The Spectacle Blog

Ken Ham, Bill Nye, and Defining Terms

By on 2.6.14 | 11:29AM

Creationist Ken Ham urged Bill Nye “to define terms correctly” in their recent debate over evolution. Here is Ham’s problem with the current terms:

[Evolutionists] use the same word science for observation and historical science. They arbitrarily define science as naturalism and outlaw the supernatural. They are imposing the religion of naturalism/atheism on generations of students.

Science, according to Ham, concerns itself with what is observable. “Historical sciences,” which are not presently observable, should be distinguished from the sciences that are. Not being present to witness species evolve and watch billions of years pass, a scientist cannot conclude, based on present data, that evolution occurred or that the earth is billions of years old.

“We’ve only got the present,” Ham asserts. But, following Ham’s rigid guidelines for science, do we even have that?

If we cannot conclude that based on correlation (i.e. similar fossil records) some causation (i.e. that species evolved from others) exists, then what can we conclude about the present? If a cup of coffee burns me once, do I know this new thing that tastes, smells, and looks like coffee will do the same? The chemist might say that the resembling microscopic structures mean that they are the same. Not so fast: Only if we can say that similar appearances entail identical properties could we make that jump. We only have the present, so we can’t make judgments about the future. With Ham’s strict guidelines for scientific knowledge, I can’t know if this “coffee” will burn me. “Historical science” assumes that because certain patterns exist in the present, we can make judgments about the past. “Observational science” does the same, but the judgments are made either about the future or about what is not apparent.

Both “historical” and “observational” sciences assume a specific cause when we only see a pattern. All scientific theories work off of assumptions. If we can’t draw a conclusion based on patterns of the present, then there isn’t much we can infer. If we define science in the way Ham does, then anything by science is unknowable. Our other option is to make probable judgments of causation based on correlation. The first option is untenable and the second blurs Ham’s distinction between “historical” and “observational” sciences.

Toward the end of the debate, Ham reveals his main concern:

I want children to be taught the right foundation: that there is a God who created them, loves them, who died on the Cross for them.

Ham’s worry (a sincere worry) is that belief in evolution will lead to disbelief in God and a world without real meaning. Evolution might have that effect on some, but that should not be motivation to dismiss it as pseudo-science.

In fact, God and an evolutionary system are not mutually exclusive. Scholastic tradition holds that although there is a chain of causes and events, God remains “the efficient, the exemplar and the final cause” of every being. Evolution is a mere description of that chain. Further, fears of contradictions between history and Genesis should be calmed by the works of early Church fathers. St. Jerome, translator of the Bible into Latin, holds an allegorical view of Genesis. Viewing the intellect as divine, St. Augustine rejects contradictions between sound reason and scripture. He writes in “The Literal Meaning of Genesis”:

Shall we say, then, there was such a sense of hearing in that formless and shapeless creation, whatever it was, to which God thus uttered a sound when He said, “Let there be light?” Let such absurdities have no place in our thoughts.

But these arguments and explanations are philosophical, not scientific. They do not belong in the same arena as evolution. Notice that Ham’s cogent point, that a naturalistic worldview cannot account for truth or uniformity in nature, is lost in his redefinition of science. Nye didn’t even respond to it, as he was too busy rebutting a literal depiction of Noah’s Ark. And if the existence of God were evidenced by empirical data, then the premise that He exists would also be falsifiable, able to be blown away by some new set of data. That would make for a very flimsy foundation for God.

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