The Capricious Earth & Grand Canyon Update
A number of young earth creationists make the assertion that geology may be lost in a failed paradigm (old earth, plate tectonics) and has simply not yet realized that fact. They claim that plate tectonics has built up a number of unsolved anomalies that collectively doom the theory. Furthermore, the claim is made that perhaps better explanations for the geologic record should be based on earth expansion on a 6000-10000 year time scale or 'catastrophic plate tectonics' advocated by John Baumgardner. Both of these 'alternatives' are an attempt to harmonize the geologic record with the bible. Let me begin with some philosophical points:
(1) Assertion: Geologists operate blindly inside the prevailing old earth plate tectonic paradigm: The short answer is no (see point #2 below), but the longer answer must include an admission of guilty as charged. Let me try to explain the guilty as charged rationale. At the very heart of all scientific discourse is the need to approach a better truth. Of course, we'll never get there because all science is flawed. In earth science, we develop an iterative model of the earth. We never truthfully describe the real planet, but the planet is always available for observation. The Earth is not capricious although it may sometimes be difficult to fully understand. Scientists, on the other hand, can be capricious, bias and highly prejudiced regarding their own conclusions. The question is whether or not the human condition leads to a false view of the earth. I would like to ask the question as to whether or not modern science (I'm talking really of the last 200 or so years) has led us forward, backward or merely left us treading water in discovering how the earth works? I am going to argue, of course, that the progress of understanding the real earth through the successive approximation of geologic thought has led us (haltingly) toward a much better understanding of the planet. I argue that we abandonded young earth global flood catastrophism not due to any religious bias, but rather because it failed in providing a strong explanatory framework for understanding the earth. Thus, plate tectonics, if ultimately doomed as an explanation, will not likely be replaced by a framework that had less explanatory power.
(2) The 'no answer' to point #1 can be justified as follows. I argue that while individual scientists may cling longingly to their explanations, the scientific community pushes past these biases and moves forward. Scientists (at least the ones I know) operate with the idea that paradigms are meant to be broken, that a good explanation can be made better and ultimately their egos force them to challenge the status quo at every opportunity. Thus, within the failings of the human condition, there is also a built-in success mechanism that guarantees that the best explanation (while still not perfect) will ultimately prevail over the poorer explanation. In my opinion, the failure of young earth global flood creationism was due to the fact that it could not explain in the simplest terms, how the earth worked.
(3) The Capricious Earth: Both the expanding earth idea---especially one that posits 40% volumetric growth in a very short time (years to hundreds of years) and the catastrophic plate tectonic hypothesis contain a fatal flaw. The major flaw is not with the explanation (although I think there are plenty of flaws in the explanation), but rather in what these hypotheses say about the earth and science in particular. Both argue that the Earth is capricious. If that is true, then can we really derive a useful explanation for the science of geology? If the entire explanation posits a series of one time events to explain the geologic record, then does it not also follow that we can invent any series of unique events to arrive at the same endpoint? For example, what is fundamentally wrong about arguing that the earth expands AND contracts at some random cycle? Supercontinents form during contraction and break apart during expansion? Mountains result from contraction and oceans from expansion. If the mantle can behave as it did during the Baumgardner scenario, then how can we be sure that it will not happen again or did not happen prior to the period of time posited by Baumgardner et al? If decay can speed up capriciously, then could it not also slow down capriciously? If so, how do we know whether we are looking at an extremely young earth or an earth much older than we think it is? I argue that there is no explanatory power in describing the earth in these terms because the arguments really assume that we can know nothing about how the earth really works because on a capricious planet all possibilities must be equally sound.
(4) The only solution out of the conundrum in point 3 is to make a further assumption that the capriciousness exhibited by the earth is due to divine intervention. In fact, this is what ye-creationists must argue. They must further conclude that their science is not truly science, but merely an attempt to explain the bible in the language of science. They must also (if they are honest) conclude that the bible is pretty silent on exactly how those earth changes happened other than the fact that it describes a global flood. Their explanations of how these earth changes occurred are nothing more than an attempt to interpret a bible that is mostly silent on earth history. In fact, the same frailty that we can ascribe to scientists interpreting the evidence can be equally applied to those interpreting the bible. There are biases, capriciousness and egos involved in exegetical studies as well. Whereas the evidence in science suggest that these frailties ultimately lead to a better understanding of the earth, the same frailties applied to young earth creationists view of the bible lead to an entrenchment in dogmatism. If you carefully scan the creationist arguments they can be summed up as "The bible says it, I interpret it this way, and that settles it". However, that leads to an equally capricious interpretation of the bible.
Side note: Skeptic Magazine had an article on the PEER press release regarding censorship of Park Rangers in the Grand Canyon. They have now offered an apology for buying into the hype.