googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Science is Only Done in the Present

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Science is Only Done in the Present

A few weeks back, I wrote about the absurd improbability of abiogenesis. In that post, I remarked that, The supposed first ancestor of everything was not observed. Neither can it be repeated or tested. It's outside of the scope of scientific inquiry.” Steven J, a frequent visitor to my blog, took issue with that and replied with the following statement:

The death of a particular person is often unobserved, and always unrepeatable, yet for some reason governments still keep medical examiners on hand. You can't burn the same building down more than once, yet arson investigators still exist. The investigation of past events from present evidence is the basis of many different fields of investigation. The prehistoric past is no more beyond scientific investigation than last night in an unobserved alley.”

I didn't address this point in my comment back to him because I had intended to use his point as the subject for a future post. I just didn't realize it would take as long as it has. Anyway, I've heard this point before and I've meant to write about this many times so I thank Steven J for the opportunity to clear up the subject.

Science in only ever conducted in the present. Always! A fossil, for example, may have been created in the past but we can only study it in the present. We can measure it, x-ray it, compare it to the bones of living animals, compare it to other fossils we've found, and subject it to a wide battery of tests. All the things that we can do to learn more about the fossil can only be done in the present. We cannot go back into the past and “observe” the suspect animal. I can repeat the tests done on the fossil in the present. I cannot repeat the animal and nor can I repeat the alleged “millions of years” the fossil has been buried. The idea that science is only conducted in the present seems to me to be self evident.

Of course, simply because we cannot repeat the past does not mean we cannot draw conclusions – even correct conclusions – about events we did not see. As Steven J pointed out, we do it frequently. When a person dies, we certainly cannot repeat the death of that person yet we still are usually able to determine the cause of his death. The difference here, though, is that people die every day. Many times we observe people die. We've seen enough heart attack victims to know the symptoms of a heart attack. We've seen enough shooting victims to know what a gunshot wound looks like. So in the case of a suspicious death, we can examine the body, compare it to other conditions which we have observed, and draw a reasonable conclusion about the cause of death.

Furthermore, in the case of something like a shooting, we may not have seen the gun being fired but if we have a suspect gun, we can fire the gun again then compare the bullet we observed being fired to the bullet we recovered from the victim. Perhaps we can conclude if the same gun fired both bullets.

In any shooting, as well as in cases of arson, or burglaries, or plane crashes, or train derailments, or any event we wish to examine, we can gather clues left by the event we didn't witness, and compare them to things we know to be true. We often can learn things about the past event but we still can only study it in the present!

Now, when we're talking about evolutionary science, there's a key difference between studying things like abiogenesis and investigating homicides. Both are events from the past but we've observed homicides; To this day, we've never observed abiogenesis. We can see how a gunshot wound to the heart is always fatal. We have never seen how non-living chemicals can be arranged to become a living cell. What's more, abiogenesis is such a unique event and so far removed from us that, even if we should someday create life in a laboratory, there is ultimately no way to confirm that is how it supposedly happened billions of years ago. Studying mundane events like homicides is science. “Studying” abiogenesis is mere speculation.

Another thing we can't observe is age. Using again the example of homicide, we've seen how victims decompose over a day, or a week, or a year (sorry to be gory) but we've never observed “millions of years.” We can observe the condition of bodies we know have been dead a certain length of time and compare that to a body which has been dead an unknown length of time.  We cannot see the time; we can only see the known effects of time on the body.  So to say a particular fossil is “65 million years old” is dramatically different than saying a victim has been dead for a week. One can be repeated and tested empirically and the other cannot.

Age” simply cannot be seen. When we see an “old” person, we aren't really seeing his age but are seeing things like wrinkles, a stooped posture, and gray hair. We have seen these similar characteristics in people whose ages we know and so when we see these features on a stranger, we can estimate his age. However, when we're talking about the age of the earth, we've never seen what a 4 billion year old earth looks like.

I don't want to make this post too long but I have to mention one other thing because I know some evolutionist will bring it up. Scientists love to say that when we're looking at space we're looking into the past. Even the light from distant stars is only observed in the present! It's true that the light has taken time to reach us but we are still seeing the light in the present. We are not seeing the supposed “millions of years” it took the light to reach us.

This is one of the things I'm really tired of arguing with evolutionists about. I can understand reaching different conclusions about the same evidence but believing we can literally see the past is ridiculous. It also frustrates rational discussion since many evolutionists cannot see the circular nature of their view. When we look at a fossil, we are not looking at the past: if a person believes he sees “millions of years” when he looks at a fossil, he is assuming something about the fossil that he should be seeking to discover. How did the fossil come to be? When did the fossil come to be? We can use science to explore these questions but we can only explore them in the present.


Steven J. said...

It seems to me that you're trying to avoid stating your point directly. If, because science is done only in the present, it cannot tell us about the distant past, why can it tell us anything about the recent past or the relatively near future (after all, an engineer designing a bridge depends on steel having the same properties in that future bridge that it has in the lab today)?

You seem to want to argue (preferably without stating this upfront) that perhaps the laws of nature were radically but undetectably altered in ancient times, so that, e.g. radiometric dating is not merely imprecise but grossly misleading, and our ability to see supernovae millions of light-years away is no reason to suppose their light took millions of years to get here.

You're arguing, basically, that God worked myriad miracles unmentioned in Genesis to hide the evidence of the miracles that are mentioned in Genesis. From a logical standpoint, it would be trivial for an omnipotent Creator to create a world in which no radiometric dates yielded ages of more than several thousand years, if the world were that young. To suggest that isochron dating or the observation of distant galaxies tells us nothing of how much time has passed since the origin of the universe implies that God has, in the words of a 19th century author, "written over His creation one vast and superfluous lie."

You say that "if a person believes he sees “millions of years” when he looks at a fossil, he is assuming something about the fossil that he should be seeking to discover." How is one to do this, without assuming the uniformity of nature throughout the whole space and time the fossil has occupied?

Quite possibly your answer is that we should look at the Bible. There are two problems with this suggestion. First, it has yielded answers in the past that even creationists now tend to reject: e.g. Pope Urban VIII, Martin Luther, and John Calvin all agreed that the Bible clearly taught that the sun orbited the Earth, not vice-versa. Second, if you assume that we can't extrapolate the observed behavior of nature into the unobserved past, can we even trust historical reports and ancient documents? We depend on assumptions about the unobserved motives and states of mind of ancient writers when interpreting their writings. Your skepticism about the uniformity of nature saws off the branch you propose to sit on.

Anonymous said...

Very logical. Love it.
Funny that people like Steve J, who seems very intelligent and well educated, can't see the lack of logic in his own comment.

God Bless!


RKBentley said...

Steven J,

I've written another post that applies the point of my point of this post directly to abiogenesis.

Much of your comment seems to be a red herring that is not directly related to my point. However, it's not uninteresting so I might use it in a future post.

God bless!!


RKBentley said...


Most evolutionists resist acknowledging this very obvious point. I think it makes them look less credible but that's good for us so I say they're welcome to continue denying what every one else can see is true.

God bless!!