Archives for December 2016

Do miracles really occur?

[SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t seen the movie Miracles from Heaven and don’t know the story but want to see it, this article will spoil the ending, so you might not want to read it yet.]

Some people don’t believe in miracles, because they don’t believe in a supernatural God.

However, only the first dictionary definition of “miracle” refers to divine intervention; it offers a more secular alternate definition that describes miracles merely as any extremely unusual event or accomplishment. Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. “Mark Twain”) wrote:

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.

And what is the truth? Quid est veritas?

As the author of three novels and three nonfiction books and articles, let me assure you that writing non-ficton is considerably easier than creating the plot of a novel from scratch.

The fictional story must appear to be plausible enough to the reader that he or she becomes willing to suspend his or her disbelief. The same isn’t the case for stories purported to be true — they simply require verifiable evidence to support any claims being made in the account.

Take the plot of the movie Miracles from Heaven, for example.

The main story simply sounds ludicrous —  a young girl suffering terribly from a rare, incurable stomach disease falls thirty feet inside a rotted tree, landing on her head.

But the fall that should have killed young Anna Beam allegedly cured her. Though her neck should have been broken, and her skull smashed in pieces, not only does she survive with only minor injuries, landing on her head appears to have somehow caused her devastating, potentially fatal disease known as pseudo-obstruction motility disorder to go into remission.

Anna’s doctor suggested that the fall had somehow jump-started her immune system so that her lower intestines began to function normally…a child surviving on pain medication and feeding tubes resumed a normal life of playing soccer and eating pizza.

The medical term for Anna’s miracle cure is spontaneous remission, which simply means a diagnosed and confirmed affliction was cured due to unknown causes, without treatment or surgery.

Anna’s story sounds utterly preposterous, right? The problem is that documentation and other evidence exists. Photographs are shown during the credits of the people in real life who had been portrayed by the actors in the movie.

Anna Beam is an actual person.

Most of the facts asserted in her incredible story can be rather easily verified — for example, there are hospital and other medical records documenting her illness, the filmed news reports of her fall, etc. But not all of Anna’s story is supported by evidence and documentation.

She also claims that when she fell, she died and left her body. Anna says that Jesus told her that she must return to Earth, and that her body would be healed.

The only evidence supporting that specific claim is the fact that her body has been healed of its horrible affliction — she makes no other assertions of any corroborated veridical information learned during her alleged NDE.

So, do miracles really occur? By the second definition, absolutely. But what about the first?

The film plays up the mother’s loss of faith when Anna becomes sick. She stops going to church. Her faith is shaken. And in truth, many people must be asking themselves, why would God let a young child like Anna suffer such horrible pain, to go through such a horrible ordeal?

Is it because God wanted a great movie made about Him in Hollywood, or was the reason much more subtle? Is there even a reason at all?

The movie doesn’t explicitly say, but it seems to give us a hint. While in the hospital, Anna befriended a young girl dying from bone cancer. Her father became upset when Anna gave his daughter her necklace, a small crucifix. He subsequently found out that Anna had shared her faith with his daughter through facing her own mortality, and it upset him.

Though he was portrayed as agitated during the hospital scenes, at the end of the movie when Anna’s mother shares her testimony in church and someone in the crowd questions whether Anna had really been near death from her illness, the now grieving father of the cancer victim announces he has traveled from Massachusetts to Texas at his own expense, to corroborate her story. He claimed that Anna’s faith had given his daughter hope, and the courage to meet her imminent death.

Did Hollywood make up that last bit? How much of Anna’s story is true?

What if all of it is true?

The enigma of Abraham and Isaac

In my opinion, there is only so much one can learn from simply reading the Bible alone. To get real value out of the Bible, you have to participate in a Bible study.

Otherwise, it’s too easy to cheat. For example, for years I simply ignored verses or whole chapters in the Bible that didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t want to think about a God who wanted blood rituals or human sacrifices.

In fact, I tended to avoid the Old Testament, preferring the personification of God as being the loving, kind, and forgiving Jesus, not the apparently cruel and  vacillating Yahweh of the Old Testament. Once upon a time, I was kicked out of one Bible study group after saying that Yahweh and Jesus almost seemed to be two different Gods.

But later, in a different, much smaller group that studied the book of Genesis painstakingly line by line, I was forced to confront a chapter than had always bothered me. Bible study inspired me to turn the story into a chapter in my first published book.

In Divine Evolution there is a chapter called “Misunderstanding God”, which begins by quoting the first verse of Bob Dylan’s masterpiece Highway 61 Revisited, which reinterprets the story from Genesis 22:

Ah, God said to Abraham, Kill me a son
Abe say "Man, you must be puttin' me on."
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want, Abe, but 
The next time you see me comin' you'd better run.
Well Abe say, "Where you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."

The song gives Dylan’s colorful interpretation of the story of Abraham and Isaac — but the central fact remains unchanged. It was a great honor that the future Nobel Prize winner in Literature would so graciously grant me permission to quote him in my book for the nominal fee of $100 — well worth the price, in my opinion. Mick Jagger and Keith Richard charged me $5 more to quote a verse from one of their songs, and I won’t complain about that, either.

Loosely translated, the song describes what Genesis 22 says. No one can deny the obvious, which is that God ordered Abraham to go to the land of Moriah and offer his only son Isaac, as a human sacrifice. Now, why would Yahweh, assuming He exists and is a benevolent creator, make such a deplorable demand?

As literally told, the story seems horrific. Yahweh appears to be capricious and unimaginably cruel. And Abraham acts somewhat doltish. Why doesn’t Abraham protest, or even question whether or not God really wants Isaac to be killed and burned as an offering?

Keep in mind that later, in the book of Judges, Gideon asks for multiple signs with dew and fleece to confirm that he’s actually received God’s command. But with far more at stake Abraham is told to kill his son in a murder ritual, and he gets up early the next morning, without a word of protest, determined to follow those incomprehensible instructions from Yahweh without hesitation.

Why? It seems that at least these five possibilities exist, and maybe more.

  1. The story is false.  God, Abraham and Isaac could be fictional characters. We may safely assume that the incident never occurred.
  2. The story isn’t meant to be read literally, but is allegorical.
  3. The story is true, but nonsensical. God is both creator and destroyer.
  4. The story is (sort of) true and accurate. Abraham was delusional, and had murderous intent toward his own son. Only through divine intervention was a tragedy averted.
  5. The story is true, accurate, and extraordinarily concise. Only by reading previous chapters, and making a few logical assumptions, can we have the story make sense and be true.

Atheists and secular readers usually gravitate toward the first alternative as the most plausible and consider the last option as least likely.

Option #1 is the simplest, and therefore the easiest explanation to believe on face value. Did the author believe the story was true or know the story was false because he was making it up? As the published author of three novels as well as three nonfiction books, I can attest to the fact that writing nonfiction is much easier. Research is not hard. Making up a plausible story from one’s imagination is much more difficult. The third and fourth options are both problematic because they acknowledge the existence of a creator, but offer no explanatory value. Neither the story itself nor the subject make any sense.

And Christians ought to be troubled by all five of these options, shouldn’t they?

Not in my opinion. According to my theory (that originated in Bible study) the fifth and final option is the reasonable answer, and therefore is probably correct.

Of course that would mean the story is essentially true and accurate, but extremely concise because the author doesn’t want to say things that paint Abraham, the father of Israel. in a negative light.

The key to this interpretation lies in what isn’t there — any sort of justification or detailed explanation of why God would test Abraham this way.

After all, isn’t this the same Yahweh who abhors the worshipers of Baal for their child sacrifices?  Is it safe to assume Yahweh only loathes child sacrifices to other gods? Interestingly, the Bible prefaces its description of the incident found in Genesis Chapter 22 with these words: “Some time later God tested Abraham.”

Some time later than what? Herein lies the beauty of Bible study, chapter by chapter, line by line.

Read the last section of Genesis 21.  It tells the seemingly banal story of a treaty made between Abraham and Abimelech the Philistine, at the well called Beersheba. The account includes one rather odd detail. Abraham accuses some of Abimelech’s people of stealing a well he claims to have dug, and demands return of the well as part of the treaty. Abimelech denies any knowledge of the issue. Then for no apparent reason, to placate Abimilech and sweeten the deal (while swearing that he was being truthful) Abraham sets aside seven ewe lambs to give Abimilech as part of the deal.

Did Abraham rightfully own the well?  If so, why would he offer to pay for a well that he already owned?

It’s also very interesting to note what the author of Genesis 21 says about Abimilech’s reaction to the last minute inclusion of the well into the treaty — he was afraid of Abraham’s God, so he didn’t argue the facts. With the application of deductive reasoning, it seems that Abraham may not have only been the patriarch of the Hebrew tribes, he may have also been the father of tough negotiations and driving the hard bargain.  Genesis 21:33 doesn’t elaborate. It simply reads, “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called upon the name of the LORD, the eternal God.”

A plethora of questions spring into mind, such as….why were these two stories included in the Bible? What is the significance of the treaty with Abimelech?  Why mention the added detail of the disputed well? Could this be the reason God decided to test Abraham? 

And what the heck is a tamarisk tree?

Tamarisk tree, but not Abraham

My theory, which is sheer speculation based not on what’s in the Bible, but what isn’t there, nevertheless seems to provide the only rational explanation that might tie these two accounts together and “justify” the near sacrifice of Isaac.

If we ever do agree that my theory to explain the enigma of Abraham and Isaac is reasonable, there will be plenty of other stories need that need to be studied in order to gain some measure of understanding. The Bible is a mysterious book that describes a mysterious creator God. It is an indispensable tool in our search for truth, and answer to the existential questions.

Why were we created?  Is there a reason we exist? Does humanity serve some unknown purpose?  

Inquiring minds want to know…

The B/Z reaction, and the problem with peer review

Alan Turing

In 1951, the brilliant British scientist Alan Turing published a paper proposing a theory in chemistry called morphogenesis, which explains how cells are grouped together within an organism.

According to Turing, oscillating chemical reactions predictable by mathematical formula are partially responsible for organizing cells to form organs, bone, and tissue. Of course, Turing’s greatest claim to fame was his role as the leader of the team that remarkably broke the Enigma code during World War II, the secret German code once considered unbreakable, as depicted in the excellent film The Imitation Game.

Unfortunately, Turing committed suicide only three years after his paper on morphogenesis was published, after his prosecution for the “crime” of being homosexual. Alan Turing didn’t live to see the publication of evidence that would have validated his theory almost immediately.

Boris Belousov

Only a few years after Turing’s paper on morphogenesis was published, chemist Boris Belousov mixed potassium bromate with citric acid, discovering that the blended mixture changed colors as the fluids oscillated and chemicals reacted, which seems to prove Turing’s theory. And as these videos illustrate, the phenomenon is actually very easy to replicate by experiment.

However, when Belousov attempted to have his research published in 1951, the leading scientific journals flatly rejected his work, based on the assumption that the experiment results were “impossible.”

Only a single paragraph from Belousov’s analysis was finally published four years later, in 1955. Alan Turing was already dead. And so was the career of Boris Belousov,  so disgusted the editors of the leading journals had flatly rejected his work without even trying to replicate the results that he stopped performing scientific research.

Anatol Zhabotinsky

The reason his discovery is also named after Anatol Zhabotinsky is because the latter discovered Belousov’s research and performed a very similar experiment, successfully publishing the results of his work in 1968.

Zhabotinsky used a slightly different chemical solution than Belousov, substituting melonic acid for citric acid to increase the visibility of the reactions.

Because of the role he played in the discovery of the B/Z reaction, Zhabotinsky has been called the father of nonlinear chemical dynamics. But does that make Boris Belousov the grandfather?

A horribly flawed peer review process utterly failed Boris Belousov. The editors of science journals successfully asserted themselves as the arbiters of what may be considered acceptable science, and their power remains largely unchecked even today.

In reality, the contemporaries of Boris Belousov were not his peers. Fortunately (for the advancement of science, at least) Anatol Zhabotinsky was Belousov’s intellectual equal, and a true scientist who appreciated the power of discovery via experiment.

Rather than simply assuming that some process or claim  is “impossible,” perhaps we should seriously consider at minimum a cursory investigation of the alleged evidence. Quid est veritas?

Opinions may change over time, but truth never changes.

Peer review is a horribly flawed system, but unfortunately, it remains the best system we have.

Echolocating night-hunting aerial interceptors

ew_bookcoverThe book Evolutionary Wars contains a section bearing the title above. In layman’s terms, it describes the method by which bats hunt insects at night.

Author Levy writes,

The most difficult task for nocturnal airborne predators is to detect, locate, intercept and successfully engage a moving target.  To achieve success, the predator must acquire an almost continuous stream of information giving instantaneous data about the target’s size, velocity, direction and altitude. (pg. 188)

The complexity of the work involved for mere survival of the bat is astounding.  Flying is only one complex function. By its description echolocating is several — essentially using its “naturally” occurring sonar capability to navigate and hunt without being able to physically “see” it’s prey.

As part of a lengthy technical description of how bats eat insects, Levy says,

If the echo returns at a lower pitch, the target is moving away; if the echo is at a higher pitch, the target is approaching. Each ear picks up the echo at a slightly different intensity and time.  In this way, the bat’s minuscule on board computer, it’s 10 milligram brain automatically triangulates and gives in-flight directions for the intercept.

illustration by Paul Mirocha

illustration by Paul Mirocha

Charles Levy implies a slight in his opinion of this remarkable creature when he  describes the bat’s brain by weight.  Admittedly, only ten milligrams for a brain is only a tiny fraction of the weight of the brain an average human carries around in their head, is around three pounds.

On the other hand, I’ve learned there are some birds that seem to be a bit smarter than some people I know — maybe that’s why the expression “bird brain” has been frequently used as an insult because of the human’s advantage in brain size. But we don’t use most of our brains. And we often describe animals as “dumb”, but consider the fact that a bat can naturally accomplish a number of things which a human cannot, without help.

Sure, humans can fly, but not without airplanes or wingsuits. We can mimic the bat’s ability to echo locate by using sonar and radar equipment built by intelligent humans, but we can’t safely navigate by air, land, or water without being able to see where we are going or special devices specifically developed to assist us in those tasks.

By comparison, the bat’s brain seems to be perfectly designed for it’s body. After all, if a bat had a three pound brain, it wouldn’t be able to fly.

Do bats serve a purpose?  Of course they do.  Many different types of bats eat insects. Keeping the insect population under control seems to be a valuable function to provide the overall environment, especially since Rachel Carson’s inflammatory book started the movement that led to the ban on DDT.

Any birth defects allegedly prevented by the ban on DDT are easily negated by the estimated sixty million needless deaths due to malaria and other insect-born diseases estimated to have occurred since the ban on DDT was instituted by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972.

DDT has been proved to be much safer than Carson’s book Silent Spring claimed. To prove how safe the pesticide actually is, some scientists have actually drunk supposedly lethal amounts of DDT on camera, with no ill effect. As reported in Ecoworld’s website by chemist Edward Wheeler, DDT is very safe and effective. However, for too many people, real truth doesn’t matter anymore.

Yet for those same people (and especially the eco-warriors), once they have made up their mind that something is bad for the environment, it becomes immutable. No matter how powerful or convincing that contradictory evidence may be, they can no longer be convinced of the truth.

Once they have become convinced that DDT is harmful and dangerous, neither logic, reason, or scientific evidence can convince them otherwise.

Those same people might also believe that carbon dating tests conducted in the late 1980s had proved the Shroud of Turin was a medieval forgery, and they will flatly reject compelling new evidence that established the 1988 tests used a contaminated sample – dismissing the new evidence without even looking at it.

Radical environmentalists would rather believe that the companies that produce the chemical pesticide are inherently evil, and they would rather poison people than help save them. Because of radical environmentalists, it’s no longer politically correct (or legal) to use DDT, and babies in south Florida are being born with horrible birth defects due to the Zika virus instead.

Although it’s also true that bats can carry rabies, the percentage of bats with rabies is quite small, which means the risk of getting rabies from a bat is a lot less than the risk of getting malaria or worse virus from a mosquito bite. So we need bats, because we need fewer mosquitoes.

We must love, cherish and protect our echolocating night-hunting aerial interceptors, because until common sense and solid scientific evidence convince the radical environmentalists that our best weapons against disease already exist, bats are about our best defense against mosquito-born diseases.

rachel-carson-and-silent-spring-radiogreenearth-488Though she probably only meant well, Rachel Carson is allegedly responsible for more deaths than Hitler, Stalin, and the Black Plague combined.

Sixty million people.

The road to Hell really must be paved with “good” intentions…and marked for traffic by “bad” science.