Cosmos Wars, Episode IV: No New Hope for Creationists
Tauriel: Wood elves love best the light of the stars.
Fili: I always thought it is a cold light, remote and far away.
Tauriel: It is memory, precious and pure.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Last Sunday’s episode ofCosmos took up one of the best arguments against young-earth creationism—the existence of light from stars that are thousands of light-years away. Light, Neil deGrasse Tyson explained, is a time machine, giving us a glimpse at the ancient past. In these distant stars we see pictures of a universe that was already ancient long before young-earth creationists would claim God created the heavens and the earth, separated the light from the darkness, or created lights in the firmament of the heavens.
The mind which realized that some stars are much farther away than others, and the first eyes to see stars in distant galaxies, belonged to William Herschel, a German musician and conductor who learned to grind telescope lenses, ultimately becoming the Royal Astronomer. As I mentioned last week, Herschel trained and collaborated with his sister, and she carried on his work after his death. She was also a mentor to her nephew John Herschel, who, with William, featured in this episode of Cosmos (unlike Caroline, whose absence was disappointing).
Through his spectacular telescopes, Herschel was able to see the relative positions of stars, planets, comets, and distant galaxies, and understand just how big the universe was. He speculated about the possibility that there might be planets orbiting other stars in other galaxies, and that there might be astronomers on those planets looking back at him. The idea that space had depth let him see that time, too, had depth. The term “deep time” is a later invention, but the Herschels understood that what they saw through their telescopes was a glimpse deep into the past history of the universe (or “universes,” since that’s how he referred to the many galaxies).
Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out the problems this causes for creationists, explaining, “To believe in a universe as young as 6- or 7,000 years old, is to extinguish the light of most of the galaxy.” In his debate with Ken Ham, Bill Nye made a similarly forceful objection to young-earth creationist astronomy. Creationists are well aware of the objection that the universe can’t be less than 10,000 years old if we can see light from stars that has been in transit for many times longer. So what do they say in response?
Some just say that light was created in transit. But most creationists resist that argument, since it would mean that God is trying to mislead us. Jason Lisle, formerly of Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis, objects:
if God created the light beams already on their way, then that means none of the events we see in space (beyond a distance of 6,000 light-years) actually happened. It would mean that those exploding stars never exploded or existed; God merely painted pictures of these fictional events. It seems uncharacteristic of God to make illusions like this.
Other creationists insist that this is entirely characteristic. Adam and Eve weren’t, by most young-earth creationist accounts, created as fertilized zygotes who developed into adult humans over a couple decades; rather, those first humans (and the animals and plants) were created as adults (thus yielding endless debates about whether Adam and Eve had belly buttons). Similarly, the wine which Jesus created from water is described as good wine, which these creationists insists means the wine was created not just as if it had time to ferment from grapes that never existed, but also time to have been aged in a cellar. Thus, these young-earth creationists insist, creating light in transit from stars that never existed wouldn’t be inconsistent with what we know about God’s creation.