Thursday, February 6, 2014

My thoughts on the Debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham

Note: this is not a normal Mighty Works Project post.  But I couldn't think of a better place to post it as Facebook is kind of rough on long responses.  Beyond that, when it comes to philosophy, I speak as an ameature.  Be kind.


Last night I joined approximately 750,000 people to watch a most peculiar event, a formal, live streaming video debate  between Bill Nye (the Science Guy) and Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis).   I do not know how this particular debate came about, but I do remember a year or so ago when Bill Nye made comments critical of the state of science education in the United States and with it, offered that Creationism stunts scientific inquiry.  (or something like that, see original statements here.) 

I suspect that Ken Ham challenged Bill to a debate following those comments, and Bill in turn accepted the invitation.  (But that is just my guess.)

An acquaintance I follow on Facebook said this about debates:  Debates rarely change anyone’s point of view, but they do allow the person who represents a point of view to put out a series of bullet points, which in turn are picked up by the followers of each respective train of thought. (oSLT).

And that seems fair enough.  For me, I listened to the  debate not given to the specifics of either man’s world view… and came out -- not given to the specifics of either man’s world view. :) 

But let me clarify.  Any of you who follow my creative life should know that I am a Christian, and with that I resolutely affirm that the Universe is created.   I am, as regards to the term, a creationist  -- (albeit, of uncertain hue.)  The term Creationist is sometimes applied to anyone who believes that the Universe is an effect whose cause is God; at other times the word applies to a subset of Creationists… Those who embrace the most direct reading of the Genesis Creation account and believe that both our universe and humankind of recent origin.  (Henceforth called YEC, Young Earth Creationists.) 

As is, Ken Ham is strong advocate of Young Earth Creationism, while I am given to the looser use of the concept.

I do not have room here to explore my larger thinking about origins (largely because I am more certain of what I do not know that what know.)  I do, however,  want to offer a few reasons why I think both main-stream scientists and men like Ken Ham might find ways to better hear one another. 

My response here is largely given to Ken Ham,  with one statement of support and another of critique.


Ken Ham is right (Surprise)  to distinguish between observational science and “historic” science.  (or, as I prefer, forensic  science.)

The primary tool of science is the empirical method.  Knowledge is built inductively, grounded in testing and observation.  (Scientist do indeed think deductively, but deduction is never the preferred route.  Deduction, as a method of knowledge in science begins only when a base of knowledge is built through induction (direct observation).   On a philosophic level, all inductive arguments are probabilistic...that is, they build from specific observations to propose patterns, laws, expectations etc.   In the everyday works of scientist, a scientist can gather data, form conclusions, then test that conclusion again and again.   But the past does not afford that same kind of laboratory.   

Given observation in the present, scientists make predictions about what should happen in the future, or what most probably happened in the past (given the best available data), but all thinking about the future or the past is beyond the pale of empiricism.   I have no problem with scientists attempting to describe the future, or attempting to unravel the past, but there is always a sense that these endeavors are based in speculation, inference, probability, guesswork, or faith.  Which in turn, calls for humility. Or perhaps a different set of words.

Take as example this narrative text written by physicist Steve Weiner in his book The First Three Minutes:

At about one-hundredth of a second, the earliest time about
which we can speak with any confidence, the temperature of
the universe was about a hundred thousand million (1011)
degrees Centigrade. This is much hotter than in the centre
of even the hottest star, so hot, in fact, that none of the
components of ordinary matter, molecules, or atoms, or even
the nuclei of atoms, could have held together.  (etc.)"

Now I have no beef with the Big Bang or the idea that this may be true.  I also understand that this a narrative work, and that the author uses dynamic language to illustrate his understanding of Cosmology…. BUT, the temperature of the universe in the first one hundredth of a second is clearly beyond any kind of observation or testing. It is an assertion that is built on a series of ideas that all build on one another.  It is theoretical construct.   And there is no reason not to treat it as such.  

In short, there are valid reasons (Philosophically) to treat observational science differently than theoretical science… even when the support for a theoretical construct is strong.   Scientists, grounded in the empirical method should want it no other way.

Second Point. The value....and problem of A-priori Commitments.

a priori - a pri·o·ri
ˈä prēˈôrē,prīˈôrī,ˈā/
  1. 1.
    relating to or denoting reasoning or knowledge that proceeds from theoretical deduction rather than from observation or experience.
    "a priori assumptions about human nature"
    synonyms:theoretical, deduced, deductive, inferred, postulated, suppositionalMore
  1. 1.
    in a way based on theoretical deduction rather than empirical observation.
    "sexuality may be a factor, but it cannot be assumed a priori"

Ken Ham begins his science, bounded by a certain set of presuppositions; namely the creation account in the Bible offers a concrete (literal) historical description of the creation of the world.  His a-priori commitment, directs what he will or will not receive as scientifically credible.   That in turn makes for terrible science. 
To his own credit, Ken Ham recognizes that he holds a bold (and inflexible) set of presuppositions. Indeed, I would argue that many people hold to a-priori beliefs…but many people fail to recognize them.  Naturalism (or Materialism) often contains its own set of veiled a-priori commitments.  To demonstrate that Naturalists often begin their inquiry with an ideological filter already in place, consider this:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. 

Richard Lewontin: Billions and Billion of Demons.

I know this quote gets bandied about a lot, but it is telling of just how a prior commitments might skew the search for ultimate answers.  The domain of science may be limited to that which can be observed through the senses (or tested), but there is nothing in science that precludes speculation (or answers) beyond the pale of science.  Lewontin's commitments flow from a philosophy of science, and not science itself.


Looks like I was beginning to bunny trail.

My point is that a priori commitments have very real power to stifle investigation.   It may be impossible to table all a-priori commitments  (We assume the world outside of ourselves is real.   Science herself is grounded in the a-priori assumption that the laws of nature are uniform, etc.)

People who are not predisposed to Ken Ham's biblical world view will have no problem dismissing his a-prior commitment to the Bible, and hence his "science"  -  But I think there are good reasons why even those who love the Christian scriptures and look to them for guidance should be wary of using Genesis as a direct guide to scientific investigation.

This next part is mostly for those who do approach the Christian Scriptures as God's Word...

Ken Ham makes the case that Genesis 1-3 is written in the form of history, not parable or poetry.  (One of his colleagues has written a book in which he argues that the very verbs used in Genesis 1 are the type used by Hebrew historians, and not poets.  Even so, there is little else to compare this text to anywhere… it stands alone, both in what it presents, and how it says it.   I am by no means a biblical scholar, but I see reasons in the text itself to treat Genesis as a special form of literature.   

Here are some reasons why I believe that the Genesis account is meant to be understood as something other than straight history:

The creation days are marked by morning and evening, even prior to the creation of the sun. (Once the sun is introduced, would it conform to this night day pre-existing cycle -- and from what vantage point?)

The earth is presented a pre-existing even sun and stars. But (depending how your read the text) there is no record of God creating the matter that might be our planet, from sod to oceans....These are presented as already present by the time God creates light.

This next argument may be a stretch, but what kind of language does Jesus himself use?  Often startling, symbolic, non-literal (ie, I am the door, take up your cross daily, if your eye offends you cut it out etc.) If the mind of God is revealed through Jesus, and we understand God to speak to us in Scripture and through Genesis, how probable is it that He (as the author behind the author) would use the language of symbolism.

These are just a few quick ideas.  My goal is not unravel the belief of anyone who does read the opening Chapters of Genesis in a more literal way.... However, I see credible reasons to read the opening chapters of Genesis at a symbolic level, and these clues are in the text itself.



Ken Ham is given to a meta-narrative that severely limits the way he goes about science, specifically in the area of origins.      While I do not wish to be charged with "False equivalency" I believe many naturalists do the same thing.   The problem is the metanarrative.    We must ever remember that science builds through observation.  Sometimes those observations lend themselves to the formation of conclusions, theories, even laws.   But metanarratives, be they faith based or anchored in science, have a way of skewing science, to serve the metanarrative.   And that is bad science.


I am not sure this is finished, or if I am making sense if every area.  Feedback welcome.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Covered in Eyes

Also in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal. In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 

(From the Revelation of Jesus Christ)