Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Spidy-Sense and Evidence for a Creator

Spider-Man is back.  Just ten years after the Toby Maguire Spider-Man movie started its run, Spidy is back, this time incarnated in Andrew Garfield.  The Spider-Man myth depends on one of the power of mutation: that an encounter with an irradiated spider transferred some arachnid DNA to Peter Parker.

He’s not alone.  Bruce Banner’s DNA got scrambled by gamma rays, and when he’s mad, he’s the Hulk.  The Fantastic Four got zapped in space and each got their own designer mutations (stretching, invisibility, flaming/flying and poor Ben Grimm who just turns into a rock-like “Thing”). 

The whole X-Men saga also depends—in its entirety—on beneficial mutations.  Get the right mutation, you can control the weather, read minds, move metal, and maybe even grow wings.

But the reality is that mutations are overwhelmingly bad news.  Generally, if you bitten by a nasty spider, you’ll get sick and even die long before you get Spidy-powers.  Mutations are bad!  The most likely outcome of mutated cells isn’t the ability to become invisible or climb walls; it’s cancer.

A mutation is an alteration of data, of information.  We used to speak of “simple, one celled organisms.”  We don’t anymore.  The more we learn about cells, the more we learn that they have more in common with a city full of activity than they do a lab experiment.  They are full of complex data just in order to run right.  Cells are not only complex, they are “irreducibly complex.”  That is, take one component of cell activity away, you don’t get a dumbed-down cell—you get a dead cell.         

Each cell is crammed with vast amounts of information.  But the fact that they are so is in some ways a violation of the rules of science—if indeed you believe that life on earth arose by the combination of time, matter, chance and absolutely no intelligence.  This speaks to the fundamental question: is there a Designer/Creator behind the creation, or are we just lucky animals on a lucky planet?

To illustrate this, imagine a small cylinder filled half with salt (on the bottom) and half with pepper (on the top).  By filling it that way, we put data there (salt on bottom, pepper on top, separated).  Cork the cylinder, and shake vigorously.  In a few moments, you’ll have a mix of salt and pepper, an inchoate gray mass.  Question: if you were to shake that cylinder for a while (say 10 million years), would you ever have the original information restored (that is, salt on the bottom, pepper on the top)?  Mathematicians say (and I’ll have to trust them on this—the calculations are way beyond me) that the answer is no.

What we’ve observed from nature is that information and order naturally dissipate.  It’s called the law of entropy: all things tend to decay and move toward disorder.  For example, say a plane crashed on an island in the Pacific in the last days of the Second World War.  If we arrived three days later, we could easily identify human remains, aircraft parts, paperwork and so forth.  But say we just found the crash last week.  Sixty-seven years of decay would make human remains scare and hard to identify; all paper would have dissolved; rust would even make identifying aircraft parts difficult.

So whether we’re talking about a cylinder of salt and pepper or an old crash—entropy says that disorder sets in—that information degrades.  But postulating the origin of life without a Designer/Creator says that somehow incredible amounts of information arose spontaneously—all you need is enough time plus chance plus matter.

Give me a break.  I’m smarter than that.  To believe that life, with all of its complexity and variety arose spontaneously is a leap of faith no sane person should be asked to make.

I saw an interview with Richard Dawkins, evolutionary scientist and “new atheist”, who in response to the kind of problems I’ve brought up suggested that perhaps life was planted here by aliens (as in this summer’s film “Prometheus”).  That’s no solution—you still have to explain how it arose spontaneously on some other planet.  For a smart guy, that seemed like a pretty dense answer.

Years ago I saw a poster with these words:  “There are two fundamental facts of the universe: 1. There is a God.  2. You are not God.”  My Spidy-sense tells me that correct.  But so also does some sober thinking on mutations, cells and entropy.               

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