, with the Large Hadron Collider they are eagerly searching for a particle that may or may not exist and that may or not give them a final understanding of particle physics. [Note: the Higgs boson was apparently found in July 2012.] At the same time physicists are searching the universe for the twin ghosts of dark matter and dark energy so they can “nail their hides to the wall.” Since the beginning of the twentieth century physics has worked its way through relativity, quantum mechanics and particle physics. Paradigm shifts all. It seems that biology is long overdue for a paradigm shift that will free it from the dead hand of Darwin and allow it to pursue the new understanding that life is formed and operated by software. This will involve the search for all the many unknowns still left to be found.

Biological Ghosts

One ghost that has turned up in the biological machine is the genomic code. A code is a language that can be read and has meaning. But the meaning is not physically in the code. It is an abstraction, just like it is not ink and paper that make a book but the content of the words. The genomic code is the language of life. After all the work evolutionists have done to keep any metaphysic out of biology an abstraction sneaks in by the back door. And it is a ghost that cannot be exorcized because it is a fundamental of biology. Let us hope that Biology 2.0 allows biologists to read the book of life and thus provide themselves with understanding and so produce benefits for the rest of us.