Where Did Western Philosophy Begin?

Artist Frank Wu’s interpretation of Job 1:20-21. (click to go to the artist’s website)

In my sophomore year at university, my roommate was Frank Wu. He was a fun, energetic guy, and we had a great time together. We remained friends throughout our time at university. I got married after my junior year, and Frank gave me and my wife an original painting, which is pictured above. It represents his artistic interpretation of my favorite passage in Scripture: Job 1:20-21. I have treasured the painting ever since he gave it to us. It hangs in my office where I can see it while I work. Now that he is an award-winning artist, it is probably worth some money, but that couldn’t possibly compare to the value it holds in my heart.

Because the book of Job contains my favorite passage in Scripture, I have probably read it more than any other book in the Bible, along with many commentaries. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across an interpretation of the book that I had never considered. It comes from Dr. Susan Neiman, director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany.

Dr. Neiman says this about the book of Job:

I am a philosopher who believes that Western philosophy begins not with Plato, but elsewhere, and earlier, with the Book of Job. That is because I believe that the problem of evil is the central point where philosophy begins, and threatens to stop.

The problem of evil, of course, is the apparently contradictory situation in which God is all-good and all-powerful, but there is suffering in the world. How could an all-good, all-powerful God allow that to happen? For centuries, Christians have written excellent answers to that question, so I don’t consider it a problem. See, for example, Chapter 14 in Warranted Christian Belief by Dr. Alvin Plantinga. However, it is a good question that every person who believes in an all-good, all-powerful God must consider.

Thus, I encourage you to read Dr. Neiman’s essay when you have time to consider it. I don’t agree with everything she says, especially when it comes to God’s omnipotence. However, the way she describes the roles of Job, his friends, and God is very interesting. I will spend more time considering her interpretation and perhaps write a follow-up article.

Cells Have Digital-to-Analog Converters

A schematic representation of the digital-to-analog conversion process.
(click to see credit for unedited image)

Suppose you want to listen to some music. You pull out your iPod or your phone, put the earbuds in your ears, and you start to enjoy your favorite tunes. You probably don’t think about the process that makes this possible: digital-to-analog conversion. Computers and devices based on them store all of their information digitally. On your iPod or phone, the music is stored as a string of 1’s and O’s. The 1’s represent electricity being on, and the 0’s represent electricity being off. So as your iPod or phone “plays” the music, it comes out digitally: as pulses of electricity, either on or off.

If you tried to listen to those pulses, they would make no sense to you, because your ears aren’t designed to hear things digitally. Instead, they are designed to hear sounds in a continuous flow. We call this analog. So while your iPod or phone stores music digitally, it must convert that music into a continuous, analog signal so that you can understand it. It does this with an electrical circuit called a digital-to-analog converter (DAC). Here is a picture of a simple one (click it for credit):

Obviously, the digital-to-analog converter in your phone or iPod is much more sophisticated. It produces a higher-quality analog signal, but probably more importantly, it is packed into a tiny space. That’s what really makes it sophisticated. It can do a complex job while taking up very little room.

It turns out that cells have essentially the same thing, but it is significantly more sophisticated than what you find in an iPod or phone.

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A Mother and Daughter Compare Apologia’s Chemistry to My Chemistry

In the fall of 2014, Apologia released the third edition of its chemistry course. While I had written the two previous editions, they went with two different authors for their third edition. I reviewed it and couldn’t recommend it to anyone. Since Apologia allowed its second edition to go out of print, I thought that homeschoolers needed another option, so I wrote a new chemistry course, which Berean Builders published in the summer of 2015. Many people have asked me how I compare my new book to Apologia’s new book, but it is hard for me to do that, since I am the author of one and not the other.

In December of last year, I received an email from a mother (Leeanne White) who needed advice about chemistry. Her daughter (Sarah) was using Apologia’s new chemistry book and was really struggling. She had gotten through the first three modules and just wasn’t getting it. I suggested that she use my book instead. She decided that was a good idea. I also asked her to consider writing a completely honest comparison of the two courses. She agreed.

Well, Sarah and Leeanne have been through four chapters of my book now, and they both agree that it works much better for them. They wrote up a review (which contains both perspectives), and it appears below. They promised to write another review once they are completely done, but I thought people might want to see what they think so far.

Note: They finished their review. The final version is here.

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Birds Seem to Intentionally Spread Fires!

Brown Falcons like this one have been observed intentionally spreading fires in Australia.
(click for credit)

Birds are incredibly intelligent animals. They work through certain probability problems better than some students, they communicate with people in order to hunt, they build structures with perspective in mind, they can figure out other birds’ desires, and they use and modify tools. Well, now we have one more thing to add to the list. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Ethnobiology, at least three species of bird (Black Kites, Whistling Kites, and Brown Falcons) also use fire!

It has been known for some time that certain birds of prey tend to congregate near wildfires. Most animals flee from fire, and that’s why the birds are there. After all, the fire is essentially flushing small animals out of the underbrush, making them easy prey for the birds. Now it’s not all that surprising for birds to notice the abundance of easy prey near a fire and eventually figure out that there is an association between fire and prey. However, the authors of this study confirmed something that Aboriginal Australians had known for quite some time – birds actually spread the fires to get even more prey!

This “fire spreading” has been depicted in sacred rituals of the Aboriginal Australians, but many non-Aboriginals have expressed skepticism. As a result, the authors of the study decided to conduct detailed interviews with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians to see if they could both confirm the behavior and figure out a pattern to it. Two of them (Ferguson and Eussen) also reviewed their own observations over years of field work in Australia. Based on the interviews and those observations, a pattern emerged.

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The Surprising Reason that Some Cave Fish are Blind

The Mexican blind cave fish (click for credit)

The Mexican tetra (Astyanax mexicanus) can be found living in fresh water above or below ground. The ones living in water above ground are “normal,” but the ones living in water below ground (where light is scarce or nonexistent) are blind. As you can see from the picture above, they don’t even have noticeable eyes. Why? The standard view has always been that seeing things takes a lot of energy, so if you can’t see anything because it is always dark, it doesn’t do any good to waste energy on a visual system. However, if you can see things, it is worth the energy, because a visual system allows you to more easily find food, avoid predators, find a mate, etc.

So, if you are a Mexican tetra living in the waters on the surface of the earth and disabling mutations occur in the genes of your visual system, your fellow Mexican tetras will out-compete you, and you will probably die without passing on those mutations to the next generation. However, if you are a Mexican tetra living in the dark and get the same disabling mutation, it will not affect your ability to survive and pass that mutation on to the next generation. As a result, mutations in the visual systems of underground Mexican tetras accumulated over time, leading to blind cave fish.

A couple of years ago, a study confirmed the first part of this story. By comparing the blind version of the species to the version that can see, they showed that the energy “cost” of having a visual system was 5%-15% of the fish’s total metabolism, depending on the size of the fish. As a result, it makes sense that fish who do not use their visual system (like cave fish) would be better off not having one. However, the second part of the story (mutations building up to disable the system) seems to have been falsified, at least for this particular species.

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Another Evolutionary Idea Falisified

In 1930, Dr. Ronald Fisher (statistician and geneticist) wrote a book entitled, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. In that book, he produced a mathematical proof of what he called the “Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection.” Partly due to his difficult writing style and partly due to a feud in the literature with American geneticist Dr. Sewall Wright, his theorem was misunderstood for quite some time. In 1972, however, physical chemist Dr. George R. Price explained it in a detailed way and showed that it was mathematically correct.

What is the importance of the Theorem and what does it say? This quote from Essential Readings in Evolutionary Biology (by Francisco J. Ayala, John C. Avise, 2014) answers both of those questions:

…Fisher’s formulation of the “fundamental theorem of natural selection,” which would play a preeminent role in the future development of evolutionary genetics: “The rate of increase in fitness of any organism at any time is equal to its genetic variation in fitness at that time.” (p. 73)

In other words, natural selection will cause an organism to increase in fitness as long as its population has variation in the genes associated with fitness. The more variation in those genes, the faster the organism will increase in fitness. As Drs. Ayala and Avise indicate, this theorem became very important in shaping the field of evolutionary genetics.

While Fisher’s fundamental theorem is still quite correct, it is limited. In particular, it doesn’t take the effect of mutations into account. However, there is a corollary attached to the theorem: Since mutations should increase the genetic variation in a population, mutations should lead to a faster rate of fitness increase. While that corollary was important in shaping Neo-Darwinism, a recent paper published in the Journal of Mathematical Biology has shown that it is false when even mildly realistic conditions are considered.

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Here’s Another College That Gets It

Six years ago, I wrote an article about Anderson University, where I am an adjunct professor. While the university clings strongly to the essentials of the Christian faith, it does not force its faculty to conform to one interpretation of Scripture. As a result, students are exposed to many different views that exist within Christendom.

In addition, rather than just trying to proselytize for their own view, the faculty are committed to making sure students understand the different ways Christians interpret the world through the lens of Scripture. This is best exemplified by an example. One of the science professors is an old-earth creationist, but he regularly invites me into his classes either to give a young-earth view of the science the students are learning or to engage in a friendly debate with him on the issue of the earth’s age. I especially like the latter, since students see that two people can engage in serious disagreements and still be good friends.

Just before Christmas, someone I respect and admire sent me an article that I wanted to share with my readers. It gives you another example of a Christian College (in this case, a seminary and Bible College) that gets it. To fully appreciate the article, however, you need to know the history behind it.

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A Christmas Letter from 1914

English and German soldiers celebrating Christmas on the Western Front in 1914.

It’s Christmas time again, and I am in the midst of preparing for many things, including the Christmas Eve service at church. I have been asked to do a short skit about Christmas. You can find some of my past attempts at dramatizing Christmas here, here, here, and here. The one I am doing for this year’s Christmas Eve service is much shorter, and it focuses on a remarkable event that happened during World War I: The Unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914. I think it illustrates the “peace, good will toward men” aspect of Christmas in a very tangible way. Parts of the drama (like the first four sentences) come straight from letters written by soldiers who participated in the event.

Ideally, the person doing the skit should be dressed in something like World War 1 gear. Honestly, a helmet and a long, ratty green coat over khaki pants would probably be good enough. An old-style rifle propped up next to him would be ideal. He should be sitting on a small stool or something like that (I will be sitting on one of the stairs that are on stage) and writing a letter.

As is the case with all of my dramatic material, please feel free to use this in any way you think might edify the Body of Christ. I would appreciate a credit, but there is no copyright on this piece.

Merry Christmas.

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Bias in Science

An illustration of the differences between RNA and DNA
(click for credit and a larger image)

Several years ago, Dr. Ivan Oransky (MD) and Adam Marcus (MA in science writing) started a blog called Retraction Watch, which reports on scientific papers that have been retracted by the journals that published them or the authors who wrote them. It provides a valuable service to those of us who frequently read the scientific literature, because many journals and authors don’t promote their retractions nearly as much as they promote their papers. Thus, if I want to see whether or not an important publication in the scientific literature has withstood the scrutiny of other scientists, I can check this blog.

Last week, while scanning the new entries, I ran across an interesting one. It reported on a major paper published last year in the journal Nature Chemistry. Despite the fact that it was published only 18 months ago, it has already been cited by 26 other papers in the scientific literature. Why? Because it appeared to solve a very serious problem in what is probably the most popular origin-of-life scenario.

Because the origin-of-life scenario I was taught as fact at university has fallen out of favor among origin-of-life researchers, other scenarios are being explored. One such scenario is the “RNA world” hypothesis. In this view, life was not initially based on DNA. Instead, it was based on a similar molecule, RNA (the differences between the two molecules are shown in the graphic above). This view has garnered a lot of attention, because RNA can do something DNA cannot. It can speed up chemical reactions without being used up in the process.

Why is this important? Many chemical reactions that occur in living systems happen slowly on their own. To be used by a cell, they need to be sped up. Cells do that today with enzymes, and they make those enzymes based on instructions that are found in their DNA. The problem is, of course, that a living system is needed to replicate DNA. But that living system depends on the information stored in DNA. How was DNA originally produced if its very replication is based on the information it contains? The RNA world gets rid of that problem.

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Lightning: A Natural Nuclear Reactor!

A thunderstorm in Annemasse, Haute-Savoie, France (click for full credit info)

In 1994, a scientific team using the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory reported seeing intense gamma ray flashes coming from the earth. The researchers called it an “unexplained terrestrial phenomenon,” but they noted:

The apparent correlation of the events with storm systems leads us to hypothesize that they are caused by electrical discharges to the stratosphere or ionosphere.

This generated interest among certain research groups, so ground-based observatories, airborne detectors, and other space-based observatories began looking for the same thing. It is now well-known that lightning is accompanied by the production of high-energy gamma rays.

While these gamma rays are of high enough energy to induce nuclear reactions, until now there has been no conclusive evidence that such reactions are actually occurring in connection with lightning storms. However, thanks in part to a Japanese academic crowdfunding site, we now have strong evidence that lightning does, indeed, produce nuclear reactions in the atmosphere!

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