Science in Christian Perspective
From: JASA 17 (December
This paper examines the assumption that it is logically possible that the knowable universe began with the appearance of an age greater than its actual age. While the assumption is considered to be understandable syntactically it is considered to be absurd. The criterion of absurdity is that no statement can be scientifically sensible when all pertinent possible evidence must fail either to corroborate or falsify that statement. The more complex Whitcomb-Morris thesis is then examined and criticized in the light of the above criterion. It is concluded that their hypothesis fails on the above criterion and that any non-scientific arguments introduced to escape this impasse are rational improbabilities.
This brief paper purposes to point up certain difflculties with a hypothesis at least as old as Gosse's Omphalos and experiencing a certain renaissance in some quarters. In its crudest form the theory may be found in a well-known remark by Bertrand Russell: "There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the earth sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that 'remembered' a wholly unreal past."l It is the assumption that the thesis is logically possible, which the present writer takes to require careful exploration, for if the assumption is in error or even unclear the thesis may really carry many unwelcome concommitants for its advocates.
Lest someone complain that Russell's statement has certain inadequacies linguistically or in scope, let us restate the hypothesis in a quite general fashion which we shall take to be sufficient for much of our subsequent analysis: "There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the knowable universe began with the appearance of considerable age at some time rather more recent than this apparent age." This statement avoids talking of the entire universe, if such is assumed to have greater spatio - temporal extent than any potentially discoverable portion of it, and it does not specify any bounds as to what is 'considerable' nor how far short of this the real age is taken to be. It leaves all questions of how the knowable universe began quite open so as not to prejudice the case in that regard, though it is a matter to which we must return. Finally, it leaves no room for the actual age to be discovered by comparison with anything physically external to what is being discussed.
Now it is not immediately apparent that this thesis regarding apparent age is logically possible as claimed.
med. However much such statements are offered, and they are not infrequent across the range from Russell to fundamentalists, there is amazingly little clear defense of their claim. It is our argument that an examination of the major thesis will show that it is in fact not logically possible at all but rather that it is logically absurd.2 Let us see just why, by examining such defence as the writer has seen offered.
The defence appears to take two modes, one implicit and the other explicit. The former is a claim that if the words have a sufficiently clear meaning and if the structure of the statement expressing the hypothesis is syntactically sound then, since we can understand what is being said, the entire thesis must be a logical possibility. However, while we may grant that the thesis is sufficiently understandable to enable us to see that it does not suffer from self-contradiction, is this enough to force us to grace it with logical possibility? Some might say that it is, but surely we can then ask them whether they would accept an in-
* Thomas H. Leith is Associate Professor of Natural Science, York University, Toronto, Ontario. Paper prepared for the 19th Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation, August, 1964, at John Brown University, Siloam Springs, Arkansas.
Just why this is so becomes clear when the explicit defence is examined. Since we began with a quotation from Russell we might continue the same quotation here, for it represents the sort of negative defence usually offered. Says Russell, "There is no logically necessary connection between events at different times; therefore nothing that is now or will happen in the future can disprove the hypothesis that the world began five minutes ago." We shall, therefore, never be able to falsify the thesis. But it is crucial that we cannot corroborate it either. Let us quote again from Russell, writing many years later: "If the whole world came into existence then (i.e., five minutes ago), just as it then was, there will never be anything to prove that it did not exist earlier; in fact, all the evidence that we now have in favour of its having existed earlier, we should then have."3 It is what Russell does not notice here, that the same evidence must always both fail to corroborate and to falsify even though it is pertinent evidence and should therefore do one or the other, which lead us to believe that there is something radically wrong with what Russell thinks he is defending. Our restatement of his hypothesis is in no better a situation.
We have claimed, for the sake of argument, that it is logically possible for the knowable universe to have an apparent age indefinitely greater than its actual age. The only experiential data which we have left ourselves are the facts of the knowable universe. Now, if we follow Russell we must claim that this data can neither falsify the thesis that the knowable universe has an actual age less than its apparent age nor corroborate the same thesis. This writer believes that any thesis leading to such an impasse solely by virtue of its logical structure, must be considered irrational and without those attributes requisite to anything worthy of being called a hypothesis.
Perhaps another approach will make our point even
clearer. To be a hypothesis it must be logically possible for something to serve as evidence for that hypothesis or against it. But look at our suggested candidate for this status: The knowable universe began
with an apparent age considerably greater than its actual age. Unable to compare the knowable universe
with anything outside of itself we discover that we
have no standard of an empirical sort by which to
test the hypothesis. If we want to defend the idea
that something has gotten larger we cannot do so while
maintaining that everything has grown in proportion
and at the same rate. All relative sizes would remain
constant: we have so constructed our problem that
no evidence for or against the idea of something growing can ever be found. Likewise, if we want to defend the idea that something is younger than it appears, we cannot do so if we simultaneously claim that
everything of the same maximum real age appears older by the same amount. We can find absolutely nothing, even if our search is exhaustive over the entire
knowable universe, which can show us that the real
and the apparent ages are different. An apparent age,
indeed a universally apparent age for things at least
as old as the presumed real age, will be the only age
we can find. The presumed real age is just that; it is
a presumptuous guess lacking any possible evidence.
Can we avoid our conclusion that our hypothesis of apparent age is logically impossible? We have already mentioned the idea that whatever can be seen to be without internal contradiction is logically possible and concluded that while this is a necessary condition it is not sufficient. We must ask also that some investigation of the facts covered by the thesis be relevant to testing it. It need not actually be investigated, but we must be able to imagine such a procedure being performed. Our suggested hypothesis a priori shows this to be an impossibility, not because we lack imagination but because the logic of our hypothesis precludes our ever imagining a test however long we wait and however clever we might be (even to the point of knowing all that is knowable from studying the universe). We may then persist in our hypothesis only by denying the relevance of this additional condition.
To do so would require breaking up our hypothesis into two distinct sorts of parts. There is no doubt the hypothesis can be broken for it makes two claims: the knowable universe began at some actual date ( - t1 and at that time its apparent age ( - t2) was considerably greater than its actual age. Such a conjunctive statement can be true only if both of its parts are true but can be false if either of its components, or both, are false. We have already seen that the truth or falsity of the second portion of the statement is logically unknowable if based upon any study of the facts upon which it bears; experience of the knowable universe must forever give us nothing but the apparent age. Consequently the entire statement is a logical impossibility which can be avoided solely by retaining only the first part of the conjunction, i.e. 'the knowable universe began at some actual date ( - 1)', and recognizing it as having a truth or falsity based on something other than empirical study which must always give us as its conclusion an 'actual age' which is not that above.
A few special cases which may come to mind as variants of our original hypothesis do not vitiate this conclusion. In one trivial case we might suggest that the knowable universe began with no built-in age. Any study of it will give only its actual age. However, to say this is not to avoid the fact that experience of the knowable universe can never show us that our suggestion is tenable not because, to make ourselves quite clear, we haven't explored it all or may make mistakes but because any evidence is logically excluded from the start. Something else must then be the source of our suggestion that the actual age and the age given by experience are the same.
Another more interesting case occurs if we suggest that in the beginning things had all the same apparent built-in age and not just, as we have implied up to this point, a variety of different apparent ages converging upon some maximum given by some parts of the knowable universe which began with the greatest built-in antiquity. We could then have a situation in which a sizeable body of data might seem to indicate an age of, let us say, ten billion years and another body of data indicating all sorts of ages up to ten thousand years ago where this date is the actual age of the knowable universe and the latter body of data covers those things beginning since that time and beginning without any age built into them. Were such a situation to occur we would, as scientists, report a universe in which nothing seemed to have an age between ten thousand and ten billion years, but would we then conclude that only the former limit was actual and that the latter was only an apparent but unreal age? To do so would be to go beyond the data in which both sets of dates are equally 'actual' as far as observation goes and to commit the blunder that it is logically possible to talk of the truth or falsity of a proposal that the ten billion-year-old things have only the appearance of antiquity and are all actually ten thousand years of age.
Of course we would take this data as suggesting an odd universe; one in which all processes of physical nature ceased for a very long interval only to take on the character we may now see them to have ten thousand years ago. It would be just as much beyond scientific possibilities of discussion to explain the sudden and recent initiation of physical processes as to explain the much earlier origin of many things. Advocates of most models in cosmology, those implying an initial origin to all the elements from which later things are made as well as those calling for a continuing origin of new material since then (or even those who plead for an endless series of continuing origins into the past), live with the same sort of problems today There are lots of subtle logical issues involved in talk of origins of any kind and we will make no effort to resolve them here. But all scientific talk leading to a first moment for anything must be based upon extrapolations from pertinent present data and processes using certain cosmological principles, Such talk would have an interesting character for the odd universe suggested above, and we hesitate to say what it would be like, but it would not involve itself in matters lying beyond the possibility of testing.
Lest all of our discussion be taken as rather artificial let us turn for a few moments to a contemporary example of an 'apparent age' thesis, that of Whitcomb and Morris4. Their variant is not easy to tie down since it seems to involve considering the earth and the universe to begin with an appearance of age far greater than what is actual5 and it also involves a later fundamental change in the character of much of the earth's surface and in at least some of the operative laws together with a change in the rates at which all of these laws proceed.6 On the assumption that the writer has correctly interpreted their position, does it suffer from the logical impossibility which we have been discussing?
Let us look first at the apparent age of the earth and the universe which we shall take to be whatever future science, operating on the same basic criteria as at present, comes up with. It is useless to make any other assumption since we are not prophets. Morris and Whitcomb take two tacks here; they raise various technical issues with current estimates of this apparent age so as to show it cannot now suggest the actual age and they claim that its actual age can be shown to differ from the apparent estimates on grounds prior to any scientific study of the earth and the universe. With the first of these we need not raise quibbles. Certainly, there was a time when the earth, or at least our galaxy, seemed too old for the models of the universe popular at the time. Even if we take this problem to be resolved at present, estimates of the age of the universe as we know it do vary as do those for the earth to a lesser degree. This is a trivial matter for our purposes, unless we assume that no widely acceptable 'apparent! age will ever be obtained, for in that case science must remain silent on the matter. If Morris and Whitcomb want to conclude that, are they askin us to go on to the conclusion that if we can't agree on an empirical age we must conclude that the actual age is' much less? If our earlier discussion has been fruitful we must see not only that this is a non-sequitur but that the conclusion is itself a logical impossibility as we have defined that term.
Of course, they do talk about entropy and its inability to cover the beginning of a universe, as they conceive that universe, in a manner rather like Abb6 Lemaitre7. But as Lemaitre sees clearly, and Morris and Whitcomb should, this simply places the discussion of origins beyond scientific analysis. It does not require that the universe begin with a built-in age because initial orderliness, if that is desired, carries with it no indication that some past time appears to be present unless we assume what they deny, namely that entropic processes go on beyond the orderly state discussed so that we can discuss how it got that way and can give meaning to the direction of time in that prior period. Entropy then is no help in making testable the distinction between actual and apparent age for the earliest universe.
Morris and Whitcomb may then fall back on the assumption that scientific conclusions in this area must always fail to give the correct age known on other grounds. This of course takes the matter outside of the area of our past discussion. It asks for a new definition of logical possibility unrestricted by the limits we have given it. There is no need to argue here whether their assumption is meaningful; such a debate about stipulative definitions might be fruitful (many philosophers are much exercised by it), but surely we can grant that logical possibility as we have defined it does not exhaust meaning. If so, to say 'the knowable universe began at (such and such) a date and its actual age is rather less than its apparent age' might well be meaningful though the latter portion is logically untestable under any and all physical attempts to verify the distinction or falsify it and the former portion must either be the apparent age, if it is to make scientific sense, or be based on some other source of information than scientific study. Certainly we can imagine deity knowing such things and even letting us in on the information, but if we claim to have this knowledge we must recognize that it is not meaningful within any present or future science (it is there logically impossible), that it just might be an erroneous claim, and that it is surely a weird world in which we live when one portion of its study is doomed to error as long as this portion is studied scientifically!
Let us turn finally to the Morris-Whitcomb argument that the earth's topography suffered a fundamental change at some date after its origin and that the operative laws were at least partially altered and the rates of action of all laws affected. The new feature in this is the rejection of uniformitarian extrapolations across this period of fundamental change because they do not take this period as actual, Formerly we had an argument wherein young things were made initially in the image of antiquity; now we have a thesis wherein the earth, which had this initial apparent old age, suffers catastrophic change in its appearance and processes so as to destroy (presumably) much of even this apparent built-in age. It is replaced, to this extent anyway, by yet another apparent age as calculated on uniformitarian grounds from present rates of change in the earth's appearance.
It is important to remember that uniformitarians are generally not opposed to theories calling for changes in the rate of various geological or biological processes if they see any good reason for them and if there are some fundamental processes (say those of physics and chemistry) which remain constant and thus provide a standard against which change in other rates can be measured and an explanation for these changes sought. Indeed, in some cosmological schemes, certain constants of even physical laws become variables, but here too a particular cosmological model is kept as an explanation and control as long as the model has evidence in its favor unaffected by this procedure. Whitcomb and Morris avow that they are not uniformitarians if it means the denial of a period of fundamental change during the earth's physical history. However, if there is such a period few uniformitarians will deny it as long as Whitcomb and Morris, or someone else, can give them empirical evidence. This demands providing a standard against which changes in this period can be compared.
Whitcomb and Morris assay to provide the evidence by pointing out what they see to be inconsistencies within the usual geological schemes and by offering a more consistent alternative. At both tasks many people find them thoroughly unsatisfying, but Whitcomb and Morris would likely put that down to these people's prejudiced geological training. Apart from the odd logical position into, which this puts such a critique (it begs the question), this seems to accuse one of providing only ad hoc resolutions to the inconsistencies which the two men find, be these imaginary or real. The appropriate rebuttal is to show either that the inconsistencies are not really there or to show that the resolutions are not ad hoc, that is, that they have other empirical warrant than that which they seek to resolve. The writer is quite satisfied that both forms of rebuttal are quite feasible in the case of the Morris-Whitcomb thesis.
But there is a more serious problem than this. One might well have rivers erode, mountains form, and continents grow faster at one time than another with no change in fundamental laws. If, however, the laws change in kind or their constants change in size, Morris and Whitcomb must show us how they know this empirically. They do not: instead, they will likely respond 'but it is a sort of miracle'. We must never overlook the fact, however, that nothing will ever be taken to be a miracle, whether it is or not, unless it is very unusual. If Lazarus rose from the dead, it was taken as a miracle because people saw what doesn't normally occur. It is then necessary for Morris and Whitcomb to show us that these odd changes in the regularities we call 'laws of nature' occurred.
While on the subject of Lazarus we might point out that it is not an analogy in another sense. Let us suppose that we claim that Lazarus rose from being dead for three days but that the most careful later analysis of his body could show no sign of the event. Let us also assume that this is taken by someone as an analogy to the odd hiatus in the events of terrestrial nature so that they reply to our criticism above by saying, 'There need be no later experimental evidence of the occurrence of this hiatus'. There is a serious flaw here. If there, is to be any empirical knowledge of the period of Lazarus' death it must arise from direct or reported observation under the limiting conditions above. Similarly, this is the only ground we would have for the hiatus in terrestrial processes claimed by Morris and Whitcomb. Some sort of history by an observer would therefore be required to pass the information on to us.
Let us agree that we might have a history which might contain the required account. It becomes critical now to show that it does in fact, with a high degree of probability, contain what we wish. Showing this involves, the writer takes it, three things. Firstly the history must seem clearly to say that the hiatus occurred and had the nature we have given it. Secondly, the history must have the ring of authenticity. The writer will grant the second but deeply questions the first. Neither matter need delay us here, for there is a third requirement.
This requirement is that, if the history claims to be the authentic and coherent word of God, the character of God, His relationship to His creation, and the role of man in creation must be consistent with any interpretation which we give an isolated passage or set of passages. Thus, if we claim to find the account of the record of some miraculous and profound intervention into geology, biology, meteorology and their laws (and, we might add, for completeness, of an earth or knowable universe made with the appearance of age) it must be consistent with the above factors. The writer feels, frankly, that it is not, and the only tenable alternatives are to reject the first or second requirement in the paragraph above. He prefers to reject the first.
Why does he feel this way? First, because if science must err in as many areas as Whitcomb and Morris imply one wonders why we should remain scientists and of what use it is as an aid to better knowing the Creator. Secondly, one wonders what happens if the revelation of God fails to give us information excluded by their thesis from the purview of science. And thirdly, one wonders why deity should be so malevont (like a Cartesian demon) as to fool us on such interesting matters as much of the history of past events and the possible ages of many things, especially when it is the sort of delusion from which we poor mortals cannot escape! The writer must conclude that Morris and Whitcomb and those like them where they are not talking logical impossibilities, are involved in these rational improbabilities. The philosophical atmosphere is indeed unhealthy.References