Creation/Evolution Debate

I started watching the creation/evolution debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, streamed live on February 4th from Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky.  The timed and refereed debate followed a standard format: first Mr. Ham spoke, then Mr. Nye spoke, followed by rebuttals.  My takeaway has as much to do about the debaters’ skills as the subject.

First, a caveat: my younger self was on track to become an astronomer.  My mother bought me a used 3.5 inch refracting telescope. I saw Jupiter and the moon and various other blurry objects through it.  Later, I purchased a 6″ Newtonian reflecting telescope, which opened my eyes more to such exquisite objects as Saturn and nebulae.  But at the age of 23, I turned to the Bible for inspiration. This had to do with my lack of imagination about how inorganic material made the leap to organic compounds and then to metabolic processes that could replicate (i.e., living things).  I needn’t have worried. Even the best minds on Earth struggle with that leap.  I’ve read Paul Davies, Freeman Dyson, and other experts on the subject, and each have their own theories.  What they don’t do, however, is surmise that, since the path from clay to living things isn’t clear, that the leap

must be magical. Any explanation that requires a mystical (insert name here) is no explanation at all.

See, if we resort to a God of the Gaps, then anything may be explained where the scientific alternative’s jury is still out.  Any phenomena that we cannot immediately explain these days gets rehashed to have a supernatural origin.  That can mean aliens as well, since they presumably possess technology that, to us, appears indistinguishable from magic. Why don’t aliens show themselves to us? Perhaps for the same reason that neither angels nor devils do. Either they don’t exist, or the enormous distances spacefaring civilizations must cross in the universe suggests that we just haven’t met them yet. Perhaps they do exist, and so does God. They just don’t communicate because the energy to do so is, well, too much to expend to contact beings of uncertain (and, if only they knew, precarious) existence on a planet – our pale blue dot – so close to its sun as to be undetectable at interstellar distances.  So, being invisible to us, God and aliens may have something in common.

Mr. Ham uses a weak rhetorical strategy.  He refers to authority figures to make his first persuasive appeal to the audience.  During this, he gives away part of his complaint: that scientists who espouse creationism are derided, shut out, and silenced.  I agrees that a reasonable observer should expect more openness and acceptance from the scientific community of those with different beliefs. Homosexuality, you might recall, presents an area where stigma follows researchers and subjects trying valiantly to fight the cause of the disease, and explain its origin, such as by a genetic predisposition.  An appeal to authority works only when the authority can be trusted through secondary validation of experimental results.  If an experiment is non-repeatable, or its evidence non-reproducible, then the author’s work is discredited. It happens all the time in academic and scientific journals.  Discredited researchers either correct the flaws and bounce back, or they try to defend the results. Beware of those who vociferously defend their results. It suggest denial, especially when multiple persons in the larger research community scratch their heads wondering which left field the other is coming from.

Mr. Nye, on the other hand, makes his appeal through facts. In his opening remark, he uses the analogy of criminologists working back from a crime scene to understand the history of the event that caused a death. Even if you have a bloody knife as evidence, linking it to the crime requires substantiating the claim that this particular knife was used by a particular person with a particular motive. After eliminating other possible alternatives, the remaining alternative must be the truth. Still, a good researcher will ask, “Have we considered everything?”

I admit that Mr. Nye uses his celebrity status to effect. Sometimes showy people cannot help themselves. The same holds true for Mr. Ham. Both are sincere people attempting to convince us of a story’s worth. Unlike Mr. Ham, Mr. Nye doesn’t have a museum to run. He runs an active scientific organization, The Planetary Society, that urges the United States to spend money on space missions to discover more about our solar system and universe. Mr. Nye looks forward rather than back. Which brings up another point about Mr. Ham’s argument.

Contrary to Mr. Ham, historical science cannot be separated from observable science. Whatever scientists observe quickly becomes historical record. Take comet ISON for example. According to observers, it broke up as it made perihelion around the sun. Comet hunters and casual observers alike were hoping for more to reveal the wanderer’s characteristics. We have photographic images as evidence that it existed, and metrics that told of its elliptical orbit. However, no one is certain of the comet’s fate. Now, what if a group like Heaven’s Gate posited that aliens were riding comet ISON to, say, rapture the faithful away? Could the comet’s mysterious disappearance say anything about that? Here’s the old adage we must observe: absence of evidence of not evidence of absence. Apologists for Christianity often cite it. The photos and measurements of comet ISONs existence are all that we have to study the possibility of an alien presence on the ball of ice. As with imagery study of the Moon hoax, much is made of graininess to “explain” the raft of possibilities. There are a number of observations and artifacts from history that, studied again, reveal new facts.  Comet ISON may sit like an alter-Earth on the other side of the Sun masking an eventual alien invasion with millions of other celestial artifacts. If so, a few may postulate that the aliens are hiding from us hoping we don’t send a probe to discover the assembled, spear-rattling rabble. The story can become as insanely complex as you like.

I happen to be an agnostic. In fact, I prefer the late physicist John Archibald Wheeler’s view of the universe, which he posed as the Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP). The observer creates the universe. However, this creation is not in the sense that human observers actually create matter and energy, or even that we’re lords of this domain. Rather human intelligence creates the philosophical and material concepts for explaining what we observe. This is how two hot debaters like Nye and Ham can agree on nearly everything else, like how to assemble a robotic arm, but disagree on the unknowable. It is a matter of projecting, or rather inductive reasoning, that suggests any more than that. God, chance, PAP: you name whatever it is. The real value is if the explanation holds up against many lights of what we already know for sure. In my view, creationism does not.

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