Friday, January 24, 2014

On the Appearance of Age; or Putting the "omph" in omphalos

I just finished reading Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson, whose short story "Utriusque Cosmi" made me a lifelong fan no matter what else he writes. The premise of Darwinia is that in 1912 Europe essentially disappears and is replaced by an alternate Europe with roughly the same coastlines, rivers, mountains, etc., but no sign of human civilization, and with plants and animals from a very different evolutionary history than our own. Wilson uses this to ask questions about one of the primary arguments young-earth advocates use in order to avoid the scientific evidence that the earth and universe are billions of years old: the claim that God created things with a false appearance of age. Wilson's main character speculates about this issue:

Certainly Europe had been remade in 1912; just as certainly, these very trees had appeared there in a night, eight years younger than he found them now. But they did not seem new-made. They generated seed (spores, more precisely, or germinae in the new taxonomy), which implied heritage, history, descent, perhaps even evolution. Cut one of these trees across the bole and you would find annular growth rings numbering far more than eight. The annular rings might be large or small, depending on seasonal temperatures and sunlight ... depending on seasons that had happened before these plants appeared on Earth.

Similarly, young earth creationists claim that God created trees with annual rings, polar ice sheets with annual layers, and coral atolls with daily band deposits for days, years, and millennia that never happened. One prominent way they do this is to suggest that when God created the stars, he also created beams of light in transit between those stars and the earth (and presumably everywhere else in the universe). Otherwise, light from stars that are more than a few thousand years away from us wouldn't have reached us yet, and so couldn't be observed.

The problem here is very much the same as with tree rings that indicate weather conditions from years that, ex hypothesi, never happened. As I wrote here, when we observe light from distant objects, we don't just observe objects, we observe events. For example, astronomers regularly observe supernovae in other galaxies, millions of light years away. Now say God created the beams of light from those galaxies in transit a few thousand years ago. In that case, the light that left those galaxies immediately upon their creation would still have a long way to go before it reaches us; what we observe is just the beam God created between these galaxies and us. So when did these supernovae take place? Are they taking place now, that is, when they are observed by us? But then in a few million years, we'll see them again when the light they produce reaches us. It seems that since the light showing a supernova taking place was created in transit, these supernovae never happened.

Now this scenario is extremely contrived or ad hoc. But that's not the problem I have with it: the problem I have is that it ascribes deception to God. God is painting scenes on the sky that never happened, he is manipulating the universe to make it appear differently than what it actually is. But the God of the Bible cannot lie. It's not merely that he does not (in that he's never had occasion to) or will not (in that he chooses not to) but he cannot. It is contrary to his nature.

In response, I've heard young earth advocates challenge this, by suggesting that this puts God in a box. God can create any way he wants to: why should we assume that it's contrary to his inscrutable will to create, say, a car that looks rusted and dilapidated? Or take a Scriptural example: God had the Hebrews wander in a seemingly random manner in order to trick Pharaoh into thinking that they were confused and could be easily defeated (Exodus 14:1-4). So God can manipulate for purposes that will often be beyond our ken.

There's two answers to this. First, it seems to me that creating something that manifestly displays properties it doesn't really have would still qualify as deception (and thus as lying). By "manifestly" I do not mean "superficial", I mean something that is not ad hoc or contrived. If you built a car but designed it to look like an old rustbucket when it actually is not, would you be trying to deceive people? Whatever reason Pharaoh had for thinking that the path the Hebrews were wandering in was random, he had a much stronger reason for thinking that God was guiding them: he had just had ten plagues visited on his nation which were explicitly revealed to be a punishment from God for his failure to let the Hebrews go. Once he let them go, they traveled in such a way to look as if they were hemmed in by the desert, but Pharaoh could not have thought that meant they could be recaptured without ignoring the much more obvious, dramatic, and explicit events that had just taken place.

Perhaps I'm wrong about this though. Perhaps creating a car that looks old when it is not would not automatically count as a lie. But here's my second point: it would count as a lie if God told us the car was a reliable and trustworthy revelation from him. And this is exactly what God says of the natural world. He tells us that nature is true revelation (which is redundant) from God, which is clear and understandable to all people in all times and places -- including times and places that did not have access to the Bible or any other form of special revelation. God never told Pharaoh that he would reveal himself through the route the Hebrews would travel after their departure from Egypt, but he did tell him to let his people go. If God created a new car that looked rusted and dilapidated and then told us that this car could be trusted to reveal the truth, he would be lying, because it wouldn't reveal the truth. And God can't lie.

In response to this, young earth proponents will often give Scriptural examples of God creating things with a false appearance of age, and then suggest that this could be true of the universe as a whole (which, incidentally, commits the fallacy of composition). Here are the three examples I've encountered:

The creation of Adam and Eve. Many argue that when God created Adam and Eve, he didn't create them as zygotes which then slowly grew to infancy, childhood, and eventually adulthood -- he created them as adults. Since they were created "full grown" they bore the appearance of an age that they didn't actually have.

Now I will not argue here about how literally we are supposed to take the story in Genesis 2, I'll grant that it's literal for the sake of argument. Nor will I enter into an extensive analysis as to whether the biblical text really commits us to the claim that God created Adam and Eve as adults. I'll grant this too. Even with this, I think it is still enormously problematic to suggest that God created Adam and Eve with a false appearance of Age.

This can be illustrated by asking whether Adam's and Eve's cells and organs had physical indicators that they had been alive for twenty (or so) years. For example, according to this scenario God presumably created Adam and Eve with adult-sized hearts. But it doesn't follow from this that these hearts bore the wear and tear of having been beating for twenty years -- he created them brand new, not with a false appearance of age. Let me reiterate that: they would have appeared adult-sized AND brand new. The claim that being created as adults means being created with an appearance of age presupposes that size and age are essentially the same thing. This is obviously false.

Second, if the fact that they were created as adults indicated a false appearance of age, then we have opened a door we definitely do not want to go through. If Adam's and Eve's bodies bore a false appearance of age, we have no grounds for denying that their minds may have as well. In other words, God may have created Adam and Eve with false memories of childhoods which never happened. And thus, there is nothing to prevent us from maintaining the same thing of our own memories. God, in other words, would be implanting false memories into our minds. I've never seen anyone suggest anything like this, and it seems so absurd, and so blatantly contrary to God's truthful character, that I doubt any Christian would seriously propose it. But it's unavoidable that this would be a possibility if we try to argue that God's creation of Adam and Eve as adults implies that he created them with a false appearance of age.

Finally, the bodies of Adam and Eve are not here for us to examine to see if they really do bear a false appearance of age. But the universe is here for us to examine. We should always try to understand the unclear in light of the clear, not the other way around. We can't employ what is, at best, a highly speculative interpretation of Scripture in order to deny the reality of the world around us.

Jesus changing water into wine. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus changed water in several jars into wine (John 2:1-11). Wine is by its very nature an aged substance. It takes time to ferment. When Jesus made wine instantaneously out of water he either radically sped up the fermentation process, or he created the wine with the appearance of having experienced the fermentation process when it had not. In either case, the wine would have borne a false appearance of age.

However, it is not evident that the molecular structure of wine by itself indicates a particular age or appearance of age. The fact that alcohol is naturally produced by fermentation does not imply that if God supernaturally changes H2O molecules into alcohol molecules, he makes them with the appearance of having been produced by fermentation. Just as the previous argument equates size with age, so this argument equates molecular structure with age, which again is obviously false.

I think some people who argue that changing the water to wine indicates an appearance of age are thinking of a wonderful passage by C.S. Lewis  in his book Miracles about Jesus' miracles of fertility. Lewis points out that the water to wine and the multiplication of bread and fish (Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-13) are doing something in a different way that God usually does through nature. Bread is multiplied in that a single seed grows into a full plant; fish are multiplied by procreation; and water is changed to wine through the growth of grapes and fermentation. "Thus, in a certain sense, He constantly turns water into wine".

Of course, it all turns on the phrase, "in a certain sense". Water, after all, doesn't ferment. The point of these miracles, Lewis argues, is that it shows that God is the God of fertility, the God of the vine, "He is the reality behind the false god Bacchus". God usually accomplishes these things through the universe he made, but he can also do it directly, "short circuit[ing] the process". To suggest that in these acts God is creating something with a false appearance of age is to completely miss the point. The miracle of changing water to wine was a miracle of transformation, not one of aging: God supernaturally changed the molecular structure of the water in the cisterns into the molecular structure of wine. In other words, God created all the elements of wine other than water and then placed them in the water. This doesn't mean that God "sped up" the natural process of fermentation any more than when someone mixes water with dehydrated wine (yes there is such a thing). Moreover, as with the bodies of Adam and Eve, the wine Jesus made from water is not present for us to examine. We simply cannot conclude, therefore, that it bore a false appearance of age.

Some may think that if we deny the possibility of God creating with a false appearance of age, we are claiming that he can't speed up natural processes. But I don't claim this. God can speed up (or slow down, or change in any way he wants) the processes of nature at his discretion. My claim is merely that, if he does, the objects acted upon would bear witness to his divine intervention. Or perhaps these critics are thinking that any proposed first state can be given a naturalistic history. Thus, it is impossible for God to not create without some appearance of age. This seems to assume that God's miracles could actually occur by natural processes given enough time, just as wine, bread, and fish can be produced by natural processes. Then, when God performs a miracle, he speeds up these natural processes. I simply disagree: while some miracles may be something that could occur naturally (perhaps the miracle then being in their timing; the parting of the Sea of Reeds might be an example), this is not the case for all of them. There are some miracles that could never occur naturally without divine intervention, so they wouldn't represent a false appearance of age. Water in a jar will never turn into wine by itself no matter how much time you gave it. Natural processes will not bring a dead man back to life with a glorified body if you wait long enough.

The budding of Aaron's staff. In Numbers 17, we are told that the Israelites were jealous of the special position God had given Moses and Aaron, so God had Moses take the staffs from the leaders of each of the twelve tribes and place them in the tent of meeting. The following morning, Aaron's staff had sprouted and budded, producing blossoms and ripe almonds. However, the miracle here was not that God "sped up" a natural process, but that he brought a dead piece of wood back to life. All of the reasons why the bodies of Adam and Eve and Jesus' transformation of the water into wine don't imply a false appearance of age also apply here. And just like the other two examples, we don't have Aaron's staff to examine to see if it really does exhibit a false age. How do we know that, upon closer examination, the bodies of Adam and Eve, the wine made from water, and Aaron's staff wouldn't give evidence that they had been supernaturally altered? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to conclude that God wouldn't cover up or conceal such remarkable examples of his power by making them appear normal when they weren't?

None of the examples above constitute examples of God creating things with a false appearance of age, and hence we have no grounds for asserting that he may have done so with the universe as a whole. We know that creation can be trusted to reveal the truth about itself, since God has gone to such lengths to tell us that it is a revelation by which he makes himself known to humanity. If this revelation weren't trustworthy, it's inexplicable why God would tell us that it is, unless God himself is a deceiver. That is not an option for the Bible-believing Christian.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

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