Musings on Origins: Science, Theology, History, Logic

As a child, I grew up in the public schools—which tried to teach us that molecules-to-man evolution was the unarguable and uncontroversial only possible explanation for the origin of all life—and in a church that, as far as I can recall, ignored origins issues entirely. But since then, as I’ve learned more, I’ve developed my own opinion, coming from at least three different perspectives.

To begin with, when we began to study these matters in tenth grade, the very day we covered radiometric dating I saw the fatal flaw that should prevent it from being used as “proof” of anything having to do with long-range history: it hinges on three assumptions, all of which are reasonable (along the lines of assuming that hardware is working properly when in the initial stages of software design) for and necessary to get it to work, but none of which is actually tenable: that the ratio of parent isotope to daughter isotope was the same when the sample was created as it is now (or at least that we know what it was then), that nothing except radioactive decay has altered that ratio, and that radioactive decay has always happened at a constant rate. (And a recent project by scientists at the Institute for Creation Research claims to have proven that that last assumption is definitely false.)

Similarly, the most casual look at the history of modern science shows that evolution depends on a foundation of geologic (and otherwise) uniformitarianism, which is both a fundamentally untenable (if useful) assumption (“you can’t prove a negative”), and “more honored in the breach” in recent years—asteroid strikes, massive earthquakes, and “hypercanes” get routinely suggested as explanations for events, and all of them are excluded by uniformitarianism as traditionally defined and applied.

But even without those specifics, I’ve developed an instinct toward something like Occam’s Razor, that an explanation requiring several as-yet-unknown events and mechanisms could possibly be true but shouldn’t be portrayed as “our current understanding,” let alone “settled science,” until all other explanations have been definitely debunked. And excluding an explanation a priori does not debunk it.

Second: Recently I listened to some of the sessions of a “dialogue” on origins issues involving both scientists and theologians from a church I attended when I was in college. (Though “dialogue” doesn’t quite fit, to my mind, when all the speakers I heard were solidly committed to the evolutionist view.) Many of the criticisms of a naive reading of the Genesis accounts were valid: yes, the notion of a “faithful” or “inerrant” record as the Biblical authors understood it wouldn’t necessarily include “the very words” (unless it said so, though) or even similarity of genre or organization, but rather whether the essentials of a message were conveyed; yes, the Genesis accounts were a subversion of the then-contemporary genre of “creation stories,” presuming a similar cosmology but aiming to correct errors by teaching truths about the nature of God and the creation, rather than to give us “facts” in the modern sense; and so on.

But, on the other hand, we must be careful how we look at our own culture. “The teachings of modern science” that some in the Church would have us bend to accommodate are not necessarily like the shared cosmology we can deduce from our reading of the Genesis accounts and the other creation myths; it may be, and seems to me to be, more like the shared cosmology that all the competing myths except Genesis shared. Genesis rebuked them because (among other reasons) of a whole host of false implications about God and the cosmos, and “old-earth” cosmology and evolution bring in similarly dangerous and false implications about the nature of God, man, and the world. Even though the ancient-Near-Eastern cosmological paradigm presumably (from what I know about Greek and Roman thought … which isn’t much, admittedly) wasn’t universally shared among the people to whom the New Testament was written, Genesis is still repeatedly cited (explicitly and implicitly) as the logical foundation on which both central and peripheral doctrines (such as the nature of the Atonement—“as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive,” for example—and marriage) rest.

Further, the same arguments that allegedly show the “traditional understanding” of the origin of all things and of the early history of the world to be nonsense also apply just as much—or just as little—to the “central” true myth upon which the Christian faith stands or falls. If Christ has not risen from the dead and ascended bodily into heaven, then “we are of all men most to be pitied,” and our faith is in vain.

And third, “evolution” is not new. Many of the ancient creation myths presumed an eternally-old universe, as did some of the Greek philosophical schools from which early Christian theology occasionally or frequently borrowed ideas. The Church rebuked the error and withstood the criticism sturdily. (Genesis, for example clearly teaches an eternal God and a recently-created world, rather than the eternal world and recently-developing gods that similar competing myths featured.) It is possible for a centuries- or millennia-old idea or doctrine to be false, but it is unreasonable and arrogant to say “Yes, we used to think that, but now we know” an idea that has been repeatedly debunked.

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