Saturday, February 8, 2014

Thoughts About The Bill Nye/Ken Ham Debate

So this week I had a couple beers and watched the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate. And I enjoyed it immensely. Afterwards, I went trawling the net, looking for commentary on it. One of my favourite articles was by a pastor who, while a devout Christian, was troubled by Ken Ham's attempt (and failure) to fight the creationist cause on scientific grounds. The pastor felt that spiritual matters should remain spiritual, and that trying to prove them with scientific evidence was folly. I couldn't agree more; within minutes I was drafting a comment that quickly developed Biblical (boom boom) proportions. I have pasted it below. While I tried to remain respectful to other people's worldviews, I recognise that I sometimes find it difficult to remain so while still being intellectually honest with myself. Nobody pats themselves on the back for tolerating the views of flat-Earthers, Scientologists, or Holocaust-deniers, after all.


This article sounds to me like the statement of a person being intellectually honest with themselves.
You're a person of faith, and you're admitting that objective science alone does not prove what Ham and YEC's believe to have been the history of the world. Depending on your worldview, this may be quite a big thing to admit. If so, I applaud you.
Instead of believing that the Genesis story literally happened and can be proven, people of this thinking have to compartmentalise. Somewhere in their head, they separate the ordinary, scientific, provable 'here-and-now' stuff of everyday life from the spiritual, supernatural or 'miraculous' things that they believe as articles of faith. They accept that these two things somehow exist in 'different' ways to each other, that they are both 'true' but in different ways. People who are intellectually honest with themselves sooner or later HAVE to do this, as an honest interpretation of the world around us has always and continues to show no evidence for a Ham-style YEC worldview (and, to push it further, no evidence of the supernatural full stop, though that's a debate for another day I feel!).
What's extremely enlightening is reading about how we came to this (virtually unanimous among scientists today) worldview. Many of the first people who began carrying out 'modern' objective science in the late 1700s and early 1800s (Buckland, Cuvier, Herschel, Lamarck, Hutton, Lyell and even old Chuck Darwin) began investigating the world certain that their findings would prove the story of Genesis. The Christian worldview was their social background; they probably didn't even see it as a bias. They frequently expected a very literal confirmation of what was in the Bible. But as the evidence rolled in, the sciences of biology, paleontology, geology and astronomy, each using objective techniques, all independently came up with a worldview that contradicted what everyone, given their socialogical background, expected to find.
And though there was (and still is, sadly) resistance, by and large, the scientists of the day gradually disabused themselves of their a priori assumptions and constructed a new paradigm based on what they had observed to be REAL rather than one based on stories from Bronze-Age mythology. Science, even in its infancy, was able to acomodate this, because true science ought not to be dogmatic: any explanation or theory must explain the evidence we have, and if the evidence contradicts it, then the explanation must change, regardless of how attached to it we are. Things don't always work out like this, after all, people are only human, and we have egos and careers to worry about. But in general, that's how science functions when we use it properly.
Many of these people remained Christians: they learned to compartmentalise. They realised that what they believed could not be proven using objective, unbiased observations and theories (not that some people didn't try to twist what had been found to fit what they already believed). They believed in a 'God-of-the-gaps', whose work could only be found in the gaps in our knowledge; that is to say, things that we don't know or understand yet, that's God. And while we still have a LOT to learn about the universe, every year since then, the gaps have been getting smaller, giving this God fewer places to hide, till eventually believers who were intellectually honest with themselves banished the miraculous and the supernatural to some sort of 'spiritual' nether realm where they exist outside of logic or (to all intents and purposes) reality.
Which is exactly where science is happy for them to be, as science has nothing to say about things that cannot be measured, observed, recorded or otherwise proven. That's why atheists bring up cosmic teapots and invisible unicorns and flying spaghetti monsters all the time (and I appreciate that these arguments are now considered rote and insensitive): to a rationalist, there's no difference between one unprovable fairytale and another. The unicorn 'deserves' just as much interest and speculation as God. You can choose to believe in one or all of these things, the rationalist says, but don't expect to convince me of them unless you can prove it. I'll continue to live my life, and carry out science, as though those things aren't real, and at the end of the day, there'll be no difference to the world in any way that can can be quantified.
I do have a lot of respect for believers who compartmentalise and are honest with themselves. But to those fundamentalists who point out that this is an 'a-la-carte' Christianity where you choose which bits suit you, and that once you tear apart one bit of the Bible you are on the road to tearing apart all of it, well, I can only agree and say that's why I'm not a believer.

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