Jason Lisle – A Clever-Dick Ahead of the Game?
On September 22nd of last year “Answers in Genesis” published yet another attempt to solve a very basic problem that has bugged Young Earth Creationism since its 1960s recrudescence amongst Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists – namely, the problem of how star light arrives on our Earthly doorstep given that few people disagree (even YECs) that those stars have distances measured in thousands, millions and even billions of light years. The author of this latest YEC “solution” is AiG blogger Jason Lisle. Lisle’s theory uses the fact that issues of repeatability and uniformity make it difficult to measure the one way speed of light with scientific rigor, whereas the two way speed of light can be measured with much greater experimental strictness. In 1963 the theoretical physicist W. F. Edwards showed that the results of special relativity still apply even if the speed of light in one direction is different from that in the opposite direction; in fact it is possible, without compromising special relativity, to arbitrarily define the speed of light as infinite in one direction and ½ x c in the opposite direction – as long as the “there and back” journey returns an average speed of c, special relativity still works, it seems. Thus, it is possible to define an anisotropic speed of light without any apparent observational knock on effect.
The star light problem is not only a very difficult problem for YECs, but it is also a very clear problem, a problem that even your average fundamentalist rube with little understanding or respect for institutionalized science can appreciate; go out on a starry night and look at the Milky Way and one has on one’s hands an elementary observation that appears to refute Young Earth Creationism, regardless of the veracity (or otherwise) of Big Bang Theory or Evolution. Given the seemingly intractable nature of this elementary difficulty with YEC it is easy to imagine how the slightest hint of a possibility that the speed of light, if only one direction, might be infinite would ping on a bulb in Jason Lisle’s fundamentalist head.
And so Lisle developed his “Solution” of the YEC star light problem: To be consistent with his reading of the Bible Lisle postulates that all the distant heavenly bodies, with appropriate words of magic from God himself, were “spoken into existence” around 6000 years ago “just like that” (as the comedian Tommy Cooper used to say). Because Lisle thinks (wrongly) he can define the speed of light to have an all but infinite value toward the Earth he can claim that we see the stars more or less as they are now.
But this theory has a major flaw, a flaw that neither Lisle nor his AiG reviewers spotted: My understanding is that Lisle could not postulate this geocentric anisotropy in the speed light without introducing space-time distortions that would constitute a gravitational field. Therefore what he thinks of as just a mathematical maneuver involving the setting of the one-way speed of light by convention is in actual fact a statement that has physical content, content that in all likelihood violates observation. My more detailed criticism of this theory can be seen in this blog entry .
Since the publication of Lisle’s paper things, as far as I can tell, have been quiet at AiG regarding the gravitational field problem, although a few months ago my blog was briefly linked to from AiG’s administration pages. However, outside of AiG many are now aware of the failings of Lisle’s “solution” to YEC's biggest and yet simplest conundrum. This page on rationalwiki has, amongst many other comments and links, a link to my blog post refuting Lisle’s paper and this talk page on the same site takes a quote from my post. If you want to see further atheist comments on Lisle follow the links to “Sensuous Curmudgeon” on the former of the two rationalwiki web pages I have linked to. More views on Lisle from an atheist platform (including a quote from my blog post) can be seen on the provocatively named web site Why won’t God heal amputees? ( a valid question in my view)
Amongst scientifically literate Christians the reaction to Lisle is also scathing. I don’t think my particular issue with Lisle is the only line of criticism that one can take; in fact this web page at GeoChristain contains a comment by GeoChristian himself where he mentions other issues that need consideration, such as Maxwell’s equations, stellar aberration and interference. However, off the top of my head I’m not so sure that even these phenomena could be used to detect a systematic skew in the speed of light in one direction alone. The point about the Edwards space time is that it is possible to get rid of the skew in the speed of light with the appropriate coordinate transformation; that’s what makes such a skew simply a convention. But as soon as the light speed skew varies from place to place one gets a gravitational field that cannot be eliminated with a coordination transformation; under these conditions GeoChristian’s points are probably valid. However GeoChristain also writes: "Finally, I wish I could take credit for this, but I didn’t really bother studying Lisle’s nutcasery beyond the point where it was obviously wrong, but someone did, and it turns out that Lisle’s variable speed of light would require a gravitational field oriented across the universe toward the Earth, one that could quite easily be noticed if it actually existed". So clearly he is also aware of the gravitational problem
Now, when it comes to YECs I don’t always want to have to play “hard cop” with them; after all deep time, like deep space, can be very intimidating and demeaning to small creatures such as ourselves, creatures whose deep seated sense of self importance is violated when we hear that we are just a small scratch at the end of huge tracts of time utterly devoid of human effect and endeavor; the temptation to restore one’s self esteem by shrinking time until one sees oneself as a big fish in a small pond is overwhelming for those whose religion presents them with a naive view of humanity’s cosmic significance. Likewise deep space also has the effect of belittling our presence and therefore one can understand the motivation (if not the science) behind the latest clutch of geocentric Christian fundamentalists who are denying Copernicus and whose beliefs restore the physical importance of the Earth by placing it at the stationary centre of a universe that rotates around the Earth all in one day. In the vast theatre of space and time the human act is as if something very much smaller than a microbe alighted on the huge stage of a very long drama. And yet Christian theism’s perspective on humanity is that humankind actually does have a centre stage significance in the cosmic drama. In the light of this Christian paradox it is understandable that a naive religious egotism often instinctively rebels against the humbling dimensions of space-time with some kind of outright denial, a denial that is seen both at AiG and amongst Christian geocentrists.
I also try to be understanding of the skepticism one finds amongst reasonable atheists; after all, the notion of a complex transcendent entity like God is barely tractable to the imaginative discourses of theology let alone a science that is largely geared up for dealing with relatively simple objects that manifest themselves in patterns of law and disorder amenable to mathematical treatment. This highfalutin entity, of which Christian theism claims to be the self explaining source of a contingent cosmos, is only known to His followers through a mixture of intuition, subjective epiphany, personal anecdote, historical imagination and some philosophy. Therefore when atheists say there is little or no evidence for God it is presumptuous to bad-mouth them from an assumed position of epistemic arrogance; the reasonable atheists have at least a prima-fascie case (although I believe it to be a case I must ultimately reject). I say this as a Christian theist who realizes that a reciprocating mutual respect is not going to be an option with the likes of the acerbic PZ Myers of this world.
But, bad-mouthing, at least of the pietistic kind, is the consummate skill of Ken Ham at AiG; when he is not slagging off well-meaning liberal-left atheists he is accusing scientifically literate Christians of transgressing and compromising on his bigoted reading of “The Word of God”; Ham does his level best to impugn the consciences and motives of Christians who don’t accept the divine authority of his opinions. Given the cognitive fragility of the theist’s case it hardly helps if yet another botched attempt to the solve the YEC star light problem is seen, once again, to proceed against a background of doctrinaire, overbearing and spiritually egotistical Christian partisans. Perhaps I should close ranks with AiG on the basis that Christians should stick together, but this is impossible, because as a traitorous heretic in the eyes of AiG I’m likely to be regarded as worthy of an even lower place in hell than PZ Myers. Not that that worries me as the grace in Christ more than matches the bullheaded and sectarian pronouncements of some of His querulous followers. However, in trying to sum up the reflection of this affair on both Christian “heretics” like myself and the Flintstone fundamentalists, Jason Lisle has in fact taken the words right out of my mouth: “HOW EMBARRASSING!”