The Earth was created exactly eight thousand nine hundred and twelve years ago; we know this because all scientific evidence points to this fact.
Growth rings at the core of ancient trees stop and become smooth before this period. The remains of primordial mummified human beings are discovered without a navel or umbilicus. The shells of ancient crustaceans prior to the eight millennia ago have a smooth shell; all proof of that they were born of creation rather than the natural growth of accreted material.
Dr. Dorothea Morrell’s world is one in which the existence of god is an accepted fact with which all branches of science agree. Biology, physics, chemistry and archaeology all point to the fact that the world was created little more than eight millennia ago.
But when Nathan McCullough, the director of the Museum of Natural Philosophy, reveals a scientific paper that could shatter faith of mankind and the religious foundation of the scientific method, Dr. Morrell is at first sceptical but ultimately has her faith shaken to destruction.
Wilhelmina McCullough, the tempestuous teenage daughter of Nathan, doesn’t believe the science discovered by her farther has any merit and can only serve to damage the faith of believers. Despite this and the overwhelming evidence already confirming the existence of God, Nathan believes that as a Christian scientist, regardless of the outcome, the truth must be presented. It’s an interesting concept. In Omphalos, Wilhelmina represents the mirror of what we might consider a militant atheist; someone prepared to take any steps necessary to prove her case by trashing the opposite opinion despite instead of using the ample evidence to support her own.
Dr. Morrell’s story is told in the first person with many passages starting as a prayer or a conversation with God. While at first this might seem incongruent considering Morrell’s occupation as a secular scientist, it makes absolute sense given the certainty with which God is established as real in this world. If you knew with absolute certainty that God existed, regardless of your faith, wouldn’t you talk to him as well?
Lord, I shall place myself in your presence, and ask you to shine you light into my heart as I look back upon this day, so that I may see more clearly your grace in everything that has happened.
The Omphalos Hypothesis
Omphalos is Ted Chiang’s gentle evisceration of the ideas posited in the 1857 book, Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot, by Philip Henry Gosse. In his book, Gosse argues that the physical world as we experience it must be a great deception on the part of God.
Gosse’s Omphalos hypothesis is an attempt to reconcile the Biblical creation story of Genesis with the clear scientific evidence that the universe, and as a corollary, the Earth, is billions of years old.
Gosse argues that if a prime mover did not imbue trees with growth rings, create the broad strata of the Grand Canyon, and made an objective decision to give Adam and Eve navels then Genesis cannot be accurate and therefore the Christian faith fails. Alternatively, if Gosse’s hypothesis is correct, then no empirical evidence about the age of the Earth can be taken as reliable.
Life is a circle, no one stage of which more than any other affords a natural commencing-point. Every living object has an omphalos, or an egg, or a seed, which points irresistibly to the existence of a previous living object of the same kind. Creation, therefore, must mean the sudden bursting into the circle, and its phenomena, produced full grown by the arbitrary will of God, would certainly present the stigmata of a pre-existent existence. Each created tree would display the marks of sloughed bark and fallen leaves, though it had never borne those leaves or that bark. The teeth of each brute would be worn away with exercise which it had never taken. By innumerable examples he shows that this must have been the case with all living forms. If so, then why may not the fossils themselves be part of this breaking into the circle? Why may not the strata, with their buried fauna and flora, belong to the general scheme of the prochronic development of the plan of the life-history of this globe?Edmund Gosse on his father’s book, Omphalos
It’s a neat little theory that, even in the 19th century when the book was published, was widely rejected. The hypothesis, however, was resurrected (pun intended) during the 20th century by Young Earth Creationists to explain the inconsistencies between scripture and the physical world.
In Omphalos, Ted Chiang posits a world where god is unquestionably real. Where the evidences provided by the devout for the existence of the almighty are part of the foundation of scientific understanding. Omphalos demonstrates a mirror to our own world and the inevitable emergent consequences which follow.
I’ve always been fascinated by the self-delusion required for humans to simultaneous see the strata at the Grand Canyon and the millennia of water erosion creating deep gullies through hard sandstone thousands of deep and hundreds of miles long, and still hold the belief that the Earth is but a few thousand years old.
I find Chaing’s story an extremely compelling argument against the existence of a deity. Rather than arguing the details, as so many modern atheists attempt, Chiang simply presents the reader with the which would exist were religion be true. Instead of detail Chiang looks in broad strokes at the inconsistencies that must exist in order for the Christian scriptures to be the truth. In Dr. Morrell’s world, astronomy is considered a lesser science, a field with known boundaries and fully understood methodologies and archaeology’s only purpose is to further reinforce the public’s conviction in an almighty by discovering ‘primordial human’ remains showing evidence of the creation.
I admit, Lord, that I’ve never had much regard for astronomy; it has always struck me as the dullest of the sciences. The life sciences are seemingly limitless; every year we discover new species of plants and animals and gain a deeper appreciation of your ingenuity in creating the Earth. By contrast, the night sky is just so finite. All five thousand eight hundred and seventy two stars were catalogued in 1745, and not another has been found since then.
There are so many grand delusions that human beings allow themselves to be enamoured with. Take as a further example the paranormal, of ghosts. Were ghosts to be proven real, the scientific community wouldn’t be ignoring it because Old Granny Johnson returning from the afterlife doesn’t fit their ‘paradigm’. No, this would be the greatest discovery in human history, and the scientist responsible would be held in greater esteem than Neil Armstrong or Christopher Columbus. Were ghost to be proven it would throw all religions – possibly apart from one! – into disarray. Companies like Google, Microsoft and Amazon would be throwing billions into research to discover how to use the ‘other side’ as a data centre, an unlimited power source, or a faster than light communication system.
Omphalos proves that were God to exist the world would be an extremely strange place indeed.
Beauty is Only Skin Deep
Knowing that god exists results in Dr Morrell being unable to fully appreciate His creations. Morrell takes no pleasure in the breadth of the ocean, the depth of the Grand Canyon, or the simple beauty of physics because she knows that it is little more than an artificial creation designed to deceive.
The argument is often made that without belief in God life has no purpose and, by extension, that the life of the atheist is without meaning. The fact that Morrell cannot appreciate natural beauty because of her faith is an interesting twist on this argument. For Morrell, the existence of God invalidates the beauty found in nature.
No one can deny, Lord, that you’ve sculpted a landscape of great beauty on the surface of the Earth. I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited three continents, and I’ve seen cliffs of chalk, canyons of sandstone, pillars of basalt; all spectacular. But for me, the knowledge that they’re no more than a decorative façade tempers my appreciation.
At the end of the short we find that, despite the clear evidence of god, mankind has, as if often the case, put itself on an undeserved pedestal. In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that our secular world does this through Humanism, by imbuing man with a special status which exists only outside of nature. In Omphalos, the equivalent is mankind’s assumption that it is at the centre of God’s attention, when evidence of this does not exist.
The scientific paper put forward by Nathan McCullough demonstrates that although Earth was created by god eight thousand years ago, it is little more than barren ground onto which wheat has been sown. Nathan’s suggests that another earth, a world more perfect than our own, exists that and our home is little more than a discarded experimental test site before the almighty moved on to His main project.
Despite absolute proof of the existence of God, the characters of Omphalos are left with surprisingly similar questions to those we might ask of faith. What is the meaning of life? For what purpose do human beings exists? Does a personal God exist?
The core of Omphalos is one which has been explored many times before in fiction and it’s something which has entered mainstream entertainment. Similar questions were asked in Arthur C Clarke’s classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also more mainstream audiences have also been fascinated by this possibility in nonsense such as The History Channel’s Ancient Aliens and even Hovis advert magnate Ridley Scott has had a go in his mainstream feature film, Prometheus.
But this is the first time I’ve read any fiction which so deftly posits the questions which I will ask so crudely here:
If all this nonsense was real, wouldn’t the world would be a vastly different place?
In Omphalos the the scientific community is flipped. There are ‘secular scientists’ who go to great mental contortions to discount the clear evidence that God exists, and there are the ‘church scientists’ who stick rigidly to an evidence based scientific method which consistently confirms their believe in a creator.
The mother was leading the child in prayer, and they thanked you, Lord, for ensuring that the mummies were discovered by Church archaeologists rather than secular ones, because now they were being exhibited to the public instead of being hidden in the back rooms of a museum.
But it’s interesting that even in Chiang’s fictional world, the orthodox church plays an oddly familiar role. Orthodox religion has the same belief in god as the ‘church scientists’, however, they still rigidly follow the prescribed Biblical texts written by ancient man and as such are still beholden to scripture above the scientific revelations of the physical world, even when those revelations fully support their belief in a creator.
Likewise, the church continues to spend innumerable resources building temples of worship despite the protestations of the scientific community who could use the resources more effectively reinforcing the evidence of God through science.
Is it wrong of me to question whether the construction of cathedrals is, as we approach the twenty-first century, the best use of countless millions of dollars and the effort of generations of people?
Omphalos is such a subtle but deft evisceration of religion that it could almost be missed by those not wanting to see it. Ted Chiang has surgically dissected religious belief until the anatomy is laid bare and the entrails are hanging from the table. This is one of my favourite science-fiction shorts, and I cannot recommend it enough. It’s one of those tales which will sit on my shelf, at which I will occasionally return in wonder at how such a thing of beauty could be created without the existence of god.
Omphalos, through a simple reversal of roles, highlights the contradictions and hypocrisy in the religious belief system and brilliantly walks the reader through the familiar but twisted world which we would inhabit were the existence of God proven.
Omphalos’s ultimate warning to human beings is that they should never put themselves on a pedestal and that no human can claim to know the mind of God, even one which is clearly demonstrated to exist.
You can find Omphalos in Ted Chiang’s beautiful collection, Exhalation, gathered among a series of equally subtle works of science-fiction.