I recently read the book “Concepts of Simultaneity” by Max Jammer where Jammer presents the history of concepts of simultaneity. Primarily he starts with the Greek philosophers and works through to the modern age—with philosophers and physicists. The book outlines that in regards to the concept of simultaneity the most significant developments occurred in the past 110 years, starting with Albert Einstein when he published his famous paper on Special Relativity in 1905.
Time is intrinsically linked with simultaneity. Simultaneity involves how we might synchronise distant clocks with our own local clocks. This issue then has an enormous bearing on some significant philosophical questions. How do we measure the speed of light coming from the distant cosmos? How old is the universe? How do we know how old the universe is?
We accept as fact, even consider it as empirical fact, something that is actually not fact at all but conventional. I explain below. But an incorrectly held notion has led to the idea that we can definitively know how old the universe is. Since we know the speed of light is finite (not infinite) and the universe is enormously large, then it is concluded that it must have taken light billions of years to travel to Earth from the distant cosmos. From that it follows that both theist and atheist have incorrectly concluded that the biblical timeline cannot be correct. The atheists even use this as an argument against the existence of the Creator.
In classical (Newtonian) physics, up to several hundred years before Einstein and any measurement of the speed of light, a distant event was considered simultaneous with a local event if the local observer saw them occur at the same time, as measured by his local clock. This is because the speed of light was assumed to be infinite. There was no delay between the light leaving its source and its reception at the observer. But that all changed.
The speed of light was measured from the late 17th century into the 20th century many times, and by different methods and different observers. The results agreed at about 300,000 km/s and is designated by the letter c. This means that all signals that carry information in the universe travel at this limiting speed. However it was not until Einstein in 1905 that the full ramifications of the speed of light being a limiting speed began to be understood.
Einstein and Special Relativity
Starting with his famous 1905 paper on the theory of Special Relativity Einstein made the significant discovery that underlines the importance of the concept of simultaneity.
He had three principles (1) the relativity principle – where the physics is the same for all inertial observers; (2) the principle of the constancy of the speed of light regardless of the uniform speed of the observer and (3) the transformation equations, which up until that time were the Galileian equations, which were used in classical Newtonian mechanics.
But Einstein pointed out that these three (1), (2) and (3) are incompatible. Experiments confirmed (1) but also confirmed that the equations of electrodynamics or optics are not invariant in transition from one inertial system to another under the transformation equations (3). Thus the relativity principle (1) was in conflict with (3). For example, a moving source should add its speed to the measured speed of light. If a laser light was seen coming from the back of a spaceship speeding away, at speed v, from an Earth observer the speed of the light beam coming from the back of the spaceship, according to (3), should be the speed c – v but a light beam shining out in front of the spaceship should be c + v, due to the added speed of the spaceship.
Einstein rejected (3) in favour of (2) and his Special Relativity theory was born. This meant a major revision of the concept of time and simultaneity, in regards to the equations that govern the time we measure on clocks. It also meant different transformation equations were required. By using the Lorentz transforms Einstein was able to develop a consistent theory. From that theory strange effects like time dilation and length contraction were predicted and many experiments since have established them as experimental facts.
“We have to bear in mind that all our propositions involving time are always propositions about simultaneous events.” Albert Einstein, 1905.
How do we know events are simultaneous? If they occur in the same location they can easily be seen to be simultaneous by the fact they both occur at the same time, measured by the same clock. Only one clock is involved. But if the events are not both local, but one is distant, then only by sending a light signal from one to the other, can one ascertain their simultaneity. This means there are two clocks, one distant and the other local.
To determine the time on the distant clock when the event occurred there one needs to synchronise the distant clock (A) with a local clock (B). If the speed of light was infinite there would be no problem, because what you see is what you get. But if the speed of light ONE WAY from clock A to clock B is not infinite, what is it? You would need to measure this one-way speed of light. If you knew what it is you could make an allowance for the difference in times showing on the distant clock A compared to the local clock B. So to synchronise these clocks, in order that you might know if a distant event is simultaneous with a local event, you need to know the one-way speed of light. But here is the problem. To measure the one-way speed of light you need synchronised clocks separated by a distance. That is you need to know the time of flight of the light from A to B and with the distance calculate the one-way speed. It is totally circular, which Einstein recognised.
Einstein simply chose his method of clock synchronisation that most simplified his equations of special relativity—the standard clock synchronisation method, which means the speed of light one way in any direction is the same (or isotropic) and equal to c. He had no empirical reason to choose that, but like most theorists, symmetry and simplicity are sufficient reason.
This means the choice of the one-way speed is conventional, and not an empirically measured fact. This is the conventionality thesis on the synchronisation of clocks separated by distance.
The conventionality thesis has been debated vigorously in the scientific literature, mostly amongst philosophers of physics, who have come up with proposals in an effort to refute it. But they have been met each time by other who have exposed their errors. Most often it has meant that somewhere in their proposal they have implicitly assumed the isotropic speed the light, hence the standard synchronisation method.
This debate has ensued most significantly since the 1950’s, yet no one has produced a method to either measure the one-way speed of light or to refute the conventionality thesis. Of course, by measuring the one-way speed of light one would refute the conventionality thesis.
We may conclude that the conventionality thesis is just that, the subject of a convention, a choice, and not something empirical. That means it is not discoverable by science. The universe cannot tell us the one-way speed of light and as a result it is impossible to synchronise distant clocks with local clocks apart by choice of a convention.
The ramifications of this are significant. And no choice of any particular clock synchrony convention, hence the one-way speed of light, can have any bearing on any physics. The physics is the same under any chosen synchrony convention. Thus there can be no experiment that can refute the conventionality thesis.
What has this to do with biblical creation?
Just about everything! I believe it comes down to the same issues addressed by biblical creationists in regards to epistemology and the origin, not only of the Earth and solar system and life on Earth, but also of the whole universe.
How do we know what happened in the past? Can we directly see past events while they are occurring? No, we cannot! We live in the present. The past is gone forever. We cannot see dinosaurs allegedly evolving into birds. We cannot see anything living in the past. Dinosaur fossils are real enough but they are non-living stone. Though in some cases some biological material has been discovered, which makes you think that they could not be 65 million years old.
However my main point here is we have no access to the past. No scientific experiment can tell us how old the rocks or fossils are. No time machines exist! We cannot see the solar system and Earth while it is being formed. We can only know what happened from the history book God has given us.
I used to believe that it was different in the cosmos but the same goes for the stars and galaxies. I had incorrectly been assuming an isotropic, one-way speed of light, which meant the universe must be ten billion years old, even though I believed the Earth/solar system was only about 6000 years old. I now see how mistaken I was.
We cannot know the one-way speed of the light from the distant cosmos, or from anywhere else. So we cannot know by scientific measurement how long light from the distant galaxies has taken to reach Earth. It is just not possible by scientific measurement.
Now this may surprise you. But since the one-way speed of light is conventional, it can be chosen as any value between ½c and infinity. The limits of this range are imposed by causality. The essential requirement though is that any round-trip value of the speed of light must average to c. This is the value that has always been measured. That is, it is only possible to measure the speed of light by reflecting it back from a mirror or by using another device which responds and sends the signal back. This is then a two-way speed measurement which is what all measurements have ever been (Fig. 1).
Figure 1: Typical method for the measurement of the round-trip speed of light.
Thus we can choose an infinite speed for light coming to Earth from the cosmos, i.e. one way. This means all clocks in the universe are chosen as showing the same time as Earth clocks. So if only about 6000 years have passed for Earth clocks since Creation then the same is true for cosmic clocks. This is a matter of convention, and not a matter of empirical measurement.
The argument can be made that the language of the Bible supports the choice of such a convention. We see everything in the universe NOW, not in the past. This claim is not refutable as it is not subject to empirical measurement.
The conventionality thesis has over one hundred years of support in the scientific literature. It has been hotly debated but it has never been refuted. Even at the present time the debate continues with proposals to measure the one-way speed of light but none have successfully devised a method. In the conclusion of his book Max Jammer writes:1
“… the question of whether the thesis of the conventionality of the concept of distant simultaneity is correct has not yet reached a final or generally accepted satisfactory solution”. (p.300)
Maybe it will never be finally settled. Possibly it is one of those mysteries of the universe that we are never going to get a definitive answer to. In the same way we will never be able to measure the one-way speed of light, as unsatisfactory as that may seem.
The scientific and philosophical arguments have not be in defence of the biblical age of the universe. They have been made solely on the basis of the physics; epistemology and ontology. However, based on our understanding of the scriptures, the universe is about 6000 years old. And biblical creationists are free to choose a convention that agrees with this biblical timescale. The conventionality thesis supports the young universe biblical creation interpretation of the history in Genesis.
References and notes
 Jammer, M., Concepts of Simultaneity, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. The book is expensive so I would suggest you find it in a library if you plan on reading it.
 Not accelerating, i.e. moving at a constant speed relative to one another.
 Quoted on introductory page of Jammer, M., Concepts of Simultaneity, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
 The problem is even bigger because to know the distance you also need to know the time on the distant clock. Ultimately a distance measurement is a measurement of time on a pair of synchronised clocks at each end of the distance to be measured.
 Also called the Einstein Synchrony Convention (ESC)
 I sought for relativistic solutions that used time dilation to solve the problem.
 Genesis 1:14,15; Psalm 33:9; 2 Peter 3:7.
 The debate is even much more uncertain when it comes to general relativity, where gravity is added. It is even more uncertain in quantum mechanics where any concept of relative clock synchrony seems to be elusive. Newtonian absolute simultaneity seems to be more compatible with that theory, which includes faster-than-light action at a distance from the collapse of the wavefunction with entangled pairs of quantum states.
- My current thinking in distant starlight
- How does a biblical creationist explain the fact that we see the sun?
- Effects of the Curse visible in the cosmos present another biblical creationist starlight travel-time problem
- Einstein’s physics says there is no biblical creationist starlight travel-time problem
- Can we see into the past?
- Jason Lisle’s new book “The Physics of Einstein”
- New cosmologies converge on the ASC model
- Update on the ASC model and the one-way speed of light
- Questions on the ASC model
- A student’s understanding of the ASC model
- Anisotropic Synchrony Convention —A Solution to the Distant Starlight Problem
- Distant Starlight: The Anisotropic Synchrony Convention
- The Anisotropic Synchrony Convention model as a solution to the creationist starlight-travel-time problem – Part I
- The Anisotropic Synchrony Convention model as a solution to the creationist starlight-travel-time problem – Part II
- Jason Lisle defends his ASC model
- Synopsis: A biblical creationist cosmogony
- A question on ad hoc in my cosmologies
- The lecture: Starlight and Time—Is it a brick wall for biblical creation?
- Starlight and Time: Is it a brick wall for biblical creation?
- Aberration of starlight and the one-way speed of light
- Solutions to the biblical creationist starlight-travel-time problem
- How do we see distant galaxies in a 6000 year old universe?