There are few examples of ad hoc argumentation better than the one contained in William Dembski’s recent book, The End of Christianity. It is here that Dembski attempts to save a failed hypothesis—death came into the world by Adam and Eve’s sin—with this argument: God, foreseeing that Adam and Eve would sin, put a retroactive curse on all life from its very start!
Got that? In other words, Adam and Eve sinning, presumably in a garden in Mesopotamia in recent times (within the past 100,000 years or so), is the ultimate reason that the dinosaurs died off 60 million years ago.
And that trilobites went extinct some 500 million years ago.
Deaths and extinctions are products of the Fall recounted in Genesis.
Let me put this another way: an etiological narrative—a story told by pre-scientific people as a way of accounting for something in their environment, Why is there death in the world?—has been combined by William Dembski with two completely unrelated things:
- Platonism; and
- ideas from contemporary physics surrounding the timeless block universe.
These two later ideas—conflated with a Bronze Age etiological narrative—salvage a literal reading of Genesis for fundamentalist Christians and Muslims: God, or Allah, dwelling in a Platonic realm outside of our space and time, cursed His block universe because of Adam and Eve’s sin.
Isn’t that a wild stew? And, of course, no contemporary educated person, not already deep in the grip of an intellectual folly, would take Dembski’s ad hoc hypothesis especially seriously, right?
Ah, not so fast.
At the theistic evolution website, BioLogos—which usually turns a cool eye to intelligent design proponents and their specious arguments—Dembski’s book actually gets a warm and favorable review. Here’s a bit of it:
In this treatise on how the records of Scripture and nature harmonize, Dembski engages in a rigorous, deeply probative, exceptionally well-reasoned discourse of the kind we’re used to encountering in the church fathers, and of the sort one might wish were more prevalent today. . . . Enter Dembski’s theodicy, which he calls “backward causation.” He begins by challenging our core instincts about the workings of cause and effect within time, specifically our assumption that human sin cannot have caused evil in the world unless it temporally preceded it. “Why, in the economy of a world whose Creator is omnipotent, omniscient, and transtemporal, should causes always [chronologically] precede effects? Clearly, such a Creator could act to anticipate events that have yet to happen. Moreover, those events could be the occasion (or “cause”) of God’s prior anticipatory action.” Hence, all natural evil is indeed the direct consequence of Adam’s sin (per traditional Christian theology), yet God brought these consequences to bear upon creation long before that pivotal event temporally occurred (a chronology demanded by science). . . . In demonstrating the consistency of this line of thinking with Christian orthodoxy, he cites the long-held belief that “many an answered prayer requires that God have prepared the answer before the prayer was actually offered.” He buttresses this point by discussing “the saving effects of the Cross, which are held to act not only forward in time but also backward. Christians have always attributed the salvation of Old Testament saints to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross at the hands of the Romans, even though Old Testament times predate Roman times by hundreds of years. In this way, an omnipotent God unbound by time makes a future event (Christ’s sacrifice) the cause of an earlier event (the salvation of Old Testament saints).
Wow. Once you start talking this way it all seems so, well, plausible, doesn’t it?
But a moment of additional reflection must surely trigger one’s inner bullshit detector to come on again, and bring a sensible person back to some healthy and vigorous skepticism. Why, for example, might the simpler explanation not be the best (a pre-scientific people offered an etiological narrative to their children that was wrong)? Isn’t that explanation, by many orders of magnitude, more likely correct than Dembski’s string of conflations and implausibilities? And, while Dembski has set his elaborate theological castle high into the rarified intellectual air, what evidence does he actually provide for helping us to believe it is true?
And, of course, the answer is none. There is no evidence, for example, that Adam and Eve even existed, let alone that homo sapiens got their start in a Mesopotamian garden.
What is provided is an ad hoc argument—superficially plausible only because it is not logically impossible.
But one shouldn’t confuse logical possibility with what is, in fact, likely to be true.