A Christian geoscientist’s understanding of what the observations and physical laws say about Earth’s history and evolution.

Separation of Science and Faith (Part II)

In Part I I indicated that Thomas Chamberlain stressed the importance of multiple working hypotheses and that science would become biased toward a particular theory even without valid evidence or observations. Exactly how Chamberlain’s fears have come to pass can be demonstrated in countless examples regarding current geological thinking as no counter theory to plate tectonics and old-earth theory has been allowed to enter mainstream secular thinking. I will demonstrate one example here. We know that the Earth’s interior is extremely hot; the boundary between the outer and inner core has now been estimated to be about 6,000o C, believed to be as hot as the surface of the sun. The outer core is composed of liquid nickel and iron. Thermodynamic calculations suggest that it would take approximately 50,000 years for the Earth to conduct its inner heat outward through the crust resulting in a solid inner earth in roughly that amount of time. Rather than consider that the plausibility of the Earth being younger than 50,000 years, which is a legitimate alternative theory and conclusion based on the outcome of this physical fact, scientists instead have invented an alternative explanation to fit their theory of an old Earth, that is, radioactivity in the Earth’s core and deep mantle, even though there is no physical evidence for such radioactivity. Volcanic eruptions today, many of which are believed to originate from deep mantle plumes that extend to the outer core, show no signs of elevated radioactivity originating from the deep mantle necessary to keep the Earth’s core hot for billions of years. (I will in a later post show that all radioactive isotopes are located in the crust and uppermost mantle). Nonetheless secular scientists accept these concepts and ideas without observational proof. Talk about pseudo science.

Many examples can be found where unfounded assumptions established early in the fledgling years of geological thinking have become accepted facts. These unproven concepts have completely biased our thinking about Earth history and have led to a single theory regarding Earth’s geological past that has now been so ingrained in higher education that no alternative theory is even considered plausible even though there is another theory that better fits the observations than old Earth plate tectonics theory. Unfortunately today, any observations that fail to be explained by plate tectonics theory are simply dismissed or, as seen above, are explained to fit the current theory so that conclusions are drawn without observational proof even to the extreme outcome of violating physical laws (subduction is one example of this—see 10 problems with plate tectonics).

Two key assumptions have had the most profound impact leading to an old Earth theology. The first of these assumptions that will be discussed here in Part II is uniformitarianism. This impressively long word simply states that the rates of natural occurrences we observe in nature today have occurred throughout all of Earth’s history. On the surface this seems like a rather innocuous theory, yet it has had profound implications in geologic and evolutionary philosophy that has shaped our world view and greatly impacted the science education we receive today.

This notion of uniformitarianism was first put forth by James Hutton, a Scottish farmer, who argued back in the 1790’s that Earth was shaped by gradual imperceptibly slow changes, not by catastrophic events. Hutton’s thinking was shaped by what he presently observed in the earth. In other words, Hutton used processes that he currently observed in nature to make his assessment and “opinion” about all geologic history. For example, he noted that rain eroded mountains and determined that uplift of molten material pushed up the crust to create new mountains. He saw these processes as being extremely slow and concluded that Earth must be extremely old. Charles Lyell (1797-1875) later built upon Hutton’s ideas and wanted to use pure science to prove his mentor William Buckland wrong because Buckland believed in catastrophism based on biblical concepts, but didn’t use or have valid observational data to validate his view point. Lyell traveled through Europe observing terraces from sea-level changes and viewed depositional sequences as representing vast time and concluded that river valleys were not formed by a flood but by the slow workings of wind and water over countless epochs of time. Estimates of erosion and uplift rates that are measured today throughout the earth are generally on the order of millimeters to centimeters per year.  However, concluding that these estimates have always occurred throughout all time is not scientifically valid because current observations cannot be extrapolated to far reaching time into the past. No statistician would support extrapolating a set of temporal observations back through 99.9% of the time domain in which no data exist. This simply is not good science; worse, it’s “pseudo-science”. Yet that is exactly what uniformitarianism has done.  It has resulted in secular scientists making unverified and unsupported statements of past rates of deposition and erosion as scientific fact.

We have had the opportunity to witness in our lifetime a phenomenal geologic event that allows us to see the potential of what catastrophic geologic events can do to the landscape in an extremely short period of time. That event is the eruption of Mount St. Helen’s on May 18, 1980, which provides a modern-day laboratory to perhaps look into Earth’s past and to imagine what a global catastrophic event could do if this “relatively small” eruption could cause such incredible reworking of the landscape.

Figure 1 is a map showing the landscape with geographic features prior to the eruption. Note, in particular, the location of the North Fork of the Toutle River, which emanated from melt-water coming off the mountain, and the size, shape and elevation of Spirit Lake. Beginning on May 18, 1980 with the initial eruption and later ensuing blasts, over 4000 feet of the top of the mountain was blown off by more than 20 megatons of energy that sent pyroclastic and mudflows down the mountain with incredible force (figure 2). In the days, weeks, and months after the blast, rapid scouring and deposition occurred. As much as 600 feet of stratigraphic sequences have formed since 1980. In one location, fine ash laminae and beds as small as 1 mm thick formed along with beds greater than 1 meter, each taking only seconds to minutes to accumulate, some exhibiting cross bedding and other detailed stratigraphic features typically associated with great amounts of time. In Figure 3, for instance,  25 feet of a stratified pyroclastic deposits are shown that accumulated within 3 hours on the evening of June 12, 1980 (Austin, 2009). This “outdoor laboratory” clearly shows that detailed sedimentary structures form even during catastrophic events, which many scientists thought could not happen with the type of features exhibited here.

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Figure 1. Map showing geographical setting of the Mount St. Helens region prior to its eruption (Photo courtesy of Dr. Steve Austin).

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Figure 2. Map showing the extent of mountain removed from the series of eruptions from Mount St. Helens (Photo courtesy of Dr. Steve Austin).

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Figure 3. Detailed stratigraphic structures and sedimentary sequences laid down in 3 hours on June 12, 1980 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Steve Austin).

Similarly, mudflows, pyroclastic material and water and steam created a huge debris (avalanche) flow the size of which had never before been observed by mankind. An average of 150 m of deposits were laid down before further mudflows from a steam explosion excavated a dendritic pattern of interconnected channels on the North Fork of the Toutle River. Nearest the blast site, on the north side of the mountain, canyons as deep as 600 feet were cut through bedrock by the forces of mud and water. Farther from the blast site, individual canyons formed in the debris flow materials along the North Fork of the Toutle River, thus creating the Toutle River canyon. So impressive was the rapid scouring and deep canyon walls of more than 140 feet, that it became known as “the Little Grand Canyon”. Figure 4 is a picture of the Toutle River Canyon with its 140 foot high walls, which was formed in less than 60 days (map location shown in Figure 5 identified as “Little Grand Canyon”). Note in Figure 5 how dramatically the landscape changed as a result of the events after the initial blast (compare with Figure 1). The erosion pattern resembles that of the Grand Canyon. Can we conclude that the Grand Canyon formed by similar means and not by the slow process of a small river over millions of years? Looking at Figure 6, one can easily conclude that the Colorado River could not possibly have cut the wide channel (the north-south distance of the eroded canyon here is more than 10 miles) that makes up the Grand Canyon gorge. However, a massive flood event similar to what we’ve seen at Mount St. Helen’s is a far more plausible explanation.

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Figure 4. The Toutle River Canyon “Little Grand Canyon” and its 140-foot walls formed in approximately two months (Photo courtesy of Dr. Steve Austin).

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Figure 5. Map showing the transformed geography two years after the Mount St. Helens initial eruption (compare with Figure 1; Figure courtesy of Dr. Steve Austin).

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Figure 6. A portion of Grand Canyon (Colorado river flows east to west (unseen) in the lower third of the picture) showing the vast erosion (about 8 miles across in this photo) that must have occurred by a massive flood, not by slow erosion over millions of years by the Colorado River (Photo courtesy of Dr. Walt Brown).

Mount St. Helen’s represents a modern-day laboratory of what a “small” flood event can accomplish in transforming the landscape and producing features and structures we often associate with vast amounts of time when observed in other localities. What does this tell us about our geologic past? Should we have been so quick to embrace uniformitarianism and base all of geologic thinking on this single premise? The problem isn’t in evaluating observations in the context of uniformitarianism, the problem is in limiting our thinking to this premise alone. We must embrace multiple working hypothesis. In Part III I will deal with the second grand assumption that has transformed geologic thinking—the principle of superposition.

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