Science in Christian Perspective
From: JASA 36 (December 1984): 194-200.
The revelation of God in the cosmos is seen not only in the magnitude and grandeur of the universe but also in the extent of its preparation for the advent of intelligent life. This preparation is evident not only in the delicate balancing of the cosmological parameters Of force, space and time, but also in the enormous intricacy and capacity Of the product, the human brain. People dominated by creative purpose were not created by purposeless chance.
The Notion of Design
The tracing of the superintelligent ordering of the universe was foundational to the writers of Scripture. Thus St. Paul wrote:
For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualitieshis eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen being understood from what has been made. . . .1
The awesome world we survey with our eyes and ears and sift through our hands has been sensed alike by poet and philosopher. Elizabeth Barrett Browning captures it best when she writes:
Earth's crammed with Heaven, And Every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries. . .2
It is, too, the special domain of astrophysicist and astronomer, some of whom, like Owen Gingerich at Harvard, see God's hand, and others, like Carl Sagan, choose to think of themselves a bit like Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods.
Some of the "fire" in Sagan's writing is illustrated by this brief passage from Cosmos:
The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes, or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return. These aspirations are not, I think, irreverent, although they may trouble whatever gods may be.3
Contrary to Sagan's feelings, there are many in science today who find the exploration of space and the study of life it bears a positive act of reverence for the Designer. Harvard astrophysicist Owen Gingerich catches the essence of the beginning when he says in his Dwight lecture of 1982:
During this past decade, knowledge of the world of the smallest possible sizes, the domain of particle physics, has been combined with astronomy to describe the universe in its opening stages. The physics ultimately fails as the nucleo-cosmologists push their calculations back to Time Zero, but they get pretty close to the beginning, to 10-43 second. At that point, at a second split so fine that no clock could measure it, the entire observable universe is compressed within the wavelike blur described by the uncertainty principle, so tiny and compact that it could pass through the eye of a needle. Not just this room, or the earth, or the solar system, but the entire universe squeezed into a dense dot of pure energy. And then comes the explosion. "There is no way to express that explosion" writes the poet Robinson Jeffers. "All that exists Roars into flame, the tortured fragments rush away from each other into all the sky, new universes jewel the black breast of night; and far off the outer nebulae like charging spearmen again Invade emptiness."
It is an amazing Picture, of pure and incredibly energetic light being transformed into matter, and leaving its vestiges behind-countless atoms and even more numerous photons of light generated in that mighty blast. . . .
This is indeed a thrilling scenario, of all that exists roaring into flame and charging forth into emptiness. And its essential framework, of everything springing forth from that blinding flash, bears a striking resonance with those succinct words of Genesis 1:3: "And God said, Let there be light." Who could have guessed even a hundred years ago, not to mention two or three thousand years ago, that a scientific picture would emerge with electro-magnetic radiation as the starting point of creation! According to the NASA astrophysicist Robert Jastrow, the agnostic scientists should sit up and take notice, and even be a little worried. But let us look a little more carefully at the extent of the convergence. Both the contemporary scientific account and the age old Biblical account assume a beginning. The scientific account concerns only the transformation of everything that now is. It does not go beyond that, to the singularity when there was nothing and then suddenly the inconceivably energetic seed for the universe abruptly came into being. Here science seems up against a blank wall. In one memorable passage in his book, God and the Astronomers, Jastrow says: "At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."4
It is tempting to add to Jastrow's story. Think of the excitement as our scientist climber explains his part-his interpretation-of the Biblical statement, "Let there be light" to the theologians. How much he has added! How stupendous the light-giving becomes when read out in astrophysical terms!!
Yet the mysteries of the cosmos are not restricted to that
first cataclysmic moment. Similar feelings of awe and perplexity are expressed by biologists who have studied mechanisms for the origin of life. just what sequence of events could
have led by physio-chemical means to the advent of the first
primitive cell? The improbabilities seem insurmountable
without the creative guidance of the Designer-witbout the
correct ordering of reactions and environmental factors
exploiting the propensities designed into the stuff of life. It
would seem more and more difficult to accept the opening
phrase of Sagan's Cosmos, that "The Cosmos is all that is or
ever was or ever will be."5 You may choose to make God in
your own image, but the data of science give you no solace in
that lonesome choice. It would seem instead that the known Cosmos is only the beginning of a revelation of the size of
God! Indeed, that band of theologians on the mountaintop
have just begun their work.
The Anthropic Principle
But perhaps the most powerful recent source of support for design in the universe builds upon what has been called the "anthropic principle."6 This principle, first described by Robert Dicke of Princeton in 1961, takes notice of the fact that this vast assemblage of cosmological evidence describes a universe which is peculiarly suited for the production of life. Dicke had been analyzing work done by P.A. M. Dirac in the 1930's in which he observed a curious numerical relationship between some so-called dimensionless numbers which are also very fundamental measures of force, time and mass. Dirac found a numerical value of 10-40 for the coupling strength of gravitational force, a value of 1040 for the age of the universe, and a value of 1080 for the mass of the universe and noted that they differed from each other by the integral power of the very large number 1040. He proposed that the phenomenon was a manifestation of some unknown causal connection, a conclusion which satisfied most physicists, who then moved on to better things. But not Robert Dicke, who sought to explain the peculiar coincidence of these seemingly unrelated numbers. He suggested that the order of magnitude relationship between gravitational force and the mass of the universe could be explained on the basis of an effect of gravitational force of distant matter on the inertial mass of individual particles of the universe. However, this relationship, if valid, would be true in all eras of the history of the universe. Why, then, the relationship of these two parameters to the age of the universe? Dicke's conclusion was that the numerical value for the age of the universe is strongly constrained by the conditions necessary for the existence of man. That is, in an evolutionary universe originating in a "big bang" event, its age is not permitted to take one of an
John M. Templeton, an investment counsellor living in the Bahamas, is President of the Board of Princeton Theological Seminary. He is a trustee of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Buena Vista College and a member of the International Academy of Religious Sciences and the Board of Managers of the American Bible Society. He holds degrees in economics from Yale and in law from Oxford University, as a Rhodes Scholar, as well as various honorary degrees. He is the founder of the Templeton Foundation Program of Prizes for Progress in Religion.
enormous range of values. instead, it is somewhat limited by the biological requirements to be met for the appearance of man. For our evolution to proceed, there must be raw materials in the form of the elements carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, of which we are composed, yet the cosmologists describe the original fireball as containing only the lightest elements; hydrogen, helium and a little lithium. To go beyond this point, to set the stage for the advent of intelligent life, stars must be formed and then decayed in the form of supernovae to generate the heavier elements. And those elements must in turn be incorporated into a planet of a smaller star, our Sun, whose longevity is approximately 5 billion years and whose thermal characteristics assure us of moderate temperatures and the possibility of several billions more years of life before evolving into a red giant and finally engulfing our planet. Cosmologists can assign a minimum time for this evolutionary stage-setting for the advent of intelligent life on Earth and it is this figure which appears to correlate with the age of the universe and hence with the other cosmological parameters of force and mass.
Another way of describing the phenomenon is to say that the age of a universe inhabited by humans cannot be shorter than the age of the shortest-lived star, since the heavier elements of which we are made depend for their formation upon the conversion of a large, short-lived star into a supernova.
The most intriguing part of the picture is the way in which each of the cosmological parameters is delicately poised such that a slight chance would radically alter the nature of the cosmos, perhaps even excluding the possibility of human life. For example, as Henry Simmons7 describes it in the March/ April 1982 issue of Mosaic, a slight increase in the gravitational force would make all stars blue giants, producing heavier elements through supernova formation but having a lifetime of only a few tens of millions of years, too brief for the appearance of human life. If the gravitational force were slightly smaller, all stars would be hydrogen-burning dwarfs like our sun. Their lifetimes would be tens of billions of years, ample for the evolution of intelligent life, but there would be no source of the heavier elements essential for life as we know it. Simmons concludes:
Thus the value of the gravitational coupling seems precisely poised to permit the evolution of a particular universe. This universe must contain short-lived metal-scattering, blue-giant stars; long lived, evenly burning, slowly turning stars such as the sun; and observers.
The same delicate balance is seen in other fundamental physical constants of our universe. The strong force which holds the atomic nucleus together, compensating for the powerful repulsion of the like-charged protons, is necessary for the formation of the heavier elements. A slight weakening and the universe would consist only of hydrogen. Equally narrow limits of variation are essential for electromagnetic force, for the ratio of the masses of the electron and proton and for the weak force mediating interatomic binding. Dicke has also remarked on the crucial nature of the rate of expansion of the universe as follows:
If the rate of expansion in the early universe were only one part in 1014 smaller, the universe would have recollapsed before it would have formed stars and galaxies. And if this expansion rate were increased very slightly, by only one part in 1014, the universe would expand too rapidly to permit density fluctuations in the early universe to condense into bound systems like galaxies.8
It is not difficult to see, in this remarkable ordering of the universe, the hand of a Designer, guiding within precisely narrow limits the direction, magnitude and timing of each
The mysteries of the cosmos are not restricted to that first cataclysmic moment. Similar feelings of awe and perplexity are expressed by biologists who have studied mechanisms for the origin of life.
From what astronomers have deduced about solar evolution, we believe that the sun was perhaps Z5% less luminous several billion years ago. Today, if the solar luminosity dropped by 25%, the oceans would freeze solid to the bottom, and it would take a substantial increase beyond the sun's present luminosity to thaw them out again. Life could not have originated on such a frozen globe, so it seems that the earth's surface never suffered such frigid conditions. As it turns out, there is a very good reason for this. The original atmosphere would surely have consisted of hydrogen, by far the most abundant element in the universe, but this light element would have rapidly escaped, and a secondary atmosphere of carbon dioxide and water vapor would have formed from the outgassing of volcanoes. This secondary atmosphere would have produced a strong greenhouse effect, an effect that might be more readily explained with a locked car parked in the sun on a hot summer day than with a greenhouse. When you open the car, it's like an oven inside. The glass lets in the photons of visible light from the sun. Hot as the interior of the car may seem, it's quite cool compared to the sun's surface, so the reradiation from inside the car is in the infrared. The glass is quite opaque for those longer wavelengths, and because the radiation can't get out, the car heats up inside. Similarly, the carbon dioxide and water vapor partially blocked the reradiation from the early earth, raising its surface temperature above the mean freezing point of water.
As the sun's luminosity rose over the ages, so did the surface temperature of the earth, and had the atmosphere stayed constant, our planet would now have a runaway greenhouse effect, something like that found on the planet Venus; the earth's oceans would have boiled away, leaving a hot, lifeless globe.
How did our atmosphere change over to oxygen just in the nick of time? Apparently the earliest widely successful life forms on earth were the so-called blue-greens, a single-celled prokaryote, which survive to this day as stromatolites. Evidence for them appears in the Precambrian fossil record of a billion years ago. In the absence of predators, these algae-like organisms covered the oceans, extracting hydrogen from the water and releasing oxygen to the air. Nothing much seems to have happened for over a billion years, which is an interesting counterargument to those who claim intelligent life is the inevitable result whenever life forms. However, about 600 million years ago the oxygen content of the atmosphere rose rapidly, and then a series of events, quite possibly interrelated, took place: 1) eukaryotic cells, that is, cells with their genetic information contained within a nucleus, originated which allowed the invention of sex and the more efficient sharing of genetic material, and hence a more rapid adaptation of life forms to new environments; 2) more complicated organisms breathing oxygen, with its much higher energy yield, developed; and 3) the excess carbon dioxide was converted into limestone in the structure of these creatures, thus making the atmosphere more transparent in the infrared and thereby preventing the oceans from boiling away in a runaway greenhouse effect as the sun brightened. The perfect timing of this complex configuration of circumstances is enough to amaze and bewilder many of my friends who look at all this in purely mechanistic terms-the survival of life on earth seems such a close shave as to border on the miraculous.9
Life as we see it on the surface of earth seems not only very tenuous, but also very rare. As we venture out onto the "cosmic sea," we are impressed with how much of it is apparently empty space, devoid of matter and also devoid of life as we know it. Sagan describes our predicament rather gloomily when he writes:
The Earth is a place. It is by no means the only place. It is not even a typical place. No planet or star or galaxy can be typical, because the Cosmos is mostly empty. The only typical place is within the vast, cold universal vacuum, the everlasting night of intergalactic space, a place so strange and desolate that, by comparison, planets and stars and galaxies seem achingly rare and lovely. If we were randomly inserted into the Cosmos, the chance that we would find ourselves on or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion (1023, a one followed by 33 zeroes). In everyday life such odds are called compelling. Worlds are precious.10
A View from Space
And even where there are relatively near neighbours, as in our own solar system, such neighbours seem alien and forbidding to us in our search for any life resembling earthly life. Picture yourself on a space craft, Voyager 2, launched from Cape Canaveral in July of 1979. Actually, despite the fact that the satellite is the size of an average living room, it is so full of equipment for power generation and space measurements that you and I can't really squeeze aboard. But let's imagine!
On the thirteenth day of our voyage, we accomplish a space first" photographing our Earth and Moon together. At day 150 we fire rocket engines briefly for a slight correction of our spiral course. At day 215 we cross the orbit of Mars, our nearest planetary neighbor on this voyage to the outer planets. Mars had shown early promise as another place for life to develop, but the various satellites which have visited it have turned up no evidence for life forms of any recognizable kind. Despite astronomer Percival Lowell's lifelong expectations, based primarily on the so called "Martian canals," and H.G. Wells "War of the Worlds," there are no living creatures on the cold, sandy and boulder-strewn planet we call Mars. And it might be added, looking back over our shoulders, far behind us and much nearer the sun, the planet Venus is also a totally unlikely place for any kind of life we see on Earth.
Day 295 we begin a perilous six-month journey through a large band of asteroids, massive, tumbling boulders sailing by us ominously. Another three months beyond the asteroid belt, we begin to see the massive planet Jupiter clearly, more clearly than with any telescope on earth. It is truly immense, a swirling mass of dense gases and floating clouds, without solid surface or the familiar boundaries between land and sky. Our instruments tell us that the swirling mass is almost totally hydrogen, and that, in the interior, because of the enormous atmospheric pressures, the gas takes on a form unknown to us, liquid metallic hydrogen. And now we can also see clearly the outermost moon of Jupiter, Callisto, displaying an enormous crater from which radiate concentric rings like frozen ripples in a gigantic pond. Next we come to Ganymede, Jupiter's largest moon, with its deeply grooved and mottled icy surface, and then Europa, strangely smooth except for some striations which may be fissures in its thick icy crust. At this point we look for Almathea, an oddly shaped moon and find it part of a ring system which surrounds Jupiter, confirming the observation first made by our sister-ship, Voyager 1, some months previously.
On Day 647 we are directly adjacent Jupiter itself, and the famous Red Spot comes into view. It is like a giant geyser, an enormous column of complex gases forced up from the interior of the planet, a million year old Jovian storm. Next our attention is turned to another moon, called lo, brilliant with patches of red, orange, yellow and black and pocketmarked with the craters of many extinct volcanos. But wait, what is this?! Yes, a volcano actually in the process of eruption, its bright plume outlined against the darker surface and a vast dust cloud, a hundred miles high, surrounding it. Here is another first-the first active volcano ever seen outside of our own Earth! And then on Day 662, feeling the boost from Jupiter's gravity, we reset course and are on our way to Saturn, some 780 days of travel away.
Thus far no planet or moon we have seen holds promise for sustaining life as we know it. Temperatures are too low, and the various atmospheres are devoid of oxygen. Thinking of all we have seen, we are filled with awe at the magnitude of the great planet systems moving with clockwork precision around our sun, and staggered when we contemplate our solar system's place as a tiny pinpoint of matter in the vast universe. In this sense too, the immensity and beauty of what we have seen suggests a new application of the words of Hebrews 12: ". . we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses."11
On Day 874, we have a brief scare as our guidance system malfunctions-we have lost our fix on the star Canopus! But ground control analyzes the trouble as a brief error of our optical sensors, mistaking Alpha and Beta Centauri for Canopus. Guidance is restored and we breathe more easily! At Day 1350 we begin to see Saturn with its gigantic ring system looming up before us. Before the visit of our sister-ship, Voyager 1, the intricacy of the ring system was only hinted at. Not only do we see the six major rings, but now it seems there is no real break in the continuity between them. Indeed, our photopolarimeter tells us that there are upwards of 100,000
It is not difficult to see, in this remarkable ordering of the universe, the hand of a Designer, guiding within precisely narrow limits the direction, magnitude and timing of each event of the universe, from that staggering explosion billions of years ago to the very present.
rings in the total system, far more than can be explained in terms of perturbations caused by the twenty or so of Saturn's satellites. As we come in close, at day 1429, we fire retro rockets to slow down to 45,000 miles per hour, the speed of rotation of the outermost ring. We can now see some of the fine structure of the rings, and note that there is a dynamic variation in the density, looking through the rings at the stars of Delta Scorpio. The density variation appears as some form of wave motion, and in the F ring, the innermost ring, the variations take on the appearance of a twisting or braiding of strands or ringlets. Finally, as we veer off from the whirling particles of dust and rock, snowballs and ice clumps, we see the spokes of the B ring, dark striations against the bright ring background. These curious lines extend about half way through the ring in a radial fashion with respect to the planet.
Now, we turn our attention to Saturn itself. It is reminiscent of Jupiter; though smaller, it is a vast assemblage of hydrogen and helium, with turbulent winds extending 1,000 miles into its surface. Among its many satellites we see the very prominent Titan, second largest satellite in our Solar System. It is also the most interesting moon from our terrestrial perspective, since the chemistry of Titan may be similar to the primitive earth, a kind of early chapter in our own cosmic history. It looks mysterious, shrowded in clouds, with dark rings around its north pole. Its atmosphere, half the density of ours, is made up mostly of nitrogen and a smaller amount of methane. Its surface temperature is -289deg.F. There are traces of ethane, acetylene, ethylene and hydrogen cyanide, presumably photochemical products of the sun's action on methane. Perhaps we are looking at another place of the advent of familiar life, but the low temperature resulting from the great distance from the sun makes that very unlikely.
We have come to the end of our journey. At this point we must imagine disembarking from Voyager 2, just as it resets its course for a 1986 encounter with the planet Uranus. We have not gone this way before, so we can only guess at the wonders in the outer reaches of our solar system. But we have gone far enough to know that life as we know it is nowhere else to be found in our solar system, Indeed, worlds are precious!
As for the rest of the cosmos, we can only wonder how many other worlds there are. Sagan has given estimates as high as 100 million, but narrows this drastically when considering technologically sophisticated cultures.
Hearn, in his "Scientist's Psalm," takes a more joyous and optimistic view:
Earth we live on, merely one Planet of a minor sun: join this entire galaxy Showing forth His majesty!
Beyond our own galactic rim, Billions more are praising Him. Ten to some gigantic power Times the height of Babel's tower.
Past the range of telescope: God of Faith and Love and Hope. Praise Him every tongue and race! Even those in outer space!
Gingerich takes an opposite but still reverent viewpoint,
noting the "narrow window" for the advent of life on our
planet and suggesting the possibility that we are alone in the
cosmos, a unique production of the Designer.
Observer Participation in The Cosmos
Other scientists, taking a more anthropomorphic viewpoint, have explored the possibility that something intrinsic in the presence of intelligent life-in "observer-participation"-actually serves as a moving force in the cosmos. In a 1973 conference at Cracow, Brandon Carter13 extrapolated from the anthropic principle to suggest that not only do the conditions prerequisite to human existence sharply constrain the range of possible observable universes, but the fundamental properties of force, space and time are actually constrained to incorporate the evolution of intelligent observers. John Wheeler of the University of Texas, in the 1979 Einstein Centennial at Princeton, spoke of this universe-observer interaction in analogy to the way the delayed-choice experiment is carried out in quantum mechanics. 14 According to Henry Simmons,"15 delayed-choice experiments in quantum physics involve an arbitrary decision on the part of the observer, while the experiment is still in progress, to observe the properties of electrons, photons or other quantum entities in either a wave-like or a particle-like manner. Wheeler describes the universe, based on this analogy, as follows:
Beginning with the Big Bang, the universe expands and cools. After eons of dynamic development, it gives rise to observership. Acts of observer-participance-via the mechanism of the delayed-choice experiment-in turn give tangible reality to the universe not only now but back to the beginning. To speak of the universe as a self-excited circuit is to imply once more a participatory universe.
Other possible universes, if they lacked participatory observers, would in Wheeler's view be "stillborn." Carr and Rees, in a 1979 review article in Nature, 16 elaborate on Wheeler's work as follows:
Wheeler envisages an infinite ensemble of universes, all with different coupling constants and so on. Most are 'stillborn,' in the sense that the prevailing physical laws do not allow anything interesting to happen in them; only those which start off with the right constants can ever become "aware of themselves."
Also present at the 1979 Einstein Centennial was physicist Freeman Dyson of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. His summary of the ideas of the anthropic principle is most lucid and searching:
One wonders, at this juncture of the "material" universe and the observer function of intelligent beings, just where all our exploration will lead. Are we product or cause--or is all this explained by a vastly higher intelligence that has designed it all?! I choose to think the latter, but hasten to add that He has much more for us to know. We can joyously join with Pascal when he says:
The idea of observer-participance is for Wheeler central to the understanding of nature. Observer-participance means that the universe must have built into it from the beginning the
potentiality for containing observers. Without observers, there is no existence. The activity of observers in the remote future is foreshadowed in the remote past and guides the development of the universe throughout its history. The laws of physics evolve from initial chaos into the rigid structure of quantum mechanics because observers require a rigid structure for their operations' All this sounds to a contemporary physicist vague and mystical. But we should have learned by now that ideas that appear at
first sight to be vague and mystical sometimes turn out to be true.
Wheeler is building on the work of Bob Dicke and Brandon Carter, who were the first to point out that the laws of physics and cosmology are constrained by the requirement that the universe should provide a home for theoretical physicists. Brandon Carter has shown that the existence of a long-lived star
such as the sun, giving steady warmth to allow the slow evolution of life and intelligence, is only possible if the numerical constants of physics have values lying in a restricted range. Carter calls the requirement that the universe be capable of breeding physicists the "anthropic principle." Dicke and Carter have used the anthropic principle to set quantitative limits to the structure of the universe. Wheeler carries their idea much
further, conjecturing that the laws of nature are not only quantitatively constrained but qualitatively molded by the existence of observers.
Wheeler united two streams of thought that had before been separate. On the one hand, in the domain of astronomy and cosmology, the anthropic principle of Dicke and Carter constrains the structure of the universe. On the other hand, in the domain of atomic physics, the laws of quantum mechanics take
explicitly into account the fact that atomic systems cannot be described independently of the experimental apparatus by which they are observed in atomic physics; the reaction of the process of observation upon the object observed is an essential part of the description of the object. 17
By space the universe encompasses and swallows me up like a dot; by thought I encompass the universe.18
Complexity in the Infinitesimal
As our knowledge of the cosmos has grown, we have been increasingly confronted with staggering levels of order and immensity, a surprising correspondence between scientific and theological views, and of exquisite preparation for the
One is impressed with the enormous complexity and intricate interaction of the cells which make up the nervous system.
advent of intelligent life which can only be attributable to a Designer. In a sense, we have entered into the thought of the Designer, perhaps as a part of our legacy as His creation, as a part of our imago Dei. The beautiful song by Georgiana West states it this way. "I am God's melody of life; He sings His song through me. I am God's rhythm and harmony. He sings His songs through me."
The process of human evolution especially at the level of the contemplation of who we are and how we come to be here, has been called by philosophers the most profound question. There are those, like Jacques Monod, who see no special significance in the evolution of man, for, he says, we came as did the rest of the biosphere, "solely by chance."19 But Arthur Peacocke impugns this as "false modesty, verging on intellectual perversity," suggesting, along with Polanyi, Eccles, and others that the understanding of our own evolution is the most important problem confronting evolutionary theory.20
This process of understanding our evolution has recently become a concern of biological scientists interested in the thought process itself, at the level of the intricate details of the function of the human brain. Here again one is impressed with the enormous complexity and intricate interaction of the cells which make up the nervous system. Anatomist Gareth Jones21 tells us that the cerebral cortex contains 1010 - 1014 nerve cells, at least 10 times the human population on earth. Most nerve cells contact upwards of 5,000 other nerve cells through what are called synaptic junctions, with the information being transferred undergoing modification at each junction. The "connectedness" of brain cells is one of the most astounding phenomena yet encountered at the microscopic level. Indeed, the number of connections within one human brain rivals the number of stars in the universe!As an example of this awesome "universe within," Gunther Stent describes for us the workings of the visual cortex in its interaction with the human eye as follows:
... information about the world reaches the brain, not as raw data but as highly processed structures that are generated by a set of stepwise, preconscious informational transformations of the sensory input. . ." which "proceed according to a program' that preexists in the brain." "Transformation [of the light rays entering the eye] begins in the retina in the back of the eye. There a two-dimensional array of about a hundred million primary light receptor cells-the rods and the cones-converts the radiant energy of the image projected via the lens on the retina into a pattern of electrical signals, much as a television camera does. Since the electrical responses of each light receptor cell depends on the intensity of light that happens to fall on it, the overall activity pattern of the light receptor cell array represents the light intensity existing at a hundred million different points in the visual space. The retina not only contains the input part of the visual sense, however, but also performs the first stage of the abstraction process. This first stage is carried out by another two-dimensional array of nerve cells, namely the million or so ganglion cells. The ganglion cells receive the electrical signals generated by the hundred million light receptor cells and subject them to information processing. The result of this processing is that the activity pattern of the ganglion cells constitutes a more abstract representation of the visual space than the activity pattern of the light receptor cells. Instead of reporting the light intensity existing at a single point in the visual space, each ganglion cell signals the light-dark contrast which exists between the center and the edge of a circular receptive field in the visual space, with each receptive field consisting of about a hundred contiguous points monitored by individual light receptor cells. In this way, the point-by-point, fine-grained light intensity information is boiled down to a somewhat coarser field-by-field light contrast representation. As can be readily appreciated, such light contrast information is essential for the recognition of shapes and forms in space, or visual perception.
For the next stage of processing the visual information leaves the retina via the nerve fibers of the ganglion cells. These fibers connect the eye with the brain, and after passing a way station in the forebrain the output signals of the ganglion cells reach the cerebral cortex at the lower back of the head. Here the signals converge on a set of cortical nerve cells. Study of the cortical nerve cells receiving the partially abstracted visual input has shown that each of them responds only to light rays reaching the eye from a limited set of contiguous points in the visual space. But the structure of the receptive fields of these cortical nerve cells is more complicated and their size is larger than that of the receptive fields of the retinal ganglion cells. Instead of representing the light-dark contrast existing between the center and the edge of circular receptive fields, the cortical nerve cells signal the contrast which exists along straight line edges whose length amounts to many diameters of the circular ganglion cell receptive fields. A given cortical cell becomes active if a straight line edge of a particular orientation-horizontal, vertical, or oblique-formed by the border of contiguous areas of high and low light intensity is present in its receptive field. For instance, a vertical bar of light on a dark background in some part of the visual field may produce a vigorous response in a particular cortical nerve cell, and that response will cease if the bar is tilted away from the vertical or moved outside the receptive field. Thus the process of abstraction of the visual input begun in the retina is carried to higher levels in the cerebral cortex. At the first cortical abstraction stage the data supplied by the retinal ganglion cells concerning the light-dark contrast within small circular receptive fields are transformed into the more abstract data structure of contrast present along sets of circular fields arranged in straight lines.22
The exquisite "connectedness" which this relatively simple sensory process displays draws us back again to the question of design, of purpose and plan; of "pre-existing programs," as Stent calls it.
Indeed, it would seem that, at every level in the cosmos, whether the astronomical ordering of light to stars to super nova, or the microscopic cellular abstraction and transformation in the brain or the delicate balance of the subatomic strong force holding atomic nuclei together, the hand of the great Designer is far easier to see than to ignore. Perhaps it is supposed to be this way, at least for "those who see," and "take off their shoes."
2 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Complete Poetical Works of Elizabeth B. Browning, Book VII, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1900.3Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Random House, New York, 1980, p. 5.
6George Gale, "The Anthropic Principle," Scientific American, Vol. 245, p. 2, 1981.
7 Henry Simmons, "RedefiDing the Universe," Mosaic, March/April, 1982, p. 18.8Ibid.
12Walter Hearn, "Scientist's Psalm," HIS Magazine, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1963.13Brandon Carter, paper delivered at Cracow Conference, 1973, referred to in Simmons, Mosaic, March//April, 1982, p. 16.
14John Wheeler, paper delivered at Einstein Centennial, Princeton, 1979, referred to in Simmons, Mosaic, March/April, 1982, p. 19.15Simmons, p. 19.
17 Freeman DYSOD, paper delivered at Einstein Centennial, Princeton, 1979, referred to in Simmons, Mosaic, March/April, 1982, p. 20.18B. Pascal, Pensees, No. 265.
19Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity, Vintage Books, New York, 1972, p. 59.
20Arthur Peacocke, "Chance, Potentiality and God" in Beyond Chance and Necessity, C.J. Lewis, ed., Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1974, p. 20,
21D. Gareth Jones, "Our Fragile Brains" InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL 1980.
22Gunther Stent, "The Promise of Structuralist Ethics," The Hastings Center Report, Vol. 6, pp. 37-38, 1976.