Computer Modeling Religion

Computer Modeling Religion
An international team of experts including computer scientists, philosophers, religion scholars, and others set out to find a method for computer modeling religion. The “Modeling Religion Project” ran for three years with funding from the John Templeton Foundation. They completed the project and gave their report in June 2018.

Collaborating on the project were Boston’s Center for Mind and Culture, the Virginia Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation Center, and the University of Agder in Norway. The goal was to use artificial intelligence to predict which political philosophy will give the best outcome. What does that have to do with religion, you ask? Read more.

The experts entered data collected from real people (largely in Norway) concerning economic security, education, and religiosity into computer models. The computer models were “trained” with “a set of empirically validated social-science rules about how humans tend to interact under various pressures.” In the computer model, the researchers could increase investment in education or provide more jobs or give the youth more social opportunities and so forth. The outcome was supposed to give politicians a tool to choose the most effective policy to follow. You still might wonder what this has to do with computer modeling religion.

Okay, here is the crucial part concerning religion. A spinoff of that project is another one called “Forecasting Religiosity and Existential Security with an Agent-Based Model.” This project is asking questions such as: “Why aren’t there more atheists? Why is America secularizing at a slower rate than Western Europe?” They also are attempting to learn what factors make a society more religious or speed up secularization. LeRon Shults who teaches philosophy and theology at Norway’s University of Agder said that by entering data from 22 different countries, they can predict “whether and how belief in heaven and hell, belief in God, and religious attendance would go up and down over a 10-year period.”

The researchers found that four factors lead a society to become more secular (less religious). The factors are:

1-Having enough money and food (existential security)

2-Having personal freedom (to choose whether or not to believe)

3-Welcoming diversity (or pluralism)

4-Higher level of education (in science and the humanities)

They found that all four of those factors must be present to speed up the secularization of a society. If any one of those four is missing, the society will remain more religious.

Wesley Wildman, a professor of philosophy and ethics at Boston University, collaborated on the project with Shults. Wildman said that keeping education local and in private schools and not welcoming pluralism have been “forms of resistance to secularization” in the United States that have slowed the move away from religion. He suggests that we need to nationalize education and be more welcoming of diversity and pluralism so that we can achieve more secularization as Europe has done. He hopes that their computer model will help politicians learn how to do that. However, he is not optimistic that politicians will accept his recommendations anytime soon, but he said, “We’re going to get them in the end.”

What, then, are the implications of computer modeling religion? You see the four factors that the researchers say will speed up the secularization of a society. Think about what this might tell us about the future. We will continue with that thought tomorrow. In the meantime, below are some links for more information about this project.
–Roland Earnst © 2018

Click HERE for information about the Modeling Religion Project.
Click HERE for research reports from the project.
Click HERE for an article from The Atlantic titled “Artificial Intelligence Shows Why Atheism Is Unpopular.”

Blaming California Wildfires on God

Blaming California Wildfires on God
I am writing this article near Redding, California. We have been involved in lectureships in California during this month of August 2018. The fires that are burning in this state have been a constant source of inconvenience for us. They are a major tragedy for people here who have lost homes, businesses, and health. Smoke makes travel difficult, but for people with respiratory problems, the smoke can be lethal. Over and over we have heard references to “why did God do this to us” or in other cases “thank God for…” While we understand the emotions that go with all that is happening, we need to stop blaming California wildfires on God.

While working in California, we are blessed to be with Keith Crummer. Keith has been an ecosystem manager and forest management expert in California for over 30 years. He has degrees in forest management from the University of California at Berkeley and from Oregon State. As we discussed the incredible damage of this current series of fires, Crummer just shook his head in sadness. He told us that what is happening in California was caused by human ignorance and mismanagement.

One fact that astounded me is that there are more trees in the United States now than have ever existed in the history of this area. Before the white man arrived on the scene, trees grew and died just as they do today. When the biomass accumulated on the forest floor, small fires set by lightning or by spontaneous combustion eliminated it. Those fires wiped out small trees and allowed grasses to flourish which in turn supported deer, elk, and other mammals. That made the forest less dense. While fires existed, they were small fires that ran out of fuel very quickly.

Then humans moved in and stopped the fires and allowed vast amounts of biomass to accumulate on the forest floor. The trees became so dense that grass could not grow. Crummer said that scientists know that managing the forest involves harvesting the material that falls to the forest floor, thinning the trees, and using the energy that is available from them. This would eliminate the potential for uncontrolled burning because massive amounts of fuel would not be available. It would also allow animals like deer and elk to proliferate. The current fire catastrophe is 100% due to the mismanagement of the environment by people who thought they were doing the right thing by eliminating fires and refusing to allow cutting down trees or removing brush.

In the Genesis account, God told the first humans to “…fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of heaven and over every living thing that moves on the earth” ( Genesis 1:28-30). “The Lord God took man and put him in the garden to work it and keep it…” (Genesis 2:15-16).

God did not tell them to merely preserve the creation. The creation is a living, changing, dynamic entity. It is our job to facilitate the changing Earth. Working and keeping the Earth means to control those things that would destroy what God created including the animals that live on it. We need to stop blaming California wildfires on God. After the fires in Yellowstone National Park, the elk and deer populations returned to levels close to what they were before humans arrived. If we had done what God commanded in Genesis and worked the forests of the western states, the fires today would not be spreading as they are.

So God did not “do it” to those who lost homes. We understand the anguish and desperation that our friends have experienced, but instead of blaming California wildfires on God we need to realize that politicians and bureaucrats have mismanaged the wonderful resources God has given us. Environmental extremists need to understand more fully what must be done to preserve and protect the environment for the benefit of future generations. Followers of Jesus Christ need to let those who are suffering know that we want to help them. God is not the cause of their burden, but He wants to send His people to love and support those who are suffering.
–John N. Clayton © 2018

Digital to Biological Converter

Digital to Biological Converter
The speed of scientific advancement in genetics and the use of computers in biochemistry is astounding. Scientists mapped the human genome in 2001. In May of 2018, Synthetic Genomics announced that they had created a working Digital to Biological Converter (DBC). The DBC turns digitized DNA code into synthetic biological material such as proteins. The process is called “Gibson Assembly” and can produce small pieces of DNA code called oligonucleotides and stitch the pieces together into DNA strands.

The exciting part of this new technology is that it could allow doctors to personalize medications to the individual needs of patients. Oncologists could create a medicine specifically targeted to the patient’s tumor. It has the potential to create vaccines to fight an epidemic quickly. The prototype machine is too large and too inefficient to be practical, but Synthetic Genomics hopes to have it available to medical researchers in three to five years.

Many of the health problems we have today whether genetic or otherwise have been caused by what we have done to ourselves and our environment with various chemicals and carcinogens. Some might say that we are “playing God” by creating synthetic genetic material. But if we have a way to correct the damage that our ancestors and we have done and relieve pain and suffering, we should certainly do it. The complexity of the Digital to Biological Converter and the material that it produces tells us more of God’s wisdom in the original construction of life.
–John N. Clayton © 2018

Reference: Wall Street Journal. July 14-15, 2018, page B4

Biomass on Earth Measured

Biomass on Earth Mostly Plants
Biomass is the mass of living biological organisms. If you lumped all living things by category, what group of organisms do you think would have the greatest biomass on Earth? We aren’t talking about the number of individuals, but the mass of the different lifeforms.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on May 21 published a study of the different areas of the world and what form of life dominates in those areas. (Click Here to read the full report.) Plants contribute the primary biomass in the terrestrial environment. Animals are primary in the marine environment. Bacteria and archaea (single-celled microorganisms) dominate the deep subsurface environment.

You may find the results surprising. The total biomass of Earth consists of 80% plants. Bacteria make up the second largest biomass at 15%. After that in descending order are fungi, archaea, protists (unicellular organisms that sometimes form colonies), animals (including humans), and viruses. Soil fungi, protists, soil archaea, arthropods, annelids, and livestock all exceed humans in their biomass. Only wild mammals, nematodes, and wild birds have smaller biomasses than humans. In the marine environment the biomass is much smaller than on land, and after animals, the greatest biomass is in protists, archaea, fungi, and finally bacteria. It is interesting that tiny Antarctic krill contribute about the same biomass as humans.

As you think about the biomass on Earth, it becomes evident that for human life to exist, we need a huge biomass of supporting life-forms. It becomes apparent that we must take care of all of the living things that support us. It is also obvious that before human life could exist on Earth enormous preparation was required.

We have to be reminded of the words of the psalmist in Psalms 8: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon, the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him… You have made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beast of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the sea.”
–John N. Clayton and Roland Earnst © 2018

Reference: Scientific American, August 2018, page 16.

American Marijuana Attitude

American Marijuana Attitude
A recent study showed that most Americans view marijuana favorably thinking that it has significant benefits and few risks. Science does not support the new American marijuana attitude.

The journal Annals of Internal Medicine published the new study on July 23. The researchers conducted an online survey of more than 9,000 people from all over the United States. They found that 81 percent of U.S. adults believe that marijuana has at least one benefit. The most common benefit mentioned was pain management. Other supposed benefits in people’s minds were the treatment of diseases and relief from anxiety, stress, and depression. At the same time, 91 percent of the respondents believe that marijuana has at least one risk. The most common risk mentioned was not medical problems, but legal. They also mentioned addiction and impaired memory. The bottom line is that the American public sees marijuana as having few health risks and significant health benefits.

The prevailing favorable American marijuana attitude is most likely due to the influence of the media. Some individuals and businesses stand to make a massive amount of money on marijuana, and governments see it as a source of tax revenue. In the meantime, the public is ignoring costs in healthcare, addiction treatment, traffic enforcement, and traffic deaths. In a previous post, we reported on a study of the effects of marijuana on the brain. The American Medical Association published information in the JAMA Internal Medicine on the increase in fatal car accidents in the United States on April 20 each year. That’s the cannabis celebration day on which thousands of marijuana enthusiasts light up at 4:20 PM in celebration of pot. The 4/20 celebration has grown as marijuana has become more widely available and legal. According to the JAMA Internal Medicine journal, there was a 12 percent increase in fatal crashes on April 20 and a 38 percent increase among drivers younger than 21.

Since Washington state legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, the percentage of drivers involved in fatal crashes who had traces of marijuana in their blood has doubled. One of the problems involves trying to set a legal limit for marijuana because its effect on the body is very different from alcohol. Blood alcohol level reliably predicts impairment. The level of THC (the chemical in pot) in the blood is not the critical factor until it enters the tissue of the brain where it has its effect. The THC blood level may be lower when the brain is most affected.

Getting high on marijuana makes changes in the human brain and smoking the weed has many of the same health dangers as smoking tobacco. It seems clear that the American marijuana attitude is changing, but it is also clear that we need to step back and think more clearly before our thinking becomes blurred by pot.
–Roland Earnst © 2018

Should Christians Care About Global Warming?

Should Christians Care About Global Warming?
Global warming has been an issue from a scientific perspective for at least 60 years. I remember discussions about it in my college classes at Indiana University many decades ago. In the last decade it has become a political issue and in the last few years a religious issue. There is so much bad information in the media that it is no wonder many people are confused about what is true and what is not true. Should Christians care about global warming?

Let us first point out that global warming and local heat are two different things. The heat wave that you may have experienced in the summer of 2018 in the United States is NOT what global warming is about. It may be hot where you are and very cold somewhere else. Global warming is just that–global. Data shows that the average temperature of the entire planet is rising. This is not the first time it has happened. The history of the planet shows periods of global cold and global heat. The causes of these changes are many and complex. Earth is a large planet with multiple factors involved in how its climatic systems work. Variations in the sun, volcanic eruptions, asteroid and comet collisions, and human activity all can affect climate.

Does climate affect human life? Of course it does. It always has, and with our increased population the effect will be greater. Jesus told his disciples, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars: see and do not be alarmed for all these things will come to pass but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom and there shall be famines and earthquakes in different parts of the world” (Matthew 24:6-7).

Is human life affecting climate and should Christians care about global warming? Genesis 2:15 tells us that God put humans in the garden of Eden “to dress it and keep it.” God expects us to take care of what He created, and we have not done a good job of it. When we mismanage God’s gift to us, there are always consequences. Man-made synthetics cause a large percentage of cancer. We are in an opioid crisis because of materials we take into our bodies that affect us in a variety of ways. Those of us who live in industrialized areas have seen the ecological disasters caused by human greed and selfishness. Several years ago, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio actually caught on fire. I have seen areas like Ducktown, Tennessee, and Sudbury, Ontario, decimated by pollution. Fortunately, people worked to clean up those places. Right now we have a crisis in our oceans because of the foolish disposal of plastics.

The global warming issue involves many factors, and human actions are certainly some of them. To what extent humans are responsible can be debated, but the question of rising temperatures globally cannot be debated. Christians can lead the world in helping relieve the consequences of “famines and earthquakes in different parts of the world.” If your belief system is “survival of the fittest,” you will not get involved, but that is not the worldview of Christians.

Jesus said, “Then shall the King say … Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was hungered and you gave me food to eat: I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink: I was a stranger and you took me in: naked and you clothed me: I was sick and you visited me…” (Matthew 25:34-38). Global warming may cause much suffering on our planet, whatever its cause. Should Christians care about global warming? Yes, and the followers of Jesus Christ will be there to relieve the pain.
–John N. Clayton © 2018

Know the Meaning of Life

Know the Meaning of Life
It was a study using scientific methods to determine what category of people are the most content with life. The research involved compiling the results of five different psychological studies of more than 50,000 individuals completed between 1981 and 2017. The journal Social Psychological and Personality Science published a report of the final result in June 2018. The happiest group are those who know the meaning of life.

A team of psychologists from the University of Southern California conducted the study. They concentrated on the political views of the test subjects, looking to see whether they were liberal or conservative. The conservatives consistently were the happiest, and they more often claimed to know the meaning of life. The media reported this as a “happiness gap” between liberals and conservative.

This study concentrated on political viewpoints, but when the researchers adjusted their model to remove “religious attendance” from the equation, the conservatives were still happier and found more purpose in life than liberals did. However, they found that the people who were pro-life and did not support same-sex marriage (which would include most conservative Christians) were more likely to believe that life has meaning and purpose. (After all, why would someone who believes there is a purpose in life not be pro-life?)

The author of the new study, David Newman, said, “Finding meaning in life is related to the sense or feeling that things are the way they should be and that there is a sense of order. If life feels chaotic, then that would likely dampen your sense that life is meaningful.”

Christians believe that there is order because God created an orderly universe. We believe that chaos is the result of sin. We also believe that God created us for a purpose and no matter what happens in this life, God loves us and has something better waiting for us. Our hope is in Christ, and nothing in this life can take away the “peace that passes understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

The scientists attempted to remove the God factor by taking “religious attendance” out of the equation. Perhaps they didn’t realize that attendance at some kind of religious gathering is not what makes a person a true Christian. The accurate measure of a Christian life is allowing Jesus Christ to be Lord. When Christ is at the center of our being, and we live by faith, we will have contentment, and we will know the meaning of life.
–Roland Earnst © 2018

Immune System – The Seventh Sense?

Immune System - The Seventh Sense?
The cover story in the August 2018 issue of Scientific American is titled “The Seventh Sense.” Jonathan Kipnis wrote the article with the subtitle “Long thought to be divorced from the brain, the immune system turns out to be intimately involved in its functioning.”

The article reports on new studies of how the brain and the immune system interact. Not only does the immune system help an injured brain, but it also plays a role in helping the brain deal with stress and informs it of microorganisms in and around the body. When I was in college the brain and the immune system were viewed as independent of one another. The central nervous system controls all the body’s functions, and this new study shows that the brain is connected to this system in such a way that the immune system is an integral part of both.

We have five senses–smell, touch, taste, sight, and hearing. The sense of position and movement is usually referred to as a sixth sense. These senses report to the brain about our external and internal environments. The brain computes the activity needed for our protection. Microorganisms are present in all of these environments, and the ability to sense them and provide a way to defend against them is necessary. It appears that our immune system is hardwired into the brain, and if that is the case, it is the seventh sense.

In the modern world, we have so many things that attack our bodies that we need to find new treatments based on a better understanding of how the immune system works. New studies are in the works that will expand our knowledge. One thing is clear–the system is highly complex, and we are just beginning to understand how it works and how to deal with the new challenges brought on by the world in which we live.

Psalms 139:14 says it well: “I will praise you; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are your works; and that my soul knows right well.” (King James Translation.) “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex. It is amazing to think about. Your workmanship is marvelous.” (Taylor translation.)
–John N. Clayton © 2018

Autonomic Nervous System at Work

Autonomic Nervous System at Work
I know you have many things to think about. However, there are many more critical things that you don’t have to think about because your autonomic nervous system is at work.

Just take a moment to think about all of the things you don’t have to think about. I mean you breathe without having to think about it—even in your sleep! Humans and animals have what is called an autonomic nervous system, and we could not live without it. It’s an amazing system in the hypothalamus of our brains that allows our bodies to perform functions without our having to think about them.

The autonomic system not only keeps us breathing while we sleep, but it also causes our heart to beat, our stomach to digest food, our pupils to adjust to changing light levels, our body to sweat when overheated, and many other things we don’t have to think about. Without the autonomic nervous system, anything we tried to swallow would get stuck in our throat because the esophagus would not push it down to the stomach. The stomach would not digest our food, and the intestines and colon would not send nutrition to our bloodstream and remove waste. Your liver and pancreas will do their jobs even if you don’t give them a thought. This amazing system allows our internal organs function without our having to think about it.

Essential functions of life just happen without our thinking about them, and sometimes without our knowing about them. But that presents some big questions. Did the autonomic nervous system just happen, or was it designed? How could this system just happen to start working at the right time with the correct program to control these complex machines which are our bodies? I suggest that this system requires a Designer who is also an excellent Engineer.
–Roland Earnst © 2018

Ancient Science of Moving Huge Rocks

Ancient Science of Moving Huge Rocks
One of the long-term arguments among those who study ancient history is how people thousands of years ago moved huge stones from place to place and set them up as idols or monuments. As examples, they point to the huge rocks in the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge in England, and Rapa Nui or Easter Island. On that island, ancient people moved or set up nearly 1000 human statues made of rocks weighing up to 784 metric tons. The quest is for the ancient science of moving huge rocks.

Those who promote ancient alien visitation to the Earth argue that these huge rocks provide proof that aliens have been here and have done some fantastic high tech things. Some suggest that those aliens also created us for some great event in the distant future. Sometimes those tabloid writers even misrepresent the Bible to “prove” their false theories.

Science News magazine (July 7, 2018, page 15) published an interesting report by archaeologists. Fifteen people were able to move rocks weighing 12 metric tons 45 meters down a dirt road. Then with a ramp, they lifted they lifted the stones 8 meters to the tops of human statues where they placed them as hats crowning the figures. Other archaeologists have given similar explanations involving a small number of workers.

Those who assume that ancient humans lacked intelligence and had no knowledge of science grossly underestimate the abilities of our ancestors. The Egyptian creations can easily be explained by simple engineering principles and the labor pool that was available to them. There is no need to suppose that huge populations were needed or that some outside force such as ancient astronauts were players in constructing those ancient monuments. The ancient science of moving huge rocks should not be a mystery.
–John N. Clayton © 2018