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Sabine Hossenfelder asks at her blog “How do you prove that Earth is older than 10,000 years?”

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Beer Hmmm. In practice, that depends in part on what people would consider evidence and whether or not they would be convinced by the evidence offered. Here:

Planet Earth formed around 4.5 billion years ago. The first primitive forms of life appeared about 4 billion years ago. Natural selection did the rest, giving rise to species increasingly better adapted to their environment. Evidence, as they say, is overwhelming.

Or is it? Imagine planet Earth began its existence a mere 10,000 years ago, with all fossil records in place and carbon-14 well into decaying. From there on, however, evolution proceeded as scientists tell us. How’d you prove this story wrong?

You can’t.

I know it hurts. But hang on there, band aid follows below.

You can’t prove this story wrong because of the way our current theories work. These theories need two ingredients: 1) A configuration at any one moment in time, called the “initial condition,” and 2) A hypothesis for how this initial configuration changes with time, called the “evolution law.”

You can reverse the evolution law to figure out from the present configuration what happened back in time. But there’s no way you can tell whether an earlier configuration actually existed or whether they are just convenient stories. In theories of this type – and that includes all theories in physics – you can therefore never rule out that at some earlier time the universe evolved by an entirely different law – maybe because God or The Programmer assembled it – and was then suddenly switched on to reproduce our observations.

I often hear people argue such creation-stories are wrong because they can’t be falsified, but this makes about as much sense as organic salt. No, they aren’t not wrong, but they are useless.More.

Do read the rest. Our physics color commentator Rob Sheldon reflects on some of the issues that arise in dealing with a topic that raises emotions:

She presents the clockwork view of the universe where Events = Initial Conditions + Deterministic Machinery.

Her point is that the deterministic machinery is independent of time, just like the clock machinery doesn’t care if it is 1 o’clock or 6 o’clock, it works exactly the same. So if you move the hands to change the initial conditions, no one can tell if you wound the clock five-minutes ago or five hours ago. So given the initial conditions of “fossils in the earth + starlight headed our direction” 10,000 years ago or “Big Bang” 13.7 billion years old and no one would know.

Okay, we’ve heard this argument before. What is her metaphysical preference for one position over the other?

She says she has none. She claims to even front anti-realism on occasion. She says she’s a pragmatist, whatever works best. Last week she was in favor of inflation, this week not so much. Why?

She likes initial conditions that are “simple”.

Yet last week she railed against “naturalness” because its only claim to superiority was “Simpler than everyone else”, yet when analyzed, it included an arbitrary definition of “simple”. So is Sabine guilty of the same crime?

She doesn’t say, but I think she tries to quantify “simple” as “information content”. So her contention is that there is more information in a “fossils + starlight” initial condition than in a “massive Big Bang explosion” initial condition. John Wheeler, the cosmologist who almost single-handedly revived general relativity, might not agree. Where did all the structure of the galaxies come from, if the Big Bang was such low information state? he would ask.

But even if we grant Sabine the assumption that lower-information boundary conditions are better, there’s another flaw in her argument. Who says that the machinery is time-independent? Consider that clock. Suppose a cuckoo pops out at 3 o’clock. And that drives the dog crazy, so he scratches the door and wets the rug. But then he feels bad and hides out in his bed until 5 o’clock. Wouldn’t a quick look at the dog tell us whether the clock was running for 5 hours or had the hands changed recently?

Ahh, you say, but we could put the house into the same condition as if all those things had happened. Really? And how are you going to prepare the dog’s state of mind?

And that is my point. For Sabine or anyone else to take a deterministic view of nature, they must also take a deterministic view of consciousness, of mind. And if mind is not deterministic, and it has resisted all attempts at reductionism, then initial conditions do matter.

Let me say it another way. If consciousness and mind matter, then they change the information of the system. Then nothing in the universe is a closed box, a reversible system, a deterministic machine. As we say in thermodynamics, there is no such thing as a perfect heat engine, they all increase the entropy of the system (lose information). In the same way there is no such thing as a dead mind—they all increase the information of the system (lose entropy).

So Sabine, your argument that initial conditions have temporal ambiguity is only true in a frictionless world without people, without minds, without design. Which is to say, without you.

We regret that free Internet grad pub beer and pretzels are not yet available but do keep watching this space.

See also: Supersymmetry is dead but its ghost still haunts particle physics (Rob Sheldon)

and

Why I am not a young Earth creationist (Denyse O’Leary)

7 Replies to “Sabine Hossenfelder asks at her blog “How do you prove that Earth is older than 10,000 years?”

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    I didn’t catch your point until I realized that I had already proved it to myself.

    In our family, the accepted standard story says that Grandma escaped from a bad situation in 1945 and hastily moved in the middle of the night. After moving, she gradually accumulated furniture and stuff. When she died in 1990 I inherited some of the furniture.

    Last year I was remodeling Grandma’s desk to serve as my electronics workbench. As I was taking things apart, a couple of letters fell out. They weren’t internally significant except that they were addressed to Grandma in her PREVIOUS location in 1938. Whoops! There goes the accepted story. She didn’t escape in the middle of the night, she moved normally with furniture.

    In Sabine’s terms, the “history-maker” wanted to convince me that the family had started in 1945. Until I ran into the postmarked letters from 1938, all the evidence matched the 1945 start date.

    If the “history-maker” wanted to maintain the evidence, it would need to know in 1938 that the story about 1945 would be contained in the minds of the family, and I would be born later, and I would inherit Grandma’s desk, and I would decide in 2016 to open up a hidden cavity in the desk while knowing the official story. It would need to prevent those letters from accidentally falling into a slot.

  2. 2
    Dean_from_Ohio says:

    Those 100 million year old fossils with soft tissue. That’s the ticket!

    Some people will believe anything!

  3. 3
    drc466 says:

    So, I’ll lead with my chin…

    Other than radioactive decay measurements on long half-life radioactive elements, what is the scientific foundation for 4.5B age of the Earth?

    It is my contention that the use of radioactive decay rests on a significant # of assumptions, not the least of which is a constant uncontaminated process operating over a 4.5B year time period that just happens to place pure product at the instant of earth formation.

    So, if I’m a “skeptic”, and radioactive decay is sounding iffy to me – what’s the next best evidence for the age of the earth? Are there any?

    Edit: This is not to say I question the amount of radioactive decay measured – I fully agree that the max apparent amount of radioactive decay age for our earth/solar system is around 4B+. I’d just like to know if there is any other evidence than this single physical process.

  4. 4
    J-Mac says:

    Doesn’t have to be proven that something travels faster than light? Entanglement seem to prove it…but the consequences of this are enormous…can science handle that today? If true, it will be resisted to death…

  5. 5
    Latemarch says:

    drc466@3

    Not much. It mostly comes from the reputed age of the universe and that, of course, also has some pretty iffy underlying assumptions. One needs to remember that in our universe, time is not a constant.

    Plate tectonics will give you some pretty old ages but again current motion is assumed to be constant for millions of years….why would you assume that’s true? In fact astronomers are always promoting just right collisions to account for all kinds of anomalies or features in the solar system. Why not one just right asteroid taking us from Pangaea to today in a matter of months.

    Geology has the geologic column though the column is, in its complete, beginning to end, not found anywhere on the earth. The fossils in the sediments tell them how old the layer is. The age of the layer is determined by which fossils you find. Circular reasoning much? No one bothers to radiometrically determine a layers age because it’s difficult to get consistent results. Little known secret if you look for C14 (halflife 5,730 years) in the fossils you find it.
    https://answersingenesis.org/geology/carbon-14/carbon-14-in-fossils-and-diamonds/
    Another inconvenient fact like soft tissue in dinosaur bones.

  6. 6
    critical rationalist says:

    You can’t prove this story wrong because of the way our current theories work. These theories need two ingredients: 1) A configuration at any one moment in time, called the “initial condition,” and 2) A hypothesis for how this initial configuration changes with time, called the “evolution law.”

    This entire argument assumes we are stuck with the current conception of physics. Namely that we have to express theories in the form of initial conditions and laws of motion.

  7. 7
    Pearlman says:

    From my perspective no one ever will prove deep-time as all deep-time dependent scientific hypotheses, premise and assumptions have been falsified by the overwhelming empirical evidence that is the prevalent cosmological redshift (CR) of distant starlight.
    As explained by/in SPIRAL CR hypothesis.
    Even if the strongest science (the highest probable explanation of the natural observations taken in max avail context) that is SPIRAL is not the actuality,
    due to the law of science known as entropy, the greater the time lapse attributed to an organized structure such as a star, the greater the claim, the greater the claim the greater the burden of proof.
    SPIRAL uses the standard speed of light as the light speed limit, so 1 year per LY distance to explain why the universe measures thousands and not billions of years old since the cosmic inflation expansion event, early in the formation of the universe..

    ‘Distant Starlight and the Age, Formation and Structure of the Universe’
    SPIRAL cosmological redshift hypothesis explains the how and why the strongest science attests to the Torah testimony narrative and timeline.
    Paperback: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1519262205

    SPIRAL vs SCM info-graphic: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/317415683

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