In February of this year a debate was held between Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and Bill Nye “the science guy” of early 90’s television fame. This debate was no small spectacle with nearly 800 thousand people tuning in to the livestream of the debate and an additional three million views on Youtube. The magnitude of the event is cause for us to take a closer look since both Christians and non-Christians alike were almost certainly influenced by the argumentation of one or both of these men.
Unfortunately neither of these men were all that qualified to be having this debate. Neither one of them have anything more than a bachelors degree, but both men are widely popular in their respective target audiences and as such their respective personalities combined to draw in a good amount of notoriety, for good or for ill. Given the fact that a poll on ChristianToday.com showed that, even on a Christian website, 92% of the over 48 thousand people polled said that Nye won the debate, I think it’s safe to say that it was probably for ill.
The topic of debate was “Is creation a viable model of origins in the scientific modern era?” Of course Mr. Nye was setting out to say no, it is absolutely not a viable model and Mr. Ham was setting out to say the affirmative. Now, we could argue over the alleged facts presented by both sides until we are blue in the face (which was basically what happened during the debate itself) but unless we discern what the foundations for either position’s argumentation are, then any discussion of the “facts” is going to be ultimately arbitrary and fruitless. We can’t look at the facts presented until we know what each side considers to be the basis of factuality. In short we need to discern each side’s epistemological convictions.
Straight out of the gates in his initial remarks, Nye makes some of his clearest epistemological claims. He sets the tone for the debate in saying that there are two positions in play, two stories, one from creation and one from mainstream science. One comes from Scripture, and one from the scientific method. He invites the audience to participate by deciding which one is true based on the evidence presented. Basically, he is asserting an epistemological paradigm in which we stand in judgment over the evidence along with the dubious claim that whatever we deem to be true based on the given evidence is in fact true. In a statement that determines the nature of the rest of the debate he says “So stay with us over the next period and you can compare my evidence to his.” He effectively sets the audience specifically, and human beings generally, as the judges of truth.
Throughout the course of the debate this empirical epistemological paradigm remains consistent for Mr. Nye. Throughout the debate Mr. Nye presents quite a bit of evidence intending to falsify a creation model for origins. He talks about sediment layers in the Grand Canyon, ice layers in Antarctica, ancient trees, etc, all of which he says would have taken far longer to develop than the 6,000 years that Ham posits. He talks about the alleged impossibility of Noah’s Ark and stars that are billions of light years away insinuating that the universe has to be at least that old. Those are just some of the arguments that he elaborates on, but all of his argumentation is perfectly in line with his epistemological commitment to an empirical theory of truth in which factuality is based on our experiential perception of the external stimuli. The supernatural is not even a consideration for Mr. Nye and he doesn’t so much as bring it up until much later in the debate. It’s clear that the supernatural has no place in the development or establishment of truth because it is not understood to be in line with the physical observable realm in which the empirical scientific method functions.
Nye has no interest in trusting anything over his own ability to observe and interpret physical evidence. To him, our observation of the world around us, with all of it’s natural laws and complexity, produces a much more reasonable assessment than what the Bible has to say on the matter. When he is engaging Ham’s arguments he basically just tells Ham that he is going to need more evidence. Given his epistemology, that’s not such a crazy request. Nye just doesn’t think there is enough evidence. But of course there isn’t enough evidence if you only consider the empirically observable as proper evidence. He asserts that in order for something to be true it has to be consistent with what he, as a “reasonable man”, would expect. This is consistent with his initial claims of humanity as being the judges of truth. When he says things “just aren’t reasonable” what he really means is that they just aren’t in line with his naturalistic empirical worldview. His definition already excludes the Christian position from the outset. From start to finish he is committed to this empirical epistemology and that is the foundation from which he reasons and argues from. In this regard he is very consistent.
Mr. Ham’s epistemology is a bit harder to discern. His most fundamental point to which he returns again and again is the distinction he draws between Historical and Observational science. He makes this distinction from the very beginning and sticks to it for the length of the debate. In his model he uses Scripture to develop his historical science while observational science belongs to the realm of the empirical. Within this methodology it seems that Scripture can only tell us about what happened in the past while what we observe with our own two eyes is brute non-interpreted fact, having nothing to do with Scripture or revelation.
He talks about Creation as being “the only viable model of historical science confirmed by observational science.” This language is a real problem because he is putting the authority for the verification of the worldview in the empirical evidence and our ability to interpret that evidence rather than in the self-attestation of the Word of God as his self-revelation. Notice that he does not say that Creation is merely attested to by observational science, but that it is indeed confirmed by observational science. This is more than just sloppy semantics. This is a methodology that he relies heavily on for the vast majority of the debate.
Ham brings in several fellow creationist scientists to show that you can hold to this model for origins and be good scientists. While this does help to show the scientific viability of the model, it at best shows that the model is as good as the non Christian model. It could be true, or it could not be, and the tiebreaker dependents upon whether the proposed model allegedly comports with the subjective interpretation of the alleged evidence. In this regard, Mr. Ham has done absolutely nothing to challenge Mr. Nye’s naturalistic epistemological assumptions. In fact, Ham just absolutely embraced that apologetic methodology, thus implying its legitimacy, whether he intended to or not.
Ham moves on and briefly uses a form of the Transcendental argument, but it is clear that he is using it to suggest that God is necessary for all scientific inquiry since you have to assume the laws of nature and it’s uniformity but it is also clear that he is only doing so as an argument for God’s existence rather than an argument for the internal consistency of Christian Theism given God’s existence. To Ham the laws of logic and the uniformity of nature don’t presuppose the Triune God of Scripture but rather point to some transcendental being at best. He is essentially talking about the laws of logic and the uniformity of nature outside of a system in which the God of the Bible is assumed from the beginning. So he is using this argument not to argue from God but rather to argue to God, which is an ultimately fruitless endeavor because whatever god he arrives at, it is not the God of Scripture, but a god of his creation, an idol; a god who is subsumed under the laws of logic.
He remains committed to a functional empiricism as he continues on. He claims that both him and Nye would agree on all of the observational science, that is, on all of the brute objective facts. He says that their only disagreement would be on the historical nature of those brute facts. This is a serious problem because it assumes a neutrality between the two of them. To Ham, the evidence itself is not interpreted, it is objective. He constantly reminds us that we weren’t there at the creation. We don’t have empirical observation of the creation so we can’t have knowledge of it, only belief. The implication is that if we were there then we would know for sure. That is to say that he is equating observation with authoritative, true knowledge. No interpretation necessary.
Ham is constantly claiming that his authority is God and that if you don’t accept God as your authority then man is your ultimate authority…. true enough. Therein lies the epistemological inconsistency of Ken Ham. He wishes to have a revelational epistemology with regards to the past, but an empirical epistemology with regards to the here and now. According to Ham though, the observational science confirms the historical science. So in his system, it is observational science, the evidence, that establishes the authority of the historical science. So in spite of his claim that his ultimate authority is God’s revelation, his view of revelation is resting upon his observation. His observational ability determines the truth or falsity of the historical account, of revelation. So even in Ham’s model, man remains the authority.
Ham is operating with the very same epistemological empiricism as Nye. This assumption of an epistemological methodology is, quite simply, selling the farm. Since he has granted Nye’s basic epistemological methodology, all Nye has to do is present his evidence and deny the historical/observational distinction. At this point Ham has lost all ground for argumentation and the debate becomes exactly what Nye wanted it to be from the beginning, a popularity contest, in which the evidence is weighed and determined either true or false based on the arbitrary determination of the audience. He has given Nye an inch, so Nye has taken a mile. Nye’s claim that Ham simply needs to “provide a little more proof” is completely substantiated since Ham has opened the door to this kind of rebuttal since he never questioned Nye’s theory of proof but instead supported it.
Mr. Ham is attempting to serve two masters, empiricism on the one hand and revelation on the other. As expected though, he cannot serve two masters and empiricism naturally takes precedent over the other and, according to his argumentation, effectively grounds and founds his conception of Revelation.
Now both of these men are, to varying degrees respectively, assuming this empirical epistemology without have reckoned at all with its logically unavoidable endpoint, namely, the Humean empirical skepticism which renders null and void all cause and effect and the scientific method along with it. They are blindly committed to an empiricism which, if carried out to it’s logical end, destroys any and all attempts at correlating one piece of data to another in any way other than the most arbitrary sense. They have unwittingly committed themselves to an epistemological system which destroys their own worldview.
The crux of the debate came when both men were asked what, if anything, would change their mind. Ham answers first and recognizes the tension between his two different epistemological commitments. On the one hand, his empiricism is telling him that since observation and experimentation are a legitimate, authoritative means of accessing truth, that simple evidence to the contrary of his position should sway him and effectively change his mind. On the other hand, he knows that God’s revelation cannot be rendered false since God is not a liar. So he (almost reluctantly) admits that nothing could change his mind since God has clearly spoken and revealed himself. This shows in stark terms the epistemological inconsistency with which he has been operating in this debate all along. He has wanted to argue evidences without making the necessary distinctions between philosophical theories of evidence but he is unwilling to carry out that methodology to its logical end. He has been seeking to change Nye’s mind using evidence while he is unwilling to have his own mind be changed in like.
When it is Nye’s turn to respond he answers quickly and confidently in saying “We would just need one piece of evidence.” Now at face value this looks very much like Bill Nye is being open minded and Mr. Ham is a stubborn old Christian who is stuck in his ways and prefers willful ignorance. However, those with an astute mind for argumentation or apologetics might recognize that Mr. Nye’s response is not all that much different from Mr. Ham’s. Given the epistemological antithesis that should be in place between Christian and non-Christian thought (though not explicitly in place in this debate) when Nye says that evidence would be the only thing that would change his mind he is in effect saying that the only thing that would change his mind would be something that already fits into his empirical epistemological framework.
So if the philosophical disagreement between worldviews was brought to the forefront of the debate, then Ham could have attempted to change Nye’s epistemological worldview instead of merely trying to win him over to one particular interpretation of the evidence. This way the question posed would be asking “What would change your mind from an empirical epistemology to a revelational one?” This way, Nye’s response would be in effect saying that nothing would change his mind since the changing of his mind would require an appeal to evidence in a manner dependent upon the epistemological empiricism that is itself in question. So in reality, Nye’s answer is essentially identical to Ham’s; nothing would change his mind from empiricism to revelation.
Hopefully this has shown us that we cannot talk about facts without first discerning both ours and our interlocutor’s theory of fact. I also hope that this has shown us the necessity for an epistemology that is primarily and foundationally revelational. We cannot take for granted any unbelieving theory of fact and we must be diligent in our argumentation lest we cheer on our interlocutors in their intellectual rebellion against a Holy God.
“There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, just science that has been conducted without any consideration of it’s underlying philosophical assumptions.” – Dan Denett