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Category Archives: History


Joshua’s long day and miracles

Joshua’s long day has a long history of debate but is often forgotten today. The book of Joshua 10:13 says:

So the sun stood still,
And the moon stopped,
Till the people had revenge
Upon their enemies.

It is often said that this contradicts heliocentric astronomy. Actually, it contradicts geocentric astronomy, too: the sun and moon are supposed to keep moving.

Joshua 10:13 is a piece of data, an observation; it is not a model or theory. Those who construct models or theories would certainly consider it an extreme outlier and no doubt delete it from consideration. But is this justified?

Science values larger extensions and Joshua’s long day would limit the scope of a theory if it were accepted. So scientists have an incentive to remove it and claim a theory with large extension. Furthermore, Hume and others argue that the more unusual the claim, the greater the evidence needed to justify it.

But this betrays an extensional bias. What if the extreme outlier is highly meaningful, highly intensive? To delete it would be a great loss of intension. A more balanced science would be reluctant to delete it without due consideration. The fact that this is preserved in the book with the greatest intension, the Bible, should lead us to be reluctant to delete it.

Meaningful miracles do happen. We have sufficient testimony to them and sufficient incentive to preserve them for their intensionality, even if it means losing some extensionality in our theories.

Science in history

Scientific theories are in principle subject to underdetermination in that multiple theories could account for the data. In the natural sciences this possibility is strongly resisted. When Darwin proposed his theory in 1859, he could not show that a version of special creation would not account for the data. What he and Huxley did instead was to advance a new definition of science that was completely naturalistic so that special creation was no longer science, no matter what evidence it might have in its favor.

The late 19th century also showed the rise of agnosticism and secularism, which are tied to the new definition of science. William Dembski has a chapter on this in his book Intelligent Design, The Bridge Between Science & Theology (Chapter 3 on the Demise of British Natural Theology). Dembski is right to call naturalism idolatry.

Darwin’s strategy won the day so that few people now are even aware of the older definition of science that allowed special creation. One could say that creationists and intelligent design advocates have this in common: both reject the naturalistic definition of science. In that sense both want to return to a former definition of science, though it is not being stated as a return but as a better definition. Perhaps that reflects the anti-historical bias of our day — who cares about the past that has been superseded?

One could argue that the 19th century naturalistic and positivistic turn was a result of Enlightenment thinking in the 18th century. And one could argue that Enlightenment thinking arose as a result of mechanistic thinking in the 17th century. And one could even argue that that was a result of the nominalism that arose in the late medieval and renaissance periods. But even so there has been much continuity throughout this time of what natural science is.

Is it better to promote a post-naturalistic, post-secular science or focus on critiquing the mistakes of the past? Both are worth doing, though the latter has been neglected. Several points could be made by those who accept a form of special creation: (1) they are not scientific newcomers or rebels; (2) they are in continuity with a long past; (3) their opponents have broken from the historic mainstream of science.


The origin of species terminology

Creationism in a philosophical/scientific context was first propounded by Socrates (David Sedley, Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity, 2007). Socrates did not provide specifics but it is often said that Plato and Aristotle did: biological species were like logical species and so did not change — species were fixed — and purportedly this is what creationists have said ever since. But that is an over-simplification which requires a two-part response: (1) what are species, and (2) what does species fixity mean?

The place to begin is with the book Species: A History of the Idea by John S. Wilkins. The author starts by rejecting what he calls “the Received View” which runs like this:

“Plato defined Form (eidos) as something that had an essence, and Aristotle set up a way of dividing genera (gene) into species (eide) so that each species shared the essence of the genus, and each individual in the species shared the essence of the species. Linnaeus took this idea and made species into constant and essentialistic types. Darwin overcame this essentialism.” p.4

Wilkins shows that the Received View is mistaken. Species have come down to us via a neo-Platonic, not an Aristotelian, route. Typology and essentialism were not bound together. Instead, what he calls the generative conception of species runs through pre-Darwinian thought.

Wilkins distinguishes two kinds of taxonomy: universal, which is classification in general by division, and biological, which is classification by generation. Plato classified things by diairesis (division) and synogage (grouping) according to their differences and similarities. The purpose was to “carve nature at its joints”.

Aristotle broadened Plato into a method that was later called per genus et differentiam — by the general type and the particular difference. For him “a species is a group that is formed by differentiating a prior group formed by a generic concept.” Aristotle accepts only the possibility (not the necessity) that species might be eternal. Similarly, the Epicureans held that “species are forms generated by the natures of their substances.”

In the modern era John Ray in the 17th century was the first to describe biological species. In his 1686 History of plants Ray was the first to produce a biological definition of species:

“… no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species… Animals likewise that differ specifically preserve their distinct species permanently; one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa”. (Ernst Mayr, Growth of biological thought, p.256).

Carl Linnaeus ran with this in his Systema Naturae (“The System of Nature”) and other writings. While he later realized the species concept had its limits, it has provided a basis for natural history ever since.

The concept of permanent species came to be known as fixity of species and was the foil for Darwin, who focused on its lack of changeability. For Ray and Linnaeus change was variation that was not part of the species (the type or kind). For Darwin change is evolution which includes each species and more. It’s a question of which came first or is primary: change or type? For evolutionists, change is primary; for Darwin’s predecessors and opponents type is primary.

If type is primary, then the type or kind (which is what the word species means in Latin) is invariant. Science generally looks for and studies invariants such as conservation principles. But biologists after Darwin look for variance instead. That allows them to explain anything and everything as change. It’s a gain in explanatory ability at the cost of invariant principles. There are no laws of evolutionary biology, unless you want to make the non-law “everything is change” a law.

Religion in Ngrams

Google’s Ngram Viewer gives the frequencies of words and phrases in books since about 1800. It is an interesting way of looking at history in the last two centuries. What follows are some observations about the usage of words associated with religion and Christianity:

Usage of the word religion has gradually decreased since 1810, steeply until 1860. The words virtue, virtues and virtuous have declined since 1810. Trinity has decreased since 1815.

The words priest and pastor move in parallel with priest more common and both declining moderately since 1860. Bishop declined rapidly in the 1840s and 1850s.

Several words have declined since 1840: irreligious, evil, wicked, church, God, Jesus Christ, Christianity. The word theology had a peak in 1890 and a trough in 1940. Christian declined from 1850 to 1920 then leveled off.

The words atheism and atheist decreased until 1920 then leveled off. The terms evangelical (or Evangelical) and reformed (or Reformed) declined from the 1840s to 1920 then leveled off.

The words moral and prayer declined from 1840 to 1940 then leveled off. Holy Spirit decreased from 1840 to 1940 then increased as Holy Ghost declined.

Contrary to this trend Christmas increased from the 1830s to the 1940s, declined until 1970 and then has increased since then. Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol was published in December 1843 and likely contributed to the rise.

Buddhist and Buddhism have been on the rise since 1820. Hindu has been on the rise since the 1790s. Islam and Moslem slowly rose from 1820 to 1950 but then diverged: Islam sharply higher and Moslem lower. Pagan and Paganism were on a long decline since before 1780, with a modest rise since 1990.

The words secular and secularism have increased since 1920. The phrase organized religion took off from 1900 to 1940, and has oscillated since then.

Bible peaked in the 1850s but has been on the rise since the 1970s. Bible study had a steep peak in 1915, declined to the 1940s, and a steep rise since the 1970s.

So the period 1840 to 1920 had a general decline in usage of religious words. Since then it is more mixed: some decline but also some increases, Bible study being the most dramatic.

History of science via Ngrams

Google’s Ngram Viewer is a fascinating look at word usage since about 1800. For example, the story of how the term natural history declined and the terms biology and geology increased is told in a simple chart. Let’s look at the etymologies first, via the Online Etymology Dictionary:

biology (n.) 1819, from Greek bios “life” (see bio-) + -logy. Suggested 1802 by German naturalist Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus (1776-1837), and introduced as a scientific term that year in French by Lamarck.

The usage of biology rises steadily from the mid-19th century to today, with a pause during the Depression.

geology (n.) 1795 as “science of the past and present condition of the Earth’s crust,” from Modern Latin geologia “the study of the earth,” from geo– “earth” + logia (see -logy). In Medieval Latin, geologia (14c.) meant “study of earthly things,” i.e. law, as distinguished from arts and sciences, which concern the works of God.

The modern usage of geology rises in the early 19th century and levels off.

As Wikipedia notes: The English term “natural history” is a translation of the Latin historia naturalis. Its meaning has narrowed progressively with time. Natural history has its heyday in the early 19th century and then declines and levels off since 1920.

The usage of evolution rises slowly in the early 19th century, and then quickly from 1860 to the 1890s, peaks around 1920, drops lower in the 1930s and has been rising since the 1950s. Perhaps the dip has to do with (American) textbooks in the 1930s avoiding the word evolution (see Textbook History).

Special creation never comes near the usage that biology and geology have, which reminds us that it was never a particular theory but only a general understanding of how the creation must be. Its usage peaked around 1890, which is not surprising as it was (and is) used as a foil for evolution.

Creationism was rare before the 1860s, then still uncommon even when its usage jumped in the 1980s and leveled off. Intelligent design is less common, with a modest peak in the 1880s and a rise since the 1990s. Its component word design bottomed out in the 1890s, when it rose until the 1990s and leveled off.

Consensus science

Michael Crichton, a well-known scientist and author, delivered the Caltech Michelin Lecture on January 17, 2003. He entitled it “Aliens Cause Global Warming” which criticized what is called “consensus science” starting with SETI. A few excerpts:

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled.

He went on:

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

Read more →

The concept of miracle

Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg made some good points in a short article on miracles; see excerpt below:

In the modern history of the dispute between scientists or philosophers calling upon the authority of science on the one hand and Christian theologians on the other, the concept of miracle has become one of the more intricate problems, because miracles are said to involve a violation of the laws of nature, as David Hume asserted in the section on miracles in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). This is a self-defeating notion of miracle, of course, because the logic of the concept of natural law requires that there be no exceptions–otherwise the pretended law in question would turn out not to be truly a law of nature. The concept of miracle as a violation of natural law subverts the very concept of law and in effect exposes the futility of the assertion of miracles.

This is not the meaning of the concept of miracle in Christian theology, however. In the biblical writings, the word miracle refers to extraordinary events that function as “signs” of God’s sovereign power. Therefore, the biblical language often speaks of “signs and wonders’ (Daniel 6:27; John4:48). A wonder, or miracle, is basically an unusual–in fact, extraordinary–event. Augustine said, “Whatever is unusual, is a miracle”…. Explicitly he emphasized that events of that type do not occur contrary to the nature of things. To us they may appear contrary, because of our limited knowledge of the “course of nature.” But God’s point of view is different, because he is the Creator of the nature of things as well as of the events that appear unusual to us. …

In medieval theology the conception of miracles changes, because the nature of things was now conceived of objectively, not in relation to the limitations of our knowledge. …

Later, the view of miracles as occurring contra naturam [against nature] became more generally accepted, as did a concept of nature and of the order of nature based on human experience. This development finally led to the idea that a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.

The concept of miracle in the Augustinian sense of the term, then, does not involve any opposition to the order of nature described in terms of natural law. It only requires us to admit that we do not know everything about how the processes of nature work.

Zygon, vol.37, no.3 (Sept. 2002), 759-762


Approaches to origins

Let’s distinguish three approaches to the study of universal origins:

Philosophical naturalism with natural science

Biblical creationism with creation science or Philosophical creationism with universal history

Autonomous Humanism: naturalism with natural history and science

Read more →

History and science

Authentic eyewitness testimony carries more weight than physical evidence concerning events in the past – particularly the distant past. Artifacts of the past are always open to interpretations that contradict one another whereas the ambiguities in testimony are minor in comparison. If the testimony is recorded, then the transmission of the recording needs authentication, preferably with testimony from those involved in the transmission.

The situation is exactly like testimony vs. circumstantial evidence in a court of law. The former is far more significant than the latter. Indeed, the rules of evidence require that all exhibits be introduced by a witness. The prosecutor can’t just show the jury a photograph without a witness testifying about when and where it was taken or found. So history, which compiles and synthesizes testimonies and artifacts of the past, is superior to any physical science of past events. Creationists could argue this point to put evolutionists and uniformitarians in their place.

“Pre-historic events” are by definition unattested by eyewitness testimony. They may simply be dismissed since they are unknown to history. Various myths have suggested pre-historic events but these are not taken seriously anymore. But extrapolations of current physical laws and processes into the indefinite past are taken seriously. The reasons for this seem to be (1) the success of physical laws in covering events dispersed in space and time, (2) the prestige of the physical sciences in explaining phenomena and contributing to new technology; and the spread of materialistic ideas that presume everything is covered by currently known laws and processes.

The result is that many give greater credibility to physical sciences than history in studying past events. The testimony of reliable witnesses is set aside or dismissed when they seem to contradict processes and laws that are presumed to be universal in space and time. One thing that creationists can do is show how reliable witnesses do not contradict the physical sciences. But beyond this creationists should emphasize that history trumps the physical sciences in the study of past events.


History and law

The main problem with evolution is not that it has the wrong history but that for evolution history is everything.  That’s everything including the laws of nature, philosophy, religion, God, literally everything.  The one law of evolution is that everything evolves.  There is no being, only becoming; there is nothing fixed, only change.

But surely they accept the laws of physics, don’t they?  Not really.  Rupert Sheldrake’s “The Presence of the Past” attempts to show that nature has “habits” rather than any fixed laws.  Like evolutionary species, the laws of physics are temporary and evolve, too.

So arguing about chronology and history is right up the evolutionary alley.  It doesn’t shift the debate to what evolutionists cannot accept: anything that does not change — laws or created/natural kinds.

Also, if the argument is about chronology and history, it is always possible to argue that God was involved and this is consistent with basic theology.  So the debate goes around in circles because chronology cannot be a basic doctrine of Christianity.

But law is a basic doctrine of Christianity.  If there is no law, there is no gospel: law and gospel go together.  And these are not just spiritual laws, but laws that include physical reality because resurrection is physical, too.

So the debate should be shifted to be about the existence of what does not change — laws, kinds, and the nature of God.

September 2014