Does the universe look old? Was Adam created with the appearance of age? The answer to these questions may surprise you. Although Adam was created as an adult, he was not created with any appearance of age. In fact, the phrase “appearance of age” is an oxymoron because age has no appearance at all.
The Concept of Age
Age is an abstract, non-physical concept. It is the time of an object’s creation subtracted from the present time. When you subtract one time from another, you always end up with a number – a concept of quantity of time-units. Therefore, since age is a number, it is conceptual and not a physical substance or material property. Age cannot be seen. Therefore, it cannot have an appearance.
The word ‘appearance’ literally applies to something that is visible. The word is based on the word ‘appear’ which means “to be or come in sight.” Something can appear bright or dark, red or violet, blurry or distinct, because these things can be seen. But age cannot be seen. It is a non-physical, non-visible concept.
And yet, we often say things like, “He looks quite old”, or “She appears to be around 25 years old.” But if age has no appearance, then are such statements meaningful? When we say these things, we are speaking non-literally. We are using a type of linguistic short cut – a figure of speech called reification. Reification is when we speak of a non-physical thing (like age) as if it had physical properties (such as being visible).
Reification isn’t necessarily wrong as long as we understand that it is being used non-literally. When we say “he looks quite old” we don’t really mean it. We mean “he has physical features that are typically associated with someone of advanced age.” That’s quite a mouthful, so most people use the shortcut. And there is nothing wrong with that as long as there is no ambiguity; everyone understands what was meant. But in logical argumentation, reification is a fallacy.
How can we distinguish the appropriate use of reification from the fallacious use? Basically, reification is a fallacy when people draw a literal conclusion from this non-literal figure of speech. A perfectly appropriate use of reification would be to say, “Jim’s job was calling to him, pleading with him to complete the assignment.” A job is not a concrete object that can literally call or plead, and we all understand the non-literal usage here. A fallacy would be to draw a conclusion that takes this figure literally, as in the following: “Jim really should complete the assignment since it would be rude to ignore such pleading.” That conclusion would only be warranted if Jim’s job were a literal person, which is not intended by the poetic use.
If it is reasonable to say in a non-literal way that someone “looks old” or “looks young”, would this also apply to Adam, or is there an important difference? What is the mental process by which we conclude that a person seems to be a particular age? And would it be logical to apply this same reasoning to Adam?
Although age is not visible, wrinkles are. Grey hair is visible, and so are liver spots. These visible features are typically found on older people, and rarely on younger people. So, the visible features act as a proxy for the invisible concept of age. And so, we may figuratively say that someone “looks young” as a verbal shortcut for saying, “the person has physical characteristics that are typically associated with youth.”
This verbal shortcut is contingent upon the assumption that the physical characteristics (such as wrinkles) correlate with age in a known way. And that assumption is further based upon several additional assumptions: (1) that the physical characteristics associated with age accumulate at approximately the same rate in all people, (2) that we know what this rate is by observing a large sample of people of known ages, and (3) that such features have come about by natural processes. Let’s explore each of these.
For the phrase “He looks like a 25-year old” to be sensible, virtually all people would have to acquire the characteristics typically associated with age at approximately the same rate. For example, a 25-year old would typically not have any visible wrinkles on the skin, and would have few if any strands of gray hair, and so on. But hypothetically, suppose that some people had a genetic propensity to maintain their smooth skin, hair pigmentation, and other characteristics normally associated with youth until their 80s. If that were the case, then the phrase “He looks like a 25-year old” would be nonsense, because we could not distinguish between a 25-year old and an 80-year old on the basis of physical characteristics.
Of course, people do change with age at approximately the same rate, which makes it possible to roughly estimate age by appearance. But since the rate of change is only approximately the same between people, it is meaningful to say things like this: “You look remarkably young for your age.” Again, we mean that the person has physical characteristics that are typical of someone much younger.
Second, we would have to know what the rate of change is. But how do we know this? Young children learn this by verbal reports from older people. They can only know how old Daddy is if he tells them. So, they learn that Grandma and Grandpa are in their sixties, that Mom and Dad are in their thirties, that their brothers and sisters are close to their age. They begin to infer the physical characteristics that correlate with a given age – but they know the ages only by verbal revelation. As we grow older, our own observations confirm and replace verbal revelation; we know how old some people are because we observed their birth, and no longer need to rely solely upon the reports of others.
Finally, we need to know that the person was born and has grown in the normal, natural way. This is true of everyone today of course. But consider a hypothetical sci-fi scenario of someone who was given growth-accelerating hormones, and therefore grew to adulthood in one-third the normal time. Or suppose that we had the technology to replicate a person, atom by atom, thereby creating a brand-new adult. This new person would have an age of zero, and yet would be fully grown.
The short-cut of saying someone “looks” a particular age is only a reasonable figure of speech if all three of these assumptions are true. And they are indeed true of people today. But would they be true of Adam? Adam did not come about in the way that people normally come about today; that is, he was not born and did not grow to become an adult. Rather, Adam was created as an adult. So was Eve. So the first two people do not fulfill condition #3; they did not come about naturally, but were created supernaturally.
The Appearance of Creation
Can we rationally say that Adam was created “looking old” or “with the appearance of age?” Suppose we could travel back in time and ask Adam how old he thought he looked one day after his creation. What would he say? It would be absurd to think he would say, “about thirty years” because he had no experience of what a thirty-year-old person typically looks like, and in fact nothing in creation was yet thirty years old. If anything, he might say, “I suppose I look one day old, since I am one day old.” It would not be until decades later that he would learn that most people take a long time to reach the stature and maturity that Adam and Eve possessed at the moment of their creation. So, to say that the newly created Adam looks 30 years old would be fallacious. He might have characteristics that are typical of a 30-year-old today, but these were not typical at the time of creation.
What about Noah? Noah was born in the normal, natural way, and so he fulfills requirement #3. Yet, Noah was 600 years old when He boarded the ark (Genesis 7:6). Is it sensible to ask, “How old did he look at that time?” The average lifespan at the time of Noah was nearly 1000 years. So the problem here is with criterion #2. We know approximately how quickly people today acquire wrinkles, or develop grey hair; but we don’t have any information on how quickly these changes took place back then. It could be that people during that time acquired their first wrinkles around the age of two hundred, and started to get grey hair at one hundred. We just don’t know.
So, to speak of how “old Noah looked” at the age of 600 isn’t meaningful. It is a reification fallacy. He looked the way he looked. People may not have deteriorated at the same rate back then as they do now. We could state things in a more precise way to avoid any fallacy. We could ask, “At the age of 600 years, did Noah have physical characteristics that are typical of a 60-year old today?” But to speak of how old he “looked” without such clarification is ambiguous, and therefore fallacious.
What about the universe? Secularists sometimes argue that the universe must be very old because it just “looks” so old. This is an egregious example of a reification fallacy, because it draws a literal conclusion from a non-literal figure of speech. The error is revealed by replacing the verbal shortcut with the long version. Recall that a “person looks old” means that a “person has physical characteristics typical of elderly persons but uncommon in youth.” Likewise, to say the “universe looks old” would mean that “the universe has physical characteristics typical of elderly universes, but uncommon in youthful universes.” That would only make sense if we had observed hundreds of universes whose ages had been revealed to us, and noticed patterns such that our universe most resembles the features of the older ones. But we have only observed the one universe! So it is impossible to make such a comparison. Such a claim is a violation of criterion #2.
The notion that the universe “looks old” also violates criterion #3 because the universe was supernaturally created. It is not as if we have observed lots of universes naturally forming, have observed how they change with age, and then observed that our universe came about in the same natural way. It did not come about in the same way that natural processes happen today, but was created functional and complete just as Adam was.
Likewise, the earth does not appear old. It is not as if we have hundreds of earths whose ages are known because their time of formation has been historically recorded. It’s not as though we have compared the physical characteristics of our earth with hundreds of other earths of various known ages to see how they best compare. We have only the one earth, and it looks the way it looks.
So, when people say that the earth looks old (or young) this actually reveals far more about their worldview than anything about the earth. It reveals their beliefs about what a planet of a given age should look like, based on their beliefs about how the earth came into existence and how it has changed over time. God made the earth completely functional by the end of the sixth day. He did not give it any appearance of age. If people falsely assume that the earth came about by natural means, if they falsely assume that earth’s features were produced mostly by the slow-and-gradual processes we see today, if they falsely assume there was no worldwide flood, and then conclude that the earth “looks” old, well that’s their fault – not God’s.
Why Does this Matter?
It is important to use words properly so that we communicate truth and avoid error. When people say that Adam was created with “appearance of age” they are committing the reification fallacy. They are treating age as if it were a physical / visible substance that God imparted to Adam. But it isn’t. Age is a concept of history. If someone thinks that the newly created Adam “looks old” then that person has made several errors in reasoning. He has assumed that people change over time at the same rate they do today, that this rate has been known over all times, and that Adam grew from a baby.
Critics sometimes claim that it was deceptive for God to make Adam as an adult, or the universe functional from the beginning, because they claim this gives a false “appearance of age.” But we now see that this is a reification fallacy on the part of the critic, not on God. It is the critic’s assumptions about origins and rates that are faulty. There is nothing deceptive about the way the universe looks.
Adam was created as an adult. However, he was not created with any appearance of age. The universe was made complete, but it does not look old.