Editors: This was originally posted under a different title in May 2012. We were inspired to repost it by Dr. Sewell’s post here.
Bishop Ussher famously calculated that the universe was created on October 23, 4004 BC. I do not hold this or any other young earth creationist (YEC) position. The evidence that the universe is several billion years old seems fairly compelling to me. In particular, certain celestial objects (stars, galaxies, supernovas, etc.) are billions of light years away. From this fact I deduce that the light we see from these objects has been traveling billions of years to get to us, which leads to the conclusion that the objects emitted the light billions of years ago, which in turn means the objects are billions of years old. This chain of inferences obviously leaves no room for an age of the universe measured in only thousands of years.
YEC proponents have the same evidence as the rest of us, and they admit the universe appears to be billions of years old. Nevertheless, they persist in their YEC beliefs. How can they do this? There is an enormous body of literature on the subject that cannot be summarized adequately in the confines of a blog post, but the short answer is YECs have erected a series of plausible (to them) explanations for the apparent age of the universe. For example, some YECs hold that just as God created Adam with apparent age (i.e, he started out as an adult; he was never an infant, a toddler, or a teenager), God also created the universe with apparent age. This means that the light we see from those distant objects was not emitted billions of years ago. Instead, God created that light “in route.” Other YECs assert that the speed of light need not have been constant, and if light traveled in the past many times faster than it does now, our deductions about the age of the universe based on an assumption that the speed of light has always been the same would be wrong.
I do not reject YEC reasoning such as this as a logical impossibility. By this I mean that while God cannot do logically impossible things (e.g., he cannot make a “square circle” or cause 2+2 to equal 73), he can perform miracles. He can turn water into wine; he can make five loaves of bread and two fish feed thousands of people. Indeed, the very act of creating the universe — no matter when he did it — was a miracle. Therefore, I conclude that God, being God, could have created the universe on October 23, 4004 BC and made it look billions of years old just as the YECs say, even if that is not what I personally believe.
The YEC position cannot, therefore, be refuted as a logical impossibility. Nor can it be refuted by appealing to the evidence. “Wait just a cotton picking minute Barry!” you might say. “In the first paragraph you told us you believe the ‘evidence’ leads to the conclusion that the universe is billions of years old.” And so I did. Here is where we must distinguish between the evidence, which is the same for everyone, and an interpretive framework for that evidence, which can vary. By “interpretive framework” I mean the set of unprovable assumptions each of us brings to bear when we analyze the evidence. For example, the vast majority of scientists assume that the speed of light has been constant since the beginning of the universe. As we have seen, some YEC scientists believe that light has slowed down significantly since the creation event. Obviously, conclusions about the age of the universe from the “light evidence” will vary enormously depending upon which group is correct.
Very interestingly, despite the fact that most people believe that it is a scientifically proven “fact” that the speed of light has always been the same as it is now, it most certainly is not. The current speed of light is an observable scientific fact. We cannot, however, know with certainty what the speed of light was before observations of the speed of light were made. This assertion is not in the least controversial. Mainstream scientists admit that their assumptions about the fixed nature of the speed of light in the remote past are just that, assumptions. In philosophical terms, mainstream scientists subscribe to “uniformitarianism,” the assumption that physical processes operated in the past in the same way they are observed to operate now. YEC scientists by and large reject uniformitarianism. Which group is correct is beside my point. The point is that uniformitarianism is an assumption of most scientists. It has not been, and indeed as a matter of strict logic cannot be, demonstrated by science. In other words, the uniformitarian assumption is part of the interpretive framework mainstream scientists bring to bear on the evidence. The uniformitarian assumption is not part of the evidence itself.
This brings me to the point of this post. I don’t usually argue with YEC’s, because no matter how long and hard you argue with them, you will never convince them based on appeals to logic and evidence. There is, almost literally, nothing you can say that might change their mind, so arguing with them is usually pointless. Yes, the YEC proponent has the same evidence that you do, but he interprets that evidence within a different interpretive framework. You might think his interpretive framework is flawed, but you cannot say, as a matter of strict logic, that his interpretive framework must be necessarily flawed. In other words, you must admit that as a matter of strict logic it is possible, for instance, for light to be slower now than it was in the past. And given the premise of some YECs that light is in fact slower now than it was in the past, their conclusions might then follow.
Why do YECs reject uniformitarianism? Because they are devoted to a particular interpretation of the Biblical creation account. They believe the Bible says the universe was created in six days a few thousand years ago, and if they are going to believe the Bible is true they must therefore believe the universe was created in six days a few thousand years ago. It does no good to appeal to logic or evidence. As I have demonstrated above, a young universe is not a logical impossibility and no matter what evidence you adduce that, to you, indicates the universe is very old, the YEC will have an answer (e.g., “light has slowed down”).
I was thinking about this yesterday when we were discussing the theistic evolutionists (TEs) over at BioLogos. TEs are like YECs in this respect — they cling to a scientific view that runs counter to the obvious evidence because of their prior commitments.
Let me explain what I mean. Just as it is “obvious” that the universe appears to be several billion years old, it is “obvious” that living things appear to have been designed for a purpose. That statement is not based on my religious beliefs; even the atheists believe that living things appear to have been designed for a purpose. Arch-atheist Richard Dawkins famously said that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Surely our friends at BioLogos will go as far as atheist Dawkins and admit that living things “appear” to have been designed for a purpose.
Now notice the similarity between TEs and YECs: Everyone concedes that the universe appears to be billions of years old; everyone concedes that living things appear to have been designed for a purpose. YECs say the first appearance is an illusion. TEs say the second appearance is an illusion.
We have already seen how YECs come to the conclusion that the apparent age of the universe is an illusion. How do TEs come to the conclusion that the appearance of design in living things is an illusion? The same way Richard Dawkins does, by appealing to the marvelous creative powers of Darwinian processes that, he says, are able to mimic design through strictly natural means. Darwinists say, as they must, that the appearance of design that they admit exists is not real but an illusion. Indeed, the whole purpose of the Darwinian theory of origins is to account for the appearance of design without having to resort to a designer.
YECs reject the “obvious” conclusion about the age of the universe because of their prior commitments. Why do TEs reject the “obvious” conclusion about the design of living things? Further, why do TEs reject that obvious conclusion in the very teeth of the Biblical injunction to regard the appearance of design as proof of God’s existence (Romans 1).
The answer has to do with what I call the “cool kids” impulse that all humans have to one extent or another. When I was in school all of the “cool kids” sat at a particular table at lunch, and everyone wanted to be in that group. I was not a cool kid, and I figured out pretty early that, for better or ill, the streak of stubborn individualism that runs to my very core would probably prevent me from ever being a cool kid. I refused to conform and in order to be a cool kid you have to conform to the other cool kids. Don’t get me wrong. I very much wanted to be a cool kid. Everyone wants to be a cool kid, and believe me, my life would have been so much easier if I had been a cool kid. This is sociology 101. But I was unwilling (perhaps even unable) to pay the price of admission to the cool kids club – i.e., conformity.
The cool kids impulse does not go away when we are adults, and in the academic community all of the cool kids sit at the Darwinian table. TEs want to be cool kids; they want to be respectable and accepted in the academic community. Sadly for them, the price the academic cool kids club extracts for admission is denial of the obvious appearance of design in living things and acceptance of the patent absurdity that the accretion of random errors sorted by a fitness function can account for the stupendously complex nano-machines we call cells.
This is not, however, the end of the story for TEs. They know that to deny design in the universe is to deny the designer of the universe, which is to deny God, and what is the point of being a TE if you reject the “T” part? In order to maintain their membership in the cool kids club TEs slam the front door in God’s face when they deny the reality underlying the apparent design of living things that even atheists admit. But they are perfectly willing to let God in the backdoor just so long as he stays out of sight and doesn’t get them kicked out of the club.
As I discussed yesterday, I am thinking of TEs like Stephen Barr. Dr. Barr is perfectly happy to accept the Darwinian account of evolution. Darwinism says that mechanical necessity (i.e., natural selection) plus random chance (mutation, drift, etc.) are sufficient to account for the apparent design of living things. It is, in StephenB’s words, a “design-free random process.” In his “Miracle of Evolution,” Dr. Barr slams the front door shut on God when he accepts the Darwinian account. Then he cracks the backdoor open ever so slightly to let God slip in when he asserts that what we perceive as a “design-free random process” is really, at a deeper level of existence, directed by God in a way that is empirically undetectable at this level of existence.
Barr is saying that in order to maintain his membership in the cool kids club he must affirm that evolution is purely random and design free. How is his position different from the atheist position espoused by Richard Dawkins? At the level of existence in which we examine empirical data, Barr’s position is identical to Dawkins’ position. But, says Barr, when he uses the word “random,” he really means “apparently random but really directed.” Apparently, Barr believes that, in Einstein’s famous phrase, God really does play dice with the universe. But according to Barr, God, has loaded the dice so that they rolled “life,” however improbable that might have been (like a thousand 7′s in a row with real dice), and God’s dice loading is so clever that the “fix” can never be detected empirically.
In this way Barr maintains membership in the academic cool kids club by espousing a Darwinian account of origins that is indistinguishable from the account of origins that atheists like Dawkins and Dennnett espouse. Yet he keeps the “T” in his “TE” by saying that at a wholly different level of existence God fixed the game so that “random” is not really random but “directed.” He wants to have it both ways.
Here again, the TE position is exactly the same as the YEC position. As we have already seen, you cannot push a YEC off his position by appealing to logic or evidence. Nor can you push Dr. Barr off his position by appealing to logic and evidence. We cannot rule Barr’s position out on strictly logical grounds. God, being God, can certainly fix the dice in an empirically undetectable way if that is how he wants to accomplish his purposes. Nor, by definition, can one rule Barr’s position out empirically short of finding the proverbial “made by YHWH” inscription on a cell.
Finally, there is a certain irony in Barr’s position. The atheist says living things appear to be designed but the appearance of design is an illusion explained by random Darwinian processes. The TE says that living things appear to be designed but the appearance of design is an illusion explained by random Darwinian processes, BUT the randomness of Darwinian process is itself an illusion, because those processes are really directed by God to produce living things. Thus, according to the TEs, the explanation of one illusion (the randomness of underlying Darwinism), which is an explanation of another illusion (the apparent design of living things) is, you guessed it, design. Another way of putting it is the TE says design is an illusion explained by random process which are in turn an illusion explained by design. As the comedian says, “That’s funny. I don’t care who you are.”