Friday, December 18, 2009

Darwin's Dilemmas: Essence Precedes Existence--Part 3

As we've seen, existential philosophy, as summarized by the phrase, "existence precedes essence," is woven into the very fabric of the biological processes evolutionary biologists claim are responsible for the diversity of life we see to this day. All life, having descended from a first, common ancestor, is illustrated using a great "tree of life," the first living organism being the trunk, from which branches extend representing very slightly different offspring, from which branches further extend representing very slightly different offspring still, and so on. There is no preexisting essence or conception of what it is to be an arthropod, there is merely a recognized similarity between a variety of organism we classify together in a category we call arthropoda.

Is this illustration an accurate representation of what we see in the fossil record, the very basis of this "tree of life?" Does the study of fossils confirm or contradict evolutionary theory and the existential nature of the biological processes it proposes?


In its December 4th, 1995 edition, the cover of Time Magazine called to the reader's attention a cover story reporting on "Evolution's Big Bang," saying, "New discoveries show that life as we know it began in an amazing biological frenzy that changed the planet almost overnight." The "big bang" referred to is otherwise known as a biological event called the "Cambrian Explosion."

In a period of earth's alleged history called the Cambrian period, some 570 million years ago or so, the majority of the "body plans" we see today appear to have leapt into existence in a geologic blink of an eye. So short was this period of time that if life's assumed history on this planet were condensed into a 24-hour period of time, it would be equivalent to a couple of minutes. These organisms, whose presumed ancestors appear nowhere in the fossil record, appeared suddenly, fully-formed, as complex as their apparent ancestors today.

Whereas evolutionary theory illustrates the history of life using a tree, a more accurate analogy would be that of a forest. Each tree in the great "forest of life" has at its base a single kind of creature, such as arthropods with their segmented body, jointed limbs and exoskeleton, or echinoderms, marine animals "radiating arrangement of parts and a body wall stiffened by calcareous pieces that may protrude as spines." As these early creatures with their separate and distinct body plans diversified further and further over time, more and more branches are added to each tree of life, such that we see in each group a variety of similar but different creatures: the insects, spiders and crustaceans of arthropoda, and the starfish and urchins of echinodermata.

Scientists who believe in Darwin's theory of evolution, including Darwin himself, recognize the difficulty the Cambrian explosion presents for evolutionary theory. Speaking of the Cambrian fossils, infamous atheist Richard Dawkins wrote, "It is as though they were just planted there, without any evolutionary history" (The Blind Watchmaker, New York: W. W. Norton & Co. , 1996). Of course, proponents of evolution have posited possible solutions to the problem.

Darwin, recognizing the problem of "Evolution's Big Bang", believed that the Cambrian and Precambrian periods were not yet fully represented in what we'd discovered from the fossil record. Given time, he wrote, we would discover the ancestors of these creatures earlier in the geologic strata. However, scientists have spent years and years evaluating the data, finding more and more fossils of organisms from the Cambrian and Precambrian periods. Still, the ancestors have not been found. Every time a new discovery is made, it is not a new kind of creature, but is instead a variation on the same theme: another arthropod, another echinoderm, and so forth, as fully formed and as complex as the ones found before. Again, without evidence in the record of an ancestor. Our picture of these periods of time appear to be virtually complete.

Some have argued that the ancestors to the Cambrian organisms were soft-bodied, too fragile to be preserved in the Precambrian strata. This seemed like a reasonable argument, until scientists in China discovered in the Precambrian rock tiny fossilized embryos of soft-bodied creatures! In other words, the sediment comprising the Precambrian period was able to preserve incredibly fragile, soft-bodied organisms as fossils. While the ancestors of the Cambrian creatures may have been soft-bodied, they certainly were more preservable than tiny sponge embryos.

So according to evolutionary biologists' own interpretation of the geologic record and its fossilized contents (I qualify it this way because I believe their interpretation is incorrect, a topic I will write about in the future), the majority of the kinds of organisms we have today appeared virtually overnight, fully-formed, with no apparent ancestors. No conceivable natural mechanism can account for the sudden existence of highly complex organisms--as complex, if not more so, than many we see today--representing dozens upon dozens of separate and distinct body plans. Something conceived of these disparate kinds of creatures--essence--and then assembled them in-place--existence. The philosophy of existentialism cannot account for this.


It's no wonder that some scientists believe these forms of life were "seeded" here by some extraterrestrial life. Called panspermia or exogenesis, exponents of this theory acknowledge the problem posed by the Cambrian explosion. They would argue, however, that this demonstrates that these early kinds of organisms were deposited on earth, as fully-formed as we find them, having originated elsewhere in the universe, and began to reproduce and diversify from there. This would seem to allow for the undirected nature of theorized evolutionary diversification, and thus its existential underpinning.

But as we'll see when we look at other recent discoveries in biology, and how they impact the theory that complex structures are formed serendipitously from parts which evolved separately, over time, the "seeds of life" theory falls flat. Stay tuned.

Darwin's Dilemmas: Essence Precedes Existence--Part 2

Historically philosophers viewed things as having a transcendant, more fundamental "essence" shared by all like things. Chairs have chairness. People have humanity. And the existence of these things depends upon their preexistent essences, or ideals, which truly exist in the metaphysical realm. Existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre reversed this, saying instead, "existence precedes essence." To them, there is no real thing called an "essence"; there are merely things that exist, and what philosophers had previously called essences are merely categories imposed upon things by humans able to recognize similarity.

What does this have to do with biology? How are the theory of evolution and the philosophy of existentialism related? One might expect a Christian like myself would equate evolution with the philosophies often associated with it--such as materialism or atheism--and find the connection there, but one would be wrong. In fact, the philosophy of existentialism as summarized by the phrase, "existence precedes essence," is manifested in the very biological processes predicted in evolutionary theory.


Evolutionary biologists envision all species as having descended from a common ancestor, the first living organism. This first living organism reproduced, and eventually its offspring experienced a change in the hereditary information inherited from its parent. This change, the result of a mutation occurring during the copying of the parent's DNA, provided the organism some benefit, allowing it to survive better than its siblings and parents. And so on and so forth, life becoming increasingly diverse, resulting in the great diversity of life we see today.

This process of change over time, of all species sharing a common ancestor, is illustrated using a "tree of life." At the base the tree has a trunk, representative of the first living organism. Branches emerge from the trunk, representing those offspring which were ever so slightly different from their parent. Branches emerge from those branches, and so on and so forth.

Like existentialism's "existence precedes essence," according to this model there are no such things--not really--as kinds of organisms. There is no real kingdom, or phylum, or class, or order, or family, or genus, or species. These are merely categories humans impose upon creatures which are similar enough to be classified together. There is no "essence" of "what it is to be" an arthropod; there are simply creatures like lobsters and crabs which, by virtue of having soft insides and hard exoskeletons, are classified together using the name arthropoda in order to distinguish them from creatures which don't share these same properties.

So we see that the diversification of existing animals--existence--leads to the imposition of classifications--essence--upon them. "Existence precedes essence." But existentialism is not only apparent in evolutionary theory's conception of the "tree of life."


According to the theory of evolution, complex structures do not come about suddenly, fully formed, comprised of all their constituent parts. A creature was not suddenly born with eyeballs from a creature that had none. Instead, the parts that make up complex structures appeared gradually, over very long periods of time, bit-by-bit, over generations upon generations.

A random mutation in the copying of a parent organism's DNA might result in the offspring having one of a future complex structure's many parts. That individual part, by itself, provides the offspring with some benefit, making it better capable of surviving its environment. Thus, natural selection preserves that trait and it gets passed on to future generations. Some time later, this organism's DNA is further mutated during reproduction and its offspring manifests a second part. That part, in and of itself or in conjunction with the first part, again provides the offspring some benefit and both traits get preserved through future generations. This process continues, over millions of years and millions of generations, each part of a future complex structure coming into being by chance, piece-by-piece.

Again we see existentialism's "existence precedes essence" in action. Natural processes don't conceive of something called an eyeball, or an ear, or a brain, or a tail, or a stomach, and then put the pieces together. Instead, the pieces come about individually, without respect to one another, over long periods of time, and happen to form eventually into structures we give names to today. We call an eyeball an eyeball, but the concept of an eyeball--essence--came after the happenchance assembling of its randomly-produced parts--existence.


The Bible militates against this existential nature of the theory of evolution. Before God created anything, He conceived of it. He thought about it. He planned it. And upon deciding to bring into existence physically the creation He conceived of in His mind, He spoke it into existence:

Then God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them"; and it was so. (Genesis 1:11)

Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind"; and it was so. (Genesis 1:24)

Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." God created man in His own image... (Genesis 1:26-27)

God conceived of kinds of plants, and then brought them into existence according to those plans. He imagined kinds of animals, and then brought them into existence according to those plans. He devised a creature in His own image, and then brought man into existence according to that plan.

But what does the study of biology suggest? Does it confirm the theory of evolution and the existentialism woven into the very fabric of biological process responsible for the diversity of life? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Darwin's Dilemmas: Essence Precedes Existence--Part 1

Biology is defined as, "the science of life". It is the study of "living matter in all its forms and phenomena, especially with reference to origin" (among other things). The theory of evolution in the area of biology is an attempt to explain the origin of diversity in life through descent from a common ancestor, gradually changing over long periods of time.

Philosophy is "investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct." Contributors to Wikipedia define it as "an attitude to life or way or principle of living whose focus is on resolving the most basic existential questions about the human condition." One school of philosophical thought is known as existentialism, one of whose proponents coined the phrase, "existence precedes essence."

Where do biology and philosophy intersect? What is the correlation between the theory of evolution and the philosophy of existentialism? This connection will be explained in part two of this series. But first, let's look at the philosophy of existentialism.


The dictionary defines the word "essence", philosophically speaking, as "the inward nature, true substance, or constitution of anything, as opposed to what is accidental, phenomenal, illusory, etc." As is said at Wikipedia, essence is "the attribute or set of attributes that make an object or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity." The Catholic Encyclopedia calls it "that whereby a thing is what it is...the radical or ground from which the various properties of a thing emanate and to which they are necessarily referred." Aristotle called it the to ti en einai, a Greek phrase meaning, "the what it was to be."

Yeah, okay, I know. What the heck does all that mean? In programming terms, essence is like a class defined in an assembly, and existence is an instance of that class created at runtime. For those of you who have no programming experience, here's a simple illustration.

There are a variety of different kinds of chairs: dentist's chairs, rocking chairs, dining chairs, reclining chairs, and so on and so forth. Yet, all of these chairs, with all of their differences in nature and in design and in purpose, nonetheless share one common property: that of chairness. They all share "the what it was to be" a chair, which is why we identify them all as chairs. So something's essence is that which it fundamentally is, as distinct from what it happens to be in the here and now, and which all other like objects fundamentally are.

Prior to existentialism, something's essence was viewed as a real thing, that actually exists--albeit metaphysically rather than physically. Also called the ideal, it was believed that a thing's essence was a higher, more fundamental form of existence than that which we experience with our senses. And, it was thought, concrete objects are dependent upon the preexistence of their abstract ideals, without which they could not exist.


Existential thought turned this relationship between essence and existence on its head. In existential thought, for those things which occur naturally, there exists no predetermined, metaphysical ideal or essence; there is merely that which exists. A hammer or chair, by virtue of being created by someone who conceived of it before bringing about its existence, does have a preexisting ideal or essence. But such is not the case for natural things--including mankind itself.

When it comes to natural things, what philosophers had previously called an ideal or essence is, in the existentialist's mind, merely a category imposed upon them by men. There is no essence of birdness; there are simply creatures which are similar enough that people classify them as birds. Thus, existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre coined the phrase, "existence precedes essence."

Existentialism as a philosophy addresses primarily the meaning of what it is to be human. According to existential thought, there is no ultimate meaning to being human. Instead, each individual human person determines his or her own meaning or purpose. There is no actual essence to mankind, no ideal human; there is merely the existence of each individual human person, and the meaning or essence he or she chooses to attribute to him- or herself.


The philosophy of existentialism thus contradicts the Bible which teaches that mankind exists because God conceived of man before creating Him. As it is written:

Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (Genesis 1:26-27).

Scripture teaches that God decided to create man, and naturally the creation of man reflects God's conception of what man is. God conceived of man as being a creature similar to Him in certain ways, and so, the essence of mankind thus having been conceived by God, He created man. Contrary to the claims of existentialism, "essence precedes existence."

Whereas existentialism views people as defining their own essence, the mitzvot (commandments) of the Old Testament are imposed upon man because man's essence is a reflection of God's. As Peter wrote, "like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, 'YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY'" (1 Peter 1:15-16).


That existentalism contradicts scripture is not all that surprising. But what is the link between it and evolution? This will be explained in part two. Stay tuned.

Darwin's Dilemmas: Essence Precedes Existence--An Introduction

I caught the tail end of a video tonight and discovered some interesting correlations between evolutionary theory and the philosophy of existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre summarized a central tenet of existentialism using the phrase, "existence precedes essence," which, as will be explained in part one of this series, contradicts the teachings of the Bible. What I discovered in watching this video, however, was that this concept central to the philosophy of existentialism appears also in evolutionary theory.

I'll illustrate this correlation in part two of this series, but what excited me was that the fossil record, as understood by evolutionists, actually refutes evolutionary theory in the very ways in which it manifests this tenet of existentialism. As the Bible teaches, the fossil record also illustrates that, contrary to the claims of existential philosophers, "essence precedes existence."

Stay tuned to see how both the theory of evolution and the philosophy of existentialism are refuted by the fossil record.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ministering to Mormons: A Pattern of Prophets

What might the Christian expect from the Mormon missionary at his door? What message will the Latter Day Saint have? Among other things, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints teaches that God's modus operandi, so to speak, has always been, and therefore must continue to be, revelation through prophets. Without a living prophet, the LDS missionary might argue, the Church lacks proper direction.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Wrestling With the Watch Tower: "The Father is Greater than I"

Upon being shown that his "proof-texts" do not teach Jesus was created (here and here), the Witness at the Christian's door may try to go a different route in proving Jesus is not God. The Watch Tower publication "What Does the Bible Really Teach?" continues the argument saying, "The only-begotten Son never even considered trying to be equal to his Father, " citing John 14:28 and 1 Corinthians 11:3 as proof that "the Bible clearly teaches that the Father is greater than the Son" (

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Happy Hanukkah, Jesus!

During this time of year, many Christians celebrate what for them is the most important holiday of the year, remembering the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, Jewish families celebrate an eight-day festival of lights recalling the rededication of Solomon's temple over a hundred years before Jesus' birth. To many, an unbridgeable chasm exists between these holidays and the religions from which they originate. To those who practice Judaism, Jesus is "for them", and to those who celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah is "for them".

The reality, however, is that Jesus was and is Jewish ("Jesus" is the transliteration of His given name, "Yeshua"), and Christianity is thoroughly Hebraic ("messiah" is the transliteration of the Hebrew, "Mashiach"). Jewish Christians around the world, sometimes known as "Messianic Jews", recognize and illustrate this fact well, saved by their Jewish Savior without abandoning their Jewish roots. Gentile Christians are sometimes shocked to find out that these Jewish Christians often celebrate Hanukkah rather than (or in addition to) Christmas.

It might surprise them to know, however, that the Savior whose birth they celebrate at Christmas Himself celebrated Hanukkah! As John recorded in his gospel,

At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. (John 10:22-23)

It's difficult to imagine Jesus, born a Jew, raised by Jews, in Jewish communities, standing in the corner with His arms folded, blank expression on His face, while His brothers and sisters sing and dance in celebrating Hanukkah. More likely, He was at the Temple because it was Hanukkah, and was celebrating with His people.

So while Christians around me at this time of year wish Jesus a happy birthday, I would like to say to Him instead, "HAPPY HANUKKAH, YESHUA HAMASHIACH!"