Divine Office
Sunday Night Journal — August 8, 2004

Philosophy of Evolution, Science of Geology

Sunday Night Journal — August 1, 2004

I had an interesting note from my brother John in reply to my July 11 journal entry about the Intelligent Design movement. I wrote there that I am not a young-earth creationist—that is, I don’t dispute the current scientific consensus that age of the earth is billions of years,  not ten thousand years or so.  And I reflected on the significance of the old-earth hypothesis to Christian faith.

John is an evangelical Protestant and a young-earth creationist. He writes that he is “perplexed that [I] seem to so easily accept the current view on the age of the earth,” and, giving me some examples of problems with the old-earth hypothesis, challenges me to be open to the idea that it is in error.

Well, being open is not the problem—I’m very open to this idea, and would be delighted to learn that it is true. My difficulty is not any lack of willingness to consider it. My problem is that “How old is the earth?” is a very different sort of question from “Is life the product of blind physical forces operating purely at random?”

For convenience, let’s use the term “evolution” as shorthand for the idea of materialistic chance-driven evolution and “design” as shorthand for the idea that conscious intelligence is at work in the development of life (and indeed of the whole universe). As I think everyone realizes, but not everyone admits, the debate between evolution and design is not a purely scientific one. It’s also philosophical. A firm commitment to evolution, in the sense noted above, is also a firm commitment to the idea that the entire cosmos is a closed physical system within which everything can be explained without recourse to consciousness or intelligence. This is defended as integral to the scientific method. It isn’t, of course, or at least it shouldn’t be.

It’s reasonable when investigating the physical world to take as a working assumption that most physical phenomena have as their immediate cause other physical phenomena, but it is totally unwarranted and illogical to leap from this to the philosophical conclusion that nothing exists except physical phenomena. The exclusion of conscious intention from the picture is useful for relatively narrow purposes but cannot logically be required when one is thinking about the cosmos as a whole. The fact that a home run can be described entirely in terms of physical phenomena does not mean that it can be explained in those terms. (This is why even a perfectly consistent, plausible, and provable theory of physical evolution would not solve the philosophical question of the First Cause.)

The point of this is that as soon I notice the philosophical component of evolution I am on an equal footing with the scientists propounding it. In their role as scientists they have no more standing to assert the correctness of their philosophical position than I do. Their materialism is an axiom which they most certainly cannot prove. And since that axiom clearly plays a significant and perhaps decisive role in justifying their commitment to evolution, as well as in governing their interpretation of the data, I am perfectly justified, on this basis alone, in being skeptical of their insistence that “science” has “proved” that design is an unnecessary hypothesis as regards the physical world.

Going a step beyond that, I notice also that a critical component of their argument is the idea that random changes in a system can cause that system to become more complex and more powerful. Having spent the past twenty-five years in the information technology trade, including ten years writing fairly complex software, I view this as implausible. Yes, I know, supposedly all that’s required is enough time, and a mechanism for preserving useful changes, and all the complex flowering of life will happen as if by the turning of a crank. But I doubt this. I think of what I could expect to happen if I simply changed the state of a single bit (zero to one or one to zero) in a complex computer system. It is overwhelmingly likely that this would cause the program to malfunction, although perhaps only in a minor way. The odds that it would actually correct a defect are surely extremely remote. The odds that it would somehow introduce, or provide a first step toward introducing, an entirely new and useful function to the program seem infinitesimal.

All that seems more or less intuitive to me, based on my experience. I have to consider that I have not worked out the mathematics of this (nor would I know how to do so). But then I hear of people who have worked out the mathematics and have concluded that even the billions of years postulated by old-earth dating methods are not enough for chance to have produced the world we see around us.

So all in all, I have a pretty sound set of reasons for doubting the evolutionist’s insistence that his view is proven, established, and not to be challenged. And I can get this far without knowing anything to speak of about biology and chemistry. When I add to all this the simple intuition that if something is so complex and finely assembled that it appears to have been designed—take, for instance, one of the dragonflies which hover about my yard these days—the most obvious explanation is that it was designed, I begin to feel some confidence in my skepticism about evolution, and that I am not merely believing what I admittedly would prefer to believe.

The question of the earth’s age, on the other hand, is not so easily addressed in this abstract way. There’s nothing contrary to logic or common sense or even the concept of design in the idea that the earth is actually billions of years old. It appears to contradict Genesis, of course, but since I don’t necessarily believe that everything there is to be taken literally, I can’t resolve the question on that basis.

The only recourse here is to the physical facts. And unlike the situation with evolution as a philosophical or religious doctrine, here I’m decidedly not on an equal footing with the scientists. The only way I can argue with the old-earth hypothesis is to become an expert in geology, which is not possible (or at least not reasonable) for me to do. I can read the arguments of young-earth proponents, but as a matter of intellectual honesty I also have to read the arguments of the other side, and I know (because I’ve taken a few steps in this direction) that I will be faced with contradictory claims that I’m unequipped to judge. When two people who both claim to be competent geologists contradict each other, there is no way for me to know which of them is right.

In spite of the very human biases of scientists, and their occasional failure to be always perfectly faithful to the facts and the facts only, I have enough faith in science and scientists to believe that if the earth is indeed only ten thousand or so years old, scientists will eventually come to that conclusion. If not—and either way in the meantime—I believe I’m obliged to live with the puzzle.


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Long ago when I started to homeschool, I though about this a lot because back then Catholic homeschoolers were few and far between, and most of the people I knew who were homeschooling were fundamentalists. Also, a lot of the homeschooling material available were written from a creationist point of view, even some of the Catholic things. So, I read a lot of stuff, but in the end the only thing I was sure of was your puzzle. This worried me because, of course, I wanted to teach my children the truth.

What helped me in the end was a talk that I listened to about the spiritual life. The speaker talked about people getting so bogged down with what they had been in the past and what they wanted to be in the future that they missed what God was doing in the present. It struck me that the Fundamentalists that I knew seemed to be totally consumed with the Rapture and Creation and not very much with the present at all. So, I just decided to let that debate go and offer my kids the puzzle.


A good strategy, I think. And that's an excellent point about fundamentalists. I hadn't really thought of it like that.

Love it, Janet! That's quite a helpful insight.

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