Creationism’s Cartoon Physics (From the Archives)

Wile E. Coyote heads towards the cliff but doesn’t see it. We’ve all seen the cartoons – he can keep running, until he looks down and notices there is no longer anything beneath his feet to support him.

This is, in essence, the situation of the young-earth creationist movement. Every single objection that did not consist of pointing at unanswered question – and even some of those – has been answered by scientists, and still more evidence than we might have hoped has been forthcoming. Young-earth creationists have complained about the paucity of fossils of transitional forms, and we have been fortunate enough to find many good examples. Young-earth creationists claimed that they eye could not have come about in stages, yet we now know of organisms with all the intermediate stages we could imagine being part of ocular evolution. They claimed that the earth is young, but radioactive dating proved them wrong. They claimed that the flood deposited the fossil remains, but then came the reply: ferns cannot run.

When science disappeared from beneath their feet – although it was never strictly there – they kept running, assuming the Bible to still support them. But they did not consider the consequences of taking the flood story literally. The waters above would have blocked out the wavelengths of light needed by plants. The human and animal inhabitants of the ark would have had to carry all the infectious diseases that depend on them (unless they want to claim that God replenished the world with viruses and deadly bacteria after the flood). In addition to the difficulties and inconsistencies in their interpretation of the story of Noah, and their ignoring of the clear evidence that the Mesopotamians had a version of the story written down before the Israelites wrote theirs, they also cannot take the creation stories literally. Most of them only read the Bible in English translation, so they can ignore the dome, ignore the fact that people do not only reason with their hearts but feel compassion with their bowels, and for all these ancient authors knew, such statements were literal. Historical study has shown that, far from being something that science appeared on the scene to combat, science gave rise to the forms of fundamentalism and attempts at literalism we now find. In earlier times, “truth” was (like “faith”) about committment rather than factuality and precision, since most people did not deal in texts and alphabets. When Young-earth creationists are asked to provide some explanation of how the various stories mentioned could be literally true in the modern sense, in light of all the relevant considerations, they rely on the fact that most people haven’t thought the matter through in detail. They rely on the fact that many religious believers want them to be right, and so if they provide but a few plausible-sounding responses (such as boxcars on the ark) they trust that their supporters will not examine other more troubling details.

All the scientific evidence that was amassed already in the 19th century changed the minds of skeptics, like Charles Lyell and Adam Sedgwick. Far from the scientific establishment being hostile to faith, initially most were disinclined towards Darwin’s theory because it was assumed that science would match up with Scripture. But there is a key difference between the initial skeptics of Darwin’s theory and modern anti-evolutionists. The former saw the evidence that was provided already in their time and changed their minds. The modern young-earth creationists, on the other hand, continue to make ridiculous objections and obscure the issues in spite of much more evidence that has come to light. And the few pieces of possible evidence that they had been able to claim provisionally – the small amount of moon dust, human footprints alongside dinosaur tracks – did not hold up under scrutiny.

They have gone over the edge of the cliff, like Wile E. Coyote. Neither the Bible nor science is holding them up. The only question now is, how long will they be able to keep going before they finally look down? Can this cartoon go on forever? They remind me (and Sean Carroll) of the Black Knight from the Monty Python movie: “Tis but a scratch”.

Many of the above thoughts were inspired by reading Philip Kitcher’s Living with Darwin. I highly recommend the book. For more on cartoon physics, click here.

  • Anonymous

    I find this development interesting

    Ken Ham Disinvited from Homeschooling Events over ‘Ungodly’
    Remarks

    Ken designed much of the Home Schooling anti evolution message.  His complaint was that a old earth creationist was speaking. 

    “Ham, who spoke at the Great Homeschool
    Conventions’ earlier events in Greenville, S.C. and in Memphis, Tenn.,
    had made presentations on how Enns was promoting unbiblical teachings
    and compromising the faith. The AiG founder also took to Facebook to
    criticize Enns, who was also invited to speak at the conventions to
    promote a Bible curriculum for homeschoolers.”

    It is a straw in the wind, but it looks like YEC is losing support among conservative home schoolers.

  • jgoodguy

    I find this development interesting

    Ken Ham Disinvited from Homeschooling Events over ‘Ungodly’
    Remarks

    Ken designed much of the Home Schooling anti evolution message.  His complaint was that a old earth creationist was speaking. 

    “Ham, who spoke at the Great Homeschool
    Conventions’ earlier events in Greenville, S.C. and in Memphis, Tenn.,
    had made presentations on how Enns was promoting unbiblical teachings
    and compromising the faith. The AiG founder also took to Facebook to
    criticize Enns, who was also invited to speak at the conventions to
    promote a Bible curriculum for homeschoolers.”

    It is a straw in the wind, but it looks like YEC is losing support among conservative home schoolers.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    I don’t know that YEC is losing support per se, but certainly there seems to be a clear and definite move away from treating that as the only voice that deserves to be heard, as well as from the rhetoric Ken Ham uses against anyone with views other than his own. And so there is still work to be done, but the shifts we’re seeing are definitely encouraging.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    I don’t know that YEC is losing support per se, but certainly there seems to be a clear and definite move away from treating that as the only voice that deserves to be heard, as well as from the rhetoric Ken Ham uses against anyone with views other than his own. And so there is still work to be done, but the shifts we’re seeing are definitely encouraging.

  • Anonymous

    Gosh, James, is it International Pick On Noah week? :)

  • Scott__F

    Gosh, James, is it International Pick On Noah week? :)

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    It’s Towel Day, which I suppose could be viewed as having a Noahic connection…  :-)

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    It’s Towel Day, which I suppose could be viewed as having a Noahic connection…  :-)

  • Anonymous

    “We’re gonna need a bigger towel!”

  • Scott__F

    “We’re gonna need a bigger towel!”

  • Anonymous

    That cartoon physics site you linked to is soooo ’90s.  Takes me back to when I used to browse with dial-up.

  • http://digestofworms.blogspot.com/ admiralmattbar

    That cartoon physics site you linked to is soooo ’90s.  Takes me back to when I used to browse with dial-up.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    James, Since you consider evolution as the source of all life on earth, do you think God was responsible for it, and if so, do you have an explanation of how that came about? Also, does the Bible appear to support your explanation anywhere?

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    James, Since you consider evolution as the source of all life on earth, do you think God was responsible for it, and if so, do you have an explanation of how that came about? Also, does the Bible appear to support your explanation anywhere?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Howard, I was going to respond in a certain way, but rereading your comment I thought I ought to clarify one point first. I don’t think of evolution as the source of life on earth, but the course which the development life on earth followed. Scientists are still uncertain, from a scientific perspective, about precisely how life arose. But evolution is not an explanation of that but rather a description of the course life followed once it emerged. And so I didn’t want to spend a lot of time talking about evolution, if what interests you is in fact the question of the origin of life.

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      @James, Sorry, you’re right, my question was not worded correctly. Evolution is not the source of life. What I meant to ask was, since you say you believe in God and evolution, do you believe that God started the evolutionary process? If so, that would also answer the question concerning the source of life. If you do think that, I wanted to know if you had an explanation or theory that describes how God started evolution? Then I wanted to know, if you do believe God started evolution, does the Bible appear to support such a view anywhere? I’m not asking for cold hard facts or some official statement of faith, just your opinion.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Howard, I was going to respond in a certain way, but rereading your comment I thought I ought to clarify one point first. I don’t think of evolution as the source of life on earth, but the course which the development life on earth followed. Scientists are still uncertain, from a scientific perspective, about precisely how life arose. But evolution is not an explanation of that but rather a description of the course life followed once it emerged. And so I didn’t want to spend a lot of time talking about evolution, if what interests you is in fact the question of the origin of life.

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      @James, Sorry, you’re right, my question was not worded correctly. Evolution is not the source of life. What I meant to ask was, since you say you believe in God and evolution, do you believe that God started the evolutionary process? If so, that would also answer the question concerning the source of life. If you do think that, I wanted to know if you had an explanation or theory that describes how God started evolution? Then I wanted to know, if you do believe God started evolution, does the Bible appear to support such a view anywhere? I’m not asking for cold hard facts or some official statement of faith, just your opinion.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Howard, sorry for the delay in replying. My own impression is that the Genesis 1 creation account accepts the widespread ancient view of spontaneous generation. Although it requires the divine command to actualize it’s creative potential, it is still the earth and the sea that bring forth living things, at God’s command. Since Pasteur, spontaneous generation has been abandoned, but it seems to me that there is no fundamental difference, theologically speaking, if one instead says that God commanded that meteors with organic chemicals rain down on planets, or simply created a universe with the capacity for planets to form that would have the potential to give rise to life, or indeed even to say that this process is itself part of the greater being of God, so that these natural processes are not something other than the expression of God’s creativity.

    In Genesis 1, I see the author offering a theological interpretation of what ancient people believed happens in the world, not offering God as an alternative explanation to what people believed to be taking place when life appeared – and continued to appear.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Howard, sorry for the delay in replying. My own impression is that the Genesis 1 creation account accepts the widespread ancient view of spontaneous generation. Although it requires the divine command to actualize it’s creative potential, it is still the earth and the sea that bring forth living things, at God’s command. Since Pasteur, spontaneous generation has been abandoned, but it seems to me that there is no fundamental difference, theologically speaking, if one instead says that God commanded that meteors with organic chemicals rain down on planets, or simply created a universe with the capacity for planets to form that would have the potential to give rise to life, or indeed even to say that this process is itself part of the greater being of God, so that these natural processes are not something other than the expression of God’s creativity.

    In Genesis 1, I see the author offering a theological interpretation of what ancient people believed happens in the world, not offering God as an alternative explanation to what people believed to be taking place when life appeared – and continued to appear.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @James, I believe I understand what you are saying. But just for kicks, couldn’t someone take a verse like this in the creation account and postulate that it is referring to God initiating evolution?

    “. . .And God went on to say: “Let the earth put forth living souls according to their kinds,. . .” (Genesis 1:24)

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @James, I believe I understand what you are saying. But just for kicks, couldn’t someone take a verse like this in the creation account and postulate that it is referring to God initiating evolution?

    “. . .And God went on to say: “Let the earth put forth living souls according to their kinds,. . .” (Genesis 1:24)

  • Barb

    Concerning Noah many things fall into place if we postulate that the “ark” was simply a “haven” that was built as a large construction (like a huge barn) on a mountain plateau at the north end of the Mesopotomia in advance of the flood.
    Note: One meaning of “ark” is “haven” with no boat connotation. 

  • Barb

    Concerning Noah many things fall into place if we postulate that the “ark” was simply a “haven” that was built as a large construction (like a huge barn) on a mountain plateau at the north end of the Mesopotomia in advance of the flood.
    Note: One meaning of “ark” is “haven” with no boat connotation. 

  • at

    Thanks James. This is one of the more succinct, poignant, and respectful summaries I’ve seen, that just happen to correlate with my personal beliefs. Thus, I’ve simply re-posted this.

    Keep it up.

  • at

    Thanks James. This is one of the more succinct, poignant, and respectful summaries I’ve seen, that just happen to correlate with my personal beliefs. Thus, I’ve simply re-posted this.

    Keep it up.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Thanks, “at”!

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Thanks, “at”!


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