1.1 At the Starting Gate
Formative times for my thinking, from Sunday School to High School.
Jumping down from rarified philosophy to the personal side, I slid into this issue quite incrementally, not because I was exposed to the subject of creation or evolution either by outside influences or domestic indoctrination. To the contrary, while early on I took to reading the family copy of the World Book Encyclopedia for routine entertainment, none of my family was especially scientific or scholarly minded to have guided my thought processes one way or another.
When the first shoe did drop, though, it was a tiny one. While we weren’t a churchgoing family (though we had squads of Mormons in the family tree) and my politically conservative mom nonetheless thought all religious “sky pilots” were only in it for the money, she also thought it completely appropriate to send us kids to Sunday school, where we could decide for ourselves if we had a further taste for religious thinking. None of us ultimately took to religion from this process, by the way, which may signify an upper limit on the utility of parochial schooling as a way of recruiting converts. But whereas my brother and sisters wafted through their Sunday school teachings with blithe indifference, when I was sent to the local Methodist church in Ontario, California in the early 1960s I showed a particularly skeptical turn of mind that got me into trouble in a way they never had. Exactly like Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan’s Contact, I got summarily kicked out for asking one too many pesky questions about Noah’s Ark and the Flood story.
Sunday school was not the place for me to ask such questions, I was firmly told as I was being packed off home. Which struck me as odd: where exactly would be a better spot for that, if not in a study explicitly devoted to it? Clearly what got me into trouble was the idea of my questioning the Bible stories in a truly questioning way—not an inquiry to clarify my understanding of what the teaching was supposed to be, and resting at that, but a real question about whether there were plausibility issues with the story to begin with, and thus whether it might not be something to actively disbelieve. Thus fatally for any lasting piety on my part, I came away from my childhood Sunday school experience thinking that my questions weren’t so much of a problem as the utter inability of the instructor to come up with even mildly convincing answers for them.
After the lame Sunday school teacher, the next corrupting influence on my thinking came from my early conversion to the rigors of mathematical logic. That phase began with my geometry teacher, drilling into us how it wasn’t good enough just to get the right answer. You had to have arrived at it through a correct line of reasoning; otherwise you had “proven” nothing at all. Then, many years later, there was that impish college professor who took a day out from advanced matrices to maliciously warp our minds and demolish all notions of “common sense” by demonstrating how parallel lines can meet, and some infinities are bigger than others. Hovering over all, of course, like the smile of the Cheshire cat, was the insidious mathematician Kurt Gödel (1906-1978), who undermined smug certainty itself by establishing how even the most carefully defined logical systems might nonetheless generate menageries of inherently undecidable propositions. Maor (1987) gives a tidy introduction to Georg Cantor (1845-1918) and the merry world of transfinite mathematics. For a breathtaking foray into the many implications of Gödel, Hofstadter (1979) remains a must (if daunting) read.
Brain fog from those higher-level matrices persuaded me to drop the double history/math majors and focus more on my primary interest of history. Mixing my natural skepticism with a craving for historical sequence (what exactly happened first, and then what) I began to clarify what it means to use sound scholarly analytical method. Hypotheses are only the beginning. Can you prove it? How does one go about “proving” things, anyway? What are the standards of evidence? And most importantly, how exactly would you know if you were wrong? Such is the creed of the devout methodologist.
I was still a long way, though, from thinking as carefully as I believe I do now, and the process of cognitive weeding that removed some really dippy ideas from my mental toolkit came about along a very curious path, changing, from a not particularly stupid person who nonetheless was capable of believing quite a few really stupid things, to a much more careful analyst where at least I try consciously to define reasonable standards for a problem and apply them consistently. Seeing how such a method is assembled and used in real cases other than creationism also makes it clearer to see what happens when this non-double standard is turned to the evolution of life and to see how otherwise bright people are so capable of not believing a word of it.
At this point, apart from my brief childhood collision with Noah’s Flood at Sunday school, none of my life experience had caused me to think much about either the evolution of life or the creationist opposition to it. Indeed, it wasn’t until well after college that I became sufficiently familiar with the available data that I realized that naturalistic evolution was the only workable explanation for the broad body of observed facts of life. That issue first began to percolate in my mind, though, with the drop of another shoe, this one quite a bit bigger than the Sunday school expulsion one.
Set the Wayback Machine to the late 1960s, and my high school physics teacher up where we now lived, in Spokane, Washington.
At my school there existed a notorious, though completely good-natured, rivalry between the physics instructor and calculus teacher, who were an entertaining bookend set of diminutive gentlemen in chalk-encrusted white lab coats. Anyone taking the physics elective soon discovered mathematics existed simply as a convenient tool for that discipline, while calculus students were equally assured physics was merely an example of “applied mathematics.” While those hapless enough to take both courses in the same quarter felt a bit like a badminton shuttlecock, in the end I am still impressed at how their good natured ribbing generated an interdisciplinary crossfire that helped considerably in comprehending things such as gravitational acceleration.
It was one thing to be taught that in the absence of atmospheric drag the second integral of acceleration quantifies how far an object will fall over a specified time. It was quite another to see how a chalkboard plotting (remember this was way pre-computer) of the changing velocity produces a diagonal line (shallower for lunar gravity, steeper for Jupiter). At any given moment, the acceleration is the slope of that line, which happens to be a constant value, while the accumulated area beneath the line represents the distance covered. Thus there was a graphic aspect to these seemingly abstract formulas that was for me a most exhilarating moment of connective discovery.
Both of these teachers were clearly very good at their work, exactly the inspirational sort you naturally admired and desired to emulate. For that reason it was a striking moment in my education when one day, out of the blue, my physics teacher interrupted the assigned lesson plan to digress on something called the “ice canopy” theory, which purported to offer a physical rationale for the reality of the Biblical Flood. Remember, I probably hadn’t given more than a few passing thoughts to the Noah story in the half a dozen or so years since being kicked out of Sunday school, so running into it now functioned more as a curious prodding than any reinforcement or rejection of deeply held conviction.
The idea being floated, as it were, by my physics teacher that afternoon was that an ancient orbital layer of atmospheric ice had once existed around the earth, and that its collapse onto the earth resulted in a terrible watery catastrophe that ended up recounted in the book of Genesis. Although offered as a strictly scientific speculation, the religious implications were obvious—the Bible was on the mark after all—though the class discussion remained congenially free of sectarian intensity. It was nonetheless a singularly odd topic for our physics class (as distinct from earth science), and therefore as diagnostic to come up as it did unprompted as it would have been for a social studies teacher to suddenly veer off on the “proletarian struggle against imperialist hegemony.”
That afternoon’s foray into Ice Canopy theory suggested that some external agenda might have been knocking around in my teacher’s noggin. But as this was the only time this topic was ever brought up, I have no idea to what extent my amiable physics instructor was in fact a “creationist” as opposed to someone merely overly keen to discuss a new theory about the past. That he could be characterized as “creationist friendly” though is much more certain, as I would realize years later when I discovered from where he had got this “ice canopy” idea. He must have just read Donald Patten’s 1966 work, The Biblical Flood and the Ice Epoch. Besides the fact that Patten came from our state of Washington, the revealing feature was that he specified an ice canopy for his deluge source, when the preferred creationist term by then was vapor canopy. In his detailed history The Creationists, Ronald Numbers (1992, 254) noted Patten’s efforts at formulating a purely “scientific” explanation for the Flood failed to impress the more theologically fastidious creationist. Thus my physics teacher’s digression that day had been tiptoeing our budding little minds straight onto a pseudoscientific minefield.