4. What does information from nature say about age?

    Do we have evidence for an old earth and universe? 
    Can historical science be "scientific" and reliable? 
    Did God create a young earth that looks old? 

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

A condensed version of this page is in my Overview-FAQ.
I recommend reading it first because it's shorter so you can get quick overview of the ideas, and because after initially writing both pages I've been more diligent in revising/supplementing the Overview-FAQ (especially in Sections 3-7) so it currently includes some ideas that are not in this page, but some other ideas are only in this page.



4A. Do we have evidence for an old earth-and-universe? 

      A Wide Variety of Abundant Evidence
      Young-earth theories of flood geology propose that a catastrophic global flood — with turbulent fast-moving currents that eroded and transported the massive amounts of sediment required to form huge rock formations — produced most of the earth's geology and fossil record.  But theory-based predictions (about what we should observe, if there was a global flood) don't match what we actually do observe when we carefully examine geological formations and the spatial arrangement (both vertically and horizontally) of plant and animal fossils within this geological record. Thus, flood geology fails the central test in scientific method — the logical use of reality checks to compare "the way a theory claims the world is" with "the way the world really is" — because our observations show that the world of flood geology does not match the world of reality.
      Although young-earth science does make some valid claims for the geological importance of catastrophic events, this does not contradict the old-earth theories of modern geology, which propose a combination of slow-acting uniformitarian processes and fast-acting catastrophic events such as volcanoes, earthquakes, and floods.
      Evidence from a wide range of fields — including the study of sedimentary rocks, the geological column, the fossil record in geological context, coral reefs, and seafloor spreading (caused by continental drift) with magnetic reversals, plus (in non-geological fields of science) radioactive dating, genetic molecular clocks, the development of stars, starlight from faraway galaxies, and more — indicates that the earth and universe are billions of years old.

      The Principle of Multiple Independent Confirmations
      Because "a long time" is an essential component of many theories that in other ways (such as the domains they explain and the components they include) are relatively independent, and because of the logical relationships involved, suspicions of circular reasoning are not justified.  With this independence, the old-earth evidence is not like a "house of cards" where if one part falls it all falls.  It is more like a strong house with a ceiling supported in many ways: by concrete walls reinforced by steel rods, plus granite pillars, wood beams,...  Each support would be sufficient by itself, but when combined the support is even stronger.  The young-earth task of pulling down the "old-earth house" would require discarding much of modern science.  This isn't likely to happen, nor does it seem to be a desirable goal.
      This principle of multiple independent confirmations is an essential part of scientific method, and is very useful in the logical evaluation of scientific theories.  Its reliability — as an indicator of probable truth when (as in questions about age) the confirmations are multiple, independent, and strongly supported by evidence — is confirmed by logic and also by its excellent "track record" in the history of science.  This powerful principle of science has convinced almost all scientists that the earth and universe are extremely old, and that scientific evidence-and-logic provides very strong support for this conclusion.

      Four Young-Earth Responses
      Proponents of young-earth views typically challenge the conclusions of modern science in four ways.
      Current Science:  They challenge the claims that scientific evidence-and-logic indicates an old earth and an old universe.  Are they successful?  We encourage you to examine the evidence for yourself, and logically evaluate it.  When you do this, don't be satisfied with "hand waving" generalities;  pay attention to important details and ask, "When all of the evidence is considered, what explanation seems most satisfactory?"   AGE OF THE EARTH — SCIENCE (Physics, Geology, and Astronomy).
      Future Science:  They explain that — compared with old-earth science that has more scientists working on it — their young-earth science is less fully developed, and with further development it will become more satisfactory and their theories will match observations more closely.*  Paul Nelson & John Mark Reynolds, in Three Views on Creation and Evolution, adopt this humble approach.   {* But I don't think this optimism is justified, since the abundant evidence for an old universe occurs in so many different areas, covering a wide range of phenomena, and is strong in each area. }   {more about the spectrum of young-earth views}
      Historical Science:  Is it impossible to know, with confidence, what happened in the distant past?
      Apparent Age:  Did God create a universe that appears to be old, but actually is young?

      You can learn more about the last two questions in the next two sections.


4B. Can historical science be "scientific" and reliable? 

      Even though we cannot directly observe events in ancient history, can we — by a logical analysis of historical evidence (in sciences like archaeology, geology, radiometric dating, and astronomy) — reach reliable conclusions about what happened in the past, on the earth and in other parts of the universe?
      Most young-earth creationists say NO.  They challenge the credibility of all historical sciences that claim the evidence indicates an old earth and universe.  They ask "Were you there? Did you see it?", and imply that "NO" means "then you can't know much about it."  They are trying to "discredit the witness" that is testifying against their views.  Is the witness reliable?

      Scientific Goals and Methods
      For most scientists, the main goal of science is to find truth.  They want to construct theories that are true, that correspond with reality by correctly describing what really happens in nature.
      Their main method of logical reasoning is a "reality check" that lets them test a theory, as shown below:  OBSERVATIONS (from a physical experiment) are used, along with imagination, to generate a THEORY, which can be used to make PREDICTIONS (in a mental experiment by asking "if this theory is true, what will we observe?") so they can do a REALITY CHECK by comparing OBSERVATIONS with PREDICTIONS, to test whether "the way it really is" matches "the way they think it is" (assuming the theory is true).

      Is there a scientific method?  If "method" means "a single method, used in the same way by all scientists at all times," the answer is NO, so we should not talk about The Scientific Method.
      Are there scientific methods?  Yes.  The main methods of scientific thinking, including the foundation of science — the "reality checks" made by observing reality and using logic — are used by all scientists.  But details change with time and culture, are personally customized by individuals, and vary from one area of science to another.

      Operations Science and Historical Science
      Some variations in methods are due to differences between operations science (to study the current operation of nature, what is happening now) and historical science (to study the history of nature, what happened in the past).  Both types of science are similar in most ways, especially in their use of scientific logic, but there are minor differences.   { Some young-earth creationists try to contrast historical origins science with empirical science, but this is wrong because historical science is also based on empirical observations. }
      Although repeatable controlled lab experiments can be done in operations science, this is not possible in historical science, which uses uncontrolled field experiments to gather data about historical events.  Sometimes the limitations of historical data provide a reason for caution about conclusions.  But this challenge has inspired scientists to develop strategies that reduce the practical impact of data limitations, and historical sciences are authentically scientific.
      In historical science, one effective strategy is to use repeated observations of similar events.  For example, observations of many Cepheid stars from many parts of the universe have shown that all Cepheids have similar properties, which makes them useful for measuring astronomical distances, which lets us calculate the time it takes (billions of years) for light to travel from these stars to the earth.
      Usually, theories in historical science are related to, and are consistent with, theories in operations science, and a historical theory claims to describe WHAT happened WHEN, and (if possible) to explain HOW it happened.  Of course, a historical scientist only has to determine what did occur in the past, not predict what will occur in the future.   { But prediction and retroduction are logically equivalent, as explained in my page about historical science. }

      In operations science, scientists can logically infer the existence of things they cannot observe, if an unobservable cause produces observable effects.  For example, electrons and ideas cannot be observed, but modern theories propose electrons (in chemistry) and ideas (in psychology).  Why?  Because our observations are explained in the most satisfactory way by theories proposing the existence of unobservable electrons and ideas.
      Similarly, in historical science we can logically infer the existence of events we did not observe, if these unobserved events produced evidence we can observe.  Even if an event (or process) was not directly observed — no, we weren't there and we didn't see it — at a later time we can directly observe the evidence it produced, and this can help us understand how and when the event (or process) occurred.

      Can historical science produce reliable conclusions?
      Yes, it can.  But does it?  This depends on the situation and the claim.  We should carefully examine the evidence-and-logic for a particular situation, and try to determine the scientifically justifiable level of confidence in the reliability of a specific claim about that situation.
      Sometimes the limitations of historical data provide a reason for caution.  And sometimes — especially when we have multiple independent confirmations — we have reasons for confidence.
      But radical relativists who challenge the reliability of science — including postmodern skeptics who challenge all science, and creationists who challenge historical science — claim that in science the evidence is usually inadequate, so conclusions are usually determined by nonscientific beliefs.
      For example, John Morris (president of the Institute for Creation Research) asks, "Can man, with a brain and reasoning powers distorted by the curse, evaluating only a portion of the evidence, accurately reconstruct the history of the universe?  Should his historical reconstructions [interpretations of nature] be put on a higher plane than [interpretations of] Scripture? (source) (with clarifications [in square brackets] added)"  Evidently, their old-earth science (their interpretation of nature) is hindered by distorted reasoning powers, but his young-earth theology (his own interpretation of scripture) is not hindered.  He proposes radical relativism in one area (for some people) but not in another area (for other people, including himself).

      An Invitation to Examine the Evidence
      Most scholars, including myself and other members of ASA, think radical relativists are exaggerating the logical difficulties, and the basic foundation of historical science — the logical evaluation of empirical evidence — provides a reliable way to learn about the fascinating world created by God.  We encourage you to evaluate the evidence and arguments in AGE OF THE EARTH: SCIENCE and decide for yourself the extent to which different claims are scientifically supported.

And you can examine scriptural evidence in the next FAQ, What does Bible-information say about age?


4C. Did God create a young universe that looks old? 

      Multiple Independent Confirmations "have convinced almost all scientists that the earth and universe are extremely old."  The evidence is impressive, but can we believe what we see?

      False Appearance of Old Age — Why and How
      Usually, theories proposing a young earth also propose a young universe in which everything is less than ten thousand years old.  But light is reaching us from distant stars, so far away that it would take billions of years for the starlight to reach us.  How can this occur in a young universe?
      Most proponents of a young universe claim that God created the universe as a mature creation with appearance of age that makes some features (or all features) appear to be extremely old even though the actual age is young.  According to this theory of apparent age (AA), God provided a suitable environment for the first humans by creating a universe that would be immediately functional, with mature humans (not helpless newborn babies), complete ecosystems, our energy-giving sun, and starlight created "in transit to us" instead of being released from a shining star.
If God was not interested in the pre-human history of nature, He could decide to skip it, just as we "fast forward" through the boring parts of a long videotape.  How?  Christian theism includes a belief that God continually generates-and-sustains the universe to keep it going.  With a single divine thought-command, God could use His generating/sustaining power to instantly create the smoothly running universe we now observe;  and what we would have seen at the beginning of history is analogous to a movie that begins in the middle of an action scene, without showing everything leading up to the action.

      Theological Questions
      IF the universe was created recently, then some appearance of age — mature humans, ecosystems, sun, and more, including starlight so early humans could enjoy the beauty of a star-filled night sky — is essential-AA that would be necessary to produce immediate functionality.  But some appearances of age don't seem necessary, and this nonessential-AA raises a theological question:  Would an honest God create the universe with detailed historical evidence indicating the occurrence of events that never occurred?
      For example, in 1987 scientists observed "detailed starlight" coming from 170,000 light-years away, with characteristics changing in a way that corresponds to the sequence of events during a supernova explosion.  Should scientists conclude that this supernova-event really did occur, or that it's part of an apparent history (created by God) about events that "would have happened in an old universe" but never really happened?  By contrast, an old universe can actually be the age it appears to be, with only actual history.
      There seems to be no reason for creating starlight with intricate supernova details, since these details wouldn't have any practical function for Adam and Eve in Eden.  But maybe a detailed apparent history is useful now, because it gives us accurate data about cause-effect relationships in nature.  This data can let us construct reliable theories about nature, to help us make rational decisions about our stewardship of nature.

      Three Apparent Histories
      Different theories propose an apparent history with differing amounts of nonessential details, with appearance of age that is minimal, total, or partial:
      Minimal Apparent Age, limited to features that would be necessary for immediate functionality.
      Total Apparent Age, with God designing the universe, running a "thought experiment" that was totally complete and accurate, and then creating a universe with a total apparent history, with details about everything that would have happened since the beginning, even though most of it never happened.  God created the universe, a few thousand years ago, so it looks exactly the same as if it had been created billions of years ago in an expansion we call the Big Bang.
      Partial Apparent Age, with some nonessential apparent age but not a total apparent history.  In a common view, God created an apparent history that did not include fossils — since these would imply that animals died before humans sinned — but did include other nonessential details about what would have happened in an older universe.

      Scientific Testing
      With minimal-AA, most events and all nonessential details, including supernova starlight, were produced by actual history, not apparent history.  Therefore, minimal-AA must challenge almost all old-universe conclusions in every area of historical science, including astronomy.
      By contrast, with total-AA and perfect "antiquing" it would be impossible to scientifically distinguish between a universe that actually is billions of years old and a universe created 6000 years ago (or 5 minutes ago) that just appears to be old.  But even though AA cannot be tested, most young-earth advocates combine AA (with a false observed age for everything created in the first 144 hours) and flood geology (with a true observed age for all features produced in a global flood).  A hybrid theory of "AA plus flood geology" can be tested, and many of its predictions do not agree with the scientific evidence.
      Should a young-universe scientist challenge the credibility of conventional science, including Big Bang astronomy and more, if — due to a superb "antiquing with appearance of old age" by God — this is what the scientific evidence indicates?

      An Evaluation
      In my opinion, theories proposing apparent age are worthy of careful, respectful consideration.  But when all things are considered, I think we can find strong theological reasons to prefer a theory of actual age, with God creating an old universe that "began from the beginning" so what we see is the actual history of what really happened.
      You can see other opinions in APPEARANCE OF AGE: THEOLOGICAL QUESTIONS.


This page is one part of
responses to Frequently
Asked Questions about
Creation, Evolution, 
and Intelligent Design,

written by Craig Rusbult,
with an ASA-disclaimer.
Home-Page for FAQ 
Introductory FAQ 

8-Page Full FAQ: 
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4. Age–of–Earth Science 
5. Christians & Evolution   
6. Four Types of Design 
7. Evaluating Evolution 
8. Origins Education 


Homepage for Origins 




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