Wednesday, February 05, 2014

My Opinion on the Creation Debate

Last night, Bill Nye and Ken Ham debated each other on the subject of whether Creationism is a scientifically defensible point of view, worthy of being taught in our schools along with Evolution. The debate was held at the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky, and in addition to a packed house with guests from several dozen states, there were over 1/2 million people who were streaming the debate online. Carolina and I watched it together over dinner. If you missed it, here is one person's discussion notes that are reasonably well done.
Strong points of the event:
Bill Nye
From a pure debating perspective, Nye was the clear winner of the night. He made some important points in ways that were very understandable. For example:
  • He showed a tree that we believe to be about 10,000 years old and asked, "How could the earth be only 6,000 years old?"
  • He demonstrated layers of ice which our data tells us take about 1 year to form each. He pointed to places where there are 690,000 layers of this kind of ice. Even if the earth wasn't 690,000 years old, it is not unreasonable to suggest that more than 6,000 years would be necessary for this to form.
  • He explained distances from the stars to the earth and explained how we measure these in light years, checking on distances based on the movement of the earth, looking to their relative positions from where we know the earth is currently. For many of them to be billions of light years away, it means that when we look at stars, it seems that we are looking at light they produced billions of years ago.
When a scientist points to these kinds of things and says, "It just looks like the earth is a lot older than 6,000 years," I think Nye shows that they are not necessarily pushing an agenda in saying so. Using methods they believe to be reliable, this is what they see, and this is therefore how they interpret it. Nye's presentation of clear data, coupled with Ham's failure substantively to counter much of it really strengthened his case for the age of the earth being much older than Ham claims. His case for evolution was not so strong, but he put great pressure on Ham to prove the earth is younger than it appears.

Ken Ham
I think Ham made some important observations as well.
  • Though scientists do not like to admit differences in observational sciences versus historical sciences, Ham made a good case that these differences do exist and should be accounted for. 
  • I think the best data that Ham presented for his own view as a creationist were the creation "orchard" charts, showing that many animals have common ancestry within their own type of animal, but that there really are not archaeological connections between types of animals, where one becomes another. This was probably the best example of how the evolutionist model requires much faith. The evolutionist idea of one common ancestor for all life has large gaps requiring faith, where the creationist model of kinds of animals being made requires no such gap. 
  • To counter Nye's point about layers of rock indicating a much older age, Ham gave an example of a supposedly young rock inexplicably encapsulated in a supposedly much older rock. This was his strongest evidence in countering some of the dating methods utilized by mainstream scientists for dating the earth.
  • He also had an excellent counter point about how no evolutionist has produced evidence of one kind of animal becoming another. When there is adaptation, it has always been something like an on-off switch, built into the genetics of the animal; not a new set of genetics.
  • Importantly, the questions are raised about how consciousness could come from non-consciousness, how information could come from randomness, and if the big bang was a result of molecules exploding, where did the molecules come from? I would have to say, however, that none of these questions, while excellent arguments for a Designer, makes any valid point necessitating a young earth.
  • Ham presented a number of scientists who have made great contributions in their fields who are also young earth creationists. I think he made a good case that one can be both a young earth creationist and a gifted scientist.
Weaknesses in the Debate:
Bill Nye
  • Nye tried to make several tired old arguments about how Christians like to be selectively literal in how they read the Bible, and how can we like parts of the Bible but not follow all the laws of Leviticus, etc. To someone with a strong Biblical background, he sounded woefully ignorant. But watching the twitter feed, it was obvious that many people who are also Biblically ignorant think he was making a good point. But this line of argument will fail miserably at winning over his opponents.
  • On several points about the advantage of a single common ancestor theory over the different kinds of animals theory, he raised no good points. On the other points about the origins of life, on the origins of intelligence, or of what would have caused a big bang to begin with, he really had no counters. "It's a great mystery!" He tried to put a positive spin on this by saying we should keep the enthusiasm for discovery alive by continuing to look for explanations of these things. 
  • Nye continued to assert that if we don't teach good evolutionary science in our schools, America will fail. Not that the sciences aren't important, but I don't think the biggest problems facing America are from our failure to study science enough. I'd place it much more on our moral shortcomings (greed, infidelity, etc.) that have led to the dissolving of families, and therefore the undermining of our youth's potential. A smart kid with a terrible home life has much fewer chances of making contributions to the world, no matter how much science you teach them.
Ken Ham
  • Ham's first biggest weakness was that instead of opting for good data, he generally opted for name dropping. "This really smart scientist agrees with me and says you don't have to think what Bill Nye is suggesting." That lends a bit of credibility, but rather than have scientists talk about their credentials, it would have been much better to have them present data as to why the mainstream theories about aging the earth are fallacious. Nye dealt primarily with data; Ham relied primarily on name dropping. 
  • Ham's other biggest weakness was that in response to Nye's accusation that his only reasoning for what he believed was because a 3,000 year old book made these claims, he responded by just quoting the Bible and quoting God's plan for saving mankind from sin. Several times, he had opportunities to respond to Nye with counter data, but instead said, "I believe this because the Bible tells me so." 
  • Ham spent most of his counter points trying to question Nye's dating methods. He did not provide a better dating method; he only suggested that many mainstream dating methods can be wrong. Even if this does weaken Nye's position, it does not necessarily strengthen his own. I wish Ham would have talked about alternate interpretations of the universal expansion theory, or the amount of water present on the earth, or about anomalies in the fossil record. When Nye kept begging that Ham show him an animal in the wrong layer of fossilized rock, Ham could have countered about the scientist's tendency to keep adjusting his theory to embrace the data, rather than abandoning his theory. (Finding a rabbit in the wrong layer would change a scientist's theory about when rabbits lived; not about how old the layer is.)
Overall, I'd have to say that Nye was the winner of the debate. Nye dealt primarily in data. The issue at hand for the evening was: Is Young Earth Creationism a Scientifically Defensible Position? Nye gave evidence for why he believes it isn't. Ham tried to question some of Nye's methodology, but did not really produce much counter evidence. When Nye expressed his fear that Creationism relies much more heavily on the Bible than it does on the evidence, Ham confirmed this by his responses. He only quoted Scripture, rather than citing scientific evidence favoring a younger earth. I'm a huge fan of Scripture, but that wasn't the subject for the debate. I saw one person state it well on twitter: "This evening was one guy who isn't a scientist debating another guy who isn't a theologian." Much of the evening they weren't really talking to each other, but Nye stayed on topic, and therefore won the debate.

It was an engaging way to spend the evening. My personal views are that I am a creationist, and I believe God acted in space and in time to shape the earth into what it is now, and to make all living things that exist on the earth. I have never seen any good evidence of one species producing a different species, nor do I find the naturalistic worldview capable of explaining the origins of life or the fine-tuning of the cosmos; much less providing a basis for moral thought. I believe that God revealed himself most fully in Jesus of Nazareth, whose missing body can best be accounted for by the claim that he raised from the dead, as confirmed by hundreds of eyewitnesses who would die rather than deny this claim. I am, however, thus far unconvinced that a fair reading of Genesis requires a view that creation was ex nihilo, or that the earth couldn't be much older than 6,000 years at the time at which the Genesis account of Creation begins. There may be evidence to the contrary, but Ham didn't present it. 

I hope that the overall outcome of the debate will be that it pushes people to continue to search for answers to these important questions. I feel a bit sorry for Ham, as he hosted the event, is selling the DVDs on his website, but did not win the debate, as I interpret it. Rather than Ham's approach, if you have an interest in Christian apologetics, two names I recommend strongly are Ravi Zacharias and William Lane Craig. Craig especially has a reputation for converting a lot of atheists through his impenetrable logic (His Kalam Cosmological Argument is rock solid). Both of these do a superb job of expressing the validity of the Christian faith, and exposing the weaknesses of a naturalistic worldview. One of my favorite activities while eating lunch is to watch presentations by either of these men on YouTube. 

I'd be glad to hear your impressions of the debate. This was the most highly publicized discussion on the subject since the Scopes-Monkey trial of 1925.
Hope you are having a great week,


James T Wood said...

You done a great job of outlining this debate. Thanks for the honest and clear overview of what happened last night (I had to go to a rehearsal).

A debate of theology vs. science doesn't really help anyone.

Mark said...

Thanks so much, James! I'm flattered to discover anyone still checks this blog at all. haha

Cheree Moore said...

Your blog is still in my reader, and I still appreciate reading your perspective on events and ideas.

These days it seems as if debates and discussions (especially those involving religious matters or politics) often become like people shouting at each other in different languages, fully expecting to be understood... And not comprehending why the other side doesn't understand them.

Mark said...

Thanks, Cheree! Ever since they dropped Google Reader, I've had a hard time keeping up with feeds. I don't care much for Feedly, and haven't found any other service I like, really.

I have maintained for several years that more than anything, our young people need to receive full training in the use of rhetoric, so that they can articulate things well and understand arguments as they are presented. We have a chronic problem with communicating well in response to the communication of others. I think in part, since their responses were already crafted, more or less--complete with slides, it made it seem less like they were speaking to each other, and more like a continuation of what they already wanted to say.