Philip Henry Gosse

Philip Henry Gosse

In the middle of the 19th century there emerged a serious concern about time. Ongoing discoveries in geology, paleontology, and archaeology were challenging the then-held age of our Earth, fixity of species, and recent appearance of the human animal on this planet. Rocks, fossils, and artifacts were suggesting a new worldview, in terms of pervasive change throughout time, far different from the traditional static philosophy of nature. There was a glaring discrepancy between the sci­entific perspective of naturalists and the biblical framework of religionists. Inevitably, a major con­flict developed between facts and beliefs. The empirical evidence for evolution contradicted the story of Genesis: Is the earth millions of years old, or was it divinely created only a few thousand years ago? A resolution seemed to be impossible, especially for those fundamentalists who held to a strict and literal interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.

Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888) made a bold and unusual attempt to reconcile the creationism of revealed religion with the evolutionism of the earth sci­ences. He was a fundamentalist creationist who belonged to the Plymouth Brethren sect in Victorian England. As such, his acceptance of the Mosaic cosmogony included a rigid adherence to both the sudden creation of Adam and the later Noachian deluge, each of these two events caused by the personal God of Christianity. However, Gosse was also an avid naturalist who could not easily dismiss the overwhelming and compelling factual evidence for organic evolution. Nevertheless, he rejected outright the dynamic concepts and dis­turbing implications (for him) of the evolutionary perspective. Therefore, his own personal beliefs required that he somehow resolve the contradic­tion between evolutionist science and fundamen­talist religion. Gosse presented his incredible resolution in two books, Life (1857) and Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (1857).

Gosse’s bizarre explanation for divine creation gave priority to biblical beliefs and immediate experience, rather than to science and reason. It is an interpretation ultimately based on an essential distinction between two different modes of exis­tence: preternatural or ideal time in the perfect and infinite mind of a personal God prior to the act of creation, and the later natural or real time of objects and events in this material world of ongoing change and evolutionary development. In short, there is a crucial difference between pro­chronic time and diachronic time. Moreover, Gosse claimed that the course of everything inor­ganic and organic in nature is a circle.

Gosse firmly held that both the geological col­umn of rock strata and the paleontological record of fossil evidence were suddenly created, all at once, along with the earth’s existing plants and animals (including our own species) through the divine act of a personal God. In fact, Gosse fur­ther argued that this planet suddenly came into existence as an ongoing world already containing a sequence of fossil remains in a series of rock lay­ers. Consequently, rocks and fossils only suggest both an extensive natural past for the earth itself and a vast evolutionary history for all previous life forms on this planet. Briefly, due to this instant creation with its built-in geological column and fossil record, the earth only appears to be as old as the geopaleontological evidence suggests to the evolutionary naturalists; the stratigraphic layers with their fossil remains were suddenly formed merely to suggest an ancient planet and the pro­cess of organic evolution.

According to Gosse, the appearance of our Earth together with its life forms occurred at a specific point, which was the violent irruption of natural time, at the beginning of cosmic reality from ideal time. Gosse thought that the empirical evidence of science is deceptive, and the untold eons of planetary time are simply an illusion. Consequently, he believed that his unique inter­pretation of creation would allow him to accept the evidence for evolution without accepting the process of evolution.

In a fantastic thought experiment, Gosse imag­ined himself experiencing plants and animals liv­ing on a pristine Earth just after the instant of creation. All of these organisms would appear to him to have had a planetary history but, he argued, in reality, this was not the case. He even claimed that Adam had been suddenly created with a navel so that it would appear as if he had had a natural birth! Furthermore, the observed rock strata and fossil record had been deliberately placed in the earth by God so that our planet would appear to have had a vast evolutionary his­tory. It was a divine scheme to test the biblical faith of fundamentalist believers (or perhaps even to deceive them). For Gosse, the evolutionary naturalists are merely discovering the divinely imprinted evidence for geological history and bio­logical evolution, although each had never occurred; neither geological nor biological changes had taken place over the assumed sweeping eons of planetary time.

Not surprisingly, Gosse’s explanation for the creation of our Earth did not convince scientists or philosophers or theologians. Naturalists remained evolutionists, philosophers debated his ideas, and theologians grappled with the startling implications of the earth sciences. Gosse himself was devastated because his serious effort to recon­cile science and religion was rejected by both evo­lutionists and fundamentalists. Ironically, since he believed in an instant creation of everything, his own theistic cosmogony is not compatible with either the biblical 6-day account of Genesis in the Holy Bible or the vast perspectives of modern pro­cess theologians.

Gosse’s worldview is supported by neither sci­ence nor reason. Any fixed date for the sudden moment of divine creation would be arbitrary; in fact, one could argue that all reality (including natural time and our species) is still in the mind of God, with the origin of this material universe yet to take place. Invoking the law of parsimony, one would be wise to accept the temporal frameworks of cosmic evolution and earth history over Gosse’s improbable worldview. However, the creation/ evolution controversy over time continues, despite the ongoing advances in the special sciences. Gosse’s desperate attempt at reconciliation remains an interesting relic of an outmoded religious-ori­ented cosmogony. A progressive understanding of and appreciation for time requires that one remain open to the continuing discoveries in science and the new perspectives in philosophy.

  1. James Birx

See also Cosmogony; Creationism; Experiments, Thought;

God and Time; God as Creator; Religions and Time

Further Readings

Gosse, E. (2004). Father and son. New York: Scribner. Gosse, P. H. (1998). Omphalos: An attempt to untie the geological knot. Woodbridge, CT: Ox Bow Press.

Thwaite, A. (2002). Glimpses of the wonderful: The life of

Philip Henry Gosse, 1810-1888. London: Faber & Faber.

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