The layers of rock are known as "strata", and the study of their succession is known as "stratigraphy".
Fundamental to stratigraphy are a set of simple principles, based on elementary geometry, empirical observation of the way these rocks are deposited today, and gravity.
They are applied by geologists in the same sense that a "null hypothesis" is in statistics -- not necessarily correct, just testable.
Most of these principles were formally proposed by Nicolaus Steno (Niels Steensen, Danish), in 1669, although some have an even older heritage that extends as far back as the authors of the Bible.
A few principles were recognized and specified later.
It can't float in mid-air, particularly if the material involved is sand, mud, or molten rock.
The principle of superposition therefore has a clear implication for the age of a vertical succession of strata.
The example used here contrasts sharply with the way conventional scientific dating methods are characterized by some critics (for example, refer to discussion in "Common Creationist Criticisms of Mainstream Dating Methods" in the Age of the Earth FAQ and Isochron Dating FAQ).
A common form of criticism is to cite geologically complicated situations where the application of radiometric dating is very challenging.
They are the "initial working hypotheses" to be tested further by data.
Using these principles, it is possible to construct an interpretation of the sequence of events for any geological situation, even on other planets (e.g., a crater impact can cut into an older, pre-existing surface, or craters may overlap, revealing their relative ages).
This document is partly based on a prior posting composed in reply to Ted Holden.