In Bill Nye,debate,epistemology,evolution,Ken Ham
Where Ken Ham Was Right
by Justin Wishart
The recent debate between Answers in Genesis co-founder Ken Ham and T.V. personality Bill Nye (the Science Guy) was one of the most watched and anticipated debates in recent times. I personally found the debate to be solidly mediocre, and it didn’t deserve the attention it got; however, it did highlight a very critical point, a point that seems lost in the majority of debates I have seen: Worldviews play a central role in how we view this universe and scientific evidence.
I once called Rob Breakenridge on the Rob Breakenridge Show[i] to discuss this very issue. An earlier guest had been on the show that had visited Ham’s Creation Museum[ii] and gave a very negative report. What followed when I called was a mini-debate with Breakenridge about evolution and the age of the universe.[iii] My main point was to show that if you start with certain axioms within your worldview, you will look at data in a certain way. Someone else who holds different axioms will look at identical data and draw very different conclusions. I think that Breakenridge understood my point at the end of our discussion; however, I don’t think that Bill Nye did at the end of his debate.
An axiom is a belief or premise that you hold as true even though you have no prior argument to support this belief or premise. We all have them, and thinking would be impossible without them. If we required reasons for everything we believe, then we could know nothing since there would be infinite reasons needed to uphold any given belief. Think of a five year old asking “why” for something until you are forced to say: “Because that’s the way it is”. We all arrive at a blank spot at the foundation of our reasoning, a “because that is the way it is” spot.
For example, the belief that there is an external world is a common axiom. It is very hard to prove that there is an external world, as all our sensations and memories may very well be an illusion of our own minds. How could you prove that this possibility is false? Any test you may derive would have to be conducted within this possibly illusory world. However, this is simply an axiom most westerners hold as true regardless, and such a view has profound results on how we process data. Our physical world is understood much different to a Christian than it does to a Hindu mystic, for example.
This is where the real debate was; it was at the level of axioms. Ken Ham understood this but Bill Nye did not seem to. Ham holds that Scripture is God’s words to us, and that God would not lie. Therefore, the Bible is without error in its entirety and is trustworthy in everything it says, even things which some current scientific theory contradicts. Nye, on the other hand, holds that it is science which holds our best (only?) hope of discovering truth, that we must rely (solely?) on our senses and reasoning faculties to discover and understand the world around us. This debate showed nicely how these starting axioms drastically shape the way identical data is processed.
“Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”
This was the question under debate. When we see the basic meta-argument given by these debaters to defend their positions, we see why the two sides differ so much.[iv]
Nye’s basic argument was that the general consensus amongst scientists is the universe is old. He also provided various lines of evidence which he thought backed this hypothesis up. He argued we must use empirical means to discover the age of the universe, and that these lines of evidence have contradicted the biblical narrative, at least Ham’s interpretation of it. He showed a hard Logical Positivisticapproach to knowledge. Thus, his answer to the young earth question was a resounding no.
Ham’s argument was very different. He argued that Scripture, most notably Genesis, says that the universe is much younger. This provides a very different framework in understanding the identical data brought to us by scientific inquiry. However, viewing the data in this manner in no way hinders the scientific enterprise. Thus, there is no contradiction with science and as such creationism remains viable as science. Ham answers this question of a young earth with a resounding yes.
You can see how different their arguments were and even how they understood the question itself. Ham is right to point out that we all must bring our philosophical baggage to the scientific table: we have no other choice. Nye seems clueless about this. It seems as if he thinks science can operate within a vacuum, free from people’s axioms. It cannot, since all people have axioms, and people are required to do science. Nye showed that he is an extreme Logical Positivist and couldn’t seem to see outside of his paradigm.
While I don’t think that Ham performed the best in this debate, he seemed much more aware of these truths than his opponent. Unfortunately, I think that most people who watch this debate will completely miss this central theme, and this is Ham’s fault. Perhaps a debate is too difficult an environment to properly express this idea. Perhaps the question left too much room for interpretation, and as a result both debaters essentially talked past each other. Regardless, by reading people’s negative reaction to Ham’s performance, it seems obvious this message was simply lost on many people, even though his message was a good one.
[iii] In the interest of disclosure, I don’t hold to either view, but I lean towards a young universe.
[iv] It is important to note that “creation” here must refer to young earth creationism as most of Nye’s arguments would have failed against old earth creationism, and Ham was defending young earth creationism.