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Ussher Nonsense?

Ussher Archbishop James Ussher was a 17th century Irish clergyman most famous for publishing a chronology which dated the origin of the world back to the nightfall preceding October 23rd, 4004 BC. Although the date is not always so precisely rendered by modern Young Earth Creationists, Ussher's work still holds some influence in minority Christian sects found almost exclusively in the USA. But what beliefs must one hold before Ussher's date can be instantiated as the origin of the world? And does it still hold any relevance for modern Christians?

Before beginning, it is vital for me to reiterate my position regarding people's beliefs: that we all have the freedom to believe whatever we wish, and that there is no mechanism for revealing  Truth that does not depend upon the prior assumptions and beliefs of the individual. I am not arguing in this piece against Creationism, per se - I occasionally find the criticisms of Creation Scientists draw attention to interesting problems in evolutionary theory which any scientist might do well to consider in order to improve their own thinking about the topic, and specifically that any scientist still considering evolution solely in terms of mutation and natural selection has commited greater logical errors than a Creation Scientist (whose position, after all, is far more explicitely connected to their faith, and is therefore logically simpler).

Ussher's work was an exceptional piece of scholarship for the century in which it was written, as it required the Bible to be carefully rooted in actual historical events. Ussher must have studied the history of Rome, Greece, Egypt and Persia in considerably greater depth than his contemporaries to arrive at his chronology. However, even this was insufficient to deliver a specific date. One cannot, for instance, use the geneology in Genesis 5 et al to track down a specific day of the year since the information provided only tracks years, not days. Ussher had to resort to numerology and astrology to complete his calculation - something which most Creationists would be exceptionally unlikely to tolerate.

It follows, therefore, that for Ussher's specific date to be instantiated by any individual, they must believe that God was specifically trying to communicate via Usser - that he was in effect another prophet. This view is rather inconsistent with all but the most esoteric of Christian theologies. In particular: why would God have any reason to want to communicate a specific date for creation?

This indeed highlights the specific problem with all forms of Young Earth Creationism. Although there is little harm in an individual deciding for themselves that God created the world 6,000 to 10,000 years ago (provided they do not attempt to force this belief upon others), this viewpoint is rather inconsistent with what Christians believe about God. Firstly, this position requires the individual to believe that, amongst other things, fossil evidence was planted by God as a test of faith. Now while it is true that the book of Genesis does have an account of Abraham's faith being tested by God, nothing in the Bible nor in Christian theology in general corresponds to a general test of faith designed to target all people. This belief seems rather close to what Bill Hicks called "the prankster God", and is not enormously helpful.

More specifically, the central message of the Old Testament in respect of modern Christians can be  crudely summarised as: behave equitably and honourably towards your family and community. The central message of Jesus' ministry is summarised in the only commandment he gave: love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34). Given that these themes are the key messages that (from a solely Christian perspective, at least) God has delivered to man, the question must be asked: why would God care what year we believe the Earth was created? If Jesus were to return to corporeal form today, do we really believe he would consider the age of the Earth to be an important issue? This is surely inconsistent with everything what we know about Jesus' life and teachings.

I feel it is a sad thing indeed when issues such as the age of the Earth are held in greater esteem by Christians than the central message of Jesus' ministry. I suspect that the reason it has become such a hot button issue for the minority sects that believe in Young Earth Creationism is that they feel that evolutionary theory contradicts the Bible and is therefore false. But evolutionary theory only contradicts the Bible if one believes (1) that the Bible is the precise word of God, rather than inspired by God (2) that all translations of the Bible are the precise word of God despite their relative inconsistencies (or that only one specific translation is the 'True' translation) and (3) that the interpretation of the Bible does not depend upon cultural factors. Obviously given my philosophical investigations and following Wittgenstein, I don't believe language has this quality of exactitude, and if language lacks this quality then all religious texts must lack it too. This does not and cannot preclude religious texts being inspired by God, of course.

It is time, perhaps, to "put away childish things" as Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13:11). And for those willing to accept the idea that the current Bible is a product of a selection process driven by an early Christian sect with its own agenda for excluding certain books, and therefore that the "Christian Apocrypha" might contain some of Jesus' teachings with continuing  relevance, I draw attention to the line where Jesus says: "Anyone with a mind should use it to think!" (Gospel According to Mary, 3:9). And as a brief aside, I was delighted to see the idea of an “unexpurgated Bible” raised in this charming online discussion of the Christian perspective of homosexuality and not causing any kind of stir at all.

Evolutionary theory is not, and never can be, a challenge to God. Clumsy anti-religious bigots may antagonise certain Christian sects on this principle, but we should laugh at their foolishness, not take their nonsense seriously. Modern Christians increasingly accept that believing that God was the ultimate cause of creation says nothing about the mechanisms by which God's will was implemented. I do not wish to suggest that one must accept evolutionary theory (it is a highly subjective science at best, and most modern theories of it are riddled with strange assumptions, logical errors and gaping holes), but I do wish to suggest that for a Christian, the scientific process reveals the wonders of God's creation. Evolutionary theory is astonishing. The idea that we are here at all is almost beyond belief. For these reasons and many others, evolutionary theory should increase the glory of God to a Christian perspective.

Let us, if you will excuse the pun, usher in a new era of Christian enlightenment where science and religion are recognised as belonging in utterly different spheres. That frees Christians to focus on finding ways to mirror God's love for them in their love for other people, instead of getting mired down in arguments over such trivial nonsense as the age of the Earth.


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ref Bible, Wittgenstein and precise word of God: I know at least one Christian who rationalises this by saying that as they read the Word of God, God ensures that they have an exact understanding of it as He originally intended. I can't think of a way to gainsay that :-).

ref most modern evolutionary theories being "riddled with strange assumptions, logical errors and gaping holes"... specifics, please, Chris? You're generally very good at dealing in specifics, and this brought me up short. If I were going to say that about some faith (for example), I would at least try to be specific about *what* I considered to be the problems.

Ghhh... this post is full of misconceptions, the biggest being that the theory of evolution is full of misconceptions.

I don't suppose you'd consider splitting your blog in two, one for your game-related posts and one for this kind of post? Seeing these posts pop up in my feed brings me closer to unsubscribing every time.

Hi! I've already rambled incoherently on general issues with evolution before; I thought my position on this was clear. There didn't seem much need for any more posts on this topic since the only criticism and rebuttal I've been given so far is basically "you're wrong, and you smell". :D

Basically, we have a general framework which is promising, but we're missing so much of the details that we can only consider even the best model around to be an incomplete theory. And the basic models are, frankly, total tosh!

This is categorically not the same as saying "evolution is false". It is rather saying: "our models of evolution are a conflicting mess right now. Someone make it coherent, please! Thank you."

There is some good work, don't get me wrong - Dawkin's stuff is okay at the nuts and bolts, and Gould was making excellent progress in a tricky area. But no-one's been quite able to put it all together, that's the trouble.

There are still all sorts of problems on the DNA side, though, including the idea that behaviour tracks directly to DNA which just sort of skipped the hypothesis and testing part of science completely for some reason! :) I blame having found strong evidence of *inheritence* of some behaviours before the "discovery" of DNA, and induction just sort of filled in the blanks without anyone putting a hand up and saying "hold on a minute!" Thankfully, the whole "Gay gene" farce stopped this one going too far too quickly.

Craig: of course I can't split the blog in two - that would so completely defeat the purpose! :) If you can't find a way to enjoy the nonsense, I suggest you may have to unsubscribe. I'd be sorry to see you go, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

I can't help but pull my little philosophical pranks, such as this one, and I am sorry that they don't make you laugh; they're almost always not saying what they seem to be saying... I assure you, I write them in good humour.

When you say: "the theory of evolution is full of misconceptions", to what do you refer to when you say "the theory of evolution", exactly? I'm talking about "most modern theories" - perhaps you're using one that is better than most that I've missed out on.

I'll happily take some pointers, but I've absorbed most if not all of the big names from Kimura, through Dawkins to Gould and Dennett and onto Lynn Margulis in the corners making a lot of sense and all on her own. :)

I should perhaps also have said that all the pieces are there for a kick ass theory of evolution, but *no-one putting it together*, perhaps because there are too many people defending mutation and natural selection *on its own* as sufficient to the task - despite the fact that Kimura's neutral theory shoots it almost dead (mutations in exon DNA = DEATH, pretty much every time; multiple mutations needed for a new gene; mathematics of the age of the world inconsistent with the genetic variation required etc.) without substantial modification, such as my own "cut and paste" hypothesis.

Natural selection is in the clear, but by itself it isn't really a complete theory of evolution is it? In fact, should we even expect a complete theory in our lifetime? I'm really not sure we should.

So, once again, sorry that you didn't find this post entertaining; I thought you'd appreciate me having a crack at the Young Earth Creationists for a change! :)

Best wishes!

Oh, and Peter - it sounds to me that this Christian you know has a very high opinion of themselves! God makes the Word exact in their head and not everyone elses? Or does God make the Word exact in everyone's head, and delights in mischief? :D

PS: It occurs to me also that my wording was badly off in this piece: when I said "most theories" that should say "most *people's* theories"...

I'm sure if we just laid out the academic theories next to each other, we would just have a lot of incomplete theories, which might also be incompatible with each other. It is the theory of evolution *as it sits in most people's heads* which is wackily nuts! :D

Actually, I think most people don't have much beyond "Evolution is REAL!" or the (now utterly refuted!) "Ladder of Progress" which is *so* not adequate to any serious task. I'm sure many people are in a better place than this, theoretically, but the quality of the treatment of evolution in sci fi doesn't give me much confidence! :)

I guess all I'm really saying is: We haven't got very far with the monstrously difficult task of assembling a coherent and complete theory of evolution.

Hope that clarifies rather than obfuscates! :)

Clarifies? Not really. You still haven't mentioned any specifics except some marginal handwaving about DNA. Of course, the specifics of DNA are totally unrelated to the basic theory of evolution: the only way it affects is in determining the speed/intermix level of the process.

"Theory", of course, means scientific theory, which is closer to meaning "process" than "hypothesis". In evolution's case, we have literally unending evidence proving (perfectly in line with) it and literally none challenging it. There are some pieces of evidence missing, but when you see 1 2 3 4 ? 6 7, the question mark doesn't "disprove" that it's a sequence of increasing numbers.

Sure, most people's conceptions are incomplete. Most people don't study much detail. If that's all you're saying, fine. But it sure sounds like you're shrugging off evolution as piecemeal guesswork. It isn't.

We don't seem to be communicating very effectively on this point, Craig. Perhaps it would be better to have this discussion on a post concerning evolution, rather than a post about religion? Best wishes!

Hi Chris,

just a couple of things I wanted to point out:

1) Creation Scientist-type people don't believe God hid already existing fossils in the ground (well, I'm sure SOMEONE believes it, but they'd be super-crazy). They believe that those fossils are as a result of a global flood (Noah's one), that buried huge numbers of animals, and then they turned into fossils.

2) The Apocrypha was never 'removed' from the Bible, rather it was added in later. All the books in the New Testament were written within the first Century of Jesus' life (and most within the first half). The extra gospels (Thomas, Mary etc) and the like were written much later.


may i have a try at mediating this dispute (Don't shoot me if i'm all wrong on both sides...)

Craig said: "Sure, most people's conceptions are incomplete. Most people don't study much detail. If that's all you're saying, fine. But it sure sounds like you're shrugging off evolution as piecemeal guesswork. It isn't."

As i understand "the nonsense" Chris is posting here he's trying to deal with "religion" in the broadest traditional sense and the recent attempts from other groups to find _replacements_ for these traditional teachings.

So in this case i think Chris tries to critizise certain christian sects for obvious reasons but also people who think of themselves as being "non-religious", "atheistic" or whatever. Some of these "non-religious" groups may in fact use out-of-context, out-dated or oversimplified elements of scientific theories (most prominently the theory of evolution) to establish a world view in *absolute terms* that by itself amounts to a form of "self-assembled" belief system - some may call it an *ideology* that at some point could threaten mutual tolerance.

So in my view Chris tries to be fair to all sides calling for tolerance and cautious reasoning instead of hastily proclaimed "truths" which may turn out to be somewhat self-contradictory on closer inspection.

Kimura's neutral theory is probably a good example. Why don't you battle it out on this one...;)

RodeoClown: Thanks for these clarifications! I did wonder about this fossil business. :) It still strikes me as a very odd belief to hold. So all these animals died at the same time during the flood? What a truly strange ecology it must have been prior to this event! I think the prankster God might be the easier belief in some respects. :)

Regarding what I call "the Christian Apocrypha", I take your point but believe the issue to be more ambiguous than you suggest. The Old Testament was canonized around the 4th century AD; the earliest discovered versions of Mary date back to 3rd century, and aren't necessarily the earliest, and the oldest versions of Thomas date back at least as far as 200 AD - and of course, these may have derived from earlier works that did not survive.

I think there's sufficient ambiguity for it to at least be worth the while of any Christian to examine the "Christian Apocrypha" and draw their own conclusions. There's some dynamite stuff in some of these books that didn't make it in, at least in my view. And a suspicious amount of what was excluded is speaking against organised religion - precisely what you'd expect to be left out, under the circumstances. :)

But of course, I'm not exactly your typical Biblical scholar, as I suspect is readily apparent. :) I think some of these apocryphal texts have a greater claim to being representative of Jesus' teachings than, say, Revelation (dating back to the end of the 1st century), which I just don't think should be in there at all! But then, who am I to attempt to restructure the Bible? It really is quite arrogant of me even to make such a suggestion, frankly! Still, I can resist this no more than I can resist being honest about the state of scientific issues as I see them. :)

Thanks for engaging me on some of the issues! I really do appreciate it!

"God makes the Word exact in their head and not everyone elses? Or does God make the Word exact in everyone's head, and delights in mischief?"

In their apparent view - and note that I may be misreporting:

- They have a personal God who they speak with on a regular (more frequent than daily) basis.

- They can ask this God questions and get back oracular (and generally good-humoured) answers. Their view is that because this God is also omniscient and omnipotent, [Hh]e can get round language issues by couching the answer in the terms they will interpret correctly, as [Hh]e knows what the terms are and is capable of framing the response in that way.

- Not everyone chooses to know this God (despite such evidence being all around), therefore not everyone has the benefit of such perfect communication. Their God is neither choosy nor mischievous, instead their God allows each person to select for themselves what they believe.

translucy: thanks for this - you're right about my motivations, although in this instance I really *wasn't* attempting to consider the issue from any perspective other than Christian (although I certainly have in earlier posts!) I actually hoped, in this case, to be talking to Christians about issues that might matter to them. I categorically did not want to be talking to atheists about evolution in the comments to this post, even though I (utterly foolishly!) opened the door by including offhand remarks.

In other words, you read me correctly - but you're also putting some of my broader context into this specific issue, which I definitely *didn't* want to apply here. (I'm becoming increasingly keen to have a chance to meet you face to face, incidentally - I hope this is possible at some point in our lives!)

The problems with evolution are typical scientific problems (from a philosophy of science perspective, you understand), and not that unusual. Akin to, say, the unresolved problems between general relativity and quantum theory: serious issues overall, but not a problem for the theories when taken seperately. My point in this post was - to a *Christian* the state of evolutionary theories as generally espoused is a mess (since the proponents of evolution cannot agree on even basic points, why should the Christians be won over?), and if they *choose* to reject evolution, on this or another basis, they are more than entitled to do so.

I personally think this is unnecessary and unhelpful, and I don't think the problems at the theoretical level pose much a problem in the long term. At the very least we can have some confidence that we *will* get a coherent evolutionary theory that covers the whole endeavour at some point. When is less clear! :)

I feel I should post about Kimura's Neutral theory now I've mentioned it, but I'm not keen to do so as it seems that whenever I post on evolution I tend to get flamed, or wildly misunderstood, or pointed to very basic textbooks which are rather irrelevant to the issues I'm talking about. (Or at the very least I annoy Craig, which I have absolutely no desire to do). It's a touch depressing. It disinclines me to share my views on the topic. But it's a tough topic to avoid, especially when I have a pending hypothesis in the field that warrants exploration!

I realise that my blogging style is unusual, in that I skip from philosophy of science, to philosophy of language, to philosophy of religion like they were related (perhaps because...) but I'd like to think that it's clear that I have read up on the topics I write about and that my viewpoint is carefully reasoned, even when it seems to be totally insane!

Anyway, this isn't helping my insomnia. :(

My best wishes to you all!

Thanks, Peter. This is really a rather sweet point of view in some respects. I assume that, despite the assumed infallibility of their personal God in these communications, the recipient can still make a mistake since they are, after all, only human?

"My point in this post was - to a *Christian* the state of evolutionary theories as generally espoused is a mess (since the proponents of evolution cannot agree on even basic points, why should the Christians be won over?), and if they *choose* to reject evolution, on this or another basis, they are more than entitled to do so."

That's absurd. While there may be serious disagreement about important aspects of evolutionary theory, there is no serious disagreement about whether or not some (perhaps to be found in the future) version of evolutionary theory is correct. It's like two people arguing about whether a specific shade of green is lime green or forest green. There's a significant difference, but anyone who says that it isn't green is being a fool.

Malky: in Japanese, green is not a basic colour. In fact, the word 'ao' (usually translated as blue) is often used in place of green. I do not believe that the Japanese are fools.

Thanks for your comment!

Deliberate obtuseness does little good for anyone.

I am not being obtuse. I am trying to express a subtle point to you. Apparently I failed.

And, after two seconds of Wikipedia-ing, isn't Midori the Japanese term for green?

Oh, I caught the intended point. However, not everyone shares your love for the vague. Explicit speech leaves less room for confusion.

More importantly, it was not a significant challenge to my point.

Midori (green) is indeed a shade of ao (blue) in Japanese.

Malky: I don't really agree that explicit speech leaves less room for confusion, sorry. I've tried getting my points across explicitly, and still I am generally misunderstood. Negotiation of terms leaves less room for confusion, perhaps - is this what you meant by 'explicit speech'? Please forgive me if I do not always have the energy for the task of negotiation of terms; it is wearing, must be performed seperately for each individual, and besides which I have slept badly. :(

Your point presumes truth value systems that will be incompatible with many Christian's system of metaphysics. As such, I don't believe your point is relevant to this post. I don't necessarily disagree with your premise, though, I just don't think it's relevant to the argument I advance here - which, let's not forget, *is that Christians should adopt evolution into their belief system if they can*.

I'm somewhat disappointed that so many non-Christians feel the need to argue the minutae of this post. Does no-one support my premise?

Saying that Christians must believe in evolution because (forgive this overly simplistic abstraction) "it's true" rather misses my point.

I really don't think there's a whole lot to say about the point of your original post. Yes, the Christian belief system is entire compatible with evolution. For most people, this issue was ended years ago. The modern conflict deals much more with Creationists attacking evolution on pseudo-scientific grounds rather than purely religious ones. That is why your side comments regarding the weaknesses of evolutionary theory have been so contested - that's the fight now.

Perhaps you would like to clarify the comment I quoted earlier? While it is just another side comment, you seem to be validating Christians who reject evolutionary theory, which appears to be contrary to your original point.

I see your point. I don't see this as the fight most worth fighting at this time; that's possibly the cause of our disagreement. I believe that our models of evolution are largely immaterial to the social problems of the world, and that no harm is done by people ignoring the issue if they wish.

When I advocate that a Christian may reject evolution, I am not advocating that they enforce this view on others, just that they may hold this position if they so choose. You'll notice this is a consistent trend in my writings: I don't believe anyone from any belief system should be enforcing their beliefs on other people indescriminately.

I appreciate you taking the time to talk this through with me - I think we could have reached an understanding faster if I was sleeping better right now. :(

To go back to a point many responses up... my understanding of this person's point of view is that humans are entirely fallible, but that communication errors from God related to the Bible (which is literally true) can be ignored as a source of miscommunication *with this person*.

Note that the person concerned has learned a reasonable chunk of Hebrew and some Greek in order to read the originals, as they accept that translation errors by humans occur, most notably where the human doing the translation is out of touch with God. I would argue that the approach the person has taken to learning (namely to use secondary materials that presuppose the same biases as the translators) is flawed, but that's an argument for another time :-).

"I just don't think it's relevant to the argument I advance here - which, let's not forget, *is that Christians should adopt evolution into their belief system if they can*."

Chris - I'm glad you stated that explicitly, because I could not in fact infer that from the original post. To me, the key point of the original post was that "science and religion [should be] recognised as belonging in utterly different spheres." I happen to disagree with your starting point, namely Wittgenstein's language games; and therefore I could not agree with this inferred key point. I elected to comment around other areas.

I happen to agree entirely that Christians should adopt evolution into their belief system if they can :-).

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