Dr. Thomas Swan is a published physicist who received his PhD in nuclear astrophysics from the University of Surrey.
What Is Uniformitarianism?
Uniformitarianism is the scientific assumption that the laws of nature do not change over time or across space. For example, radiocarbon dating requires that the half-lives of radioactive elements were the same in the past as they are today, while cosmological theories require that the speed of light (in a vacuum) is the same everywhere and at every time in the history of the universe.
Uniformitarianism extends to our assumptions about broader events, including gradual geological processes that have shaped the Earth's crust in the past, such as erosion, sedimentation, and volcanic activity. In fact, it was a geologist, James Hutton, who first developed the idea in 1830.
These assumptions about nature's foundations, therefore, propose the simplest explanation for our reality (i.e., they are consistent with Ockham's razor): that natural laws operate today as they always have. Indeed, to suggest otherwise would require evidence that such a change occurred.
While scientists have no problem endorsing a principle that might, for example, suggest that humans eating food in the 21st century means they also ate food in 10,000 BCE, some religious scholars criticize uniformitarianism because it does not lead to scientific results (i.e., that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old) that are consistent with holy texts.
In particular, the evangelical Christian notion that the Earth is 6,000 years old falls foul of several geological principles. Radiocarbon dating and astronomical observations also suggest a much older universe, and these findings can only be dismissed by questioning the perennial validity of the scientific laws they are based on.
Uniformitarianism in Geology
Uniformitarianism Is an Example of Ockham's Razor
When asked how the laws of nature changed, Christians might contend that God did it without leaving any evidence behind. This statement is unfalsifiable but it is also inconsistent with Ockham's razor.
Ockham's razor is the principle that the best explanation for an observation is that which makes the fewest assumptions. Scientists follow Ockham's razor by assuming that the speed of light, the rate of radioactive decay, and all other natural laws operate today as they did millions of years ago. Indeed, until there is evidence to suggest otherwise, uniformitarianism is the common-sense position because it makes the fewest assumptions.
By claiming that natural laws were different in the past, some Christians are making superfluous, unsupported assumptions, including:
- Natural laws can change over time.
- There is undiscovered evidence for this change (or the evidence was removed).
- Something exists or existed that caused the change.
- The Abrahamic God is the cause.
- The Abrahamic God had a reason for causing the change.
The end result could be called "Ockham's duct tape" because of the number of unsupported claims that are used to hold the claim together.
Sometimes Christians present the Bible as evidence that the Earth is 6,000 years old and once operated under different natural laws. Perhaps also Alice in Wonderland is evidence that the laws of nature were different in a 19th century rabbit hole in Oxford.
Read More From Owlcation
Scientific Assumptions Are Not Presented as Truth
Unfortunately, writing something down does not make it true. Not even science textbooks describe truths. Science describes experiments and their associated uncertainties that have been performed to explain the observable world. These experiments can be recreated at home or in a laboratory so that people can test the explanations for themselves. The experimenters state their assumptions, including uniformitarianism, and accept that the experiment would be invalid if the assumptions were ever proven wrong.
Science does not suppose the irrelevance of the assumptions it is based on either. Assumptions are a reason for doubt, an addendum that the results could still be wrong. If the assumption is proven wrong later, scientific findings that rely on it will be thrown away.
Thus, uniformitarianism is not presented as absolute truth. As we cannot directly test conditions in the deep past, experiments assume uniformity to further our current understanding of the universe. The question of uniformity can be returned to when experimental tools are capable of addressing it. This does not mean our current understanding is flawed. Indeed, scientific theories that assume uniformity appear to model our observations accurately.
In fact, assuming uniformity is currently the best way to test if the assumption is wrong. Experiments are performed to test predictions and, therefore, they also test the assumptions those predictions are based on. If predictions turn out to be false, assumptions such as uniformity can be brought into question.
How Christians Misunderstand Science
Even though scientists acknowledge uncertainty, Christians appear to view science as a competing religion with a competing set of absolute truths. For example, some scientists have theorized that the universe "popped" into existence from a state of nothingness. As a result, Christians often claim that all scientists believe this explanation. However, it is unlikely that any scientist would imbue this theory with belief; it is merely a slightly better theory than creationism because it makes one less assumption: it does not require God to make it "pop."
Even the Big Bang, evolution, and general relativity are still only theories, but they are so well supported by evidence that they are often called facts. As a result, many scientists will commit to believing these theories, even if the possibility of their falsity is never completely eradicated.
In general, the scientific principle of uniformitarianism is criticized by Christians because, by claiming that the laws of nature can change (i.e., that they are not uniform), they can make the Bible consistent with irrefutable scientific observations.
Unfortunately, this is like saying there are eight days in a week because everyone else is hallucinating. In other words, Christians start with something they believe to be absolutely true (The Bible) and try to make everything else consistent with that belief, leading to absurd, unsupported claims that have no purpose except to maintain the integrity of that first treasured belief.
If science fails to recreate the deities and creation stories that the Christian imagination demands, it is not science that must change, it is one's imagination. Although science is only as accurate as the assumptions it is based on, an opinion based on no evidence except for one's imagination (or that of a Bronze Age writer) is not equal to an opinion based on mountains of evidence, especially when the former ignores the entirety of the latter.
Ultimately, uncertainty may be what Christians dislike most about science. Science is a tool for reducing uncertainty, not eliminating it. It takes a brave person to face the uncertainties of our existence, and a coward to wish them away with theoretical absurdities.
- The Many Meanings of Truth – Understanding Science | UC Berkeley
You might have noticed that in this website, we talk about science providing us with "accurate" and "reliable" explanations. Even though science is often characterized as such, we do not describe it as a search for truth. Why not?
- Does Science Tell the Truth? | Big Think
It is impossible for science to arrive at ultimate truths, but functional truths are good enough.
- What Is Truth in Science? | Physics World
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Thomas Swan
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on November 19, 2013:
I agree that they don't `need' to compete. The problem is religions have traditionally focused on providing definitive answers to questions that fall under the remit of science. If a religious person said, "I believe in God", that might be fine for some. They could still perform all manner of scientific research in an objective way (I know some Muslim scientists who do fine). But, beyond mere theistic belief lies all the other scriptural garbage. Opposition to things like evolution, abortion, stem-cell research, the origin of morality, etc.
However, I would say that faith in God is incompatible with science too. It's an unnecessary assumption based on no evidence, and that is completely alien to science. They don't need to compete, but they're certainly not compatible at any deep level of understanding. When you say that religions can impart meaning, I agree. Just like any story can inform people about right and wrong, the Bible and Qu'ran are no different. But... none of that requires one to faithfully believe in a supernatural being. That, if I'm not mistaken, is the essence of what religion is, though I realize there is some debate on that. For example, what would you categorize Wicca as? Some would say Buddhism is a philosophy rather than a religion, for example.
Anyway, I wouldn't define a belief in the efficacy of certain stories and myths as making someone religious. Also, I would say that psychological research is doing a lot to help us understand why certain stories are appealing to us. This may lead to the creation of more meaningful stories in future. Science fiction, for example, is very good at revealing and teaching us about the human condition. I share Dawkins' belief that science can be beautiful if we allow it to be, and if we teach it in the right way.
Ultimately, if we learn how our minds and bodies work, we can become more than what we are. We can conquer our primitive drives. For me, that is a greater motivation than reveling in stagnation, however joyous. You can pop a pill and make yourself happy, or you can believe heaven exists and get the same effect. Like flicking a switch in our heads; we're a slave to these comforts (in my opinion).
Mackenzie Sage Wright on November 15, 2013:
See, I think religion and science don't need to compete; just like art and science don't need to compete. An abstract painting can have truth and meaning, even if it's not a literal interpretation of something that actually exists.I think people are going to move away from orthodoxy and dogma, and more toward religions that do not take myth as literal happenings, but as stories from which we can draw ancient wisdom and meaning because (as Joseph Campbell puts it) they convey the human experience. I think they can co-exist in their rightful places. Religion needs to make way for science to do it's thing, to find the facts and explain things for us, and bring us advancement and progress; and science needs to stand back and realize that the human psyche is complex, and that truth and meaning are not exclusively found or adequately expressed in literal, provable, rote facts. Like your heart bursting with love when you hold your newborn child in your arms for the first time (or, not to mention, look down upon your child in his coffin with your heart breaking) and the mere understanding of chemical reactions just doesn't do justice to the experience for the human mind. We need to celebrate, or we need to mourn-- the majority of people throughout the ages feel the desperate need for religion and spirituality as an outlet for that, to feel connected to others, for rites of passage to go through the transitions and such-- that clinical explanation of a chemical reaction in the brain causing rushing hormones just doesn't do justice to certain human experiences. I don't see what's unhealthy about that; like most things, it can be taken to unhealthy places. I wouldn't compare it to morphine; I'd compare it to diet and exercise-- a basic need, and good for people overall, but can be taken to an unhealthy place.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on November 15, 2013:
I think you've hit the nail on the head Wiccan. As science advances to the point at which scientific knowledge becomes common sense, religions are being forced to reinterpret and revise scripture to cohere with what is plain to see. In the case of uniformitarianism, Christians have found what they see as a weakness in science, and (some) are attempting to exploit it by claiming that it `must' be wrong. Of course, other Christians dismiss the notion of a 6000 year old Earth. They do what Christians have been doing for the past 500 years (reinterpretation and revision).
It was Dawkins who first coined the phrase `God of the Gaps'. Perhaps this is `God of the Stopgaps', because it's only a matter of time before the new interpretation is shown to be just as foolish.
Personally, I don't believe religion and science are compatible. One depends on the existence of certainties, and the other depends on everything being uncertain (to however small a degree).
I agree that religion will die out as science answers our questions about the world. I think that's a good thing, though, as I've said in my recent hub, religion provides a lot of people with comfort. I don't believe this comfort is healthy (any more than morphine is healthy), but I do believe it needs to be replaced. Either that, or root cause of their unhappiness needs to be addressed before it becomes a problem.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on November 15, 2013:
Thanks for commenting fpherj48, I'm glad you found it interesting. Much of this hub comes from my science background and education, though the reason for writing it was a discussion I had on google+ about a year ago. The other person was a Christian who was trying to use uniformitarianism to dismiss scientific findings. I saved the discussion to my computer and made a note to return to it. Many of my hubs come from debates I've had down the years. I think it's better to wait a while before writing them up though. `Reactionary' articles never seem to work.
Mackenzie Sage Wright on November 14, 2013:
This is interesting and well written. I think it's sad that so many feel the need to dismiss science and insist that scripture must be inerrant, including creationism. Just like religious people finally accepted that the Sun was the center of the universe, not the Earth, eventually they're going to have to start accepting the mounting evidence for things like evolution. Ultimately, this is going to destroy a lot of people's faith in their religion when they can no longer deny the facts, because they'll have been raised with an ultimatum that it must be either/or-- religion vs. science. I've always believed that religion and science can go hand in hand; but people get so hung up on details and 'being right' it kind of misses the point of religion entirely. I enjoyed reading this, voted up.
Suzie from Carson City on October 31, 2013:
Extremely interesting and informative. Several of these terms are new to me and I appreciate the education. IMO, this all makes perfect sense. You have done some serious research. Thank you...UP++
mbuggieh on October 30, 2013:
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 30, 2013:
Evolution (et al) are theories, but of course, not all theories are equally well supported by evidence. There is nothing close to competing with evolution in terms of explaining the data. Like you say, it will remain until someone finds something better. Christians interpret this as meaning evolution is worthless when compared to things that have "stood the test of time" (like the Bible)... which is where the fundamental difference is I think. For a scientist, a crackpot story written 2000 years ago is no more truthful than one written yesterday. Even the worst theory destroys the Bible because, to be called a theory, it has to make verifiable claims based on observable phenomena. Cheers for commenting.
Lee Raynor from Citra Florida on October 23, 2013:
I think it is sad that in the US the Evangelicals promote religious dogma as absolute fact while any evidence pointing to differing conclusions is dismissed as irrelevant. Pretty much the exact opposite of Uniformitarianism.
Saying evolution (et al) is "only a theory" dismisses almost all scientific discoveries. Any theory is an explanation of the evidence based on observation and experimentation. Once accepted as the best theory, it remains until someone offers a better theory that explains the evidence.
On the other hand, life is simpler if you have absolute truth, it becomes easy to dismiss facts and evidence.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 23, 2013:
Thanks Positron Wildhawk. Well, 100 hubs was my target, but I have a couple more planned. After that, I might try some lengthier works of fiction elsewhere.
PositronWildhawk from London on October 22, 2013:
Very interesting - voted up. Another fascinating science vs religion conflict.
Congratulations on your 100th hub. Long may it continue!