How Ham on Nye Harms Our Public Discourse on Science and Religion

I tried to resist, but I must admit to having watched the “Ham on Nye” debate in full. I find debates between creationists and atheist evolutionists tiring and deeply upsetting because I, as a theistic evolutionist, feel completely excluded and silenced while two groups of people I regard as deeply misinformed about the nature of the world beat up on each other. I argue here that the debate reinforces this dichotomy, one which pretty much everyone has reason to resist. I will also score the debate (Nye won, big time – and 92% of voters at Christian Today thought so too).

Let me begin on a personal note.

I. Dr. Dino and Me

Despite being a Christian, I find the creationists far more off-putting, in part because they frequently imply that theistic evolutionists are imperfect Christians and that they’re the real Christians. My negative reaction is probably due to a very negative experience I had with a creationist showman as a young teen, one that had a massive effect on my life.

I grew up in Fairhope, Alabama and when I was thirteen, I decided to leave Fairhope United Methodist Church, where my mother and grandparents attended, and go to Fairhope First Baptist Church with my friends, across the street (“Church Street,” if you can believe it). I was drawn into a youth group with strong charismatic influences (we were caught in the Pentecostal tendrils of the “Brownsville Revival.”). My friends and their friends were six-day creationists with a vengeance, and this in part due to a traveling Creationist huckster named Kent Hovind (“Dr. Dino”). (Like me, they too have moved on.)

I first met Kent Hovind that same year. I had just returned from a summer camp with Duke’s TIP program, where I took a course on the philosophy of science (we read, among other things, Dawkins’s The Extended Phenotype and Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). I knew the guy was a fraud, but I was a kid and he was a professional debater and I lost in front of a bunch of my friends. I was furious and frustrated because they thought that if I just stopped fighting God, He’d make me a creationist too. I didn’t believe them. Instead, it was Hovind’s claim that if you’re not a creationist, you can’t be a Christian that worked its way into my mind.

Here’s the argument, (lazily) formalized:

  1. Jesus says the Bible is true.
  2. The Bible teaches six-day creationism.
  3. Jesus is a six-day creationist (from 1 and 2).
  4. If six-day creationism is false, Jesus is wrong (from 3).
  5. If Jesus is wrong, he can’t be God. (God knows everything and doesn’t lie.)
  6. If Jesus isn’t God, Christianity is false (from the definition of Christianity).
  7. If six-day creationism is false, Christianity is false (from 4, 5 and 6).
  8. You deny six-day creationism (so I said), so you’re committed to saying Christianity is false (from 7).

I was pretty convinced, I have to say. Premises 1 and 2 seemed true, and the other premises are either trivially true or follow from the others. But, well, I had taken a philosophy of science course and I played SimEarth on my Super Nintendo, so I knew evolution was true. So … I couldn’t be a Christian. Within a year’s time, I left the faith, I thought for good.

The details of my story since then aren’t relevant here. But I did encounter Hovind again, when I was sixteen, and I knew much more, and he still beat me. This time he added insult injury. He told me that I only believed evolution because (he assuned) I looked at pornography and that his IQ was much higher than mine.

I confess to chortling when I discovered that he’s now in jail for income tax fraud.

Sigh. I thought I had forgiven him, but well, the Ham on Nye debate brought it all back.

II. Hovind, Ham and Heresy

Kent Hovind is small creationist potatoes to Ken Ham, who is a much fairer and informed debater and has a much better character. But he shares with Hovind a conviction that theistic evolutionists are basically squishy liberal Christians denying God’s word. For evidence, check out his condemnation of the super awesome Biologos Foundation (founded by Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and now the head of the National Institutes of Health). The foundation is an evangelical group devoted to showing that evolution and Christian doctrine do not conflict. They have their sights set on people like Ham (you should check out their twitter feed from the debate), and rightly so: creationism is completely scientifically untenable. I say this despite worshiping with many, many creationists over the years and knowing some very thoughtful Christians who believe it, including some in my family. For them, creationism is largely about loyalty to God and God’s Word and resisting secular naturalism and its pernicious moral implications. I agree with them about God, loyalty to God’s word and resisting secular naturalism, but I am convinced that creationism has nothing to do with those causes and in fact frustrates them.

Why? Because creationists like Ham and Hovind allow people to refuse to engage with Christianity because they can simply dismiss the ridiculous scientific claims that these men bundle with Christian doctrine. These evolutionists are alienated from the Christian religion unnecessarily, just as I was years ago. Another sad truth is that Ham, Hovind and others alienate Christians from the scientific community. Thanks to Ham and others, many Christians view scientists as their ideological, political and theological enemies. And that’s a great and terrible shame.

Finally, Ham, Hovind and others act as if their interpretation of the Bible is the only “literal” one, when many church fathers have read Genesis 1-2 allegorically since Origen (184/5-253/4) (see Biologos’s discussion). Augustine is perhaps the most famous one of these. In the debate Ham says that you can believe in evolution and be a Christian, but he immediately adds that they have a severe theological conundrum in doing so (making sense of how death entered the world). Well, Mr. Ham, Augustine was pretty smart and he didn’t see the conundrum, so why should we?

I have written a book defending a freer public discourse, one where people can bring their religious beliefs to bear on political and social matters. But we can still criticize the form discourse takes, particularly if it obscures the philosophical terrain. A great many Americans are theistic evolutionists (32% in 2012) and many creationists don’t hold their beliefs very strongly (see the fascinating data on intensity of belief in evolution/creation here). Theistic evolutionists need more representatives, for the sake of the faith, for the sake of public discourse and for the sake of science education.

III. Ham vs. Nye – What Mattered? Bad Bundling!

The Ham on Nye debate proceeded much as you’d expect. Nye focused on showing that Ham’s empirical claims were completely implausible and Ham responded with two sorts of strategies: (1) casting doubt on our ability to know much about the past and (2) reinterpreting scientific disputes as philosophical ones. Ham makes a terrible distinction between “Historical science” and “Observational science.” Observational science is what we can see, whereas historical science is what we can infer about the past. Ham is fine with certainty drawn from observation, not from making inferences about the past.

One of Nye’s best moments came when he pointed out that Ham’s distinction makes no sense in astronomy, where the very act of looking into a telescope means looking back into the past billions of years. But the distinction is stupid on other levels as well. Rather than enumerating them, let me add what might be a novel criticism: it makes no sense for Ham to simultaneously claim (a) that we don’t have good enough evidence and models to say that the universe is billions of years old and (b) that we can know the Biblical authors’ intentions well enough to know they meant us to read Genesis 1-2 literally. To me, that is devastating for Ham. If he takes a skeptical line on evolutionary biology, he must take such a line on how to read the Bible literally. If we “weren’t there” for evolution, we “weren’t there” when Genesis was written, and we certainly “weren’t there” to discern the authors’ intent.

Ham drew the distinction so many times it was clear that his entire case depended on it, and on this point I think Nye should have hit him harder and made clear how silly a strategy it is.

But the strategy that really pissed me off was Ham’s attempt to skirt empirical questions by turning them into philosophical questions. I hate philosophical naturalism and most forms of scientism associated with it because they try to turn everything into a scientific question. But Ham is the worst example of someone who makes the opposite error – turning genuine empirical questions into philosophical ones. Ham talked over and over about worldviews, the truth of Christianity, the harm of teaching only evolution in public schools and other stuff totally irrelevant to the topic of the debate in order to win sympathy from his audience and convince them that they should agree with him to avoid Nye’s entire worldview.

This was an awful slight-of-hand because Ham is trying to make his view more plausible by deceptively conjoining it with views that are dramatically more respectable, such as theism and moral realism. It was that bundling strategy that alienated me from God, and it’s one that I think Ham is culpable for employing. Initially I didn’t think he did so in bad faith, but during the Q&A, Ham was asked if he came to abandon creationism due to good empirical evidence whether he would abandon Christianity. Any sensible Christian should have immediately said, “No! Of course not!” But Ham refused to answer the question, instead, denying that the two could possibly come apart. There is a reason he refuses to disaggregate Christianity and creationism – because if people believe they can be evolutionists and followers of Jesus, he will lose big in the battle of ideas.

Nye was especially effective in asking Ham whether his “creation model” could make any new predictions. From what I can tell, Ham never gave a coherent answer. His “scientific” model is completely post-hoc. It may, in some loose sense, “fit the data,” but it can’t accommodate new data. And that makes it a bad scientific theory.

Nye also won on the question of certainty. Ham was asked what evidence would convince him that he was wrong. His answer was, in effect, nothing. Nye immediately shot back that he would change his mind in the presence of any evidence to the contrary. I’m not sure that’s true of Nye, but the fact that Ham simply embraced the fact that he could not possibly be convinced he was wrong was another serious low point. As a Christian, I know there are a great many things that could convince me I was wrong, in particular compelling new historical evidence that undermines the non-miraculous and non-prophetic claims about Jesus, such as medical evidence which shows that the details of Christ’s death via crucifixion were erroneous, or a suitably deep and inventive version of the problem of evil. Why on earth couldn’t Ham have said the same thing? What loss would it have been to him to admit that, in the end, he could be wrong? I don’t know.

Incidentally, I also found really annoying Ham’s habit of repeatedly showing videos of the tiny handful of scientists who agree with him. They were the worst sort of anecdotal evidence.

What of Nye? I think Nye’s biggest mistake was criticizing the epistemic reliability of the Bible. He was on his best ground in arguing that Ham’s view is not the standard for Christians. But when he attacked the “Biblical” account of the flood, he allowed Ham the assumption that Ham is reading the Bible properly. So Nye bundled his argument with a rejection of what he himself admitted was the proper interpretation of the Bible. Why do that? He turned a lot of Christians off that way because he was bundling the case for evolution with an argument against the Bible. That said, he was careful to emphasize that the debate was focused on “Ken Ham’s creation model,” which was good.

His next error was repeatedly stressing the dubious economic claim that widespread belief in creationism will undermine economic innovation and scientific progress. We’ve done more cool science with hordes of creationists around for decades. I can’t see creationist belief really getting in the way.

Finally, I want to applaud Nye for bolding walking into the lion’s den. Nye had lots of funny jokes, but no one laughed. He pressed on. When he couldn’t immediately produce an explanation of where the world came from, the crowd laughed at him. He pressed on. He listened to some ridiculous arguments given in a completely serious manner with a calm, patient demeanor. He pressed on. And he ended with excitement and passion, even though I think his broader metaphysical picture of the world is completely, demonstrably wrong.

So who won the debate? Nye won, hands down, in large part because he focused on what was really at stake in the debate – not worldviews, not “Christianity vs. atheism” but whether it is at all plausible that the earth is six thousand years old. Ham asked pointed questions, seemed comfortable and careful and polite, but in the end he relied on bogus distinctions and an argumentative strategy that involved illicit conjunctions of distinct ideas.

IV. Let the Ham go Bad

One reason to regret the debate is that Ham is going to make a lot of money from it, probably. They’ll take the video down off of Youtube and then sell DVDs. But Ham is in financial trouble, and so supporting the debate may keep him going.

Second, the debate reinforces sad stereotypes (creationist = dumb, atheist = mean. Just see this Buzzfeed article for creationists silliness, and this one for atheist condescension).

The ultimate problem with the debate is that whatever Nye did for science, and however much he stressed that there are people of faith who believe evolution, he still helped reinforce a dichotomy that makes Christians feel like they have to reject evolution to be good followers of Jesus. Ham thrives on this dangerous association and I suspect many atheists are happy to keep it around because it makes atheism easier to vindicate in the eyes of the unconverted. But Nye seems like a genuine truth-seeker, so while I respect and applaud his performance, me and my ilk left out in the cold, banging our heads against the walls of the Church, praying for a better debate. And you atheists should support us, as we’re the best hope of convincing Christians to embrace modern science wholeheartedly and ending the attempt establish religion by teaching creationism in public schools. You will never convince us. We will have to convince ourselves.

  • Bob Waldrop

    Great summation. I have not watched the debate and probably won’t. I myself am a theistic evolutionist and I always wonder why people think that God couldn’t or wouldn’t choose to use evolution as a way to create humanity and all the other critters of earth and sky and sea. The heavens declare the glory of God, and so does the science of evolution.

    • Farstrider
      • Shannon Hubbell

        Perhaps, but I think theistic evolution is more of a philosophical position than a scientific claim. As an atheist, I see no particular issue with people advocating it as long as it doesn’t contradict the science. Outside of the classroom, of course.

        • Farstrider

          I agree with that completely. The problems arise when (a) it is presented as a contradiction with science and/or (b) is presented in the classroom.

          • Kevin C.

            I don’t have a problem with it being presented in the classroom– as long as it’s a philosophy class, of course.

    • Sean II

      “I always wonder why people think that God couldn’t or wouldn’t choose to use evolution as a way to create humanity.”

      Oh, I dunno…maybe its because when rational beings want to acquire, say, a puppy for companionship, they usually don’t start by setting fire to a swamp and waiting around for 3.6 billion years.

      There are more direct methods available.

      • Perhaps not if they have all the time in the world…

        • Sean II

          …plus all the time out of it.

  • martinbrock

    I haven’t watch the debate either. I’m a naturalistic pantheist (what Dawkins calls a “sexed up atheist”), so my thinking incorporates no central authority governing the Universe from the outside, but Nye is a scientistic celebrity rather than a scientist, and these debates typically are pablum for the rubes on both sides of the debate.

    • Farstrider

      The problem is your word choice. The way you use “intelligence” is unlike how anyone else uses that word when coupled with “design”. Those words mean something in common parlance, and although you are free to try to appropriate them for your own world view, you cannot really complain if others are troubled by that ambiguity. Especially where it has been well established that ID is just a fraudulent attempt to conceal creationism – talk about bearing false witness!

      • martinbrock

        I understand this problem, but I have the same problem with “libertarian” and countless other words.

        I’m not complaining about people’s trouble with ambiguity. I’m complaining about their knee-jerk, ideological chauvinism.

        I disagree with Behe’s Intelligent Design, but it is not a fraudulent attempt to conceal Ham’s Creationism.

        • Farstrider

          Glad you came back to say more in this post. Intelligence, as used by people when saying “intelligent design,” means purposely contrived by an entity that has goals (that’s the intelligence part) and the means to achieve them (the design). Neither evolution nor the market are “intelligent” in this way; nor do they design outcomes. If you want to draw an analogy, the free market is more like evolution – a collection of a thousands of striving individuals, reacting to stimuli, pursuing self interest, without central planning. Creationism is central planning.

          Sure, the world APPEARS designed. I’m not blind to that appearance. Do I need to say at this point that appearances can be deceiving? Life appears designed in the same way that water appears to have been designed to be the exact shape of the vessel it fits in. But we all know that the water just adopts the shape of the vessel – life is similarly fluid. That explains the “why” of it all.

          Irreducible complexity IS a fraudulent attempt to smuggle creationism. Read about the Kitzmiller trial and the evidence presented there, including the IDers’ sloppy find and replace job in their texts.

          • martinbrock

            My problem with what you say here has less to do with your characterization of the market and evolution than with what you’re assuming about human intelligence. You have this subjective sense of “purpose”, and you doubt that something like a distributed process organizing information over millions of years could be similar, because you doubt that it has this sense of purpose. I share your doubts, but you can’t possibly know that another information processing system has or does not experience such a sense. You can’t even know that I experience it. Even if you could, I don’t associate “intelligence” exclusively with conscious beings.

          • Farstrider

            I’ll grant you that you bring a much more sophisticated take on both “intelligence” and “design” to the table than any IDer. But when IDers use those terms, they do not mean what you mean.

          • martinbrock

            Behe doesn’t mean what I mean, but he doesn’t mean what Ham means either.

          • Farstrider

            I didn’t understand Ham to be an IDer, per se, but yes they both mean the same thing – some entity designed life or portions thereof to achieve certain goals. For Ham, that entity is God. For Behe, it is God or maybe aliens.

          • martinbrock

            Ham believes the Earth is 6000 years old and that humanity appeared, fully formed, when God literally created an adult male from a cloud of dust. He also believes that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is something other than an allegory.

            Behe believes that the Earth is billions of years old, that all life on Earth has a common ancestor and that differentiation occurred through the natural selection of mutations. He quibbles a bit with “random mutations”.

            I see no point in this quibbling, but Behe is only very slightly closer to Ham than I am and not nearly far enough from me to be dismissed as either a crank or dishonest. He understands that ancient theology is full of allegory, constructed very deliberately and often brilliantly by its authors, so he understands all sorts of rich and rewarding wisdom to which Ham unfortunately (for him) is blind.

            Everyone reading the Bible literally is blind to this wisdom, not only the people who believe what they read.

    • Kevin Vallier

      As I said, I feel bad that I chortled. I guess the insult went deeper than I realized.

      • martinbrock

        I don’t know about Hovind, much less God, but I forgive you. I’m not really holier than thou.

    • I also identify as a naturalistic pantheist, though also sometimes as an atheist, depending on my mood and my audience. On some interpretations, the distinction between pantheism and atheism is merely linguistic. On the other hand, I think there are some advantages to the pantheist label. When an atheist talks about the universe, he might mean the observable universe or some system that is merely a proper part of a possibly larger reality (a multiverse, a sea of Lawrence Krauss’ nothingness, etc.). A pantheist (or at least, on my interpretation) uses the term ‘universe’ to refer to the whole of reality, or the thing of which everything is a part. Also, just as more traditional theists think that everything else is ontologically dependent upon God, the pantheist thinks that all the proper parts depend upon the whole, so it makes sense to us to label the whole ‘God’.

      Is my interpretation very different from yours?

      • martinbrock

        No. My “Universe” refers to everything whatsoever. “Outside of the Universe” and “another Universe” are contradictions in terms. If a deistic Creator of the Universe exists, then it created itself. Fortunately, I’m also an empiricist, so I don’t need to worry about questions if I can never know the answer.

        I also think that the God of traditional monotheism often makes sense as a metaphor for the pantheistic notion.

        • Yeah, I’ve seen some passages in various texts, mostly Hindu and other eastern ones but some Christian, consistent with that.

          It’s also possible that some sort of creator entity exists, but it would be another part of the universe. The universe would then be a creator-creation system. But I think the label ‘God’ would still be more appropriate for the whole itself. At the moment though, I don’t see how positing such a creator explains anything.

  • Jameson Graber

    Thanks for the summary; I probably won’t watch the debate. I don’t like the label “theistic evolutionist” (in fact, just the label “evolutionist” strikes me as rather contrived), but I guess you could call me that if you like.

    What puzzles me about these debates is why *this issue* is so freaking important. I liked what you said about Nye’s silly claims about economic progress. In terms of public policy, it may very well be a good idea to have a more generally scientifically literate population, but I honestly fail to see why Darwinism has to be a litmus test. (If it’s public policy we’re worried about, maybe we should be more fussy about climate change. OK, so we are fussy, but my point is it’s way more important than evolution.)

    I mean, seriously. Name *one time* when understanding the theory of evolution was actually important for making life better for you or your family. For the vast majority of people, it has no practical value at all, just like any other general scientific theory. (I know that might hurt scientists’ feelings, but it’s true. I’m a mathematician, so I feel their pain.)

    An interesting question is the relationship between the creation and/or preservation of knowledge and social hierarchy. The fact that a lot of the public may have doubts about evolution just doesn’t matter, because we accept well enough the authority of our scientific institutions. Or do we? When does public skepticism of expertise become a genuine problem for social order? When might it actually impede scientific discovery? These are important questions behind all this crap about evolution. It’s not about whether humans and monkeys are relatives; it’s about whose authority (religious or scientific) counts more and when.

    • Ryan Muldoon

      “I mean, seriously. Name *one time* when understanding the theory of evolution was actually important for making life better for you or your family.”

      Flu season? Any time we use anti-microbial soap? Or feed factory-farmed livestock massive amounts of antibiotics? Or use treated bed nets to fend off malarial insects? Or think it’s ok to stop taking a course of antibiotics halfway through because we feel better? In each, we need to pay a lot more attention to the selective environment that we’re imposing, and whether we want to deal with the evolutionary outcomes. Evolution isn’t this thing that happened in the past that we’re now done with. Especially when it comes to bacteria and viruses, they have very rapid generational turnover. We can see evolution happen quite quickly. This matters a lot to our day to day lives.

      • Jameson Graber

        When it comes to the flu or using antibiotics, we listen to our doctor. I’ve never had to fight off malarial insect, and I’ve never fed livestock anything. You’re ignoring specialization. There are vanishingly few things of any depth that the majority of people really needs to know.

        Additionally, no creationist denies evolution that happens now (what some like to call “micro-evolution”). So that’s not really being debated. (Indeed, Ken Ham could pull out his historical past/observable present distinction right away.)

        • Ryan Muldoon

          Sure, specialization lets you not have to know a lot of things. And I suppose this is true of the germ theory of disease, newtonian physics, etc, if you just listen to experts and don’t try and understand how to infer what to do on things for which you haven’t received explicit instruction. But I tend to think that people should have sufficient education such that they can make those inferences.

          But if you want to worry about issues that look like collective action problems, like using anti-microbial soap as your normal hand soap (killing 99.99% of bacteria leaves that .01% in a favored environment, leading to super-bacteria that we can’t kill very well), or buying meat raised on lots of antibiotics, then it’s worth knowing something about these things. For instance, we have good reason to ban raising animals in such tight quarters that they need constant antibiotics, even if you or I never raise livestock. Given that scientists haven’t come up with a new antibiotic in quite a while, we end up in a situation where two million americans get ‘superbugs’ each year for which we have no antibiotic treatment, and around 23,000 people in the US die each year from it. The numbers are going up at a decent clip.

          I’m not up on whether creationism allows for ‘micro-evolution’ as it seems conceptually difficult to embrace that and reject how it would work at larger timescales. But I trust that there is some way to do it.

          • Jameson Graber

            On this issue, the story is complex, sometimes ironic. Many creationists are less likely to use antibacterial soap in the first place, because they are skeptical in general of an oversterilized culture that is completely out of touch with nature. They intuitively grasp how over-sheltering ourselves from germs can backfire. Where it gets rather ironic is, in my experience, how many creationists can explain perfectly how Darwinism works through selection and adaptation and apply that reasoning to the case of bacteria. They simply refuse to believe that it explains our origins as human beings, mostly (in my view) because of (real or perceived) anthropomorphic implications.

            The collective action problem will probably not be solved by attempting to convince all the creationists that their beliefs are wrong. It will be solved, however, if we don’t assume they are stupid and instead explain to them in terms of actual developments–here and now–what the problems are with antibiotics and antibacterial soap.

          • Shannon Hubbell

            “[M]any creationists can explain perfectly how Darwinism works through selection and adaptation and apply that reasoning to the case of bacteria. They simply refuse to believe that it explains our origins as human beings…”

            It’s that arbitrary distinction between micro- and macro-evolution they like to make. I have yet to hear a justification for why the mechanisms behind the former would not enable the later.

          • Kevin Vallier

            Ryan, just a small point. All the creationists I know accept “micro-evolution” they just reject wholesale changes from one natural kind to another. Creationists think they have reason to hardcore reify natural living kinds so that you can’t change from one to the other. Ever. But since they accept microevolution, you can get stuff like worries about antibiotics off the ground. I think your point is a good one, but I should also add that creationism helps inoculate many Christians for lots of lefty anti-science stuff. The problem is that it encourages righty anti-science stuff, especially hostility to psychiatry and climate science.

          • JT

            I know I am late to this discussion, but I agree with what I think the main idea of Ryan post is and yet I think the debate between people who hold a totally untenable view (creationists) and evolutionists has made it increasingly impossible for people on the religious side to give up entirely on science and the related world view (see plantiga’s newish book and, weirdly, Nagel’s too). This is similar to how some marxists (e.g. Cohen) gave up on facts altogether when the facts didn’t go in their direction. A big bullet to bite, but they bit it.

            The point is that if there is ever going to be a reconciliation between religious believers and and science it seems like something along the lines of Dewey’s Common Faith or basically fideism is the only plausible path. There needs to be a way for religious believers to embrace their religion and accept the best science available wholeheartedly. As it stands I think the vast majority of religious believers are in that camp already and it is no good for Kevin to conflate the extreme minority with all religious believers, but people on the other side probably need to give the religious types a little room to hold their views on god, the afterlife, and whatever without having to give up on basic science.

  • “Nye was especially effective in asking Ham whether his “creation model”
    could make any new predictions. From what I can tell, Ham never gave a
    coherent answer. His “scientific” model is completely post-hoc. It may,
    in some loose sense, “fit the data,” but it can’t accommodate new data.
    And that makes it a bad scientific theory.”

    That’s not quite right. When we speak of a scientific theory making new predictions what we normally mean is novel (surprising) falsifiable predictions. An unscientific theory may make new predictions, but they are not falsifiable ones. Typical astrological theories are examples: the predictions are usually so vague that whatever happens fits them. They are verifiable, but not falsifiable, such as ‘you may feel bad tomorrow.’ Thus unscientific theories CAN accommodate new data by being unfalsifiable.

    A theory that was made to fit the data is the Ptolemaic geocentric system which put the heavenly bodies in circular orbits around the earth. It was made to fit the data by adding epicycles to the circular orbits. It predicted nothing new. When the data were revised (more accurate observations or new observations), the theory as it stood was falsified. But the Ptolemaic astronomers responded by simply adding more epicycles (or other mathematical devices) to fit the theory to the new data. These responses removed the falsification, but they were ad hoc because they implied no novel falsifiable predictions. Accommodating the facts is not enough to make a theory scientific; its amended versions must imply novel falsifiable predictions.

    “Ham was asked what evidence would convince him that he was wrong. His answer was, in effect, nothing. Nye immediately shot back that he would change his mind in the presence of any evidence to the contrary.”

    That recalls Karl Popper’s famous challenge: ‘what situation, if it occurred, would make you give up your theory?’ (the words are not right, but I have been unable to locate the quotation – if anyone knows it, I would be grateful for the reference). However, the challenge is a simplification even by Popper’s own lights. A theory must be falsifiable to be scientific and a falsification must be acknowledged as a problem by a scientific researcher. But it need not be an insurmountable problem. Many falsifications have been overturned in the history of science. What makes such an overturning a scientific one, rather than an ad hoc one, is that it is an adjustment to the theory which implies new falsifiable predictions. This is Popper’s own view, in ‘Logic of Scientific Discovery’ sections 19-20. I develop the point in my ‘Should We follw the Argument Wherever it Leads?’ available here:

  • StephenMeansMe

    Theistic evolution (in the sense of “the science is right, AND it was also part of God’s plan”) does seem like the natural choice for any reasonable Christian. Personally, I like to think I’m a reasonable atheist so I’m not going to claim that evolution disproves God or anything (is there any way to prove that evolution is/is not guided by a supernatural force from outside the universe?)… but I think you were a bit unfair to Nye re: the Ark. He made it pretty clear (by constantly prefacing these things with “Mr. Ham’s…”) that not every Christian takes it literally. He was just (to me) humoring Ham’s argument for the sake of criticizing it.

    • Farstrider

      Nothing can disprove God. I don’t think anyone has seriously claimed the contrary. But there is no evidence for God’s existence. That is the point that is often misunderstood and goes unrebutted.

      • Logic can disprove God if contradictory qualities are attributed to it. No sophisticated theist would posit such a God, but some unsophisticated theists do.

        Also, certain god hypotheses can be falsified, if their corresponding gods are supposed to somehow manifest in the empirical realm.

        “But there is no evidence for God’s existence.”

        A theist would say that there IS evidence, so you should amend your statement to “there is no GOOD evidence”. Of course, that leads to a discussion of epistemic norms, so such a statement won’t really end the conversation.

        • Farstrider

          The reason we cannot disprove God is because the religious play the God of the Gaps game coupled with No True Scotsman. If logic reveals a contradiction in God’s qualities, doctrine retreats. If science reveals naturalistic explanations, doctrine retreats. If morality develops such that previously acceptable behavior is now seen as barbaric and evil, doctrine retreats.
          On all fronts, doctrine retreats, but never surrenders. There is always some little gap, some thing we do not know, that can hide God.
          As for evidence, your point is well-taken.


        Your statement depends (obviously) on what you are willing to count as “evidence.” I am not interested in a long and (what I expect to be) fruitless debate with you on this subject, but I personally regard it as “evidence” (not proof certainly) that God kept his central promise to the Jewish people (possession of the promised land, i.e. the present state of Israel). Despite Roman genocide, enslavement, and massive “ethnic cleansing” some 1900 years ago, we are back in our promised homeland. A scenario that is unprecedented as far as I know in human history. Despite repeated attempts ever since to exterminate us, here we remain. Of course, this could all be coincidence and good fortune, but I regard divine intervention as a more plausible account.

        • I can see why you regard that as evidence. But exactly what do you think God had to do with all the events that led up to the present state of Israel? Those who persecuted the Jewish people were supposedly acting freely. The Jewish people trying to avoid persecution and whatever allies they had (if any) were also supposedly acting freely. Where is there any room for God to affect or control events, other than perhaps natural disasters? Couldn’t the becoming of the present state of Israel be a self-fulfilling prophecy?

          I’m not sure how the existence of God has explanatory power when it comes to the events that transpired.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Jewish theology holds that in the post-Biblical era, God performs miracles exclusively within (clothed in) the laws of nature. So, it is impossible to say precisely how and when God acts; there is no public service announcement that “here comes a miracle.” Therefore, we are inferring and speculating about particular events. But what we know is that a central theme in the Hebrew Bible is God’s promise of the land of Israel to the Jewish people as part of his eternal covenant, and despite long odds and powerful enemies, there we are.

          • But the prediction was not falsifiable. If we were still waiting, that would not falsify it, because it might happen tomorrow, or the day after…The prediction is verified, just as astrological predictions are. But predictions which are not falsifiable are worthless.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Well, if 100% of the Jewish people were killed tomorrow, wouldn’t that constitute falsification?

            ETA: Also, I’m not offering a theory, but suggesting an argument from the best explanation. X = fact = Jewish people survive persecution, end up in promised homeland. Best explanation of X = divine providence.

          • Okay, that would be a falsification. But it is still a weak prediction: it does not exclude much.

            Theory/explanation – it comes to the same. An explanation is ad hoc unless it entails novel falsifiable predictions. There is a debate about what counts as novel. In Kuhn’s view a fact is novel relative to a theory if it was not used in the construction of that theory.

            Good to hear from you, too, Mark.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Help me understand this better. Suppose I wake up one morning and see that my driveway is wet. There are several possible explanations. However, by far the most likely is that it rained overnight. So, doesn’t my observation that the driveway is wet provide at least some evidence that it rained overnight?

          • Your explanation that it was rain that did it is falsifiable. Another possible falsifiable explanation is that it was the teenager next door messing about with a hosepipe. The two hypotheses can be tested: check weather reports, ask the neighbours, check whether the teenager is away on holiday, etc. The best explanation is the one that stands up best to tests. But for there to BE genuine tests, the hypotheses need to be falsifiable.

            With regard to the Jews having the state of Israel, I suspect there are explanations independent of divine intervention which have a greater degree of testability than the divine hypothesis and which therefore, so long as they survive testing, provide better explanations. But I am no historian.

          • Farstrider

            “Jewish theology holds that in the post-Biblical era, God performs miracles exclusively within (clothed in) the laws of nature.”

            I’ll confess this baffled me. The world looks exactly the same if (a) God performs miracles only through natural law, (b) God is not performing any miracles at all or (c) there is no God? How can you tell which of these is right by seeing a world without miracles?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I don’t claim to know. But I can suspect, and I can believe certain things on the basis of faith. And I can weigh for myself the relative probabilities of certain things coming about by chance or by divine intervention. I’m not asking you to do any of those things, by the way.

          • Farstrider

            “I can believe certain things on the basis of faith”
            On this we agree. It is a question of faith, not evidence. Let’s not pretend one is the other.

        • martinbrock

          If the Jewish experience over the past couple of millenia is evidence of God’s favor, I’d hate to see the folks God doesn’t favor.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Forgive my saying so, but that’s not a terribly original observation. The problem is you don’t know the baseline, i.e. you don’t know what would have befallen the Jewish people without God. And, BTW, the Jewish people could not have created the modern state of Israel by ourselves–many other pieces had to fall into place. Not to mention the unsuccessful wars fought to push the Jews into the sea.

          • martinbrock

            I claim no originality, and I don’t claim to know what would have befallen the Jewish people without God either, but I do know to some extent what befell the Chinese people, the English people, the German people and many other peoples.

            Hebrew mythology has various effects on its adherents, sometimes destructive effects, and it’s not so different from other mythologies affecting other peoples. The Mormons also found their Zion, but I’m not sure what that says about God’s Providence, because He isn’t finished with yet.

            “Enough people” does not refer to the Jewish people. Balfour was not Jewish, and the vast majority of Israel’s most zealous defenders in the U.S. are not Jewish, and the modern state has more than a few Jewish detractors.

            Gazans are closer to the sea these days.


    Excellent post, and I am in full agreement. Unless you choose to view the Bible as a scientific treatise, debating such things as whether the Universe was created in six days and whether the Earth is 6000 years old, is to make a basic category mistake. It’s like arguing over the literal truth of the old saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Where exactly is this road located? How long is it? How can it be paved with “intentions”? Better example, perhaps: “The last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Truer woods were, IMHO, never spoken, but what would it mean to say they are “literally” true?

    • Farstrider

      Sure, but lots of people do believe the bible is literally true. Ham is just one example.

  • famadeo

    I’m weary, to say the least, of these intellectualy sophmoric confrontations between the most simple-minded representatives of both Christianity and atheism.

    The dichotomy between religion and science stems from that of reason and faith and, in turn, from logos and mythos. Though an atheist myself (and, BTW, a recovering Catholic who, as such, never felt compelled to pin a Creator’s design against evolution), I acknowledge that the latter pertains to a dimension of human life that is neither “objective” nor “empirical”. Rather, that which is religious or spiritual comes closer to an aesthetic realm (Kierkegaard would say that the religious is a notch higher above the aesthetic). This should not be controversial. Even Chomsky admits that science is mostly inadequate when it comes to affairs regarding human life.

    I’ve never really had an axe to grind against religion. Perhaps against religious institutions -well, institutions in general, really.

    • Farstrider

      The problem is not (usually) that science or atheism is trying to tread in affairs regarding human life, but that religion makes empirical claims about the world on insufficient evidence (usually none). This is really all most atheists and scientists want the religious to believe: that everything you are free to believe whatever you want, but you are not free to claim it is evidence based.

      • good_in_theory

        Science and atheism are completely justified in trying to “tread in affairs regarding human life.” There is nothing especially problematic about using experience and knowledge drawn from science or atheism to draw conclusions about the realm of the aesthetic/moral/etc. Certainly religious thought is no more specially situated to address those realms than secular thought.

        • Farstrider

          I agree with you! I was just making an incremental argument. The thing that religious people mostly complain about (as demonstrated by the post I was responding to), is that science cannot tell us how to treat one another. Even giving them that point, there is still no justification for claiming that religion is the answer to any empirical question.

          • good_in_theory

            Well good. I specifically wanted to head off the sort of bizarre view that famadeo has arrived to defend that atheism and science are incapable of informing our own beliefs about “non-empirical” (if that’s even the right way to draw the line) questions concerning value, aesthetics, &etc.

        • famadeo

          1) What’s with the amalgamation of “science and atheism”? Atheism is nothing more than a stance on a very specific issue. It’s not a philosophy. It’s not even a worldview.

          2) ” There is nothing especially problematic about using experience and knowledge drawn from science or atheism to draw conclusions about the realm of the aesthetic/moral/etc.”

          There certainly is. If you stress the sort of experience and knowledge *drawn speficially from science* you won’t go any further in reflexion than physics, biology or anything else at that level. No sort of science can adequately translate the experience of listening to music, overcoming an adversity, achieving a goal, having a beer with a friend, etc. which are fundamentally of an intimately lived existential dimension.

          3) “Certainly religious thought is no more specially situated to address those realms than secular thought.”

          Like I said, religion responds to the realm of mythos, which is not meant to have *explicatory* power.

          • martinbrock

            According to Dawkins, a theist is an atheist toward every religion except his own. Dawkins only goes one religion further than any particular theist. In this sense, atheism is not a stance on a specific issue. It’s a stance on countless specific issues.

          • famadeo

            I don’t know anything about Dawkins’ work in evolutionary biology, but I don’t consider him an authority on anything else.

            You’re reffering to several specific *cases*, not issues.

          • martinbrock

            Clearly, one man’s “issue” is another man’s “case”.

          • famadeo

            Whatever. Atheism -which describes my position- is a *negative* stance and, therefore, has no meaningful implication in the realm of praxis in and of itself. That’s my point.

          • martinbrock

            My point is that atheism negates theism, but theism is not a single idea. Theism is a broad category of ideas, so it’s negation must be as well. Atheists frequently disagree with one another, even on what constitutes atheism. Some atheists dispute Sam Harris’ bona fides because he takes reincarnation seriously, for example. Other atheists say that a zealous Marxist isn’t really an atheist, because zealous Marxism is a religion.

          • famadeo

            “Theism is a broad category of ideas, so it’s negation must be as well.” Insofar as we’re only talking about a *negation*, no: the broader theoretical framework, whatever it may be, that that negation stems from is not “atheist” as such. Is “anti-communism” a “broad category of ideas”?

            Personally, I don’t take Sam Harris seriously in *anything* he says. And marxism is not “atheist”: 1)the two are not interchangeable terms, and 2)the fundamental matrix of marxist ideas is not necessarily threatened by admitting or not the existence of a god (that would depend on how the two are later articulated).

            “I don’t know what you say about these things, but you don’t define ‘atheism’ unilaterally.” Do I get to express my *opinion* unilaterally?

          • martinbrock

            Yes, anti-communism is definitely a broad category of ideas. For example, I claim to be more libertarian than Rothbardians, because I accept a formulation that could be (and has historically been) called “communism”, i.e. I associate property rights with voluntary community standards rather than naturally individual rights; however, I am no more a Marxist than Rothbard.

            I don’t say that Marxism is atheism. Some atheists say that a zealous Marxist is not an atheist because he adheres to a Marxist religion, regardless of the fact that Marxism is materialistic and does not incorporate a deity, even explicitly ruling one out.

            Yes, I’m suggesting that you express your opinion.

          • J-Lib

            There is none so religious as he who most loudly proclaims his irreligiosity.

          • good_in_theory

            Funny world you live in where “negative stances” have *no* meaningful implication in “the realm of praxis.” Pretty sure my praxis is quite often guided by my lack of belief in – or belief in the absence of – various particulars.

          • good_in_theory

            Farstrider talked about science or atheism. I was predicating things of both of them, therefore the “amalgamation.”

            Atheism is both a “stance on a very specific issue” and a set of arguments and investigations into that specific issue and about the stance on that issue. Those arguments and investigations don’t constitute a philosophy or a worldview, but that’s irrelevant. There are atheistic philosophies and worldviews and the thoughts that generate the atheism play a role in informing the philosophies and worldviews.

            I find it utterly bizarre that you want to claim scientific knowledge has no relevance to your “realm of mythos.”

          • famadeo

            “I find it utterly bizarre that you want to claim scientific knowledge has no relevance to your ‘realm of mythos.'”

            You’re free to find it however you like, but I have explained myself.

          • good_in_theory

            Not really. You’ve written some stuff. It doesn’t explain your position.

          • famadeo

            I’ve made it clear the sort of significance that lived human experiences imply that are not, in principle, within the reach of science. My second comment.

            “…and a set of arguments and investigations into that specific issue and about the stance on that issue.”

            What sort of “arguments” are you talking about? I don’t see that either. Unless you’re referring to the arguments that *lead* to atheism as a conclusion, which 1) is not atheism as such and 2) is a trivial point that does not grant it whatever bloated status you have in mind.

          • good_in_theory

            You haven’t made it clear. But I don’t have an issue granting, for example, that particular realms of human endeavor are not reducible to strictly scientific consideration, or capable of being adequately accounted for or defined by strictly scientific methods. This does not mean that they are somehow immune to scientific analysis, or that scientific analysis is irrelevant to their understanding.

            And there is nothing particularly bloated in taking “atheism” to refer to not just a stance but a subject of inquiry. If someone thinks the lack of the existence of the divine and supernatural is relevant to our conduct in “affairs of human life” or “the realm of mythos,” why do you assume they are wrong?

          • famadeo

            “But I don’t have an issue granting, for example, that particular realms of human endeavor are not reducible to strictly scientific consideration, or capable of being adequately accounted for or defined by strictly scientific methods.”

            This happens to be my entire point. That you’re “granting” it shows that I’ve been clear enough.

            “This does not mean that they are somehow immune to scientific analysis, or that scientific analysis is irrelevant to their understanding.”

            I never suggested otherwise. But, as you’ve just acknowlledged, whatever future findings of science in this regard, those experiences are not reducible to them.

            “If someone thinks the lack of the existence of the divine and supernatural is relevant to our conduct in ‘affairs of human life’ or ‘the realm of mythos,’ why do you assume they are wrong?”

            Depends on the nature of the claim. I’m not saying that atheism has *no* consequences whatsoever, but I am saying that atheism offers no *positive* guide. How to behave, what is “good”, what’s meaningful are not derived directly from a lack of belief in any god.

          • good_in_theory

            Actually, no, it doesn’t show you’ve been clear enough, because nothing I asserted implied that statement and yet you responded to me as if I was not granting that. You were not clear about the fact that you were making up a position out of whole cloth and attributing it to me without merit. You seemed to think you were responding to what I wrote, rather than unjustified, invalid inferences made about what I wrote.

          • Farstrider

            “No sort of science can adequately translate the experience of listening to music, overcoming an adversity, achieving a goal, having a beer with a friend, etc. which are fundamentally of an intimately lived existential dimension.”

            Today perhaps. Tomorrow, who knows? We learn more about neurology, brain chemistry and good old psychology every day. The brain is a physical thing with physical properties. There is no reason to believe we will not continue to understand it better.

          • famadeo

            “There is no reason to believe we will not continue to understand it better.”

            Yeah, through a neurological of psychological angle. We already experience those things and they already provide us with a certain meaning. Whatever new strides science can make in this regard, it won’t be telling is anything interesting about what we are already experiencing

          • Farstrider

            You seem really confident that there are certain things we can never know. What basis do you have for this confidence?

          • famadeo

            “You seem really confident that there are certain things we can never know.”

            What we’re talking about are things we *do* know. Simply not through the lense of science.

            “What basis do you have for this confidence?”

            The fact that science is not *concieved* to adress these things.

          • Kurt H

            Not conceived by you, anyway. But that seems like a problem of your limited imagination, rather than science’s limited scope.

          • famadeo

            By me or by anyone. The scope of science’s capacity is limited by the fact that it is set out to adress certain types of questions and not others. Science has no *intent*, for example, in determining whether or not Crime and Punishment is a decent work of art, whether or not Jackson Pollock sucks, whether or not we should seize the day, nor do we need to wait on a neurological consensus to decide how we experience watching our favorite band play live.

            No scientist I ever heard of (not even the darling Richard Dawkins) claims to have such a pretense for their work.

          • Farstrider

            Your enjoyment of paintings, literature, art, music, etc happens in your brain. Your brain is a physical thing with physical processes. There is no reason to believe that we will never be able to understand how or why one enjoys such things.
            Perhaps, as you suggest, we might not be able to understand whether we ought to prefer one artwork over another, but that may be a nonsensical question.

  • MTM

    I am a six-day creationist, but I am not interested in denigrating Christians who disagree with me. I do believe that theistic evolution is in tension with other scriptural ideas, such as the doctrine that death is an “enemy”, something unnatural and undesirable. If evolution is correct, then death was actually part of God’s original design for the universe, and would therefore be something “very good”. If death is good, then why does God now promise us eternal life?

    I also do not contend that there is any scientific evidence that actually supports six-day creationism. I would not expect to find any because, when God created the universe, He created a mature universe that was ready to support complex life. The universe looks “old” (and therefore scientifically tests out as being old) because that is how it was made. The same is true of Adam himself, who was created as an adult (or at least as a school-aged child) rather than as an infant. If a doctor were to have examined Adam when Adam was an hour old, I doubt that he would have found any medical evidence whatsoever that Adam was, in fact, only an hour old.

    • martinbrock

      What good is a promise of eternal life without death?

    • Jeremy McLellan

      If it’s true that God created the world to look old, then declared that it was good, wouldn’t it be wonderful to learn and teach more about how old God made things look? If God created Adam to look 30 years old, wouldn’t it be good to say “Adam is 30 years old” since that’s what God wanted him to look like? As a young-earth creationist, you could endorse a standard textbook on evolutionary biology and then just add “God wanted it look like this happened.”

      • j r

        This is an interesting question. Is there an epistemological difference between a universe that is 14 billion years old and a universe that God created to appear 14 billion years?

        After all, I assume that space and time, matter and energy are all equally accessible for God to use.

        • Jeremy McLellan

          Not only that, but if I painted a picture of an adult ostrich, and you went around saying that (because I just painted it) it was in fact a picture of a baby ostrich, I would not appreciate it. Likewise, if you asked me to describe the Mona Lisa, I would not say it was a painting of a 500-year-old woman. Those would both be disrespectful to the artist. Likewise, Young Earth Creationists are convinced that God created the world 6,000 years ago to look like Bill Nye was right. But then then they turn around and say it doesn’t matter what God wanted us to think, they’re going to ruin it for him. That seems awfully rebellious.

    • Kevin Vallier

      I tried not to denigrate creationists generally, as many are friends and family. But Ham’s conduct and arguments deserve denigration because he deliberately bundles the Gospel and the Bible with creationism, which puts a stumbling block in front of people who would accept the Gospel. Surely you can agree with me on that much. Plus, he’s a public figure, so the justification for criticism is considerably lower.

      • Libertymike

        Is your standard for criticism justification inspired or otherwise influenced by New York Times v. Sullivan?

        • Kevin Vallier

          I’m afraid I don’t understand the two options.

          • Libertymike

            It is a reference to the heightened standard the Supreme Court imposed upon “public figure” plaintiffs in defamation cases.

  • Farstrider

    I suspect that people like Ham cannot accommodate evolution or other scientific doctrines because they believe that science will ultimately eradicate religion. The Hams of the world recognize that science leaves religious folks with little more than a god of the gaps argument — and every generation, if not every year or every day — the gap gets smaller. Science marches on while religion is in full retreat.

    I think they are right in this regard, by the way. Religion/science accommodationists are just fooling themselves to believe the contrary. Francis Collins and Kevin Vallier may be able to hold two inconsistent beliefs in their heads at one time, but their kids will be less likely to do so, and their kids even less likely, and so on, as it has proceeded apace since the Enlightenment. Ham is right to recognize and fear this. Science (writ large) has been making inexorable inroads into the domain of religion for centuries. Every question answered by science is one more that cannot be answered by religion. And almost everything religion has ever taught us about the natural world has been proven false – anything religion got right was accidental.

    • MTM

      D’oh! You forgot about the Doctrine of Providence:


      Um, perhaps the gaps are a little wider than you care to admit, and perhaps the march will never quite reach its destination. I have in front of me a publication from Scientific American titled “Extreme Physics: Probing the Mysteries of the Cosmos.” It is an up-to-the-minute (Summer 2013) summary of the state of the art in all the theoretical realms of physics. You may be interested in consulting it. It suggests that the more our theorists know about the fundamental questions, the more they realize there is to be learned. I don’t think that all these scientists are going to retire anytime soon because “everything that could be known is known, so there is nothing for me to do.” There is at least the real possibility that science will never arrive at the final “truth” about nature, which is one of the things I understand Thomas Kuhn to be saying in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

      • Yeah, Popper says it too. I think everyone who has studied science says the same thing.

      • Farstrider

        “perhaps the march will never quite reach its destination”
        But this was exactly my point! You can always cut the gap in half and say that’s where God is. Science moves forward, religion retreats. It’s Zeno’s Paradox in action.

        • Sven BornFree

          What I understand about science inquiry is that for every question answered raises 10 more. If so, that would render your assertion that ‘science narrows the gap’ to be false.

          • Farstrider

            If you think we do not know more now than we did 1000 years ago or 400 years ago or last year, then there is really nothing I can say in response.

          • Sven BornFree

            The number of answers is growing. But the ratio of answers to questions is not.

          • Farstrider

            Sounds like you agree with me, then. Every answer provided by science is one less that can be provided by religion, putting God in gaps that are always shrinking but never quite disappearing. Zeno’s Paradox.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Most religious people don’t expect their religion to provide these answers. You are incorrectly assuming the existence of a conflict, where they need be none.

          • Farstrider

            “You are incorrectly assuming the existence of a conflict, where they need be none.”

            Are we reading the same thread? This whole thread is about just such a conflict: Creationism! I’m not assuming anything. It is plain as day.

            “Most religious people don’t expect their religion to provide these answers.”

            My point exactly. They used to, but due to advancements in science, they do not anymore. As I said before, “The Hams of the world recognize that science leaves religious folks with little more than a god of the gaps argument — and every generation, if not every year or every day — the gap gets smaller. Science marches on while religion is in full retreat.”

            If you water down religion enough so that it says nothing about the material world and almost nothing about anything else, you can eliminate any potential conflict with reality. But query whether you really have much of a religion left anymore…

          • I am sympathetic to that idea, yet also puzzled by it. If religious theories are meant to explain, then they should be good explanations. If they are not meant to explain, what are they meant to do? To provide solace? But what kind of solace is derivable from a theory that explains nothing, or that explains only in an ad hoc (empty) way? Surely, any such solace would amount to self-deception?

            Can religious theories be good explanations? I don’t see why not. One approach would be to leave the physics alone and concentrate instead on the human, the moral, the social. Another (not necessarily separate) approach would be to focus on metaphysics. Explanations in metaphysics are not empirically falsifiable (otherwise they would be scientific, not metaphysical); but they are still criticisable and some stand up to criticism better than others. We can ask: what problems does the theory solve? how well does it solve them? does it provide unexpected solutions to other problems besides? does any other theory offer better solutions? This idea goes back to Popper’s generalisation of falsifiability into criticisability.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            All these are good questions, and I haven’t thought too much about the right answers. I like the metaphysical angle. It has often been said that religion (properly construed) purports to answer the “why” questions (e.g. what is the purpose of life?), not the scientific ones, and I agree with this fully. I don’t look to the Torah as an explanation of how we got here (evolution, etc.), but for moral instruction on how we are to live our lives, given certain basic assumptions that must come as a matter of faith.

          • J-Lib

            FS, i think it’s a funny notion that we think being 1,000, 3,000 or 6,000 years further from the events in question makes us, of all generations, supremely qualified to chronicle and interpret them.

      • Michael Philip

        We cannot know what is true except within the context of the knowledge available to us at a given time.

    • Sven BornFree

      You set out a false dichotomy here. If you are refering to geocentrism, religion did not derive that. The RC church was simply embracing the science of Ptolemy. Alot of ground work for the ‘science renaissance’ was built during the middle ages. You should read “God’s Philosophers” by James Hannam.

      • Farstrider

        It’s not a dichotomy at all. In fact, I am saying the opposite – these are not two different ways of looking at the (material) world. There is one way, based on evidence, testing, observation etc and then there is the other way. When they conflict, the latter always yields.
        Have religious people made important scientific discoveries? Absolutely. But by doing science, not by studying scripture.

        • Sven BornFree

          // and then there is this other way
          What is this other way? The only thing I can think that you may have in mind is claims of miraculous events such the ressurection of Jesus. As for the way nature normally operates, the judeo christian scriptures seem neutral if not assuming what we assume. When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, he was worried about the backlash of his society because everyone knew that it NORMALLY takes two to tango.

          • Farstrider

            I thought we were talking about creationism, the obvious example of the other way.

  • Don’t worry, Kevin. Ali G proved evolution to Kent Hovind a long time ago.

  • Anonymous1234

    Thanks for this, it was awesome.

  • Joel

    Kevin Vallier, I think you misunderstood Ham’s distinction between “historical science” and “observational science”. I didn’t think he was at all saying that historical science is futile or unknowable or uncertain. It seemed that his point was just that historical science requires drawing inferences, and inferences always require the use of outside assumptions. It seemed that his point was not that Nye’s inferring is faulty, but that Ham’s and Nye’s assumptions differ.

    You talk about “turning genuine empirical questions into philosophical ones,” but in a realm of inferences, every empirical question turns on one’s assumptions (and everyone’s got them), which necessarily makes it fundamentally a philosophical question as well.

    • Kevin Vallier

      I think the implication of the claim that “historical science requires drawing inferences” was used to generate a great deal of skepticism. Ham did say “you weren’t there” several times.

      I also think you’re playing a bit fast and loose with the term “assumptions” as if they’re all of the same type or variety. In some broad sense, everything we claim depends on certain philosophical assumptions, such as that the external world exists, the humans exist, etc., but that doesn’t mean they’re proximate to the dispute at hand. And the sleight-of-Ham we saw in the debate involved making *philosophical* assumptions too proximate to empirical claims.

      • Libertymike

        A post with a good pun always gets an up-vote.
        Well, good n’ theory.

  • Scott Ogawa

    Very interesting article. I am definitely an atheist, but I find militant atheists like Dawkins very annoying — so I share some of the same feelings, but from the other side.

  • ZPT205

    I’m not sure I watched the same debate as the author of this article. Nye was certainly not a representative of “atheistic evolutionists,” nor did he “allow Ham the assumption he was reading the bible properly.” Nye attacked the idea of taking the bible literally multiple times, and several times he mentioned the compatibility between religion and evolution.

    • martinbrock

      According to Vallier, Ney allows the assumption only in an isolated argument while resisting the assumption in other arguments, so your generalization is mistaken. Vallier asserts no generalization.

      The opening post exudes praise for Nye. I’m tempted to watch the debate only to find a few nits to pick with Nye myself, but any disagreement with Nye might only invite others to associate me with their stereotype of his opponent, and I don’t want to join a debate in which every disagreement with Nye is taken as a defense of Ham.

      • ZPT205

        The thing is, Nye’s attacks on Ham’s interpretation were sufficiently general to encompass that particular argument. Claiming that Ham’s interpretation was not necessary and simultaneously arguing for impossibility was a reasonable strategy.

        • martinbrock

          I haven’t seen the debate, and two hours is more time than I want to spend on it, so I take Vallier’s characterization of Nye’s characterization of the Biblical Flood story for granted. If Nye treats the story as a literal account, he makes the error that Vallier asserts. I see no reason to read the story as a literal account and every reason to read it as allegory, though it could have some foundation in literal truth. Great floods, if not literally Earth covering floods, are historical.

          • ZPT205

            But, again, he doesn’t “treat the story as a literal account” except insofar as he goes on to point out the impossible implications of it being literally true, and then goes on to say that there’s no reason to treat the bible literally. Nye’s not a theologian so him arguing that Noah’s ark shouldn’t be taken literally without at least explaining why the literal interpretation of the story is scientifically impossible would simply make no sense.

            If you don’t want to invest two hours, you can skip to Nye’s 30 minute presentation and then watch the four back-to-back 5 minute rebuttals afterward.

          • martinbrock

            If Nye disputes a global flood on scientific grounds only to argue that the Genesis story should not be taken literally, then Vallier is mistaken. I’ve seen enough debates on Creationism for one lifetime.

  • “sleight of hand”… But the meat of your discussion is solid. I am a “leaky creationist”; God created all, but time is irrelevant because God exists outside the realm of time. I also understand the evolution within a species, but I do not accept the notion that all life evolved from protoplasm. I am not, nor ever have been, a fan of Ham so I skipped the debate. I’m glad I did.

    • Farstrider

      “but I do not accept the notion that all life evolved from protoplasm”
      Evidence for your rejection of this “notion”?

      • martinbrock

        She doesn’t say “reject”. She says “do not accept”. Why does she need evidence not to accept a posited notion? Doesn’t the person positing a notion need the evidence?

        • Farstrider

          If 1000 witnesses saw a car accident and described it consistently, and one person (who was not there) states “I don’t accept that story”, don’t you think it is fair to push back on that a little? Ask why the nonwitness does not “accept” the testimony? Ask if they have any evidence to support their implicit proposition that all 1000 witnesses made a mistake or are lying? Seems like a fair question to me.
          Now multiple the 1000 witnesses by a bazillion and you have evolution.

          • martinbrock

            I don’t know what’s fair. You may push back on anything you like; however, nothing Stephanie says implies that anyone is mistaken, much less lying. She chose her words carefully, and I expect nothing else from her.

            You are not a witness to evolution, and neither is anyone else, and science, fortunately, is not a popularity contest.

          • Farstrider

            There is no middle ground here. Either you believe that the overwhelming majority of biologists are mistaken (or lying) about evolution, or you don’t. If the former, give a reason. If the latter, then you “accept the notion”.
            I suppose a third path is “I don’t know enough to have an opinion,” but no one is asserting that here.

          • martinbrock

            Now, you’re discussing the majority of biologists, who are a tiny minority of people generally. Ask Stephanie what she thinks the majority of biologists think, and you might find room for agreement.

            Yes, there is a middle ground. I can be agnostic on any specific question, and evolution is not a specific question anyway. It’s large body of questions.

            Regarding all life evolving from protoplasm, specifically, Stephanie says nothing ruling out, “I don’t know enough to have an opinion.” She doesn’t call you or anyone else a liar. Why make everything a battle between good and evil?

          • Farstrider

            Biologists’ opinions are the only ones that matter, because they know what they are talking about.
            “I don’t accept X” is not the same as “I don’t know if X is true”

          • martinbrock

            It’s the same as “I know X is not true” either.

          • Farstrider

            At best, the OP is guilty of sloppy language. By suggesting she does not “accept” evolution, she also suggests that it is a preference one can have or not have, like preferring certain ice cream flavors. It is not.

          • J-Lib

            Doesn’t require a direct observation but there should be enough evidence to make the conclusion plausible. It’s like presuming to reconstruct a three-hour opera given only five or six fuzzy snapshots — and no audio. The evidence for evolution (whether framed as goo-to-you, molecules-to-man, or whatever) , doesn’t begin to approach the realm of plausibility after 150 years of intensive research. Back to the drawing board, I say.

  • jim kirby

    I’m a physicist who has actually studied the Bible in English, Hebrew and Greek. Genesis 1 and 2 are inconsistent and contradictory but, so what?–the Bible talks of big fish hotels, talking snakes and donkeys, spontaneously burning bushes, unicorns, giants, angels and devils. None of these can be shown to exist.

    Take prayer, please. Won’t someone put an end to all this prayer nonsense by showing in a controlled experiment overseen by Francis Collins that prayer has no objective validity at all? That would be a whole hell of a lot easier than finding the Higgs Boson.

    Apart from all that, why would anyone want to pledge allegiance to a god so evil that he conspires with Satan to torture Job and murder innocent folks to satisfy a bet? My feelings are summed up by I Chron 26:18: “At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar.”

    • martinbrock

      If prayer has only subjective validity, why is that a problem, and what does someone else’s prayer cost you? What’s the subjective value of finding the Higgs Boson to anyone outside of the small group of people interested in such things?

      If God is omnipotent and omnipresent, then He clearly conspires in all suffering. A theology acknowledging this point, as Hebrew theology does in Job, seems remarkably enlightened to me. Denying suffering or attributing it to “others” seems less enlightened.

      • jim kirby

        The problem, dear Martinbrock, is that the Christianists keep interfering with my life with their public prayers, l ike the Pledge of Allegiance and their pollution of my coins and bills with god-talk. It would be best if such noxious Christianism were exterminated.

        Granted that god i s omnipotent and omniscient, Job proves that he is evil.You Christianists are entitled to suffering, with our blessing, but please stop inflicting needless suffering on the rest of us.

        • martinbrock

          How does someone else’s prayer interfere with your life? I oppose the state’s monopoly of money, but under the circumstances, aren’t coins and bills theirs as well as yours?

          If Job proves God evil, then it also proves Him good. The idea that God is only one or the other is later than Job, and the dualism doesn’t seem an improvement to me. In my way of thinking, both good and evil are artifacts.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            According to the Jewish mystical tradition, the Kabbalah, the deepest, most inner part of God, is beyond good and evil, indeed beyond anything that human beings can accurately say. Our categories simply don’t apply.

          • martinbrock

            I respect ancient traditions by trying to make sense of them within my modern paradigms. People in the past experience the same world (and thus the same G-d) that I experience, but they necessarily describe it in different terms.

            I want to be at peace with people with very different ways of viewing the world (as David Friedman puts it), and these people typically exist back then or over there. I can’t literally interact violently with people back then, but I can learn to interact peacefully with people over there by practicing this respect.

            Good and evil are human categories, and though I’m a pantheist and associate everything with G-d, a distinction between G-d and Man is nonetheless useful. A distinction between the natural and the artificial is similarly useful (and is practically the same distinction in my way of thinking), despite the fact that humanity and its products are within nature strictly speaking.

            So understanding the distinction this way, I have no significant problem with “G-d is beyond good and evil”.

            I also interpret the second commandment (the one on graven images) broadly to warn against confusing descriptions of things with things themselves, for fear of misrepresenting the things themselves, so I sometimes respect the Orthodox practice of avoiding even the word “God”.

          • J-Lib

            I have only one book on Kabbalah, but it seems a pretty good, old one. I’ve find it fascinating how it expounds “monotheism” as, in reality, monism. I.e., if there is only one God and he is infinite, how can there be anything outside him? Etc. Talk about a paradigm shift.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I’m no rabbi, nor even Orthodox, but I know enough to say that Judaism is a seriously misunderstood religion.

      • J-Lib

        And people call the biblical faiths “dualistic”!
        Yes, God “cospires in” — at the very least — allows all suffering. That is only half the story, I believe. The other half is in the redemption of all creation. Suffering is only the temporary scaffolding in the construction of that edifice. And, it is possible to read from scripture itself (i mean canonical scripture, of course) that every one, or practically every one, is redeemed in the end. That is the big picture.

  • Sean II

    “…whatever Nye did for science…he still helped reinforce a dichotomy that makes Christians feel like they have to reject evolution to be good followers of Jesus.”

    Yeah, it’s Bill Nye’s fault that so many Christians reject evolution. He just hasn’t done enough to erase that false dichotomy.

    It has nothing to do with the hundreds of millions of Christians who insist, on pain of damnation, that people should reject evolution.

    Nope, it’s up to Bill Nye (The Science Guy) to make it otherwise.

    Sounds fair to me.

  • reason60

    As a theist, I too am annoyed at the simple arroganve of those who posit that they have God and the creation of the universe all figured out, a theology of such hubris that admits no uncertainty and declares its truth of scientific precision.
    Like Bishop Usher, these folk deserve every bit of mockery that can be aimed at them.
    We really don’t understand the nature of God very well, any more than we can really grasp the concept of infinity in anything more than the most abstract way.
    Eternal questions of why evil exists, why God allowed the rupture between Himself and His created beings, well, no one can really pin that down with certainty.
    So I sympathize with atheists quite a bit- its a far stretch to accept that wild claims of us theists, even when we wave away all the fantastical narratives as metaphor.
    Yet the certitude from militant atheists is equally unsettling. Isn’t the entire project of civilization resting on moral postulates? Concepts like “all persons are morally equal” is entirely an assertion without a shred of empirical evidence.
    The existance of things like “rights” is every bit as fantastical as the existance of a “soul”.
    Ultimately, the reality of our existance is a narrative that we collectively agree to believe.

    • Farstrider

      First, only religious people have the arrogance that you describe. They purport to know fundamentally unknowable and incredible facts, based on no evidence. Worse, they purport to know that others’ views on these questions are wrong.
      Scientists, however, are willing to admit that their views are wrong when there is evidence to contradict them. Religious people, as Ham admitted in the debate, are unwilling to admit their beliefs are wrong regardless of the evidence against them. No scientist has ever said “we are certain God does not exist” – they only say “we have yet to see any evidence of him, or anything so inexplicable it that requires his existence.” As Sam Harris put it so well, you are as likely to see the arrogance you are describing at a scientific convention as you are to see nudity.
      Second, no scientist would ever say that you can find rights in nature, like you can find a flower or evolution. That is something philosophers say – and in my view, only the deeply silly philosophers. Rights are best understood as conventions a society recognizes in an effort to bring about a greater good. They are intangible, but hardly fantastical.

      • martinbrock

        A declaration of faith suspends disbelief rather than purporting to know the unknowable. Every system has axiomatic assumptions, the truth of which is not fundamentally knowable. Scientists generally acknowledge this fact when they speak of established scientific theory as “the standard model”. This model is not the truth. It’s the most widely accepted set of assumptions.

        I agree that rights (in your sense here) are social conventions, but many scientists say that you can find rights in nature. A physicist might not associate these rights with the standard model in physics, but many physicists nonetheless accept a Lockean formulation of natural rights for example. I don’t accept the Lockean formulation myself, strictly speaking, but some physicists undoubtedly do.

        • Farstrider

          There is no way Ham’s faith is merely a suspension of disbelief or wishful thinking. He is plainly asserting a historical, wildly improbable and incredible fact, with no evidence, and he is on record that no evidence will ever change his view. He is not making a prediction about future events. Your example of your son going to war is not historical, it is not wildly improbable or incredible, and it can be disproven by your son dying in combat. (I hope this is a hypothetical and this is not callous.)
          Science does not have the assumptions you attribute to it, except for some basic assumptions like assuming that our senses are reliable, etc. Sure you can criticize science on the basis of this assumption, but you can criticize anything by pointing out that we may all be plugged into the matrix in any event.
          I am unaware of any scientist who would assert (as a scientist) a right that can be found in nature. In nature, the strong do as they will and the weak suffer what they must. Surely, some scientists may also be philosophers, but they know the difference between those two hats.

          • martinbrock

            Ham’s thinking goes beyond faith to certitude.

            My example of a son going to war is an example of common usage of the word “faith”, not a personal experience. A declaration of faith commonly contains a phrase like “sure and certain hope”. The “hope” is sure and certain, not the tenet of faith. The tenet of faith is surely hoped.

            “Hope” does not suggest certain knowledge of the object of “hope”? “I hope to see you tomorrow” does not suggest that I know I’ll see you tomorrow, and “hope of everlasting life” does not suggest certain knowledge of ever lasting life either.

            I don’t attribute assumptions to “science”. I attribute them to the standard model in a scientific discipline. Science is a method rather than a body of knowledge.

            I suppose you aren’t aware of every scientist. Professional scientists are a diverse group. You’ll find a Lockean among them somewhere.

          • Farstrider

            The faith you are discussing is a legitimate usage of the word, but it is not the usage used in religion. A Christian does not hope Christ was resurrected, he believes it. His faith in the Packers is not like his faith in the Almighty.
            We are in agreement on your points re scientists.

  • J-Lib

    One thing is certain: evolution as proposed is such a breathtaking series of miracles, only a God could have made it happen. But —

    The question is, DID he? And if so, why did God make all the evidence disappear? Just screwing around with us? 
    Where are the thousands of transitional fossil forms that museums should be buried in, had anything resembling Darwinian evolution (or even “really quick” evolution) occurred, ever?
    ” In fact, the fossil record does not convincingly document a single transition from one species to another.”

    “Church Fathers” is a term peculiar to a certain religious organization that takes pride in its long gradual ( ahem) evolution from the original Christian faith, to something presumably superior. But the term is an anachronism: how can one have “fathered” something that began one, two, or three centuries prior? The only church fathers were the founders — Christ and his handpicked apostles. And as Ken Ham points out, Jesus endorsed Genesis as history, without qualification (never said “it’s an allegory”; a hearer would have rightly replied “an allegory of WHAT?”  So now, Jesus doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and you (as a Christian) now have a whole other set of problems. 

    I’m surprised you gave Nye a pass on this rather stupid argument:
    “One of Nye’s best moments came when he pointed out that Ham’s distinction makes no sense in astronomy, where the very act of looking into a telescope means looking back into the past billions of years.”

    Huh? No, it is direct observation of the phenomena. Looking at fossils and rocks is not direct observation of phenomena. It is looking at sparse leftovers of past unobserved phenomena, and guessing what happened. Materialist evolutionists paper over the huge gaps with highly speculative stories and artists’ renderings – then have the chutzpah to proclaim it the God’s Truth — while sneerIng at the religious ignoramuses over there who believe in faith-based dogma. Kevin Vallier may try to get in with the cool kids by tacking onto their myth what they regard as a wholly superfluous entity, since they insist, known material forces are sufficient to explain everything. Good luck with that.

    Me? I don’t possess  the faith to believe in the neo-Darwinists’ imaginative tales, and I refuse to say this most arrogant emperor is anything but butt naked. 

    BTW, a Darwinist establishment clinging white-knuckled to a failed paradigm, like the church establishment clinging to theirs centuries ago, perfectly illustrates Kuhn’s thesis.

    • Farstrider

      “One thing is certain: evolution as proposed is such a breathtaking series of miracles, only a God could have made it happen. …” – This is a funny kind of certainty, the kind that is unsupported by a shred of evidence, and in fact is contrary to all the evidence we do know.

      “Where are the thousands of transitional fossil forms that museums should be buried in, had anything resembling Darwinian evolution (or even “really quick” evolution) occurred, ever?” – They are actually in the museums. Go have a look and let us know what you find! Or read something. Perhaps start with two easy examples: and for example. (And there are more than thousands of them, FYI. There are “thousands” of fossils just for human evolution.)

      “No, it is direct observation of the phenomena.” – It is no more or less direct than looking at fossils. The light received by this planet actually left the stars millions or more years ago.

      “Materialist evolutionists paper over the huge gaps with highly speculative stories and artists’ renderings – then have the chutzpah to proclaim it the God’s Truth — while sneerIng at the religious ignoramuses over there who believe in faith-based dogma.” – No scientist proclaim’s anything as “God’s Truth,” because God has no role in science. Also, the “huge gaps” you claim are imaginary.

      “Me? I don’t possess the faith to believe in the neo-Darwinists’ imaginative tales, and I refuse to say this most arrogant emperor is anything but butt naked.” – You misunderstand the difference between faith and evidence. A rational person accepts evidence because it is evidence, no faith is required. You refuse (or are unable) to accept evidence because of your faith. A more accurate sentence would be “I refuse to abandon my faith in mythology no matter the evidence demonstrating it wrong.”

      “a Darwinist establishment clinging white-knuckled to a failed paradigm” – The only failed paradigm here is religion, which has been wrong about almost everything it has ever said about the material world. Anything it got right was by accident.

  • J-lib

    Wholly aside from the contention, no one should ever have an argument over what to teach in “public schools” as education should be provided privately.