Friday, March 11, 2011

Dr. Frankenstein?

Craig Venter led the first privately funded effort to sequence the human genome. Some might think that would be enough to keep one busy for a while. Not so. Venter is currently trying to become the first to create synthetic life. If you're interested, here is his own short description of the method he is using to do so. [Warning: Scientific jargon included]

If this sounds bizarre and a little scary, that's understandable. But that's why we should be thankful for people like Fazale "Fuz" Rana of Reasons To Believe (RTB). Fuz was a senior research scientist with Procter & Gamble right here in Cincinnati before he left his job to join RTB's scientific apologetics ministry in Los Angeles. He's ahead of the curve on this topic and has just had his book, Creating Life In The Lab published to anticipate a response to this kind of research.

Rana believes Venter will be successful in creating synthetic life
within the next 5 years.

So what should we think about this?

If you have a couple hours to kill on a treadmill or something, have a listen as Dr. Rana discusses his thoughts on the matter with Greg Koukl on his weekly podcast here: Koukl - Rana Interview. [The interview with Fuz begins at the 57:00 minute mark of the podcast]

Here is my summary:

First, don't think that Venter is animating anything even remotely similar to something you might see walking around. What he is actually doing is reverse engineering simple, single-cell bacteria-like organisms (keyword: "engineering," but more on that later) to unlock ways to create novel, new lifeforms. These would be designed for specific purposes and unique in that they don't occur anywhere in nature.

Second, the research involved with this project has led those who are most deeply involved with it to a sense of complete befuddlement at how life could have actually originated on Earth. Some of the leading researchers in the field of Origin of Life (OOL) Research have thrown up their hands and admitted they "have nothing" when it comes to that question.

Third, Venter is a responsible scientist who includes genuine ethicists on his research team. Some of the "creations" these folks are working on allow for the possibility of an experiment run amok but, Venter at least, seems to be sensitive to those concerns. That said, I have no idea about Venter's personal ethical beliefs, nor would I even begin to be qualified to vouch for his, or others, motivations or conscience limits. I also know that human beings have repeatedly shown that they are bent toward pursuing the worst possible ends in this regard. It is something that needs to be monitored. But the indications so far are that this is not an issue.

Fourth, along those lines, the goals of this research so far are to create organisms that can provide the capability to clean up oil spills or offer new fuel sources. These are noble goals that seem to be morally neutral, if not positive when it comes to helping human being and improving their quality of life.

Fifth, and most importantly, be ready for the headlines you will hear when Venter is successful. "If scientists can create life in the lab," they will say, "it certainly isn't any big deal to find it here on Earth. Therefore, there can't be anything special about it."


Craig Venter's team knows the kind of products they are trying to create. In fact, Venter's preferred technique is to take living organisms and disassemble them to identify the minimal genetic components with which they can operate. He then uses those component parts and introduces viruses into them to promote protein growth to obtain his "novel" forms of life. Venter's team consists of dozens of scientists working tirelessly in pristine conditions to do their work. Rana notes that they are continually having to devise new ways to overcome the destructive tendencies of nature to force their designs to work.

In other words, Venter's team is utilizing teamwork, ingenuity, higher order thinking, complex design and detailed planning to create the most rudimentary kind of lifeforms, all the time knowing the end they have in mind.

To expect an undirected, purposeless process like Darwinian natural selection to produce not only the same results, but to go orders of magnitude beyond that and produce the very minds of the researchers who are involved in this endeavor -- minds like Craig Venter's -- is more than wishful thinking.

It is denial -- denial of what Venter is really proving -- that the existence of even the simplest form of life is a novel demonstration that it must have been designed by an intelligent source that exceeds the grasp of our wildest imaginations. He is proving intelligent design.

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Relativism: Why It Matters

I realize that some of my examples here may sound like I am insisting on pushing trivialities -- and I have been accused of such by some who think I am making too big a deal about it or that I care too much about it.

Nothing could be further from the truth (no pun intended).

The fact is that you cannot live your life in the real world on relativistic terms. Everyone believes in objective truth and objective morality and lives their lives accordingly. If someone claims not to believe in objective morality just steal his iPod and tell him that "your" morality allows it -- then watch his reaction. Or listen to the relativist (who loves to exalt the need to be tolerant and non-judgmental) respond to those someone who insists she is wrong about something and takes her to task on the issue. The fact is that relativists are the most intolerant, judgmental people you will ever meet.

They have to be, because no matter how strongly they deny objective reality, they have to live in the real world just like everyone else -- and no one can live in a relativistic world.

To deny the existence of absolute truth or morality is to deny the way the real world actually works. As my colleague Frank Turek puts it, when someone makes a relativistic claim, apply the claim to itself. Here's what it looks like:

They say: "There are no absolutes!" You respond: "Is that absolutely true?"

They say: "It may be true for you, but it's not for me." You respond: "Is that true for everybody, or just you?"

They say: "Doubt everything." You respond: "Should I doubt that, too?"

They say: "You shouldn't judge people!" You respond: "Then why are you judging me?"

Here's the thing about truth:

Contrary beliefs are possible, but contrary truths are not possible.

You can believe everything is true, but everything cannot be true.

Objective truth cannot be denied without being affirmed.

For the Christian, there is an equally pressing issue at stake because the denial of objective truth also runs up against the statements of Christ himself. Jesus Christ said that he came to "testify to the truth." He claimed that he was "THE way, THE truth, and THE life." He didn't say, "A" truth, he said "The" truth. There is no way to make those types of claims cohere with a relativistic view of truth. It just doesn't work. There certainly isn't any Biblical support for the concept of relative truth. The very idea is antithetical, not only to Christian doctrine, but to reality itself.

And nobody can live like that.