Did Nye and Ham Really Debate Creation?

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I recently watched a debate, aired from the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum in Kentucky, between Ken Ham (degreed in Applied Science with an emphasis in Environmental Biology) and Bill Nye (degreed as a Mechanical Engineer and pupil of Carl Sagan).  The topic for the debate was “Is Creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” This is important.

To make his case, Bill Nye would have to show that creationism is not a viable model at all; Ken Ham would have to show that creationism is just as viable as any model because the scientist is working in God’s world.

Mind you, right off the bat, I’m surprised that Bill Nye would agree to this topic. Any debater would simply have to show that there was no inconsistency between science and any creationist religion to win the debate.

Indeed, Bill Nye, during the Q and A session, admits that there is absolutely no inconsistency between modern science and the belief in a creator God. He does make claims about how you don’t need God for the process of evolution (calling it a process that leads to complexity from the bottom up instead of a process that leads to complexity from the top-down) but he admits no inconsistency.

On that ground, Nye would have lost the debate.

Unfortunately, from the start, the debate had nothing to do with the debate topic. Indeed, the topic strayed so far that proponents (on either side) would clamor that their position won. 

The Debate Structure

The structure of the debate was awesome. It left me hoping that more debates could be done this way. A skilled moderator, skilled debaters who adhered to time limits by knowing exactly where to cut their responses, and plenty of time to properly represent each position.

Here’s the break down.

  • Five-minute openers: for summarizing their main talking points.
  • Thirty-minute presentations: enough time for the debaters to lay down,and give evidence for, their points.
  • Five-minute rebuttals and counter-rebuttals: first Ham, then a counter by Bill, then a counter by Ham, and a last counter by Bill.
  • Forty five minute question and answers: where each debater is asked a question, has a chance to give a two-minute response followed by a one-minute response from the opponent.

The structure was so great it led to the mistaken view that “My side won, hands down!” People confused making a thorough case for a victory.

The Tone

Frankly, going into the debate, I was nervous about how Ken Ham would act. I’ve seen how he presents his case, and I’ve seen how his fans act towards folk who believe otherwise so I went in praying that he wouldn’t do something to bring shame to the Gospel via his behavior.

Ham was actually congenial and enjoyable to watch. He was respectful of Mr. Nye, and even respectful of fellow Christians who believe in an old universe—even if he ignored most of their arguments.

Bill Nye was also a pleasure to watch. He knows how to be funny and always knows how to take his time to make his points. Instead of going full-on into a response to make his points, he tends to take the necessary time to contextualize his answers. In other words, he would bring people in with a great story.  It makes him fun to follow while showing his passion for his topic.

Extra points for the  awesome bow-tie .

The only time that I felt Nye’s tone was shaky was when he would start to talk about religious positions that he obviously didn’t agree with. You could see him even fixing a bit of his hair as he made his point, probably feeling some of the weight of the staring audience, and (invariably) he would pull back the punch from his comment and make it about a personal opinion instead of a more difficult-to-prove (and ultimately foolish) claim. The words “it doesn’t strike me as reasonable” were often repeated.

The Actual Debate Topics

Like I said, the debate was supposed to be “is creationism a viable model for today’s modern scientific era?” and here, both debaters failed.

Bill Nye changed the topic to Does Ken’s Ham’s creation model hold up—is it viable? Is it reasonable”

Time and time again he insists that the Young Earth Creationist model is Ken Ham’s model and added things like “Ken Ham’s followers”. Indeed, he would even pit The Outside (apparently, the rest of the people of the world including the scientific community) versus Ken Ham and those people in the inside (Ham’s followers and probably a bit of a rub against the Creation Museum).

Nye also aimed to show that the position didn’t match reason. Sure, he would offer several evidences but, in the end, he wouldn’t offer a scientific proclamation beyond saying it wasn’t reasonable to him and, he would say, the YEC worldview (not just the model) is both extraordinary and troubling. 

Ken Ham, similarly changed the debate topic: Creation is the only viable model of historical science that is confirmed by observational science in today’s modern scientific era.

Ham wanted to show that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of how people do science versus making statements on past events and he wants to show that the only way that really gives the right results is the one that starts with a specific understanding of Genesis 1 – 11.

Both debaters took the topic and made it about Young Earth Creationism—that would have been all right but it wasn’t the topic at hand.

Now, even if the debate topic was “Is Young Earth Creationism a viable model in today’s scientific era?” you might have something to talk about but, even then, I don’t think that there would be much work for Ham to do. All he would have to do is get a bunch of scientists, who are also Young Earth Creationists, and let them show what they’re doing in today’s modern scientific era.

Their Concerns

You see, both debaters were coming into the debate with some major concerns and that’s why they likely changed the topic.

Ham was concerned that the term science has been co-opted to mean something it isn’t. He is concerned that children are being taught a naturalist ideology instead of actual science—and thus they’re going to draw all sorts of wrong conclusions about the universe, science and God.

Nye was concerned that if people embrace YEC (what he calls Ken Ham’s Model) that they will not be able to do good science, that children will grow up not doing good science, that the United States will lose it’s position of economic prominence by being an innovator and, as a patriot, he doesn’t want that to happen.

Ken Ham’s Argument

Ken Ham’s argument for his topic of showing Creation as the only viable historical science model evidenced in observational science would have to be supported by several points:

  • First, showing that there is a difference between observational and historical science
  • Second, by showing what the Bible says
  • Third, by showing evidence in nature that supports what the Bible says
  • Fourth, by negating interpretations of the evidence on the basis of world-view
  • Fifth, by showing scientist who embrace Young Earth Creationism.

Repeatedly, Ken Ham showed that YEC is, what he calls, historical science. It is history so you really can’t put it under the microscope like you can modern science.  Things today, you can observe and repeat, but things in the past are unobservable and unique. What you need is to see if the evidence you observe today matches to what your historical explanation says it should.

Really, this is just a world-view question that essentially says what you think about the past colors how you interpret the evidence in the present. It’s a proper point that needs mentioning for his debate topic, but for the actual debate topic he would have been better off spending more time on the scientists who are Young Earth Creationists!

He paraded several PHDs who were actively involved in research and even had them stating their scientific position. None of them really made the conclusion of “I observe this and this leads me to YEC”. Rather, they would offer their professional opinion on the evidence and then say “and I am a ‘Biblical’ Creationist”.

I thought that was great evidence for the topic at hand because there you had people who were involved in science and were actual creationists—even if from the Young Earth camp.

Bill Nye himself even adds to the evidence later on by bringing up the director of the National Institute of Health being a devout Christian. Or the countless other religious people (many of them creationists) who believe in an Old Earth: case closed, your creationism works as a viable model in today’s scientific era because you’re actively involved in science and still strongly believing your creationist position!

But, like I said, they both made the debate about a young universe.

So Ham has to quote scripture that talks about “Animals according to their kinds” and then giving support for there being limited kinds (this isn’t species, a conflation error that Bill Nye makes later in the debate even if he eventually uses kinds against Ham regarding the time frame for all the species today); and quote Scripture about sin and death entering in after the fall; and quote Scripture about Noah’s flood and t; and quote Scripture about the Tower of Babel. Then, to follow up the quoting by showing the evidence the shows how the Scriptures was right.

An interesting thing occurred during the Q & A though. After being prodded throughout the entire debate about “Ken Ham’s model”, Ken Ham turns to Nye and clarifies that the Scripture is true: Noah’s flood happened; but the model of how it happened can change.

Here, he wasn’t showing that YEC is wrong, but he was showing that the positions of their examination of the details of the past and how they affect the present are liable to change depending on the current evidence.

That was a fairly humble, and similarly potentially debilitating claim to make since he was arguing against the Millions-Of-Years Position that they could only do observable science and that historical science was an imposed ideology on the past.

Bill Nye’s Argument

Bill really wanted folk to see that the Young Earth Creationism model (calling it Ken Ham’s model) didn’t align with reason, repeatedly bringing up Adolphe Quetele’s Reasonable Man position.

He offers several layers (pardon the pun) of evidence:

  • Layers of Dead Animals: the amount of animals and oil and fossils is much more than would be found in the 4,000 years since the flood.
  • Snow-Ice Layers: 680,000 layers of snow-ice cycles showing 680,000 years which is much more than 4,000 years since the flood.
  • Tree-Rings: older than 4,000 years old
  • Grand-Canyon Layers: not happening all over the world and no animals swimming upwards across layers (trying to save themselves from drowning during a flood)
  • Unlikelihood Of Noah’s Ark: shipbuilding is an unlikely skillset for Noah and seven other people.
  • The Amount of Species: more species than time since the flood
  • The Lack of Evidence for a Land Bridge: no Kangaroos found hopping from the middle-east to Australia
  • Evidence of Prediction: There were gaps that evolution predicted needed filling and they were filled when the gap-fillers were found
  • Evidence of The Big Bang: Radiation, acceleration of expansion, background noise, and
  • A Plea for Science: we need to be innovators.

None of his evidence really worked against Creationism en toto. But Nye wasn’t arguing against Creationism; he was arguing against Young Earth Creationism—so his goal winds up being showing evidence for an old earth, showing how unlikely it would be that what we have today is supportable by a world-wide flood.

His case for an Old Earth is pretty compelling.  His case against Noah’s capability with building ships was weak and Ham called him on the presupposition. His argument for species from kinds was sneaky—he even threw in fish and bacteria into his number for animals on the ark—and his plea for science was cute but pretty absurd. If naturalism is true patriotism is as equally valid as believing everything rests on turtles—naturalistic processes determined that those beliefs are necessary for survival.

And yet, in so offering his arguments, another couple of arguments snuck in which I could tell he was uncomfortable making, but which he offered nevertheless:

  • It is unreasonable to believe in an interpretation of a book that is very old and has been translated into modern English.
  • It is unreasonable that all these religious people, some of which never heard of the Bible and this model, are damned

That last one actually came up during the Q&A and by Nye vocalizing it, I immediately saw the veil pulled back to see that the issue is much deeper than a problem with Young Earth Creationism.

A friend of mine, very well versed in the original languages, pointed out that Nye was making a very good point. There are words that our English Bibles use that just aren’t in the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, we use the term “heart” for the seat of our emotions or the center of our being (imagine when you say “I love you from the bottom of my heart”)—ancient Hebrews didn’t use that organ at all. They would say something like “from the innards of my kidneys” but most Bibles don’t translate as kidney—they read heart. So, says my friend, Nye’s point of making conclusions on the text based on the English reading is a good one in that we should be careful when we do that.

But that isn’t the only thing Nye was doing.

Later on, Nye goes on to try to pigeon-hole Ham to be talking about being a wooden literalist in his reading of Scripture when Ham had at that time just pointed out that he reads Scripture “naturally” according to the context and genre. Instead of relying on the American English part, he falls back to the fact that the book is three thousand years old and recalls how, when he was a kid, he would play telephone and the message would change. Subsequently, Nye would attack the amount of translations as if that was evidence against trusting the Bible instead of confirmatory of what the original texts might have said!

So, when Nye asked Ham a direct question about the vast group of other religious people who never heard of Christianity and their eternal fate, you could fully see that he was bringing up the old problem of the exclusivity of Christian claims.

Other Issues

At this point I want to touch on some other issues in a sort of fly-by mode.

  • Ken Ham should have spent more time showing how modern scientists are actually creationists instead of only focusing on the YEC type.
  • Ham made a huge mistake by saying that his model didn’t offer any predictive ability and that it was frankly unprovable since it was derived from the Scripture. Of course, fideists might love his argument (there was none: I’m a Christian, this is the Word of God, therefore I believe it and nothing will change my mind) and, in some ways, it’s a proper statement to say—but it wasn’t the statement that even supported what he was arguing.
  • Ham employed a fair amount of a presuppositionist position: you do science in God’s world made me smile.
  • Ham was enjoyable in dropping interesting tid-bits on how modern scientists presuppose certain things and look for evidence in support of it. Indeed, Nye actually agreed that the majority does hold sway—but then he added that it was only true to a point. The point, he says, when the single piece of evidence changes everything. That struck me as a bit of an exaggeration and thought he should have made the more humble point of “when the evidence is unavoidable”.
  • Nye kept demanding some evidence of an animal swimming against the rock layers—good point that—or of a predictive element with creationism. I don’t know why it should have a predictive element if the thesis is that it was a one-time event. That’s like saying that our understanding of the events that led to the beginning of World War 1 should predict what we should see with later events—makes zero sense to me.
  • I thought Nye was put into a tough spot when he was asked some direct questions about the origins of consciousness and life and matter—he said “I don’t know” quite a few times—but he was so energetic with it that he made it into a plus. He was open to the search and the questions.
  • I think Nye misrepresented Ham a few times by saying for Ham, the evidence is the Bible full stop—for himself, the questions were compelling and drove him to keep asking.

Causing Problems

Here, some Aristotle would be helpful. Aristotle said that there are four causes for anything that has a cause.

You are reading this on a computer. We can look at that computer screen and ask “Why is there a computer here in front of me instead of nothing?”

You can come up with four answers, four causes, for the machine in front of you.

One answer has to do with the stuff that makes up a computer. The metal, the bits, the gold, the electricity—all of that stuff adds up to a computer. In other words, that stuff put together the way it is, is the reason that there is a computer in front of you instead of a pile of junk. They, together, are a computer.

But seeing the materials just tells you about materials. There are other just-as-good answers.

There’s a computer in front of you because some company aimed to take those material, piece it together a certain way, and then build it so that you can use it as a computer. The company had the idea—so there’s a computer—and they used the material to put the idea into reality.

But , you might also have a computer in front of you because, back in the day, there were enough events that led to the building of a computer at all. So you had folk that came up with a mathematical language of on and off; you have folk that are discovering the right elements; you have folk that are doing the research and all of that caused the discovery of how those things work together leading to a computer.

Then again, there’s also the fact that there was a need for a device that does computations and all that good stuff that computers now do. Someone(s) kept pushing the building of that machine because they needed to fill that purpose. They designed the Computer not merely based on parts, but on the basis of filling the intended purpose.  Indeed, that same purpose played into your decision to get a computer. You saw a need, you decided on a device that would fill the need, and you acquired the computer.

Nye and Ham fell into a trap. Albert Mohler (theologian and Young Earth Creationist) diagnoses it as a worldview collision and he’s partially right—but I also think that it has a lot to do with this confusion of causes.

Nye thinks that Ham stops at the Bible for his answers and Ham (ridiculously) agreed. His repeated answer to certain questions was “There is a book that tells us…”

And yeah, he’s right, “there is a book that tells us” quite a bit—but it doesn’t always tells us everything.

Nye was compelled and enamored by the search for the “how” and “what” of things in the universe by stating that we are the universe’s product for the universe to know itself. Having feet firmly planted in mid-air, he ascribes value to his hunt of an endless series of material cause simply on the grounds that it’s all about the search. Ham called him on that.

But, Ham downplayed the “how” in favor of the “why”. Or, speaking in Aristotle terms: he looked only at final cause instead of admitting material, formal, and efficient causes. That’s a huge problem too. Sure, the Bible says “God created the heavens and the earth. He made the stars too” as well as “the heavens declare the glory of God” but that doesn’t tell you how he made the heavens and earth, the stars too, and how they declare the glory of God!

All those great scientists that were driven to discovery did so because they were convinced of the What and the why but were seeking the how—and Ham, admitted that as well! He would say that scientists all do science in God’s World and they expect to find the laws they do because God set it up that way.

But, what should have Ham shaking in his boots is that he repeatedly set the YEC position as a HOW explanation that is taught in Scripture—and that, quite frankly, it is not. Even his explanation of why YEC had little to do with the creation account of Genesis 1 but everything to do with (1) how sin came into the world and (2) the mathematical computation of generations from Adam to Jesus then from Jesus to us.

On both sides of that discussion then I see a major problem: on Nye’s side I see a failure to consider that there is more than a How—there is a what that doesn’t put a full stop on the process and progress of scientific endeavors or research (past or present); on Ham’s side I see a failure of reading his How into the text and sometimes ignoring the observed how in favor of What God has done and why he has done it.

It’s a beautiful world out there and there are many questions that are discovered and we should be delighted to seek answers. Those questions should be best sought after by Christians who are convinced of an orderly God who is in control—we should expect to find answers, even if it takes billions of years to find them. We must be careful with any of our process conclusions if God hasn’t explicitly stated that he did it in such-and-such way.

That doesn’t mean that we should open ourselves to ignoring Scripture in favor of what we (think) observe—that would be falling into Nye’s error. No, rather, all our scientific conclusions should be exceedingly humble, diligently sought, constantly scrutinized, and always prioritized under God. We should be willing to allow a position to collapse in light of truth—if that means a belief in evolution or a belief in a young earth, then let it be.

Conclusion

I appreciated watching the debate for at least the format but, in the end, I was unsatisfied with the debaters and the topics they chose to discuss—even over the uninteresting topic they both agreed to discuss.

I think that the evidence for an Old Earth is going to leave some Young Earth Creationists taking a second look at their position but, hopefully, they have their faith built on the right foundation.

We can thank Nye for that even if his other points are exceptionally weak and fraught with misunderstandings generated from his naturalistic world-view.

What disturbed me most was one of Ken Han’s answers during the Q&A. He was asked “Hypothetically, if evidence existed that caused you to have to admit that the Earth was older than 10,000 years and creation did not occur over six days would you still believe (1) in God, (2) the Historical Jesus of Nazareth, and (3) that Jesus was the son of God?”

His answer should have been an emphatic and resounding three-timed “yes!” (1) Yes I would still believe in God, (2) Yes I would still believe in the Historical Jesus of Nazareth and (3) Yes, Jesus was the son of God!

Instead his weak answer was “there is no possibility of this occurring since there’s nothing in observational science that contradicts any of this.”

What an utter mistake. He could have played along but, in so doing, he perceived some sort of trap for his Young Earth position. But, if anything, it would have been an admittance of things that are of First Priority.

So, even though the debate was interesting I wouldn’t recommend it. Will this review make anyone happy? I doubt it.

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