Monday, May 20, 2013

Dragons, Dinosaurs, and Design

As many of my frequent readers are aware, I believe that dealing with debates within the Church is important to the apologetic endeavor (see Internal Debates and Apologetics). Today, I want to address an argument for a view within the Church that is often used to support Christianity, but may be used to falsify Christianity, if the argument being used to support it is actually sound. So, I believe that it is important to address it.

Are Dragons Dinosaurs?
It is often claimed by young-earth creationists (YECs) that the existence of myths of dragons and drawings of such creatures necessarily* require prior experience with dinosaurs to explain their existence. This is often used as a defeater argument against naturalistic theories of human origins and Christians who believe that dinosaurs and humans never coexisted (anyone who believes that the universe is approximately 14 billion years old would fall into this category). In this post I'm going to show how the argument is undermined by giving explanations for the evidence from both a naturalistic and supernatural perspective. I will also show the apologetic and theological dangers in continuing to use this argument in this form.

Natural Explanations

First, let me begin by showing a naturalistic explanation that can accommodate this evidence. I want to start with this response because Christianity is not limited to only supernatural mechanisms, it can also appeal to natural mechanisms.

Anyone who wishes to offer a natural explanation (Christian or naturalist) for the myths and the drawings may agree with the YEC that some level of prior experience is indicated by the myths and the drawings. However, the experience could easily be with reptiles such as alligators, crocodiles, snakes, and/or komodo dragons. These experiences combined with the imagination can easily produce myths and drawings that take "artistic liberty."

This explanation alone is enough to undermine the argument and force the less-extreme version of it*. However, a YEC may wish to deny that this is viable. In that case, a Christian would need to appeal to an explanation within Christianity, in general, that could accommodate the evidence to avoid the defeater.

A Supernatural Explanations
To address the YEC who does not accept natural explanations, I wish to appeal directly to the Christian worldview. Specifically the existence of visions and the Image of God. Not everything that God inspires or does gets recorded (John 21:25). That does not exclude visions taking place without being recorded as scripture (and for good reason- see Using Visions to Prove Christianity to address challenges regarding the creators of the myths or drawings being pagan). Visions could certainly be used to communicate previously existing creatures without the person having physical contact with them.

The Imago Dei (Image of God) that all humans are created containing, gives us a certain level of creativity. Some of that creativity can be analogous to God's without prior knowledge of God's creativity (an example is the popular intelligent design comparison of the bacterial flagellum with a motor- the latter created before discovery of the former). Because of that independence of creativity, it is logical to believe that humans could imagine creatures like dinosaurs without prior experience with God's actual creation. Notice that this one is actually related to the second natural explanation, but with a mechanism: the Imago Dei.

YECs often appeal to a perfect understanding of the concept of death when God gave Adam and Eve the command to not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil- they claim that prior experience with death was not a prerequisite for understanding. This could be accomplished via either the Imago Dei or God instilling it in Adam and Eve independent of the Imago Dei. The same could have been done with the concept of dinosaurs. It would be inconsistent for the YEC to allow themselves to use a mechanism that they deny another Christian.

The three of these explanations may also work in any combination to produce the myths and the drawings. Further, combined with the natural explanations, these offer ample possibilities to undermine the claim that the myths and drawings of dinosaur-like creatures undermines Christians' view that man and dinosaurs did not coexist.

If the natural and supernatural explanations are not granted by the YEC, then they run the extremely high risk of being understood as over-stating their conclusions, being ignorant of alternative explanations, arguing against a strawman, and completely misunderstanding the opposing view; thus not being taken seriously in conversation.

A Short Intermission
Up to this point I've only offered evidence to support the idea that both naturalism and old-universe Christian views are compatible with the evidence- thus undermining the use of the term "necessarily" in the argument. This ultimately causes the argument to lose its potency and usefulness in settling this internal debate. That may leave a YEC with a neutral attitude towards this argument- they may still choose to use it or not. However, I now wish to address such neutrality and demonstrate an absurdity and a couple real dangers in continuing to use this argument. I will begin with the absurdity.

Does Fiction Exist?
The form of the argument that I am arguing against in this post states that the myths and drawings necessarily indicate prior experience. If we are to say that myths and drawings of dinosaur-like creatures prove that the people who came up with them had experience with them, then we really have to question the existence of fiction. If we are to remain consistent in our reasoning, we would have to conclude that other myths or "fictional" stories could only exist if the writer had the experiences that they wrote.

Of course, the thought that X-Men, Transformers, and Batman all exist in reality is absurd. Because of this independent test that confirms absurdity of the reasoning by the arrival at an absurd conclusion, the YEC should recognize the absurdity of using the same reasoning with different content. Now, I do want to recognize that art can be evidence of prior experience, but it does not necessarily prove prior experience.

Undermining the Teleological Argument
The necessity of prior experience, though, not only gives us an absurd conclusion, but it also has dangerous consequences for the evidential case for the Creator. If prior experience is required before any creative work can take place (be it creation of stories or artwork), then humans do not actually design anything (including fictional stories, by the way)- nothing created by humans is designed. But that design by humans is vital for the teleological argument. The argument compares what we see in nature to human designs and concludes that those structures in nature are also the product of design. However, if humans cannot and do not actually design anything, then there is nothing to compare the structures in nature to to conclude that they are also designed.

Biological design is a popular evidence used by YECs for a Creator via the teleological argument. If prior experience with something exclusively explains man's creations, then the teleological argument is fallacious and should not be used by the YEC. So, they have to choose: either hold to the necessity of prior experience to explain the myths and drawings of dinosaur-like creatures or give up one of their most powerful scientific evidences for the Creator.

The teleological argument also serves as an argument against naturalistic mechanisms for life's origin and history. If this argument is undermined, then not only does the YEC lose a positive argument for the Christian God, but they also lose a negative argument against naturalistic worldviews. Both of these are awfully high prices to pay to maintain the argument that myths and drawings could only be explained by humans having prior experience with such creatures.

Undermining Christianity
Continuing on the thought of undermining the teleological argument, if design necessarily requires prior experience, then even God has not designed anything- He would have to have prior experience with something in order for Him to be "creative". If this is the case, then the Christian god is not God; whatever came prior to him would be his inspiration. And whatever came prior to that being was its inspiration, and so on, and so on, ad infinitum. Not only would the Christian god not be God, but the idea of God would be incoherent and impossible due to the infinite regression of the need for prior experience.

This final issue, though, is not a necessary conclusion of the argument being critiqued. It only applies if the YEC wishes to maintain that all creativity necessitates prior experience. I'm sure that all YECs would drop that in a heartbeat when presented with this implication, even if they wished to maintain the argument up to and including the undermining of the teleological argument. I include this only to show that a YEC may begin by holding this rigid version of this already extreme view, and pointing out how it undermines Christianity is the first step to get them to adjust their view or, at least, use of the argument. The critiques in this post are presented in order of impact on the Christian worldview, but in practice will most likely be presented in the reverse order to someone offering such an argument.

What About The Cumulative Case?
Before I conclude this post, I want to address a possible response that a YEC may give to me, specifically appealing to one of my apologetic approaches when defending the truth of Christianity. It is often said that no single argument can establish a certain proof of God's existence or the truth of Christianity. The arguments individually do have some unknowns and issues that do need to be worked through because, by nature, we are not omniscient. Because of this, the arguments need to be taken together to produce a cumulative case for a single coherent worldview- Christianity. A YEC may use similar reasoning. They may wish to use this argument as part of a cumulative case for the YEC version of Christianity.

My response is two-fold: first the last critique that I offered is a deal-breaker right off the bat. You can't use an argument to affirm a worldview if it ultimately undermines it simultaneously. But, again, that only applies to that rigid view that is not likely to be held for very long after it is understood.

The response that will apply to anyone who offers this as a way to salvage the argument is this: the argument critiqued here necessarily undermines one of the other arguments that is part of your cumulative case: the teleological argument. If you wish to maintain the critiqued argument, you are trading a powerful component of your cumulative case for a weak one (based on the critiques offered in the first section). This argument would not be able to repair the damage the cumulative case took by losing the teleological argument. If the YEC still wishes to make such a trade, I wish them lots of luck (since they can no longer argue against the luck of naturalistic evolution via biological design).

The argument for necessity of prior experience with dinosaurs is what leads to all these issues. However, if the YEC wishes to avoid these issues, they must grant that prior experience is merely one possible explanation. That would make their view merely compatible with the evidence. If a YEC wants to claim that this evidence is exclusively explained by their view, they need to be able to explain why they reject, at minimum, the explanations offered by the other worldviews (presented first in this post), and justify the rejection of the teleological argument. The evidence of myths and drawings of dinosaur-like creatures is still compatible with young-earth creationism, and may be used as supporting evidence for the view, but not against others. So, it is my contention that YECs reject the use of this argument against opposing views.

*Due to prior experience when addressing the internal debate of YEC vs. OEC, I feel the need to include this four--part disclaimer: 

  1. There is a less extreme view of the myths and drawings that does not claim that they are evidence against the other views, but that the YEC view can make sense of them. The less extreme view is not the one I am addressing in this post, because it is not commonly presented since it cannot be used to defeat the other views. 
  2. My focus in this article is the stronger view that the myths and drawings necessarily require prior experience. Since the lesser extreme view does exist among YECs, this post should not be understood as a critique of the YEC view on its own, but as a critique against using the specific argument that I am addressing. 
  3. I will be showing how the stronger view necessarily leads to heresy. This is NOT to be understood as my saying that a person who uses this argument is a heretic. Obviously, if they understood where their argument led, then they would not be using it. Also, people may still choose to use the argument and not be a heretic because they deny the logical conclusion of the argument.
  4. Please do not accuse me of misrepresenting the view, arguing against the YEC view, or calling anyone a heretic. None of those are the purpose of this post. 

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