The Phoney War Between Genesis 1 and Modern Science

In 2013, I had the honour of debating Professor Lawrence Krauss at the Perth Town Hall on the topic “Is it reasonable to believe there is a God?” By almost universal consensus, I lost. (I say “almost” because my mum not only believes I won, but considers my win to have been a decisive blow to the future of atheism worldwide. God bless mums).

Let me say for the public record, Dr Krauss was kind to make the trip to Perth, generous to debate me, and was terrific company both on the night, and in a meal we shared with our partners the night before.  

I agree (with everyone else, contra mum) that I lost the debate. My purpose here is not to rehearse what I should have said. Rather I want to question whether winning and losing is the right way to think about it. And, in particular, I want to push back on the assumption that Genesis 1 stands in impossible contradiction with what we now know, via science, of the origins of the universe.  

Neurons vs Rhetoric 

Consider the debate I just mentioned. How did audience members come to the conclusion that I lost and Krauss won? They judged us according to our use of evidence and the power of our arguments. They were influenced by our use of reason, by our appeals to the imagination, and by their own sympathies. That’s how these things work. And that’s how these things should work. 

But imagine on the night of the debate, there was also a group of neurologists observing the proceedings. By MRI (or however it is they work out these things) they sat down there in the basement watching the workings of our two brains. They observed synapses firing, heat moving across the cerebral cortex, chemical reactions, neuro-pathways being formed or whatever it is they can observe by such means. 

And imagine, after the debate, that you went downstairs and asked the neurologists who won. 

They would look at you quizzically – because your question wouldn’t make sense. They were just watching brains do their stuff. Even if they gave you a complete account of everything that happened in the two brains, it still wouldn’t answer your question. Neurology doesn’t assess brain functions according to the categories of “true” or “false”. To answer those questions you’d need to go back upstairs and pay attention to words, and reasons, and arguments, and appeals, and inference from the best evidence – not synaptic events.

Which brings me to Genesis 1. 

The Truths of Genesis 1 

When it comes to Genesis 1 and its relationship to modern science, there are broadly three ways people have understood that relationship. 

1. The Conflict Model

The first is what I call the conflict model. This model says that modern science and Genesis 1 are talking about the same thing, and they are saying different things about the same thing. Modern science tells us that the universe is about 14 billion years old and that the earth is younger than the stars; Genesis 1 seems to present a younger universe and an earth older than the stars.

This is the understanding of Genesis held by atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (Hitchens once memorably called Genesis 1 the “first and worst” explanation of the origins of the universe). It is also the view of Genesis held by most in the creation science community.

Atheists like Dawkins and creation scientists like Ken Ham agree in their reading of Genesis 1, but disagree on which is right. It is saying different things about the same thing. 

2. The Harmony Model

The second model is what I’ll call the harmony model.

This model says that they are about the same thing – and that they really agree. Once we have learned to see what Genesis 1 is actually saying, it turns out that it is saying the same thing modern science is saying. This was a popular view in the 19th century, and it is a view ably advocated by someone like Dr Hugh Ross today. 

Both the conflict model and the harmony model are positions held by people who love the Lord Jesus, love the Scriptures and, in many cases, are also across the relevant science. However, I want to offer you a third model, which I believe does better justice to both the Scriptures and the science.
(It is, of course, not my invention, and is the view held by evangelical leaders from B. B. Warfield to J. I. Packer and Tim Keller.)

3. The Different Topics Model

In this model, Genesis 1 and modern science are not in conflict (saying different things about the same thing) nor are they in harmony (saying the same thing about the same thing). Instead, Scripture and science are talking about different things

The major objection to this view is that, at a glance, both modern science and Genesis 1 do seem to be talking about the same thing: The title “Origins of the Universe” could work equally well for a Stephen Hawking book and for Genesis chapter 1.

And so, if I may nuance the claim, I am saying that they are not about the same thing or, more precisely, that they are asking very different questions of the events in question. Put very roughly, a book by Stephen Hawking will look at the universe and ask “What? and “How?” But Genesis 1 looks at the universe and asks “Who?” and “Why?”

Science vs Scientism

Back to that debate at the Town Hall. The neurologist is asking different questions to the audience. Both are important. Both have their own integrity. Both are about the same event. But both are seeking very different information, and therefore using very different methods. Both serve well in their own sphere, but (and here’s the real point) neither is competent to do the work the other is trying to do. 

The problem, I submit, is not science but scientism. Because Science has been enormously successful in our era, we can be tempted to promote it in our minds beyond its competencies. We can be tempted (to use the debate example) to go downstairs and ask the neurologist, “So, which brain won?” We can expect science to answer our deepest questions about what it means to be a person, what it means to be moral, what it means to love, and what it means to know God. This overconfidence in science is scientism.

But science simply cannot answer these questions. That’s not a dis. Any self-aware, epistemologically savvy scientist know that these are not the questions scientists are asking – at least not in the lab. Science can’t turn the “is” of universal and human origins into the “oughts” of human persons. When it tries, it either looks silly or (as in the case of social Darwinism) positively scary. 

To explore questions of who we are and what our purpose is, we need to work with quite different instruments—with intuition and moral reasoning and relationships and prayer. Because these are questions about personhood, not biology. Ultimately, we need a true word from the one who made us and loves us to learn the truths that matter to us as persons – who we are, who made us and and why we are here.

Photo: Herman Pijpers, flickr