Saturday, February 15, 2014

CREATIONISM VERSUS EVOLUTION: HAM VERSUS NYE

The recent televised debate on creation versus evolution between Ken Ham, director of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, and Bill Nye, formerly “the Science Guy” for PBS, was a disappointment.  Afterwards, their followers deplored them for poorly advocating their positions.  I saw a draw between a master of duplicitous rhetoric and a master of ineffective details.  Neither directly addressed the others’ arguments.  Ham operates within a closed system impervious to, and, in defense, obfuscatory of, the ordinary meaning of words and the plain import of facts and inferences.  Nye over-emphasized empirical data without providing and elaborating the larger theoretical framework which justifies science and undermines creationism.  I focused then and focus now on Ham’s creationism, fascinating as an ideological dissent from received opinion.

I am an interested observer.  As a recovering science-technology-engineering-mathematician type who began as a “nature boy” watching birds, keeping animals, and collecting fossils, I have always had an interest in the natural world.  As a continuing humanist, I have also had interests in history, literature, philosophy, and religion.  I am conversant with both the scientific and the humanistic views of the world, and I have little problem with respecting each in its proper functions.

I make this biographical statement because Ham presents individuals who are both scientists and creationists as if the fact that scientists can also be creationists implies that creationism is science.  The reasoning behind this presentation is fallacious in two ways.  One, the fact that scientists can be Catholics, Protestants, or Jews does not imply that Catholicism, Protestantism, or Judaism is science.  Two, flesh-and-blood examples of people who are both begs the question—assumes what it must demonstrate—whether creationism is science and not religious belief masquerading as science.

A little background is in order for a technical subject like this one.  Creationism is a religious ideology used to defend or advance the Biblical account of creation against the scientific enterprise which has established the theory of evolution as close to fact as theory can be.  (For convenience, I use the term “Darwinism” hereafter, though less used today because slightly misleading about modern evolutionary theory).  Both creationism and Darwinism claim to explain the origin and development of the earth and the species inhabiting it.  Ham is one of the “young earth” creationists, who believe in the creation of earth 6000 years ago in the six, 24-hour days specified by the Bible, with species fixed at the beginning and unchanged since.  (Others are “old earth” creationists, who treat the six-day creation of earth metaphorically to accord with scientific estimates of the earth’s age.)  Nye accepts the scientific estimates of the earth’s age of about 4.5 billion years, with species arising, vanishing, or evolving over more than 3.5 billion years.

The debate between creationism and Darwinian arose in the mid-nineteenth-century in the larger controversy between religion and science.  It has continued to this day, but its importance today derives from recent efforts by creationists to introduce creationism into the curriculum of public schools.  Because of the First Amendment prohibition of an establishment of religion, these efforts depend on a daring innovation: an argument that their religious doctrine accounting for creation—the usual term for which is “creation science”—is a legitimate science, The ultimate issue of any debate between a creationist and a scientist, or conflicting testimony before administrative, legislative, or judicial bodies, is simple: is creationism religion or science?

Ham offers an audacious answer which perverts the meaning of the word “science” and inverts its application.  Counter-factually, he claims that Darwinians have “hijacked” the word “science” and attached it to the theory of evolution.  Contrariwise, creationists like Ham have appropriated this term, with its generally favorably connotations, and applied it to creation theory.  His purpose in making this claim is to confuse laypersons in the public and on boards of education, and to inveigle the inclusion of creationism in the public school science curriculum.  Yet, to his credit but perhaps to his followers’ dismay, Ham explicitly links the word “science” to the explicitly religious, specifically Christian, doctrine of salvation.

So it is critical to any debate or discussion to be clear about what is or is not science.  The word “science,” from the Latin “scientia,” means knowledge.  Of the many kinds of knowledge (or, likely in most cases, strong belief), only one of them is scientific.  What distinguishes scientific knowledge from other kinds is a formal set of assumptions, methodologies, and objectives to establish a rational and verifiable (demonstrable or replicable; also public and objective) basis of knowledge.  Science collects data in laboratory experiments or field observations.  It formulates hypotheses on the basis of statistical correlations or causal sequences (temporal in nature) to explain the data.  In some cases, it formulates hypotheses on the basis of mathematical computations (think Einstein).  It scrutinizes these hypotheses with additional experiments, observations, or predictions in order to confirm, refine, or refute them.  In sum, science begins with data, develops hypotheses, and subjects them to scrutiny to verify or falsify them.  Indeed, scientists regard falsifiability as a criterion exclusive to science.  Often what science proposes, science later disposes.

Other kinds of knowledge, because they do not meet these criteria, are not scientific knowledge and are not science.  Whatever may be said of religious knowledge, it is not scientific knowledge or science, for it meets no scientific criteria.  Religions may accept their stories of creation as literally true—rather as scientists accept hypotheses—but, in propounding their stories, such religions include only data which confirm their account and either ignore or reject data to the contrary, or try to discredit them with unreasonable objections or distractions.  Religions may have motive and means to scrutinize their claims to knowledge for the purpose of refining it, but not of falsifying it.

Ham tries to avoid the problem posed by these criteria of science by distinguishing traditional science—“experimental or observational science,” as he labels it—and “historical science,” his euphemism for “creation science," with its taint of religion.  By relabeling traditional science, Ham constricts the scope of traditional science to the present, or the recent past of history, and insinuates that traditional science is unable to address the remote past because no one was present to experiment with, or observe, it.  Ergo: no scientific knowledge according to his tendentious, not traditional, definition or standards of science.

Ironically, this effort at evasion does not serve Ham well, for its conclusion equally applies to “historical science” for an obvious reason:  no one was present to witness the Creation.  Although Ham’s creationism goes back only 6000 years ago, no one saw God do anything in the first five days and probably much of the sixth day; no one saw Adam or Eve, they left no record of their experience, and no one has found the Garden of Eden; no one saw Noah and his family build the ark, and no one has found evidence of a single, worldwide flood with its waters covering the entire earth for a year.  Whereas traditional science proceeds from data to inference, “historical science” proceeds from documents to faith.  Plain old traditional “science” endures that old-time religion.

Although Ham does not define “historical science," he does rightly assume that the cultural boundary of literacy as manifest in written records marks the divide between pre-history and history.  “Historical science” is exclusively the written account of creation in the Bible; he excludes all other written stories of creation like the Greek account in Hesiod’s Theogony because they are not “God’s Word.”  Thus, he bases “historical science,” not on data, not even on all written creation stories, but on only one creation document, the Bible, which Ham regards as God’s witness.  One difficulty for this “science” is that a disinterested person cannot independently arrive at, confirm, or refute the Bible’s account of creation because no data independent of the Bible exist.  The result: “historical science” is nothing more or less than Christian history, achieving its climax in Christ, His Crucifixion, and His Resurrection—not any kind of science at all.

However, even on his terms, Ham’s “historical science” based on “God’s Word” as a textbook has problems of authorship.  We cannot know that God wrote it, and we do not know all of those who did write it.  No one saw God write it or heard God say it—no one copied or transcribed His words—not once, but twice, first as Holy Scriptures, then as the New Testament.  Indeed, differences among the writings collectively known as the Bible indicate that different authors at different times wrote them.  They wrote not one creation story in Genesis, but two; not one genealogy tracing Jesus’ descent from David, but two; not one story of the annunciation of Jesus’ birth, but two.  Their writings abound in other differences and discrepancies, not to mention improbabilities.  And, over time, first Catholic, then Protestant, religious authorities argued about, and voted on, what writings to include in, or exclude from, the Bible, and in what order to present those included.  “God’s Word” combines the writings of diverse authors and reflects much committee work; it is men’s words.  So the Bible, the basis of “historical science,” is not the unequivocal text which Ham pretends that it is.  Apparently, God mumbled; if not, its writers fumbled.  It may be that all disparities nevertheless signify its truths behind its words.  But we cannot know what those truths are because “historical science” has no scientific way to analyze the Bible to ascertain the truths of “God’s Word.”

For the sake of argument, I want to go farther than Ham might want to go in dealing with the fossil record (which I accept as interpreted by Darwinians).  I posit that, when, according to Genesis, God made heaven and earth, He made it in six, 24-hour days to look exactly as people have found it to be for the past 6000 years.  I posit that He made the fossils and positioned them in strata exactly as Darwinians have discovered, and will continue to discover, them.  In short, I posit that creationists are right about the origins of the universe, the earth, and humankind and all other kinds, and that Darwinians are wrong because they mistake as evidence of evolution over billions of years the geologic and paleontological features of God’s six-day creation.


Then I want to pose a single question: why did God so create this world that it would deceive, and has deceived, many good and decent people?

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