By David MacMillan
Following the joint interview with Dan Phelps and Terry Mortenson on WEKU-FM, David MacMillan wrote a letter to Dr. Mortenson. This article is based on that letter. Dr. Mortenson responded to Mr. MacMillan’s letter, but unfortunately requested that his response be kept confidential. Odd behavior, it seems to me, for someone who is itching for a debate; Dr. Mortenson is welcome to respond here any time he likes.
Panda’s Thumb recently posted a guest contribution by Dan Phelps, who was interviewed along with Answers in Genesis’s Terry Mortenson on WEKU-FM, Eastern Kentucky University’s NPR station. Dr. Mortenson, for his part, posted his own discussion of the interview on the Answers in Genesis website. As a former creationist and AIG guest author who has recently been writing about the creation-evolution controversy in light of Ken Ham’s recent debate with Bill Nye, I thought Dr. Mortenson’s comments provided a particularly good example of one of the biggest problems with the creationist movement.
I remember hearing Dr. Mortenson speak at a small church in central Kentucky eight or nine years ago. I recall being very impressed by his speaking ability at the time; he is clearly an excellent communicator (though I of course disagree with what he is communicating).
His article very cleanly demonstrates one of the central reasons I no longer accept creationism. I do not intend this article as a personal attack on him, of course; it’s just a very good example of a really serious flaw in the creationist paradigm.
Here’s what jumped out at me from his article:
By uniformitarianism, Lyell insisted that the processes of geological change (erosion, sedimentation, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.) have always happened in the past at the same rate, power, and frequency that we observe today on average per year [emphasis mine].
How a person interprets the circumstantial evidence in the present to reconstruct that past history is enormously influenced by that person’s religious and philosophical worldview-based assumptions. [Evolutionists] also try to convince the public that they are unbiased objective pursuers of truth but that creationists are biased by religious ideas. In fact, the evolutionists are as biased as the creationists.
Evolutionists believe in absolute uniformity back to the beginning of time. But that is an assumption, a (deistic or atheistic) religious belief. They have no eyewitnesses or any other method to confirm the validity of that assumption.
This is, of course, the basic underlying argument of creationism, one I myself used to great effect on numerous occasions, to the conspicuous frustration of teachers, acquaintances, and probably far more Internet commenters than was ever profitable. It can be a very convincing argument.
If it is true – that the scientific consensus rests on a presupposition of uniformitarianism which is simply taken “on faith” – then the argument for giving equal consideration to creationism is potentially good. But I do not believe it is true at all. I believe it couldn’t be more obviously wrong. The last paragraph I quoted says the assumption of “absolute uniformity” carries no method by which it can be confirmed…but that simply is not the case.
The assumption of uniformitarianism is not a presupposition. It is only a hypothesis. That an assumption exists at the beginning of an explanation does not mean that assumption is presuppositional. Although there are certainly instances in which previously confirmed ideas play a major role in setting up interpretations, the “starting assumptions” are hypotheses, not presuppositions. They are assumed in order that they might be tested, just as in the process of “operational” science.
Take the Big Bang theory. When astronomers first discovered that the galaxy clusters were expanding away from each other, they did not assume that the expansion traced back to a single point as some presuppositional mandate. They assumed an inflationary model only in order to test the predictions that would be made by such a hypothesis: namely, that a hot dense universe consistent with the observed expansion would have released a uniform blackbody glow that would still be visible now at ~2-7 K in the microwave spectrum. When 3.7 K glow was discovered (and, now photographed at length), it became obvious that their “assumption” (that is, their hypothesis) had been correct.
Or take ice core dating. Creationists argue that scientists assume constant ice core deposition rates because they are forced to do so by a presuppositional commitment to uniformitarianism, but this claim is false. Scientists do not assume constant deposition rates; rather, they entertain the possibility of constant deposition rates in order to test that assumption: if the ice layers are indeed annual, then carbon dating of the first 30,000 layers or so will confirm this assumption, ash layers will show up at certain points based on the estimated age of volcanic eruptions, and long-term temperature variations will show up every 100,000 layers to match the known precession cycle of Earth’s orbital eccentricity. If the assumption (hypothesis) of annual deposition is correct, then the pattern of temperature will exactly match isotope variations in completely independent sources, like seafloor foram layers. And they do.
I do not know whether Dr. Mortenson has seen the following figure (Figure 1), or if he would have recognized it if he did. It is the layer-by-layer temperature variation in the Vostok ice cores, set alongside the layer-by-layer oxygen isotope variation from fossilized plankton samples buried in the seafloor.
Figure 1. Upper curve: oxygen isotope variation in fossilized plankton buried in the seafloor, as a function of time in thousands of years before the present. Lower curve: temperature variation in unrelated ice cores. Extracted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:M[…]andCores.png.
The insistent claim I had made all my life – that the assumptions of mainstream science were presuppositionally mandated commitments to uniformitarianism – is simply false! It could not be any more wrong. Unformitarian assumptions are testable; in fact, they exist in order to make predictions and be tested. And they are tested, and confirmed, and that is how theories are formed.
Does a low-temperature uniform glow from every corner of the universe prove that the universe started as a fiery ball of plasma 14 billion years ago? No, but the prediction of this glow’s existence, shape, and temperature based on real mathematical analysis twenty years in advance provides very convincing evidence in favor of that claim.
Is it possible for ice layers to be deposited more rapidly than once every year? Sure, but the prediction and discovery of 100,000-year cycles in the ice cores provides very convincing evidence that these particular layers were indeed annual.
Mainstream science does not require a philosophical assumption of uniformitarianism; rather it uses a speculative assumption of uniformitarianism and makes predictions based on those in individual cases. If the predictions do not pan out, the hypothesis is changed or discarded until a viable hypothesis may be found.
This notion that uniformitarianism is only assumed, never tested, is just plain wrong. Uniformitarian assumptions are tested every single time a new theory uses them to make predictions. That is how science works. It does not work like the caricature of Dr. Mortenson and other creationists.
About the author. Mr. MacMillan is a former creationist who wrote this article on Panda’s Thumb. He has a bachelor’s degree in physics.