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Double Blind (Snoke and Mirrors, part 2)

February 20, 2007

David Snoke’s recent book, A Biblical Case for an Old Earth was born out of a controversy within the Presbyterian Church in America, in which he holds the office of elder. Some elements within the denomination had been advocating denying pastoral credentials to individuals who hold to an “old earth” view of creation, on the grounds that it is a heterodox opinion, tending perhaps to theistic evolution. Snoke, a physicist and astronomer, and an advocate of intelligent design, responds that evolution and the age of the earth are separate issues, and that scientific evidence for great antiquity is clear and conclusive. Citing both scientific and exegetical reasons he argues for a day-age understanding of Genesis 1.

Before discussing points of disagreement, it is well to underscore significant areas where I agree with his assertions. First, intelligent design makes for a cogent and compelling argument against evolution. He states that it undermines Darwinism, and I wholeheartedly agree that it does conceptually. Whether it will do so on any widespread basis within the scientific community, I am perhaps less sanguine than Snoke, as I see Darwin adherence more a religious than a scientific practice.

I certainly agree that proponents of the day-age understanding of the creation account ought not for that reason be considered heterodox. I do not think it is the best understanding of the text, but the nature of the Hebrew does not exclude an understanding of “day” as other than a 24-hour period. Francis Schaeffer said as much decades ago in his Genesis in Space and Time.

I am with Snoke that much of contemporary creationist material is downright cheesy. Christian young people may be more not less prone to reject Christianity in toto when college reveals the shortcomings of certain popular creationist writers.

His concept of “concordantist” science can only be applauded, where scientific inquiry takes Biblical assertions seriously, and where in return Scriptural exegesis is carried out in light of truth discerned through observation of the natural order. Now, he and I might disagree on the application of this principle and how to strike the appropriate balance, but there is no question that special revelation and natural revelation, being two works of the same author, must agree.

Now, here I must move on to less happy observations, and I recognize that some of these may be due to the fact that I am not the one he is primarily addressing nor the one he is opposing. I could quibble over imperfections in his presentation (and I probably will), such as straw-men argument, lengthy discussions of questionable relevance, pointless and distracting forays into unrelated doctrines (cessationism, dispensationalism), and dubious linguistic treatments.

Professor Snoke calls science “just a way of expanding and organizing our experience” (p. 13). I would like to take this definition a bit farther: science is a method of teasing truth out of the jumbled fibers of our experience, distingishing from various options available the one most probable. The method maximizes the relevance of our observations by controlling for variables that muddy the waters, such as observer bias.

We can see this technique at work in a pharmaceutical trial. We are focused on a certain chemical substance and need to reliably observe any cause and effect in regard to individuals with a particular condition. We will need to be able to say without hesitation that an observed effect is attributable to one and only one cause. So one by one we control all the variables. The subjects are carefully selected with attention to differences of age, sex, race. Other factors that can effect outcome are accounted for, such as diet, sleep, sources of stress. The test is said to be “double blind,” that is neither the subjects nor the researchers are aware which individuals are receiving active medication and which are receiving a placebo, so participant bias is most nearly eliminated.

Only with all the variables accounted for can the masses of measurement, observation, subjective response, and other data have ultimate meaning. If this is not done adequately, no one could ever be sure that any effect was due to the medication or to other causes.

Imagine you have just completed a two-year study for a hypertension medicine. The results are very encouraging, and you believe you have an efficacious remedy with minimal side effects. You are on your way to an FDA hearing, when one of your team members suddenly realizes that they forgot to instruct the subjects in one important area. All the subjects had discontinued all other prescription antihypertensives, but you neglected to control for certain over-the-counter remedies, including herbal nostrums. Further inquiry determines that more than half of your panel of subjects admits to using herbs, teas, and folk remedies during the trial.

Frankly you doubt the herbs had any effect, but you do not know this, and you certainly cannot demonstrate it scientifically. You are after all a pharmaceutical researcher and may well have a bias against popular remedies (indeed you consider their claims an embarrassment, and their proponents mere quacks). Nevertheless, you have failed to control a significant variable, and are left with more than one possible cause for the observed effect. The doubt invalidates your conclusion and you cannot at this point promote your pharmaceutical on the basis of science.

To return to my water-become-wine illustration in my previous post, as concordantists, we admit divine creative act into the equasion, given the Cana wedding narrative of John 2. As such for a hypothetical sample of wine in the circumstances given in my parable, the effect, we can posit two possible causes: (1) grapes grew on a vine, were picked, crushed, and the juice allowed to ferment and age over a period of time from months to years, or (2) Jesus produced it miraculously in an instant, perhaps yesterday. What scientific study can tell us which possible cause to choose for this effect? We have one too many variables. It is no denigration of science to admit that science is powerless to help us here. This case calls not for science, but for history. The testimony of one of the servants at the wedding becomes the most relevant evidence, and the reliability of the witness necessarily plays a major role.

Now a scientist, a chemist say, even one who admits the miraculous, may prefer option (1) for any number of reasons: it is more “normal,” it is more consistent with natural law, it falls within the scope of his skills (if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail), it causes less cognitive dissonance, it is easier to explain to colleagues, it feels less embarrassing. All of the above might be causes for a scientist to prefer option (1), but none of them are scientific reasons. They are all examples of bias.

The wine illustration is similar to the case Snoke invites us to examine. We have an effect, the universe, the phenomena of which we can observe in some detail. We wish to determine something about its cause, specifically a question of time: when did this cause occur? Now we have another bit of information to account for: we know that a divine acts of creation occurred to bring each element of the observable universe into existence. Given this fact, we would be helped by knowing as much as we can about the nature of these divine acts. The fact of the matter is that we are told only the sketchiest of details as to how this took place, and some of these, we suspect, may have been expressed figuratively.

Let us consider two possibilities mentioned by Snokes: (1) God created space and matter in the distant past in what we call “the Big Bang,” Over eons of time as space expanded bodies coalesced into stars and planets, our planet the earth passed through stages in which the atmosphere formed, and the lithosphere underwent transformations. At a given point in time God created forms of life, monera perhaps, and kingdom plantae. Millions of years later he again created: animal life, and ages later he created man. This, I believe, is consistent with his view of events.

However he also admits a possibility (2): God created the earth and the cosmos and all the life forms on the earth, with, as he puts it “an appearance of age.” Another way of stating it may be that he formed various entities in a state of maturity, analogous, if you will, to the example of the instant wine of John 2. Snoke has stipulated that such is in fact the case for the creation of man; the very day that he became a living soul, his appearance was consistent with a human male perhaps thirty years of age. Since he rejects evolution, I would infer that he also supposes that all other forms of animal life were originally created in maturity. If pattern held consistently with plants, they too would be created mature, trees, for example, created with growth rings. If original trees have rings, then we might include coral reefs with layers, sedimentary rock, the creation of stars and their rays of light. We are not told in Scripture that all of this was the case, but if we take the Bible seriously we must admit that such a scenario is certainly a possibility.

Now we come to Snoke’s phenomena: the distance of the stars, geological features, archaological data. Due to our ignorance regarding the nature of the creative act, we again are left with two possible causes for the same effect. In other words, in order to rule out a young earth, we must determine what it would look like and demonstrate that the world does not in fact look this way. By definition wouldn’t an “appearance of age” earth appear identical to a genuinely old one?

What then will scientific observation contribute to our goal of deciding between option one and option two? The fundamental logical error I have referred to in Snoke’s argument is that he has failed to control an essential variable. As such he could cite a list of phenomena a thousand times as long as he has and it would change nothing. I believe that he has assumed away something that he ought to have accounted for. Ultimately, he relies on circular reasoning.

As I mentioned earlier, there may be many reasons why a scientist would tend to prefer option (1) over option (2), but I have suggested many are reasons of bias not of science. Please, do not think that I am in any way casting any aspersions on the man. No, every word of his book evinces the utmost sincerity. Only, I think he has made a mistake.

Indeed, I do not begrudge him his view. I have not said that science and reason favor a young earth, only that they leave the matter inconclusive. He himself shares his hope that he has in no way taken his view out of peer pressure. Yet he does live and work in a milieu of pressure. As a proponent of intelligent design he takes his stand in opposition to Darwinism, surely not always a comfortable or convenient position. I will admit that the age of the earth is a much less significant controversy; no need to wish him increased controversy within his discipline.

However, for my part, seeing science as inconclusive, I call upon history. While there is “wiggle room” in Genesis 1 that I can grant to my brothers and sisters in the Lord, in my opinion the test heavily favors six-day creation ceteris paribus. Snoke’s retrofit of the creation account I find beset with difficulty. This I intend to develop in a later post.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    February 22, 2007 7:01 am

    Marv,

    You and he admit at least two possibilities. Your specialty is languages; your best understanding is that Moses meant six literal days, though you admit it could be something else. Snoke acknowledges the validity of that position, and certainly it does not contain the circular reasoning you accuse Snoke of using.

    But I don’t think Snoke arrives at his opinion because of cirular reasoning either. Rather, it’s moral. Turning water into wine or creating the first man at, say, age 30, is one thing. It’s not deceptive; you might say it’s just practical. Creating an earth with layers and layers and layers of, for example, fossils, is, in his mind something quite different. Not in your thinking, but in his, it brings an immoral quality of deception to the table.

    Again, you won’t agree with his analysis of morality; I’m simply saying that the hinge of your post is that his analysis is based on circular reasoning, and I don’t think it is.

    TJ

  2. February 22, 2007 6:25 pm

    I don’t recall Snoke entering into the deception argument or referring to morality. I did see that idea in the bit of your correspondence that you shared with me. In the first place, I think one might call the water-into-wine affair a little on the deceptive line, if you were inclined to see things that way.I do admit that fossils are harder to imagine in this way than tree rings.However, the deception idea is, I am afraid, scandalously man-centered. It reminds me of the pot that accuses the potter. This is part of what I meant when I said “appearance of age” was dismissive. This terminology I think tends to prejudice the case.The Lord is a master artist, author. If–and it is an if of course–he decided to open his story in medias res, he did it for his own good reasons. To cry foul, that YOU were misled by his art–not fair, not fair…He HAS to do it in a way transparent to ME…Depraved mankind has always had trouble reading his revelation aright. It is not because we misapprehend in our assumptions that God can be accused of trying to dupe us.Anyway: It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out. Prov. 25:2.However I have more to say that may flesh out some of these ideas. So stay tuned.

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