Earlier this month, Ken Ham, creator and curator of the Kentucky “creation
museum,” invited Bill Nye, PBS’s “Science Guy,” to debate “origins.” The
debate took place on Ken Ham’s home ground, the auditorium of his museum.
Given the protagonists the topic, “origins,” inevitably led to a contest
between a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis (“young-earth
creationism”) and evolution.
It was, of course, a rout: The Seattle Seahawks vs. Pee Wee
football champs. An authentic debate is a confrontation between two arguable
points of view. Against Bill Nye’s citation of scientific evidence, Ken Ham
had nothing but his Bible and the strange claim that science can tell us
nothing about remotely past events. “We weren’t there to see it,” as he said
time and again. An astonishing claim that deserves a closer examination, and
“Observational Science” and “Historical Science.”
In his opening remarks, Ham distinguished “observational” and
“historical” science. A theme that he repeated throughout the debate. Nye
correctly countered that there is no such distinction. He is right, but
unfortunately he did not pursue the point. Had he done so, his demolition of
Ham would have been complete. So we will pick up where Nye left off.
Ham’s essential point is that “observational science” – of
the here-and-now – is solid. But “historical science” about the past events
that we cannot observe, notably evolution, is bunk. Thus Ham’s persistent
taunt: “Were you there to see it?” Ham’s apparent assumption is that if we
can’t observe something directly, it has no scientific relevance.
But consider a few things in the “here and now” that we can’t
“observe:” atoms, genes, sound waves, radio waves (the electro-magnetic
gravity. We don’t observe gravity, we observe its effects from which we
infer gravity. Likewise for atoms, genes, sound and radio waves, etc. Their
existence and their properties are inferred from observational (empirical)
data and from experiments with that data.
Precisely the same can be said of inferences to past events –
what Ham calls “historical science.” Therefore, if scientists can talk
meaningfully about atoms and genes and waves, they can talk just as
meaningfully about the cause and dates of rock stratification in the Grand
Canyon, the evolution of human ancestors, the Big Bang, the formation of the
sun and the earth, etc.
Does Ham mean to tell us that we don’t know for sure that
Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, since there are no living eyewitnesses?
According to Ham’s rule, we do know, of course, that John Kennedy was
assassinated for there still are living witnesses. But when the last of
these witnesses dies, will the Kennedy assassination then be reduced to an
“Of course not!,” Ham would surely reply. “We know that
Lincoln was assassinated because we have records of the event.” With that
presumed reply, the trap closes on Ham’s argument.
Of course we have records of the Lincoln assassination! Likewise,
we have records of evolution and the four-billion history of the earth.
These records are “written” in DNA, in the rocks and in the data collected
from telescopes – evidence available to present-day observation.
And so Bill Nye was right: there is no distinction between
“observational science” and “historical science.” It’s a pity that he didn’t
explain this more thoroughly..
And yet, having attempted to debunk “historical science,” Ham
proceeds to insist nonetheless, that we can, in fact, know about the past.
“It’s in the Bible.”
About the Bible.
Ah yes, The
Bible! Where to begin? Still
worse, where to end? So much to say. Fortunately, I can be brief here since
I have written and
posted on the subject elsewhere.
As Bill Nye correctly pointed out, The Bible can’t be
inerrant due to the many translations of the lost sources. Even if the
original texts contained the infallible word of God, neither the numerous
translators nor the bishops at the Council of Nicaea who selected the books,
were infallible. So it follows that neither is the Bible.
Still worse, the miraculous events depicted in the Bible are
not noted in contemporary accounts elsewhere. Not, for example, Joshua’s
commanding that the sun stand still at the battle of Jericho. How strange
that they didn’t take note of this in Babylonia or China.
Or consider the remarkable event that attracted so much of
Bill Nye’s attention: Noah’s ark, and the universal flood. Where did all
that water come from? Where did it go? That must have been some downpour!
Suppose that the deluge dumped twenty thousand feet of rain in forty days
and nights – sufficient to cover most of the land.. That comes to 500 feet a
day or more than a twenty feet an hour. Seems to have escaped the notice of
those chroniclers in China.
It won’t do to trot out that old circular argument that the
Bible must be the word of God because the Bible says so. The Qu’ran or the
Book of Mormon both claim to be the Word of God (or Allah), and surely Ken
Ham will not concede that they are the Word of God just because they say so.
Yet the Bible, and only the Bible, was Ham’s support.
Once in a debate with a fundamentalist minister, I was
challenged: “Who are you to doubt the Word of God, Creator of the Universe”?
I replied, “surely I an not qualified to quarrel with God. But all I hear at
this forum is your voice, Reverend, not God’s. Perhaps God spoke directly to
Moses on the mount, or the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, or to Mohamad. But
if so, the rest is hearsay. You tell us that God spoke directly to the
authors of the Bible, but not of the Book of Mormon or the Qu’ran. How then
am I to answer the Mormon or the Moslem who say otherwise? Unless and until
God speaks to me directly, I choose to believe none of them, yourself
Ken Ham asks us to believe the Bible on his word. He has no
more standing to do so than the Mormon or the Moslem, both of whose claims
he steadfastly rejects.
Why Bother Debating Young Earth Creationists?
Nye did a creditable job. I’d grade him a B. But there were
many worthier defenders of evolution and science. Richard Dawkins comes to
mind, though he had little regard for the very idea of debating a
creationist. Philosopher of Science, Philip Kitcher, author of the excellent
book, Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism (MIT
Press, 1986) would have been an ideal opponent.
Dawkins’ dim view of the Nye/Ham debate was echoed by
numerous noteworthy biologists, agnostics and atheists. The debate served no
useful purpose, they said. It gave creationism an appearance of legitimacy
before a large audience. It implicitly treated evolution as an unsettled
“mere theory” whereas, in fact, it is settled science – a proven fact.
All good points, and for awhile I was inclined to agree with
Dawkins. But now that I have seen the debate and reflected on it, I believe
that on balance that such encounters can be worthwhile.
It is doubtful that the debate changed the minds of any
devoted creationists in the audience – surely not the mind of Ken Ham. But
it may have affected the minds of a few wavering believers with minds open
ever-so-slightly to evidence and reason. Surely there are among us numerous
former fundamentalists who have yielded to the weight of scientific evidence
and to a critical analysis of their childhood faith. I can testify to this
“deconversion” for I
am one of these individuals.
Moreover, a steadfast refusal to debate can only damage the
reputation of the evolutionists. Such a refusal will not end the
creationists’ challenges to debate. Eventually they will find some
secularist like Bill Nye who will take the bait. Meanwhile, the string of
refusals will only prompt the creationists to gloat that their would-be
opponents were “cowards” who obviously have something to hide from the
And as Bill Nye brilliantly demonstrated, a debate serves the
purpose of displaying for all with eyes to see and with minds to reflect,
the paucity of the creationists’ case.
Creationism maintains its hold on approximately half the
American population (by some accounts) through its inclusion in a
“faith-based” thought world that seals itself off from the reality-based
world of science. Encounters such as the Ham/Nye debate expose the faithful
to evidence and reasoning that may be new to them.
When the evolutionists refuse debate, their would-be
opponents taunt them with the question: “What are they afraid of?” Good
question! And the simple answer is “nothing”! If the faithful dare to
confront their myths with scientific fact and critical thinking,, well then,
let ‘em have it!