Deep time doesn’t make sense!
Published: 20 June 2013 (GMT+10)
The Bible rejects ‘deep time’ (see Did God create over billions of years?). There is no hint of deep time within its pages; it says the universe is thousands of years old, not billions. But deep time is the mental furniture of our age. Our culture automatically thinks in terms of ‘millions of years’. It’s just assumed that science has proved deep time.
But what if deep time is fundamentally an irrational idea? No matter how much ‘science’ seems to ‘prove’ it, the point would be moot because deep time in itself simply wouldn’t make any sense. Logic is more foundational than science—science doesn’t have to exist (since nature doesn’t have to exist), but logic does. We can’t talk or reason without logic. Not even science can save an illogical idea.
Of course, deep time is not obviously irrational. It seems to make sense. But how can we test its logical consistency? First, we need to know what sort of idea ‘deep time’ is and what it specifically says. Next, we must remember that deep time is an interpretation of data. Data does not speak for itself. It is always interpreted according to our starting assumptions or axioms. Deep time is no different; it is an interpretation of the data that rests on a few basic axioms. This provides us with the crucial test: if those axioms are false or don’t make sense, deep time has no logical foundation to stand on, regardless of how impressive the ‘science’ of deep time seems.
What is deep time?
The timeline of deep time
What exactly is ‘deep time’? It’s a historical framework—a basic history of the universe. Its basic features are practically unquestioned today (Ga = billions of years ago; Ma: millions of years ago; ka = thousands of years ago): c. 14 Ga origin of the cosmos, c. 4.6 Ga origin of the earth, c. 3.8 Ga origin of life, c. 600 Ma origin of animals, c. 200 Ma origin of mammals, c. 2 Ma origin of humans, c. 200 ka origin of modern humans, c. 10 ka origin of agriculture. Its absolute length has varied somewhat over the last 200 years or so, but the basic events and sequence have remained the same. It has always been couched in timespans far longer than a biblical 6,000-year chronology of the universe.
Deep time: science or history?
When we ask, ‘Is deep time true?’, what sort of question are we asking? Is this a scientific question? After all, the ‘science of geology’ supposedly proves deep time. Still, the answer is no. Science has to do with how nature works, and is studied by repeatable experiments and observations done in the present. Rather, it’s a historical question. It’s about events in the past. We can’t repeat them. We can’t observe them. We can’t do experiments on them. Science can be a useful tool in studying history (see CSI … and CMI), but it provides only secondary and circumstantial evidence.
Eyewitness testimony is the primary source of knowledge about the past. It is where someone who was there tells us what happened, when, where, and even why based on what they saw and/or heard. Now, we all know that witnesses can lie or be mistaken. That is a problem in courts of law, but it is not a problem when the testimony comes from God, as with Genesis 1–11 (and the rest of Scripture). But it’s not just that biblical testimony is involved in natural history. Testimony has some unique advantages over physical evidence. It provides us with a conceptual context in which to understand what happened—something physical evidence can never do by itself. Evidence can’t speak at all, let alone for itself. When someone says ‘the evidence speaks for itself’, they are really saying that they think the evidence can only be reasonably interpreted one way. Rather, people tell us what happened, not the rocks or fossils. And when people tell us what happened, based not on what they saw or heard but on what they inferred from physical evidence, their story is automatically at the mercy of what they think could have happened—their axioms. But when different people have different assumptions about the past, they produce different stories from the same evidence. Testimony is the only independent way to test these stories. It is a unique type of evidence to history; it is not scientific evidence. Testimony can’t be tested scientifically; it has to be tested in other ways (internal consistency, consistency with other witnesses, credibility, etc.). Testimony repeated doesn’t give us new data. And it provides a conceptual context in which to interpret the evidence, and doesn’t just assume one. Testimony is a crucial difference between science and history. As such, science and history are not the same thing, so we must be very careful in the way we apply scientific findings to history.
The axioms of deep time
Unlike the timeline of deep time, the axioms of deep time have not changed in over 200 years. So what are the axioms that are used to justify this historical framework?
The premise of prehistory
Every historical framework works from a basic premise about the past. For deep time ‘history’ this is the notion of prehistory: that there is a (long) history for the cosmos prior to the start of recorded history. There are only two types of evidence used in history: physical evidence and testimony. Prehistory rules out testimony by definition.
Matter’s all that matters
The premise of prehistory entails that physical evidence is all that matters for prehistory. It’s the only thing we can investigate! So we have to presume that matter (and energy) is all that matters in prehistory. Natural cause and effect is all that applies in our study of nature (see The rules of the game). And from this starting point we have to assume that matter behaves with absolute uniformity in time and space.
The supremacy of science
If matter is all that matters, then the study of matter’s behaviour, science, is the only method we can use to find anything out about prehistory. This means we must be able to inherently trust science to give us the right answers (when we have enough data, of course). This idea is called positivism, which says that science is the supreme way to know anything about nature.
The ‘clocks’ of constancy
In history we need a way to tell the time so we can know when events happened. With nobody in prehistory to tell us, how can we even begin to investigate? We have to assume the present is the key to the past—an idea called uniformitarianism. In other words, we assume the observed rates of certain natural processes are constant through time. A constant rate plus known conditions in the present provides a way to calculate a time. And when we measure current conditions and rates of processes like erosion, rock formation, and isotope decay, and extrapolate them into the past, we obtain an age for the earth much older than human history records. This supposedly justifies the premise of prehistory.
Deep time: coherent or confused?
It all sounds so nice and neat; a simple set of axioms to prove deep time. Do these ideas make sense? Do they hold together in a coherent way?
Is matter all that matters?
Three reasons are given for why matter is all that matters for prehistory: 1) physical nature is all there really is, 2) whatever is outside nature had nothing discernible to do with prehistory, and 3) matter is all we’ve got to go by in prehistory even if there were miracles in prehistoric times. Do any of these ideas make sense?
The first idea is called naturalism, and is the simplest starting point. If physical nature is all there is, then it follows that physical nature is all that matters for prehistory. However, naturalism is self-refuting. If physical nature is all there is, then a person’s belief in that idea is produced purely by the workings of inanimate nature. Their brain chemistry made them believe it; they didn’t reason to the belief—reason had nothing to do with it! So why trust your brain? Especially when someone else’s, by the same laws of brain chemistry, tells them that nature is not all there is. Again, your brain could just be fooling you to keep you alive, and you’ll never know the difference. If nature is all there is, we can’t know it, which means belief in that idea is self-refuting.
The second idea is called methodological naturalism,1,2 which says that science can only explain what happens in the universe in terms of observed or testable natural mechanisms. It’s doesn’t tell us if nature is all there really is, but it does say that science operates as if nature is all there is. The upshot is that if there are any supernatural beings, they never interfere directly in nature, and especially in prehistory. This idea is common among theistic evolutionists; it’s seen as a way to avoid both naturalism and biblical creation.
But there’s no inherent reason why some such beings (like God) couldn’t or shouldn’t do miracles in prehistory … beyond our own personal opinions. Only if such beings told us there were no miracles in prehistory (and they were reliable) could we actually establish the point. But then it would no longer be prehistory! Hence, methodological naturalism is arbitrary.
It’s also a smokescreen. What’s the real point? It’s not that nature is all that matters, but that the way nature behaves is ordered. The two ideas have nothing to do with each other—if nature is all there is it doesn’t mean it’s ordered. It could be completely chaotic, for all we know. And as we saw above, we’ll never even know if physical nature is all there really is. So why operate as if nature is all there is? We don’t. We operate as if nature’s behaviour is predictable. Why is it predictable? Great question—to which naturalism is an incoherent answer, and methodological naturalism is a non-answer (see Why does science work at all? for the answer).
Miracles in prehistory?
Some believers in prehistory, such as old-earth creationists, believe that miracles were possible in prehistory. They reject the notion that we should operate as if nature is all there is, though they still believe that physical evidence is all they have access to for figuring out what happened (by the definition of prehistory). Rather, they strive to find the most likely explanation of the physical evidence, whether natural or supernatural. Types of events they typically label as ‘miracles’ are the origin of the cosmos, the origin of life, and the origin of certain biological features in the history of life.
But precisely when did these miraculous events occur? Where? By whom? Do we even know if some of these events were performed by supernatural agents? They will readily attribute the absolute beginning to some supernatural cause,3 but that doesn’t tell us who or what that was, or how long ago it was. They will also invoke a miracle for the origin of life. It’s pretty clear that life basically can’t come from non-life without intelligent input in principle, but showing precisely when, where, and by whom this miraculous event actually happened without testimony is impossible. There is no historical context. There is no absolute timeline. There is no way to identify the ‘culprit’. Only testimony can provide such things in a non-arbitrary way, but that is ruled out by definition in prehistory. As such, they are completely at the mercy of their assumptions with no way to test them, which makes any assumptions adopted arbitrary.
In practice, the ‘where’ and ‘when’ of such events are ‘read off’ deep time history, and the ‘who’ is assumed by one’s own theology. But miracles in prehistory contradict other deep-time assumptions, which provide the only way to get all the information we need to reconstruct the prehistorical past. Without testimony the present is the only possible key to the past to date prehistorical events. Miracles however entail that the present isn’t always the key to the past. If a miracle affects the rates of physical processes used to date events in the past, we can’t trust the dates. Miracles in prehistory also undermine the reliability of science to tell us about prehistory. Once one miracle is allowed, where do we stop? That we should stop at some point doesn’t tell us anything.
Nature’s predictability is clearly essential for a working nature. What we can’t know and yet need to is precisely how many and what sort of miracles it takes to ruin a reasonable trust in nature’s predictability. But even this doesn’t tell us all the miracles that e.g. God might do, let alone what He actually did. Some miracles may have happened that didn’t leave easily discernible evidence behind (e.g. we have no physical evidence of Jesus turning water into wine). Or even if they did, perhaps some miracles were so large in scope that we might mistake them for natural events (e.g. events like Creation and Noah’s Flood). This is no better than methodological naturalism; it arbitrarily assumes what e.g. God did.
We can’t know precisely what God did when and where unless He tells us. But if He told us, it would no longer be prehistory. So there’s no reason to trust in deep time history if miracles are allowed in prehistory. In fact, allowing miracles means there’s no way to say anything certain about specific events in prehistory (see CMI’s views on the Intelligent Design Movement). This is hardly a solid basis for a historical framework.
The present: the key to the past?
The present is presumed to be the key to the prehistorical past. This uniformitarianism would be an ingenious way to tell the time without witnesses … if it worked. The idea assumes constant rates in various physical processes and uses these to date events (see How dating methods work). Secular geologists have largely rejected this idea—but not entirely. What they have (generally) rejected is dating by processes now known not to be constant, like erosion,4 volcanism,5 and rock formation.6 But they still use uniformitarianism to tell the time (See BioLogos and the age of the earth): radiometric dating is now the prime method, but that method is not objective (see How accurate is Carbon-14 (and other radiometric) dating?).
We’ve seen this idea work in crime scene investigation. But there’s the key—we’ve seen it work. Timelines derived from forensic science have often been verified independently by testimony. By definition we can’t see if the ‘constant rate’ clocks of prehistory work (see CSI and evolution). Neither can we know they work without testimony because testimony is the only independent test available for such clocks. Therefore, if the present is the key to the prehistorical past, we can’t know it.
There is a common response to this: we can know that these methods (generally) work because nature behaves in a constant way. But this does not follow. Nature’s constancy does not by itself guarantee that the present is the key to the past.7 It’s not the only factor influencing how these ‘process clocks’ run. Even if the rates were constant, we could not tell how much time had elapsed because we would not know the initial reading of the clock. And also, conditions can change how the process runs, as can the scale of the process. The process rate can itself be rate-dependent. And what exactly is the ‘present’ which is supposedly the key to the past? Today? The last year? The last century? The history of scientific observation? Human history? All these ‘presents’ are miniscule in comparison to the alleged billions of years of cosmic history. How can we know they provide a norm by which to measure the rest of history? Without testimony, we can’t.
The problem is that uniformitarianism equates the behaviour of history with science—repeatably constant. But the objects of study in science and history don’t behave the same way. Past events are not repeatable because time is linear, and only moves in one direction. On the other hand, how nature behaves is testable by repeated observations or experiments because it’s not something time can change—only God can, since only He sustains nature.
And what happens when miracles get in the way? Miracles leave physical effects. Big miracles leave big physical effects—like a global Flood, or a six day creation of the whole cosmos. When miracles like these get in the way, the ‘process clocks’ can’t work because the conditions have changed, the scale is huge, and even the rates have likely altered. Apart from testimony, we can’t know what happened.
We even see different ‘process clocks’ regularly giving conflicting dates! That is, the same assumptions with comparable methods give different results (see Age of the Earth). This makes perfect sense because uniformitarianism makes no sense.
Science rules prehistory?
Science (see ‘It’s not science’) is assumed to rule prehistory. This is usually a subset of the idea that science rules everything. It can be taken two ways: (1) science is the only way to know anything, or (2) science is the ultimate authority for knowing anything. The problem for both ideas is that they must be provable scientifically. But the idea that ‘science is the only way to know anything’ is not itself testable or repeatable scientifically. We can’t prove it using science. It’s the same with assuming that science has primacy. Even if science had primacy in 1,000 instances of knowing doesn’t mean it must have primacy in the next instance of knowing. Science can’t provide us with absolute truth, so it has no authority over methods that can, like revelation or logic. Therefore, both of the above ideas are self-refuting.
This applies even if we just try to limit science’s rule to prehistory. Science is never autonomous. Science is impossible without certain axioms derived from philosophy and theology. In fact, these axioms are biblical assumptions, like:
- an existing God (to produce a real world) (Hebrews 11:6; Genesis 1:1)
- a rational God (for a logical world and a rational man) (2 Timothy 2:13)
- an unchanging God (reflected in nature’s constancy) (Malachi 3:6)
- a faithful God (we can trust God to keep nature constant) (Jeremiah 33:25, 2 Timothy 2:13)
- a free God (we can’t know how God keeps nature constant without testing it) (Psalm 115:3)
- a sovereign God (God can keep nature constant) (1 Chronicles 29:11–12, Colossians 1:16–17, Hebrews 1:3)
- a God who reveals himself (without which we cannot know anything about Him) (Romans 1:19, Hebrews 1:1–2)
- a humanity put in charge of creation to rule it (so we should bother figuring out how nature works to rule it properly) (Genesis 1:28)
- a charge to tell the truth (so we study nature and report our findings truthfully) (Exodus 20:16)
In other words, the God of the Bible is the only reasonable ground for science.
History confirms this. Science was born not in Greece, China, India, or Islam, but in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. It blossomed in the Reformation, when the Bible’s ultimate authority and the Fall’s radical corruption of the whole of man were acknowledged. Science owes its origin to the God of the Bible.
But if the God of the Bible is the ground for science, the Bible of God is its constraint. The Bible tells us not just what God is like, but what He has done. And He has done miracles—even some big ones. And since the God of the Bible can’t lie and knows everything, the Bible as God’s word is perfectly trustworthy. These miracles falsify a purely scientific history, so we have to take them into account when we use science to study history. The Bible rules science—both the science of present process and the science of past event.
The assumptions of deep time don’t make sense. If matter is all that matters, we can never know it. Even if matter is all there is, there’s no reason to think matter would behave in a predictable way. We can’t know if there are perfect ‘clocks’ for prehistory because to know we would need to see them work. However, the concept of prehistory rules this out. The very idea that science is supreme is self-refuting. So, with no way to justify prehistory, it’s nothing but an arbitrary assumption. Each axiom is incoherent. Attempts to marry them with biblical theism don’t improve them, and if anything only highlight the incoherence even more. The Achilles’ heel of the whole deep time enterprise is prehistory—the fact that it is history that must ignore testimony. No testimony means no history because without testimony any assumptions we adopt are arbitrary at best.
This of course is not a problem for biblical Christianity. It has the infallible witness of Scripture to what happened. God tells us his story, and so gives us a basis for understanding history. It is only from this basis that we can hope to know and understand history, and to be able to explore history further using physical evidence.
- Reed, J.K. and Williams, E.L., Battlegrounds of natural history: naturalism, CRSQ 48(2):147–167, 2011. Return to text.
- Doyle, S., Defining arguments away: the distorted language of secularism, J. Creation 26(2):120–127, 2012. Return to text.
- Rightly so, but atheists such as Leonard Krauss disagree. He posits that the universe came from ‘nothing’ by redefining ‘nothing’ to mean ‘a quantum vacuum’. This is clearly not a total absence of being; Krauss instead arbitrarily assumes the necessary existence of quantum mechanics. See Discovery Channel program: How the Universe Works for more information. Return to text.
- Reed, J.K., Three early arguments for deep time—part 1: time needed to erode valleys, J. Creation 25(2):83–91, 2011. Return to text.
- Reed, J.K., Three early arguments for deep time—part 2: volcanism, J. Creation 26(1):61–70, 2012. Return to text.
- Reed, J.K. and Oard M.J., Three early arguments for deep time—part 3: the ‘geognostic pile’, J. Creation 26(2):100–109, 2012. Return to text.
- Reed, J.K., Demythologizing uniformitarian history, CRSQ 35(3):156–165, 1998. Return to text.