Wednesday, February 5, 2014

My two cents on the Nye vs. Ham debate

If you've been following the news (not even Christian-specific news), you've probably heard about the debate yesterday between Bill Nye (the science guy!) and Ken Ham (the president of Answers in Genesis). I didn't watch the debate; from what I've heard (a considerable amount in the circles I'm in) about it, the most it accomplished was exposing Ham's young-earth creationism to the ridicule of the secular community. Of course no meaningful dialogue took place between two men with such diametrically opposed viewpoints. Peter Enns warned Nye on his blog about walking into Ham's "well-tuned, battle-tested, apologetic war machine". BioLogos, unsurprisingly, offered several excellent responses from Christians sharing parts of Nye and Hams' views. Rachel Held Evans pretty well sums up my thoughts (emphasis added):
Since I’ve been asked: I’m with Nye in that I don’t believe young earth creationism is a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era. I’m also a Christian who loves the Bible and believes it to be inspired by God and authoritative in the Christian life. My view is that Genesis 1, having emerged from an ancient Near Eastern context, assumes an ancient Near Eastern cosmology and addresses theological concerns, not scientific ones.(For more on this, I highly recommend John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One.) 
And I believe that church leaders who teach that Christians have to choose between the Bible and science, faith and reason, are doing a huge disservice to the Church, essentially setting believers up for failure. That teaching wreaked havoc on my young faith, as I write about in Evolving in Monkey Town, and in several of the posts below.
These superior writers save me having to articulate most of my thoughts on the debate; they do it better. However, I did have something I wanted to share when reading this (secular) response on the Slate. Several times the author, Mark Stern, mentions how Ham divides science into two categories: observational science and historical science. He quotes Ham: "We observe things in the present; we’re assuming that that’s always happened in the past." When Nye explained the process of evolution, Ham would retort, "You don’t know that. You weren't there." A longer quote to finish the illustration:
When Nye noted that a tree in Sweden is older than Ken Ham’s Earth, Ham scoffed: “We didn’t see those tree rings actually forming. We didn’t see those layers being laid down. You’re assuming things in regard to the past that aren’t necessarily true.” When Nye pointed out that radiometric dating places the Earth’s age at about 4.5 billion years, Ham sneered: “There’s only one infallible dating method. The witness who was there and told everything and told us. From the word of God.” And when Nye explained that astronomy provides a glimpse into the past and the astonishing age of the universe, Ham held that “there is nothing in observational astronomy that contradicts a young universe. The reason I believe in a young universe is because of the Bible’s account of origins.”
To sum up, Ham's epistemology seems to consider only two sources of information to be valid: divine revelation, and direct observation. We didn't observe evolution taking place (actually, we can and we have), the argument goes, so whatever scientific reasoning we may use to support the theory of evolution is invalid. The only reliable knowledge we have of the origin of life is the (literally, scientifically, historically-interpreted) revelation from the One who was there.

I've already written enough on evolution that I won't critique this epistemology again. But reading this description of Ham's constant returning to observation and discrediting of any other way of gaining scientific knowledge reminded me of some reading I did for my latest master's course, focusing on situating the Bible in its historical, geographical, and cultural context. Specifically, a description of ancient Mesopotamian science:
The Sumerians were unable to present their ideas in a connected fashion, either in the realms of nature, abstract matters, and theology, or in those of mathematics or jurisprudence. Thus, Sumerian science lacked the conceptual framework of formulated principles (what in the West has been called "natural laws"), and simply ordered nominal expressions one after the other in a one-dimensional fashion, without any kind of elucidation.1
In other words, Sumerian science (and, to an extent, Babylonian science after it) consisted of lists of words, names, calculations, legal decisions, or observations, with little (if any) conceptual framework connecting them or attempts made to infer abstracted principles. Since everything that happened was believed to be by the will of a hierarchy of somewhat capricious deities, this kind of reasoning was understandably deemphasized.

Anyway, the Slate article reminded me of this reading with its description of Ham's epistemology. If your only valid source of scientific knowledge is observation, then you can't make inferences about the past. Of course, you also can't make any predictions about things that haven't happened and been observed, so the whole scientific system of formulating general laws from specific observations goes out the window. What is left is a framework for "science" based exclusively on observation surprisingly similar to the endless lists of the Sumerians and Babylonians.

The ironic part is, the ancient Israelites who wrote and compiled the Torah make have shared this epistemology, coming from a similar ancient near eastern background. But (to greatly condense and reduce its message), the narrative of the Bible can be viewed as the story of the true God choosing a people to bless and lift out of their paganistic, polytheistic background, revealing Himself as the creator and sustainer of a universe wholly subservient to Him and given order according to His will—a trajectory that contributed, eventually, to the development of the very scientific view of the world that Ham opposes. How his conception of a wild cosmos with no knowable laws except by divine decree, similar to the one of the ancient Mesopotamians, fits with the God of the Bible is beyond me.

  1. Wolfram von Soden, The Ancient Orient: An Introduction to the Study of the Ancient Near East (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994)


  1. I watched the debate, and to me it did not seem that he was saying that Natural Laws did not function consistently and reliably in the past. In fact one of his main arguments was that the very consistency of logic and natural laws indicates that there is a designer. What I believe he was trying to convey by saying that Nye wasn't there, was that there may be alternative explanations for why there are so many rings and layers and isotopes.
    He didn't quite expand on it, but from his books and other talks, he talks about how each of those layers of snow-ice doesn't necessarily indicate a year, but possibly a snowfall. You can examine this phenomenon in Minnesota, where snows of different densities and fall and form layers.
    The rings could possibly be growth cycles. Rings work really well in certain forests because there is a long winter with no growth, and short bursts of sustained growth in the summer. In other more arid places, growth cycles can lead to different measurements according to Ham.
    And with the radiometric dating, Ham mentioned that the tree fragments inside the basalt layer were dated at a very different age than the basalt they were found in. He wasn't claiming that there was chaos sometime in the past, where the trees aged differently than the rock so we can never know. He was making the point that radiometric dating gives widely varying results that require a few assumptions to be useful.

  2. Even if one particular piece of evidence is not conclusive, the fact that we get consistent results across many different pieces (and kinds) of evidence gives us confirmation that those observations are accurate, and not just mistaken methodology or experimental error. This infographic from BioLogos sums up the evidence we have.

  3. Wow, biologos is amazing. Thank you for your comments.