Counting To God: Another Atheist Who Became a Christian

Douglas Ell, MIT graduate and former atheist (click for credit)

Douglas Ell, MIT graduate and former atheist
(click for credit)

Douglas Ell graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with degrees in math and chemistry. He then went to the University of Maryland, where he earned a Master’s degree in theoretical mathematics. Not satisfied with only three degrees, he also went to law school and graduated magna cum laude. After that, he began his career as an attorney.

When he was a child, he went to church, but the older he got, the less he believed in God. By the time he was in high school, he wrote to his minister and stated that he no longer believed in God. His minister wrote back and gave him a book to read, but Ell never read it. By the time he got his law degree, he was a full-fledged atheist. In his new book, Counting To God, he describes what he believed at that point in his life:

It seemed you could explain just about everything with logic and science. It seemed God had no place in our modern world. I treated God like a joke. (p. 19)

In his early thirties, Ell had a son, and this caused him and his wife to start attending church. Ell treated it like a social club, but he did notice something: Many of the people in the church he attended (including the minister) had an inner peace that he could sense. He wanted that peace, but didn’t see how he could have it, because he didn’t believe what they believed.

In his mid-forties, a new career opportunity forced him to spend a lot of time on airplanes. As a result, he started reading about science, mathematics, and religion. The more he read, the more he saw a connection between the three. He eventually saw seven specific ways in which science and mathematics support the existence of God:

1. The evidence that the universe had a beginning
2. The apparent “fine tuning” of the universe
3. The complexity of life and our inability to discover a naturalistic explanation for its origin
4. The fantastic, futuristic technology that exists in all of life
5. The mounting evidence against neo-Darwinian evolution
6. The specialness of earth
7. The mathematical nature of the universe

I find it interesting that he categorized the evidence for God’s existence in exactly this way. Most of his categories (certainly 2, 3, 4, and 6) are just specific examples within the argument from design. Science clearly shows that the universe and earth are finely tuned to support life, and the amazing complexity of life indicates it is a direct result of the design process. I understand his reasoning on these points. The argument from design is what turned me from atheism and started me down the path of becoming a Christian. However, some of his other points aren’t very convincing to me.

For example, consider #5. I don’t see how evidence against neo-Darwinism gets you any closer to a belief in God. After all, neo-Darwinism is just one possible explanation of how life became complex. Even if neo-Darwinism is completely wrong, that doesn’t tell us anything about God’s existence. It just tells us that one proposed explanation for life’s complexity is not correct. Furthermore, I know and have read several theists who have no problem with neo-Darwinism. In addition, there is at least one prominent atheist who has serious problems with neo-Darwinism. As a result, I see no connection between the evidence against neo-Darwinism and the existence of God.

In the same way, while I agree that the first part of #3 (the complexity of life) is strong evidence for the existence of God, the other part (our inability to discover a naturalistic explanation for its origin) has little to do with it. There are lots of things about our universe which remain a mystery to science. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a naturalistic explanation for them. It might just mean that we don’t know enough to understand those particular issues. I have never been a fan of a “god of the gaps” approach to science, and that seems to be what #5 and the second half of #3 are all about.

Despite the fact that I am not on board with all seven of the ways Ell thinks science and mathematics support the existence of God, I do think his book offers a lot of great insights. Consider, for example, the way he looks at life and its design:

Compare human beings, with 30 trillion exquisitely interconnected cells, to the most primitive bacteria. We have astonishing added hardware: legs, arms, hearts, eyes, ears, and on and on. We have amazing “apps”: all of our senses, muscle coordination, subconscious regulatory processing, and the killer “app” of all existence: human consciousness and reason. Yet we have the same operating system as the bacteria. We and that bacteria and all life run off Life 1, designed 3.5 billion years ago. (pp. 118-119)

Now, of course, I disagree with his timescale, but the point is profound. All the scientific evidence points to a single operating system that runs all life, from the most “primitive” to the most “complex.” When human engineers design something, it generally goes through many revisions before it becomes reliable and efficient. Nevertheless, science indicates that there has only been one operating system for life. No upgrades, no fundamental changes – just hardware and apps that are added on top of the operating system. That points to incredible design!

I am glad that Douglas Ell took the time to examine the evidence and come to what I consider is the most reasonable conclusion. I pray that his book helps others to do the same.

31 Comments

  1. Kendall says:

    Seems like it is common for people to turn away from their upbringing when they get to the teenage/college years. What I wonder is if it’s an individual problem or…How passive does a church have to be to have a young member turning away from God under their noses?

    1. jlwile says:

      Good question, Kendall!

  2. TnTexas says:

    And then there are times when it’s not passivity but dogmatism that drives some away. Many who grow up in an environment that’s dogmatic about Young Earth Creationism — those who teach that if you don’t believe that the days of creation were 6 24-hour days that occurred 6,000-10,000 years you can’t be a Christian, that the two absolutely must go hand in hand — often have problems when they come face-to-face with the fact that that is not what mainstream science says on the subject. At that point, faced with what has been framed as an either/or situation, they choose to walk away from their faith.

    On a slight tangent, that’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated about you, Dr. Wile. You’re clear on what you believe about the subject and explain your thoughts and reasons well. Yet you graciously leave room for disagreement and don’t hinge a person’s salvation on whether not they see the origins of the universe in the exact same way that you do. Personally, I find that very refreshing and encouraging. Thank you.

    1. jlwile says:

      Thank you, TnTexas. I do agree that dogmatism about things that are clearly secondary issues can, indeed, drive people away from the church. Of course, that dogmatism goes both ways. I know some churches that are equally dogmatic about accepting all of what mainstream science says. That kind of dogmatism can also drive people away from the church.

  3. Lawrence Dol says:

    > “After all, neo-Darwinism is just one possible explanation of how life became complex.”

    But isn’t evolution of some ilk the *only* naturalistic theory? Therefore if evolution’s not a viable theory it leaves only the supernatural theory or the null-hypothesis. And since a null-hypothesis doesn’t explain anything, the absence of *any* credible naturalistic explanation for life pushes one to the supernatural explanation.

    No?

    1. jlwile says:

      Lawrence, there are other naturalistic hypotheses out there besides neo-Darwinism. For example, before she died, Dr. Lynn Margulis understood that neo-Darwinism doesn’t work scientifically. As a result, she had a completely different hypothesis, which is centered around symbiosis. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had a completely different idea of how species become more complex. It was based on behavior, not random change. Some claim that epigenetics supports that hypothesis, at least in part. Of course, the idea that aliens not only started life on this world but directed its development is a wholly naturalistic hypothesis. In addition, Thomas Nagel is an atheist, so he wants only naturalistic hypotheses when it comes to the development of life. He says that neo-Darwinism is “almost certainly false” and suggests that naturalists should develop some sort of teleological approach to the origin and development of life.

      Neo-Darwinism is the only naturalistic hypothesis about the origin and development of life that gets press. It isn’t the only naturalistic process that has been proposed.

  4. Lawrence Dol says:

    I have to agree with @TnTexas. The mistake the modern church has made, in my opinion, is to be dogmatic about the *specific* of creation instead of merely dogmatic about the *fact* of creation.

    I consider it very significant that for more than 1900 years the only creedal statement about creation was, “We believe in one God, the Father, almighty, creator of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ…”

    That God created is of primary importance; how and when is a distant secondary issue.

  5. Kendall says:

    “In essentials, unity, in non-essential, liberty, in all things…charity”

  6. Kendall says:

    When it comes to homeschooling your children, how do you think you should approach the topic of varying viewpoints? I was reading a textbook that described the Genesis creation in six actual days. Now, I actually tend towards that belief, however, it bugged me that it didn’t mention that other views persist and that this is not the ONLY belief out there. Now, this is me viewing this at an adult. But as a parent should you teach your children what you believe and why before approaching learning the various viewpoints? What about young children who aren’t ready discern viewpoints or evidence for a conclusion?

    1. jlwile says:

      Those are good questions, Kendall, and they bring up one of the many reasons I think homeschooling is a superior form of education. It is essential for a student to be presented with multiple points of view, but only when he or she is ready for them. Some children develop the cognitive capabilities to sift through conflicting opinions fairly early. Other students don’t develop those capabilities until later. Only someone who knows the student well will be able to decide when to start exposing them to alternative ideas.

      Also, I think it is important for homeschooling parents to realize that their job is not to raise spiritual clones of themselves. They should most certainly teach their children what they believe, but they should also show their children what others believe as well, when the child has the ability to sift through such things. In the end, a parent’s job is to raise a child who will be able to follow the Holy Spirit on his or her own. That way, the child’s faith is real, not a copy!

  7. Jason says:

    For me, and although there are many wonders that scream design, point 4 “The fantastic, futuristic technology that exists in all of life” stand out for me the most. I remember watching a youtube clip (see below) and being totally blown away by the complexity and nano technology all teaming with purpose.

    It really puzzles me how anyone can look at this and not believe in some form of intelligent design. No matter how hard I try I cannot bring myself to believe all that was the result of unguided random mutations.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJyUtbn0O5Y

    1. jlwile says:

      Thanks for the link, Jason. I do love that animation!

  8. Keith says:

    I don’t think the second half of point three is “God of the gaps” reasoning, properly defined. This phrase is often misused, being taken to mean something like “using God to plug the gaps in our scientific knowledge”. Surely this definition is no good. It assumes that we already know what our scientific knowledge will encompass in the future. If a thing cannot be explained scientifically (for example, the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’), then God is not filling any gap in serving to answer the question. However, many atheists accuse theists of God-of-the-gaps reasoning when the theists point to God as explanation for anything, because they believe everything will eventually be explained by science. Thus, the atheist and the theist could both define “God of the gaps” in this way, and yet come to totally different conclusions about what is and what isn’t God-of-gaps reasoning.

    A better definition, which the Christian and atheist could agree on, would be “Positing God as the direct cause of a regular, reoccurring phenomenon.” While many Christians would say that God does do miracles in the world, they would admit that they are exceptions. Most things that go on in the world happen as a result of natural laws acting on pre-existing states of affairs (they are of course, still ultimately caused by God, but only indirectly). God COULD be the direct cause of a reoccurring phenomenon (such as, say, lightning), but since our experience so far has been that he does not act in such a way, we are justified in assuming that reoccurring phenomena are the results of natural processes and not miraculous interventions.

    Because the origin of life is plausibly not a reoccurring phenomenon, but only a one-time event, I think Ell is correct in the second half of point three. Our inability to discover a naturalistic cause of the origin of life raises the probability that this is not a natural event, but a miracle, performed by God.

    1. jlwile says:

      I would have to disagree with you, Keith. I think the second half of #3 is precisely “God of the gaps” reasoning. After all, he is saying that since our attempts to figure out a naturalistic mechanism for the origin of life have failed, it must be the result of God. Thus, he is putting God in the gap of our current understanding. Now I would agree with you that atheists sometimes accuse theists of using “God of the gaps” reasoning when theists don’t. However, that’s not a problem with the definition. It’s a problem with those atheists’ understanding of the definition.

      I would also disagree with your definition of “God of the gaps.” It fits in certain cases, such as when Newton suggested that God had to continually nudge the planets into moving the way they do in the sky. However, it doesn’t fit in other cases, such as one-time events like the origin of life or rare events like the various “explosions” of diversity that seem to occur in the fossil record. Saying that our inability to formulate naturalistic explanations for them indicates they were produced by God is definitely using “God of the gaps.” The history of science is full of examples where a naturalistic explanation was not available for a given phenomenon but now is. That doesn’t mean I expect a naturalistic explanation to be forthcoming. It just means we shouldn’t use our lack of knowledge to build a case for anything, including God’s existence.

  9. Keith says:

    I agree with you, Dr. Wile, that there’s definitely something wrong with saying “we don’t understand how this one-time event came about naturalisticly, so it must be caused by God.” Perhaps my definition of God-of-the-gaps reasoning does need to be revised to include cases like that.

    However, I disagree with you that “we shouldn’t use our lack of knowledge to build a case for anything”. I think a lack of knowledge can definitely serve to make a case stronger. Consider a murder case in which the authorities do not know where a suspect was at the time of the murder. Since they don’t know where he was, he has no alibi, and this makes the case that he is the murderer stronger than it would be otherwise.

    Along similar lines, I think our inability to produce a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life reduces the probability that such an explanation exists. Given that the only alternative to such an explanation is a supernatural one in which God creates the first life, I see no problem with saying that this lack of knowledge makes the case for God’s existence stronger than it would be otherwise. It would be foolish to say “because of this, it must be God”, but I think it’s fine to say “because of this, it’s more likely to be God.”

    1. jlwile says:

      I agree with you somewhat on that point, Keith. I am not sure the lack of an alibi makes the case against a suspect any stronger, but it does indicate you can’t rule out the suspect. In the same way, the lack of a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life indicates you can’t rule out a supernatural explanation.

      Of course, just because a suspect has an alibi, that doesn’t make an ironclad case that he or she is not guilty. Alibis can be faked, and they can also be the result of an honest mistake on the part of the person providing the alibi. In a similar way, even if a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life is found, that doesn’t mean you can rule out a supernatural origin, unless you can somehow demonstrate that the naturalistic explanation is what actually happened.

      Thus, the presence or absence of a naturalistic explanation does affect the argument, but only in a weak way.

  10. John Chaikowsky says:

    Ya know, believing in a Creator is not the same thing as being a Christian. The Devil believes this much. Maybe he explains in his book where he received Christ as his savior. I hope so. I also hope that in his study of the Scriptures, he will take the Genesis account seriously, just as our Lord did. Jesus said,”For if you believe Moses, you would believe me. But, if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (Jn 5:48-49) Again He said, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (Jn 3:12)We walk by faith and not by sight (II Cor 5:7).

    1. jlwile says:

      John, in the book, he says he believes that Jesus is the Son of God and rose from the dead. Thus, I have no reason to believe he isn’t a Christian.

  11. David Bump says:

    Just discovered your website — love it! Your article on ancient chitin came up as I was researching info related to http://news.yahoo.com/ancient-scorpion-had-feet-may-walked-ocean-132529198.html

    Anyway, I used to be sensitive about the “God of the gaps” accusation, but I realized several things 1) With creation, it’s definitely stated in the Bible. 2) The fact that a lot of things have been shown to have immediate natural explanations is not an indication that everything will be; on the contrary, the longer naturalistic explanations fail to be found, the more reason to think they might never be. 3) While 2 is not a strong point, it is bolstered in some cases as what we DO know about nature increases: it’s not just that we don’t know of a natural explanation, we see that natural processes work in the wrong direction to produce life and add organized dynamic complexity to living things.

    Specifically related to living things, there’s that wonderful complexity you mentioned. How would Darwin and Huxley have fared if people then knew that single cells were full of such wonders, rather than just a chemical ooze?

    On neo-Darwinism, all of the “alternatives” you bring up are really merely add-ons, hopeful gap-fillers, or just a stubborn hope for something to fix an apparently insurmountable problem. Darwin set the tone by proposing vague possibilities and then announcing he didn’t see any difficulty anymore (as he contrariwise immediately gave up on finding solutions for problems with other views). One dirty little secret of evolutionism is that Darwin was almost immediately acknowledged to be wrong about the nature of biological heredity, and he also leaned on a sort of gradualistic Lamarkism. What remained was simply that living things change over generations and natural challenges filter out non-viable variations. This vague, general framework is the only plausible “scientific” (natural-only) explanation for the grea diversity of life. Evidence that goes against it (or again, to some extent, glaring lack of evidence that remains from 1859) goes a long way to ruling out any serious natural explanation.

    1. jlwile says:

      David, I agree with you when you say, “The fact that a lot of things have been shown to have immediate natural explanations is not an indication that everything will be.” However, I strongly disagree with the next point: “on the contrary, the longer naturalistic explanations fail to be found, the more reason to think they might never be.” Science doesn’t progress continuously. It progresses in leaps and bounds. Thus, a particular field may be stagnant for a century or more, and then suddenly, a great breakthrough is reached. There is no reason to think that a long, fruitless search for a naturalistic explanation means there is none. It may just mean we don’t yet have the knowledge we need to find it.

      Also, the alternatives I mentioned are not add-ons. They are each diametrically opposed to neo-Darwinism. Dr. Lynn Margulis, for example, says the creationist critics are right. Neo-Darwinism doesn’t work. Her theory is a full-fledged replacement for neo-Darwinism. In the same way, Lamarckian development uses none of the mechanisms of neo-Darwinism. Thus, it is not an add-on. Nagel says that neo-Darwinism is “almost certainly false.” He is not proposing an add-on. He is proposing a replacement. Neo-Darwinism is not the only naturalistic attempt to explain the complexity of life – not by a long shot.

  12. Bill McClymonds says:

    Dr Wile,I tend to be sympathetic to the comment by Keith that our inability to produce a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life reduces the probability that such an explanation exists. Any naturalistic explanation already seems to be limited to initial conditions that totally lack initiating intelligence. Explanations like space aliens must also begin with non intelligent naturalistic conditions that produce the space aliens. If you reduce the probability of one of those naturalistic explanations (neo Darwinism) the remaining number of options becomes more limited. The more limited the options, the lower the probability of finding an acceptable natural explanation that does not have an intelligent source.

    You said “There is no reason to think that a long, fruitless search for a naturalistic explanation means there is none. It may just mean we don’t yet have the knowledge we need to find it.” While what you are saying is true because almost anything is possible theoretically, I think it is more reasonable to expect a lower probability of a naturalistic explanation when one of the non intelligent source explanations is either less likely or eliminated. Naturalists could posit some sort of powerful creative force as an initiator of intelligent life on this planet but that would sound suspiciously like God. Thus, the problem the naturalist faces in developing an explanation for intelligent life on this planet is significantly constrained by the limitation to non intelligent initiating processes.

    The other difficulty I see with your suggestion that an answer could arise many years in the future is that a naturalist could continue to hold that position until his or her death and respond to anyone who challenged his or her position by saying he or she was confident that the future would hold clear proof of naturalism. Isn’t that a kind of “naturalism of the gaps”? People only have a limited amount of time to live. According to Scriptural teachings, a person must make a choice either for or against Christ within the time constraints of their lifetime. If that person is wrong they will die without Christ and spend eternity in hell.

    While it is possible that a different natural explanation may be embraced by the scientific community in the future, I think it is more reasonable to conclude that a natural explanation for intelligent life on Earth has become less likely based on what we currently know. As a result of recent scientific findings it makes more sense to me to consider that a naturalistic explanation for intelligent life on earth has a lower probability than it previously had. Because of that lowered probability it makes sense for a reasonable person to consider the possibility that a good reasonable naturalistic explanation for life on Earth is less likely to be found either now or in the future.

    I would also like to suggest that even though it is likely that another naturalistic explanation for life on Earth will be proposed and supported by the scientific community 100 years from now, that same explanation may also be scientifically proven wrong 200 years from now by another explanation, and that 200 year explanation proven wrong scientifically 300 years from now. It makes more sense to me to suggest that a person should make a choice about either naturalism or Christianity based on our present knowledge of the most likely explanation for the origination of intelligent life on Earth. Of course we must not leave out the revelation from scripture about how life originated when we discuss these matters since the one who was there at the time should be able to give the best explanation of what happened.

    1. jlwile says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Bill. I disagree with most of what you have written, however. For example, you say that if neo-Darwinism isn’t correct (and the data are very clear that it is not, at least not in its present form), that reduces the number of possible naturalistic options. While that is true, there are a myriad of naturalistic options, and limiting that number by 1 has little effect on the overall number of options available. In addition, this is how science generally works. Bad explanations are determined to be bad and replaced by good explanations. Sometimes, this takes an absurd amount of time, but it generally happens. Thus, once the die-hard neo-Darwinists accept the data and move on to other explanations, they could say that they are closer to finding the real answer, since this is typically the path science takes to the real answer.

      Now I do agree with you when you say that a “problem the naturalist faces in developing an explanation for intelligent life on this planet is significantly constrained by the limitation to non intelligent initiating processes.” However, even within those constraints, there are still an enormous number of possibilities, as evidenced by the many different hypotheses that exist for the origin of life.

      I understand your worry regarding the atheist who feverishly holds to the hope that a natural explanation for life will eventually be found. At the same time, however, any atheist who has examined the data really has no excuse. The very nature of life indicates that it cannot be formed by a naturalistic explanation. Thus, if an atheist holds out for a naturalistic explanation, he or she is already doing so against the evidence. Telling this atheist that no naturalistic explanation can ever be found won’t change his or her view, since the person is already ignoring the evidence.

      I agree with your last point. You are most certainly correct that if a naturalistic explanation for life on earth exists 100 years from now, it will be shown to be wrong 200 years from now. That’s because if you look at the characteristics of life, it is clear that it cannot have a naturalistic explanation. Thus, any “explanation” that comes around the pike will be wrong. So if a naturalistic explanation were found, it wouldn’t add evidence for the naturalistic origin and development of life. It would only demonstrate the desperation of those who really want to believe such a thing. If the existence of a naturalistic explanation for life provides no evidence for the lack of a supernatural cause, how can the lack of a naturalistic explanation for life provide evidence for a supernatural cause?

  13. Bill McClymonds says:

    Thanks for your reply Dr Wile. I was a little confused by your response. You said you disagreed with most of what I wrote while at the same time seeming sympathetic to a number of the points that I made in my post. It seemed that you objected the most to my point that it was less likely that a natural explanation for life on earth would be found if one of the naturalistic explanations was shown to be false.

    You wrote, “The very nature of life indicates that it cannot be formed by a naturalistic explanation. Thus, if an atheist holds out for a naturalistic explanation, he or she is already doing so against the evidence.” At the same time you are suggesting that there are a myriad number of possible naturalistic options. I would appreciate a little more information about what you mean by those statements since they seem contradictory to me. Are you suggesting there are a myriad number of reasonable naturalistic explanations or only a myriad number of theoretical options that most reasonable people wouldn’t consider likely?

    If I understand your position a little better I may be able to address your objections in a more informed manner.

    1. jlwile says:

      Thanks for your reply, Bill. I am sorry I wasn’t being clear. There are a myriad of possible options from which naturalists can choose when it comes to the origin of life. Just look at all the approaches that are being made now (DNA first, RNA first, metabolism first, crystals providing a template, etc., etc.) The point is that it is quite conceivable that someone will eventually hit on an idea that produces a living organism naturally in a way that is consistent with the science we know. Now, of course, it will have to include some sort of “magic,” because the very nature of life tells us that it cannot have a naturalistic origin. However, the naturalists will not admit to the “magic.” Neo-Darwinsm, for example, uses the “magic wand” of time. Anything can happen, given the magic of enough time. This, of course, is nonsense, but it is nonsense that naturalists are willing to believe. Add similar nonsense to one of the approaches currently being considered (or a brand new one), and you might have a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life. It will be wrong, because the very nature of life tells us it cannot have a naturalistic origin. However, naturalists will celebrate their new idea as scientific “fact.”

  14. Bill McClymonds says:

    Thank you for the clarification Dr Wile. I think I may understand now why we had a difference of opinion. When I wrote that if you reduce the probability of the neo Darwin explanation the remaining number of options becomes more limited, I was including the multitude of naturalistic chemical explanations that have already been shown to be highly unlikely. As a result I thought it less likely that a good reasonable naturalistic explanation would be found.

    I agree that “it is quite conceivable that someone will eventually hit on an idea that produces a living organism naturally in a way that is consistent with the science we know.” As you also know, the production of that organism will have required years of research by many brilliant scientists and carefully controlled laboratory conditions to produce said organism. It will be an exercise in intelligent design. Personally I wouldn’t consider that organism naturalistically produced, I would consider it designed.

    I would appreciate a little further clarification on what you mean when you say ” the very nature of life tells us that it cannot have a naturalistic origin.” I’m not completely clear about exactly what you mean by that statement. I am not in disagreement with the statement, I would simply like more specific information about what you mean.

    1. jlwile says:

      You are certainly correct, Bill. If researchers ever figure out a way to produce a living cell in the lab, it will only show that intelligent design produces life.

      If one looks at even the “simplest” living organism, it is clearly the result of design. There are a myriad of natural feedback mechanisms, exactly as you would expect from a designed system. There are fallback mechanisms, exactly as you would expect from a designed system. In addition, life cannot exist without sophisticated information, and sophisticated information cannot be created by random processes. Finally, the efficiency is mind-blowing. Consider the computer power needed to just simulate what one of the “simplest” cells does as a matter of course. All of this indicates there is simply no way life is the result of natural processes.

  15. Bill McClymonds says:

    Thanks for the clarification Dr Wile and for the article about Venter’s group and processing power needed to simulate a “simple” organisms activity. I was very interested in that article because of something I am writing.

    I have been working on a short article about the processing power of the ruby-throated hummingbird retina off and on for a year or more. There is very little information that I have been able to find about the size and weight of the hummingbird retina in the literature, but I have been able to make some reasonable estimates. I have occasionally contacted a neuroscientist who is also a retinal researcher to be sure my estimates are fairly close. I am a practicing veterinarian not a researcher so the article is intended for late junior high through college age individuals.

    The most up to date information I could find for the processing speed of the retina was from 1985. The article compared the retinal processing speed to a Cray supercomputer of that era. The retina easily outperformed the computer. The neuroscientist I have communicated with didn’t have specific information about the current processing speed of the retina but he did email me that he believed the speed would rival that of a modern supercomputer.

    I wanted an illustration the young people could hold in their hands to demonstrate the size and weight of the hummingbird retina when they read the article. I am suggesting that they obtain a standard 1/4 inch (6mm) hole punch and punch out three paper circles from standard 20 pound bond printer paper. My estimates indicate that those three small circles of paper stacked on top of one another would approximately equal the size and weight of the ruby-throated hummingbird retina. Hopefully they will appreciate the fact that something that small had the amount of equivalent computer processing power that it does. The article is basically a design argument with the added ability to hold a paper simulation of the structure being discussed.

    If you are aware of any further information about the processing speed of the retina or the size and weight of a hummingbird or other small bird eye or retina I would sincerely appreciate that information.

    1. jlwile says:

      I am not familiar with any of that, Bill, but it sounds amazing! I am a bit ignorant on the subject, so could you tell me how retina processes information? I have always assumed that the retina was more of a detection system. It contains rods and cones that detect light and send nerve impulses to the brain, where the processing actually occurs. That’s incredible technology, to be sure, and the response time would have to be very fast, which is also quite impressive. However, I wouldn’t think of that as processing information. I would love to hear more about how the retina actually processes information.

  16. Bill McClymonds says:

    I am certainly no expert when it comes to understanding all of the processing done by the retina. The quote I saw that first got me interested in retinal processing power is from 1985. Much has been discovered since that time but I haven’t seen any computer comparison figures that are more recent. That is why I emailed the neuroscientist I mentioned in my post. The quote listed below is from John Stevens who was a Ph.D. associate professor of physiology and biomedical engineering (Byte, April 1985).

    “To simulate 10 milliseconds of the complete processing of even a single nerve cell from the retina would require the solution of about 500 simultaneous non-linear differential equations one hundred times and would take at least several minutes of processing time on a Cray super-computer. Keeping in mind that there are 10 million or more such cells interacting with each other in complex ways, it would take a minimum of a hundred years of Cray time to simulate what takes place in your eye many times every second.”

    A good place to start looking into the retina might be the simple anatomy of the retina by Helga Kolb listed below. There are many articles in the sidebar and you can also search the site.

    http://webvision.med.utah.edu/book/part-i-foundations/simple-anatomy-of-the-retina/

    1. jlwile says:

      Thanks for the link, Bill!

  17. Bill McClymonds says:

    You are welcome. Thank you for all the information you provide on your website and all your helpful comments.

    If you want to really get into the more complex retinal connections you can Google retinal connectome. There is an interesting video of the connectome of the mouse retina if you are interested.