Ham on Nye: A Few Thoughts on February’s Debate
In case you haven’t heard, famed TV host Bill Nye will be debating well know young Earth creationist Ken Ham on the question “Is creation a viable model of origins?” on February 4 of this year. I have mixed reactions to this but ultimately, I think it’s a lose-lose-lose scenario.
Ham will have to defend two theses: first, the universe is young and second, evolution isn’t ‘viable’. Ham is in an interesting position here because if he can defend the first theses, the second follows pretty easily just because of the time scale. This leads to the first problem; Ham is in the position to simply make the case for a young Earth and completely pass over the evolution question. Moreover, the topic is rather ambiguous as ‘viability’ can carry a multitude of meanings. In all probability, Nye and Ham will have totally different definitions of viability and the debate will devolve into Nye saying ‘Look! Fossils!’ and Ham saying ‘Were you there?!’ every other sentence.
Nevertheless, any honest look at the evidence will demonstrate that the best case Ham can make is to define ‘viable’ as ‘internally consistent’ and then punt to apparent age. In this instance, Ham can contend the universe is 8,000 years old and any piece of contrary evidence can be explained by ‘God made it look that way’ (in all fairness, Ham is somewhat open to evidence as he used to think the earth was closer to 6,000 years but has changed his mind; it’s a 0.000015% improvement but, hey, progress is progress). Still, while Ham’s possible position could help him evade scientific evidence and retain internal consistency, it doesn’t really explain anything. Moreover, Ham runs into theological problems if he takes this line (‘Why did God lie to us?’, etc). In summary, Ham loses on the evidence, the persuasiveness, and the theology.
Nye will be in the same room as Ken Ham. He loses because he will be lending academic credibility to the YEC position (reversed guilt by association). In this respect, he will be undoing what he wants to do. Namely, relegating YEC to a fringe view not even worth the time of day. Now, this is where I’m conflicted. I agree that YEC has no remotely convincing scientific evidence and is not good understanding of Scripture (for example, the common view of animal death is theologically problematic and foreign to the Bible). On the other hand, I think that debates are a great way to open dialogues for controversial topics. This leads to the next problem: What is the controversial topic being discussed? As I mentioned above, there are two theses in play; the age of the universe is one and the explanatory power of the theory of evolution. Ham’s position has a truth diode. If the Earth is young, evolution must be false. Nye doesn’t have that benefit. The age of the universe doesn’t entail anything about the truth of evolution. The problem is that he thinks it does. Ham does, too! Nye loses because he, like Ham and most of the general populace think that an old universe entails evolution. Look at his famous (infamous?) BigThink video. He doesn’t argue evolution is true because of, say, chromosome 2. Instead, he argues from radiometric dating and distant starlight. Both of these are difficult (I’d say insurmountable) problems with the age thesis of the YEC hypothesis but they don’t say anything about common descent. Bill’s misunderstanding of this means that even though he wins the evidence battle, he loses the logic battle (I believe it goes without saying, Ham loses here, too).
Yep. This debate, in all probability, isn’t going to move the discussion forward. Instead, it will strike a sharper divide and reinforce the false dilemma of “Evolution or God”. Evolution doesn’t say anything about the existence of God or the truth of Christianity. Moreover, young Earth creationism is not the only interpretation available to conservative, Bible-believing Christians. As it’s often said, ‘reading one book is easier than reading a bunch of hard ones’. Likewise, thinking this topic can be reduced to two extremist views is a whole lot easier than educating oneself about the variety of views on origins within the Christian faith. Ham doesn’t understand this; he thinks that anyone who disagrees with him is a ‘compromising Christian’ and ‘tares among the wheat’ to the point that his association edited a sermon by Charles Spurgeon. Moreover, Nye doesn’t understand this. I don’t blame him as this isn’t his area of expertise. He’s an engineer, not a philosopher (oh, wait) nor a Christian concerned with the minutia of theology. I have a certain degree of respect for the fact that Nye is willing to step into this arena however, he will be doing the public a disservice if he fails to accurately represent the true relationship between the age of the universe and the theory of evolution.
In summary, we have two men who will likely be talking past each other and striking hard on two sides of a false dilemma.
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