OMPHALOS: An Attempt to
Untie the Geological Knot
 by Phillip Henry Gosse 

a book review by John Burgeson

This is a reprint of a book originally published in London in 1857, two years before Darwin's Origin of Species.  Long out of print, unavailable to students of origins issues, it has reappeared as a study text for historians who would like to see how one scientist struggled to reconcile what he understood of both science and the Scriptures.

References to Gosse's book appear often.  Martin Gardner gives it a sympathetic treatment in Facts & Fallacies (1957).  He wrote (in chapter 11): "Not the least of its remarkable virtues is that while it won not a single convert, it presented a theory so logically perfect, and so in accordance with geological facts that no amount of scientific evidence will ever be able to refute it."  More recently, Chris Morgan and David Langford's Facts and Fallacies (1981) mentions it as an "ultimate invincible theory," overcoming "all conflict between evolution and the Bible."  Gosse's son, Edmund, in his 1905 book, Father and Son, reported at length his father's bewilderment of the expressions of derision that came from believers and nonbelievers alike following the publication of Omphalos.

Phillip Henry Gosse was no pseudo-scientist, but a respected and admired naturalist of his time.  Thomas Huxley called him "an honest hod carrier of science," by which term he paid respect to Gosse's powers of observation and writing.  Gosse is associated with the development of salt water aquariums and published many books on water creatures of the English countryside.  He was an admirer of the new scientists, as seen in this quote from his son:

Where was his place, then, as a sincere and accurate observer?  Manifestly, it was with the pioneers of the new truth, it was with Darwin, Wallace and Hooker. (Father and Son, p. 128)

But Gosse was also a biblical literalist.  The Bible does not lie, and the facts of nature must take second place to the revealed word, a word which he was convinced he knew and knew well.  When his wife died painfully of cancer in February of 1857, he turned his attention to a reconciliation of the issue.

Omphalos appeared in print that fall; within two years it had disappeared into history's rubbish heap.  Twenty years ago, I found a second generation photocopy at Gordon-Conwell.  For the past two decades, a photocopy of that photocopy has resided on my bookshelf.

Gosse's argument is simple.  If you had been present in Eden twenty minutes after Adam's creation, you would have observed his navel, a scar left from a birth that never happened.  In his digestive tract would have been the remains of a meal he had not eaten two hours before.  His feet would have had calluses from walks he had never taken.  A nearby tree, cut down, would have shown real rings of unreal years of growth.  Gosse goes on and on with this argument, separating all time into historic time, what Gosse calls "diachronic" time, and un-historic time, unreal time, virtual time, what Gosse calls "prochronic" time.  He argues two propositions:  (1) All organic nature moves in a circle; and  (2) Creation is a violent irruption into the circle of nature.

Gosse quotes the philosopher Chalmers, who wrote: "We have no experience in the creation of worlds."  From this statement, Gosse concludes, at least for the organic world (he disclaims any arguments for the inorganic), that any act of creation must involve the creation of a being with a history that never took place.  He writes:

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 any part of it;  it follows, that such records are false, so far as they testify to time; that the developments and processes thus recorded have been produced without time, or are what I call "prochronic." (p. 336)

The objections to Gosse's thesis are well known.  The two objections most often cited are  (1) that it is simply a variation of Russell's hypothesis, "last Thursdayism," the hypothesis that we were all created, complete with memories of unreal events, on Thursday morning of last week, and  (2) that it must be rejected because "God can't lie" and a false history must be taken as evidence that he did lie.  But Gosse's arguments go well beyond Russell's hypothesis, and he argues well that any fiat creation, even by God, must necessarily include unreal history.  His arguments need to be taken seriously.

Gosse's thesis is not, of course, "scientific."  While it may be true, it is not testable, nor does it suggest future research projects.  It is a dead end.  Gosse recognized this.  Nevertheless, he urged his fellow scientists to continue as if unreal history were real and to construct their theories independent of his thesis.

For many years, I have asked my friends at the Institute for Creation Research for comments.  To date, they have declined that opportunity.  Holding, as they do, that fiat creation did happen, it seems that part of Omphalos ought to play a part in their theorizing.  One thing seems certain.  If one posits fiat creation of any kind, an appearance of age must be a part of that hypothesis.  That fact makes scientific tests of the claim difficult, if not wholly impossible, leading to the observation that "Scientific Creationism" is simply an oxymoron.

I highly recommend this book to my ASA colleagues interested in origins issues.  It is a good read.  For the biblical literalist, one who has honestly and thoroughly confronted the scientific data, I see it as the only intellectually coherent position possible.

This page was a Book Review for Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation) in June 2001.

Reviewed by John W. Burgeson, former Stephen Minister at First Presbyterian Church, Durango, CO 81301.
A link for "Burgy's Web Site" is below.
Thanks to Jack Haas, George Murphy, Emrys Tyler, Loren Haarsma, and Richard Ruble for help in improving this review.

OMPHALOS: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot
Woodbridge, CT: Ox Bow Press, 1998.  376 pages, index.  Paperback; $34.95.  ISBN: 188198710.

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Here are other related pages:

In Burgy's Web Site,
pages 6 and 7 are about
 Religion & Scientific Naturalism 

 Stacey Ake (assistant editor of Metanexus) 
wrote a brief introduction for the review
by Burgeson that you read in this page.

Appearance of Old Age
(pages by other authors)

Biographies of Phillip Henry Gosse in
Wikipedia and Dictionary of Canadian Biography

This page, written by John W. Burgeson, is

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