Friday, May 27, 2011

Presumptions or Conclusions?

This post continues my critique of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's article in Dialogue regarding the age of the universe. Yesterday, I began a two-pronged explanation of why Meiselman's theory does not even work from a scientific perspective, by showing how the countless generations of animal life must surely have lived in a vast stretch of time. Today, I will give a precise explanation of why Meiselman's theory is utterly wrong from its very conception.

To be honest, this whole exercise is bizarre, since Meiselman's theory was already neatly been refuted in my book The Challenge Of Creation several years ago. Now, Meiselman might well disagree with my refutations. But surely he should at least address them! Anyway, I will present them here again, at more length. Let us first quote Meiselman's theory:

One of the main points of this article will be that all current tools for measuring the passage of time presume stability in the relationships between natural processes, similar to what we observe today... The assumptions made by contemporary science in this area were never provable in the first place and they remain matters of conjecture.

No, no, no! Meiselman has it exactly backwards! The notion of stability in the relationships between natural processes is not a presumption of modern science by which it deduces the antiquity of the universe. It's a conclusion.

This relates to the topic of the very first post that I ever wrote on this website. Prior to the eighteenth century, geology did not exist as a historical science. The world was universally agreed to have been created several thousand earlier by God, using a dramatic process that could not be fathomed by mortal man - just as in Meiselman's theory. Additionally, just as in Meiselman's approach, it was assumed that the Deluge had wreaked havoc upon the world subsequent to creation.

But in 1793, a canal digger by the name of William Smith made a startling discovery, as described in the superb book The Map That Changed The World. He found that the same strata of rock are always found in the same order of superposition, and they always contain the same fossils. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Certain types of rock contained certain types of fossils that were unique to those beds. The layers of rock always appeared in the same order. This pattern held true everywhere that Smith checked.

And thus the Meiselman theory was abandoned, and the modern science of geology was born. Geology is an extremely useful science; it's not an ivory-tower philosophy. All kinds of industries and activities, as well as those investigating natural disasters, employ geologists. Because geology works. The patterns that are found in the rocks, the processes that are inferred from them and are still seen happening today, can all be relied upon to be applicable universally - throughout the planet, and throughout history. Billion-dollar industries prove it so! The constancy of nature over long periods was not an assumption - it was a discovery.

The flip side of the coin is also the case: Meiselman's model can be positively disproved. Meiselman's model predicts that the historical sciences will break down beyond 5771 years - in fact, beyond the Mabul, 4000 years ago. He alleges that because the natural order was entirely different before creation, as well as during the catastrophe of the Mabul, it simply isn't possible to use the tools of science from our own era for those periods, where everything was different.

But it wasn't different. We see that it wasn't different. The very same ice layers that are laid down each year in Greenland continue uninterrupted for tens of thousands of years into the past. The very same sedimentary layers that are laid down each year in lakes continue uninterrupted for tens of thousands of years into the past. The very same layers of bark that trees grow every year, which can by synchronized between living and dead trees to produce longer chains, continue to produce chains stretching 12,000 years into the past. And all these processes, as well as many more, synchronize with each other. Fossil pollen and volcanic ash gets trapped in ice layers and provides ways of cross-checking with radioactive dating. Ice layers record past climate changes which correlate with discoveries in astronomy. In short, geologists don't find that the physical history of the world changes dramatically past 4000 years ago - they find precisely the opposite. The same processes that occur in the last 4000 years are seen to continue in the same way as we look further back in history.

No pseudo-scientific theory by a religious figure is complete without a quote from a scientist that is completely distorted. To support his theory, Meiselman alleges that there is support for it from great scientists:

The assumption of the constancy of natural processes throughout the ages has been disputed by some of the greatest names in science.

Meiselman's usage here of the terms "natural processes" and "throughout the ages" is very slippery; he is either being deliberately disingenuous, or entirely misunderstanding the topic. Let's see who he invokes for this claim:

In 1939 the English physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Paul Dirac wrote, “At the beginning of time the laws of Nature were probably very different from what they are now. Thus, we should consider the laws of nature as continually changing within the epoch, instead of holding uniformly throughout space-time.”

That is indeed what Dirac said, and it is something that has had somewhat of a resurrection in recent times. But what does it mean? It does not mean that a few thousand years ago, there was a completely different natural order! Rather, it means that there was an extremely minor change in some extremely subtle aspects of the natural order over an extremely long period (and more of a change during the first moments of the formation of the universe, billions of years ago). The very same methodology and techniques used to show this, also show that there is overwhelming stability for the vast majority of the natural order for most of history!

This article from Scientific American, by John Barrow, gives a good overview. The scientists report that they found an average increase in the fine-structure constant,, of close to six parts in a million over the period from six to twelve billion years ago (in the lat six billion years, there was no significant change). Others found no increase at all. None of this has anything to do with the billions of years on planet earth in which there were countless generations of prehistoric life. As John Webb notes in this article, "the geological results do not conflict with the quasar results or the atomic clock experiments because they probe very different epochs in the history of the universe." For Meiselman to claim great scientists in support of his approach is rather like someone claiming that Redak's view of kri/ksiv (that they were not both given at Sinai) means that he held that there is no textual integrity to the Torah and provides support for the Documentary Hypothesis.

It is astonishing - and a great chillul Hashem - that a Rosh Yeshivah can publish a view on the age of the universe which is presented as the definitive view, and claimed to be consistent with true knowledge of the scientific enterprise, and yet which reveals such utter ignorance of the natural sciences.


  1. Hypothetically, if the author of that article came to believe that The Land Before Time was a documentary, and changed his opinions about the nature of reality and the past only to be more consistent with that new belief, would he be more or less misguided than he is now?

  2. The fine-structure constant, and similar constants for the strengths of other than the electro-magnetic force are understood to be not really constants. It would be superficial to see changes in these constants as changes of Nature. These are not constants according to the laws of Nature. The possibility of change is built-in. When the Universe was still small, phyiscs looked different because of the high energy density of matter. For instance, the strong interaction, the force that holds the protons and neutrons of atomic nuclei together, and the force which binds quarks into protons and neutrons, becomes weak at high energies. This is called asymptotic freedom, and is rather well understood. Dirac probably meant something like this, although at his time these things were not understood.

    Of course, in scientific matters quoting a scientist means next to nothing. Science does not go by authority. Scientist build on the achievements of others. The verbalizations around these achievements are irrelevant. Those who come from Olam HaTorah often have a very hard time understanding this.

  3. Of course, in scientific matters quoting a scientist means next to nothing.

    No, it means absolutely nothing.

    For a clear and compelling essay on "authority" and "consensus" with regard to science, please see the first essay here:


    I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.
    Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

    There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus....

  4. R. Meiselman might argue that the layers, etc., to which you refer used to form at a much faster rate before the Flood than they do now. I'm not saying he'd be right, but I am asking how you counter such a claim. I recommend adding a more explicit refutation (if one exists) to the main body of this post.

  5. DES - the synchronous nature of everything means that that only works if EVERYTHING was sped up. And as I noted previously, if everything is sped up, then nothing is sped up.

  6. News piece today about a government public health alert based on cherry-picking scientific research:

  7. In case the connection wasn't clear in my earlier comment, just another example of an authority figure constructing a questionable foundation of science for his assertions

  8. “All kinds of industries and activities, as well as those investigating natural disasters, employ geologists. Because geology works"

    Absolutely. Not only that, the petroleum industry is one that uses geology. If they find petrol at a certain age in the strata, they will search for petrol at a similar age elsewhere. They found that you have more chances finding petrol this way. Could it be that the petroleum and mineral companies have been fooled?

  9. Rabbi Slifkin: Why don't you submit your critique of R. Meiselman to Dialogue?

    Lawrence Kaplan

  10. I found this quote from Prof. Brian Cox recently which I liked, and seems very relevant in this context:!/ProfBrianCox/status/72606638418309120

    "Science is a framework designed to remove the effects of human predjudice."

  11. משה רפאל and Alex bring out good points about "consensus" -- and yet both R. Meiselman and R. Slifkin (and almost everyone else!) nevertheless habitually ascribe correctness to their theories based on the "authorities" they cite.

    IMHO there are serious errors in the approaches of both R. Meiselman and R. Slifkin. Most of today's accepted consensus theories, even things that are considered as conclusively "proven" and "discovered," in physics, astronomy, geology and the earth sciences will have to be totally scraped and replaced in coming years. The writing is already on the wall for those who are open minded enough to see.

    Anyway, no time left to add to this now – so best wishes for a good Shabbos to all.

  12. Most of today's accepted consensus theories, even things that are considered as conclusively "proven" and "discovered," in physics, astronomy, geology and the earth sciences will have to be totally scraped and replaced in coming years.

    "Most"??!! If you think that the notion of the earth orbiting the sun, or the world being many orders of magnitude greater than a few thousand years old, are going to be scrapped and replaced, you are badly mistaken.

  13. Regarding "consensus science", I also believe that term is misused. The most egregious example is the current "Global Warming" controversy. R. Slifkin, I recall that you believe it has been proven that human generation of CO2 is responsible. This is a very good example of a supposed "scientific consensus" being used to railroad controversial political policies that could literally cost trillions of dollars on an otherwise unwilling public, or as Rahm Emanuel loves to say "never waste a good crisis". In other, scare the public in an anti-democratic way to force through policies calm reflection would never countenance. How are we supposed to decide who makes up the "consensus".
    Of course, this is referring to politically controversial matters. Regarding "consensus science" on matters like we are discussing here but even here, emotionally charged issues can make "consensus" a difficult thing to define. One scientist can be right and all the others be wrong. We must be careful in defining this. We can say there is a consensus in saying the world is flat, or that Newtonian and Keplerian models of gravitation and motion explain how the earth orbits the sun and not the other way around. But complex processes like evolution or large-scale cosmology is another story. Famous astronmer George O. Abell points out that the whole idea that the universe is expanding and is 14 billion years or so old is based on the assumption that photons don't "get tired" and lose energy over time and that if that is not the case, then the whole "Big Bang" thing can end up in the trash can. No one has proven otherwise, but the "consensus" that they don't doesn't conclusively prove that they don't. We must always keep an open mind.

  14. R. Slifkin, I recall that you believe it has been proven that human generation of CO2 is responsible.

    No. What I said was that the general consensus is that human activity is responsible. "General consensus" does not mean "absolutely proven."

    In the case of the antiquity of the universe, however, it is more than a general consensus; it is an absolute consensus (excluding those who are absolutely committed to the simple reading of the Bible). Plus, unlike with climate change, there is no basis for accusations of bias etc.

  15. saber tooth tigerMay 29, 2011 at 7:07 AM

    Speaking about presumptions and conclusions...

    Geologist Victor R. Baker had little good to say about Lyell in a book review in Nature. (24 July 2008) “Geological history turned upside down” is how he titled his review of a second book on the history of geology by Martin J. S. Rudwick, Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Baker began by stating that “geology also has its own set of attitudes that have accrued during the discipline’s long history.” Attitudes can be taken as synonymous with presuppositions – those ways of looking at the world that precede actual investigation of the facts.
    Lyell was, of course, preceded by notable figures like Cuvier (a catastrophist who invoked multiple earth-changing events), and gradualists like Comte du Buffon, Werner, Hutton and others who had laid the groundwork for viewing earth history in terms of vast ages of gradual change. Rudwick had discussed these in his prior work, Bursting the Limits of Time (U of Chicago Press, 2005). Baker writes:

    Worlds Before Adam looks at how the ideas generated by Cuvier and others came together with more theoretical concepts between 1820 and 1845.
    "Rudwick’s books are myth-busters, of which writers of introductory geology texts and popularizations should take note. In both volumes he counters the Anglocentric view that James Hutton, William Smith and Charles Lyell were the founders of modern geology who shone their British intellectual light onto the darkness of continental musings. To a large degree, he argues, the reverse was the case.
    Controversially, Rudwick challenges the view that geology’s development is a story of secular progress."

  16. Like I said:
    No pseudo-scientific theory by a religious figure is complete without a quote from a scientist that is completely distorted.

  17. "Worlds Before Adam" deals with a much later stage than the founding of geology that I discuss in this post, and which is the subject of that author's previous book, "Bursting the Limits of Time". Here's a quote from "Worlds Before Adam" which gives a better idea as to what that book is about:

    "This volume culminates in an account of research that vividly suggested how the earth's own history-no less than the human history that had once been its conceptual template-was intrinsically unpredictable (or, more correctly, unretrodictable), because it was ineluctably contingent. It became clear that at every turn, geohistory could conceivably have taken a different course, without impairing in any way the uniform action of the underlying "laws of nature." In consequence-and again as in human historiography-it could be reconstructed only bottom-up from a detailed study of surviving evidence of what had in fact happened, rather than top-down by the application of fixed laws of nature to determine what supposedly "must" or "should" have happened.

  18. Garnel IronheartMay 29, 2011 at 1:25 PM

    I'm surprised the obvious answers weren't offered, to wit:
    1) God created the Earth complete with layers, sediment, fossils, etc. so it would look billions of years old.
    2) After the Mabul God arranged for the sediment to go right back to where it had been before so there would be no evidence of the upheaval.
    3) Therefore your evidence of lack of change over time is no evidence since it was planned that way from Above.
    What was that link to the book you like about the Flood again?

  19. R. Meiselman's colleague/talmid R. Dovid Gottlieb takes the approach that the world was made to look old, but R. Meiselman does not take that approach.

  20. I guess that R meiselman does not know that the word "epoch" represents a time period of tens of millions of years on the geologic timescale. Does Meiselman think that the nobel laureate was in denial of geology and used its technical terminology with an exchanged definition of his own (secret) creation without telling anybody?

  21. To garnel - if there was an "upheavel" that changed everything, but God 'hid the evidence' and we cannot see or experience that there was an upheavel or that anything changed, then what is the point of saying there was an upheavel? In that case, for all intents and purposes, there was no upheavel.

  22. Natan Slifkin said...

    "Most"??!! If you think that the notion of the earth orbiting the sun, or the world being many orders of magnitude greater than a few thousand years old, are going to be scrapped and replaced, you are badly mistaken.


    I don’t disagree about the two items you mention, the earth orbiting the sun and the world being many orders of magnitude greater than a few thousand years old, however, conventional consensus scientific theories are way off about the way the earth and the other planets were formed, and about their orbits being stable for millions and billions of years. I agree with you that R’ Meiselman (and those who follow that derech) are wrong about that.

    But, if I am not mistaken, you, R’ Slifkin, accept as dogma the uniformitarian ideology, which fails to recognize the many truly cataclysmic events that have transpired in remote eras and even in human historical times.

    In response to your previous post ("Nothing Gained, Everything Lost"), Y. Aharon posted a nice comment touching on this when he wrote (May 26, 2011 9:32 PM) about the Tiferes Yisroel that:

    “...he was following the catastrophist model invoked by Cuvier earlier in the 19th century to account for breaks in the geological strata. This model was superseded among geologists by the uniformitarian ideology until insurmountable evidence for exactly such a catastrophic impact was produced by 1990. This evolution of our understanding of the earth's history and geology is an illustration of how science changes and grows closer to the truth of things. It also illustrates how authoritarian thinking (uniformitarianism became an ideology in geologic circles) is a hindrance to the furtherance of knowledge.

    It appears to me that recent discoveries are confirming many of the ideas expounded by David Talbott and Wallace Thornhill, following on the work of Immanuel Velikovsy. See,, and for starters.

    It seems we are on the verge of a major scientific revolution in our understanding of the universe.

  23. Let's not quibble about the number of currently accepted theories that will turn out wrong, should it be categorized as "Most" theories or simply "Many" theories.

    The point is that the fundamental and principle assumptions of these sciences are mistaken, and therefore all their advanced theoretical constructions are so-to-speak built over sink holes and on major fault lines. The ground they stand on is unsteady and the fancy skyscraper theories they have concocted are coming apart at the seams and tumbling down.

  24. While overarching theories in physics tend to have a finite lifetime as a result of new data, any acceptable theory has to account for the available data. The verified data don't get discarded, only some would-be models that had once appeared to account for the available observations. For example, the Newtonian theory of gravitational attraction has been replaced as a theory by the General Theory of Relativity. In practice, however, the Newtonian equation is still used in calculating the precise trajectories needed to send spacecraft to planets, moons, and asteroids since it is far simpler to solve than the Einsteinian field equations. For some applications, however, the Einstein equations are required such as time corrections for the GPS satellites.

    R' Natan has already critiqued R' Meiselman's putative use of an expression by the eminent physicist, P.A.M. Dirac, about the change of nature with time. To my knowledge such a speculated change was confined to the universal gravitational constant which he postulated was once stronger. His speculation has not received much of a following among physicists, and, in any case, is not a basis for the conjecture that the 6 days of creation were under totally different rules than what we observe today.

    It is true that the current grand theories of physics must change given the large questions concerning the apparent incompatibility between quantum theory and Relativity, and the nature of 'dark matter and energy'. Yet the change is unlikely to shake the foundations of physics or to invalidate current data - much less, to make a literal understanding of Gen. 1-11 become more acceptable.


Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.

Tzedakah: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

How do you tell apart a good charity from a bad one? It can be very difficult to know who is actually honest. But the first step is to be aw...