Creationism and the Problem of Time

WE ARE unique in the world in having a sense of time. We can think about the past and the future. Our dogs, on the other hand, are pretty much confined to knowing only one day at a time. Various stimuli can trigger a dog’s memories, as when it meets someone it hasn’t seen for a while, but this isn’t anything like our ability to form an abstract concept of the past.

Creationists too have problems when thinking about the past. Your Curmudgeon will give you an example of that, but first let’s develop some background.

Except for historical records, how do we know what happened in the past? Let’s begin with James Hutton, an important figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, who is regarded as the father of modern geology. He died in 1797, a dozen years before Charles Darwin was born.

Until Hutton published his work in the 1780s, virtually the whole of the Western world had a conception of the past that was limited to events written in scripture; and it was believed that the world was but a few thousand years old. People were comfortable with that time span.

After an intense study of the rock layers revealed in various cliff faces, canals, and other formations, Hutton concluded that the land had been subjected to a series of cycles involving undersea submersions followed by uplifts, with each episode indicated by embedded fossils, either marine or terrestrial, the whole of which must have required an extremely long time. In a paper presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Hutton famously said: “The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, — no prospect of an end.”

Criticized as being an atheist, he nevertheless published his work in three volumes. Hutton’s principal gift to us was the concept of Deep time, which contrasts sharply with the views of young-earth creationists.

Later geologists built on Hutton’s work, particularly Charles Lyell, whose books Darwin took with him on the voyage of the Beagle. Lyell’s work, Principles of Geology, was subtitled: “An attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth’s surface by reference to causes now in operation.” That pretty much sums up the concept of exploring the past using currently available evidence. It’s Sherlock Holmes stuff, really, and most of us admire Holmes’ methods and conclusions.

Creationists, however, refuse to accept any of this. To them, the unseen past which is not preserved in written history is literally unknowable — except for what is revealed in scripture — and that, of course, is literally true.

We promised you an example, so here it is. The highly esteemed creationist website of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) has posted this article: MythBuster Mistakes Evolution for Science.

They begin by praising a TV show for children that appears on the Discovery Channel, MythBusters. ICR likes the show because it tests “the truth of various urban legends through empirical investigations.” They mention testing “whether a pickup truck has better fuel efficiency with the tailgate up or down.” Simple stuff, to be sure, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with it.

So what’s the creationist gripe? Here it comes, with bold added by us:

But where the MythBusters host falls short — along with the rest of the secular scientific world — is in confusing observable present processes (on which empirical science is based) with theories of what happened in the unobserved past.

They quote one of the show’s hosts, Adam Savage. This is where he “mistakes evolution for science,” as in the title of ICR’s article:

The newspapers talking about evolution versus creationism is very much an attack on science as a type of religion — believing that the scientific method is some type of religious belief. And it’s not! That kind of attack absolutely is damaging science exploration across the whole country. I do think that’s a significant problem. And until we can get our head out of the sand and realize that science isn’t about truth — it’s why this debate about the “theory of evolution” bugs the h*** out of me. What scientists mean by theory is very different than what people think.

That sounds okay to us, but ICR says:

If the pursuit of science “isn’t about truth,” what is the point in doing it? And although the scientific method is not “some type of religious belief,” it only operates within an individual scientist’s interpretive framework. The scientist’s belief system (whether based on evolution or creation) will influence how he or she interprets an experiment’s results.

Science isn’t about “truth.” It’s about finding explanations that can be tested, and that provide useful information. It’s also about weeding out explanations that don’t work, which are rejected. That’s the point of doing science. But ICR’s last sentence is true. If the “scientist” is a creationist, he will interpret all geological or biological evidence, for example, as supporting the tale of Noah’s Ark. To a creationist, no other conclusion is possible.

We’ll skip some blather and get right to the end of ICR’s article:

[U]nobservable natural processes of the past are beyond the scope of empirical science, and both academia and popular culture should be wary of equating the pursuit of truth with a still unproven theory.

To creationists, the past is unknowable. Continental drift, ice ages, volcanic formation of islands, dinosaur extinction, and certainly human evolution — these things are not scientific topics. No one saw them happen, so they’re beyond human understanding. Except, of course, as may be revealed through scripture.

That’s a cozy little view of things, but it’s more than two centuries out of date. Not only that, but even our dogs can do better. When they sniff a tree, they know another dog has been there, even if they didn’t see it.

But don’t worry too much about the creationists. They may catch up. These things take time.

Copyright © 2008. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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16 responses to “Creationism and the Problem of Time

  1. The weakness in the creationist rejection of anything except eyewitness testimony (and scriptural testimony preferred) can be seen by asking the question: “What would a creationist do as a juror in criminal trial that hinged on forensic and circumstantial evidences?”

    By rejecting anything other than eyewitness testimony, the creationist juror refuses to “connect the dots” — the DNA analysis of blood found at the scene of the murder linking it to the the defendant; the parking ticket issued an hour before the murder to the defendant’s car, parked a block from the murder scene; the receipt showing the defendant filled the car’s gas tank 2 hours before the murder, and the amount of fuel remaining in the tank when the car was impounded the next morning is equal to a full tank minus one round trip from the defendant’s home to the scene of the crime and back; the belligerent argument the defendant and the decedent had two days before the murder over the decedent’s sexual relationship with the defendant’s wife — all of this circumstantial/forensic evidence just disappears into thin air in the mind if the creationist juror.

    Now, the creationist might correctly point out that drawing conclusions of the defendant’s guilt from circumstantial evidence is an enterprise based on drawing inferences that are not derived solely from deductive logic, and he would be correct. He might then point out that historical sciences, like geology and evolutionary biology, are based on this same sort of inferential thinking, and he’s also be correct.

    But what the creationist conveniently leaves out is that in science, the inferences are drawn from the observations and used to formulate the conclusion (a theory), which is subsequently subjected to attempted falsifications. It is the falsification step that is purely deductive logic, which allows us to toss out unworthy theories that are contradicted by evidence, leaving only those theories that can withstand repeated attempted falsifications. This was Karl Popper’s great contribution to 20th century scientific philosophy, and is what distinguishes scientific theories from theological or philosophical theories: scientific theories must be amenable to falsification, which is entirely deductive.

    But our creationist juror refuses to draw inferences about the past from circumstantial evidence — he refuses to believe the world is billions of years old, and he refuses to believe that OJ was guilty.

    That’s not what I would call a very useful paradigm for investigating the nature of reality.

  2. Longie says: “But our creationist juror refuses to draw inferences about the past from circumstantial evidence …”

    But Longie — the murder could have been committed by a little green guy who arrived and later departed in an invisible UFO. You weren’t there, so you just don’t know. Teach the controversy!

  3. mightyfrijoles

    Curmy wrote:

    “WE ARE unique in the world in having a sense of time. We can think about the past and the future. Our dogs, on the other hand, are pretty much confined to knowing only one day at a time.”

    We are not alone. A simple example of this is the signing of chimpanzees and gorillas. They understand the sign for “yesterday” and “tomorrow” and “today”. And they use the signs appropriately. How good this understanding is, is of course, not known now, and how far back the evolutionary tree it goes, I do not know. Perhaps another of Curmy’s fleas has more information.

  4. MF says: “We are not alone. A simple example of this is the signing of chimpanzees and gorillas.”

    Okay, as long as you have your hairy kinsmen, I guess you’re not alone.

  5. Creationists, ICR nor Intelligent Designers are saying no such thing about the past .

    What they say is that after some point true empirical (observable/repeatable – same results each and every time) science is no longer in play and we must resort to a guess no matter how educated.

    These models everyone touts so highly are indeed wondrous examples of human intelligence and ingenuity but their results are based on assumptions. Scientists are forever either tweaking these assumptions(as new discoveries are made ) which in turn CHANGES THE OUTCOMES OF THE MODELS – OR – they change the models to keep outcome – this is politely called cheating.

    I accept evidence about the past – what I don’t accept is that when the evidence changes such that the conclusion much change, evolutionists love to just change the model to protect the conclusion – this to me is the true bad science.

    Stake out a conclusion and constantly change the model so that the available evidence yields the same conclusion. It’s what you accuse Creationists of doing with scripture but seem to overlook the fact that Evolutionists do the same, only they claim it’s “Science.”

  6. mightyfrijoles

    I’d rather have a nice honest, hairy, chimp or gorilla than a clean cut Creationist, any day.

  7. Persnick, this is getting tiresome. Really. Your views are grossly misinformed, and no one here cares to debate with you. We’re way beyond that. Other sites, where posts are at the level of “Why are there still monkeys?” are likely to be more receptive to your comments.

  8. mightyfrijoles

    Perhaps you need to have an Introductory Post on “What Is a Theory” that is required reading before being allowed to post?

    PC could use it.

  9. MF says: “Perhaps you need to have an Introductory Post on “What Is a Theory” that is required reading before being allowed to post?”

    In a boxed sidebar labeled “Debating Creationists,” which is visible on every page of this blog, there’s a link to this article: Advice for Creationists. It’s all covered there.

  10. Persnick, changing the theory to reflect new information is hardly cheating, it is an attempt to refine the theory so conclusions drawn are more accurate. What is not honest is taking the evidence, the raw data and the results of tests, and changing that so it fits into a theory. This is what creationists do, they cherry pick data, refuse to perform tests and twist logic to guarantee the ‘evidence’ fits the theory. That is dishonest.

    A theory is malleable, it can be corrected to more closely fit reality, the data and the test results have to be taken at face value. This is what scientists do, it is a part of everyone’s experience so I wonder why you reject the process.

    Generally speaking, theories are models and are subject to trial and error.

  11. Excellent post Curmy.

  12. Well b_sharp I’ll leave you all with this as my last post .

    Let’s take the theory that man evolved from primates. There have been several “missing links” proposed for the evolutionary tree of man ( Nebraska Man, Peking Man, Neanderthal, Australopithicus, and so on) as each of these have been found out to be wrong or to have been out and out frauds or dead ends, they have been replaced by another. The concept of a “missing link” remained.

    The theory never changes despite constant revisions in the evidence – some of it falsified over the years. The absence of a missing link may not disprove this evolution but it certainly does not prove it.

    Now some propose that no missing link ever existed we just had a mutation and poof a new species. Fair enough. Plausible. But once again the theory remains – the evidence is adjusted to fit the theory. We can’t find the evidence – AHA we don’t need it and it never existed in the first place.

    This is why I say Evolutionists do exactly the same as Creationists (and I don’t dispute they do) with the evidence.

  13. Because you say that’s your last post, I’ll let it through as your farewell message. No need for me to comment on its substance. Good luck in your endeavors, Persnick, and have a Merry Christmas.

  14. PC:

    But once again the theory remains – the evidence is adjusted to fit the theory

    You are one confused person.

    Bye. Mind the door.

  15. Oh, great! Thanks a lot, guys. He was my ride home.