This is a selection from Chapter Six of my book, Why Christianity is True (pp. 169-178), dealing with the subject of Genesis, evolution, and the age of the earth. This selection does not take into consideration my Neo-Omphalos theory. As I often emphasize when I discuss this topic, this is a large and complicated subject, and I do not feel fully adequate to deal with all aspects of it. Much of what I say on this subject I thus put forward with a degree of tentativeness. I have my opinions, but I do not wish to be considered a source of expertise on this issue by any means! As with all subjects, but I wish to especially emphasize it here, do your own thinking!
The first thing I need to say is that this is obviously a very different issue than many of the previous issues I’ve been discussing. The Bible might superficially seem to teach that rabbits are ruminants, that bats are birds, or that the earth is flat and stationary, but, as we’ve seen, a more careful look reveals that it cannot be justly charged with clearly teaching these things. However, what we have here is clearly not simply a phenomenological description or the use of imprecise (by modern scientific standards) language, phrases, and terminology. The Bible writers are affirming something very clearly and consciously about the history of the creation of the earth.
There have been a number of attempts to resolve the apparent contradiction between the biblical account of creation and the modern mainstream scientific account of creation. I do not think they are successful. Some of these reconciliation attempts try to put forward interpretations of the Bible that are consistent with mainstream science. These include, among other possibilities, the day-age theory, the gap theory, and the framework hypothesis. Others, such as the young-earth creationists, try to put forward an interpretation of scientific data that is consistent with a straightforward, literal six-day creation.
The attempts to interpret the Bible’s creation account to accord with modern mainstream science are unsuccessful, in my opinion. The day-age theory postulates that each of the Genesis days are actually long periods of time rather than literal days. But this seems to fly in the face of the clear meaning of the text. Genesis 1 presents the days of creation as being days in basically the ordinary meaning of the word. Listen to the beginning of these days as described in Genesis 1:3-5: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.” It is obvious that what we have here is the creation of the day-and-night cycle. The “first day” is clearly the first rotation of light and darkness, day and night. The only way that one could make these days into long ages would be to say that there were billions of years of history where there were only six alternating periods of light and darkness. But this would contradict, I think, the point of the passage, which is that what is being created is not merely some vague, undefined kind of “day,” but the day and night cycle we are all familiar with and that is an essential part of earth’s features. The other issue with this view is that it must affirm that death occurred in the animal world before the Fall of man, while the Bible seems clearly to suggest that this was not the case. (See, for example, Genesis 1:29-31; 3:17-19; 9:1-4; Romans 8:18-25--Humans and animals were originally told to eat plants, and only given animals after the flood, suggesting that carnivorousness did not exist before the Fall. The Fall appears to have affected the entire creation, not just humans. Before the Fall, the creation is described as “very good,” but in its fallen condition it is described as being in the “bondage of corruption,” “subjected to futility,” “groaning and laboring with birth pangs,” waiting to be freed in order to enter “into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”)
The gap theory holds that there were billions of years that passed between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. But this, again, runs into the problem of death in the creation before the Fall. It also misses the fact that the six days of creation are described as the creation of the entire heavens and earth. The six days are not portrayed as a re-creation of life after it got destroyed earlier by some catastrophe. Also, if this theory is correct, then why is modern life continuous with ancient life in the fossil record, rather than that record indicating a clear disconformity?
The framework hypothesis asserts that Genesis 1 and 2 are not intended as historical accounts of creation, but rather are attempts to describe the theology of creation in the form of a non-historical story. But this flies in the face of the fact that it is obvious that it is the intention of these accounts to actually give us a historical account of the creation of the world (whatever else they may also be intended to do). The text of Genesis 1 and 2 show no internal evidence that they are not intended to convey historical information, and the rest of the Bible frequently refers to these accounts as providing historical information. (See, for example, Exodus 20:8-11; Hebrews 11:3-4, Luke 3:38; Matthew 19:4-5; 1 Timothy 2:11-15; 1 Corinthians 11:7-12; 1 Chronicles 1:1-28; 2 Peter 3:5-6.)
Another point of discrepancy between the biblical account of the early earth and mainstream science is the issue of the global flood. The Bible (Genesis 6-9) describes a worldwide flood that was brought on the earth as a result of man’s wickedness. This flood wiped out all the life that was on the land and in the air, besides those that were kept safe on Noah’s ark. Mainstream science, however, asserts that there is evidence that there never has been such a flood in the history of the world. Some have tried to reconcile this discrepancy by reinterpreting the biblical flood as local rather than universal, or as a tranquil flood that did not have any significant geological effects. The idea of a local flood--say, which flooded portions of Mesopotamia only--makes no sense of the biblical text, as I think is clear from simply reading the account in Genesis 6-9. All the high mountains were covered; all life on the earth died; Noah had to build an ark to keep the animals and people alive; etc. The idea of a tranquil flood does not contradict the biblical account, which is silent on geological effects of the flood, but it seems a bit ad hoc. Naturally, a global flood would have hugely significant geological effects on the earth! God would have had to have miraculously intervened to keep the flood from having these effects. But why would he do this? Just to irritate modern scientists, or to give trouble to modern Bible-believers? It is hard to think of any other reason. I certainly have no basis to say that God could not have done it this way, or that he could have had no reason to do so, however unbeknownst his reasons are to us. But such an unexplained and apparently arbitrary miraculous event is very unsatisfactory, as it requires a very ad hoc explanation to overcome the objections against a global flood from modern geology.
I am inclined to think that the classic, young-earth creationist position (with its creation of the whole universe in six days and its global flood) is the only position that takes seriously enough what the Bible says. But what of the conflict between this view and the widespread accepted ideas of the history of the earth promoted by mainstream science? Is not a contradiction between the Bible and mainstream science on this point a fatal objection to biblical Christianity?
No, it isn’t. You remember our discussion of objections at the beginning of this chapter. [See update below this post for a relevant selection from this discussion.] All arguments from the natural sciences are, by almost universal admission, merely probabilistic arguments. When certain arguments (like our case for Christianity and the Bible) come up against probabilistic arguments, the probability of the latter reduces to an absolute zero. Thus, that would be the case here. No matter how strong the scientific evidence may seem to be for an old earth and for the mainstream scientific view of the history of the earth, it logically reduces to zero when it opposes the certain arguments underpinning a commitment to biblical Christianity. Therefore, there is no real conflict here at all. We have the fallible, probabilistic opinions of many modern scientists on the one hand, and the infallible Word of God (containing an eyewitness account of creation by the Creator himself) on the other. There is simply no rational contest here. To mimic the slogan of the mainstream scientific community with regard to evolution, “there is no controversy.” Old-earthers may think there is a controversy, but the controversy is wholly psychological and sociological, not rational. Any argument that attempts to prove that some view of history other than the Bible’s is correct will be a self-refuting argument. In order to argue at all, the arguer must assume that there is a universe, that reasoning is possible, that logic and meaning are valid. But these things assume the existence of God, for they cannot exist or make sense without him. And the existence of God logically implies the certain truth of Christianity, which logically implies that the Bible is the infallible, authoritative Word of God. To deny the Bible’s teachings, therefore, logically amounts to a denial of all being, reason, logic, and meaning. Therefore anyone attempting to argue against the Bible’s account of history has a self-refuting argument, for he assumes being and meaning on the one hand and denies it by implication on the other. To put it succinctly, his argument is self-refuting because in order for it to be right, it would have to be wrong.
It is also accurate to add that not everyone is convinced that the empirical evidence, even by itself considered (to the extent that that is possible), points with great probability to a mainstream scientific account of earth history. Many people have pointed out that, in addition to the obvious fact that mainstream science does not adopt a biblical Christian worldview to provide the background beliefs against which to evaluate the empirical evidence, the scientific community appears to be heavily biased towards a naturalistic worldview. A concept called “methodological naturalism” is widely accepted in the scientific community. This is the idea that, regardless of the metaphysical question of whether naturalism is itself true, science ought to assume a naturalistic view of the world as a methodology. Obviously, such a methodological assumption as this only makes sense if one believes already that naturalism is in fact true. If one starts with a naturalistic worldview--that nothing supernatural exists or can happen--of course one’s scientific theories attempting to account for the empirical data regarding the history of the earth are going to be naturalistic in character. If naturalism is not true, then this may constitute a significant distortion in one’s evaluation of the evidence. Arthur N. Strahler (whom we quoted in our section on naturalism in chapter two) points out how the modern scientific community frequently sees science as rooted in the worldview of naturalism:
A major debate takes place throughout the chapters of this book. In its broadest aspect the dispute is over the relative merits of two very different ways of viewing the universe and its contents. By “universe” I mean everything that can be observed and described by humans with reasonable assurance and general agreement that what is being observed exists as some recognizable form of matter or energy. The conflict we shall examine is not so much over the question “What’s in the universe?’ as it is a question of “How did the universe come about?”
Expanding and rewording this second question, it breaks up into such queries as “How did it all originate?” “What caused it?” and “When did it start?” Is it, then, a question of origins of things that we are debating? I think perhaps this is the crucial point of the debate. Science has one viewpoint on origins; various forms or brands of pseudoscience (false science) offer alternative views. Of these alternative views, we single out one for major confrontation: the claim of recent and sudden creation by a supernatural agency. From here on, I designate that particular view of the universe as creationism and describe it by the adjective creationistic.
As to science, its view of the universe can be described as naturalistic, using an adjective that has its historical roots far back in philosophy as explaining all phenomena by strictly natural categories--as opposed to explanations invoking supernatural forces. I could have just as easily used mechanistic as the adjective, but that is a harsh word, suggesting the actions of a machine and the work of an inventor. Another choice would have been materialistic, but for most persons that adjective carries a negative association in terms of values.
Taking the creationistic view first, it is simply that the universe was created from nothing--ex nihilo, that is--by a divine creator in ways and for reasons unknowable to humans except, perhaps, through revelation. The second, or naturalistic view, is that the particular universe we observe came into existence and has operated through all time and in all its parts without the impetus or guidance of any supernatural agency. The naturalistic view is espoused by science as its fundamental assumption. The creationistic view is espoused and interpreted in various ways, degrees, and levels. The version that concerns us here is a particular and rigid view based on fundamentalist Christianity: it can be called recent creation, for it specifically accepts the literal meaning of the words of the book of Genesis as providing the true six-day scenario for the origin of the universe. The creationistic view can also take other, broader forms of expression, and for some theistically oriented persons the creationistic and naturalistic views are dualistically worked into a complete explanation of the universe.1
Richard Lewontin, a prominent American evolutionary biologist, was particularly forthcoming about this commitment to naturalism as the foundation of science in a famous review of Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World, which he wrote for the New York Times Book Reviews on January 9, 1997. In that review, he said the job of science education is not primarily to communicate isolated scientific facts to people, but to get people to think naturalistically:
The primary problem is not to provide the public with the knowledge of how far it is to the nearest star and what genes are made of, for that vast project is, in its entirety, hopeless. Rather, the problem is to get them to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth.2
In an extremely famous quotation from this review, Lewontin becomes even more straightforward in his description of how the scientific community has committed itself philosophically to a naturalistic (materialistic) worldview:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.3
Lewontin‘s characterizations of what it would mean to allow “a Divine Foot in the door“ are a straw man of the real theistic position, as we will see later on in this chapter. Lewontin’s words here suggest that, in his view, the scientific community has committed itself with something close to philosophical certainty to the assumption of the naturalistic worldview (just as we have advocated a certain commitment to biblical Christianity as a fundamental assumption). If the naturalistic worldview is not true, however (and we have seen clearly that it is not), this implies a commitment of science to a fundamental falsehood. Could this lead to errors in the scientific community’s investigations of the empirical evidence regarding origins? The answer is obvious! If the origin of the universe was not naturalistic (and it was not), the scientific community has doomed itself to forever getting it fundamentally wrong. I would encourage readers to read the rest of Lewontin’s review, as it contains a number of very significant, eye-opening observations into the actual workings of the modern scientific mind and research methodology, and how its biases often affect its ability to get the facts about the world right. As the members of the scientific community themselves almost unanimously admit, the natural sciences (particularly regarding their application to the reconstruction of distant history) are quite fallible and can provide only a probabilistic, not a certain, account of things. Atheist American philosopher Jerry Fodor summed it up nicely in an essay he wrote on the topic of neo-Darwinian ideas of natural selection: “Induction over the history of science suggests that the best theories we have today will prove more or less untrue at the latest by tomorrow afternoon. In science, as elsewhere, ‘hedge your bets’ is generally good advice.”4 It is especially good advice when scientists are arguing for a position that contradicts what we know with objective certainty from other sources.
Related to the above discussion is the issue of the theory of evolution. Some people argue that evolution is true, and evolution contradicts the Bible, and so the Bible is proven to be in error. Let’s define evolution, for the sake of this discussion, as the theory that all life forms on earth are descended from a common ancestor by means of natural processes of reproduction, inheritance, etc. This definition would include Darwinian theory, but it could also include self-organization theories like that of Stuart Kaufmann as well, and other theories utilizing natural processes.
Evolution certainly does not require or imply a naturalistic worldview, nor is it incompatible or even in tension with theism. As we have seen in previous chapters, theism (and, indeed, Christianity, as it logically follows from theism) is necessary to explain the very existence of the space-time universe, including the processes of nature that are a part of the functioning of that universe. So if evolution is true, it, like everything else, argues against naturalism and proves theism (and Christianity). There is absolutely no incompatibility at all between the idea that God is the creator of the universe and controls all things by his providence and the idea that life on earth has evolved through natural processes. All things, including every moment and the relationship of all the moments to each other, come from God. God is the author of the narrative of history. That narrative includes miracles from time to time in particular situations, but far more frequently includes normal, non-miraculous, predictable regularities (which we call “natural law”). There is absolutely no reason why we should presume a priori (that is, from general theistic reasons alone, before considering the peculiar tenets of Christianity--not that the two are ultimately separable) that God might not create life by means of natural processes.
The real issue is whether evolution is compatible with the biblical account of creation. Our answer to that question will depend largely on our answer to the previous question about the interpretation of the Bible with regard to the age of the earth. If we think that the Bible mandates young-earth creationism, then we will conclude that the Bible is incompatible with evolution, for evolution is incompatible with the idea of a young earth in general. Is this a problem for biblical Christianity? No, and we’ve already shown why. Any arguments for evolution are merely probabilistic, and when probabilistic arguments come into conflict with certain evidence, their probability reduces to zero. Obviously, our previous comments on the commitment of the modern scientific community to the naturalistic worldview are quite relevant here as well. If scientists are committed to a naturalistic methodology, of course they are going to arrive at a naturalistic theory of the origin and development of life on earth such as the Darwinian theory of evolution, whether such a naturalistic theory is really demanded by or even the best fit with the empirical evidence or not.5
1 Arthur N. Strahler, Science and Earth History--The Evolution/Creation Controversy (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987), 1.
2 Richard Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” New York Times Review of Books (January 9, 1997), found at http://www.drjbloom.com/Public%20files/Lewontin_Review.htm at 2:49 PM on 8/27/11.
4 Jerry Fodor, “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings,” London Review of Books, Volume 29, No. 20 (October 2007), found at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n20/jerry-fodor/why-pigs-dont-have-wings at 3:11 PM on 8/27/11.
5 The subject of the origin and history of the universe and life and what we can observe about it by scientific means is a fascinating one. There are many scientists committed to biblical positions, and others committed to at least broadly theistic points of view, who have done and are doing a lot of work towards evaluating the data and modern scientific theories from a position that does not assume naturalism from the outset. The work of the creation scientists and the proponents of intelligent design is well worth exploring. Here are some websites that might get you started:
http://www.trueorigin.org/ (a young-earth creationist website containing hundreds of articles by creation scientists)
http://www.arn.org/ (an intelligent design website containing links to articles and other websites from that point of view)
http://www.talkorigins.org/ (a website committed to the mainstream naturalistic account of the universe’s origins and history and to opposing non-naturalistic science)
UPDATE 5/20/13: Below is a selection from the discussion on probable vs. certain evidences from the beginning of chapter six of my book. See the entire section in my book for a more holistic discussion of the subject.
If the objection is merely probable, then it clearly must fail before the claims of Christianity. When a probable argument comes up against a certain argument, there is no contest; the probability of the first argument reduces to precisely zero. To illustrate this, imagine that you lost your birth certificate. You try to get another one, but it turns out, through some strange, unexplained set of circumstances, that no one can find a copy of your birth certificate anywhere at all. After conducting a thorough search, involving investigation of all the possibilities, a team of researchers reports back to you: “Well, we’ve examined all the possibilities, and we just can’t understand how your birth certificate can be missing. It seems highly implausible that it should have been lost or stolen, based on our investigation, nor do any other possibilities pan out much better. On the whole, we must conclude that by far the most likely explanation for the missing status of your birth certificate is that you never had one because you were never born, and you don’t really exist. So that is our highly probable conclusion.” What will you do? Will you react with great concern, wondering if your whole life has been based on the mistaken notion that you exist when you actually do not? After all, a team of highly educated and competent researchers has declared that that is by far the most likely (though not absolutely certain) possibility! No, of course you won’t. You won’t, because you have access to a fact that is of crucial importance and that the researchers haven’t taken into account: You are directly aware of your own existence, so it is self-evident! It is objectively certain. You cannot really be wrong about that. Therefore, however high the probability is that you don’t exist based on an evaluation before your direct observation is taken into consideration, once that observation is factored in, the probability of the researchers’ explanation logically reduces to nothing more, less, or other than precisely zero. Since the arguments for Christianity we have looked at are objectively certain, all merely probable arguments to the contrary, however probable they may be before taking into account our arguments, once they take them into account reduce in probability to a literal zero. They can mount no opposition at all. Evaluations of probability are always based partly on ignorance. We try to figure out which explanation is more likely based on what we know, but we recognize that more than one thing is possible and so we really don’t know which is the case. Such an evaluation obviously must give way when incoming information does away with the ignorance (Why Christianity is True, p. 151).
UPDATE 5/21/13: A bit more on my above probability argument:
The reason why probability arguments reduce to zero when confronted with certain arguments is that probable arguments, strictly speaking, are not really claims about what is so much as claims about how likely it is that something is. For example, if I make the claim, "There is a 95% chance that the bus I am riding on will not explode," I am not actually claiming that my bus will not explode, that that is a fact of the world. I am simply claiming that a statistical analysis indicates that there is a 95% chance that the bus will not explode, based on my knowledge of buses and what they tend and tend not to do, what people are likely and not likely to do, and in general a whole host of data derived from observation and previous experience. Therefore, if the bus explodes, I am not actually wrong. It is true that matters of high probability become practically assumed to be true by us--that is, we expect them to be true and come to think of them in our practical assumptions as if they are true. But, strictly speaking, we don't really know if they are true or false. All the data is consistent with them being either true or false.
Almost universally, natural scientists studying what happened in the past claim that their conclusions are probable and not certain (in fact, I know of no exception thus far--but we'll see what this post brings!). This is probably wise, considering the complexity of the natural world and the fact that there are often multiple plausible explanations for various things. But when they say that their conviction, say, that the earth is old and that evolution occurred and that young-earth creationism is wrong is only probable and not certain, they are saying that they do not really know these things; all the data is consistent with both old and young earth creationism. They may think that it looks highly likely that the old earth view is true, but by saying their conclusions are not objectively certain, they are admitting that it is possible that the young earth view could be true, that there is nothing in the data that necessitates an old earth, that the data is in its essence consistent with a young earth. For if the data were not consistent with a young earth at all, and it is not possible that the earth could be young, then this would be an argument of objective certainty and not mere probability. Thus, I am inclined to take them at their word and assume that their arguments are merely probable and not certain, as they claim. In that case, there is nothing in the data that means that young earth creationism cannot be true. So if the Bible teaches young earth creationism, and I have objectively certain reasons to believe in the Bible, then that amounts to objectively certain reason to believe in a young earth, with no data in tension with that (for, again, it is admitted that the scientific data is consistent with that). Probable arguments do not make claims about what truly is (except for the claim that a certain statistical analysis is correct), but certain arguments do. Therefore, when a certain argument comes up against a highly probable argument, the probability vanishes (because the ignorance upon which it was based vanishes), and, without any tension in the data, we go with the certain argument.
I challenged an Atheistic evolutionist along these lines in a recorded conversation last year, and you can listen to how that went here.
(Interestingly, all of this also means that we need not think of the Genesis view and mainstream scientists as being at odds with each other or contradicting each other. If all the mainstream scientists want to say is that, looking at the scientific data by itself, the most probable interpretation is an old earth and evolution, we need not quibble with this. We might disagree with it and want to argue about it, but the position itself is not incompatible with biblical claims. When mainstream scientists find out that the young earth view is correct, they won't have to say that they've been wrong. They weren't wrong, because they never stated as a fact that the young earth view is false. They only said it was highly improbable, which implies that it might possibly be true. So as long as mainstream scientists stick to claiming their ideas to be probable and not certain, their views are not in conflict with the Genesis position. There is no conflict between the claims of Genesis and the claims of mainstream science.)
I would also like to add that I think it is possible to have certain and not merely probable arguments in the natural sciences, even in those that deal with earth history. Consider this scenario: I go into a room and I see a glass on its side on the table. There is some juice in the glass, but there is also a trail of juice going out of the glass, across the table, and currently dripping from the table to the floor, where there is a puddle of juice. In this case, based on these observations, I can certainly come to the conclusion that one of these two possibilities is true: 1. A glass of juice got knocked over. 2. Someone tried to make it look like a glass of juice got knocked over even though it really didn't. The purely observational evidence can't tell me whether #1 or #2 are true, but it can limit me to those two. In short, there can be appearances that are so clearly appearances of something in particular that either the appearance indicates the reality of the thing that appears to be or there is some deception going on if the appearance does not match reality. Now, we have to distinguish this sort of situation from one where the observational data can reasonably be explained in more than one way without resort to the idea of deception. I am not talking about that kind of case. What I am saying is that there can also be cases where the appearance is so clearly of one particular thing that that thing must be true or deception must be involved. I am sure that kind of clear appearance can exist in earth's records and inform the natural sciences.
So if a natural scientist wants to claim that the evidence for an old earth is of that sort, I cannot respond to this by saying, "No, you can't have certain evidences in the natural sciences." But so far, no one has claimed this to me in relation to the idea of an old earth or evolution. What would I do if they did? Two parts here: 1. Since the evidence for Christianity and the Bible is objectively certain, if the Bible teaches a young earth, then I know that this scientist cannot be right in claiming he has found certain scientific evidence to the contrary, on the grounds that contradictions cannot be true (combined with the philosophical and biblical argument that God cannot design the world in a fundamentally deceptive manner). So even if I cannot examine his arguments for some reason (such as lack of skill or specialization), I do not need to do so to know that his claim is false. 2. But I would like to evaluate the claim for myself. So if I can do so, I will do so and show precisely where his reasoning is going wrong.
UPDATE 5/22/13: See here for another presentation of my reasoning on the issue of probability vs. certainty in scientific conclusions, including some quotations from scientists making the point that scientific conclusions are always only probable and not certain.