The Role of Perception in Science: Part 2 “Science & Religion”

“It is error only and not truth that shrinks from inquiry.”—Thomas Paine

I added visiting the Kentucky Creation Museum—a place depicting humans and dinosaurs co-existing despite being separated by 65 million years—to my bucket list. I’ve got two problems though: the first is I think they’d throw me out for incessant snickering; and secondly, I can’t bear the thought of financially supporting something so patently absurd. A similar museum exists in Big Valley, Alberta. I thought Canadians were immune to this type of thing; then I remember people from Saskatchewan wear watermelons on their heads to football games.

floodOn the Big Valley Creation Science Museum’s website one visitor from Montana remarked “I spent more time in this museum than I did at the Smithsonian.” I was at the Smithsonian in 2009; it’s a complex of 130 or so buildings sprawling across Washington, D. C. I spent an entire day managing only to fit in a whirlwind tour of three or four museums (including most of the memorials along the National Mall). The Big Valley Creation Museum is a shack at best by comparison. I haven’t personally visited the Big Valley museum (yet). But I did the next best thing: I spent some time on the museum’s website.

One photo on the site immediately caught my eye: a display presenting the earth as only a few thousand years old. The implications of a young earth are not insignificant—this would at the very least mean:

  • The Cambrian Explosion did not take place 500 million but 6,000 years ago
  • Humans and dinosaurs existed on earth at the same time (dubious given the absence of either literary or archaeological evidence)
  • Genetic drift, as defined, would not have enough time to shape human beings as we currently find them, e.g. 6,000 years would not be enough time to explain the differences between First Nations peoples currently residing in North America and their Siberian ancestors (see Vito Volterra Symposium on Mathematical Models in Biology, page 40)
  • Tectonic plates move on average at about the rate of a fingernail growing. This short period is insufficient to explain similarities between rocks found on different continents which at one time in the distant past were adjacent, e.g. chemically identical rock types, identical geologic structures, and geologic ages across the equatorial Atlantic, common to both Africa and South America supporting the notion that the continents were at one time together (Introduction to the Geology of Southern California and its Native Plants, page 28)
  • Assuming the Cosmos is 6,000 years old as well; therefore, the Andromeda Galaxy (2.3 million light years away) and 99.9999% of the stars in the night sky should be invisible to us, i.e. it takes 2.3 million years for light to travel from Andromeda to reach telescopes here on earth

    “Crunching” the Numbers with Sue

    Being somewhat familiar with the mythology of ancient peoples, and possessing more than a passing interest in their history, I’d argue that—imagined dragons, leviathans and behemoths notwithstanding—there’s a conspicuous absence of written accounts describing encounters between ancient Sumerians and Velociraptors. I’m just going to throw out a few figures here, call it a thought experiment if you will: let’s assume there was human/dinosaur co-existence. Let’s also assume the Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil lovingly known as “Sue” is typical of her species (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sue_(dinosaur)).
  • Sue was approximately 42 feet long, weighing somewhere around 7 metric tons
  • To meet Sue’s energy requirements she needs to consume in excess of 50,000 kilo-calories a day

I crunched the numbers (pardon the pun) for how many calories a 160 pound human is equivalent to (using a pound of hamburger as my standard); it turns out a 160 pound person is the equivalent of 40,000 calories, give or take.

  • One T. Rex needs 50,000 kilo-calories (50,000,000 calories) it would have to eat 1,250 people a day

Okay, so what’s my point? Given the relative voracity of the dinosaurs I’m thinking human beings would not have survived, let alone thrived, living among these giant creatures; and there wasn’t just one or two of these creatures puttering about. Accepting the fact only a small percentage of T. Rex actually end up fossilizing, and of these we discover and unearth only a few, we can assume (globally) that at one time tens of thousands of just this one variety of dinosaur would have lived alongside humans for centuries. Then there’s the problem of explaining why all of the dinosaurs—including the 85 foot long, 25 ton Brachiosaur—do not appear in the literary record (yet they appear in the fossil record). These creatures are clearly absent in our stories: and if ever a story-teller was looking for a hook to keep children engaged during story time, it’d be the T. Rex that visited the village and ate 1,000 people last Tuesday.

I thought one possible reason explaining the curious lack of evidence supporting human/dinosaur co-existence: the T. RexVelociraptor, AllosaurAfrovenator, Dryptosaurus and the hundred other some odd carnivorous dinosaurs were so common that Herodotus, Homer, Cicero, and many an anonymous Sumerian writer, thought these giant creatures un-noteworthy.

Not convinced?

You could argue that the Leviathan mentioned in the Book of Job (Chapter 41) is evidence for human/dinosaur co-existence. To this end I asked a rabbi—admittedly a liberal-minded one—whether the Leviathan was in fact a dinosaur as defined. He thought the question odd explaining to me he understood this enigmatic creature to actually be a metaphor, or figurative reference, to the power of sin. (In Yiddish the word “leviathan” literally means “whale” (whales are mammals).) After answering my question, the rabbi looked me straight in the eye and invoked Wittgenstein: whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Debunking a Modern Myth: The Young Earth Hypothesis
In the 1600s, a cleric named Bishop Ussher posited the earth was created in the year 4004 BCE. This wasn’t some sort of approximation. He actually claimed the exact date of creation was Sunday, October 23rd, 4004. From what I can tell Ussher’s work was influential both at the time it was first published until well in to the 19th century.

3_21_James_UssherSir_Peter_Lely_600Stating the obvious, Ussher was neither a scientist nor did he understand the scientific method; he lived at a time when it was believed un-necessary to empirically test theories; theories simply had to match belief and agree with established wisdom as it existed. Thus, when Ussher arrived at his date of creation he didn’t base it on any tests. He, like many scholastics before him, was simply defending dogma. He dated no rocks. He assessed no fossil record. He was a thinker typical of the time: he didn’t realize fossils were actually imprints left by long extinct creatures; the funny thing is it wasn’t until the late 1700s when even the idea a creature could go extinct was realistically entertained (see The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert). Instead, he believed fossils were a naturally occurring feature of geology not unlike the accretion of minerals.

Ussher’s Method
How exactly did Ussher arrive at the year 4004 BCE for the creation of the earth? He used some basic addition:

  • Add up the ages of the Hebrew patriarchs found in Genesis, e.g. if Adam lived to be 900 years old Ussher could establish the earth was at least 900 years old
  • He used known and re-current celestial events mentioned in scripture, e.g. comets, equinoxes, etc. to add to his total time
  • He calculated roughly when and how long certain important events took place, e.g. the Flood, etc.

Ussher bypassed hypothesis and jumped right to conclusions. I appreciate Jews and Christians believe the Hebrew scriptures important. But I wonder whether people of faith do themselves and scripture a dis-service when they regard holy writ as “scientific.” When a person’s assumptions about God are successfully challenged by science, for example, that person risks having a knee-jerk reaction in one of two ways: the first way is the person concludes that since science places their assumptions about God in to question then God, and not the falsified assumption, must be false; and the second way is where a person ignores science altogether convinced that their assumptions about God must be true because their beliefs are backed by dogma (which is itself constructed upon writings believed inerrant).

In reality, the beliefs people have say more about the people themselves and virtually nothing about God, i.e. when a person thinks the world must be 6,000 years old for God to exist, science1this necessary belief becomes an obstacle to understanding as opposed to a vehicle. A successful challenge means not only a weakening but a potential complete loss of faith. God, if such a being exists, could well operate in ways making little intuitive sense to us. So when we are proven wrong it is wise to simply say to ourselves, ‘I was wrong in this respect but God could still exist.’ Thus, I tend to give some credence to the idea put forward by biologist Stephen Jay Gould that science and religion belong to “non-overlapping magisteria” and each represents a different area of inquiry. Mix them together and you get either bad science or bad religion; keep them separate and you avoid mythologizing (although one may still risk persisting in a state of cognitive dissonance).

Again, it is problematic to treat scripture as a scientific treatise. For example, there are references to very few stars or planets in scripture. The worldview presented in scripture reflects the Babylonian worldview which was accepted as authoritative by virtually every ancient society (including ancient Israel), e.g. there are not thousands of stars but hundreds of millions in our galaxy alone; the earth is not covered by a glass dome but by an atmosphere; the earth is not the center of creation (no such center point exists in the entire Cosmos); the earth is not immovable instead there’s no fixed point, everything is in motion in the universe; the earth is not flat but a sphere like the eight planets in our solar system (and the 1000 some odd exo-planets) we have discovered thanks to improvements to the telescope; and the Cosmos is not confined to our solar system rather there are 400 billion additional galaxies (and billions and billions, to invoke Sagan, of additional stars in these) within the observable universe…and the Cosmos is not 6,000 years old it is 13.82 billion.

Growing up an idealist and seeker of truth, and then developing into a discerning man of letters, I look at scripture’s importance as largely ethical. This does not diminish it (at least in my opinion): scripture can inspire people to goodness and too love justice. Unfortunately, historically-speaking, scripture can also inspire people to hate, to prejudice or justified bigotry—something I abhor and have never understood given the whole “love your neighbor” and “pray for those who persecute you” philosophy taught by Jesus.

Conclusion
In his book Finding Darwin’s God, Kenneth R. Miller attempted to find common ground between science and religion. He explained scientific theories could not be used to disprove the existence of God. (Any scientist worthy of the name would accept this limit on science, i.e. the existence of God is not falsfiable.)  Instead, science provides an objective description of what’s physically happening “out there” and in so doing challenges out-dated, pre-scientific dogmas like Ussher’s. I tend to agree with Miller, in that, if Western religious traditions are to remain relevant ways must be found to reconcile faith with science (as per Gould’s dictum). If this is not done, if we rely on quaint (though factually dubious) museums in Big Valley or Kentucky to tell the story of the faithful, I’m not convinced that the faith that gave me such hope as a young man will survive into the next century except on the margins. To put it simply: the earth is not young; it isn’t even ancient…it is incomprehensibly old.

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