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Book Review: 'Battle for the Beginning'

October 2002

Review of "Battle For The Beginning"
John MacArthur, W Publishing Group, c 2001

One of the greatest ongoing frustrations for scientists and/or science teachers/professors is the seemingly endless supply of people wanting to challenge us with evidence supporting a "Biblical alternative" to theories concerning origins - matters such as the age of the universe and Darwin's theory of Evolution. Those of us who are Christians are placed in an especially thorny position when somebody wants to insist on equal time in science classes for such views. While I feel my colleagues generally do well getting to know the basic technical arguments, they are not as well equipped to understand the passion of these people. I have recently read a book that explains this part of the debate very well Battle For The Beginning, by John MacArthur.

MacArthur's point of view is summarized on page 18

"I am convinced that Genesis 1-3 ought to be taken at face value -- as the divinely revealed history of creation."
His perspective is that Genesis 1-3 is written as a straightforward accounting of historical facts, that the immediacy of creation is clear in the account, and that all references to this account in the rest of scripture assume it to be historical. Furthermore, the major doctrines of our faith, including salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ depend on this interpretation.

What I found most striking about this book is not the content but the tone. The writing has an air of desperation, of a minority frantically trying to turn the tide against enemies on the outside (e.g. Darwin) and within (theologians or scientists who profess Christianity, but deny that the earth is only a few thousand years old). In fact, any intellectually honest person reading this book would have to conclude that they must read some of the opposing literature before passing judgement. That is good general advice anyway, but in this case so much of the introduction to the subject matter is spent lamenting that many of the best educated Christians have turned away from a "young earth" interpretation... it begs the reader to examine why this is so. Unless one has already accepted MacArthur's views, that necessarily means reading the opposing views. My suggestion is that a person begins with the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (also see the topics section at the American Scientific Affiliation On-Line Resources on Faith / Science Issues). Here you will find writings by conservative Christians who are also scientists - generally writing about matters where their faith meets their area of expertise. If you are inclined to continue, an aboundance of possibilities exist for branching out from there.

The important aspect here is the dilemma that MacArthur (and similar authors/preachers) place Christians in. We are told that "old earth" and "evolution" are incompatible with our faith to the point that they will destroy it. Hence the word "battle" in the title. Understand that a parent or student who confronts a teacher about the age of the universe is likely, in their mind, standing up for the integrity of the Bible and for the basis of everthing they hold dear. This is not about gaps in the fossil record, the accuracy of radiocarbon dating, the amount of dust on the moon, the amount of Helium in the atmosphere, etc. If person really cared about these technical issues they would not have stopped their reading on the subject with some young earth creationist writing. We must start by understanding that this is an issue of the heart and the tech stuff is a lifeline they have been thrown.

There is much that MacArthur has to say that I agree with. I'm particularly glad we have writers who will challenge the hypocrisy of quoting the Bible where we agree with it and dismissing it lightly where we disagree with it. However, we are at odds on the main subject matter of this book. I'm not going to attempt to argue MacArthur's theology here - this is a Physics site after all. Besides, though I have thought through my opinions on this matter extensively I do not consider it fair to talk authoritatively on matters where I am not an authority. While MacArthur makes a similar claim - that his objective is to explain theology and leave the science to scientists (by which he means the Creation Research Institute) - he cannot resist the temptation to insert scientific arguments. For the balance of this review I will examine some claims which impact on subjects I can address:

page 81

"Light is a form of energy. It is essentially electromagnetic radiation, including every frequency from long-wave radiation, radio waves, microwaves, and infrared waves at the high end, to ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma radiation at the low end."

We have an expresion in Canada - eh? This quote illustrates a couple of aspects of the science in this book:
1) MacArthur is not a scientist.
I don't mean this as an insult, he is quite honest about this (as I mention above), but one might assume he has thoroughly researched what science he does present. However, here we see a very muddled statement from which you couldn't tell if gamma radiation is low frequency or low wavelength. (For the benefit of readers who haven't taken a course in Physics: everything around you could be called a form of energy, radio waves have low frequency and long wave lengths, gamma radiation has high frequency and short wavelengths - now go back and reread the quote.) There is enough of this kind of confused presentation of facts in the Physics material to show he has no real training in Physics. These sections read rather like a "C" high school essay. A basic recitation of facts that could be pulled from an encylopedia and "put in your own words" - and one can tell from how coherent their own words are whether they have obtained a good grasp of the material. The fact he offers no specific disclaimers for the Physics sections leads me to suspect his explanations in other scientific areas (which I am not qualified to assess) are of the same quality level.
2) He is reciting facts for no obvious purpose
The above quote is from the technical description of light given in reference to "God said 'let there be light'". I could not figure out why these sections were there. The properties of light have no bearing on whether God created it. No argument is even presented to say this validates anything in Genesis - so that doesn't seem to be the point. We already know this book is not intended to teach basic science. Even if it was, how much can anybody learn from a few paragraphs of this type of material? If you don't already know what energy is, what does "light is a form of energy" tell you? Similarly for frequency, wavelength, radiation, etc. I don't know why this material is present, but I do know 2 unfortunate effect of having it there: scientists will tend to distrust anything he has to say, and non-scientists may be get the impression that MacArthur knows a lot of science and then give too much credence to his scientific pronouncements on the important issues.

page 84

Talking about zero point energy:
"Most scientists now believe that a volume of empty space no larger than a coffee cup contains enough energy to evaporate all the oceans of the world. Where does this energy come from? Science has no explanation for it. Clearly it is part of God's creation."

Again I see 2 problems:
1) Basic Logic
Why is it that Physicists believe in this energy? We do not observe this energy and would destroy the world if we did. We believe it is there based on a theory and on experiments that back up predictions made by that theory. So to say we have no explanation for it is quite illogical, if we didn't have an explanation for it we wouldn't have come to believe in it. The only sense in which you would say we don't have an explanation is the grand cosmological question "do we really know ultimately why anything exists?".
2) The "God of the Gaps" Fallacy
This particular argument type "science can't explain it, so God must have done it" has been undermining the credibility of Christianity for centuries. The effect of this stance is that advances in science destroy the basis of some people's faith. It also fuels the belief that faith is based on ignorance.

If I could explain everything about the operation of a Model T, does that mean nobody invented it? Conversely, if I knew nothing about the operation of the Model T, does that prove Henry Ford invented it? Perhaps Henry Ford existed, but he only invented those parts which I cannot explain. As silly as all this sounds, this is how many people argue when it comes to the state of scientific knowledge and the question of whether God exists.

Another example of this fallacy can be found on page 112:

"For this reason there is no real consensus among scientist and evolutionists on the question of how the moon was formed -- even though some twenty billion dollars has been spent by modern scientists trying to answer the question of how the moon 'evolved'. The Bible's explanation avoids all such difficulties: God simply created the moon and placed it in orbit around the earth."

page 143,144

"Later, when the cow has leisure to ruminate, it will regurgitate those soggy balls of fiber from the second stomach chamber and chew them more finely before swallowing again. This is what Scripture speaks of when it designates the cow as one of those animals that chews the cud (cf Leviticus 11:3)."

The above quote is in a discussion of a cow's multistomach digestive system. Reading the above quote one might think the Bible is a textbook presenting some of the content of a Biology course. In fact, Leviticus 11 offers no description of what it means by chewing the cud, but it lists the rabbit as one of the animals which chews the cud. If indeed "this is what scripture speaks of when it designates the cow..." then does a rabbit have the same digestive system? I expect scripture has no detailed technical blueprint for what corresponds to chewing the cud. Statements like this amount to reading matter into the Biblical text. Other examples can be found on:
page 204,5

"The serpent deliberately confronted Eve when she was isolated from Adam and most vulnerable. He aimed his intial attack on her alone ("the weaker vessel"- 1 Peter 3:7). Clearly, his aim was to deceive her by his craftiness while she was unprotected by Adam."
and page 210
"Adam appears, from where we are not told, and discovering that his wife has already disobeyed the Lord's command, he partook with her."

Read through Genesis 3 and I Peter 3 - the idea that the serpent approached Eve when she was alone because she was an easier target to trick... is simply not there. It is a detail he has inserted as if it was there. I Peter 3:7 follows advice that a woman's beauty does not come from the outside, but from the quality of her spirit. MacArthur's interpretation seems very unlikely in this context. I expect respecting your wife as the "weaker vessel" is a warning against using your greater physical strength against your wife, not a warning that she has a weaker character. The key section, however, is Genesis 3, and take a look at the wording:
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked: so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. - Genesis 3:6,7
Notice that the plainest interpretation, letting the text speak for itself without inserting your own ideas (which is what MacArthur insists on, leading to the necessity for a young earth), would say they were both right there. It is immediately after speaking with the serpent - they partook together, they immediately recognized what they had done together. And if I was to try to piece a scenario together... it sounds like they were both there, but Adam remained silent, let Eve do the talking and make the decisions, and followed her lead. This interpretation is not only truer to the text than MacArthur's, but it sounds like a lot of marriages.

MacArthur spends much more time on Biology (chewing the cud, etc) than on Physics. The Biology sections do have a more obvious purpose than the discussion of light (above). By showing the complexity and interconnectedness of various biological systems MacArthur wants the reader to conclude that such could never occur by "random chance" - by which he means evolution. However, all that this line of argument presents is questions. How could a defense system evolve where a bug emits two reacting chemicals which must combine only at a point outside the bug's body, or else the bug would be killed by the fire generated? The question is perfectly valid and does give one some doubts about evolution. However, those doubts disappear when the question is answered - or if it is shown that one or more possible answers exist. Again, this book is really begging the reader to read the opposition. How could anybody consider an argument to be finished with a question? (note the irony of this question) Surely nobody is finished with this argument until they have consulted an evolution text which proposes an answer.

page 181

The second law of thermodynamics states that the total amount of entropy in nature is increasing. Entropy is a measure of the randomness and disorder in a system. Put simply, the second law of thermodynamics means that things run down. They wear out. Systems left to run on their own always evolve from order to chaos, and never the other way around.

This is probably the argument I hear the most often, and it points to a fault in the way we often present the Second Law of Thermodynamics. There are two faults here, the meaning of entropy, and the misunderstanding that entropy always increases.

Entropy is a very difficult physical quantity to understand. Entropy is a number, just like an object has a number value for weight, volume, temperature, total energy ... it has a number value for entropy. But what does the number mean? There is a sense in which it can be called disorder. This is not a definition of entropy - if anything it is a definition of a type of disorder. You cannot look at two things, decide which you think is more disordered, and from that know which has a higher entropy value. For example, does evolving the ability to walk erect violate the Second Law by decreasing entropy? At the very least a person making this claim needs to provide two numbers - the entropy of the primate walking on all fours, and the entropy of the primate walking erect. The fact that one is perceived as more ordered than the other means nothing with respect to the Second Law.

The other misconception is that entropy decreasing violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The fact is that things around you increase and decrease in both entropy and structural order by obeying the Second Law. For example, when you make ice cubes you decrease the entropy of the water and you take randomly positioned H2O molecules and line them up in an ordered structure. Even without your freezer, nature is quite capable of increasing structural order and decreasing entropy by making ice or snow. This requires entropy to increase somewhere else, but that shows the dilemma for a young earth creationist. To object to evolution based on the entropy form of the Second Law they need to consider a "closed system". Think of this as a balloon large enough that no material or energy is gained or lost. A creature and one of its offspring is not even the same system, let alone a closed system. Define a system where nothing comes or goes, not material, not light, not heat... nothing. Then show that the total entropy of everything inside that system is decreased by the process of evolution. You cannot do this with the whole earth - even if you could add up all the entropy contributions, because the earth gains and loses material and energy. It especially gains energy from the sun and radiates energy into space as infrared light.

page 59, 60

MacArthurtakes issue with the Hugh Ross quote "Some readers might fear I am implying that God's revelation through nature is somehown on an equal footing with His revelation through the words of the Bible. Let me simply state that truth, by definition, is information that is perfectly free of contradiction and error. Just as it is absurd to speak of some entity as more perfect than another, so also on revelation of God's truth cannot be held as inferior or superior to another."

Hugh Ross is a Christian astrophysicist and the author of many books concerning Physics and religion, including:

* Beyond the Cosmos: The Extra-Dimensionality of God: What Recent Discoveries in Astrophysics Reveal About the Glory and Love of God
* The Genesis Question: Scientific Advances and the Accuracy of Genesis
and * The Fingerprint of God

In the above quote he is stating what should be pretty obvious - if two things are true, they cannot contradict. So there is little meaning in declaring one truth to be superior to another. Why does MacArthur dislike this? Consider page 61
Unlike nature, Scripture is perspicuous; its meaning is clear and easy to understand. Not all Scripture is equally perspicuous, of course. Some portions are notoriously hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16), and even the simplest passage of Scripture must be correctly interpreted in order to yield its true meaning. But the perspicuity and the comprehensiveness of Scripture are vastly superior to that of nature. And therefore Scripture should be the rule by which we measure science, rather than the reverse approach.

MacArthur feels that a scientist who re-examines their assumptions about Genesis 1-3 is getting it backwards. Scripture is perfect, science isn't. Any perception of contradiction indicates the science is wrong. So, no amount of scientific work can show Genesis 1-3 is wrong, rather Genesis 1-3 can show any amount of scientific work which contradicts it to be wrong. This may give the impression that MacArthur cannot be reached by any amount of reasoning, but remember the cow and the rabbit. Reading Leviticus 11 in the same fashion as MacArthur reads Genesis 1-3, one might expect to decide cows and rabbits have the same digestive system no matter what anybody who slices open both might say. But, I highly doubt he would come to that conclusion - rather he would point out that two truths cannot contradict each other, that the problem is in the interpretation of Leviticus 11 as a reference to specific biology processes. As he says above, Scripture must be interpreted correctly and this is the wrong interpretation. Contradicting elementary facts proves it is the wrong interpretation. He would be agreeing with Hugh Ross. The difference is that there isn't as much at stake in the digestive processes of a rabbit as there is in the origin of the human race.

Where you have enough confidence in two contradictory "truths", you will re-examine the assumptions behind both. When/if you resolve the dilemma you may have shown one to be false or misunderstood, but both may still be true as well. For example, consider two well known facts: hot air rises (cold air sinks), and the higher up you go the colder the air is. Shouldn't the place hot air goes be warmer than the place it left which now has the cold air? From my perspective this is a classic dilemma of contradictory truths. My answer: "take a thermodynamics course". I'm not going to attempt a reasonable resolution in a few sentences here. Let the following claim suffice: both observations are true and the dilemma is valid, however, not everything has yet been included. When everything is included, the contradiction disappears.

I don't think it is impossible for science to cause the John MacArthurs of this world to re-examine how they interpret some passages of scripture, however, it will obviously take longer on some subjects than on others.

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Suggested Reading:
talk.origins FAQs Newcomers to the net might think FAQ really stands for "Things we want to tell you". FAQs originated with NEWSGROUPS such as talk.origins. As new people joined the discussion they would often bring up points that had been discussed over and over in the group already. So, regular contributors would make up lists of Frequently Asked Questions summarizing classic questions and answers already well known to everybody in the group. So, if you enter talk.origins and point out that evolution can't be true because of the lack of transitional species in the fossil record - one of the likely responses you will receive is just "RTF" (Read The Faq), or from a less polite contributor "RTFF". The point is that they have already dealt with this over and over until somebody put information for newcomers into a FAQ to help them catch up with the discussion. talk.origins has one of the largest and most useful FAQs on the net and will provide much food for thought for anybody interested in questions surrounding the "Battle for the Beginning".
Take particular note of: Thermodynamics, Evolution and Creationism & The Age of the Earth

Also, my own page: Entropy, Disorder and Evolution

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