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