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With the holiday season in full swing its time to reflect on some of the fundamental questions we as self-conscious sentient beings obsess over. One that has been addressed recently in a Dkos diary, concerns the perennial question of belief in God, and the conflict between the received word of God as recorded in the Bible and accepted scientific knowledge.

As we are all aware there is still an ongoing conflict between fundamentalist religious beliefs and secular scientific knowledge in our country. This conflict has obvious political and social consequences that get constantly played out in the MSM. Approximately 30% of the population are biblical literalists who believe in a strict literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. A similar number are what might be called scientific naturalists who accept the fact that science has demonstrated an immensely old and vastly expansive universe that is at odds with biblical creationism. The vast middle ground, probably 40% or more, accept the cognitive dissonance inherent in accepting their religious teachings and the scientific precepts that underlie our modern technological civilization. There are many ways this is done. Some compartmentalize their religious and non-religious interpretations of the world around them. They can hold conflicting beliefs simultaneously, such as belief in the Bible and evolution. They just accept both without qualms. Others attempt to meld them together into some sort of amalgam such as theistic evolution, in which God is seen as the ultimate first cause guiding the unfolding of the evolutionary process. In support of this idea, those who give it deeper thought posit the Anthropic principle, that the natural world is made to order for human life.

One interesting attempt to accommodate biblical creationism with the physical record of a long geological record and cosmological past was first broached in the 18th century and popularized in a 1857 book, Omphalos by Philip Henry Gosse. Omphalos, Greek for navel, is a reference to the conundrum as to whether Adam had a navel. Being created by God and not by maternal birth he would have had no need for an umbilical chord and navel. Therefore if God had created Adam with a navel it would be to establish him as a product of natural processes. The same applies to trees. Did the trees that God created have growth rings? Did they germinate from seeds or were they created as full grown organisms. A literal reading of Genesis would suggest the latter, hence if they had growth rings they would have been an artifact introduced by God to give them a naturalistic heritage. This led to the idea that God created the universe and the world we live in with a full blown historical past and that the geological/fossil record and cosmos as we observe it were set up by God to have a "fictitious" past. Thus the world could have been created 6000 years ago with the appearance of being much older.

This idea obviously has many drawbacks that can be referenced at Wikipedia. One of the most amusing is Last Thursdayism, which by following the same principle suggests that the world could have been created last Thursday or for good measure minutes ago with all of our memories and the world around us the product of divine edict. Needless to say the Omphalos hypothesis has not gained many adherents. It was basically a way to rationalize away the fossil record and the evidence for deep geological time in the mid-1800s.

There is another take on the Omphalos hypothesis that may however resonate better with today’s understanding of the universe. It also accommodates to the Anthropic principle mentioned above. The question is how to account for the vastness of the universe with its billions of galaxies and untold trillions of stars the majority of which also have planetary systems like our own solar system. If the universe extends over a time of 13.8 billion light years, how can we maintain our centrality to creation that the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) require? Either the universe is replete with untold numbers of life bearing worlds some of which have obtained intelligent species with advanced technologies such as our own or we are alone in the vastness of space and time. The proponents of extraterrestrial intelligence take the first tact. It would be totally presumptuous on our part to suppose that we are central to the universe and somehow special in the eyes of God. God in this perspective either does not exist or is the ineffable first cause of the Deists who set it all in motion and than retired. But why the vastness of space and time? Why the billions upon billions of galaxies seen in the deep Hubble space field with their hundreds of billions of stars apiece? It all seems so superfluous if we are somehow central to God’s creation.

Here is where a reverse Omphalos hypothesis may come into play. Start with a desire to create a species such as our own, which is made in the image of God. In order to do so it must function biologically and be part of a intricate ecosystem. This would necessitate creating the complex world that we are apart of. But in order to do that there must be preconditions. The conditions must be laid to set in motion the events that would allow for the natural occurrence of our species in a larger biological context. Applying this principle backwards in time it can be imagined that the vastness of space and time and the evolutionary processes that were initiated with the big bang (i.e. creation) were the prerequisites for human life to eventually occur. Hence God set in motion the universe and its natural laws that we are still discovering as necessary preconditions for our existence to eventually unfold. The vastness of the universe, its unfathomable dimensions in time and space are of little consequence to a God who is outside of time and space. The uniqueness of humankind within this vastness thus becomes understandable, the universe must be as it is for us to exist as we are. Rather than being one of innumerable sentient beings scattered about the universe, we are its sole intelligent inhabitants. We could not exist otherwise. So revel in the knowledge that we are the sole intelligence in the universe and the universe was created as such for us to exist in and contemplate.

I don’t believe it for a second but it’s an interesting thought experiment.

Originally posted to detler on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 10:41 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (7+ / 0-)

    Let the pastors, rabbis and mullahs mutter their mumbo-jumbo in private and leave the rest of us alone.

    by detler on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 10:41:45 PM PST

  •  Last Thursdayism? (0+ / 0-)

    My personal preference is for "Next Wednesdayism".

    An interesting thought experiment....

    "Certainly the game is rigged. Don't let that stop you; if you don't bet, you can't win." Lazarus Long

    by rfall on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 10:54:20 PM PST

  •  Had me laughing in admiration (0+ / 0-)

    Well written and immensely entertaining in its revelations of the intellectual rationalizing to maintain ones belief system. Fabulous.

    I know I have a sci fi book with Omphalos in its title ... I have to look it up think was written by Jack Vance in my personal library list. Wonder if he was using these ideas in a book length thought experiment.

  •  I could just as easily accept that we are (0+ / 0-)

    alone in the universe as there is out there a universe replete with life.

    But if we alone and unique, it makes my sitting here and typing these words suddenly even more remarkable and even astounding.

    •  It's unlikely we are alone. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Why, in the 13.7 billion years, and the trillions of planets, would it be likely that this one is the only one on with intelligent like sprang forth?

      "Certainly the game is rigged. Don't let that stop you; if you don't bet, you can't win." Lazarus Long

      by rfall on Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 11:29:02 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I agree (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        The post was an attempt to show the mental gymnastics you have to engage in to think otherwise.

        Let the pastors, rabbis and mullahs mutter their mumbo-jumbo in private and leave the rest of us alone.

        by detler on Sun Dec 27, 2009 at 12:20:19 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Been done with "pandeism" (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Someone has already done those same mental gymnastics, resulting in a belief called "pandeism" - which as I understand it basically says that "God" was an energy that needed to experience life through the eyes of limited beings in order to learn how overcoming limits feels. So of course it made the Big Bang, where it stopped being God and turned itself into the kind of universe you were talking about. There's even a YouTube channel on the topic (I knew I'd seen this somewhere before), and a video about the same thing you're talking about.

          •  Couldn't 'God' have other reasons? (0+ / 0-)

            and still call it Pandeism, that is. God partaking in a universe where every viewpoint is unique and partial is an interesting concept, but why does the motivation have to have anything to do with limits or experience of limits?

            •  Just saying, (0+ / 0-)

              that's what it's called. Pandeism as I read it is any theory that God becomes the universe, in the sense of a Big Bang startup. It slowly gets where we are now by just following the laws of physics, also provided courtesy of God, in that startup. It looks like there are several different theories under this heading of Pandeism, and God wanting to learn about facing limits is just one of them.

      •  Earth Exceptionalism! :-P (0+ / 0-)

        Grab a MOP, you GOPpers,
        Or getTF out of our way!

        by OleHippieChick on Sun Dec 27, 2009 at 04:40:27 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Personally, I'd LIKE to think that we're not (0+ / 0-)

        alone. It would make the universe infinitely more interesting. But sorry, guys, I think a lot of that is wishful thinking. We want a "Star Trek" or "Avatar" universe out there very, very wistfully.

        But it just could happen that we are alone.  

        Is there life out there?

        That's a big MAYBE.

        Again, I'm open to either one.  

        •  Imagine how the Christian right would react (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          if we discovered, or were discovered by, intelligent life from another planet?

          First they'd want to convert them. And second they'd find some way to paint it as proof of some verse in Revelation, and they'd howl even more about how the end is near.

      •  You can't know that (0+ / 0-)

        We have one data point - Earth. You really can't predict much with one data point.  If we found life, say, on a planet obiting Tau Ceti, that would be two points, and we could argue that life must be pretty common overall. If we had data on hundreds of star systems, we could express just how likely or unlikely it is as a percentage. For now, all we really can say mathematically and scientifically is that the odds we observers are where life is are 100%.

  •  One of the things that made Gosse's hypothesis (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    credible (at his time) was the belief in a fully Newtonian universe: if you could know all the information there is to know about any given moment, you could predict the next moment, because randomness and uncertainty had not yet been hypothesized as they're understood today.  And it works in reverse, too: any given moment contains all the information necessary to extrapolate forward and backward, provided you could ever run the calculations.

    I learned about Gosse through Borges, who was absolutely tickled by this hypothesis.  Bad science, but fantastic imagination.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Sun Dec 27, 2009 at 12:40:24 AM PST

  •  Sarah Palin: (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    millwood, Eposter

    I'm always contemplating my navel, especially when I see them sailing between me and Russia.

    So old I remember when NASA was just two drunk guys and a case of dynamite.

    by dov12348 on Sun Dec 27, 2009 at 02:31:58 AM PST

  •  detler that was fun thanks for the trip thru your (0+ / 0-)

    mind, the universe and time. It seems to be a marvelous place (your mind) at least as you've shared with us.

    Your thought experiment on a reverse Omphalos hypothesis is beautiful in a comforting way that satisfies me enough to think "that works" better than a lot of stuff easy for me to reject like biblical literalists.

    Who knows, maybe you found the real answer, but like Einstein he did not believe everything his theory predicted including The Big Bang and Black Holes. Now there is plenty of evidence for all of them.

    Okay, so maybe this is crackers, but it was fun anyway.

    You follow the rules? Heh, there's your problem.

    by Eposter on Sun Dec 27, 2009 at 10:22:35 PM PST

  •  Brilliant! nt (0+ / 0-)

    "Pro life" my ass!

    by jhop7 on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 08:11:28 AM PST

  •  Fundies don't speak for us all! (0+ / 0-)

    I am often saddened and amazed that religious "thinking" on this blog is invariably characterized in terms of biblical literalism. It is as if, as Karen Armstrong points out, people think everything they ever need to know about religion, they got in third grade Sunday School. There are far more sophisticated and nuanced understandings of the bible and humanity's search for meaning in life than the idiocy that is regurgitated by fundamentalists. Has no one here ever heard of metaphor? Analogy? Bueller? Anyone?
    Try a quick read of Spong, Borg, or Armstrong for a current view of educated theology, don't base your entire take on religious thought on a quick spin through "the Shack." Having had my rant, I'll also congratulate the writer for an interesting take on some strange mental gymnastics needed to maintain human exceptionalism!

    •  Unfortunately the religious zeolots amongst us (0+ / 0-)

      frame the discussion by trying to impose their obtuse notions on the rest of us. If religion is a comfort for some let them practice it in a manner that does not infringe on others beliefs and practices. They should be open to ridicule to the same extent that they condemn us non-believers to eternal damnation.

      Let the pastors, rabbis and mullahs mutter their mumbo-jumbo in private and leave the rest of us alone.

      by detler on Tue Dec 29, 2009 at 12:07:46 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Agreed 100%, but it's a bad frame (0+ / 0-)

        I am in complete agreement that these zealots should be free to take what comfort they can from the harsh and authoritarian view of God they espouse, S long as they don't attempt to impose that nonsense on the rest of us. What distresses me is that their view is perceived, or at least used as a straw man, for all people who have religious or spiritual views. It is the equivalent of seeing Stalin or Mao as the only voice of non-religious thinking. I'd prefer to see at least an acknowledgement in some of these arguments that unthinking literalism is not necessarily the ONLY viewpoint available to those of us who are not atheists.

  •  The Anthropic Principle Is a Tautology (0+ / 0-)

    Of course we exist in a universe that can support our existence.  Where else could we possibly be?  There is no information that can be gained from noticing that we exist where we physically can.

    Following this claim to it conclusion, not only was the universe created specifically for humans, but also to have the precise phonetic sequence, "hwai Iz the skai blu" ("why is the sky blue") to be uttered.  It cannot possibly be an accident that a planet with a particular chemical composition in the atmosphere is orbiting a star of a particular electromagnetic spectrum that the atmosphere scatters photons in a particular way such that the destined organisms that live on it would eventually develop a particular sonic means of communicating whereby those specific phonemes uttered in that particular sequence would indicate a query about the frequency of that atmospheric scattering, right?

    If the universe was not created to allow speakers of English to ask, "Why is the sky blue?" then it certainly wasn't created for humans, either.

    •  Amen! (0+ / 0-)

      I've written on this as well and will eventually post my thoughts on the irrelevance of the anthropic principle.

      Let the pastors, rabbis and mullahs mutter their mumbo-jumbo in private and leave the rest of us alone.

      by detler on Tue Dec 29, 2009 at 12:09:40 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

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