Ken Ham and the “Natural Reading of Scripture”

From my Colson Center article about Ken Ham’s Faulty Hermeneutics:

Ken Ham is part of a larger tradition (limited mainly to American fundamentalism) that finds it difficult to acknowledge that the young-earth way of interpreting Genesis is indeed an interpretation of Genesis. The underlying notion is that we can take the Bible at face value without needing to interpret it since the meaning of Scripture is clear, self-evident, and utterly beyond doubt to any honest layman who desires the truth. It is important to appreciate that this is not the historic Protestant position, but an offshoot of Protestantism that arose as the doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity became mixed with the type of American individualism that Nathan Hatch has chronicled in The Democratization of American Christianity. The result is that evangelicals like Ham can have the best of both worlds: on the one hand, they can interpret Scripture however they like and claim that it is the clear meaning of the text; but, on the other hand, they are able to dismiss alternative readings as obscuration, subtlety, and man’s interpretation. That is why young-earth creationists do not see the need to do business with other potential readings of Genesis.

Read more here.


Dicussion Guide for Ham/Nye Debate on Creation vs. Evolution (Part 3)

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1

In reacting against the scepter of an anti-intellectual ‘Christian fundamentalism’, many Christians are unthinkingly capitulating to the wisdom of our age. Assuming that young earth creationism is the natural offspring of a narrow-minded anti-scientific fundamentalism (and this is usually how it is portrayed in the media), it is trendy to embrace theistic evolution as a badge of intellectual sophistication. In this regard, Ken Ham’s unflinching commitment to young-earth creationism can be refreshing. His commitment to the authority of scripture is total, and where other apologists often compromise the Christian worldview to make it palatable to unbelievers, Mr. Ham is not afraid to openly acknowledge that his entire position hinges on the authority of scripture.

Having a total confidence in scripture, Mr. Ham is not afraid of anything science may throw up. Believing that nothing in the natural world can ever ultimately contradict God’s truth, he is not afraid to investigate. While he tries to answer scientific arguments whenever he can, his position does not ultimately depend on being able to do so, but on what he believes is the teaching of scripture. He thus strikes a good balance between a healthy skepticism to the latest scientific fads, on the one hand, and an appreciation for the value and legitimacy of science, on the other.

At the same time, Mr. Ham’s position has some significant weaknesses which I have tried to address in Part 1 and Part 2 of this discussion guide to the landmark debate between him and Bill Nye. Part 1 of this series considered some ways in which Ham seemed confused about what the debate was even about, while Part 2 looked at some difficult questions the debate raised concerning the relationship between science and religion, on the one hand, and science and scripture, on the other. This post will conclude the discussion by exploring some difficulties in Ken Ham’s beliefs about the relationship between science and the past.

Science and the Past

For those who watched the debate, here are some discussion questions. If you are using this discussion guide in a small group, please discuss these questions before proceeding to my own comments.

  1. Ham claimed that it is impossible for a scientist to infer information about the past from the present. Is this claim correct?
  2. What arguments did Nye present to counter Ham’s claim that the past is off-limits to scientists?
  3. What was Ham’s distinction between “experimental science” and “historical science?”
  4. In his own use of scientific evidence, was Ham consistent with some of the rigid limitations he placed on making inferences about the past?

Bill Nye claimed that a number of observations about the present from radiology, geology, astronomy and biology could help to inform our knowledge of the past. Instead of offering different interpretations to this evidence, Ham repeatedly dismissed all such argumentation with the claim that it is impossible to infer anything about the past from present observation. Ham seemed to take it as self-evident that the past is off-limits to science, saying, “You don’t observe the past directly. You weren’t there.” Since God was there in the past, and since He left us with Genesis as a record of scientific origins, the testimony of scripture trumps all scientific observation.

Ham is not alone here. Young-earth creationist materials going back to at least when I was a boy (and probably much earlier, though I haven’t checked) are saturated with repeated claims about the scientific method only yielding insight into the present. Throughout Ham’s ‘Answers in Genesis’ website, we continually read comments like this (my paraphrase): “The only scientific facts are those things which we can observe and repeat in the present. When it comes to explaining what happened in the past, we cannot know because we weren’t there, so all we have is someone’s interpretation. However, God was an eye-witness to the past, and He has left us with an account.”

In his debate with Nye, statements such as the above formed the centerpiece of Ham’s argument. Repeatedly he proposed a kind of non-overlapping magisteria between “observational science” and what he called “historical science.” According to Ham, the latter deals with the past and comes down to belief, interpretation and pure speculation.

This a priori skepticism in science’s ability to offer insight about the past meant that Ham never had to actually interact with Nye’s arguments for an old earth. Moreover, it means that theoretical and applied sciences must necessarily take a back-seat to the “facts” of applied sciences, even though it has been shown that theoretical frameworks are as necessary for the latter as for the former.

One of the things that puzzled me as I was watching the debate was how Ham never applied this same skepticism concerning the past to his own scientific truth-claims. For example, after stating repeatedly that science is helpless in giving insight about the past, Ham claimed that observational science (including recent research on the origin of dogs) confirms the “creation orchard” model of the past. But wait a minute! If Ham believes that it is a category mistake for Nye to make inductions about the past from present observations (i.e., that ice layers suggest an older earth), then why does it suddenly become legitimate when Ham wishes to make inductions about the past from present observations (i.e., evidence on the origin of dogs, fossils that confirm creationist orchard, etc.)

Or again, Ken Ham and other young-earth creationists wish to point to certain geological structures that supposedly provide evidence for a worldwide flood. Technically, if they were consistent with their own criteria of rigidly separating “observational science” from “historical science”, these evidences for a flood are based on a category mistake, and they should simply stick to announcements about the teaching of scripture.

This raises the following questions that Ken Ham and his ‘Answers in Genesis’ team need to honestly address:

  • Is Ham being hypocritical to erect rigid limitations that he himself refuses to observe?
  • If the scientific methodology proposed by Ham (e., the sequestering of “historical science” from legitimate scientific research) matters as much as he claims, then why is he not more consistent with it?
  • Does Ham really care about the science he talks about, or is it just decorations to give a veneer of respectability? And if the science doesn’t really matter, then what was the purpose of this debate in the first place? Was it little more than a big commercial for young-earth creationism?

Let’s step back for a moment and consider what it would actually mean if the young-earth creationist movement were actually correct in the repeated contention that science can only tell us about the present. To start with, the entire field of astronomy would collapse since all observation of the solar system involves seeing light from the past (light travels very fast, but it still has to travel). The science of Forensics would also become meaningless, and with it much of our criminal justice system. Nye pressed home these very points, but Ham never offered a response.

Consider further. If observational science tells us only about the present and not the past, then the entire scientific method would collapse, because all experiments take place in the past. (I’ll give a hundred dollars to anyone who can name one completed experiment that didn’t take place in the past.) The truth is that whenever science discovers something about the present, it is also discovering something about the past and the future. For example, suppose I do an experiment to discover that the freezing temperature of ocean water at typical salinity is 28 °F. Once I make the discovery, I haven’t just discovered a fact about salt water today, but about salt water yesterday and tomorrow. Now no one is saying that these types of inductions are completely certain, because they remain probabilistic inferences and not deductions. However, to the degree that we can know anything through science, we can know things about the past.

Another example would be the way we can study the present rotation of the stars to figure out when solar eclipses occurred in the past. People have made calculations of when past eclipses occurred, and then verified that through textual evidence from the time. This is the type of thing that scientists do all the time, yet it would be impossible if Ken Ham was correct the past is off-limits to scientific observations.

Given that Ham is wrong on this point, young-earth creationists need to get busy. If someone claims to have evidence for a universe that is 14 billion years old, apologists for young-earth creationism need to interact with evidence and propose an alternative interpretation of the same data. To simply announce that we cannot know anything about the past from present observation is not only a cheap cop-out, but fortifies the impression the creationists are unscientific.

More fatally, by collapsing “historical science” into ideology, speculation and subjectivity, Ham inadvertently undercuts the basis of his own appeal to Biblical authority. For consider, if it were true that we cannot make objective inductions about the past from present observations, then the Bible must necessarily be off-limits to us. This is because “historical science” has been necessary to reconstruct the written word after its dynamic transmission through time and space. After all, we did not observe it being written! (I have Jonathan Baker to thank for this observation.)

The assumption that the past is inaccessible to science feels like little more than a convenient way for young-earth creationists to not have to do business with their opponents’ arguments. Consider the following statement Ham made in the Q&A: “You can never prove it’s old, so that’s not a hypothetical… Not using the scientific method.” Commenting on this, Jonathan Baker made the following observation:

“This single response by Ken Ham during the Q&A session allows us to declare Bill Nye a winner in this debate. When asked if he would retain faith in God if convinced that the Earth were old, Ken Ham remarked that science could never yield for us a reliable age of the Earth. For Ken Ham, nothing historical is subject to scientific investigation. If that is true, then at last, he has answered the question of the debate: ‘Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?’

Ham can only defend his position by excluding the creation model from science altogether, as though to say, ‘No, it’s not; but neither is yours.’”

Further Reading

Discussion Guide For Ham/Nye Debate (Part 2)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1

As we continue working through the landmark debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, it is necessary to ask some important questions about the relationship between science and religion and also about the relationship between science and scripture. Let’s start with science and religion.

Science and Religion

  1. It is now routine to consider religion and science to be inherently at odds with each other. How did the two participants in the debate address this question, whether directly or indirectly?
  2. How did Ham try to demonstrate that young-earth creationism is compatible with modern science?
  3. In trying to demonstrate that young-earth creationism is incompatible with modern science, Bill Nye presented a number of arguments. Which two arguments did you find the most compelling, and which two arguments did you find the least compelling?

As I was watching Ham-Nye debate, I was struck by Ham’s opening statement that “Creation is the only viable model of historical science confirmed by observational science in today’s modern scientific era.” This seemed to suggest that Ham was going to base his arguments on observational science, and I sat back fully expecting to get an interesting science lesson in creation science. Yet as the debate unfolded, Ham made clear that his position collapsed into a question about starting points, worldview assumptions, and religious commitments. While science was brought in at various points by way of confirmation, at no point did Ham actually give an argument for why creation is the only viable model of historical science. Instead, he relied heavily on announcements about the teaching of scripture and appeals to authority via videos of smart guys who believe in young-earth creationism.

By contrast, Bill Nye’s presentations were packed full of what he considered to be empirical evidences for an old earth, ranging from observations in geology, astronomy, biology and radiology. When Nye challenged Ham to give an alternative explanation for some of these phenomena (for example, how there could be so many seasonal ice layers within a young-earth model or how speciation rates could be what young-earth creationists require), Ham never provided substantial counter-argumentation even though he had ample time to do so. This left many commentators with the impression that young-earth creationism is indeed anti-science. Clearly, Ham sees no need to answer scientists on their own terms.

The religion vs. science dualism seemed to be given further credence during the Q&A when Ham denied that his beliefs were falsifiable. For any scientific claim to have credence, it has to be both verifiable and falsifiable. That is to say, within the limits of inductive reasoning, it has to be possible in principle to show that something is true and to show that it is false. Ham wants to have the former – that is, he wants to be able to say that observation can verify some of the scientific truth-claims associated with a creationist model – but balks at acknowledging the later.

On one level, it seems grossly inconsistent to claim, as Ham did at the beginning, that his young-earth creationist model is “confirmed by observational science”, while later trying to insulate that model from all scientific critique through the denial of falsifiability. What good is the appeal to observational science if we have already determined a priori that the testimony of science can only go one direction?

We have to remember, however, that Ham’s appeal to science is post hoc after concluding on non-scientific grounds that the young-earth creationist model is true. As was observed by Jonathan Baker, “[Ham’s model] involves only retrospective fitting of a model to known data, so it can accommodate any dataset.” While this may seem dogmatic, anti-intellectual and circular, it actually isn’t. For if Ken Ham does indeed have rational grounds for concluding that young-earth creationism is the only viable model, then it is appropriate to assume that it would be impossible for science to ever suggest otherwise. Beliefs that are a priori certain need not satisfy the conditions of falsifiability. Now Ham does believe that a priori certainty concerning the truth of young-earth creationism can be derived on the basis of scripture’s authority. If this is true, then any claims about the natural world that proceed from this commitment would not need to satisfy the conditions of scientific falsifiability.

Still, two problems remain. One is that Ham never developed any actual arguments for his starting point, suggesting instead that we need to just presuppose the truth of God’s Word. The closest we ever came to an argument for the veracity of scripture was his arguments against naturalism (i.e., naturalism can’t explain morality, gender differentiation, etc) although it was unclear how these arguments proved anything beyond theism.

Secondly, the assertion of non-falsifiability carries with it a theological problem. For Ham to say that his young-earth creationism is not falsifiable could be taken to mean that even potential hermeneutical and exegetical evidence against young-earth creationism would ultimately be irrelevant. But that would be an extraordinary admission for one who claims to base his positions entirely on the testimony of scripture. We will explore this problem further in the next section.

Science and Scripture

  1. When asked whether he takes the Bible literally, Ham replied that he interprets scripture ‘naturally.’ What did he mean by this?
  2. Ham argued that Genesis gives us a scientifically accurate account of origins. If this were not the case, would it present a problem for the doctrine of scripture’s inspiration?
  3. Many young-earth creationists speak about needing to limit our readings of scriptural texts to “the plain meaning.” What do they mean by this?

When asked whether he takes the Bible literally, Ham replied that he interprets the Bible “naturally”, according to the genre of the book in question. His reasoning goes something like this. If a book written as history, like the Genesis narrative, then we must interpret it as history; if a book is written as poetry, like the Psalms, then we must interpret it as poetry. Using this method, the proper reading of any book of scripture should be clear, plain and straight-forward to the honest reader. As Bodie Hodge put it in his ‘Answers in Genesis’ article ‘Why Do You Take the Bible Literally?’, “we are to read and understand the Bible in a plain or straightforward manner.”

Ham is part of a larger tradition (limited mainly to American fundamentalism) that finds it difficult to acknowledge that the young-earth way of interpreting Genesis is indeed an interpretation of Genesis. The underlying notion is that we can take the Bible at face value without needing to interpret it since the meaning of scripture is clear, self-evident and utterly beyond doubt to any honest layman who desires the truth.

It is important to appreciate that this is not the historic Protestant position, but an offshoot of Protestantism that arose as the doctrine of scripture’s perspicuity became mixed with the type of American individualism that Nathan Hatch has chronicled in The Democratization of American Christianity. The result is that evangelicals like Ham can have the best of both worlds: on the one hand, they can interpret scripture however they like and claim that it is the clear meaning of the text; but, on the other hand, they are able to dismiss alternative readings as obscuration, subtlety and man’s interpretation. That is why young-earth creationists do not see the need to do business with other potential readings of Genesis.

Here I am interacting with the young-earth creationist movement in general, rather than anything Ham said explicitly in the debate. What he did say in the debate is that we need to understand each book of scripture according to the genre in which it was written. Keeping with this hermeneutic, is Ham being consistent to treat Genesis as a scientific manual of origins?  Many Christian scholars of Ancient Near Eastern literature believe Genesis assumes a cosmology that, in a post-Enlightenment scientific sense, is false. If this were true, then treating the text as a manual of scientific origins would mean that the Genesis is wrong. Hold onto that thought, but first let me share a little more of what we mean when we refer to the ANE context. Brad Kramer summarized this larger context in his article ‘I’m a Christian, and Ken Ham Doesn’t Speak for Me’:

… the first chapter of Genesis (where we find the Judeo-Christian creation account) is full of terms that only make sense in an ancient cosmological context. The second verse talks of darkness being over the face of the t’hom, a Hebrew word that refers to the giant watery nothingness that preceded creation and undergirds the created world. Several verses later, God is putting a raqia between the sky and the earth. This Hebrew word comes from the premodern idea that a solid dome separated the “waters above”—rain and snow—from the earth and sea. (That same dome was thought to have collapsed, causing Noah’s flood.) These two words obviously do not fit into a modern scientific framework, so they’re conveniently overlooked or explained away in young-earth creationist literature. Ham and friends try to treat the creation narrative as a modern scientific treatise, yet can only do so at the expense of the text itself.

Ham seems blithely unaware that his view of the Bible is only possible in the world of the Enlightenment, where objectivity and reason are still king. The text of the Bible is stripped from its context where it floats in heavenly neutrality, waiting for clear-minded and unbiased interpreters like Ham to seamlessly and easily apply it to modern science. Thus the Bible ceases to be an ancient text, and therefore ceases to really say anything other than what we want it to say.

An even more in-depth and fascinating discussion of the Ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis can be found in Brian Godawa’s essay ‘Biblical Creation and Storytelling: Cosmogony, Combat and Covenant’.

If what these and other scholars are saying is correct, then Genesis assumes the type of Ancient Near Eastern cosmology that we now know to be false. Now I am not qualified to say whether these readings are correct, being neither a student of Hebrew texts nor a scholar in ANE literature. However, I can say that if these ANE readings are correct, then it creates problems for a hermeneutic hinging on “the natural reading of the text.” For consider, if Genesis does assume an ANE cosmology, then the plain meaning of the text is not immediately accessible to lay people today who have no idea about ANE history and cosmology. For this reason, young-earth creationists committed to “the natural reading of a text” are compelled to deny that Genesis assumes an ANE cosmology. However, the basic problem is then displaced, for then we have a text that was inaccessible to the original audience, since the “plain meaning of the text” would have been undecipherable prior to the advent of modern cosmology.

This dilemma is solved by rejecting the notion that the plain meaning of the text must always be immediately accessible to any honest reader. In reality, the invitation to take scripture “at face value” is little more than an invitation to read into the text whatever assumptions and biases are prevalent in our own era. Interpretation is inescapable, and once we recognize this fact, we might as well be guided in the interpretive task by the best evidence available, including whatever information is available about the larger ANE context in which Genesis was first received.

Part of the reason so many American evangelicals shy away from this type of interpretive sophistication is because they have a wrong understanding of scriptural inspiration. Reflect on the following question: if the Genesis narrative did assume an ANE cosmology that we now know to be false, would this present a problem from the perspective of scripture’s inspiration? Or again, if it could be shown Ancient Near Easterners held to a flat earth cosmology, and if it could be proved that the Genesis account simply assumed this world-picture (perhaps even a flat-earth cosmology) would this pose a threat to scripture’s inherency?

The answer to this question is that it depends. It depends what type of claims are being made in the Genesis narrative. Most Christians who hold a high view of the Bible would agree that scripture, in the original manuscripts and when interpreted according to the intended sense, speaks truly in all that it affirms. Where fundamentalists and sceptics alike usually go wrong is in failing to properly think through the implications of “the intended sense.” If we are to get at the intended meaning of scripture, we must ask whether any of the various Biblical writers were claiming the kind of technical precision that both fundamentalists and enlightenment modernists have come to associate with “truth.” If I am reading a legal document, any slight anomaly can count as error because the author is claiming, either implicitly or explicitly, a high degree of precision. But if you tell me that my neighbor is middle aged when he is really 38, I would be a fool to accuse you of falsehood. There is a qualitative difference in what counts as error in a legal brief or in a poem, in a letter or in a casual remark, in a road sign or a theological treatise. It follows that veracity and falsehood cannot be predicted to a text independently of careful considerations about authorial intent. Scripture is completely trustworthy in so far as it makes good on its claims, and these claims cannot be divorced from the intent of the original authors to communicate certain truths to their original audience. (See John Frame’s excellent discussion of this in Doctrine of the Word of God and also the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.)

This being the case, when presented with what seems to be a mistake in the Bible, what we really need to ask is whether the author intended the kind of technical precision that fundamentalism (in its crude populist variety) has come to expect from scripture. What we must guard against is having a model of Biblical inerrancy that claims more for a text (and from another perspective less) than what the authors themselves intended.

Therefore, if it were true that the Genesis narrative assumes an ANE cosmology that we now know to be in error, this is only problematic if it could first be shown that the original author of Genesis intended for it to be treated as a scientific account of origins. “Error” is a context-dependent notion that is only meaningful after we have determined what kind of precision is appropriate to a text.

Similarly, if there really were evidence for evolution or for an earth billions of years old, this would only undermine the inerrancy of Genesis if it could first be established that Genesis was not only written as history, but as an account of origins that is precise according to modern scientific canons.

Let’s take these principles and return to Ham’s “natural reading of the text.” The questions we must ask are the following:

  • Does Ham’s view that Genesis should be treated as a scientific account of origins do justice to the Ancient Near Eastern context of the text?
  • Would a pre-Enlightenment reader of Genesis (including the original audience) have understood as clearly as contemporary young-earth creationists claim that the natural reading of the text involves treating it as a scientific manual of origins regarding a spherical earth?
  • If the answer to the last question is No, then does this make Genesis a type of Gnostic text whose true meaning was hidden for centuries?

Further Reading

Discussion Guide for Ham/Nye Debate on Creation vs. Evolution (Part 1)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1

Ever since the theory of evolution was catapulted into the public discourse in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, there have been a number of high-profile debates on the topic. The most prominent of these was, of course, the Scopes Trial of 1925.

On February 4th there was another high profile debate that history may consider equally momentous: a showdown at the creation museum between Ken Ham, the “Answers in Genesis man” and Bill Nye, “the Science Guy.” The resolution for the debate was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”

Ken Ham is the president of Answers in Genesis, the author of numerous books and the founder of the Creation Museum. Bill Nye is a Science Educator, a popular television celebrity, actor, writer and scientist.

The fact that these two high profile figures even agreed to debate is a source of embarrassment for both sides of the divide. Ken Ham is an embarrassment to creationists who have labored hard over the last two decades to convince the public that there is good scientific evidence for intelligent design independent of appeals to religious faith. Ham’s entire argument involves appeals to faith while his use of scientific evidence is, by his own admission, post-hoc.

Evolutionists were equally embarrassed, aghast that one of their own would dignify creationists with a formal debate. As Dan Arel proclaimed at the Richard Dawkins Foundation,

“Scientists should not debate creationists. Period….When you accept a debate, you are accepting there is something worth debating. …Creationism vs. evolution however is not worth debating. Why? Simple, there is nothing to debate. Evolution is a scientific fact…

For years to come, churches, home groups, and youth groups will be playing and replaying this debate (which is available on Youtube here) to discuss it. It would be nice to think that the majority of these discussions will be intelligent analyses of the actual arguments of the two debaters. However, what tends to usually happen is that we become cheer-leaders for whatever side we happen to agree with, even when the arguments presented are faulty. This is especially the case in an issue like creation vs. evolution, where the question under debate functions as a locus of a more general network of deeply entrenched ideologies which make it difficult for us to sympathetically consider alternative viewpoints.

The idea that we should be able to sympathetically consider alternative viewpoints may strike many as counter-intuitive, even odd. For Christians, it may even seem unfaithful, at least when the competing viewpoints are contrary to biblical truth. However, being able to be attentive to alternative viewpoints is necessary not only for healthy relationships (a point I have developed here) but is also a necessary part of Christian mission. One of the things that made Francis Schaeffer such an effective apologist was that he labored to really understand what animates unbelieving thought and to address unbelievers on their own terms.

The purpose of this post, and the two to follow, is to assist with this type of thoughtful analysis. I will be providing discussion questions that force us to look beyond whatever position we may happen to hold to consider the debate on its own terms. When used in a small-group setting, you should first read and discuss the questions at the beginning of each section before reading my comments. After reading my comments, you should go back and re-discuss the questions.

The questions I will raise will be addressing concern four separate but related issues raised by the Ham-Nye debate:

  1. The Resolution and the Burden of Proof
  2. Science and Religion
  3. Science and Scripture
  4. Science and the Past

The rest of this article will deal with point 1, while two follow-up posts will look at the second through fourth points.

The Resolution and Burden of Proof

  1. What was the resolution of the debate?
  2. How important was the resolution to the speakers? That is, were their arguments tailored to fit the resolution, or did they wander off topic?
  3. How important was the resolution to you as you were watching the debate, and afterwards when you were reflecting on who won?
  4. If the resolution was not important to you when you were watching the debate, why?
  5. Did either speaker seem to understand the resolution better than the other?

This past year I have been helping to coach my ninth-grade son in debate tournaments, and I’ve also served as a judge for high school debates. One of the things I find myself saying again and again to the students is to be careful not to get so caught up in their arguments that they forget the actual resolution they are supposed to be debating.

Here’s why the resolution is so important. Only by attending to the resolution are we able to determine who has the burden of proof, and only by attending to the burden of proof will we be able to assess the relevance of the arguments presented.

In the Ham-Nye debate, the Resolution was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?” Because Ham was arguing that the answer to this question is ‘yes’, he is classed as the Affirmative, while Nye is classed as the Negative.

Now the burden of proof properly always rests with the affirmative – with those who are putting forward a case for something. As I explained last summer, if I assert “A is true because of X, Y & Z” and you are arguing against me, it isn’t actually necessary for you to prove “non-A is true” in order to undermine my argument: all you need to do is simply demonstrate how X, Y, and Z do not logically entail A.

Let’s take a real world example of this. If a politician argues that Obamacare is economically affordable because a similar program was economically affordable in Massachusetts, I don’t actually have to prove that Obamacare isn’t economically affordable in order to refute his argument: all I have to do is show that the evidence he is appealing to doesn’t support his conclusion – that, for instance, the example of Massachusetts is not sufficiently similar to Obamacare for the conclusion to be sound, or that what is true of a part is not necessarily always true of the whole.

In public debate, many people get confused about this, while many lay people consider it an arbitrary debating rule that has little practical relevance. However, understanding burden of proof (in both formal and informal argumentation) is important because it allows people to communicate without talking past each other. Often people who might otherwise be able to agree are prevented from doing so because the issue they are discussing gets complicated and confused by other issues. Only by clearly defining what two people are debating, and who has the burden of proof, are debaters able to take one issue at a time and sympathetically interact with each other.

Let’s apply this to the resolution of the Ham-Nye debate. Here the burden rested entirely with Ham since he was the one making a positive claim. The positive claim Ham needed to establish to win the debate was not that creationism is true, or even that it is the only model; rather, all he needed to show is that it is a workable (‘viable’) theory. (Remember that the resolution was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”)

Early on in the debate Ham claimed that “Creation is the only viable model of historical science confirmed by observational science in today’s modern scientific era.” The word “only” was not required by the resolution, and by inserting it early on it the debate, Ham immediately made his case more difficult. It meant that Ham not only had to establish that young-earth creationism is a workable potential theory, but that every single other actual and potential theory has so many holes that it cannot even be considered viable.

Similarly, what the resolution required Nye to do was to establish that Ham did not meet the burden of proof, that Ham’s creation model has so many holes that it is not even a potentially viable model. As such, it was appropriate that the majority of Nye’s arguments were not arguments for evolution at all, but against young-earth creationism.

Curiously, a good portion of Ken Ham’s arguments were not arguments for creation at all, but arguments against scientific naturalism. Let’s suppose that we accept all these arguments; does it help establish an affirmative response to the resolution? Not really, for remember that the Resolution does not require Ham to establish that competing theories are false, only that creation is one viable model of origins. Moreover, the falsity of scientific naturalism does not automatically entails young-earth creationism, since young-earth creationism is only one among many non-naturalistic models of origin that have been affirmed throughout history.

Thus, we may legitimately question whether Ken Ham even understood the resolution he was supposed to be debating. This point was raised in a review of the debate by Reformed Christian Geologists, Jonathan Baker on his Questioning Answers in Genesis blog.

“we should take note that not once did Ken Ham answer or try to support the thesis of the debate. He argued that creationists could be effective scientists and develop technology, that secularists have hijacked terms like science and evolution, that dating methods are in conflict, that he obtains his reconstruction of history from the Bible, and that naturalism presumes theism to conduct science and also leads to moral decay. All of the time spent arguing these points serves well for advertising, but does not help us to answer the question in debate….

Ken Ham’s discussion on the moral implications of evolution, the prospect of salvation, the purpose of life, and even the justification of laws of logic/nature in a naturalistic worldview were completely off topic. Even if Bill Nye had conceded that science lacks epistemological grounds and morality lacks authority without Christian theism, Ken Ham still would not have answered the question of the debate.

Because Ken Ham spent the entire time arguing about issues outside the topic, and because Bill Nye stuck closer to the resolution, it often felt like the latter was ignoring the former. That is, it seemed as if Nye didn’t have satisfactory answers to the arguments against scientific naturalism. What a more philosophically sophisticated opponent could have done would be to point out that Ham had switched the ground of the debate, and that the resolution actually had nothing to do with the veracity of Christian theism. Nye missed this opportunity and so his tenacity in sticking to the resolution came off as ignoring Ham.

I will remark in closing that this type of departure from the resolution is not unusual in public debates. For example, I have remarked elsewhere that our political debates long ago departed from the canons of rational argumentation. What we typically find in public debates is that the actual “debate” is really only a forum to have a clash between different systems – systems that comprise what David Brooks has called the “underdebate.” The “underdebate” is the deeper set of implicit spiritual and emotional values that are stoked indirectly by the explicit debate and which are organically connected to our sense of self-worth. Whether we are debating health care, abortion, gay ‘marriage,’ gun control or evolution, the actual debate tends to trigger deep chains of associations in our minds that highlight a semi-articulated moral divide.

In the Ham-Nye debate, the “underdebate” was about the whole network of implicit commitments that become attached to the participants’ different positions. It was about the role of religion and science in American public life. It was about the type of education we should allow in the schools. It was also about the reality of spiritual knowledge vs. a purely naturalistic view of the world. It was about whether creationists are stupid. These were not the questions the debate was supposed to be about, but in another sense these were the only real questions the debate was really about.

Further Reading

Neuroscience and the Reductionist Temptation

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

What a Thing is

In C.S. Lewis’s book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is a fascinating dialogue that happens after the company from Narnia voyage to an island at the beginning of the end of the world. The Narnians meet a star named Ramandu, who dwells on the island with his beautiful daughter.

When the company are told that Ramandu is “a retired star”, Edmund announces, “In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

Ramandu replies: “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

That’s an important distinction. What a thing is made of is not always the same as what a thing actually is.

The Brain-Plasticity Revolution

I thought of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader last week when I came across an intriguing article by Dr. Michael Merzenich, one of the leading pioneers in the burgeoning field of neuroplasticity.

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