Response to Creationists

Following is a response to the criticisms of my book by Dr. Jonathan Ostroff (a software engineer at York University). Dr. Ostroff's approach is typical of many creationists and my response will illustrate the flaws that are commonly found in such approaches. Please note that this page is far from a full presentation of my approach and is not a replacement for reading my book!

1. Bias

Everyone has their own biases. However, there are some biases that may not determine the outcome of an investigation, and there are others that must. Dr. Ostroff believes that it is heretical to accept the conclusions of modern science regarding the development of life. That is to say, he has a passionate religious belief that his soul will suffer for all eternity if he were to believe these things. In light of that belief, an objective evaluation of the scientific evidence is simply impossible and is ruled out from the outset. Any pretense of such an objective evaluation is false and misleading.

(Of course there are biases amongst scientists too. However, amongst the global community of scientists one will find all types, including religious people as well as atheists. And the scientists who initially determined that the world is much more than several thousand years old were religious men who were distressed to find their traditional views challenged.)

2. Confusion of the Scientific Issues

One of the primary problems with the approach of Dr. Ostroff and others like him is their failure to distinguish between distinct scientific issues. There are three entirely separate issues that I discuss in my books:

A. The age and development of the universe (cosmology). Evidence for this comes from physics, geology, dendrochronology, paleontology, anthropology, and other fields of science.

B. The common ancestry of different animal species. There are different lines of evidence for this, including comparitive anatomy, vesitigal limbs, the fossil record (not affected by "missing links"), embryology, and DNA analysis;

C. The mechanism via which animals evolved.

I present points A and B as being accepted by the entire global scientific community (with the exception of certain Christian and Jewish fundamentalists) and as being backed up by evidence. I present point C as being a matter of dispute between the mainstream scientific community and the Intelligent Design movement; I do not take sides as which has the balance of scientific evidence in its favor (although I describe the theological problems that I see with Intelligent Design).

What Dr. Ostroff, Rabbi Simcha Coffer and various writers in The Jewish Observer have done is to entirely confuse these topics. They consistently take scientific difficulties with point C - something that I do not dispute the existence of - and present them as though they are difficulties with points A and B.

Here is an example of how Dr. Ostroff confuses these issues:

The problem is so large that it threatens to undermine the whole Darwinian structure including the so-called "fact" of evolution ("common descent"). For example, evolutionists routinely proclaim that common ancestry is a fact as certain as the sphericity of the earth. However, without a detailed testable Darwinian pathway, how do we know that there is a naturalistic mechanism that can get us (step by step) from a fish to a philosopher?

The ID scientists who are the most fervent proponents of there being problems with evolutionary theory do not feel that these problems undermine common descent. Dr. Ostroff claims that without a detailed testable Darwinian pathway there is no way to know that there is a naturalistic mechanism that can cause evolution to happen. Others, however, feel that there are ways of legitimately ascertaining that there are viable mechanisms. But even if there are not ways of ascertaining how one species changed into another, that does not mean that a naturalistic mechanism does not exist! And, more to the point, even if a naturalistic mechanism does not exist, that does not disprove the independent evidence for common ancestry - evolution could have taken place via non-naturalistic mechanisms!

Here is another example of Dr. Ostroff confusing the issues:

The appeal to the global scientific community does not work if that community is not itself aware of the evidence and bases its views on wishful thinking and text-book distortions.

My appeal to the authority of the global scientific community is for points 1 and 2, cosmology and common ancestry. These have nothing to do with any of the problems that Dr. Ostroff poses.

3. Quotations Out Of Context

A common error made by Dr. Ostroff and other creationists is to use quotations from scientists out of context. By "out of context," I mean that they use it to convey a different message than was intended by the author of the statement. Here is an example:

A large number of well-trained scientists outside of evolutionary biology and paleontology have unfortunately gotten the idea that the fossil record is far more Darwinian than it is. This probably comes from the oversimplification inevitable in secondary sources: low-level textbooks, semi-popular articles, and so on. Also, there is probably some wishful thinking involved. In the years after Darwin, his advocates hoped to find predictable progressions. In general these have not been found yet the optimism has died hard, and some pure fantasy has crept into textbooks." (Letter by David Raup, Field Museum of Natural History Chicago, in Science, v213, 17 July 1981, p.289)

Dr. Ostroff is presenting this quote as though it shows problems with my approach. But it is entirely irrelevant. David Raup is saying that the fossil record does not show the extremely gradual pattern of evolution that people who do not understand evolution, and early evolutionists who hadn't developed the theory properly, expected it to show. He is not saying that the fossil record does not show that species have changed over time! See here for a discussion of how quotes by Raup and others are commonly misused.

4. Misrepresentations of Authorities

Probably the most common error made by Dr. Ostroff and other creationists is to present statements from scientists to give the impression that the scientists support the creationist case. In fact, the scientist does not support the creationist case, and the creationists error stems from confusing common ancestry with evolutionary mechanisms. Here is one example:

"It is my scientific opinion that the primary problem with Darwin's theory of evolution is the lack of detailed, testable, rigorous explanations for the origin of new, complex, biological features… The existence of such unresolved difficulties for Darwinian theory at the molecular level of life makes it reasonable to wonder if a Darwinian framework is the right way to approach such questions. It also makes it reasonable to wonder if Darwinian processes explain major new features of life at higher levels, such as the level of organs and organisms. (Expert Witness, Intelligent Design Theorist, Michael Behe, Professor of Biological Sciences, Lehigh University, Submission to Kitzmiller vs. Dover, 2005)

Dr. Ostroff brings this to show that the problems with evolution are so severe that they undermine common ancestry. But Michael Behe, even though he is utterly opposed to Darwinian mechanisms of evolution, and even though he is the leading scientist of the Intelligent Design movement which is in opposition to naturalism, fully accepts common ancestry (and the antiquity of the universe). This proves the opposite of Dr. Ostroff's point - we see that no matter how severe one believes the problems with Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms to be, they still do not undermine common ancestry!

5. Straw Men

Due to his fervent religious desire to challenge me, Dr. Ostroff often seeks to attribute positions to me that he can challenge, whereas in fact the position does not exist in my book. Here is an example:

Following the late Steven J. Gould (Harvard) in his book "The Panda's Thumb" (1980), Rabbi Slifkin writes in Challenge that the Panda's thumb is an inefficient, poorly designed organ, showing the chance tinkering of evolution at work. However, 19 years after Gould's book, scientists writing in Nature (1999) show that the Panda's thumb is a well-designed "extraordinary manipulation system"

Dr. Ostroff has evidence that the panda's thumb is not an argument for evolution, and therefore since my book mentions the panda's thumb, he believes that he can undermine my scientific argument. However, as I repeatedly tried and failed to explain to him, I am not bringing the panda's thumb as evidence for evolution. Rather, I comment on Gould's usage of the panda's thumb. Gould claims that the panda's thumb is evidence of bad design and argues for evolution and against a Creator. I say that while structures such as the panda's thumb and other phenomena may argue for evolution, they do not present an argument against a Creator. So it is entirely irrelevant to my book if Gould happens to be mistaken about the inefficiency of the panda's thumb, for two reasons. One is that I was not citing the panda's thumb in order to prove evolution; in fact, in the chapter when I deal with evidence for common ancestry, I don't even mention it. Second is that since there are countless other examples of phenomena that point towards evolutionary origins and away from direct design, it does not matter if the panda's thumb is not a good example.

Following is an even stronger example of Dr. Ostroff setting up a straw man.

6. Disproving Proofs

A common approach of creationists and Dr. Ostroff in particular is to point to various proofs of evolution that are fraudulent, and advance them as evidence that evolution itself is fraudulent. This is just as absurd as arguing that Torah is false on the grounds that certain "proofs" of Torah are fraudulent.

Here is an example:

For example, in your book Science of Torah (p151-152) you quote Futuyama (who bases himself on Haeckel's embryos) as evidence for the evolution of a human from a fish. As you point out this example is supposedly solid evidence for common ancestry. In fact, until recently, Haeckel's embryos were a classic textbook proof for common ancestry and Darwin considered the embryological evidence the very best evidence for common ancestry. However, an international team of embryologists exposed this fraud .. So, your evidence of Haeckel's embryos (in the Futuyma quote in your book) for common ancestry turns out to be based on a fraud.

Haeckel's embryos are a well-known case of textbook fraud. Dr. Ostroff therefore believes that since my book discusses embryology as evidence for evolution, and Haeckel's embryos were a fraud, then my evidence for evolution is fraudulent. But even if Haeckel's embryos were a fraud, this does not mean that there is no evidence from embryology for evolution! Evolutionists today are well aware that Haeckel's embryos were fraudulent; yet there is nevertheless a large amount of evidence from embryology for common ancestry.

Second, and this relates to the previous point of setting up straw men - I was not basing myself on Haeckel's embryos! This is a complete fabrication on the part of Dr. Ostroff.

7. Confusion of the Theological Issues

Dr. Ostroff (and others) repeatedly level the accusation that modern cosmology conflicts with the fundamentals of Jewish belief. See, for example, the following sentence:

Contra Rabbi Slifkin, and according to the Rambam, it is a core truth of Torah that our mature universe (not just the fundamental constituents of matter) originated meta-naturally, i.e. the universe was not brought into being through the intermediary of nature.

Yet this is based on an utter misunderstanding of Rambam's position. Rambam believed that it was a core truth of Torah that the universe as a whole originated meta-naturally rather than being an eternal Aristotelian universe. He also happened to believe that all the various components of the universe (the luminaries, plants, animals, etc.) were created meta-naturally. But this latter part is not a core belief of Torah. It is merely Rambam's own personal approach to creation.

It should also be noted that according to Dr. Ostroff's definition of "core principles of Judaism," I am far from the only one to have been teaching heresy. Dr. Ostroff is not merely opposing my own personal way of reconciling Genesis with science, but any way of doing so that accepts such things as the scientific explanation of how the sun and moon developed. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Feldheim's "Challenge" and "Torah and Science," Aish HaTorah and other outreach organizations, all explain at least some aspects of the universe's development in naturalistic terms, which according to Dr. Ostroff is heresy. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman likewise legitimized such naturalistic explanation. In fact, as far as I am aware, this definition of "core truths of Judaism" is a completely new invention.

8. Misrepresentations Of My Position

Dr. Ostroff frequently misrepresents my position, despite my repeated appeals for him not to do so. For example:

"Rabbi Slifkin and the evolutionists believe that any explanation for the origin of life must appeal solely to (a) chance and (b) natural processes currently operating."

Actually, in my book I state that it is theologically legitimate to state that life's origin was with direct supernatural intervention, and also that science does not yet have a clear picture of how it could have happened naturalistically. I merely show that there is also a theological basis for saying that God made it happen via naturalistic means.

Another example: In the very first sentence of Dr. Ostroff's page on "The Slifkin Affair," he writes as follows:

In his book Challenge of Creation (2006), Rabbi Slifkin claims that there is convincing evidence that the marvels of life are due to chance and naturalistic processes (such as random mutation and natural selection).

Yet I do not take any position on whether there is convincing evidence for random processes and natural selection as viable natural mechanisms. I merely note that such explanations are not theologically problematic as long as one maintains that God is ultimately behind them, just as with the "random" lotteries in the Torah.

9. Misunderstanding Of Science

Dr. Ostroff believes that all statements of modern science regarding events of more than 5767 years ago are utterly speculative (and false):

To extrapolate the laws and constants that we observe today backwards to an open-ended and unobserved past, without being able to test the assumption of invariance, is to depart from the domain of the empirical to that of wishful speculation in support of a materialistic philosophy.

However, there are many lines of evidence that the laws of science have remained largely constant for billions of years, as I present in my book. Furthermore, Dr. Ostroff's approach is certainly not based on empirical evidence, nor is it testable! Dr. Ostroff repeatedly insists that science should and does not conform to various requirements, yet he does not show that Torah addresses these requirements.

10. False Opposites

Dr. Ostroff engages in rhetorical excess to make his point, but ends up in creating a false image of the available options:

It's as simple as that. Either you believe that we are here, somehow, by apparently unguided random naturalistic mechanisms (Rabbi Slifkin) or you believe that the marvels of life are best accounted for by plan-and-purpose meta-natural creation solely by Divine decree (the first chapter of the Torah)

Of course, I also believe that there is plan and purpose in the world, and that it was created via Divine decree. I do not believe that the development of life was any more "random" or "chance" than the events of the Purim story, or the lottery by which the Land of Israel was allocated. It would be more accurate to present the options as follows:

Either you believe that we are here by plan-and-purpose Divine decree working via superficially seemingly unguided naturalistic mechanisms (as with the events of Purim and many other incidents in the Torah) or you believe that the marvels of life are best accounted for by plan-and-purpose meta-natural creation by Divine decree (the literal reading of the first chapter of the Torah).

11. Ignoring Inconvenient Authorities

In my books I always try to acknowledge the existence of divergent views. For example, I discuss all the different approaches to the age of the universe, and I mention those who are opposed to reconciling Torah with modern science. Dr. Ostroff, on the other hand, makes no mention of the commentaries on Rambam who explain him as reading Genesis non-literally, or of the recent great Torah scholars such as Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, and Rabbi Gedalyah Nadel who all legitimized non-literal approaches to Creation.

Here are two quotes that Dr. Ostroff fails to address (my book contains several more such examples):

The mysterious character which the Ma'asei Bereshit evidently bore, warrants the conclusion that the interpretations of the Pentateuchal account of the Creation included in that body of esoteric lore, was not of a literal nature... When, again, our medieval thinkers felt that attempts at harmonization were absolutely necessary, they did not hesitate to explain the words of the Torah in a manner deviating from the literal sense… it is well to bear in mind that already our ancient sages, to say nothing of our medieval theologians, would not seem to have insisted upon literalness in such transcendental matters as the account of the Creation. (Rabbi Isaac Herzog, "The Talmud as a Source for the History of Ancient Science")

Are we bound to the literal meaning of the verse, or is there room for interpretation? No halachah is involved here so in principle the road to reinterpretation should be open. One more element is required: compulsion. As we have seen many times above, we reinterpret only if we see a compelling need to do so. Those who have studied the matter and are convinced that a good case may be made for the conclusions reached, may certainly feel that reinterpretation is needed. There is no lack of hints that the "days" of Bereishit are not to be taken in a literal sense. (Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, "Freedom to Interpret")

12. Misleading Terminology

Dr. Ostroff uses some very inappropriate terminology to characterize my approach:

Rabbi Slifkin dismisses the first chapter of the Torah as a total allegory.

First of all, I do not claim that it is "total" allegory. I believe that the most important parts are literal - that God created the entire universe and everything in it.

Second, to describe this as my "dismissing" it is inappropriate. Rambam believed that the account of Job was an allegory. Does this mean that he "dismissed" it as an allegory? The Sages were of the opinion that the book of Song of Songs was an allegory. Does this mean that they "dismissed" it as an allegory?

13. Complete Lack of Scientific Credibility

Dr. Ostroff frequently claims that he has support from "expert published scientific literature." However, the expert published scientists believe that he has no support at all and that his case is absurd. Of course, many of these scientists possess a secular bias. But there are many religious scientists, both Jewish and Christian, all of whom likewise consider his case to be absurd. Even the scientists of the Intelligent Design movement accept the antiquity of the universe and the common ancestry of species.

14. Inherent Inconsistency

Dr. Ostroff considers it absurd to accept that life could arise via naturalistic mechanisms (note: in my book I state that in the opinion of most scientists, we have yet to come with a viable explanation for this.) He also considers it absurd to accept that one species could evolve into another. Yet he believes that mice can grow from dirt (because the Talmud makes such a claim, and he rejects Rav Hirsch's approach that the Sages accepted the beliefs of their era concerning the natural world). Of course, believing that a mouse can grow from dirt is vastly more far-fetched than believing that a microbe can develop from primordial soup, or that a mouse can develop from a reptile. This makes Dr. Ostroff's purported "scientific objections" to evolution into a joke.

15. Incitement

Dr. Ostroff engages in tactics which ratchet up the controversy and make it much unpleasant than it needs to be. Here is an example:

(Quote from NS:)"The published scientific literature does claim, however, that the universe is much more than 5767 years old, and that your approach is ridiculous [emphasis added]. This is much more fundamental." (JO:) I see that you consider our mesorah to be "ridiculous".

I did not characterize the mesorah as "ridiculous." I did not even characterize the belief in a universe that is 5767 years old as "ridiculous." What I wrote was that the scientific community believes Dr. Ostroff's approach in which he claims that his case is scientifically well-founded to be ridiculous.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, if one looks at the entirety of Dr. Ostroff's presentation, one sees that he has focused on meaningless trivialities, irrelevant citations and the odd hoax. He has not addressed the broad sweep of scientific evidence that exists from diverse fields, and he has presented a distorted image of what scientists believe. In general the problem with his approach to science is that he focuses on finding fault with small details and misses the bigger picture. But this is only to be expected, since the bigger picture is one that, to him, is theologically unacceptable.

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