Saturday, October 16, 2004

Tell me the time

What time is it? This is a common question, especially in the modern age. Not only do we have practical reasons for asking it, but we like to pose the same question in relation to the world around us and beyond us.

How does the scientific establishment arrive at a date for the age of the world? (I'm using the "world," inclusively, to include the earth, solar system, and universe as a whole.)

Now, at one level, I think I know the answer (correct me if I'm wrong). When a layman like me reads a high level popularization on the subject, I'm plastered with an array of dating techniques, viz., the rate of cosmic expansion, the scale of the universe in light years, the life-cycle of stars and constellations, radiometric decay rates, tree rings, the law of superposition, and so on.

Okay, I fine with this up to a point. But at a deeper level, it leaves me with a more fundamental question. For this line of appeal strikes me as circular.

For when I read about these dating techniques, I'm thinking to myself, It would take a clock to measure a clock; it would take a clock to calibrate a clock.

Essentially, as I understand it, the mainstream scientist is using various natural processes, especially cyclical processes, as chronometers. And he has a number of natural chronometers to use.

To Illustrate my question, suppose I walk into a clock shop. The clock shop is full of timepieces ticking away. Actually, the word 'ticking' is not quite accurate. For I also see a sundial, a water-clock, an hourglass, and so on.

Now, when I walk into the clock shop, I could be greeted by a number of different scenarios. Suppose that all the timepieces tell the same time? Would that tell me what time it is? Not really. It would let me know that they had all been set to tell the same time. But it would not tell me whether they had been set to GMT, or EST, or Pacific time, or daylight-saving time.

To vary the scenario, suppose that all the timepieces were electric clocks. And let us further suppose that the power had gone out and come back on. The clocks would all give the same time, but they would all be off by the duration of the power outage.

A scientists dates the world by running the clock backwards. But does that tell us when the clock was wound up, or when the clock was set?

To take another scenario, all the clocks give a rather different reading. Indeed, this is what I'd expect when I enter a clock shop.

Now, suppose I look at two different clocks. One has the time at 12:59 PM, and the other at 1:01 PM. Can I tell, by comparing the two clocks, if both are fast, or both are slow, or one is fast, or one is slow, or one is on time while the other is fast or slow? I don't think so.

What I really need, do I not, is not a lot of different clocks, even if they all give the same time, but a master clock. I need to know what they were set to.

And I need to know, do I not, that the reading on the master clock is measured in absolute time rather than relative time. (Of course, modern physics denies absolute time.)

But even the illustration of the clock shop is overly generous. When we're talking about natural chronometers, isn't this more like walking into a clock shop in which all of the timepieces are faceless? Instead, you'd have to infer the time from the machinery. From the rate at which the clock goes tick-tock.

For, strictly speaking, nature is not a clock, or a set of smaller clocks. We simply find it convenient to employ this or that natural process to monitor the passage of time. That's a secondary, man-made application of a natural process. It's not as though the natural process was designed to tell us the time. When guys like Hugh Ross say that young-earth creationism is deceptive, are they not committing an anthropomorphic fallacy?

Sorry to be so roundabout in getting to the point, but I'm trying to explain my process of reasoning. Dropping the metaphor, how does the scientific establishment synchronize all of these natural chronometers in order to arrive at a common age for the world? Is there a master clock?

Back to my original question: how do you measure one clock by another clock? It looks like we've come full circle in more ways that one.

Isn't any figure for the duration of the world bound to be rather selective and arbitrary?

In fairness, some schemes may be more arbitrary than others. In physics, as I understand it, if you change a constant or a variable, you need to make a corresponding adjustment to another constant or variable. If you convert a constant to a variable here, you need to convert a variable into a constant there, or vice versa. Something like that. So the trick is to balance everything out, to come up with a theory that is the most consistent, comprehensive, and simple overall.

Still, there seem to be so many free variables play that I don't know how anyone can get his bearings by looking at the raw data. It seems is though you could go anywhere by starting anywhere. Is there any privileged frame of reference?

But probability is a relative concept. Even probabilities assume a standard of comparison. Is one scheme more likely than another? More likely relative to what? More especially--relative to whom? To God?

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