The best is yet to come
Clarence Janzen chats with computer scientist Dr Ed Knorr
Dr Ed Knorr’s B.Math. is from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and his M.Sc. and Ph.D. (the latter involving research in data mining and outlier detection) are from the University of British Columbia, where he has worked since 2002 and is currently a tenured senior instructor.1
Dr Knorr’s childhood in Canada was not exactly privileged. His parents, lacking much formal education, were impoverished but hard-working German immigrants, fleeing the ravages of World War II and its aftermath to make a new life in British Columbia. The family would rarely go out to eat, and vacations were unknown.
I have known Ed since 1984 as a very active Christian, with a strong interest in both Bible prophecy and defending Genesis creation. So how did this IT academic’s faith get started?
“When I was a kid”, he said, “Canada was more of a Christian country”. He recalled how all students in his Grade 5 public school received a Gideon’s New Testament. “We also had Christmas plays in school, and manger scenes were common in public places.”
As in most Western countries before the evolution-fuelled push to increasingly exclude God from public life, it was common for even non-Christian parents to ensure their children were taught Christianity. Dr Knorr said:
My mom and dad didn’t attend church themselves, but they sent their kids to a nearby Lutheran Sunday School. There, I learned the basics of the faith and graduated in what is called ‘confirmation’ for Lutheran kids. I read the Bible and prayed daily. To be honest, I had a pretty flat spiritual life, but I knew the salvation message.
It wasn’t until he was employed in the province of Alberta that, he says, “my faith really took off”. The family he rented a room from were good role models and gave “great spiritual encouragement”. Later, through a co-worker in the oil and gas industry, Ed began attending the Evangelical Free Church, soon becoming totally involved.
When employment eventually took him back to his roots in the Vancouver area, Ed continued his strong involvement in the denomination. This included leading Bible studies and teaching Sunday School (of which he was Superintendent for a time)—“continually growing in the faith”, he says. “I guess you could say a big focus in my life is teaching and proclaiming the Word of God.”
Asked about evolution in his high school years, Ed replied that while at the time he knew there were different viewpoints, he “probably hadn’t thought about the issue a lot” and was not really aware of the conflict or the passions it produced. He had always believed in Genesis literally, and never doubted the Bible. But the importance of six-day creation really took hold of him, he said, in the 1980s:
I was reading more and more Christian books, and a few were on creation and really made sense. I studied prophecy the most because that was my big interest; but it became clear to me that the same God that promised to create a new heavens and a new earth, and to resurrect our bodies, could be trusted as Lord, Saviour, and Creator. Since the Lord Jesus took Genesis to be real history, so did I, regardless of whether public schools acknowledged it or not.
As his church’s head librarian, Ed has been instrumental in it developing one of the largest lending library collections of Christian books and DVDs in Greater Vancouver, currently with about 6,400 items. He says:
We specially order books that may not be available in every Christian bookstore. And yes, we have lots of creation books and DVDs for all ages, as well as subscribing to Creation magazine and the more technical Journal of Creation. In addition to prophecy, missions, etc. I’m a strong believer in apologetics in general, and defending creation in particular.
Did he have a favourite creation resource? He said:
I recently read an outstanding book on Genesis 1–11 that I highly recommend—The Genesis Account, by Jonathan Sarfati.2 This is definitely a book to put on your reading list—it’s now on my top 10 list of all time!2
Having taught at the third largest university in Canada for almost 20 years, how has being a creationist impacted his career? He said:
It hasn’t been a challenge, probably because in my areas of computing and mathematics, there tend not to be conflicts. I think most people in universities keep their faith pretty quiet. I have a great admiration for the many scientists who take their work seriously, put in long hours, and hope to make a difference in the lives of students and the world. I have both a scientific operational worldview and a biblical historical worldview. Yes, there are conflicts, but Scripture is the ultimate standard, and everything makes a lot more sense when viewed through biblical lenses.
Mathematically, can evolution work?
Asked about scientific/mathematical evidence on origins, Ed referred to the work of creationist genetic-engineering pioneer Dr John Sanford:3
I learned there are at least 100 new mutations per person born, and almost none of these are advantageous. Furthermore, DNA is poly-constrained and poly-functional: any mutation in a single ‘letter’ of DNA could affect multiple genes. Thus, the likelihood of harmful effects adding up over time is high. Given the low probability of advantageous mutations, multiplying low probabilities over long stretches of time implies the probabilities become statistically zero for the formation of any significant new functionality in an organism. Things are heading downhill; the notion of perfect design right from the start, with variability encoded in the DNA, makes much more scientific sense.
The relevance of computer programming to biology seemed obvious, given that the genome of each organism is ‘programmed’ with huge amounts of meaningful information. Ed told me:
Computer programs (i.e. software) have precise specifications that follow well-defined steps to tell the computer to do exactly what the software (and hence programmer) tells it to.
A program sold to you by a software company can be very large and complex—often the result of many person-years of effort by highly-skilled programmers. Essentially, it is one long binary number (consisting of only 1s and 0s)—but with an amazing amount of intelligence built into it. Even then, we often don’t get it right, hence why so much software needs to be patched and upgraded.
DNA is also a digital code. Microsoft pioneer Bill Gates said: “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.”3 The human genome contains about 3 billion ‘letters’ of information—equivalent to 1000 encyclopedias. That does not happen without a designing intelligence. Since the Fall, errors (mutations) have crept in; but, DNA is an amazing bunch of code.
Computer trees and biblical kinds
Secular scientists believe in a single ‘tree of life’ to describe the common ancestry of all species on Earth; Ed thinks the biblical viewpoint provides a better explanation—namely that there are a number of trees (often called the ‘creationist orchard’)—each representing a particular ‘kind’ (Genesis 1:21, 25).
Within a given tree, there is plenty of room for variation and natural selection—but the trees of different ‘kinds’ do not merge. Ed says:
In computer science, we also use ‘trees’—upside down, with the root node at the top, and branches going downward. We refer to such a bunch of unconnected trees as a ‘forest’. Every element (node) in each tree has a unique path back to the root element of that kind (see box on ‘upside-down trees’ p. 45), but no connection to other kinds. This fits the evidence concerning living things.
Ed’s passion for prophecy is partly driven by contemplating this world with its sorrow, violence and tragedy. In contrast, he says, “God promises a future restored creation, in which redeemed mankind will live in a universe unpolluted by sin.” He recalls his mother telling of when her family members and friends were killed in front of her by Red Army soldiers in her village in eastern Germany. He says:
They were given one hour to bury the dead ‘or else’ … because the soldiers would be coming back. So, with their own hands, and no tools, they quickly dug shallow graves. I’m looking forward to a world without war and injustice, with the return of Jesus Christ.
To Ed, this future restoration goes hand in glove with Genesis creation:
When God resurrects the dead, He will do so very quickly, in ‘the twinkling of an eye’ (1 Corinthians 15:51–52) not over vast eons of time. His promise to create a new heaven and new earth won’t take billions of years, either.
One of his favourite passages on resurrection/restoration is from Job 19:
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another (vv. 25–27a).
Job is clearly speaking of a literal resurrection, with a real, physical body having flesh, eyes, etc. We are made in the image of God, and we will be resurrected in the image of God. This convinces me more than ever that we can take God at His Word.
Asked about a message for readers, Dr Knorr wanted to say the following—especially, he said, to those disappointed with life and wondering if life has meaning:
You were created for a purpose. Your life has incredible value. If Jesus is your Lord and Saviour, your destiny is to become part of an exciting and endless future—a world without sin. The current world has many good qualities, but it is a fallen world; the best is yet to come!
Upside-down trees and life’s forest
The diagram below shows a computer science example of a ‘forest’ consisting of three k-ary ‘trees’. (A k-ary [or m-ary] tree has no more than k branches at any point. A binary tree has k=2, ternary k=3. These trees are upside down compared to real trees). A larger ‘forest’ like this with many more trees could be used to represent the way in which the descendants of the original Genesis kinds have diversified since creation. Each original kind is represented by the top ‘node’ of each tree, and these have diversified (e.g. by splitting into separate species following creation, such as wolves, coyotes, dingoes, etc. ). All of the daughter species, descended from the original kind, are only found within that tree, with no connection to any other tree. Every creature thus is linked to others by common descent, but only within that kind. By contrast, the evolutionary ‘tree of life’ if represented like this would have one node at the top, with every species that has ever lived connected to it by common descent. The evidence of biology is highly consistent with the forest model.
Algorithms and problem-solving
Algorithms are like ‘recipes’ written in computer code, instructions for how to solve particular problems. For example, consider searching for a patient’s record in a list of n = 1,000,000 medical records, given that patient’s ID number. If the records are not kept sorted by patient ID number, then one way to find the person corresponding to the given ID number, is to start at the beginning and go through the list one-by-one until you find the record match you’re looking for. This is a fairly naïve algorithm, and on average you’ll need to do n/2 = 500,000 comparisons. In the worst case, if the ID number was the last one in the list (or not there at all), it would take n comparisons, i.e. looking through all one million entries.
However, a smarter approach would be to use an algorithm (set of instructions) that tells the computer to sort the list of ID numbers first, and then perform a binary (yes or no) search on the list as follows. First, look at the number in the middle of the list, to see if it matches. If not, use that number to tell if the patient ID number provided should be in the top or bottom half, thus the other half can be ‘discarded’. One continues this bisection process, with the list getting smaller (by half) each time, narrowing the search by comparing the middle element of the remaining list, until the ID number is found, or the list is exhausted. On average, this takes a logarithmic number of steps, proportional to log2(n) operations. In other words, using this algorithm, a search in a list of 1,000,000 patients will take at most 20 comparisons, regardless of whether that patient’s ID is actually in the list or not. So this algorithm is far superior to the first one. There are actually many kinds of sorted lists we can use, including tree structures (or more generically: ‘data structures’). These will allow us to add records to the collection efficiently, so that the list will always remain sorted without having to re-sort the whole list.
There are even more clever algorithms that take into account, and minimize, the number of times that the disk drive or the Internet is accessed. Since such accesses can take orders of magnitude more time than a computation on a computer’s ‘thinking chip’ (the CPU), this speeds things up considerably. For example, in less than a second, database systems can locate records, or bunches of records (like all customers from Vancouver who spent more than $100), by using data structures like B+ trees (see diagram below) to index massive amounts of data.
References and notes
- Sometimes called teaching professor in Canada, it involves teaching and educational leadership. Research is not required, though pedagogical research can be part of educational leadership. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., The Genesis Account: A theological, historical, and scientific commentary on Genesis 1–11, Creation Book Publishers, Powder Springs GA, 2015; available at creation/s/10-2-606. Return to text.
- Author of Genetic Entropy (creation.com/s/10-3-513): see creation.com/sanford. Return to text.
- Gates, W., The Road Ahead, Viking, 1995. Return to text.