Friday, October 4, 2013

Salt and Earth

From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has urged us to give up materialistic ways and go out into the streets to the poor, both to evangelize and help them.  In his way of living and in many of his sayings, he promotes simplicity.

The Pope has also approved Vatican websites and tweets on Twitter.  He therefore assumes that those who are following his daily routine and pronouncements come equipped with computers and smart phones.

This is not to criticize, since I think it is wonderful he communicates with his flock.  But there is a little bit of irony here.  With daily scientific advances, the world is becoming more complicated.  It’s fairly widely believed that the best way to help people out of poverty is education.  Though one might live in a smaller house and drive an older car, to be educated is to live with complexity.

In the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, advocates are trying to determine how to detect design in biology.  One of their basic concepts is to equate design with complexity.  They take the example of computer programming and state that the only way this programming has come about is by intelligence.  They go on to theorize that the resemblance of DNA to programming points to the conclusion that DNA was designed by intelligence.

In order to prove their point, they use computer programming examples.  They compare simple strings of repetitive letters or numbers, such as 1010101010, with simpler computer instructions to create them (repeat “10” 5 times), as opposed to a long line of random-looking letters, such as YXOL248JMN (print “YXOL248JMN”).  They go on to say that the complexity is not enough to prove design—it must also be specified, which fits patterns or is predicted ahead of time.  But part of this specified complexity is complexity itself, so the concept is worth examining.

There are lots of critics to ID and I don’t want to get into all the in’s and out’s of this argument.  But I’d like to use an example of simple repetitive units as something they might therefore regard as un-designed: that is salt.

Solid salt, called NaCl for sodium chloride, is a repeat of sodium and chlorine atoms in a 3-D lattice.  Therefore salt seems made of  simple repetitive units that on the whole can be considered un-designed.  But these units are necessary for life. Without the sodium and chloride ions, there could be no cell function.  Among other things, these electrically charged ions are pumped in and out constantly with other nutrients (digestion), they keep the cell from popping or collapsing (osmosis), they help the nerves to fire (membrane electrical potentials).  Does salt become complex because it is involved in biology?

Salt is easily dissolved, it is easily distributed when solid and makes food taste good.  Most of us are able to get what we need through our food and the shaker on our kitchen table.  I think it is marvelously designed.

To use computer programming to compare simplicity and complexity is a little strained.  The presence of repeating numbers or letters on a screen still takes a computer, a programmer and syntax.  Finding patterns in the repeating symbols might even take more time and effort than to type the random string.  Whether the specific command is a little shorter or longer is almost mute.

This is another reason why faith undergirds knowledge.  We can have visions of proof of biology, but what about minerals and planets?  If we didn’t have these, we wouldn’t have life either.  All of it is designed, and all of it is unimaginably, for us, complex.

Christ said to us, “You are the salt of the Earth.  But if salt loses its flavor, with what can it be seasoned?” (Matthew 5:13, NABRE).  If we forget God in the midst of our theories, we lose the main truth.  This is both simple and complex, perhaps a paradox.  The uneducated can believe in God and know where things came from as well as those who are considered our most erudite.

Later, St. Paul also used salt in an analogy: “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.  Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you know how you should respond to each one.” (Colossians 4:5,6). 

Salt is marvelous, simple yet complex.  It makes you think, doesn’t it?

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