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Two contradictory figures for the age of the Earth can be true at the same time?

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Two Jewish scholars offered some thoughts on the age of the Earth as they approached Jewish New Year:

In our lives, and in our teaching, we reject that divide. As the Jewish New Year approaches and we welcome in the Hebrew year 5780, we don’t feel at all confused about when the world was created: It was formed around 5 billion years ago, and it is also 5,780 years old. Why, we ask, must we choose?

But how can one believe two contradictory things at once? If the world is really 5,780 years old, then evolution must be false. And if the universe is governed by laws that make humanity a mere accident of physics and chemistry, what can biblical stories of Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs possibly teach us?

F. Scott Fitzgerald put it beautifully: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” And John Keats praised what he called “negative capability,” the capacity to entertain mysteries and contradictions without any “irritable reaching” for some system to impose on the world’s complexity. We take these messages to heart in an undergraduate class we co-teach, where we try to impress on our students that the greatest questions tend to have the most elusive and incongruous answers.

Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, “Religion and science don’t contradict — they just answer different questions” at Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Not sure this works. Is there no risk of a split worldview?

That said, suppose one goes back behind the question and asks, why must I believe something anyway? Age of Earth is a useful question for that purpose because the question cannot be answered by the evidence of one’s senses or by what somehow seems reasonable.

And that can go both ways. You might think that the landscape around you dates back millions of years but maybe it is actually post-glacial from the last Ice Age, maybe 20,000 years ago, according to geologists. It would “look old” to you and me either way! Specialized knowledge is needed to construct a fact-based history of the region.

Most people who believe that the Bible is divinely inspired don’t feel that they must, therefore, accept a four-figure age of Earth, as a result of interpretations of the wording of the text. If a person does believe that religious scriptures require them to accept a certain four-figure sum for the age of Earth, then they must hold that belief in tension with what geologists say.

Many of us simply avoid getting involved except to try to blunt the persecution of unpopular views. For one thing, it isn’t self-evident that geologists are always right either. I regret the fact that scientists were once ridiculed for believing that the Earth has tectonic plates.

Most beliefs about the nature of the physical world are best held provisionally.

The people who end up worst off are not those who struggle with some precepts of their faith but those who attribute some sort of divine/absolute truth-telling to science. Scientism is a tricky religion. – (O’Leary for News)


See also: Why I am not a young-Earth creationist.

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9 Replies to “Two contradictory figures for the age of the Earth can be true at the same time?

  1. 1
    Pearlman says:

    No. Once we take all the science and context into account we derive 5780 years old to date reconciles w/ all the empirical observations and scriptural testimony.
    No need to invoke time dilation.
    One rotation of the mass that is (or included day one) the (proto-)Earth takes the same time no matter where you are in the universe, no matter what your speed .. here as it is anywhere.
    Assume a light speed limit of ‘c’.
    As explained in/by the YeC Moshe Emes series for Torah and science alignment.

  2. 2
    johnnyb says:

    I think they took it too far. I think there *is* enough room to say, “different pieces of evidence point to different conclusions.” I think that’s fair. Different evidences have different epistemic weights for different people, and I think we can comfortably admit that. That doesn’t make both answers true. It *can* make both answers workable in the near-term. I think it is fine to have multiple perspectives, and work from one, the other, both, or a different one. But, at the end of the day, one will be significantly closer to the truth than the others. It’s fine to say that today not everyone agrees. I think it’s going too far to say that there is no reality available for agreement upon.

  3. 3
    anthropic says:

    Psalm 119:1-6 and Romans 1 indicate that we can truly know something about God by observing creation. When we do so, the speed of light is constant, and we can see stars that are measurably millions of light years distant. Dating them to ten thousand years or less makes 99 percent of the night sky a lie.

    Even more convincing is the incredible list of fine tuned constants, initial conditions, and physical laws necessary for our existence. There would be no need for most of these if the whole thing was poofed into existence 10,000 years ago. Again, either God is deceptive or fine-tuning is real & necessary for a long term process that ends with us.

  4. 4
    Seversky says:

    Maybe it was all “poofed” into existence last Thursday complete with falsified evidence of vast age. How could we tell?

  5. 5
    SmartAZ says:

    This dispute would not exist if people would just read what the bible says. It says “In the beginning god created the heaven and the earth.” No six days, it was in the beginning. Then there was a passage of time and Adam was created. Nothing else was created in the intervening 21 verses. So it is not a problem that Adam was 6k years ago and creation was some other number. Emphasis on “other”.

  6. 6
    anthropic says:

    Seversky, I agree that in such a case we could not tell. God would be utterly unknowable from our sense knowledge, much as orthodox Muslims hold. Fortunately, that is not the picture of God we see in the Old and New Testaments. Even the resurrected Jesus tells the doubting disciples to touch him and eat a meal together.

    Smart, that’s my thought as well. Obvious gap between Genesis 1:1 and subsequent description, regardless of what we make of the famous “days.”

  7. 7
    tjguy says:

    “Most beliefs about the nature of the physical world are best held provisionally. ”

    This is especially true when dealing with historical science where often the best we can do is make up models that we hope are something similar to what might have happened. But even if it works on a computer, there is no guarantee that it happened that way. How do we know that the variables we input into the model are accurate? A model is still nothing more than an untested hypothesis. All scientists use models so there definitely is a place for models, but the problem is testing those models as opposed to just assuming them to be true.

    True. The Bible does not agree with what geologists say, but I’m not ready to put my trust in their interpretations of the history of the world that 1) exclude God from the get go and 2) reject the testimony of God’s Word in favor of their own totally natural explanation for everything – as opposed to what the Creator Himself reveals to us in His Word. There are just too many unknowns about the past for me to trust their models over the Bible – for me.

  8. 8
    Latemarch says:

    The taxonomists and biologists have been making up just so stories for better than a hundred and fifty years.
    What makes you think that the geologists are any better?

  9. 9
    ScuzzaMan says:

    Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.

    Contra certain traditions, name typically signifies the character not the aural signifier. Jesus addressed the same point by asking a question, “What think ye of Christ?” but the result is the same; we all have to choose whom to trust. I’m content with my choice and the ever-changing self-contradictions of the geologists, biologists, cosmologists, and etc, have done nothing to change that in the tiniest degree …

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