Over at Raw Story, feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte has written an interesting post, New Darwin Documentary Shows Creationists Aren’t Dumb. They’re Fearful, about a new HBO documentary, Questioning Darwin, which features interviews with creationists. Marcotte comments:
I agree with the New York Times reviewer that the creationists are presented non-judgementally, but as these clips amassed by Gawker make clear, the creationists do all the work for you anyway. There’s a pastor explaining he would have to accept it if the Bible said “2+2=5″ and people talking, over and over again, about the strategies they have to employ to shut down their minds in the event that they’re presented with an opportunity to think more broadly. The major emotion that comes off them in waves is that of fear: Fear of asking questions, fear of the “world” (which is always talked about negatively), fear of difference, fear that thinking might lead them into dark places, fear that they really aren’t special that manifests in making up a God who loves you so you never have to go a moment without that feeling, fear that they will fall into the abyss without blind obedience to authority, and, of course, fear of death…
That the conflict here is about curiosity vs. incuriosity is incredibly important, because I think a lot of rationalists tend to fall into thinking creationists are just dumbasses. What I really liked about the documentary was that it didn’t hesitate to show how creationists can be articulate and actually quite persuasive, if you accept their premises. Indeed, a lot of them talked at length about how their belief in a loving god who specifically created the universe for them is fundamentally incompatible with evolutionary theory (and other scientific theories based in astronomy, physics, and geology that demonstrate that the universe and our planet are very, very old — Ken Ham at one point tries to argue down the idea that light from stars is millions of years old when it gets to us), and you know what? I found that argument persuasive. Certainly more persuasive than the typical attempt to reconcile the obvious fact that evolution is true with the desire to believe in a loving god, which is usually some variation of, “Well, God created the universe through evolution.”… If you’ve ever been to a museum where they put a piece of paper on top of a rock formation to show how insignificant we are in terms of time — or if you’ve ever pondered how tiny our planet is in the great expanse of space — then this is beyond idiotic. It’s like taking multiple generations of people tending an oven to make a cupcake.
The problem creationists have is similar to the problem that troubled Darwin, in other words: On one hand, you have the evidence. On the other hand, you have this need to believe that a god created the universe just for us. These two things do not work together. I didn’t feel the creationists were stupid. If anything, they were unable to just compartmentalize in the same way that Darwin was unable to compartmentalize, which strikes me as a sign of intelligence. What they were, instead, were people who looked at all the conflicts between what they want to believe and what the evidence says is true, and just chose to go with the former and put all their mental faculties towards defending that position.
I’d like to make a few brief comments before throwing the discussion open to readers.
1. Having watched the clips put together by Gawker, I didn’t get the sense that creationists were fearful people. Rather, they struck me as people who had been “mugged by reality.” I also got a strong impression of people who realized that they would be unable to function as moral beings if they accepted evolutionary materialism, which denies free will and says that we’re really “meat machines.” To be sure, you can be a materialist and still try to make the world a “better” place, but only if you define “better” in terms of results (e.g. a high literacy rate or a low infant mortality rate) rather than in terms of what the Dalai Lama, in his Ethics for the Third Millennium, refers to as attitudes of heart and mind – which, he argues, is what morality is really all about. (Although the Dalai Lama is not a theist in the conventional sense of the word, he rejects materialism – see also here – as all Buddhists do.)
2. Young earth creationist grounds for rejecting an old Earth and theistic evolution need to be openly addressed, as the arguments put forward by the creationists in the clip have considerable force.
The question, “Why would an omnipotent Intelligent Designer take billions of years to make a universe, when He could do the job instantly?” is a perfectly reasonable one, and as Amanda Marcotte points out, the reply that He did it that way because He wanted to let Nature unfold is lame and unconvincing. I attempted to address this question back in 2011, in my post, “The universe is too big, too old and too cruel”: three silly objections to cosmological fine-tuning (Part Two). While the age of the universe is not a good objection to fine-tuning as such, it does pose a genuine puzzle if we suppose the Designer to be omnipotent. The answer I would propose is that the age of the universe is itself fine-tuned. That is, if the universe had been just a little older or younger, it would have been uninhabitable. This is because the age of the universe is intimately connected with its size, and the size of the universe is something we know to be fine-tuned. I’d like to quote from my 2011 post:
The main reason why the universe is as big as it currently is that in the first place, the universe had to contain sufficient matter to form galaxies and stars, without which life would not have appeared; and in the second place, the density of matter in the cosmos is incredibly fine-tuned, due to the fine-tuning of gravity. To appreciate this point, let’s go back to the earliest time in the history of the cosmos that we can meaningfully talk about: the Planck time, when the universe was 10^-43 seconds old. If the density of matter at the Planck time had differed from the critical density by as little as one part in 10^60, the universe would have either exploded so rapidly that galaxies wouldn’t have formed, or collapsed so quickly that life would never have appeared. In practical terms: if our universe, which contains 10^80 protons and neutrons, had even one more grain of sand in it – or one grain less – we wouldn’t be here….
Dr. Robert Sheldon, in a personal email communication, suggests [one] reason why the universe needs to be very old. According to Einstein, space and time are interchangeable. So by symmetry, a universe which is large enough to contain 100 billion galaxies (each having about 100 billion stars), in addition to lots of quasars, must have also had a long history.
In short, if you want a massive universe, with lots of galaxies and stars, then it has to be large, and if it’s large, then it has to be old.…
Atheists might object that a Cosmic Designer could make a universe which was small and everywhere life-friendly with a different set of laws. If they want to argue that way, that’s fine, but as I argued in my previous post, the onus is on atheists to show us exactly how these hypothetical laws would differ from those in our universe, and how these laws would produce a life-friendly universe.
In my last post on the fine-tuning argument, I argued that the argument makes most sense if we assume that the Intelligent Designer of the cosmos wanted to not only make a universe that is hospitable to intelligent beings like ourselves, but also to send a clear signal of His existence to these intelligent beings. A universe with an old but finely tuned age (as well as size) would constitute just such a signal. Here, then, we have a non-trivial reason for the vast age of the cosmos.
A young earth creationist might still argue that a miraculously created universe that was only 6,000 years old would constitute an even clearer sign of the Designer’s existence than a finely tuned old cosmos. My answer is that it would indeed, if we had some independent way of knowing that the universe was indeed young. (To argue for this fact on the authority of Scripture would of course be question-begging, if one were trying to convince an atheist of God’s existence, as the atheist would not accept Scripture as an “independent way of knowing.”)
As I see it, then, young earth creationists, in order to make their position epistemically reasonable to skeptics, would need to successfully undermine their confidence in Big Bang cosmology, and argue that any “old-age” model for the origin and development of the universe will inevitably give rise to insoluble paradoxes in the field of physics and/or cosmology. If they can do that, then: (a) by implication, the fine-tuning arguments I appealed to above would also be discredited; and (b) the geological arguments for an old Earth would also have to be set aside, as strong arguments for a young Earth that were based on physics would automatically take precedence over arguments for an old Earth that were based on geology. While I think it’s extremely unlikely that successful arguments of the sort described above can be mounted, I would view the attempt to construct such arguments as a legitimate scientific endeavor for YEC physicists.
3. That leaves us with the other standard objection to an old Earth: that a God Who would make things over billions of years, in a way that kills untold numbers of innocent creatures, is a heartless monster. In response, I’d like to reproduce an excerpt from a recent post of mine, in reply to the atheist blogger Jeffery Jay Lowder:
Even if it were true that God could have designed the laws of nature so that the predation of sentient animals never took place, they would still need to die somehow – e.g. from hunger, thirst, cold or disease. A swift death as the victim of a predator might be a more merciful end.
But couldn’t God design an animal’s pain regulation such that it passed out automatically when the pain it was suffering exceeded a certain threshold, thereby preventing it from ever experiencing excruciating pain? No. What we need to bear in mind is that an animal’s pain regulation system is regulated by psycho-physical laws. Now suppose that the animal’s pain regulation system were governed by laws like this, guaranteeing that nothing could ever cause it to suffer excruciating pain: “When (animal’s flesh is experiencing second- or third-degree burns) OR (animal’s body is being devoured by a predator) OR (animal’s body is being struck by lightning) OR (animal’s body is falling freely through the air at a speed in excess of 30 meters per second), then: pass out.” And now we can see what’s wrong with this requirement. There are innumerable situations in everyday life which might cause an animal to suffer excruciating pain, and no finite set of program instructions could hope to cover all these cases. (For instance, what about death by electrocution, death by drowning, or dying of thirst in the desert?) An infallible pain regulation system would only work in a Laplacian, deterministic world, where God controlled all the outcomes. But that’s not the world we live in. No moral agents possessing libertarian freedom (such as ourselves) could live in a world like that.
I would therefore argue that not even God could design a natural pain regulation system, governed by psycho-physical laws, that worked infallibly in an indefinite variety of situations. Given such a variety of situations, the only way in which God could prevent animals from suffering excruciating pain in all possible circumstances would be to supernaturally intervene in the rare cases not covered by His natural pain regulation program for animals. What the atheist needs to show is that God is morally bound to intervene in this fashion. The idea (put forward in all seriousness by some atheists) that God, if He existed, would be morally obliged to “step in”every time that an individual animal met with a severely painful situation not covered by the creature’s built-in pain-regulation program, is surely a preposterous one, as it turns God into a cosmic Nanny.
I should add that there is scant Scriptural support for the notion that there was no animal death before the Fall – let alone no animal suffering. Of all the animals, only the serpent is cursed by God after the Fall, in the narrative of Genesis 3. The other animals are left unscathed. God pronounces the curse of death upon Adam and his descendants:
“By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19, NIV)
However, nowhere in the narrative is Adam told that the other animals would also die because of his sin. Nor does Isaiah’s description of the new heaven and the new Earth in Isaiah 65:17-25, where “the wolf and the lamb will feed together” (Isaiah 65:25), contain any statement that God’s original creation was like that. Finally, the objection that God could never have pronounced His creation “very good” (Genesis 1:31) if it had contained animal death and suffering, is weakened considerably by the admission of leading young-earth creationists that non-sentient animals would still have died.
This is not to say that there are not features of life in the animal realm which are genuinely perplexing from a theological standpoint – for instance, the occurrence of infanticide in certain species of animals. I’m not going to propose a solution here, except to note in passing that while the general features of the biological realm are logically ascribed to its Creator, specific anomalies may have some other cause.
An interesting discussion of the problem of animal suffering can be found in this 2007 post by former atheist (and Christian convert) David Wood.
4. Finally, I would respond to P.Z. Myers’ contemptuous characterization of creationists as “cowards” who are afraid to face up to reality by pointing out that everyone refuses to accept some statement or other about the world, simply because they find it too outrageous to be true, and because accepting it would drive them crazy. P.Z. Myers is just as frightened of the possibility of a world in which Hell and Original Sin are real as the creationists whom he lambastes are of a world in which human beings are nothing more than “meat machines” or biological computers (see his comments on this post). Darwin, for that matter, detested the “damnable doctrine” that “my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlasting punished.”
While it may be considered an intellectual vice to refuse to accept a conclusion simply because doing so would make you feel very sad, it is quite another matter when it comes to conclusions that would send you mad, if you believed them. Any self-respecting animal would – and should – protect itself from adopting beliefs that would threaten its very sanity. There is nothing gained from adopting an idea which destroys your mind. The creationists in the HBO documentary deserve credit for recognizing this obvious fact.