Review: Creation's Tiny Mystery
For many years, creationist Robert Gentry has claimed that he's uncovered scientific evidence of a miraculous event. Gentry says that this evidence, halos of a very short-lived isotope (Polonium 218) which lack the inner halo of a longer-lived radioactive parent, undermines the uniformitarian principle. He believes that these halos, "God's fingerprint," demonstrate that natural laws were suspended in the past. He also claims that other miracles occurred in four "singularities," or sets of miraculous events, which are described in the Bible. These include: a creation of the galaxy six thousand years ago; the fall of humankind shortly thereafter (but he doesn't describe what miracles occurred then); a worldwide flood about 4,350 years ago; and, finally, a continent-separating episode a few hundred years after the flood.
When naturalists dismiss these claims as miracle theories, Gentry complains that his critics bring up philosophical issues because they are unable to duplicate his miraculous, "primordial" granite with Polonium 218 halos. But in science as now practiced, the proponent of a theory has the burden of proof. The advocate must show that his or her proposal better fits all available natural evidence than previous theories. Gentry's proposal lies beyond anything considered scientific, however. He points to an anomaly as evidence for a miracle. Then granted one miracle, he proposes a multitude of other miracles to explain away the mass of evidence that contradicts him. He proposes that we do away with naturalistic explanations altogether except during the interludes between miraculous events. And since he's unable to show how his creation model can better explain the progressively younger ages recorded by radiometric clocks in the geologic column or the evolutionary appearance of life or any other part of the vast array of evidence contradicting an instant creation six thousand years ago, he issues a challenge instead (shades of Velikovsky!): synthesize "primordial" granite or admit that a miracle occurred.
Challenges like this may appear sensible if one believes that science must explain everything, that any scientific theory must be part of an all-encompassing whole. Gentry expresses this view on page 178:
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So for Gentry there is no such thing as natural science—only religions with miracles. One must choose among competing faiths. May the best apologetic win.
The dichotomy he's proposed goes too far. The world cannot be neatly divided into two theories of everything: creationism and evolutionism. Religious beliefs range on a continuous scale between naturalism and supernaturalism. While some materialists believe in evolutionary theories of everything, it's incorrect to label these speculations as evolution. And it's presumptuous of Gentry to imply that a belief in miracles is an underlying assumption of science. When Darwin proposed a biological theory of descent with modification—that is, evolution—he made no assumptions about the origin of life. When Gamow proposed a Big Bang model, he made no assumptions about the existence of space-time preceding this event. Like Darwin, he was interested in providing a naturalistic explanation that fit the evidence with which he was dealing. Science is meaningless without testable hypotheses, which means that scientists are limited to naturalistic explanations.
This presents Gentry with a dilemma. He says that his tiny mystery is a miracle. But how does one introduce the study of miracles into a naturalistic discipline? His solution is to claim that miracles always have been a part of science. Scientists routinely work around essential "singularities," such as the Big Bang. This stratagem collapses because there is no analogy between miracles and the singularities with which scientists deal. One could include quantum jumps among these singularities. But although inexplicable, the jumps are described by naturalistic models. Any experimenter can verify their existence and the accuracy of the model describing them. Gentry's miracles, on the other hand, are not subject to any test, and many of his miracles exist only to explain away contradicting evidence.
But perhaps one should ignore these problems and follow his lead into miracle science and see what the prospects are. Before making a leap of faith, a problem looms. How does one distinguish between correct leaps and faulty ones? Any old derelict miracle can explain anything. It becomes very tricky when we mix naturalism and supernaturalism. When do we need a miracle? How do we justify it when we invent one and how do we separate the good ones from the bad? Gentry's basic idea seems to be that we follow the Bible as a science text to avoid error. But if one does this, correct interpretations are essential. Since creationists themselves have difficulty in reaching agreement, the chances for success seem dicey. For example, Gleason Archer, Jr., a well-known fundamentalist scholar of the Bible, disagrees with Gentry about a young Earth. He interprets Genesis days as ages. Henry Morris, another distinguished fundamentalist, agrees with Gentry concerning a very young Earth but probably disagrees when he interprets the Bible as saying that a large cavity exists at the center of the Earth. Other biblical literalists, members of the Flat Earth Society, insist that the Bible describes the Earth as a flat disk, while I suspect that Gentry prefers a less literal interpretation. Members of the Tychonian Society subscribe to the view that a motionless Earth is at the center of the universe, whereas Gentry apparently interprets the Bible to say that Earth is only near a center of the universe and revolves. Clearly, fundamentalists who use the Bible as a science text make their leaps of faith in highly variant ways—some of which are surely erroneous.
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Despite all these preliminary difficulties, let's move on to the central questions: are the Polonium 218 halos miraculous and do they justify a leap of faith toward accepting Gentry's biblically based model of a young Earth, a global flood, and a continent-separating miracle? (Of course, he introduces other less certain evidences in his book, but these halos are his "Rock of Gilbralter.") These questions demand an answer to another question: what are the criteria for exhausting naturalistic explanations and for introducing miraculous ones? Here we are stumped. There are none. Instead, there is a long history showing many previous miraculous claims to be unfounded. So most students of nature cautiously limit science by definition to naturalistic explanations. Gentry disagrees. He is convinced that this time all natural explanations for his halos have been exhausted. Well, so did previous claimants. Maybe there is a polonium god, but, if so, why isn't there more supporting evidence?
Gentry argues that skeptical naturalists who limit science are deceiving themselves. They take the uniformitarian principle as an act of faith. And, if this principle is compromised, as he believes it is by creation's tiny mystery, then all is undone and they are left with miracle science anyway. But hold on, is this a credible argument?
First of all, the assumption of a uniform existence of natural laws throughout space and time is based upon extensive experience. A faith by definition is an unquestioning belief. Natural laws are continuously questioned, tested, and modified. Relativity has replaced Newtonian physics, and someday a superforce may replace the four forces we now know. These theoretical developments depend upon the testing of hypotheses and by carefully noting any apparent exceptions to the present understanding of current laws. All the natural evidence accumulated through the years indicates that Earth is nearly a million times older than the age claimed by fundamentalists like Gentry. Any explanations of anomalies, such as parentless Polonium 218 halos, still must provide a reasonable explanation of this accumulated evidence. But Gentry only introduces more miracles.
Second, his tiny mystery does a better job of compromising his own interpretation of the Bible than anything else. He insists that the Bible describes one instant creation. But the oldest granite containing the Polonium 218 halos intrudes into other sedimentary rock. So by any naturalistic understanding of events, these sedimentary deposits appeared before the igneous rock intruded into them. And other granites bearing these halos are apparently scattered throughout the geologic column. Given the evidence, his description of these granites as primordial is rather quaint.
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To justify his single-instant creation hypothesis, he has to add miracles to explain the distribution of these halo-bearing rocks—creation week miracles to arrange the Precambrian sediments so they are intruded by the primordial granite and Flood miracles to place this granite in younger geologic eras. Then he must postulate additional miracles to explain away the many evidences for an old Earth and the evolutionary appearance of life. There's certainly no economy of miracles in his creation model.
So we come to an impasse. Gentry demands either a synthesis of a lump of granite bearing parentless polonium halos or acceptance of miracle science. Geologists spurn his challenge as expensive, technically difficult, and meaningless since this particular miracle isn't essential to his instant-creation-young-Earth hypothesis anyway. He insists that an attempt at synthesis is a crucial test of the uniformitarian principle. But what is crucial? A successful synthesis will only cause him to modify his miracles. What would a failure prove? Would this be convincing evidence for a miracle which is needed to justify other miracles? God's "fingerprint" may have been enough for Gentry, but a full set of prints is needed to convince the rest of us.
Anyone interested in studying this widely touted claim for instant creation and a young Earth will welcome this resource. The appendix is especially helpful with its large color reproductions of polonium halos and its collection of scientific papers, letters, and Arkansas trial testimony.