Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Omphalos Revisited (a critique of one form of Jewish fundamentalist creationism)

© Berel Dov Lerner. This article originally appeared in the Jewish Bible Quarterly XXIII:3(91) July-September 1995, pp. 162-7.

Philip Henry Gosse was a nineteenth-century British naturalist who proposed a theory meant to insulate the belief in the literal truth of the biblical account of Creation from the onslaughts of modern science. The particular issue of his day was the contradiction between the biblical cosmogenic chronology (six days of Creation occurring about six thousand years ago) and the chronology of modern geology (continuous processes taking millions of years). Gosse called his book on the subject Omphalos (Greek for “navel”), in reference to the knotty theological problem of whether or not Adam was created with a navel. Such a navel would seem to evidence the past existence of an umbilical cord and the experience of birth. This would appear to contradict Genesis, according to which Adam had been created a fully-formed adult. Yet fully-formed adult humans do possess navels. So goes the paradox. Gosse broadens the discussion to take in many other biological phenomena, and comes to the conclusion that all life must always seem to evidence previous life. Our experience would have us believe that every chicken was once an egg; but what of the First Chicken created directly by God? And what says Gosse of the First Cow?

Every argument by which the physiologist can prove to demonstrate that yonder cow was once a foetus in the uterus of its dam, will apply with exactly the same power to show that the newly created [on the sixth day of Creation] cow was an embryo, some years before its creation.’1

Gosse goes on to compare the entire cosmos with an individual living organism. Just as any single stage of an organism’s development appears to imply the passing of earlier stages, so too the present state of the cosmos gives witness to other, earlier states. The first creatures originally created by God were indistinguishable from the creatures of today. If we were to inspect the remains of those first animals, we might falsely believe that they had also grown through many stages of development, and had been preceded by previous generations of their species. By analogy, the state of the cosmos at the moment of Creation would also have seemed to suggest the passing of other, earlier states. In particular, the earth, upon its creation, was endowed with geological formations which seemed to witness extremely long-term changes. Gosse invented a terminology to expedite the presentation of his argument, coining the expression “diachronic time” to refer to the past which had actually occurred, while “prochronic time” refers to the hypothetical past during which ancient processes would have occurred had God chosen to call the universe into existence at an earlier stage of its development. When was the First Chicken an egg? In reality, never; hypothetically, in prochronic time.

According to the Omphalos hypothesis, the cosmos is a system lacking an obvious moment of origin in recent time. God created the cosmos like a projectionist starting a film in the middle of the third reel. Anyone entering the theater would assume he had missed the first part of the movie, but in fact it had never been screened. Scientists studying the fossil record of evolution or the seemingly ancient background radiation left over from the “big bang” deal with what would have happened if God had decided to endow the cosmos with existence in an earlier stage of its hypothetical development. They are like film critics trying to deduce what images had been cast upon the screen long before the projectionist had even dimmed the house lights.

Gosse’s views were not well received. On the testimony of his own son, “Atheists and Christians alike looked at it and laughed, and threw it away.”2 The scientist and historian Stephen Jay Gould attributes the unpopularity of Gosse’s views to the British tendency to “respect the facts of nature at face value” rather than adopt the “complex systems of non-obvious interpretation so popular in much of continental thought.”3

During a recent visit to the United States, I had a long talk with a yeshiva student about various areas of apparent conflict between Judaism and modern thought. Inevitably, the discussion led to the problem of science and religion, and its most salient issue, creationism versus evolution. To my surprise, the view he supported was clearly a contemporary reconstruction of the Omphalos thesis. Unfortunately, he was not aware of a published version of this argument, and I have not discovered such a version in my admittedly cursory search for it in the appropriate Jewish literature. He assured me, however, that the argument is well known in the “yeshiva world,” having heard it himself in a lecture given by his own rosh yeshiva. It appears to me from this discussion that, despite its poor original reception, the Omphalos thesis may be enjoying a kind of renaissance, this time appearing in the garb of modern ecological science.

In short, the new argument states that life as we know it can only survive in a pre-existing, dynamic and balanced environment. Let us see what it tries to prove; i.e., that the first chapters of Genesis depict in literal terms events which occurred about 6000 years ago. Consider the moment when God created the various plants whose survival depends on the presence of long-dead and decayed organic material in the soil. For those plants to survive, God would have had to create the soil with already decaying organic material in it. Imagine a hypothetical scientist traveling back in time to the day after Creation. Analyzing the freshly- created soil, the scientist would mistakenly deduce that the decayed bodies nourishing the newly-created plants had in the past belonged to once-living creatures, now long dead. However, according to our assumption of the literal accuracy of Genesis, we know that these bodies had never lived; they had been created a short time earlier in their present decayed state.

Beyond merely explaining the presence of decayed organic materials in the soil, the thesis further claims a role for even the most ancient of fossils in the grand scheme of nature. After all, experience has confirmed the ecological importance of interactions between even the most seemingly independent elements of the natural world. By broadening the scope of the argument to include all aspects of the cosmic environment (e.g., starlight which has apparently beet traveling for millions of years before it reaches the earth) it may be extended to cover (almost) every contradiction between the scientific chronology and the biblical doctrine of Creation in six days. The universe was created in a relatively short period of time, but for it to work properly it had to exactly resemble a universe which had already existed for billions of years.

What are we to make of the new version of Omphalos? First of all, it is clear that the new version is subject to the same criticism traditionally made against the original: neither is empirically testable. Rather than disprove Omphalos, its opponents simply point out its lack of scientific interest. In the words of Stephen Jay Gould:

The world will look exactly the same in all its intricate detail whether fossils are prochronic or products of an extended history. But theories that cannot be tested in principle are not part of science. We reject Omphalos as useless, not wrong.4

Gould’s criticism must ring hollow in the ears of biblical literalists. After all, they are not really interested in proposing hypotheses which will advance the progress of scientific research; they merely seek an accommodation between Genesis and the existing body of scientific knowledge. The literalists do not expect science to verify the biblical cosmogony; they only wish to show that science does not conflict with it. Gould himself has admitted that science cannot prove Omphalos wrong, and that is all that the literalists need to hear. Be that as it may, the Omphalos thesis fails its genuine, apologetic, purpose for an entirely different reason, as I shall now demonstrate.

Gosse meant to propose a thesis which would contradict neither the results of scientific research nor the biblical account of Creation. As we have seen, the Omphalos thesis can account for all of the evidence for evolution; this is exactly what it had been designed to do. What Gould, as well as the thesis’s fundamentalist supporters, forgot to ask is how well it fits the biblical story of Creation.

It would be unnecessarily messy to get involved in questions such as how the plants created on the third day survived until the creation of the sun on the fourth. God would have no problem miraculously sustaining them until the entire ecosystem, fossils and all, swung into operation. A thornier problem is posed by the fact that all fossil evidence points to the existence of large communities of animals 5000-6000 years ago, as well as millions of years ago. In order to assure the continuity between the prochronic fossil record and the first days of diachronic time, we would have to assume that God created birds in their flocks, deer in their herds and wolves in their packs. This in itself does not pose an insurmountable obstacle for the literal interpretation of Genesis. As usual, we, the human beings, pose the real problem.

Genesis is quite specific about the creation of exactly one first man and one first woman. Adam recognizes his special place in history and calls his wife Eve, for she was the mother of all that live (Gen.3:20). But what of fossil and archeological records which trace the existence of human communities in the far-flung corners of the world? These settlements were founded well within prochronic times and survived into our own, ontologically-favored diachronic era. This reveals prochronic processes which would not lead to the existence of exactly one man at the moment of the creation of humans. An “omphalitic” reading of the Bible would make us expect to find archeological records of a humanity languishing in a process of extinction, leaving only one man alive at the moment of Creation.

It might be suggested that Adam was a special case. While all other organisms had to be created as participants in pre-developed ecological communities, Adam’s survival was not dependent on a prochronic past. From the standpoint of religious apologetics, such special pleading is worse than useless. The whole point of the Omphalos argument is to explain the existence of fossils by emphasizing the importance of continuity between the prochronic and diachronic. What could be the point of God’s creating human fossil remains if these lack any prochronic evolutionary connection with the diachronic Adam? Worse yet, how could the Omphalos thesis explain the existence of far-flung early diachronic human communities contemporary with the alleged historical Adam?

The Omphalos thesis could not have failed to support Scripture at a worse moment. The special creation of an historical Adam is essential to a number of key theological ideas. For the literalist, Adam’s uniqueness constitutes the material basis of the religious notions of human equality and fraternity: i.e., that we may all claim the same original ancestry. Many of the less pleasant aspects of human existence are explained by the Bible as having resulted from Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience to God. If they were not the only people living at that time, why should all of humanity (including those who are not their descendants) suffer for their sin?

I see the fundamentalists gaining little advantage by adopting the Omphalos thesis. While it does buttress the literalist claim as to the recent creation of the world, the question of the age of the universe is of minor theological consequence compared to the doctrine of the historical Adam.

Fortunately, even some Orthodox rabbis have avoided the problem entirely by allowing for a non-literal interpretation of the Creation story. Foremost among them is Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the land of Israel, who wrote:

It makes no difference for us if in truth there was in the world an actual Garden of Eden, during which man delighted in an abundance of physical and spiritual good, or if actual existence began from the bottom upwards, from the lowest level of being towards its highest, an upward movement. We only have to know that there is a real possibility that even if a man has risen to a high level, and has been deserving of all honors and pleasures, if he corrupts his ways, he can lose all that he has, and bring harm to himself and to his descendants for many generations.5

Having been disinterred and subjected to the indignity of a late post-mortem examination, the Omphalos thesis may again be returned to its rightful resting place among the discarded doctrines of philosophical theology.

1. As quoted in Stephen Jay Gould, The Flamingo’s Smile (New York: 1985) pp. 111-112.
2. Ibid., p. 110. 3. loc. cit.
4. Gould, op. cit., p. 111.
5. Ray A. Y. Kook, Selected Letters, trans. Tzvi Feldman (Ma’aleh Adumim: 1986) p. 12. Original text may be found in Igrot Ha-RAYaH, letter 134.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this!

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regardless of whether humanity truly evolved from blobs of jelly and monkeys, Creationists cannot prevail in the ongoing debate about our origins. Their position is fatally flawed. You see, the Creationist position fundamentally relies upon the premise that the Judeo-Christian Bible is the Word of God. If it’s not; if the Bible is just a book, then there is no Creationist position. Recently, a lawyer embarked upon a mission to become the greatest Christian on the planet. In his quest he made a profound discovery. He discovered that the Bible is unequivocally not the Word of God. His argument is compelling. After reading his thesis, I am both shocked and embarrassed that I spent my whole life as a Christian and a Creationist. And while his thesis does not invalidate the so-called theory of “Intelligent Design,” it absolutely dismantles the theory of Biblical Creationism. You can read his Thesis at http://www.indefenseofgod.com/

8:40 PM  
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Blogger Pearlman CTA said...

not bad, but that is because the vast majority of scientists do not know what they are looking at.
to someone that understands the science in max avail context, the universe looks exactly as old as it is, 5,777 years to date.
SPIRAL cosmological redshift hypothesis explains why distant starlight not only aligns w/ ID/YeC Torah timeline but falsifies all deep-time dependent scientific hypotheses like NDT and SCM.
see RCCF why 5777 AM owns the mantle of science taken in max avail context.
RCCF = The Recent Complex creation Framework

6:20 PM  

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