Category Archives: Science

Bags of Water

By guest writer Jason K.

From a purely scientific point of view, we are all slightly-discolored bags of water, contaminated with a smattering of minerals and various carbon-based organic compounds. These carbon-based compounds are in turn wondrously-complex. Query any chemist on the likelihood of these appearing by chance on the street, and he would maintain that their existence in a purely-random world would be extremely unlikely, if not almost impossible.

Yet, here we are. A miracle of randomness, perhaps? Or the design of a benign Creator? There are those who subscribe to the first view – that life is nothing more than a result of chance. Millions and billions of years of chance, no more unlikely than a randomly-formed monkey with a randomly-formed typewriter typing out the complete works of a randomly-formed Richard Dawkins.

Their argument is this – there has been quite a few millennia since the beginning of time (and indeed there has been), long enough for molecules of space matter to bump into each other in just the right way to produce a molecule a step up in complexity. This happens over and over again, over a long period of time. And with each passing millennium, a more complex molecule is formed. Up till the aggregation of such molecules learns to move, to consume, to procreate… to live.

And from that very first bacterium, life then underwent many more billions of years’ worth of evolution to arrive at what we have today. Infinitely more complex, yet still no more than a bunch of intertwined chemical reactions in bags of water.

That chemical reactions are needed for life to occur is not a new concept, nor is it controversial. The very thing responsible for the production of most food for life on earth is nothing more than an extremely convoluted chemical reaction: carbon-dioxide-plus-water-gives-you-glucose-and-oxygen-equals-photosynthesis. The very thing that allows you to run, to jump, to laugh and to cry has its origins in little tiny membrane-bound organelles in every cell of your body called mitochondria. Glucose-plus-oxygen-gives-you-carbon-dioxide-plus-water-plus-energy. Respiration. So it is not wrong to talk about chemical equations being an essential part of life.

But what about feelings, emotions, thoughts, free will? If bodily actions can be reduced to a mere smattering of colliding compounds, why not the decision whether to eat-in or take-away? For Science, there is no conflict. If what controls a cell is a series of very many (albeit tremendously complex) chemical equations, then it makes no difference to the nerve cells of the brain, firing electrical impulses to one another and conducting chemicals across their synapses. Every time molecules collide, a thought is produced.

Free will, in that case, is an illusion. Whenever one is faced with a choice, the many molecules in the brain collide in a certain way that produces a thought. The thought that yes, although one is on a diet, one can very well have chocolate ice cream for dessert if one goes for a five-kilometer run afterwards. It is an illusion that one has a choice, when in fact it has been predetermined by those dastardly molecules in your neurones which were always going to collide in that specific way because, well, kinetic energy and Brownian motion.

So, for those who believe in life being chance, it also is predetermined. Because those molecules are always going to collide in a certain way, there are no choices to be made. There is no need for goodness, for mercy, for justice, for altruism. No suffering, no pleasure, no meaning.

A murderer is as innocent as a saint. What they do is nothing more than the bidding of their molecules colliding. Me typing out this article, going over my paragraphs over and over and tweaking them just-so is simply a result of a series of furiously-colliding molecules. (I do wish they’d make up their mind, though. All that bumping around and getting me to retype things is making me rather annoyed.)

But what if there was an alternative? More than just chemicals, more than life being an illusion of free will? What if our decisions were controlled by something outside of our water-bag-bodies?

Perhaps that is what we call a soul.

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Jason K. is a biology teacher in Singapore who enjoys reading Pratchett, playing board games, and immersing himself in Japanese culture. He has taken temporary vows as a third-order Dominican.

Image: Human Cell / PD-US

Aging and Mortality

Can we reverse aging so that the really old are young again? Image source.

A somewhat recent article in Scientific America caught my eye: this one is about aging, or rather it is about reversing the effects of aging. This particular article describes research conducted at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in which the genes which control aging are tweaked to change older cells into a more embryonic-like state. This process reversed some of the effects of aging and also resulted in a longer lifespan for the mice on which this experiment was conducted.

By tweaking genes that turn adult cells back into embryoniclike ones, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies reversed the aging of mouse and human cells in vitro, extended the life of a mouse with an accelerated-aging condition and successfully promoted recovery from an injury in a middle-aged mouse, according to a study published Thursday [December 15, 2016] in Cell.

Time in a bottle. Image source.

Nor is this the only research into reversing the aging process. A group at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of the Harvard Medical School has reported that they reversed aging in a group of “severely aged” mice via a process of controlling telormere-shortening. Other groups have investigated the results of blood transfusions from young mice to old mice. Still others have been investigating the effects of NAD and Reservatrol on the aging processes driven by cells’ mitochondria. More still are examining the effects of diet and even of existing drugs.

While these studies have predominantly been conducted on live mice or on cell samples, the results of this research have been promising. In some cases, lifespans have been increased, in others muscles and various organs have been able to function as if younger. Much of this research is aimed at curing or staving off “old-age” ailments ranging from arthritis to dementia to strokes—and to that end we would all be better for these cures.

Belmonte, like some other anti-aging researchers, says his initial goal is to increase the “health span”—the number of years that someone remains healthy. Extending life span, the number of years someone remains alive, will likely take longer to achieve. Most major killers, including heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s, are diseases of aging that become far more common past middle age. “This is not just a matter of how many years we can live but how well we can live the rest of our life,” Ocampo says.

However, it is also clear that some of the optimism behind this research as conveyed by these various popular science and news organs is that we may find a sort of fountain of youth, a way to stave off aging (and perhaps age-related death). As Karen Weintraub writes in Scientific America,

The new study suggests the possibility of reversing at least some of these changes, a process researchers think they may eventually get to work in living humans. “Aging is something plastic that we can manipulate,” says Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, the study’s senior author and an expert in gene expression at Salk….

Some compounds such as resveratrol, a substance found in red wine that seems to have anti-aging properties in high concentrations, appear to delay epigenetic change and protect against damage from epigenetic deterioration, Sinclair says. These approaches can reverse some aspects of aging, such as muscle degeneration—but aging returns when the treatment stops, he adds. With an approach like the one Belmonte lays out in the new study, theoretically “you could have one treatment and go back 10 or 20 years,” he says. If aging starts to catch up to you again, you simply get another treatment.

This research seems to be in its nascent stages: perhaps it will deliver a means of reversing (or slowing) the aging process, or at the least its effect; and again, perhaps not. To the extent that this research really does enhance our quality of life by seeking to cure certain illnesses like muscle degeneration or dementia, it may be commended and its results celebrated (if successful). However, there are hints that this is not the final goal of the research. Certainly, extending our “health span” is a worthy goal, and so to some extent is extending a lifespan. But to do so indefinitely?

The pursuit of a fountain of youth and of life everlasting in this world can end in nothing save tragedy. We are meant to live forever, it is true: but not bound to this fallen world, nor any other of our own creation or design. This present world is but a shadow of the one we’re ultimately meant to call home, and it is a “vale of tears.”

We need look no further than, for example, the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien to see this illustrated [1]. The fact that men are meant to die and to part from this life for the true everlasting life is a theme in both his Lord of the Rings series and his Silmarillion. Consider, for example, that one effect of the Ring of Power is that it extends the life of its bearer unnaturally: Bilbo lived to a great old age but felt “stretched” and “thin,” while Gollum slowly lost his very self, both visibly and mentally. Or consider the story in the Silmarillion of the fall of the Númenoreans:

Image source

The Númenoreans began to yearn for the undying city that they saw from afar, and the desire of everlasting life, to escape from death and the ending of delight, grew strong upon them; and ever as their power and glory grew greater their unquiet increased. For though the Valar had rewarded the Dúnedain with long life, they could not take away from them the weariness of the world that comes at last, and they died, even their kings of the seed of Earendil; and the span of their lives was brief in the eyes of the Eldar. Thus it was that a shadow fell upon them: in which maybe the will of Morgoth was at work that still moved in the world. And the Númenoreans began to murmur, at first in their heart and then in open words, against the doom of Men, and most of all against the Ban which forbade them to sail into the West….

Manwë was grieved, seeing a cloud gather on the noon-tide of Númenor. And he sent messengers to the Dúnedain, who spoke earnestly to the King, and to all who would listen concerning the fate and fashion of the world [2]….

Atanamir was ill pleased with the counsel of the Messengers and gave little heed to it, and the greater part of his people followed him; for they wished still to escape death in their own day, not waiting upon hope. And Atanamir lived to a great age, clinging to his life beyond the end of all joy; and he was the first of the Númenoreans to do this, refusing to depart until he was witless and unmanned, and denying to his son the kingship at the height of his days. For the Lords of Númenor had been wont to wed late in their long lives and to depart and leave the mastery to their sons when these were come to full stature of body and mind….

Thus it came to as in time that the Númenoreans first made great settlements upon the west shores of the ancient lands; for their own land seemed to them shrunken, and they had no rest or content therein, and they desired now wealth and dominion in Middle-earth, since the West was denied. (From the Tale of Akallabêth, in The Silmarilion)

The rejection of death ultimately proves to be the undoing of the Númenoreans: the Island of Númenor is that world’s Atlantis, and its sinking brings an end to the Second Age. Long before this happens, the greater part of the men of Númenor have lost hope for the next life, and in their despair they lost even what little bliss is afforded in this one. Their “wise men” abandoned true wisdom in search for a means of reversing death: “Yet they achieved only the art of preserving incorrupt the dead flesh of men, and they filled all the land with silent tombs in which the thought of death was enshrined in the darkness.”

This obsession with death and with forestalling it leads these people to cease really living well, as they turn from lives of virtue and daring to lives of “revelry” and pursuing riches and pleasures. They also cease in their offering worship to Eru (God), and turn instead to gaining dominion over all other men.

Real repentance and atonement for this is not made by Númenoreans, and their island is lost. Their descendants on the “mainland” include those who remain loyal to the elves and angels, who are led by Elendil and his sons, whom together found the realms of Arnor and Gondor. Yet even these don’t really repent of the sins of the Númenoreans whole-heartedly: this is evidenced by Elendil’s son and heir Isildur’s refusal to destroy the Ring of Power when he has it in his grasp, preferring to keep it and to use its power for himself. Indeed, it is a distant descendant of Isildur, Aragorn, who finally is show to really repent of this way of life. He does this throughout the Lord of the Rings series by braving the passes of the dead, by refusing to take the Ring when it was in his power to do so, and ultimately by laying down his life before becoming “witless and unmanned.”

In our own world, the methods are different but the aims are much similar. In Tolkien’s imagined world it is magic which is meant to conquer death, whereas in ours it is technology [3]. But the goal remains the same, namely to forestall again and to conquer death. I would venture to add here that some of the “side-effects” of this are the same. It is certainly true that we do, on average, live longer now than in ages past, at least in the wealthy and “modernized” nations of the world. But do we live better than our forefathers?

I do not mean by that question, are we physically healthier and more free from pain or illness. Can we be said to be happier people, or more joyful? Are we more virtuous, more faithful, more grateful for our blessings, and do we make more of ourselves and what lives we are given than our ancestors? I contend that on the whole, the answer is “no.” Indeed, in some ways we appear to make less of ourselves than they did, while at the same time being given greater opportunities than they had. I do not think anyone now living would need to look especially far to find examples to support my claims. We may look from drug addiction and the overburdened prison system, to the young mother ushered to the nearest abortuary; or from the late twenty-somethings who have not the appearance nor the reality of maturing into adulthood, to the simple despondency of many people who are not “making it” in the world.

To all of this, I can but recall the wisdom once taught to every Catholic school child, and now forgotten or even outright discarded:

7. Q: Of Which must we take more care, our soul or our body?

A: We must take more care of our soul than our body.

8. Q: Why must we take more care of our soul than of our body?

A: We must take more care of our soul than of our body, because in losing our soul we lose God and everlasting happiness.

9. Q: What must we do to save our souls?

A: To save our souls we must worship God by faith, hope, and charity; that is, we must believe in Him, hope in Him, and love Him with all our heart.

Footnotes

[1] Fiction in general and fairy tales in particular do more than just stimulate our imaginations and entertain us. They can show to us the world as it really is, in the sense that by changing the setting, a good story allows us to gain insights which we might overlook in “real life.”As Miss Jean Elizabeth Seah has written in the conclusion to one of her columns on this site,

Far from useless trifles or evil explorations, fairytales are necessary in training a child to love the true, the good and the beautiful. They open our eyes to see with a sacramental vision, beholding with wonder the magic and mystery in God’s creation, which should not be reduced to mere scientific facts or cast aside with Puritan coldness. The way of faery is the way of virtue, learning how to love ourselves and others as co-pilgrims on the rocky road to the Heavenly City, where we may one day meet the Prince of peace and be welcomed as co-heirs to His Father’s kingdom.

Tolkien, for his part, excelled at this.

[2] The gist of the message sent by Manwë is that death was a gift bestowed on man by Ilúvatar, that is, by God. The Valar (angels dwelling in the world) could not undo this gift, nor did they fully understand it: but it must be accepted by man as a gift, and thus dying well and with hope in one’s heart for the next life is the proper attitude towards death:

You and your people are not of the Firstborn, but are mortal Men as Ilúvatar made you. Yet it seems that you desire now to have the good of both kindreds, to sail to Valinor when you will, and to return when you please to your homes. That cannot be. Nor can the Valar take away the gift of Ilúvatar. The Eldar, you say, are unpunished, and even those who rebelled do not die. Yet that it to them neither reward nor punishment, but the fulfillment of their being. They cannot escape, and are bound to this world, never to leave it so long as it lasts, for its life is theirs. And you are punished for the rebellion of Men, you say, in which you had small part, and so it is that you die. But that was not at first appointed for a punishment. Thus you escape, and leave the world, and are not bound to it, in hope or in weariness. Which of us therefore should envy the other?’

And the Númenoreans answered: ‘Why should we not envy the Valar, or even the least of the Deathless? For of us is required a blind trust, and a hope without assurance. knowing not what lies before us in a little while. And yet we also love the earth and would not lose it.’

Then the Messengers said, ‘Indeed the mind of Ilúvatar concerning you is not known the the Valar, and he has not revealed all things that are to come. But this we hold to be true, that your home is not here, neither in the Land of Aman nor anywhere within the Circles of the World. And the doom of Men, that they should depart, was at first a gift of Ilúvatar. It became a grief to them only because coming under the shadow of Morgoth it seemed to them that they were surrounded by a great darkness, of which they were afraid; and some became willful and proud and would not yield, until life was reft from them. We who bear the ever-mounting burden of the years do not clearly understand this; but if that grief has returned to trouble you, as you say, then we fear that the Shadow arises once more and grows in your hearts. Therefore, though you be Dúnedain, fairest of Men, who escaped from the Shadow of old and fought against it, we say to you: Beware! The will of Eru may not be gainsaid; and the Valar bid you earnestly not to withhold the trust to which you are called, lest soon it become again a bond by which you are constrained. Hope rather that in the end even the least of your desires shall have fruit. The love of Arda was set in your hearts by Ilúvatar, and he does not plant to no purpose Nonetheless, many ages of Men unborn may pass ere that purpose is made known; and to you it will be revealed and not to the Valar.’

[3] I am here making a deliberate division between science and technology. Science is ultimately about searching for knowledge, specifically (when we refer to modern science) it is searching for knowledge about nature. Technology is one possible application of science: the tools and techniques we use to work with or even to control nature.

A Scientific Approach to God

It is said that the most popular theory for the beginning of time and space is the Big Bang. This is the theory which states that 13.8 billion years ago, “everything in the Cosmos started out as a single point in space. In an instant, everything expanded outward from that location, forming the energy, atoms and eventually the stars and galaxies we see today.” An impressive theory, one that can easily be reconciled with the Creation Narratives of Christianity. However, there are many who renounce the account of God creating the universe, choosing various other viewpoints, even random chance, as the reason why there is something rather than nothing.

Msgr Georges Lemaître

Monsignor Georges Lemaître, a Roman Catholic priest, is credited with conceiving and advancing the Big Bang theory in 1927. This was at a time when many scientists believed that the universe was infinite, and therefore most had trouble accepting Monsignor Lemaître’s proposal. However, after Edwin Hubble reported in 1929 his observations that far galaxies are continuing to move further away from us, scientists began to accept the theory. This included Stephen Hawking, whose work in the 1960s helped to further the understanding that the universe has a beginning.

A sensible decision — if we observe that galaxies in space are moving away from each other, then it would make perfect sense that they were at one time very close together. Moreover, it would be correct to infer that there was some force that caused the galaxies to separate and expand.

While science is a great tool in discerning and discovering aspects of reality, it cannot be deemed the sole arbiter of what is real and what is not. To say that God did not have a role in the beginning of time and space is an unscientific claim. I state that there is much more proof for God than there is for the idea of a Godless beginning of everything.

First, we can scientifically observe the world around us and see that in no other circumstance does something cause itself. Nothing else seems to just happen without something bringing it about. To say that the Big Bang caused itself would then be an exception in which we allow for a self-caused entity to exist.

Earth

If one wanted to turn the tables, so to say, on Christians and our God, we see that the definition of God is that He is not created, therefore not a self-caused, but an infinite Being. We believe this as it has been revealed to us through Divine Revelation and not from mere observation. Furthermore, we do not believe this as sole individuals or as part of a cult, but as members of an institution with rich foundational Tradition, which brings me to my next point.

If we look at the evidence for our Faith that has been handed down over the millennia, we can rest assured that when we assert that the Creation of Life and the World by an all-loving God is reality, we are in good standing and good company. The Church itself has 2,000 years of teachings and further clarifications from many respectable, intelligent people. If one does the work, one will find logical conclusions and insights within these teachings.

Furthermore, much like Christ performed miracles to affirm His teaching, so too do we find many miracles through the history of the Church to affirm our Faith. Two of the strongest are the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe (still on display in Mexico City) and the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano (still on display in Lanciano, Italy). While many can assume these two phenomena, both studied and tested, are false and easily ignore them, that does not prove them to be false. In fact, in many of its investigations of miracles, the Church has asked atheist scientists to study them in order to receive unbiased conclusions.

While these miracles and testimonies are indeed extraordinary, there is still more for the Christian in our Faith. In fact, not only can we know more about our Faith and come to know of God’s power, but we are also able to know God Himself, growing closer to Him and experiencing His power each day. Just like it is possible for one to buy a really expensive telescope and witness for themselves the drifting of the planets to believe in the Big Bang, it is also possible for one to know for themselves that God exists.

However, before God proves Himself to us, we need to prove ourselves to Him. Throughout the Gospels, the miracles that Christ performs on behalf of the sick, the blind, the deaf are for those who show great faith in Him. The hemorrhaging woman who touches His cloak, the paralyzed man lowered through the roof by his friends, and the Centurion whose slave was also in need of healing all went before Jesus with faith. While God too is the source of this Faith, we must use our free will to accept His Revelation and whatever He has planned for us. Additionally, it is interesting to note that all of these men and women manifested their Faith to Jesus in a big way.

It might not have been as comfortable as it seems for these people to go before Christ in front of others, humbly show their weaknesses and ask for healing. In a way, they needed to leave their comfort zones in order to experience Jesus in this way. So too must we be stretched at times in order to experience God. Furthermore, we must go humbly, seeking Him on His terms. We cannot reduce God into an organism that we can fully know and study exhaustively. If we could, He would not be God.

In a way, the origin of the universe is an interesting analogy for God. Today, we can study and learn more about it, but we cannot fully identify nor comprehend how or why the universe began, with the unique role of Earth in supporting life. Nor can we know God fully. However, with the testimonies we find in the Church over the past 2,000 years, along with the Jewish foundations on which these accounts are based, as well as our own experience of God in our daily ever-enriched lives, we can study and learn more about God, while not fully comprehending Him.

In our study and growth in relationship with the Almighty, there are things we can actively do to both prove ourselves to Him and know God and our Faith more.

First, we can read some of the following books:

  1. Practical Theology by Dr. Peter Kreeft
  2. Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science by Stacy Trasancos
  3. Pints with Aquinas by Matt Fradd
  4. Theology for Beginners by Frank Sheed
  5. Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church by H. W. Crocker III

Second, we can practice these devotions

  1. The Rosary
  2. The Daily Office (even just the morning prayer)
  3. Mass more than just on Sundays (even every day is possible)
  4. Routine Adoration
  5. Scheduled prayer time
  6. Daily Bible or Gospel Meditation
  7. Join/start a Prayer group that involves any of the above devotions or the books listed.

Our Faith is much more than a viewpoint, opinion, or theory of life. It is even more than a way of life, because it is Life itself. These books and practices are ways for us to encounter this Life that raises us up both now and at the end of our lives. Our Faith is bursting with much more and I would love to see in the comments anything else you would recommend for myself and others to encounter God and grow more in our Faith.

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Image: AllThingsCatholic; NASA.