The Latest Creationism Debate

I recently saw a Youtube video of a debate between Ken Ham, the curator of the Creation Science Museum in Kentucky, and Bill Nye, the science guy. I thought it inspiring to see two intelligent and obviously sincere men engage in civil dispute on such an important question. Their arguments and evidence were thoughtful and shed some light on the intractability of the issue and its connection to larger knowledge concerns.

In brief, Mr. Ham defended the literalist Biblical interpretation that has come to be called creation science. His efforts focused on defending the hypothesis that the earth is only six thousand years old, that Noah’s flood was a worldwide event, and other factual claims, all in defense of the Protestant Bible’s authority. Mr. Nye chose not to attack the Bible but to defend the findings of empirical scientists that warrant the truth claim that the earth is far older. I found it surprising that Mr. Ham was willing to engage the empirical warrant on its own terms, generally conceding the truth of the evidence. He argued that the differences between his view and Mr. Nye’s are purely of interpretation. His conclusion was that scientists practice their own sort of belief system that incline their knowledge toward a belief in a mistaken atheistic construct of events. This charge co-opted Mr. Nye’s major point of attack, which was that knowledge and belief should be kept separate. I think it is worthwhile to take Mr. Ham’s charge seriously and investigate it and his larger argument from the standpoint of justification.

It is a venerable accusation. The position that science as a discipline cannot be proved by the methods of science but instead must be warranted on grounds of belief is an old one; it is frequently advanced by postmodernists and premodernists who seek to take science down a notch, to show it to be a flawed human endeavor guided by values rather than evidence (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”). And it is certainly true that values like those prizing the scientific method cannot be derived empirically (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). No values can, for science can never prescribe the good. It must always be handed the ends before it can investigate the best means to achieve them. It is a valid question to what extent that limitation proves a problem for the empirical enterprise, how distortive are the lenses that the scientific community uses to magnify its objects of study, how much of its work is construction rather than discovery of reality. In its typical iteration, the charge views science as a top-down, paradigmatic enterprise in which values color findings rather than the bottom-up, evidentiary pyramid taught to generations of science students.

Two points are advanced by those who, like Mr. Ham, wish to disabuse science of its self-importance.

The first is that even when followed rigorously, the scientific enterprise does not begin with evidence but with interpretation. This charge was leveled by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. The scientist does not begin her investigations by looking at evidence. She begins by choosing what evidence to look at, by discriminating among all the sense data available to her that are worth investigating. But that act is partisan, for she must have some sense of the relative value of the evidence available to decide what to study, and that valuation necessarily must precede her observation. Critics like Mr. Ham charge that this preconception is a kind of belief. It directs observation rather than derives from it. Kuhn claimed that the scientific community in each discipline chooses what is worth looking at, thereby polluting the vaunted sense of objectivity scientists claim as the foundation of their work. Mr. Ham did not make this charge per se, though he might have. I think he knew that making it would also attack the evidence he tried to appropriate for creationism, for the accusation obviously calls into question the evidentiary basis of the scientific method, and he argues that the evidence is not in dispute. I think the top-down argument against scientific objectivity is a poor one. Kuhn’s charge that the scientific community is like any other culture that shapes views is certainly true, and the indoctrination the acolytes of science undergo in their professional education bears unsettling similarity to religious training. But the charge that the professional community itself absorbs the values that guide their research practice including their theoretical basis in the same way is insulting to mature practitioners whose observational and experimental practice is a constant quest for falsification and implication. If Mr. Ham’s and Dr. Kuhn’s charge were true, scientific paradigms would undergo revolution as rarely and with as little consensual agreement as religious heresy, but that is not what happens. In religious reformation, new religions rise while old ones survive, leading to schism and bloodshed. I have written at length of the problem of religious authority (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority” and “Religion and Truth“). By Dr. Kuhn’s own argument in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, paradigm shifts in the sciences involve a generational shift of the entire community of practitioners, who then adopt the new paradigm en masse. The do so because the evidentiary basis better supports the new paradigm than the old one, and it is this evidentiary basis that guides their judgments about which evidence “counts” in their investigations. So Mr. Ham’s charge is partially true. The “superstructure” of science—its paradigms—are not indubitable but rather reflect the expert judgment of the community of practitioners in each field. But he couldn’t be more wrong in equating their foundation in logic with his own in authority. They begin with judgments, rather than beliefs, and that makes all the difference (see “Knowledge,Trust, and Belief” ).

Mr. Ham’s second point of attack seemed senseless to me. He claimed that science focuses exclusively on the natural world, rejecting out of hand supernatural causes for natural events. I have dealt with this charge in the past (see “Must Religion Retreat?“). It strikes me as such an absurd judgment as to make me doubt his understanding of the scientific enterprise in toto. What else are scientists to do but study phenomena? If confronted with a true miracle, wouldn’t you expect scientists to be rendered mute or seek out natural causes even if far-fetched? Neither their methodology nor the laws, theories, and paradigms that derive from it could offer a response to the supernatural any more than we humans could respond to an event in a sixth dimension. Perhaps Mr. Ham was bemoaning science’s failure to even entertain the possibility of supernatural causation for the laws of nature themselves, a kind of meta-science that corresponds to his argument that the laws of reasoning are of divine origin. This is a subject worth exploring (see “C.S. Lewis, Religious Knowledge, and Belief”) but by theologians or philosophers rather than scientists. To fault science whose methods must be perceptual for avoiding the imperceptible seems worse than mistaken. Perhaps Mr. Ham’s intent was to condemn the scientism so rampant in our culture, the view that the methods of science are not only the royal road but the only road to truth. In that case, good on him, but one need hardly make the leap to authority in that case. As in the response to his earlier charge, it is important to note that there are more reliable correspondence roads to truth that both avoid the weaknesses of authority and the limitations of empirical science (see “What Counts as Justification?”).

The deeper accusation Mr. Ham made in the debate went unanswered by Mr. Nye, who perhaps is too devoted a scientist to credit it. It was a kind of magnification of his initial charge about the subjectivism of initial scientific observation, only on a vast scale. It was that the entire “belief system” of empirical science and the secular view of reality it posits are equivalent to the belief system of Biblical inerrancy. It seems to me there are two ways to respond to this charge: the logical and the psychological. Both approaches refute Mr. Ham’s argument.

The logical position references a host of correspondence justifications, the most formidable of which is the vast difference between authority and empirical warrants (see “What Counts as Justification?“). When authority is undisputed, it certainly seems rock-solid, but its power is illusory, for in relying on the trust of its adherents, authority can be taken down by an erosion of that trust or a credible challenge from other authority. Mr. Ham’s authority is certainly not undisputed, differing from the Roman Catholic variant of Christianity and from non-Christian doctrines as well as from Mr. Nye’s agnosticism. Authority challenged is authority dissolved in correspondence truth issues, and Mr. Nye is unlikely to trust Mr. Ham’s Book of Genesis. When that book conflicts with empirical evidence, Mr. Ham attempts reconciliation on the Bible’s terms, while still attempting to respect the empirical evidence and the method that produced it. But despite his mental gymnastics, to embrace the scientific enterprise when its methodology accords with your beliefs and reject it when it doesn’t violates even the weakest of coherence truth justifications, the principle of non-contradiction. To avoid this problem, Mr. Ham posits a false distinction between the explanatory modes of science when applied to the present and to the past, but this does nothing to bolster his case other than to confuse Mr. Nye and the rest of us who see no distinction between the kind of observation a biologist does with living tissue and a geologist with ancient rock. No difference exists between “observational” and “historical” science. Mr. Ham says we cannot observe the past, so scientists build causal explanations out of the whole cloth of their atheist belief system. Then he proceeds to show a slide of the layering of the Grand Canyon and another of distant nebulae. But what are we seeing if not the geologic and astronomic past? And what are “historical” scientists interpreting but present-day observational evidence of phenomena laid down in the past? It doesn’t help his case that Mr. Ham references errors in On the Origin of Species as one example of “historical science” error and present-day theories of evolutionary catastrophism as another. So when he points out the errors of “historical science,” does he mean the mistakes earlier proto-scientists made in their theories, such as Lamarckian evolution or Aristotle’s theories of spontaneous generation, or current theories about the past? No one but the most die-hard Luddite can reject science today, and Mr. Ham’s attempts to split hairs to preserve his reliance on Biblical inerrancy while also accepting the blessings of the scientific enterprise seem meant more to bolster his faith than to challenge the “beliefs” of science. It smacks of either confusion or bad faith.

From a psychological standpoint, it is worthwhile to investigate his accusation from a less flawed position than his own. Is Mr. Nye’s faith in science in any way like Mr. Ham’s faith in Genesis? If the answer is even marginally positive, we have a knowledge problem, for the judgments we form about our truth claims require a level of disinterest that no belief can aspire to, for beliefs by definition signal an attachment, affection, or personal stake that is inimical to the proper exercise of judgment (see “Can Belief Be Knowledge?”). We face an old issue here, one first raised by Plato who described knowledge as “justified, true, belief.” Note the incompatibility of the words used in Plato’s definition, perhaps because there is some evidence in the dialogue that dealt with this issue, Theaetetus, that Plato felt this definition as flawed as we do. This introduces the psychological side of the question. No one watching the debate can deny that Mr. Nye is a passionate advocate of the scientific process, and on several occasions both he and Mr. Ham explicitly compared their attachments, the former to empiricism, the latter to revealed Christianity. Wouldn’t that acknowledgement lend credence to Mr. Ham’s charge that science is a belief system as religion is? And wouldn’t that equivalency tarnish the putative objectivity of science? Wouldn’t Mr. Nye admit that he believes in science, loves it even? And wouldn’t that be enough to verify Mr. Ham’s charge?

Well, maybe. Certainly, those guilty of scientism—and Mr. Nye may very well be among them—would earn Mr. Ham’s accusation, for scientism insists that the methods of science are not only the best path to truth but the only path. And that seems contradicted by both the applicability of other justifications to materialist questions science cannot yet answer and by the success of these less certain modes of warrant to experiences that can never meet science’s standard for isolation of variables, repeatability of results, predictability, and quantification. If we dismiss the adherents of scientism and simply consider the practitioners in the field, can we equate their beliefs with religious faith? I would argue that we cannot. The methods of science are tools that yield pragmatic results. The concordance of paradigms across scientific disciplines, the surprising revolutions within these disciplines wrought from work by practitioners, and the profusion of technology produced as a result of their work all attest to the pragmatic success of the scientific method. Now you could make the same claim about Mr. Ham’s beliefs. I recently came across exactly this point at the climax of the book The Life of Pi, and the literature is rife with testimonials to the health benefits of religious belief and so on. Mr. Nye would willingly confess that science is a tool for truth in his mind, one he would happily abandon if it proved misleading or false or if some other tool proved more helpful. But religionists like Mr. Ham would never say that their faith is merely a means to some pragmatic end. They too regard their belief as a tool for truth, but their trust in its authority would preclude their abandoning it in favor of some other warrant. Rather, they would regard anomaly as their own error and seek to reconcile it with their belief. I have said previously that the conversion experience of believers reorients their entire worldview, meaning their psychological investment is so complete as to discourage any entry of anomaly. Mr. Ham admitted as much when he claimed no evidence would diminish his faith. When asked the same question, Mr. Nye responded that just one anomaly would diminish his. It seems clear that the confidence they profess is fundamentally different. Mr. Nye justifies his judgments and grants them only provisional truth. Mr. Ham commits to belief irrevocably and seeks out evidence to confirm it while ignoring what challenges it. And that makes all the difference.

One other psychological note struck me about the debate. I found each man’s sense of wonder to be inspiring. Mr. Ham repeatedly indicated that he felt awe in what he knows and believes (I am not sure that he would be able to separate these two aspects of truth, though I would argue he should if he wants to understand the limits of his correspondence knowledge). He had no trouble leaping from what he regards as the true to the good and the beautiful. Many of his declarations began with a scientific claim and then proceeded smoothly to a theological explanation for the material reality he observes. It was clear that he was in awe of the metaphysical explanation for the physical reality he studies. He was stunned by the beauty of the answers the Book of Genesis provides, answers providing harmony and unity and order to all aspects of reality. Mr. Nye also was clearly moved by the beauty of what he observed, but it was the questions that inspired him rather than the answers. He frequently responded to the questions of his opponent by saying, “I don’t know” or “That is a mystery.” Mr. Ham never responded that way and seemed to regard Mr. Nye’s ignorance as a comparative weakness. It seems the two men saw not only truth but also its relation to belief differently, yet both also saw great beauty in material reality. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Karl Popper’s comments about the human sciences and the centrality of anomaly to our claims to knowledge (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). A low tolerance for anomaly seems to mark the mind eager for answers. A high tolerance indicates one comfortable in embracing questions.

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