Saturday, June 27, 2009

Young-Earth Creationism: A History

How do we relate science and Scripture? If modern science gives a picture of the world and its origins that differs from a literal understanding of the biblical account, must we then automatically reject it? Historically, believers have not thought so. They have realized that, to speak with Calvin, the Bible is the “book of the unlearned” - it describes things as they appear to the common observer. And so, although the Bible speaks of a four-cornered and unmoving earth, Christians have accepted the scientific evidence that the earth is spherical and moving. True, there are still some who defend an earth-centred solar system, but they are exceptions. No orthodox church community supports such a view.

In recent decades there has been one exception to the general rule. It concerns the interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis. Although science concludes that the earth and the universe are billions of years old, many conservative Christians hold that according to the Bible creation took place only 6,000 - 10,000 years ago. To believe otherwise, they insist, is to risk losing the entire Scripture. Meanwhile, although they reject much of modern science, many of them believe that scientific evidence in support of their position is important. They have therefore developed an alternative scientific approach, called creation science (or scientific creationism), which proves, they say, that a young-earth interpretation of Genesis is scientifically correct. This young-earth creationism has flourished mightily in the past three or four decades. Although certainly not every Christian accepts creation science, this is now the default position not only in conservative evangelical churches world-wide but also in Reformed ones.

Those who disagree are a minority, although a vocal one. The issue is rapidly becoming one of the most divisive ones among Bible-believing Christians - so much so, in fact, that church-related periodicals often prefer not to deal with it. The general impression is that arguments - whether biblical or scientific - do not convince in any case. This is probably true. But so long as young-earth creationism is assumed to be the one and only orthodox position, then consciences are bound, if not officially, then for all practical purposes. This creates a difficult climate for those who question or reject young-earth creationism. Especially vulnerable are students who are often well aware of the scientific arguments but are told that the scientific evidence, compelling as it may appear to them, must be rejected. Generally speaking discussions on the issue are not encouraged. Students often have to solve the problem on their own.

I realize that the issue is not easily resolved. I do want to propose, however, that we agree to accept the division, allow for the airing of divergent opinions, and stop labelling those who disagree with the dominant approach as heretical. I dare propose this because I have studied the history of the controversy and found that the kind of freedom I am asking for indeed existed in the past. Orthodox theologians, scientists and philosophers – Reformed, Presbyterians, and others – have defended theories of an older earth, and even some form of evolutionism, without being accused of heresy. The great divide came in the 1960s, with the rise and worldwide spread of scientific creationism. Within a few decades this initially Adventist and evangelical position replaced the traditional Reformed one, which henceforth was qualified as anti-biblical. In my article “Young-Earth Creationism: A History” (see “collected papers” in side-bar) I trace this development. I sincerely hope that the historical account will encourage a more nuanced attitude with respect to the interpretation of the creation account today. A direct link is here.

The article is divided into three parts. Part I deals with the period up to 1925 (the year of the American Scopes Trial); Part II describes the birth and worldwide spread of scientific creationism; and Part III traces the influence of creation science in Reformed churches. Special attention is given here to the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (liberated), the Canadian Reformed Churches, and the United Reformed Church of North America.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Intelligent Design

Dennis Venema asked several questions regarding Intelligent Design. Since there is still much to discuss on the theology of common ancestry, it might be better to start a separate thread. I appreciate Dennis' questions and hope we can work out where we agree and where we don't.

Dennis asks, "I'll need to know what your definition of "design" is, as well as your definition of "scientifically." "

TJ: These are good questions. All of creation is designed and we can't distinguish between what is designed and what isn't. I admit I've seen that distinction in some ID writing but disagree with it. What I mean by design is that certain features may not be explained by the "laws" of science as we know them. This is not merely an argument from ignorance or a God of the gaps explanation, but is based on what we do know from science. An example is the origin of the first cell. We know the intracellular and extracellular environments are quite different and these chemical and electrical gradients are essential for cell function. Thus the arguments against cellularization are based on knowledge, not ignorance. Same thing with the reduction in entropy that occurs in the formation of macromolecules like DNA, RNA and protein.

DV: As for your "truly random" comment - I'm not sure what you mean, to be honest. I don't think anything is "truly random, even to God" if by that you mean it is beyond God's control.

TJ: I'm glad you feel that way but many of your TE colleagues will argue that evolution is truly random, even to God. God knows the end result but not the means by which we get there. An example is Simon Conway Morris, who holds that the evolutionary process has to end up with some kind of creature that seeks a relationship with God, but the details aren't known, even to God.

DV: As for antipathy towards an "interventionist" idea of God: if evidence were present that such a "discontinuous" event had occurred, I would be happy to weigh it and consider it. It is certainly within God's purview to "intervene" (if one can really call God interacting with His creation 'intervening' in any meaningful way). Nothing in biology that I have seen thus far makes me reach for the "miracle" category as of yet. Nothing I have read in the ID literature makes me reach for that category either.

TJ: Again, I appreciate your answer. Now we can debate the evidence, rather than presuppositions. Many TE's have claimed that it's only an incompetent God who needs to tinker with the evolutionary process because it wasn't designed right in the first place.

DV: To give you some more info on how I view ID, I see it as an argument from analogy: things in biology are analogous to things we know are designed (by people or animals); ergo, the biological entity is designed. Well, the strength of that argument depends on the strength of the analogy - I have yet to see a case where, in my view, the analogy holds up.

TJ: So you agree with the argument from analogy but haven't yet found a convincing example?

DV: The other line of argumentation I see in ID (Dembski's Explanatory Filter, for example) seems to me to be an argument from ignorance. You can't use Dembski's filter unless you have perfect knowledge of all "natural" mechanisms. I have also never seen Dembski actually use his filter and publish the results. Have you?

TJ: One initial comment about publishing: the names of Behe, Wells, Dembski et al. are anathema to the scientific community. They have tried to publish but their submissions aren't even reviewed. I personally think the Expelled movie was overdone but there's a lot of truth to it. So lack of publications doesn't mean anything. Secondly, I'm not sure what you mean by needing a perfect knowledge of all "natural" mechanisms before you can claim design. Does science ever work that way? We may not invoke new concepts like emergence and self-organization to explain phenomena we can't explain.

DV: Another problem I have with the ID movement is that as it focuses on narrow examples (the flagellum, for example) it seems to dividing biology into "the miraculous bits God did" over against "the natural bits God wasn't involved in because 'Darwinism' can explain those." Well, I prefer to see God as the author and sustainer of the whole deal. In their zeal to "prove" a Designer, I think they're ignoring a big part of His design.

TJ: Agreed, but ID proper doesn't claim that some things are designed and others aren't. It merely claims that some parts cannot be explained by processes we know and understand. ID also doesn't claim to "prove" a designer. The word "proof" is only appropriate in mathematics and alcohol :-).

I hope this clears up some misconceptions so we can debate the evidence.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Studies of the Human Genome

Due to continual advances in DNA sequencing technologies, we have recently witnessed an explosion in the amount of DNA sequence data and the emergence of the field of genomics. The amount of sequence information continues to grow exponentially. Although sequencing the human genome for the first time was a monumental task, it is now much easier to obtain and compare the sequences of entire genomes.

In addition to humans, many other organisms have been sequenced, which allows comparisons with each other and with the human genome. Comparisons of the human and chimpanzee genomes have aroused special interest because it has been shown that the human and chimpanzee genomes share over 98% of their DNA sequences.

This high degree of similarity has troubling implications for those who believe that the Bible teaches that humans and chimpanzees are separate creations. Todd Wood is such a person who is trained in genomics and has examined this data closely. Wood’s paper can be seen here.
Although the paper is three years old, the story will not have changed substantially, except that the chimpanzee sequence is now more complete.

Wood treats the data honestly and candidly. Since he rejects a priori the possibility of common ancestry between chimpanzees and humans, he investigates possible ways of accounting for the high degree of similarity, none of which are well developed.

We invite you to read this paper carefully and comment on it.

If you need clarification on a point he makes, that's fine too.

How much are Wood’s suggestions for reconciling these data worth investigating?

If common ancestry is the best explanation of the data, what are the theological implications?

How would you fit Adam and Eve into such a scenario?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Against Scientific Geocentrism

In a recent comment, John van Popta cites, apparently favourably, the geocentrism of van der Kamp. I never did have the honour of meeting “Kampee” as he was apparently affectionately known. But for a short time about a dozen years ago, I was involved in what I thought was a private internet discussion on geocentrism (mostly critiquing it while seeking to understand and appreciate it), and you can actually still find what must have been the most favourable thing I said about it quoted in The Geocentric Bible (!):

“no physicist I know says that the earth in any absolute sense travels around the sun. Science today does not claim that there is an absolute reference frame in which the earth is moving.”

This is apparently the best thing any Ph.D. physicist has said which could be construed to be in favour of geocentrism, at least in terms of “reference frames”. (Unfortunately, I can no longer find my other comments from that discussion.) Einstein’s theory of general relativity allows one to show how measurements of space and time correspond between references frames which are moving (in fact accelerating) relative to one another, and eschews the concept of an absolute point or system of reference from which space and time ought to be measured. However, one should not assume that the instrumentalist view is implied by general relativity, or that geocentrism is thusly made tenable. In astronomy, one does indeed usually employ an earth-based coordinate system for reasons of history and convenience. But there are plenty of good observations which indicate that geocentrism is not the true state of affairs in the cosmos. Maintaining scientific geocentrism is possible only if we dispense with nearly every well-established physical principle: gravitation, force, mass, dynamics, energy, not to mention the other basic observations which validate heliocentrism (within the solar system) such as rotational dynamics, centre of mass, stellar parallax, Coriolis force (with its Foucault pendulum, counter-clockwise rotation of storms in the Northern hemisphere), nuclear fusion, neutrino oscillation, extra-solar planetary systems, seasonal anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background, etc., etc. Of course, one could be a philosophical antirealist, or fictionalist, and maintain that these are only appearances or useful constructs, but we have discussed – and will continue to do so, Lord willing – the problems of such a position in Reformed epistemology and ontology, with, in my view, the critical (or, as Broussard puts it, humble) realist position doing more justice to the reality of the creation and to God’s gift of rationality to His image bearers. My main point regarding reference frames is that Scripture’s speaking from the point of view of earth is not scientifically problematic, but neither is it a scientific claim any more than is our continued reference to such geocentric notions as sunsets.

Also, let me briefly unveil the Copernican myth to which van der Kamp and nearly everyone else has succumbed. This is the idea that Copernicus in proposing a heliocentric system dethroned the earth from its position at the Centre of the cosmos, and that this is a threat to the Scriptural idea that humanity is central in God’s plan of salvation. Having once been considered at the Centre, the earth is now relegated to being just one planet among many, and further developments put us orbiting around just one star out of many, in one galaxy among many, etc. However, it is important to note that according to the Greeks, the earth is evil, with hell being at its centre and the heavens being the place of perfection. Thus, far from demoting the earth, Copernicus actually exalted it to join the heavenly realms! This is discussed in Dennis Danielson, “The Great Copernican Cliché”, American Journal of Physics, v. 69, n. 10 (Oct. 2001), pp. 1029-35. Danielson is a member of a Reformed church, and an English professor at UBC studying historical literature on the cosmos, writing here in a physics journal, and so if you can obtain the article via your university or college library, all readers of this blog should find it accessible. In fact, modern astronomy suggests that not only is the earth not at the center, but that there is no centre, much like how there is no location on the surface of the earth which could rightfully claim such an honour; I consider this to be a superb poetical analogy of how once Jews claimed they had to worship in Jerusalem, but now God’s people worship anywhere in spirit and truth (see John 4:20-24).

Incidentally, earth’s placement, environment, and attributes remain particularly special in many ways; see Guillermo Gonzalez & Jay Wesley Richards, The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004) and Peter D. Ward & Donald Brown, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe (New York: Copernicus Books, 2004).

My conclusion is that scientific geocentrism is neither taught in nor implied by Scripture, and there is every reason for the Christian to acknowledge the weight of evidence against it while no reason to suppose that this means earth and humanity is any less special in God’s eyes. After all, we are created in God’s image, and the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection took place on our home planet. And we can say with even more depth of understanding, in humility and awe, with David, “When I consider your heavens, …what is man that you are mindful of him…?” (Psalm 8.3-4, NIV)