Saturday, 30 May 2015

Reader's Question: Christianity and the dinosaurs?

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Reader's Questions: "How can a Christian satisfactorily account for the period of natural history including the dinosaurs? To ignore this difficulty would seem dishonest and to take a cherry picking approach to reality of only including the bits of reality one would like for comfort. As a rational person (or at least someone who feels a strong need to try to be rationally consistent - flexible metaphysical assumptions aside) I have personally felt this is an Achilles heel to the traditional Genesis story which gets swept under the rug. Furthermore, but of secondary importance, I am very tired of secular a atheists ending religious debates about the existence of God or the integrity of traditional creation accounts with a "What about the dinosaurs?! Fossil record?! Etc. " Until now I disagree with them through faith and sidestep the issue as best I can but this feels dishonest and they seem to have an excellent point."

My Answer: All science is based on the metaphysical assumption of NOT using divine explanations. Scientific evolutionary theory's task was to find a non-divine but nonetheless still metaphysical explanation for the data, i.e. the 'appearances' of the world.

Life had been classified by Linnaeus before Darwin, what Darwin did was to suggest a non-divine and purposeless mechanism relating the cross-sectional forms of life (including fossils) with a linear explanation based on descent with modification.

Natural Selection is not science, it is not testable science, it cannot be disproven - it is a metaphysical system based on the assumption that the forms of life arose and adapted and diversified by non-divine mechanisms, with no purpose. Modern biology works within this set of metaphysical assumptions.

Therefore, the evidence of fossils, dinosaurs etc has - by its own definition - nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity: it neither proves nor disproves Christianity, because Christianity was ruled-out from the start.

The meaning of the Genesis story within Christianity is a different matter - I would say that the meaning is not very clear; indeed to me, the early parts of Genesis are among the most obscure parts of the Bible (THE most obscure part is Job). It is possible that a full understanding of Genesis may not be available to modern people, since we think in such a different way from our ancestors.

(Aside: My personal view is that some parts of the Bible are much more relevant, and therefore (by divine intention) more comprehensible, than others at different times and in different places. Consequently, some parts of the Bible are best (more-or-less) ignored by most people most of the time - not because they are 'uncomfortable' but because they are not very relevant or are simply incomprehensible (these parts of the Bible are meant for other times and places, past or future). Leviticus is the most obvious example. It seems clear that the Gospels are (by far) the most important parts of the Bible for our era - e.g. as seems to be confirmed by the relative success of conservative evangelicals and Jesus-(and Gospel)-focused Christianity in winning converts among the modern young - the Old Testament being, relatively, all-but ignored. I am not saying this near-exclusive Gospel focus is ideal - but that it has worked, it makes sense, and it is what most serious modern Christians actually do.)

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18 comments:

deconstructingleftism said...

Have you read the Michael Behe book? I haven't, but my father is a hard science PhD and likes it.

I'm pretty mystified by Genesis myself, but I think the law books are very important and relevant, in overall meaning if not in every particular.

Bruce Charlton said...

@DL - I read one of Behe's books about 15 years ago. But, as I said, Natural Selection is metaphysics, and not the kind of theory that can be disproven. Therefore I regard the Intelligent Design argument strategy as mistaken (as, indeed, is Rupert Sheldrake's empirical strategy - referencing another of today's posts).

David said...

Agreed but does this not still beg the question why did God decide to populate the earth with giant predatory reptiles that seem to have been irrelevant back story that set the scene on planet earth for VAST periods of time before humans appeared on the stage. It just seems arbitrary or at worse (when I deliberately put my non - Christian hat on) evidence that 99% of the species that have gone extinct were just a drawn - out warm up act before the show, only no - one was there to watch it...terribly boring for a human like God and his Son I should imagine? I say this semi - jokingly because as a Christian I assume there was a purpose for all of the scene - setting but for the life of me I can't imagine why all of that was the forerunner. I agree about metaphysical assumptions but assuming the divine does not seem to help in this very significant instance.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I personally don't regard this as an important matter. It simply is not a question which bothers me.

I don't see any reason why Christians should be expected to answer every question or quibble which anybody can dream up - there will always be more questions than answers, and indeed it is trivially easy to think up questions. There are people who delight in Christians wasting their time on such activities.

Some questions are extremely important, and absolutely require answers. But - for me - not this one!

Nathaniel said...

@David - Have you read C.S. Lewis' space trilogy? He also incorporates the idea of other amazing and incredible non-human animals that apparently have some relation to God, but clearly they're not the main focus or most important part of his story. He has the idea literally as you describe it, where there's much mystery and unknown animals existent before the new "Adam" and "Eve" in book 2.

ajb said...

What isn't metaphysics, on your definition?

For example, is the idea that the Earth is roughly spherical merely metaphysics? That there has been a geologic period of time?

If we're talking a 'literal' understanding of Genesis (and the creation part of Genesis seems obviously to not be intended to be understood 'literally', whatever exactly we mean by that), Natural Selection is only one part of what is problematic about contemporary science - you have to throw out large parts of astronomy, cosmology, geology, hydrology, archaeology, anthropology, parts of physics, and on and on.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - Most things aren't metaphysics. Science isn't metaphysics - physics isn't metaphysics.

ajb said...

How do you distinguish between metaphysics and non-metaphysics?

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - Word search 'metaphysics' on this blog, and see how the terms are used.

ajb said...

I have read a lot of what you have written on the subject on this blog (probably almost all of it). I still don't know how you distinguish it. If you have a specific blog or two you recommend, I will happily (re-)read it in an attempt better understand how what you are saying could make sense.

My *guess* is that your distinction in this case breaks down - that there is no simple distinction between 'metaphysics' as you understand it and 'non-metaphysics', where natural selection is just 'metaphysics' and most of science is 'non-metaphysics'.

This is because everything requires premises that are not testable - starting working assumptions. Those things are then tested against other things as we proceed in the world.

So, natural selection and random mutation leading to the production of species as we know it, is not particularly 'metaphysical', beyond pretty much any other theory. It *is* different from much of scientific theory in that it is particularly difficult to test.

For example, since all theories contain metaphysical postulates, you could talk about contemporary theories of how planets move as being merely metaphysical because they don't invoke God's coordinating actions. This could be extended to pretty much all of science.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - If it is any consolation - I didn't understand what metaphysics was until I was over fifty years old. There seems to be a block about this matter which is inculcated into the modern mind. It's one of those things which you either have 'got', or you haven't. Probably it can only be self-taught or taught by direct apprenticeship.

Thordaddy said...

I would reiterate what Dr. Charlton says concerning the dinosaurs not being an issue for Christians and simple add that the physicists themselves have already deemed at the most subatomic levels that contradiction simply not exist.

IF you see redundant phenomena everywhere, i.e., you "see" purposeless abound STARTING with dinosaurs... That is what you see! Reality can accommodate *you* as redundant phenomena are very much a reality. BUT, one's flaw is the inability to "see" even a single singularity. Even the physicist, as bold and nonsensical claim as it goes, gets to the very solution and observes "nothing." This is a "place" where contradiction cannot be. There are no singularities. Dinosaurs are THE OBSESSIONS of those that reject a reality with singularities and would confine "us" to a strict and linear timeline NOT GIVEN CREDENCE by the actual claims of the theoretical physicist. There is no baseline when one spontaneously emerges from "nothing."

David said...

@Nathaniel - no not read those particular C.S Lewis books but sounds intriguing and will look them up.

@whole group - a general testimony loosely related to dinosaurs (eventually):

Thinking back to when I was younger and an atheist/agnostic my favourite Sci-fi with a comedic existential slant was Douglas Adams 'The Hitch-hikers guide to the Galaxy.' I liked how he made fun of the absurdity of the basic human situation and the difficulties we must pass through to make sense of the bewildering complexity of the Universe and our transitory/fleeting appearance in it between two unknowns; the bookends of eternity, if you will.

Mormons claim we chose to be here and that we passed through a 'veil of forgetfulness' which by definition means we cannot know and only speculate in general terms about what came before the first book end. I have to say I like this explanation because it affirms my *personal agency* and it works for me. As for the second bookend we speculate about heaven, the nature of any post - mortal life, others *choose* to believe in anihilation after the last bookend. No - one can ever *prove* what happens next but we will all *certainly* find out in the fullness of time. So, in the end there is no way out of it, we will live until the final bookend and get our answer one way or another and all speculation can 'go-hang,' as we are all, to use a military analogy, going 'over the top' sooner or later anyway.

The basic situation therefore is that we are either chattering transitory voices in a dark vacuum of futility set into motion by what Terry Pratchett wonderfully satirises as a genesis of "In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded." OR we can *choose* to belief certain things about HOW we wish to *relate* to our personal, individual understandings of reality (limited as that inevitably will be; but ultimately we are all having a *relationship* with reality! The question is 'What do you want *your* relationship to be like?!') and our lives will reflect that relationship and choices in terms of our actions, priorities and *beliefs* about what the bookends are and what we perceive them to represent for us personaly and for humanity per se. So you can't opt out, you are compelled to pick something to believe in and act on it; including the options of nihilism, Buddhism, Existentialism, leftism; lots of 'ism's' really. But you cannot NOT believe in a 'schema' for reality! Even if you haven't thought about it deeply you are still living on the bookshelf. (Part 1)

David said...

So why not pick something deeply and resolutely personal, motivational, meaningful and something worth having on the bookshelf between the bookends of eternities?! Will chattering voices and relativism cut it for you in the long-run?!  Would you like to be Douglas Adams Whale free-falling to Earth, speculating wildly and flailing about, fretting about what it all means?! (I suspect the answer to that is no). If you are going 'over the top' anyway will you cower in the trenches until the whistle blows and then follow the pack reluctantly wherever they are going? Or will you realise that *you personally* can *choose* how to live and make a willed personal choice to act and use that *power of agency* to storm courageously and bravely towards the second bookend; taking what you value most with you: *love* of your sweetheart back home waiting for you, *love* for your family and ancestors, *love* of your brother who fights next to you, and for you, and for a shared commitment to a higher cause of defending what you value most and what you *love*. When we search for what we really personally value the most it is *love* or a yearning for its absence. Can there be any greater act than *love* for a human being?! *Love* motivates like nothing else in existence. It conquers all! It is the 'Geronimo superfuel' we need for the burning engines of our hearts and it doesn't need a critical analysis or theoretical model to underpin it's raw potency. It is glorious in its naked experiential immediacy! (Part 2)

David said...

I have enough information from my life (and most of us do when we really think about it - we can't know everything but we usually know enough of what we *need* to know) experience to know that love is the greatest thing going. I know through direct experience that Love has a fantastic transformative and expansive power way beyond what Oxytocin and a bunch of chemical reactions ever can explain. Think about it! Does pointing at some chemical markers and saying "look! There it is there!" really capture the essence of love and it's boundless attributes and lived, relational elements?!" of course not! Or any other model or scientific theory. We could start taking this apart empirically until we kill the love as a dynamic, alive, lived thing and go back to definitions of love, get mired down in relativism and deny the miraculousness of existence  again...chattering voices going on forever between the bookends of eternity...or...

David said...

If anyone else out there has felt it's power like I have you will know exactly what I am talking about and it will take an act of *faith* to *believe* that there is another soul out there on an internet blog, who you don't know and who you have never met, but who exists and has written this claim and has experienced this thing called *love*! Here I am, I exist and I commit acts of *love* everyday! Sometimes just by thinking about it or telling someone I *love* them. If you can believe in me with a small leap of *faith* (like believing the existence of the moon - evidence favours this fairly well) then we are forced to conclude *faith* is at the centre of being able to do almost anything as a human being (including walking across a room with *faith* that gravity won't let you down and that your loved one will still love you when you get to the other side of the room to hug them) so why not leap further and believe in the source of love?! Who put the bookshelf there anyway?! An act of love is a leap of faith for a man. A religion that places *love* at its centre is a giant leap for mankind. A belief that a personal God is the source of love in it's ultimate relational aspect is not leaping *faith* anymore, it's flying; and I can testify that the world looks beautiful from up here guys. So whilst I did start this post for the fun of the discussion, the dinosaurs missed out on joys of being blessed with the capacity of love as we know it, I have *faith* they existed once but as I have already outlined by building on the basic starting points of the human condition *faith* is not optional nor is *choice* and the best things to choose, in my opinion, is *love* acted out in my relationship with my reality. Fortunately, it turns out there already a whole world-view based around these ideas and values that works, and it isn't an 'ism' like I used to think; it is a faith system called Christianity and very much like other blogger's out there I believe exist in faith they are not robots and contribute to this forum as human souls, I believe their is a heavenly father who loves us all very much and sent his son Jesus Christ to  teach us about *love* and I personally *love* him back for this so very much indeed it is hard to overstate. I would thoroughly recommend leaping, perhaps falling at first but then getting up and trying again until you can leave leaps of faith behind forever and fly into the arms of his boundless love. Amen.

Ben Pratt said...

@BC I very much enjoyed Mack Stirling's LDS reading of Job, particularly as he ties it to motifs from temple rites:

http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/job-an-lds-reading/

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ben - Thanks for the reference, but I have 'given up' on trying to understand Job for the time being!

Also, although a believer (with a testimony of my belief) I am (currently) not a baptised Mormon; and I know very little of what happens in the temple; and have made no attempt to find-out (indeed, I avoid such knowledge - just in case it happens that at some point I may become a participant, then I would want it to be something of a surprise).