Uniformitarianism and the Age of the Earth

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As alluded to several times in past posts, a major interest of the writers of this blog is the origin of the universe, the earth, and mankind. Specifically, the relationship between the historical sciences and the book of Genesis is a subject by which we are both fascinated. In this post, I plan to give my view on a topic that is often brought up in discussions of origins: the assumption of uniformitarianism. Before jumping in, however, I implore readers to maintain a charitable attitude when both reading and commenting on this. The exchanges that accompany this subject matter can often be passionate to the point of detriment; they seek truth at the expense of tearing others down, when Christians are instead called to encourage each other and build one another up.


First off, let's lay some groundwork for the discussion: what is uniformitarianism and how does it play into the debate about the age of the earth? Uniformitarianism is the assumption that physical constants and natural laws are constant across both space and time. Commentators of this idea will note two things: first, it is a presupposition that cannot technically be proven. Second, it is an assumption which is necessary for any general knowledge about the universe, past or present, to be obtained.  Without the assumption, one could not extrapolate from observed phenomena to unobserved phenomena. All inductive inferences would be invalid or uncertain.  It should be noted that virtually all modern scientists accept this axiom either implicitly or explicitly as necessary for their work.

The concept of uniformitarianism in nature is relevant to the debate over the age of the earth because the scientific inferences which date the earth at around 4.5 billion years are based on such an assumption.  The specific methods will be delineated below, but suffice it to say for now that they are all based on some force, mechanism or coefficient of nature being the same thousands or millions of years ago as they are today.  If one denies that the assumption holds, then they will have reason to be skeptical of any conclusion yielded by such a scientific inference.  However, my experience has shown me that generally the opposite is true: people are often skeptical of uniformitarianism because they deny the conclusion of an old earth.  In other words, they reject the scientific inference of an old earth, and in doing so cast doubt on uniformitarianism.  This is usually motivated by certain religious beliefs and a different epistemology: namely, the belief that the Bible is the ultimate authority in all matters and that a rigidly literal reading of Genesis 1 - 3 is the appropriate one1. The specifics of Genesis will be dealt with in another post, or series of posts. I plan to use this post to expound two reasons why it is wrong to reject the assumption of uniformitarianism.

Reasons to Accept Uniformitarianism

1. The first reason to accept uniformitarianism in regards to the age of the earth is because several uniformity assumptions corroborate each other. Consider the following dating methods which all confirm the earth to be older than 10,000 years2:

    A. Extinct Radionucleotides.
Laboratory experiments using particle accelerators have allowed scientists to determine which isotopes would have formed in stars and supernova. Data has revealed that the short lived, less stable, isotopes have decayed and are no longer found in nature, while the longer lived isotopes remain. These remaining isotopes require at least 1 billion years to decay below detectable levels.

    B. Tree Rings and Ice Layers
If you’ve ever seen a horizontal slice of a tree trunk, you’ve seen how a tree forms a new growth ring each year. In years of drought, the tree grows less quickly so the ring is narrower; in good growing seasons the ring is thicker. A tree’s age can be found by simply counting its rings. By comparing the pattern of thick and thin rings to weather records, scientists can verify that the method is accurate. This method can even be used on dead trees that fell in a forest long ago. For example, the last 200 rings in the dead tree might match up with 200 rings early in the life of the living tree, so the two trees together can count back many years. In this way, multiple trees can be used to build a master chronology for a forested region. European oak trees have been used to build a 12,000-year chronology.

The annual ice layers in glaciers provide a similar method that goes back much further in history. Each year, snowfall varies throughout the seasons and an annual layer is formed. Like the tree rings, this method can be verified by comparison to historical records for weather, as well as to records of volcanic eruptions around the globe that left thin dust layers on the glaciers. Scientists have drilled ice cores deep into glaciers and found ice that is 123,000 years old in Greenland2 and 740,000 years old in Antarctica.3 These annual layers go back much farther than the 10,000 years advocated by young earth creationists. The Earth must be at least 740,000 years old.

    C. Other Methods
Many other methods are used to corroborate the age of the earth, including the varves, or layers, deposited in a lake, speleothems found in caves, corals, thermoluminescence, electron spin resonance and cosmic ray exposure. Each of these methods can be researched individually at the reader's leisure.

The conclusion here is that while a single assumption of uniformity may be doubted, several corroborating aging methods show this doubt to be unwarranted. This is because it is a different force, mechanism or coefficient that must remain uniform for each method. Since all the methods discussed above reveal the earth to be older than 6000 years old, a number of these forces, mechanisms or coefficients must be consistently non-uniform in order to get the corroboration we see. For example, the rate of decay of several different isotopes, the rate of deposition of sediment layers in lakes and the rate of creation of tree rings must all be non-uniform in the exact same way so as to corroborate each other as they do! An analogous example would be a man who refused to believe that there was an elephant in the room, despite seeing it very clearly in front of him:

Person A: There cannot be an elephant in the room! We live in North America and elephants are not native to North America!
Person B: But there is an elephant in the room, you can see it with your own eyes!
Person A: My eyes must be deceiving me then! There are no elephants in North America!
Person B: Here, touch the elephant then! You can feel its thick leathery skin!
Person A: Then my hands must also be deceiving me!
Person B: But can you not smell its foul odor?
Person A: Surely I can, but this must be because my nose is deceiving me!

You get the point, so I will spare you the final lines! To deny so many independent lines of evidence revealing that the earth is old is no different than denying the existence of an elephant in the room, despite all of one's senses telling one otherwise.

2. The second reason to accept uniformitarianism is a practical one. Basically, most people who reject uniformitarianism as it pertains to the age of the earth accept it in virtually all other areas of life. For one, the acceptance of any scientific generality is a concession of uniformity in at least some circumstances. For example, if anyone expects massive objects to fall downward toward the earth when dropped, they are revealing an expectation of uniformity. Specifically the belief that since all objects in their past experience have accelerated downward toward the earth at a rate of 9.8 m/s2, all massive objects in the future will accelerate toward the earth at a rate of 9.8 m/s2. If anyone expects a paper towel to absorb spilled water, they are revealing an expectation of uniformity. The list goes on. I argue, therefore, that it is inconsistent for one to accept the assumption of uniformitarianism in all areas of life, except the age of the earth.

Final Thoughts

The rigorous thinker who holds to a young earth will have a single good objection to the concept of uniformitarianism, as mentioned above. Namely, an epistemology which holds the Bible to be the ultimate authority and a rigidly literal interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis, will trump all other evidence. The belief in a young earth is, in fact, warranted, given the initial axioms listed. However, in my opinion, the probability that a rigidly literal reading of Genesis is the correct one is lower than the probability that arguments (1) and (2) above hold. This should at least give pause to the one who holds to such a reading of Genesis.  Ultimately, the authors of this blog feel there are other good reasons to doubt that a rigidly literalistic reading of Genesis is the correct one, but that will be left for future posts.


1. The authors of this blog agree with this epistemology, that the Bible is the ultimate source of authority, but differ with some in terms of how to properly read the book of Genesis.
2. This information has all been reused from the Biologos organization at the following url: http://biologos.org/questions/ages-of-the-earth-and-universe.
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