Deep time – what’s the story?

When one draws back from the “evolution is a proven fact” polemic, and aims to pin things down more rigorously, the least-contestable parts of the received scientific wisdom, vague as that is overall in the public arena, are the great age of the earth, and the succession of species (as opposed to common descent, which has some strong evidence but of a more inferential kind).

Deep time’s strongest theological suit, in my book, is that a careful reading of the Bible makes no statement about the time of the creation – the chronological evidence of histories and genealogies actually takes one back to Adam, and it is an inference that the creation of man in chapter 1 refers to the creation of Adam in ch2. There are other explanations apart from the material-literal for the 7-day creation, too, some of which predate the whole modern scientific issue.

So the chronologies of the earth, and of the Universe, are (broadly) consistent across a whole raft of estimation tools, many of which (such as red-shift, radioactive dating or the rate of tectonic movements) have appeared as by-products of other research over the decades.

That’s not to say that even dating is without troubling anomalies. Life is never that tidy. For example, the discovery of soft, organic dinosaur remains in fossils, once one frees the question from the creation culture wars, poses some very serious issues. No scientist would, a few years ago, have admitted the slightest possibility that cell structures could be retained in more or less their original chemical form for 60 million years. Mary Schweitzer’s subsequent work has opted to try and prove that impossibility to be possible, rather than to research her other stated possibility – that the T. rex remains are far, far, more recent than anything in modern science allows. Currently, though, two impossibilities compete to be seen as the truth, or to be ignored. I respect those like Mary Schweitzer who worry away at anomalies much more than those who shrug them off.

Another interesting dating anomaly is the exacavation at Hueyatlaco. As in Schweitzer’s case, the first scientific response to the site’s impossibility was to accuse the excavators of villainy. Currently, since the impossibility refuses to go away, the episode has been filed under “the carpet”. Indeed, anomalies are bound to occur in any approach to truth, and do not overturn theories or make knowledge impossible. What interests me about Hueyatlaco, though, is that all four independent dating methods, plus the radiocarbon dating which was off-scale but well outside the archaeologically plausible, plus the geological opinions of those reviewing the site, all came up with the same ancient date. In this case, it’s a lot more likely that the dates are wrong than that an advanced culture existed in Mexico 1/4 million years ago… but until the error is explained, a shadow is cast on all those dating methods in other contexts.

Be that as it may, I’m convinced by deep time overall. Even if all the dating methods turned out to be out by a factor of 10, the earth is old. If that’s the case it’s reasonable to conjecture (but less reasonable to draw firm conclusions!) on why God would do things that way. The biblical miracles make it clear that God could have created the end state instantaneously. If it was a question of free humans being put on probation, a soul-in-a-vat would arguably be as good a testing-ground as an ancient universe.

Way back, Augustine saw this, and in fact concluded that the creation was in reality probably instantaneous. He had some reasons for this – biblically, the existence of day and night before the sun seemed to give a big “non-literal” clue. Furthermore, he (falsely) conflated the biblical idea of tohu wabohu (formless and empty) with the Greek philosophical idea of matter without form, which was only possibly conceptually, rather than actually. (In point of fact the Hebrew concept has more to do with uselessness [for man] than lack of substantial form). So anyway, Augustine saw the six days as a narrative device to aid human understanding:

Augustine teaches as the more probable opinion that God “made all things at once, also giving them order, not over intervals of time, but by causal connection, in order that the things that were made simultaneously might also be brought to perfection in a sixfold presentation of that day. And so the unformed and formable matter, spiritual and corporal, from which whatever was to be made would come, was the first thing made, not in the temporal, but in the causal order.”  But the work of creation is separated in the narration of Genesis so that it can be more easily understood by those whose minds are less prepared.  “For the second day, the third, and the rest are not other days; but the same one day is repeated to complete the number six or seven, so that there should be knowledge both of God’s works and of His rest.”  [various sources]

This, it seems to me, is at least as sophisticated, and more orthodox, an explanation as that of the “free-process” TEs, who take it as read that any process not working by autonomous secondary efficent causes from the beginning would be a coercion of nature’s “freedom” to be itself. I’ve grown tired of explaining just how incoherent this is on every level – suffice it to say here that the wine at Cana appeared miraculously, and was then quite free to be itself – if indeed it even cared about that as it was drunk appreciatively. There has to be a better explanation, it seems to me, and Augustine may have a clue to it, despite his errors on the matter in hand.

One of the stumblingblocks to YECs, and to those embracing the completely unprincipled Copernican Principle (it’s actually just a Prejudice), is why God would make a universe in which rational man occupied a few square galactic inches for a second or two of geological time. Now God made the world, Scripture says, primarily for his own pleasure and glory, so our apparent insignificance is irrelevant in that respect. Even so, we might ask why God preferred this particular pattern of a single cosmos with an exceedingly long and connected history to, say, an unconnected gallery of abstract works or a timeless mathematical perfection.

In fact, Genesis (in contradiction of pagan creation accounts of the time) gives a deeply anthropocentric view of creation – it was made for man as the very image of God, and it was through man that God would receive the greatest pleasure and glory from it. There is a close relationship to the Person of Christ in this, which I won’t explore having done so here and here, for example.

Augustine assumed an instantaneous creation in actuality, with a chronological account in the Bible (of seven whole days!) to suit mankind’s intellectual capacities. I’m going to suggest that one explanation for the old earth may be that God suited the actual creation to mankind’s capacities, according to the concept that GD and I discussed briefly on a previous thread – that of intelligibility.

One of the things that’s become clear in various intellectual fields over the last few decades is the central place of story in human thought. We use story to make sense of everything we encounter. We learn to function in the world through the stories our parents tell us. We turn our life, our ancestry or our nation into a coherent narrative that gives us our identity. We learn morality, life-skills and practical virtues through stories. The Bible, of course, unfolds as a story and not as a textbook of systematic theology. Even our science, though at its best modelled by mathematics, is understood narratively. We are Homo fabulosus as much as we are Homo sapiens.

So perhaps the reason God made the universe as a history, with a trajectory from the big bang to, in Christian thought, the new creation is to make a congruence with the manner in which we humans render reality intelligible, by telling it as a story.

What I’m trying to do is to shift our frame of reference from “intelligibility” as understood through modern science to “intelligibility” as it appears to all men everywhere, from the Australian Aborigine speaking of the Dreamtime to the Postmodern novelist. To the scientist, intelligibility has to do entirely with causal chains, with logical reason – with God’s own language being that of mathematics, perhaps.

But stories, whilst they also depend on logical connections, are wider than that. A novel is intelligible through sharing both psychological states and emotional reponses. The Lord of the Rings is intelligible despite its employment of occult (and imaginary) powers. A gospel narrative is intelligible even when water is turned into wine or Christ rises from the grave – or when God’s ways are not our ways, and we learn the limits of our reason before him.

The long history of the earth may, for many reasons, be scientifically opaque (especially when it includes anomalies like dinosaur soft tissue and crazy archaeological dating results). It may be theologically opaque as we strive to understand God’s role, and the role of secondary powers, in the saga of life. But it’s still a story, and a story which we can read, think about and begin to understand, especially in terms of the nature of God and his relationship to us and to his world. Much of that understanding will be achieved not at the level where cause and effect lodge – in our reason, but at the far deeper human level where we comprehend stories.

Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to Deep time – what’s the story?

  1. Cal says:

    That’s an interesting point, that perhaps the old age of things is for our appreciation and discovery. It is much more enjoyable to be told the story of ‘Land Before Time’ without living presently in it. We’re at both times irrelevant and loved by our Creator. God created dinosaurs and delighted in them, and left them in some form for our own imagination.

    What an invitation to awe.

    And yes, I find story-telling to be one of the most enjoyable and human things to do!


  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    …and left them in some form for our own imagination.

    And worship of course, as I’ve suggested in a couple of posts before. My point this time is slightly different, in that we understand more by story than we do by the more purely intellectual attributes.

    Once again, thanks for coming by to add your wisdom, Cal.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    I respect those like Mary Schweitzer who worry away at anomalies much more than those who shrug them off.

    I’ve just come across a very apposite quote, about Charles Darwin by his son:

    There was one quality of mind which seemed to be of special and extreme advantage in leading him to make discoveries. It was the power of never letting exceptions pass unnoticed. Everybody notices a fact as an exception when it is striking or frequent, but he had a special instinct for arresting an exception. . . . It was just these things that he seized on to make a start from.

  4. Ian Thompson says:

    Jon: you say The biblical miracles make it clear that God could have created the end state instantaneously.

    Where do we see adults being created instantaneously?
    Or is it only that healing (of existing beings) is instantaneous?
    (Even the creation story talks about a sequence of times, or sequence of developments).

    If adults cannot be created instantaneously, does that fact not suggest that something like deep time is needed even for God to draw mature adults out of the initial state of the universe?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Ian

      I had in mind the appearance of wine, or of fish and bread, or the complete provision of not only optical sight to someone congenitally blind, but the perceptive and interpretive functions that normally arise through experience. I would also cite John the Baptist’s claim that God could, if he wished, raise up children for Abraham from the stones. But in all this I intended merely to show God’s ability to act instantly – and certainly not to imply that it would be as good a way to do things.

      On the one hand, God creates freely, not by necessity. On the other, doing things the best, most fitting, most effective way imposes a “necessity” of sorts. So I don’t have a problem with your suggestion that only deep time would do the job of producing mature humans – though it must be speculative, as history is littered with attempts to tell God how he must have done things which later turn out to be wrong. One example would be the very sound and rational arguments put forward in the early Church (eg by Augustine) for the necessity of creation’s being, in literal terms, instant.

      My overall point is simply that a historical narrative is one feature providing intelligibility to the cosmos for us – not that that must be the only reason. After all, we only become mature adults by the very act of making the world intelligible, so we are at least in some ways saying the same thing.

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