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Uniformitarianism

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Uniformitarianism is a guiding principle of origins science that says that the same processes that operate on the universe now have always operated on the universe in the past, and at the same rates; and that the same laws of physics apply everywhere in the universe. A uniformitarian is one who believes in the principles, or any number of aspects and/or assumptions of the philosophy of uniformitarianism.

Uniformitarianism is an important element within modern geology as it is practiced by evolutionists and embraces the idea of deep time and an old earth. Less well appreciated is its importance as an element in astronomy, in that it also assumes deep time and even infinitely deep time for the entire universe. Uniformitarianism is based on the philosophy of naturalism and was promoted in James Hutton's book "Theory of the Earth" and later expanded upon by Charles Lyell in his three-volume series "Principles of Geology" first published 1830-1833. Charles Darwin took Lyell's books on board the ship HMS Beagle. During that voyage, Lyell's works informed Darwin's thinking about slow biological change known as gradualism.

The interpretation of geological strata is a central point of debate between the creation and evolution camps. Creationists believe the fossil record represents the relative times of death of organisms during the global flood, while evolutionists believe it describes hundreds of millions of years of evolution on earth. The Biblical flood was in fact a long-standing interpretation of geologic formations until geologists such as Charles Lyell began arguing that the earth had been shaped by slow and gradual forces working over a vast timescale.

The word uniformitarianism is defined by the Glossary of Geology as

the fundamental principle or doctrine that geologic processes and natural laws now operating to modify the Earth's crust have acted in the same regular manner and with essentially the same intensity throughout geologic time, and that past geologic events can be explained by phenomena and forces observable today. [1]

Contents

Lyellian Uniformitarianism

Under the term uniformity, Lyell conflated two different types of propositions: a pair of philosophical axioms (required for science to work) and a pair of hypotheses. The axioms are universally acclaimed by scientists, and embraced by all geologists — creationary and evolutionary alike. However, the hypotheses were and still are controversial and accepted by few.

Unfalsifiable axioms

  • Uniformity of law
  • Uniformity of process

Falsifiable hypotheses

  • Uniformity of rate
  • Uniformity of state

History

Charles Lyell, according to the University of California, Berkeley, invented uniformitarianism because he wanted to avoid the supernatural implications of the Bible. Frustrated that his mentor, William Buckland, was using the then-prevailing theory of catastrophism to support the Bible, Lyell turned to the ideas of a Scottish farmer, James Hutton, who in the 1790s had argued against catastrophes in favor of slow, gradual, physical processes. Lyell traversed Europe, seeking evidence for his new theory. Uniformitarianism greatly influenced Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, but today we now know the basic assumptions at the heart of uniformitarianism are flawed, since scientists acknowledge mass catastrophes did occur in the past, and not solely uniform processes.

'Catastrophism,' as this school of thought came to be known, was attacked in 1830 by a British lawyer-turned-geologist named Charles Lyell (1797-1875). Lyell started his career studying under the catastrophist William Buckland at Oxford. But Lyell became disenchanted with Buckland when Buckland tried to link catastrophism to the Bible, looking for evidence that the most recent catastrophe had actually been Noah's flood. Lyell wanted to find a way to make geology a true science of its own, built on observation and not susceptible to wild speculations or dependent on the supernatural... Lyell had an equally profound effect on our understanding of life's history. He influenced Darwin so deeply that Darwin envisioned evolution as a sort of biological uniformitarianism. Evolution took place from one generation to the next before our very eyes, he argued, but it worked too slowly for us to perceive.[2]

Unfalsifiable axioms

As axioms the first two propositions listed above cannot be tested or falsified by science. You can't go to a rocky outcrop and observe either the constancy of nature's laws or the working of unknown processes. It works the other way round, before you can proceed as a scientist, you must 1) assume that nature's laws are invariant and 2) you choose to exhaust familiar causes before inventing any unknown mechanisms. Then you go to the outcrop of rock.

Uniformity of law

Natural laws are constant in space and time.

The axiom of uniformity of law is necessary in order for scientists to extrapolate inductive inference into the unobservable past. As James Hutton wrote:

If the stone, for example, which fell today, were to rise again tomorrow, there would be an end of natural philosophy, our principles would fail, and we would no longer investigate the rules of nature from our observations.[3]

In essence, we must assume the constancy of natural laws in our study of the past, because if we do not, then we cannot meaningfully study the past.

The necessity of assuming uniformity of law in order to make inferences about the past is wrapped up in the difference between studying the observable present and the unobservable past. In the observable present, induction can be regarded as self-corrective. That is to say, our erroneous beliefs about the observable world can be proven wrong and corrected by other observations. This is the principle of falsifiability. However, past processes are not observable by their very nature. Therefore, in order to come to conclusions about the past, we must assume the invariance of nature's laws.

Since there is no human who understands everything there is to know about nature and it laws, we need to allow for the possibility that nature’s laws may not be only what we experience and imagine them to be. And so, we may not be able to meaningfully study the past. However, with recognition of this concession, we assume the invariance of nature until evidence forces a change in paradigm.

Uniformity of process

If a past phenomenon can be understood as the result of a process now acting in time and space, do not invent an extinct or unknown cause as its explanation.

We should try to explain the past by causes now in operation without inventing extra, fancy, or unknown causes, however plausible in logic, if available processes suffice. This is known as the scientific principle of parsimony or Occam's razor. Just as one should not invent unobservable causes when observable ones are sufficient, one should not neglect unobservable causes when observable ones are insufficient. If a comprehensive explanation of the physical evidence requires the inference of extraordinary causes, than those extraordinary causes should be permitted.

Acceptance of the axioms

It is impossible to learn anything about the cosmos unless the axioms of uniformity of law and process are extended to ‘out there’ across space.

How far one is willing to extrapolate the axioms of uniformity of law and process into the past, depends upon which paradigm one chooses to work within. Ontological Naturalism accepts deep time as a matter of course. Biblical Creationism accepts time limits imposed by the revelation of God through his prophets. Thus, it is at this philosophical level, and not through science, that the uniformitarianism of Naturalism/Evolutionism conflicts with the catastrophism of Creationists.

Falsifiable hypotheses

Lyell’s other two uniformity propositions are radically different in status. Rather than being axioms they are hypotheses that may be judged true or false on empirical grounds through scientific observation and repeated experimental data.

Uniformity of rate (or "Gradualism")

Change is typically slow, steady, and gradual.

Mountain ranges or Grand Canyons are built by accumulation of near insensible changes added up through vast time. Some major events such as floods, earthquakes, and eruptions, do occur. But these catastrophes are strictly local. They neither occurred in the past, nor shall happen in the future, at any greater frequency or extent than they display at present. In particular, the whole earth is never convulsed at once.

By force of popularity, uniformity of rate has persisted to our present day. For more than a century, Lyell’s rhetoric conflating axiom with hypotheses has descended in unmodified form. Many geologists have been stifled by the belief that proper methodology includes an a priori commitment to gradual change, and by a preference for explaining large-scale phenomena as the concatenation of innumerable tiny changes. Yet, uniformity of rate is increasingly coming under attack.

Modern geologists do not apply uniformitarianism in the same fashion as Lyell and his contemporary scientists. Twentieth-century geologists question if uniformity of process should also require that the rate of processes be uniform through time and limited to the values measured during the history of geologic study. Is it possible for processes to have been active in the past that humans have not witnessed or for such processes to have operated at different rates? [4]

Uniformity of state ( or "Nonprogressionism")

Change is evenly distributed throughout space and time.

The history of our earth follows no progress in any inexorable direction. The planet has almost always looked and behaved as it does now. Change is continuous, but leads nowhere. The earth is in balance—a dynamic steady state. So, we can use its current order (not only its laws and rates of change) to infer its past. The earth had no early period of more vigorous convulsion.

Late in Lyell’s career, accumulating evidence that many fossils are found only in some parts of the geologic record forced him, reluctantly, to accept evolution's progression in life's history [since he had already rejected creation by God]. He finally surrendered his commitment to nonprogressionism. Evolution served Lyell as touchstone for this minimal retreat. With evolution, he could still hold firm to uniformity of rate, especially with Darwin's idea that nature does not make leaps. He could continue to embrace uniformity of law, for evolution makes use of known general Law, rather than intervention by God. And gradualism remained intact, for Darwin insisted that small scale changes of ordinary genetic variation were, by logical, but unprovable, extension, the stuff of all evolutionary change.

The impact of uniformitarianism

Lyell defended uniformity of rate and state not by logic but with rhetoric — he conflated these controversial hypotheses about the nature of things with the philosophical axiom that all scientists accept, thereby attempting to secure an a priori status for his hypotheses. He argued that the claims of catastrophism were unintelligible in principle because all scientists accept the uniformities of law and process, tacitly including his concepts of gradualism and nonprogressionism. It was his rhetoric as a lawyer, rather than the validity of his claims, that won the controversy with catastrophists of his day. And it has had a deleterious effect on geology ever since.

Stephen J. Gould has said:

Lyell's gradualism has acted as a set of blinders, channeling hypotheses in one direction among a wide range of plausible alternatives. Its restrictive effects have been particularly severe for those geologists who succumb to Lyell's rhetorical device and believe that gradual change is preferable (or even required) a priori, because different meanings of uniformity are necessary postulates of method. Again and again in the history of geology after Lyell, we note reasonable hypotheses of catastrophic change, rejected out of hand by a false logic that brands them unscientific in principle. [5]

Conclusion

Uniformitarianism has now been trimmed down to Lyell’s first two presuppositions – uniformity of Law and Process. And these are embraced by all practicing scientists both creationist and evolutionist. In general however just as Bates and Jackson state above, evolutionary geologists still tend to favor gradualism, allowing only for occasional and rare catastrophes, which may, but are not likely to, involve the entire globe. Creationist geologists, on the other hand, tend to look for natural catastrophic explanations for most of the geologic record in keeping with a global cataclysm denominated as Noah’s Flood.

Strict Lyellian uniformitarianism fulfills the thinking of scoffers outlined in II Peter 3:3-6. His two hypotheses — uniformity of state and uniformity of rate — explicitly deny a global catastrophe on the order of Noah’s Flood and imply no creation by God. The acceptance of Actualism — "The present is the key to the past" — across unlimited time and space shows a willful ignorance of Creation, the Flood and the Second Coming. Because of what God has told us through his prophets[6], creationist geologists accept Actualism across limited time. The present can be the key to the past or future, but within Biblical constraints.

When Lyellian gradualism and steady-statism began gaining momentum during the 19th century and into the 20th century, uniformitarianism was contrasted with catastrophism as the explanation for major geological and paleontological phenomena. Prior to this time, various geological features were considered related to the global flood as described in Genesis 6 .

The defense of catastrophism was rooted in the most direct reading of geological evidence. Lyell, by contrast, urged that theory — the uniform rate and state hypotheses — be imposed upon the record. The geologic evidence was interpreted according to what theory expected but imperfect data did not provide.

The publicity surrounding Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species accompanied the movement of sentiment among scientists toward a uniformitarian perspective, and into the 20th century it began affecting scientific studies increasingly. One result, according to many creation scientists, is the solidification of some of the assumptions that provide the base for study. One example is non-variability in the speed of light, which was experimentally demonstrated as a constant in the 19th century and into the 20th. Today almost all creationists agree with this idea even after this consistency was integrated into the support for naturalism, a close relative of uniformitarianism. However creation science has provided a conceptual framework to support the idea that the speed of light may have varied in the past. This is an idea that has been accepted increasingly as a topic for study by cosmologists, as existing "paradoxes" for the Big bang scenario became too numerous to ignore and new astronomical evidence was found that implied a slowing.

References

  1. (Robert Bates and Julia Jackson, Glossary of Geology, 2nd edition, American Geological Institute, 1980, pg. 677)
  2. "Uniformitarianism: Charles Lyell." Understanding Evolution. University of California Museum of Paleontology. April 18, 2012.
  3. Hutton, J., Theory of the Earth with Proofs and Illustrations, 1795, p. 297
  4. Smith, G.A. and Pun, A., How Does Earth Work? Physical Geology and the Process of Science, 2006, p. 12.
  5. Gould, S.J., Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, 1987, p. 176
  6. See, for example, Amos 3:7
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