Random Self-Censored Facebook Comments about the Nye / Ham “Debate” in Part being Focused on a Reply to Albert Mohler

This is possibly one of the most ill-conceived blog posts I have ever done. It consists mainly of things that I wrote that I was going to post to facebook, but which I instead cut and pasted into a file on my computer. I then brushed and polished it slightly for publication here on my blog.

Basically, what follows is a random, barely edited, not at all organized series of paragraphs each of which was once almost going to appear in a comment on some unsuspecting friend’s post. Until I censored myself. I could see that I was being too long winded for facebook, and that I was going to cross the line in ways I didn’t want to. All the comments were on threads on the topic of extended debate-show between Bill “The Sciecnce Guy” Nye, and Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, which took place last night. (I’m not posting a link to that. They are everywhere at the moment. If you’re reading this at some later date and haven’t heard about it, you can google it.)

Bill Nye looks sideways at Ken Ham during their Debate (2/4/14)
Bill Nye looks sideways at Ken Ham during their Debate (2/4/14).

I don’t want to offend, but I’m afraid it will be impossible to avoid offense. Because these words were pouring out of me and I wanted to record them. So here goes.

The bulk of this rant started in response to the following article, which, I suspect, you’ll have to read in order to follow what I write here.

Albert Mohler, “Bill Nye’s Reasonable Man — The Central Worldview Clash of the Ham-Nye Debate,” AlbertMohler.com (2/5/2013) URL: http://www.albertmohler.com/2014/02/05/bill-nyes-reasonable-man-the-central-worldview-clash-of-the-ham-nye-debate/.

For those who don’t know, Albert Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship graduate school for preachers and scholars who belong to the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s an avowed young earth creationist, but he’s also a remarkably well read scholar. For my money, Al Mohler is the most educated man in conservative Christendom, and I always seem to enjoy reading his take on things. That is not to say that I agree with him—I almost never do—only that I respect his learning.

Mohler had a front row seat at the debate, and he shares a stimulating set of reflections about his experience. He seems to be striving for balance and respect. He praises Nye’s outfit and pen, and essentially calls him a man of style. Nevertheless, something about Mohler’s analysis of last night’s has just set me off.

First off, let me say that I do think Mohler is right when he says the debate “was [really] about the most basic of all intellectual presuppositions: How do we know anything at all?” That is, Mohler points out that the real debate concerns what is properly called epistemology. The problem is that Mohler falsely characterized the epistemic commitments of Bill Nye.

Selfaganda from Al Mohler’s Twitter Feed

The way I read the debate, Nye clearly stated in so many words that his mind could be changed by evidence, whereas Ham (and Mohler by self-identification) insist instead that their minds cannot be changed no matter what evidence is presented to them. Mohler and Ham are already standing on Christ the solid rock, they already have all the “answers in Genesis.” Bill Nye is ready to be persuaded to think otherwise than he does if evidence is presented that contradicts the evolutionary model.

Yet Mohler writes, falsely, “Both men were asked if any evidence could ever force them to change their basic understanding. Both men said no.”

Actually Bill Nye explicitly said that his mind could be changed by evidence, whereas it was Ham alone who denied any possibility of ever changing his mind, and asked for our understanding and sympathy, because his stance is rooted in faith in God’s word. Mohler basically denies the facts of what happened on stage. That bummed me out, because I usually respect Mohler’s ability to conduct a relatively accurate analysis of a person’s position, in spite of his disagreements.

Of course there is a big difference between a scientific way of knowing the world, and a religious way of knowing the world, and it was fully on stage for all to see last night. There is a clash of worldviews, but it is not the case, as Mohler suggests, that naturalistic science is one kind of “faith” and a Biblicist creationist science is just another equivalent kind of “faith.”

I don’t need to bother to deny formal or structural similarities between science and religion to make my point. I can allow a large number of parallels. There’s no denying that homologies exist between “Magic, Religion, and Science,” or that in practice, trust plays a role in scientific knowledge. Of course scientists must have some faith in authority, etc., in order to sustain scientific practice. This is what we have peer review for. “Trust” in the reports of others is a fundamental aspect of any sane epistemology; the alternative is either radical skepticism or an unrealistic individualism which requires each person to construct their own complete picture of the world through a comprehensive empirical study. Of course scientists trust other scientists to be truthful and accurate and careful in their work and reporting of their work.

Even so, when it comes right down to it, science remains that way of knowing the world which is flexible and open to persuasion and change—it does not set prior authority into a position where it can be considered a sacred inviolate authority. On the other hand, religion all too often, at least in its fundamentalist mode, is characterized precisely by its refusal to let go of prior traditional authority, which it treats as sacrosanct and perhaps, in a fundamentalist mode, inerrant.

Nye’s epistemology is empirical. He seems content to accept a pragmatic or verificationist approach to truth. This is a hallmark of what is usually called simply “science.” Of course, Ham insists on calling this “observational science,” and wants to insist that such science cannot tell us anything about the past. That is, of course, poppycock. All that humans have access to is technically “in the past.” As it has been observed by Faulkner, the past isn’t even past. When you read a scientific report of an experiment, you’re reading about something that took place last week, last year, or decades ago. The same laws of nature and Nature’s God applied then as now.

For this reason, all scientists that I know would insist that all science is observational; palaeontology, geology, etc., are rooted in observation of phenomena that are present in the world, but that have, undeniably, a past.

One cannot begin a debate on paleontology and evolution by insisting that “science” per se is not qualified to investigate the past because “we can’t observe the past.” This is hogwash, and Mohler’s claim that it is rooted in a different notion of epistemology (what he calls a worldview) just covers up the plain intellectual bankruptcy of Ham’s version of creationism.

Science’s empirical epistemology works by starting with observation, modelling what is observed, and then testing the adequacy of models through continued experimentation, which is actually just doing more observing. Science consists exactly in this and in this only: proposing and testing models that can be used to explain observed phenomena. When models fail to account for observed experience (empircal data) then they must be revised or thrown out.

You can thus argue that scientists do trust in and have faith in their models and theories—they do because they are hard won products of hard labor by people over long periods of time—but you can’t simply invoke this fact in order to plead that there is a moral equivalence to fundamentalist intransigence on the authority of (one interpretation of) the Bible as God’s word. Prior models and authorities just aren’t God’s word for scientists. They are starting points from which the work goes on.

Ham and Mohler are epistemic authoritarians, which is to say that in addition to their normal practical use of everyday science for getting around and feeding themselves, they also hold on tightly to a script of “Answers in Genesis” (and all of scripture). Their scriptural “answers” pre-determine how they will answer questions raised by any new observation or experience in the world.

Like normal scientists, people of faith must of course rely on observation and modeling for going through the everyday world (as everybody must… you don’t read the bible to find out whether your car needs gas, you look at the gauge on the dashboard). And they also rely on a prior authority for what they claim to know. The difference lies in the relationship to prior authority. Fundamentalists treat the authority of the Bible as an inviolate absolute. No matter what they observe or experience—no matter what the empirical data is—if a proposed interpretation of that data conflicts with what they know about the world from authority, then that interpretation must be wrong. Thus all their “knowledge” of the world is necessarily shaped by the contents of an external authority (some theologians call this a heteronomic, as opposed to autonomic epistemology). In the case of Biblical Christian fundamentalsits, the chosen sacred authority is the Protestant canon of scripture, which, it is important to point out, is regarded as a direct revelation from God. Therefore their position ultimately rests on a presupposition that knowledge as such can only be grounded in divine authority; it cannot be grounded in rational agency of creatures. This is a theistic epistemology that locates knowledge with God. It resembles, in some ways, Neoplatonic idealism, but without Plato’s optimistic assessment of the inborn divinity of the human mind, which could then approach the divine source of knowledge.

Mohler suggests that Ham would agree that human knowledge cannot be created autonomously. Humans aren’t capable of coming to true intellectual understanding of the world or its origins without divine aid. Why? He argues this on the basis of his belief, which he says comes from the Bible, that the human intellect is completely corrupted because of the fall. (I would refer you to Mohler’s use of Romans chapter 1 in his post.) We have a noetic deficit that prevents us from truly knowing anything on our own. Instead, we must have a divine revelation of truth—not to say, a divine regeneration of our minds?

By the way, my own theological view, as a Biblical scholar, is that this Calvinist insistence on total depravity of the human mind diminishes way too far the notion of the status of human beings as being created in the “image of God;” it further ignores the fact that in Genesis, the fall itself was a fall from ignorance and innocence into knowledge that made us aware that we are “arum” that is, naked—but the word is a pun for “arum” meaning “clever,” “crafty,” “astute,” or “subtle” (like the Serpent). By eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we end up being more, rather than less, like God. At the end of the episode, God announces his intention to drive the humans away from Eden; why? “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, so, lest…” (For all this see Gen 2-3). But this is Biblical exegesis, interesting, but irrelevant to my main “point” here, if there is one. Sorry to go off on a tangent.

Logically, there is circularity in Mohler’s type of argument. How does Mohler know that the Bible is the authoritative text, which can tell us authoritatively that, because of the fall, knowledge is only possible if we accept an authoritative text?

What makes Ham and Mohler so sure that it is the Christian Bible that constitutes the supernatural revelation which can ground our true “historical science”? Ham calls “scientific” ideas about the past “historical science” and suggests that his own faith in the Bible is just his version of “historical science.” So, if that is true, give us your scientific arguments for why this text, rather than others, offers the best account of historical origins? If you say, it is because God revealed the text, then I ask, how do you know this before you accept the text?

Why not the Tao Te Ching? Why not the Popol Vuh? Why not the Vedas? Why not the Quran? Why not just the Jewish Bible? Why not the Theogony? Why not the Theaetetus?

Calvinist fundamentalists might argue that, because we are noetically diminished through the fall, God reveals this truth to us directly in our hearts, convicting us in advance of his truth. Such a position makes all doubt of Christian truth claims into rebellion against God. Convenient for their claims to authority, but not persuasive in a scientific argument.

Returning to an earlier point, the creationists are fond of charging naturalist scientists of having their own faith. Ham characterizes it as a naturalistic anti-theist materialism. Yes, we all have “faith” in something, and we all must trust in prior authorities if we wish to know much of anything in this vast world. But the real question is, how do you arrive at this “faith,” and moreover, what status do you give it in your practical dealings with experience? What process do you acknowledge as being a pathway to knowledge? Not all have Christian faith, but anyone with any faith will ultimately have the problem of accounting for how they got that faith. Saying “God gave it to me, glory to God” is not a satisfying answer except to another believer. Rather, show some evidence. Yet, the difference between young earth creationism and ordinary science is that ordinary science is open to seeing the evidence, and will happily challenge and test anyone who claims that they have evidence for any thing. In contrast, young earth creationism likes to change the subject or ignore the questions. That’s what Ken Ham did to Bill Nye. Nye’s repeated refrain was, ‘show me the organism that swam up from one geological layer to another, and I’ll change my mind.’ We might as well put it more bluntly: until you can show me a fossil bed preserving humans and dinosaurs on the same level, conventional “naturalistic” geology will win this debate. Humans and dinosaurs did not overlap in history. In point of fact, at present there simply isn’t any evidence for the kinds of predictions that a young earth creationist might make. At the Creation Museum there’s a triceratops with a saddle on its back, where you can take a funny selfie. But there are no fossilized remains tying humans to dinosaurs. For young earth creationists, though, even though there’s no evidence, that would never stop them from believing it, or wanting to call it a science!

Scientists just don’t operate on this kind of faith. They don’t take for granted that prior authorities are always right no matter what, forcing them to adjust their interpretations of available data in light of that prior, infallible authority, or forcing them to begin all hypothesis making from the starting point of that authority. They alwas remain open to revision of their knowledge and of their faith. And THAT, that is the ultimate difference. It is the one that Ham and Mohler have denied in this exchange.

A final thought on this topic here is that when one grounds one’s truth-claims and epistemology in an external authority, one still has the problem of how that authority is interpreted. In other words: what does the Bible mean? How does Ham or Mohler know that they have interpreted the Bible correctly? That they have accurately seen its meaning for us and formulated their faith properly in accord with the contents of the authority? Only by having a securely grounded interpretive method could they be sure that their use of prior authority had validity in interpreting experience or making predictions.

In answer to such issues the fundamentalist believer may appeal to the human authority of tradition in interpretation (without admitting it is human), and instead will appeal to notions like “perspicuity” and the internal testimony of the spirit that infallibly does the interpreting on behalf of the believer. This is again a great circular affirmation of one’s own position: God inspires the believer to correct faith, and then inhabits the believer to ensure correct interpretation. Those who are without such grace and inspiration are, I supposed, simply doomed to noetic confusion.

These kinds of appeals cannot account for what we can easily observe happening when we look at the way texts are used within religious tradition. We can make a large number of empirical observations about the origins of the Bible, and we can investigate, using what Ham might call “historical science,” (but which I just call “history,”) the wide variety of human responses to it. We will certainly observe: differences in opinion among sects and commentators about the significance of texts, the formulation of doctrines, the essential contents of faith, etc., not to mention differences in responses to the text (faithful acceptance or rejection). Unless you maintain a radically sectarian vision of faith (namely that only that small minority of believers who share your same opinions have the true “light of God”), you have to embrace epistemological humility when it comes to the question: “what does scripture communicate?”

Twenty Two Creationists Ask Questions About Evolution

In another thread, we got interested in a brilliant photographic essay by someone else who was present at the debate. Photographer Matt Stopera records the comically insufficient ideas of twenty-two of those who attended the debate by asking them to write notes to evolutionists, posing for portraits with their messages. This viral sensation is layered in irony but is ultimately a sad testimony to the poor state of philosophical and scientific and theological education in this country.

Matt Stopera, “22 Messages from Creationists to People Who Believe in Evolution,” BuzzFeed (2/5/2014) URL: http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/messages-from-creationists-to-people-who-believe-in-evolutio.

One picture from the essay, in particular, stuck in my craw:


Photo Credit: Matt Stopera (2014); reproduced here by claim of academic fair use. For link, see above.

The phrase “just a theory” needs to be banished from discussions of whether or not a body of science should be taught in classrooms. People seem to think the word theory means “hunch” or is interchangeable with “speculation,” or even just “idea.” Not so.

The root word, “theoria,” is a Greek term that comes from the world of the theater. Originally it refers to the place (or seat) you can purchase which affords a view of the stage. The implications of the use of the term to talk about scientific models is that when you have a “theory,” you have a point of view on an object of study that lets you see it fully. It is implicitly a term that weds empirical observation (of the object of theory) with conscious understanding (by the subject who theorizes).

If a science teacher begins class by saying, “today we shall learn about the theory of gravitation,” she is not proposing to discuss whimsical possibilities about what gravity might possibly be. She is not referring to myth, legend, poetry, verse, or song. She is proposing to review those models (mostly mathematical) which have been discovered, tested by experiment, and verified by replication, and thus shown to be useful for giving us a coherent and consistent understanding of certain phenomena we can observe in the world, like a ball falling to the ground.

Biological scientists call evolution a theory, not because they are just guessing, or because there is a serious doubt out there about its validity. Quite the contrary! They call it theory because there’s so very little doubt about the validity of the model. Evolutionary theory is different than gravitational theory; I grant that. It is a composite theory, drawing together model(s) that have been developed to explain phenomena observed in a variety of related sciences (geology, anthropology, archaeology, palaeontology, biology, genetics, etc.). Together these models have given rise to the theory of evolution. It’s called a theory precisely because the model can explain our observations, can predict future observations we might make if we go and look (such as, predicting finding fossils of a certain type of unknown animal in certain layers, because that would be where we expect transitions to be found), and it remains a theory for us precisely because there aren’t any observations, so far, that really fail to fit into the model or call its premises and structure into question.

In my understanding of the history of science, young earth creationism began to die the death of a thousand cuts long before Darwin observed any finches. If I recall correctly, the science of geology was the first to draw blood, as the observations of that science were the first to really draw into question the concept of a 6000 year old earth. Throughout the early centuries of the modern era, new discoveries constantly called rigid and literalist Biblical orthodoxies into question.

Before Darwin, anthropology, particularly driven by reflective encounters with peoples of the new world and the far east, began to draw into question the tripartite theory of human cultural origins that had been assumed in Christendom on the basis of Gen 10-11. Critical philology and archaeology radically undermined confidence in the reliability of the Bible. Text criticism showed that the “revealed” word had been notably unstable through time, and dependent on fallible human tradition for its preservation. Historical “higher” criticism raised questions about authors, sources, cultural contexts, and other human factors in the composition of the texts. Archaeology not only shed light on Biblical narratives, it raised doubts about the full accuracy of every “historical” detail in the Bible. Comparative mythology put the Biblical stories into the light of other ancient accounts of universal origins.

In the hard sciences, Geology led to palaeontology, and the ever expanding observations of the fossil record revealed that different geological ages had been populated by completely distinct biomes. Furthermore, geological paleontology revealed that there were strange and unknown ancient species, now extinct, a finding that very well shocked believers in its day, who believed that God had always willed all kinds to persist, even through a destructive flood. It seemed impossible that God would have created species only to allow them to die out; Darwin’s later embrace of this kind of waste, or excess, as a part of the process of natural selection, was particularly offensive to Biblical theologies. But it perfectly accorded with the observations of the fossil record. It was what Ham would call “observational sciences” that raised so many serious doubts about the validity of a literal understanding of scripture… and this long before Darwin’s ideas began to be taken up, discussed, and so to contribute to the theorization of all the data. If Darwin hadn’t argued what he argued, someone else would have; in fact others did.

From the end of the 18th to the end of the 19th centuries, the humanities and the human sciences thus offered converging accounts of global origins and human history, telling a new story that sealed the fate—or should have sealed the fate— of literalist young earth creationism. This point of view never died out in American Christianity. But it did become the minority position.

It is beyond the scope of any one scholar to master every detail of the Bible. Therefore, those who hold to the full plenary verbal inspiration and “historical” “factual” inerrancy of the bible read literally are quite simply… ill informed. They haven’t even bothered to take up the full depth of the detail in the Bible (not that any one person could do so fully). They are obviously unaware of the many areas in which insoluble tensions among Biblical texts (let alone with the testimonies of external sources, like Assyrian records, for example) point clearly away from any firm notion of “factual” inerrancy. Far from resting epistemologically only on scripture, most fundamentalist believers accept the human testimony of scholars who have, frankly, falsified data and claimed, wrongly, that apparent problems are only that, apparent.

In the real world, the tools we use to measure empirical facts are not infallible (gas gauges break, etc.), but thankfully, we don’t need our tools to be infallible. They just need to work reliably in most instances. If your tools are in general unreliable, you get rid of them, you use different tools.

Now, if you want to know how old the earth is, should you just look in your Bible, where you’ll find your “Answers in Genesis”? Or should you look empirically at all available evidence—textual, archaeological, geological, astronomical—and using the best models available for understanding what you have observed (i.e. those tools we call scientific theories), formulate your best answer that way?

The answer is: use all the available evidence, and strive to understand that evidence using the best available models (theories) for making sense of it.

If in fact you answered “just look in your Bible,” I have three further questions for you. (1) How can you verify that the Bible has authority other than by quoting some part of the Bible itself? (2) What reasons can you give to a person who does not currently accept the authority of the Bible that would convince them that it should have authority? (3) How can you be certain that the way you read the Bible is the right way to read it?

This essay may inevitably be read as an attack on theism and religion, although it is not intended to be such an attack. It could probably get me in trouble with my employers, but I trust they will recognize my good faith in putting this out there.

In my own defense, as a prophylactic against attacks by people who see a straightforward defense of ordinary science (even as applied to the Bible) as somehow wrong, then, let me close with a final observation. The venerable old happy-face TV Evangelist Pat Robertson himself has already now gone on record to condemn Ham’s young earth creationism as beyond the pale of acceptable Christian apologetics.

Elias Isquith, “Pat Robertson Begs Ken Ham to Shut Up: Yes, Even the Radical Televangelist Thinks Young Earth Creationist Ken Ham is Ridiculous,” Salon.com (2/5/2014) URL: http://www.salon.com/2014/02/05/pat_robertson_begs_ken_ham_to_shut_up/.

Actually, as with so many things, this video has to be seen to be believed.

My apologies to all for any typos, misspellings, errors, misrepresentations or whatnot. They are unintentional and I’d be happy to correct myself if I made mistakes.

Corrections and Clarifications: in a comment on Facebook, a colleague (Adrienne Akins) asked me to clarify that it was not Faulkner, but his fictional character Gavin Stevens, who said the past is “not even past.” She also objects to my characterization of Mohler (as being too kind, and inaccurate besides, since others might have a better claim to the title most educated voice in Conservative Christianity) but that’s “my money” at stake there so, for the sake of my rhetorical strategy here, I’ll let that error stand.

Notes on the Editing of this Piece: this post was slightly edited on 2/6/2014.

what do you think?

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