I’ve taken a couple weeks off because I hit that hard writing wall where you just feel like you don’t have anything else you want to say to people at the moment. It’s not a bad place to be, other than the occasional fleeting thought of, “What if I don’t go back to my blog?” I usually answer with, “Whatever, dude. You’ll get a writing itch again and you’ll be able to get back to it then. If you don’t have anything to say, then don’t say anything.”
The conversations I have with myself are amusing affairs that play out in some kind of pseudo-Californian dialect that has nothing to do with actual California, because I’ve never been there.
That’s a tangent. This digression about my lack of updates lately serves mostly as just an introduction to explain that I’ve been thinking, and I have something I want to say about the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham over the issue of creationism as a scientific theory to explain the origins of the universe.
Full disclosure: I think Ken Ham’s a charlatan who pushes pseudoscience as a justification for his fundamentalist doctrine of biblical literalism.
Naturally, it follows that I found Bill Nye’s presentation and response to the questions he was asked very satisfying and enlightening about various aspects of science that I, as a layperson, am not terribly familiar with. As Rachael put it, the entire program was one half of a good lecture surveying the evidence we have for the origins of the universe. The other half was listening to Ken Ham spin his wheels and use logical equivocations to make himself sound like he was making reasonable observations about the world.
So the debate was fun to watch.
Whether I think it was a useful exercise is something else entirely.
I have a small bit of background in debate through the literary society that I joined while I was in undergrad, and one important thing I learned from that experience is that debates like the one that Nye and Ham engaged in are never about being right. I have no doubt that both men are very assured of their positions and believe in them wholeheartedly, but debate is more about rhetorical polish than presentation of evidence. It’s a beautiful art form that combines oratory with critical thinking, and it can be very intellectually stimulating. What it can’t do is create an environment where objective evidence can be weighed and measured to conclusively fall on one side or another of the issue being discussed.
The ultimate issue that was at stake in this particular debate was one primarily of metaphysics (at least, that’s how I see it). On the one hand, you have Bill Nye with his mountains of scientific data which is (I think) very compelling evidence for a universal time scale in the billions of years, but which says absolutely nothing about the existence of a supernatural entity. On the other you have Ken Ham who begins with the supposition of a supernatural entity’s direct intervention in the universe’s formation and from that initial supposition has gone to dramatic lengths to reconcile how he believes that entity interacted with the universe (based on his interpretation of the book of Genesis) with the same evidence that Bill Nye presents. Nye is ultimately agnostic on the question of a supernatural entity, because a supernatural entity is, by its very definition, outside nature. It cannot be viewed in the material world. Ham believes that’s not the case; he sees God’s intervention in everything. The problem is that he then proceeds to claim that God’s existence is therefore scientifically provable.
There’s the impasse as I see it. Nye, though not a particularly religious man, acknowledges that matters of theology exist on a metaphysical level outside what science can observe. Ham disagrees about that vehemently, and he diminishes both disciplines by trying to smash them together. Unfortunately, the creation debate as it exists in popular culture only ever examines the problem from a scientific position. We conclude (rightly) that Ham’s model is absurd, that he is doing science wrong. What we never get to in the popular discussion is the fact that Ken Ham is also doing theology wrong. It is perfectly valid as a matter of faith to see God’s hand in nature, but to then contradict physical evidence in an effort to make God provable is ridiculous (and makes God appear ridiculous).
But I’m arguing from my personal metaphysical position. People who disagree with me about the nature of God won’t be persuaded by my arguments any more than they will be by Nye’s evidence for the age of the universe.
The more I think on this question, the more I find myself despairing of the possibility of anyone ever bridging the gaps between disparate groups. The only things I can think on that remind me to hope are my own experiences of conversion. There was my initial conversion to Christianity in college, which wasn’t based on any sort of evidence or argument (though there were many of those), but on my personal desire for more from the universe than what we can see. Then there was my conversion from evangelicalism to whatever my theological position is now (I honestly can’t put a label on it other than perhaps progressive). That change came about because I spent a lot of time thinking and considering others’ arguments, but nothing was proven to me. What I want from the universe became more refined, and my outlook on God has changed to reflect that. It was ultimately a personal decision that I made based on what I wanted to believe.
No amount of debate can bring a person to that point of conversion unless they want to go there.
In case you haven’t gotten your fill of the Nye Ham Debate, here’s a selection of opinions that I’ve read about it this week. I don’t necessarily agree with all of them, but in the interest of diversity, I’ll link to them. Yes, even to Al Mohler.
Richard Beck at Experimental Theology: Creation Wars in the Church?
William Saletan at Slate: Creationism debate: Believing the Bible over evolution is delusional, but it’s harmless.
Michael Schulson at The Daily Beast: The Bill Nye-Ken Ham Debate Was a Nightmare for Science
Ben Sheppard at Effects Inventory: The God vs. Science Dichotomy, Pt. 1: Why It’s Bad For Atheists | Keep Your Eye on the Ball (I’m looking forward to Part 2, which I’m presuming at this point will be why God vs. Science is bad for Christianity)
Morgan Guyton at Mercy Not Sacrifice: Al Mohler’s Nihilistic Man vs. Bill Nye’s Reasonable Man
And, of course, here’s the debate itself in case you missed it and want to watch: