Lies, Religion, and Miscalibrated Priors

In a post from some time ago, Scott Alexander asks why it is so hard to believe that people are lying, even in situations where it should be obvious that they made up the whole story:

The weird thing is, I know all of this. I know that if a community is big enough to include even a few liars, then absent a strong mechanism to stop them those lies should rise to the top. I know that pretty much all of our modern communities are super-Dunbar sized and ought to follow that principle.

And yet my System 1 still refuses to believe that the people in those Reddit threads are liars. It’s actually kind of horrified at the thought, imagining them as their shoulders slump and they glumly say “Well, I guess I didn’t really expect anyone to believe me”. I want to say “No! I believe you! I know you had a weird experience and it must be hard for you, but these things happen, I’m sure you’re a good person!”

If you’re like me, and you want to respond to this post with “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?”, then before you comment take a second to ask why the “they’re lying” theory is so hard to believe. And when you figure it out, tell me, because I really want to know.

The strongest reason for this effect is almost certainly a moral reason. In an earlier post, I discussed St. Thomas’s explanation for why one should give a charitable interpretation to someone’s behavior, and in a follow up, I explained the problem of applying that reasoning to the situation of judging whether a person is lying or not. St. Thomas assumes that the bad consequences of being mistaken about someone’s moral character will be minor, and most of the time this is true. But if we asking the question, “are they telling the truth or are they lying?”, the consequences can sometimes be very serious if we are mistaken.

Whether or not one is correct in making this application, it is not hard to see that this is the principal answer to Scott’s question. It is hard to believe the “they’re lying” theory not because of the probability that they are lying, but because we are unwilling to risk injuring someone with our opinion. This is without doubt a good motive from a moral standpoint.

But if you proceed to take this unwillingness as a sign of the probability that they are telling the truth, this would be a demonstrably miscalibrated probability assignment. Consider a story on Quora which makes a good example of Scott’s point:

I shuffled a deck of cards and got the same order that I started with.

No I am not kidding and its not because I can’t shuffle.

Let me just tell the story of how it happened. I was on a trip to Europe and I bought a pack of playing cards at the airport in Madrid to entertain myself on the flight back to Dallas.

It was about halfway through the flight after I’d watched Pixels twice in a row (That s literally the only reason I even remembered this) And I opened my brand new Real Madrid Playing Cards and I just shuffled them for probably like 30 minutes doing different tricks that I’d learned at school to entertain myself and the little girl sitting next to me also found them to be quite cool.

I then went to look at the other sides of the cards since they all had a picture of the Real Madrid player with the same number on the back. That’s when I realized that they were all in order. I literally flipped through the cards and saw Nacho-Fernandes, Ronaldo, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and the rest of the team go by all in the perfect order.

Then a few weeks ago when we randomly started talking about Pixels in AP Statistics I brought up this story and my teacher was absolutely amazed. We did the math and the amount of possibilities when shuffling a deck of cards is 52! Meaning 52 x 51 x 50 x 49 x 48….

There were 8.0658175e+67 different combinations of cards that I could have gotten. And I managed to get the same one twice.

The lack of context here might make us more willing to say that Arman Razaali is lying, compared to Scott’s particular examples. Nonetheless, I think a normal person will feel somewhat unwilling to say, “he’s lying, end of story.” I certainly feel that myself.

It does not take many shuffles to essentially randomize a deck. Consequently if Razaali’s statement that he “shuffled them for probably like 30 minutes” is even approximately true, 1 in 52! is probably a good estimate of the chance of the outcome that he claims, if we assume that it happened by chance. It might be some orders of magnitude less since there might be some possibility of “unshuffling.” I do not know enough about the physical process of shuffling to know whether this is a real possibility or not, but it is not likely to make a significant difference: e.g. the difference between 10^67 and 10^40 would be a huge difference mathematically, but it would not be significant for our considerations here, because both are simply too large for us to grasp.

People demonstrably lie at far higher rates than 1 in 10^67 or 1 in 10^40. This will remain the case even if you ask about the rate of “apparently unmotivated flat out lying for no reason.” Consequently, “he’s lying, period,” is far more likely than “the story is true, and happened by pure chance.” Nor can we fix this by pointing to the fact that an extraordinary claim is a kind of extraordinary evidence. In the linked post I said that the case of seeing ghosts, and similar things, might be unclear:

Or in other words, is claiming to have seen a ghost more like claiming to have picked 422,819,208, or is it more like claiming to have picked 500,000,000?

That remains undetermined, at least by the considerations which we have given here. But unless you have good reasons to suspect that seeing ghosts is significantly more rare than claiming to see a ghost, it is misguided to dismiss such claims as requiring some special evidence apart from the claim itself.

In this case there is no such unclarity – if we interpret the claim as “by pure chance the deck ended up in its original order,” then it is precisely like claiming to have picked 500,000,000, except that it is far less likely.

Note that there is some remaining ambiguity. Razaali could defend himself by saying, “I said it happened, I didn’t say it happened by chance.” Or in other words, “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?” But this is simply to point out that “he’s lying” and “this happened by pure chance” are not exhaustive alternatives. And this is true. But if we want to estimate the likelihood of those two alternatives in particular, we must say that it is far more likely that he is lying than that it happened, and happened by chance. And so much so that if one of these alternatives is true, it is virtually certain that he is lying.

As I have said above, the inclination to doubt that such a person is lying primarily has a moral reason. This might lead someone to say that my estimation here also has a moral reason: I just want to form my beliefs in the “correct” way, they might say: it is not about whether Razaali’s story really happened or not.

Charles Taylor, in chapter 15 of A Secular Age, gives a similar explanation of the situation of former religious believers who apparently have lost their faith due to evidence and argument:

From the believer’s perspective, all this falls out rather differently. We start with an epistemic response: the argument from modern science to all-around materialism seems quite unconvincing. Whenever this is worked out in something closer to detail, it seems full of holes. The best examples today might be evolution, sociobiology, and the like. But we also see reasonings of this kind in the works of Richard Dawkins, for instance, or Daniel Dennett.

So the believer returns the compliment. He casts about for an explanation why the materialist is so eager to believe very inconclusive arguments. Here the moral outlook just mentioned comes back in, but in a different role. Not that, failure to rise to which makes you unable to face the facts of materialism; but rather that, whose moral attraction, and seeming plausibility to the facts of the human moral condition, draw you to it, so that you readily grant the materialist argument from science its various leaps of faith. The whole package seems plausible, so we don’t pick too closely at the details.

But how can this be? Surely, the whole package is meant to be plausible precisely because science has shown . . . etc. That’s certainly the way the package of epistemic and moral views presents itself to those who accept it; that’s the official story, as it were. But the supposition here is that the official story isn’t the real one; that the real power that the package has to attract and convince lies in it as a definition of our ethical predicament, in particular, as beings capable of forming beliefs.

This means that this ideal of the courageous acknowledger of unpalatable truths, ready to eschew all easy comfort and consolation, and who by the same token becomes capable of grasping and controlling the world, sits well with us, draws us, that we feel tempted to make it our own. And/or it means that the counter-ideals of belief, devotion, piety, can all-too-easily seem actuated by a still immature desire for consolation, meaning, extra-human sustenance.

What seems to accredit the view of the package as epistemically-driven are all the famous conversion stories, starting with post-Darwinian Victorians but continuing to our day, where people who had a strong faith early in life found that they had reluctantly, even with anguish of soul, to relinquish it, because “Darwin has refuted the Bible”. Surely, we want to say, these people in a sense preferred the Christian outlook morally, but had to bow, with whatever degree of inner pain, to the facts.

But that’s exactly what I’m resisting saying. What happened here was not that a moral outlook bowed to brute facts. Rather we might say that one moral outlook gave way to another. Another model of what was higher triumphed. And much was going for this model: images of power, of untrammelled agency, of spiritual self-possession (the “buffered self”). On the other side, one’s childhood faith had perhaps in many respects remained childish; it was all too easy to come to see it as essentially and constitutionally so.

But this recession of one moral ideal in face of the other is only one aspect of the story. The crucial judgment is an all-in one about the nature of the human ethical predicament: the new moral outlook, the “ethics of belief” in Clifford’s famous phrase, that one should only give credence to what was clearly demonstrated by the evidence, was not only attractive in itself; it also carried with it a view of our ethical predicament, namely, that we are strongly tempted, the more so, the less mature we are, to deviate from this austere principle, and give assent to comforting untruths. The convert to the new ethics has learned to mistrust some of his own deepest instincts, and in particular those which draw him to religious belief. The really operative conversion here was based on the plausibility of this understanding of our ethical situation over the Christian one with its characteristic picture of what entices us to sin and apostasy. The crucial change is in the status accorded to the inclination to believe; this is the object of a radical shift in interpretation. It is no longer the impetus in us towards truth, but has become rather the most dangerous temptation to sin against the austere principles of belief-formation. This whole construal of our ethical predicament becomes more plausible. The attraction of the new moral ideal is only part of this, albeit an important one. What was also crucial was a changed reading of our own motivation, wherein the desire to believe appears now as childish temptation. Since all incipient faith is childish in an obvious sense, and (in the Christian case) only evolves beyond this by being child-like in the Gospel sense, this (mis)reading is not difficult to make.

Taylor’s argument is that the arguments for unbelief are unconvincing; consequently, in order to explain why unbelievers find them convincing, he must find some moral explanation for why they do not believe. This turns out to be the desire to have a particular “ethics of belief”: they do not want to have beliefs which are not formed in such and such a particular way. This is much like the theoretical response above regarding my estimation of the probability that Razaali is lying, and how that might be considered a moral estimation, rather than being concerned with what actually happened.

There are a number of problems with Taylor’s argument, which I may or may not address in the future in more detail. For the moment I will take note of three things:

First, neither in this passage nor elsewhere in the book does Taylor explain in any detailed way why he finds the unbeliever’s arguments unconvincing. I find the arguments convincing, and it is the rebuttals (by others, not by Taylor, since he does not attempt this) that I find unconvincing. Now of course Taylor will say this is because of my particular ethical motivations, but I disagree, and I have considered the matter exactly in the kind of detail to which he refers when he says, “Whenever this is worked out in something closer to detail, it seems full of holes.” On the contrary, the problem of detail is mostly on the other side; most religious views can only make sense when they are not worked out in detail. But this is a topic for another time.

Second, Taylor sets up an implicit dichotomy between his own religious views and “all-around materialism.” But these two claims do not come remotely close to exhausting the possibilities. This is much like forcing someone to choose between “he’s lying” and “this happened by pure chance.” It is obvious in both cases (the deck of cards and religious belief) that the options do not exhaust the possibilities. So insisting on one of them is likely motivated itself: Taylor insists on this dichotomy to make his religious beliefs seem more plausible, using a presumed implausibility of “all-around materialism,” and my hypothetical interlocutor insists on the dichotomy in the hope of persuading me that the deck might have or did randomly end up in its original order, using my presumed unwillingness to accuse someone of lying.

Third, Taylor is not entirely wrong that such an ethical motivation is likely involved in the case of religious belief and unbelief, nor would my hypothetical interlocutor be entirely wrong that such motivations are relevant to our beliefs about the deck of cards.

But we need to consider this point more carefully. Insofar as beliefs are voluntary, you cannot make one side voluntary and the other side involuntary. You cannot say, “Your beliefs are voluntarily adopted due to moral reasons, while my beliefs are imposed on my intellect by the nature of things.” If accepting an opinion is voluntary, rejecting it will also be voluntary, and if rejecting it is voluntary, accepting it will also be voluntary. In this sense, it is quite correct that ethical motivations will always be involved, even when a person’s opinion is actually true, and even when all the reasons that make it likely are fully known. To this degree, I agree that I want to form my beliefs in a way which is prudent and reasonable, and I agree that this desire is partly responsible for my beliefs about religion, and for my above estimate of the chance that Razaali is lying.

But that is not all: my interlocutor (Taylor or the hypothetical one) is also implicitly or explicitly concluding that fundamentally the question is not about truth. Basically, they say, I want to have “correctly formed” beliefs, but this has nothing to do with the real truth of the matter. Sure, I might feel forced to believe that Razaali’s story isn’t true, but there really is no reason it couldn’t be true. And likewise I might feel forced to believe that Taylor’s religious beliefs are untrue, but there really is no reason they couldn’t be.

And in this respect they are mistaken, not because anything “couldn’t” be true, but because the issue of truth is central, much more so than forming beliefs in an ethical way. Regardless of your ethical motives, if you believe that Razaali’s story is true and happened by pure chance, it is virtually certain that you believe a falsehood. Maybe you are forming this belief in a virtuous way, and maybe you are forming it in a vicious way: but either way, it is utterly false. Either it in fact did not happen, or it in fact did not happen by chance.

We know this, essentially, from the “statistics” of the situation: no matter how many qualifications we add, lies in such situations will be vastly more common than truths. But note that something still seems “unconvincing” here, in the sense of Scott Alexander’s original post: even after “knowing all this,” he finds himself very unwilling to say they are lying. In a discussion with Angra Mainyu, I remarked that our apparently involuntary assessments of things are more like desires than like beliefs:

So rather than calling that assessment a belief, it would be more accurate to call it a desire. It is not believing something, but desiring to believe something. Hunger is the tendency to go and get food; that assessment is the tendency to treat a certain claim (“the USA is larger than Austria”) as a fact. And in both cases there are good reasons for those desires: you are benefited by food, and you are benefited by treating that claim as a fact.

In a similar way, because we have the natural desire not to injure people, we will naturally desire not to treat “he is lying” as a fact; that is, we will desire not to believe it. The conclusion that Angra should draw in the case under discussion, according to his position, is that I do not “really believe” that it is more likely that Razaali is lying than that his story is true, because I do feel the force of the desire not to say that he is lying. But I resist that desire, in part because I want to have reasonable beliefs, but most of all because it is false that Razaali’s story is true and happened by chance.

To the degree that this desire feels like a prior probability, and it does feel that way, it is necessarily miscalibrated. But to the degree that this desire remains nonetheless, this reasoning will continue to feel in some sense unconvincing. And it does in fact feel that way to me, even after making the argument, as expected. Very possibly, this is not unrelated to Taylor’s assessment that the argument for unbelief “seems quite unconvincing.” But discussing that in the detail which Taylor omitted is a task for another time.

 

 

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Newman and Darwin

In an ebook Another Look at John Henry Cardinal Newman, Richard Sartino discusses Newman’s view of Darwin:

Darwin’s theory did not shock Newman; he told a correspondent he was willing “to go the whole hog with Darwin.”

It is important to understand Newman’s frame of mind concerning the false theories of evolution in order to understand his notions of development. Darwin’s book, Origin of Species, appeared in 1859, a time when educated men and society in general scoffed at the idea of human evolution, leaving such notions to the few mad scientific theorists, but Newman’s empirical mind and distrust of rational philosophy disposed him to accept whole-heartedly the notions of evolution. He had been contemplating the evolution, not of man, but of religion, long before the appearance of Darwin’s book; his first sermon on the development of Christianity was preached in 1843 while he was still an Anglican and within two years the Development of Christian Doctrine was published, with Newman entering the Church at the same time.

He goes on to compare Newman’s theory with the theory of evolution:

Newman was a pioneer of this new doctrine which shocked both Anglicans and Catholics alike. Theologians until then had never considered his ideas of development, although many before him justly contemplated the mystical and supernatural increase of the treasures of the Church. The difference between Newman and earlier theologians in this matter is that Newman considered only the material aspect of the Church’s growth, not going beyond the temporal history of Her life on earth. Earlier theologians, on the other hand, had considered the formal aspect of the Church, a viewpoint which is vital to the believer who is obliged to view things with a supernatural eye.

Newman saw the Church in the light of history, whereas Catholics see history in the light of the Church. Immersed in an academia of the staunchest historicists whose scepticism imbued the thinkers of that time, Newman followed their lead and often kept up a correspondence with the worst of them, as Dollinger and Acton. Their position confined the Church to Her history, and Her history to their sceptical and critical minds. For these men the work of the Catholic mind is not to meditate upon and adore Christ in the eternal truths of the Church but to subject these truths to historical analysis. What is important for them is not the Incarnation but the development of the idea of the Incarnation. All this, of course, is nothing but that age-old pride whereby the mind of man becomes the measure of religion.

With this in mind we can understand why Newman accepted so easily the errors of Darwin, for there was nothing incompatible between the evolution of man and the evolution of religion and doctrine. On the contrary, both complement one another to form a harmonious view of the whole of creation. In fact, just as all errors begin in the highest part of the soul before they exercise their universal influence on the subordinate faculties and sciences, thus does the evolution of eternal doctrine precede the less radical errors about the evolution of man and social institutions. It is understandable, and appropriate, therefore that Newman’s novel thesis should have preceded Origin of Species by sixteen years. As long as the mind of man is firmly rooted in the immutable and eternal truths of the Faith the occasion will never arise to fall into any kind of evolutionary errors.

Several authors bear testimony of Newman’s evolutionary ideas. A certain Mark Pattison who knew Newman said he saw the whole development of human reason from Aristotle to Hegel as a closed book, and in Studies in Modernism Alfred Fawkes also believes that the essay on Development “is a striking anticipation of the Evolution philosophy; the application of this to theology marked a turning-point in religious thought.”

And another author, Percy Gardner in Modernism in the English Church, asserts that “it shows the greatness of Newman, that before Darwin had set forth his theory of evolution, a foretaste of it appears in Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine.” So serious were Newman’s aberrations that one of the greatest living Roman theologians at that time, Fr. Franzelin, S.J., wrote an entire treatise, De Divina Scriptura et Traditione, in order to combat what he considered Newman’s departure from the Faith.

He then discusses Newman’s theory directly:

The full force and implication of Newman’s thinking are found in his doctrine known as Development of Christian Doctrine. Characteristic of his personal qualities and life, this specific teaching of Newman contains his ambiguity and ambivalence, in toto, so much so that it allures the most opposed camps of thinkers. Its appeal is universal; to liberals and orthodox, to Protestants and Catholics, to believers as well as infidels. Men of every persuasion find their opinions voiced in this doctrine, for it is as pliable and flexible as Newman’s supposedly transcendent and personal logic.

The essence of Newman’s position consists in reconciling two contradictory propositions: first, that Christianity is unchanging, and second, that Christianity is changing. Apparent contradictions can always be reconciled by a legitimate rational distinction, but Newman does not attempt to do this. His Doctrine of Development does not assert that Christianity is unchanging in one respect, and changing in another, and then delineate the consequent differences and properties from the various distinctions. On the contrary, Newman’s position admits simultaneously and in the same respect that Christianity is changing and unchanging. To accomplish such a formidable task is not really very difficult, at least for a mind enamoured with concrete living experience.

Of course, Newman says no such thing. Rather, he asserts that there have been various changes in Christianity throughout history and it is a question of explaining them. He says, as we quoted earlier:

Here then I concede to the opponents of historical Christianity, that there are to be found, during the 1800 years through which it has lasted, certain apparent inconsistencies and alterations in its doctrine and its worship, such as irresistibly attract the attention of all who inquire into it. They are not sufficient to interfere with the general character and course of the religion, but they raise the question how they came about, and what they mean, and have in consequence supplied matter for several hypotheses.

Of these one is to the effect that Christianity has ever changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons; but it is difficult to understand how such a view is compatible with the special idea of revealed truth, and in fact its advocates more or less abandon, or tend to abandon the supernatural claims of Christianity; so it need not detain us here.

A second and more plausible hypothesis is that of the Anglican divines…

It is worthwhile considering the hypothesis that Newman passes over here, that “Christianity has ever changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons.” Why is it difficult to understand how such a view is compatible with the special idea of revealed truth? Basically, the position in question is that everything in Christianity is changeable. Christians currently believe that Christ is God, but a thousand years from now, they may all believe that Christ was a mere man. The difficulty is, of course, that both of these cannot be true, so that if the belief of Christians varies from time to time in this way, then the beliefs of Christians cannot be believed to come from divine revelation.

In fact, this position would not be entirely inconsistent with the idea of a particular revelation, but such a revelation would be more like the kind that the Catholic Church considers to be a private revelation. In other words, one would say that the true beliefs, when they are present, are ones that came from a revelation, but that God does nothing to prevent people from abandoning these beliefs and adopting other ones. In this case, of course, the problem would be that there does not seem to be a good way to distinguish between beliefs that are actually revealed, and others which are not. It would be for this reason that people holding this position would “abandon, or tend to abandon the supernatural claims of Christianity.” Consequently, since Newman is not here attempting to argue for the truth of Christianity, he does not care to give this particular theory any lengthy treatment.

We should notice the order of evidence here: changeableness without any limit would be good evidence for an absence of revelation, and for a similar reason, complete absence of changeableness would be good evidence for the presence of a revelation. Newman acknowledges the presence of some changeableness, and he does this without demonstrating the existence of any limit on this changeableness, but only assuming it.

It seems to me that we can see here the reason for Sartino’s rejection of Newman’s theory. Newman certainly does not hold that Christianity is both changeable and unchangeable in the same respect. He simply admits that it is changeable to some extent, and wishes to explain this. But for Sartino, this is a problem in itself, because it opens the door to the possibility that there is no real divine revelation. If Christianity is changeable to some degree, and we have not yet shown that there is any limit on this, then the first rejected hypothesis might turn out to be true, and Christianity might not be supernatural.

The problem with Sartino’s thinking is the same one I pointed out earlier. If Christianity is changeable in some ways, that may leave the door open to the possibility that Christianity is false, and may make this more likely relative to the situation where Christianity is actually unchangeable in every way. But you cannot change these facts by asserting that Christianity is actually unchangeable, because asserting something does not make it so. Both the evidence and the facts will remain just as they are, regardless of what you say about them. In this way, it makes sense that Sartino rejects both Newman’s theory of development and Darwin’s theory of evolution. He is using the same strategy in each case, one which seems to him to make his religion more certain to be true, but which actually has no effect whatsoever.

In reality, Darwin was not responsible for the theory of evolution. The facts were responsible, and as I noted here, if Darwin had not come up with his theory, others would have. In a similar way, the Catholic Church accepted Newman’s theory of development because it was necessary in order to account for the facts of history, and some such theory would have been developed and accepted even if Newman had never existed. You can ignore history just as you can ignore the rocks, but ignoring things does not change them. Newman noted, in fact, that certain real facts tended to open the door to the possibility that his religion was in error, saying, “Not only has the relative situation of controversies and theologies altered, but infidelity itself is in a different,—I am obliged to say in a more hopeful position,—as regards Christianity.”

Ross Douthat, commenting on the recent controversy over the possibility of communion for the divorced and remarried, says:

When this point is raised, reformers pivot to the idea that, well, maybe the proposed changes really are effectively doctrinal, but not every doctrinal issue is equally important, and anyway Catholic doctrine can develop over time.

But the development of doctrine is supposed to deepen church teaching, not reverse or contradict it. This distinction allows for many gray areas, admittedly. But effacing Jesus’ own words on the not-exactly-minor topics of marriage and sexuality certainly looks more like a major reversal than an organic, doctrinally-deepening shift.

At which point we come to the third argument, which makes an appearance in your letter: You don’t understand, you’re not a theologian. As indeed I am not. But neither is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts. And the impression left by this moving target, I’m afraid, is that some reformers are downplaying their real position in the hopes of bringing conservatives gradually along.

What is that real position? That almost anything Catholic can change when the times require it, and “developing” doctrine just means keeping up with capital-H History, no matter how much of the New Testament is left behind.
As I noted earlier, the columnist’s task is to be provocative. So I must tell you, openly and not subtly, that this view sounds like heresy by any reasonable definition of the term.

Now it may be that today’s heretics are prophets, the church will indeed be revolutionized, and my objections will be ground under with the rest of conservative Catholicism. But if that happens, it will take hard grinding, not just soft words and academic rank-pulling. It will require a bitter civil war.

And so, my dear professors: Welcome to the battlefield.

What Douthat calls the “real position” of the reformers, of course, is exactly the first hypothesis which Newman dismisses. It seems to me that there can be no reasonable doubt that this is in fact the position of many, although they might wish to conceal it, in order to better bring about the ends that they seek. Whether or not they therefore abandon the idea of special revelation is unclear, but it would seem the most reasonable position for someone who believes that there is no limit to the changeableness of the Church.

Neither Newman in the text cited, nor Douthat here, say that they can disprove the first hypothesis, but that they do not accept it, because of the implication that there is no real revelation. But they both recognize that they live in the real world, where there is evidence against what you believe, and where you might actually be wrong. Richard Sartino, on the other hand, seems to live in an imaginary world.

Origin of Species

As we noted previously, Philip Gosse published his book attempting to reconcile geology and Scripture just a few years before Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species.

In that previous post, I quoted Gosse’s summary of the state of geology. It would be useful to look again at several particular statements taken from that summary:

6. A series of organic beings appears, lives, generates, dies; lives, generates, dies; for thousands and thousands of successive generations. Tiny polypes gradually build up gigantic masses of coral,—mountains and reefs—microscopic foraminifera accumulate strata of calcareous sand; still more minute infusoria—forty millions to the inch—make slates, many yards thick, of their shells alone.

7. The species at length die out—a process which we have no data to measure, though we may reasonably conclude it very long. Sometimes the whole existing fauna seems to have come to a sudden violent end; at others, the species die out one by one. In the former case suddenly, in the latter progressively, new creatures supply the place of the old. Not only do species change; the very genera change, and change again. Forms of beings, strange beings, beings of uncouth shape, of mighty ferocity and power, of gigantic dimensions, come in, run their specific race, propagate their kinds generation after generation,—and at length die out and disappear; to be replaced by other species, each approaching nearer and nearer to familiar forms.

9. Millions of forest-trees sprang up, towered to heaven, and fell, to be crushed into the coal strata which make our winter fires. Hundreds of feet measure the thickness of what were once succulent plants, but pressed together like paper-pulp, and consolidated under a weight absolutely immensurable. Yet there remain the scales of their stems, the elegant reticulated patterns of their bark, the delicate tracery of their leaf-nerves, indelibly depicted by an unpatented process of “nature-printing.” And when we examine the record,—the forms of the leaves, the structure of the tissues, we get the same result as before, that the plants belonged to a flora which had no species in common with that which adorns the modern earth. Very gradually, and only after many successions, not of individual generations, but of the cycles of species, genera, and even families, did the vegetable creation conform itself to ours.

10. At length the species both of plants and animals grew,—not by alteration of their specific characters, but by replacement of species by species—more and more like what we have now on the earth, and finally merged into our present flora and fauna, about the time when we find the first geological traces of man.

Careful analysis of the rocks reveals an order of time, and that order of time reveals a history of life on earth. In that history, life was at first very different from its present form, and approached more and more closely to its present form over time, reaching that present form more or less with the existence of man. When we consider this together with the idea of what happens when imperfect copies are made repeatedly over time, we can see that this is very good evidence for the theory of evolution, considered as a theory of the common descent of living things. Gosse in fact vaguely suggests such a theory himself, when he suggests that the relationship of various species is much like the relationship of one individual to another.

Charles Darwin begins the introduction to his work:

When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings inhabiting South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts, as will be seen in the latter chapters of this volume, seemed to throw some light on the origin of species–that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years’ work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions, which then seemed to me probable: from that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object. I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision. My work is now (1859) nearly finished; but as it will take me many more years to complete it, and as my health is far from strong, I have been urged to publish this abstract. I have more especially been induced to do this, as Mr. Wallace, who is now studying the natural history of the Malay Archipelago, has arrived at almost exactly the same general conclusions that I have on the origin of species. In 1858 he sent me a memoir on this subject, with a request that I would forward it to Sir Charles Lyell, who sent it to the Linnean Society, and it is published in the third volume of the Journal of that Society. Sir C. Lyell and Dr. Hooker, who both knew of my work–the latter having read my sketch of 1844–honoured me by thinking it advisable to publish, with Mr. Wallace’s excellent memoir, some brief extracts from my manuscripts.

As indicated by Gosse’s summary, by this time geology had basically reached the state where the idea of evolution was a very natural understanding of the history of life on earth. Consequently Darwin was not inventing some strange and marvelous idea, but simply drawing out the implications of what was already present in the science of geology. As he indicates here, he was not alone in doing that, and he was not alone in doing it at the time.

Darwin discusses natural selection in chapter four of his book:

How will the struggle for existence, briefly discussed in the last chapter, act in regard to variation? Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply under nature? I think we shall see that it can act most efficiently. Let the endless number of slight variations and individual differences occurring in our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, in those under nature, be borne in mind; as well as the strength of the hereditary tendency. Under domestication, it may truly be said that the whole organisation becomes in some degree plastic. But the variability, which we almost universally meet with in our domestic productions is not directly produced, as Hooker and Asa Gray have well remarked, by man; he can neither originate varieties nor prevent their occurrence; he can only preserve and accumulate such as do occur. Unintentionally he exposes organic beings to new and changing conditions of life, and variability ensues; but similar changes of conditions might and do occur under nature. Let it also be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life; and consequently what infinitely varied diversities of structure might be of use to each being under changing conditions of life. Can it then be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should occur in the course of many successive generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable individual differences and variations, and the destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left either a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in certain polymorphic species, or would ultimately become fixed, owing to the nature of the organism and the nature of the conditions.

This is probably the most important aspect of Darwin’s contribution to biology and geology. The fact that one species is descended from another was already becoming clear enough. But Darwin offers an explanation for why certain changes take place rather than others. We pointed out earlier that Empedocles anticipated this idea, but he did not combine it with the idea of common descent. Darwin actually mentions the passage, but mistakes it for Aristotle’s own view.

Darwin also attempts to organize the geological and biological evidence in general, and to answer objections to his theory. I will not do that here, since many others have done it elsewhere, and including a great deal of more recent evidence that could not be included by Darwin, as for example here. However, I will discuss one particular objection to his theory, as well as his solution.

In the final chapter he discusses why we do not find many more intermediate forms than we do, both living and dead:

As according to the theory of natural selection an interminable number of intermediate forms must have existed, linking together all the species in each group by gradations as fine as our existing varieties, it may be asked, Why do we not see these linking forms all around us? Why are not all organic beings blended together in an inextricable chaos? With respect to existing forms, we should remember that we have no right to expect (excepting in rare cases) to discover DIRECTLY connecting links between them, but only between each and some extinct and supplanted form. Even on a wide area, which has during a long period remained continuous, and of which the climatic and other conditions of life change insensibly in proceeding from a district occupied by one species into another district occupied by a closely allied species, we have no just right to expect often to find intermediate varieties in the intermediate zones. For we have reason to believe that only a few species of a genus ever undergo change; the other species becoming utterly extinct and leaving no modified progeny. Of the species which do change, only a few within the same country change at the same time; and all modifications are slowly effected. I have also shown that the intermediate varieties which probably at first existed in the intermediate zones, would be liable to be supplanted by the allied forms on either hand; for the latter, from existing in greater numbers, would generally be modified and improved at a quicker rate than the intermediate varieties, which existed in lesser numbers; so that the intermediate varieties would, in the long run, be supplanted and exterminated.

On this doctrine of the extermination of an infinitude of connecting links, between the living and extinct inhabitants of the world, and at each successive period between the extinct and still older species, why is not every geological formation charged with such links? Why does not every collection of fossil remains afford plain evidence of the gradation and mutation of the forms of life? Although geological research has undoubtedly revealed the former existence of many links, bringing numerous forms of life much closer together, it does not yield the infinitely many fine gradations between past and present species required on the theory, and this is the most obvious of the many objections which may be urged against it. Why, again, do whole groups of allied species appear, though this appearance is often false, to have come in suddenly on the successive geological stages? Although we now know that organic beings appeared on this globe, at a period incalculably remote, long before the lowest bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, why do we not find beneath this system great piles of strata stored with the remains of the progenitors of the Cambrian fossils? For on the theory, such strata must somewhere have been deposited at these ancient and utterly unknown epochs of the world’s history.

I can answer these questions and objections only on the supposition that the geological record is far more imperfect than most geologists believe. The number of specimens in all our museums is absolutely as nothing compared with the countless generations of countless species which have certainly existed. The parent form of any two or more species would not be in all its characters directly intermediate between its modified offspring, any more than the rock-pigeon is directly intermediate in crop and tail between its descendants, the pouter and fantail pigeons. We should not be able to recognise a species as the parent of another and modified species, if we were to examine the two ever so closely, unless we possessed most of the intermediate links; and owing to the imperfection of the geological record, we have no just right to expect to find so many links. If two or three, or even more linking forms were discovered, they would simply be ranked by many naturalists as so many new species, more especially if found in different geological substages, let their differences be ever so slight. Numerous existing doubtful forms could be named which are probably varieties; but who will pretend that in future ages so many fossil links will be discovered, that naturalists will be able to decide whether or not these doubtful forms ought to be called varieties? Only a small portion of the world has been geologically explored. Only organic beings of certain classes can be preserved in a fossil condition, at least in any great number. Many species when once formed never undergo any further change but become extinct without leaving modified descendants; and the periods during which species have undergone modification, though long as measured by years, have probably been short in comparison with the periods during which they retained the same form. It is the dominant and widely ranging species which vary most frequently and vary most, and varieties are often at first local–both causes rendering the discovery of intermediate links in any one formation less likely. Local varieties will not spread into other and distant regions until they are considerably modified and improved; and when they have spread, and are discovered in a geological formation, they appear as if suddenly created there, and will be simply classed as new species.Most formations have been intermittent in their accumulation; and their duration has probably been shorter than the average duration of specific forms. Successive formations are in most cases separated from each other by blank intervals of time of great length, for fossiliferous formations thick enough to resist future degradation can, as a general rule, be accumulated only where much sediment is deposited on the subsiding bed of the sea. During the alternate periods of elevation and of stationary level the record will generally be blank. During these latter periods there will probably be more variability in the forms of life; during periods of subsidence, more extinction.

With respect to the absence of strata rich in fossils beneath the Cambrian formation, I can recur only to the hypothesis given in the tenth chapter; namely, that though our continents and oceans have endured for an enormous period in nearly their present relative positions, we have no reason to assume that this has always been the case; consequently formations much older than any now known may lie buried beneath the great oceans. With respect to the lapse of time not having been sufficient since our planet was consolidated for the assumed amount of organic change, and this objection, as urged by Sir William Thompson, is probably one of the gravest as yet advanced, I can only say, firstly, that we do not know at what rate species change, as measured by years, and secondly, that many philosophers are not as yet willing to admit that we know enough of the constitution of the universe and of the interior of our globe to speculate with safety on its past duration.

That the geological record is imperfect all will admit; but that it is imperfect to the degree required by our theory, few will be inclined to admit. If we look to long enough intervals of time, geology plainly declares that species have all changed; and they have changed in the manner required by the theory, for they have changed slowly and in a graduated manner. We clearly see this in the fossil remains from consecutive formations invariably being much more closely related to each other than are the fossils from widely separated formations.

Darwin makes a number of good points here, as for example that intermediate forms, when they are found, are likely simply to be interpreted as new species. However, it seems likely that his explanation is insufficient. The geological record is surely very imperfect, but it is not clear at all that the record as he presents it match what we would naturally expect from an imperfect record with random sampling.

But let us consider another case, one where it is an undoubted fact that our record was produced by a process of historical descent with modification. There can be no reasonable doubt that the Romance languages have descended from Latin, and by a process of gradual diversification much like the process of evolution. This was surely a nearly continuous process, with children always speaking a language nearly identical to the language of the parent. So there were a nearly indefinite number of forms of languages descended from Latin, with an indefinite number of linking forms. “Why do we not see these linking forms all around us? Why are not all [Latin languages] blended together in an inextricable chaos?”

They are not blended in this way, even if there is a fairly large number of dialects, just as there is a large number of animal species of similar forms.

“On this doctrine of the extermination of an infinitude of connecting links, between the living and extinct [Latin languages] of the world, and at each successive period between the extinct and still older [forms], why is not every [historical period] charged with such links? Why does not every collection of [medieval and ancient writings] afford plain evidence of the gradation and mutation of the forms of [the Latin language]?”

We can find older forms of the Latin languages preserved in writing. But we do not find anything like a continuous series of such forms, despite the fact that it is perfectly clear that such a continuous series must have existed.

The answer is likely the same both in the case of these languages, and in the case of the evolution of living beings, and likely has to do with the mathematics governing these kinds of changes. It is related to the imperfection of the records, but not completely explained by this. If you had perfect records, you would indeed be able to find a continuous series of linguistic forms, and you would indeed be able to find a continuous series of living beings. But basically in both cases you have periods of relative stability followed by periods of relatively rapid change, rather than one extremely long period of slow change, and consequently random sampling discovers relatively few of the total number of forms.

Omphalos

In 1857, two years before the publication Darwin’s work On the Origin of Species, Philip Gosse published his book Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knotin which he attempts to reconcile the findings of geology with Scripture. He begins his preface:

“You have not allowed for the wind, Hubert,” said Locksley, in “Ivanhoe;” “or that had been a better shot.”

I remember, when I was in Newfoundland, some five-and-twenty years ago, the disastrous wreck of the brig Elizabeth, which belonged to the firm in which I was a clerk. The master had made a good observation the day before, which had determined his latitude some miles north of Cape St. Francis. A thick fog coming on, he sailed boldly by compass, knowing that, according to his latitude, he could well weather that promontory. But lo! about midnight the ship plunged right against the cliffs of Ferryland, thirty miles to the south, crushing in her bows to the windlass; and presently went down, the crew barely saving their lives. The captain had not allowed for the polar current, which was setting, like a sluice, to the southward, between the Grand Bank and the land.

When it was satisfactorily ascertained that the heavenly body, now known as Uranus, was a planet, its normal path was soon laid down according to the recognised law of gravitation. But it would not take this path. There were deviations and anomalies in its observed course, which could in nowise be referred to the operation of any known principle. Astronomers were sorely puzzled to explain the irregularities, and to reconcile facts with laws. Various hypotheses were proposed: some denied the facts; that is, the observed places of the planet, boldly assuming that the observers had been in error: others suggested that perhaps the physical laws, which had been supposed to govern the whole celestial machinery, did not reach so far as Uranus’s orbit. The secret is now known: they had not allowed for the disturbances produced by Neptune.

In each of these cases the conclusions were legitimately deduced from the recognised premises. Hubert’s skilled eye had calculated the distance; his experience had taught him the requisite angle at which to shoot, the exact amount of force necessary, and every other element proper to insure the desired result, except one. There was an element which he had overlooked; and it spoiled his calculations. He had forgotten the wind.

The master of the ill-fated brig had calculated his latitude correctly; he knew the rate of his vessel’s speed; the compass had showed him the parallel on which to steer. These premises ought to have secured a safe conclusion; and so they would, but for an unrecognised power that vitiated all; he was not aware of the silent and secret current, that was every hour setting him to the south of his supposed latitude.

The path of Uranus had been calculated by the astronomers with scrupulous care, and every known element of disturbance had been considered; not by one, but by many. But for the fact that the planet had been previously seen in positions quite inconsistent with such a path, it would have been set down as beyond controversy correct. Stubborn fact, however, would not give way; and hence the dilemma, till Le Verrier suggested the unseen antagonist.

I venture to suggest in the following pages an element, hitherto overlooked, which disturbs the conclusions of geologists respecting the antiquity of the earth. Their calculations are sound on the recognised premises; but they have not allowed for the Law of Prochronism in Creation.

In the first chapter he explains his purpose:

I am not assuming here that the Inspired Word has been rightly read; I merely say that the plain straightforward meaning, the meaning that lies manifestly on the face of the passages in question, is in opposition with the conclusions which geologists have formed, as to the antiquity and the genesis of the globe on which we live.

Perhaps the simple, superficial sense of the Word is not the correct one; but it is at least that which its readers, learned and unlearned, had been generally content with before; and which would, I suppose, scarcely have been questioned, but for what appeared the exigencies of geological facts.

Now while there are, unhappily, not a few infidels, professed or concealed, who eagerly seize on any apparent discrepancy between the works and the Word of God, in order that they may invalidate the truth of the latter, there are, especially in this country, many names of the highest rank in physical (and, among other branches, in geological) science, to whom the veracity of God is as dear as life. They cannot bear to see it impugned; they know that it cannot be overthrown; they are assured that He who gave the Word, and He who made the worlds, is One Jehovah, who cannot be inconsistent with Himself. But they cannot shut their eyes to the startling fact, that the records which seem legibly written on His created works do flatly contradict the statements which seem to be plainly expressed in His word.

Here is a dilemma. A most painful one to the reverent mind! And many reverent minds have laboured hard and long to escape from it. It is unfair and dishonest to class our men of science with the infidel and atheist. They did not rejoice in the dilemma; they saw it at first dimly, and hoped to avoid it. At first they believed that the mighty processes which are recorded on the “everlasting mountains” might not only be harmonized with, but might afford beautiful and convincing demonstrations of Holy Scripture. They thought that the deluge of Noah would explain the stratification, and the antediluvian era account for the organic fossils.

As geologists came to the conclusion that the earth must have existed for long ages, some people began associating geology with atheism, since these conclusions seemed to contradict Scripture. As Gosse says here, “it is unfair and dishonest” to make this association, since these men came to their conclusions not out of a desire to prove that Scripture was false, but because this was what was indicated by the evidence in the rocks they studied. Far from trying to prove that Scripture is false, as Gosse points out, for a long time they hoped they could reconcile the evidence of the rocks with a literal reading of Scripture. Gosse continues:

As the “stone book” was further read, this mode of explanation appeared to many untenable; and they retracted their adherence to it. To a mind rightly constituted, Truth is above every thing: there is no such thing as a pious fraud; the very idea is an impious lie: God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all; and that religion which can be maintained only by dissembling or denying truth, cannot proceed from “Him that is Holy, Him that is True,” but from him who “is a liar, and the father of it.”

Many upright and ardent cultivators of the young science felt that truth would be compromised by a persistence in those explanations which had hitherto passed current. The discrepancy between the readings in Science and the hitherto unchallenged readings in Scripture, became manifest. Partisans began to array themselves on either side; some, jealous for the honour of God, knew little of science, and rushed into the field ill-prepared for the conflict; some, jealous for science, but little conversant with Scripture, and caring less for it, were willing to throw overboard its authority altogether: others, who knew that the writings were from the same Hand, knew therefore that there must be some way of reconciling them, and set themselves to find it out.

Have they succeeded? If I thought so, I would not publish this book.

He has a long discussion of various ideas which had been proposed in order to reconcile geology and Scripture, after which he concludes the chapter:

I am not blaming, far less despising, the efforts that have been made for harmonizing the teachings of Scripture and science. I heartily sympathise with them. What else could good men do? They could not shut their eyes to the facts which Geology reveals: to have said they were not facts would have been simply absurd. Granting that the whole truth was before them—the whole evidence—they could not arrive at other conclusions than those just recorded; and, therefore, I do not blame their discrepancy inter se. The true key has not as yet been applied to the wards. Until it be, you may force the lock, but you cannot open it. Whether the key offered in the following pages will open the lock, remains to be seen.

The second and third chapters of the book discuss the geological evidence. At the end of the third chapter he presents this summary:

Thus we have brought down the record to an era embraced by human history, and even to individual experience; and we confidently ask, Is it possible, is it imaginable, that the whole of the phenomena which occur below the diluvial deposits can have been produced within six days, or seventeen centuries? Let us recapitulate the principal facts.

1. The crust of the earth is composed of many layers, placed one on another in regular order. All of these are solid, and most are of great density and hardness. Most of them are of vast thickness, the aggregate not being less than from seven to ten miles.

2. The earlier of these were made and consolidated before the newer were formed; for in several cases, it is demonstrable that the latter were made out of the débris of the former. Thus the compact and hard granite was disintegrated grain by grain; the component granules were rolled awhile in the sea till their angles were rubbed down; they were slowly deposited, and then consolidated in layers.

3. A similar process goes on again and again to form other strata, all occupying long time, and all presupposing the earlier ones.

4. After some strata have been formed and solidified, convulsions force them upward, contort them, break them, split them asunder. Melted matter is driven through the outlets, fills the veins, spreads over the surface, settles into the hollows, cools and solidifies.

5. After the outflowing and consolidation of these volcanic streams, the action of running water cuts them down, cleaving beds of immense depth through their substance. Mr. Poulett Scrope, speaking of the solidified streams of basalt, in the volcanic district of Southern France, observes:—

“These ancient currents have since been corroded by rivers, which have worn through a mass of 150 feet in height, and formed a channel even in the granite rocks beneath, since the lava first flowed into the valley. In another spot, a bed of basalt, 160 feet high, has been cut through by a mountain stream. The vast excavations effected by the erosive power of currents along the valleys which feed the Ardèche, since their invasion by lava-currents, prove that even the most recent of these volcanic eruptions belong to an era incalculably remote.”

6. A series of organic beings appears, lives, generates, dies; lives, generates, dies; for thousands and thousands of successive generations. Tiny polypes gradually build up gigantic masses of coral,—mountains and reefs—microscopic foraminifera accumulate strata of calcareous sand; still more minute infusoria—forty millions to the inch—make slates, many yards thick, of their shells alone.

7. The species at length die out—a process which we have no data to measure, though we may reasonably conclude it very long. Sometimes the whole existing fauna seems to have come to a sudden violent end; at others, the species die out one by one. In the former case suddenly, in the latter progressively, new creatures supply the place of the old. Not only do species change; the very genera change, and change again. Forms of beings, strange beings, beings of uncouth shape, of mighty ferocity and power, of gigantic dimensions, come in, run their specific race, propagate their kinds generation after generation,—and at length die out and disappear; to be replaced by other species, each approaching nearer and nearer to familiar forms.

8. Though these early creatures were unparalleled by anything existing now, yet they were animals of like structure and economy essentially. We can determine their analogies and affinities; appoint them their proper places in the orderly plan of nature, and show how beautifully they fill hiatuses therein. They had shells, crusts, plates, bones, horns, teeth, exactly corresponding in structure and function to those of recent animals. In some cases we find the young with its milk-teeth by the side of its dam with well-worn grinders. The fossil excrement is seen not only dropped, but even in the alimentary canal. Bones bear the marks of gnawing teeth that dragged them and cracked them, and fed upon them. The foot-prints of birds and frogs, of crabs and worms, are imprinted in the soil, like the faithful impression of a seal.

9. Millions of forest-trees sprang up, towered to heaven, and fell, to be crushed into the coal strata which make our winter fires. Hundreds of feet measure the thickness of what were once succulent plants, but pressed together like paper-pulp, and consolidated under a weight absolutely immensurable. Yet there remain the scales of their stems, the elegant reticulated patterns of their bark, the delicate tracery of their leaf-nerves, indelibly depicted by an unpatented process of “nature-printing.” And when we examine the record,—the forms of the leaves, the structure of the tissues, we get the same result as before, that the plants belonged to a flora which had no species in common with that which adorns the modern earth. Very gradually, and only after many successions, not of individual generations, but of the cycles of species, genera, and even families, did the vegetable creation conform itself to ours.

10. At length the species both of plants and animals grew,—not by alteration of their specific characters, but by replacement of species by species—more and more like what we have now on the earth, and finally merged into our present flora and fauna, about the time when we find the first geological traces of man.

11. During the course of these successive cycles of organic life, the map of the world has changed many times. Up to a late period the ocean washed over Mont Blanc and Mount Ararat; the continent of Europe was a wide sea; then it was a Polynesia, then an Archipelago of great islands, then a Continent much larger than it is now, with England united to it, and the solid land stretching far away into the Atlantic;—then it sank again, and was again raised, not all at once, but by several stages, each of which has left its coast line, and its shingle beach. All these changes must have been the work of vast periods of time.

“Excepting possibly, but not certainly, the higher parts of some mountains, which at widely different epochs have been upheaved, and made to elevate and pierce the stratified masses which once lay over them, there is scarcely a spot on the earth’s surface which has not been many times in succession the bottom of the sea, and a portion of dry land. In the majority of cases, it is shown, by physical evidences of the most decisive kind, that each of those successive conditions was of extremely long duration; a duration which it would be presumptuous to put into any estimate of years or centuries; for any alteration, of which vestiges occur in the zoological state and the mineral constitution of the earth’s present surface, furnishes no analogy (with regard to the nature and continuance of causes), that approaches in greatness of character to those changes whose evidences are discernible in almost any two continuous strata. It is an inevitable inference, unless we are disposed to abandon the principles of fair reasoning, that each one of such changes in organic life did not take place till after the next preceding condition of the earth had continued through a duration, compared with which six thousand years appear an inconsiderable fraction of time.”

12. The climate of our atmosphere has undergone corresponding mutations. At one time the Palms, the Treeferns, the Cycads of the tropical jungles found their congenial home here: the Elephant, the Rhinoceros, and the Tiger roamed over England; nay, dwelt in countless hosts on the northern shores of Siberia: then the climate gradually cooled to a temperate condition: then it became cold, and glaciers and icebergs were its characteristic features: finally it became temperate again.

13. The icebergs and the glaciers were the ships and railways of past epochs; they were freighted with their heavy but worthless cargoes of rock-boulders and gravel, and set out on their long voyages and travels, over sea and land, sometimes writing their log-books in ineffaceable scratches on the rocky tables over which they passed, and at length discharging their freights in harbours and bays, on inland plains, on mountain sides and summits, where they remain unclaimed, free for any trader in such commodities, without the ceremony of producing the original bill of lading.

Let the remainder be told in the words of one of our most eloquent and able geologists, Professor Sedgwick.

“The fossils demonstrate the time to have been long, though we cannot say how long. Thus we have generation after generation of shell-fish, that have lived and died on the spots where we find them; very often demonstrating the lapse of many years for a few perpendicular inches of deposit. In some beds we have large, cold-blooded reptiles, creatures of long life. In others, we have traces of ancient forests, and enormous fossil trees, with concentric rings of structure, marking the years of growth. Phenomena of this kind are repeated again and again; so that we have three or four distinct systems of deposit, each formed at a distinct period of time, and each, characterised by its peculiar fossils. Coeval with the Tertiary masses, we have enormous lacustrine deposits; sometimes made up of very fine thin laminæ, marking slow tranquil deposits. Among these laminæ, we can find sometimes the leaf-sheddings and the insects of successive seasons. Among them also we find almost mountain-masses of the Indusiœ tubulatœ [the cases of Phryganeœ], and other sheddings of insects, year after year. Again, streams of ancient lava alternate with some of these lacustrine tertiary deposits.

“In central France, a great stream of lava caps the lacustrine limestone. At a subsequent period the waters have excavated deep valleys, cutting down into the lacustrine rock-marble many hundred feet; and, at a newer epoch, anterior to the authentic history of Europe, new craters have opened, and fresh streams of lava have run down the existing valleys. Even in the Tertiary period we have thus a series of demonstrative proofs of a long succession of physical events, each of which required a long lapse of ages for its elaboration.

“Again, as we pass downwards from the bottom Tertiary beds to the Chalk, we instantly find new types of organic life. The old species, which exist in millions of individuals in the upper beds, disappear, and new species are found in the chalk immediately below. This fact indicates a long lapse of time. Had the chalk and upper beds been formed simultaneously at the same period [as the supporters of the diluvial theory represent], their organic remains must have been more or less mixed; but they are not. Again, at the base of the Tertiary deposits resting on the Chalk, we often find great masses of conglomerate or shingle, made up of chalk-flints rolled by water. These separate the Chalk from the overlying beds, and many of the rolled flints contain certain petrified chalk-fossils. Now, every such fossil proves the following points:—

“1. There was a time when the organic body was alive at the bottom of the sea.

“2. It was afterwards imbedded in the cretaceous deposit.

“3. It became petrified; a very slow process.

“4. The Chalk was, by some change of marine currents, washed away, or degraded, [i. e. worn away under the atmosphere by the weather and casualties, a process slow almost beyond description,] and the solid flints and fossils [thus detached from their imbeddings], were rolled into shingles.

“5. Afterwards, these shingles were covered up, and buried under Tertiary deposits.

“In this way of interpretation, a section of a few perpendicular feet indicates a long lapse of time, and the co-ordinate fact of the entire change of organic types, between the beds above and those below, falls in with the preceding inference, and shows the lapse of time to have been very long.”

After some preparation in the following chapters, in chapter 6 Gosse begins to present his new key:

The course of nature is a circle. I do not mean the plan of nature; I am not speaking of a circular arrangement of species, genera, families, and classes, as maintained by MacLeay, Swainson, and others. Their theories may be true, or they may be false; I decide nothing concerning them; I am not alluding to any plan of nature, but to its course, cursus,—the way in which it runs on. This is a circle.

Here is in my garden a scarlet runner. It is a slender twining stem some three feet long, beset with leaves, with a growing bud at one end, and with the other inserted in the earth. What was it a month ago? A tiny shoot protruding from between two thick fleshy leaves scarcely raised above the ground. A month before that? The thick fleshy leaves were two oval cotyledons, closely appressed face to face, with the minute plumule between them, the whole enclosed in an unbroken, tightly-fitting, spotted, leathery coat. It was a bean, a seed.

Was this the commencement of its existence? O no! Six months earlier still it was snugly lying, with several others like itself, in a green fleshy pod, to the interior of which it was organically attached. A month before that, this same pod with its contents was the centre of a scarlet butterfly-like flower, the bottom of its pistil, within which, if you had split it open, you would have discerned the tiny beans, whose history we are tracing backwards, each imbedded in the soft green tissue, but no bigger than the eye of a cambric needle.

But where was this flower? It was one of many that glowed on my garden wall all through last summer; each cluster springing as a bud from a slender twining stem, which was the exact counterpart of that with which we commenced this little life-history.

And this earlier stem,—what of it? It too had been a shoot, a pair of cotyledons with a plumule, a seed, an integral part of a carpel, which was a part of an earlier flower, that expanded from an earlier bud, that grew out of an earlier stem, that had been a still earlier seed, that had been—and backward, ad infinitum, for aught that I can perceive.

The course, then, of a scarlet runner is a circle, without beginning or end:—that is, I mean, without a natural, a normal beginning or end. For at what point of its history can you put your finger, and say, “Here is the commencement of this organism, before which there is a blank; here it began to exist?” There is no such point; no stage which does not look back to a previous stage, on which this stage is inevitably and absolutely dependent.

Although he proceeds to give various other examples, Gosse’s new solution should already be obvious:

Creation, however, solves the dilemma. I have, in my postulates, begged the fact of creation, and I shall not, therefore, attempt to prove it. Creation, the sovereign fiat of Almighty Power, gives us the commencing point, which we in vain seek in nature. But what is creation? It is the sudden bursting into a circle. Since there is no one stage in the course of existence, which, more than any other affords a natural commencing point, whatever stage is selected by the arbitrary will of God, must be an unnatural, or rather a preter-natural, commencing point.

The life-history of every organism commenced at some point or other of its circular course. It was created, called into being, in some definite stage. Possibly, various creatures differed in this respect; perhaps some began existence in one stage of development, some in another; but every separate organism had a distinct point at which it began to live. Before that point there was nothing; this particular organism had till then no existence; its history presents an absolute blank; it was not.

But the whole organisation of the creature thus newly called into existence, looks back to the course of an endless circle in the past. Its whole structure displays a series of developments, which as distinctly witness to former conditions as do those which are presented in the cow, the butterfly, and the fern, of the present day. But what former conditions? The conditions thus witnessed unto, as being necessarily implied in the present organisation, were non-existent; the history was a perfect blank till the moment of creation. The past conditions or stages of existence in question, can indeed be as triumphantly inferred by legitimate deduction from the present, as can those of our cow or butterfly; they rest on the very same evidences; they are identically the same in every respect, except in this one, that they were unreal. They exist only in their results; they are effects which never had causes.

Perhaps it may help to clear my argument if I divide the past developments of organic life, which are necessarily, or at least legitimately, inferrible from present phenomena, into two categories, separated by the violent act of creation. Those unreal developments whose apparent results are seen in the organism at the moment of its creation, I will call prochronic, because time was not an element in them; while those which have subsisted since creation, and which have had actual existence, I will distinguish as diachronic, as occurring during time.

Now, again I repeat, there is no imaginable difference to sense between the prochronic and the diachronic development. Every argument by which the physiologist can prove to demonstration that yonder cow was once a fœtus in the uterus of its dam, will apply with exactly the same power to show that the newly created cow was an embryo, some years before its creation.

His new key, of course, is that the world is created with the appearance, but not the reality, of age. Excited by his idea, Gosse spends many chapters playing with it, illustrating it by example after example. During this process he answers certain potential objections, as in this case in chapter 9:

In both these examples, the polished surfaces of the teeth, worn away by mutual action, afford striking evidence of the lapse of time. Some one may possibly object, however, to this: “What right have you to assume that these teeth were worn away at the moment of its creation, admitting the animal to have been created adult? May they not have been entire?” I reply, Impossible: the Hippopotamus’s teeth would have been perfectly useless to him, except in the ground-down condition: nay, the unworn canines would have effectually prevented his jaws from closing, necessitating the keeping of the mouth wide open until the attrition was performed; long before which, of course, he would have starved. In a natural condition the mutual wearing begins as soon as the surface of the teeth come into contact with each other; that is, as soon as they have acquired a development which constitutes them fit for use. The degree of attrition is merely a question of time. There is no period that can be named, supposing the existence of the perfected teeth at all, in which the evidence of this action would not be visible. How distinct an evidence of past action, and yet, in the case of the created individual, how illusory!

None of this, of course, would be any explanation for the existence of fossils, given that there were never any living things of which they were fossils. In the concluding chapter he suggests his explanation:

In order to perfect the analogy between an organism and the world, so as to show that the law which prevails in the one obtains also in the other, it would be necessary to prove that the development of the physical history of the world is circular, like that already shown to characterise the course of organic nature. And this I cannot prove. But neither, as I think, can the contrary be proved.

The life of the individual consists of a series of processes which are cyclical. In the tree this is shown by the successive growths and deaths of series of leaves: in the animal by the development and exuviation of nails, hair, epidermis, &c.

The life of the species consists of a series of processes which are cyclical. This has been sufficiently illustrated in the preceding pages, in the successive developments and deaths of generations of individuals.

We have reason to believe that species die out, and are replaced by other species, like the individuals which belong to the species, and the organs which belong to the individual. But is the life of the species a circle returning into itself? In other words, if we could take a sufficiently large view of the whole plan of nature, should we discern that the existence of one species necessarily involved the pre-existence of another species, and must inevitably be followed by yet another species? Should we be able to trace the same sort of relation between the tiger of Bengal and the fossil tiger of the Yorkshire caves, between Elephas Indicus and Elephas primigenius, as subsists between the leaves of 1857 and the leaves of 1856; or between the oak now flourishing in Sherwood Forest and that of Robin Hood’s day, from whose acorn it sprang?

I dare not say, we should; though I think it highly probable. But I think you will not dare to say, we should not.

According to this hypothesis, the fossils were created in order to represent a theoretical history of life which in fact did not take place. Gosse responds to the charge of deception on the part of God:

It may be objected, that, to assume the world to have been created with fossil skeletons in its crust,—skeletons of animals that never really existed,—is to charge the Creator with forming objects whose sole purpose was to deceive us. The reply is obvious. Were the concentric timber-rings of a created tree formed merely to deceive? Were the growth lines of a created shell intended to deceive? Was the navel of the created Man intended to deceive him into the persuasion that he had had a parent?

In the end he suggests that his account should be applied to the entire history of the world:

If, then, the existence of retrospective marks, visible and tangible proofs of processes which were prochronic, was so necessary to organic essences, that they could not have been created without them,—is it absurd to suggest the possibility (I do no more) that the world itself was created under the influence of the same law, with visible tangible proofs of developments and processes, which yet were only prochronic?

Admit for a moment, as a hypothesis, that the Creator had before his mind a projection of the whole life-history of the globe, commencing with any point which the geologist may imagine to have been a fit commencing point, and ending with some unimaginable acme in the indefinitely distant future. He determines to call this idea into actual existence, not at the supposed commencing point, but at some stage or other of its course. It is clear, then, that at the selected stage it appears, exactly as it would have appeared at that moment of its history, if all the preceding eras of its history had been real. Just as the new-created Man was, at the first moment of his existence, a man of twenty, or five-and-twenty, or thirty years old; physically, palpably, visibly, so old, though not really, not diachronically. He appeared precisely what he would have appeared had he lived so many years.

Let us suppose that this present year 1857 had been the particular epoch in the projected life-history of the world, which the Creator selected as the era of its actual beginning. At his fiat it appears; but in what condition? Its actual condition at this moment:—whatever is now existent would appear, precisely as it does appear. There would be cities filled with swarms of men; there would be houses half-built; castles fallen into ruins; pictures on artists’ easels just sketched in; wardrobes filled with half-worn garments; ships sailing over the sea; marks of birds’ footsteps on the mud; skeletons whitening the desert sands; human bodies in every stage of decay in the burial-grounds. These and millions of other traces of the past would be found, because they are found in the world now; they belong to the present age of the world; and if it had pleased God to call into existence this globe at this epoch of its life-history, the whole of which lay like a map before his infinite mind, it would certainly have presented all these phenomena; not to puzzle the philosopher, but because they are inseparable from the condition of the world at the selected moment of irruption into its history; because they constitute its condition; they make it what it is.

Gosse’s hypothesis is ingenius, in some ways, and yet when considered with respect to his original intentions, it fails completely.

Let us suppose that the world was created in 1857 (or in 4004 BC, or at any other date), according to this hypothesis, with an apparent age and an apparent history. Are statements about the past, made by people who do not know of this recent creation, true or false? Is it true to say that Columbus discovered America in 1492, or that there was a volcanic eruption in France sometime around 5760 BC? Or is it false, if this date was before the creation of the world?

If these statements remain true, then he has not given us any reason to think that the geologists were wrong about anything in particular. For their statements about the geological history of the world will be just as true as they would be without his hypothesis. And it will no longer even be clear what it means to say that the world was created at a certain time, since things happened, and therefore also existed, before that time in any case. In order for his hypothesis to have any clear meaning, then, it has to be false to make statements about the “prochronic” history of the world, unless those statements are qualified in exactly that way, namely as appearances and not as facts.

Given that he says that statements about times before creation are false, his hypothesis is meaningful, although not especially verifiable. But he has formulated the hypothesis for a particular purpose, namely in order to reconcile Scripture and geology. The problem with this is that Scripture does not assign any particular date to the creation of the world. It surely does not say that the world was created in 4000 BC, or in 10,000 BC, or in 100,000 BC. Rather, the implication that the earth is relatively young is derived from a literal and historical interpretation of the book of Genesis as a whole, as well as the following books of the Bible. Gosse’s hypothesis only makes sense, then, if it is intended to preserve such a historical reading of Genesis.

The problem should be obvious. The apparent conflict between geology and Genesis is not a conflict about dating. The conflict consists in the fact that the particular history laid out by the book of Genesis does not appear to be consistent with the particular history laid out by geology. And Gosse’s hypothesis does not change this fact. Thus, for example, not only are rock strata inconsistent with being caused by a global flood, but the data of geology are inconsistent with a global flood happening at all, at any time during human history. This means that even if Gosse’s hypothesis is true, there was a global flood neither during the prochronic history nor during the diachronic history. And this means that the conflict with the literal reading of Genesis remains unchanged.

Richard Dawkins and the Simplicity of God

Richard Dawkins concludes chapter 3 of his book The God Delusion with the following claim:

There is a much more powerful argument, which does not depend upon subjective judgement, and it is the argument from improbability. It really does transport us dramatically away from 50 per cent agnosticism, far towards the extreme of theism in the view of many theists, far towards the extreme of atheism in my view. I have alluded to it several times already. The whole argument turns on the familiar question ‘Who made God?’, which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape. This argument, as I shall show in the next chapter, demonstrates that God, though not technically disprovable, is very very improbable indeed.

Throughout chapter 4, which is entitled, “Why There Almost Certainly is No God,” he struggles with the view of the theologians that God is simple, as opposed to his own idea that God, if he exists, must be extremely complicated. He begins the chapter:

The argument from improbability is the big one. In the traditional guise of the argument from design, it is easily today’s most popular argument offered in favour of the existence of God and it is seen, by an amazingly large number of theists, as completely and utterly convincing. It is indeed a very strong and, I suspect, unanswerable argument— but in precisely the opposite direction from the theist’s intention. The argument from improbability, properly deployed, comes close to proving that God does not exist. My name for the statistical demonstration that God almost certainly does not exist is the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit.

The name comes from Fred Hoyle’s amusing image of the Boeing 747 and the scrapyard. I am not sure whether Hoyle ever wrote it down himself, but it was attributed to him by his close colleague Chandra Wickramasinghe and is presumably authentic. Hoyle said that the probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747. Others have borrowed the metaphor to refer to the later evolution of complex living bodies, where it has a spurious plausibility. The odds against assembling a fully functioning horse, beetle or ostrich by randomly shuffling its parts are up there in 747 territory. This, in a nutshell, is the creationist’s favourite argument— an argument that could be made only by somebody who doesn’t understand the first thing about natural selection: somebody who thinks natural selection is a theory of chance whereas— in the relevant sense of chance— it is the opposite.

There follows a discussion of evolution, creation, and intelligent design. He concludes the section by stating,

A deep understanding of Darwinism teaches us to be wary of the easy assumption that design is the only alternative to chance, and teaches us to seek out graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity. Before Darwin, philosophers such as Hume understood that the improbability of life did not mean it had to be designed, but they couldn’t imagine the alternative. After Darwin, we all should feel, deep in our bones, suspicious of the very idea of design. The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before, and Darwin should have immunized us by raising our consciousness. Would that he had succeeded with all of us.

The argument here is basically that evolutionary theory has been fairly successful in explaining living things as having resulted from a slow and detailed process in which they became increasingly complex through natural causes. Consequently Dawkins is optimistic that this manner of explanation can in principle be applied to everything else. In fact, according to him, no one has ever offered any other plausible explanation of things:

Turning Watchtower’s page, we find the wonderful plant known as Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia trilobata), all of whose parts seem elegantly designed to trap insects, cover them with pollen and send them on their way to another Dutchman’s Pipe. The intricate elegance of the flower moves Watchtower to ask: ‘Did all of this happen by chance? Or did it happen by intelligent design?’ Once again, no of course it didn’t happen by chance. Once again, intelligent design is not the proper alternative to chance. Natural selection is not only a parsimonious, plausible and elegant solution; it is the only workable alternative to chance that has ever been suggested. Intelligent design suffers from exactly the same objection as chance. It is simply not a plausible solution to the riddle of statistical improbability. And the higher the improbability, the more implausible intelligent design becomes. Seen clearly, intelligent design will turn out to be a redoubling of the problem. Once again, this is because the designer himself (/ herself/ itself) immediately raises the bigger problem of his own origin. Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman’s Pipe (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman’s Pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance.

He says something similar while discussing multiverse hypotheses:

It is tempting to think (and many have succumbed) that to postulate a plethora of universes is a profligate luxury which should not be allowed. If we are going to permit the extravagance of a multiverse, so the argument runs, we might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and allow a God. Aren’t they both equally unparsimonious ad hoc hypotheses, and equally unsatisfactory? People who think that have not had their consciousness raised by natural selection. The key difference between the genuinely extravagant God hypothesis and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis is one of statistical improbability. The multiverse, for all that it is extravagant, is simple. God, or any intelligent, decision-taking, calculating agent, would have to be highly improbable in the very same statistical sense as the entities he is supposed to explain. The multiverse may seem extravagant in sheer number of universes. But if each one of those universes is simple in its fundamental laws, we are still not postulating anything highly improbable. The very opposite has to be said of any kind of intelligence.

Beginning to address the response of theologians, he says:

But what attempts have theists made to reply? How do they cope with the argument that any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide? The theologian Richard Swinburne, as we have learned to expect, thinks he has an answer to this problem, and he expounds it in his book Is There a God?. He begins by showing that his heart is in the right place by convincingly demonstrating why we should always prefer the simplest hypothesis that fits the facts. Science explains complex things in terms of the interactions of simpler things, ultimately the interactions of fundamental particles. I (and I dare say you) think it a beautifully simple idea that all things are made of fundamental particles which, although exceedingly numerous, are drawn from a small, finite set of types of particle. If we are sceptical, it is likely to be because we think the idea too simple. But for Swinburne it is not simple at all, quite the reverse. Given that the number of particles of any one type, say electrons, is large, Swinburne thinks it too much of a coincidence that so many should have the same properties. One electron, he could stomach. But billions and billions of electrons, all with the same properties, that is what really excites his incredulity. For him it would be simpler, more natural, less demanding of explanation, if all electrons were different from each other. Worse, no one electron should naturally retain its properties for more than an instant at a time; each should change capriciously, haphazardly and fleetingly from moment to moment. That is Swinburne’s view of the simple, native state of affairs. Anything more uniform (what you or I would call more simple) requires a special explanation. ‘It is only because electrons and bits of copper and all other material objects have the same powers in the twentieth century as they did in the nineteenth century that things are as they are now.’ Enter God. God comes to the rescue by deliberately and continuously sustaining the properties of all those billions of electrons and bits of copper, and neutralizing their otherwise ingrained inclination to wild and erratic fluctuation. That is why when you’ve seen one electron you’ve seen them all; that is why bits of copper all behave like bits of copper, and that is why each electron and each bit of copper stays the same as itself from microsecond to microsecond and from century to century. It is because God constantly keeps a finger on each and every particle, curbing its reckless excesses and whipping it into line with its colleagues to keep them all the same. But how can Swinburne possibly maintain that this hypothesis of God simultaneously keeping a gazillion fingers on wayward electrons is a simple hypothesis? It is, of course, precisely the opposite of simple. Swinburne pulls off the trick to his own satisfaction by a breathtaking piece of intellectual chutzpah. He asserts, without justification, that God is only a single substance. What brilliant economy of explanatory causes, compared with all those gigazillions of independent electrons all just happening to be the same!

Note that Richard Swinburne is not the only one who thinks it too much of a coincidence that electrons are not all different and randomly changing their properties from moment to moment. David Hume, praised by Dawkins, believes the same thing. In any case, in terms of the argument here, Swinburne is exactly right. There is only one first cause, and it does indeed explain why all electrons behave in the same way. Some such thing would have to be the case in any event, but the only way the activity of electrons (or of anything else) can be understood is in relation to a final cause, the formal aspect of an efficient cause.

Dawkins however objects that such an explanation is not simple at all, but supremely complex:

Swinburne generously concedes that God cannot accomplish feats that are logically impossible, and one feels grateful for this forbearance. Having said that, there is no limit to the explanatory purposes to which God’s infinite power is put. Is science having a little difficulty explaining X? No problem. Don’t give X another glance. God’s infinite power is effortlessly wheeled in to explain X (along with everything else), and it is always a supremely simple explanation because, after all, there is only one God. What could be simpler than that?

Well, actually, almost everything. A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple. His existence is going to need a mammoth explanation in its own right. Worse (from the point of view of simplicity), other corners of God’s giant consciousness are simultaneously preoccupied with the doings and emotions and prayers of every single human being— and whatever intelligent aliens there might be on other planets in this and 100 billion other galaxies. He even, according to Swinburne, has to decide continuously not to intervene miraculously to save us when we get cancer. That would never do, for, ‘If God answered most prayers for a relative to recover from cancer, then cancer would no longer be a problem for humans to solve.’ And then what would we find to do with our time?

Outraged by this idea of simplicity, Dawkins considers another example of this position:

Not all theologians go as far as Swinburne. Nevertheless, the remarkable suggestion that the God Hypothesis is simple can be found in other modern theological writings. Keith Ward, then Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, was very clear on the matter in his 1996 book God, Chance and Necessity: “As a matter of fact, the theist would claim that God is a very elegant, economical and fruitful explanation for the existence of the universe. It is economical because it attributes the existence and nature of absolutely everything in the universe to just one being, an ultimate cause which assigns a reason for the existence of everything, including itself. It is elegant because from one key idea— the idea of the most perfect possible being— the whole nature of God and the existence of the universe can be intelligibly explicated.”

Like Swinburne, Ward mistakes what it means to explain something, and he also seems not to understand what it means to say of something that it is simple. I am not clear whether Ward really thinks God is simple, or whether the above passage represented a temporary ‘for the sake of argument’ exercise. Sir John Polkinghorne, in Science and Christian Belief, quotes Ward’s earlier criticism of the thought of Thomas Aquinas: ‘Its basic error is in supposing that God is logically simple— simple not just in the sense that his being is indivisible, but in the much stronger sense that what is true of any part of God is true of the whole. It is quite coherent, however, to suppose that God, while indivisible, is internally complex.’ Ward gets it right here.

Important things here are the statement that “Ward mistakes what it means to explain something,” and that “he also seems not to understand what it means to say of something that it is simple.” And lastly there is Dawkins’s attempt at doing theology when he says that “Ward gets it right here.” I will return to this shortly. In any case, Dawkins continues by recounting his experiences at a conference at Cambridge:

At a recent Cambridge conference on science and religion, where I put forward the argument I am here calling the Ultimate 747 argument, I encountered what, to say the least, was a cordial failure to achieve a meeting of minds on the question of God’s simplicity. The experience was a revealing one, and I’d like to share it.

After some discussion of the background of the conference, Dawkins explains his experience with his argument against the existence of God:

For better or worse, I attended two days at the Cambridge conference, giving a talk of my own and taking part in the discussion of several other talks. I challenged the theologians to answer the point that a God capable of designing a universe, or anything else, would have to be complex and statistically improbable. The strongest response I heard was that I was brutally foisting a scientific epistemology upon an unwilling theology. Theologians had always defined God as simple. Who was I, a scientist, to dictate to theologians that their God had to be complex? Scientific arguments, such as those I was accustomed to deploying in my own field, were inappropriate since theologians had always maintained that God lay outside science. I did not gain the impression that the theologians who mounted this evasive defense were being willfully dishonest. I think they were sincere. Nevertheless, I was irresistibly reminded of Peter Medawar’s comment on Father Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, in the course of what is possibly the greatest negative book review of all time: ‘its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself’. The theologians of my Cambridge encounter were defining themselves into an epistemological Safe Zone where rational argument could not reach them because they had declared by fiat that it could not. Who was I to say that rational argument was the only admissible kind of argument? There are other ways of knowing besides the scientific, and it is one of these other ways of knowing that must be deployed to know God.

There are basically three possibilities here. Either Dawkins did not understand the theologians, the theologians did not understand Dawkins, or the theologians did not understand their theology. The third possibility is very plausible given the criticism of St. Thomas by Keith Ward and Sir John Polkinghorne mentioned by Dawkins earlier. Most likely all three are the case.

Dawkins continues to what perhaps is the heart of the issue between himself and the theologians:

Time and again, my theologian friends returned to the point that there had to be a reason why there is something rather than nothing. There must have been a first cause of everything, and we might as well give it the name God. Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers). The first cause that we seek must have been the simple basis for a self-bootstrapping crane which eventually raised the world as we know it into its present complex existence. To suggest that the original prime mover was complicated enough to indulge in intelligent design, to say nothing of mindreading millions of humans simultaneously, is tantamount to dealing yourself a perfect hand at bridge. Look around at the world of life, at the Amazon rainforest with its rich interlacement of lianas, bromeliads, roots and flying buttresses; its army ants and its jaguars, its tapirs and peccaries, treefrogs and parrots. What you are looking at is the statistical equivalent of a perfect hand of cards (think of all the other ways you could permute the parts, none of which would work)— except that we know how it came about: by the gradualistic crane of natural selection. It is not just scientists who revolt at mute acceptance of such improbability arising spontaneously; common sense baulks too. To suggest that the first cause, the great unknown which is responsible for something existing rather than nothing, is a being capable of designing the universe and of talking to a million people simultaneously, is a total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation. It is a dreadful exhibition of self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery.

I am not advocating some sort of narrowly scientistic way of thinking. But the very least that any honest quest for truth must have in setting out to explain such monstrosities of improbability as a rainforest, a coral reef, or a universe is a crane and not a skyhook. The crane doesn’t have to be natural selection. Admittedly, nobody has ever thought of a better one. But there could be others yet to be discovered. Maybe the ‘inflation’ that physicists postulate as occupying some fraction of the first yoctosecond of the universe’s existence will turn out, when it is better understood, to be a cosmological crane to stand alongside Darwin’s biological one. Or maybe the elusive crane that cosmologists seek will be a version of Darwin’s idea itself: either Smolin’s model or something similar. Or maybe it will be the multiverse plus anthropic principle espoused by Martin Rees and others. It may even be a superhuman designer— but, if so, it will most certainly not be a designer who just popped into existence, or who always existed. If (which I don’t believe for a moment) our universe was designed, and a fortiori if the designer reads our thoughts and hands out omniscient advice, forgiveness and redemption, the designer himself must be the end product of some kind of cumulative escalator or crane, perhaps a version of Darwinism in another universe.

We can see here what Dawkins means when he says that Ward mistakes what it means to explain something. “The very least that any honest quest for truth must have in setting out to explain such monstrosities of improbability as a rainforest, a coral reef, or a universe is a crane and not a skyhook.” Otherwise, according to Dawkins, you haven’t explained anything. And what does he mean by a crane rather than a skyhook? A skyhook, identified with what he considers a complex God, would be something that already has such complexity within itself. A crane is something simple, and simple in the sense intended by Dawkins. Explanation, therefore, according to Dawkins, requires an original simplicity, this being understood as he understands it.

In reality, attempting to explain things is to look for their causes. And correspondingly, there are different kinds of explanation and different kinds of causes. But Dawkins is identifying certain types of causality and explanation in particular, namely those that are found in Darwinian evolution. It is likely that he is doing this because he feels satisfied by such explanations, and therefore tends to think that other accounts are not real explanations, since they leave him dissatisfied. In reality, however, there are various types of explanation and thus various types of cause.

What did Dawkins mean when he said that Ward “seems not to understand what it means to say of something that it is simple”? And why does he say that “Ward gets it right here” when Ward opposes St. Thomas on the understanding of the simplicity of God?

St. Thomas asserts that God is simple in the sense that he is not composed of parts. Given his supposed activities, Dawkins considers this absurd, and thus he says that Ward gets it right when he admits that God is “internally complex.” In other words, despite believing that God does not exist, Dawkins is making the theological claim that God cannot be simple in the sense asserted by St. Thomas, but must be composed of parts.

Why does he say this? Why doesn’t he think that since he doesn’t believe in God, this is none of his concern and he should just leave it to the theologians as they apparently told him?

Dawkins is reasoning from the supposed activities of God to his nature. God is supposed to be “a being capable of designing the universe and of talking to a million people simultaneously.” Designing the universe seems to involve planning, which involves a plan, which has various parts. Talking to people seems to involve words and sentences, which are distinct from one another, and also thoughts, which seem to be distinct insofar as they are thoughts about diverse things. In other words, it is obvious that when we design and plan things, and when we speak with people, we are capable of doing so because we consist of parts. Consequently if God can do these things, he must have parts as well.

In fact, in terms of the argument for a first cause, Dawkins nearly admits that he cannot refute the argument:

Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers). The first cause that we seek must have been the simple basis for a self-bootstrapping crane which eventually raised the world as we know it into its present complex existence.

His problem is not the argument for a first cause, therefore, but the things that are typically said of that cause, and he objects to these things because they seem to him to imply that the first cause is not simple.

We already saw that Dawkins objects to the idea that God has no parts. But is this his real objection? Simply that he thinks that the first cause must be partless, and therefore that it cannot do things like designing, planning, and talking that seem to involve parts?

This is not his real objection, whether or not he understands this fact himself. For the correct response to this objection, from a theological point of view, is exactly that God is simple in the sense defined by St. Thomas. And he does not perform the activities mentioned by Dawkins in the way that he supposes. God does not pass from one thought to another. He does not think of one part of a plan, and then another. If he speaks, he does not go from word to word in his mind. To the extent that parts are implied by such things, they are to be denied of God, and the theologian only believes that they exist in God by analogy.

But Dawkins will still have a problem with this response, if it implies that God still performs those activities, even in an analogous way. If for example God ever directly produces a voice in my mind telling me to do something, Dawkins will have a problem with this, even if I say that God does not have parts. Only the voice has parts. Dawkins will still insist that this explanation is “not simple.”

And why not? Because it is not the kind of explanation that is pleasing to him, where complexity comes from simplicity, not just in the sense that a partless being causes beings with parts, but in the sense that mathematical complexity is caused by mathematical simplicity. This is ultimately what he means when he talks about a crane rather than a skyhook. If we give a mathematical explanation of the voice in my head, it will be a mathematically complex one, and if the only cause is God, it may not be clearly possible to reduce that mathematical complexity to something mathematically simple. Evolutionary explanations, on the other hand, allow something mathematically complex to be explained in terms of laws which are mathematically simple. And this is the only kind of explanation that Dawkins considers reasonable, satisfying, or true.

We can divide all of this discussion into various questions:

  1. Is there a first cause at all? We have established that there is, and Dawkins does not deny it.
  2. Does the first cause have parts? We have established that it does not, and in principle Dawkins does not assert that it does. To some extent he could be taken to be conceding that it does not, since his objection is that if God exists, he has many parts and is extremely complicated, and therefore cannot be the first cause.
  3. Does the first cause produce mathematically complex things from mathematically simple ones? It is certain that it does in general. Our discussions of mathematical laws in nature and of the order of the world are both relevant, as well as the issue of simplicity and probability. Dawkins agrees with this, and in fact his position is that this is the only way that mathematical complexity is ever produced.
  4. Does the first cause ever produce mathematical complexity without doing this through mathematically simple things? Nothing in our discussions establishes that such a thing is impossible, nor that it is actual. Dawkins denies that this is possible or at least that it is reasonable, but he does not seem to have a particular argument for this other than the fact that such a claim leaves him feeling dissatisfied, feeling that something has been left unexplained which should be explained. But as we have seen, this is not a question about the nature of explanation in general, but the kind of explanations which are pleasing to him.
  5. Is a first cause which does not directly produce such mathematical complexity worthy of being called God? This is mainly a question about the meaning of words, although there also could be questions about what that being would be like. Dawkins denies that this is a reasonable way to use the word “God”, because, according to him, God is always understood to intervene directly in the world, causing things which are meaningful on a human level and consequently which are already mathematically complex.
  6. Do God’s activities imply that he has parts? Dawkins assumes that they do, and apparently the theologians at the conference that he attended were unable to explain otherwise.

It is problematic to discuss the question of “whether God exists” with someone like Richard Dawkins because these separate questions end up being mixed together. Dawkins gives a negative response to question 5, but if this is in fact a reasonable way to use the name “God,” then Dawkins should not deny that God exists, even if the rest of his position is correct. Likewise, Dawkins assumes an affirmative answer to question 6, and therefore concludes that if the answer to question 2 is negative, God cannot be the first cause, and therefore that if he exists he must be caused. Discussing these questions with him separately would possibly be much more productive.

Final Causes in Nature

We get the idea of final causes from the goal seeking nature of our own activities, as hunting is for the sake of eating, and eating is for the sake of health. But the nature of a final cause, as was said earlier, is to be the formal aspect of an efficient cause: why or how it causes. Every case of an efficient cause will have such a final cause, since otherwise the efficient cause itself would be unintelligible. However, final causes will not have entirely the same character in every case.

Thus for example the final cause of the form of the human hand is surely to grasp and manipulate objects. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection implies that this form developed because people with more usefully shaped hands were more likely to survive and to have offspring than people with less usefully shaped hands. This account is sometimes used to suggest that we can say that the hand therefore has no final cause. But in reality this does not follow, for even if this happened, it happened not randomly, but with exactly the pattern of promoting hands that could grasp and manipulate objects. Thus this is the correct way to understand the process that actually happened; this is the “form” that the process took.

It was shown earlier that it is necessary that a world measured by place and time should have mathematical laws of nature. This very demonstration gives us a final cause of the fact that such laws exist: namely, in order to have a world at all. It is more difficult to explain why some concrete law has the exact form that it has. But even the exact form of the law will have a final cause, unless the law itself is a first cause, which is very unlikely, since a mathematical law is something abstract.