Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

04/22/2010 (9:29 am)

Anthony Flew To Heaven, Perhaps, On Wings Of DNA

antony-flew_1615344c

The famous skeptical philosopher Anthony Flew died last week after a long illness. He was 87.

When I wrote about miracles last August, I discussed an argument by David Hume, Scots philosopher from the 18th century, and the modern update of his argument by Anthony Flew. Flew was an atheist with an odd specialty, in that he was one of the foremost modern experts in philosophy regarding miracles. He was more than that, though; he was probably the leading living champion of atheism in the world. And then, after an adult lifetime of skepticism, in 2004 he became a Theist.

Not a Christian, mind you, although he claimed he was open to that. A Theist; he became convinced by the evidence available to modern science that some sort of God must exist. To hear him tell it, he was convinced by the extreme fine-tuning science was discovering in the cosmos, and particularly by what was being discovered about DNA. He observed that recent discoveries lend strength to the argument from design.

When I discussed the Teleological argument for the existence of God (also called the argument from design) back in December of 2008, I wrote only about the Anthropic Principle, the study of those variables in the laws of nature the values of which must have been fine-tuned in order for what we call life to have been remotely possible. I wrote that cosmologists have discovered that at the beginning of our universe, the odds against the possibility of life anywhere in the universe were so infinitesimally small that there would have been no life at all unless the singular explosion had been carefully engineered to produce it.

However, the result of 50 years of study concerning the structure and function of DNA is every bit as impressive as the result of 40 years of cosmology examining anthropic constants, impressive enough to convince a thorough-going rationalist like Anthony Flew. So in commemoration of a great philosopher, I’m going to amend my discussion of the Teleological argument by discussing the wonder of DNA.

To talk about DNA, we have to start by talking about language. Bear with me…

Languages contain layers of abstraction. There is no logical or mechanical connection between the sounds we make and the objects we indicate when we make them; they’re completely arbitrary. Imagine I’m an proto-lingual cave man (tough, I know). The first time I encounter that furry creature making a purring sound as it rubs against my leg begging for food, what should I call it? Even if I decide to call it a “purrrrrr” I’ve intelligently mimicked its sound. But why would I call it a “kat” rather than, say, a “hammer,” or a “blik?” What do the sounds “k,” “a,” and “t” have to do with that particular animal? Answer: nothing at all. They’re just sounds. Somebody, or a large group of somebodies operating by common agreement, has to assign the sounds to the animal, in order for the combined sounds “k,” “a,” and “t” to refer to that particular animal. Furthermore, there is no logical or mechanical connection between a semicircle open on the right, “c,” and the sound “k,” or between a vertical stroke with a bottom hook to the right, crossed near the top, “t,” to its sound. Those are also completely arbitrary. Again, somebody, or a group of somebodies operating by agreement, has to assign those shapes to those sounds in order for them to be useful in conveying meanings. Every language contains at least these two nested levels of abstraction — even before we get to syntactical rules, which add yet another nested layer of arbitrary assignments.

It is the abstractions that distinguish languages from mechanical processes like the creation of dunes on the shore. Wave motion can create fascinating patterns on the shoreline, but those patterns do not contain meaning, and they are never abstract; the shapes conform directly to the motion of the waves in mechanical fashion.

The abstractions of language denote intent; and specifically, intent to communicate meaning. And because of these abstractions and this intent, is it simply not possible for a language to arise without some intelligent agent to arbitrarily assign indicators to objects or actions. This is, in fact, a definition. Language requires intelligence and intent, and can never, ever, be separated from them.

DNAAlphabetDNA is a language.

Take a moment to let that sink in. DNA is not like a language; it is a language. Grammar, syntax, spelling, vocabulary, sentence structure… everything. And because DNA is a language, complete with layers of abstraction and arbitrary assignment of unrelated objects to produce meaning, it has to have been devised; it came from a mind. It is simply not logically possible in any plausible world for DNA to arise without a mind.

DNA uses a four-character alphabet to spell out instructions. The four characters are actually proteins: adenine (designated by the letter A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T). These proteins come ordered in pairs, called “base pairs,” and the base pairs are strung together in sequences according to syntactical rules. The sequences of base pairs spell out instructions for constructing protein molecules, which get carried out by RNA molecules within cells. In this way, the cell is very much like an automated factory with several separate assembly lines, like those that build automobiles, and the DNA is like a huge computer program that controls the building process. The amount of information is overwhelming; the DNA in an amoeba contains encoded messages equivalent in length to 1,000 volumes of an encyclopedia. The process is also overwhelming, and involves reading, transport, assembly, timing, and replication; biologists studying the process have resorted to borrowing descriptors from manufacturing engineers to describe what they’re seeing, because it’s so similar to human-built factories.

This system of programming and executing protein construction has to have been present in the very earliest life forms on earth, whatever they were, as this process is the basis of all life on earth. Consequently, while it is likely — proven, according to some — that life evolves on our planet, it is not logically possible that life arose in the first place without an intentional designer. What we call “evolution” is a process in our biosphere that begins with organisms that already possess the power to reproduce; it does not, and cannot, explain how the first living organism came to exist, or how the process of reproduction came to exist. Charles Darwin actually admitted this in On the Origin of Species, and now that we understand how DNA works, we can consider it a scientific fact: evolution cannot explain the beginning of life. The DNA/RNA manufacturing process is far too complex to have arisen on its own. Briefly put, we’ve opened up the earliest life form, and found a 5 million line computer program in it. The implication is obvious.

alphabitsFrank Turek, the author of the seminar on which this series is based, uses a breakfast cereal from his childhood to illustrate. The cereal was called “Alpha Bits,” and consisted of ground-up grains formed and baked into the shapes of letters of the alphabet. Imagine you’re 10 years old, and you wake up one morning and come down to breakfast. You find a box of Alpha Bits lying on its side on the table. Letters have spilled out and are lying in this pattern: “TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE – MOM”. If Mom comes home later and finds that the garbage has not been taken out, and comes to you to find out why, will she accept as an excuse “I just thought the cat had knocked over the box, and the letters spilled out?” Of course she won’t. The coherent message clearly indicates intent. DNA spells out similar messages, only they’re a bit longer.

It was learning about processes like DNA/RNA manufacturing that eventually convinced Anthony Flew that a God of some sort must exist. Flew’s God was deistic; that is, he imagined that he/she/it constructed the universe and stood back to let it run. He had some issues about the personal God of Christianity or Judaism; Flew was raised a Methodist, and eventually left the faith over the Problem of Evil. Though he spent the last 20 years of his life debating publicly with Christian apologist Gary Habermas, and they became good friends, it is not clear that he ever resolved this problem for himself.

It is God’s job to judge departed souls, not mine. Theological purists will surely insist that unless Flew prayed a specific prayer of repentance, he’s consigned to hell. I’m fairly well convinced that God is not such a stickler as to demand specific words, and that he’s more inclined to look at what direction a man is facing, and what he’s moving toward; but all judgment rests with Him, and for better or worse, He does not communicate His specific decisions to those of us who remain. I can only hope, and note, with sadness and admiration, the passing of a mind uniformly acknowledged to have been great.

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