I've been really thinking a lot about this debate over the last few days. Here are a few of my thoughts on this.
First, the format and style of the debate was excellent. The pace was fast and interesting. I've seen debates where the speakers give very long position statements. The statements provided by Nye and Ham seemed much shorter and to the point. Yes, you lose some depth, but I'm not sure you lose much. The primary points of any argument can be laid out relatively quick. Moreover, the most impressive thing in terms of the format/style was the presenters themselves. While it is tempting to want an exchange between the presenters, I was impressed with how both speakers were very respectful of the other's time. Moreover, while they clearly disagreed, they did so without being overly demeaning, without intentionally misrepresenting the other's argument, without going too far off topic (it's inevitable this will happen somewhat), or interrupting each other. I think there is a lot to learn about debating in this respect.
More substantially, there are a number of things in the debate and surrounding the debate worth noting. The first two of my observations have been already noted by Al Mohler and Richard Phillips. The first of these is that the Ham/Nye debate illustrates the clash of worldviews. Al Mohler wrote, "Ham and Nye were separated by infinite intellectual space. They shared the stage, but they do not live in the same intellectual world. Nye is truly committed to a materialistic and naturalistic worldview. Ham is an evangelical Christian committed to the authority of the Bible. The clash of ultimate worldview questions was vividly displayed for all to see." Similarly, Richard Phillips wrote, "It was glaringly obvious that Ham and Nye view the data before them through the lenses of two differing worldviews."
I wasn't able to tune into the debate until about half-way. (I've watched the whole thing twice at this point, though). When I tuned in, I was rolling my eyes that Ham consistently and relentlessly kept saying "the Bible says so" as a defense of his position. Who could be convinced by that when Nye has tree-rings, ice layers, fossils, etc? Won't creationist simply look silly to a non-believing world? Perhaps, but now that I've watched the whole thing and considered Mohler's and Phillip's very helpful commentaries on the debate, I actually have an entirely different perspective and a profound respect for Ham's performance. Ham didn't just get up to say the Bible tells me so blindly. He took an honest position by admitting his presuppositions. It is Nye who never did this. As Mohler notes, "Both operate in basically closed intellectual systems. The main problem is that Ken Ham knows this to be the case, but Bill Nye apparently does not. Ham was consistently bold in citing his confidence in God, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and in the full authority and divine inspiration of the Bible....Nye seems to believe that he is genuinely open to any and all new information, but it is clear that his ultimate intellectual authority is the prevailing scientific consensus." Similarly, Phillips observed, "...the only approach that can be reasonably fruitful in debates like this is one that subjects the underlying assumptions to critique."
Any answers evidence provides depends on whether one believes in the plain reading of Scripture and a super-natural world or one believes in a naturalistic world.
The second related observation touched on in Mohler's and Phillips' comments that I'd like to reiterate is the prevailing assumption that the naturalist, scientist--Nye et al.--is the seeker of genuine truth. This is not only insulting, for it (falsely) assumes motives unique to the super-naturalist, it is also naive. It is naive to believe that anyone has no presuppositions, no hopes or desires about the outcome of the data. It is also naive to believe that the evidence tells its own story. Science doesn't work that way, and Nye and Ham know this. Data is interpretable. That doesn't mean all interpretations are equally good or valid, but it does mean that data provides information in more or less clear ways. Moreover, one's assumptions provide a basis for an interpretation.
The Intellectual Climate
One of the most surprising aspects that came from the debate was the debate over the debate--namely, "should the debate occur?" Most vocal in this was a portion of the scientific community who said Nye shouldn't dignify the creation-view with a debate. This aspect probably says something about who has the 'upper-hand' in this issue, or at least, who believes they have the upper hand.
More surprisingly were those who simply didn't want the debate to happen because they didn't want to debate. I became aware of this from this Daily Beast article. The author sarcastically writes, "On many mornings, I wake up and think, 'You know what this country needs? More culture war.' As I scramble up a couple eggs, I find myself wishing—fervently wishing—that we could spend more time reducing substantive issues to mere spectacle. Later, as I scrub the pan, I’ll fantasize about how those very spectacles might even funnel money toward some of the country’s most politicized religious groups. Fortunately, Bill 'the Science Guy' Nye has heard my wish—which, really, is the wish of a nation."
This latter position is particularly troubling to me. The sense is that we should just all get along--why stir up trouble when we could keep on going, but really what the author means is that the status quo is sufficient. To the extent that the scientific communities' position that Nye shouldn't even dignify creation with a response is a reflection of their upper hand, the real message from the Daily Beast is: be quiet. We're fine with the way things are; let's not talk about it. Ham has been accused by the same publication as being anti-intellectual, but let's look at the evidence: who doesn't even want to engage in a discussion? My hope is that the general public would rather have a meaningful discussion about substantial issues, rather than bury their heads or watch another episode of The Bachelor. Based on the ratings of the debate I heard about, I think they do. This is good news.
Does A Creation View Hurt Science?
Nye is most clearly concerned that a creation view would retard the progress of science and discovery. He never provided any evidence of this (anecdotal or otherwise). Ham, however, showed several examples that this was not the case. Indeed, those that believe in a creation account have a genuine interest in discovery and have made substantial contributions. To be sure, it is the Christian who should have a genuine concern about climate change. (It doesn't mean we would propose the same solutions--more government regulation--, but this shouldn't prevent us from learning about these changes and responding to them). Christians can and should have an interest in space travel, medical advancements, and more. Nothing about a creation worldview should prevent these interests or investigations.
Nye seemed to believe that a creation-believing scientists might do science differently. I'm not sure how that is the case, nor did I see him provide any evidence (anecdotal or otherwise) of this. It is beyond me. Let me provide a brief example. I am going to a conference in the near future. I am presenting research that I've been working on for years. Over several studies, my lab has been able to tentatively demonstrate that a personality trait that is characterized by differences in how much people pay attention to their emotions (to recognize and focus on them) may play a significant role in developing emotional intelligence (e.g., interpreting other's emotions, managing one's emotions, etc). I wouldn't report it this way, but it would be possible for me to say, in explaining this to someone or to myself, that God created this trait in some people that allows them to have different skills. It would also be appropriate from an evolutionary model to say that this trait evolved over time because it has this adaptive function. In both cases, the data say the same thing; in both cases I have made this discovery. I wouldn't collect the data differently, depending on the way I viewed the outcome or the ultimate cause. It doesn't change how science is done.
That Awkward Moment
There was one moment that stood out to me in the debate the first time I watched it. Towards the end of the debate, Bill Nye asked Ken Ham how he dealt with or explained the fact that some people don't believe in God or may not have heard of God before. Would would become of them?, asked Nye. This is an old anti-theist argument, but in this context, it was one of the rare off-topic moments of the debate. But it was almost as if this was Nye's real problem. He was faced with the God questions, and in his mind, he didn't like the way God operated, and as such, he rejected it outright. I may be over-interpreting, but check it out for yourself. It happens around the 2:33:30 point in the debate. To my mind, it just stands out so much as that awkward moment when Bill Nye's real problem comes out. It shows that the debate is not about objective truth, but people's real problem: how can a sinful people have a relationship with a holy God?
The fall out on this is probably not complete, but that's a good thing. The debate was worth having, and if no one's mind is changed, it is always good to become sharper and clearer about what one believes. For me, this is an issue I genuinely wrestle with and am deeply interested, for I think it is profoundly important.
Here are a few resources that may be helpful as you consider this issue further:
- Here is a free e-book from Ligonier: A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture. It is essentially a commentary on some remarks R.C. Sproul made at a Ligonier conference. Sproul challenges us to consider that revelation comes from the books of special revelation (The Bible) and general revelation (nature), but that fallible people interpret both.
- Tim Challies tells us why he is a six-day creationist.
- Al Mohler provided an interesting and thought provoking talk at Ligonier several years ago on the age of the earth. (Tim Challies review of that talk is here).