Biomedical Solutions to COVID-19 Highlight Human Immune System Design

BY FRANCISCO DELGADO – SEPTEMBER 25, 2020MORESHARE

By Francisco Delgado

As the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) continues to wreak havoc throughout the world, scientists have been working diligently to come up with a solution to this daunting pandemic. Hopes remain high for a vaccine, but a safe and effective one may not come soon enough to prevent more people from being infected.

In the meantime, researchers are looking furiously for alternative forms of treatment that can help those who have already been infected. We know so far that steroids and a new antiviral medication called Remdesivir can provide some relief by acting directly on the virus and preventing replication, but better medications are needed, and soon.

We can also find solutions by learning how the immune system protects us against viral infections. Novel biomedical solutions involve B cells: Convalescent plasma therapy and monoclonal antibodies. By mimicking the immune system’s operation, biomedical researchers are making significant progress toward this end, highlighting the elegant and sophisticated design of the immune system.

B Cells

When a virus or another microorganism enters the body, it is initially captured by sentinel cells in our immune system. These cells break the microorganism into many fragments and “present” these fragments to special cells called B cells. The B cells that “recognize” the fragments will be recruited in the fight against the microorganism. The cells will replicate themselves in high numbers and become factories that produce proteins called antibodies whose goal is to neutralize the microorganism and protect the body from further harm. The population of B cells is a clone of the original one that recognized the fragments presented by the sentinel cells and the antibodies are highly specific in targeting the particular infecting microorganism.

Convalescent Plasma Therapy

When a person is in the recovery stage from a viral infection, these B cells produce a significant amount of specific antibodies against the virus circulating in their blood. This principle is the basis for convalescent plasma therapy, in which the blood from a person who has recovered from a viral infection is harvested and the plasma or liquid portion of the blood that contains these antibodies is separated. This plasma is then transfused to a sick person with the hope that it contains enough antibodies to fight the virus and let the person recover more rapidly.

Even though the principles for convalescent plasma therapy are straightforward, the plasma may not have enough neutralizing antibodies to help the sick person who is receiving it. If this is the case, the benefit may be minimal. One of the solutions for this problem is to “pool” many donors and prepare a mixture of plasma from different donors in the hope that one may have enough neutralizing antibodies to fight the infection. Another solution is to screen the plasma for those neutralizing antibodies and use the plasma units that have a high number of antibodies against a pathogen.

Monoclonal Antibodies

In a second research effort, scientists have sought to take the guesswork out of the process of harvesting convalescent plasma by employing a new technique in the medical field called monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal antibodies try to mimic the way in which the B cells protect us against viral infections. These antibodies are proteins designed to attach to specific three-dimensional molecules. That interaction can result in the modification of a cell function or, in the case of infectious diseases, block a pathogen from entering a cell.

The use of monoclonal antibodies is relatively new. The first monoclonal antibody was licensed in 1986.1 Today there are over 75 FDA-licensed monoclonal antibodies that researchers use to treat cancer, chronic inflammatory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and to aid in transplantation. However, only a handful of them are available for the treatment of infectious diseases. One of the most recent successful such applications involved treatment of Ebola virus.2

There are several ways to manufacture monoclonal antibodies, but all are complex and expensive. Some of them use human tissue and some use transgenic mice.3 Once biomedical researchers obtain the desired antibody (or mixture of antibodies), it proceeds through clinical trials to evaluate its efficacy as a treatment for a disease. The process to produce an effective monoclonal antibody is long and can take months to years. Nevertheless, this solution has materialized by studying the human immune system in exquisite detail.

The COVID-19 Challenge

Coronaviruses have a very distinct protein on their surface that resembles a crown. It is this protein (SPIKE protein) that gives the virus its name (corona = crown). The interaction of this protein with the ACE2 protein on the surface of a human cell allows the virus to invade the cell and start its replication cycle. During the first months of the pandemic, researchers studied the SPIKE protein in great depth and they have now developed monoclonal antibodies against this protein.4 As of today, a few companies have moved to the testing phase for some of these antibodies in clinical trials. However, results may not be available until late 2020. Nevertheless, some people believe that researchers will produce monoclonal antibodies before we have a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2.5

The Case for Design

The coronavirus pandemic has sparked a massive hunt for solutions that can help decrease the virus’s global impact. The amount of resources and the number of people involved in the development of novel therapies is astounding.

It is remarkable to think that with all the accumulated knowledge in the world and with a massive amount of resources behind this research, it will take us many months to accomplish what the immune system can do in just a few days. The complexity and efficiency with which our bodies run this process speak loudly about the exquisite design of our immune system. As the psalmist writes, we truly are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Endnotes
  1. Justin K. H. Liu, “The History of Monoclonal Antibody Development—Progress, Remaining Challenges and Future Innovations,” Annals of Medicine and Surgery 3, no. 4 (December 2014): 113–16, .
  2. Sabue Mulangu et al., “A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Ebola Virus Disease Therapeutics,” New England Journal of Medicine 381 (December 12, 2019): 2293–2303,
    doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1910993.
  3. Laura M. Walker and Dennis R. Burton, “Passive Immunotherapy of Viral Infections: ‘Super Antibodies’ Enter the Fray,” Nature Reviews Immunology 18 (January 30, 2018): 297–308,
    doi:10.1038/nri.2017.148.
  4. Xiaolong Tian et al., “Potent Binding of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Spike Protein by a SARS Coronavirus-Specific Human Monoclonal Antibody,” Emerging Microbes and Infections, vol. 9 no. 1 (February 17, 2020): 382–85,
    doi:10.1080/22221751.2020.1729069.
  5. Jon Cohen, “Antibodies May Curb Pandemic before Vaccines,” Science 369, no. 6505 (August 14, 2020): 752–53, doi:10.1126/science.369.6505.752.

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THE AUTHORFrancisco Delgado

BIOFrancisco Delgado was born in Mexico. He did his premedical studies at the University of Arizona and received his medical degree with honors from Universidad La Salle in Mexico City. After comple… Read more about Francisco Delgado.

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New International VersionEveryone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.Read at Bible GatewayRead all of John 3
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The 3 Transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, & Beauty

BY KENNETH R. SAMPLES – FEBRUARY 2, 2021MORESHARE

What is real? What is right? What is lovely? Human beings ask these kinds of questions because we long for at least three things: truth, goodness, and beauty.

Prominent philosophers through the centuries have called these three cosmic values transcendentals. A transcendental refers to something that exists beyond the time-space-matter world. It is a universal reality that extends beyond our everyday sensory experiences and is thus considered nonphysical, immaterial, conceptual, or even spiritual. In philosophy, the transcendental relates to and seeks to describe the nature of reality or being. Therefore, one may think of these values as timeless universals and attributes of being.

In this introductory article I’ll briefly describe how the three transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty were viewed in the classical world. Then I’ll show how Christian civilization accommodated them as truths of general revelation and grounded them in the nature of the triune God.

Classical Civilization’s View of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty The classical world (or classical antiquity) consisted largely of the Greco-Roman society that was centered around the Mediterranean Sea and existed at its peak for roughly a millennium—from about 500 BC to 500 AD. The great cultures of Greece and Rome flourished and deeply influenced Europe, North Africa, and West Asia. The grand cities of this period included Athens, Rome, and even Jerusalem. Some of the dominant philosophies of this era included Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism.

For the famous Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, the world had genuine meaning and purpose. The cosmic values of truth (that which defines reality), goodness (that which fulfills its purpose), and beauty (that which is lovely) were objective in nature and knowable by the noble seeker. Since human beings had the internal capacities of logos (reason), ethos (morality), and pathos (emotion), these internal capacities corresponded to the cosmic values and brought forth human fulfillment:

  • Logos corresponds to truth
  • Ethos corresponds to goodness
  • Pathos corresponds to beauty

Scholar Stephen R. Turley describes the classical view that human capacities match with and are fulfilled by these cosmic values:

Truth, goodness, and beauty are cosmic values that communicate divine meaning to the intellectual, moral, and aesthetic capacities of the human soul, which brings a balance in the soul, which, in turn, harmonizes the human person with divine meaning and purpose of the cosmos, which was considered the prerequisite to human flourishing.1

Christian Civilization’s View of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

By the fifth century AD paganism had been largely converted to Christianity. Thus Christian civilization would dominate the Western world and parts of the East for largely a millennium (about 500 to 1500). Christian philosophers and theologians appropriated the truth of these cosmic values as truths of general revelation but grounded them in the nature of the triune God. God doesn’t have truth, goodness, and beauty; rather, God is truth, goodness, and beauty. We can state it this way:

All truth is God’s truth.
All goodness is God’s goodness.
All beauty is God’s beauty.

When God created, he imbued the cosmos with truth, goodness, and beauty. Philosopher Peter Kreeft says: “Everything that exists is in some way true, good, and beautiful.”2And humans via the imago Dei (image of God) are able to know the truth, desire the good, and love the beautiful. The fall of humankind into sin disordered man’s natural capacities but through the redemption found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ humans are brought back into a right relationship with God and with these revealed values.

According to historic Christianity, humans (as creatures) have been made to know and worship the triune God. And our present longing for truth, goodness, and beauty exists because these values reflect the ultimate source, which is the maximally perfect God. When we pursue truth, goodness, and beauty in this life and in this world we are tracking the majesty of the Lord.

In future articles I will write about the theological, philosophical, and apologetics implications of the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Reflections: Your Turn

How have the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty impacted your life? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. I transcribed this quote from Steve Turley’s interview with Janet Mefferd: https://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/4001416/Blog%20Photos/steveturley_151020_Sample.mp3.
  2. Peter Kreeft on Goodness, Truth, Beauty, and Boredom: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RH2X-bQdgxQ.

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Will Elon Musk’s Neuralink Make It Possible to Control Electronic Devices with Our Minds?

BY FAZALE RANA – JANUARY 27, 2021MORESHARE11

He needs little by way of introduction. By some accounts, he is the second richest man in the world. And through his companies Tesla and SpaceX, this entrepreneur’s vision is to change humanity’s future.

Elon Musk thinks that rocket technology will allow us to one day colonize Mars and beyond. The industrial designer also thinks that gasoline-powered automobiles will soon be likened to the steam engine, a relic of past technology, as renewable sources of energy power motorized vehicles.

Musk’s motivation to pursue future-shaping technologies is fueled by a hopeful optimism. In a speech to the National Governors Association in 2017, the innovator said, “The thing that drives me is that I want to be able to think about the future and feel good about that.”

In 2016, Musk helped found Neuralink, a company with the express goal of building a neural implant that can sync with the human brain, affording us the ability to control computers, electronic devices, and machines using only our thoughts. Neuralink’s neural implants are among the latest developments in brain-computer interface (BCI) technology.

Like many others working with BCIs, Musk and his colleagues at Neuralink have a humanitarian motivation for advancing this technology. They hope that their neural implants will soon make their way into clinical settings, providing the means to treat various debilitating diseases and injuries. They also see neural implants as representing the next generation of technological advances that provide more seamless interface between the human user and all the different electronic devices that are part of our lives. Who knows, if Neuralink is successful, maybe one day we will be able to use their implants to stream music directly into our brains.

The Threat of AI
But for Musk, there is a much greater imperative for developing BCI technologies than easing human suffering or developing futuristic technology. He is concerned that if we don’t, humanity’s existence will be in jeopardy. Musk believes that by 2025, AI (artificial intelligence) will surpass human intellectual capacity. When this happens, Musk fears that we will become like pets to the very AI systems we invented, running the risk of becoming subjects to AI overlords. In short, Musk sees AI as the greatest existential threat to humanity.

For Musk, the only way to stave off the threat from AI is to develop neural implants that augment our brain’s capacity for cognition and the storage and retrieval of information and memories. Interfacing our brains with computer hardware and software will give us superhuman intellectual capacities. It would even allow our brains to use machine-learning algorithms that will meld our minds with AI technology.

Ironically, in contrast to the optimism that fuels the work of SpaceX and Tesla, for Musk it is a pessimism about a potential future shaped by AI technology that ultimately undergirds Neuralink’s mission. Because of his vision for Neuralink’s technology, Musk has become a leading advocate for the transhumanist agenda—the idea that we should use science and technology to augment human beings beyond our natural biological limits.

It almost goes without saying that Neuralink’s pursuit generates a mixture of excitement and angst in all of us. As a Christian, it prompts me to ask a number of questions about advances in BCI technology.

  • Should we use this remarkable technology for biomedical purposes?
  • Should we use neural implants to create a more seamless interface between humans and electronic devices?
  • Should we use BCIs to enhance our cognitive capacity?
  • Should we embrace the future envisioned by Elon Musk?
  • Can technology save us from existential threats?
  • Can technology rescue each of us as individuals from our impending death?

But before I address these concerns, I think it would be helpful to discuss BCI technology in general, and, specifically, the design of Neuralink’s neural implants.

Brain-Computer Interfaces
BCIs are electronic devices that provide an interface between the electrical activities of the user’s brain and computer and machine hardware and software. Users learn to control computer software and hardware with BCIs, directing the activity of the devices with their thoughts. Through the use of sophisticated algorithms, BCIs help extract the user’s intent from the electrical activity in their brain, establishing a collaboration between the user and the BCI.

Invasive BCIs are the most advanced form of the technology. To install these devices, biomedical researchers implant BCIs directly into the brain. This approach allows biomedical researchers to stimulate and record the average electrical activity of thousands of neurons in specific regions of the brain. Unfortunately, this capability comes with a cost. The process of inserting electrodes into the brain can damage tissue, leading to scar formation. Electrodes implanted in the brain can also trigger an immune response. And, over time, glial cells in the brain migrate to the electrodes coating them. When this happens, it leads to loss of function.

However, Neuralink’s developing neural implants may overcome many of these problems.1

The Neuralink BCI
The key to Neuralink’s technology lies in the microelectrodes they have developed. Their microelectrodes appear to be safer, longer lasting, and more biocompatible than the electrodes currently used in BCIs. The current electrodes tend to be rigid and possess a fixed geometry. Because of their rigidity, when these electrodes are implanted in the brain they often cause damage, triggering an immune reaction and causing scarring in the brain. Their rigidity and fixed geometry also constrain their access to neuronal populations, reducing the resolution of BCIs.

Neuralink’s microelectrodes consist of a flexible gold filament coated with a biocompatible polyimide polymer. Neuralink technologists have used these microelectrodes to construct a multielectrode probe that consists of an array of either 48 or 96 threads, with each thread consisting of 32 individual microelectrodes.

The thin electrodes cause minimal brain tissue displacement when inserted into the brain. Their flexibility makes their insertion into the brain easier and less traumatic to the brain tissue.

To ensure high precision insertion of their microelectrode probes into the brain, Neuralink has also developed a microsurgical robot capable of inserting 6 threads per minute, allowing each thread to be inserted into the brain with exacting microscopic precision. This process permits the BCI to be implanted into specific brain regions, while avoiding vasculature (blood vessels). This precision process minimizes bleeding in the brain from damaged blood vessels.

The design of the Neuralink implant makes it possible to construct a BCI with 3,072 individual channels (for a 96-thread microelectrode array) that can digitize and amplify the electrical activity of neurons in specific brain regions. The full bandwidth of data is streamed using a single USB cable that can wirelessly transmit data to and from the brain using bluetooth technology.

In short, the Neuralink BCI dramatically improves upon existing BCI technology by: (1) causing less damage to the brain during implantation, (2) enhancing the working life of the BCI (from weeks and months to years), (3) increasing the resolution of the BCI, allowing the recording of the electrical activity of smaller neuron populations, and (4) offering the user greater mobility and comfort by eliminating cables that would “stick out” of their head.

Many experts believe that Neuralink’s BCI technology is a significant step forward and will move BCI technology that much closer to wide scale clinical use. As a Christian it is hard not to be excited about Neuralink’s BCI technology. These devices provide reasonable hope that in the near future the pain and suffering associated with neuromuscular disease, brain and spinal cord injuries, loss of limbs, etc. will be greatly alleviated.

Yet, the same experts question if Neuralink can achieve its grand vision for neural implants. It is one thing to generate simple movements by decoding brain activity. But it is another thing altogether to extract complex mental states from the electrical activity of neurons firing in different regions of the brain.

Neuralink’s Vision: Hope or Hype?
The chief complaint of Neuralink’s critics stems from their observation that Elon Musk and the Neuralink team seem to place an inordinate amount of attention on bioengineering and fail to give enough attention to neuroscience.

These skeptics point out that an engineering approach to neural implants incorrectly views the brain as nothing more than hardware, and our thoughts, emotions, and memories as data. And, while these analogies can be helpful, critics assert, it is important to remember that the brain isn’t hardware and memory isn’t a video playing in our minds. Science journalist Adam Rogers warns that “Neuralink might be headed to a metaphor-based failure.”2

As a case in point: no one knows what the neural substrate (foundation) for thoughts actually is. This understanding is critical for more advanced applications of neural implants. It is quite possible that when people think, the electrical activity of neurons is merely an epiphenomenon. Many neuroscientists think that neuronal activity is only an indication that the person is thinking. It cannot tell us what they are thinking, feeling, or remembering.

Likewise, when it comes to memory—though scientists are beginning to understand the biochemical processes and neurophysiology connected with memory formation, storage, and retrieval—we have no clue how these processes translate into actual memories.

Compounding these concerns is the nagging problem that we don’t know what consciousness is, how it is generated, or even if it is immaterial.

Until neuroscientists solve these problems, critics assert, Neuralink has little hope of success in accomplishing their grand design.

Still, having noted these concerns, it is possible that users could be trained to issue much more complex commands to computer systems with their thoughts, even if scientists and engineers lack basic understanding about the neurological basis for thoughts and memories. As it is now, users have to be trained to use current BCI technology to control computer software and prosthetic limbs. It is also possible that the use of sophisticated machine-learning software and AI algorithms could be coupled with BCI technology to enable neural implants to decode complex mental states. In effect, this tact appears to be the one that Musk and his Neuralink collaborators are taking with their engineering-first approach.

BCIs: A Source of Hope? A Source of Salvation?
Whether or not Elon Musk and Neuralink can deliver on their vision for neural implants, the fact remains that they have produced some pretty impressive technology. This accomplishment inspires hope in many people that one day soon we will be able to routinely use BCI technology for human enhancement purposes. Perhaps Neuralink’s brain implants will allow us, one day, to integrate brains with computer systems and, in doing so, enhance our mental capabilities beyond our natural biological limits. Perhaps in the near future we will be able to seamlessly download information to our brains or upload and retrieve information, along with our thoughts and memories, to the cloud or to share information and our ideas and emotions with other BCI users. BCI technology may even make it possible for each of us to control electronic devices in remote locations throughout the world, any place that the internet can reach. Maybe one day we will even be able to link our minds together with the minds of others to work as a collective.

And, the thinking goes, if these types of enhancements can be achieved, then maybe it will soon be possible for us to upload our conscience into a machine framework, attaining a type of digital immortality.

In other words, for a growing number of people, science and technology may become the means of our “salvation”—allowing us to overcome our biological limitations, going one step further by even conquering death. Humans may achieve a type of immortality—even if it is a digital one.

These are the kinds of goals that fuel the transhumanism movement.

Using science and technology to mitigate pain and suffering and to drive human progress is nothing new. (And it is something that Christians can stand behind.) But transhumanists desire more. They maintain that humanity has a moral obligation to use advances in biotechnology and bioengineering to take control of our own evolution with the ultimate objective of creating new and improved versions of human beings and, as a result, ushering in a posthuman future.

In effect, transhumanists desire to create a utopia of our own design through science and technology. Though clothed in the language of science and technology—make no mistake—a strong religious undercurrent buoys transhumanism. In this regard, for those practicing the religion of techno faith, transhumanism serves as the source of hope, purpose, and density for each individual and humanity at large.

Provocatively, while many transhumanists see our inherent biological flaws and limitations as the ultimate existential threat humans face, Musk views the AI technology that we will soon develop as the greatest danger that we face as a species. And yet, in a type of tautological irony, Musk’s proposed solution to this technological threat involves the use of technology to modify humans so that we can compete with the AI systems we will inevitably design. Remarkably, Musk wants us to use AI technology to power the neural implants with the express purpose of enhancing our cognitive abilities so that we remain safe from the threat of AI systems.

But can the transhumanist agenda deliver on its promises?

Can Elon Musk achieve his objective?

I am skeptical for a number of reasons that my coauthor Kenneth Samples and I detail in our book Humans 2.0One of these reasons is called the salvation paradox.

The Salvation Paradox
By pursuing Musk’s version of the transhumanist vision (with the hope that we will save ourselves from extinction by integrating our biology with computer systems fueled by AI technology), we may well usher in our own demise—the very thing that Musk seeks to avoid.

Like Musk, many transhumanists seek to save humanity by creating a posthuman world. But, in effect, if successful what we will wind up saving won’t be us. Philosopher Patrick Hopkins provides sobering analysis:

Suppose technology has changed me so much that I am no longer a member of the human species, no longer limited by any species-defining human cognitive characteristics. I have changed so much that the existence I now experience is incomprehensible to my former, limited, human self. As much as that language may sound wonderful, exciting, and liberating at first, thinking about it more in depth reveals that such a technological process offers far less to me than hoped…The end result will be some kind of successor entity to me, but it will not be me.3

So, for no other reason than the salvation paradox, the transhumanist agenda provides people with a false hope at best. In this sense, Musk’s version of transhumanism is a dangerous idea. In fact, transhumanism may well be one of the most dangerous ideas ever confronting humanity. For, if this agenda is accomplished in the way many transhumanists envision, it will likely accelerate our extinction. As theologian Brent Waters so aptly points out, “It [transhumanism] is counterfeit…because the cost of victory is the elimination of the very creatures that need to be saved. One has to destroy humankind to save human beings.”4

In short, Neuralink’s technology offers exciting biomedical applications that will mitigate much human pain and suffering. It might even open up the prospects of offering us more seamless interfacing with electronic devices. Both are worthwhile undertakings. But make no mistake, technology can never save us. It can never grant us eternal life. It should never be the source of our hope, purpose, and destiny.

Resources

Endnotes
  1. Elon Musk and Neuralink, “Integrated Brain-Machine Interface Platform with Thousands of Channels,” BioRxiv (August 2, 2020), doi:10.1101/703801.
  2. Adam Rogers, “Neuralink Is Impressive Tech, Wrapped in Musk Hype,” Wired, September 4, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/neuralink-is-impressive-tech-wrapped-in-musk-hype/.
  3. Patrick D. Hopkins, “A Salvation Paradox for Transhumanism: Saving You versus Saving You,” in H± Transhumanism and Its Critics, ed. by Gregory R. Hansell and William Grassie (Philadelphia, PA: Metanexus Institute, 2011), 77–78.
  4. Brent Waters, “Whose Salvation? Which Eschatology?” in Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement, ed. by Ronald Cole-Turner (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011), 173.

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I watched helplessly as my father died a Muslim. Though he and I would argue about my conversion, I was unable to convince him of the truth of the Christian faith.

I became a Christian as a … Read more about Fazale Rana.

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The Incredible Ultramicro Building Blocks of Creation

BY GUEST WRITER – JANUARY 25, 2021MORESHARE12

By Don C. Olson

Who in America is not familiar with Legos? Lego is perhaps one of the most recognizable brands in the world. It was recently estimated that 400 million children and adults worldwide play with Lego pieces each year.1 Is the human fascination with such building blocks analogous to what science reveals about the universe’s creation?

One might think Legos are an American product, but the Lego company is actually Danish. Lego is a word created by contracting two Danish words, “leg godt,” that mean “play well.” My sons grew up with Legos and since their grandparents lived in Denmark, their Lego collection probably exceeded that of most families in America. The colorful, sturdy, simple yet versatile interlocking design of Lego pieces, as well as maintenance of exacting quality control in their manufacture, led to their international success. They are made with such high precision that a brick from today will snugly interlock with a brick from the 1960s. With just a few different bricks, an unlimited number of different objects can be constructed (e.g., six bricks of 2 × 4 studs can be combined in 915,103,765 ways2).So far, 400 billion of the iconic bricks have been produced and used to construct hundreds of millions of different objects as well as entire model towns.

Building Blocks of the Universe

But what about constructing a universe? Well, not quite—but what the physical universe has in common with Lego creations is that it is made up from only a handful of components called fundamental particles. A set of these created in the early universe includes the proton, neutron, and electron. Incredible quality control in their creation was essential to make the universe work. These fundamental particles were used, in turn, to build atoms. The lightest atom, or chemical element, hydrogen, has one proton in its nucleus with one electron orbiting it. Add a proton and neutron to the nucleus and an additional electron and we have helium. Adding additional protons, neutrons, and electrons forms the rest of the periodic table. Most of the chemical elements are forged in stars via nuclear reactions starting from hydrogen. The different elements have a huge range of useful properties. Also, different atoms can combine in chemical reactions to form an enormous variety of molecules with a vast diversity of properties. The key to this ability is the electron. Atoms form bonds with each other by sharing electrons—without electrons, there would be no chemistry. Most of the chemical compounds are found in planets, comets, asteroids, space rocks, and dust which we now know are pervasive throughout the universe and in life-forms found on Earth. Without these atoms and molecules, there would be no planets, no life, no advanced technological society. Without protons, neutrons, and electrons, there would be no atoms.

Quality Control in the Heavens

To build the universe the creation of protons, neutrons, and electrons had to meet five requirements. First, all three had to be created at the very beginning of the universe. Second, they had to be created in a flash of time. Third, there had to be an enormous number of them to build the one billion trillion stars estimated to be in the universe. Fourth, they had to have an incredible lifetime and robustness given that the universe is currently 13.8 billion years old. Fifth, they had to be crafted with incredible precision.

Current scientific understanding of the universe shows that all of these conditions were met. With regard to the first three requirements, according to the big bang model, essentially all of the protons and electrons that exist today were created, incredibly, within the first second of the bang (see the “Hadron epoch”). Scientists estimate that greater than 1080 (1 followed by 80 zeros) protons and electrons were created in this brief period of time. The number of neutrons has a more complex history. Initially, the n/p ratio was close to 1:1, but it rapidly shifted in the first second to 1:6 due to reactions with other subatomic particles. In addition, vast numbers of neutrons were later produced by nucleosynthesis reactions in stars.

Regarding the fourth requirement, the fact that we still have a vast universe crafted from these particles means they both have a lifetime at least greater than the age of the universe, 13.8 billion years. In fact, it’s astonishingly greater. Although no proton decay has ever been observed in experimental studies, one study3 put a minimum limit on its half-life of 1.67×1034 years (that’s 167 followed by 34 zeros).Physicists have also failed to observe even a single decaying electron. The results of one study put an estimate of the lifetime of an electron at greater than 1028 years4.

However, the half-life of a free neutron has been measured and is around 14 minutes. Whoops! Did creation mess up? Hardly. The vast majority of neutrons in the universe are not free. They are strongly bonded to protons by the nuclear strong force in atomic nuclei. In that state, their lifetime is essentially that of protons. In the beginning, the number of protons created was adequate to bind all of the neutrons needed to assemble all of the stable elements in the periodic table in sufficient abundance for building planets and sustaining complex life on earth. Thus, the lifetimes of the three particles are far beyond the estimated lifetime of the universe.

Finally, let’s look at the precision of properties of the particles. The precision of properties must be extremely high, otherwise the properties of atoms would vary as well as their chemistry, leading to an unstable universe. Certainly, life would be impossible if the chemistry of life varied unpredictably. Actually, the size and precision of the proton has been measured.5 The proton radius was been found to be 0.833 x 10-17 cm with a precision of 0.010 x 10-17 cm. The precision of radii of protons is likely even greater since this is the precision of the measurement. By comparison with human engineering, high quality ball bearings with a diameter of 0.020 cm can be machined with a precision in diameter of 8 x 10-6 cm. Thus, protons were created with a size precision at least 100 billion times better than modern technology can machine ball bearings. Furthermore, protons don’t wear out like ball bearings do, even after 13.8 billion years.

A Builder beyond Compare

This stunning feat of production, with incredible quality control of immense numbers of ultra-tiny particles from which the universe was built, is something out of this world. Nothing less than a transcendent supreme Creator and Engineer can account for this marvel.

Endnotes
  1. Svend Thaning, “The Math Professor Plays with Lego Bricks,” University of Copenhagen, The Faculty of Science and Life Sciences, December 10, 2013, science.ku.dk/presse/nyhedsarkiv/2013/leger-med-lego-klodser/.
  2. “Lego,” Wikipedia, last modified January 3, 2021, wikipedia.org/wiki/Lego.
  3. Borut Bajc et al., “Threshold Corrections to Dimension-Six Proton Decay Operators in Non-Minimal SUSY SU(5) GUTs,” Nuclear Physics B 910 (September 2016): 1, doi:10.1016/j.nuclphysb.2016.06.017.
  4. Agostini et al., “Test of Electric Charge Conservation with Borexino,”, Phys Review Letters 115 (December 2015): 231802, doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.115.231802.
  5. Bezginov et al., “A Measurement of the Atomic Hydrogen Lamb Shift and the Proton Charge Radius,” Science 365, no. 6457 (September 2019): 1007–12, doi:10.1126/science.aau7807.

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Reasons to Believe is committed to bringing you sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries to support confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal… Read more about Guest Writer.

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New Telescope Observations Provide Cosmic Creation Confirmations

Astronomers’ quest to understand features of the early universe and how it originated includes making “maps” of leftover radiation from the cosmic creation event.

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Who Are the “Men of Renown” in Genesis 6? (Part 2)

In part 1, we reviewed the Genesis 6 description of the Nephilim. Now we consider the Nephilim as portrayed in Numbers 13. These two accounts identify the extraordinary wickedness of the Nephilim, and suggest the reason these “men of renown” from Genesis 6 are nameless.

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Neighboring Faiths: A Review of Winfried Corduan’s Timeless Book

Fifty years ago, if I wanted to carry on a serious dialogue and apologetic debate with Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and Muslim scholars I probably needed to go overseas.

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The Minds Confrontation

 By Will Myers

There are two things that are so obvious until we don’t often acknowledge them. Our constant exposure to the creation and our self-awareness. They are intrinsic to our expectations.

The exposure of the mind to creation can be mathematically represented liken unto UspaceVspace=Q; with Uspace being the perfect righteousness of God (God’s perfect book of nature), and Vspace being the nexus of all things. The Q represent the resultants of UspaceVspace dynamics; the “IS” of all things that are made; the coming into being and going out of being of all things that exist. God IS.  Romans 1:20; “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

Our life is usually thought of as our being; our spirit. Most theologians and life scientists believe that the spirit is our life and the soul being our mind, will, and emotions. The material (Matter) part of our being is our body, the flesh. In our conscientious, we hear voices from our flesh, soul, and spirit. With those inputs, our will makes all of the decisions for our life, giving the temporary states of our life from our confrontations that we have experienced. These experiences are giving sight through the veil into Truth. Our confrontations are developing a reality from the Truth of God Who is our Lord Jesus. In all things, we are conditioned to see the Truth that is in the Lord Jesus. Ephesians 5:20; “Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;”

The search for fulfillment in life leads us down many paths, and we are faced with many confrontations. So far, not finding fulfillment in life is winning. More people are unhappy than happy with their lives. 

Another confrontation is the battle for our minds; the snake organization of special interest groups (SIG) who collect private and sensitive information and distribute this information to the demise of the targeted individual. At the same time, targeting any selected private citizen and placing adversity into targeted person’s life. SIG is usually the cause of much of the unhappiness in our lives. Eventually, SIG is going to target everyone. The state of affairs would then be hypercommunism; whereas, the special interest groups (SIG) would have our minds virtually mapped on a computer aided by sophisticated surveillance of the targeted individual. Your sensitive information would then be distributed in order to mold you into SIG’s desires. 

In conclusion, one must treat others as you would like to be treated. In the biblical book of Luke 6:31; “ Do to others as you would have them do to you.” give affirmation. This greatly impedes the works of SIG and helps to preserve our free society and democracy. If one seek God in the name of Christ Jesus, then God shall preserve and medicate your mind with His glory.

Matthew 6:33; “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”  

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What Was Your Intellectual Epiphany?

BY KENNETH R. SAMPLES – SEPTEMBER 15, 2020MORESHARE

Have you ever had a sudden realization that ended up changing your life? You may have had an epiphany, which can be defined as an intuitive flash of insight or discovery as to the deep meaning of something significant that comes through experience and leads to a sense of wonder.

Over the years I have experienced some significant spiritual and intellectual turning points. At the time of these events I knew I was encountering something special or unique. But only through looking back do I recognize just how important these experiences have been.

One such experience, an intellectual epiphany, came to me as a young student and it changed the way I thought about ideas and the importance of study. This experience has stayed with me my entire life.

My Intellectual Epiphany

Growing up I wasn’t a diligent student at all. In fact, if you spoke with my teachers (elementary through high school) I know what they would say about my effort. I know because I heard them convey it to me and to my parents often: “Kenny Samples only does enough school work to get by.” This deliberate approach was even more true by junior high school when I determined that what I really wanted in life was to be a professional athlete (I loved basketball and baseball). So sports trumped study.

But at age 13 when I was in the eighth grade I experienced an intellectual epiphany of sorts. In my social science/history class we studied the topic of World War II. My father, Jesse A. Samples, had been a combat soldier serving in the European theater of the war fighting against the German army. In preparing to write a school report about the conflict, my father and I went to a bookstore and bought a couple of reference books about World War II. That evening as my dad and I perused through the books my father discovered two photographs of himself in Hans Dollinger’s book The Decline and Fall of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.1 The photos were black and white, grainy, and from a distance but my dad, mom, and I could all recognize it was my father.

This discovery surprised me and made me think differently about my dad and ideas. World War II and my father’s participation in it sparked my intellectual life. I began to realize that ideas and ideologies have consequences and that my father and his band of brothers had been involved in a great crusade to stop Nazi tyranny and oppression. I began reading about various aspects of the Second World War including the Holocaust. And the profound topic of the twentieth century’s world wars has never left me to this very day.

I distinctly remember my eighth grade teacher Mr. Morris praising my report in class and saying that the topic of World War II had “turned Kenny on academically.” That event from my childhood stirred me and influenced my interest in the big questions of life. My decision to study history and philosophy in college and later, theology, were influenced by my intellectual discovery in junior high school.

Providential Church Encounter

Many years later, I attended a Dutch Reformed church where an elderly man in the congregation learned of my interest in World War II. Through our many discussions about the war I learned that this man knew Reformed theologian George Stob2 (1907–2002) who had served as my father’s chaplain during the war (U.S. Army’s 44th Infantry Division) and had signed my dad’s Bible. I didn’t even know George Stob was a theologian let alone a theologian in my denomination. Few people would have known of Stob (who at the time was 93 years old) outside of the closely connected Dutch Reformed community. I was first amazed, but then further interaction with my fellow church member led to a connection with Stob’s wife and she told me that her husband often spoke about the courageous young men he had ministered to during the war. Again, with another surprise encounter concerning my dad and World War II I sensed that God’s providence was at work behind the scenes of my life and the life of my family.

Looking back, I came to see that this early intellectual epiphany—affirmed many years later by learning about my father’s chaplain—was truly a turning point in my life. It set me on a trajectory of exploring life’s big questions and ideas. Has something like this ever happened to you?

Reflections: Your Turn

Have there been significant times in your life where you can reflect back and see that God was transforming your mind and soul? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Endnotes
  1. See Hans Dollinger, The Decline and Fall of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan: A Pictorial History of the Final Days of World War II (New York: Gramercy, 1965), https://www.amazon.com/Decline-Germany-Imperial-Pictorial-History/dp/B000B2C1UE/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=hans+dollinger+the+decline+and+fall+of+nazi+germany+and+japan&qid=1569634440&s=books&sr=1-1.
  2. Concerning chaplain and theologian George Stob, see this historical note at https://archives.calvin.edu/?p=creators/creator&id=544.

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Plant-Predator Symbiosis: Ubiquitous Evidence for Creation

A casual look at the world of plants and insects may suggest that nothing much is going on, but the constant struggle is anything but quiet. In this “eat, fight, or be eaten” world, scientists continue to learn how species’ various defense mechanisms, both direct and indirect, have emerged concurrently in life’s history to yield balanced, healthy ecosystems. These symbiotic relationships—sometimes involving multiple species—provide evidence for a Creator’s intelligent agency.

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Are Religious Experiences Evidence for God?

Have you ever had a deep spiritual encounter? One that changed your life?

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Mantle Bottom Pancakes Benefit Surface Life

The biggest island in the United States also is the fastest growing. Thanks to a steadily rising hot plume from the lower mantle, Hawaii Island’s land area grows by an average of a little more than 40 acres per year. Though geophysicists have known about hot mantle plumes for several decades, only in the past few weeks have they gained an understanding of the source and mechanisms that produce hot plumes.

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Why Did God Make Animals to Be So Violent?

BY HUGH ROSS – OCTOBER 2, 2020

Question of the week: “Dr. Ross, I have a question about animal violence after horrific stories in the news lately of alligators killing or harming humans. First, do you believe animal violence to be a result of the fall and something that will be removed if animals exist in heaven? And lastly, is there any reason that God couldn’t have just created animals to be nonviolent? I can’t imagine why animals couldn’t have been created to just eat vegetation or not need to eat and get their energy from the sun or something like that. Thank you for your thoughts.”

My answer: Carnivores and parasites are essential for reducing death, disease, and loss of quality of life for the herbivores. That is, given the laws of physics God has chosen for the universe, herbivores (as many field studies affirm) are much worse off in environments where carnivores and parasites do not exist. In my article “Thank God for Whales,” I explain how the restoration of the sperm whale population in the oceans increased the population, average body size, and health of giant squid for whom their only predator was the sperm whale. For ecosystems in general, I document and explain the essential benefits of carnivores and parasites in my book More Than a Theory.

Note, too, that carnivores kill their prey as quickly and efficiently as possible, which reduces the suffering experienced by their prey. Also, God designed the nonhuman predators so that they must be selective. They are not equipped to kill the robust and healthy members of their herbivore prey species. Out of necessity their prey are the sick, the injured, the aged, the unwary, and the young offspring of unwary parents. It is this selectivity that helps to enhance the health, robustness, and population of prey species.

For hundreds of millions of years, our planet has been packed with an exquisite balance of herbivores, carnivores, parasites, and detritivores (animals that feed on decaying dead tissue). This abundant and delicate balance of diverse species has killed many animals and thus enriched Earth’s crust with quadrillions of tons of valuable biodeposits—limestone, marble, coal, oil, natural gas, gypsum, etc. Thanks to this treasure chest of biodeposits, we humans have launched and sustained a global, high-technology civilization. This civilization in turn has enabled a rapid fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20).

In the new creation, there will be no carnivores, parasites, death, disease, suffering, or decay as evil will no longer be possible. The impossibility of evil permits God to design the new creation with different dimensions and different laws of physics. It is those differences that will eliminate the possibility of death and decay. In my book Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, I explain why the laws of physics and the space-time dimensions must be exactly the way they are for God to rapidly and efficiently eliminate evil and suffering while at the same time enhancing human free will capability to express and experience love. Therefore, we have many reasons to thank God for creating carnivores in the present creation and for designing the carnivores to minimize the death and suffering of herbivores and enhance their populations and health.


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What Are the Scientific Dates for the Starts and Ends of the Six Creation Days?

Question of the week: What are the scientific dates for start and end times for each of the six days of creation in Genesis 1?

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Why Did God Kill the Hebrews Who Worshipped the Golden Calf?

Question of the week: Why did God kill all those people described in the golden calf story in Exodus 32?

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Which Animals Are Nephesh Animals?

Question of the week: What type of animals would not be nephesh species?

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NOW THAT YOU’VE DISCOVERED REASONS TO BELIEVE

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How Did Adam and Eve Keep Warm During an Ice Age When They Were Naked?

BY HUGH ROSS – DECEMBER 18, 2020MORESHARE

Question of the week: How did Adam and Eve keep warm before the fall when they were still naked if God had created them during the last ice age?

My answer: Good question. Genesis 2 implies that God created Adam and Eve sometime during an ice age, most likely the last ice age. The reason why is that Genesis 2 describes four known rivers, the Euphrates, Tigris, Pishon, and Gihon, coming together in the Garden of Eden. Today, only two of those four rivers are flowing, but during an ice age all four would be steadily flowing rivers. The only location where the four rivers come together presently is more than 200 feet below sea level in the southeastern part of the Persian Gulf. During an ice age, however, the sea level was 200–390 feet lower. The location where the four rivers come together would have been above sea level.

The location of the Garden of Eden in the southeast part of what is now the Persian Gulf at an elevation more than 200 feet below the present sea level implies that it must have had a year-round warm climate in spite of the colder conditions farther north and at higher elevations. Adam and Eve would not need clothing to stay warm.

For a much more comprehensive and detailed answer, see my book Navigating Genesis, pages 95–108.1

Endnotes

Hugh Ross, Navigating Genesis (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2014): 95–108, https://shop.reasons.org/category/format/books/navigating-genesis.


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What Was the Christmas Star?

Question of the week: What was the Christmas star?

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Why Celebrate Christmas Since It Originated from Pagan Traditions?

Question of the week: The Bible doesn’t mention anything about early believers celebrating any event other than baptism and communion. Therefore, shouldn’t Christians refrain from celebrating Christmas especially since it originated from pagan traditions?

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How Do Christians’ Relationships with God Differ from Adam’s before He Sinned?

Question of the week: In what ways and to what degrees are the relationships that Christians have today with God the same or different from the pre-sin relationship Adam and Eve had with God?

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Christians and the Tragedy of Suicide

BY KENNETH R. SAMPLES – JANUARY 19, 2021MORESHARE

Suicide remains a serious problem in our world today. And some researchers say suicide rates have increased during the pandemic.1 In fact, during the month of October 2020 there were more deaths in Japan from suicide than from COVID-19.2

Suicide is but one aspect of the broader problem of evil, pain, and suffering. Thus, Christians are not immune from this tragic reality. In fact, over the last couple of years you’ve probably seen news reports of evangelical pastors who died by suicide. Because my family has been touched by the tragedy of suicide, I wrote an article about the subject, specifically addressing whether suicide is a sin that can be forgiven by God.

Here is the concluding paragraph of my earlier article:

I argue, on the basis of Scripture, that God can and does forgive his children who take their lives. This affirmation of forgiveness in no way condones suicide, which is a great sin. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death atones for all the sins of his people—past, present, and future (Romans 3:25). And God will not remove his forgiving love because a mentally ill person in a state of desperation commits a terrible self-destructive deed (Romans 8:38–39). Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ enjoy God’s enduring and complete forgiveness for all their sins (2 Corinthians 5:18–19).

I received many comments on this piece. Some of them came from Christians who had lost loved ones to suicide. One such person, a father, even thanked me for helping him to think through the loss of his dear son and how God’s forgiveness related to the tragedy.

But I also had more than one person object to my theological conclusion that God forgives believers in Christ who take their own lives. Here are the (paraphrased) comments of three people who objected to my conclusion followed by my responses. My objective is not to win an argument per se but to hopefully bring insight and empathy to a very painful topic that touches many families.

Objection #1

Does a person with genuine confident trust in and reliance on Christ take their own life? Wouldn’t real faith in Christ translate into a hope that sustains the will to live, the will to honor and serve our Savior, the will to persevere through the valley of the shadow of death? Isn’t growth in sanctification one that climbs higher overall, closer to God, not down and away into suicide?

My Response

While I am not a mental health professional, after much study and reflection on this difficult topic from a theological and psychological perspective, my answer to your first question is yes. I have known Christians who have died by suicide. Christians are not immune to serious mental health challenges or even to despair itself. Sometimes despair overwhelms their faith to the point of not being able to take the pain any longer.

Sometimes that despair may be the result of mental illness or great trauma, abuse, addiction, or a combination thereof. The person feels a great sense of mental and soul sorrow.

Human fallenness and brokenness are profound. Original sin shouldn’t be underestimated. Salvation and sanctification are not guarantees that Christians will not struggle deeply. I’ve known Christians who were combat soldiers with PTSD and for me to tell them to just strive harder at their sanctification wouldn’t be sufficient or compassionate.

I’ve talked with people who were in their darkest hour. I had compassion on them and I’m confident that God, in his infinite love, does as well. The wonderful thing about God is that he loves even those who engage in self-destructive acts. God’s grace (unmerited favor) is rich, deep, and evident in the person of Jesus Christ. That grace causes me to empathize with a person’s deep mental suffering.

Objection #2

What about 1 Corinthians 3:16–17 which specifically states that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit and anyone who destroys the body will be destroyed by God? How do you see that verse?

My Response

As a Christian theologian and apologist, I attempt to understand Scripture within its proper context.

The biblical commentaries I’ve consulted concerning 1 Corinthians 3:16–17 indicate that the temples of God the apostle Paul is speaking about are to be understood corporately as the church and not as individual human bodies. Thus, God will punish those who damage or fracture the church. So, this passage seems to have no application to the issue of suicide.

Objection #3

You can’t know with certainty that every suicide victim who is a Christian goes to heaven or is rescued from hell after they sin. “You shall not kill” is in the Bible. I know the atoning death of Jesus is all-powerful so I guess the issue is: is repentance required for the blood of Jesus to cleanse away sin? And would that be possible even after the soul/spirit leaves the body and the person has not repented?

My Response

The Hebrew is translated: “You shall not murder.” Suicide is self-murder but it is likely done by people who are psychologically ill and thus not in full control of their mental faculties. I read Scripture as indicating that God forgives all the sins of his people including the tragic cases of suicide in which one cannot repent. Does anyone ever perfectly repent of all their sin? Sinners are sometimes oblivious of their sins (pride, envy, selfishness).

Leaning on Hope

Suicide is an especially painful tragedy for surviving family and friends. And when a Christian takes their life it raises genuine theological issues. In such difficult circumstances it is reassuring to hear the apostle Paul’s extraordinarily comforting words:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38–39).

As Christians we long for the time when “‘He [our God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Reflections: Your Turn

If you are contemplating suicide or know of someone who is, someone at the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) is available to chat right now (24/7).

Have you known Christians who have struggled with suicidal thoughts? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Ann John et al., “Trends in Suicide during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” BMJ 2020, no. 371 (November 12, 2020): m4352, doi:10.1136/bmj.m4352.
  2. “More People Died of Suicide in Japan in One Month Than the Entire Coronavirus Pandemic,” FOX News (November 28, 2020).

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Kenneth R. Samples

THE AUTHORKenneth R. Samples

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I believe deeply that “all truth is God’s truth.” That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach r… Read more about Kenneth R. Samples.

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What Will Happen if Arctic Sea Ice Loss Continues?

Climate change has been and will remain a key topic of discussion and concern for many people. For scientists, sustained study of Arctic sea ice provides one reliable measure of what the future may hold. Are we headed for warming or an ice age?

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What is real? What is right? What is lovely? Human beings ask these kinds of questions because we long for at least three things: truth, goodness, and beauty.

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Earth’s Primordial Magma Ocean Affirms Genesis 1 Creation Events

Can science test the veracity of biblical creation events such as whether Earth’s early atmosphere was opaque? I have always maintained that the answer is yes. In fact, the Bible invites such testing. In this way, science can affirm or negate the Bible’s statements about creation.

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Have Researchers Developed a Computer Algorithm that Explains the Origin of Life?

THE CELL’S DESIGN

BY FAZALE RANA – NOVEMBER 4, 2020MORESHARE

As a chemistry major at West Virginia State College during the early 1980s, I was required to take a library course on the chemical literature before I could graduate. During the class, we learned how to use the many library reference materials devoted to cataloging and retrieving the vast amount of chemistry research published in the scientific literature. Included in this list was the multivolume Beilstein’s Handbook of Organic Chemistry.

Beilstein’s Handbook of Organic Chemistry

Beilstein’s Handbook consists of hundreds of volumes with entries for well over 10 million compounds. The books that originally made up Beilstein’s Handbook took up rows of shelves in the library with new volumes added to the collection every few years. Today, the Beilstein’s volumes are no longer published as printed editions. Instead the entries are now housed online in the Beilstein’s Handbook database, with the old print volumes serving as little more than artifacts of a bygone era in the annals of chemistry.

Learning to master Beilstein’s Handbook is no easy task. In fact, there are textbooks devoted to teaching chemists how to use this massive database effectively. It is well worth the effort. If you know what you are doing, Beilstein’s Handbook holds the key to finding quickly anything you need to know about any organic compound, provided it has been published somewhere.

Beilstein Synthesis and the Origin-of-Life Problem

The utility of Beilstein’s Handbook is endless and its applications far-reaching. In fact, Beilstein’s has even served as the inspiration for origin-of-life chemists seeking to make sense of prebiotic chemistry and chemical evolution. These investigators think that if they can master an approach to prebiotic chemistry called a Beilstein synthesis, then they may well gain key insight into how chemical evolution generated the first life on Earth. In short, a Beilstein synthesis involves a chemical reaction taking place in a single flask with a large number of chemical compounds serving as the reactants. This process is so named as a nod to the 10 million entries in the Beilstein’s database.

Origin-of-life scientists are interested in Beilstein synthesis because they think that these types of reactions more closely reflect the chemical and physical complexity of early Earth’s environment. Yet, very few origin-of-life researchers have even attempted this type of reaction. Understanding what transpired during a Beilstein synthesis has long been an intractable problem. Until very recently, the analytical capabilities didn’t exist to efficiently and effectively characterize the myriad products that would form during a Beilstein reaction, let alone identify and characterize the different chemical routes in play. For this reason, origin-of-life researchers have focused on singular prebiotic processes involving a limited number of compounds, reacting under highly controlled laboratory conditions. In these types of reactions, it is far easier to make sense of experimental outcomes—but the ease of interpretation comes with a cost.

Over the last 70 years, the focus on singular sets of reactions and highly controlled conditions has produced some successes for origin-of-life researchers—albeit qualified ones. Focusing on isolated reactions and specific sets of conditions has made it possible for researchers to identify a number of physicochemical processes that could have contributed to the early stages of chemical evolution—at least, in principle. Unfortunately, serious concerns remain about the geochemical relevance of these types of experiments. These reactions perform well in the laboratory, under the auspices of chemists, but significant questions abound about the productivity of the same laboratory processes in the milieu of early Earth. (For a detailed discussion of this problem, I recommend my blog article “Prebiotic Chemistry and the Hand of God.”)

Additionally, these highly controlled reactions—carried out under pristine conditions—fail to take into account the chemical and physical complexity of early Earth. Undoubtedly, this complexity will impact the physicochemical processes on early Earth, shaping the outcome of plausible prebiotic reaction routes. No one really knows if this complexity will facilitate chemical evolution or frustrate it, but now we have some idea, thanks to the work of a research team from the Polish Academy of Sciences. These investigators moved the origin-of-life research community closer to achieving a prebiotic Beilstein synthesis by developing and deploying a computer algorithm (called Allchemy) to perform computer-assisted organic chemistry designed to mimic the earliest stages of chemical evolution. In effect, they performed an in silico Beilstein reaction with some rather intriguing results.1

Allchemy and the Prebiotic Chemistry

The researchers used Allchemy to identify the reaction pathways and products that could have formed under plausible early Earth conditions. They initiated the computer-assisted reactions by starting with hydrogen sulfide, water, ammonia, nitrogen, methane, and hydrogen cyanide as the original set of reactants, under the assumption that these small molecules would have been present on early Earth. After the reactions reached completion, the researchers removed any products that possessed an “invalid” chemical structure, then incorporated the remaining reaction products into the original set of starting compounds, and ran the computer-assisted reactions again. They repeated this process 7 times.

For each generation of reactions, they “computed” reaction pathways and products using a set of 614 rules. These rules were developed by encoding into the algorithm all of the known prebiotic reactions published in the scientific literature. They also encoded plausible conditions of early Earth. As they developed the list of rules, the researchers also paid close attention to chemical functional groups that would be incompatible with one another. As it turns out, it was possible to group these 614 rules into 72 chemical reaction classes. The algorithm began each generation of reactions by identifying suitable reactants for each class of reactions and then “reacting” them to discover the types of products that would form.

Allchemy Results

Through the course of 7 generations of reactions, Allchemy produced almost 37,000 chemical compounds from the initial set of 6 gaseous molecules. Of these compounds, only 82 were biotic. And, of this collection, 41 were peptides (formed when amino acids react together to form an adduct).

As it turns out the biotic compounds had some unusual properties that distinguished them from the vast collection of abiotic molecules. These compounds:

  • Are more thermodynamically stable
  • Display less hydrophobicity (water-insolubility)
  • Harbor fewer distinct functional groups
  • Possess fewer reactive functional groups
  • Have a balanced number of functional groups that were hydrogen-bond donors and acceptors

The researchers also discovered that there were a number of distinct pathways that could produce biotic compounds. That is to say, they observed synthetic redundancy for the biotic compounds. They discovered that they could eliminate nearly half of the 72 reaction classes from the algorithm and still generate all 82 biotic compounds. In contrast, the abiotic compounds failed to display synthetic redundancy. Only 8 of the reaction classes could be eliminated and still generate the same suite of abiotic molecules.

Additionally, the team discovered that some of the compounds generated by the in silico reactions—such as formic acid, cyanoacetylene, and isocyanic acid—served as synthetic hubs, giving rise to a large number of additional products. It is quite possible that the existence of these reaction hubs contributes to the synthetic redundancy of the biotic compounds.

Through the course of 7 generations of chemical synthesis, the researchers found that the Allchemy algorithm produced all of the prebiotic reactions reported in the scientific literature, to date. This finding isn’t surprising because the research team used these reactions to help design the rules used to guide Allchemy.

The algorithm also yielded prebiotic reactions that, heretofore had not been discovered by origin-of-life researchers. The research team demonstrated the validity of these pathways, discovered in silico, by successfully executing these same reactions in the laboratory.

Emergent Properties of Prebiotic Reactions

One of the most exciting discoveries made by the team from the Polish National Academy of Sciences was the emergent properties that arose after 7 generations of in silico prebiotic reactions:

  • Unexpectedly, some of the reaction products catalyzed additional chemical reactions, which expanded the range of available prebiotic reactions.
  • Reaction cycles and reaction cascades emerged, with the reaction cycles displaying the property of self-regeneration. In fact, after 7 generations, the chemical space of the prebiotic reactions became densely populated with reaction cycles.
  • Surfactants, such as fatty acids, emerged. They also discovered peptides with surfactant properties. These types of compounds can, in principle, form vesicles that can encapsulate materials yielding proto-cellular structures.

In many respects, this work reflects science at its best. It ushers in a new era in prebiotic chemistry, demonstrating the power of computer-assisted organic chemistry to shed light on chemical evolution. Coupled with the increased capacity to analyze complex chemical mixtures (thanks to advances in analytical chemistry), Allchemy and other similar software may make it possible to provide meaningful interpretations of real-life Beilstein reactions.

This work also shows that, in principle, complex chemical mixtures can give rise to some interesting emergent features that have bearing on chemical evolution and the rise of the chemical complexity and organization required for the origin of life. Nevertheless, we are still a far distance from arriving at any real understanding as to how life could have emerged through evolutionary processes.

Are the Allchemy Results Geochemically Relevant?

It is critical to keep in mind that this work involves computer modeling of chemical processes that could have taken place under the putative conditions of early Earth. And, though the algorithm developed by the investigators from the Polish National Academy of Sciences is quite sophisticated, it still represents a simplified set of scenarios that, at times, fails to fully and realistically account for our planet’s early conditions.

For example, some of the starting materials selected for the in silico reactions, such as ammonia and methane, likely weren’t present on the early Earth at appreciable levels. In fact, most planetary scientists believe that Earth’s early atmosphere was composed of water, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. When this type of gas mixture is used in spark-discharge experiments—such as the ones carried out by legendary origin-of-life researcher Stanley Miller—no organic compounds form. In other words, this gas mixture is unreactive.

The researchers also ignored the concentration of the reactants. Laboratory studies indicate that many prebiotic reactions require relatively high concentrations of the reactants. Given the expansiveness of early Earth’s environment (particularly, its oceans), it is hard to imagine that the concentrations needed for many prebiotic reactions could ever have been achieved. In other words, it is quite likely that the concentration of prebiotic reactants on Earth was too dilute to be meaningful for chemical evolution.

The research group also ignored kinetic effects. Not all chemical reactions proceed at the same rate. So, while a chemical reaction may be possible, in principle, in reality it may transpire too slowly to be meaningful. By not taking into account rates of chemical reactions, the researchers undermined the geochemical relevance of their computer-assisted reactions.

The availability and types of energy sources on early Earth were ignored as well. Many prebiotic reactions require energy sources to trigger them. In many instances these energy sources have to be highly specific to initiate chemical reactions. Energy sources need to be powerful enough to kick-start the reactions, but not so powerful as to cause the breakdown of the reactants and ensuing products.

The researchers also failed to take into account the stereochemistry of the reactants and products. For this reason, they have failed to shed any insight into the homochirality problem, which beleaguers origin-of-life research.

So, the results of Allchemy have questionable geochemical relevance, and thus, questionable bearing on the origin-of-life issue. Still, the work demonstrates the value of Beilstein reactions—even, if performed in silico—and does indicate that emergent properties can originate out of chemical complexity, in principle.

It is also worth noting that this work sheds potential light on the earliest stages of chemical evolution. Even if building block materials are in place, there still needs to be an explanation for the emergence of information-rich biopolymers and stable membrane-bound vesicles that would form protocells. The work of the Polish National Academy of Sciences investigators provides clues as to how this might happen, but significant hurdles remain.

The Homopolymer Problem

One of the interesting findings of the in silico experiments was the recognition that prebiotic reactions generated around 40 peptides. The peptides became larger and more numerous for each generation. These compounds are formed from amino acids, which combine into “chain-like” molecules and could be viewed as the stepping stones to proteins. Some of the peptides produced in the prebiotic pathways display “nonbiological” bonding. This type of bond formation arises from reactions between the hydroxyl and carboxylic acid side groups of serine and aspartic acid (produced in the prebiotic reactions), respectively, and the carboxylic acid moiety and amino groups bound to the alpha carbon. These nonstandard linkages would render these peptides irrelevant for the production of larger proteins because of the homopolymer problem.

The late Robert Shapiro first identified this problem a number of years ago. For biopolymers to be able to adopt higher-order three-dimensional structures or to carry out critical functions, such as self-replication, the backbone must consist of identical repeating units. For intermolecular interactions to stabilize the higher-order structure of biopolymers or for these biopolymers to serve as templates for self-replication, the backbone’s structure must repeat without any interruption. This means that the subunit molecules that form the self-replicator must consist of the same chemical class.

Chemists call chain-like molecules with structurally repetitive backbones homopolymers. (Homo = “same”; poly = “many”; mer = “units”). DNA, RNA, proteins, and the proposed pre-RNA world self-replicators, such as peptide-nucleic acids, are all homopolymers and satisfy the chemical requirements necessary to function as self-replicators.

Undirected chemical processes can produce homopolymers under carefully controlled, pristine laboratory conditions. However, as Shapiro pointed out, these processes cannot generate these types of molecules under early Earth’s conditions. The chemical compounds found in the complex chemical mixture that origin-of-life researchers think existed on early Earth would interfere with homopolymer formation. Instead, polymers with highly heterogeneous backbone structures would be produced. The likely chemical components of any prebiotic soup would not only interrupt the structural regularity of the biopolymer’s backbone, but they would also prematurely terminate its formation or introduce branch sites.

The homopolymer problem is an intractable problem for chemical evolution—at least for replicator-first scenarios. Even though the in silico experiments demonstrated that amino acids can form and even combine into useful peptides, they also demonstrated that undesirable switching, branching, and termination reactions take place. Ironically, the in silico experiments have also provided added validation for the homopolymer problem.

The Membrane Problem

Another interesting feature of this work is the generation of surfactant molecules, such as fatty acids and amphiphilic peptides. Presumably, these materials could form vesicles with the capacity to encapsulate materials, leading to the first protocells. Yet, this process seems unlikely under the conditions of early Earth. Laboratory studies demonstrate that vesicles assembled from fatty acids are metastable and highly sensitive to fluctuation of environmental conditions. In fact, fatty acid vesicles assemble only under exacting solution conditions and require precise lipid compositions.2

Again, these insights raise questions about the geochemical relevance of this result. So, even though surfactants can form under prebiotic conditions, their assembly into bilayer-forming vesicles is not a given, by any means.

Prebiotic Chemistry and the Anthropic Principle

Even though the sophisticated work from the Polish National Academy of Sciences was designed to validate the notion of chemical evolution, the study’s results produced some interesting theistic implications. There are good reasons to think that origin-of-life researchers will never determine how evolutionary pathways generated the first life-forms because of seemingly intractable problems facing chemical evolution. In the face of these dismal prospects, it becomes hard to argue that mechanism alone can explain the origin of life and the design of core biochemical systems. The conviction that a Creator isn’t necessary stands on shaky ground.

Still, even if one grants the possibility that life had an evolutionary origin, it is impossible to escape the necessary role a Mind must have played in the appearance of first life on Earth—at least based on some intriguing results that emerge from the computer-assisted Beilstein reaction. As a case in point, it is provocative that the 82 biotic compounds which formed—a small fraction of the nearly 37,000 compounds generated by the in silico reactions—all share a suite of physicochemical properties that make these compounds unusually stable and relatively unreactive. These qualities cause these materials to persist in the prebiotic setting. It is also intriguing that these 82 compounds display synthetic redundancy, with the capability of being generated by several distinct chemical routes. It is also fortuitous that these compounds possess the just-right set of properties—many of which overlap with the set of properties that distinguish them from the vast number of abiotic compounds—that make them ideally suited to survive on early Earth and useful as building block materials for life.

In other words, there appear to be constraints on prebiotic chemistry that inevitably lead to the production of key biotic molecules with the just-right properties that make them unusually stable and ideally suited for life. This remarkable coincidence is a bit “suspicious” and highly fortuitoussuggesting a fitness for purpose to the nature of prebiotic chemistry. To put it another way: There is an apparent teleology to prebiotic chemistry. It appears that the laws of physics and chemistry may well have been rigged at the outset to ensure that life’s building blocks naturally emerged under the conditions of early Earth. Could it be that this coincidence reflects the fact that a Mind is behind it all?

It is remarkable to me as a biochemist and a Christian that the more insight we gain into the origin of life, the more the evidence points to the necessary role of a Creator, whether the Creator chose to directly intervene to create the first life-forms or whether he rigged the universe in such a way that life would inevitable emerge because of the design and constraints imposed by the laws of nature.

It really is a new era in origin-of-life research.

Endnotes

  1. Agnieszka Wołos et al., “Synthetic Connectivity, Emergence, and Self-Regeneration in the Network of Prebiotic Chemistry,” Science 369 (September 25, 2020): eaaw1955, doi: 10.1126/science.aaw1955.
  2. Jacquelyn A. Thomas and F. R. Rana, “Influence of Environmental Conditions, Lipid Composition, and Phase Behavior on the Origin of Cell Membranes,” Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres 37 (2007): 267-85, doi:10.1007/s11084-007-9065-6.

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Fazale Rana

THE AUTHORFazale Rana

BIO

I watched helplessly as my father died a Muslim. Though he and I would argue about my conversion, I was unable to convince him of the truth of the Christian faith.

I became a Christian as a … Read more about Fazale Rana.

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The Incredible Ultramicro Building Blocks of Creation

Who in America is not familiar with Legos? Lego is perhaps one of the most recognizable brands in the world. It was recently estimated that 400 million children and adults worldwide play with Lego pieces each year.1 Is the human fascination with such building blocks analogous to what science reveals about the universe’s creation?

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Cambrian Creatures’ Diverse Complex Eyes Reinforce Creation Narrative

Does evolution or creation better explain the rapid emergence of complex animals? If there’s one event in Earth’s fossil record history that garners more spirited discussion than any other, it would be the Cambrian explosion.

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Christians and the Tragedy of Suicide

Suicide remains a serious problem in our world today. And some researchers say suicide rates have increased during the pandemic.1 In fact, during the month of October 2020 there were more deaths in Japan from suicide than from COVID-19.2

Continue Reading »https://player.vimeo.com/video/104664126

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