I appreciate Dr. Richard Dawkins’ impassioned arguments against creationism, as he challenges his listeners and readers to think through their positions and to offer sound reasons for their conclusions. My focus here is not to argue against his atheism, but is to answer his arguments that creationism is not a plausible understanding of our origin history. Sadly, it appears that Dawkins won’t be debating any creationists in the near future, as he is reluctant to give “wingnuts the oxygen of publicity and the respectability of being seen on a platform with a real scientist, anywhere.”1 Nonetheless Dawkins, in the context of discussing the Ken Ham, Bill Nye debate on creationism, offers five points of candid and insightful advice to “anyone who, for one reason or another finds him/herself debating one of those idiots.” In this series I, Wingnut, consider Dawkins’ five-pronged critique of creationism.
Dawkins Argument #1
Physical scientists (such as Bill Nye) should play to their strengths in physical science and call the wingnut out on the age of fossils, and cosmological evidence on the age of the universe. Radiometric dating of rocks is solid, irrefutable science. The agreement between different isotopes with overlapping time spans is so strong, it is impossible for anyone to wriggle out of the conclusion that the world is billions of years old, not thousands. Astronomical evidence of the expanding universe agrees.
Wingnut Response #1
I appreciate that both Dawkins (MA, D.Phil, D.Sc.) and Nye (BS, Mechanical Engineering, three honorary doctorates) are educated as physical scientists. Nonetheless, the discussion of origins is not subject to the scientific method, which can tell us with some degree of accuracy how things are insofar as they can be measured, but which cannot enlighten us as to how they came to be that way in the first place. The scientific method relies on repeatability. In fact, a scientific theory must be confirmed by repeated experimental tests in order to be “scientific.” If a theory cannot be confirmed in such a way, it may still be a legitimate theory, and perhaps even highly probable, yet it is not a scientific theory.
Consequently, neither creationism nor evolutionism, as theories of origin, is scientific. Since questions of origin are best answered with historical rather than scientific method, Dawkins’ and Nye’s training in the physical sciences is not substantially advantageous in a discussion of origins. To argue that creationism is unscientific is accurate, but in fairness, evolutionism shares that same characteristic. On the other hand, to argue that creationism is anti-scientific requires substantial evidence, and I suggest Dawkins does not provide that for us.
Regarding the age of fossils and cosmological evidence on the age of the universe, methodology and interpretive posture is critical. Yes, radiometric dating of rocks is solid, irrefutable science (at least until science refines and offers us a better method). But radiometric dating can only infer the ages of the fossils contained in rocks based on at least two assumptions (1) amounts of isotypes in the samples from the outset and (2) that current decay rates have been constant or very near constant from the beginning. If these decay rates haven’t been constant, then the method is simply not accurate. In Biblical cosmology there are events described in Genesis that could have significantly impacted and altered decay rates, but if one is unwilling to consider the possible historicity of such events, then there would be little reason to question the constancy of decay rates. Consequently, the question of the historicity of the Genesis account is relevant for the interpretation of the measured data, and thus one’s position on the Genesis account will necessarily have substantial bearing on the interpretation of that data. Further, the constancy of decay rates is not a scientifically determinable question, but a historical one.
Arnold’s and Libby’s Curve of Knowns shows, for example, fairly tight accuracy in the radiocarbon method’s dating of wood for up to 4600 years. Further, sample and predicted value agreement suggests “cosmic ray intensity has been constant within about 10 percent for periods up to 20,000 years.”2 But beyond thousands of years, accuracy of the model is hypothetical and based on assumptions. While there have been adjustments to Arnold’s and Libby’s method (from the 5568 year Libby half-life, to the 5730 year Cambridge half-life, for example), the 14C method is not dissimilar to that which Libby, Anderson, and Arnold pioneered over six decades ago.
R.E Taylor reports that even recently there are some challenges in the C14 time scale with periods as recent as 300 years due to increased fossil fuel usage and radioactive bomb activity. He suggests 95% confidence in dating more recent materials. While Taylor further suggests the C14 time scale is capable of accurately obtaining ages up to 70,000 years,3 it is interesting to note the impact of atmospheric changes on the time scale. What if the Genesis account was historically accurate? How would those events affect decay rates?
These are relevant questions not to be lightly dismissed. Simply put, if any of the variables (e.g., amount of parent and daughter isotopes, decay rate, etc.) in the radioactive disintegration equation are altered, then the results obviously change proportionally. Consequently, with many possible variable changes over the course of recent and ancient history (especially), science cannot offer precision on the age of the earth. Nor can creationism, for that matter. Hence the terms, “theory” is appropriate with respect to the earth’s age. To conclude that the earth is billions rather than thousands of years old requires assumptions that the variables have been largely unchanged from the beginning, whereas, concluding in favor of a much younger earth requires a similar assumption that the variables have indeed changed. At this point, neither assumption is provable. Both the evolutionist and the creationist are taking their assumptions on faith.
Finally, Dawkins cites as evidence for a billions of years old earth the astronomical evidence of the expanding universe. I must say first that I am glad to see Dawkins agreeing with the literal grammatical historical interpretation of the Bible, as Job himself twice references God’s stretching (Hebr., nata) out of the heavens:
Who alone stretches out the heavens… (Job 9:8)
He stretches out the north over empty space and hangs the earth on nothing. (Job 26:7)
D. Russell Humphreys (Ph.D, Physics, LSU) advocates a cosmological model of origin (creation) in which God did exactly that—stretched out the heavens—at creation. Humphreys’ model takes the Bible literally and argues that the expanding universe helps to explain how distant starlight is not inconsistent with a young earth. Of course, Humphrey’s model is not provable (experimentation and duplication would prove quite difficult), but it illustrates that the expanding universe is not necessarily a proof text for old-earth theorizing.
There is one additional mention of “stretching” in Job that is relevant to our discussion here, and this one is God’s direct response to Job:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth” Tell me if you have understanding. Who set its measurements? Since you know, or who stretched the line on it? (Job 38:4-5)
And in this simple question is illustrated the problem with Dawkins’ dogmatism on the age and origin of the earth: Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Dawkins wasn’t there, and neither were you and I. Our tools of measurement are very limited, and that limitation calls for a great deal of humility in approaching the matter.
Finally, may I say, Dr. Dawkins, that my goal in writing here is not to convince you of a younger earth than you suspect (neither of us can prove whether or not our assumptions are correct) but only to suggest that the biblical record isn’t implausible if certain assumptions are considered. Essentially, it is not the age of the earth that is of supreme importance here, but that the Creator has revealed Himself, and in love has personally involved Himself in His creation. Jesus loved you enough to give you life—twice. Consequently, I love you too, and hope and pray you discover the hope and joys of a universe in which God is.
1 All quotes from Richard Dawkins in this article are from http://www.richarddawkins.net/foundation_articles/2014/1/16/why-bill-nye-shouldn-t-debate-ken-ham#comment-box-26, viewed 1/18-/2014.
2 J.R. Arnold and W.F. Libby, “Age determinations by radiocarbon content: checks with samples of known age” in Science, December 23, 1949, Vol. 110.
3 R.E. Taylor, “Radiocarbon Dating: The Continuing Revolution” in Evolutionary Anthropology, June 2, 2005, Vol. 4, Issue 5.