The Ken Ham Bill Nye Debate: a full analysis

Ken Ham vs Bill Nye. It’s not the Bud Bowl, but it will suffice as an entertaining way to spend one’s evening.

I generally don’t like formal debates. Their formalities tend to get in the way of the conversational tone necessary for the transmission of ideas. In other words, they seem mostly pointless. However, one of the most highly anticipated public debates on creationism vs. naturalism/evolutionary theory was streamed live from the Creationist Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky on Tuesday 7:00 eastern standard time. The debate was very heavily advertised and both participants had been featured on several programs prior to the debate. Representing Creationism was Ken Ham; and representing Naturalism/Evolutionary Theory was Bill Nye.

Quote of the night: ‘…what sins did a fish commit to deserve disease…’

First, it is necessary to define the disparate perspectives. Bill Nye is representing evolutionary theory in its most common form. Ken Ham is representing creationism. You can view Ham’s creationist statement of faith here. However, in sum they hold the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God without error of any kind. This includes in what it speaks about related to history and science. Whatever the Bible says about such things is absolutely true. They interpret the events in the creation story of Genesis to be literally true. For those unfamiliar with the Bible you can read Genesis 1-9 here. This covers the creation through the story of Noah and the flood.

The debate was very long and full of convoluted jargon that will most definitely not sound familiar to those outside of the scientific/theological academic world. Therefore, I will provide a concise, easy-to-understand summary (well…as easy as I can without distorting the ideas), as well as highlight some of the counterpoints. From there I will analyze the debate and provide some commentary.

If you saw the debate and don’t need the information you can also use the table of contents below to skip ahead.

 

The question under debate was: Is the creation model a viable theory for origins in today’s world?

Ken Ham’s Positional Propositions:

1.1 Ham begins the debate by suggesting that the term “science” has been hijacked by Naturalism. Ham submits that secularists (by this he means “non-religious naturalists) have no “authority”, per se, to claim the word as their own.

As a result of the aforementioned belief Ham suggests that Creationists and Atheists can both be “scientists”. The only difference are in their worldviews (or their starting points/presuppositions).

1.2 Using school textbooks as examples, Ham goes on to argue that naturalists should not be allowed to teach that Darwinism is based on “facts”. The reason for this is because there are various ways of obtaining knowledge, which should result in multiple theories, instead of one fact.

1.3 From this point Ham goes into redefining science. Ham suggests that science should be portioned into two aspects. The first, observation and experimentation (the traditional scientific methodology). The second, historical science. Ham’s biggest concern is that naturalism confuses the two when they try applying methodology that can only work with actual observation. For example, you can use the scientific method to prove anything historical because you were not there to witness it.

1.4 Finally, he argues that naturalism’s presupposition is the wrong starting point. Ham claims that you must look to history first in order to better understand the present (as opposed to beginning with the present to understand the past).

In the second round Ham adds to his list of claims:

2.1 Naturalism is actually borrowing from the Christian worldview in order to do what they call “science”. He cites the laws of logic, the laws of nature, and the uniformity of nature as his prime examples. He states that these are assumptions made within the scientific worldview and they are unable to provide any explanation for how they formed these presuppositions.

As a result, Ham asserts, Creationists do better “science” than secularists simply because they can not only account for these assumptions (that he admittedly has) but because their worldview encourages critical thought.

2.2 Before Naturalists can actually do real science they must first admit their presuppositions (which Ham also deems as ‘beliefs’). He uses the diagram below as an example of the worldviews.

Ken Hams methodological model

2.3 Finally, Ham takes Genesis as literal history. His reason – because Jesus did. He cites Matthew 19:4-5 as his proof-text.

A brief note for those not accustomed to debate decorum. You may notice that Nye’s propositions are much different than Ham’s. Moreover, since Ham is making the standout claim, then he has the burden of proof. This means that Bill Nye does not need to provide a positive argument for his position, since his position is the established norm. Instead, he must defend his position in light of Ham’s claims.

Bill Nye’s Responsive Propositions

1.1 Nye begins his portion of the debate stating that “…there is no such thing as ‘historical science’, this is something that Ken Ham has made up.”

Nye’s main concern regarding Ham’s claim is that by parsing science into various pieces you are essentially eschewing the nature of science itself. Nye fears as a result we will not be able to move forward and advance our society.

Nye spends the majority of his time during the first session refuting the scientific claims that Ham makes regarding various aspects of evolution. See the debate itself for the details.

1.2-2.1 Nye also spends a lot of time in his follow-ups demonstrating various dating inconsistencies in the Creationist worldview. See the list below for a few of his main points:

The following are based off from Ham’s claim that the flood occurred 4,000 years ago and accounts for the misdirection of evolution.

  • Atmospheric bubbles within deep layers of ice have been trapped there for way beyond 4,000 years.
  • There are trees that have been found to be older than 4,000 years. Since trees cannot thrive under water, then how can creationists account for their age?
  • Since the Bible claims that there exist only one species (or kind) of human, then how can creationism account for the various kinds of “humans” who have existed throughout time (he uses a chart of human skulls that differ dramatically in appearance.)
  • If the flood happened as you claim, how can a continent like Australia be populated with the various species of animals within a time period of 4,000 years, when there is no land bridge?
  • Finally, Nye states that if Ham’s account for the various species that exist is true, then this means (conservatively) that there must exist 11 new species developing every day.

Noteworthy Counterpoints

Any useful debate will have at least a few good points that make you think about the ideas being presented. However, many times these get overlooked due to the copious amounts of junk arguments that are flung back and forth. This section will highlight the important points that might have otherwise been overlooked.

Ken Ham’s most significant contribution during this debate was his assertion that science has no right to claim “fact” above and beyond any other source of knowledge. Science is simply one way of looking at the world – it is a worldview. Ham also makes a good point in claiming that it’s wrong thinking for science to deny that their objective methodology is not without assumptions. In other words, science is not as objective as it thinks it is.

Bill Nye had a significant point that Ken Ham conveniently ignored. It was the best argument he presented and, perhaps, he should have lead with this one.

Here is the paraphrased version: “I want you to listen carefully. Ken Ham and his followers would have you believe that The English Bible, which has been translated countless times over hundreds of years, is to be a more reliable source than plain observation. It’s troubling and unsettling to think that an American English text transmitted and translated over hundreds of years can serve as a book of reliable historical/scientific evidence. Not only that, but you have to also believe the way Ham interprets the information in the Bible, to be the correct way. Are we to believe that Ham’s interpretation of the Bible is more reasonable and more respectable than the person who can plainly observe with their own eyes? Furthermore, where is the objective consensus among Creationists? There is a large population of Christians who do not believe the Bible in the same way you do, what would you have them do?”

Analysis: an exercise in missing the point!

First, a brief comment on the debate itself. The nature of the debate itself was an exercise in futility and is best described as two hours of missing the point. Why? This is not a debate about worldviews as both Nye and Ham claim. The Bible is not a textbook. The author of Genesis is not trying to be a scientist. Scientists should stick to doing science and stop going beyond into philosophy and theology (and metaphysics broadly) by drawing conclusions on meaning. (Dawkins is a good example of this.) Likewise, those doing “metaphysics” should stop trying to make claims as it relates to “physics”. It seems to me that the two groups should help inform the other, but not exclusively evaluate it.

Second, I would like to comment on Bill Nye. I have watched many debates over the years regarding many of the topics that came up during this one. I found Bill Nye’s professionalism very refreshing. I think he is to be commended for that.

Some general comments about Ham’s presentation: Ken Ham’s entire philosophy is built upon a premise that is full of gaping holes, and is nowhere near stable enough to support the incredible weight of his claims. Namely, he holds to a “hard literalism” that borders, if not fully immersed in, fundamentalism. His equivocation (and hubris) is off the chart when he fails to distinguish between the text of the Bible and his interpretation of that text as being God’s own words.

Ham spends a lot of time during the debate speaking with people who are “experts” in their given area of scientific study. However, none of these individuals, including Ham, are qualified to speak to the fields of theology, philosophy, or biblical studies, which are necessary for his underlying premise.

Insert joke right here: what do you get when you put a Bible in a room full of scientists? A science textbook? Unfortunately, this is no laughing matter, as the creationist group has many supporters. Therefore, many are being influenced by these teachings, almost to a cult-like following.
Perhaps some specific comments would be more useful at this point. (Note: for the sake of brevity I am picking only a few.)

1. Ham reads, and thus interprets, the Bible anachronistically. I would like to think this is because he is not a theologian. However, this is a problem within the area of theology as well.

2. Ham proudly admits his starting point is based on God as the ultimate authority. However, this is completely false – he relies on the authority of the Bible and his own interpretation of it. His failure to distinguish between the two at the outset illustrates his overall theological incompetence.

3. Ham misunderstands the nature of language. Perhaps this is simply because he is not a philosopher; however, if you make philosophical claims you are bound by the same standard of evaluation. This is most evident in his claim that “Naturalism has hijacked ‘science’”. He is wrong. It’s not hijacking when it’s yours to begin with. Ironically, he is the one actually hijacking the term.

4. Ham creates a whole new genre of science called “historical science”. I find it strange that he uses something he invented as a primary argument for the whole of his philosophy in a public debate. It is completely useless to have a debate where both parties are not defining the basic elements the same.

5. Ham then claims that the order of operations for scientific methodology (looking at the present to understand the past) is incorrect. However, his solution is completely absurd. That is, we must look at the past (historical science) in order to understand the present (observational science). In essence he is saying that we should begin with what we don’t know in order to understand what we do know.

6. Ham makes the completely absurd claim that Creationists can teach science better than Secularists because they teach individuals how to critically think. This means he either completely misunderstands what it means to critically think or he fails to recognize that his entire philosophy is built upon an extreme ideology, which you have to accept in order to be a part of the conversation to begin with.

7. Probably the most significant contradiction in Ham’s philosophy is that he expects (actually insists) that people use logic and rationality in this conversation; and then he expects us to suspend that same logic and rationality when it comes to interpreting the Bible.

Ham misunderstands the nature of truth to a fault. He operates in a worldview that insists truth is black and white and refuses to acknowledge the limits of human understanding. His language is so inconsistent that at one point during the debate he equated his interpretation of the Bible to God’s own words.

Finally, as a fellow Christian, I found Ken Ham’s claims to be offensive. His entire argument for justifying that creationism should be a part of public school science (because it is science) education makes him either delusional or a liar.

Below is a quote from the mission statement of the creationist museum:

The Creation Museum exists to point today’s culture back to the authority of Scripture and proclaim the gospel message.

I see nothing here about science. I only see an attempt to justify one’s beliefs by adding to the authority of the Bible. I see an agenda. And it offends me both as a Christian and as a rational thinker.

I am not sure that Nye even realized how profoundly accurate his (paraphrased) statement was:

“I want you to listen carefully. Ken Ham and his followers would have you believe that The English Bible, which has been translated countless times over hundreds of years is to be a more reliable source than plain observation. It’s troubling and unsettling to think that an American English text transmitted and translated over hundreds of years can serve as a book of reliable historical/scientific evidence. Not only that, but you have to also believe the way Ham interprets the information in the Bible, to be the correct way. Are we to believe that Ham’s interpretation of the Bible, is to be more reasonable and more respectable than the person who can plainly observe with their own eyes? Furthermore, where is the objective consensus among Creationists? There is a large population of Christians who do not believe the Bible in the same way you do, what would you have them do?”

I too want to point culture back to the gospel. But, I refuse to lie in order to do it.

Comments

  1. Ben says

    I like lots of your points. I take a very presuppositional approach to the debate. my faith is that God exists and has revealed what we need to know through the bible. Ham’s is similar though he probably adds a few point to that. nye’s starting point (which is a faith position) is a closed system in which all that can be known is what is discovered through empirical study. I believe that the empirical will reinforce Truth, so long as there is an openness to an open system. i do not believe nye and ham could ever come to the same conclusions because of this difference. the debate I would prefer to watch would be between a scientist who supports evolution that also adopts an open system worldview, versus a creationist.

    I like a lot of what ham says. my concern is that he wraps up too many things in his dogmatic starting point (including his hermeneutic) making it difficult to really unpack his points or have a great conversation.

    everyone has to decide how much they will wrap up into their starting presuppositions as matters of faith (again, nye has his own faith statements as well). too much and you end up being someone with whom there is no room for debate because everything is dogma. too little and you’ll be hard pressed to stand firm on any position because you have little conviction as to why you went down that road as opposed to another.

    I agree that this debate is entertaining but futile. the real evolution vs creation debate would be between two people who start in the same place and end up with different conclusions.

    • Eric English says

      Ben…Thanks for the thoughts. I’m not sure it matters if one is an “open” and the other is “closed”. They are two different forms of inquiry and therefore, have different epistemological value to them. It’s the proverbial comparing apples and oranges.

      I am in hopes that you do not interpret the Bible the way Ham does. He is almost certainly a fundamentalist. And if you know any fundamentalist, they are impossible to reason with. This leads to another point in the persona that Ham takes on in order to trick people into thinking he really cares about the science when in fact he cares only about his ideology.

      • Ben says

        where I disagree with you eric is that I do believe ham cares about science and inquiry. he just lumps more in his starting point (presupposition) and takes those things as dogma, not as open to debate. his science comes after those things.

        I’m similar in that i don’t believe there would be a discovery that would disprove God. I have my dogma as well.

        and so does nye. I doubt he’d accept any scientific discovery that “proved” God.

        so I disagree that ham doesn’t value science. it just has its limits in an open system and we all draw different lines as to where those limits are drawn.

        it could be said that nye doesn’t value science if he isn’t open to the possibility of God… even if it was empirically supported.

        I also believe the open/closed system discussion makes all the difference. again, they could never agree since they disagree on the most basic premise behind their science.

  2. says

    Good thoughts, thanks for sharing them.

    I will say, to pick on one point you made, that perhaps in #5 of your analysis, it’s slightly unfair to Mr. Ham’s actual thinking. That is, you state “In essence he is saying that we should begin with what we don’t know in order to understand what we do know.” And while I agree with you in the gist of what you’re saying here, Mr. Ham would not agree that you have characterized his position well.

    It seems to me that he believes that we do in fact know the past, because of the Bible. So, in his mind, the argument is that we must start with what we know, i.e. the Bible, to understand things, and not with our own ideas about how the world works. If one says that certainty is found in the Bible (as a starting presuppositional position), then it naturally leads one to base all of one’s other understandings on that.

    Now, Mr. Ham still has a major problem and you have correctly pointed that out. He believes that the ideas “certainty in the Bible” (or perhaps he would phrase is as biblical authority) and “Mr. Ham’s understanding of the Bible” are the same thing. So, in fact, what he claims to know (as in be certain of the truth of something), namely, the biblical text, is actually not something he is capable of actually knowing in this sense (because of multiple layers between him and “certainty”, i.e. presuppositional beliefs about the Bible and what it can and is meant to do, as well as his interpretation of it).

    So, in the end, perhaps your point would be more accurately phrased as “In essence he is saying that we should begin with what is uncertain in order to understand the facts at hand.” Which still demonstrates the hopelessness of his position with regards to science.

    This is really a small nuance to be sure, but when one agrees with most of an article and wants to comment with some sort of substance to generate conversation, one cannot simply say “I agree.” Otherwise, my comment would have been simply “I agree.”

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

    • Eric English says

      Kevin…Thanks so much for participating in the conversation. I certainly do not want to misrepresent Ken’s position.

      I did go back and double check the statement just to make sure; so perhaps a brief explanation is in order. I attempted to fairly represent his position at the outset of the statement, then concluded what I see as the necessary entailment (in essence) of his thinking. I agree with you in that I doubt he would agree that this is what he is saying…but, it is what he is saying and as a result demonstrates the absurdity of his position.

      Regarding your suggestion. I understand the nuance; but I am unwilling to use the idea of “certainty” because I don’t think we have the ability to make such claims. Even if I am looking right at the thing under consideration my certainty is based upon a spectrum of possibility. Is it a chair? It has all of the characteristics of a chair, but I can’t be as certain as the chair is about its own chariness – an ontological distinction I guess.

      My biggest problem is his total lack of understanding as it relates to the role of the various disciplines as modes of information for knowledge. The wager of his presuppositions are so absurd, it makes Pascal shutter.

      Anyway, thanks for the vent to release some steam. And thanks for taking the time to read the article and contribute.

      Blessings. :)

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