Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Problems in Young Earth Creationism: Star Light Travel Time

Young Earth Creationists have an astronomical problem on their hands; to say the least!

Young Earth Creationism insists that the Earth is no more than 10,000 years old; in fact the version of Creationism represented by the web site Answers in Genesis suggests an even shorter time span of around 6000 years. This view, needless to say, immediately creates an astronomical issue: Given that the stars and galaxies have distances well in excess of 10,000 light years Answers in Genesis need to explain how the light from distant stars could have reached the Earth in less than 10,000 years.

Answers in Genesis, to their credit, do at least attempt to tackle such problems. In contrast I think you will find that there are some hyper-fundamentalist Christian groups out there who take it for granted that their own interpretations of the Bible are the very words of God and for them it’s a case of “just believe” and hang any difficulties with the profanities of science. Thus, any move to probe their interpretations is regarded as an affront, tantamount to blasphemy. It is impossible to engage with these cognitively quarantined Christians. At least AiG are not in this category; they are prepared to dabble in some science. Let’s be thankful for small mercies.

The contemporary Young Earth Creationist movement owes much to the publication of the book “The Genesis Flood” by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris in 1961. It is in this volume that we find an early attempt to address the problem of star light. On page 369 the plain interpretation that light from distant stars and galaxies must have taken far longer than 10,000 years to reach us is referred to as a “contention”:

But this contention of course begs the question. It constitutes an implicit denial that the universe could have been created as functioning entity. If creation has occurred at all then it is reasonable that it would be a complete creation. It must have had an “appearance of age” at the moment of creation. The photons of light energy were created at the same instant as the stars from which they were apparently derived, so that an observer on the Earth would have been able to see the most distant stars within his vision at that instant of creation.

In other words according to Whitcomb and Morris photons of light were created in mid flight, giving the false impression that they originated from those distant cosmic objects. Perhaps sensing that this concept compromises the integrity of God’s created work Whitcomb and Morris hedge by mooting another idea that I have seen bandied about in Young Earth Creationist circles; namely, variable speed of light or “VSL”. Whitcomb and Morris promote a paper that questions special relativity and conclude that because such ideas can be submitted in scientific circles then this demonstrates:

… that astronomy has nothing really definite as yet to say about the age of the universe.

The approach here is the tried and tested science of negation, a method very common to the YEC movement; do all you can to muddy the waters of science by attempting to show that it is all speculative, inconsistent and highfalutin theory and then leave the scene, returning uncritically to your dogmatic interpretations of Biblical texts. If all else fails you can always retreat into the view that the Cosmos was conjured up as seen, “just like that”, 6000 years ago, a view that is all but irrefutable; for any observations to the contrary can be put down to mere appearances.

Of course it is very easy to take the view that science, which necessarily embodies the use of working assumptions and/or postulations whose veracity makes the world providentially knowable, cannot be trusted to tell us anything. This negative approach is unlikely to be applied by YECs to their Biblical interpretations, interpretations which also necessarily rest on the working assumptions needed to make the Bible comprehensible. However, when YECs turn from negative criticism to positive theory construction we can apply similar standards of criticism to their work. Therefore it was with great interest that I found an attempt on AiG to provide a scientific rationalization of the star light problem. (See here and here).

Firstly, it seems that AiG have moved away from the idea of a variable speed of light. On this page on their web site they warn Christians about using “far out claims”, one of those “far out claims” being the very idea that the speed of light has drastically changed:

We can speculate about a large-scale change of light speed in the past, but evidence is lacking. In addition, any alteration of light speed would affect several other constants of nature, but evidence of these changes is also lacking.

Young Earth Creationists always have the option of opting out of science by declaring that God conjured up the Cosmos, as seen, “just like that”, 6000 years ago. Such a concept is not very amenable to scientific probing and it is therefore no surprise that YECs who hold such views are not taken seriously. But it seems that the YECs at AiG want to show they are willing to put their name to at least some semblance of scientific inquiry. So rather than appear to be just another insular religious ghetto of fideist ultras they are prepared to get out on their bikes and look for some scientific kudos. Therefore on the links I have provided, AiG put forward for consideration the ideas of Russ Humphreys (See picture above). Make no mistake about it, this is dangerous ground for AiG; it means that they are coming out from under the cover of ad hoc creative conjuring into the line of fire of scientific inquiry. No wonder Christian fideists proactively rail against this sort of activity as an unspiritual courting of worldly science. AiG have a lot to lose.

In a later post I’ll have look at Humphreys’ ideas.

No comments: