ID theorist blunders on Bible: Reply to Dr William Dembski

by Jonathan Sarfati, Ph.D., CMI–Australia

Published: 7 February 2005 (GMT+10)

Young-earth creationists and ID theorists: similarities and differences

Young-earth creationists (YECs) and the Intelligent Design Movement (IDM) are natural allies in many ways, although we have major differences as well. See CMI’s views on the Intelligent Design Movement.

Dr Henry Morris, the founder of the modern YEC movement, recently wrote a review of The Design Revolution, by the scientific leader of the IDM, Dr William Dembski. Morris pointed out, with ample justification, how YECs developed many of the insights now claimed by the IDM, long before the IDM was even thought of. For example, the late Dr Richard Bliss long ago used the electric motor of the bacterial flagellum as an example of design, now a favourite of the IDM (the IDM doesn’t seem to have caught up with YECs on the ATP synthase motor); Morris himself has long differentiated horizontal and vertical changes, equivalent to noninformation-gaining and information-gaining; triple doctorate A.E. Wilder-Smith influenced many IDM people, such as Drs Charles Thaxton and Dean Kenyon, about the whole information concept. Also, in 1991, CMI (then called Creation Science Foundation) was using the information concept to elucidate the boundaries of the created kinds, years before Johnson and Dembski came on the scene.

Dembski replied to Morris in turn, and generously wrote

Nonetheless, it was their literature that first got me thinking about how improbable it is to generate biological complexity and how this problem might be approached scientifically. A.E. Wilder-Smith was particularly important to me in this regard. Making rigorous his intuitive ideas about information has been the impetus for much of my research.

In his book Darwin and Design (Harvard University Press, 2003), Michael Ruse makes clear that the key question in the debate over biological evolution is not whether evolution is progressive but rather how biological complexity originated. Creationists have always, and rightly, kept this question at the forefront.

For these reasons, I regard Henry Morris as a great man. I’ve met most of the leading lights associated with his Institute for Creation Research (e.g., Duane Gish, John Morris, and John Baumgardner). Moreover, I corresponded in the 1980s with the late A.E. Wilder-Smith. Unlike many Darwinists and theistic evolutionists, young earth creationists have been extraordinarily gracious to me, and I’ve always tried to return the favor. I therefore regret never meeting Henry Morris in person. I hope still to do so in this life.

Despite my disagreements with Morris and young earth creationism, I regard those disagreements as far less serious than my disagreements with the Darwinian materialists.

Apologetic value?

Dembski reasonably points out that he has furthered the information argument by quantifying it, extending the work on specified complexity. He also argued that ID was more effective in apologetics than YEC:

Take, for instance, the well-known former atheist Antony Flew, whose conversion to theism (albeit a weak form of it) recently made international news. What did Flew cite as a key factor in his conversion? Not creationism but rather design-theoretic arguments for the intelligent origin of life.

Here, one would have to go along with Morris again—his long-serving ally, biochemist Dr Duane Gish long ago raised severe critiques of chemical evolution long before the IDM existed, as we have raised many independently (see Q&A: Origin of life). It also shows a weakness of the approach: that Flew did not gain saving faith. The Bible is clear that revelation from nature is enough to condemn man (Romans 1:20), but not to save him. For that, we need the preaching of the Gospel, and that is found in Scripture (Matthew 28:18–20; Luke 24:47; Romans 10:13–15). See also Design is not enough!

It’s also notable that Flew is still bothered by the problem of evil, which is answered coherently only under a biblical Creation/Fall/Redemption framework, where death and suffering are intruders, the result of sin. See Why would a loving God allow so much death and suffering?, and contrast it with The god of an old earth: Does the Bible teach that disease, bloodshed, violence and pain have always been ‘part of life’? and The Fall: A cosmic catastrophe.

Materialism: our common foe?

Dembski certainly has a commendable goal of ‘dislodging materialism’. He realises that evolution is founded not upon evidence but rather on the interpretation of this evidence within a materialistic framework (see Refuting Evolutionch. 1). However, materialism in biology was preceded historically and logically by materialism in geology (see Darwin, Lyell and billions of years). But Dembski fails to see how his own old-earth belief is an inadvertent deduction from the materialism in geology (and astronomy).

Even worse, much of Darwin’s opposition came from people who were essentially old-earth ID proponents, and he scored many points against them (see Darwin versus a faulty creation model and Annie’s death and the problem of evil).

There is no reason to believe that today’s IDM will do any better than yesterday’s, when they have already conceded a materialistic framework of geological history. Dr Terry Mortenson’s book The Great Turning Point documents how the undermining of biblical history started by questioning the biblical timescale and order of events. See also his article Philosophical naturalism and the age of the earth: are they related? from The Master’s Seminary Journal.

Unfortunate mistakes

But the point of this article is not to discuss the politics of priority or relative merits of ID in depth, but to respond to clear errors in fact by Dembski, and substantial naïveté about physics. What is perhaps worse is that these very issues are covered thoroughly in Refuting Compromise (see introductory chapter). It appears that Dembski is accusing YEC of using shallow reasoning without reading some of the best current in-depth YEC literature.

Misrepresenting the Church Fathers

Dr William Dembski [WD]: Let me concede that young earth creationism was largely the position of the church from the Church Fathers through the Reformers

This makes a pleasant change from progressive creationist Hugh Ross, who has long claimed that most of the church believed in long creation days. See the articles under Church Fathers and Reformers for documentation.

WD: (though there were exceptions, such as Origen and Augustine).

This is simply not true.

Origen: ‘After these statements, Celsus, from a secret desire to cast discredit upon the Mosaic account of the creation, which teaches that the world is not yet ten thousand years old, but very much under that, while concealing his wish, intimates his agreement with those who hold that the world is uncreated. For, maintaining that there have been, from all eternity, many conflagrations and many deluges, and that the flood which lately took place in the time of Deucalion is comparatively modern, he clearly demonstrates to those who are able to understand him, that, in his opinion, the world was uncreated. But let this assailant of the Christian faith tell us by what arguments he was compelled to accept the statement that there have been many conflagrations and many cataclysms, and that the flood which occurred in the time of Deucalion, and the conflagration in that of Phaethon, were more recent than any others.’ Contra Celsum (Against Celsus) 1.19, Ante-Nicene Fathers4:404.

Augustine: ‘Let us, then, omit the conjectures of men who know not what they say, when they speak of the nature and origin of the human race. … They are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though, reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed.’ Augustine, Of the Falseness of the History Which Allots Many Thousand Years to the World’s Past, De Civitate Dei (The City of God), 12(10).

Dembski (like many others, who have apparently only read secondary literature on this matter) has confused their uncertainty about the length of the creation days with rejection of a young earth, which they unambiguously affirmed. And their rejection of literal days was not based on the text, but on outside influences—just like long-age compromise today, which is based on imposing long-age ‘science’ upon Scripture. Origen and Augustine belonged to the Alexandrian school, which was prone to allegorization, largely because of their neo-Platonic philosophy. They apparently couldn’t bear to have God’s creative acts in time, so they allegorized the days to an instant.  Of course, this is diametrically opposite to what long-agers claim! But there was a perfectly good Hebrew word available for ‘moment’ or ‘instant’ (rega‘), if that’s what God had intended to communicate in Genesis 1.

The Galileo excuse

Dembski justifies his Scriptura sub scientia approach (i.e. Scripture under science) by raising the tired old canard about geocentrism. But this shows that he is poorly informed about history, biblical interpretation and even some basic physics that someone of his calibre should be aware of. In fact, Dembski is playing right into the hands of our mutual materialistic enemies by parroting one of their favourite examples of revisionist history.

WD: Yet, during that time, church teaching also held that the earth was stationary.

Unfortunately, this is because they kowtowed to the prevailing Aristotelian science of the day, which included the Ptolemaic cosmology. Indeed, Galileo’s first opponents were the Aristotelians at the Universities, while the four leading pioneers of geokineticism—Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton—were all young-earth creationists!

Dr Thomas Schirrmacher showed in The Galileo affair: history or heroic hagiography:

Contrary to legend, Galileo and the Copernican system were well regarded by church officials. Galileo was the victim of his own arrogance, the envy of his colleagues, and the politics of Pope Urban VIII. He was not accused of criticising the Bible, but disobeying a papal decree.

WD: Psalm 93 states that the earth is established forever and cannot be moved.

Dembski should read the verse in context. The next verse says, ‘[God’s] throne is established of old’, where the same word kôn is also translated ‘established’. And the same Hebrew word for ‘moved’ (môt) is used in Psalm 16:8, ‘I shall not be moved.’ Surely, even Dembski wouldn’t accuse the Bible of teaching that the Psalmist was rooted to one spot! He meant that he would not stray from the path that God had set for him. So the earth ‘cannot be moved’ can also mean that it will not stray from the precise orbital and rotational pattern God has set (‘firmly established’) for it.

WD: A literal interpretation of Psalm 93 seems to require geocentrism.

Well, the Psalms are poetic books, so we should generally expect figurative language and be very careful before concluding that a particular verse is literal. Psalms have the defining characteristic of Hebrew poetry, which is not rhyme or metre, but parallelism. That is, the statements in two or more consecutive lines are related in some way: saying something, then saying it again in a different way. Or saying one thing then saying the opposite. So the parallelism in Psalm 93 clearly shows the reader that the verse Dembski cites should not be taken literally.

Conversely, Genesis is straightforward historical narrative. This should be obvious, because it has all the grammatical features of Hebrew narrative, e.g. the first verb (in Genesis 1:1) is a qatal (historic perfect), and the verbs that move the narrative forward are wayyiqtols (waw consecutives); it contains many ‘accusative particles’ that mark the objects of verbs; and terms are often carefully defined.

WD: And yet everyone at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) accepts the Copernican Revolution. … Our knowledge of physics from the 17th century on has made geocentrism no longer a viable option.

Dembski doesn’t seem to understand the basic physical point that all motion must be described with respect to a reference frame. And you can choose any one you like. The Bible was simply using the earth as a reference frame, just as we do today. Even a modern astronomer will say, ‘Look at that beautiful sunset’ rather than, ‘Look at the way the earth has rotated to place its curvature directly in the light path of the sun’.

To illustrate reference frames, should all speedometer manufacturers be prosecuted for claiming that a parked car is traveling at zero? After all, all cars are traveling at about 1670 km/h just by virtue of the earth’s rotation on its axis (depending on the latitude of course—multiply by the cosine), and as much as 108,000 km/hr around the sun, and 900,000 km/h around the galaxy.

And what do we do with speed limits, likewise set in relation to the ground? The next time someone gets a speeding ticket, should he argue before the judge that speed limits are physically false because we know the earth moves around the sun? 

While all this is perfectly reasonable physics and consistent with everyday language, still some enemies of the Gospel insist that we should use only inertial (non-accelerating) reference frames. When they find such a thing, they should let us know; what they should say is ‘most inertial’. However, it’s perfectly reasonable at times to use ‘moving’ reference frames. For example, if you’re a passenger in a car that’s tailgating dangerously close to the car in front, you could tell the driver to pull back!’—this expression uses the reference frame of the car in front. But you’re really telling the driver to ‘slow down’ not ‘reverse’—in the reference frame of the road. And electrical engineers often find it most convenient to use a ‘bug on the rotor’ as the reference frame when studying induction motors, to understand the way the rotating magnetic field ‘slips’.

Or maybe Dembski should critique the late Sir Fred Hoyle, who made it clear that using the earth’s reference frame was not a scientific error (Nicolaus Copernicus, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., London, p. 78, 1973):

The relation of the two pictures [geocentricity and geokineticism] is reduced to a mere coordinate transformation and it is the main tenet of the Einstein theory that any two ways of looking at the world which are related to each other by a coordinate transformation are entirely equivalent from a physical point of view … . Today we cannot say that the Copernican theory is ‘right’ and the Ptolemaic theory ‘wrong’ in any meaningful physical sense.

That is the key issue. The geokinetic theory greatly simplifies the mathematics, since the planets move in a simple geometric curve (ellipse) around the sun. This contrasts with the ever-increasing number of epicycles required to keep the Ptolemaic system viable.

This also relates to the far superior utility of geokineticism. This model led to Kepler’s three Laws of planetary motion, which led to Newton’s Laws of motion and gravity. In turn, this led to more discoveries: Newton’s theory predicted certain motions of Uranus, provided there were no other massive objects interfering. When Uranus didn’t move as predicted, astronomers were led to discover another massive object perturbing the orbit—this turned out to be the planet Neptune. However, under the Ptolemaic model, the motions of Uranus could have been explained away by yet another epicyle.

But it is wrong to say that geokineticism is more ‘correct’, as Sir Fred said. The only mistake is an absolute geocentrism which claims that the earth is the only reference frame allowed, and neither Hoyle, CMI nor ICR accept this view, which the Bible didn’t teach anyway! CMI endorses the critique of absolute geocentrism by Danny Faulkner, full professor of astronomy and biblical creationist. See also Q&A: Galileo and geocentrism.

WD: Moreover, if literalism is the key to biblical hermeneutics,

This is a disingenuous straw man. The key is the author's intent, which is in turn determined by the historical and grammatical context of the words used (see Should Genesis be taken literally?). That’s why we interpret Genesis as historical narrative and the Psalms as poetry. And that was a problem with the church with Galileo. They reinterpreted poetic passages in accordance with the science fashion of their day. Ironically, many people castigate YECs for supposedly making the same mistake as the church in Galileo’s day. Yet the opposite is true—it’s the long-age compromisers and theistic evolutionists who are the true heirs of Galileo’s opponents, because both are making the same mistake of trying to twist Scripture to fit the scientific fashions of their day.

Is the seventh day of Creation Week a long age?

WD: what are we to make of the seventh day of creation, the day of God's rest? Was it too a literal twenty-four hours in length? Many biblical scholars think that we are still in the seventh day.

Names, please. Dembski might be relying on Hugh Ross, who certainly doesn't count as a scholar when it comes to the biblical text—see Yet another Ross Hebrew blunder and the links therein, and Is the seventh day an eternal day?  and the more technical God’s rest in Hebrews 4:1–11 for a refutation of this specific objection. Of course the seventh day was literal, because it was the basis for a literal Sabbath day (Ex. 20:8–11).

Summary and conclusion

Dembski’s reply to Henry Morris’s commentary was in large measure generous and respectful. But in defending his long-age compromising views, Dembski, despite his brilliance in some areas of science, has committed some basic blunders as shown here. I would respectfully commend Refuting Compromise to him before he reenters this particular arena which touches so vitally upon the authority of Scripture. Much is at stake.

Helpful Resources

The Genesis Account
by Jonathan Sarfati
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Refuting Compromise
by Dr Jonathan Sarfati
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