Blast from the past…

by Retired Prof

In his booklet Does God Exist and in numerous sermons Herbert W. Armstrong told us the universe is a much more precise timepiece than his expensive and accurate railroad watch. He said the cycles of days, months, and years repeat themselves with such exquisite precision that no fallible human mechanism such as that watch could possibly match them. In fact, he thundered in the concluding section of Does God Exist? (© 1957, 60, 70, 71):

Yes, [the watch] is corrected by the MASTER CLOCK OF THE UNIVERSE – up in the skies – by astronomers! Up there in the heavens is the great Master Clock that NEVER makes a mistake – is always ON TIME – never off a fraction of a second – the heavenly bodies coursing through the skies! (Available at Pabco’s Homepage Accessed 11 Feb. 2007.)

Since a human mind obviously designed the watch, Armstrong declared that some vastly superior mind must have designed the universe. A few lines farther down, he sneered at the very idea that the perfection he attributed to the cosmos could have arisen by chance instead of by divine creation, and he rudely told any skeptic who might believe so, “I do not respect your intelligence.”

Like Armstrong’s other “inspired revelations,” this claim was probably a rehash of someone else’s ideas—specifically, an argument made by Bishop William Paley in Natural Theology; Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Collected from the Appearances of Nature (1802). Paley too pointed out that if we found a watch in a field, we would conclude from the intricacy and precision of its design that someone made it; it could not possibly have arisen by random processes. Paley’s analogy, however, involved not the cosmic dimension but the biological. Since even the tiniest organisms are far more intricate than a watch, they too must have arisen from rational design and careful construction. Modern proponents of Intelligent Design (ID) theory depend heavily on this biological argument. (See, for example, Ross A. Taylor, The Creation Evolution Controversy .) Garner Ted Armstrong used a generalized design argument as Proof Number Five in “Seven Proofs God Exists,” Plain Truth Feb. 1960: 23.

As their main objection, ID opponents cite the idea that a person just has to believe it, or not, purely on faith. They say it is not a fit subject for scientific investigation because it cannot generate the prerequisite, a testable hypothesis. This charge is not true. Starting with some particular ID arguments, we can do what Albert Einstein called “thought experiments.” That is, make a prediction suggested by the theory and test it in the abstract by constructing a series of logical “what ifs.”

In fact, in Does God Exist? Armstrong challenged skeptics to perform just such an experiment. One of his boldface headings asked, “Suppose you Were Creator?” He elaborated:

Suppose that you could add to your powers of reasoning, planning, designing, the actual CREATIVE power, so that you could project your will anywhere to produce and bring into being whatever your mind should plan and desire. Then, suppose you undertook the designing, creating, fashioning, shaping, and setting in motion a limitless cosmic universe – with planets and suns and nebulae and galaxies in all their splendor, each of these vast units being of such intricate and complex construction as the existing universe.

. . . .

Do you think your mind would be equal to the task?

I accepted Armstrong’s challenge and thought about his question at some length. Of course my mind is not equal to the task of making light shine or bringing matter into being out of nothing or breathing life into that matter. However, I can meet part of the challenge. Follow me; let’s go through this together.

Assume our turn has come around to set the earth and nearby heavenly bodies in motion; remember, this is a thought experiment that doesn’t require us to physically create or twirl stars, planets, and moons. Want to bet you and I can think up a solar system that would point to an intelligent designer much more clearly than the one we’ve got now? Let’s try.

Another name for such a thought experiment is modeling, and it is one way scientists try to make sense out of the universe. They begin with a hypothesis about principles governing some phenomenon such as the weather or economic trends and use it as the basis for a picture or story—the model—showing how things ought to work. Then they hold up the model against reality to see if they match. If they do, the hypothesis is good; it approximates a truth. If they do not, the hypothesis needs to be revised, or perhaps rejected outright. To handle the massive sets of numbers needed for testing hypotheses about hurricanes or economic cycles, scientists have to resort to computer modeling, but Einstein worked out details in his thought experiments with a pencil and paper. Fortunately, the “universe as a perfect clock” idea can be modeled in this simple way.

Look at timekeeping principles. Any intelligently designed clock divides days into hours, hours into minutes, and minutes into seconds in whole numbers. No fractions. The clock that almost all human societies have settled on divides the day by 24, the hour and the minute each by 60, and the second (avoiding awkward fractions by switching to the decimal system) into tenths, hundredths, thousandths, and so forth. Though it would be smarter to keep the same divisor all the way through than to shift as we do between dozens and tens, the plan shows at least moderate good sense.

Let’s improve on it and extend it in the other direction: toward weeks, months, and years. First task is to eliminate the numerical shifts and pick a consistent number for a base. The dozen is a good one, and (at least partway through the system) our clock already uses it. Two dozen hours from sunset to sunset, five dozen minutes in an hour, and five dozen seconds in a minute. Furthermore, this system can connect with the dozens we use in the calendar: 12 months in the year, 12 signs in the zodiac.

You might well ask, “Why not design a decimal clock? The decimal system, base 10, gives us a regular set of multiples that make calculations easy.” That’s perfectly true, if we’re talking multiples of ten. Going the other way, to fractions of ten, it’s wrong. Half works out fine, because 5 is a whole number. But divide 10 into thirds and quarters, and you get fractions: 3 1/3 and 2 ½. Actually, human beings just fell into base 10 through a sort of accident: that’s how many fingers we count on. To build an intelligent design from scratch, we want something smarter than a mere ad hoc choice. The duodecimal system, based on the dozen, qualifies because 12 multiplies as easily as 10 and divides much more neatly: half is 6, a third is 4, a quarter is 3, and a sixth is 2—all whole numbers.

So to design a cosmic clock intelligently, we should place the sun and moon in the sky and set the earth spinning at just the right rate to make the month last a multiple of 12 days and make the month fit exactly 12 times into the year. Let’s see, the moon has four phases (the basis for weeks). I suggest we make it simple: let the moon orbit the earth in 48 days, so that each phase, each week if you will, lasts a dozen days. If we then adjust the clock to give 12 orbits of the moon in the time it takes for the earth to orbit the sun once, we’ve got our 12-month year, which amounts to four dozen weeks, or 48 dozen (4 x 12 x 12) days. Spring, summer, fall, and winter—each season is 12 dozen days long. That’s an even gross. And of course, as careful clockmakers we’ll adjust the orbits so that each unit fits into the next larger unit precisely, to the millisecond (or whatever the duodecimal equivalent is called.) We’ll make the system constant, so it never slows down or speeds up.

Any rational being contemplating such a clock would have no doubt whatsoever. This outfit was put together by an intelligent designer. A person would also know it was given as a sign; the designer intended for creatures to recognize and acknowledge their creator.

All right, I have to admit that my suggestion to base the clock on nested series of dozens is arbitrary—it’s a good choice, but not an inevitable one. So, how else could some omnipotent omniscience certify to us rational beings that it was responsible? Well, supernatural claims require supernatural evidence. Any system that so clearly violated laws of probability that no creature could possibly mistake it for a natural phenomenon would do. It would need to be astonishingly regular—though not necessarily perfectly so. Perhaps a creator would be wise to let the system slip slightly out of sync from time to time. The miracles required to readjust it would remind us periodically who was in charge.

As we know from our own counting system, the decimal system actually works out quite well and would do nicely. Another way an intelligent designer could eliminate randomness is by choosing a series of prime numbers, as the aliens did in Carl Sagan’s Contact. The point is, any creator bent on constructing a clocklike universe to proclaim to rational creatures, “I AM WHAT I AM!” would need to provide signs that could never be misinterpreted as a result of random chance.

You already know that the real cosmic clock does not match our hypothetical base-12 model, but let’s check the details. Keep alert, though; remember that other nonrandom systems might exist.

I found the ratios of our actual “clock” in Eric Weisstein’s World of Astronomy ( accessed 13 Feb. 2007), though many other encyclopedic references would work just as well. Start with the day: in a month there are slightly more than 29.53 of them, meaning that each lunar phase (the basis for our week) lasts about 7.3825 days. The number of days in the year amounts to 365.2425. That means there are, on average, 12.3685 months in the year, or something very close to 49.5 lunar phases. Just look at that: every ratio is fractional; not one thing divides evenly into anything else. No formula connects the units in any regular mathematical series.

Intelligent? Nah. Random. Therefore dumb.

If our cosmic clock really was designed that way intentionally, the designer must have intended to mimic blind chance. What’s the point of that? Any human clockmaker who built such a mechanism would be considered at best a practical joker and at worst a victim of dementia.

It gets worse. In his definition of lunation, Weisstein reveals that cycles don’t repeat themselves with such exquisite precision as Armstrong maintained: “[A]s a result of torques from the Sun, the actual time interval between consecutive new moons varies greatly. Meeus (1988) gives a table of the shortest (29 days 06 hours 35 minutes) and longest (29 days 19 hours 55 minutes) lunations from 1900 to 2100.” What intelligently designed clock marks time with units that stretch and shrink?

Even worse: remember in the first quotation above, where Armstrong said the universal clock “is always ON TIME – never off a fraction of a second”? Not so. The clock is gradually slowing down. The earth, being slightly out of round, is putting gravitational torque on the moon’s orbit, causing the moon to slow in its orbit and gradually drift away, so that the month is getting slightly longer all the time. So is the day. Friction from the tides impedes the earth’s rotation enough to require the addition of a leap second every 450 to 500 days.

Now if we felt generous, we might concede that months of varying lengths are a lot like the lengthening days and shortening nights as spring approaches (to be balanced out as fall comes on). Engineers shake their heads in despair at this irregularity, but some of us artistic types might even feel that it enriches the clock, spices it up with a sort of mischievous whimsy. Besides, if lunations can be predicted through the year 2100, they’re at least not random.

The slowing down is different. Those leap seconds have to be allocated ad hoc, based on measurements of how much the earth’s rotation has actually slowed. It varies. Any clock that drifts inexorably but unpredictably farther and farther out of adjustment is a bad clock, and whimsy be damned.

The flaws don’t prove there was no creator, of course. On the other hand, in no way do they provide us a sign there was one.

Armstrong preached that unity pervades the cosmos; every part participates in the design of the whole. If that is so, then the demonstrable randomness in the cosmic clock implies that, possibly, our human existence in the universe is also random. The hypothetical creator could easily have cleared up the ambiguity by building a miraculously regular clock. As I mentioned before, any numerical basis would work, as long as the clock was regular and consistent, but any omnipotent designer that did use base 12 could have given us six fingers on each hand. By counting on our fingers, we would naturally have adopted the convenient base-12 system of arithmetic, the same one governing the clock.

If the cogs and ratchets in such a cosmic clock really did produce no random ratios among our days, lunar phases, months, and years, and if the timing really were reliably precise, the evidence would be incontrovertible. We would, as Herbert W. Armstrong liked to shout, “TRULY KNOW!” Then, seeing that our bodies and minds obviously participated in the same consistent and easy-to-factor system of dozens that ruled the cosmos, we would stand in awe of the thematic unity of it all. We could rest easy, secure in the knowledge that we got here by design and not by accident.

We would then have a way to put apparent catastrophes into perspective. For example, during the great Sumatra-Andaman earthquake of 26 December 2004, displacement of mass in the earth’s crust altered the length of the day by a few milliseconds. If the universe really were a (mostly) perfect clock, we would realize that the suffering of all those human beings drowned or rendered homeless by the ensuing tsunami, though regrettable, was necessary to preserve the grand design. We could have perfect faith that the clock needed a tiny miraculous adjustment to bring everything back into perfect synchrony, and we could appreciate the wisdom of the appalling carnage.

As things stand now, we are left in doubt. Deep and abiding doubt.