Historical Sciences and
Young-Earth Creationism:

 Science can be useful in our search for truth 
when we ask "age of the universe" questions.
 ( Part 2 of 3 ) 

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.



      Historical Science (Part 1) defends the general reliability of historical science.  This page, which is Part 2, looks at a specific application by explaining why it is not logically justifiable for young-earth creationists to challenge the credibility of all historical sciences by asking, "Were you there? Did you see it?", and implying that "NO" means "then you can't know much about it."

      Why do scientists sometimes disagree?
      If all scientists have the same evidence, will all reach the same conclusion?  Often, but not always.  Debates occur in all areas of science, including the historical sciences that study origins.  When scientists disagree, does this show that "it's all personal opinion and philosophical prejudice" with no basis in fact, so you can ignore what they say?  This question is practical, because if the answer is "yes" you can avoid wasting your time on science.
      Why do scientists sometimes disagree?  Causes for disagreement can be "internal" or "external" with respect to the essential foundation of science, which is the logical evaluation of evidence.
      • Differing conclusions can occur for internal reasons, related to the essentials of science, when the scientific logic is difficult because we're asking sophisticated questions about complex systems, or the evidence is inadequate and our background knowledge is incomplete.
      • But while evaluating evidence a scientist can be influenced by external factors that are not a part of scientific logic, such as philosophical or religious views, personal desires and group pressures.  When individual scientists (and their evaluations) are influenced by external factors in different ways, they can reach different conclusions.
      When external factors affect the logical process of theory evaluation, most scientists think there is a decrease in the quality of science, with science becoming less useful in our search for truth about nature.  They think we should recognize the biasing influence of non-scientific factors, but while doing science we should try to minimize this influence so our scientific evaluations can be more objective and logical.
      How well is their goal being achieved?  This varies from one situation to another, so it's best to look at the details of a particular situation and ask, "What conclusions are warranted by the scientific evidence-and-logic, and what level of confidence is justifiable?"  In general, I think that most scientific evaluations are based mainly on evidence and logic, and the overall quality and intellectual integrity of modern science is high.  Most scientists and scholars, including most members of ASA, will agree.  We think that "postmodern" critics, who are highly skeptical about the reliability of science, are exaggerating the difficulties, and that the essential foundation of science — the logical evaluation of evidence — provides a reliable way to learn about the fascinating world created by God.

      Scripture and Science — Apples and Oranges

      God has provided two sources of information for us, two "books" for us to learn from, in scripture and nature.  Based on careful studies of nature, most scientists think there is strong evidence that the earth and universe are billions of years old.  But proponents of young-universe views claim that these conclusions are based mainly on nonscientific assumptions, not scientific evidence and logic.  They claim that humans have the abilities needed to correctly interpret one of God's books (scripture) but not the other (nature).
      In doing this, they ignore an important principle:  Trying to compare the Bible (an uninterpreted book) with science (an interpretation of nature) is an "apples and oranges" comparison that isn't possible.  Instead, we should compare theology (one fallible human interpretation) with science (another fallible human interpretation) while trying to search for truth.
      Here are some comparisons of scripture and science, of apples and oranges, by proponents of young-earth views:

      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 [his interpretations of nature] be put on a higher plane than [his interpretations of] Scripture?  Or is man and his mind locked in the effects of the curse — a poor reflection of the once glorious 'image of God' — now blinded by sin and the god of this world, seeing things through a glass darkly?"  { The clarifications in [square brackets] are added by me, in all quotations. }  Evidently, his theology (his interpretation of scripture) is not being affected by "a brain and reasoning powers distorted by the curse" but their science (their interpretation of nature) is affected.  He is applying his radical relativism in one area (for some people) but not another area (for other people).  Later in the same page Morris declares his own infallible interpretation of scripture to be an essential doctrine (both certain and important) when he recommends that "no church should sanction a pastor, Sunday school teacher, deacon, elder, or Bible-study leader who knowledgeably and purposefully errs on this crucial [young-earth] doctrine."
      According to Ken Ham (president of Answers in Genesis), old-earth views assume that "man, by himself, independent of revelation, can determine truth [in our interpretations of nature using scientific evidence and logic] and impose this on [our interpretations of] God's Word.  Once this 'door' has been opened regarding Genesis, ultimately it can happen with the rest of the Bible... and you have effectively undermined the Bible's authority!" {source}  Ham seems to assume that his young-earth theology is based on scripture "as it really is" without any interpretation.  { In other writings, Ham and Morris do defend their young-earth interpretation of scripture, explaining why they think it is valid.  But they should acknowledge that it is their interpretations of scripture, not the scripture, that is being compared with science. }
      You can do an experiment on "assumption awareness" by reading these quotations with and without my square-bracket clarifications, while you think carefully about the unacknowledged assumptions of Morris and Ham, and why comparing the Bible (information) and science (interpretation of information) is a comparison of different things, like comparing apples and oranges.

      Two Books of God — or Radical Relativism?

      Even though "God has provided two sources of information for us... in scripture and nature," only scripture is useful for learning about the history of nature, according to John Morris:
      A growing number of Christian teachers are returning to the oft discredited "double-revelation theory," asserting that nature reveals truth just as clearly as does God's written word. ...  If a conflict [between interpretations of Scripture and nature]... deals with origins, the Scripture yields to the Scientist.  Thus the Bible [interpretation] is made to bend to accommodate the conclusions of the scientist. ...
      But scientists are not omniscient.  Scientists can and do make mistakes. ... Scientists are some of the most biased people in the world. ... All scientists have inherited from Adam a cursed brain and a fallen mind.  Most scientists are non-regenerate if not anti-God.  How can we expect them to come to truth, expecially about origins?  Since science and the scientific method are limited to the present, how could fallible, limited scientists possibly reconstruct unobserved history?  Origins events are one-time, non-repeatable, unique events, inaccessible to the scientific method. ...
      Nature can tell us much about the existence and nature of God, and even help us understand certain difficult Bible passages.  But to claim that the majority opinion of scientists is on a par with Scripture [interpretation] is a recipe for disaster.  Yes, special and general revelation must always agree, and both speak the truth, but not with equal clarity.
{source}  { I've added clarifications in [brackets].  Another clarification is also important: If you read carefully, you'll see that Morris is criticizing only scientists working in the historical sciences, not scientists who study the current operation of nature. }

      Proponents of young-universe views claim "our theology is strong but your science is weak" in their attacks on a "two books of God" approach to improving our knowledge about nature:  they define their own interpretation of scripture as the only possible interpretation, and their young-earth theology as infallible certainty;  they challenge the credibility of scientists by claiming that most scientists are basing their biased conclusions on their anti-Biblical worldview, not evidence and logic;  and they challenge the authenticity of evidence by claiming that God created the universe with a false appearance of old age.  They are trying to "discredit the witness" that is testifying against their views.
      The radical relativism of young-earth creationists, regarding the reliability of historical science, is similar to the radical relativism of postmodern skeptics.  In a page asking, "Should scientific method be eks-rated?", I criticize extreme postmodernist views:

      The radical relativism of postmodernism — claiming that scientific methods cannot help us determine whether any idea is more worthy of acceptance than any other idea — begins on solid ground.  Most scholars agree with its two basic premises — the limits of logic and the influence of culture — but they disagree about balance, about the relative contributions of logic and culture in producing the theories of modern science.  I think the radical relativists took a good idea and extended it too far, without sufficient balance from rational critical thinking, and it became a bad idea.
      A critical thinker should know, not just the limits of logic, but also the sophisticated methods that scientists have developed to cope with these limitations and minimize their practical effects.  By using these methods, scientists can develop a rationally justified confidence in their conclusions, despite the impossibility of proof or disproof.  We should challenge the rationality of an implication made by radical relativists, that if we cannot claim certainty then we can claim nothing.  Modern science has given up the quest for certainty, and has decided to aim for a high degree of plausibility, for a rational way to determine "what is a good way to bet."

      These principles apply to all radical relativism, whether it's proposed by postmodernists (about all science) or young-earth creationists (about historical science).
      But instead of just thinking about the philosophy of relativism, let's look at science and the logical principle that "multiple independent confirmations" are usually a reliable indicator of probable truth.  This powerful principle of logic 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.

      A Wide Variety of Abundant Evidence
      Young-earth "flood geology" theories, which propose that a global flood produced most of the earth's geology and fossil record, lead to incorrect theory-based explanations of geological formations, the arrangement of fossils in this geology, and the biogeographical distribution (now and in the fossil record) of animals and plants.  Although young-earth science makes 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, coral reefs, the fossil record in geological context, biogeographical patterns, seafloor spreading and continental drift, magnetic reversals, genetic molecular clocks, radioactive dating, the development of stars, starlight from faraway galaxies, and more — indicates that the earth and universe are billions of years old.
      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 other components they include) are relatively independent, it is less likely that suspicions of circular reasoning are 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 is it a desirable goal.
      What about future science?  Although yeCs can hope that in the future their scientific theories eventually will obtain a closer match with observations, this optimism does not seem justified, since the abundant evidence for an old universe occurs in so many different areas.  {the abundant evidence in physics, geology, and astronomy}

      beyond a reasonable doubt — Is the evidence adequate?
      In a page asking "Can scientists study the past?", John Morris describes his experience on a jury trying to reach a verdict based on inadequate evidence.  Is this analogous to current historical sciences?  No, because (as outlined above) the abundant historical evidence is adequate, and when it is logically evaluated it strongly supports a conclusion that the earth and universe are billions of years old.
      The evidence seems overwhelming, if we can believe what we see.  But if what we see is misleading, if the universe was created with a false appearance of old age, then historical science will indeed be unreliable, and perhaps impossible.

      False Appearance of Old Age: Essential and NonEssential
      Light is reaching us from stars that are billions of light-years away.  How can this occur if the universe is less than ten thousand years old?  To avoid this difficulty and others, many advocates of young-earth theology claim that the universe was created with apparent age (AA) that makes some features appear to be very old even though the actual age is very young.  According to this theory, God created a universe that would be immediately functional, with mature humans, complete ecosystems, and starlight that was created "in transit to us" instead of being released from a shining star.
      Theories of apparent age should be taken seriously, because IF everything was created in a 144-hour period, THEN some appearance of age would be necessary to produce immediate functionality.  But the universe also includes many historical details that would not be necessary for immediate functioning, and that (according to "apparent age" theory) never really occurred, so we should think about another if-then claim:  IF God wants to avoid misleading us with false history, then He will create a universe that is old, so it can actually be the age it appears to be.  { A common claim — that "God has declared the universe to be young in Genesis 1, so if it is not young then He is a liar" — is based on an interpretation that is only one of several good interpretations. }
      When we're thinking about claims for apparent age, we should distinguish between essential apparent age (which would be necessary for immediate functionality in a young universe) and nonessential apparent age (which would not be necessary for functionality).  If the universe was created with detailed nonessential apparent age, historical science would be unreliable (as claimed by young-earth creationists) because we could not know which evidence was a result of actual history, and which evidence was due to apparent history.
      I think "apparent age" theories are worthy of careful, respectful consideration.  But when all things are considered, I don't think it is wise to use a theory that includes nonessential apparent age — especially when, as is usually the case, this is combined with scientifically inadequate flood geology — as an essential part of a foundation for science or faith.  { details about Apparent Age — A False Appearance of Old Age }

      Harmonizing Science and Worldview

      Most people want their own ideas — in their personal worldview (their view of the world, used for living in the world) — to be logically consistent.  This desire produces mutual interactions between scientific theories and worldview theories, with each influencing the other.  Either type of theory, or both, can be adjusted in an effort to achieve consistency.
      For theories about origins, an atheist has no scientific freedom because only one conclusion — a totally natural evolution with no theistic action — is acceptable.  By contrast, a theist has options (young-earth creation, old-earth creation, or theistic evolution) and is free to follow the evidence and logic of science to any conclusion.  But sometimes this freedom is rejected, and there is a strong influence on science.  In my opinion,
      young-earth views begin with a firm commitment to young-earth theology, which makes significant logical adjustments necessary in young-earth science, but this does not produce satisfactory science.  Although a young-earth interpretation of the Bible is reasonable, this makes it necessary to accept science that is unreasonable.
      old-earth views begin with scientific support, which motivates an examination of theology.  Then, when we carefully study the Bible, we see the valid reasons (both linguistic and theological) for an old-earth interpretation, so the old-earth science has produced a motivation to reconsider rather than a logical adjustment.
      I think there is much less logical adjustment with old-earth theology (which seems very satisfactory) than with young-earth science (which seems very unsatisfactory).
      Of course, estimating "the amount of logical adjustment" is a judgment call.  Morris and Ham will say that we're all being skeptical relativists, just about different things.  They are skeptical about the certainty of old-earth interpretations of nature, and I am skeptical about the certainty of young-earth interpretations of scripture.  Whose skepticism is more justifiable?  I encourage you to carefully examine the science and theology, to judge for yourself.
      Here is some information that may help you decide:  A basic principle of scientific logic — which is the main reason that evidence for an old earth and old universe is so strong — is summarized above.  By contrast, in other pages I explain the weakness of arguments for young-earth theology, such as the six days of Genesis 1 (that seem designed to function as a logical framework) and concerns about animal death before human sin.

      Using the Two Books — an Example and a Principle

      In 1500, people claimed that the Bible teaches an earth-centered universe when it says "the sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises," when it describes a mobile sun that "rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other" and a stationary earth: "the world is firmly established; it cannot be moved." (Ecclesiastes 1:5, Psalm 19:6, Psalm 93:1)  In 1700, almost everyone agreed that the Bible authors were simply describing what seems to be happening, just as we now talk about a sunrise or sunset.
      What caused this change?  Our interpretation of the Bible was influenced by information from nature, interpreted using science.  This influence was beneficial, since it helped us recognize that in these passages the Bible was not making a scientific statement to teach us "how the heavens go."
      In this reinterpretation of scripture, we are not comparing the Bible (which says "the sun rises") with science (which claims "the earth moves") and deciding which is more important.  Instead, we are comparing different interpretations (of the Bible, and of nature) and are wisely using all available information in our search for truth.  We are trying to find the correct answer when we ask, "Does this Bible passage teach science?"  For questions about whether a particular passage is intended to teach us about nature, information from nature — gathered and evaluated using scientific methods — can be very useful.  This principle of interpretation was recommended by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1982) when they affirmed that "in some cases extrabiblical data have value for clarifying what Scripture teaches, and for prompting correction of faulty interpretations."
      In the 1600s, appeals to the Bible were used to support earth-centered science that was wrong.  Currently, are appeals to the Bible being used to support young-earth science that is wrong?


Shorter versions of
most pages below
are in an FAQ for
Creation, Evolution,
and Intelligent Design

Shorter FAQ about
Historical Sciences


Homepage for Origins

Mutual Interactions of
Science & Worldviews

Science and Religion
in Conflict?  Warfare?

Two Books of God:
Scripture & Nature

Young-Earth Views:
Theology & Science

Historical Science &
Young-Earth Skeptics

Death before Sin?
Theology for Humans

False Apparent Age:
Starlight & Theology

Entropy and Evolution:
Second Law of Thermo

Four Types of
Intelligent Design

Is old-earth creation
logically inconsistent?

Progressive Creation
and Theistic Evolution

Theistic Evolution and
Christian Theology

Logical Principles for
Evaluating Evolutions


Anthropic Principle:
Design & Multiverse?

Public Schools: Critical
Thinking and Evolution



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This page is Part 2 of 3 in a series.
Part 1:  Historical Science — Is it reliable?
 Part 2:  Historical Sciences for Age-Questions 
 Part 3:  Historical Science — Evolution and Design 

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Two Books: Interactions of Ideas and People
Our Ideas about Scripture and Nature, and
When we disagree, what should we do?

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