The Choice is Yours

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born to a virgin. He healed the sick, performed many miracles, preached a gospel of love and redemption from sin, was crucified, and was resurrected on the third day. He rose up to Heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of God the Father. He is the light of the world and the savior of all who seek him. His followers wrote books about his works and teachings and formed a new religion through which all of mankind can find salvation and life everlasting.

Jesus of Nazareth was a minor preacher, whose message, similar to those of other self-styled messiahs at the time, was recorded by one or two followers. He was killed for being rebellious, and his body may or may not have been stolen, or he never actually died and simply escaped after being taken down from the cross, injured but still alive. Paul started a religion based on this figure (who might not even have been real), and the New Testament was composed much later by unknown adherents of the Christ cult started by Paul.

Which version is true? We cannot know. One can find evidence for both scenarios. One can find even more evidence that is consistent with either scenario. The events happened a long time ago, but that isn’t why we can’t be certain about what happened. Even if we were living 100 years after the events, we would have about as little proof, either way, as we have now. Even if we were alive in Palestine during Christ’s mission, we might be uncertain. We know that not everyone was convinced by the words and deeds of Christ—as recorded in the Gospels.

Christ refused to perform miracles to prove that he was the Messiah. When people asked for “a sign,” he grew angry and refused, calling them a wicked and unfaithful generation. Why? I mean if I present a finding that I claim to be true, and a colleague says, “prove it,” I will show the data of the experiments which provide strong evidence that what I claimed is true. Wouldn’t you do that? So why didn’t Christ win over the Pharisees during his interrogation with a nice miracle? Why is it so difficult to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt that Christ, was a real figure, that He walked among us, was the Son of God, and that He rose from death? In fact, why doesn’t God simply appear on TV and tell all the atheists that they are wrong, and everyone better get with the program and start worshipping?

Why can’t we prove or disprove any of this religious stuff?

The answer is, because if we could, if proof in either direction were possible, if an argument on one side could not always be countered by an equally valid argument on the other side, than the title of this article would be false. You would not have a choice.

You are allowed to choose to accept God or not. You cannot choose to believe in gravity, or the motor vehicle bureau, or perpetual motion machines, or phlogiston, or the internet. But when it comes to God, the choice is yours. And it always will be. This means that discussions of proof and evidence go nowhere, and it’s why I do not consider myself to be an “apologist.” The power to choose is a gift. Accept it and use it well.  


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The Biggest Loser

I remember a conversation I had in high school with a girl who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her I wanted to be a scientist. She said she would rather do something that involved working with people. I had many opportunities to remember that conversation during my scientific career, and thought of it every time it was once again proven to me that a life in science involves working (and dealing and talking and cooperating, and struggling)  with people far more than most careers.

This tends to be especially true during that mid-career phase when a rising scientist has had some degree of success, is spending a lot less time in the lab, and a lot more time supervising grad students, post docs and technicians, going to meetings and conferences, arranging collaborations, and trying to raise one’s standing in the community. Specific goals, such as gaining tenure and promotions, getting grant support, having papers published and receiving invitations to speak at symposia, all involve a huge degree of engagement with peers, supervisors, supporters, and a whole host of other scientists. At this stage, the phrase “It’s who you know, more than what you know” begins to take center stage in the aspiring scientist’s mind.

I was smack in the middle of that scientific version of social climbing when I was invited to be a member of the program committee for the annual conference of a very large scientific research organization. I was thrilled to accept. Scanning through the list of names of other members of the committee, I recognized more than half of them. A few I already knew, more I had heard of, and would love to get to know. The rest were in other fields, but all were at least at my level of accomplishment, and most were much higher.

This conference was a chance for me to meet and try to impress some bigwigs who might act as a reference for my upcoming tenure application. The first event of the conference that I had high hopes for was a dinner for the entire program committee on the evening before the conference was to start. I entered the large hall a bit early (a mistake I have made many times) and sat at a table. Soon, crowds of people began filing in, and I could see many of the people I was hoping to meet, as well as the few I already knew. None of them came to my table.

Before long everyone was seated at other tables. Several people had eventually come to my table, starting with an older, dowdy looking woman, who I assumed was somebody’s wife. She asked me if she might sit down, and mentioned that some others might join her. I almost said no, in my vain hope that some of the people I was interested in might still join me. But instead a group of grad students who didn’t even belong at this exclusive dinner for committee members sat down, and before I could protest at their presence, one of them said they had been invited to this high level gathering by their advisor.  Some other nondescript men and women of various ages and appearances came over, including a man dressed with a clerical collar, who I thought had wandered into the wrong ballroom.

Soon the waiters began distributing the appetizer course, and everyone got silent. The man in the collar said “If I may…” and began to recite what I could only imagine was grace. I was at that time still a fervent atheist, and had never actually experienced anyone saying grace in real life, but I had seen it done in films. I was shocked and horrified. This was a scientific conference for God’s sake (no pun intended). Who were these people?

Some of them bowed their heads during the brief prayer, and then resumed talking and eating. Recovering from my shock, I looked around the room to see if there were any free spaces at nearby tables. There were none I could see, and I slipped into a funk, cursing my luck for having ended up at a table of losers. As I was brooding, the Asian fellow on my left introduced himself and held out his hand.

“Hi, I’m Ray Hong” he said. I shook his hand and said the first thing that came to my mind “Oh, you have the same name as the guy from Yale who just published that paper in Nature on…” and at that moment my eye caught sight of his nametag that read “Raymond Hong. Yale”. I looked up at his face. He smiled. “Yup, that’s me”.  I gulped. This guy had just published a breathtaking piece of work that would revolutionize several fields of research related to my own. I was stunned. I introduced myself and he smiled and asked me how I knew Margaret. I was about to ask him who Margaret was, when we were distracted by the chair of our committee, several tables over who asked for attention and proceeded to make an announcement that I could not concentrate on. When he finished, Ray was talking to the woman on his other side, and I heard one of the grad students say “Here comes Art”. I looked over and saw a distinguished looking gray-haired man approaching our table. I had seen his photo on the cover of a major publication recently. I asked one of the students “Is that Sir Arthur Bonneville?”

“Yes” she said, “He’s our advisor”. He was also  a world famous researcher who had come to Harvard from Oxford and was rumored to be in line for a Nobel. I felt myself starting to sweat. He came over to the table and walked straight over to the older woman who was beaming at him. “Maybe he’s the husband” I thought. But no. When close enough he held out his hand and said in a perfect British accent, “Margaret, how lovely to see you”. I could only think “Who the hell is Margaret” and put my question into words to the same grad student.

She looked at me with an air of amusement. “Margaret Hutchinson” was her answer. I felt the room starting to spin, and took a deep breath. Margaret Hutchinson was the previous year winner of the Nobel for Medicine and Physiology. 

As the evening continued, and I learned more about my dinner companions,  it dawned on me that the only loser at that table was me.

Scientists like to say that no matter how much we know, we are still always students trying to learn the secrets of nature. I learned a lot that day, and I learned even more about that day when a decade or more later I read the Gospels for the first time. And just yesterday, I read aloud as the Liturgist at our church the Gospel of Luke 14:7-14. Where Jesus says “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place.”  At that table, there several people far more distinguished than I, and the lesson of that passage was one I have already learned from direct experience.

Jesus Christ, who I had finally came to believe was the incarnation of the Lord God, creator of everything, sat down to eat with illiterate fishermen, tax collectors and sinners, losers all, who ended up changing the world and the lives of all who know Him. Even me, the biggest loser of them all.

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News and an Explanation

The news is good!! I have signed a contract with the publisher of my first book, the award winning The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith (Kregel, 2019) for a second book. Also, the first book, which had been sold out for over two months is back in stock in all formats, which now also includes an audiobook version. The long delay in availability was partially caused by supply chain and shipping problems due to… yup, the pandemic, which continues to wreak various kinds of havoc in our lives.

The deadline for getting the final manuscript to the publisher is in September, so while I am excited about this whole enterprise, both my wife (editor extraordinaire) and I are working hard on finishing the final draft. And thus the explanation for why I will be neglecting this blog probably until October. I wanted to post this to reassure readers that I have no intention of abandoning the blog, not after the amazing, affirmative response you all sent me in July about keeping it going. Thank you for that.

So, pray for us as we try to make magic out of words, and reach the deadline with a manuscript worthy of my readership, and the trust of my publisher. Meanwhile God bless you all, and see you in October.

PS. To subscribe to my monthly newsletter containing more information about both books as well as gift offers, please see my website at sygarte.com.

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An Interesting Quote from a Physical Chemistry Textbook (1971)

The following quote is from a physical chemistry textbook called “Introduction to Thermodynamics: Classical and Statistical” by, Richard E. Sonntag, and Gordon J. Van Wylen.  published by Wiley Press in 1971.

“The final point to be made is that the second law of thermodynamics and the principle of the increase in entropy have philosophical implications. Does the second law of thermodynamics apply to the universe as a whole? Are there processes unknown to us that occur somewhere in the universe, such as “continual creation” that have a decrease in entropy associated with them, and thus offset the continual increase in entropy that is associated with the natural processes that are known to us? If the second law is valid for the universe (we of course do not know if the universe can be considered as an isolated system) how did it get in the state of low entropy? On the other end of the scale, if all processes known to us have an increase in entropy associated with them, what is the future of the natural world as we know it?

Quite obviously it is impossible to give conclusive answers to these questions on the basis of the second law of thermodynamics alone. However, the authors see the second law of thermodynamics as man’s description of the prior and continuing work of a creator who also holds the answer to the future destiny of man and the universe”.

So back in 1971, there were some physical chemists who were able to insert some words about their faith into a standard textbook. That might certainly attract some controversy today, even though the authors make it clear where the science ends and the philosophical questions begin, what the unanswered questions are, and what are their personal beliefs in response to those questions.

In today’s world I am pretty sure that such language and the mention of a creator would be edited out of a science textbook, even with a disclaimer of  a philosophical side note. The anti-religion fervor among many academics would likely produce a resounding roar of condemnation, as was seen a few years ago when a paper published in the journal PLOS Biology mentioned the “creation of the hand”. The journal almost closed and apologies and retractions followed.

I think we can justifiably wonder if academic and scientific anti-theism derives solely from the fear of a religious intrusion into the magisterium of science, as is commonly put forward, or perhaps just as much from the suspicion among these very intelligent people, that theists might indeed have a sound philosophical and even scientific leg to stand on after all.

We have witnessed several instances of scientific revisionism when an acknowledged fact seems to point a bit too directly toward a theistic explanation. The denial of the genetic code as a true informational code, and the denial of the start of the universe with the Big Bang are two currently popular examples. Perhaps its time to fully and finally expose the false legend that all of science is kin to atheism, and allow academic scientists to return to the freedom to express their personal beliefs, as had apparently been the case in 1971.

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A Play and a Hymn

Two and a half years ago, on the last (in this case, the 29th) day of February, 2020, my wife and I went to the local repertory theater (The Fitzgerald Theater of Rockville MD) to see a wonderful production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. After the performance, cast and audience joined together for a “birthday party” for the character of Frederic. The fact that Frederic was born on a leap day is of course a critical part of the light opera. Everyone was feeling jolly after the performance, and it was a very pleasant evening for all community members in attendance.

We knew there was something coming on the horizon, but we were not prepared for it. The next day I read the liturgy at church and used hand sanitizer for the first time. The following week, having read more about what was already happening in China and Europe, we stayed home from church. We felt bad about it, but that turned out to be the last in-person service at our church that anyone attended for over a year. As our state reported three cases of what was then still called the novel coronavirus, our governor declared a state of emergency, our church and the theater closed, and soon everything began shutting down. Case numbers in our area began doubling every three days. I posted a video to my channel about why social distancing works, and it got over 4000 views. We went to two supermarkets late in the evening and bought lots of canned goods. We were worried, isolated, sometimes in despair. And we had it easy—retired, no loss of income—but still, it was a scary time.

On the 22nd of March, our pastor began holding online services. This raised out spirits. (Our college student, sent home for virtual classes the week before, showed us how Zoom worked.) And then a few days later, I found a true blessing online. The technology to record and broadcast musical ensembles came together with amazing speed, and I was overwhelmed to find this video of one of my favorite hymns, sung by a group of professional studio musicians from Nashville.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDIJz6zzHNU&t=14s

Of course, by now, such things are commonplace. Our own church choir (with Aniko singing soprano) has made a number of such beautiful recordings to be used in our virtual services. But every time I watch and listen to this piece, I am struck by the magnificence of human creativity and ingenuity and I feel overcome with gratitude. The hymn itself was composed at a moment of extreme grief and pain. And yet this beautiful light in the midst of our dark hour shines in my soul and inspires me to praise our Lord

Watching these ordinary-looking people, each singing alone in their homes, no staging, no costumes, just them and the music, and then seeing it put together in a composite of visual and musical beauty is a testament to the incomprehensible majesty of humanity. This act of worship is, to me, the final and total proof of the majesty of our Creator, and as I listen I can only breathe out my thanks for the mercy of our Lord in our times of tribulation.  

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A Very Important Question for Readers

I need to make a decision about my future endeavors and I need your help. If you are interested in my continuing to post and maintain this blog, if you read any of the posts when they appear, or if you have any interest at all in this blog, please leave a comment. You don’t need to say anything, you can use one word, such as “yes”. Thank you for your cooperation.

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The End of Evolution

I used to believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was the unifying principle behind all of biology, and that this idea was not only scientifically valid, but also consonant with my deep faith as a Christian. The theory does not explain the origin of life, but then it was never intended to do so.

I now realize that while Darwinian evolution might have been the single predominant force for change during the almost 3-billion-year history of life on earth, this is no longer true, and it is likely that it will never be true again.

What am I talking about you ask?

Take a road trip in the country and look around you. Passing farms, you might see some cows, chickens, cornfields, wheat farms, tomato and strawberry fields, vineyards. Even in the city you can see animals like dogs and cats.

None of the plants or animals mentioned in the last paragraph are a product of natural selection. They are all products of Intelligent Design—the designer in this case being humans. I am not talking about genetically modified foods, but of selective artificial breeding, which has been a human activity for thousands of years.

We have altered the biological characteristics of dozens of species in a tiny fraction of the time that natural selection would have taken. We have also driven hundreds of species to extinction, also in a dramatically short time. One of the key ingredients of natural selection is the environment, which used to change with glacial slowness. In fact, the pace of environmental change was probably just about right to match the equally slow genetic changes caused by random mutations. But since the dawn of man,  we have been making changes to the environment, and we do so at an increasingly rapid pace.

And what about us? We are still natural animals, and since our origin, we have been subject to natural selection. Lighter (and darker) skin color and the ability to drink milk as adults are some of the adaptive changes that we have experienced. But as our culture and technology have grown, we have begun to replace natural selection with our own brand of evolution. We have filled the globe, but our technological revolutions in transportation have made it impossible for any group of humans to remain isolated long enough to form a new species, so further speciation of H. Sapiens is impossible.

Certain phenotypic variants that might have been advantageous or produced a less fit organism a few thousand years ago now have little effect on our capacity to survive and reproduce. Being big, strong, fast and keen-eyed ain’t what they used to be. Being smart, creative, empathic, social and resilient are better keys to success. Medicine and hygiene have made irrelevant many physical and genetic variants that used to be deadly.

What has happened is that we human beings have begun to replace natural selection as the force for determining the future of biology.

How is this possible? If we ourselves are the product of evolution, then how can it be that we are able to supplant what has worked since the origin of life? Does this mean that evolution included the seed of its own demise, by eventually allowing for the development of a creature that would surpass it? That is possible.

Or perhaps, while our bodies are certainly a product of evolution, those aspects of being human that allowed us to progress to where we are—our consciousness and our unique skills—are derived from some other source. We are animals. But we also have some spark of divinity, given to us as a gift. I believe this is the reason we have been able to rise above and leave behind the rules of natural selection, and make blind directionless evolution a thing of the past. 

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Should you be a writer?

Many people ask themselves (and sometimes others) this question. Maybe you are one of them. You like writing. Maybe you write well. You have lots of ideas for plots and characters, and you feel that when you write, you are doing something creative and sometimes wonderful. But you don’t have a lot of time to devote to writing. After all, you still need to go to work, raise your family, go shopping, and so on. So should you be a writer? You probably think I am going to say that depends on how much time you can spend, how good you think you are, how likely you think you can get published, and so on. No, I am not going to say that. The answer is much more simple, and very clear.

No, you should not be a writer. That is the answer. Forget it. Don’t even think about it. You will never be a writer, and you should give up any notions or fantasies of being a writer. It’s over.

I am not kidding! I mean it. And here is why. Being a writer is a terrible idea. First, you cannot survive financially as a writer. Income is low and sporadic. The chances of ever making even a dime from writing are incredibly low, about the same as getting hit by lightning. But even if a miracle happens and you get published, remember that the average book sells a total of 600 copies, which means your total take (on average) will be around $600-1000. You could increase your sales by getting a publicist and paying for ads, and doing lots of marketing. All of which is expensive, and although your sales might get into the thousands, you won’t break even.

You could get really lucky and have good sales, even into the tens of thousands. It still won’t be enough to support yourself. I know quite a few such successful writers and they almost  all kept their day jobs (luckily for them).

Second, being a writer is harder than most other jobs. You never have any time off. You might like to take some time off, but your brain won’t let you. In the middle of the barbecue, you suddenly have an idea, and you must write it down. A great piece of dialog has a half-life of about ten minutes in your brain. If you don’t write it down, it could be lost forever. For poetry, you have only a minute at the most. And then, when you are seated at the computer, with several hours cleared, and you start typing, half the time you read what you wrote, and it’s so bad you just delete the whole thing.

Third, writing is bad for you. It is a sedentary occupation, which leads to health problems, and it isolates you from other people. When your spouse calls out “Honey, are you there? I wanted to ask you something,” either you don’t hear her or you cringe at the infringement of your time and the potential disastrous interruption of an incredibly moving (though totally fictional) scene. So romance writers need to forgo romance, mystery writers don’t have time for mysteries, adventure writers never leave their chairs—and that’s just the fiction writers. People who write about art don’t paint, biographers don’t lead interesting lives, and science writers don’t do research.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. There are so many reasons to not be a writer that clearly the answer to the question posed in the title is no.

Does this distress you? Do you think I am being unfair, or unkind? Do you think this is a cruel answer? If you say yes to any of those, then I am right.

Do you not give a damn what I say, and you will keep writing no matter what, even if you never publish anything and never make a penny, but it doesn’t matter, because that isn’t why you write, but because you have no choice, the words just come from somewhere, and you must get them down, and you don’t really care what happens after that, whether anyone reads them, and if they do, whether they like them or not, it is just something you do, and I can go to hell, but you are not going to stop doing it?

Well, if that’s true, then I’m wrong, so go ahead. You already are a writer, so don’t stop now. Write!


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Gödel, Penrose, and Consciousness

Brilliant physicist and Nobel Laureate Sir Roger Penrose argues, using Gödel’s Theorem, that consciousness cannot be computational. In other words, there is more to human consciousness than can currently be explained scientifically.

Gödel’s theorems are among the most important—and most difficult to understand—breakthroughs in modern mathematics, and science in general. They are related to the vexing problem of self-referring language, as discussed in the classic book

Gödel’s theorems are among the most important—and most difficult to understand—breakthroughs in modern mathematics, and science in general. They are related to the vexing problem of self-referring language, as discussed in the classic book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter.

As an example of the problem, take the following statement:

“This sentence is false.”

If the statement is true, then it’s false; and if its false, then it’s true. At first sight this might appear to be just a silly trick of self-referential language, but the problems associated with self-reference are not at all trivial. They formed the basis of Gödel’s deep investigation into the theory of arithmetic systems.

Gödel’s two “incompleteness theorems” say that any logical system contains either contradictory statements or statements that cannot be proven. A consistent logical system is composed of a set of axioms which allows you to do arithmetic according to rules related to the axiomatic statements. Gödel found that in any such system there must be at least one statement which is unprovable using just that system’s axioms.  

Gödel was able to prove these theorems, in a way that is far beyond my understanding. What Penrose says (for example, in this recent interview with Jordan Peterson) is that Gödel’s theorem shows that consciousness cannot be fully explained by any kind of numerical computational process. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qi9ys2j1ncg

I do not grasp all the details of how this works, but here is something he said in the interview: “Understanding—whatever that word means—is not computational. It’s not the following of rules. It’s something else.”

The implications of this idea are quite staggering. For one thing, it suggests that while AI might become very intelligent, it could never become fully conscious, in the human sense. It also raises the question of how consciousness could arise in human (and perhaps other) brains if things like computational complexity cannot explain all of it. Indeed, it makes the task of even defining consciousness in a formal scientific sense difficult.

I might be overstating the implications and might not even have a correct understanding of what Sir Roger was saying. But these are my impressions. Corrections in comments are entirely welcome.

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A Tale from the Lab

Biologists have some neat tricks for seeing the structures of genes. The details are too much to relate, but the end result is an Xray film in which parts of the gene show up as dark bands. The precise pattern of these bands tells us about the specific forms of a gene that are present in different individuals. While we all (humans, that is) have the same genes, (which make us all humans) we also have very slight differences in the sequences of most genes (which make us all different). The sequence differences are what we can see by looking at the X ray film.  

My lab was studying a spcific gene that has some effects on susceptibility to chemical carcinogens. We wanted to see what the gene (called CYP1A1)  looked like in different people. We got graduate students, post docs, some technicians, and a couple of members of the night cleaning crew to donate some blook for the analysis. Not exactly a scientific sample, but for a first look, we figured it didnt matter.

One of my  post-doctoral fellows (the people who do most of the actual lab work)  showed me one of those films  and pointed out that there was a mistake in one of the samples. We always saw either one or 2 dark bands at specific places, but for this sample  there were also two bands much further down from the correct 2 bands, where nothing was supposed to be.I said “don’t worry about it, at least the others look good”.

At that time, most volunteers for research were Europeans or Asians, and there was far less genetic information available for African Americans. My group and a couple of others had noticed this and had been specifically trying to find genetic risk factors in the African American population. So about a month or so after our first attempt to look at the CYP1A1 stucture we did another experiemn using some DNA from a small group of African Americans from a different project.

Before my post doc showed me the result  he said “Sy, do you remember that weird error we found a while back? With the two extra bands?” And then he showed me the Xray  photo (see below). Those same mysterious extra 2 bands showed up in 3 of the 8 samples. I then asked the obvious question:  “who was the person who had extra 2 band pattern from the earlier experiment? Was that Jerry?”

He smiled and nodded, and I felt a chill. It was one of the members of the night cleaning crew, the only African American whose DNA we had ever tested in this experiment. It appeared that we had discovered a new genetic variant found only in people of African descent.

While this was a minor discovery, it does point out one of the critical aspects of science that is often overlooked, especially by non-scientists. We make progress, when things don’t work or make no sense. When we don’t understand or cant explain a result, that is the time for excitement and discovery. The constant speed of light, whether you are going towards it or away from it, made no sense, and led Einstein to relativity. The crazy results of the light scattering diffraction experiment led to quantum theory (simplified but sort of true). The impossible Malthusian calculation that population sizes tend to increase without limit, led Darwin to the grand theory of biological evolution, and the absurd discoveries of sea shells, certain rocks and lavas, in places where they had no business being, led to plate tectonics.

We are fortunate that there is still a huge amount of stuff that makes no sense, so we know there are plenty of new discoveries to be made. But what do we do, when the discoveries themselves, the answers that we find, make no sense either? I don’t mean that some answers lead to new questions, that happens almost always. I mean when we actually have the answer (quantum theory being a great example) and we know the answer is correct, but, still, outside of mathematics, it makes no sense.

This is my new field of enquiry, and it isn’t exactly a scientific one. I am interested in those questions that science has done as much as it can do, but that still remain open. The origin of life is one, the fine tuning of the physical constants in another, the appearance of teleology in evolution is a third, and human consciousness is my favorite. My hope is get the mental equivalent of seeing  that xray film, and feeling that chill of the thrill of discovery once again.

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