Science Versus the Bible: Reasons Why This Debate Will Never Be Settled

Monday, April 14, 2014 - 5:24am

Science Versus the Bible: Reasons Why This Debate Will Never Be Settled

by Peter Han,  guest contributor

On March 17, scientists announced new findings consistent with the Big Bang Theory. Gravitational waves dating back to instants after the universe came into being, 13.7 billion years ago, were detected by telescope.

Regardless of mounting empirical evidence calling into question the account of creation described in the Bible’s book of Genesis, those who are firmly in the Creationism camp are unlikely to be swayed.

That this is the case was underscored by the recent televised debate between pro-Creationism Ken Ham and pro-Evolution Bill Nye. The event received a surprising amount of attention from the mainstream media. Viewer reactions have been mixed. Many bemoan the fact that we are even having this debate in 2014. Others predictably heap laurels onto their preferred “champions of truth.”

The bow-tied Bill Nye, the Science Guy, is familiar to television-viewing audiences, but Ken Ham may be a new name. Mr. Ham is a biblical literalist who heads both the Creation Museum and Answers in Genesis (AiG), the leading voice of “young Earth” creationism. Their debate was strange, more spectacular than intellectual.

The most noteworthy aspect of this event was Mr. Ham’s provocative philosophy of science, which was not surprising since creationism calls into question our ability to make knowledge claims:

  1. How do I know something is true?
  2. How certain are my observations?
  3. How credible are the claims of others?

AiG argues that only observation — a firsthand eyewitness account — is credible. Thus, what Mr. Ham calls “historical science” is not to be trusted since this method starts from effect and works backwards to a theorized original cause. Since no one could have witnessed the Big Bang, this theory qualifies as “historical science” and cannot be trusted.

Mr. Ham is absolutely correct that no human being was present during the Big Bang. But, using his own verification standard, no human eyes witnessed the (literal) six days of creation either. “Ah,” he might say, “but we do have a record of observed history–the Bible! Therefore, it is more reasonable to accept AiG’s account of the universe’s origin.”

David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, likewise questioned science’s findings. Hume’s major contribution to the philosophy of science is the problem of induction, particularly the predictive value of observational data. He wrote, “Although the sun arose every single morning of my life, I cannot assume that it will necessarily do so tomorrow.” Why not? Because “if we proceed not upon some fact, present to the memory or senses, our reasonings would be merely hypothetical.” A very disquieting view but logically sound.

The problem of establishing an uncontestable link between cause and effect, in Hume’s view, relates to the credibility of past events. Both prediction and historical accounts require a certain degree of trust.

Hume’s insistence that we cannot definitively prove causal relationships notwithstanding, practically speaking, most of us cannot live comfortably without trust, even if we recognize that some cause-event-connections and witnesses are more trustworthy than others.

Skeptics endure doubt-filled lives since there are many claims about the nature of reality that we cannot test and confirm for ourselves. And, even if we could, who has the time, money, and patience to verify every claim? Doubt, then!

For the atheist, winning the evolution-creationism debate means exposing the logical fallacies and bad science of creationism’s meaning-conferring stories. But the victory rings a hollow note, since disabling the “How did we come into being?” question leaves no possibility of asking the more important question “Why are we here?”

The skeptic’s life is always an option, but not everyone who holds fast to AiG’s creation narratives is foolish. Most people prefer a life with meaning, however implausible the meaning-conferring story. Some will themselves to believe the unbelievable because doing so is conducive to a meaningful life.

Could it be that Mr. Ham knows that what he professes to believe is ridiculous and that his Creation Museum is a mockery of intelligent life in 2014? Perhaps. But in the end, is he worse off than the resolute evolutionist who accepts a short existence in a universe with no creator, no purpose?

There was no real winner in the Nye-Ham debate because the debate focused on the wrong topic. The debate is not between scientific fact and religious faith. The real question is whether it is wrong for reasonable people in the age of science to believe a myth, which grounds their lives in meaning. On this, the science of Mr. Nye and the skepticism of Hume may say, “It is wrong,” but the scientist and skeptic are incapable of providing meaningful reasons as to why one should prefer a meaningless world.

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Peter Han is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is teaching at Elgin Community College while completing his dissertation in the metaethics of artificial intelligence. Although he likes computers, he likes people, too.

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Nicely written, but not unlike every other reflection I have read on this subject in that it wholly ignores what lies in the middle- those with faith in a Creator who also believe in evolution; this is a wider gulf than you think. In fact, many great scientific discoveries, the Big Bang Theory included, were made by Catholic scientists and priests. Many credible scientists and apologists today fall into this category, so it would be nice to, for once, feel like I'm not the only one pointing this out.

Very few credible scientist believe in a creator.

Or maybe you don't know enough credible scientists. Dr Francis Collins, scientist and director of the Human Genome Project. Surely you have heard of it? An atheist turned believer.

ok, that's one....

You've just named one. Congratulations, you don't know how to properly engage in discourse.

Most of the greatest scientists were deeply religious people, saw no conflict between religion and rationalism, and were seeking through reason to better understand God's creation or to better appreciate the Great Mystery.

These include: Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1627), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Isaac Newton (1642-1727), Robert Boyle (1791-1867), Michael Faraday (1791-1867), Charles Darwin (1809-1882), Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), William Thomson Kelvin (1824-1907), James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), Max Planck (1858-1947), William H. Bragg (1862-1942, Nobel Prize 1915), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Erwin Schroedinger (1887-1961, Nobel prize 1933), Nevill Mott (1905-1996, Nobel Prize 1977), Wernher Von Braun (1912-1977), Fred Hoyle (1915-2001), Walter Kohn (1923-, Nobel Prize 1998), Carl Sagan (1934-1996), and Francis Collins (1950-).

"It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion; for while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate, and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity." – Francis Bacon, father of the scientific method

I disagree. I think religion robs THIS life of meaning by giving more importance to the afterlife. If we believe that this is the only life we've got, we'll try spending it in much more meaningful ways. The question "Why are we here?" might be a bit of a silly question because the universe doesn't owe us an answer to that. We have to make our own meaning.

For years, I have tried hard to find common ground with people who think like Ken Ham. It has always seemed to me that the meeting point would naturally be the desire to find meaning in our lives. But every time, the chance to find common ground is shot down by the insistence on the Bible (old and new testaments) as the complete and ultimate authority on every subject of discussion. This is an authoritarian view of religion that at its core seeks dominance. As you say, a debate on the facts, evidence, and understanding of the scientific method is bound to be a fruitless endeavor. Instead, Ken Ham and company should be confronted on the ultimately repressive, intolerant nature of their particular strand of Christianity, and the damage it does to hold such a view in a highly inter-connected multi-cultural world.

Both sides of this topic have a reason and meaning to be here on this planet. What the true, currently un-answerable question is, is what happens when we are dead? One side is continually trying to answer the questions we don't know and the other just wants any answer to comfort their fear.

The debate was about the facts and facts can be settled to high degree of probability. I agree there is an important discussion about the value of myth that needs to take place, but there is no reason to stop searching for greater precision in our knowledge of the universe. To mix the two leads to confusion like claiming science can’t address the “why” question.

An evolutionary biologist may not write about “why”, but I can take their knowledge and understand that I am a social animal, driven by desires to cooperate because those impulses have helped millions before me survive and led to my very existence. I can honor their work to build the world I live in by continuing to care about those who will come after me. And I can use stories to pass that on.

Some fossilized questions for a transitional and healhty 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? , 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?

Meaningless is a rather harsh label to apply to a huge segment of our people. A scientist can be a teacher, a friend, a grandfather, a friend or any of a wide variety of humans we all know. Science is a course of study attractive to the curious among us. The child that always wants to know the why and how of natural things is on the road to science. At 63, I know this curiosity lasts a lifetime. Sharing, discussing and exploring the limitless questions in our universe, with everyone, has resulted in a very meaningful life. My approach is to find something new in nature every day.

I appreciate and agree with your comment, Daniel. To attribute meaning only to religious interpretations of existence is arbitrary, for on what would meaning then be based? To claim eternal ramifications for a life lived is merely to relegate meaning as a mere indication of duration. To assert divine adjudication implies meaning can come only from a higher level of existence, according to which principal God himself could have no meaning unless bestowed to him by a superior power. It is an unfortunate use of the term that attributes a connotation of objectivity; "meaning" is useful only as a signifier of an individual's or a community's system of valuation. Thus a religious person has no more right, nor an athiest no less right, than anyone else to perceive one's life as meaningful.

Agreed. It is so arrogant, and ignorant, to end with the premise that people on the author's side live lives of meaning, while lives of thinking people are somehow empty because they are separate from the mythical plan. What crap! It's about the beauty of it all, not wasting life suckling at the breast of self described meaning set by others.

Only the most strictly fundamentalist believer could believe that Genesis is "observed history.' But putting that aside, what concerns me in this piece is the assumption at the very end of the piece that we have a binary choice: either "believe" in myth and live in a meaningful world or prefer science and live in a meaningless world. Binary choices are rarely reflective of reality in my experience and this one isn't either. Those of us who respect the work of science do not live in a meaningless world. We see ourselves as lively agents whose job it is to create meaning by loving and caring for others, by nurturing life, still apparently so rare and precious in the cosmos, by using our remarkable, yet limited, minds to explore this vast universe trying to understand what we can. I revere myth as the ancient bearer of deep questions and older understandings about mysteries that still puzzle us - about ourselves, about our place in the universe. I don't, however, feel the need to jettison the exciting knowledge science provides in order to "believe" those sacred stories.

Meaningless is a rather harsh label to apply to a huge segment of our people. A scientist can be a teacher, a friend, a grandfather, or any of a wide variety of humans we all know. Science is a course of study attractive to the curious among us. The child that always wants to know the why and how of natural things is on the road to science. At 63, I know this curiosity lasts a lifetime. Sharing, discussing and exploring the limitless questions in our universe, with everyone, gives my life meaning. Imparting hard-won information to a child, such as the nature of bacteria or the process of photosynthesis has the effect of producing a citizen more capable of making decisions beneficial to one and all. My approach is to find something new in nature every day.

Respectfully, I think Mr. Han's argument sets up an unnecessary binary, an unhelpful either/or. I am a theologian who continues to embrace the stories of Christian religious tradition because they render my life more meaningful -- and sometimes more ethical -- but I don't think refusing to adhere to myths equates to a meaningless life.

I read the work of cosmologists and physicists as best I can, and follow the ongoing discoveries of quantum physics, string theory, and their many implications with great relish. The more I know about this universe, and my self in it, the more there is to love and cherish -- and find meaningful. I think a person can make this same assertion with or without faith, with or without myth. Indeed, I hear many scientists on this program making just such assertions, and I very much appreciate On Being making it possible for me to be able to share in their passions and enthusiasms.

No either/ors, no binaries required. I find ample room for all of us in this wondrously formed universe.

as an atheist, I am offended by the resoning of religious people saying that atheists believe life has no meaning. on the contrary, life is full of meaning! it is here and now in our faces...it is the love of family, friends, and even strangers. it is helping those who need it and getting no reward. it is caring for people and being cared for. why is that not a "reason" or "meaning"? just because we don't believe that a reward is awaiting us when we die, doesn't mean we don't feel a profound sense of meaning and reason in this life , now.

If there were final answers there would be not such a thing as a mystery, No? What fun would that be? I mean, isn't that what scientists are doing anyway? Having fun chasing mystery? Not to mention, getting paid for it too. (well, I guess I did mention it)
I don't think any serious religious scholar would say that the creation story was meant to be taken literally besides. One has to enter it seriously as a traditional study. And in that too, one chases mystery.
As I understand it, the veil's that separate us from "God" are what actually enable us to exist. God is said to be infinite and as my very limited mathematical understanding goes, any number "standing" before infinity for all practical purposes falls to zero. So there is a call to faith. I have faith that my cars transmission will be fixed, but I don't think the cost will be zero.
(a little humor there) Now, worried about the water pump going out, the older I get, and the older my car gets, the more call for prayer seems to take place too. And, believe me, I won't be praying to Neil deGrasse Tyson.

When I was in college some several years ago, this question came up in my Old Testament studies class. The Bible is not, nor has it ever been, a science book; to make it so is to limit it. Science concerns itself with "how." The Bible is about "who" and "why;" the "how" is a very far second. This debate between science and religion is not a real debate -- one concerns itself with process, the other with meaning. They ask different questions, so, of course, there will never be an agreement.

Disabling the "how did we come into being" question leaves no possibility of asking the more important question "why are we here?"
Evolution *answers* the "how did we come into being" question--answers it *truthfully*. As for "why are we here," purpose is something we each select for ourselves. Some of us select it from the stories of Bronze Age nomads, some use a sock puppet in the sky--others just dispense with those crutches and choose our own purpose ("I will give joy with music." "I will help the poor." "I will learn about the universe.") or just get along without one.

Is he worse off than the resolute biologist who accepts a short existence?
Sunsets are brief; dirt is forever; which do you spend your time watching? Just because something is brief doesn't make it worthless, indeed, sometimes quite the opposite.

A meaningful reason as to why one should prefer a meaningless world?
Here's one: lay aside the pretty lie and give me the plain truth, and I will find my meaning in that, and my identity in that preference.

As the product of 16 formative years of Catholic education and propaganda, I consider my adult self a recovering Catholic, hardly a credible scientist or a gullible agnostic. I appreciate the basic understanding of the Bible that Catholicism provided me; it also introduced me to science and the opportunity to question the existence of God. The insistent focus of so many on heaven and hell in light of no evidence of either is as frustrating and confusing as the idea that only evolution lead to what/who we are today. I need only hold up my hand and gaze at it to be awe-struck at the complexity of human life. Regardless of whether 'God' exists, who and what we are today is a result of something set in motion once, whether by a sentient life-form, a universal accident or something yet to be discovered. I lack the faith to chalk it up to 'God' and the intelligence to accept a 'Big Bang Theory' as the only alternatives. I wonder how many people simply accept some explanation over confusion.

In a sense, everyone does. It is impossible to prove anything with 100% certainty. At some point we have to accept that because the Sun has come up every day before now, it will come up tomorrow. Otherwise we get into an infinite regression of cause and effect. We may never know where the universe came from or how consciousness developed, but we can know how to care for each other and how to make existence better here and now. Thankfully, enough people choose to simply do that, regardless of why.

This debate was great but at the end of the day one has to remember that everything is just an idea and that is ultimately is trying to defend, their own ideas. We have the right to pursue happiness and be happy. The way they did it where they can freely put each idea forward and have a debate is a win/win for both party. We should always seek to be in peace and enjoy life.

The problem is expecting someone else to provide meaning for you, be it scientist of theologian. Both claim to provide truth. Both say they can't 100% positive (when they are being honest). If helping others have a life as good as yours and attempting to leave things better than you found them is not enough, that's your problem.

Religion is a body of dogma, doctrine, belief and praxis which attempts to make sense of the world, often with an origin myth, create meaning and offer ethical guidance for life.

Scientific secular humanism meets all the characteristics of an institutional religion. It is based on the dogma of rational, materialist, reductionist epistemology (based on axioms, or unproven and unprovable assumptions), has its clergy in the Academy, determines by "peer review" (judgement by those already accepted into the inner sanctums) what new ideas will be accepted and adopted into the doctrine, engages in regular gatherings of the faithful for "sermons" on the latest doctrinal theories, and has a large following of acolytes who insist that their way is the only true way to salvation and who continually attempt to convert non-believers to their ranks (as well as influence public policy).

Current scientific cosmology presents a narrative of the universe that requires 11 dimensions of vibrating strings, six flavors of quarks, three colors of gluons, and Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) which comprise the dark matter that is 27% of the total mass of the universe, while dark energy comprises another 68%, leaving less than 5% that can be empirically described - a far more fanciful and fantastic story than that found in any religious text.

As a youth in the 1960s, I was an avid reader of Scientific American and noticed that "new" subatomic particles were regularly being "found" soon after they were proposed as necessary components of the Standard Model. In the naive wisdom of youth, unconstrained by the accepted axioms of the scientific community, it occurred to me that these "particles" were epiphenomena of the intellectual theories which demanded them. It seemed to me that the thought of matter not only preceded but created that material "reality".

Many rationalists stumble upon any suggestion of divinity in the greater consciousness which almost all humans have considered the ultimate reality, but there is no need to call it God or conceive of it as something "outside" of the physical universe. All matter and energy is coded information and manifestations of the same essential "stuff" in various interactions with our own consciousness.

If the fundamental "field" of the universe is coded information with inherent symmetries, then there is no reason not to conceive of this as a Great Consciousness which manifests as the "things" of physical reality, with our personal consciousness being elements of the Greater and the Collective Unconscious postulated by Yung as the portion of the Greater that is shared by all humanity.

Hence, we too participate in the Divine act of creation. When we imagine (or hypothesize by our theories) that another elemental particle "must" exist, we manifest that particle no less than "GOD" (Good Old Divinity) did when "He" said "let there be light" (as our metaphorical stories inform us).

For more, see my essays "Science and Secular Humanism: The Post-Modern Religion" and "Science & Religion – Locking Horns"

I notice several very well written comments from non-believers on this and other posts that refer to non-belief. Despite that, the same kind of blog entries continue to come from OnBeing. The name change from “faith” to “being” seemed to be a move to gain some credibility but that change has been very small and very slow. Atheist speakers and writers are easy to find and the questions that OnBeing continues to raise could be easily answered by people who have actually thought about them.

Religion by it's dogmatic, authoritarian nature reduces meaning to at worst a set of preset rules written up by groups of mostly male humans in a now distant, pre-scientific stage of human civilization, and at best by modern people debating ancient books of mythology that overwhelmingly mislead and deny our actual reality, the very basis of our existence: science and nature.

There is therefore more opportunity to find meaning in life by turning away from the belief in the supernatural and instead turning to nature, the human mind and science. In a sense, we are free to discern our own meaning. Many science-based non-believers get enormous joy and satisfaction from discovering our own paths and ways to deliver hope and happiness into the world.

apples