Monday, August 10, 2009

A Biblical-Literalist Christian Thought Experiment

The following thought experiment is designed for biblical-literalist Christians. Specifically, to partake in this thought experiment, it is necessary that (a) you believe Earth to be several thousand years old, rather than 4.54 billion years old, (b) you believe Earth’s biodiversity is explained by creationism/intelligent design, to the exclusion of Darwinian evolution by natural selection, and (c) when referring to creation, both of Earth and of life, you credit the god of the Bible as the creator and ruler. If these stipulations coincide with your worldview, step right up and play along.

Suppose that, in just one instance, time travel was possible. For the sake of this hypothetical, assume that you—a biblical-literalist Christian—had the opportunity to travel far, far back in time and, of course, return to the present day after your trip. Further, suppose that a meddlesome secularist goaded you into traveling 100,000 years into the past, in hopes of proving to you that Earth, indeed, is far older than a mere several thousand years. For this hypothetical, let us assume that the time machine’s accuracy is 100% and, if there were no such thing as “100,000 years ago,” the machine would travel nowhere. (I deliberately spell out such prosaic assumptions because, to touch on the interesting issues raised by this thought experiment, I must close as many loopholes as I can conjure.)

You step into the time machine, which is set for 100,000 years into the past, and are whisked away. Moments later, you step out of the machine and find yourself very much on Earth. In fact, you are in what would now be called Western Europe. After mere moments of exploration, you stumble upon a species that is completely unfamiliar to you: Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. You have never laid eyes on such a robust-looking hominid, and watch in awe as they ably hunt for sustenance. Later, to your shock, you stumble upon a burial site where the creatures place their dead. What a curious, curious creature—so seemingly skilled with tools and weapons and, more discomfiting to the biblical-literalist Christian, so similar to us while, at the same time, so unquestionably different.

You are about to step back into the time machine when you notice several woolly mammoths approaching. Needing little more encouragement, you return to the present day, where the meddlesome secularist anxiously awaits your report. Yes, you say, Earth is indeed older than a mere several thousand years. Having traveled to the very time in question, you can say with utter certainty that Earth, at the very least, is 100,000 years old. Obviously, this expedition could not prove Darwinian evolution by natural selection, but it would disprove Young Earth creationism. Old Earth creationism (hardly a monolithic school of thought) is not disproved; Darwin’s theory, of course, remains entirely in accord with the evidence gathered from the journey.

How grievous would the injury to your worldview be, if such an event were to transpire? Could you, as a biblical-literalist Christian, just switch from Young Earth creationism to Old Earth creationism and still leave the entirety of your worldview intact? Or, given your literalist interpretation of the Bible, would the absolute knowledge that Earth, at the very least, is 100,000 years old throw into doubt all you thought you had known? If the creation story, to some degree, must be read metaphorically, what else might be metaphorical? Jesus’ birth by parthenogenesis? The story of Noah and his ark? Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb? Would the shattering of Young Earth creationism poke too many holes in your worldview to be easily plugged? Or, again, would minor tweaks be sufficient to reinforce the edifice?

Let us not end the thought experiment there, though. Instead, let us take it a step further. Suppose, through some method I shall not bother to confect specifically, you came to the certain knowledge that Darwinian evolution by natural selection is true. For the purposes of the hypothetical, again, we are talking about utter and unquestionable 100% certainty. Additionally, let it be clear that microevolution—the process of small modifications occurring within the species level that can result in a new subspecies—is not the topic at hand. Rather, we are discussing macroevolution, which is exactly the type of which Darwin wrote and precisely the process through which our kind, Homo sapiens sapiens, came to be.

This would leave the biblical-literalist Christian with few appealing options. You could endorse a theory of Universal Common Descent, which has been espoused by Darwinians. Or, you could stand behind a theistic evolution/evolutionary creationism scheme, in which evolution has occurred precisely the way Darwinians say, but, essentially, the process was designed, and continues to be overseen, by god. It is not a random process, then, in the broadest sense, because its operating structure was designed by god.

If this were the case, and Darwinian evolution by natural selection was known to be true, how grievous would the injury to your worldview be? Would it throw everything you thought you knew about the nature of the universe (not to mention the nature of reality) into question? Would it lead to a crisis of faith and a newfound doubt in various metaphysical propositions proposed in the Bible? Or, as before with our time-travel trek, would a mere rejiggering suffice to patch up your worldview and make it solid once again?

All this rhetoric, at base, seeks to discover how central denial of Darwinian evolution by natural selection is to the biblical-literalist Christian worldview. Imagine your worldview as a Jenga tower. How important is the piece positing Genesis’ accuracy? If that piece were forced to be removed, would the tower topple?