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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Genesis and The Big Bang – Part 1

Posted by jlwile on December 28, 2009

Dr. Gerald L. Schroeder is a very original thinker. I recognized that when I read one of his previous books, The Science of God. Dr. Schroeder holds an earned PhD in physics and earth science from MIT and currently is an international consultant on radioactivity and a faculty member at Aish HaTorah College of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. As an orthodox Jew, he takes the Old Testament very seriously. He believes that the days in Genesis are definitely 24-hour days, but he also believes that the earth is billions of years old. In fact, his writings indicate that he is a theistic evolutionist.

How can a theistic evolutionist believe that the days of Genesis are 24-hour days? That’s where his original thinking comes in. As a PhD physicist, he understands that defining reference frame is very important. After all, we know the rate at which time passes depends on the reference frame in which you are measuring time. For example, time passes more quickly on the GPS satellites than it does here on earth. If this were not taken into account, your Garmin would not lead you to your destination. Thus, the question in Dr. Schroeder’s mind is not “How long were the days of Genesis?” He is convinced they were 24 hours long. The question in his mind is “In what reference frame did those 24 hours pass?”

In The Science of God (and in this book), he gives us the answer to that question. He says the reference frame is not that of earth. Indeed, earth doesn’t become the focus of the creation account until after a couple of days pass. As a result, he thinks that the reference frame in which the Genesis days are defined is that of the universe as a whole. This produces an interesting effect.

You see, current observations indicate that the universe is expanding. Of course, the Bible has been saying that for quite some time (see Job 9:5-8 and Psalm 104:1-2). It just took science a while to catch up with what the Bible has been saying. So…if we assume the universe has been expanding since it was created, this does something very interesting to the days in Genesis if they are defined in the reference frame of the universe. It increases their duration in earth’s reference frame. A 24-hour day in the reference frame of the universe, then, can be significantly longer than 24 hours on earth.

How much longer? Well, that depends on how you assume the universe expanded. Dr. Schroeder seems fairly committed to the “Big Bang” model of the universe, despite its many problems. If you adopt the model, however, and if you assume that the days in Genesis are defined in the universe’s frame of reference, the length of the creation days are very long, and the length is different each day. In The Science of God, Dr. Schroeder gives a sample calculation that shows the first day of Genesis was 24 hours in the reference frame of the universe, but it lasted eight billion years in earth’s reference frame. The next Genesis day was once again 24 hours in the reference frame of the universe, but it took 4 billion years in earth’s reference frame. The calculation shows that each subsequent Genesis day lasted 24 hours in the universe’s reference frame, but it was shorter than the previous one on earth, due to the way in which the universe expanded. The sixth Genesis day was a “mere” 250 million years in earth time.

Dr. Schroeder’s concept of time is spot on, and his calculations are correct given the assumptions that he makes. The problems are:

(1) The days in Genesis are not necessarily 24-hour days

and

(2) He is putting a lot of faith in the Big Bang model, and there are so many problems with the model that it is hard for me to have that kind of faith.

Nevertheless, if you make his assumptions, and if you are committed to the Big Bang model, Dr. Schroeder’s view of creation is self-consistent. This makes him, in my mind, a very worthwhile read, regardless of whether or not I actually agree with him.

So…with that very long introduction, what do I think of his new book, Genesis and the Big Bang? Well, it is a mix of good and bad. In this post, I want to talk about the good things you can find in this book.

First…Dr. Schroeder gives us a lot of insight into “ancient” authors and what they say about God and creation. For example, in the first chapter of his book, he gives this quote

Study astronomy and physics if you desire to comprehend the relation between the world and God’s management of it. (p. 16)

Where does this quote come from? It comes from a twelfth century Jewish book called the Guide to the Perplexed. Thus, the idea that studying science is a means by which you can learn about God is not new. It is a centuries-old idea that has deep roots in both Judaism and Christianity. Indeed, science developed out of a deep desire to learn about the creator, and most serious historians say that the Judeo-Christian concept of God as the Creator and Lawgiver is the only reason we developed real science in the first place.

Second, Dr. Schroeder gives the reader some great insights into the deeper meaning of Hebrew and how that connects to one’s philosophy of science. For example, theists often think they are very clever when they ask the atheist, “So what existed before the Big Bang?” Somehow, they think this is a “show-stopper” for the atheist, because there is no way to answer that question. However, this just shows that some theists aren’t very deep thinkers, because even an atheist as ignorant as PZ Myers can ask the theist, “So what existed before God created the heaven and the earth?” The theist has no better answer to that than the atheist has to the theist’s question.

Dr. Schroeder shows that whether one looks at such questions scientifically or theologically, the answer to all of them is the same: “That is not a valid question.” As Dr. Schroeder points out, the Big Bang Model specifically indicates it is impossible to study events even at the earliest instant of the universe’s formation:

At the earliest instant about which we can theorize, temperatures exceeded 1032 oC…The matter and space of this moment were so tightly packed, so dense, that the violent collisions among the particles of matter and those packets of energy we refer to as photons were continually shattering each other into and out of existence…This melee of random high-energy collisions precluded any possibility of order in the energy of the particles present. (p. 57)

Without order, of course, there can be no information. Thus, from the Big Bang’s point of view, you simply cannot study events prior to or during the earliest instances of the Big Bang.

Interestingly enough, Dr. Schroeder claims that anyone who knows a lot about Hebrew understands that the Bible says exactly the same thing. He gives us the Hebrew notation for the first phrase of the Bible (“In the beginning…”) and then gives a brief lesson in Hebrew:

The first letter of the first word of the Bible is the Hebrew letter “beth”…the shape of beth is such that it is closed on three sides and open in the forward direction…Because the Bible begins with a letter that is bounded on all sides except the forward, so the events that occur after “in the beginning” are those that are accessible to human investigation. Similarly, those that preceded the beginning, that is the creation, are not open to investigation. (pp. 56-57)

Now please understand that this is not theology being influenced by science. As Dr. Schroeder makes it clear in the book, this theological concept existed long before the Big Bang theory. In fact, he traces it back to at least the twelfth century, to a Jewish theologian named Nahmanides. In fact, he makes it clear that this concept predates Nahmanides by a few hundred years, as Nahmanides was simply referring to a theological tradition that had already been generally accepted by Jewish scholars at the time.

Indeed, Schroeder goes on to discuss the process of creation as described by this theological tradition. Essentially, Nahmanides describes the creation of the universe as starting with all its matter packed into a tiny speck about the size of a grain of mustard and then expanding to the universe we see today. The details that Nahmanides comes up with are quite similar (if not as rigorous) as today’s Big Bang theory. Indeed, as Dr. Schroeder says:

The parallel between the opinion of present-day cosmological theory and the biblical tradition that predates it by over a thousand years is striking, almost unnerving. (p. 67)

The last good thing I want to discuss in this part of my review is that Dr. Schroeder provides great insights into Scriptures that ignorant people often claim are inconsistent with science. For example, people who have not done much investigation claim that the account given in Genesis 30:29-43 is inconsistent with science. In this account, Jacob makes a deal with his overbearing father-in-law (and uncle), Laban. He convinces Laban to agree to give him all dark-colored or speckled or spotted sheep while he tends Laban’s flocks. Then, Jacob put speckled rods in front of the watering troughs so that the sheep would see the rods when they came to drink and when they mated. This resulted in many more speckled sheep, which increased Jacob’s wealth at the expense of Laban.

Those who don’t know much about animal husbandry think that this passage somehow promotes the idea that the physical characteristics of an animal’s offspring can be determined by what the animals see when they mate. However, as Dr. Schroeder clearly shows, it does nothing of the sort. He quotes an eleventh-century Jewish theologian who explains the purpose of the rods:

When the female animal [bending forward to drink and therefore raising her hindquarters] saw the rods [reflected in the water], she was startled backwards, and the male [standing behind her] copulated with her. (p. 143)

As this eleventh-century theologian explains, then, the rods were meant simply to increase copulation rates. Jacob chose the kinds of sheep he wanted to mate (Genesis 30:41-42), led them to the water trough together, and then used the rods to make it easier for the male sheep to “do their business.”

I have often pointed out to those who claim Genesis 30:29-43 contradicts science that they should learn at least as much about animal reproduction as an eleventh-century theologian before trying to comment on how science and Scripture relate. Dr. Schroeder has done so in a eloquent, easy-to-read manner!

Thus, there are a lot of good things in this book. However, there are a lot of bad things in the book as well. They will come in the next part of the review.

The second part of the review is now up.

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