Philosophy Weekend: The Bill Nye/Ken Ham Debate

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This week, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum in Kentucky spent two and a half hours debating the origin of the universe in a well-publicized update of the Scopes Trial of 1920. I could only endure the tedium of the YouTube broadcast for about a half hour, but even though I didn't watch the whole thing I am pleased by the friendly gesture this event represents. Sometimes a willingness to meet in open debate can be more significant than any actual arguments contained within.

Amidst the social media conversations following the debate, I was also impressed by a page of photos of regular people holding up papers expressing questions or ideas supporting the creationist point of view. I don't get the logic behind some of these expressions -- and yet they all appear to be sincere, and a few may even be meaningful. In the photo above, a woman's comparison of the idea of God and the idea of the Big Band strikes a chord. It is true that the idea of the Big Bang as constantly described by physics teachers and Morgan Freeman is as ultimately inexorable as the traditional idea of God.

This series of photographs impressed me more than a follow-up titled Dear Creationistas that also made the rounds, containing sarcastic answers to the questions above in a familiarly nasty tone: "What might help you understand this stuff? A fucking science class. Or five."

I don't know how others reacted to the entire public conversation about evolution and creation this week, but my own heart rose with the Nye/Ham debate, and with the friendly conversation that followed. It sank back down again when I saw the hostile comments on this page.

Well, okay, we've talked about this before. Personally, I believe in Darwin's theory of human evolution. But I am not arrogant enough to think that anybody who doesn't believe in Darwinism must be a moron. And I wonder if many people who react with incredulity and hostility when they hear that any person believes in a traditional religious creation story realize that they might be offending many of their own close friends and relatives.

Apparently about half of America's population believes in some form of creationism. That doesn't mean that half of America is stupid. It might mean that one half of America doesn't understand the other half.

Some are concerned that a tilt towards acceptance of creation theory or intelligent design might eventually subvert our national education system. But doesn't an exodus towards homeschooling also subvert our national education system? Are we sure a hard-line against any appearance of traditional religious teaching in school is the right education policy for this country's future, if it alienates so many parents into withdrawing their kids from public schools? Doesn't this just divide us further apart?

The Nye/Ham debate was a good exercise in communication across well-entrenched lines, and it also inspired some surprisingly nuanced and complex reactions (like this one from evangelist Pat Robertson, who finds Ken Ham's creation theories too literal). I'm glad the debate took place, and I think we need more wide-open conversations like this.

I'd like to suggest to many of my own scientific friends who are appalled by the very idea of creation theory that they step back to take a larger view. Why is it that they don't speak up when their country goes to war, or permits its fragile mountains and rivers to be despoiled by industrial wastage, or allows corrupt politicians and business executives to enrich themselves with vast empires of wealth at the expense of hardworking citizens ... but only speak up when they discover that somebody believes in the Biblical account of Adam and Eve? We might require a few more vigorous public debates before we can begin to answer this one.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Ethical Sudoku. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Wealth and Envy.
20 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: The Bill Nye/Ken Ham Debate"

by Wo on

Excellent, Levi. I think I enjoy your writing most because your strong compassion comes through. But I do have a couple questions.

Please forgive my ignorance, but what exactly is the function of having a scientific theory that (attempts to) explains the origin of the universe? Does it lead to more accurate science?

Also, what exactly is the function of having a belief that Adam and Eve were the first humans on the planet earth? Does it strengthen your faith? Does it bring one closer to God? In my opinion, the answer is no, it doesn't. I'd love to hear your answers, though.

For me, anyways, having a belief that God made Adam and Eve, etc. does not bring me closer to God nor does it strengthen my faith in Him. So why bother? I don't care to explain how I (or we) got here, but alas, I am here. God is here. Let's go from there.

by Levi Asher on

Wo, I am in agreement with your point of view. I am personally not strongly committed to any completely scientific or materialistic explanation of the origin of the universe, and I certainly do not believe in any traditional or religious account of creation. The best origin story I can think of is the Hindu one about "turtles all the way down", and that's just because the story is funny.

I am mainly fascinated by this issue as a case study in collective or social beliefs, rather than as a reflection of my personal beliefs, which are thoroughly agnostic.

by Jim H on

I grew up and went to school with fundamentalists most of my life. I've seen what happens when fundamentalists get control of institutions such as the Southern Baptist Convention. In their heart of hearts they are authoritarians. As Ham said in the debate, God's Word is literally true and unchangeable. And Ham is the man to tell you what that Word is and what it means. It is to be obeyed, never questioned. Nye presented the fundamental scientist point of view that falsification of theory is the way knowledge grows. Questioning, doubt. And that, of course, is its weakness when confronted with absolutists and authoritarians. They manipulate that doubt and promise certitude. Certitude is comforting to some who cannot abide living with uncertainty, change, growth, evolution.

by Levi Asher on

Jim H., I do think that Bill Nye won on those points in the debate. He was more impressive, to me, than Ken Ham, and seemed to have a more comprehensive scientific method (despite Ken Ham's insistence that he too was following a scientific method).

by mtmynd on

When I hear Ken Ham and others who follow his way of thinking, I have no choice but to shake my head in bewilderment - the "word of God"..? It is thru nothing other than repeated teachings (brainwashing?) that lead us to accept that "God" speaks to any of us. Others firm beliefs that this "word of God" is the "Holy Bible" itself written by divine authority. Whether that is strictly the Old Testament or a combination of that and the New Testament I've not heard a god speak on that. If the "Holy Bible" is God's word, then why so many different versions (some say over 50 versions in English alone)?

To say man had nothing to do with the Bible, i.e. "it's God's word", tells me not enough questioning has gone into that concept. Are all the other religious and spiritual books and teachings throughout the world NOT influenced and directed by God himself? Why not? Why is the Judeo/Christian bible the ONLY word of God that we should believe without question? Does any "God" single out one religion over all the others and would that be a godly thing to do?

On the other side, the evolutionary side of the debate generally accepts that hu'manity has evolved from an ape-like creature which doesn't bother me a bit but indeed, some religious believers find that idea repugnant and even intolerable - "why would God make us out of apes?" and " We are the best of creation and that is god-given"... or some will flatly state - "I was never no ape!" and so it goes. I personally see that we hu'mans evolve. Just a little history of the early 20th Century and the inventiveness of people have given us advances in our society that are "evolutionary" if nothing else. Within that last century came Darwinism, Freud's Psychoanalysis, the discovery of DNA (which shows a unique chromosomal similarities between hu'mans vs chimpanzees), and so many other signs of an evolutionary nature that cannot be ignored. Some on the other side of the ongoing debate may say that hu'manity has always been here on earth and have survived the huge global changes that have occurred for millions of years... evidence lacking but interesting to consider. As the creationist believes God created the hu'man conversely the Darwinist strictly believes that all life evolved and continues to do so with enough convincing evidence that consoles the believers.

There should be no doubt that every living creature on this singular planet was "created" within a cocoon, womb or egg and each one of the collective 'we' have "evolved" into what we are today. The large question is was all this due to a "god" and is this "God" a supreme Being or Pure Consciousness that gives us this mystery of Life that we continually debate.?

Doesn't the truth lie somewhere in between these two extremes battling for supremacy of an ideology? Have we reached any convincing conclusion that puts either belief at rest? We know the answer to that and chances are good that we will never agree to any conclusion because we hu'mans are in constant search for answers for questions that our busy minds keep giving us. We have yet to fully evolve to our full potential unlike so much other life we share our existence with. We, homo sapiens, are the last of the hominids and the youngest life on earth who are continually evolving. To believe we are the 'best of the best' is only our own ego speaking for us to us.

by Wo on

Levi, sounds like we're in the same boat. This "debate" has always interested and intrigued me. I'm looking forward to watching it when I have some free time. But what did you mean, could you please elaborate? when you said:

"rather than as a reflection of my personal beliefs, which are thoroughly agnostic."

More precisely what is a "thoroughly agnostic" belief in relation to this subject?

mtmynd, I am in agreement with you here. From what i understand, The New Testament was written around 50 years after Jesus' death. How accurate can it be? I still love that book though. It's helped me through a lot of shit in my life, and I enjoy a lot of the great poetry in it.

Although, to clarify, i don't know anybody who is "religious" or "spiritual" who thinks humans are "the best of the best." Islam teaches us that we are God's favorite creation. Which is why he revealed the holy Quran to Muhammad. I think there's a distinction (even if a minor one) in wording here. Or do you think think "favorite" is the same as saying "the best of the best"?

by Levi Asher on

Wo, I call myself agnostic to express that I do not feel a human being is ever in a position to know anything with certainty. I guess this is also why I call myself an existentialist.

by Subject Sigma on

Well, that is a very unfair debate: the main supporter of darwinism is Ken Ham, preparing incredible assists to Bill Nye. Seriously, even Galileo and Didierot (and many others) used the same scheme of dialogue to give greater credibility to their theories.

Putting aside jokes, I think many Catholics are really uneasy with that "hardcore" creationism. That is even against the doctrine of Roman Catholic Church... but that is a question of faith, and can be not relevant to non-Catholics.

Let's think rationally: which religion tries to explain scientifically, to the common man, the beginning of the existence? And why would the religion need to do that? What would have been the reaction of Jews, had the Holy Spirit inspired those words:

Genesis 1:1
In the beginning God created a giant Singularity.

Genesis 1:2
And the Singularity was of infinite density, containing all the matter and the anti-matter of the Universe in null spacetime, in geodesics that cannot be extended in a smooth manner. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the diffeomorphism invariant.

Genesis 1:3
And God said, Let there be quantum fluctuations, and quantum fluctuations caused the Singularity to explode in the Big Bang and subsequent inflation of the Universe.

Genesis 1:4
And God saw the Hawking radiation, that it was good: and God divided the matter from the antimatter.

(and so on)

If the aim is explaining "why", religion can leave the science with the burden of explaining "how". I mean, there can be another Creationism, a Creationism that, then, may allow even a subsequent Evolution.

Can science sincerely claim to explain what happened at "time 0"? With completely scientific arguments, and not just fable hypothesis? With a good scientific probability that nothing was before "time 0"? I don't think so. At least not yet: there are many possible theories, science cannot even rule out all but one theory, how it is possible to claim that for sure there was nothing behind, nothing else, nothing before?

I am not a convinced Darwinist, but for sure I am not at all a Creationist "à la Ham": both positions presented in this confrontation are not scientifically based, it is just a "brawling match" of (mis)communication (more or less like a political campaign...) - "the word of (a) God" is not different from "the word of (a) Darwin", where none is really scientifically or logically supported.

Then, we can discuss how really scientific is Darwin theory, arguing about the experimental findings, the resulting hypothesized timelines of evolution and their discontinuities and so on - but this is another, subsequent level: at first we have to be even more scientific than Bill Nye and those irritating responses to creationists questions, that often are even worse logical fallacies of the questions they mock.

In my opinion sincere, non-fanatic religion has nothing to fear from honest science that recognizes its limits of reach and does not attacks anything that cannot explain.

by Subject Sigma on

(just now I realize the reply to the fourth question - No, Yoda - is an incredible own-goal by Nye...)

by mtmynd on

Wo: "mtmynd, I am in agreement with you here. From what i understand, The New Testament was written around 50 years after Jesus' death. How accurate can it be? I still love that book though. It's helped me through a lot of shit in my life, and I enjoy a lot of the great poetry in it."

Indeed, Wo, the Bible and many other "Holy" Books have aided people for centuries. But to proclaim (a) God's words are within any of these books is a hope at best or a dream for those who actually view their God as a generic being ("He") and one that has hands to write with and a mouth to speak to certain others. That is illogical to me. Leave those books to what they are - written by hu'mans, period.

by Wo on

What difference does it make what we call God? What i say "Him," that doesn't change what "He" is, only how i relate to "Him." When i say "He" i'm talking about God. When i say "She" or "It" I am also talking about God. When i say "tree," that's God. My aunt fell down the stairs and died because she hit her head on concrete steps, that's God. My nephew spoke his first words, that's God. When i say "the microwave cooked my dinner," i'm talking about God. i see nothing but God.

by mtmynd on

Wo: "... i see nothing but God."

so, you read my words and see your god..? that's not god, that's drama, my friend.

by TKG on

Language is a virus from outer space.

That Burroughs observation has nothing to do with memetics

It's evolutionary biology.

by mnaz on

i guess i just won't worry about it too much (my head might explode). just keep religion and science in their appropriate respective public spheres, and i'm good.

by Sonic Nurse on

My unique background requires that I rely on both the spiritual and the scientific. Both seemingly dichotomous worlds infuse my life and at times seem not dichotomous but wondorous and interlinked. That said, I am NOT a theologian nor am a skilled and articulate scientist.

So.... I will not weigh in on this HUGE issue...

I do have some observations though... And one of them is of the discounting of the new testament's accuracy based on the proximity of its written account to its content. Scholars vary, but generally it is accepted to have been written about 25-75 years after Jesus' death. Now, I don't know about anyone else, but eye witness accounts and retellings by coherent individuals don't turn into a fairytale simply because they are recounting something that happened a long time ago......

Also, while I do see some very good examples of how all living things are similar and could possibly have arisen from some singularity, I think that it's ignorant to cling to a theory that has only been around A MILIsecond of time compared to the age and length of time that the universe has existed. It just serms as ignorant to me as thumping my bible and throwing it at people and then calling it "God's Love"

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for these points, Sonic Nurse -- and it is especially an interesting point that in the medical profession you need to rely on both scientific and spiritual understanding.

by Subject Sigma on

Here, we can clearly see the disaster that Ham brings on the Creationist cause: he completely obliterated any chanche for a "soft creationism", that does not need to fight against science.

by Levi Asher on

Of course, Sigma, Ham cannot obliterate anybody else's free thoughts. By taking such a dumbly literal stance on creationism, he has actually helped to improve the creationist cause indirectly by inspiring some smarter creationists (like, surprisingly, Pat Robertson!) to speak up and articulate their point of view. This is why I say that debate is ALWAYS a good thing. Even if an argument is severely flawed, the process of debate will be valuable in itself.

by JIm S on

Ideas or theory on anything only being around a millisecond is because they can only be articulated by mankind (both sexes of course) who has only been around that millisecond of time or history. The oldest living things or continuing living types of life lack that ability to articulate. The reptiles never uttered an idea or theory. The ideas of freedom, equality, and many other wonderful ideas are only a millisecond old as to universal time but that makes them not any less hopefully true or right.

by mnaz on

but Jim, isn't the idea that "mankind has only been around for a millisecond of universal time" kind of at the heart of this discussion? in creationism this is not necessarily believed true.

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