On March 17 (2014), scientists announced new findings consistent with the Big Bang Theory. Gravitational waves dating back to instants after the universe came into being, 13.7 billion years ago, were detected by telescope.
Regardless of mounting empirical evidence calling into question the account of creation described in the Bible’s book of Genesis, those who are firmly in the Creationism camp are unlikely to be swayed.
That this is the case was underscored by the recent televised debate between pro-Creationism Ken Ham and pro-Evolution Bill Nye. The event received a surprising amount of attention from the mainstream media. Viewer reactions have been mixed. Many bemoan the fact that we are even having this debate in 2014. Others predictably heap laurels onto their preferred “champions of truth.”
The bow-tied Bill Nye, the Science Guy, is familiar to television-viewing audiences, but Ken Ham may be a new name. Ham is a biblical literalist who heads both the Creation Museum and Answers in Genesis (AiG), the leading voice of “young Earth” creationism. Their debate was strange, more spectacular than intellectual.
The most noteworthy aspect of this event was Ham’s provocative philosophy of science, which was not surprising since creationism calls into question our ability to make knowledge claims:
- How do I know something is true?
- How certain are my observations?
- How credible are the claims of others?
AiG argues that only observation–a firsthand eyewitness account–is credible. Thus, what Ham calls “historical science” is not to be trusted since this method starts from effect and works backwards to a theorized original cause. Since no one could have witnessed the Big Bang, this theory qualifies as “historical science” and cannot be trusted.
Ham is absolutely correct that no human being was present during the Big Bang. But, using his own verification standard, no human eyes witnessed the (literal) six days of creation either. “Ah,” he might say, “but we do have a record of observed history–the Bible! Therefore, it is more reasonable to accept AiG’s account of the universe’s origin.”
David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, likewise questioned science’s findings. Hume’s major contribution to the philosophy of science is the problem of induction, particularly the predictive value of observational data. He wrote: “Although the sun arose every single morning of my life, I cannot assume that it will necessarily do so tomorrow.” Why not? Because “if we proceed not upon some fact, present to the memory or senses, our reasonings would be merely hypothetical.” A very disquieting view but logically sound.
The problem of establishing an uncontestable link between cause and effect, in Hume’s view, relates to the credibility of past events. Both prediction and historical accounts require a certain degree of trust.
Hume’s insistence that we cannot definitively prove causal relationships notwithstanding, practically speaking, most of us cannot live comfortably without trust, even if we recognize that some cause-event-connections and witnesses are more trustworthy than others.
Skeptics endure doubt-filled lives since there are many claims about the nature of reality that we cannot test and confirm for ourselves. And, even if we could, who has the time, money, and patience to verify every claim? Doubt, then!
For the atheist, winning the evolution-creationism debate means exposing the logical fallacies and bad science of creationism’s meaning-conferring stories. But the victory rings a hollow note, since disabling the “How did we come into being?” question leaves no possibility of asking the more important question “Why are we here?”
The skeptic’s life is always an option, but not everyone who holds fast to AiG’s creation narratives is foolish. Most people prefer a life with meaning, however implausible the meaning-conferring story. Some will themselves to believe the unbelievable because doing so is conducive to a meaningful life.
Could it be that Ham knows that what he professes to believe is ridiculous and that his Creation Museum is a mockery of intelligent life in 2014? Perhaps. But in the end, is he worse off than the resolute evolutionist who accepts a short existence in a universe with no creator, no purpose?
There was no real winner in the Nye-Ham debate because the debate focused on the wrong topic. The debate is not between scientific fact and religious faith. The real question is whether it is wrong for reasonable people in the age of science to believe a myth, which grounds their lives in meaning. On this, the science of Nye and the skepticism of Hume may say, “It is wrong,” but the scientist and skeptic are incapable of providing meaningful reasons as to why one should prefer a meaningless world.
References and Further Reading:
Urry, Meg. “How the Big Bang discovery came about.” CNN, March 30, 2014, Opinion.http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/29/opinion/urry-big-bang-findings/.
Amos, Jonathan. “Cosmic inflation: ‘Spectacular’ discovery hailed.” BBC News, March 17, 2014, Sci/Environment. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26605974.
Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate: http://debatelive.org.
Anderson, Nate. “Ham on Nye: The high cost of “winning” an evolution/creation debate.” Ars Technica, February 7, 2014. http://arstechnica.com/science/2014/02/ham-on-nye-the-high-cost-of-winning-an-evolutioncreation-debate.
Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Linker, Damon. “What Bill Nye and Ken Ham Both Get Wrong.” TheWeek.com, February 10, 2014. http://theweek.com/article/index/256153/what-bill-nye-and-ken-ham-both-get-wrong.
Schulson, Michael. “The Bill Nye-Ken Ham Debate was a Nightmare for Science.”TheDailyBeast.com, February 5, 2014. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/02/05/the-bill-nye-ken-ham-debate-was-a-nightmare-for-science.html.
Image Credit: Adam Lederer / flickr
To read previous issues of Sightings, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings-archive.
Author, Peter Han, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is teaching at Elgin Community College while completing his dissertation in the metaethics of artificial intelligence. Although he likes computers, he likes people, too.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/god-theological-accounts-and-ethical-possibilities.