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Author Topic:   Why is uniformitarianim still taught?
Tamara
Inactive Member


Message 1 of 89 (87488)
02-19-2004 12:32 PM


I recently fished around the texts on the web, and it looks to me like even in college level texts, uniformitarianism is still taught as formerly. I could not find a good definition of actualism, btw, and gave up, thinking that actualism is just the old uniformitarianism under a new label.

Here is an example.
http://www.physicalgeography.net/fundamentals/10c.html

[This message has been edited by Tamara, 02-19-2004]


Replies to this message:
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Tamara
Inactive Member


Message 2 of 89 (87489)
02-19-2004 12:36 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by Tamara
02-19-2004 12:32 PM


a theory? sheesh!
This particular link actually gives this definition of uniformitarianism:

"Is a theory that rejects the idea that catastrophic forces were responsible for the current conditions on the Earth. The theory suggested instead, that continuing uniformity of existing processes were responsible for the present and past conditions of this planet."

Now it is elevated from a doctrine to a theory! Bah humbug.


This message is a reply to:
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Replies to this message:
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Tamara
Inactive Member


Message 8 of 89 (87512)
02-19-2004 1:55 PM
Reply to: Message 5 by Minnemooseus
02-19-2004 1:13 PM


Re: a theory? sheesh!
I think "basic assumption" is a good way to describe it. A theory, no.

You know what my problem with all this is? In the old days, the doctrine was formulated as a counter-argument to biblical catastrophism. Even then, it did not seem very reasonable, but was accepted nonetheless.

Over time, all its pieces fell off, falsified, until we are left with only the blandest assertion, that the natural laws today can be assumed to work many years ago. But the controversy was not about that, and is not about that today. And the term has become a misnomer, that still prompts people who ought to know better to continue to claim that "Uniformitarianism is the doctrine that existing processes acting in the same manner and with essentially the same intensity as at present are sufficient to account for all geologic change."
http://zebu.uoregon.edu/~js/glossary/uniformitarianism.html

Here's an analogy. Say you define "cat" claiming that the animal has 4 legs, sharp teeth, hunts mice, and purrs. Over time, you've had to abandon all claims except the one that it has 4 legs. Are you still in good faith when you continue to call it "cat"?

The controversy was/is about whether the historical processes shaping our earth included sudden massive upheavals or not. And clearly they did and do and will. It was obvious 100 years ago, and it is even more obvious today. So... I don't get it. With this term, what we get is confusion and obfuscation and wrong information.


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Tamara
Inactive Member


Message 14 of 89 (87563)
02-19-2004 3:50 PM
Reply to: Message 10 by Silent H
02-19-2004 3:09 PM


Re: Putting the 'if' back in Uniformitarianism
quote:
geology was hobbled in some aspects

Holmes: That's how I understand it too.
I recently read the argument that uniformitarianism follows Occam's Razor, saying that we should assume uni as the simpler hypothesis and only go to cat if not adequate. I think the argument does not hold. If you see a stratum full of twisted critters obviously squished suddenly in some disaster, uni is not the simpler hypothesis. Nor does it make sense to belabor some crater as the result of gradual volcanic activity for years, until someone dares to go counter the uni doctrine and suggests an impact.... I think Occam's Razor would dictate to hypothesize either cat or uni or both, depending on the evidence.


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Tamara
Inactive Member


Message 16 of 89 (87567)
02-19-2004 4:00 PM
Reply to: Message 12 by MrHambre
02-19-2004 3:33 PM


Re: Cat-astrophism
quote:
Mr "Tailless Wonder" Hambre: Does that mean that the laws of physics, the decay rates of elements, gravitational pull, or the rotation of the Earth changed? A volcano or an asteroid does not nullify the consistency of these processes. The assumption of uniformitarianism is the reason we know about such upheavals in the first place.

Nope. The ancient Cretans did not need modern geology to tell them Santorini made their world well-nigh inhabitable. And the rotation of the Earth has changed. Maybe other things too, that we do not yet suspect.

As for my personal opinion, I am unabashedly pro cat-uni synthesis that would get its own damn name, thank you. Particularly, as you so wisely point out, the line between catastrophes and non cannot be tidily drawn.

[This message has been edited by Tamara, 02-19-2004]


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Tamara
Inactive Member


Message 21 of 89 (87595)
02-19-2004 5:58 PM
Reply to: Message 15 by Percy
02-19-2004 3:56 PM


Re: You're right, uniformitarianism should not be taught!
Percy, I appreciate your thoughtful response. Let me see if I can convey my take on it better. I am not sure what you mean by bait and switch. I oppose uni because it was conceived not because the evidence of observation pointed that way, but for reasons of opposing the religiously minded, because it was wrong when it was conceived (as it was defined by Lyell), and because it is no more valid today -- on the face of it -- than it was then and still confuses people [apart from its "same laws apply today as before" version which provides virtually no information of interest], because it gets in the way of dealing directly with the evidence, and because it makes arguing with YECs far more difficult for layfolk than it needs to be.

As for it not being taught but deeply assumed, I think you are right, although it is found in textbooks. Which does not make it any less problematic. Now, I am sure we all here agree that the Earth was formed by both slow long gradual processes and sudden upheavals, regardless of the terminology. (Let's leave the biblical flood out of it, shall we? The problem comes when geologists, who hold uni deep in their assumptions and priorities, come to evaluate some part of the geologic record, or some formation. Ideally, they should come to the task without a bias, would you not agree? It does not make sense to make an apriori assumption that a formation X came about by slow processes over thousands of years when the possibility also exists that it came about as a result of a hurricane in a few hours. In other words, what makes sense to me most, is to assume uni & cat both at the outset, and go by the best evidence.

quote:
If you don't like the term uniformitarianism then you're in good company. I'll bet most geologists don't like it either.

LOL! So maybe there is hope, and the concept will bite the dust after all.


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Tamara
Inactive Member


Message 22 of 89 (87597)
02-19-2004 6:04 PM
Reply to: Message 18 by Silent H
02-19-2004 5:26 PM


quote:
How about using (if you agree with me anyway), gradualism for slow processes, catastrophism for fast processes, and uni for the idea that either speed process of yesteryear were the same kind of processes we see today.

Mmmm... could be. Have to think about it.


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Tamara
Inactive Member


Message 27 of 89 (87689)
02-20-2004 9:25 AM
Reply to: Message 25 by Percy
02-19-2004 9:35 PM


Double dog sheesh!
Oh for crying out loud.

Here's the scoop:
No, I do not assume there was a world wide flood in biblical times.
Yes, I do assume there was a massive flood in prehistoric Mesopotamia.
I don't know if there was a Utnapishtim/Noah ferrying animals to save them and letting the humans drown, but from what I know about humans, maybe I would have done the same.

Now are you happy???!!!

I think my point about the squished fish was not the best. I could have said instead, geologists looking at craters and dutifully explaining them as volcanic for a long time when the evidence spoke for impact. But no matter... it was just an example, and I think there is general agreement here that geologic events ought to be approached on their own merit.

Percy, don't patronize me. I am trying to make up my mind about something, and do not appreciate condescension. I do appreciate the various points and information you have provided, and that goes for others here as well.


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Replies to this message:
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Tamara
Inactive Member


Message 29 of 89 (87697)
02-20-2004 10:15 AM
Reply to: Message 18 by Silent H
02-19-2004 5:26 PM


what is kind?
quote:
How about using (if you agree with me anyway), gradualism for slow processes, catastrophism for fast processes, and uni for the idea that either speed process of yesteryear were the same kind of processes we see today.

Ok, holmes, getting back to you on this one.
Here is my puzzle. Were the processes of yesteryear the same kind and same speed or intensity as we see today? We agree that they were not necessarily the same speed or intensity, right? Were they the same kind? Now by kind, do you mean natural, as in opposition to supernatural? Because on the face of it, just talking natural, it seems to me that for example, assuming that since the process of continental drift is extant today, it was also extant way back when, is incorrect. So what is meant by "kind"? Or let me give a fringe example: some astrobiologists have postulated the possibility of life being seeded from space, perhaps by design (meaning alien design). Now that would be a possibly unique event or process, not extant today. Maybe there are better examples.

I am not a geologist. But on the face of it, from the vantage point of an Earthling, I see an earth being affected by all sorts of processes, some possibly unique, others common, some predictable, some unpredictable, some slow, some fast, with intensities changing. Do you see it differently?


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Tamara
Inactive Member


Message 34 of 89 (87714)
02-20-2004 11:46 AM
Reply to: Message 28 by Percy
02-20-2004 9:51 AM


Re: Double dog sheesh!
And maybe you are just a lousy teacher! (Is this sort of thing a constructive path to take?!)

Percy, you seem to have joined the ranks of those here who think insult or condescencion is an argument. Too bad.


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Tamara
Inactive Member


Message 36 of 89 (87720)
02-20-2004 12:07 PM
Reply to: Message 31 by Sylas
02-20-2004 11:10 AM


Re: what is kind?
To sum up. I am wondering if the following agrees more or less with folks here.

Uniformitarianism is something of a misnomer (in terms of implying uniform, unvarying processes) and should not be taught as part of modern geology. It is of interest mainly in the history of geology. Many geologists would be happier with some other term.

The evaluation of earth's processes proceeds necessarily from what we know today about current and past processes, which are based on uniform laws. This does not mean that these processes themselves can be assumed a priori to be uniform or unvarying, or that the processes in evidence today can be assume to have functioned the same way long ago. Also, unique events may have shaped our planet in the past, but the simplest assumption (an already known process) ought to be tried first (Occam's Razor). No doubt, there are also processes we do not yet know about that have also shaped the planet.

How am I doing?

Btw, this is what Wikipedia says about the modified uni:
"In recent decades, the theory of uniformitarianism has been modified to reflect the discovery of certain catastrophic events in the earth's past. This modification, which could be phrased as "the geologic forces are almost always functioning slowly and the same through time", is called actualism."


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Tamara
Inactive Member


Message 51 of 89 (87792)
02-20-2004 5:23 PM


summing up, & one more question
Brad: Say huh?

Holmes, the reason I asked you about the supernatural is for clarification. I myself believe that naturalism is a basic and necessary postulate of science. I have heard people say otherwise but I am not convinced. (And my last sentence has nothing to do with trying to insert the supernatural and all with inserting some caution and humility regarding what we know.)

quote:
Unique events are possible, supernatural ones are as yet unpostulatable.

My view of the matter as well.

quote:
Percy, I think, said: The "uniform" part of uniformitarianism carries with it an implication, to most people upon first hearing it, of a constancy of process rates over time, and so the term is disfavored now because this is not the current definition.

This is exactly why, when I first considered it, I assumed it was false, contradicting common experience.

quote:
Percy: An oft repeated criticism issued by Creationists is that uniformitarianism is self-evidently wrong because of volcanoes, floods and earthquakes, and how could we have our heads wedged so tightly in such a dunderheaded viewpoint. As I said earlier, geologists don't even think of themselves as uniformitarians - the term finds very little modern application. If the word were different, but had the precise same meaning, I think a lot of pointless discussion would be alleviated. If the word had instead been presentkeytopasttarianism then Creationists, and tons of other people, would not be continually making the same obvious misinterpretations of the word.

Well, that about wraps it up, in a nutshell.
-----
So. Here’s another take:

Uniformitarianism is something of an archaism and a historical misnomer. It continues to be taught on high school and college level but geologists themselves prefer not to use the term. The "uniform" part of uniformitarianism carries with it an implication, to most people upon first hearing it, of a constancy of process rates over time, and so the term is disfavored now because this is not the current definition. Geologists today, to the extent they put a label on it, probably consider themselves naturalists. They believe the planet is shaped by natural forces today, and that those same natural forces acted to shape the planet in the past. They assume when they examine a structure or stratum that it will contain evidence of natural processes.

The evaluation of earth's processes proceeds necessarily from what we know today about current and past processes, which are based on uniform laws (aka “the present is key to the past”). This does not mean that these processes themselves can be assumed a priori to be uniform or unvarying. Neither does it mean that the processes in evidence today can be assumed to have functioned the same way long ago. (As one scientist put it, “We do not just "assume" that processes we see now operated in the same way in the past. The processes which occur leave identifiable traces, which allow us to actually measure and study processes of the past, and tell the ways in which they may be similar or distinct.”) Also, unique events may have shaped our planet in the past, but the simplest assumption (an already known process) is typically tried first (Occam's Razor). No doubt, there are also processes we do not yet know about that have also shaped the planet. But these undiscovered "possibilities" are not brought to bear in an investigation, until known processes, forces, and materials have been exhausted.
-----
Well, now that we have untangled this mess, this is my question to you all.

YECs claim that since the old-fashioned form of uniformitarianism held sway in the past, data regarding the age of the earth are unreliable, because they build on knowledge that was built on top of this false assumption. How would you counter it, using examples that are easy to understand, and that do not get into arguing arcane points of radiometry?


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