The Enlightenment And The Rise Of Naturalistic Theories (The Age of the Earth Part 3)

(Part One) (Part Two)

The Impact of Newtonian Physics: With the rise of Newtonian physics came the reappearance of eternalism. In the 17th century, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) formulated the laws of gravity, physics, and mathematics that successfully described the planetary orbits of the solar system. It would be difficult to overstate the impact his achievements had on the scientific revolution and how western culture viewed the world. Newton’s law of gravity stated that each object in the universe exerts an attraction on all other objects. The gravitational force between any two objects is directly proportional to their size and inversely proportional to the distance between them. The law of gravity, thus stated, brings up a problem that was immediately recognized in Newton’s day. If there is a universal attraction, why is not everything crunched together? Newton answered that the cosmos must be infinite in extent and content, thus there is no central location to which everything can gather. An infinite universe implies that it has an infinite age. Newton was a devout theist, but the deists of his day argued that his model of the universe seemed to require eternalism. This model would become known as “the steady state cosmology.” Later, during the Victorian era, eternalism will play a crucial role in the acceptance of evolution. 40 questions creation evolution

The Impact of Modern Geology: Most historians of science consider James Hutton’s (1726-1797) publication of The Theory of the Earth (1795) to be the birth of modern geology. Hutton argued that nature exhibits the “principle of uniformity,” that is, all geological history can be explained by the very same natural, gradual processes we witness today. Hutton proposed uniformitarianism as an alternative to catastrophism (the view that most of the geological record is the result of catastrophic events, the main event being Noah’s flood). Mountains, canyons, and the geological column were formed over great expanses of time. Hutton argued for a theory of the “eternal present,” when he declared, “In nature we find no vestige of a beginning, —no prospect of an end.” The deists of the Enlightenment will use Hutton’s position as further evidence for eternalism.

Geologists who followed Hutton also argued for a “deep history of time.” None were more significant than Charles Lyell (1797-1875), whose writings would have a great impact on Charles Darwin. In his three volume work, Principles of Geology (1830-33), Lyell persuasively argued that the geologic column demonstrates that the earth was very old and had changed its form slowly, mainly from conditions such as erosion. His method of dating the ages of rocks by using fossils embedded in the stone as time indicators became the standard practice for geologists. From 1860 to 1914, using various sediment accumulation methods, over 20 different estimates for the age of the earth were published by geologists. The estimates ranged from 3 million years to 1.5 billion years. (Adapted from 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution.)

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