Creationism is the belief that the cosmos, the earth, living organisms, and/or human beings came to be instantaneously in something very much like their current form(s). The contrary point of view, Evolutionary Theory, traces the cosmos back to a singularity called “Big Bang”, the earth back to the earliest stages of planetary formation, living organisms back to pre-biotic molecules and human beings back to non-human ancestors.
Creationists typically cite religious and philosophical reasons for their beliefs while evolutionists cite scientific evidence. Over the past 150 years, few topics have spilled as much ink as the battle between these two schools of thought. The ferocity of the debate is fueled by two factors:
(1) Evolutionists by and large assign zero weight to the religious and philosophical arguments of creationists; creationists in turn undervalue scientific evidence. Unlike most debates, here there is no common repository of evidence that the two sides can sift through and argue over. It is as though Creationists and Evolutionists lived in two totally different worlds.
(2) Alongside this intellectual divide, there is an equally large cultural chasm. These folks share nothing in common, not even a beer at a bar. They live in different neighborhoods, work at different jobs, play at different games, worship (or not) in different ways. Turns out, they actually do live in totally different worlds.
In this essay, I hope to suggest a new way of looking at the fundamental question itself. I have little hope that I will be able to bridge the cultural divide separating Creationists from Evolutionists but I do hope that I may find some common intellectual ground after all.
Evolutionists’ strongest argument is simply to point at the world as it is today:
(1) Radiation from the Cosmic Microwave Background now just reaching Earth tells of a very different universe 15 billion years ago.
(2) A cursory dig through the earth’s crust reveals layers of sediment and formations of rock that testify to violent seismic activity and gradual climate change.
(3) That same dig turns up fossils that suggest that creatures unknown today once roamed Earth and that familiar creatures once had very different features than they have now. That same fossil record appears to link modern homo-sapiens to earlier, now extinct, primate species.
(4) A study of the genome, human or otherwise, suggests that a process of, well, ‘evolution’ must have occurred to produce the complex but related structures we see today.
Evolutionists’ second argument points at the way the world is changing right before our eyes: mutation, adaptation, speciation, etc… are processes that are being observed in laboratories and in the wild right now, in our very own day.
The world we live in seems consistent with Evolution Theory. This suggests that we ask ourselves what sort of world would be consistent with Creationism?
At first thought, Creationism would seem to suggest a steady state universe capable of only local changes. The cosmos would not be expanding or contracting. Why would it and where would the impetus for such expansion/contraction come from? Geological formations should exhibit greater uniformity of design and composition than they do, the fossil record should include only those species and those traits we see today and DNA coding should be much simpler and perhaps less prone to copying errors and to mutation.
This model of universe, simple and spare, is what we would expect from the application of Occam’s Razor to the act of creation. But there is a problem with this approach: Is such a world even possible? We know from engineering that a rigid structure, however aesthetically pleasing it may be, is not a strong structure. It may be that messy redundancy and extraneous recursive loops are necessary to make our world as resilient as it is.
A simpler, more elegant cosmos, earth, biosphere or genome might be too fragile to sustain itself for any protracted period of time. Tiny perturbations would tend to magnify rather than dampen as they do in our actual experience…and as they do according to the Evolutionists’ model.
Creationism is not the same thing as Determinism, not by a long shot, but they do share some features in common. In both cases, initial conditions must be defined almost perfectly. Slight perturbations in any deterministic model will totally overwhelm its ability to predict, i.e. to ‘determine’. Creationism, at least in some of its flavors, rules out any initial variability whatsoever.
We also know that observed phenomena in a perfectly deterministic system do not differ from those in a totally chaotic system. Genesis describes the state of the universe prior to creation as chaotic. If Creationism requires absolutely precise initial conditions, then could anything at all have ever been created? Or would primordial chaos persist?
I strongly suspect that a steady state universe of the kind apparently suggested by most flavors of Creationism is ontologically impossible, and if it is impossible then, well, it’s not possible, no matter how much it may appeal to our sensibilities. Remember the old school yard paradox: can God make a rock he cannot lift? Well, can any creative mechanism spawn a universe whose very existence is impossible?
So it seems the Evolutionists have won the day; Creationism has been debunked, right? Not so fast! Our conclusions are based on the assumptions we made concerning the nature of a created universe. What if those assumptions are incorrect? What if there is another kind of universe compatible with the Creationist hypothesis?
That might change everything; but is there such a universe? Yes there is…and it turns out that the other universe that could be compatible with the Creationist hypothesis is…THIS ONE!
If the universe we live in today requires a certain sort of ‘past’ in order to account for its current features, then wouldn’t a creative mechanism have ensured that the universe had just such a past encoded in it? And if it requires redundancy and recursive loops in order to be resilient, wouldn’t a creative mechanism have ensured that those were built-in as well? And if the universe we live in today requires adaptive ability to sustain itself into the future, wouldn’t a creative mechanism have endowed universe with precisely that adaptive ability?
Now by ‘creative mechanism’, I do not necessarily mean a transcendent God. Intelligent design is only one version of Creationism. The Catholic Church maintains that Big Bang Theory is perfectly compatible with an intelligent, transcendent creator; likewise, Creationism does not necessarily require such an intelligent, transcendent creator.
The cosmology of Alfred North Whitehead, for example, could be read as an example of ‘creationism without a creator’. Whitehead’s cosmology does include a category of ‘God’ but Whitehead’s God is no ‘creator’, at least not in the traditional sense of the term.
Whitehead’s God offers a primordial valuation of certain pre-existent “eternal objects” and a consequent valuation of “actual entities” (i.e. events). Against this background, the universe is entirely self-creative and the acts that constitute that universe are utterly free.
So if the battle between Evolutionists and Creationists is not about the source of cosmogenesis, what is it about? For one thing, it’s about the timing. Both agree that cosmogenesis occurs at a singularity. For Evolutionists, that singularity can only be Big Bang; for Creationists, it can be any Planck moment ‘after’ Big Bang, right up to the present day. In fact, it could be any Plank moment after Big Bang right up to Big Freeze (or Big Crunch)…if you’ll allow my current experiences to be part of the encoded past. But there is more!
Evolutionists hold that cosmogenesis began at the Big Bang singularity and ‘evolved’ to its current state. Creationists, on the other hand, believe that the universe came to be with many of its current features and, if necessary, it’s past already intact. This is the fundamental matter of dispute between the two camps.
Superficially, both positions seem plausible. But one of the great challenges of Evolutionary Theory has been trying to figure out how the universe we see today could have resulted from the Big Bang singularity. How did all the ultra-precise ratios (e.g. electronic mass vs. protonic mass) that characterize our universe come to be what they are?
It turns out that the viability of our universe rests on about 25 ‘key numbers’. Each of these numbers is in ratio with other key numbers. If any of these ratios were off by more than a few percent (sometimes much less), the universe as we know it could not exist. Yet we have absolutely no idea where these ratios came from.
A ‘creationist’ cosmology like Whitehead’s solves that dilemma. The key ratios arise from God’s conceptual valuations of the eternal objects. God does not ‘create’ the cosmos but sets initial conditions such that cosmogenesis is possible.
The probability that these ratios just happened to set themselves the way they are is even lower than the probability of the Cubs winning a World Series. Yet, if cosmogenesis occurred at some ‘later’ point along the timeline, any later point along the timeline, then the probability that it would have included all the key ratios already intact is 100%. (Otherwise, it would be a still born universe of the type described earlier.)
A sure thing vs. the Chicago Cubs? Hmm, I would say Evolutionary Theory was in deep trouble after all, wouldn’t you?
It turns out that the Evolutionists’ empirical evidence is only effective against a straw universe. Without that straw universe, their evidence is just as compatible with Creationism as it is with Evolutionary Theory. Based on this analysis, I do not believe that there is any evidence or any experiment that we can even conceive of that would be able to demonstrate a verifiable difference between these two hypotheses.
But wait! The game is not over. Evolutionary Theory may be down 10^10^10^10 to 1 but there is still one second left on the clock. Can the evolutionists pull this game out of the hat? Not since Harvard ‘beat’ Yale in 1968 has anyone attempted such a feat.
Here’s how they might do it:
(1) Yes, it is much easier to start off with the initial conditions properly set and then trace a pathway back to Big Bang than it is to start at Big Bang and trace a pathway forward to the way things are today. But ultimately, it’s the same journey.
A child beginning at the end of a maze may get to its start much more quickly than a child beginning at the start will get to its end. That’s because the teleological kid is able to avoid all the false paths. But at the end of the day, it’s still just one straight line. Whether you begin at Big Bang and move forward or at 5000 BCE and move backwards, you still trace a single straight line and the line goes both ways.
(2) We said earlier that there was no conceivable experiment that would ever be able to demonstrate a verifiable difference between the Creationist and the Evolutionist hypotheses. According to 20th century language philosophy, the meaning of a proposition, at least a scientific proposition, rests precisely in the experimental procedures that could potentially falsify it. Since there is no experimental procedure that could conceivably differentiate the Creationist hypothesis from the Evolutionist hypothesis we are forced to the startling conclusion that there is no difference is meaning between the two hypotheses. They ‘mean’ precisely the same thing!
So our game has ended in a tie after all. It is 1968 all over again (Harvard 28, Yale 28). But where does this leave us? Wittgenstein said that when a proposition is devoid of any denotative meaning, we may still be left with “meaningful poetry” and that is certainly what we have here.
Scientifically, it turns out that the Evolutionist and the Creationist share more common ground that either ever imagined; but culturally, they remain in parallel universes. The poetry of a cosmos springing into actuality at the primal singularity and evolving into the world we know today, like a cat fighting its way out of a paper bag, is powerful imagery.
Equally powerful, but radically different, is the more peaceful image of a universe springing into being with its basic parameters fully intact, its past completely encoded, and its capacity for homeostatic adaptation in place.
There is no scientifically meaningful difference between these two imageries but there is an enormous aesthetic difference. Since much of the Creationist/Evolutionist conflict has taken plan in the context of Judeo-Christian theology, you might ask which aesthetic is more compatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Perhaps surprisingly, I would put the Judeo-Christian tradition squarely in the Evolutionist camp. There is nothing ‘steady state’ about the Judeo-Christian cosmos. On the contrary, the journey from Genesis through Revelation is all about change (‘evolution’), change reflected in cosmology, history, human development and eschatology.
As long as there are human beings, we will cloak our common world with different ‘subjective forms’ and we will use different metaphors to describe our experience. It is important to understand, however, that these differences are ultimately poetic, not scientific. This will not be enough to make the Evolutionist “lie down” (Isaiah 11:6) with the Creationist…but it might be enough to persuade them not to eat one another.