Zeal for God, But Not According to Knowledge

St. Thomas raises this objection to the existence of God:

Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

He responds to the objection:

Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article.

The explanation here is that things do have their own proper causes, but these proper causes do not have the properties necessary to be a first cause. Likewise, the very distinction of these proper causes from one another shows that they must be reduced to a one single principle.

This response is correct, but it is difficult for people to understand. People tend to assume that the objection is fundamentally valid, given its premises. Thus many atheists believe that they have a very good argument for their atheism, and many theists assume that there must be falsehood in the premises. And the ordinary way to assume this is to say that we do see things in the world that cannot be accounted for by other principles.

This leads to an undue zeal on behalf of God, of the sort mentioned in the previous post. There is the desire to say that something was done by God, and only by God; not by anything else. In this way the premise that “everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles” would turn out to be false. The Intelligent Design movement provides an example of this desire. The linked Wikipedia article approaches this with a very polemical point of view, but I am not concerned here with the scientific issues. It is very evident, in any case, that there is the idea here that it would be good to prove that something was done by God alone, and not by any secondary causes. In this way people are jealous on behalf of God: if it turns out that it was done by secondary causes, that takes something from God, and in particular it makes it less likely that God exists.

The truth is mostly the opposite of this. Although nothing can be taken from God, the purposes of creation are better obtained if created things contribute whatever they can to the production of other things. Thus the world is more ordered, and so more perfect simply speaking.

As an example, consider the case of the origin of life. Unlike the process which gave rise to the origin of species, abiogenesis is not an established fact. What would be best, were it the case? I do not speak of the truth of the matter, nor what we might wish to believe about it, but which thing would be better in itself: is it better if life arises from non-living things, or is it better if life is directly created by God? For someone jealous for God in this way, it seems better if life were directly created, in order better to prove that God exists. In reality, however, it is better if life comes to be in a certain order, with a contribution from non-living things, to whatever degree that this is possible.

This is not just a matter of wishful thinking, in one direction or the other, although that can be involved. Rather, in cases of this kind, the fact that one thing is better is an argument, although not a conclusive one, for its reality.

There are many other ways in which this kind of undue zeal influences human opinions, and recognition of the truth of this matter has many consequences. But for the moment we are on another path.

Original Immortality and the Order of the World

Earlier we discussed an argument against the idea of the fall, taken from the nature of the order of the world. This will apply in a particular way to the idea that man was immortal before the fall, if only because this is one concrete way that the idea of the fall can be understood.

It is a common young earth creationist claim that before the fall, there was no animal death at all:

Death is a sad reality that is ever present in our world, leaving behind tremendous pain and suffering. Tragically, many people shake a fist at God when faced with the loss of a loved one and are left without adequate answers from the church as to death’s existence. Unfortunately, an assumption has crept into the church which sees death as a natural part of our existence and as something that we have to put up with as opposed to it being an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26) that came into God’s very good creation. This paper will argue that the biblical understanding of death, whether animal or human, physical or spiritual, views it to be a consequence of man’s disobedience towards his Creator and an intrusion into His “very good” creation.

This is not a very reasonable view, and St. Thomas argues against it in principle:

In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state, have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon. Nor does Bede’s gloss on Genesis 1:30, say that trees and herbs were given as food to all animals and birds, but to some. Thus there would have been a natural antipathy between some animals. They would not, however, on this account have been excepted from the mastership of man: as neither at present are they for that reason excepted from the mastership of God, Whose Providence has ordained all this. Of this Providence man would have been the executor, as appears even now in regard to domestic animals, since fowls are given by men as food to the trained falcon.

The creationists however have correctly perceived that the original mortality of other animals would be evidence for the original mortality of man. It would be more likely that other animals would have died, given that man was going to die as well, than given that he was not going to die, and this means that animal death is evidence for human death. The creationists are probably also correct to suppose that the story of the fall, considered as a story, implies the original absence of both animal and human death, although this is not explicitly stated. They are mistaken, however, to suppose that Genesis is intended literally.

The existence of animal death before the existence of humanity is confirmed by geology, and this does not change much with the acceptance of the theory of evolution. However, the issue at least becomes more noticeable. Given that the first humans had ancestors, this implies that whoever was first meant to be immortal, had parents and possibly siblings that were not immortal. And since evolution proceeds gradually, it is possible that the first man who was capable of moral action was not the first human (with a human soul) to exist. This would suggest that the death of human beings happened even before anyone was capable of choosing good or evil.

In any case, the particular argument considered in the previous post on the fall and the order of the world, was that an elevation of nature to a condition obtainable through secondary causes, without actually using such causes, is unlikely.

Absolute immortality does not seem to be a condition obtainable through secondary causes, or at least there is no clear evidence of such a possibility. Consequently the argument discussed there does not apply to an elevation to absolute immortality, although it would still apply to the fall from that state (namely, it would argue that this is contrary to the usual order of the world.)

However, being elevated to immortality also includes aspects that in fact can be produced by secondary causes. In principle it is not impossible for an animal to be free of biological aging, and there may be some species in nature that are very nearly so. In practice this was not possible for human beings because they descended from a species which already had death by aging. St. Thomas however notes that it is possible to produce freedom from death in this sense through secondary causes:

I answer that, The tree of life in a certain degree was the cause of immortality, but not absolutely. To understand this, we must observe that in the primitive state man possessed, for the preservation of life, two remedies, against two defects. One of these defects was the lost of humidity by the action of natural heat, which acts as the soul’s instrument: as a remedy against such loss man was provided with food, taken from the other trees of paradise, as now we are provided with the food, which we take for the same purpose. The second defect, as the Philosopher says (De Gener. i, 5), arises from the fact that the humor which is caused from extraneous sources, being added to the humor already existing, lessens the specific active power: as water added to wine takes at first the taste of wine, then, as more water is added, the strength of the wine is diminished, till the wine becomes watery. In like manner, we may observe that at first the active force of the species is so strong that it is able to transform so much of the food as is required to replace the lost tissue, as well as what suffices for growth; later on, however, the assimilated food does not suffice for growth, but only replaces what is lost. Last of all, in old age, it does not suffice even for this purpose; whereupon the body declines, and finally dies from natural causes. Against this defect man was provided with a remedy in the tree of life; for its effect was to strengthen the force of the species against the weakness resulting from the admixture of extraneous nutriment. Wherefore Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xiv, 26): “Man had food to appease his hunger, drink to slake his thirst; and the tree of life to banish the breaking up of old age”; and (QQ. Vet. et Nov. Test. qu. 19) “The tree of life, like a drug, warded off all bodily corruption.”

Yet it did not absolutely cause immortality; for neither was the soul’s intrinsic power of preserving the body due to the tree of life, nor was it of such efficiency as to give the body a disposition to immortality, whereby it might become indissoluble; which is clear from the fact that every bodily power is finite; so the power of the tree of life could not go so far as to give the body the prerogative of living for an infinite time, but only for a definite time. For it is manifest that the greater a force is, the more durable is its effect; therefore, since the power of the tree of life was finite, man’s life was to be preserved for a definite time by partaking of it once; and when that time had elapsed, man was to be either transferred to a spiritual life, or had need to eat once more of the tree of life.

From this the replies to the objections clearly appear. For the first proves that the tree of life did not absolutely cause immortality; while the others show that it caused incorruption by warding off corruption, according to the explanation above given.

Two problems with this considered as a direct response to the argument from the order of the world, however, are first that the tree of life in Genesis cannot be understood literally, and second that the tree of life itself does not have natural secondary causes. In practice the only realistic way to achieve freedom from death by aging through secondary causes would be through human medical technology, as is hoped for by Ray Kurzweil. But this implies that it is also the mode which is most fitting to the order of the world, which argues that human immortality should be in the future, not in the past.

Nor would the fact that absolute immortality cannot be produced by secondary causes negate this evidence, for absolute immortality could also be in the future, even given that it is to be obtained. And if there could have been rational animals without the capacity for moral choice who lived and died before man was offered immortality, then the proposal that absolute immortality be put off long enough to allow the obtaining of imperfect immortality through the action of secondary causes would be entirely reasonable.

In addition, positing a complete immortality at the beginning of the human race implies the addition of an indefinite number of miracles to the order of secondary causes, which necessarily makes this order less perfect. St. Thomas, noting that man’s body could be affected by other bodies, says that, “Man’s body in the state of innocence could be preserved from suffering injury from a hard body; partly by the use of his reason, whereby he could avoid what was harmful; and partly also by Divine Providence, so preserving him, that nothing of a harmful nature could come upon him unawares.” But such a use of divine providence effectively implies being miraculously preserved from the possibility of accidental death.

Painful Dilemma

Philip Gosse, speaking of the apparent discrepancy between Scripture and geology, in a text quoted in the previous post, calls this a painful dilemma:

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.

Earlier we looked at Darwin Catholic’s response to the position of Fr. Brian Harrison. However, in a part of his post that we did not cite at the time, he makes what he considers to be his most important point, at least in a certain way:

My third point of disagreement with Fr. Harrison is in some ways the most urgent, and the reason that I have written such a long commentary on his piece. In his “moonie” parable, Fr. Harrison suggests that there are two honest approaches to dealing with the discoveries of science in relation to Genesis: either insist that science is a fraud and that it is wrong to assert that the world is ancient or that humanity (in the biological sense) evolved from lower life forms, or reject the bible as false and Christianity as a fraud. The “bombshelter” route that his intellectuals and theologians in the parable dream up (with the “invisible water”) he sees as inherently dishonest and dangerous.

This is all very well for Fr. Harrison, who apparently is satisfied in his own mind that the findings of modern astronomy, geology and paleontology are indeed a fraud. However, he binds up a heavy and dangerous burden for others to carry. Either they must assert that much of modern science is a fraud (Fr. Harrison even holds out hope that the bible is right that the earth is stationary at the center of the universe while the sun and all the stars orbit it once each day, though he does not fully commit himself to that view) or one must abandon Christianity as false.

This is the biggest reason I find myself drawn back into the evolution debate again and again. It’s not so much that I have a fanatical devotion to evolution or to the aspects of modern astronomy and geology that suggest and ancient universe (though I do consider these explanations provided by science to be the best theories to explain the evidence we have at this time) but rather that many who have an antipathy towards these areas of science (as Fr. Harrison clearly does) feel it necessary to build up the threat to Christianity and make the argument: Either evolution is false or Christianity is false. Now you believe that Christianity is true, so surely you must reject evolution, right?

Given that the Church has said repeatedly that there is no inherent contradiction between the findings of modern science and our beliefs, it seems wrong to me (indeed, wicked) to risk destroying the faith of others by insisting that one must reject either evolution or the Church. I do not say that given the choice Fr. Harrison proposes I would reject Christianity — because I do not accept that this is a legitimate set of alternatives to propose. But I do consider the choice set up to be dangerous and unhelpful.

Darwin Catholic speaks of the same dilemma discussed by Philip Gosse. Gosse attempts to resolve it with his distinction between “prochronic” and “diachronic” events, but as we have seen, his attempt fails. Fr. Harrison attempts to resolve it by saying that science is simply wrong, but this is quite unreasonable. Darwin Catholic’s own response is to say that Scripture does not mean what it was thought to mean, and this is a reasonable position, for reasons given when we considered that response.

Gosse, speaking of the interpretation of the text, makes this statement, already quoted in the previous post:

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.

This is also one of Fr. Harrison’s main concerns, and the reason that he says that if Genesis is not given a literal and historical interpretation, we are giving it an “invisible genre.”

It is true that most Christians believed that Genesis was such a literal account. Philip Gosse and Fr. Harrison are right about this. Despite this, however, there was already evidence that Genesis was not such an account, evidence noted in my post on the genre of Genesis 2-3. In a similar way, there was evidence for the theory of evolution long before it was proposed.

People often make mistakes, and people often fail to notice evidence for things which they do not currently believe. There is nothing particularly strange about this. But there is a particular reason why Fr. Harrison is concerned about this, a reason why he is determined to say, “Those Christians were right all along.” The reason is that if your theory predicts something, and the prediction fails to come to pass, this is evidence against your theory. And in precisely this way, Christians “predicted” that the earth would turn out to be young, and their prediction did not come to pass, since the earth turned out to be ancient. This is evidence against Christianity.

Christians surely did make such a prediction, as is evident for example in this text from Lactantius:

Plato and many others of the philosophers, since they were ignorant of the origin of all things, and of that primal period at which the world was made, said that many thousands of ages had passed since this beautiful arrangement of the world was completed; and in this they perhaps followed the Chaldeans, who, as Cicero has related in his first book respecting divination, foolishly say that they possess comprised in their memorials four hundred and seventy thousand years; in which matter, because they thought that they could not be convicted, they believed that they were at liberty to speak falsely. But we, whom the Holy Scriptures instruct to the knowledge of the truth, know the beginning and the end of the world, respecting which we will now speak in the end of our work, since we have explained respecting the beginning in the second book. Therefore let the philosophers, who enumerate thousands of ages from the beginning of the world, know that the six thousandth year is not yet completed, and that when this number is completed the consummation must take place, and the condition of human affairs be remodelled for the better, the proof of which must first be related, that the matter itself may be plain. God completed the world and this admirable work of nature in the space of six days, as is contained in the secrets of Holy Scripture, and consecrated the seventh day, on which He had rested from His works. But this is the Sabbath-day, which in the language of the Hebrews received its name from the number, whence the seventh is the legitimate and complete number. For there are seven days, by the revolutions of which in order the circles of years are made up; and there are seven stars which do not set, and seven luminaries which are called planets, whose differing and unequal movements are believed to cause the varieties of circumstances and times.

Fr. Harrison does not wish to accept the fact that there is evidence against Christianity, and he supposes that he can avoid this consequence by saying that the prediction did come to pass, because the earth is in fact young (according to him). In reality, of course, even if he were right, this would not exclude the existence of evidence against Christianity. The fact that scientists came to the conclusion that the earth was ancient would remain evidence for that, even if ultimately the scientists turned out to be wrong. But Fr. Harrison would feel much better about that situation.

In reality, the earth is ancient, and this is indeed evidence that Christianity is false. But it is also evidence that for the claim that Christianity is true, but Genesis is not a historical account. And the latter claim, namely that Genesis is not a historical account, is also supported by independent evidence, as we have already seen.

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.

Not Very Serious Thinking

Wikipedia explains the method of dendrochronology, or tree ring dating:

Growth rings, also referred to as tree rings or annual rings, can be seen in a horizontal cross section cut through the trunk of a tree. Growth rings are the result of new growth in the vascular cambium, a layer of cells near the bark that is classified as a lateral meristem; this growth in diameter is known as secondary growth. Visible rings result from the change in growth speed through the seasons of the year; thus, critical for the title method, one ring generally marks the passage of one year in the life of the tree.

The rings are more visible in temperate zones, where the seasons differ more markedly. The inner portion of a growth ring is formed early in the growing season, when growth is comparatively rapid (hence the wood is less dense) and is known as “early wood” (or “spring wood”, or “late-spring wood”); the outer portion is the “late wood” (and has sometimes been termed “summer wood”, often being produced in the summer, though sometimes in the autumn) and is denser.

Many trees in temperate zones make one growth ring each year, with the newest adjacent to the bark. Hence, for these, for the entire period of a tree’s life, a year-by-year record or ring pattern is formed that reflects the age of the tree and the climatic conditions in which the tree grew. Adequate moisture and a long growing season result in a wide ring, while a drought year may result in a very narrow one.

Direct reading of tree ring chronologies is a learned science, for several reasons. First, contrary to the single ring per year paradigm, alternating poor and favorable conditions, such as mid-summer droughts, can result in several rings forming in a given year. In addition, particular tree species may present “missing rings”, and this influences the selection of trees for study of long time spans. For instance, missing rings are rare in oak and elm trees.
Critical to the science, trees from the same region tend to develop the same patterns of ring widths for a given period of historical study. These patterns can be compared and matched ring for ring with trees growing at the same time, in the same geographical zone (and therefore under similar climatic conditions). When these tree-ring patterns are carried back, from tree to tree in the same locale, in overlapping fashion, chronologies can be built up—both for entire geographical regions and sub-regions. Moreover, wood from ancient structures with known chronologies can be matched to the tree ring data (a technique called cross-dating), and the age of the wood can thereby be determined precisely. Cross-dating was originally done by visual inspection; computers have been harnessed to do the task, applying statistical techniques to assess the matching.

To eliminate individual variations in tree-ring growth, dendrochronologists take the smoothed average of the tree-ring widths of multiple tree samples to build up a ring history, a process termed replication. A tree-ring history whose beginning and end dates are not known is called a floating chronology. It can be anchored by cross-matching a section against another chronology (tree-ring history) whose dates are known. Fully anchored chronologies extending back more than 11,000 years exist for river oak trees from South Germany (from the Main and Rhine rivers) and for pine from Northern Ireland. The consistency of these two independent dendrochronological sequences has been supported through comparison of their radiocarbon and dendrochronological ages. Another fully anchored chronology that extends back 8500 years exists for the bristlecone pine in the Southwest US.

Given the way this method of dating works, something may be dated to an exact year some thousands of years in the past. While such periods are extremely short compared to the periods of time suggested by Hutton’s analysis of geology, they may be a problem for people who believe that the book of Genesis is a literal and historical account, if they also believe that the book is inspired by God. Thus John Woodmorappe says,

A literal understanding of the biblical chronologies places the Flood no earlier than about 2,500 B.C. and the creation no earlier than about 6,000 B.C. (Allowance for unlisted names in the biblical chronologies pushes back these dates, but not much). Yet the Bristlecone Pine (hereafter BCP) long chronology, comprised of hundreds of live and dead trees, is over 8,000 years long. The presence of fossiliferous sediment under the BCPs rules out any of them being pre-Flood. So, unless we choose to push the Flood back many thousands of years, effectively disregarding biblical chronologies, how can the conflicting chronologies be reconciled? I have studied this question for many years.

First he asks whether the tree ring dating contains some kind of obvious error, and concludes that it does not:

The ring-width measurements, expressed in thousandths of a millimeter, are archived online (Graybill 1970s). What if the tree-ring series were matched incorrectly? To test this possibility, I ran the BCP series constituents through COFECHA (Woodmorappe 2003b), which is a tree-ring statistical-matching software program from the University of Arizona Tree Ring lab. The software automatically removes low-frequency variance (long-term changes in tree-ring width caused by such things as tree idiosyncrasies, tree age, breaking-through the forest canopy, etc.) and matches only the high-frequency variance (ring-to-ring changes in width), after removing autocorrelation (the tendency for a given year’s growth to be partly influenced by the weather more than one year back in time). The software measures the statistical strength of every possible matching point in two series, except the first 40 and last 40 years, which may be artifactual owing to the short length of the overlapping segments.

All of the inferred correct matches showed t-values of at least 10 to 20, and this occurring not only two tree-ring series at a time, but reciprocally for at least 10 samples per year. All alternate matches gave much lower t-values, and none reciprocally supporting each other to a sample depth greater than 3. So, unless there is something funny about the data itself, for which there is no evidence, it appears that the crossmatches are sound, and so is the BCP chronology itself.

Then he discusses the possibility of multiple rings being produced in a year, concluding that it is at least very rare for this kind of tree:

The over 8,000 years of BCP chronology presuppose that no more than one ring ever formed per year. Every so often, claims are made about bristlecone pines having multiple rings per year (Matthews 2006). The “wriggles” encountered in the BCP/C-14 progression are consistent with such a premise (Molen 2008), but there is—at present—no evidence for adult BCPs being able to produce multiple rings per growing season. While doing field work in the BCP forest (Woodmorappe 2003a), and earlier, I had the privilege of meeting many BCP specialists, some of whom had been monitoring BCP growth for nearly fifty years. They were unanimous in encountering not one BCP that ever produced more than one ring per year.

Coming to the conclusion that he cannot explain the series in this way, he proceeds to make his own proposal:

It has long been known that individual tree rings can be changed, during growth, from the climate-signal-dictated size to a different size as a result of some disturbance. This disturbance (for example, insect attack, earthquake, release of gas, etc.) can make the ring either smaller or larger. If these disturbances occurred at sufficient frequency, and reappeared in sequence in other trees at later times, the actually-contemporaneous trees would crossmatch in an age-staggered manner, thus creating an artificial chronology.

For illustrative purposes, imagine the simplified situation of only three trees, (A), (B), and (C), which started growing at exactly the same time, and each of which lived exactly 500 years. If nothing happened, the tree-ring series would normally crossmatch according to climatic signal, with the crossmatch point starting with the first ring each of Tree (A), Tree (B), and Tree (C). All the constituents of the 3-tree chronology would overlap completely, creating a chronology that spans exactly 500 years.

Now suppose that an external disturbance causes rings 2, 6, 9, 14, etc., in Tree (A) to grow much bigger or smaller than they otherwise would. At about this time, rings 1, 7, 10, 13, etc. are perturbed in Tree (B). 300 years after the disturbance of the growth of the rings in Tree (A), the sequence of disturbances repeats in Tree (B), affecting rings 302, 306, 309, 314, etc. (The repetition doesn’t have to be exact, because the discrepancy can be covered by inferred missing rings, which are common in the BCP chronology). 400 years after the disturbances in the early rings of Tree (B), similar disturbances occur in Tree (C), affecting rings 401, 407, 410, 413, etc. Identical reasoning can be applied to many more trees, and over a much longer period of time.

The net result is the fact that Trees (A), (B), and (C) will no longer crossmatch across their 500-year common growth history. They will now only crossmatch at their ring-perturbed ends. The result is an illusory chronology that is 1200 years long. Crossmatching experiments that I had performed show that it is only necessary to disturb 2–3 rings per decade, sustained across at least a few decades, in order to override the climatic signal, and to cause the tree-ring series to artificially crossmatch at the ring-perturbed ends.

He concludes,

The 8,000-year-long BCP chronology appears to be correctly crossmatched, and there is no evidence that bristlecone pines can put on more than one ring per year. The best approach for collapsing this chronology, one that takes into account the evidence from C-14 dates, is one that factors the existence of migrating ring-disturbing events. Much more must be learned about this phenomenon before this hypothesis can be developed further.

Note that, as can be seen from his examples, the “disturbances” that generally cause such changes in tree ring growth are not something that one might expect to “reappear in sequence in other trees at later times.” They are basically accidental things that will occur occasionally by chance. He does not even offer a suggestion for a process that might cause such a repeated pattern, and especially one that “takes into account the evidence from C-14 dates.”

As Gregory Dawes put it, “there is something less than serious about the spirit” in which such arguments are offered, there is “something frivolous about a philosophy of this sort.”

More plainly, it is basically obvious that Woodmorappe is wrong. The bristle cone pine chronology corresponds to 8,000 years of real tree growth, just as it appears to do. It is not some strange mystery to explain.

Decisions of Faith

In the implicit discussion between Kurt Wise, Trent Horn, and Gregory Dawes, Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes disagree about the truth of Christianity and Catholicism, while they agree that a person should be willing to decide about the truth or falsehood of religious ideas based on arguments. Kurt Wise, in contrast, claims that there can be no argument or evidence whatsoever, no matter how strong, that could ever bring him to change his mind.

If Wise’s claim is taken in the very strong sense of the claim to possess absolute subjective certainty, namely the kind that implies that he literally cannot be wrong, this has been more or less adequately refuted in the original post on sola meThus for example Wise holds that Scripture is the Word of God in a strong sense, namely one that implies that God actually asserts the things asserted in Scripture. Many Christians do not hold this. Likewise, Wise holds that Scripture asserts that the earth is young, and again, many Christians do not hold this. So Wise has the responsibility of justifying his position, rather than asserting that he has the infallible knowledge that he alone is right and that other Christians are wrong.

The same thing would be true if the issue were his general commitment to Christianity. Here it is a bit more complex because the real question in this case is, “Is it good for me to belong to a Christian community?“, but one can give neither a positive nor a negative answer to this question without asserting various facts about the world, facts that will differ from one individual to another, but facts nonetheless. Once again Wise will have no special claim to possess an ability to discern these facts infallibly.

If Wise is merely claiming to possess objective certainty, perhaps on account of the possession of divine faith which cannot be in error, then he should be open to changing his mind based on arguments, as Horn and Dawes hold, in the same way that a person should be open to acknowledging mistakes in his mathematical arguments, should someone happen to point out such mistakes.

However, our earlier discussions suggest that the real issue is different, that it is not a question of any kind of certainty, whether subjective or objective. We have seen that belief in general is voluntary, and that it involves various motives. We have seen that this applies especially to beliefs remote from the senses, and to God and religion in particular. All of this suggests that something different is at stake in claims such Wise’s. Let’s look again at Wise’s concluding statement:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.

He seems to suggest having reasons for holding young earth creationism, namely reasons which would make it likely to be true. In particular, “that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.” But if God says something, this seems to mean it is true. So he appears to be claiming a reason to think that creationism is objectively true. On the other hand, “If all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist,” stands directly in contrast to this. In other words, here he seems to be saying that the kind of reasons that make a thing likely to be true or false do not matter to him.

The truth of the matter is the latter more than the former. In other words, someone who says about a religious issue, “No evidence could ever change my mind about this,” is not saying this because he possesses the kinds of certainty discussed above. Rather, he is suggesting that evidence and his motives for belief are detached from one another to such an extent that differences in evidence will never give him a sufficient motive to change his decision to believe.

We can see this in Wise’s description of his personal decision, found in the same short text from In Six Days.

Eighth grade found me extremely interested in all fields of science. For over a year, while others considered being firemen and astronauts, I was dreaming of getting a Ph.D. from Harvard University and teaching at a big university. I knew this to be an unattainable dream, for I knew it was a dream, but …well, it was still a dream. That year, the last in the series of nine years in our small country school, was terminated by the big science fair. The words struck fear in all, for not only was it important for our marks and necessary for our escape from the elementary sentence for crimes unknown, but it was also a sort of initiation to allow admittance into the big city high school the next year. The 1,200 students of the high school dwarfed the combined populations of three towns I lived closer to than that high school. Just the thought of such hoards of people scared us silly. In any case, the science fair was anticipated years in advance and I started work on mine nearly a year ahead of the fair itself.

I decided to do my science fair project on evolution. I poured myself into its study. I memorized the geologic column. My father and I constructed a set of wooden steps representing geologic time where the run of each step represented the relative length of each period. I bought models and collected fossils. I constructed clay representations of fossils I did not have and sketched out continental/ocean configurations for each period. I completed the colossal project before the day of the fair. Since that day was set aside for last minute corrections and setup, I had nothing to do. So, while the bustle of other students whirred about us, I admitted to my friend Carl (who had joined me in the project in lieu of his own) that I had a problem. When he asked what the problem was I told him that I could not reconcile what I had learned in the project with the claims of the Bible. When Carl asked for clarification, I took out a Bible and read Genesis 1 aloud to him.

At the end, and after I had explained that the millions of years of evolution did not seem to comport well with the six days of creation, Carl agreed that it did seem like a real problem. As I struggled with this, I hit upon what I thought was an ingenious (and original!) solution to the problem. I said to Carl, “What if the days were millions of years long?” After discussing this for some time, Carl seemed to be satisfied. I was not — at least not completely.

What nagged me was that even if the days were long periods of time, the order was still out of whack. After all, science said the sun came before the earth — or at least at the same time — and the Bible said that the earth came three days before the sun. Whereas science said that the sea creatures came before plants and the land creatures came before flying creatures, the Bible indicated that plants preceded sea creatures and flying creatures preceded land creatures. On the other hand, making the days millions of years long seemed to take away most of the conflict. I thus determined to shelve these problems in the back recesses of my mind.

It didn’t work. Over the next couple of years, the conflict of order nagged me. No matter how I tried, I could not keep the matter out of mind. Finally, one day in my sophomore year of high school, when I thought I could stand it no longer, I determined to resolve the issue. After lights were out, under my covers with flashlight in hand I took a newly purchased Bible and a pair of scissors and set to work. Beginning at Genesis 1:1, I determined to cut out every verse in the Bible which would have to be taken out to believe in evolution. Wanting this to be as fair as possible, and giving the benefit of the doubt to evolution, I determined to read all the verses on both sides of a page and cut out every other verse, being careful not to cut the margin of the page, but to poke the page in the midst of the verse and cut the verse out around that.

In this fashion, night after night, for weeks and months, I set about the task of systematically going through the entire Bible from cover to cover. Although the end of the matter seemed obvious pretty early on, I persevered. I continued for two reasons. First, I am obsessive compulsive. Second, I dreaded the impending end. As much as my life was wrapped up in nature at age eight and in science in eighth grade, it was even more wrapped up in science and nature at this point in my life. All that I loved to do was involved with some aspect of science. At the same time, evolution was part of that science and many times was taught as an indispensable part of science. That is exactly what I thought — that science couldn’t be without evolution. For me to reject evolution would be for me to reject all of science and to reject everything I loved and dreamed of doing.

The day came when I took the scissors to the very last verse — nearly the very last verse of the Bible. It was Revelation 22:19: “If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” It was with trembling hands that I cut out this verse, I can assure you! With the task complete, I was now forced to make the decision I had dreaded for so long.

With the cover of the Bible taken off, I attempted to physically lift the Bible from the bed between two fingers. Yet, try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture. Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible. However, at that moment I thought back to seven or so years before when a Bible was pushed to a position in front of me and I had come to know Jesus Christ. I had in those years come to know Him. I had become familiar with His love and His concern for me. He had become a real friend to me. He was the reason I was even alive both physically and spiritually. I could not reject Him. Yet, I had come to know Him through His Word. I could not reject that either. It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

This is not a description of discovering that creationism is objectively true and that evolution is objectively false. It is the description of a personal decision, which is framed in terms of being faithful to Christ and rejecting evolution, or accepting evolution and rejecting Christ. Wise chooses to be faithful to Christ. Since this was not a question of weighing evidence for anything in the first place, any evidence that comes up should never affect his motives for his decision. Thus he says that no evidence can ever change his decision.

I would argue that in this way too, Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes are correct, and that Kurt Wise is mistaken. The problem is that people have a hard time understanding their motives for believing things. Most people think without reflection that most of their beliefs are simply motivated by the truth and by the evidence for that truth. So if asked, “Would you change your most important and fundamental beliefs if you are confronted with conclusive evidence against them?”, most people will respond by saying that such evidence cannot and will not come up, since their beliefs are true, rather than saying that they would not change their beliefs in that situation. Kurt Wise, on the other hand, does not deny that the situation could come up, but says that he would not change his mind even in this situation.

The implication of Wise’s claim is that his motives for belief are entirely detached from evidence. This is actually true to a great extent, as can be seen from his description of his decision. However, it is not entirely true. Just as people are mistaken if they suppose that their beliefs are motivated by evidence alone, so Wise is mistaken to suppose that evidence is entirely irrelevant to his decision.

This can be seen most of all from the fact that Wise’s position requires that he make the three claims mentioned in yesterday’s post, namely that God always tells the truth, that Scripture is the Word of God in the sense that what is asserted in Scripture is asserted by God, and that Scripture asserts that the earth is young (or in the context of his decision, that evolution contradicts Scripture; he says that the conclusion that the earth is young was something additional.) If any of these three claims are mistaken, then Wise could decide to be faithful to Christ without rejecting evolution. So the framing of his decision depends on knowing that these three things are true. And precisely because these three claims together imply that evolution is false, evidence for evolution is also evidence that at least one of these three claims is mistaken. And note that in his description of the events that led up to his decision, Wise is in fact mistaken about the meaning of Genesis 1.

Since evidence for evolution is evidence that one of the three claims is mistaken, then if “all the evidence in the universe” were to indicate that evolution is true, all the evidence in the universe would also indicate that Wise has made a mistake in the way he framed his decision. Evidence remains relevant to his decision, therefore, because he may have been mistaken in this way, even if the decision in itself is not about weighing evidence for anything.

Someone could respond that Wise was wrong to frame his decision in this way, or at least to make it absolute in this particular way, but that he would be right to hold absolutely to the decision to be faithful to Christ, and to say that evidence is entirely irrelevant to this decision, as long as he does not bring in evolution, creation, Scripture, and so on.

The problem with this is that even if he frames his decision as “to be faithful or unfaithful to Christ,” the framing of this decision still requires that he assert various facts about the world, just as his actual decision did. For example, if Christ did not exist, as certain people believe, then one cannot be faithful to Christ as to a person, and again he would turn out to have been mistaken in the very way he framed his decision. So his decision requires that he assert that Christ existed, which is a claim about the world. Of course it is not very likely that Christ did not exist, but evidence is relevant to the issue, and this is only one of many possible ways that he could be mistaken. If Christ was not worthy of trust, and Wise knew this, perhaps he would make a different decision.

To put this in an entirely general way, even if your decision seems to involve only motives that seem unrelated to truth and to evidence, “this is a good decision,” is itself a claim about the world. Either this claim is true, or it is false, and evidence is relevant to it. If it is false, you should change your mind about that decision. Consequently you should always be open to evidence and arguments against the truth of your position, or even against the goodness of your decision, just as Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes assert.

There is still another way that Kurt Wise is mistaken. He is mistaken to think that evidence should be irrelevant to his decision. But he is also mistaken to think that evidence is in fact irrelevant to it. He says that he would not change his mind even if all the evidence in the universe stood against him, but this is not the case. He is a human being who possesses human nature, and he is changeable in the same way that other human beings are. It is clear from the above discussion that Wise would be better off if he were more open to reality, but this does not mean that reality does not affect him at all, or that things could not happen which would change his mind, as for example if he had a personal experience of God in which God explained to him that his understanding of Scripture was mistaken.