Tag Archives: astronomy

Consider the Days of Old

New WorldOn the verse, “Consider the days of old, the years of the many generations (Deut. 32:7),” the 13th century scholar Nachmanides explains that “Consider the days of old” refers to the Six Days of Creation and “The years of the many generations” refers to the time from Adam forward.” Many leading rabbis who lived centuries before Darwin understood that when Adam appeared on the scene, the universe might have already been much older. Most notably, this is the opinion attributed to Rabbi Nechunia Ben Hakana who lived some 2,000 years ago, which is quoted by many mainstream, medieval commentators such as Rabbenu Bechaya, the Recanti, Tzioni, and the Sefer HaChinuch. Rabbi Yitzhak M’Acco, a student of Nachmanides, suggested based on kabbalistic calculations that the universe is thousands of millions of years old.

With regard to humans arriving on the scene, the Talmud (Chagiga 13b) states clearly that there were 974 generations prior to Adam. The famous Tifferes Yisrael commentary to the Mishnah wrote in 1842 (prior to publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species): “In my opinion, the prehistoric men whose remains have been discovered in our time and who lived long before Adam are identical with the 974 pre-Adamite generations referred to in the Talmud, and lived in the epoch immediately before our own.”

Of course, the key point where Torah and evolutionists diverge is on the question of “accident versus design.” Evolutionists say that life happened by accident; Judaism says that God made it happen.

from the “Ask the Rabbi” column
“Evolution and the Bible”
Aish.com

I know I’m going to get “heck” for this, at least from conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews. Evolution and Creation are supposed to be incompatible in both religion and science, but the Aish Rabbi crafts a response to the question of Evolution that allows for both.

Up to a point.

I just finished re-reading Gerald L. Schroeder’s book Genesis and the Big Bang (and just started reading his more recent book The Hidden Face of God ) and Schroeder seems to believe something similar (also, see my previous blog post For God Rolled the Dice and the Universe Came to Be for more).

One of the problems comes along with trying to reconcile the six days of Creation in the Bible with the 13.7 or so billion years science says the universe has been around. According to present scientific theory, the Earth has been in existence for about 4.5 billion years.

How do six days fit into billions of years and vice versa?

Schroeder suggests a rather complicated interplay involving time dilation and relativity to explain that, from the Earth’s point of view, billions of years passed, but from God’s perspective, it was only six days. Schroeder spent an entire chapter laying the foundation for his belief and I can’t find any way to compress it into a paragraph or two in this blog post and still have it make sense. Suffice it to say that both science and the Bible are right as Schroeder sees it.

But what about life and evolution? According to the Bible, God created all living things as they are known today, including human beings, in just a few days. There were no previous and less developed forms of life, that became more complicated over time as they adapted to environmental changes, resulting in the creatures we have on our planet right now.

The Aish Rabbi refers to the Talmud which states that “there were 974 generations prior to Adam” and that those generations describe the lives of those beings we refer to as “prehistoric man.” Presumably, during that time, other creatures were also created, existed, and faced extinction.

It all makes a sort of sense, but I’m still struggling with seeing Genesis as being able to wholly map to the observations and interpretations we have about our universe based on astronomy, geology, and paleontology.

ancient_skyI admit, that whether you believe the Earth is ten thousand years old or 4.5 billion years old, devotion to God and love and charity to human beings shouldn’t be impacted to any degree in the life of a Christian or observant Jew. Still, it’s a compelling issue because the extreme literal stance on Creation taken by conservative Christians is one of the barriers to evangelizing more educated secular atheists. Educated unbelievers can’t be past the “Christians are ignorant buffoons” factor and I myself feel embarrassed when I hear a Christian trying to convince someone that Earth is a mere ten thousand years of age.

Christians aren’t likely to take the Talmud as an authority but it’s telling that “the famous Tifferes Yisrael commentary to the Mishnah” was written in 1842, prior to the publication of Darwin’s famous “Origin of Species.” Darwin, like the stream of Judaism the Aish Rabbi represents, believes in some sort of evolutionary process but that it was not random. God was always the causal agent, the Master Designer.

According to Dr. I. Prigogine, recipient of two Nobel prizes in chemistry: “The statistical probability that organic structures and the most precisely harmonized reactions that typify living organisms would be generated by accident is zero.”

Darwin himself wrote in Origin of Species: “…If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications — my theory would absolutely break down…”

The jury is still out regarding the sequencing of how life developed, over what time period, and the mechanics God employed. I believe God made human beings independently and as we are now without prior evolutionary forms, but what about animal life, which was never intended to have the unique position of man?

The Bible is well aware of evolution, although it is not very interested in the details of the process. All of animal evolution gets a mere seven sentences (Genesis 1:20-26). Genesis tells us that simple aquatic animals were followed by land animals, mammals, and finally humans.

That is also what the fossil record tells us, albeit with much more detail than these few biblical verses provide. The Bible makes no claims as to what drove the development of life, and science has yet to provide the answer.

In paleontology’s record of evolution, first came the discovery that life appeared on Earth almost 4 billion years ago, immediately after the molten globe had cooled sufficiently for liquid water to form. This contradicted totally the theory of gradual evolution over billions of years in some nutrient-rich pool. The rapid origin of life remains a mystery.

Then we learned that some 550 million years ago, in what is known as the Cambrian explosion, animals with optically perfect eyes, gills, limbs with joints, mouths and intestines burst upon the fossil scene – with nary a clue in older fossils as to how they evolved. It is no wonder that Darwin, in his “Origin of the Species,” repeatedly implored his readers (seven times by my count) to ignore the fossil record if they were to understand his theory.

The overwhelming weight of evidence tells us that something exotic certainly happened to produce life as we know it. Historically one of the most compelling arguments regarding the existence of God comes from the precision design found in nature. Design implies a designer, and Darwin’s proposal that evolution could have occurred without a Designer (by means of natural selection through random mutations) changed things.

The Aish Rabbi’s opinion is certainly controversial when considered from a fundamentalist Christian position and likely when seen from an Orthodox Jewish viewpoint (my wife says the local Chabad Rabbi believes the Earth is roughly 12,000 years old).

world-of-extinct-mammals

I’m writing all this, not to yank anyone’s chain (though I’m sure it will) but to explore my own thought processes on this matter. I didn’t become a believer until I was past forty years old, so all of my educational foundation is based on Earth being very old and that the basic process of scientific examination of our environment is sound and designed to produce more or less reasonable results (although history has shown that those results aren’t always correct upon subsequent examination).

Religion, for its part, has had to make up some rather fanciful stories to explain the fossil record, to explain our understanding of the size and therefore the age of the universe, to explain our understanding of the age of various geological formations on our own planet, and to explain a myriad of other findings from the world of science that seems to radically contradict an absolute literal reading of the Bible’s Genesis account.

I really enjoy reading about the sciences, though I’m quite the amateur. I enjoy astronomy. I like hearing about the latest “adventures” of the various robotic probes on the surface of Mars. I have an interest in reading about the journey of Voyager 1 at the edge of interstellar space. I think God created us with an insatiable curiosity about the universe around us and a drive to explore it with the intelligence he created in us.

Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

Genesis 2:15-17 (NASB)

It is said that there was no death before the Fall (which happens in Genesis 3) so how could there have been life on a long-term scale before Adam and Eve? How could life in some form or another have existed for hundreds of millions of years before Adam and there not be death?

When God describes the consequences of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, how did Adam know what “die” meant? How could the serpent convince Eve she wouldn’t die (Genesis 3:1-5) from eating the fruit if dying was unknown to her? Why would she fear death and why would she have to overcome that fear in order to eat?

Reading the various consequences God visited upon Adam, Eve, and the rest of Creation as listed in Genesis 3, none of them say that all life was immortal before the Fall and suddenly became mortal afterward.

Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”

Genesis 3:22 (NASB)

Gateway to EdenIt seems as if the two humans in the Garden were mortal (along with all other forms of life) and only by taking and eating from the tree of life would they become immortal! The presence of death wasn’t dependent upon the Fall. All life in the Garden was mortal.

Why couldn’t any life that may have existed as created within the span (as the Aish Rabbi suggests) described in Genesis 1:20-26 (the millions and millions of years prior to the creation of modern human beings) have been born, lived, and died, and born, lived, and died, and born, lived, and died?

Yeah, I expect to get some static over this blog post, but I’m writing it to explore my own thinking process in this area and also to (hopefully) inspire others to think as well. We need to take a look at the evidence presented by our environment, take a look at the Bible, take a look at our dogma, and struggle with what all that is supposed to mean.

I believe God created us to think, to explore, and to struggle with the meaning of everything we see. I think He wanted us to wonder and to experience wonder. I don’t think He wanted the Bible to be some sort of cosmic solution machine spitting out all the answers to all the questions in bite-sized chunks, like eating from a bowl of Christian-Jewish fortune cookies.

We don’t have to get all the answers from the Bible. God gave us other tools to use as well. Telescopes, microscopes, and the Large Hadron Collider aren’t the enemies of the Bible. They complement it. They are the lens through which we examine the world which reveals God, just as the Bible is the story of the relationship between God and human beings.

For God Rolled the Dice and the Universe Came to Be

roll-the-dicePhysics cannot describe what happens inside a black hole. There, current theories break down, and general relativity collides with quantum mechanics, creating what’s called a singularity, or a point at which the equations spit out infinities.

But some advanced physics theories are trying to bridge the gap between general relativity and quantum mechanics, to understand what’s truly going on inside the densest objects in the universe. Recently, scientists applied a theory called loop quantum gravity to the case of black holes, and found that inside these objects, space and time may be extremely curved, but that gravity there is not infinite, as general relativity predicts.

-by Clara Moskowitz
Space.com Assistant Managing Editor
“Space-Time Loops May Explain Black Holes”
Space.com

Clara had me at “space and time may be extremely curved, but that gravity there is not infinite.” About forty years or so ago, I took my first Astronomy class at UNLV. Yes, I know. That was back at the dawn of time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, or at least it may seem that way to some of you. It certainly makes my knowledge of Astronomy rather antique compared to the advances science has made since that time. But I still enjoy reading a few popular (that is, easy to digest for the average person) articles on such topics.

In those undergrad days (the first time I was an undergrad), I wrote a couple of papers about areas of Astronomy that particularly interested me. One was the end products of stars. What happens to a star when it runs out of fuel to burn? If the star has a mass of three times or more of our own sun, it collapses into a black hole. When I was going to school, general relativity said that a black hole was a singularity and that its mass was infinite. Today, the latest theories suggest otherwise.

Exciting stuff.

My other favorite topic was Cosmology or the theory of the origin of the universe. I found a small book written by a Swedish scientist that involved Matter and Anti-Matter as active components in the origin of the universe, but it was a minority theory then. Today, it’s non-existent.

But Space.com has a really cool and readable article on what we know to date about the “Big Bang” and what followed afterward.

Probably a lot of Christians coming across this blog post are going to raise an eyebrow or two. At the little church were I worship, both the Head Pastor and one of the Associate Pastors have both told me they don’t believe in an “old universe.” They seem to believe, like many conservative Christians and not a few religious Jewish people, that the Earth is anywhere between about ten to fifteen thousand years old.

All of this millions and billions of years stuff as described in the Big Bang article doesn’t work for them. Why? Because of how they read the beginning chapter of Genesis which is literal. God created the Earth and everything else in six (they believe) literal days. The Hebrew word used for “day” in chapter one of Genesis is almost universally translated “day” as in a twenty-four hour period.

Given an inconsistency between human scientific observation and theory and the record of the Bible, they choose the Bible every single time. Biblical sufficiency pretty much demands it.

Or does it?

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.

Psalm 19:1-7 (NRSV)

sky-above-you-god1Especially the first verse of the above-quoted Psalm tells us that God is revealed by the universe itself. We should be able to look at the stars, examine the heavens, and understand that there is a God. This is known as general revelation or the environment and everything we observe in it reveals the existence of God. The more specific revelation, which gives us lots of other details, declares God as well. It’s the Bible.

But should the two revelations conflict? I would think not. We should see them both fitting together like interlacing fingers of the left and right hand of man. Even if a person has never seen a Bible or heard of Christianity and Judaism, simply observing the universe, all of creation in all of its details, is intended to illustrate that there is a God. The Bible reveals many of the specific details of how God interacts with human beings, using principally the Jewish people and the nation of Israel as a model.

So what do we do when the Genesis story and our astronomical observations and theories conflict? What do we do when the Bible says that the Earth (and presumably all of the universe) was created in six literal twenty-four hour periods, and astronomical observations and theories conclude that our solar system wasn’t formed until the universe was already nine billion years old?

A Bible literalist will say that the Bible is always correct and human scientific observation and theory is wrong. A scientist (one who is not religious) will conclude that the Bible is full of hogwash and our best scientific observations and theories present the facts accurately to the best of our ability to interpret them.

But what if they’re both right?

If we believe God and David as he wrote the nineteenth psalm, then the universe is supposed to be a revelation of God even as the Bible is, so they must agree.

But how can they both be right when on the one hand, we have a matter of six days and on the other we have billions and billions of years?

I don’t know.

Ultimately, I don’t have to know, but like Albert Einstein famously said, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” Actually, all that means was Einstein believed the universe should be founded upon solid, deterministic laws. He was probably thumbing his nose at Quantum Mechanics (QM) which is much more dependent on probably and uncertainty in the universe. But he sells the point that the universe should make some sort of sense, at least as far as communicating to human beings that only God could have brought the universe into being. The “Big Bang” was a “spoken Word” (If you’ll read the Big Bang article, you’ll see that the initial tiny, tiny fraction of a second of the start of the universe wasn’t an explosion as we think of such a thing).

Actually, it’s not the awesome vastness of the universe that communicates God to me but the incredible weirdness that QM describes. The idea that “atoms exist in quantized, discrete states, loop quantum gravity posits that space-time itself is made of quantized, discrete bits, in the form of tiny, one-dimensional loops” inside a black hole is beyond bizarre and this, more than anything, tells me there is a God, one whose mind is incredibly and infinitely creative. His universe is shouting at us to pay attention. None of this happens by accident and no human being could have cooked this up.

The more we look, the more incredible and the more surprising the universe gets. We used to think that the universe was composed pretty much of ordinary atoms, the stuff we can see all around us every day. Now, we think that only about 4.3 percent of the universe is made up of atoms (75% hydrogen and 25% helium, with just an itsy, bitsy fraction of the rest being heavier elements, including the stuff that makes you and me), while the rest if full of much more exotic energy and matter.

According to an article by Stephen Hawking, God may well “play dice” with (or introduce uncertainty and some randomness into) the universe (there’s a notice at the beginning of the article that says I can’t reproduce any portion of the content, so I can’t include a quote…maybe Hawking’s cranky over his rather sad boycott of Israel…but I digress). It’s this uncertainly that, rather than suggest the universe came about through a random or unguided (uncreative, unintelligent) process, was built into the universe, and was the product of an infinitely creative mind and force…God.

I have no problem believing that the universe is more or less as we experience it; extremely old from the point of view of a human time scale. Why should God care? He exists outside of His creation, He’s timeless. Theories vary widely about how old modern human beings are, but I think the story of those early humans, our Adam and Eve, are the record of God’s creation of us and the creation of His relationship with us.

black-holeMaybe the only meaningful or reasonable historical record of God’s interaction with people is what we’ve experienced over the past ten or fifteen thousand years.

Everything I’m saying along these lines is highly speculative and I’m most certainly attempting to reconcile what human beings know about our environment and ourselves with my faith and trust in the God of Israel. If that’s being more than a little self-serving, so be it. It helps me sleep at night, and God knows I can use the rest.

I once heard an attorney use the phrase “hide the ball.” At the time, I thought she was referring to a children’s game, but I recently found out it’s a legal term. It means to withhold legal evidence. Legal teams sometimes “hide the ball” or withhold evidence from the court (a big “no-no” which could get an attorney disbarred) if that evidence could result in them losing their case.

Rather than refer to dice, I prefer to say that God doesn’t play hide the ball with the universe. That is, God doesn’t withhold evidence. What we see in our environment, from the tiniest particle to the largest galaxy (to the best that we can understand what we see), is what we get. Otherwise, God created the appearance of the universe to tell us a tremendous lie, and why would He do that?

He wouldn’t. But if God didn’t lie about the universe and He didn’t lie about the Bible, and if six literal days is different from 13.7 billion years or so (the estimated age of the universe), then God didn’t screw up, we did somewhere along the line. Biblical literalists assume scientists have screwed up, but I have to say, that’s pretty unlikely unless the entire scientific community devoted to cosmology for the last century or so are idiots or liars. I don’t think Biblical literalists are idiots or liars either, but I do believe that the beginning passages in our Bible cannot be interpreted with absolute literalism. Genesis One isn’t God’s “cookbook” containing the recipe for Creation.

Like Stephen Hawking suggests at the end of his article (although there’s no indication that Professor Hawking believes in a God of any sort), God may have a few tricks of His sleeve. Bible sufficiently just means that it contains enough information for us, not that it contains everything. The Bible fills in blanks in our knowledge of God that the universe doesn’t supply. I think the process works both ways.

For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.

Psalm 33:9 (NRSV)

One more thing. Please don’t imagine that I literally believe God rolled dice in order to create the universe. I just “warped” the above-quoted scripture to make the title. It sounded “creative.”