Off Topic: Nye/Ham Debate

I’d like to take the opportunity to range far afield from my normal topic and delve into something a little meatier. I took advantage of the hivemind of the Internet and watched the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham on the subject of creationism, which you can find here:

I must disclose that I grew up watching Bill Nye’s programs and had never heard of Mr. Ham before this event, but it seems like their credentials are roughly comparable given their respective fields. I would like to think that, even if I had no knowledge of the two participants, the arguments against the creationist origin myth would have convinced me of their stance. I want to believe this for a few reasons:

Argument from authority versus argument from evidence: Mr. Ham preferred during his scripted statements to argue his point by citing scientists who agree with his viewpoint. The problem with this is that two people can both agree and yet be wrong (just look at how many people agreed that slavery was a good system, or that there were only four elements in nature). Later on, he defaulted to citing the Bible, referring to it repeatedly as the “Word of God.” Now, I am a Christian, in particular a Roman Catholic. While I believe the Bible to have been inspired by God, I also know based on my own religion’s shared history that the Bible was written and edited by fallible human hands. Humans wrote the Bible, and humans weren’t there for the creation. It’s just slightly possible they got the story wrong. On the other hand, Mr. Nye argued from observation and evidence, asking his opponent and indeed the entire audience to either provide different evidence or an alternative explanation which fit the same evidence. He opened himself to critique rather than hiding behind someone else’s name.

Certainty versus uncertainty: When asked what might change their viewpoint, the two participants revealed their true colors. Mr. Ham answered that while the details of his models might change, nothing could change his core belief that God created the universe. Mr. Nye answered that evidence to the contrary, even one piece of it, would cause him to reconsider his understanding. Even as a Christian, even when speaking about matters of faith, I am more comfortable with someone who comes from a position of doubt and uncertainty than someone who comes from a position of unquestioning belief. The strongest person of faith does not say “I know,” rather “I do not know, but I believe.” Faith and science both demand uncertainty.

Consistency: The point of attack that Mr. Nye used throughout the debate was the question of consistency. His question was simple: These are the rules of nature as we observe them today. If they have not changed, the scenarios predicted by creationism are untenable. Have the rules changed since creation, and where does that leave science? I did not hear an answer that satisfied me from Mr. Ham.

Argument Drift: As the debate continued Mr. Ham went beyond arguing the narrow point of divinely enacted creation to draw in Jesus’ crucifixion, abortion, and many other theological points which have little or no bearing on the creation myth. It’s possible that he sees these as integrally linked and regards them all as equally infallible. In my opinion they diluted his argument. He seemed to have gone off topic and neglected to demonstrate the chain of logic back to his main point. Mr. Nye mainly stuck to evidence for the Big Bang Theory and for the theory of evolution, but he also strayed into arguments for science and technology education. I felt that Mr. Nye’s deviations were less distracting from his main point than Mr. Ham’s, but I hold that only as an opinion, not fact.

Based on those points, I feel that Mr. Nye won the debate, but I’m also aware that others disagree with me. Many of the audience members self-identified as creationists, and Buzzfeed took the opportunity to compile a list of their questions for Mr. Nye and other scientists after the debate — unfinished business, so to speak. I’d like to take the opportunity to engage in a bit of dialogue and answer their questions as best I can. The list can be found in its original form here, but the text is below.

  1. Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way? I can’t answer for what Bill Nye thinks of the influence he’s had on children, but I can answer for what influence I believe he’s had on me. Yes, I believe he’s influenced me in a positive way. He drove me wonder at the glory of the universe, to question things I did not understand, and to use the gifts of intellect and curiosity that God gave me. He challenged me to look, to see, to understand all that is great and good about our world. And I believe that’s exactly what God asks of us too.
  2. Are you scared of a Divine Creator? Again, I can’t speak for Mr. Nye. Am I scared of a Divine Creator? No! If He did create everything according to His design, then that design is magnificent! This question is like showing someone Starry Night or Irises and asking if they’re afraid to meet Vincent van Gogh, or playing the Fifth Concerto and asking if they’re afraid to meet Ludwig van Beethoven. Excitement and study of the creation can only enhance and never diminish the enthusiasm felt for the creator.
  3. Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature (i.e. Trees created with rings, Adam created as an adult)? For the earth to have been created mature would have required a massive expenditure of energy on an unfathomable scale. Additionally it would require that everything — momentum, the expansion of the universe, nuclear fusion and fission, even fossilized remains — spring into existence and then subsequently not change. Now, if you accept the notion of a divine being (and I do, but I don’t require that you do as well) this is entirely possible, because the divine author can rewrite the rules. But that’s what it requires: a revision of the laws of nature as we understand them. And that is inherently illogical.
  4. Does not the Second Law of Thermodynamics disprove evolution? This question was actually addressed during the debate, and Mr. Nye answered it perfectly: Assuming that the Second Law of Thermodynamics (that, without the addition of energy, a system will always tend toward greater entropy) disproves evolution requires the assumption that Earth is a closed system. To do so ignores the gargantuan ball of nuclear explosions that lights our world. The Sun is constantly adding energy to the system that is Earth, which means that system can achieve lower entropy (and evolution, which the question equates to higher organization or lower entropy) without violating the SLT.
  5. How do you explain a sunset if their [sic] is no God? Actually, Aristotle (384-322 BC) took care of the scientific side of this by demonstrating that ships (and also the Sun) sink below the edge of what we can see on the surface of a roughly spherical Earth. If you want to get into the emotional side of things, that’s another story.
  6. If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories? Referring back to #4, the SLT does not debunk the theory of evolution. The relationship between the Big Bang Theory and the Laws of Thermodynamics is a little trickier, and admittedly I’m not an expert. The gist of the explanation, however, is that the expansion of the universe allows for “pockets of order” to emerge because at the same time equal or greater disorder is created elsewhere. The “closed system” required for the laws of thermodynamics is the entire universe, and in the totality of that system energy is conserved and entropy never decreases.
  7. What about noetics? Admittedly, I knew almost nothing about noetics before researching this post. Truth be told, it doesn’t look like anyone else knows much either. That’s exciting! This is a phenomenon that demands study. If there is an explanation to be found, let’s find it, and let’s try to replicate it. Science doesn’t claim to understand how everything works; it only claims to know how to find out.
  8. Where do you derive objective meaning in life? I feel like this question and #9 are related, so I’ll answer both next.
  9. If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance? If I said yes, would that scare you? Why? Understanding how something happened and understanding why something happened are different questions, and science only concerns itself with the ‘how.’ Meaning has to come from somewhere else, and it’s highly individual. These individuals are perfectly within their rights to rely on a belief in God to supply this meaning. If I’m honest, I do as well. But we all have to remember which answer goes with which question.
  10. I believe in the Big Bang Theory… God said it and BANG it happened! This isn’t a question per se, but rather a statement of belief. I’d challenge the speaker (author? It’s hard to decide on a title.) to think of that as a hypothesis and test it. Investigate the world and its origins as much as you can and then compare what you’ve found to what you thought you’d find. Maybe you’re right! But don’t be afraid of being wrong either.

It’s incredibly easy to put science and religion on opposite sides of some cosmic cage fight for the hearts, minds, and souls of humanity. The truth of the matter is that they can quite comfortably work together to inform our understanding of ourselves, our universe, and our place within it. The trick, in my understanding, is remembering that God is an unknown, an unproven. God is a hypothesis, and existence is the experiment to prove Him.

Now let’s get to work.