“Creation vs Evolution” Is Not a Debate — It’s Two

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My hat is off to the Science Guy. Even though most of his fellow scientists told him not to debate the merits of evolution with the noted young-earth creationist, Ken Ham, Bill Nye went ahead and did it. Not only that, he did it in the belly of the beast: Ham’s own Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.

Good for him. As I have argued many times in this space, people who believe things strongly have a moral obligation to persuade others. Ken Ham is not a lone voice in the wilderness. Millions of people believe as he does, and it does no good to call them all stupid extremists. Engaging with people whose beliefs one considers mistaken is part of what it means to be a citizen.

And by all accounts, Nye won the debate. Except for those accounts where he lost the debate. And the accounts that say that nobody really won because everybody is going to keep believing what they have always believed no matter what anybody said — which is usually how these things turn out. Maybe the only indication that anybody actually did win is the fact that, after the debate, no less a Christian stalwart than Pat Robertson said that young earth creationism is ridiculous and that Ham should “put a sock in it.”

Robertson’s critique, I think, actually does get to the problem that plagued the Nye-Ham debate — and that plagues the whole “Evolution vs Creationism” controversy in our public discussions of science today. The simple fact is that it is not a debate — it is two debates, only one of which has anything to do with science.

The first debate is purely philosophical: “

One position, which we can call “Creationism,” holds that the existence of stuff implies both a creator and a purpose — and most creationists believe that one or more of the religious texts available in the world contains clues to that purpose — if not a complete history — of the creation. Opposed to the philosophical position of Creationism is a philosophy that we might call “Accidentalism,” or a belief that matter in the universe, and life on earth, emerged without any external influencers. Stuff, according to acidentalists, just happened.

“Creationism vs Accidentalism” is not a scientific debate, since it makes no testable assertions and generates no falsifiable hypotheses. It is a philosophical debate about the cosmic master narrative. It requires us to make and defend assertions about the ultimate nature of reality and about the extent to which human beings have access to this ultimate nature. Such questions will always be beyond the modest organon of the scientific method.

The second debate, however, involves the mechanism through which life on earth has developed. There are really only two possibilities for this mechanism. One of them is evolution by natural selection. The other one is “Magic.”

Unlike “Creation,” Evolution does not pretend to be a master narrative. It tells us nothing about the ultimate nature of reality or about the great designs of forces beyond our comprehension. It is a specific mechanism that produces changes in populations of organisms over long periods of time. We can watch it happen in a petri dish, and, whether we are talking about dinosaurs or microbes, the mechanism works the same.

The specific mechanism of natural selection works equally well as part of either one of the cosmic master narratives. It could be part of the plan of an intelligent Creator. Or, it could be one of the lucky breaks that go into the cosmic theory of Accidentalism. It is not necessary to decide which cosmic narrative to subscribe to before learning how the mechanism works.

But natural selection generates oodles of testable hypotheses, and scientists have been testing them for the last 150 years. Though this has required corrections at the margins, Darwin’s theory of evolution has performed nearly flawlessly under nearly every possible set of experimental conditions. Our students need to know this, and they need to learn how to conduct their own experiments. Only somebody who has studied evolution deeply will ever be able to falsify an evolutionary hypothesis. This is how science works.

When we frame the argument as “Creation vs Evolution,” we are asking people to chose between a philosophical principle and a scientific mechanism. This is not apples and oranges; it is apples and France, and it will almost always lead to people talking past each other in something that only vaguely resembles a debate.

So let’s have two debates instead. Let’s have philosophers and theologians debate the ultimate questions of the cosmos and the proper role of Genesis in understanding the same. And let’s have scientists argue over the most likely mechanisms that produced increasingly complex forms of life on Earth. Then, the millions of Americans who have no problem believing in both natural selection and a divine creator might see their position represented in public conversations about religion and science.

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  1. Anonymous i know this point has been used way to much but it's a valid point, does it take faith not to belief in any other mythical creature? if you don't believe in the tooth fairy, does that take faith? how about the other gods or religions you could believe in, aren't you taking a leap of faith not believing in them? do you even think twice about the possibility that there really are leprechauns and perhaps the only reason you haven't seen them is because you don't have enough faith?  i'm afraid you have the burden of proof argument almost exactly wrong. The burden of proof lies with the person asserting the claim. If someone runs up to me and says "hey guess what, i've got a unicorn in this box." the default position is to not believe. it's not a claim, its a default position. the burden of proof is on the person who says he has a unicorn in the box. there is no evidence there is one inside the box so unless there is proof, the default position is to assume it's not true.  The difference is, you don't really need any faith to believe in evolution. it is a scientific fact. it's had years and years and years to be proven wrong and it hasn't.  You're right, evolution doesn't tell us about how we got here, but that's not the point of evolution. Evolution is just about how species evolve. It is not meant to tell us how all things began. But to surrender to ignorance and call it god is not the way to think about things and would not be acceptable in any other field.
  2. rfj1 Bill Nye,, "The Science Guy", (of a childrens show) was perfectly matched with "Ken Ham" in that Bill was dealing with an adult with the imagination of a child who is still indoctrinated by his imaginary belief system that is making him lots of money as a charlatan,,, as are "All" belief systems. The part that bothered me the most were the those in the audience as well as the comments afterward by the indoctrinated following which just convinced me of the urgency and need to either "Snap or Slap" these controlled clones back, into the "Real" world that we live in, instead of the imaginary one they have be obediently occupying??? You can't create, "Nothing of out of Nothing",, that is why it referred to as "Nothing". It only "Becomes" something when charlatans like Ken Ham distorts "His" version to these people who for no other reason, are either "Ignorant or desperate" and will believe anything he says,, based on his "Created"  rhetoric. Remember,,, If you are "Ignorant" (of reality) you will do "AS" you are told,, If you are Desperate, (from reality) you will do "WHAT" you are told.. That is basically the foundation of all belief system and the reason they are still exist and getting richer every day..
  3. ggm281 Paul S Shawn M Griffiths  I know of no state that is requiring classes to spend time on creationism. And I live in that state to which you refer, and my children attended public school in that state. No creationism was taught to my children in a Texas public school science classroom. It was a part of the textbook. A part that science teachers chose to ignore. But it is a cautionary tale about why it is important to show up for all elections. Because when a off-year election with only minor offices up election has only a 10-15% voter turnout, it is easy for people to end up in positions they shouldn't hold.
  4. Paul S There is a big difference between incomplete evidence and no evidence.   There is 0 evidence to support creationist claim of a 6,000 year old world and tons of evidence of a much older world.   Saying that both have the same level of faith is false. Man of us believe in both evolution and a spiritual life.   They different realms of understanding and exploration.
  5. Brian Shawn Smith Jason Grossman, that's original. Not!
  6. Jason Grossman Never argue with idiots (or creationists). They will bring the discussion down to their level and beat you with experience....
  7. Ulises_Jofre Some fossilized questions for a transitional debate, for instance: is there evolution if there is no time? How will evolutionary biology meet new physical paradigms about time, space and so on? Will new conceptual changes deny evolution? Or on the contrary, will it become a more extraordinary process, full of astonishing implications? If so, will past human beings and the rest of living beings become something different as science progresses? After all, is life something fix-finite-defined? That is, can one understand it by means of using a flesh brain and its limited words, axioms and dogmas? Does the whole of life fit inside a bone box? Indeed, will science add indefinitely without understanding completely, is there an infinite pool of knowledge and ignorance waiting for us? Otherwise, will religions use the word God forever and ever, as if it were a death thing, a repetitive thing that is part of human discussions? And, in order to speak about God, are they using his limited brain or do they use unknown instruments? Along these lines, there is a different book, a preview in http://goo.gl/rfVqw6 Just another suggestion in order to freethink for a while
  8. Jeff Johnston When you choose to believe in God it takes faith, like the Bible says,"you choose to believe in the things of God you can't see" That being said I do believe that you can prove the existance of God through science becouse it just makes sense! But at the end of the day its faith, but to believe in the furthet extremes of evolution you also need faith, the burdon of proof is on science, they have no real answer on how life got here and how everything came to be, they have different opinions that get more odd with time! So really you need just ad much faith to believe in evolution as you do in God! Evolution is a religion of choice!!!!!!!!!!!
  9. bobconner Alex_G deleted_31274311_R2D2  I like that: "As your area of knowledge grows so too does your perimeter of ignorance."
  10. Paul S Shawn M Griffiths Paul S   Writing is hard.  I know now that I misinterpreted what you said Shawn.  I made connection that simply weren't there.   That's my mistake. There are questions for which we will never know answers.   I'm OK with that, life would not be so interesting without the mystery.
20 comments
rfj1
rfj1

Bill Nye,, "The Science Guy", (of a childrens show) was perfectly matched with "Ken Ham" in that Bill was dealing with an adult with the imagination of a child who is still indoctrinated by his imaginary belief system that is making him lots of money as a charlatan,,, as are "All" belief systems.

The part that bothered me the most were the those in the audience as well as the comments afterward by the indoctrinated following which just convinced me of the urgency and need to either "Snap or Slap" these controlled clones back, into the "Real" world that we live in, instead of the imaginary one they have be obediently occupying???

You can't create, "Nothing of out of Nothing",, that is why it referred to as "Nothing". It only "Becomes" something when charlatans like Ken Ham distorts "His" version to these people who for no other reason, are either "Ignorant or desperate" and will believe anything he says,, based on his "Created"  rhetoric.

Remember,,, If you are "Ignorant" (of reality) you will do "AS" you are told,, If you are Desperate, (from reality) you will do "WHAT" you are told..

That is basically the foundation of all belief system and the reason they are still exist and getting richer every day..

Jason Grossman
Jason Grossman

Never argue with idiots (or creationists). They will bring the discussion down to their level and beat you with experience....

Jeff Johnston
Jeff Johnston

When you choose to believe in God it takes faith, like the Bible says,"you choose to believe in the things of God you can't see" That being said I do believe that you can prove the existance of God through science becouse it just makes sense! But at the end of the day its faith, but to believe in the furthet extremes of evolution you also need faith, the burdon of proof is on science, they have no real answer on how life got here and how everything came to be, they have different opinions that get more odd with time! So really you need just ad much faith to believe in evolution as you do in God! Evolution is a religion of choice!!!!!!!!!!!

Ezekiel Holt
Ezekiel Holt

I think you underestimate the reproductive advantages of volcano lairs.

Ezekiel Holt
Ezekiel Holt

I think we're missing a critical point here. The degree to which Nye looks like an osterich vs the degree to which Ham looks like a Bond villain is the truely compelling debate.

Shawn M Griffiths
Shawn M Griffiths moderator

I agree wholeheartedly with everything said here, Mr. Austin, but this is why some scientists said it was a bad idea for Nye to accept a debate, because one side is going to focus on the philosophical debate while the other focuses on the scientific debate. Case and point, Ham put a considerable amount of focus on the fact that there are brilliant scientists out there who believe in creationism and that was an effective focus point for him, because a belief in God or a creation model for the universe does not say anything about one's intelligence. His focus was on the philosophical debate. Nye's was on the scientific debate because when asked questions like why did consciousness come to be or what was there before the universe, his answer could be simplified to, "I don't know" and at one point he explicitly said those words. One is a question science will never be able to answer and the other most likely won't be answered by science either. As you said, let the scientists argue over the how and let the philosophers and theologians argue over the why. That being said, of course I think educators and scientists should take every opportunity presented to educate people.

biffhumble
biffhumble

@founderstein "Arguing Creation vs. Evolution like arguing cars vs. books. Both vehicles, but destinations radically different." ~ @jehitch

Michael Slavin
Michael Slavin

No, it's not apples and France. It's apples and the story of Peter Pan. France can be proven. The story of Peter Pan (or of Greek or Roman Gods) can be debated but never proven. Fact versus stories.

Anonymous
Anonymous

i know this point has been used way to much but it's a valid point, does it take faith not to belief in any other mythical creature? if you don't believe in the tooth fairy, does that take faith? how about the other gods or religions you could believe in, aren't you taking a leap of faith not believing in them? do you even think twice about the possibility that there really are leprechauns and perhaps the only reason you haven't seen them is because you don't have enough faith? 


i'm afraid you have the burden of proof argument almost exactly wrong. The burden of proof lies with the person asserting the claim. If someone runs up to me and says "hey guess what, i've got a unicorn in this box." the default position is to not believe. it's not a claim, its a default position. the burden of proof is on the person who says he has a unicorn in the box. there is no evidence there is one inside the box so unless there is proof, the default position is to assume it's not true. 


The difference is, you don't really need any faith to believe in evolution. it is a scientific fact. it's had years and years and years to be proven wrong and it hasn't. 


You're right, evolution doesn't tell us about how we got here, but that's not the point of evolution. Evolution is just about how species evolve. It is not meant to tell us how all things began. But to surrender to ignorance and call it god is not the way to think about things and would not be acceptable in any other field. 

Paul S
Paul S

There is a big difference between incomplete evidence and no evidence.   There is 0 evidence to support creationist claim of a 6,000 year old world and tons of evidence of a much older world.   Saying that both have the same level of faith is false.


Man of us believe in both evolution and a spiritual life.   They different realms of understanding and exploration.


Paul S
Paul S

@Shawn M Griffiths  

Let me be sure I hear this Shawn, because it makes a difference to me.  

Are you saying that you would teach creationistism,  in a science class?  The same 6,000 year theory that Ham presented?

ggm281
ggm281

@Paul S @Shawn M Griffiths  I know of no state that is requiring classes to spend time on creationism. And I live in that state to which you refer, and my children attended public school in that state. No creationism was taught to my children in a Texas public school science classroom. It was a part of the textbook. A part that science teachers chose to ignore.

But it is a cautionary tale about why it is important to show up for all elections. Because when a off-year election with only minor offices up election has only a 10-15% voter turnout, it is easy for people to end up in positions they shouldn't hold.

Paul S
Paul S

@Shawn M Griffiths @Paul S  

Writing is hard.  I know now that I misinterpreted what you said Shawn.  I made connection that simply weren't there.   That's my mistake.


There are questions for which we will never know answers.   I'm OK with that, life would not be so interesting without the mystery.  


Shawn M Griffiths
Shawn M Griffiths moderator

@Paul S @Shawn M GriffithsMy point and I could have better articulated it was that science will likely never be able to explain the whys of the universe when it comes to origins. Why are we here? Why did consciousness come to be? Why are we the dominant species on the planet? Bill Nye knows this which is why he could admit, as a scientist can, that he doesn't know. These are philosophical questions to which there is no empirical, scientific explanation. Science deals with the how and that should be our focus. Let the philosophers and the theologians, as Mr. Austin says, argue about the philosophical questions. 

I am an empiricist and as such I believe that the most rational approach to religion is to be an agnostic because the existence of God is an empirical unknown and while I believe it is interesting to debate and discuss, and I believe to each their own when it comes to matters of philosophy and theology, it has no place in science. I love talking about philosophy. It was one of my majors in college. It is a fascinating subject, but it has no place in the scientific debate on origins, which is why there are two debates.

Scientists should make efforts to educate people when presented with the opportunity because science is the only thing that can explain how the universe came to be, how the earth came to be, how human beings came to be.


I tried to condense a much larger point in a small comment, and I am afraid I may not have articulated my position very well.

Paul S
Paul S

@Shawn M Griffiths @Paul S  


You last sentence threw me off Shawn.   Probably because I know of states that are requiring science classes to spend time on creationsim, I though you might be suggesting the same thing.  My mistake, one I am happy to acknowledge!

Paul