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Why we need an honest debate… and why the Ham-on-Nye conversation was a step in the right direction

    By Pavel Stankov. February 27, 2014 - 2:00 pm

Bill Nye & Ken Ham debate 2

Recently my good friend Mark Brians wrote an article in comment of the recent debate between educator and former TV host Bill Nye “the Science Guy” and CEO of the Creation Museum Ken Ham. The talk was titled “Is Creationism a Viable Model of Origins in Today’s Modern Scientific Era?” and took place on Feb. 4 at Ham’s $27 million facility in Petersburg, Kentucky.

Of course such a debate makes no difference for science (the “problem” was settled with the advance of molecular biology 70 years ago), but in a country where a third of the population insists all species have existed in their present form since the beginning of time – often less than 10,000 years ago – it has important social and political implications. According to one estimate 3 million people watched the debate; it was all the rage on social media, and discussions about it continue.

I take issue with Mark’s thesis that the “Ham on Nye” debate was unsatisfactory because it failed to address any of the big questions.

In my opinion, it wasn’t supposed to. The topic was whether creationism could be considered science and taught in biology classes, an odd political dilemma that is hardly comprehensible to anyone outside of the U.S. or a few Muslim countries. And according to a poll by Christian Today, there was a unilateral winner of the debate and it wasn’t the one endorsing pseudoscience. (Surprisingly, Ken Ham is disgruntled by the backlash from saner Christians and Bill Nye’s triumphant appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher. Nye admits thinking that the CEO of Answers in Genesis was a charlatan before realizing Ham genuinely believes in the literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis.

The point is that the speakers didn’t profess to talk about anything outside the topic of creationism’s legitimacy; it was not meant to be a discussion between religion and science. What the debate shows, nevertheless, and why it’s important for people to see it, is that there are two very different ways of approaching reality. We can’t say Ham and Nye were discussing ontologically distinct subjects that call for distinct methodologies; no, they were both talking about what is in the world, what happened, happens, the evidence about it and the lack thereof. This is why an argument about some different spheres where the debaters operated doesn’t work. Ken Ham wanted to discuss scientific claims with the language of positivism and evidence and, of course, lost because his hypothesis has no merit on such terms.

This did not discourage Young Earth Creationists who don’t understand the world like most of us – to them the Universe is pregnant with intention and purpose – and, frankly, they don’t care what language the debate was supposed to use because they will support the unsupportable no matter what. One blogger, for instance, titled his post “Why I Believe Ken Ham Won By Losing The Debate” and wrote: “[Ken Ham’s] objective was not to debate!” (emphasis in original), but to preach the Gospel. Another shared a telling statement: “I was delighted to see the irritation in Nye’s face every time [Ham] went back to the Book.” He also added how impressed he was with his pastor’s coping strategy: “After watching the Nye/Ham debate last night I walked away with this one truth: I am not a ‘reasonable man’ I am a sinner saved by God’s grace. I will build my life on that foundation.”

Many advised Nye not to engage with creationists in first place, echoing a sentiment shared by both Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins: if scientists give the time and effort to refute kindergarten logic, dishonesty, and false claims, the latter get valuable exposure on par with serious academics in the eyes of the public. Adam Rutherford, editor of science journal Nature, for instance, wrote in the Guardian: “If you wrestle with a pig, the pig likes it, and you get dirty.” Others like Michael Schulson in The Daily Beast and Mark Joseph Stern in Slate argue that Nye was doomed to lose by simply agreeing to participate because it gave legitimacy to Ham’s cause.

I think people should be given credibility a priori until they start losing it by virtue of non-arguments. Fears of allowing legitimacy are insubstantial when we are on the side of Truth. (Ultimately, to find whether we’re on that side, we need to be genuinely open and honest.) And why not allow legitimacy … for the sake of the argument? Bill Nye proved how easy it is to debunk the preposterous claim the world was created in 4,004 BCE, that is, after the Sumerians invented the wheel. What’s more important, he did it in a respectful and non-invasive manner, not by shouting Ham down as less efficient communicators on both sides of this strange quarrel sometimes do. One reason he was able to “win” is because Ham actually played fair and stayed on topic (well, except for the typical theistic excursions into the territory of moral implications, but more on that later), which allowed the discussion to focus on what the two men had set to find out.

It would be unreasonable to expect Nye and Ham to truly venture into deeper ontology when the argument stopped at the narrow topic of pseudoscience and was agreed to remain there beforehand. Besides, neither Nye nor Ham are prepared for a serious philosophical debate; someone actually trained in the discipline – like rigorous theologian William Lane Craig, the nemesis of many secular debaters – would pose a more interesting challenge. But he would need an appropriate match, and not Nye whose expertise is certainly not logic or cosmological arguments.

Nye was there to talk about what we know, and not speculate. This is why secular writer Dan Arel, who had also previously advised the educator to ignore Ham’s invitation, called Nye a winner after the two starkly different answers to the fundamental question “What would change your mind?” Appearing visibly distressed Ham mumbled about being Christian while Nye simply responded: “One piece of evidence.” The excerpt is quite telling of the entire dialogue; have a look at it – it’s only three minutes.

And here we come to the larger issue: there are two profoundly different systems of engaging with the world. This is evident on one hand from epistemology – or how we come to know the things we know and what sort of knowledge that is – and, on the other hand, from different approaches to the most important question: that of value.

There are different intentions of seeing reality and these are as much evident from the debate itself as from the current conversation. For example: Mark defines “fundamentalism” in part as “refusal to participate or engage with other belief systems.” Nye would be very surprised to hear he had anything to say about a belief system, any belief system, when discussing the achievements of science.

Another example: how many times was the word “believe” used in this article until now? Twice – one referring to Ham’s genuine attitude to creationism and another in a quotation from the title of a blogpost.

Bill Nye & Ken Ham Debate

The point is that the attitude of hopeful intention toward the truth value of unsupported statements is not very characteristic of secular people. That is something the religious minded continuously fail to notice when they talk to us and it’s especially annoying in the headslapping insistence that non-dogmatic ways of relating to the world like atheism, agnosticism, “Darwinism” are somehow religions.

Related is another horrible assumption, a bridge to the problem of finding value in the world. Western tradition has set up those false dichotomies between heart and brain, emotion and rationality, art and reason. We often train ourselves to think that one precludes the other. In fact, and it is a fact, not only are there no such boundaries, but thinking there are is detrimental to either. Rationality gives light to everything else and is made stronger by beauty. Materialism (even of the most “heartless” variety – physicalism) doesn’t prevent us from enjoying art, writing gorgeous music or poetry, being inspired by Love, devoting our lives to the truly important, and doing all the good things we humans have become very adapt at and make the journey worth it.

Take music, for instance. When we understand the theory behind it and the science of acoustics, it becomes even more beautiful. Harmonies and cadences make sense and reveal the orderly world of our psychology, aural perception, and physics. Or let’s consider Love. When we find out it’s induced by chemicals in our brains, does that find make it less real? Does it invalidate all of the mesmerizing art ever created about it? Does it prevent us with the stern hush of authoritarianism from even attempting to find order fearing that knowledge will somehow diminish its intrinsic value? There will always be some mystery. But it’s best to push that mystery back and discover more about the natural world and educate each other. The more we push it back, the more beautiful it becomes.

But that doesn’t mean anything. We would be fundamentally mistaken trying to derive value from how things are. Both beauty and moral goodness are human things and it would be a mark of misjudgment to labor to relate them to how the world works.

Let’s not fall for the naturalistic fallacy now. It makes a lot of sense why religious people are horrified at the prospect of modern developments of cosmology and biology: not only we’re not in the center (there’s really no center), but the cultic submission to authority – what was considered the sole pattern of order in the Universe – is gone. Oh my! What now? Evolution implies that the world is moved by some “survival of the fittest” principles, with no divine Love, no purpose, no compassion. The world is fluid, multifaceted, seemingly chaotic. So what’s a mere human to do? Where could we find consolation and hope?

This is the kind of unimaginative thinking that has stalled human progress for millennia. And the answer?  It’s already in us! We’re not discovering anything new, but merely taking it to its logical conclusion. When selectively reading our traditions we’re already using reason and ethical sensitivity informed by long and painful developments, by honest and thorough conversations.

In one sense Ken Ham is absolutely right; Mark may call it fundamentalism, but others would be perfectly justified to think of it as integrity. When the almost universally despised Bill Maher ambushed Ham in his “museum,” or, as Nye properly calls it, “facility,” the CEO explained the literal interpretation of the Bible with the iron logic any five year old would understand: ”If you’re saying this part over here – it says God made animals and man on the same day – is not true, then ultimately why should I believe this bit over here?”

I am not being sarcastic: that’s a very good question. Why pick Sermon of the Mount and leave that embarrassing story about the talking snake or a creation over six 24-hour days or the outright genocide of Deuteronomy? Who decides what we interpret metaphorically and what is hands-down true? Why not take it all the way? Why don’t we treat each other like Afghan warlords would, that is, if we were to take certain parts of the Old Testament literally? But here even Ken Ham is inconsistent because he discriminates between passages when it comes to Ethics. To do otherwise would be to get arrested!

But think: why do moderately religious people pick and choose what they like? What is the criterion? And how did we decide our laws? I would be very surprised to learn it’s not a fundamentally secular one. Is it not because of evaluating morality with the same rational faculties we all have? Let’s not divide each other in camps based on who uses reason to evaluate our world and who doesn’t because we all do. But there’s quantitative difference in how many of us are honest to admit it. Why tell ourselves we couldn’t do without those sacred prescriptions we’ve inherited when we’re already doing without them? It’s ironic who actually lives in bad faith.

Religion has been changing because of our minds. So why not save us the trouble? Is it really that scary to declare we’re flying alone when we’ve been doing it the entire time? Or will we fall like a cartoon character once we look down?

Religion is not compatible with science. Nor when it comes to explaining the world in terms of facts and nor when it comes to explaining morality in terms of reason. You need to pick one approach for each piece of information: either you think from the inside out, aligning data and attitudes with what you’ve already decided to know, or you’re open to evidence and reason and build everything that matters from there. It’s not only about intellectual honesty, but also about the most moral life. It’s about realizing the unimaginable potential of each of us It’s about being the best person we can be.

The claim that we derive moral behavior only from unobservable masters is not only a failure of imagination, it’s a failure of compassion.

This is the last stage, people. The last fortress in the war of the human brain against itself. We have established that we can get closer to the Truth with no superstition and discover the amazing and complex world around us. The metaphysics of some barbaric desert tribe at the dawn of history are nothing but a source of embarrassment, an anachronism. Now the last frontier before the real beginning of human development is religion’s odd insistence that it and only it has any say on Ethics. Axiology is not only possible without theology, it is more refined, more varied, deeper, more interesting, infinitely more humane. Axiology without theology is the beginning of true history. We’re almost there. We need to release our minds from what’s holding them down, hands tied and eyes blindfolded, to the lowly ground of uncritical adherence to That Which Cannot Be Wrong and its equally infallible messengers.

Go ahead and see these two profoundly different ways of engaging with the world. Think for yourself. We’re getting a little closer to the Truth with every clear argument, with every sparkle of reason. We are all very limited and we can’t reach the answers individually, but we can build on the long belabored painstaking meticulous reasoning of others. This is how science and technology have made everything around us possible – by challenging common knowledge and attitudes. By being open. By not being afraid to face the uncertainty of what is counter-intuitive and falling back on the primordial, easy explanation.

Those of us who are genuinely interested in the Truth can’t have any reason to eschew dialogue. Debates like those are fundamentally important not only to our scientific, but to our moral progress. This is why, to all who want to challenge the understanding of the world with respect, rigor, and clarity: Bring it on, baby!

Photos: stills from youtube.