Re: Precambrian geology (2)

Jonathan Clarke (
Sat, 27 Mar 1999 17:17:01 +1100

Greetings Allen

This is the second part of my discussion of your email. In it I'll deal with
your comments on the history and philosophy of geology. The intention of my
original post was to get people thinking and discussing the dividing line
between science and theology in the area of earth history, and the fundamental
assumptions that underlie both. I think I am succeeding, so I thank you for
sharing your perspective with myself and the others.

Allen Roy wrote:

> There is an a priori reason for preferring the 'catastrophic' and that is
> the witness evidence of the Bible.

This does not hold water. the Bible speaks of catastrophic events but nowhere
ascribes the geological record to them. You admit this when you say below that
the church fathers did not see physical evidence to the flood or read the Bible
as saying that there was such evidence.

> The uniformitarian ideas came first, then as catastrophies have happened
> they have been accepted as good interpretataions. Creationary
> catastrophists claim that most depositions can be interpreted as
> catastrophic even though it may not be clear at this time just how it can
> be done.

This is not true. The first people to systematically develop historical
geology did so within a paradigm that said that sediments were deposited in
Noah's flood. This was in the 17th and 18th centuries. They included Steno
1638-1686), Burnet (1635-1715), Woodward (major publication 1695), Whiston
(his major work was in 1696), Ray (published in 1713) and Catcott (major work
1768). Others included Halley and Newton. However, the efforts of these
people to understand the history of the earth in terms of Noah's flood led them
to accumulate evidence which showed the opposite; that the flood could not
explain the geological record.

Geological diluvialists must not be confused with catastrophists. These were
people such as Cuiver (1769-1832), Sedgwick (1785-1873), Murchison
(1792-1871), and Buckland (1874-1856). They believed that the earth was old
and that the geological record contained evidence of a succession of
catastrophes. Noah's flood was but the most recent of these. They were
catastrophists because they could not conceive of present processes which would
lead to large scale sedimentation, fossilisation, and deformation.
Catastrophism was dominant from about the 1800's to the 1830's. Neither should
diluvialists be confused with another 18th century school of geology, the
neptunists, who had an aquatic theory for the origin of all rocks .
Catastrophism was dominant from about the 1800's to the 1830's

The term "uniformitarism" was coined by by a catastrophist, William Whewell
(1794-1866), to describe the approach of Lyell (1797-1875), who against the
catastrophists, and held that present processes operating at present rates were
sufficient account for the geological record. Lyell is the best known of the
uniformitarians, but others include Scope (1797-1876), Fleming (1785-1857),
and Lomonosov (1711-1765). With the exception of Lomonosov, these were most
active from 1810 on and uniformitarianism widely accepted from about 1840.

Although uniformitarians were successful in showing catastrophism was not
necessary to explain the geological record, geomorphological diluvialism
persisted as a way of explain landforms surfical deposits. Buckland, for
example explained surface and cave deposits, including bone beds, as the result
of Noah's flood. The glacial theory of Agassiz (1807-1873) proved a better
explanation for such deposits, and geomorphological diluvialism fell out of

Incidentally modern geology is not "uniformitarian" in the sense of Lyell, so
it is better not to label it as such.

> Many of the early naturalists were creationist, however they were not
> catastrophist, but uniformitarian in outlook. Church fathers taught that
> the earth today was just the way it came from the Creators hands during the
> creation week and that the flood came and went without leaving any trace.
> So, catastrophic erosion and deposition was not even conceived of. The
> evidence did not demand uniformitarinism, the creationist naturalists just
> did not even consider catastophic processes. So the slow erosion of today
> demanded old age.

You are quite right. The church fathers did not think of geological
catastrophism because there is nothing in the scriptures that explicitly states
it. General acceptance of a universal flood meant that it was a convenient
(and justifiable) explanation when thick sedimentary piles full of fossils
were recognised. In the end the explanation just didn't work and the
geological diluvialists collected the data that overthrew their own paradigm.

That is fine, it is how science works, and I am not criticising the 17th and
18th century diluvialists for working in that framework. It is a different
story now, however. Postulating Noah's flood as an explanation if the rock
record is the same as holding to any other long abandoned scientific paradigm
such as the phlostigon theory of combustion, Aristotelian physics, or
geocentric astronomy.

> This is bacially the same position as OECs. No flood catastrophe,
> therefore old ages.
> It was the uniformitarian mindset which interpreted the evidence as
> reprenting long ages. It was NOT the evidence that DEMANDED slow
> processes.

As I point out above, this is not supported by the history of geology.
Geological diluvialism was largely a 17th and 18th century phenomenon.
Uniformtiarianism dates mainly from the 19th century. How many
"uniformitarians" can you name from the 16th century? They would have to be
this early to predate the geological diluvialists. Leonardo da Vinci
(1452-1519) argued against Noah's flood being responsible for fossils, but I
am not sure if this would have made him a "uniformitarian".

> We can understand the past by interpreting the evidence of the geological
> record within our paradigm. The past only has signficance or meaning
> within a paradigm.

Oh? Are you saying the past is only what we believe it to be? That we create
the past within our imaginations? That there is no independent historical
record which we can discover and come to conclusions about? Do you use the
same paradigm to interpret human history and the historical passages of the

> We can interpret the how the rocks formed from their evidence within our
> paradigm.
> The differences in interpretation of how rock formed is not in the evidence
> but in the paradigm. We can discuss and compare interpretations of the
> evidence.

I as said before, rocks are not ink blots into to which we read what we will.
I am glad you share my opposition to becoming a potato farmer (not that there
is anything wrong with potato farming, if any are reading this - it is just not
for me)! Rocks are interpreted according to paradigms, but what if they don't
fit the paradigm? The paradigm must be changed. How do you chose between
competing aspects of your flood paradigm when faced with a rock outcrop? I
hope it is on the evidence of the rock itself.

If you believe that paradigm is all there was to it, then I would assume you
are a strong presuppositonalist. The fact that we are having this discussion
this suggests you are not. The 18th century diluvialists collected the evidence
that changed their paradigm. Buckland collected the data which led him to
reject his on earlier work on the origin of surfical deposits. Just because
data is collected and interpreted within a paradigm does not mean that the
interpreter must be blind to other interpretations which square with the
evidence more successfully.

> Can a paradigm change? Yes. There are many parts which make up the whole.
> Some parts of the paradigm are non-negotiable. Others parts change fairly
> easitly. In the Creationary Catastrophe paradigm, the flood catastrophe is
> not negotiable. Just exactly how it occurred is being explored. This idea
> and that come and go.

Why is the flood catastrophe not negotiable? You have admitted it is not
obvious from the text. What is your basis for saying this? Is it scientific
evidence for catastrophe? Or it is you reading of the Bible?

What about other YEC who hold to apparent age creationism? The geological
effects of the flood are clearly negotiable to them. What do you say to these

> Philosophy of science is accepted by all of us. Without agreeing on
> certain assumptions about what we can know we could not even do science.
> This is true no mater what intepretive paradigm one chooses.

If only this were true. Unfortunately it is not. Vernon Jenkins defines
science along the lines of naive Popperian falsification. You favour Kuhn's
paradigms. In reality the philosophy of science is more complex than both,
although both Kuhn and Popper have much to say that is valuable.

So what are the basic assumptions of science? I have posted this before: The
assumptions include the reality and intelligibility of the universe,
recognition that speculation must be constrained by data, a commitment to
reasoned investigation, communication of results, methods, and interpretation
to the scientific community, and the verifiability of results.

Not a perfect definition, but a working one. Can you work within this
definition? If so, then we are talking the same language. If not, then we must
strive harder to find a common one.

God Bless