Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Wild West

A couple of years ago, Jonathan Sarfati wrote a provocative critique of Omphalism and the apparent age theory:

From my perspective, his position is somewhat ironic because I find myself on both sides of Sarfati. On the one hand, he's hostile to old-earth creationism while I'm sympathetic to old-earth creationism. On the other hand, he's hostile to Omphalism while I'm sympathetic to Omphalism. So I'm both to his right and to his left (so to speak) on the alternatives. 

1. Before commenting directly on his critique of Omphalism and apparent age theory, I'd like to take a step back. There's a certain tension in Sarfati's epistemology. For instance:

It also documents how evangelicals who disagree with 24-hour creation days acknowledge that the text teaches this, but disagree primarily because they are intimidated by so-called ‘science,’ which they believe teaches differently. Science should not be dismissed, but it must be kept in its proper ministerial role as a servant to the Bible, and never placed in a magisterial role over and above the Bible.

The problem with this statement is that Sarfati has devoted his entire professional life to defending his interpretation of Scripture on scientific grounds. So he seems to think it's necessary to harmonize his interpretation of the creation account and the flood account with science. In that respect, his position isn't fundamentally different from old-earth creationists like Gleason Archer and Hugh Ross or theistic evolutionists like Alister McGrath, Bruce Waltke, and Dennis Venema. 

No doubt he'd bristle at the comparison. He'd probably say the difference is that he takes Scripture as his starting-point whereas they take science as their starting-point. I doubt some of them would agree with that characterization, but even if it were correct, the fact remains that both he and they are using science as a benchmark. It's unclear why he'd devote his life to science and the scientific defense of Scripture unless he believes the young-earth interpretation must take science seriously, unless he believes the young-earth interpretation requires scientific legitimation. If he doesn't think that, why spend so much time reconciling the "true" interpretation of the Bible with the "true" interpretation of the scientific evidence?  

In that regard, his position may differ from a young-earth creationist like John Byl. Both Byl and Sarfati are scientists, but Byl is an instrumentalist, so he doesn't think Scripture, or exegesis, requires scientific warrant. 

2. Now let's move on to the next article:

In contrast, there is an errant concept of ‘creation with apparent age’. One obvious flaw is that age has no appearance! Rather, we infer an age from appearance, after making certain assumptions about processes changing over time, and about the starting conditions.

I agree with that. I've been saying the same thing for years. 

3. Moving along:

One striking feature of the record of God’s creative acts in Genesis 1 is that the created things are fully ready to perform their appointed tasks. On Day 3, God created the plants mature, already bearing seeds. Later on, on Days 5 and 6, He created animals as adults ready to multiply, and finally Adam and Eve, likewise as adults, able to speak and multiply. For inanimate objects, on Day 4, God created the sun and stars already shining. All this is creation with functional maturity.

Functional mature creation is a legitimate distinction. The question, though, is whether functionality is the only justification. 

Most modern readers actually misunderstood what Gosse proposed. Gosse’s failure was unfortunately to propose the unbiblical idea that time moved in a circle, which God interrupted when He created. Gosse called this time of real history since creation, ‘diachronic’; while ‘before’ creation, the cycling time was unreal, ‘virtual’ time he called ‘prochronic’. Thus Adam and Eve would have been created with a navel to reflect a prochronic history of growing from a mother’s womb, even though there was no real ‘diachronic’ history of such a thing. Indeed, no evidence in the present could differentiate features produced in diachronic or prochronic time:

… we cannot avoid the conclusion that each organism was from the first marked with the records of a previous being. But since creation and previous history are inconsistent with each other; as the very idea of the creation of an organism excludes the idea of pre-existence of that organism, or any part of it; it follows, that such records are false, so far as they testify to time; that the developments and processes thus recorded have been produced without time, or are what I call ‘prochronic’.
However, he won not a single convert to his views at the time, precisely because Christians thought that it would make God a deceiver. As shown, this was not Gosse’s intention, but this is what everyone inferred. Also, scientists didn’t like it because it was ad hoc, and making no practical difference was also thus untestable. 
However, although Gosse was trying to defend the Bible, the Bible teaches a real linear history. Indeed, this was one feature that led to the blossoming of modern science in Christianized Europe.13 Conversely, a cyclical view of history goes back to the pagan Greek philosophers and is still followed by eastern religions. Gosse’s view also contradicts 2 Peter 3:3–6.

4. I don't wish to get bogged down in exegeting Gosse, but I'd like to make a preliminary point in his defense:

As I understand him, Gosse doesn't think time is moving in circles. Rather, he thinks physical processes are cyclical. In that respect, creation ex nihilo must commence at some point in what would be an ongoing cycle. It must break into the circle. 

5. Now to the main point. Like other critics of Omphalism or mature creation, Sarfati charges it with "deception". One problem is that, in my experience, critics never bother to define the concept of deception. They seem to think that's self-evident. I think it's necessary to distinguish between two kinds of "deception":

i) Intentional deception

ii) Incidental deception

I don't think (ii) is truly deceptive, but for convenience, I'll use the same term for both ideas. 

Years ago, in the house where I was then living, I once heard something banging on the side of the house. I went into the living room and saw a bird repeatedly flying into the window. The bird didn't know the difference between a window and thin air. Because it could see through the window to open space behind the window, it kept flying into the window. It was too dumb to know what a window is, and too dumb to learn from its mistake. 

Now, I didn't buy a house with windows to confuse birds. And that eventuality hadn't occurred to me when I bought the house.

But suppose I built my own house. Suppose I installed windows in the foreknowledge that some birds will be confused by windows. Am I guilty of deceiving birds? No, because I didn't install windows for that purpose, even though it has that effect. I install windows because I like a house with natural daylight, and I like to see outside. The fact that some birds are confused by windows is just a side-effect of why I install windows. I'm sorry that some birds find that disorienting, but I'm not going to live in a windowless house just to spare the birds. 

It's a dangerous principle for Sarfati to suggest that God is a deceiver if humans are confused by some features of the natural world. After all, it's easy for people without scientific knowledge to misinterpret some natural phenomena. 

6. Let's revisit the issue of functionality. Because Sarfati is a scientist, it's natural for him to have a utilitarian bias regarding explanations. Scientists like to find out how things work. But is functionality the only justification for why God made the world the way he did?

That depends in part on how we view the creative process. Not only is God creative, but God has endowed humans with creativity. We create for a variety of reasons. Some of our creations are utilitarian, but some of our creations are recreational. Take fiction:

7. Suppose a director produces a TV drama about the Wild West. Historical fiction. There are several timeframes in play:

i) The plot could take place anywhere between the 1830s and the 1890s, give or take. So that's the timeframe of the story or the plot. Everything happens within that timeline. 

Let's say the pilot episode is set in Deadwood, on January 1, 1870. Within the world of the fictional story, that's when time begins. That's when things start to happen. Nothing really happened before then. The very first scene takes place on January 1, 1870. Time begins when the story begins. That's the first moment of creation. Unless there are flashbacks, no character can go back in time to a date before the earliest plotted event. 

ii) However, the story could just as well begin at an earlier point. Sometime in the 1860s or 1850s or 1840s or 1830s. So when it begins is somewhat arbitrary. There's a distinction between the actual timeline of the historical plot, and the ideal timeline, of which the plot is just a segment. 

iii) Then there's the timeframe of the screenwriter. Say he wrote the script in 2010. The screenwriter exists outside the timeframe of the plot. There's no correlation between his timeframe and the timeframe of the plot.

iv) Then there's when the director begins to shoot the script. Say that starts in 2017. Once again, there's no correlation between the timeframe of the plot, which is set in the 1870s, and the timeframe for making the series. 

(i) is analogous to world history. (ii) is analogous to the plot as it subsists in the timeless mind of God, while (iii) is analogous to God instantiating his idea in real space and real time. 

v) The Western will have a stage set of a frontier town. We've seen variations on the stock layout in countless movies and TV dramas, viz. saloon, jail, livery stable, bank, barber shop, general store, hotel, telegraph office, train station–along with Indians, horses, buggies, cattle, cowboys, covered wagons, ladies in bonnets.

This exists, not for functionality, but authenticity or verisimilitude. Everything needs to belong to the right historical period. Nothing can be later than the date of any particular episode. Likewise, you can't mix and match different times and places. If the series is set in the black hills of South Dakota, c. 1870, the director can't cut to scenes from the Middle Ages or shots of Tuscany. 

vi) Suppose the pilot episode shows a character reading a newspaper. Suppose the camera shows the viewer what the character is reading. On the one hand, the paper can't have any stories later than January 1, 1870. On the other hand, the paper will have stories from December 31, 1869 or earlier. The paper will report local stories from a yesterday, and national stories from last week. 

Yet those are stories about a past that, in a sense, never happened in the timeframe of the drama. They predate the plot. 

By the same token, suppose one of the characters is a preacher. Suppose the camera takes you into his study. You see him pull a King James Bible off the shelf. That was originally published in 1611. Yet that falls outside the timeframe of the plot.

But for the plot to be historically accurate, it's necessary for the plot to have that background material, because, in a cause/effect universe, the present is the result of the past. Because the plot is part of a historical continuum, it must grow out of the past, as if that past is real, whether or not that actually happened. Historical authenticity requires historical continuity. 

8. Suppose God made a world the way we make a TV series about the Wild West. Would that be deceptive? Here I'd evoke my distinction between intentional and incidental deception (see #5). I don't think there's anything unethical about a universe in which the first inhabitants find themselves in a present-day world with an ideal past, just like characters in a TV series. 

Suppose these are artificially intelligent virtual characters in a computer simulation. The "present" will be whenever the plot kicks off. That's what makes it the present, in relation to past and future. If the plot began a century earlier, that would be the present–in relation to its past. You can push it backwards and forwards. The past defines the present, and vice versa. The first moment is the present. To begin at all, it must begin at some point. Yet that's inherently relative.

I'm not saying that's how God did it. But if we take God seriously, we need to take that possibility seriously. I don't think there's a particular presumption for or against it. 

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