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radiometric dating

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Gregg Davidson vs. Andrew Snelling on the Age of the Earth

eps-ccI was recently at the Evangelical Philosophical Society conference (see my thoughts on every talk I attended) and one of the sessions was a debate between Gregg Davidson of Solid Rock Lectures and Andrew Snelling of Answers in Genesis on “Scripture, Geology & the Age of the Earth.” A number of readers requested more information on this talk, and I found it very interesting myself. Here, I’ll touch on the highlights of this dialogue as well as my own thoughts.

Davidson- A Biblical Worldview and an Ancient Earth

Gregg Davidson, a geologist who authored When Faith and Science Collide, and is a lecturer for Solid Rock Lectures, began the dialogue by noting several themes in the young earth/old earth dialogue. First, he noted a tendency to present young earth creationism (YEC) as the only Biblical worldview, while also presenting evidence for a young earth as exceptionally strong in contrast to weak evidence for an old earth. Unfortunately, Davidson pointed out that many people get to schools where they learn geology, astronomy, and more in the sciences and discover that the evidence for the young earth is actually fairly weak, while that for an old earth is quite strong. And, because YECs often link young earth creationism to being the only possible Biblical worldview, they begin to view the Biblical worldview as a whole as extremely weak. If the evidence for YEC was so weak as to falter, then because it is inherently tied to the Biblical worldview, that wolrdview must itself be extremely weak.

Another problem is that YECs fail to recognize that their position itself is an interpretation of Scripture. Their view is not Scripture itself. There is a tendency in debates about theology to view one’s own position as what the Bible teaches, but that fails to take into account the possibility of fallible human interpretation.

Davidson argued for an approach to Scripture that takes note of the fact that God often deigns to make use of “the knowledge of the day to communicate truths about the nature of God.” As an example, he referenced Jesus saying that the mustard seed is the smallest seed of all the plants on earth, despite the fact that it is not (Mark 4:30-32). The point was not the size of the seed, but rather the power of faith. Thus,we must be careful not to make Scripture teaching something it does not claim for itself. He pressed that to read into the Genesis text specific dates and time periods is to make the text teach something that it is not claiming.

Turning to the science, Davidson noted that there are any number of evidences for an ancient earth, but that he chose to focus upon just one area from a number of evidences in order to show how interdisciplinary and cross-confirmed the age of the earth is. He focused upon the Hawaiian Islands and their formation and age. There are multiple, independent ways to investigate the age of these islands. The islands were formed by a hot spot–a place where magma shoots up from underneath the crust and bubbles to the surface. This eventually would form islands when enough of the lava cooled and hardened. The islands are on a moving continental plate and so as they move away from the hot spot, the expectation is the islands get progressively older. Thus, in a series of 3 islands arranged thusly: 3-2-1-0 (0 being the hot spot), 3 would be the oldest island.

Davidson first noted the ages that were found by testing the age of the volcanic rock with radiometric dating. These ages yielded millions of years. Now of course most young earth creationists hold that radiometric dating methods are deeply flawed, but Davidson noted that this procedure can be tested for accuracy with independent methods. Before turning to that, he showed a picture of what the estimate for the movement per year of the plate over the hot spot would be based solely upon the radiometric dating. Basically, this works by just taking the distance of 3-2-1 and measuring how far each is from the hot spot, then dividing the radiometric date by that distance to see how far the islands move per year. The estimate yielded movement of 2.6-3.6 inches per year.

Recent technology has allowed us to utilize Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to actually measure the rate that the islands are moving. These measurements yield approximately 3.1 inches per year, which is exactly in the middle of the estimate given by the radiometric dating. Given the measured rate, scientists can extrapolate how many millions of years old the islands are based upon their distance from the hot spot. It’s kind of an inverse way to get the date. They simply divide the measured distance of the islands from the hot spot by the measured rate of movement per year. Of course, this way of measuring is not dependent in any way upon radiometric dating. Thus, there are two independent sources showing the date in millions of years for the Hawaiian Islands.

The coral growth around the Islands was a third confirmation of the ancient age of these formations. This argument was more complex than the first two. Basically, it seemed the argument was that because different corals form closer to the surface, we can look at the coral reefs formed around the islands as they are farther out and see how much the coral has moved up the island as it subducted (moved under the water with the continental plate). Thus, as the islands move farther away, and therefore sink into the water, the coral that can only survive at certain depths is submerged too far for it to get adequate sunlight, and it dies. One can then measure radiometrically the age of rings of corals. When one measures the coral on the islands, they can correlate that with the ages of the corals and the islands themselves. This measurement also lined up with the previous two.

Davidson concluded that the problem with the YEC paradigm is that they will often focus upon rebutting multiple, independent claims. While this may work for each claim individually, the problem is that all of these types of evidence add up to form one cohesive picture. When they are cross-referenced and they all hit on the same age or date range, they all show the same predictions of distance, and the like, it becomes extremely implausible to say that every single way to find the age of the earth is faulty. They form a full picture. Furthermore, Davidson critiqued YECs for often presenting a selective picture of the evidence–only showing the evidence which favors their position.

Snelling- A Biblical and Geological Defense of a Young Earth and the Global Flood

Andrew Snelling is a well-known proponent of YEC, the author of Earth’s Catastrophic Past, and his presentation was perhaps the best defense of his position I have ever seen.

Snelling began by offering the common argument that Jesus taught the global flood and young earth creationism. He argued that the Hebrew word used in Genesis 7:17 is only used for this event, which hints at the incredible devastation.

local-flood-aigFurthermore, the language in Genesis states that the mountains were covered. Snelling’s slideshow had the image shown here on the right, which is becoming pervasive in discussions about the extent of the Flood. The argument is that if the Flood were local, it makes a mockery of the Biblical text. (See a different perspective on this issue with Hugh Ross’ “In the Days of Noah.”)

Snelling outlined several things we should look for if there was a global flood. Among these expectations are:

1) Marine fossils in strata for terrestrial creatures- Snelling named a number of places these could be found. This is an expectation because the Flood covered the whole earth, so the creatures should all be mixed together.

2) Rapid burial of creatures and plants- Snelling noted a number of places where fossils show rapid burial. This is expected because the Flood would have suddenly come upon these creatures.

3) Fossil graveyards- The Flood would have killed huge numbers of animals, so we should expect to find huge fossil graveyards, which we do.

4) Evidence that the ocean flooded the continents- if the Flood were global, we would expect to find its sedimentation upon the continents, and we do.

He argued that these are all evidenced in Earth’s catastrophic past, and he pointed to the Grand Canyon as evidence for a number of these evidences.

Snelling also looked at various geological features he said were evidences for a global flood and a young earth. Among these were several layers of sedimentary rock which are bent. He argued that this can only occur when the rock is liquefied like cement–otherwise it cracks–so this sedimentation had to happen during the Flood.

Discussion- Q+A

Next, there was a dialogue between Snelling and Davidson in the form of them asking each other questions. The highlights were a few specific questions:

Davidson asked Snelling about the Grand Canyon: specifically, he noted that the terrestrial fossils were found in similar strata, but never in the same layers, which instead suggests an ebbing and flowing of the water; not a global flood. Furthermore, he pointed out the lack of any pollinating plants in an entire mile of sediment. He asked how Snelling’s account lines up with this data. Snelling responded by arguing that the fossils are indeed mixed together and that we even find footprints in the wrong layers. He argued that due to “devastating tsunamis” which would have swept the earth, some of this could be undone and/or specific types of creatures/plants might have been swept out of the layers.

Snelling gave a brief outline of problems with radiometric dating giving divergent ages and asked Davidson to comment on the difficulties he pointed out with radiometric dating. He argued that often, old earth proponents and “secularists” simply assume an age for the rock and interpret the tests to get that age. Davidson responded noting that he worked with radiometric labs for quite some time and that there is mixing in the chemicals which can be accounted for. He showed a picture showing how some of this can work and how labs have to account for certain elements contaminating the rocks. However, he pointed out there is a margin of error to account for some of these difficulties.

Rock_StrataDavidson then brought up a slide with images of bent rocks. One was a “bench” at a graveyard in which the middle had sagged despite being made of stone. He argued that with enough pressure/time rock can sag under its own weight or (as the picture showed) even no weight at all. Given this evidence, he asked why bent rocks should count in favor of YEC. Snelling responded by saying that hard rock can be bent by pressure but that if the pressure is sufficient the rock will crack.  He continued to emphasize that in the Grand Canyon one can observe rocks bending without fracture.

Evaluation

I have to say I was struck by how much this interaction turned on the scientific aspects of the debate. I had thought that Snelling would focus more upon an attack of Davidson’s interpretation of Scripture, and while he did some of that, the majority of his responses were related to scientific arguments. Davidson followed suit and kept hammering examples that showed how the YEC interpretations Snelling gave of various natural phenomena failed.

Davidson’s scientific presentation in his paper was extremely strong. It would be very hard to explain away the fact that three completely independent methods for dating the islands lined up so clearly to point towards an ancient earth. If I had been on the border between young earth or old earth going in, I would have come out as convinced of an old earth. I actually did go in as one who holds to an old earth, having been convinced by the evidence a few years ago, and I came away utterly convinced that YEC is false.

Snelling’s talk was a great defense of the YEC position, but it demonstrated the flaws that Davidson was quick to capitalize on. I was really impressed by the fact that Davidson had a number of slides ready to respond to both Snelling’s presentation and his questions. Davidson’s critique of the “bent rocks” was particularly devastating.

Davidson’s critique of YEC: that they focus upon independently repudiating various dating methods, came to fruition in this discussion. He really showed how the YEC paradigm is utterly dependent upon a selective presentation of data at the exclusion of pieces that do not fit.

One thing I would have liked to see was more debate over the Flood and the Bible passages in general. I was surprised by how much the talk focused on the science–though that was extremely interesting.

Let me know your thoughts on the topic. Have you any insights on any of these issues?

Links

I have written on other talks that I attended at the ETS/EPS Conference in 2012. Specifically, check out my post on Caring for Creation: A discussion among evangelicals. I have also written briefly on every talk I attended. See my post on the ETS/EPS Conference 2012.

There are a great many posts on creation issues on my site. You can access them by checking out my page on the Origins Debate.

Naturalis Historia is a site that focuses primarily on the scientific evidence for an old earth. I highly recommend it.

For the theological aspects of the debate (and also more of the scientific discussion), check out The GeoChristian as well as Geocreationism, two fantastic sites.

Finally, for a comprehensive Biblical and scientific old earth view, see Reasons to Believe.

SDG.

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