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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Message Systems Come from Minds

Egypt holds fascination for many people. The practice of mummification, the pyramids, and all those hieroglyphics shrouded the ancient Egyptians in mystery and wonder for hundreds of years. It was widely known that Egyptian hieroglyphics were used as the primary way of written communication in their day, but no one could read them until the French discovered the Rosetta Stone, unlocking the secrets of the pictorial message system and allowing scholars to read and understand the thoughts of those who lived 3500 years ago. Before the decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphics, studying ancient Egypt was a lot of guesswork. After finding the Rosetta Stone and deciphering hieroglyphics, archaeologists could suddenly understand so much more about who the Egyptians were, what they believed, how they lived, and why they built the pyramids and created mummies.

In recent years, modern scientists have discovered another Rosetta Stone of sorts. The DNA molecule that exists in every cell of our bodies was first successfully modeled by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. Crick, after further investigation, also provided a model for how the genetic code in DNA is transferred within the cell.1 Soon it was understood that our DNA functions like a set of blueprints; it holds all the instructions to build your body so you look like you. But such a find is more than amazing when you think about it. You see, message systems are very special things that have certain attributes — attributes which can come only from minds.

What Makes a Message?

In 1976, NASAs Viking I spacecraft had reached Mars and was taking close-up photographs of the planet for the first time ever. One photo immediately caught the attention of everyone in the project. It seemed that there was a face carved into the Martian surface that measured over two miles across! NASA released the picture with the caption "huge rock formation ... which resembles a human head ... formed by shadows giving the illusion of eyes, nose and mouth."2



 Now, scientists have discovered rocks that look like humans or animals before. Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba, Canada has many different tone shapes like the one you see in photograph #2. These stones are in an arrangement where they look to resemble a man. So, why did the NASA scientists immediately assume that the face on Mars is a natural formation while archaeologists looking at the stones in Whiteshell Provincial Park assume that these were placed by prehistoric people? What's the difference?

In a nutshell, the difference is the rocks in Canada have three traits of an information-bearing system, all of which are necessary for us to assume that something is trying to be communicated:
  1. They are orderly. The rocks at Whiteshell park are placed in a very specific arrangement. Most rocks one sees on the ground are randomly located. This squares with the idea that all things will tend towards randomness unless otherwise constrained. The "face" on Mars doesn't rely only on order, but also on shadow. If you look again at the picture, you can see that over a third of what would make up the face is obscured. The shadows themselves become part of the feature-making surface, so we cannot tell if the surface below holds the same order as the well-lit area. The Whiteshell rocks are unmistakable ordered and one can see where there is a start and a stop for each glyph.
  2. They are complex. While order is more rare than randomness in nature, it does happen do to certain chemical or physical constraints within a system. Ice crystals, for example, are very orderly in their form. Water can push on rocks and line them up in a sequence. However, the Whiteshell rocks are not merely orderly, they are complex in their order. The rocks are found at 90 degree angles and places on a sequence that would be nearly impossible to explain through natural processes. For example, the rocks are all close to the same size, they are all equally spaces, yet those in photograph #2 are set a different angles and then they stop until another formation is found with the same ordered complex arrangement.
  3. They are specific. The final piece in identifying an information-bearing system is that the rocks are placed very specifically in patterns that are recognizable to another mind. The angles of the Whiteshell rocks in the photo are in perfect proportion of a human being. If one were to invert the angle at the bottom of the image, the image of a stick figure is marred and the concept is lost on the viewer. The rocks must be specifically placed so the idea that the creator has will be properly received. This is true for any message system. Replace one letter in "I Love Mary" and you get wither confusion ("I live Mary") or a radically different message ("I love Hary")!
And no matter if were looking at ancient stones or looking for messages from outer space, these are the traits we look for to determine whether what we find is an accident of nature or generating from a mind: order, complexity, and specificity. Since DNA shows those same three traits, it should be reasonable to conclude that there was a mind behind the creation of DNA.

References

1. For an extensive history of how Watson and Crick uncovered the shape of the DNA molecule and its further understanding, see Stephen C. Meyers comprehensive treatment in Signature in the Cell. (New York:Harper Collins, 2009).

2. NASA Science. "Unmasking the Face on Mars." 24 May 2001. 24 August 2010 . Web. http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2001/ast24may_1/

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