Monday, January 20, 2014

The Science Guy Takes On The Creationist - A Preview Of Ham's Arguments

[This post is not yet another debate whether they should have a debate, but to look at what Ken Ham actually says.]

Background for those not following this:  Bill Nye (the science guy) is scheduled to debate with Ken Ham (the creationist) February 4.  It's going to be live online.  (First it was going to be $5 to watch online, but now it's free.)  There’s been some debate about whether it makes sense to debate someone who doesn’t believe in logic, but rather in the infallible word of God.  Lot's of folks think this just gives Ham a lot of publicity and will help raise money for the Creation Museum.  "It will help Ham's resume, not Nye's"  is the theme.  You can see an example of the basic evolutionist online discussion of the debate here.

In any case, I thought I should check out what Ham has to say and how he says it.  I have no doubt that Nye and his team are doing the same.   Below is the video  I watched:

In this video, Ken Ham argues that the earth was literally created in six days and that the earth is 6000 years old, not millions or billions of years old.  He knows this, as he says over and over again, because God tells us that in the bible. Basically he argues that those who want to impose man's 'facts' (there are no facts, just interpretations he also tells us) on the Bible are undermining the authority of God by substituting the authority of man. 

His main target is Christians who reinterpret the Bible to accommodate evolution and other scientific evidence by reading the six days of creation figuratively, not literally.  He takes quotes from about ten or eleven of them and explains what’s wrong with what they are doing.  [The exact number isn't important enough for me to go through that 76 minute video again.  For the same reason the quotes below, from the video, are close but not exact.   But I don’t think anything distorts what is said in the video.]

The basic problem, Ham tells us, is that the Christians, who are willing to see the six days of Genesis as figurative rather than literal, so that they can stretch them into the millions of years that science would suggest, are substituting the fallible word of man for the infallible word of God. 

Ham’s arguments demonstrate a number of rhetorical tricks and fallacies.  I make an attempt to point out some of those fallacies and give examples, but Ham’s examples often include more than one, or even two, of the fallacies. 

Let's start with a circular argument - basically appeal to authority:  The bible is authoritative because it is the word of God.  (This isn't necessarily a fallacy, but the premise and the conclusion are the same.  It doesn't prove anything.)

He argues that those who try to claim the earth is millions of years old have no place to fit those millions of years into the  Bible except Genesis.  The rest of the Bible can be calculated by counting the ‘begats.’
“Where do you fit millions of years into the bible - you have all the begats.  The only place you can do it, is before Adam, before creation.”
But, he argues, using the consequence of the action to invalidate the action,  if you put them before Adam, then you end up blaming God for all that’s wrong on earth when in fact man is responsible. Because, of course, God is infallible.

He uses straw man arguments.  He attacks those who say the world is millions or billions of years old by saying:
 [People ask me] Don’t  you have all these dating methods that prove the earth is millions and billions of years old?  Well actually, I say, what about the majority of dating methods that go against the secular accepted dates right now.  90% of the methods you can use, and there are hundreds and hundreds of methods you can use, to age date things on the earth, but 90% of them actually contradict the commonly accepted secular dates.
 Click to enlarge         Screenshot from video

Thus the Bible is right.

There are problems in all dating systems because they are based on assumptions - that’s the point.  Which leads us back to the main circular argument - Are you going to believe the fallible word of man or the infallible word of God?
Why would you take man’s fallible dating methods and use them to judge God’s infallible word? 

He even makes science the straw man, by defining it his own special way:
"Science - What I mean by science is operational science, in the present, you know, using your five senses.  He’s talking about big bang theory, billions of years, that’s stepping out of that sort of science."
And, he says, that’s how the word of man has supplanted the word of God. 
"In the 1700’s the door was unlocked and it’s gone on and on until today the bible is not looked on as the absolute authority."
He uses semantics to confuse and in some cases seems to move to a biased sample fallacy  - There’s lots of discussion of the meaning of ‘day’ in English and some about the meaning of ‘yom’ in Hebrew.  Much of this is like a verbal version of hiding the pea under one of three walnut shells and moving the shells around and around so fast that the observer can no longer follow.
"The point is, the word day can mean something other than an ordinary day.  You know what?  That's true.  I had a pastor who once said, "The word day can mean something other than an ordinary day and I said that's true.  But it can also mean an ordinary day.  He said, "That's true but it can mean something other than an ordinary day."  And I said, "That's true, but it can also mean an ordinary day."  I said, "Look Pastor, does the word day ever mean day?  Can day mean day or doesn't day mean day? And if it doesn't mean day when does it ever mean day?  Can you give me an example of when day means day?"
This is more like Abbot and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine than a logical argument.  And his audience laughs.  But while Abbot and Costello's audiences laugh at the absurdity or the word play, I suspect Ham's audience is laughing at how cleverly they think Ham has dismissed the argument.
“When is a day a literal day?  Why is it accepted as a day in the other 2300 times it’s used in the Old Testament, but not in Genesis?  They only want to reinterpret the meaning of day in Genesis. 
He may be right or maybe not.  Someone would have to check up on those other uses of day in the rest of the Old Testament.  And while we're checking up on the literal meaning of 'a day' let's look at all those biblical figures who lived to be hundreds of years old.  Are those literal years too?  
God didn’t create the sun until the fourth day.  People ask, how can you have a day without the sun.  You don’t need the sun for day and night, you just need light, and there is light on day one.  Why didn’t God tell us where the light came from?  There’s lots he didn’t tell us. 
If we look at the words of Genesis used to tell us about the first six days, there are a number of seeming inconsistencies like this.  But since the word of God is infallible we're supposed to just accept it.  Literally. 

He says to look up the words in a Hebrew dictionary, which in my experience with foreign languages is often a sure way to misinterpret the meaning of a word, because the meaning of a word in one language does not exactly correspond with the meaning of a similar word in another language.  See 15 myths about Bible translation.

He does at one point acknowledge that “I’m not a Hebrew scholar.”

He constantly goes back to the assumption that the word of god is authoritative:
comparing the fallible word of man to the infallible word of God - this way, the literal meaning of the (English) bible has to be the truth. 

He can also change the subject with an ad hominem joke:
"A pastor came to me and said how could so many scientists be wrong, and how could they be soooo wrong?  And I said, “The majority of scientists didn’t survive the flood either.”  
 The audience ate that one up.

But how does that answer the question?  There were no scientists as we know them today at the time of the flood.  Or is he saying, they (the scientists) weren’t around for the flood?  If so, then that applies to him as well.

In fact, he likes to taunt scientists by saying, "How do you know?  You weren't there."

Using the consequences to prove his point.  Basically he says that if the earth wasn’t created in six days, then there will be negative consequences - a) the authority of God is compromised and b) there will be no basis for morality.  The Bible must be literally true because if it’s not, serious negative consequences would be the result. 
“If you tell generations of people the bible means something, but it doesn’t mean what it says because of outside influences, you’ve just unlocked the door. And the door you’ve unlocked is you don’t have to take the Bible as written and you can take man’s fallible ideas outside the Bible to reinterpret the Bible.”  

“The Bible is the basis for morality - if we say the world was created in six days, then we are saying that God’s word is authoritative and we have a basis for the meaning of life, for moral standards, for marriage, for laws . . . “Six days, Thousands of years” - God’s word is authoritative.  We believe in the Bible and don’t take man’s words and impose them on the Bible.
But if you believe millions of years, then you believe that man determines truth by himself without revelation, because you don’t get the millions of years from the Bible.” 
“If you use millions of years - instead of six days - you then blame God and not man for all the problems on earth, because many problems would have happened before Adam and Eve ate the apple.”
That's like saying, "I can't be adopted, because if I am, then you aren't my biological mom."   I can see why he wouldn't want the authority of God to be challenged, just like after 20 years of believing you're my mother, I don't want to believe you aren't my mother.  But if the facts are at odds with what I've always believed - in this case the biblical text - then perhaps what I believe needs to be reassessed.  

So that’s what Nye is up against. 

A man who starts with the assumption that the Bible is the literal word of God and that God is authoritative and infallible while man’s word is fallible.  So from his perspective, Nye’s word, when it doesn’t confirm the literal words of the Bible, can't be right. 

Nye could ask how Ham knows that God wrote the Bible.  Was he there to see God writing it?  My understanding is that what is now called the Old Testament was passed on for centuries if not millennia orally. and eventually put in writing by many different people.  Surely over that time period, some, if not many, words got changed. If you've ever seen people pass on information orally from one person to the next, and so on,  you know that the meaning of a short sentence can be radically different after passing through only a few sets of ears and lips.  Yes, we're told they were inspired by God.  But lots of people have claimed to be inspired by God, people who tell us contradictory things - just as Ham himself disputes what other Christian leaders tell us about the Bible.  How do we know whose claims to believe?  Ham's answer seems always to be, because I'm only telling you what's written in the Bible.   

And even if we accept that the writers of the Hebrew Bible were inspired by God, what about the people who translated the Bible into Greek and Latin and then to English?  If they were all inspired by God, why aren't all the translations the same?  Which one is actually the literal word of God that Ham cites as infallible?  Also go back to the link on 15 myths about Bible translation.

Nye will face a man who can speak with ease, moving words around in ways that seem to make sense unless one is paying close attention.  And untangling his words may be hard to do on the fly. Which is why I'm sure he's doing what I'm doing here - going through Ham's video tapes to prepare. 

Nye willl face a man who puts down his opponents as a way of winning his arguments.  He does it gently, but they are still put-downs. And he'll be on Ham's home court.  We don't know who got tickets, some claim atheists were shut out, but Ken Ham says that's not so.

But Nye doesn’t have to win over Ham, he just has to get some of the listeners to see that Ham’s arguments are fallacious.  He just has to plant some seeds of doubt about the literal word of the Bible.  But many of these folks will be judging what he says - if the Hams of the world have done their work well - by whether it contradicts the literal words of the Bible, not by the rules of logic. 

However, people Ham himself cites as compromising the Bible, by accepting the millions of years argument of science, include many biblical scholars and evangelists - including James Dobson of Focus on the Family.  Ham bills himself as an outlier even among evangelical Christians.  It may well be that those who follow him are very literal thinkers for whom black and white are the only options and abstract thought - such as logic - is a stretch.  Or maybe they just haven’t been exposed to other perspectives.


  1. Ultimately, what you need to know to shut Ham down isn't about science, it's about refuting the idea that the bible is infallible and perfect. This is utterly easy to do if you've studied the history of that book. All bible scholars are well aware of the changes made to the bible over the years and when and why they were made. It is impossible to take the stance that the bible is the perfect unquestionable literal word of God when you are forced to admit that it has been altered throughout history.

    Ham's weakness is that he doesn't know the history of his own beliefs.

  2. Boscoe, I agree, that's why I raised questions about who wrote it and translation. Thanks.

  3. Steve, having spent decades engulfed in the 'scripture says, science says' argument involving evidence of my very existence as a gay man, I finally found relief from it all when I remembered there is more than one holy book in this world.

    Each and every holy text has its disciples, opposed to the wisdom and countenance of the other. Its analog in science would be something like having multiple theories of the cosmos. But that's the point: there are.

    The struggle of faith is its generational retelling and gaining adherants by socialisation and custom. It is threatened by heresy and divergence.

    The question in this debate is how does one respond to this threat, then?

    In a reactive instant, we decide: to make a fist or an open hand. Science and faith both can yield to defensiveness. There is wisdom in being the first to open the hand.

    I would caution Nye against certitude and to be flexible with his faith-full opponent. Science doesn't need to 'win' here; it must only expose the proposition that one holy text is right, of god alone and true.

    If science has weakness in its fact-checking, how does this compare to multiple and simulaneous claims to inerrancy in world religions?

    If mud is thrown, gently make a mud-pie.


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