Nye vs. Ham: The Broken Evolution/Creation Debate
by Benjamin Studebaker
Yesterday, on encouragement from my little brother, who is an aspirant aeronautical engineer and a huge Bill Nye fan, I watched the debate between Bill Nye (of Bill Nye the Science Guy) and Ken Ham, who is president of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. I also ran across this piece on Buzzfeed, in which Ham supporters ask lots of questions that, based on what I’m reading on my Facebook, don’t seem especially reasonable to Nye’s guys. Instead of contributing to the internet flame war, I’d like to try to use what philosophical skills I have to highlight what precisely the difference is between the two positions, because the gulf is incredibly vast, more vast than I believe most of the participants on either side of this debate commonly understand.
First off, here’s the entire debate if you want to go to the trouble of watching it. No worries, seeing the debate will not be necessary to understand the arguments I will make in the remainder of this piece:
If you go to any YouTube video vaguely related to religion, you can find lots of people angrily asserting and counter-asserting the supremacy of evolution and creationism. What you will not find are any individuals of either conviction changing sides in response to the debate. Why is this? Because proponents of evolution and creationism are so different in philosophical outlook that they do not have the same conception of what counts as evidence–their epistemological views are in total conflict.
Bill Nye has a scientific view of knowledge, which, in philosophical terms, amounts to empiricism. The scientific method captures what empiricism means:
- Identify a question about the world.
- Hypothesize an answer to that question.
- Test the hypothesis through a relevant and sound experiment in which the scientists makes observations about what happens in the world and records these observations as data.
- Analyze the data.
- Reach conclusions based on this analysis.
- The experiment must then be replicated many times to confirm that the results were not a fluke or a function of some unidentified additional variable.
If scientists can confirm through extensive replications that a given cause will always have a given effect, those scientists claim to have found a natural law. Scientists believe that natural laws are not subject to change. Using natural laws, scientists make predictions about both the past and the future, and insofar as those predictions come true or are established, the natural laws are upheld. If scientists come across any evidence that a theory or law is incorrect, scientists revise their position to reflect that additional evidence.
Scientists have a world view that philosophers call “a posteriori”; they presume no prior knowledge and make knowledge claims exclusively based on experience and observation.
Ham’s creationist view is in fundamental conflict with this. Ham starts not with an a posteriori assumption, but with an “a priori” one. Ham believes that there is something we know from intuition independent of experience, namely that there is a god, that this god created the universe, and that the book of Genesis literally describes the manner in which this god did this.
This is not to say that Ham rejects all a posteriori scientific reasoning, but because Ham starts from the a priori presumption of creation, Ham rejects any experiential claims that contradict his metaphysical intuition that god created the universe in accordance with Genesis. When Ham divides science into “observational” and “historical”, he is splitting science into two categories:
- Science that is consistent with Genesis.
- Science that is inconsistent with Genesis.
When someone like Bill Nye encounters someone like Ken Ham, the immediate question is why make any a priori assumptions at all? Why believe that your intuition, your faith, is of greater epistemic value than what we experience directly? When Ham encounters Nye, the question is inverted–how can you trust your human observations over the overriding intuition that god created the universe in accordance with Genesis?
The answer is that Nye, like all a posteriori philosophical thinkers, is skeptical of intuition as a source for any kind of truth. By contrast, Ham is fully confident in intuition, indeed, his worldview is so dependent on intuition that he believes that without it he would be wholly lost not only metaphysically, but morally. One of the Buzzfeed creationists asks:
Where do you derive objective meaning in life?
Some a posteriori thinkers are not objectivists. They fall into solipsism, moral nihilism, and all manner of revolting things. However, many a posteriori thinkers have very strong views about the objective, but they get these opinions from an entirely different place from a priori creationists. Among these are Bentham, Mill, Parfit, Singer, many others, and I count myself among them. A posteriori objectivists believe that meaning can be found through experience. There are things we want in life and things we do not want not because of a priori intuitions, but because of learned wants and needs that we have picked up through the interaction of our genetics and our socialization. We have experienced benefits and harms and we have come to want those things that benefit us and despise the things that harm us. These benefits and harms through our very experiencing of them give us reasons to behave the way we do. On this view, when we come into the world, we do not yet know what we want or what meaning our lives have. It is only through experiencing the pain of hunger that we learn we need food, through experiencing the joy of companionship that we learn to appreciate others, and so on down the line. There is no intrinsic a priori knowledge. On this view, our intuitions are viewed as mere social conditioning, the general rules we learned as children from our parents. They are fallible and should be questioned if new experiences contradict them.
This debate between a priori and a posteriori knowledge is incredibly old. Even the secular tradition has a priori thinkers, these thinkers just have different intuitions from those of Ken Ham. When someone like Kant claims that we should not treat people as a means not due to any experiential claims about what net effects this has on humanity but purely on the basis that his intuition tells him so, he is making the same kind of philosophical point as Ken Ham. The only reason Kant seems more reasonable to many secularists than Ham does is that Kant’s intuitions more closely track their own. So if Ham’s view is ridiculous, it is ridiculous for the very same reason that any intuitionist, a priori metaphysical or moral view is. And if these other views are not ridiculous, then neither is Ken Ham’s.
Because of the vast gulf between a posteriori thinkers like Nye and a priori thinkers like Ham, there can be no bridging of the divide, no dialectic synthesis. We must choose one or the other as our presumption. Either our gut feelings are indicative of universal truths, be they godly or not, or they are fallible reflections of our social conditioning, subject to revision, however difficult, in the face of new experiential evidence that well and truly tracks that truth.