Were You There?
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I know. It sounds like the title of a British comedy. But that question actually presents us with one of the better intellectual frauds of the Creationist movement.
On the website of the Institute for Creation Research (www.icr.org), as of November 2007, under the section titled Back to Genesis, in an essay called Were You There? Kenneth Ham states:
"What a science lesson God had for Job! God was teaching Job the philosophy of science, a lesson everyone needs to learn."
In fact God gave Job more of an anti-science lesson, a fact that comes clear if we actually read the Book of Job.
Job’s story starts off with what sounds like the feint-line of a joke. So one day the ever-insolent Satan invites himself into the gathering at which the sons of God come before Jehovah to reaffirm their fealty to the Lord of Creation. Ever the gracious host, Jehovah asks Satan what he’s been doing. When Satan replies that he’s been walking up and down the Earth, Jehovah asks whether he has taken notice of Jehovah’s super-perfect servant Job, "a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil". Oh, yes, Satan knows about Job and, troublemaker that he is, he taunts Jehovah with comments that Job’s loyalty is merely bought, not cultivated. Job only stays loyal to Jehovah because Jehovah has made him rich and happy. If Jehovah were to take away Job’s wealth, Job’s loyalty would crumble like a brick made of wet sand.
Not the brightest sacred flame flickering on Mount Olympus, Jehovah takes the bait. He gives Satan permission to grind Job into the most abject poverty and see what happens. Satan wastes no time in contriving incidents in which all of Job’s wealth is either stolen or destroyed and, for good measure, engineers the collapse of the house in which Job’s seven sons and three daughters are gathered, thereby killing all of Job’s offspring. Job grieves, of course, but he rationalizes his loss by noting that he came into this world with nothing and that he will leave it with nothing. Everything he had came from Jehovah, so he has no basis for a complaint when Jehovah takes it away. "In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong." (Job 1:22). Yeah: Jehovah – 1, Satan – 0.
But Satan is a persistent blathering fount of evil, so once again he comes among the sons of God to Jehovah’s celestial throne room. Again he tells Jehovah that he has been walking up and down the Earth and Jehovah notes that Job is still His devoted servant. Well, yeah, Satan admits, but only because he still has his health. Taking that away, Satan says, will snuff Job’s devotion to Jehovah like a candle in a storm.
Again Jehovah takes the bait. He tells Satan that he may do anything to Job except kill him. Satan simply inflicts upon Job a disease that covers him from head to toe with sores so loathsome that Job is reduced to sitting on an ash heap scraping them with a pot-sherd. At that point Job’s wife cracks; she advises him to "curse God, and die" and Job simply tells her to shut her bread-hole. Three of Job’s friends then come to join the hapless man in his mourning. After sitting in silence for a week, Job expresses regret that he was born, doing so in a curse so elaborate that it takes up all of Chapter 3. His buddies’ responses and his counter-responses also take up whole chapters.
(Job is one of the gassiest books of the Bible. Even the author acknowledges that fact by having his characters talk about each other blowing wind.)
Job’s first buddy, Eliphaz, reminds him that in the past he has done much to comfort the afflicted. Now that he is one of the afflicted he seems impatient to be comforted, as if his righteousness made him worthy of special consideration. But no man can be more righteous than Jehovah, so Job should accept Jehovah’s chastisement and throw himself on Jehovah’s mercy.
Job replies that he has not the strength to be patient. He will cry out his anguish and demand to know why Jehovah has made him a target for this torment.
Job’s second buddy, Bildad, repeats that no one can stand righteous before Jehovah, but they can only accept what Jehovah gives.
Job is not convinced. He complains bitterly and says that he still wants to confront Jehovah, to seek justification for his torment.
When Job’s friends have finished, a fourth man, Elihu, comes forward and declares angrily that Job had justified himself rather than Jehovah. He is also angry at Job’s buddies because, even though they found Job in the wrong, they offered no answer. Well, Elihu has an answer. He says that no one can contend with Jehovah and demand a hearing. Not only can you not win your case in Jehovah’s court, he says, you should not even go to court to begin with.
In the climax of the story (Chapter 38) Jehovah speaks to Job out of a whirlwind. "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" He asks. Kenneth Ham says that he likes to paraphrase that as, "Were you there, Job, when I made the earth? Did you see me do it, Job? Did you observer how it happened, Job? Were you there to see Me create the world, Job?" That is an excellent paraphrase, because it expresses fully all of the smug snottiness of the original. For four full chapters Jehovah taunts Job, boasting of His glorious power and knowledge over Job’s pathetic impotence and ignorance. But at no point does the divine blowhard address the question of why He allowed a good man innocent of any wrongdoing to be robbed and tortured.
Contrary to fundamentalist belief, the Book of Job does not represent the epitome of wisdom literature. It gives us, in fact, one of the first efforts by the Jews to confront the fact that their concept of a universal, omnipotent, omniscient God (as exemplified in Jehovah’s boasting to Job) had painted them into an unfortunate corner of the moral realm. We call that corner the problem of evil and we sum it up by asking Why would a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God allow evil to exist? Like Job’s author, philosophers and theologians to date have failed to find a satisfactory answer to that question. In lieu of an answer, we have nothing more than variations on the doctrine that Job’s author presented – evading the question by asserting that no human can ever understand God’s reasoning, so we can only rely on faith that God is actually doing the right thing.
So Jehovah’s science lesson for Job was nothing more than a bully’s taunt. But is it, nonetheless, a science lesson? Ham illustrated his article with a cartoon showing how to apply the lesson that he claims God gave Job: it depicts a professor lecturing on the first second of the Big Bang and a student challenges his account by asking, "Excuse me, sir, were you there?" Ham makes clear his intent that the question serve as a challenge to any claim of knowledge pertaining to events that occurred in the deep past. By making knowledge entirely dependent upon present witness, Ham intends to expel all statements pertaining to the evolution of the Universe and of life on Earth from the realm of human knowledge. Is that legitimate? Is it scientific?
Consider the following scenario:
Frankie Felonious and Vinnie D. Victim dislike each other intensely. One night a chance encounter in an empty parking lot leaves Vinnie lying dead in a pool of blood on account of the three slugs that Frankie pumped into him from a 38-caliber revolver. Some time later Clancy the Cop sees Frankie leaning over some bushes in front of a house and, assuming that he’s playing Peeping Tom, arrests him. Still later Detective Dan, searching the area for clues, finds a 38-caliber revolver in the bushes near where Clancy the Cop saw Frankie. The residents of the house tell Detective Dan about the arrest, so Detective Dan calls the precinct station and asks that someone test Frankie’s hands for gunpowder residue, which they do indeed find on Frankie’s right hand. Later, interviewing people in the neighborhood, Detective Dan and his team find a large number of people who say they heard three crisp pops at about the time that the coroner says that Vinnie died, but they can’t find anyone who actually saw the murder take place.
Nonetheless, things don’t look so good for Frankie at the trial. In the case of the People of the State of Confusion vs. Franklin B. Felonious, Prosecutor Pete lays out an impressive array of facts:
1. Earwitnesses heard the sounds of three shots and three 38-caliber bullets were removed from Vinnie’s body.
2. A 38-caliber revolver found near the scene of the murder had three empty cartridges in its cylinder.
3. Bullets test fired from the gun bear scratches identical to the scratches on the bullets taken from Vinnie’s body.
4. No fingerprints were found on the gun, but the cartridges in the cylinder bear partial fingerprints that conform to the patterns of Frankie’s fingerprints.
5. Frankie was seen shortly after the murder leaning over the bush in which the gun was found.
6. Frankie had gunpowder residue on his right hand, indicating that he had fired a gun recently.
Based on those facts, Prosecutor Pete tells the jury, it is reasonable to infer that Frankie did, in fact, murder Vinnie, gunning him down and then ditching the murder weapon in the bushes when he saw Clancy the Cop.
Murray daMout’piece has his work cut out for him, see? It’s his job to cast the shadow of doubt that will get his client Frankie an acquittal. Unfortunately for Murray and his client, the evidence seems to be shedding way too much light on the murder. But Murray has a clever plan: he puts Detective Dan on the stand and questions him.
"Who murdered Vinnie D. Victim?" Murray demands to know.
"All of the evidence taken together forms a chain linking the murder to Frankie Felonious," Detective Dan says. "There’s no room for a reasonable doubt. Frankie Felonious murdered Vinnie D. Victim."
"Really?" Murray says with a self-satisfied smirk. "Were you there, Dan, when the murder went down? Did you see the murderer do it, Dan? Did you observe how it happened, Dan? Were you there to see Vinnie get killed, Dan?"
Detective Dan must answer No to those question, of course, so does Frankie walk? One wit once commented that if evolution were a murder, there would have been a hanging a long time ago. In the light of that witticism we can see that the ploys emanating from the Creationist camp have more in common with legalistic stunts that a desperate lawyer might use to keep his client away from the gallows than with real science.
As for what the Were You There scam is intended to refute, we must point out that the Detectives’ Method is simply a variation on the Scientific Method. Both methods consist of a series of clear, logical steps. In the present example we have:
1. Observation – a man is killed.
2. Question – Who committed the murder?
3. Further Observation/Experiment – the detectives seek out anything related to the murder and conduct appropriate experiments (such as test firing Frankie’s gun to see whether the scratches on the bullets match those on the bullets taken from Vinnie’s body).
4. Theory – the detectives take the information that they have obtained and organize it to produce a coherent picture that identifies the person who committed the crime.
5. Trial – the detectives present their theory and the evidence upon which they base it to a jury that agrees with their reasoning (defendant guilty), disagrees with it (defendant acquitted as not guilty), or finds the evidence or reasoning insufficient to reach a verdict (in Scotland this leads to a verdict of "not proven").
Note that in this version of the method the steps of forming an hypothesis and making predictions from it pertaining to what additional evidence would show are missing, though in more complicated cases they would come into play. And the Trial step doesn’t show up explicitly in the Scientific Method, even though it actually exists in the scientists’ publishing of their theories and evidence so that other scientists can judge whether they have devised a theory that accurately represents some part of Reality. In both methods people abstract information from a set of things found in the real world and use logical inference to discern the existence and form of something that they have not directly witnessed. That’s why Frankie sits on death row and why most scientists believe that the theory of evolution gives us a correct account of the history of life on Earth.
But someone may object that science, nonetheless, stands on faith just as much as does any religion. To a certain extent we may accept the statement behind that objection as true to Reality. At this point we should review what the Apostle Paul had to say about faith:
"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old received divine approval. By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear." – Paul in Hebrews 11:1-5.
But, unlike religion, science does not rely on blind faith, but rather on faith justified by works. It reads the book of Nature and reads between the lines. To see what that means in terms of "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" we need only consider the history of our knowledge of the neutrino.
By 1930 physicists had observed and measured enough decays of unstable atoms, making their measurements on the thread-like vapor trails that electrically charged particles left in Wilson cloud chambers, to know that something seemed to have gone wrong with their picture of Reality. Their calculations showed them that the nuclear decays were not obeying the conservation laws pertaining to energy and momentum. Now physicists take the conservation laws about as seriously as a devout Christian takes The Ten Commandments, the more so because in the first part of the Twentieth Century Amalie Emmy Nöther, a German mathematician, had shown that the conservation laws necessarily imply symmetries of space and time and vice versa. Unwilling to set aside the conservation laws, Wolfgang Pauli, in 1930, hypothesized the existence of a hidden particle that Enrico Fermi christened neutrino.
The neutrino hypothesis solved the problems raised by nuclear decays but raised a question of its own: how do we know that neutrinos actually, truly exist? Paul’s "conviction of things not seen" will take us only so far in science. Sooner, rather than later, we want more evidence and in the case of the neutrinos it took a quarter century to get it. Until then we can say that physicists took the existence of neutrinos on faith.
In 1956 Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines and their team put two tanks containing a solution of cadmium chloride near the Atomic Energy Commissions nuclear reactor near Savannah, Georgia. From what physicists knew of neutrinos based on previous studies, Cowan and Reines calculated that a flood of anti-neutrinos emerged from the reactor due to nuclear decays that accompanied the fissions that generated the reactor’s power. A small number of those anti-neutrinos would, on passing into the cadmium chloride solution, strike a proton serving as the nucleus of a hydrogen atom in a water molecule and convert it into a neutron and a positron. The positron would then meet an electron and undergo mutual annihilation and the neutron would get absorbed by a cadmium nucleus. Those events would result in the emission of three gamma ray photons – two carrying 511 electron-volts of energy and the other carrying 8 million electron-volts of energy. When they had accumulated enough examples of gamma photons hitting their detectors in just that pattern, Cowan and Reines could assert that neutrinos do really and truly exist. Neutrinos exist as a matter of fact, and no longer as a matter of faith.
The same rules apply in biology. We assert that life originated in the sea and observe that life exists on land. We must hypothesize, then, that at one time animals emerged from the water and came onto the land. That hypothesis implies that at one time there existed an animal that would be part fish and part land animal, something similar to a mudskipper, a kind of goby that lives on mud flats in areas like those we find at the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab at the head of the Persian Gulf. It thus becomes necessary to the theory of evolution for someone to find evidence of the existence of that "missing link". And, sure enough, after a long search, Neil Shubin and his team found the fossilized remains of a thing they called Tiktaalik roseae, an animal that looked just like a fish that had evolved the ability to walk on land. What was once a matter of faith has become a matter of fact in biology. It is the relentless accumulation of evidence fueling such faith-to-fact transformations that has led biologists to accept the theory of evolution.
Appendix: Jehovah’s Boasts
In His response to Job’s complaint Jehovah boasts of His power and asks questions to rub Job’s face in his ignorance. Of course, Job had no answer to any of those questions. But it’s interesting to review some of them:
1. "Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?" (Job 38:16). Yes, in fact, some humans have done so, using a variety of submersible vehicles and diving suits.
2. "Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?" (Job 38:18). Yes, beginning with Eratosthenes, who used geometric measurement of the angles at which the sun’s rays strike the Earth at two points in Egypt.
3. "Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?" (Job 38:33). Yes, if those ordinances guide the motions of the planets and the stars and determine how the stars and the nebulae produce and emit light.
4. "Do you know when the mountain goats bring forth? Do you observe the calving of the hinds? Can you number the months that they fulfill, and do you know the time when they bring forth, when they crouch, bring forth their offspring, and are delivered of their young?" (Job 39:1-3). Yes, yes, and yes. Naturalists have filled libraries with their observations of the secret lives of wild animals and continue to add to that material.
And we can look forward to answering the rest of Jehovah’s boasts in the future, at least answering those that have some referent in what we call Reality.
Better known as the Problem of Evil, it asks a simple question: How can an all-good, infinitely-powerful God allow evil to exist? We also call it The Riddle of Epicurus, which we can put into the following form:
Is God willing to prevent evil but not able?
Then He is not omnipotent.
Is He able but not willing?
Then He is malevolent.
Is God both able and willing?
Then whence comes evil?
Is He neither able nor willing?
Then why call Him God?
Of course the assumption underlying the problem has God possessing the properties of omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and omniscience; in other words, we assume that God is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing. The Book of Job stands before us as one of the first examples of a meditation on the subject, because the Jews came to the problem before anybody else due to their conception of their tribal god as a universal deity.
If we accept the idea of God as possessing the ability to do anything and possessing knowledge of everything, then the problem boils down to considering whether we can impute to God perfect goodness. So what can we say about the goodness of God? Can we truly impute omnibenevolence to It?
Defining goodness has always been difficult at best. People have tried for millenia, the Greek philosophers perhaps giving the problem of defining good the best effort and getting nowhere. Consider a simple example. In the early 1940's the Nazis believed that it is good to kill Jews merely for being Jewish. Of course, the Jews and an awful lot of other people disagree with that definition of good, but how can they argue that it is wrong to define good in that way? The problem doesn’t come to us like a problem in physics.
For example, if I drop water balloons from the roof of a building onto people passing below, you and I will agree that, ignoring air resistance, the balloons accelerate downward at 32.2 feet per second per second. The effect of gravity gives us a matter of fact on which we must agree (on the assumption that we are honest). But you may believe that dropping water balloons on unsuspecting passers-by is not a good thing. On that we disagree, so it stands as a matter of opinion. And we have no way of bringing ourselves into agreement, because our opinions are formed from our personal experiences of the world and are, thus, idiosyncratic.
We can solve the Problem of Evil in a straightforward way once we understand that there is no clear universal definition of good. Of course that solution does not support the idea of a generic Heaven and Hell, which makes churches no longer necessary, but it conforms to the expectations of a modern scientific view of the world. Simply put, God does not define goodness, but allows each of us to define it for ourselves and then applies the Golden Rule when we die. If there is an afterlife (and that’s a very big IF), then each of us thus goes into a custom-made Heaven created in accordance with that simple rule: what you do to others in this life, God will do to you in the next.
Going back to our example of the Nazis, we can see how this might play out. The Nazis justified their hatred of Jews by claiming that the Jews exerted a cruel dominance over the world, subverting Aryan culture and oppressing Aryan people. They responded by creating a society that oppressed Jews as the fantasy dictated to get revenge. Now imagine that the Nazi has died and emerged into the world that he created through acting on that fantasy: he will spend Eternity being oppressed in a true Jew-dominated world, every bit as cruel as the one in Hitler’s fantasy, until he is loaded onto the cattle car and taken to the extermination camp with other Aryans. And that scenario repeats over and over for him forever.
Does that seem like Hell? To us, yes. But to the Nazi it must be Heaven, because it’s what he prayed for through his actions. But, you may object, it can’t be Heaven because he gets no pleasure. Not true, I say, because in that parody of Hitler’s fantasy he enjoys the sublime pleasure of feeling sorry for himself. Think of it this way: you would not want to wallow in mud like a pig, even though you understand that the pig enjoys it. Likewise those people whose complete failure as human beings leads them into things like Naziism will, we expect, enjoy wallowing in self-pity. After all, it’s the only thing they can achieve.
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