Saturday, May 22, 2010

Why I am Interested in the Creation-Evolution Controversy

I have been following creationism at a safe distance. I catch Origins TV when I can, go to their website, look at the power point presentations, buy creationist books cheaply when I see them at second-hand bookstores, and read what I can find on the web. Call it a hobby. Why do I do it? It's true; it is not a salvation issue. It has no direct bearing on my life, practical, material, spiritual or moral. Even if I were to find out some definitive answers, even if I were to become convinced that I now knew something true, such as the age of the universe, the exact role evolution played in the origin of various species, particularly man, if any, it would make no real difference. That, I suppose, is why my interest is no more than a hobby. It is more than an idle curiosity, but less than a matter of personal importance. It is something in between. I can sum it up this way - I know that I believe in some non-negotiable truths as a committed Catholic. I know that original sin is one of those non-negotiables. I know that I am to believe that whatever is being asserted by the human author(s?) of Genesis must be understood as being asserted by the Holy Spirit, and thus there can be no error or deception there. But I strongly prefer to understand what I am committed to believing so that when I make a statement about believing what I believe, I, at least, can know what I mean. As it is, when it comes to the primordial origins of the world, life, and mankind, I confess that I there is little definite conceptual content to these beliefs about our origins. I can recite verbal formulae, but I don't know what they really mean. God created the universe? Yes. How old is it? I don't know. How long did it exist before God created human beings? I'm not even sure the question has any meaningful answer that corresponds to reality. Did the Antediluvian patriarchs really live that long? Was there really a global flood? I just prefer to know what I am believing and confessing when I say that I accept the truth of God's revelation as contained in Genesis. I would like to know what I am committing to. But it is not very important, because whatever I found out, I would still remain Catholic, and I would still practice my faith. It's just that I feel a deep dissatisfaction with a situation wherein I have certain beliefs that bear on important truths, truths in which I have always been interested, but I cannot ascertain what the relation my beliefs have to those truths. I want my beliefs to be meaningful affirmations, not mere verbal recitations. Also, now that I am thinking about this, I have engaged in apologetics at times, and questions of that sort come up often enough that I want to be able to have a ready answer. It helps to know what my beliefs mean when endeavoring to defend them and offer them to others for credence. It would be nice if I could, after affirming that I believe in the six days of creation, Adam and Eve, the temptation by the serpent, the Fall, as the origin of human death, Noah, the ark, and the Flood, I would urgently wish to be able to follow-up on such an affirmation, and answer questions in a fairly definite way, such as whether all human beings descended from one literal original couple, and how long ago they were created, how long at least Adam lived, and how long ago he died. I would like to be able to say whether there was, according to the faith I hold, a global flood (and to be able to locate it in a definite chronology of human history with a reliable Anno Mundi dating system), or to be able to say that there definitely was not a global flood and that my faith doesn't teach that there was, and show persuasively why that is so, the way I can comfortably show that my faith does not teach that God's creative activity was confined to the first 144 consecutive hours elapsed time. I would like to be able to say, "Yes, there was a Big Bang event," or "No, there was no Big Bang." I would very much like to find a theory of origins that makes sense of all the data and is consistent with what I know because of my faith in what God has revealed.

I can't help the fact that I will always desire of science more than it can give us. I want it to do more than save the appearances. Science does not confine itself to that modest goal, either, not for a long time. Ever since the Enlightenment, when confessional warfare provoked people to lose their faith in organized religion to provide a coherent worldview and answers to all the ultimate questions that we all want to know the answer to in a way that everyone could more or less agree on, science has been offering itself as more than a method and organized body of knowledge that renders intelligible the data of our experiences of how things appear in the natural world. Science has been promising to eventually get us the answers of what, how and even WHY things actually are -- the answers only God knows. When you read the works and candid interviews of the leading lights of physics concerning what questions they are looking for and seeking answers to, they are questions that empirical natural science can never hope to properly address because they are totally outside their sphere of competence.

Brian Greene, in an interview right after publishing The Elegant Universe: "I think as an adolescent I had many of the questions and concerns that many adolescents do, you know -- what's it all about, why are we here, what are we meant to be doing with our time and so forth. And it just occurred to me that many people much smarter than I had thought of these questions through the ages and come up with various solutions, none of which I guess were completely satisfying, and it didn't seem to me that I was going to come up with a solution to those particular problems.
"But it seemed to me that if one could gain a deep familiarity with the questions, a real profound understanding of the questions themselves -- that is, why is there space, why is there time, why is there a Universe -- then at least that would be the first step towards coming to answers. And physics is the field that has these questions as its real central motivating force behind the work that is done. So that was the main reason for physics."

The last paragraph of Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time: "However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the mind of God."

And then, of course, the famous Einstein quote:

"I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know his thoughts. The rest are details." (The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press, 2000 p.202)

Some of these areas of inquiry would be better reserved for metaphysics, if one insists on confining oneself to the domain of reason. But even then, if that metaphysics remains insulated from and uninformed by theology, it will not be able to offer answers. At best it will be able to evaluate the questions themselves and define the boundaries of what is theoretically possible, laying out all the conceivable answers and all the reasons why each and every one can appear cogent, but no final conclusions will be forthcoming unless fundamental premises are supplied a priori.

While I grant that it is possible that no new theory, no new discovery, no cosmological speculation on the part of any astronomer or physicist, nor any novel ad hoc just-so-story from either young earth creationists or Neo-Darwinists may ever satisfy me as being worthy of a definite belief with conviction on my part -- the sort of belief that I would wish to defend with arguments -- that does not prevent me from wanting something from this area of inquiry to emerge as worthy of firm belief. Like Aristotle, I take it as basic that all men desire to know, and prefer knowledge to ignorance. When knowledge is not available (at least not certain knowledge), credible, plausible, cogent, reasonable beliefs will serve as a substitute. Even they are preferable to being satisfied with ignorance.

I do not accept the question-begging fundamental premise of metaphysical naturalism employed by modern cosmology, physics, geology, paleontology, anthropology, biology, and neuroscience. I don't accept the principle of uniformitarianism as anything but useful methodological assumption. But I am very suspicious of the sort of ad hoc, exegetically question-begging conclusion-driven speculation that creationists offer, and it seems like the more scientifically educated they are, the more bizarre their theory is likely to be.

If I was given a choice by God -- "I am present even now at the beginning of the world and can make it as I choose. How shall I do it? Shall I create it such that by the time you are born it will be 6,000 years old, or shall I have it such that it originates in a big bang 15 billion years ago?" I would prefer the former to the latter. That wasn't always the case. When I first reverted to my faith, after nearly a decade of agnosticism, I was more inclined to want the universe to conform to the ideas of modern Big Bang cosmology. At that time, while I was sure of Christ and getting more sure about His Church everyday, I was still fairly confident that the world was created by God with a Big Bang event, and that life evolved pretty much the way secular science says it did. I didn't believe in a literal historical Adam and Eve, or a global flood, and while I was never sure what to make of the ages of the patriarchs, I found it impossible to believe that they had lived for centuries. I was comfortable doubting that they had even existed.

I can remember that there was a single moment when that changed. I couldn't tell you an exact date, though I am sure it was sometime around 1998. I was reading the Genesis genealogies because I had just happened upon an article that intrigued me. The author of the article had made a case for all the names of the patriarchs from Adam to Methuselah having been prophetic, and when put together in order as a in single sentence, spell out a message in Hebrew, an early, hidden gospel, a follow-up to the protevangelium in puzzle form. It intrigued me. I knew that many of the Old Testament prophets had prophetic names and were inspired to name their children with names that were prophecies. It seemed entirely appropriate that the family line of Seth should have been fore-runners of that tradition. I wondered whether this was the true literal meaning of the genealogies and the ages of the patriarchs, so I re-read the passage, hoping to be able to see whether this interpretation fit the data, and thus I could discern a true literal intent for that passage without having to believe anything incredible, like a man living for several hundred years. I was, of course, disappointed, in that the account not only gives the time between the birth of a man and the birth of a later descendant with the next name as the word in the hidden message, but it also explicitly revealed how long they lived, i.e., their ages when they died. The name-word-hidden message interpretation may have been true (I am still inclined to accept it as plausible), but it would not serve to replace the traditional literal sense of the passage with another one, more acceptable to a contemporary scientific worldview. But then I noticed something for the first time, and a light dawned.

Prior to this moment of epiphany, I had simply read the ages of the patriarchs as not-very-meaningful trivia, a set of fact claims that had no bearing on my life, and which I found to be unbelievable. Even if I had accepted the ages as literal, they did not mean anything to me - they would simply have been biographical data. As I didn't accept them, they looked like absurd legends.

But when I looked closer I saw something that I found very interesting. The life spans were fairly consistent prior to the Flood, and then after the Flood, they drop. That fact I never had trouble remembering, but I never bothered to look closely at how they drop. They do not drop suddenly, as if the Flood simply brought about an environmental change that made it impossible to live longer than the longest life spans we know of happening today. It was slow. It had a strangely plausible graduality, and a phrase popped into my mind: Genetic Degradation.

I was floored! This passage seemed to be an account of genetic degradation of the human species after the Flood. But could the human author have been inventing that as a story? It seemed almost impossible. He would have to not only be inventing a story, but the very concept of genetic degradation thousands of years before Gregor Mendel or Watson and Crick. Suddenly, for a moment, the ages of the patriarchs looked like something that I could believe. Not that I believed them even then, but prior to that moment, I had no wish to believe them. I could wish that the Tolkien's epic history of Middle Earth could have been the literal history of this world, but I couldn't wish to believe that the Book of Genesis was presenting anything like a literal history. I could no more believe one than the other, but I could want to believe in the Tolkien account. Now I was able to want to believe in Genesaic history as well, and for the same reason - for the first time, it could make ancient history look like a real story, an epic tale, rather than a dry set of facts in chronological order. Being able to believe that the ages of the patriarchs were genuine and accurate historical facts was like discovering a musty, dusty old trunk, long hidden and forgotten in an attic of one's ancestral estate and, upon looking within, finding documents that proved genealogies and ancestry to King Arthur or a least one of the knights of Camelot, together with some sort of archaeological evidence showing that Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table actually existed.

Ever since then I have wanted to believe in a literal Genesis and some sort of young-earth type account of the cosmology of the universe, or at least a coherent chronology that fits all the historical and archeological data, that would ascertain dates for the creation of Adam and the Deluge. Failing that, I would settle for definitive, irrefutable proof that such events never occurred. Searching for definite, concrete answers to these questions is like a snipe hunt. I feel silly, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills.


rosey said...

First of all I wish to say WOW! Your writing style is magnificent. I was drawn by your internal struggle of faith (not blind) and scientific fact. I too struggle with this as a Catholic and seek truth/biblical proof through science that supports my faith. I wasn't alway's spiritual and in fact was more logical scientifically as I needed to "see it, touch it & feel it" to believe it. But, your journey that led to your epiphany in a round-about way was a compelling read, for me at least. I too had a similar path that moved me from "agnostic" to belief. Though I did not do so in the intellectual manner that you did, I found that God existed in a different type of book -- The Bible Code. This opened my eyes to the scientific (peer reviewed) proof that a code was embedded into the Torah and Bible.

I love your work and will follow your writing avidly. Thanks for the adventure.....

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