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God, Jesus and the Flood…. The interesting problems of faith, science and creationism in Ireland and the US May 7, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Pseudo-Science, Religion, Science.
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One of the problems with reading magazines is that it’s difficult to get around to everything. Case in point. I’d purchased New Scientist back in December because of a feature on “Lone Voices”, those scientists who strike contrarian positions regarding mainstream science across a range of areas. These range from considering paranormal events to be real, to a belief in cold fusion and ‘memory of water’ (crucial if you think homeopathy works – and as a past and brief user of certain remedies in that vein let me use my own experience to say it sure doesn’t help fear of flying) and on to a geologist who has done credible research on plate tectonics who is also a creationist…

Hold on a second…

A geologist who happens to be a creationist?

John Baumgardner, for it is he, is indeed a creationist and geophysical modeller.

Let’s consider the opening question:

You’ve said that your primary goal as a scientist is “defence of God’s word”. Is this consistent with the scientific method?
Most scientists try to make incremental contributions. There are a few who are strongly driven by their world view; Richard Dawkins is a pretty dramatic example. I would put myself in that same category, although I hope that I’m not as abrasive. If people can do it on the other side, why should I shrink back?

Indeed. But this raises huge problems, which we and New Scientist will come to in a moment. Baumgardner started out as an electrical engineer. Then he had a Christian conversion. An elision of his Christianity and an interest in the Biblical origins of the Earth with a scientific background made him ‘realise that the Genesis flood had to involve rapid large-scale tectonic chnage. So I started doing a PhD in geophysisc at the UCLA’.

The work he did on his PhD included the development of a computer model of the interior of the Earth, which as New Scientist notes has been ‘widely used’. Baumgardner ‘models convection in the Earth’s mantle, treating it as a viscous fluid and partitioning it into a large number of cells…’

The Los Alamos National Laboratory found it convincing enough to offer him a job in the theoretical division in 1983.

His linkage of his work to the Genesis flood is through modelling ‘catastrophic plate tectonics’. That is where processes that might usually take millions of years, such as rapid falls in the height of continental surfaces, and conversely rapid rises in sea floors in possibly weeks, or as he says ‘Apparently [in Genesis], the continents were largely submerged. In roughtly a years time, we have almost a complte resurfacing of the planet. At the end, we have a wrecked, desolate planet that is struggling to recover ‘. It’s not without problems though as he admits. The newly resurfaced crust would have to cool extremely rapidly in order to allow for the effects he proposes. Some say that would necessitate supersonic jets of steam which would transfer heat into space but he now believes that that would be insufficient to cool the crust. “Still, I believe this accounts for the 40 days and 40 nights of rain: ocean water was carried up with these jets. Most of what I’ve described involves the present laws of physics, but there are a couple of issues where I believe there must have been some form of divine intervention. One has to do with accelerating nuclear decay rates, whic can explain why radioisotope methods seem to give dates for some rocks of hundreds of millions of years. The second is the mechanism for cooling”.

New Scientist pointed out that ‘for most scientists, this is hugely problematical. They cannot invoke divine intervention in this way.

His response? ‘I don’t deny that most people would come down on the side of the conventional view, right now. Until the case is strong enough, it’s foolhardy of me to ask and insist that my peers buy into it.’

Indeed there is a degree of flexibility in his approach, although whether that is tactical or heartfelt is something of an open question. This is evidenced when New Scientist asks:

Your papers in Nature and Science assume conventional geological timescaless. How did you reconcile your authoship of these papers with your own views about the Earth’s history?

I admit that I struggled with that. Basically, my rationalisation is that there is nothing wrong with the underlying physics that I described…so I allowed it to go through. I believe God has called me to participate in the scientific community, not to be a Lone Ranger.

New Scientist also asks the reasonable question: “Tell me about your interaction with your colleagues”. Here he responds that ‘At Los Alamos, I found that my colleagues gave me a lot of respect. Not that they agreed with me, but they respected me for explaining and defending my position.
It’s a most interesting tale, and I think there is a core aspect to it which – perhaps – allows Baumgardner to remain however tenuously within the scientific community. This is that although he is attempting to explain geophysics within a philosophical framework shaped by theism, it is rooted within a methodological framework shaped by empiricism. Indeed striking is it not to see him talk about how he has to ‘rationalise’ the rational, as it were in regard to time scales and accept that his theoretical philosophy is simply incapable of explaining the facts as they currently stand. Therefore the 40 days and 40 nights of rain become a result of actually occuring physical events. But the emphasis is on the events rather than the result.

Where the wheels come off this particular wagon is the resort to supernatural intervention to explain long time scales. Einstein once famously remarked that ‘God doesn’t play dice with the Universe’. In that instance he was talking, not about divine intervention, but rather his aversion to the indeterminism of quantum physics as expressed by Heisenberg, but I think it is applicable in this context. Because it seems that Baumgardner is in some respects similar to a la carte Catholics (which as an aside are the vast majority of Catholics), in being an a la carte physicist. He doesn’t really believe that the universe is the age that scientific investigation suggests that it is, therefore he asks God to act in a way to falsify the evidence.

Now to me (who would have some sympathy with, if not quite sharing, a theist position, but would equally find it futile to discard a rational and empirical approach to this universe) it seems that to be John Baumgardner and to be able to reconcile these essentially contradictory viewpoints must be quite a feat. Perhaps it comes from believing in a literalist view of the Bible. But at the same time, to use the tools of science and scientific methodology on a daily basis, and then to put the evidence they offer up to one side and then to suggest that a deity would act in such an essentially dishonest fashion is remarkable and extremely interesting on many different levels.

But lest we think that this sort of approach, of eliding Biblical tales with real science, is limited to Baumgardner and other creationists it’s worth noting that it occurs far closer to home. Consider our own Professor William Reville, biochemist and contributor to the Irish Times. In October 2003 he offered us the provocative headline “Noah’s Ark myth has evidence of great flood”.

First we get the backstory…

Christians are familiar with the Bible story of Noah when God cleaned wickedness from the world by destroying all of creation in a great flood. The righteous Noah and his family and two of every kind of animal survived by floating in a great ark.

Cheeringly he continues:

The Bible is not a reliable record of the physical history of the earth. Nevertheless, creationists use the literal Noah story to explain every sedimentary rock on earth and the fossil record in the rocks.

However, geology has won the argument on these matters and we know the flood could not have covered the whole earth and that Noah could not have rescued all living species.

But, this being the Bible there has to be something in it, doesn’t there (and this is after all the same William Reville who last Autumn provided a doughty if flawed defence of the Bible as evidence that there was a God)?

… recent scientific work has shown that the biblical story of the Flood may recall a real event even if many of the details are fictitious.

Marine biologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman have written a book – Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2000) – describing a flood that occurred several thousand years before the ancient Hebrews wrote the Biblical story.

Ryan and Pitman, using sediment cores from the Black Sea posit that at one point the Black Sea was a fertile low land area which was innundated around 7 – 8,000 years ago. It is the story of this innundation which is recounted in the Noah story. Okay, there are a couple of problems…

Many geologists are wary of the revised theory and feel conflict about trying to prove an event from an ancient text.

Big problems…

It is also noted that the Bible records Noah as living in a Mesopotamian desert, whereas the Black Sea coastline was then lush and forested.

But why let that stop us? For Reville goes on to finish as follows: Let me finish with a truncated quotation of the Noah story from the Book of Genesis. Noah was 600 years old when the flood came on the earth on the 17th day of the second month. He and his wife and his sons and their wives went into the boat to escape the flood. A male and a female of every kind of animal and bird went into the boat as God had commanded…

But why provide the quote? The only possible reason would be to somehow try to suggest an implicit truth by association in the Book of Genesis – despite being unable to provide any evidence for same. And note the way in which creationism is trashed in favour of ‘science’ which confers the most tangential patina of support for the Genesis story.

Baumgardner believes, this belief shapes his worldview, but he remains wedded to methodologies based in rationalism. Reville believes, but appears keen to find even a scrap of support for his beliefs in rational enquiry. And both, when it comes down to it, use the Bible as a touchstone which guides their approach to history and geology.

Because examine Reville’s column last year where he wrote that Critics of our Christian heritage write off its achievements. In this he argued that evidence for God rests in “dilute scientific evidence for an impersonal God”. This is centred on the Anthropic Principle, the contention that because we live in a universe which allows for life therefore the universe must have been ‘fine-tuned’ in order to produce life, and this fine tuning indicates for the possiblity of a God. I’m all for that, but it strikes me that one would need much much harder evidence that it wasn’t say…just coincidence or the blind workings of chance which allowed for life. Secondly he suggests, well, actually it’s a bit more strong than a suggestion, that ‘there is evidence of a different kind for a personal God’.

This is as follows…

Jesus Christ claimed to be in close contact with God, whom he referred to in familiar terms as his father. If we judge that Jesus was sane, if his teachings stake a claim on our hearts and minds, and if we find that abiding by the principles that Jesus taught brings peace and joy into our lives, then it is reasonable for us to accept the word of Jesus about God just as it is for us to accept the word of any tried and tested friend on some matter about which we have no direct experience.

Again, these can only be judged in the context of the Bible, since it there that we have the clearest indication of the life of Jesus. But it is difficult, as a rationalist, to be entirely trusting that the view one gets there is close to the truth.

And even that is to miss the point. Neither of these ‘proofs’ are credible as any sort of evidence. Both are utterly subjective and even contradictory. Neither belong within a column on science. I have no problem with them as justifications of religious faith. That seems to me to be fine. But they seem to me to be category errors. There is simply no need in religion to have recourse to science whatsoever, and Baumgardners quixotic efforts and Reville’s rather more confusing efforts are really just attempts to mash two entirely different areas together in what can only be termed a failed synthesis. It doesn’t work, because it can’t work. The geological record does not allow for a global flood as described in Genesis and the only way Baumgardner can deal with this dichotomy is to effectively ignore it and hope new evidence turns up while also positing a God who would make a lie of this universe. Reville is enough of a scientist to acknowledge this but perhaps too much of a Christian to be able to extricate himself fully from an attachment on perhaps an emotional level with the power of the story.

Finally, for those interested in a deeper analysis of the geological aspects of this area, why not consider the entertaining science, anti-science and geology blog?

Comments»

1. Eagle - May 8, 2007

I can’t say I have anything even vaguely interesting to add here, but did you see the program last week about Britain before the waters rose? According to this program (which I only saw the last 20 mins of) the land connection to “France” was broken when the seas rose rapidly (I think they were talking about 8,000 BC, but not sure now). At that time areas that today are coastline were well in from the sea and people lived on vast plains that are now below water.

I didn’t connect it in my mind to the Noah story at the time, but based on what this program was saying the seas rose so rapidly that people would have witnessed all of this change in just a few years. Suddenly they were cut off from the European mainland (I didn’t hear any mention of Ireland). They were speculating as to how disruptive and shocking it must have been, which of course it would have been if this theory is right.

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2. WorldbyStorm - May 8, 2007

Yes, I thought it was very interesting. There seems to be some dispute about whether Ireland was actually not an island during this period. Certainly that sort of event – which if it occured as rapidly as the programme depicted would as you say have been shocking – might have had some impact on a sort of ‘race’ memory.

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3. soubresauts - May 9, 2007

Very interesting post, WBS. Thanks for your efforts. And a nice picture (what is it?).

One little correction: You said that “…as a past and brief user of certain remedies in that vein [homeopathy] let me use my own experience to say it sure doesn’t help fear of flying”.

I think you meant something like: “…as a past and brief user of certain remedies in that vein let me say it sure didn’t help my fear of flying”. Didn’t you?

But why mention it at all?

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4. WorldbyStorm - May 9, 2007

memory of water soubresauts…the basis as it were for any scientific explanation of homeopathy, and just an anecdote… didn’t want to mention the brand of product either…for some it appears to have a palliative effect…

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5. Eagle - May 9, 2007

‘Race memory’ – I like that. I guess that’s probably how I understand Genesis. Not literal stories, but a handed down oral tradition that told the story of a race of people. I never really gave the ‘flood’ much thought, but after reading your post and thinking about that program last week I could see how such a story would have become part of the tradition.

However, I don’t know whether the type of flooding that ‘created’ Britain happened anywhere near the what is the Middle East today.

Of course, maybe Noah set out from the landmass that was lost between England and France and settled when his ship landed in what is today Turkey? Maybe England is Eden? Now there’s food for thought.

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6. WorldbyStorm - May 9, 2007

Isn’t that the basis of the hymn Jerusalem, words by Blake…

And did those feet (Jesus) in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

But you’re absolutely right to my mind Eagle. It’s not literal, it’s a metaphor. But the stories themselves are related often to events. Those of a theist disposition can read it one way, those of an atheist disposition another. As I said I’m inherently sympathetic to theism – probably because I figure Pascal had a point!

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7. Stem Cell research exercises the Irish Times… a lot… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - May 20, 2008

[…] er… religious… well, maybe not dogma, but certainly religious…er talk… stuff… […]

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