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Models of the Past: A Response to Ken Ham

9

February 5, 2014 by earlbellinger

I like that Ken Ham guy from the science/creation Nye/Ham debate last night. I think he has many of the makings of an awesome skeptical position, and there’s nothing I love more than a good skeptical argument. I agree with him that there is a divide between observational science and historical science. His objections are important: when scientists try to infer the past, there is an assumption that the laws that hold today hold everywhere and at every time; and furthermore, there are potentially many models with various initial states that could explain where we are today.

Of course, this argument is not new. Bertrand Russell said it a century ago when he argued that the universe could have been created five minutes ago with all of our memories implanted into us. We would observe the present and falsely assume a wholly unreal past.

Where I think Ken Ham was mistaken, though, was when he failed to apply his criticism and skepticism equally to both sides. He swept his entire own argument under the rug by saying that since historical science (of the outside) relies on such assumptions, creationism must be true. He failed to evaluate the strength of the assumptions in science verses the strength of the assumptions in creationism. He considered no models for creation other than his own, and failed to present any compelling evidence whatsoever for his over any others.

Consider the following: I claim that the debate between Ham and Nye did not occur yesterday. You object: “but Earl! We have video evidence of it!” Sure, we do have a video of it, but were you there? Did you see it in person? There are many different ways I can imagine that video evidence coming into existence. Maybe sophisticated computer graphics put it together. Maybe it miraculously poofed into existence. You are assuming this video came about in the same way that every other video you know about came out.

Do I have the freedom to pick my favorite explanation from a hat? Is each model just as good as any other? Certainly not! The past is not arbitrary, so not all models are created equally. I have to provide evidence for converging onto my solution, which is precisely what Ken Ham fails to do.

Scientists are trying to find the most consistent explanation that makes the fewest and weakest assumptions. I do not think Ken Ham shares this pursuit. He seems to think that when it comes to explaining the past, all models are just as good as each other, so why not pick his? It would be much more compelling for him to explain why we should pick his. The benefits of applying the models of empirical science to the past and elsewhere are clear; their rejection, not so much.

What’s more, he claims that no amount of evidence will ever change his mind. This is not the stuff of reasonable debate. While Ken Ham’s belief is not necessarily logically inconsistent, neither are infinitely many other useless theories, and each of them share the quality of having no empirical basis whatsoever. If one did, the debate would end. All would be converted. Why give up inferences rooted in observational facts in lieu of superstitions rooted in fantasy?

Finally, the “predictions” presented by Ken Ham in his defense of so-called “creation science” are not predictions in any sense of the word; they are textbook examples of postdictions. Every single one was to the flavor of:

Man observed this phenomenon four thousand years ago (e.g. that dogs exist). Using divine inspiration, man wrote this observation in this big book. Now we read this big book and see that we observe that same phenomenon (dogs existing) today! Therefore the prediction is true.

If you read this post and then afterwards you claim that you are predicting that this post is here, you have made a postdiction, not a prediction whatsoever! (Not to mention that several of the postdictions like baraminology, the creationist taxonomic system, are patently false — but those arguments were addressed by Nye.) These are very different than the kinds of predictions made by science, which allow us to postulate the existence of phenomena that we have never before encountered, and then discover them!

In short, I think that Ken Ham brought up many good points, but he made the classical Cartesian error of throwing away his own critical philosophical underpinnings when evaluating his own deeply held beliefs. There are far better skeptical arguments to be made, but then again, I suppose you don’t get a million viewers unless someone wears a tinfoil hat.

Edit: I have been asked elsewhere to clarify why I agree with the claim that historical science and observational science have differences. Please visit my reply here.

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9 thoughts on “Models of the Past: A Response to Ken Ham

  1. Brandon says:

    Earl,

    Good stuff, but I disagree with your analysis of some aspects of Ham’s position.

    “He seems to think that all models are just as good as each other”

    I’m not convinced this is the case. I don’t know for certain, but I doubt Ham would count the Hindu comic egg myth as an equal to biblical creation. I don’t think the reason for this is as simple as

    “Where I think Ken Ham was mistaken, though, was when he failed to apply his criticism and skepticism equally to both sides.”

    In fact, I think that if Ham here to apply criticism and skepticism to his own position he would be arguing in a circle. Ham is committed axiomatically to the position that the Bible is the literal word of God. This is more important to him than modus ponens. He will even freely admit this fact, during the debate he said this in response to the question “what, if anything, will change your mind?”:

    “Well, the answer to that questions is, I’m a Christian. As a Christian, I can’t prove it to you, but God has definitely shown me very clearly through his word, and he has shown himself in the person of Jesus Christ, that the bible is the word of God. I admit that this is where I start from… …No, no one is ever going to convince me that the word of God is not true.”

    Here Ham both admits that he is reliant on the truth of the bible as an axiom, but also that his arguments are fundamentally not skeptical. Even if you could construct a rock-solid logical argument that definitively proved Ham was mistaken he would not reconsider. Instead his position would be that our logical axioms were simply mistaken.

    Ham does not “fail to apply his criticism and skepticism equally to both sides” because he is committed to the position that both sides are not equal. For Ham to question the literal truth of the Bible is even more a serious endeavor than for us to throw out the axioms of propositional calculus.

    Ham’s problem is not that he has failed to apply his own criticism to his own beliefs, because to do so would be circular. Additionally, in Ham’s worldview Biblical creation and Evolution do not start on even ground. One is a scientific theory, but the other necessarily follows in all cases from the given axioms, and therefore Evolution must be false.

    • Thank you for your valuable reply. It may be true that I am attacking a more philosophically interesting (in my estimates, at least) position than the one actually held by Ham. My goal with this article was to show that it is very much reasonable to doubt inferences concerning events in the past, but there are many considerations to take into account in order to do it in a well-principled manner. In fact, the main target of my argument is not actually Ken Ham (his ideas are already easily dismissed) but actually the overwhelming number of people against Ham who are out there today claiming that there are no problems whatsoever involved with inferring events of the past. I am using Ham’s position as a springboard into this (in my opinion more interesting) discussion. I’m glad you’ve given me this opportunity to make my intentions clear and stay honest! :)

    • Brandon II says:

      I actually believe that Ham is trying to say that all historical models that explain origins are equal, and creationism is just another in the line of many. The only reason (in Ham’s opinion) creationism is true is because it’s the “word of God”. Ham’s objective from the beginning is to show how accepting creationism (or the Bible’s account of natural history) and science (as he defines it) are not mutually exclusive. He goes on to show how modern day scientist can do good scientific work while still being creationists.

      I would agree with Ham that many—maybe even most—scientific endeavors do not require acceptance of the traditional scientific account of natural history. If all you want to do is engineer robotic arms on satellites while at the same time believe that Noah cruised his ark for a year, that’s not an issue for me. However—and maybe I’m going too far here(?) (but I’m not)—I believe Ham is only using this idea of non-mutual exclusivity to backdoor the creationist’s agenda into public schools. This is where I believe the real/practical debate exists. And it’s on this issue that I believe Nye and Eral’s arguments have relevance. Once you try to make a case for why your model is just as good or better than the current explanatory model, you need to start providing the coherent evidence that supports said model. Obviously, Ham’s evidence was lacking at the very most.

  2. RyanHall says:

    What got me about all this is that I, philosophically, think that the Theory of Evolution as we do it in science class, is one of THE BEST ARGUMENTS for Creationism itself. It’s quite obvious that traditional evolution is, or is very close to, how we go from point A [whether it is {and it is, most likely} Molecules-to-Man, or Kind-to-Alterred-Kind] to Point B.

    If this is the way it is, and there is some creative influential force aligning being into the order it has thus far achieved—then I ask, by what vessel OTHER THAN NATURAL LAW, physics, molecules, evolution—by what other vessel would a creator create? Even omnipotence has limits, as romantic as it might seem to think otherwise. Even God can’t break logic. He can’t make a square circle. He can’t make something from nothing, i.e. these Kinds that Ham refers to–I presume they just pop into existence by the almighty will of God alone?

    Has he ever read The Timaeus, for Christ’s sake? :)

    Here Ken Ham, I have a book for you.

    • Kevin says:

      I think your response would prove interesting to most thinking Christians but not to Ken Ham. As already stated, he believes resolutely in a literal interpretation of the Bible which states that death did not predate sin, which would have to mean that no animals could have died before man had come into existence. Thus either the Bible is untrue in that it got the order reversed (which is obviously the case) or evolution is untrue for the inverse reason. Any rational Christian could see the utilization of natural law as the means of a creation for an all-powerful deity, but it would contradict a literal interpretation of the Bible.

      I think the best attack on Ham would have been one against biblical inerrancy. There are websites whose content consists of nothing besides contradictions in the Bible, and if Bill had simply brought up one of them Ham’s entire argument would have been pointless as two mutually exclusive propositions, an example being that Jesus died on two different days relative to the Passover celebration, cannot both be true.

      • I think the best attack on Ham would have been one against biblical inerrancy.

        I agree with you that this is the best attack against Ham’s particular brand of quackery, and there are a lot of people making this exact point. I am glad you have brought it up here though, because it is possible that people will read this post alone and not the others making this more directed rebuttal.

        What I have tried to do here, in contrast to the others that I have seen, is provide a more general philosophical framework for considering alternative hypotheses in the historical sciences. Ham’s argument (and arguments made by many others) is then defeated as a consequence of this framework.

        Thanks for your reply.

  3. […] there has been a storm of debate over what difference, if any, exists between historical and observational science. Unfortunately, […]

  4. Jerry W says:

    Earl,

    Why didn’t you use “Consider the following:” instead of “Consider this:” — It would have made me chuckle.

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Earl Bellinger

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