Thoughts on the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham Creationism Debate

Last night, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham the Creation Man debated the question, “Is creationism a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” I was happy the “great creationism debate” happened, but I have mixed feelings about how it turned out.1

First, it wasn’t really much of a debate. Both sides had important points to emphasize and ideas to present, but there was little dialogue between the two worldviews. Questions asked by one side to the other were left unanswered, and all in all the debate afforded ample fodder for confirmation bias—and little else.

The main arguments of the debate ran like this: Bill Nye emphasized that consensus science done “on the outside” was based on methodical observation and evidence, that the distinction made by Ken Ham between observational and historical science was invalid, and that the future of technological innovation in America depended on students being free from the ideological prejudices of religious sentiment. His main, relatively unaddressed, question for Ken Ham was, “What scientific predictions has creationism made that could not have been made from an evolutionary perspective?”

Ken Ham emphasized that observational science and the available evidence was exactly the same for both evolutionists and creationists, that the terms science and evolution had been preclusively defined (“hijacked”) by “secularists,” that there was a distinction between observational science in the present and “historical science” concerning the past, and that the question of origins for both evolutionists and creationists was a question of authority (the word of man vs. the Word of God) rather than one based on evidential claims or observational science. Ham’s main, relatively unaddressed, question for Bill Nye was, “How does an evolutionary perspective account for the existence of laws of logic, the consistency of natural laws, or the reliability of the scientific method?”

I thought both presentations were somewhat muddled, though Nye appeared to have been far less prepared than Ham. It was obvious that Ham and Nye had very different foundations, but the foundations were only briefly discussed by Ham in the beginning and were largely taken for granted by Nye. This was frustrating.

My background is in philosophy of science, and if there is one crucial aspect of my education that I wish I could plant in the minds of every American, it is this: “The scientific method cannot be its own philosophical foundation. As a method, it requires an ideological, non-verifiable starting point from which to operate. In other words, the foundation of science can not be, strictly speaking, scientific.”

The classic blunder of materialists/naturalists is that they have assumed that metaphysical claims and assumptions are not necessary for the operation of observational science. A classic example of this blunder occurred earlier last century when prominent materialist philosophers developed the main tenet of Logical Positivism: “Synthetic metaphysical claims, being observationally unverifiable, are not cognitively meaningful.”

Let me unpack this. What the Logical Positivists meant, and what most materialists/naturalists that have followed them still believe, is that if a truth claim is not analytically self-affirming (e.g., “All bachelors are unmarried.”), it must be verifiable by the scientific method in order to be meaningful. Put simply, materialists believe that any statement about the outside world that cannot be verified by the senses is meaningless. So, for instance, naturalists believe that this statement—“God is an invisible spirit.”—is meaningless.

That doesn’t mean they are saying that metaphysical truth claims are necessarily hurtful or bad, though some would go that far. But materialists would claim that metaphysical claims do not contribute to our body of meaningful knowledge because they are not definitionally self-affirming (i.e., it is a synthetic, not analytic, truth claim) and they are also not verifiable through the scientific method. Logical positivists believed, and most modern materialists including Bill Nye still believe, that empirical observations couched in sound logic are the only valid or meaningful claims of truth.

Poetry and art may be beautiful, religion may have its place for the imagination and a personal ethic, but truth and knowledge, say the materialists, must be left entirely to logic and empirical observations. Truth and knowledge, then, are for scientists and logicians (and only scientists and logicians) to determine.2

But there is one major problem with the first and most major tenet of naturalism. Have you detected it? It completely fails its own test! Look at it again: “Synthetic metaphysical claims, being observationally unverifiable, are not cognitively meaningful.” Or put more simply to prove a point: “All metaphysical claims are meaningless.” What is that statement? A synthetic metaphysical claim. Is it observationally verifiable? No, not definitively. So, by its own test, the main tenet of materialism fails. The main truth claim of Logical Positivism, on which everything in atheist science rests, is by its own test—meaningless.

What does that mean? That there is no path to truth? No. It means that truth, if it exists, must lie beyond logic and observation. It means that metaphysical claims and assumptions, interpretive frameworks and presuppositions, come before evidence—they inform logic and observation. The scientific method cannot operate in a vacuum, just like a geometric “proof” cannot function without prevenient definitions—called axioms. There are fundamental questions, like the nature and origins of reality, which will not and cannot be decided after you have looked at the evidence because the axioms—the framework—of your interpretation are necessary before you can make any sense of evidence.

Evidential claims are notoriously faulty because of this. You can confirm pretty much anything with the available evidence. It all depends on your starting point. To say you can make sense of data without an already-existent philosophical framework is like saying you can harness electricity without an electrical grid. Before evidence can become fact, it must travel through interpretation. This radically undercuts any claims that scientists may make concerning the neutrality of evidence. The only neutral evidence is unused evidence.

Unfortunately, the rhetorical bias and definitional trickery of modern scientific dogmatism was not questioned in this debate the way it should have been. The fundamental failing of modern science is the mistaken belief that philosophical and ideological foundations are not necessary to properly use the tool of the scientific method. By saying that metaphysical claims are not necessary for the operation of science (that they are “separate” concerns that should not “prejudice” science), scientists have hoodwinked the masses into believing that science is objective and unbiased. It is not. At all. Pre-observational assumptions define the exact limits of what science will and can prove. Science is not founded on science. Scientific knowledge is interpreted and framed by philosophical assumptions and questions.

One of the most deceptive comparisons Bill Nye made in the course of the debate was when he claimed that followers of Ken Ham’s model were taking Ham’s word for the interpretation of a three-thousand year old book rather than trusting their own “backyard” observational senses. (“Hey, I found a fossil on the way to the debate today.”) This may be unwitting prejudice, but it is fabulously naïve. Does Nye really believe that amateur scientists aren’t “taking someone’s word” for it when they believe in evolutionary science? Would anyone guess billions of years, or come to Darwin’s theories, if the grand consensus of the scientific clergy hadn’t been shoved into their consciousness? Highly doubtful.

Bottom line: the debate between creation and evolution is not a question of evidence/reason vs. faith—or science vs. religion. It’s a question of deciding which set of philosophical axioms you are going to use to frame the scientific method. It’s a question of which religious claims you will use science to elaborate.

The main problem with all of this is that people equate science and truth. They equate the (illusory) concept of fact with truth. This is a grave mistake. Truth is bigger than fact. Truth determines and interprets fact. Truth is beyond fact. You can present some truths with science. But some truths cannot be expressed without art. Others depend on history. Others depend on philosophy. If your entire philosophy of truth is that only observationally verifiable claims can be true, you will not find any truth at all. Even that own statement won’t pass muster. You will be lost in relativism, meaninglessness, and hopeless, pointless despair. And that is where we are in the academic world.

I would challenge Nye that the future of America actually depends on rejecting naturalism and embracing Christian theism. Especially for a person who claims to base his view of the present on observing the traces of the past, Nye apparently hasn’t considered a whole lot about the underpinnings of science and the foundation of America. Christian Protestantism created modern science. That is not contestable in any meaningful way. Every major figure in the scientific revolution was a devout Christian who believed that nature was a consistent revelation of God’s character worth exploring methodically. And Christianity was by far the greatest philosophical influence on the founders of the United States, a country Nye claims to love.

By contrast, the United States has only fallen in international academic circles since the advent of evolutionary teaching in public schools. But Nye isn’t really interested in looking at all the evidence. His claims to the contrary are disingenuous. He can’t even see the mountain of evidence that contradicts his view because he has a philosophical prejudice that filters it out. And you could say I do as well. Yes, that is true. That’s the point. Debating the evidence is futile. The evidence is the same for everyone. It’s the worldviews and foundations that really need to duke it out. And unfortunately, that didn’t really happen last night.

  1. Disclaimer: The following article is long, and it contains lots of references to philosophical concepts. Sorry. []
  2. Let me say as an aside that even though Logical Positivism was largely discredited in the mid-20th century—most notably by the Incompleteness Theorems of the inimitable Kurt Godël and the common sense of detractors—, most scientists and most Americans still implicitly hold to its specific brand of philosophical naturalism. They just don’t call it that anymore for the most part. []