Monday, August 07, 2006

When astrophysicists go bad: Jason Lisle.

Jason Lisle is the new superstar at AiG. He holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics and writes articles about astronomy. One of these articles, or rather a pamphlet, is What Does The Bible Say About Astronomy? The author is given as "Dr. Jason Lisle, Ph.D. in astrophysics", so he uses his academic title, possibly to lend credibility to the pamphlet. A pamphlet about astronomy written by a doctor in astrophysics can’t possibly be wrong, can it? As I will try to show, the answer to that question is affirmative. Lisle starts by saying that
The Bible is the history book of the universe. It tells us how the universe began and how it came to be the way it is today.
Actually, the Bible doesn’t tell us anything about the history of the universe. It does have a creation story that tells us that God created the heavens and the earth. If I told you that my mother had born me, would that be my history? Of course not, so neither is a creation story for the universe a history of the universe. Two paragraphs later Lisle writes:
It has been said that the Bible is not a science textbook. This is true, of course, and it’s actually a good thing. After all, our science textbooks are based on the ideas of human beings who do not know everything and who often make mistakes. That’s why science textbooks change from time to time, as people discover new evidence and realize that they were wrong about certain things.
This is true, of course, and it’s actually a good thing. After all, why not learn from new information? Since Lisle lists his academic title, we must be excused to think that he will write as a scientist; that is, admitting that he doesn’t know the final truth. If he doesn’t want to abide by that rule, what is the significance of his title then? Lisle starts the next paragraph with this sentence:
The Bible, though, never changes because it never needs to.
What does Lisle mean by "[t]he Bible"? I own a Bible, and it’s gotten a bit worn over time, so has it changed? Well, the words in it have remained the same, and that’s most likely what Lisle refers to. But has my understanding of those words remained the same over the years I have read in that Bible? No, it hasn’t! All we ever have is an interpretation, and that’s all we can ever have. And not only that. My personal copy is a Protestant Bible; Roman Catholic Bibles, Orthodox Bibles, and Coptic Bibles contain a few extra books than Protestant Bibles do, and these Bibles themselves differ as to which books they contain. And not only that. Even when it’s the same book, the version may be different. The oldest copies we have of biblical books are from the Qumran caves, and these copies show us that there were several copies in existence of at least some of the books, and we have no way of ascertaining, which is the most original. If the word of God is never-changing, it would appear that we don’t have that word in writing. Lisle is not a biblical scholar; but he has a scientific training, and that training should enable him to not simply accept an unsubstantiated claim. Proceeding, Lisle writes:
God got it right the first time! The Bible is the infallible Word of God. So when it touches on a particular topic, it’s right.
Is this really written by a scientist? As I have indicated above, the answer to this question ought to be in the negative. Back to Lisle:
When the Bible talks about geology, it’s correct. When Scripture addresses biology or anthropology, it’s also right.
These are corollaries to the previous sentences and carry the same credibility as these. All in all, Lisle for some reason lists his academic title as an accomplished scientist and then spends his first few paragraphs to discredit science vis-à-vis the unchanging and infallible Word of God, the Bible. I will omit repeating myself and leave it to the reader to gauge the credibility of Lisle in any matter whatsoever. Next Lisle moves to astronomy, which includes the shape of the earth:
The Bible indicates that the earth is round. One verse we can look at is Isaiah 40:22, where it mentions the "circle of the earth." From space, the earth always appears as a circle since it is round. This matches perfectly with the Bible.
But, what is this all about? Let’s read a few verses back:
(Isa 40:18) To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?
The prophet is here not giving a lecture on the shape of the earth, but trying to give a description of God, rhetorically asking his audience to provide the description. In the following two verses, Isaiah mentions craftsmen; that is, Isaiah is giving images that are familiar to his audience, an audience that knew nothing about outer space. Would Isaiah illustrate God by a description that wasn’t understandable by his own audience? Let’s look at the whole verse:
(Isa 40:22) It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in
Whatever this was supposed exactly to mean, we can be pretty sure, it was something meaningful to the original audience. The word ‘upon’ should probably rather be ‘above’; that is, God is sitting above the circle of the earth, so high up that the human inhabitants look as small as grasshoppers. How far up would that be? The "circle of the earth" rather refers to the viewpoint of those grasshoppers, it’s the circumference of the earth as seen from the earth. In general, ancient cultures saw the earth as a circular disc, and up and down were definite directions. I am sure that Lisle as an astrophysicist knows that there is no up and down in the universe. Does he have AiG-USA on the upside and AiG-Australia on the downside? Or the other way around? Next up is the position of the earth:
A very interesting verse to consider is Job 26:7, which states that God "hangs the earth on nothing." This might make you think of God hanging the earth like a Christmas tree ornament, but hanging it on empty space. Although this verse is written in a poetic way, it certainly seems to suggest that the earth floats in space. And indeed the earth does float in space.
The meaning of the verse is rather that it is the power of God that keeps the earth in position. Let us look at the whole verse and the following verses:
(Job 26:7) He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing. (26:8) He bindeth up the waters in his thick clouds; and the cloud is not rent, under them. (26:9) He holdeth back the face of his throne, and spreadeth his cloud upon it. (26:10) He hath compassed, the waters, with bounds, until the day and night come to an end.
While the imagery may be somewhat unclear to us, the intention is clear enough: God is powerful, so how could a puny human dare to speak against God? The "north" probably refers to the center of the sky that is held up by the power of God alone. The earth is held up by the power alone. The rain water is tied up in clouds by the power of God alone. The " face of his throne" might be the moon that is hidden at new moon and else may be hidden by clouds, and all that by the power of God alone. The sea water is held back at the arc of sunrise and the arc of sunset by the power of God alone. In short, Job is describing the power of God, not that the earth floats in space. Turning to that; I am quite certain that Lisle as an astrophysicist knows that indeed the earth does not float in space; not like a ball would float in water, at least. Again, the presupposition, even in Lisle’s image of the floating earth, is that up and down are definite directions, which they are not. Also Job’s imagery. While poetic, presupposes a circular, flat earth; otherwise the poetry doesn’t work. Moving on to the expansion of the universe takes us back to Isaiah 40:22. Lisle writes:
The Bible indicates in several places that the universe has been "stretched out" or expanded. For example, Isaiah 40:22 teaches that God stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. This would suggest that the universe has actually increased in size since its creation. God is stretching it out, causing it to expand.
Excuse me for asking; but in what direction is a curtain or a tent stretched/spread out? Horizontally, not vertically. I am not sure what is meant, but probably that the sky is to be seen as a cover spread out as the top piece of a tent. And fitting with that reading is that the tent doesn’t need a center pole (compare with first statement in Job 26:7). Proceeding, Lisle writes:
Now, this verse must have seemed very strange when it was first written. The universe certainly doesn’t look as if it is expanding.
As explained above, the verse most likely didn’t seem nearly as strange when it was first written as it may do now. It was meant as an illustration of the greatness of God to the audience of Isaiah, so we would need to understand it the way they must have done, and that hardly implies anything about an expanding universe. In the next paragraph, Lisle writes:
In fact, secular scientists once believed that the universe was eternal and unchanging. The idea of an expanding universe would have been considered nonsense to most scientists of the past. So it must have been tempting for Christians to reject what the Bible teaches about the expansion of the universe.
C’mon Jason, you know this is nonsense. What do you mean by "secular scientists" here? Plato has a discussion in his dialogue Timaeus dealing, among other things, with whether the universe was created or eternal; the question remaining unsettled. An expanding universe would have seemed nonsense to a conservative person as Plato – the heavens being more ideal and therefore unchanging than the ever-changing sub-lunar world. But many other ancient Greek philosophers would probably have accepted the idea, if they could have seen any evidence, which they couldn’t. Lisle’s last sentence is equally nonsense; we would need to know that Isaiah 40:22 was interpreted by any Christians prior to modern times as indicating an expanding universe, and I doubt that Lisle can procure any such evidence. But of course, I will happily grant him the chance to do so. Proceeding, Lisle writes:
I wonder if any Christians tried to "reinterpret" Isaiah 40:22 to read it in an unnatural way so that they wouldn’t have to believe in an expanding universe. When the secular world believes one thing and the Bible teaches another, it is always tempting to think that God got the details wrong. But God is never wrong.
In all honesty, isn’t it Lisle who interprets Isaiah 40:22 in an unnatural way? As Lisle shows, it’s easy to read a modern interpretation into the Bible texts; the remedy to this is to remember that the biblical texts were supposed to be understood by their contemporary audience, an audience that only had the unaided eye with which to look at the sky. Back to Lisle:
Most astronomers today believe that the universe is indeed expanding. In the 1920s, astronomers discovered that virtually all clusters of galaxies appear to be moving away from all other clusters; this indicates that the entire universe is expanding.
What Lisle refers to here is the discovery of the redshifted spectra of galaxies. One way to interpret this redshift is as a Doppler effect; that is, as an indication of a movement, in the case of a redshift (= lower frequency), away relative to the observer. Edwin Hubble found that there was a linear correlation between the amount of redshift and the distance to a galaxy. Turning things around, we get the conjecture that all galaxies might have split from an original assembly of all matter in the universe. For some reason, Lisle doesn’t mention anything about this obvious conjecture in connection with the expansion. Next up is the age of the universe. Here Lisle states that the Bible teaches a six-day creation that happened about 6,000 years ago. This is one way of reading the Bible, and I have no intention to go against that here. Lisle then writes:
Yet, this is quite different from what most schools teach. Most secular scientists believe that the universe is many billions of years old. They usually hold to the "big bang theory." The big bang is a secular speculation about the origin of the universe
Being an astrophysicist, Lisle must be familiar with the story of the Big Bang theory. The term itself was coined in 1950 by Sir Fred Hoyle to mock the theory of a universe originating in a singularity. Hoyle proposed a competing theory, the steady state theory, and by the way, he was also the originator of the tornado-in-a-junkyard analogue for abiogenesis; but that’s not of importance here. The theory that came to be know by Hoyle’s mock word was first proposed by the Belgian, Roman Catholic monk Georges Lemaître, who could hardly be called a secular scientist, in 1927. Lemaître’s theory was based on Hubble’s theory of an expanding universe. Why doesn’t Lisle mention this? It can’t possibly be because he doesn’t know, being an astrophysicist. Lisle ends the paragraph with:
The big bang attempts to explain the origin of the universe without God.
No, the Big Bang theory attempts to explain the expansion of the universe, which Lisle for some reason has nothing against. In the next paragraph, Lisle writes:
People who believe in the big bang usually interpret the evidence according to their already-existing belief in the big bang. In other words, they just assume that the big bang is true and they interpret the evidence to match their beliefs.
No, the theory of the expansion of the universe led to the Big Bang theory, not the other way around. Over the next pages, Lisle lists some evidence that is supposedly incompatible with the Big Bang theory, but not with the Bible. Since I am not an astrophysicist, astronomer or anything similar, I will leave those pages alone. In his appendix "Why the big bang is not scriptural", Lisle writes:
In an attempt to explain the origin of the universe without God, secular astronomers have come up with an idea called the big bang. This story teaches that the entire universe was once contained in a point of no size. This point supposedly expanded rapidly and formed matter, which became galaxies, stars and planets. Sadly, some Christians have been taken in by the big bang story, and have tried to add it to the Bible.
As explained above, the Big Bang theory was first proposed by a Christian, so it’s not in particular an invention of secular astronomers. In the next paragraph, Lisle writes:
But that doesn’t work because the big bang is really a secular alternative to the Bible and contradicts it in many ways. For example, the big bang teaches that the universe is billions of years old, whereas the Bible indicates that it is thousands of years old.
It’s not as simple as that. The age of the universe is estimated from the expansion rate of the universe, and since Lisle accepts that the universe is expanding, he is the one in trouble. Proceeding, Lisle writes:
The big bang also teaches that stars came before the earth, but the Bible teaches the reverse.
It’s not in particular the Big Bang theory, since it doesn’t deal directly with star or planet formation. Stars and planets were not formed at the Big Bang; however since the oldest dates obtainable via radiometric dating here on earth are around 4.55 billion years, the earth is estimated to have that age, and since we can observe galaxies that are more than twice that age, there would be stars before there was an earth. However, this is related to the theory of an expanding universe more than to the Big Bang theory as such. Lisle ends this paragraph with:
Additionally, the big bang scenario puts the creation of human beings many billions of years after the creation of the universe. However, Jesus confirmed that human beings were there at the beginning of creation (Mark 10:6).
Again, this is not directly related to the Big Bang theory as such. The point in the discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark 10:2-9 is not, whether the creation of human beings was billions of years after the creation of the universe or not; it’s about divorce. Obviously divorce between humans is of no relevance before there were any humans. Also notice that Jesus refers to Deuteronomy 24:1 and then quotes Genesis 1:27. The Pharisees were very concerned with keeping the Mosaic commandments; but had apparently forgotten that the Torah doesn’t begin with the Mosaic commandments. Jesus is here as so many other places attacking the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. The pamphlet ends with a section "About the author", in whish it is stated that Dr. Lisle is not the stereotypical "egg-head" research scientist. To that I say that Dr. Lisle, judged from the pamphlet addressed here, is no scientist at all. Jason Lisle has received his Ph.D. title as an acknowledgement of scientific results and as an encouragement to keep up the good work. If he doesn’t want to do that, he should not use that title to endorse work that cannot be considered scientific. That would be simple honesty.

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A Christian in Satanist clothes