Last night, children’s television presenter and Dancing with the Stars reject, Bill Nye ‘the Science Guy’ engaged in a well-publicized debate with Young Earth Creationist and director of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, Ken Ham. There was a quite a bit of controversy surrounding the debate. Prominent evolutionary scientists like Jerry Coyne, criticized Nye for debating a creationist in the first place. These scientists consider debating creationists to be a waste of time at best and as granting tacit credibility to creationism at worst. Nevertheless, the event enjoyed lots of publicity and social media exposure.
The fact is, it’s easy to make fun of creationists. Their beliefs are so bizarre that it’s difficult to understand how any rational adult could take their views seriously. It’s easy to dismiss their views; it’s much harder to try to understand them. I have a slight advantage here because I was raised in an evangelical Christian context in which Young Earth Creationism, if not treated as dogma, was at least the preferred view. But it’s not impossible for agnostics to get inside the creationists’ head space. I’m going to quote at length from A.J. Jacob’s The Year of Living Biblically, in which he recounts his meeting with Ham and his visit to the Creation Museum, the venue for last night’s debate:
Mark (the publicist) introduces me to Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis. Ken is a wiry and energetic fifty-six year old with a gray Vandyke beard. Ken quizzes me about my last book, the one about reading the encyclopedia, and I end up telling him about my ill-fated appearance on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I was stumped by the question “What is an erythrocyte?”
“It’s a red blood cell,” says Ken.
He’s right. I’m thrown off guard. A creationist who trumps me in science knowledge — that’s unexpected and unsettling.
Ken was born to religious parents in Queensland, Australia, and still has a thick Aussie accent despite his twenty years in America. We start walking through the rooms. “The guy who designed the museum also designed the Jaws attraction at the Universal theme park,” Ken says. And it shows. The place is professional. We stroll past more than a dozen robotic dinosaurs. A statue of Eve, with her flowing hair placed conveniently over her pert breasts. A partly built ark. A room with a circular slope like New York’s Guggenheim Museum, a subtle reminder of man’s fall from paradise. A theater with sprinklers to simulate the flood. A huge crocodile (a prop from the secular movie Crocodile Dundee). The future home of a Saint Paul robot. A medieval castle-themed bookstore. Medieval? Because the dragons of medieval times were actually still-living dinosaurs.
We pass a dinosaur with a saddle on it. The display was mocked by my own magazine — Esquire — which called it a dressage dinosaur because of the English saddle. Ken downplays it. “It’s just a novelty. Just something for the kids.”
The article Esquire ran was called “Greetings from Idiot America,” and it was very funny. But I have to disagree with the headline. The Answers in Genesis folks aren’t idiots. And despite a British news show that scored its segment with Deliverance-style banjo music, they aren’t hillbillies. Everyone I met had a full set of well-orthodontured teeth and blinked at regular intervals. I can’t prove it, but I’d wager there’s no difference in the average IQ of creationists and evolutionists.
The thing is, their faith in the literal Bible is so strong, they will squeeze and distort all data to fit the Genesis account. In fact, you have to be quite sharp to be a leading creationist. The mental gymnastics can be astonishing.
This point gets us to the crux of the matter. Actually, there was one thing Ham said in the debate that I kind of agree with. The contest between creationists and evolutionists is not really a debate about data. It’s a contest between philosophical worldviews, naturalism and supernaturalism respectively. Creationists are able to juggle the cognitive dissonance of force-fitting the data into their worldview. Maybe the speed of light hasn’t always been constant. Maybe God created the light already in transit. Maybe God created the universe with the appearance of age. The result is a very consistent picture if you buy the initial premise. But, of course, simply because a story is consistent, that doesn’t necessarily make it true. We have to be wary of making consistency, or coherence, the sole criterion for evaluating truth claims.
However, the naturalist also makes several pre-scientific, philosophical assumptions. For example, that the universe is a closed system, the laws of nature have always been constant, that we can rely on our sense perception, that human cognition is basically truth-tracking. These claims actually require philosophical justification, but since that’s hard, time-consuming work, most scientists just take them for granted and get on with the task of doing science. Fair ball. But their philosophical assumptions about life, the universe, and everything act as interpretive filters of the data. We all interpret the world on the basis of our underlying — and typically unquestioned — philosophy.
To the extent this debate highlighted the importance of philosophy to this subject — a subject that often blurs the line between science and politics — maybe it was worth having.