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

In the debate between scientific fact and religious faith, the author wonders if we, as skeptical people living in an age of science, have the capability believing in myth. Or, do we prefer living in a meaningless world.

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Peter Han,  guest contributor for Sightings
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A man walks near the shadow of a model of a giant predatory flying dinosaur reptile known as a pterosaur outside the Royal Festival Hall in London, England.

Credit: Peter Macdiarmid License: Getty Images.

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.


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