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Uniformitarianism - A Christian Criticism of Science
Uniformitarianism is the assumption that the laws of nature are unchanged across space and time. For example, many natural laws rely on the speed of light being constant everywhere and at every time in the history of the universe. Assumptions such as this are accepted by most scientists because they produce verifiable theories, especially in geology and astronomy. Furthermore, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that natural laws have been changing.
Christians will sometimes criticize uniformitarianism because it disproves the idea of a 6,000 year-old universe. Indeed, radiocarbon dating and astronomical observations suggest a much older universe, and these findings can only be dismissed by questioning the perennial validity of the scientific laws they are based on.
When asked how the laws of nature changed, Christians contend that God did it without leaving any evidence behind. Thus, one could make the equally unsupported counter-claim that a natural law or process that we haven't discovered yet (rather than God) caused the Earth to be 6,000 years old.
Uniformitarianism in Geology
Ockham's razor is the principle that the best explanation for an observation is that which makes the fewest assumptions. Scientists obey Ockham's razor by assuming that the speed of light, the rate of radioactive decay, and all other natural laws operate today as they did millions of years ago. Indeed, until there is evidence to suggest otherwise, uniformitarianism is the common-sense position because it makes the fewest assumptions.
By stating that natural laws were different in the past, Christians are making superfluous assumptions, including:
- Natural laws can change over time.
- There is undiscovered evidence for this change.
- Something exists or existed that could have caused the change.
- The Abrahamic God is the cause.
- The Abrahamic God had a reason for causing the change.
The end result could be called Ockham's duct tape because of the number of unsupported claims that are used to hold the theory together.
Sometimes Christians will present the Bible as evidence that the Earth is 6,000 years old. Perhaps also, Alice in Wonderland is evidence that the laws of nature were different in a 19th century rabbit hole in Oxford. Unfortunately, writing something down doesn't make it true. Not even science textbooks describe truths. Science describes experiments and their associated uncertainties that have been performed to explain the observable world. These experiments can be recreated at home or in a laboratory so that people can test the explanations for themselves. The experimenters state their assumptions, and accept that if the assumptions were ever proven wrong, the experiment would be invalid.
Assumptions in Science
Science does not suppose the irrelevance of the assumptions it is based on. Religion does, and that is the key difference between the two philosophies. In science, assumptions are a reason for doubt; an addendum that the results could still be wrong. If the assumption is proven wrong later, scientific findings that rely on it will be thrown away.
Therefore, uniformitarianism is not presented as an absolute truth. As we cannot directly test conditions in the deep past, experiments assume uniformity in order to further our current understanding of the universe. The question of uniformity will be returned to when experimental tools are capable of addressing it. This doesn't mean our current understanding is flawed. Indeed, scientific theories that assume uniformity appear to accurately model our observations.
In fact, assuming uniformity is currently the best way to test if it is wrong. Experiments are performed to test predictions and, therefore, they also test the assumptions those predictions are based on. If predictions turn out to be false, assumptions such as uniformity can be brought into question.
Unfortunately, Christians appear to view science as a competing religion with a competing set of absolute truths. For example, some scientists have theorized that the universe popped into existence from a state of nothingness. As a result, Christians often claim that scientists believe this explanation en masse. However, it's unlikely that any scientist would imbue this theory with belief; it is merely a slightly better theory than creationism because it makes one less assumption (it doesn't require God to make it pop). Even the Big Bang, evolution, and general relativity are still only theories. Many scientists will commit to believing these theories because of the substantial supporting evidence, though the possibility of their falsity is never completely dismissed.
The scientific assumption of uniformitarianism is criticized by Christians who are motivated to reconcile the differences between irrefutable scientific observations and the explanations given in the Bible. When scientific endeavor leads to unwelcome discoveries, the findings are ignored or attacked by Christians for suggesting what is seen as a competing set of absolute truths.
Though science is only as accurate as the assumptions it is based on; religion is the will to fall short of this standard. Indeed, an opinion based on no evidence is not equal to an opinion based on mountains of evidence, especially when the former ignores the entirety of the latter. If, as a result, science fails to recreate the deities and creation stories that your imagination demands, it is not science that is limited; rather, it is your expectations that are inflated. Science is a tool for reducing uncertainty, not eliminating it. It takes a brave person to face the uncertainties of our existence, and a coward to wish them away with theoretical absurdities.
© 2013 Thomas Swan