Chapter 12b/11b:    “The Dynamic Planet”

Geosystems, 4CE, pp. 355-379 (Geosystems, 3CE., p.316-342)

“Lord, through all the generations you have been our home!
Before the mountains were created, before you made the earth and the world,
you are God, without beginning or end.
You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust!”
For you, a thousand years are as yesterday!  They are like a few hours!”
Psalm 90:1-4 NLT

This section continues looking at the physical makeup of the Earth …

There is a video introduction here:  http://youtu.be/GgISOQv2xr4

I. The Rock Cycle

In this course, our focus is on the Earth’s crust.  Several processes are at work continually transforming the Earth’s crust.  These include:

– the “hydrologic cycle” (the role of water and ice, included in 4CE Chapters 14 and 15 / 3CE – Ch. 13 and 14),

– the “tectonic cycle” (large movements of the Earth’s crust, Chapter 12c/11c),

– the “rock cycle” (processes which result in the formation of rocks, this section!)

The rocks on the Earth’s crust are made up of

1.Elements – the basic chemical units of matter (remember the Periodic Table of Elements from Chemistry class!).  An element cannot be broken down to other substances by ordinary chemical methods. Elements have one- or two-letter symbols (e.g. Oxygen’s symbol is O; Aluminum’s is Al).  Some symbols are based on the Latin name for element (e.g. Iron (latin “ferrum”) is Fe).  The first letter is always capitalized.  The second letter (if there is one) is always lower case (non-capitalized).

92 of these occur naturally (the others have been artificially developed)

99% of the crust is made up of only 8 elements … these are the ones to know for this course:

  • Oxygen (0) – 47%
  • Silicon (Si) – 28%
  • Aluminum (AI) – 8%
  • Iron (Fe) – 5%
  • Calcium (Ca) – <4%
  • Sodium (Na) – <3%
  • Potassium (K) – <3%)
  • Magnesium (Mg) – 2%
  • All others – <2%

Interesting, isn’t it, that oxygen comprises almost 50% of the rocks on the Earth’s crust!  Of course this is not “free” oxygen (like in the atmosphere).  These are oxygen atoms chemically bonded to other elements like silicon (silicon + oxygen = quartz), aluminum, and iron.  So, next time you stub your toe on a rock, remind yourself that what you hit was mostly just oxygen!  Now doesn’t that make you feel better?!?!

2. Minerals – elements that are chemically bonded together are called minerals.  Minerals are naturally occurring, inorganic compounds with characteristic chemical composition and crystal structure.  Note minerals are:

  • naturally occurring (form as the result of natural processes).
  • inorganic (that is, not-living).
  • compounds (combinations of more than one element).
  • characterized by specific chemical compositions and crystal structures.

Mineral groups (minerals with similar elements) and individual minerals are often given names.  They also are described by the specific elements they include.  Often the proportion of each element is given by small, subscript numbers (thus, SiO2, called either “silicon dioxide” or “quartz” is made up of one silicon atom and two oxygen atoms).

Common mineral groups include:

  • Silicates (Si + O minerals) – quartz (SiO2), feldspars
  • Oxides (O + metals) – eg Fe2O3 – hematite
  • Carbonates (C + O + others) – eg. Calcite/chalk (CaCO3)

There are specific minerals within each group, with unique chemical compositions (e.g. quartz [SiO2]) is a specific mineral within the silicate group.

3. Rocks are aggregates (combinations) of minerals in a solid state (as opposed to fine sediment – like sand, silt, or clay particles, which are aggregates of minerals in a loose, unconsolidated state)

So – rocks are composed of minerals, which are composed of elements!

All rocks can be categorized as igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic.

a. Igneous Rocks

These are the most common rocks.  They are formed when minerals solidify and crystallize from a molten state (granite, basalt, lava).  The word “igneous” literally means “fire” indicating that these rocks were once molten.  At one time or other these rocks were beneath the surface, melted by the heat of the Earth’s interior.

Note: molten rock under surface is called magma; on the surface it is called lava.

Lava and magma may be identical in every way, except whether or not the molten rock is on or under the surface.

i.  intrusive igneous rocks form when molten rock solidifies below the earth’s surface (they “intrude” within existing rocks below the surface).  These “blobs” of igneous rock beneath the surface, large or small, are collectively called plutons, named after Pluto, Roman god of the underworld (see Figure 12.7, 4CE (p.358); 11.9, 3CE (p.321)).  A pluton is a general term for any intrusive “blob” of rock … that is, any mass of molten rock that solidifies below the surface.  Note that as weathering and erosion occurs, these intrusive rocks may be exposed at the surface!  Much of eastern Nova Scotia and parts of the West Coast are exposed granite — intrusive igneous rock that has been exposed at the surface.

  • large plutons are called batholiths.
    12 batholith

    BC Coast Mountains are an exposed batholith

    These are vast regions (larger than 100 km2) of solidified magma underground.  Many major mountain ranges are batholiths that have been exposed at the surface by movements of the Earth’s crust, weathering, and erosion.  The Coast Mountains of British Columbia and Washington State are a huge exposed batholith.  The eastern shore of Nova Scotia is also an exposed granite batholith.  The rocks (granite and basalt) are igneous rocks that solidified under the surface, but have since been exposed by weathering, erosion, and major Earth movements.

  • smaller plutons are called laccoliths.
    12 sghills

    A laccolith, Sweetgrass Hills, MT

    These are smaller regions (less than 100 km2) of solidified magma underground.  Laccoliths are usually oblong- or lens-shaped (see Figure 12.7 / 11.9).  These can also be exposed at the surface due to Earth movements, weathering, or erosion.  Mount Royal (Montreal) is an exposed intrusion of gabbro of this sort.

  • horizontal plutons are sills.
    13 sill

    A sill (parallel to the strata), Banff, AB

    These form when magma solidifies along a horizontal crack underground.  Sedimentary rock usually forms in distinct layers.  When igneous rock forms along one of the cracks in these layers it is a sill (see Figure 12.7 / 11.9).

  • vertical plutons are dikes. These form when magma solidifies along a vertical crack underground (see Figure 12.7 / 11.9).  In this case, the magma solidifies across the existing rock layers.
  • volcanic necks or plugs are the remnants of the pipes or conduits in volcanoes.
    13 bass rock

    A volcanic plug. Bass Rock, UK

    When a volcano ceases to erupt, the magma in the pipe/neck/throat solidifies, usually as very solid rock.  This rock is often much more resistant to erosion than the outer slopes of the volcano, which are often made up of loose ash.  Over time, the outer slopes erode away.  Eventually just the solid rock that solidified in the pipe may remain (see Figure 12.7 / 11.9)

ii.  Extrusive igneous rocks form when molten rock solidifies at the earth’s surface (they “extrude” on top of the surface).  Lava flows are the most recognizable extrusive rocks.  These will be discussed more in Chapter 13/12.

Intrusive and extrusive igneous rocks may be classified by

  • their mineral composition:
  1. felsic rocks contain much feldspar and silica, are generally light in color and weight.  See feldspar.
  2. mafic rocks contain heavy, dark minerals including magnesium and iron (Latin ferric).   See slate or magnetite.
  3. ultramafic rocks contain virtually no silica:  very dark and very heavy

(See Table 12.2 (4CE p. 357) / 11.2 (3CE p. 323) –“Igneous Rock Minerals”)

  • their texture:coarse-grained rocks with large crystals usually form below the surface (intrusive rocks); they cooled slowly:
12 granite2

Granite, Keats BC

– coarse-grained felsic rocks (large crystals/light colour/weight) – granite

12 mafic

Gabbro

– coarse-grained mafic rocks (large crystals/dark colour/heavy weight) – gabbro

fine-grained rocks with small crystals often form on the surface (extrusive rocks); they cooled quickly:

12 Rhyolite

Rhyolite

– fine-grained felsic rocks (small crystals/light colour/weight) – rhyolite

12 balancing rock

Basalt, Long Island NS

– fine-grained mafic rocks (small crystals/dark colour/heavy weight) – basalt

(See Table 11.2, “Igneous Rock Minerals”)

b. Sedimentary Rocks

Existing rocks – igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic – get weathered and eroded into smaller particles over time.  They get broken up into little bits by rain, ice, wind, and other forces.  Some other minerals are not even rock … they simply exist as unconsolidated sediment (sand, silt, clay).  When these small particles and sediment are compacted, cemented, and hardened into solid rock, sedimentary rocks are formed. Sediment — whether broken bits of other rock or sand, silt, clay — is cemented into sedimentary rock!  This process of transforming loose particles and sediment into solid rock is called lithification (Greek “lithos” = rock).

For instance, imagine a large river that floods every year.  Every year a new layer of sediment is deposited on top of the existing sand, silt, and clay of the flood plain.  Eventually the sediment from years ago will solidify into rock because there is such a tremendous weight of “stuff” on top of it.  Thus the rock will be in distinct layers (because the sediment from the flood one year may be a bit different than that from another one.  And the oldest rock will be the lowest layer:  it is formed from the oldest sediment and has been exposed to the most weight for the longest time.

Sedimentary rocks are typically made up of distinct layers.  When you see a cliff or mountainside with distinct banding or layers, you most likely have sedimentary rock.  Normally the oldest layer will be the lowest.  The youngest layer will be at the top.

12 siltstone

Siltstone

12 sandstone

Sandstone

12 conglomerate

Conglomerate rock

12 shale

Shale

  • Chemical sedimentary rocks are made up of dissolved minerals that have been chemically precipitated (i.e. the water is evaporated, leaving the mineral behind). Limestone, gypsum, calcite (chalk), salt, and sulphur deposits are examples.  In these cases, dissolved minerals are left behind when water is evaporated.  If you visit a hot spring, for instance, you may see white rock (where calcite has been left behind) or yellow/orange rock where sulphur and other minerals that were dissolved in the hot water have been left behind when the water evaporated.  Sulphur is also a by-product of natural gas production.
1a Saint Croix NS

Gypsum, Saint Croix NS

12 Beachy Head

Calcite, Beachy Head, UK

12 limestone

Limestone, Jasper, AB

  • 12 coal

    Coal, Lethbridge, AB

    Coal represents lithified (rock-ified) organic deposits.  Organic deposits represent the remains of living things — mostly vegetation, but also marine and terrestrial animals.  (Note:  coal is solidified (rock-ified) organic deposits; oil is liquified organic deposits; natural gas is gas-ified organic deposits … coal, oil, and gas are often found in the same region.  They all represented organic deposits … in solid, liquid, and gas phases.  In these areas vast amounts of organic “stuff” was overlaid and buried by layers of rock and has decomposed back to basic mineral components).

Sedimentary rocks are used as raw materials for building (stone blocks, source of concrete, etc.); they contain valuable mineral deposits (shale, gypsum, phosphates); and energy sources (coal, oil, and gas deposits).

Note that if you are looking for coal, oil, or gas, you are much more likely to find it in sedimentary formations than igneous formations!   When you become the chief geologist for Conoco Canada this is good to know!  Knowing this, and knowing that Alberta has much oil, gas, and coal you know that much of Alberta is underlaid by sedimentary rock.  Knowing the B.C./Washington Coast Mountains are mostly igneous rock (an exposed batholith) … would they have much coal, oil, or gas?  No!  Off the east coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are more sedimentary formations … would this mean there is a potential for oil and gas … or not?

c. Metamorphic rocks

Any rock (igneous or sedimentary) that undergoes intense heat or pressure may be physically or chemically altered to the point where it has different properties from the original rock.  If the great heat and/or pressure do change the basic properties (colour/weight/crystal structure) of the rock, the rock is considered a new type of rock.  It is then classified as a metamorphic rock (metamorphosis = “changed”).

Metamorphism can occur on a large scale (for instance, as Earth’s crustal plates appear to move, during earthquakes, etc.):  large pieces of rock can be moved into contact with heat or pressure below the surface.  Much of the Yukon, for instance, is a vast area of metamorphic rock.

Or metamorphism can occur in isolated locations (point metamorphism) where a seam of molten magma melts or “cooks” rocks that are immediately adjacent to the molten rock.

12 Slate 2

Slate, Wales

Typical metamorphic changes include

  • foliation – layering like sheets of paper (for instance, shale metamorphoses to slate).  Foliated rocks can be used in construction (slate) … or for pool tables!
  • banding
    12 marble

    Marble, Istanbul

    – minerals settle out in distinct colour “bands” – (for instance, limestone metamorphoses to marble).  Metamorphic rocks are often beautiful (marble); they often contain ore deposits (copper, zinc, lead).

Point or contact metamorphism can form precious stones.  Diamonds, sapphires, rubies, garnets, etc. are products of point metamorphism.  So … a knowledge of the processes which form precious stones can help you find them!  South Africa (diamond capital of the world) has been strongly influenced by point metamorphism.

These rock types can result in characteristic physical landscapes (gentle, rolling hills vs. rugged mountains), vegetation, and human settlement and cultural development (agriculture, architecture, etc).

Worth reflecting on …

Check out this video clip “Does science threaten belief in God:  Making Sense”:  Making Sense – YouTube

Echoing the reading in the last lecture, New Zealand author, Dick Tripp, writes:

How was it that the Christian faith aided the scientific approach of many of the original thinkers of those times and enabled them to break with the preconceptions of the past? In his 1925 lectures, Alfred North Whitehead had said that Christianity is the mother of science because of “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God”. Because of the confidence of the early scientists in this rationality, they had an “inexpungable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope.” Newton wrote in Principia:

This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being…This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as the Lord over all.

This God is not only intelligent, but also faithful and worthy of trust, as the Scriptures often declare. His faithfulness is expressed in the regularity and order of the created world, a regularity that could be expressed scientifically as “laws”. Newton is noted for his formulation of the law that governed the motion of the celestial bodies – his famous law of universal gravitation.

This God also declared that all he has created is good, a word that occurs seven times in Genesis 1. Therefore his works are worthy of study. This contrasted with the idea of the unreality, or inferiority of the natural world, common to Greek philosophy and other religions. The central theme of Protestant theology at that time was the glory of God, and they saw this partly in understanding his creation. The early Christian scientists also saw it as their task to take seriously the command given in Genesis 1:28 to subdue the created order.

Many studies have been done on the influence of “voluntarism” on the rise of early modern science, from Augustine to Ockham to Boyle and Newton. This is the idea that emphasises the will of God and that he is free to choose his own way of doing things. He did not have to create or to do so in the way he did. This world might not have existed, or it might have had different properties from the ones it has. As a result, nature’s properties must be discovered rather than merely deduced from the principles of logic or mathematics.

A further factor was undoubtedly the Christian view of progress in history which is implied in God’s first command to “replenish the earth and subdue it.” The idea of progress is inherent in applied science. The Christian view of purpose in history, which had a beginning, and which will end with the second coming of Christ, is very different from the cyclical view, with constant repetition, common to some other major religions. This sense of the rationality of God, the faithfulness of God, the goodness of his creation and his purposes in history underlie much of what surfaced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and largely grew out of the Reformation, though we have seen that its beginnings go back to the early Christian centuries – indeed, to the Bible itself.

Finally, the picture of a single God who created the whole universe to operate by consistent laws, is very different from the idea of many different nature gods whose activities may vary. As Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards state in their very significant book The Privileged Planet: How our place in the cosmos is designed for discovery:  “Since they believed that God is one and that human beings are created in God’s image, medieval Christians and Jews could expect nature to have a sort of unity (to be a uni verse) and to be accessible to the human mind. These ideas, brought to fruition by interaction with the Greeks, were the seedbed from which natural science slowly grew. It’s hardly a coincidence that science emerged in the time and place where these many factors converged. Although they are now forgotten, modern science draws on the interest of specific theological convictions.”

Alfred North Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World, declared eighty years ago: “Faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.

One of the results of the Reformation was a new sense of freedom. People felt free from the old traditions, whether ecclesiastical, political or philosophical. The scientists said they were free from the preconceived ideas of Greek philosophy, and they would submit their ideas to the Book of Nature, just as they submitted all matters of faith to the Book of Scripture. As God was the author of both there could be no conflict between them, other than that which arose from human misunderstanding. Galileo wrote that “the world is the work and the Scriptures the word of the same God.” Or as Kepler put it: “The tongue of God and the finger of God cannot clash.” This was a common theme. Francis Bacon, lawyer, philosopher, and the founder of the new scientific approach in England, who was made Lord Chancellor in 1618, declared in his Proficience and Advancement of Learning:  “Let no man think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the Book of God’s Word or in the Book of God’s Works.”

Kepler felt himself to be “a high priest in the book of nature, religiously bound to alter not one jot or tittle of what it had pleased God to write down in it.” That is why he took seriously the eight minutes of divergence from the circular in the orbit of Mars, which he discovered by observation. He revealed the motivation for his work when he wrote:  “Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it befits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above else, of the glory of God.”

They were following the lead given in the Bible 2,000 years or more earlier: “Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them” (Psalm 111:2). Lord Rayleigh prefixed this text to his collected scientific papers and it is carved on the great door of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. It was put there at James Clerk Maxwell’s request, one of the greatest scientists of his day. It was he who laid the foundations of field theory in physics that led to relativity theory.

The old ideas that had been appropriated from Aristotle – the earth was perfectly round; it was the centre of the universe; it was immovable; the sun was a perfect sphere without spot or blemish; air fell upwards, et cetera – had gone out with the Middle Ages. As people continued to study the universe in the light of these principles, taking seriously what they saw, the foundations of true science were well and truly laid.

Moving on to the early nineteenth century, the number of pioneer geologists who were Bible-believing Christians is noteworthy. Among them were William Buckland, who held the chair of geology at Oxford, and his counterpart at Cambridge, Adam Sedgwick. Both were leading churchmen. They maintained contact with the famous French geologist, Baron Cuvier, another Bible-believer. In the mid-nineteenth century, the most famous Christian geologist was probably Hugh Miller, president of  the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh; he wrote a number of best-selling books on geology, including Footprints of the Creator.

The basis of physics was established by men of Christian faith: Newton, Gauss, Faraday, Maxwell, Lord Kelvin, to name a few. The outstanding early botanist, John Ray (d. 1705), declared: “The treasures of nature are inexhaustible…If man ought to reflect upon his Creator the glory of all his works, then ought he to take notice of them all and not to think anything unworthy of his cognisance.”

Feel free to discuss this quote on the course discussion site (see the syllabus for details …)

II. The Theory of Plate Tectonics (Continental Drift)

There is a brief video introduction here: http://youtu.be/FBKvDy_-psQ

The theory is very helpful to help us understand the present and think about future possibilities.

The theory is important because – whichever time-scale you feel the evidence supports it helps describe current global phenomena and may help predict future possibilities (earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.).

The value of this theory is in its ability to help us understand and account for present day phenomena, and think through potential future events.

A.  Background

As early as the 16th century, Abraham Ortelius noticed that the continental coastlines of Africa and South America appeared to “fit” together. He suggested there may have been a “super-continent” at one time.  Francis Bacon (17th c.) and Benjamin Franklin (18th c.) noted the same similarities.  In 1668 a Frenchman suggested that this apparent fit was evidence of a global flood (note, Christopherson does not include this reference, because it doesn’t “fit” with his uniformitarianist assumptions!).

The theory of “continental drift” was ridiculed until the early 1900s when two scientists independently proposed the theory in a formal way and provided scientific observations to support it.

Taylor and Wegener independently pointed out:

  • the apparent continental fit,
  • the presence of identical, rare fossils in both Europe and North America, and in South America and Africa
  • the similarity of geological structures on both sides of the Atlantic.

They developed a theory of “Pangaea,” a super-continent which they suggested existed at some point in the past (the standard dating is about 250 million years ago … this is of course, a guess!).  This super-continent, made up of separate pieces or plates, has since split up as the plates have moved on the asthenosphere.

Their theory seemed to fit their observations of global geologic phenomena, but there were problems with the theory!.  In particular, they could not explain HOW this was happening.  The mechanism driving plate movement was missing.  Other scientists found their observations intriguing, but with no description of the how things could have changed so dramatically, the theory was largely dismissed.

For more on the history and development of the theory of plate tectonics, visit here!

The U.S. Geological Survey also has a good site on the development of the theory.

B. More Evidence

Evidence and a mechanism for HOW this may have happened was developed in the 1950s and 1960s as scientists began to study the floor of ocean basins in detail for the first time.

Measurements over a period of several decades shows that the ocean floors are spreading along “mid-oceanic ridges” (about 2.5 cm/yr).  For more detail, visit the US Geological Survey

This information has encouraged the idea that the lithosphere (the crust and uppermost mantle) is composed of huge plates which “float” on the asthenosphere.  The lithosphere is solid.  It parts were to move, it would make sense that it would crack into large pieces or plates.  The asthenosphere, the layer of superheated, near-molten rock just below the lithosphere, could act like a plastic substance upon which plates could slowly move.

The theory of plate tectonics suggests:

  1.   the oceans are getting bigger.  They are spreading apart in the middle.  this has been convincingly demonstrated.  As they do so, volcanoes form along these mid-ocean ridges.  Iceland is one example.  Note the diagrams in your text which show ridges down the centres of major oceans (See Figure 12.18,  p. 367 (4CE) or p. 329 (3CE)).
  1. at the continental margins, collisions are occurring:
  • the denser plate (normally the oceanic plate – basalt) is being “subducted” (pushed) under the lighter plate (normally the continental plate – granite), causing deep ocean trenches at the continental margins.  Note that the deepest parts of the oceans are in fact along the edges of continents – off Japan and Peru.
  • along these “subduction zones” rock is forced downward, causing it to melt. The magma often wells back up to the surface through weaknesses in the crust, to form volcanoes.
  • also, the friction often causes earthquakes.  Plates of rock do not slide under one another smoothly … they tend to go in jerky motion.
  • rocks may be bent or warped by the pressure

(See Figure 12.18 (4CE p. 367) – “Plate Movements” or  Fig. 11.15 (3CE p. 329) – “Crustal Movements.”

Divergent plate boundaries occur where plates appear to be moving apart – for example along mid- oceanic ridges or along the Great Rift Valley in East Africa.  These are characterized by many volcanoes and some earthquakes (Mt. Kilimanjaro).

Convergent plate boundaries occur where plates appear to be coming together. Typically these occur along oceanic/continental margins as the ocean crust is subducted under continental margins.  These are characterized by many earthquakes and some volcanoes (Japan, Peru).

Transform plate boundaries occur where plates appear to be sliding sideways past each other.  These are typically characterized by earthquakes and sometimes volcanoes (San Andreas Fault).

** Note the close relationship between proposed plate boundaries and global patterns of volcanic and earthquake activity – they match almost perfectly.  (Figure 12.21 (4CE p. 369) / 11.22 (3CE p. 336) – “Earthquake and volcanic activity locations.”  Volcanoes and earthquakes virtually ONLY occur where predicted by this theory.  This is strong evidence in support of the theory.  And it is very influential in predicting where future earthquake and volcanic risk is highest.

A great description of the different types of plate boundaries (with descriptions, maps, pictures, and more), is on the U.S. Geological Survey site.

“Hot spots” are isolated points of weakness in the middle of plates. In these points magma wells to the surface as a volcano. As the plate moves, a trail of volcanoes would be left behind.  For a complete list, see Wikipedia on Hotspots.

  • It is hypothesised that the Hawaiian Islands are the result of such a hot spot.
  • Yellowstone National Park, a huge volcanic region in the interior of the North American Plate, appears to be on another hot spot, as volcanic activity continues to move from the west (older formations) toward the east (more recent volcanic activity).
  • Iceland, one of the most volcanically active places in the world, is supposed to be located on a hot spot located on a mid-ocean ridge.

See text and Figure 12.22 (4CE p. 374 / 11.23 ( 3CE p. 337)) – “Hot spot tracks across the North Pacific.”.

C.  Implications
  1. Descriptions …

The Theory of Plate Tectonics helps describe or account for the present features and processes on the Earth’s surface.  The pattern of mid-ocean ridges, ocean trenches, volcanoes, and earthquakes is well-described by the theory.  It makes sense.  The theory allows for a greater understanding of HOW our world – God’s creation – may work!

  1. Predictions …

Understanding the theory allows scientists the possibility to predict future events.  For instance, we can hypothesise which locations on the Earth are most susceptible to earthquakes and volcanic activity.  We can then plan around that!  Thus, many regions which are vulnerable to earthquakes (plate boundaries) have instituted building codes that are much more stringent than those in places believed to be less at risk.

While the theory appears to be a very helpful predictor, plate tectonics is not a static theory since the Earth, itself, is not static.  The sequence of huge earthquakes that struck off the coast of Sumatra in April 2012, for instance, may signal the creation of a new tectonic plate boundary:  bbc.co.uk:  April Sumatra Quakes signal Indian Ocean Plate Break Up.

D.  Plate Tectonics and Christian Faith …

Is there anything in this theory that would run contrary to Christian faith?   Depending on your interpretative theory of how old the Earth is (Theological Issues discussion coming up …), the proposed timeline (465 million years?) may be problematic.  However the theory could be substantially explained in terms of a global flood in the short-term (by the way, a global flood could also fit into an old-Earth model, no problem).  Indeed, a flood and its ancillary effects could increase plate movement and associated earthquake and volcanic activity.  Otherwise, there is no incongruity between this theory and Christian faith.  Christians, whether preferring a catastrophism or a uniformitarianism model, need have no theological problems with this theory.

Worth reflecting on …

Reflecting on the subject, “The need of science and Christianity for each other,” New Zealand author, Dick Tripp, writes:

“Science is unable to meet basic human needs.  In 1928, in an article on the notorious Scopes trial of 1925, The Nation stated:

A sentence which begins “Science says” will generally be found to settle any argument in a social gathering, or sell any article from toothpaste to a refrigerator.

However, today the climate has changed somewhat. In fact, there has been a growing “anti-science” movement over recent years. Many books have been written, particularly by ecologically-minded folk of a New Age bent, blaming science for many of our problems. As it was Christianity that spawned science, it often gets blamed in the process!

Much has been written over recent decades about what science can and cannot do. This has been a healthy corrective to much of the thinking of what is called “The Enlightenment” of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe. Central to Enlightenment thought was the celebration of the power of reason – the power by which we understand the universe and improve our condition. This brought enormous progress in science, technology and medicine, but inasmuch as it overemphasized the power of reason and ignored divine revelation, it carried the seeds of its own destruction. The Bible keeps a balance between the power of our own minds, and hence the capabilities of science, and the need to humbly submit those minds to truths that God has revealed about himself and our human condition. Firstly, science cannot meet the deepest needs of the human heart. The Chief Rabbi in Britain, Sir Immanuel Jakobovits, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, said:

Human life, generated from test tubes and petri dishes, sustained by artificial foods and drugs and terminated by unplugging some life-support machine, may be reduced to a form of mechanisation in which the incomparable grandeur of the human spirit, the genius of the human mind and the noblest virtues of the human heart are asphyxiated in the exhaust fumes of our technological wonders.

Science cannot speak to our deepest needs as beings created in the image of God.

If you leave God out of the picture, as did Jacques Monod who won the Nobel Prize for his work on genetic mechanisms, then, as he put it, we are left “alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe”, however wonderful that universe might be. We live in “an alien world; a world that is deaf to [our] music, and as indifferent to [our] hopes as to [our] crimes.”

Gamaliel Bradford, the famous biographer, a brilliant scholar who read staggering amounts daily in seven languages, exclaimed towards the end of his life, “Who will tell me something of God. I know nothing about him whatever. It is a mere name, a mere word to me, and yet it clings. Why?” Why indeed? Science cannot answer that question.

Secondly, science cannot deal with the question of purpose. It cannot answer such questions as: Why is the universe here? Is there any great destiny for human beings? Stephen Hawking, one of today’s most brilliant physicists, stated in Black Holes and Baby Universes:

…science may solve the problem of how the universe began, but it cannot answer the question: why does the universe bother to exist?

Albert Einstein, perhaps the most revered scientist of the twentieth century, wrote in Ideas and Opinions:

The scientific method can teach us nothing beyond how facts are related to and conditioned by each other…knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is, and yet not be able to deduce from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations.

As Dr Bernard Lown in Norman Cousin’s The Healing Heart put it:

While science may help explain how a virus multiplies, it leaves unanswered why a tear is shed.

Richard Dawkins, in his popular science book, The Selfish Gene, written from the perspective of scientific materialism, can attempt to come up with a scientific explanation of such things as a mother’s love. However, such answers don’t satisfy our basic instincts, least of all those of the mother!

As Stephen Toulmin showed clearly in his standard work The Philosophy of Science, the major scientists today do not expect to produce final or invariable knowledge of the world. The physical and chemical properties they develop are simply practical aids to understanding, useful vehicles for getting about in reality. One cannot, by analogy, deduce from them anything about the ultimate nature of the universe, as so many people in the nineteenth century tried to do.

Mary Hesse, in her Criteria of Truth in Science and Theology, and Jurgen Habermas, in his Knowledge and Human Interests, also warn of this. Commenting on the role of science and the restrictions it must observe, Hesse reminds us that knowledge of science

…does not yield truth about the essential nature of things, the significance of its own place in the universe, or how it should conduct its life.

Some would say that the views of Hesse are too extreme. Science does tell us things that bear a real relationship to what is really there, even though it may be a varied mixture of fact and opinion. However, these are warnings against too much presumption, particularly in the area of answering all the “whys”.

Thirdly, science cannot solve our problems in the moral sphere. Our most pressing problems in the world today are moral problems. Science itself is morally neutral. Dr. George Lundberg, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, in Can Science Save Us? says:

Science only provides a car and chauffeur for us. It does not tell us where to drive. The car and the chauffeur will take us into the highlands or into the ditch with equal efficiency.

It is people who use science and they can use it for good or evil. Charles Lindberg, the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, went to Germany after the war to see what allied bombing had done to the Germans, who had been leaders in science. He said:

In Germany, I learnt that if his civilisation is to continue, modern man must direct the material power of his science by the spiritual truths of his God.

General Omar Bradley, in a 1948 Armistice Day address, put it bluntly:

We have too many men of science, too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount…Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.

We can perform thousands of calculations in one second on a computer, but we have no formula that will increase people’s compassion or take away racial prejudice from their hearts.

These are all areas where Christianity and science must work together, as some of today’s thinkers are learning to do. We owe a great debt to people of science for much good that has been achieved by their discoveries, but without a Christian base, where it largely began, our problems will be multiplied.”

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Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.