Cosmos

by Brian 30. March 2014 06:43

I finally got a chance to sit down and watch the first episode of the new Cosmos series with host astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. It began with exciting animations and music to set your mind adrift like one of Sagan’s dandelions, untethered from the weight of substantive science. My daughter and I enjoyed the cosmic micro-to-macro journey, reminiscent of the intro to the movie Contact. It opened up some interesting conversation. I found Tyson’s personal experience with his mentor Carl Sagan touching and his excitement for science encouraging. But the effort to divide faith and science was both disappointing and misleading. Even though Tyson is not an atheist (he self-identifies with agnosticism) the executive producer Seth Macfarlane is an outspoken one. It seems pretty obvious to me his bias was allowed to drive the direction of the first episode.

 I’m going to skip over the first half of the show and the pop-science introduced briefly by Tyson’s comment: “Many of us suspect” everything in our observable universe is “but one tiny bubble in an infinite ocean of other universes...worlds without end.” [i] Tyson was allowed to quickly brush over this speculative, unobservable, metaphysical conjecture as if it were a genuine scientific theory. Since I’ve already blogged about the multiverse, I’ll move on to the second half of the show where for over 20 minutes I listened to Tyson attempt to widen the gap between those who look at the world through science and those who look at it through philosophy and theology. I won’t go into how badly Cosmos mishandled the history of the church and Giordano Bruno. You can read this excellent article showing how embarrassingly inaccurate Cosmos portrayed things. I do want to briefly mention how their divisive approach was unnecessary.

The new atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, believe those on the side of science must ridicule the other side of faith. There are also those like Hawking and Krauss who seem to think philosophy is dead because of the advancement of science. On the other hand, strict literalists like Ken Ham often appear to ignore any scientific view which might require a rethinking of one’s theological interpretations. The producers of Cosmos appeared, to me at least, to be fueling the fires in all of these camps. However, there are many scientists, philosophers and theologians who reject the notion science, philosophy and faith must forever be at odds. John Polkinghorne, who won the Templeton Prize in 2002, is an example of such a scientist and theologian.  I’ve blogged about this elsewhere but Polkinghorne’s words are worth repeating.

We must take account of what science has to tell us about the pattern and history of the physical world in which we live. Of course, science itself can no more dictate to religion what it is to believe than religion can prescribe for science what the outcome of its inquiry is to be. The two disciplines are concerned with the exploration of different aspects of human experience: in the one case, our impersonal encounter with a physical world that we transcend; in the other, our personal encounter with the One who transcends us. They use different methods: in the one case, the experimental procedure of putting matters to the test; in the other, the commitment of trust which must underlie all personal encounter, whether between ourselves or with the reality of God. They ask different questions: in the one case, how things happen, by what process?; in the other, why things happen, to what purpose? Though these are two different questions, yet, the ways we answer them must bear some consonant relationship to each other.

Science, philosophy and theology are all trying to make sense of the world from different angles. They all have their primary domains of inquiry into a single world; a single reality. These domains may overlap at points (contrary to Gould’s NOMA.) For example, we cannot divorce ourselves from scientific knowledge when developing a theology of creation. Nor should we air the conjecture of materialist scientists regarding unobservable constructs beyond the event horizon of our universe – at least not without the input of philosophers and theologians. So when you have an executive producer of Cosmos saying: “There have to be people who are vocal about the advancement of knowledge over faith.”[ii] It’s no wonder why the main message of the show is one of division instead of unity.

 



[i] Neil Tyson, 15:00-24 Cosmos Ep1.

[ii]Esquire interview Aug, 18,2009

Why OEC vs YEC?

by Brian 2. May 2011 18:22

Just when you thought enough blood has been spilled in the Old Earth Creationism (OEC) versus Young Earth Creationism (YEC) debate, here comes another post to stir up trouble. I realize this is one of those insider disagreements we all wish would go away. That is probably why in twelve years of writing on apologetics I have not taken the time to really address the topic. I mean really, what is the point? You say YEC – I say OEC. Do we have to call the whole thing off? So rather than trying to prove billions is truer than thousands in a blog post, I want to share a personal perspective – one that leads us right back to the question: What is the point? What is our objective as insiders when debating the age of the universe?

As most of you probably already know, YEC holds to a literal, consecutive, 24-hour-day interpretation of the book of Genesis and places the age of the Earth somewhere between about 6,000 and 10,000 years. OEC is an eclectic position accepting a much older universe based on the current scientific view. There are all sorts of OEC variations covering a continuum from episodic supernaturalism through telic processes such as theistic evolution. [1] But ultimately under OEC, God is the Creator and the Earth is very old by comparison to YEC.

For the record, I hold a 0.9 OEC view. That is, if I were to rate my certainty in the truth of OEC, it would be 90%. The exact number is not really important. I am reasonably sure but leave the door cracked open for correction. To provide a little background: I was a nontheist until the age of 31 and convinced of an old universe. After becoming a follower of Christ, I was informed by a few amicable believers the universe was actually a few thousand years old. If I wanted to hold to the true interpretation of Scripture, I was encouraged to come to grips with this. At the time, my immature faith was challenged by this view. The epistemic dissonance forced me to take an agnostic position until I could research it further. In other words, I swept it under the rug. But no honest and rational person wants to leave it at that. So I started reading and after a few good books [ii] came to realize I didn’t have to commit intellectual suicide over this issue. I learned how OEC fits within the Christian worldview.

About this same time I took an interest in apologetics and all of the contemporary philosophers I gravitated towards also held an OEC view.[iii] This was refreshing and bolstered my confidence in a rational faith where the age of the universe could finally be put to bed, at least for me. But then one day I received an email from someone who saw an online presentation I did on the Kalam Cosmological argument. One of the assumptions I covered was a 13.7 billion year old universe. The sender politely and succinctly informed me of my apostasy. According to this brother, if I didn’t correct my view on the age of the universe, then I was at risk of eternal damnation. Needless to say, I was taken aback. Was I no longer part of the Church because of my position on the age of the universe?

After exchanging a few emails, I realized this guy was genuinely concerned about my eternal well-being. If it were not for his sincerity, I might have responded differently. After all, from my perspective, YEC is an unnecessary barrier to the Gospel hindering scientifically minded seekers like myself. Would it be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around the neck than to cause someone to stumble over something like YEC? Can we not find some middle ground, I wondered? Unfortunately there is no middle ground when it comes to the age of the universe. You cannot simply take (13.7B + 6K) / 2 and arrive at a compromise. Yet, whether you hold an OEC or YEC view, God is the efficient cause of life, the universe and everything. [iv] This is not to dismiss the exegetical and theological disagreement. But there is consensus on the fundamentals. We have a good deal of common ground.

It is disingenuous to suggest Christian theists are lost in their little OEC/YEC creation debate while contemporary science takes the intellectual high ground. Let’s not forget a few decades ago, science held the now utterly bankrupt position of a static universe while Christian theism was proclaiming a universe that began to exist. Dr. Robert Jastrow, an American astronomer, physicist and cosmologist describes the transition in the mid twentieth century from the predominant scientific view to where we are today:

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Christian theists had been far closer to the truth on big-bang cosmology than science had for centuries. This historical fact ought to remind us of how close both groups are to the truth.  But is this enough to resolve the infighting between YECers and OECers? I’m guessing not.

I have already mentioned the unnecessary stumbling block YEC presents. However YEC has its grounds for concern. They claim OEC is conceding biblical integrity to science through the harmonization of an old universe with the Genesis account. Allegedly, what follows is an undermining of theological concepts such as original sin and our need for salvation. Even though I agree OEC harmonization is more challenging than a straight literal reading, I personally do not find it to be a stretch. On the other hand: As one who grew up in an unbelieving family; who surrounded himself with unbelieving friends; who works in the unbelieving world of computer science and who has engaged nontheists over the years; openness to the Christian worldview is more negatively impacted by dogmatic YEC than it is by the harmonization of Genesis with OEC. So once again, what is our goal in this debate? Is it about winning the argument, where my theology is better than yours? Or is it about allowing the truth of the Gospel to work without unwarranted impediment. I agree we cannot sacrifice the truth just because it may be hard to receive. But we ought not be incorrigible about our interpretations either -- especially if they are a stumbling block.

Let’s not forget, theology is constantly evolving. The truth of the Word may be immutable, but our interpretations and understanding are in flux. I’m sure if facebook had an earlier start, the Wittenberg group of 1517 would have been full of posts about the audacity of certain radicals to challenge the theological interpretations of the day. Of course those same radicals opposed the views of heliocentrism [v] and today we have no problem accepting a correction without invoking manipulation through scientism. Yet somehow in the 21st century our reading of Scripture is as good as it is going to get. We have arrived, bearing the true interpretation. We have executed the ultimate hermeneutic resulting in the perfect exegesis. That doesn't seem honest to me.

As a Christian minimalist, I believe we have to keep the door open on matters outside the bounds of mere Christianity, especially when it applies to divisive issues for unbelievers. In contrary interpretations, only one side, or neither side, can be true. That’s why I say I hold a 0.9-OEC view. This not only leaves room for correction, but helps me to be more accepting of those who take the other side. Given Christians are roughly split over YEC and OEC [vi], we simply have to get past this in a way where we are not compromising essentials while at the same time removing obstacles to the Gospel. The fact is; many young college-educated unbelievers are already certain about the age of the Earth and the universe. If because of individual or institutional dogma on nonessentials, or pointless infighting, an honest seeker is turned away from the truth, then this debate has served its purpose well. That is, the enemy’s purpose.



[i] Wikipedia aside, the OEC continuum is not so much literal interpretation through theistic evolution as much as it is from episodic supernaturalism through telic processes including evolution - both over billions of years. YEC proponents typically claim the OEC position sacrifices a straightforward literal interpretation. And, proponents of theistic evolution, such as John Polkinghorne, would probably argue OEC and the Genesis account are in agreement on the grounds the universe began to exist and God is ultimately the Creator.

[ii] Again, I don’t want this post to be about trying to prove OEC over YEC, so what I read and how the arguments helped me conclude the truth of OEC are not relevant here. I’m sure YEC supporters have their list of convincing resources as well.

[iii]  William Lane Craig, Norman Geisler, J P Moreland, to name a few

[iv] Yet another use of a phrase from of the atheist writer Douglas Adams

[v] Luther over the dinner table said “…The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth."

[vi] Based on several polls summarized here -> http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2369785/posts  

About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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