Notes on OMPHALOS by Gosse, published in 1857.

The following is from a footnote to an article by Dr. Donald MacKay, as attributed to him in an article from the "Christian Network" apparently sited on the internet out of Scotland. The article comes from Dr. John Sharp and is taken from an address by him in October 1993.

"Certainly Gosse seems to have given his comtemporaries the impression that the creation was a debatable event a few thousand years ago on our timescale: and in this I have no wish to defend him. But, with all his faults, I think he showed more insight into the logic of the Genesis narrative than opponents such as Charles Kingsley, who held that on Gosse's theory the creator had perpetrated a deliberate falsehood by creating rocks complete with fossils. For whatever the peculiarities of Gosse's view, the point apparently missed by Kingsley is that some kind of inferable past is inevitably implicit in any ongoing system, whether with fossils or without, so that to speak of falsehood here is to suggest a non-existent option. Creation in the biblical sense is willing into reality the whole of our space-time, future, present and past. If the creator in the Genesis narrative were supposed to make the rocks without fossils, this would not have helped, for nothing could have prevented the rocks from having some physically inferable past; their past simply would have been different and moreover inconsistent with the rest of the created natural history. On Kingsley's argument, pressed to its logical conclusion, God ought not to have created any matter at all, since even molecules cannot help having some inferable past history."
It seems to me that MacKay's argument is persuasive. If one posits "sudden" creation, the thing created necessarily has to show evidences of a past (virtual) history.

Suppose I build a model airplane. Ten inches long, made of balsa wood, glue and paper, nobody who examines it will infer a history where it once flew through the air and shot down enemy planes.

But I am a master craftsman, and I build it a second time, this time using materials used in "real" airplanes. I also build it life size, and even put on it (for realism purposes) signs of battle. In short, I do a great job. Now when people examine it, they necessarily must infer a virtual history for the artifact. The better job I do, the less likely they are to see it for what it is, a model, not a real thing.

Next I build a dog. Again, my craftsmanship is superb. Even if I cannot give it life, those who examine it will necessarily infer a prior history of the artifact, one which never happened. There is no way I can build it which would not so mislead them.

When Jesus created the wine at the Cana wedding, presumably some of the guests, perhaps most, did not see it done. Certainly the host did not see it done, for we read his words of amazement, not at the deed, but at the quality of the resulting beverage. Were he a scientist, and inclined to do so, no analysis of that wine would show anything else than a long history of grapevine -- winepress -- beverage.

All this to say that Gosse, while his theory is strange, was a smart cookie and had thought this thing through pretty well. That some (many?) of his contemporaries did not understand is too bad. One may properly fault the theory for being "thin," or for being untestable; that's OK. Even Gosse did that. But do not argue that it necessarily requires a "deceptive god" to be viable; it does not do that.

It has been 140 years since OMPHALOS was published, and the discussions about it (of that era) have long been consigned to dust. Still, I wonder if Gosse defended his ideas in print elsewhere than in the book, and if anyone of tha era understood his arguments.

------------- From a discussion on the ASA LISTSERV in the 1990s...

Bill Hamilton expressed well the concept that God might have created the physical universe, and us in it, with the appearance of age, then told us in Genesis the actual age. I've heard this called "Last Sundayism." The best defense of it (the concept) is Gosse's OMPHALOS, published in 1857; I have a photocopy of the book; it is fascinating reading. Gordon-Conwell has (had?) a photocopy -- I got it from them via interlibrary loan. The Gosse argument is, I think, irrefutable. And there is absolutely no way to test it (that I know).

A correspondent commented (comments uploaded here with his permission)

The appearance of age argument is indeed irrefutable, just like the schoolboy's argument that the Universe is a figment of his imagination. The problem with the appearance of age argument is that in arguing that the Earth appears to be 4.6 billion years old, but is really only 10,000 years old, one could just as easily argue that it is only 100 years old, and that God created the entire Earth in 1896, compete with the appearance of prior history, including the Bible and Darwin's "Origin of Species"!

For those like me who do not have access to such primary sources :-), Gould has an interesting chapter titled "Adam's Navel" re Gosse' Omphalos theory in "The Flamingo's Smile" (pp99-113). Some key points:

* Gosse was no armchair theologian, but an eminent naturalist:

"Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888) was the David Attenborough of his day, Britain's finest popular narrator of nature's fascination. He wrote a dozen books on plants and animals, lectured widely to popular audiences, and published several technical papers on marine invertebrates. He was also, in an age given to strong religious feeling as a mode for expressing human passions denied vent elsewhere, an extreme and committed fundamentalist of the Plymouth Brethren sect."
(Gould S.J., "The Flamingo's Smile", Penguin: London, 1985, p100).

* He saw creation as God's interruption in the cycle of nature:

"Gosse began his argument with a central, but dubious, premise: All natural processes, he declared, move endlessly round in a circle: egg to chicken to egg, oak to acorn to oak. This, then, is the order of all organic nature. When once we are in any portion of the course, we find ourselves running in a circular groove, as endless as the course of a blind horse in a mill...This is not the law of some particular species, but of all: it pervades all classes of animals, all classes of plants, from the queenly palm down to the protococcus, from the monad up to man: the life of every organic being is whirling in a ceaseless circle, to which one knows not how to assign any commencement...The cow is as inevitable a sequence of the embryo as the embryo is of the cow. When God creates, and Gosse entertained not the slightest doubt that all species arose by divine fiat with no subsequent evolution, he must break (or "erupt," as Gosse wrote) somewhere into this ideal circle. Creation can be nothing else than a series of irruptions into circles...."

(Gould, p102)

* Such an interruption into the circle necessitates an apparent (but not real) history:

"Wherever God enters the circle (or "places his wafer of creation," as Gosse stated in metaphor), his initial product must bear traces of previous stages in the circle, even if these stages had no existence in real time. If God chooses to create humans as adults, their hair and nails (not to mention their navels) testify to previous growth that never occurred. Even if he decides to create us as a simple fertilized ovum, this initial form implies a phantom mother's womb and two nonexistent parents to pass along the fruit of inheritance...we cannot avoid the conclusion that each organism was from the first marked with the records of a previous being. But since creation and previous history are inconsistent with each other; as the very idea of the creation of an organism excludes the idea of pre-existence of that organism, or of any part of it; it follows, that such records are false, so far as they testify to time."
(Gould, pp102-103)

* Gosse invented special terminology to describe this apparent time:

"Gosse then invented a terminology to contrast the two parts of a circle before and after an act of creation. He labeled as "prochronic," or occurring outside of time, those appearances of preexistence actually fashioned by God at the moment of creation but seeming to mark earlier stages in the circle of life. Subsequent events occurring after creation, and unfolding in conventional time, he called "diachronic." Adam's navel was prochronic, the 930 years of his earthly life diachronic. Gosse devoted more than 300 pages, some 90 percent of his text, to a simple list of examples for the following small part of his complete argument-if species arise by sudden creation at any point in their life cycle, their initial form must present illusory (prochronic) appearances of preexistence."
(Gould, p103)

* Gosse regarded the pre-creation prochronic fossils as just as "real" and worthy of study, as the post-creation diachronic ones:

"Gosse could accept strata and fossils as illusory and still advocate their study because he did not regard the prochronic part of a cycle as any less "true" or informative than its conventional diachronic segment. God decreed two kinds of existence-one constructed all at once with the appearance of elapsed time, the other progressing sequentially. Both dovetail harmoniously to form uninterrupted circles that, in their order and majesty, give us insight into God's thoughts and plans....As thoughts in God's mind, solidified in stone by creation ab nihilo, strata and fossils are just as true as if they recorded the products of conventional time. A geologist should study them with as much care and zeal, for we learn God's ways from both his prochronic and his diachronic objects."
(Gould, p108)

* Gosse hoped that his Omphalos theory would reconcile YEC with geology (its subtitle was "An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot":

"...Gosse offered Omphalos to practicing scientists as a helpful resolution of potential religious conflicts, not a challenge to their procedures or the relevance of their information....Yet readers greeted Omphalos with disbelief, ridicule, or worse, stunned silence...atheists and Christians alike looked at it and laughed, and threw it away."
(Gould, pp109-110)

* Such appearance of age arguments imply deception on God's part:

"Although Gosse reconciled himself to a God who would create such a minutely detailed, illusory past, this notion was anathema to most of his countrymen. The British are a practical, empirical people...they tend to respect the facts of nature at face value...Prochronism was simply too much to swallow. The Reverend Charles Kingsley, an intellectual leader of unquestionable devotion to both God and science, spoke for a consensus in stating that he could not "give up the painful and slow conclusion of five and twenty years' study of geology, and believe that God has written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie." And so it has gone for the argument of Omphalos ever since. Gosse did not invent it, and a few creationists ever since have revived it from time to time. But it has never been welcome or popular because it violates our intuitive notion of divine benevolence as free of devious behavior- for while Gosse saw divine brilliance in the idea of prochronism, most people cannot shuck their seat-of-the-pants feeling that it smacks of plain old unfairness. Our modern American creationists reject it vehemently as imputing a dubious moral character to God..."
(Gould, pp109-110)

* Finally, Gosse's theory is, in principle, untestable:

"But what is so desperately wrong with Omphalos? Only this really (and perhaps paradoxically): that we can devise no way to find out whether it is wrong-or, for that matter, right. Omphalos is the classical example of an utterly untestable notion, for the world will look exactly the same in all its intricate detail whether fossils and strata are prochronic or products of an extended history. When we realize that Omphalos must be rejected for this methodological absurdity, not for any demonstrated factual inaccuracy, then we will understand science as a way of knowing, and Omphalos will serve its purpose as an intellectual foil or prod. Science is a procedure for testing and rejecting hypotheses, not a compendium of certain knowledge. Claims that can be proved incorrect lie within its domain (as false statements to be sure, but as proposals that meet the primary methodological criterion of testability). But theories that cannot be tested in principle are not part of science. Science is doing, not clever cogitation; we reject Omphalos as useless, not wrong."
(Gould, pp110-111).

But before we laugh off Gosse' Omphalos appearance of age theory, he made one important point. Apart from the original creation of the universe from out of nothing, *any* theory of instantaneous creation implies some degree of appearance of age. Remember what Gould said:

"Even if he decides to create us as a simple fertilized ovum, this initial form implies a phantom mother's womb and two nonexistent parents to pass along the fruit of inheritance"
(Gould, p102)

Ramm says:

'There is one commendable feature to Gosse...namely, that God at creation would have to make certain things appear older than they were. Certainly in the nature miracles and healing miracles of Christ there would be a real time and an ideal time. To obtain a calm lake one would have to go back several hours in the course of the weather and follow through the necessary changes from a storm to a calm. Yet when our Lord spoke, those intervening changes were omitted. So God in creation started Nature in a given point of a cycle."
(Ramm B. "The Christian View of Science and Scripture", Paternoster: London, 1955, p133-134).

Certainly when Jesus made extra loaves and fish and changed water into wine, the results would have an apparent history. But the difference here is that there was no hint of deception. Those who witnessed it believed it to be a miracle, not a natural occurrence.

Here is more fully what Ramm said:

"Pro-Chronic, or ideal time view. In 1857 Philip Henry Gosse published Omphalos: An attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. Gosse was a man learned in natural history and not a simpleton nor an arm-chair speculator. He argued that Nature is a circular process and therefore that creation must commence somewhere in the cycle. A building may be commenced from scratch at the foundation but buildings do not have a cyclical existence. You cannot create an organism from scratch. Because all organic life exists as a cycle, creation must start somewhere in the cycle, and hence the created life would appear as if it had already gone through the cycle up to the point where it was created. Gosse lists as his two fundamental theses that (i) all organic life moves in a cycle, and (ii) creation is a violent irruption into the cycle of Nature. He asks what creation is and answers his own question: '[Creation] is the sudden bursting into a circle. Since there is no one state in the course of existence, which more than any other affords natural commencing point, whatever stage selected by the arbitrary will of God, must be an unnatural, or rather a preter-natural, commencing point.' Omphalos is the Greek word for navel. Did Adam have a navel? Of course he did, argues Gosse. He was created at a given point of the circle of life and therefore was created as if he had gone through the entire cycle. If God created a tree, it would have rings in it. God could create a tree only at a point in its natural cycle. Every object of creation has two times. That which is before time or instantaneous in coming into existence is pro-chronic. That which consumes time is dia-chronic. All processes during the course of the world since its creation are dia-chronic. All things at the moment of creation were pro-chronic. Gosse also uses the terms real time and ideal time. At the moment of creation Adam's real time was zero-actually he did not exist till the moment of creation. His ideal time was, say for purposes of illustration, thirty years old. A tree in the garden of Eden would appear fifty years old (its ideal age) whereas it had just been created (its real time). How does this apply to geology? It means that the real time of he universe might be 6,000 B.C. or 10,000 B.C., whereas its ideal time might be in millions of years. Fossils and geological processes refer then to ideal or pro-chronic time, not to real or historical time. Gosse is not trying to prove any specific date for creation, but he is trying to set a limit to what science can say. If creation is an irruption into the cycle of Nature then we cannot reckon backward indefinitely. Nor does this pro-chronic view of geology interfere with the work of the geologists. The facts of geology remain unchanged and the geologist can do his work unhampered by the theologian. The only word to the geologist from the theologian is to inform the geologist that he is working with ideal and not real time. Logically it is difficult to get around Gosse, for he claims that all the evidence for the reality of the fossils, geologic strata, are simply testimonies to the perfection of God's job of antiquating His universe. Even Brewster misses this point in a most glaring example of failing to follow through the logic of the man he is criticising Brewster appeals to half-digested food in fossil finds, or foetuses in fossils as if these were real items, not ideal. If God antiquated the earth He did a master job in catching the cycle in situ, as it were, catching such things as they are, just as Brewster describes them. There is one commendable feature to Gosse, and even Brewster admits it, namely, that God at creation would have to make certain things appear older than they were. Certainly in the nature miracles and healing miracles of Christ there would be a real time and an ideal time. To obtain a calm lake one would have to go back several hours in the course of the weather and follow through the necessary changes from a storm to a calm. Yet when our Lord spoke, those intervening changes were omitted. So God in creation started Nature in a given point of a cycle. The weakness of Gosse's theory is not that we can find some indications of real time, but in the thinness of the theory. If the earth were perfectly antiquated then it would be impossible to tell the difference between (i) a world which actually went through long processes of aging, and (ii) a world which was perfectly antiquated. If the two are impossible of differentiation, common sense prefers (i) over (ii). If we conduct our science and geology on the grounds of a world having gone through such a process, it would be rather absurd to affirm that it had not really gone through such a process Such a scheme as Gosse propounds, clever as it is, is a tacit admission of the correctness of geology. Better sense will state that the ideal time is the real time. If this is done Gosse offers us no basis of the reconciliation of geology and Genesis and, therefore, we must look elsewhere."
(Ramm B. "The Christian View of Science and Scripture", Paternoster: London, 1955, p133-134).
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