Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Liquid of Life

Continuing reflections from a brilliant read entitled A Meaningful World by Benjamin Wiker & Jonathan Witt; let’s focus some well-deserved attention onto something taken for granted every day. Many instances of the extraordinary fine-tuning of our universe are outlined in the book, all of which point to purposeful design as opposed to mindless chance, but none of which are more amazing than water.

Someone with an atheistic worldview once told me that the fine-tuning of the universe is no more remarkable than a puddle of water. We can observe that water will perfectly fit the shape of the puddle hole. No one ever asks, “What are the odds of that particular amount of water fitting that particular hole so perfectly?” I responded something to the effect that the puddle is a conditioned reality like any other physical reality. What are the physical conditions needed for the water to fit the hole and why does it need to be that way? Why does anything need to be anyway at all? It relates to the metaphysical question of “Why somethinginstead of nothing?”

Besides being able to fit a puddle hole, water has a litany of amazing properties that no one could ever guess given only water; they are only discovered in the context of water as the liquid of life.

Simplicity: Earth, wind, fire and water are not basic elements as once thought, but water is as simple and plentiful as a compound can be. This simplicity made it easy to recognize the two basic elements of hydrogen and oxygen in a simple 2:1 ratio (H2O), which was an enormous intellectual leap for mankind.
What if our plentiful liquid of life was glycerol (CH2OHCHOHCH2OH)? In terms of learning about the reality of elements which led to the discovery of atoms, water acts almost like a simple ubiquitous tutorial, like learning to read using Dick & Jane instead of Shakespeare.

Freezing and Expanding: Every kid in science class learns that things expand when they get hot and contract as they get cold. Water contracts as it gets colder too, but to a point, that point being about 4°C, then a sudden burst of expansion occurs around 0°C. This makes ice float.

Liquid water must be readily available on the surface of the earth for life to exist. Ice that sinks would not only hinder the biological processes at the bottom of a large body of water, but also accumulate as solid ice under the murky water far from the melting rays of the sun.

Specific Heat: It takes a lot of energy to heat water. Water has the highest specific heat of any liquid except ammonia. 70% of the planet’s surface is water which is a good thing for us since it helps regulate the earth’s temperature.  Think of the hot sand on the beach on a hot day as compared to the cool water. What if water heated just as fast as sand? What would that mean for not only the earth, but for our waterlogged bodies as we generate metabolic heat?!? We all know how it feels if our body temperature goes up just a few degrees.

Latent Heat of Evaporation: It takes a lot of heat to evaporate water and when it does finally does evaporate it takes a lot of heat with it. Water is not only a remarkable cooling liquid for our bodies as sweat, but evaporation in tropical areas carries latent heat to colder climates which is released as it condenses. No other substance could absorb, store, transport and release so much heat.

Latent Heat of Fusion: An unusually high latent heat of fusion means that as water freezes in winter it releases the heat it absorbed the previous spring when it melted. Remember that the next time you complain a lake is freezing over. It would be even colder if water did not have this additional temperature stabilizing property.

A Powerful Solvent: Water is a powerful solvent that is also not highly reactive like other solvents; it releases minerals from rocks without attacking biological entities and is also a great circulator of its precious cargo, being that it remains a flowing liquid at the just the right temperatures. The expanding trick of water as it freezes opens the cracks and crevasses of rocks, releasing even more life giving minerals.

High Surface Tension: Surpassed only by liquid mercury, the surface tension of water is curiously high. Water can rise to great heights and if trees and other large vegetation could be thankful, I’m sure they would be, since no extra effort is needed to pull the water up. There would be no large vegetation on earth if not for this property, and what would that do to the planet’s ecosystem?  Additionally, clingy water will not just soak through to deep soil and underground streams. It grips to particles near the surface long enough for roots to soak it up.

Another Convenient Coincidence: The liquid of life just happens to exits in all three phases (solid, liquid, gas) within the same biological temperature range that carbon based life can occur.

Water is remarkably fine-tuned for life. One must accept the premise that all its properties are either a mindless coincidence or designed for a purpose; the purpose of life. Impartial reasoning accepts the principle that things which appear intelligently designed…are in fact intelligently designed. Things do not magically design themselves no matter how much we would like them to. A quote in the book by agnostic physicist Fred Hoyle points to how some are rediscovering this intellectual honesty.

“A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as the chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.”
– Fred Hoyle



Thursday, October 9, 2014

Homosexuality, Evolution & Deviation

The last post on this blog mentioned an evolutionary “magic wand” used to explain just about anything humans do. Survival of the fittest can illuminate everything about the human condition if one tries hard enough.

An example of moral consciousness was used. Survival of the fittest seems to explain human selfishness well enough, but what about the sense of guilt we feel when we fail to help another. How can Darwinism explain a strong desire to help others or the feeling of guilt if we fail to be charitable? The answer I was given was that since humans live in communities, we evolved an instinct to take care of others in our tribe which increases the chance of our own survival. Seems natural selection conveniently explains both selfishness and self-giving in one fell swoop.
In yet another discussion on another not-so-catholic-friendly forum, the topic of homosexuality came up in terms of evolution. The conversation was sparked by me comparing homosexuality to a “deviation”. This was not a moral dialog about good vs. evil or right vs. wrong, but about facts vs. design. I work with teams of engineers and technicians and whenever a product/system concern comes up we ask a question; “Is there a deviation?” We understand the design and its natural process variation; therefore we understand when an observed variation is normal or abnormal to the design. If abnormal, we call it a deviation or non-conformance or just “a problem”.
If we observe the design of the human body in terms of sexuality and then we note the facts about homosexual sex (without going into too much detail), we can say that it is abnormal to the design or a “deviation”. It would not matter if one believes we were designed by almighty God or by almighty evolution. Homosexual sex is deviant to the design, just like any number of sexual acts that won’t be listed here (see CCC paragraph 2357). The same goes for infertility or impotency. They too can be called deviations or non-conformities without any discussion about morality or the intrinsic value of the person involved.

As you might imagine this was met with disdain. Suddenly people became “spiritual” about human sexuality, saying that we cannot reduce ourselves to a mere physical design like some kind of biological machine. We are sexual beings, and who is anybody to say what is “normal” or “abnormal”. There are only opinions; facts are unrelated or can be explained away, unless of course, the facts support a certain agenda.

Leaving observable facts & observable design aside, how can evolution explain homosexuality in terms of a species surviving and reproducing? I was given a clear answer. Having a certain homosexual percentage in the population prevents overbreeding, and thus helps the species as a whole. So there you have it and it’s certainly difficult to argue with such a firm wave of the evolutionary magic wand, not to mention the magic wand of sexual relativism.
All clear now?


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Phlogiston Can Do Anything!

I recently finished reading A Meaningful World by Benjamin Wiker & Jonathan Witt. It’s a brilliant read about how the arts & sciences reveal the genius and purpose of nature as opposed to mindlessness and purposelessness.

Wow! Just...wow!
Just about any science or nature documentary will express a kind of "Alice in Wonderland" amazement about nature. This often goes hand in hand with a “dogma”’ of meaninglessness. For some, all things MUST ultimately come from “nothing”, meaning nothing intelligent, and with no intended purpose, regardless of how brilliantly it is put together. The finely tuned universe, our planet and the first single celled life form just magically appear by themselves given enough time for matter & energy to jostle around. Once life creates itself, it evolves thoughtlessly into many things including us. It seems mindlessness can do things better than the human mind can. If fact, mindlessness can explain anything if we try hard enough.

This brings us to a discussion about phlogiston as mentioned in chapter five of the book in the context of evolution. Phlogiston is the Greek word for “burn” or to “set on fire”. In the 1600’s and 1700’s scientist believed that things that burned had phlogiston in them (like an element) that was released during burning. This explained why things were lighter after burning. It also explains why a candle would go out if placed under a glass globe. The released phlogiston would fill the globe and eventually snuff out the candle.

A French chemist named Antoine Lavoisier believed that phlogiston did not exist. He showed how burning pure mercury would make it heavier as it took on oxygen and became mercury oxide. Phlogistians explained this away by saying that sometimes phlogiston has negative weight. Lavoisier’s frustration comes through in this quote:

Chemists have made phlogiston a vague principle, which is not strictly defined and which consequently fits all explanations demanded of it. Sometimes it has weight, sometimes it has not; sometimes it is free fire, sometimes it is fire combined with an earth; sometimes it passes though the pores of vessels, sometimes they are impenetrable to it. It explains at once causticity and non-causticity, transparency and opacity, color and the absence of colors. It is veritable Proteus that changes its form every instant!”
– Quoted in Brock, Norton History, pp. 111-12.

Seems the phlogiston arguments were not only bad science, but also bad problem solving. First make a conclusion and then find the facts. Facts that do not fit are explained by pilling up assumptions until they do fit. In all fairness, this can relate to bad religion too. If your answer to every question is, “God did it”, you won’t be a good evangelist. If “God is good” only when He agrees with you, then your religion has become linked to our own selfishness.
In a similar way Darwinism is used as the do-anything and do-everything explanation of life. I remember a conversation about moral conscience given “survival of the fittest”. An example was given of someone who felt very guilty for forgetting to leave a tip at a restaurant after a good meal with good service. He felt so bad that he went all the way back to the restaurant from his home to find the server and give her the gratuity. Why? He almost never frequents that restaurant and is likely to never see the server again.  Survival of the fittest can explain selfishness, but this? The answer given was that since humans live in communities, we evolved an instinct to take care of others in our tribe which increases the chance of our own survival. Sometimes natural selection explains selfishness, sometimes self-giving.  Any situation can be explained with a wave of the evolutionary magic wand.

In another conversation, structured music was brought up as part of human culture which makes us fundamentally different than animals. Consider our closest animal relatives; about 96% of a chimps DNA is genetically similar to ours, but they share 0% of our music. I wouldn't necessarily expect a 96% match, but if all we essentially are is a surviving DNA code, I would expect greater than a 0% match. Whale songs and birds “singing” were given as the evolutionary origins that explain human music. I was left to wonder, “are those really songs or just the sounds that whales and birds make and it is we who call them songs”, but it’s hard to argue with a magic wand.

An example was given in the book about finding a species of cheetah that could run 6000mph instead of 60mph. Natural section in and around chasing down food would not explain such speed. We would have to look elsewhere. Similarly, human intelligence is evolutionary overkill in terms of only surviving and reproducing. Monkeys survive just fine on this planet. There is no need for a species to be so much more intelligent than them, let alone a species capable of producing individuals like Newton, Einstein and Shakespeare while the rest of their kind marvel at not only their existence, but existence itself. If the universe is meaningless, we are the only species unfortunate enough to realize it.

“Some people will pretend to see things to suit their own purposes while missing the true signatures of design all around them, because to see the design and point it out would risk their position.”
A Meaningful World, p.40.