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The age of the Earth – how real science happens

If you want to teach about biology, or about the Bible, at Patrick Henry College for the evangelically home-schooled in Virginia, you will have to agree with the College’s view that “that God’s creative work, as described in Genesis 1:1-31, was completed in six twenty-four hour days.” Alternative views are to be presented, but should, “in the end, teach creation as both biblically true and as the best fit to observed data.”

Faculty teaching such courses might want to shield their eyes from the new Scientific American Classic, Determining the Age of the Earth, to which I wrote the introduction, for fear of having to change their minds and lose their jobs. For there they would find copies of articles, from 1857 to 1989, explaining in great detail just how, and after what exhaustive scrutiny, the scientific community was driven, much against its will, to conclude that “the best fit to observe data” requires a time of over 4.5 billion years.

Six days, of course, had long since ceased to be taken seriously as an estimate. The Scientific American account begins with Kelvin using arguments based on the then-new science of thermodynamics to challenge the geologists’ view that the earth was indefinitely old, and describes how he lowered his estimate from up to 100 million years to an upper limit of around 20 million. Meantime the geologists were developing what are sometimes called “hourglass” methods, based on observation of the Earth as it now is, and estimates of the rates of the processes that had brought it there. For instance, they  compared the total amount of salt in the oceans with the amount carried down in rivers annually. They added up the known thicknesses of sediments, and divided that by an estimated rate of deposition. This led them to estimates of around 100 million, enough (perhaps) for Darwinian evolution, but still longer than Kelvin was by the end willing to grant them.

When Rutherford’s group, followed in short order by Strutt, Arthur Holmes, and Bertram Boltwood, introduced radiometric dating, the geological community was initially sceptical. And with good reason. They were told that their careful estimates were wrong by a factor of five, then 10, and 20 or more. All this on the basis of a very poorly understood phenomenon. Remember that there was as yet no knowledge of the existence and nature of isotopes, the fact that there are three separate major decay sequences, or ways of distinguishing radiogenic from non-radiogenic lead. It was not until 1926, in fact, two decades after Rutherford’s initial work, that the method was generally accepted. And with our present knowledge, we can easily identify the flaws in the earlier reasoning, such as the inability to include the energy generated by nuclear processes, or the recycling of sediments back into the mantle. [Added edit: And, much more importantly, the role of convection in increasing the amount of heat to be disposed of; see here]

I had already written about this subject, mainly from the point of view of the conflict between Kelvin and the geologists. Nonetheless, I found it both enjoyable and instructive to retrace the thoughts of some of the scientists I had already met, and others whose names were new to me, in their own words and from the perspective of their own time. This was, for me, no mere antiquarian exercise, but an opportunity to experience for myself this wonderful story of discovery, not just from the point of view of the eventual winners, but as a journey over difficult terrain, where even concepts that we now recognize as misguided functioned, in their time, as signposts.

So what should we say about an institution of higher learning like PatrickHenryCollege? I would have preferred to say nothing at all, if it were not for the fact that it has an influence far beyond its numbers, that Professor John Lennox, whom I have discussed earlier, is speaking there next week, and that its 240-strong student body had by 2004 supplied seven out of the 100 interns in George W Bush’s White House, and support staff for 22 other politicians.


Theologian pwns physicist. But at what cost?

Lawrence Krauss, physicist and amateur philosopher, in his Newsweek article, The Godless Particle,[1] writes “The Higgs particle is now arguably more relevant than God.” John Lennox, Oxford mathematician and part-time theologian, accuses Krauss of talking ill-informed nonsense. Let me surprise my friends by saying that Lennox is right from beginning to end in what he says. The sad thing is that Lennox himself does not realise the implications. If he did, he might choose his friends more carefully. In particular, he might distance himself from the “Intelligent Design” movement, which is everything that in his view religion should not be.

Here is what Lennox says:[2]

 Krauss does not seem to realize that his concept of God is one that no intelligent monotheist would accept. His “God” is the soft-target “God of the gaps” of the “I can’t understand it, therefore God did it” variety. As a result, Krauss, like Dawkins and Hawking, regards God as an explanation in competition with scientific explanation. That is as wrong-headed as thinking that an explanation of a Ford car in terms of Henry Ford as inventor and designer competes with an explanation in terms of mechanism and law. God is not a “God of the gaps”,  he is God of the whole show.

Having read both articles, I have to say that Lennox is absolutely right in his critique of Krauss. Scientific discoveries tell us more about how the universe works, with the promise of yet more to come. But this in no way undermines Lennox’s vision of God as “God of the whole show”. On the contrary, from his point of view, our growing understanding of the laws of nature is at the same time growing evidence of the majesty of God’s design. Henry Ford’s production line works, and there are natural explanations for how it works, but it only works because of the way it was set up in the first place. In the same way, according to Lennox , the universe works, and there are natural explanations for how it works. The detection of the Higgs boson helps confirm our understanding of these natural explanations. However, this for Lennox does not detract from God’s glory, but adds to it.

Lennox is part here of a rich and venerable intellectual tradition. It was a 19th century theologian, Henry Drummond, who in as many words rejected the concept of a “God of the gaps”, for much the same reasons as Lennox, and not merely because the gaps were (and are) shrinking. I would trace this line of thought back even further, to the 11th century philosopher and polymath al-Ghazali, who taught that the laws of nature are required to be constant because they reflect the will of God, which is itself perfect and unchanging. And for me, as for many other intelligent atheists, the coherence of the laws of nature is the most nearly compelling of the arguments for the existence of God.

Then why in the name of all that’s holy is Lennox associating himself with the likes of Douglas Axe and the U.K.’s own self-styled Centre for Intelligent Design? Having stated that no intelligent monotheist would argue for a God of the gaps, why is he linking himself to people who by that very criterion must be lacking in intelligence (or monotheism)?

Axe is director of the Biologic Institute, a research organisation operating under the auspices of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, those wonderful people who brought you the Wedge Strategy for the undermining of current scientific explanation in favour of “theistic understanding”. The Biologic Institute itself is dedicated to attacking the entire present-day science of evolutionary biology, in order precisely to look for gaps that the God of the gaps can plug. Douglas Axe is also one of the authors of Science and Human Origins, a Biologic Institute publication. This book is not merely a concerted attack on the scientific arguments for a common origin of humans and [other] apes, but an attempt to reconcile the evidence from molecular biology with the view that all humankind is descended from a single breeding pair who lived 6000 years ago (why would anyone want to suggest that?) Yet Lennox is sharing a platform with Axe this autumn, and doing so at a conference being held under the auspices of the Centre for Intelligent Design.

If there is anything even more inimical to Lennox’s vision of “God of the whole show” than the antics of Axe in trying to generate gaps, it is the doctrine espoused by Norman Nevin, Chairman of the Centre. Nevin is a biblical literalist, who holds that death came into the world as the result of human sin. An intelligent monotheist, as Lennox uses the term, has no business supporting such people. This is not a matter of religious belief or unbelief, but of logic and the acceptance of reality.

To pursue the Ford analogy further, Lennox believes that the car works because it is well designed, Axe believes that it works because there is a miracle-working mechanic inside the gearbox, and Nevin believes that it was sabotaged by the drivers’ grandparents.

At the risk of annoying two Oxford professors at once, I would suggest that Lennox, with his reverence for the works of the Lord, is much closer to Richard Dawkins with his appreciation of the magic of reality, than he is to the gap-seekers and evolution deniers of C4ID and the Discovery Institute. You can have an intelligent Designer, or you can have what now goes by the name of Intelligent Design, or like me you can have neither, but you cannot possibly have both.

[1] Krauss, Lawrence M. “The Godless Particle.” Newsweek 16 July 2012: 5

[2] The Christian Post, August 20, 2012, alsoThe [London] Times

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