The Short Answer
We can't tell how old the universe is by examining it, because we don't understand how it got here in the first place.
A Longer Answer
If you met someone on the street and wanted to determine how old this person is, you would have one of two options. You could examine circumstantial evidence. Or you could ask this person, "Excuse me, how old are you?"
Let's start with the first method and do this systematically. We have overwhelming evidence that the universe is currently expanding. All we have to do is measure how fast it is currently expanding, its size, and its total mass, and we can work backwards to when it must have started. The result? The current estimate is fifteen billion years.
Piece of cake, right? Well, not quite. You see, we're missing an important step--the very first one. We've traced our universe back to the starting line, as a single glob about to explode. But what made it explode? How did it get there? What came before?
So now we're left with the job of tracing something back to nothing. That's not so simple. If we want to be thorough, we will need to reconstruct various degrees of nothingness and somethingness in between, and describe how one evolved into the other. All these are things our scientific instruments cannot measure--science deals only with things that are something. Science is lost when discussing something before it became something. To get technical, science can discuss temporal causalities, but not ontological ones. Which means that if you're going to direct the question, "How did our universe come to be?" to a scientist, you might as well direct it to an accountant, an artist or a real estate agent.
The Kabbalists, on the other hand, dealt with just that: A hierarchy of being, starting with an Ultimate Source which transcends the whole system of being and not-being, and working down through a systematic, interlinked chain (evolution) of multiple universes that terminate at our rock bottom, physical world. But none of this is within the domain of the physical sciences, which rely on precise measurements of phenomena or their effects.
On the contrary, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote to Rabbi Dr. Herzog in 1956 (the following is my own free translation from the Hebrew): "According to the conclusions of contemporary science, the annihilation of anything--to return to nothing, or the opposite, creation of something from nothing--are impossibilities within the natural law.
"And further, creation ex nihilo, from a scientific perspective, is more implausible than having a human being appear out of the inanimate mud, just as he is, with no stages in between."
Now we've thrown a wrench in the works. How can science tell how long the world has been around, when it can't describe--or even allow the possibility of description of--the processes by which the world came to be in the first place?
To give an analogy, let's say I examine an alien to determine his/her/its age. I announce to this friendly and cooperative being that by my calculations, he/she/it was born 108 years ago. To which he/she/it responds, "Who says I was born?"
Good point. Maybe our friendly alien gradually took form, passing through a period when it was neither alive nor inanimate. If so, how do we determine the point to begin counting its age? Or perhaps it existed initially as an ethereal being and only yesterday materialized as a fully adult alien.
If you think this puts you at a disadvantage, imagine if we would turn the tables and ask the alien to age us. He may perform a thorough examination of us and our environs and determine that, given the cosmological forces of which his civilization is aware, and given the chemical and energy makeup of our planet, for such a complex bio-system to develop out of the earth would take about 2.5 million years. To which we respond that we humans are actually born with limbs and organs already in place.
Don't be surprised if he flatly rejects such a notion as absurd. Even an earthling, Maimonides, gave 43 reasons why live birth is rationally impossible. If you've ever been in a delivery room, you'll know what he's talking about: In a moment, a new, complete person appears on planet earth. It just doesn't look, well, normal.
Yet, within our biosphere, birth is the standard form of origin. Things tend to arrive on the scene fully assembled. The alien may not have known about this. But the human being has no excuse for failing to integrate this phenomenon into his intuition. Instead, we insist on speculations that over-simplify the cosmos into neat, gradual evolutionary patterns on a single, horizontal plane of existence.
Which is just what we are doing here: When we wind back time to the origin of the universe as a single glob and only then ask the question, "Now how did that get there?" we are arbitrarily breaking a single answer into two steps. We're saying, First it came into being. Then it evolved to its present state. But maybe that's not so. Maybe both processes occurred at once. Perhaps the process was shared over multiple states of being, wherein processes occurred at varying rates?
A simple analogy from geometry: Draw a square. Now make a path from the top right corner of that square to the bottom left corner. Did you first travel to the bottom right, and then over to the left? Or did you make a diagonal straight to your target?
Figure 1: Time & State of Being--choose your path
So, too, here, there are two co-ordinates:
a) The process that led to the design and form of our cosmos.
b) The ontological transition from nothing to something.
Perhaps they occurred simultaneously, in tandem. Or maybe they didn't. That's just the point: We have no way of knowing.
But the answer is crucial to our quest, because there is another unknown: How does time behave in a higher state of being? When form and substance are more loosely defined--as they would be in a pre-material state--can cause and effect occur over a shorter period of time? In truth, is there any sense in talking about time at all at these stages?
Before you get the feeling that we are completely lost, let me point out that in truth, we do have some frame of reference. In the form by which G‑d created heaven and earth--the macrocosm, so He made Adam--the microcosm. The human being includes processes that match every level of the ontological hierarchy mentioned above. We don't just perform material tasks, we talk about them, we think about them, we have feelings about them, we conceive what those tasks will be somewhere in our consciousness or pre-consciousness, and--even before any of this--we begin with a simple desire for something to be. So, by examining those processes within the microcosm of our own psyche, we can get a picture of how all this works in the grand macrocosm.
And lo and behold, a discovery awaits us: The higher we go up the hierarchy, the more rapidly those processes occur. What takes years to perform may take only hours to describe, minutes to dream about, and a flash of a lightning bolt to desire and conceive.
If the cosmos was conceived and incubated in the womb of G‑d's mind, at which stage was it born into the time continuum that we measure with our physical senses? Is it conceivable that geological, chemical and organic processes that would take billions of years in our realm could occur within the equivalent of hours or minutes or even nanoseconds--or perhaps zero time--when occurring at a higher state of being but counted from our realm?
Take the oceans, for example. The account in Genesis begins discussing the Creator's conception of a single ocean and concludes with His actual creation of multiple oceans. Could continental drift have occurred within the gestation period between conception and birth--thereby breaking the great ocean apart? If so, many questions would be answered: Continental drift requires huge expenditures of energy that should melt the earth in a short time. Perhaps in a higher ontological realm the process could occur non-destructively, as well as much faster.
How about the origin of life? The Ramban (Nachmanides, 14th century Jewish scholar) understands Genesis as saying that the water, through its movement, metamorphosed into the creatures of the sea. This, then, is a description of a kind of evolutionary process. It's not just G‑d says fish and fish are there. G‑d directs a natural element to become fish, just as He directs the earth to sprout forth vegetation. But it occurs rapidly and with deliberate direction. The origin of life from inanimate chemicals remains an elusive puzzle for biologists--it is statistically impossible for it to have occurred by chance. Could this synthesis have occurred, as we said, in the womb of G‑d's creative mind, at a higher plane of being?
Interestingly, the Kabbalah also describes an incremental process of formation--albeit in terms far beyond the crude mechanics of materialistic evolutionism. Rather than physical organisms transmuting into increasingly complex forms, the ancient Book of Formation describes the letters that form the words of the account of Creation passing through an (almost?) endless series of permutations to recombine and generate all the details of every instance of the cosmos.
The process has been compared to the workings of the human mind: The mind begins with a simple seed of an idea. Then, in gradual stages, it generates vast sets of corollaries, analogies and applications, each with its particular set of words by which the mind articulates these ideas to itself and to others. Certainly, this paradigm provides a coherent alternative to Darwinism to explain the apparent phylogeny of the species.
Once upon a time, scientists assumed they had the keys to absolute knowledge. The last hundred and fifty years has brought us to acknowledge there is no such thing within the realm of standard human perception and reason. When it comes to facts alive and well in the real world, we can make some pretty good stabs at the truth. When it comes to questions of the future, we can make limited speculations. When it comes to knowing the origin of things, empirical materialism is completely out of its realm. Perhaps we are ready today to recognize a place for the inner vision of the prophet and the mystic.
The Alternative Answer
As we said before, there is another method of determining age other than hypothesis and speculation. If the subject is a conscious being, we can ask him/her/it, "Excuse me, do you have a memory of how old you are?"
In the case of the cosmos, we have asked. Of course, some will call it speculation, or even "primitive imagination." But then, I wonder what scientists a century from now will call the speculations of today's cosmologists? As for me, my understanding of the Torah is that it is not a human voice, but the voice of the essence of the cosmos itself.
So we asked.
The answer at the dating of this writing is 5,761 years.
To be truthful, the Rebbe's uncompromising rejection of any marriage of Darwinism and Genesis often puzzled me. So many theologians have been quite eager and willing to reinterpret a few lines of the Torah to make room for the scientists, whereas the scientific community is almost universally intolerant of those who step outside the Darwinian catechism. It would have been so much more convenient for the Rebbe to concede to the scientists and thereby please both sides. But then I read an essay of a significant American scientist, Prof. Wolfgang Smith (Cosmos, Bios, Theos , pg. 115, ed. Margenau and Varghese, Open Court, Chicago, 1992). The entire essay is worth reading (as is the book), and I admit to having borrowed some of his terminology in this essay. To quote one succinct paragraph:
At bottom, evolutionism is the denial of transcendence, the desperate attempt to understand life on the horizontal plane of it manifestations. Religion, on the other hand, is perforce concerned with transcendence and the vertical dimension, in which alone the re-ligare or binding back can be effected. The supposed merger, therefore, of these opposed doctrines constitutes one of the most bizarre happenings in these already confused and confusing times.