Stephen C. Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2013). This is not an easy read. At 413 densely-worded pages, it took me the better part of a month to finish. However, I am glad that I persevered. This is a remarkably well-written, well-researched, and well-argued companion to Meyer’s previous volume Signature in the Cell. Whereas his earlier work made the case for intelligent design based on the complexity of the cell and the inadequacy of materialistic origin-of-life hypotheses, Darwin’s Doubt focuses on the origin of animal life, and the particular challenge posed by one feature of the geologic record: the so-called “Cambrian explosion.” The book is divided into three parts: Part 1 deals with the fossil evidence of the Cambrian explosion, Part 2 deals with the biological information necessary for animal life, and Part 3 argues that intelligent design provides a better explanation of all the evidence than any naturalistic alternatives. I will examine and evaluate each part in turn.
Part 1 begins with a history of the early reception of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. It is hard to overstate the significance of this little book, which became the foundation of modern evolutionary theory. The scope of Darwin’s theory was vast (after all, he was trying to explain all life as we know it!), and he personally believed that he had solved every problem—save one. The budding discipline of modern geology had unearthed a piece of evidence that did not fit very well into Darwin’s gradualistic schema. Fossils indicate that about 530 million years ago—or what has come to be known as the Cambrian period—there was an extremely abrupt proliferation of different forms of animal life. These animal fossils showed no signs of evolutionary predecessors in earlier layers, leading to the apt description of the “Cambrian explosion.” Darwin himself was aware of this problem, and indeed it gave him some doubt as to the veracity of his theory (hence the title of Meyer’s book). However, he was confident that the problem would one day be solved—either it would be shown that Precambrian animals had not been fossilized for some reason, or their fossils had not yet been found. Meyer evaluates these two possibilities, and argues that subsequent history would have greatly disappointed Darwin.
Both of these efforts at explaining away the Cambrian explosion are variants of the so-called “artifact hypothesis.” According to this hypothesis, Cambrian fossils are merely “artifacts” of an incomplete record. Some have suggested that paleontologists need only to look in other places around the globe to uncover Precambrian ancestors, while others have suggested reasons why such ancestors could not in principle have been preserved—perhaps, for example, their soft body forms did not lend themselves to fossilization. Unfortunately, neither solution appears to match the observed evidence. Paleontologists since the time of Darwin have examined geologic layers across the globe, with the conclusion that there are plenty of Precambrian layers, but zero evolutionary ancestors to Cambrian animals. Moreover, there are plenty of non-animal fossils in the Precambrian strata—even those with only soft body parts. But if these soft non-animal fossils could have been preserved, why not also their animal counterparts? Darwinian Theory does not provide an adequate explanation, nor have subsequent complementary theories to Darwinism (such as punctuated equilibrium).
In Part 2, Meyer moves the discussion from fossils to genetics/anatomy. The fundamental challenge in building an animal from scratch is that you need to be able to create novel “protein folds.” This is one of the most basic units of mutational change that can lead to new function. And yet protein folds require a significant number of coordinated DNA mutations in order to come into being. Think of genes as letters strung together to form words, phrases, and sentences. If the genes are not precisely coordinated, the sentences will quickly degenerate into meaningless gibberish. This is the known as the problem of “combinatorial inflation.” Consider the example of a combination lock: each time you add another number to the lock, the resulting combination becomes exponentially more difficult to unlock. So it is with animal evolution—it becomes probabilistically prohibitive.
In Part 3, having concluded that Darwinism isn’t up for the job, Meyer surveys some of the other naturalistic explanations on the market. But these are also shown to be inadequate for various reasons. It is only at this stage of Meyer’s argument that he finally puts forward his own theory: intelligent design. Animals bear all the marks of “specified complexity” that we find in the products of intelligent agents. We easily recognize design in the world of engineering, for example. Why should it not be so in the world of biology? In essence, Meyer is making his case as an inference to the best explanation—taking into account the entire range of data, and ruling out any hypotheses that lack sufficient explanatory power. Meyer is quick to point out that the theory of intelligent design is scientific and not necessarily religious in nature (although it would certainly have religious implications).
And this brings me to my only possible critique of the book. Meyer’s reasons for wanting to distance intelligent design from religious creationism are political. His concern seems to be to allow the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. However, in my judgment the debate over public science education rests on the mistaken separation of “fact” from “value,” as if it were possible to teach religiously neutral science. This might be where my own neo-Calvinist sympathies come to the surface, but I believe that all education is inherently religious education. It all depends on what religion you subscribe to. And that means that fundamentally, all education will be either Christian or anti-Christian (although there will always be overlap, due to God’s common grace). So in the end, I don’t really have a problem saying that intelligent design is creationism. But that minor quibble aside, this is an outstanding book. It does get pretty technical pretty fast, so its audience will probably be limited to those with a college education. But this will be essential reading in debates over intelligent design in the coming years.
Alvin Plantinga’s central argument in Where the Conflict Really Lies (Oxford University Press, 2011) is that, while there is superficial conflict between science and theism,¹ there is actually a deep concord between them; further, while there is a superficial concord between science and naturalism,² there is actually a deep conflict between them. Naturalism has become so deeply ingrained in the thought of most western academics today that to question it is considered tantamount to questioning science itself. But Plantinga brilliantly turns that notion on its head, first by deconstructing the alleged areas of conflict between science and theism, then by showing areas of concord between science and theism, and finally by demonstrating the impossibility of simultaneously affirming both evolution and naturalism.
Plantinga begins by evaluating the arguments of two of naturalism’s most notorious (or famous, depending on which side of the debate you land on) defenders, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Dawkins and Dennett’s basic claim is that Darwinian evolution has disproven theism. But is that really the case? Plantinga first points out that the theory of evolution makes no metaphysical claims; it merely states that all life on earth has evolved from a common ancestor through natural selection operating on random mutations. But it is logically possible that this entire process was guided by God. While unguided evolution is certainly incompatible with theism, that “unguided” part is a theological add-on to the theory, and can’t possibly be demonstrated scientifically.
Dawkins and Dennet face other problems with their claims. Dawkins in particular seems to reason as follows: 1) I can conceive of a scenario in which the simplest organic systems gradually developed into the most complex systems through a series of successively adaptive mutations. 2) Therefore, it is not astronomically improbable that such a scenario happened. 3) Therefore, this in fact disproves theism. That may be an oversimplification of his argument, but the reader can see quite a few leaps in logic there; just because someone can imagine it, that doesn’t make it so.
Plantinga goes on to rebut the claim that the idea of divine intervention (i.e., miracles) is incompatible with scientific laws. The gist of his argument here is that scientific laws—such as gravity, or the conservation of energy—only apply to systems that are causally closed. But, of course, if God were to act specially to bring about a miracle, we would not be talking about a causally closed system, would we?
Plantinga then addresses some alleged defeaters for theism—namely, evolutionary psychology and higher biblical criticism. I won’t get into the details of his arguments here, but suffice it to say that these aren’t significant defeaters when you analyze them closely. For example, even if there is an evolutionary explanation for why we come to have religious beliefs, that doesn’t make those religious beliefs untrue. After all, it is possible that God could have guided the evolutionary process to bring about religious beliefs in that way. Further, if evolution were true, then there would also be an evolutionary explanation for why we come to believe in evolution! But of course evolutionists don’t think that undermines belief in evolution, so why would it undermine religious belief?
The next section of the book deals with two popular arguments for Intelligent Design—1) the physical argument from fine tuning, and 2) the biological argument from irreducible complexity. The fine-tuning argument states that our universe displays a number of finely tuned laws (like gravity, the speed of light, etc.), such that if the values of these laws were only slightly different from their actual values, then life would not be possible. For example, if the force of gravity were only slightly greater or weaker, then our universe would have either collapsed in on itself or expanded too rapidly for galaxies to form. The argument from irreducible complexity—which was first popularized in Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe—states that there are certain biological systems (such as the bacterial flagellum) that have a minimum degree of complexity, such that they could not be reduced to earlier, simpler stages of development without losing functionality. Behe’s arguments have been criticized with an appalling degree of hostility and derision, which is entirely out of place in academic discussion.
By contrast, Plantinga’s treatment of these arguments is refreshingly measured and charitable. But his conclusion might come as a slight disappointment to Intelligent Design advocates. He thinks that these arguments provide only modest support for theism, and I tend to agree with him here. Part of the problem is that we really have no way of determining the relevant probabilities. For example, the primary naturalistic explanation for fine tuning is the “multiverse” hypothesis combined with the anthropic principle: there may be an infinite number of universes, each of which with different values for its physical laws, and we have to find ourselves in one friendly to life, simply because if we were in a different universe, we wouldn’t be here to observe that fact. Now this has always struck me as a lame argument, like trying to win the lottery by buying all the tickets. But since it is impossible to verify empirically (and thus not scientific!), we have no way of weighing its probability against theism. But Plantinga suggests that a more helpful way forward would be to speak of design discourse rather than design argument. That is, it might be better to speak of perceiving or intuiting design as a basic belief rather than concluding design through logical inference (in the same way we also come to believe in the past, the existence of other minds, etc.). In this sense, we don’t need to present an argument for design, any more than we need to present an argument for the basic reliability of our memory. But that doesn’t mean that such beliefs cannot be disproven; even my own memory sometimes fails me.
Plantinga then argues that the theist is on much firmer ground when it comes to the epistemological foundations of science. In order for us humans to successfully do science, there has to be what medieval scholastics have called an adaequatio intellectus ad rem—a match between our minds and the real world. Something has to account for the fact that our cognitive faculties actually give us reliable access to the deep structure of reality. Not only are we able to come to a knowledge of things as they appear to us, but we can actually come to understand the laws that underlie them (and how exactly would such knowledge have given our ancestors a survival advantage on the plains of the Serengeti?). Likewise, the universe itself is law-governed, predictable, and intelligible. If naturalism were true, all of this must be taken to be an inexplicable brute fact. But if theism were true, all of this would be expected, given the fact that we are made in God’s image and designed specifically to come to a knowledge of the truth about God, ourselves, and the world we live in.
In the final chapter, Plantinga presents his familiar (to philosophers, at least) evolutionary argument against naturalism: if naturalistic evolution is true, then our minds evolved not with the aim of acquiring true beliefs but with the aim of conferring survival advantage. Therefore, we have no reason to trust what our minds tell us to be true, even when it comes to naturalism itself! In this way, naturalistic evolution becomes self-refuting. Now the objector might argue that holding true beliefs does in fact make an individual more fit to survive (if I rightly believe I should run away from a hungry tiger, I’ll be more likely to survive). But Plantinga points out that this is not in fact the case. If beliefs are nothing more than neural structures responding to environmental stimuli, then what counts is how those neural structures cause our bodies to behave, not the truth value of the beliefs associated with those neural structures. The content of the beliefs could even be the opposite of the truth, so long as the body gets where it needs to go (say, fleeing a predator). In fact, on Darwinian terms you could have an organism responding to its environment in the appropriate way, without ever forming conscious beliefs in the first place.
Overall, I think that Plantinga has done an outstanding job of showing that naturalism is grossly overrated, and not nearly as compatible with science as naturalists would have us think. If I had one complaint about the book, it would probably be that Plantinga is quite a bit more comfortable with theistic evolution than I am. I personally don’t have a problem with an old earth, or some degree of natural selection, or even some limited common descent for animals. But I am pretty skeptical of the productive capacity of genetic mutation, and on theological grounds I think that primate ancestry for humans is problematic. But aside from those reservations, I would highly recommend this book for anyone who desires to understand the true relationship between science and theism/naturalism.
¹ “Theism” is the belief that the universe has been created by a personal, transcendent divine being. This would include Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, among others.
² “Naturalism” is the claim that nature is all that exists; ultimate reality is impersonal. It is often used interchangeably with terms like atheism and materialism, although there are subtle differences between them.
What’s the problem?
Was the universe really created from nothing? Are the “days” of Genesis 1 literal 24-hour days? Is the earth thousands of years old or billions? Can Christians believe in the Big Bang Theory? What about evolution? Does Genesis really describe the sky as a solid dome? How could there have been light on the first day of creation, when the sun and stars were only made on day four? Were Adam and Eve really our first parents? How does that square with hominid fossils and population genetics? Did carnivores only eat vegetables until the time of Noah? Was there really a talking snake in the Garden of Eden? Is there any evidence that Noah’s flood ever happened? Was it global or local? Did all human languages really come from the Tower of Babel? This is just a small sampling of the many questions that come up when Christians try to relate Genesis to science. Addressing each one of them could fill up volumes of books, let alone a single post. The purpose of this post will instead be limited to getting at the “questions behind the questions”—that is, we will explore the presuppositions and methods involved in trying to reconcile Genesis with science.
What is science?
In order to understand how Genesis relates to science, we need to first define what science actually is. At its most basic level, science is simply the study of the world around us. It involves making observations, forming hypotheses based on those observations, testing those hypotheses, and then subjecting them to public scrutiny. Hypotheses that are able to stand up to such scrutiny are often elevated to the level of theory or law (this whole process is referred to as the scientific method). Over the past few centuries, scientists have been able to make tremendous advances for civilization, and the word “science” has become more or less synonymous with critical thinking, intellectual expertise, and technological progress.
However, many mistaken notions have also become associated with science. It is often thought to be a purely objective process, free of any bias—unlike faith, which is often relegated to the realm of private, subjective opinion. As a result, the pronouncements of science are sometimes accepted without question.1 But the reality is that science doesn’t “say” anything; scientists do, and they each carry biases of their own.2 It is simply a fact of human existence that we cannot help but see things from a certain perspective, based on our prior personal commitments. We all see reality through the lens of our particular worldviews and presuppositions. This is not to say that all worldviews are equally valid, and in some cases our lenses can be corrected by observation and evaluation of the data. But lenses are always there.
This should caution us about some of the limitations of science. To begin with, despite the efforts of many to draw a sharp dividing line between science and faith, it is undeniable that science itself rests on certain faith commitments. One cannot use the scientific method to justify the scientific method. Rather, in order for science to work, scientists must assume the reliability of our sense experience, the reliability of our mental processes, and the relative order and predictability of the universe. But such assumptions cannot be accounted for in a materialistic worldview that rejects the possibility of divine intervention. Twentieth-century Christian author C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.”3 In other words, science depends on God for its very legitimacy.4
We also need to be aware of the different ways in which scientists examine regularly occurring phenomena versus non-repeatable events in the past.5 This does not mean that the latter is entirely off limits to scientists. There are times when scientists can and do gain accurate knowledge about the past; for example, forensic scientists regularly investigate crime scenes in order to determine a particular sequence of past events. But when it comes to addressing big questions—like where the universe came from or how life began—scientists are much more dependent upon inferences, and these inferences will in turn be dependent upon their worldview. When scientists work from within a materialistic worldview, that inevitably affects how they may interpret the evidence. So when we examine the book of Genesis, we need to ask, is it really at odds with the scientific evidence, or merely with the materialistic worldview presupposed by many scientists?
Two sources of truth
Christians have historically affirmed that God has revealed the truth about himself in two different ways: through general revelation and special revelation.6 General revelation refers to the non-verbal testimony of creation that is accessible to all people everywhere, while special revelation refers to God’s verbal testimony that is uniquely accessible through Scripture.7 Since both forms of revelation come from God, and since God is by nature wholly truthful, then in principle they cannot contradict each other.8 At the same time, we can only approach God’s revelation from the vantage point of our finite and fallen humanity. Revelation must always be interpreted, and our interpretations can be wrong. So when there appears to be a conflict between Genesis and science, we ought to ask, is the contradiction really between God’s Word and God’s world, or is it rather in the interpretation of one or the other?
Some people would prefer to draw a sharp wall of separation between general and special revelation so as to avoid any potential conflict.9 On this approach, science should deal with the physical world, while theology should be limited to spiritual or moral issues. But such an approach cannot be consistently held, since there are times when the two realms do indeed speak on the same subject matter (such as the origin of humanity). So rather than adopting a position of either conflict or compartmentalization with respect to God’s revelation, Old Testament scholar C. John Collins advocates a position of coordination, in which “apparent conflict triggers a revision in interpretation that yields a harmony.”10 This need for mutually-correcting interpretations should not undermine our confidence in knowing and understanding God’s truth, but instead should foster in us a spirit of humility, open-mindedness, and critical thinking.
The language of Genesis and the language of science
C.S. Lewis once made the following observation about language:
I begin with three sentences (1) It was very cold (2) There were 13 degrees of frost (3) ‘Ah, bitter chill it was! The owl, for all his feathers was a-cold; The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass, And silent was the flock in woolly fold: Numb’d were the Beadsman’s fingers.’ I should describe the first as Ordinary language, the second as Scientific language, and the third as Poetic language…Two and three are improved uses of the same language used in one. Scientific and Poetic language are two different artificial perfections of Ordinary: artificial, because they depend on skills; different, because they improve the ordinary in two different directions.11
Lewis’s point here is that language can be used in a variety of ways, depending on its purpose. While we normally operate in the realm of ordinary language, scientific language may be more appropriate when mathematical precision is needed, and poetic language may be more appropriate when the author wants to appeal to the audience’s sense of beauty or imagination. It is important to recognize that one form of language isn’t “better” than the others; they are each uniquely suited for a particular task.
So when it comes to interpreting Genesis, we need to ask, what kind of language does it use? As discussed in Part 1 of this post, Genesis is quite evidently meant to be read as real history, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand of it exact, scientific precision. Nor should we necessarily expect the author of Genesis to write history in the same way as modern historians. Although it wouldn’t be quite accurate to classify Genesis as poetry, there are certainly poetic elements within it, such as parallelism (“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him;” Gen. 1:27), refrain (“And there was evening and there was morning;” Gen. 1:5ff.), anthropomorphism (God “breathes” life into Adam; Gen. 2:7), and metaphor (the “windows” of heaven open; Gen. 7:11). Genesis also makes frequent use of what is known as phenomenological language—that is, the language of appearances.12 This should guard us from imposing a strict literalism on the text.13 What Genesis records is true, but it must be read according to the author’s intentions rather than as a modern science textbook.
All of these points should help to give us the proper mindset when relating God’s general revelation to his special revelation. Science is a valuable tool, but it can still be subject to error and bias. Genesis is a reliable record of our history, but it needs to be read on its own literary terms. When it comes to addressing particular areas of supposed conflict, we may find that an honest evaluation of the scientific evidence will lead us to revise our interpretation of the biblical text. Conversely, we may also find that certain biblical truths set limits on what scientific theories are allowable (such as how the doctrine of the image of God necessarily rules out certain theories regarding human origins). But in neither case are we forced to say that God’s revelation is self-contradictory. We may err in our understanding, but God’s Word never errs.
Collins, C. John. Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003.
Poythress, Vern. Redeeming Science. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006.
West, John G., editor. The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society. Seattle, WA: Discovery Institute Press, 2012.
1 It is ironic that in our postmodern culture, which tends to relativize all truth claims, scientists still enjoy a virtually sacrosanct authority.
2 This point has been confirmed by twentieth-century Hungarian scientist Michael Polanyi. See Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 39ff.
3 C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 106.
4 These comments only scratch the surface of a very complex philosophical debate about how our minds relate to the physical world. But the basic point is that scientists cannot explain how, if our minds are merely the products of non-rational physical forces, we can trust them to make rational judgments about the world. For more information, see Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012).
5 This distinction is sometimes referred to as “nomothetic” science versus “historical” science. See C. John Collins, “Miracles, Intelligent Design, and God-of-the-Gaps,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 55.1 (March 2003), 25.
6 The Belgic Confession, Art. 2; The Westminster Confession of Faith 1.1
7 For those who question the reliability of Scripture as God’s Word, see the following post: Are There Errors in the Bible? (forthcoming)
8 See Francis Schaeffer, No Final Conflict (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979).
9 This is the approach of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who used the term “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (or NOMA) to refer to this kind of strict compartmentalization. Many in this camp tend to say that science only deals with the “what” and “how,” while religion only deals with the “who” and “why.”
10 Collins, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 51.
11 C.S. Lewis, “The Language of Religion,” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 129.
12 An example of phenomenological (or simply “phenomenal”) language in English would be the “rising” and “setting” of the sun. Technically, it isn’t the sun that moves, but rather the earth rotating on its axis. But in the context of ordinary language, there is nothing wrong with simply describing things as they appear to us. See Vern Poythress, Redeeming Science (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 92.
13 At the same time, rejecting literalism doesn’t justify an interpretive “free-for-all” where any reading of the text is as good as any other. As C.S. Lewis once put it, to interpret Genesis however we want “is like saying that because ‘My heart is broken’ contains a metaphor, it therefore means ‘I feel very cheerful.’ This mode of interpretation I regard, frankly, as nonsense.” Lewis, Miracles, 125.
What’s the problem?
Genesis 1-11 has sometimes been called “primeval history” because it focuses on humanity’s beginnings and sets the stage for the rest of biblical history.1 It tells the story of God’s creation of the universe, the creation of the first humans Adam and Eve, their fall into sin, and their expulsion from the garden of Eden. We also read the story of the first murder (Cain and Abel), a massive flood (Noah), and a confusion of languages (Babel). While Christians have traditionally considered these stories to be referring to actual events in the past, it is becoming increasingly popular today to dismiss them as nothing more than myth. There are generally two main reasons given for this growing tendency: 1) these stories sound suspiciously like many other creation and flood stories from the ancient world, and 2) these stories seem to contradict what is believed to be scientific fact. Since it would be difficult to cover both of these issues in a single post, we will split them into two parts. Part 1 of this post will deal with the first issue—did Genesis borrow from ancient pagan myths?
What is a “myth?”
To begin with, we need to clarify exactly what we mean by the word “myth.” Some people may call any story a myth if it tries to convey timeless truths by use of symbols or metaphors.2 Others might define myth as any story that attributes natural phenomena or human experiences to supernatural causes. If it is described in these ways, we might be able to say that Genesis is a myth of sorts. But the problem with such definitions is that they say nothing about the truth or falsehood of the story. Most people ordinarily use “myth” to describe a story that didn’t actually happen—that is, myth is basically fiction.3 Although other, more technical definitions of myth might be appropriate in some contexts, we should normally use terms according to their ordinary usage in order to avoid confusion. So in general, when people ask whether Genesis is a myth, what they are really asking is, does Genesis refer to events that actually happened?
Another related question is whether by “myth” we are referring to the author’s intention in writing the story, or to the reader’s evaluation of the story.4 For example, it would be wrong for us to take Jesus’ parables as real history (or to fault them for being unhistorical) when Jesus never meant for them to be taken that way. So when dealing with the book of Genesis, we first need to ask whether the author intended to write fact or fiction (or perhaps a mixture of both?), and only then ask whether the events are true. If Genesis was written as myth, we should read it as myth. But if it was written as history, we should judge it by historical standards.5
Genesis compared to Ancient Near Eastern myths
Genesis has often been compared to the creation and flood myths coming from Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) in the second millennium BC. These myths include the Eridu Genesis, the Enuma Elish, the Atrahasis Epic, and the Epic of Gilgamesh.6 In some respects these texts look very similar to Genesis, but in other respects they look very different. The Mesopotamian accounts picture a beginningless primordial chaos where gods procreate, fight each other, and turn the chaos into an ordered universe. Humans are formed out of a mixture of clay and the blood and spittle of the gods, in order to relieve the burden of the lesser gods to work for the greater gods. The gods eventually send a great flood to deal with the problem of human overpopulation (or noisiness), but one man (variously named Ziusudra, Atrahasis, and Utnapishtim) is warned in advance of the impending flood and builds an ark, loads it with his family and with animals, survives the seven-day flood, and then offers sacrifices to the gods.
The Genesis account, on the other hand, portrays one true God, Yahweh, who speaks the entire universe into being out of nothing. He then creates human beings in his own image by breathing life into dust, and he gives them responsibility to rule over his creation on his behalf. God later sends a massive flood to deal with the problem of human wickedness, but warns in advance one righteous man named Noah. Noah builds an ark, loads it with his family and animals, survives the year-long flood, and lands atop one of the mountains of Ararat. So while the similarities between Genesis and the Mesopotamian myths can’t be missed (especially in the flood narratives), Genesis is still unique in its picture of ethical monotheism—that is, the belief that there is only one God, and humans are morally accountable to him.
There are a number of ways to account for the similarities. While it is possible that Genesis borrowed from the Mesopotamian myths, it is also just as possible that the Mesopotamian myths borrowed from Genesis (or perhaps some earlier version of it), or that they all derive from a common source or from shared historical memory. Part of the problem is that we don’t know which source came first. Critical scholars usually date Genesis to around the mid-first millennium BC, while the traditional dating places it around 1440 BC or 1250 BC. But even then, there may have been much earlier oral or written Hebrew sources behind the present text of Genesis. Further, even if Genesis did borrow from these other accounts, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the events are therefore untrue. There may have been a genuine historical core in the Mesopotamian myths, which the author of Genesis was able to recover through a process of historical research, literary judgment, and divine inspiration.7 Since the evidence is so sparse, any claim about borrowing will be speculative. But whatever their relationship is, one thing is sure: Genesis is not a direct copy of the pagan myths.
There is also the question of the respective purposes of Genesis and the Mesopotamian myths—that is, did their authors intend to write fact or fiction? One might suppose that if the Mesopotamians never intended to report actual history, and if Genesis and the Mesopotamian myths belong to the same literary genre, then we shouldn’t expect Genesis to communicate actual history either (again, it would be like mistaking Jesus’ parables for real events). But there are two main problems with this line of reasoning. First, we can’t be so sure that the Mesopotamians didn’t intend to report actual history, and in fact there is good evidence to suggest otherwise. According to Egyptologist K.A. Kitchen, the Mesopotamians placed the flood squarely in the middle of their list of historical kings, indicating that they treated the flood as being as much a part of their history as their royal dynasties.8 Second, even if the Mesopotamians were comfortable mixing fact and fiction (which is questionable), that doesn’t mean that the Hebrews were as well. We need to remember that Genesis is first and foremost a part of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it must be read primarily against that backdrop. So if the Old Testament as a whole shows a concern for historicity (and certainly it does—see Deuteronomy 4:32-39; Isaiah 51:1-2), and if Genesis is seamlessly woven into the Old Testament narrative, then it stands to reason that Genesis shares that concern for historicity.
Genesis as “true myth”
C.S. Lewis once said, “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”9 Myths “work on us” by rooting our human longings and experiences in a grand, cosmic story. We might say that myths are told with the goal of “worldview formation”—that is, they seek to make sense of the world around us by giving an account of its ultimate causes and purposes. In this regard, Genesis is much like the ancient pagan myths. But Genesis is different in that it attempts to “set the record straight” by telling how it all really happened. Genesis therefore presents a subtle polemic against all competing worldviews—Yahweh is the creator, not Marduk; the world comes from God’s powerful word, not from a primordial chaos; humans are dignified bearers of God’s image, not just workhorses for the junior gods. If Genesis parallels its pagan counterparts, it does so as a point-by-point refutation, directing its audience to the worship of the one true God.
But even the term “true myth” can lead to confusion. One can still ask, what exactly about the myth is true? Some interpreters of Genesis argue that the real value of the story is in the enduring religious truths that it conveys, rather than in any of its supposed historical claims. They suggest, for example, that the point of Genesis is merely to show that humans are sinful, not that the first human pair was really tricked by a talking snake into eating a forbidden fruit. But this wrongly treats the worldview as separable from the story. Old Testament scholar C. John Collins writes:
[T]he worldview is not an abstraction derived from the story; that is, one cannot treat the story simply as the husk, which we can then discard once we have discovered the (perhaps timeless) concepts. This is not to deny that there may well be such things as transcendent truths (such as moral norms); but they gain their power from their place in the story—that is, they equip the members of a community to play their parts in the story meaningfully. It is the worldview story that, if well told, captures the imaginations of those who own it, thereby driving them on and holding their loyalty.10
Genesis certainly shows us that humans are sinful, but the point of the story is to tell us how we got that way. Genesis also shows us that humans have dignity and responsibility, but that is only because we were supernaturally created in God’s image. Without the story, we have no basis for accepting the worldview.
In sum, we cannot call Genesis “myth” (in the sense of non-historical) simply because it resembles the ancient Mesopotamian creation and flood narratives. The Mesopotamians probably meant to present real history, and the Hebrews certainly did. So if borrowing did occur one way or the other, it is largely irrelevant. But it is one thing to have a historical intent, and it is quite another to succeed in that intent. Or to put it differently, an account can be history with respect to purpose, but myth with respect to reality. So far, this discussion has focused only on the intent of the original author. But even if we can be sure that Genesis makes real historical claims, can we be sure that those claims are actually true? To answer that question, we have to examine the relationship between Genesis and science, which will be taken up in Part 2 of this post.
C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. (See especially Chapter 2 and Appendix 1.)
K.A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006.
1 The rest of Genesis, chapters 12-50, is usually called “patriarchal history” because it covers the lives of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. While some critics may also question the historicity of these chapters, most controversies today concern the primeval history of chapters 1-11.
2 For example, Captain Ahab in the novel Moby Dick might be a symbol of humanity’s desire for glory or revenge. See John Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 38.
3 Just think of the television series MythBusters, where “myth” refers to widely-held false beliefs that need to be debunked. This is also how the Bible itself uses the word “myth”—see 1 Timothy 1:4; 4:7; 2 Peter 1:16.
4 V. Philips Long calls this the distinction between “truth claim” and “truth value.” See Long, The Art of Biblical History (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 24.
5 Of course, such standards should take into account the differences between ancient and modern historical writing. It is pretty obvious that Genesis contains a great deal of poetic language and lacks the sort of scientific precision that we find in modern historical writing. This point will be addressed further in Part 2 of this FAQ.
7 According to OT scholar John Walton, “For confessional [Christian] scholars who consider it important to maintain the integrity of biblical inspiration, the idea that the author of Genesis made use of material from the ancient Near East need occasion no more concern than the idea that Solomon incorporated into the book of Proverbs some of the wisdom material that he had encountered in the wisdom of his world. Inspiration can operate through editors, redactors and tradents as effectively as it operates through authors.” “Creation,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 167.
8 K.A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 425-426.
9 Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, The Quotable Lewis (London: Tyndale House, 1990), 121.
10 C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 27.
Review of Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, by Thomas Nagel
In Mind & Cosmos, renowned American philosopher Thomas Nagel calls into question the dominant scientific understanding of the human mind. Most scientists today believe that our minds can be fully explained in terms of the physical materials of which they are composed—hence the descriptor “materialistic reductionism.” Moreover, these scientists are convinced that our minds came into being through a long historical process, in which self-replicating life first emerged through a set of accidental chemical chain reactions, and then evolved through the undirected forces of natural selection working on genetic mutation, finally producing the diversity of life as we know it (including us humans with our capacities for reason and morality)—this story is called Neo-Darwinism. So, according to Nagel, the Neo-Darwinian materialists are attempting to give their own answers to two interrelated questions with which any theory of mind must grapple: the constitutive question (what is the mind actually composed of, and how is it related to the physical world?) and the historical question (how did such minds actually come to exist in the world?).
Nagel believes that the Neo-Darwinian materialists fail on both counts. Our minds—including the features of consciousness, cognition, and value—cannot be reduced to their physical components alone, and a purely physical account of evolution from non-life to life to consciousness to rationality is inadequate. The reasons for their failure, according to Nagel, are numerous: 1) it is highly unlikely that the emergence of life from non-life was an accident, 2) it is highly unlikely that undirected evolution alone can account for the diversity and complexity of life as we know it, 3) consciousness is not sufficiently explained by brute matter, and 4) Neo-Darwinism cannot account for the existence of objective reason and morality, nor for the existence of creatures capable of tapping into that objective reality.
Now these objections have been raised by creationists and proponents of intelligent design for quite some time. In that respect, Nagel isn’t really saying anything more than what folks like C.S. Lewis, Cornelius Van Til, Alvin Plantinga, and Victor Reppert have already said. What makes Nagel’s book so interesting is the fact that Nagel himself is a committed atheist, and he therefore attempts to present an alternative naturalistic (but not materialistic) account of mind’s nature and origins. According to Nagel, explanations of mind fall into three categories: causal (or physical, which is the current reigning view among scientists), intentional (or theistic, which represents the ID minority), and teleological (or goal-oriented). In the thought of most people, the intentional and teleological categories are one and the same. But Nagel opts for a “teleological naturalism” which understands the universe itself to be inherently biased toward the production of conscious, rational life (he describes the universe as gradually “waking up”). These teleological forces are by their very nature not subject to empirical, scientific discovery, and so Nagel’s view may be understood as a form of double-aspect theory or panpsychism.
In my opinion, Nagel is too dismissive of the theistic option, which seems to have greater explanatory power. Nagel favors a naturalistic explanation because it does not have to posit the existence of entities external to the universe (like God). But when one asks the question why such a universe as ours exists—one that has within it the inherent properties and inclinations to produce conscious, rational beings like ourselves—Nagel seems to be in no better of a position than the materialists who, at the end of the day, can only shrug their shoulders and say, “This is just how things are” (17). The universe’s existence is taken to be simply an inexplicable brute fact. But how is theism any different? When asked why God himself exists, do we too simply shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s just how he is?” On this point, however, we need to distinguish between contingent truths and necessary truths. Our universe is evidently contingent—that is, we can quite easily imagine it existing differently than it is, or not existing at all. But God’s existence is necessary; he could not be other than he is. A necessary truth seems to have greater explanatory value than a contingent truth, and this point counts in favor of theism over against any supposed teleological naturalism. (Side note: Nagel is also rightly skeptical of the “multiple worlds” explanation, which posits that there may be an infinite number of contingent universes, and ours happens to be one with the right conditions for rational life. That’s like trying to solve the problem of winning the cosmic lottery by suggesting that we have bought all the tickets; 95n9.)
Having looked at some of the reviews of Nagel’s book, I find it unsurprising that the majority of the scientific community have reacted with hostility to his critiques. In the New York Review of Books, biologist H. Allen Orr argues that a materialist account of the origin of life is not that implausible, given developments in the so-called “RNA world hypothesis” since the 1980’s. In response, I would direct readers to a critique of this hypothesis at Reasons to Believe. As a layman I can only express my skepticism that such a hypothesis can do the heavy lifting that materialists require of it.
Orr also seems to think that the reality of both adaptations from complex-to-simple and the extinctions of entire species count in favor of theories of undirected evolution over against teleological theories. But this presupposes that teleology may only have certain known goals in mind (such as moving from simple to complex, or toward the survival of all forms of life). But what if a different goal was intended in some instances—for example, what if the goal of the extinction of the dinosaurs was to provide us modern humans with an ample supply of petroleum? This is purely hypothetical of course, but the point is that we don’t have to know the directed goal for everything to recognize the directed goal for some things.
Orr’s objections to Nagel’s philosophical argument from consciousness are equally unpersuasive. Orr admits the mystery of how one can get from chemical processes in the brain to actual subjective experiences, but he then seems to appeal to a “materialism of the gaps” (a phrase Nagel himself uses, 127): science may someday be able to arrive at an explanation for the subjective experience of consciousness, even if such an explanation runs counter to our own intuitions. But here the problem does not seem to be merely a lack of empirical evidence, which may be remedied by future research. There is an in principle barrier between the tools that science has at its disposal and the nature of our conscious minds. Science is great at studying empirical, objective phenomena, but there is no way to turn it “inwards” on our own subjective state. That’s where science ends and philosophy (or theology) begins.
Orr’s second reason for dismissing Nagel’s argument from consciousness is also rather weak. He supposes that the reason why we can’t seem to solve the mind-body problem is because of our cognitive limitations as evolved creatures. This may be a coherent reason given Orr’s own premises, but it is essentially circular and therefore will not persuade anyone who questions the evolutionary premise to begin with. Further, as Nagel himself states at the end of his book, we have no reason to believe that such cognitive limitations exist, and we should therefore keep trying so solve the problem (128).
In all, Mind & Cosmos is a worthwhile read, and it is sure to have an impact in years to come. But in the final analysis, I will have to say of Nagel what he says of intelligent design proponents: while the criticisms he raises are valid and need to be taken more seriously, his own proposed solution is much less persuasive.