Last night’s debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham attracted a huge international audience and no shortage of controversy—even before it began. Bill Nye, whose main media presence is as “The Science Guy,” and Ken Ham, co-founder of Answers in Genesis and founder of the Creation Museum, squared off in a true debate over one of the most important questions that the human mind can contemplate. That is no small achievement.
I enjoyed a front row seat at the debate, which took place even as a major winter storm raged outside, dumping considerable amounts of snow and ice and causing what the local police announced as a “Class Two” weather emergency. Inside the Creation Museum there was quite enough heat, and the debate took place without a hitch. Thankfully, it also took place without acrimony.
The initial controversy about the debate centered in criticism of Bill Nye for even accepting the invitation. Many evolutionary scientists, such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, refuse to debate the issue, believing that any public debate offers legitimacy to those who deny evolution. Nye was criticized by many leading evolutionists, who argued publicly that nothing good could come of the debate.
Interestingly, this points back to the famous debates over evolution that took place in nineteenth century England, when Anglican churchmen faced early evolutionary scientists in (mostly) civil public exchanges. Back then, it was the churchmen who were criticized by their peers for participation in the debate. Now, the table has turned, indicating something of the distance between the intellectual conditions then and now.
Of course, Bill Nye might have felt some moral obligation to debate the question, since he had launched a unilateral attack on creationist parents in a video that went viral last year. In that video, Nye told creationist parents:
“[I]f you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can—we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.”
But if Nye had launched the attack, he did not arrive at the debate in a defensive mode. A protege of the late Carl Sagan and the current CEO of the Planetary Society, Nye was in full form last night, wearing his customary bow-tie, and immaculately dressed in a very expensive suit. He took notes with a very fine writing instrument. I like his style.
Ken Ham is a veteran debater on the issue of origins, and he was clearly prepared for the debate. Ham’s arguments were tight and focused, and his demeanor was uniformly calm and professional. The format allowed for a full expression of both arguments, along with spirited exchanges and questions submitted from the audience. What the 150 minute event lacked was any requirement that the debaters answer each other’s questions. That would have changed the way the debate concluded.
The central question of the debate was this: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” Ham stuck to the question tenaciously. Nye, on the other hand, tried to personalize the debate and kept changing the question from creation to “Ken Ham’s creationism.” Ham was unfazed, and kept to his argument.
As the debate began, it was clear that Ham and Nye do not even agree on definitions. The most friction on definition came when Nye rejected Ham’s distinction between “historical science” and “observational science” out of hand. Nye maintained his argument that science is a unitary method, without any distinction between historical and observational modes. Ham pressed his case that science cannot begin without making certain assumptions about the past, which cannot be observed. Furthermore, Ham rightly insisted that observational science generally does not require any specific commitment to a model of historical science. In other words, both evolutionists and creationists do similar experimental science, and sometimes even side-by-side.
Nye’s main presentation contained a clear rejection of biblical Christianity. At several points in the debate, he dismissed the Bible’s account of Noah and the ark as unbelievable. Oddly, he even made this a major point in his most lengthy argument. As any informed observer would have anticipated, Nye based his argument on the modern consensus and went to the customary lines of evidence, from fossils to ice rods. Ham argued back with fossil and geological arguments of his own. Those portions of the debate did not advance the arguments much past where they were left in the late nineteenth century, with both sides attempting to keep score by rocks and fossils.
In this light, the debate proved both sides right on one central point: If you agreed with Bill Nye you would agree with his reading of the evidence. The same was equally true for those who entered the room agreeing with Ken Ham; they would agree with his interpretation of the evidence.
That’s because the argument was never really about ice rods and sediment layers. It was about the most basic of all intellectual presuppositions: How do we know anything at all? On what basis do we grant intellectual authority? Is the universe self-contained and self-explanatory? Is there a Creator, and can we know him?
On those questions, Ham and Nye were separated by infinite intellectual space. They shared the stage, but they do not live in the same intellectual world. Nye is truly committed to a materialistic and naturalistic worldview. Ham is an evangelical Christian committed to the authority of the Bible. The clash of ultimate worldview questions was vividly displayed for all to see.
When asked how matter came to exist and how consciousness arose, Nye responded simply and honestly: “I don’t know.” Responding to the same questions, Ham went straight to the Bible, pointing to the Genesis narrative as a full and singular answer to these questions. Nye went on the attack whenever Ham cited the Bible, referring to the implausibility of believing what he kept describing as “Ken Ham’s interpretation of a 3,000 year old book translated into American English.”
To Bill Nye, the idea of divine revelation is apparently nonsensical. He ridiculed the very idea.
This is where the debate was most important. Both men were asked if any evidence could ever force them to change their basic understanding. Ham said no, pointing to the authority of Scripture. Nye said that evidence for creation would change his mind. But Nye made clear that he was unconditionally committed to a naturalistic worldview, which would make such evidence impossible. Neither man is actually willing to allow for any dispositive evidence to change his mind. Both operate in basically closed intellectual systems. The main problem is that Ken Ham knows this to be the case, but Bill Nye apparently does not. Ham was consistently bold in citing his confidence in God, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and in the full authority and divine inspiration of the Bible. He never pulled a punch or hid behind an argument. Nye seems to believe that he is genuinely open to any and all new information, but it is clear that his ultimate intellectual authority is the prevailing scientific consensus. More than once he asserted a virtually unblemished confidence in the ability of modern science to correct itself. He steadfastly refused to admit that any intellectual presuppositions color his own judgment.
But the single most defining moments in the debate came as Bill Nye repeatedly cited the “reasonable man” argument in his presentation and responses. He cited Adolphe Quetelet’s famed l’homme moyen—“a reasonable man”—as the measure of his intellectual authority. Writing in 1835, Quetelet, a French intellectual, made his “reasonable man” famous. The “reasonable man” is a man of intellect and education and knowledge who can judge evidence and arguments and function as an intellectual authority on his own two feet. The “reasonable man” is a truly modern man. Very quickly, jurists seized on the “reasonable man” to define the law and lawyers used him to make arguments before juries. A “reasonable man” would interpret the evidence and make a reasoned judgment, free from intellectual pressure.
Bill Nye repeatedly cited the reasonable man in making his arguments. He is a firm believer in autonomous human reason and the ability of the human intellect to solve the great problems of existence without any need of divine revelation. He spoke of modern science revealing “what we all can know” as it operates on the basis of natural laws. As Nye sees it, Ken Ham has a worldview, but Nye does not. He referred to “Ken Ham’s worldview,” but claimed that science merely provides knowledge. He sees himself as the quintessential “reasonable man,” and he repeatedly dismissed Christian arguments as “not reasonable.”
In an unexpected turn, near the end of the event, Nye even turned to make an argument against Christianity on grounds of theodicy. He asked Ham if it was “reasonable” to believe that God had privileged a personal revelation that was not equally accessible to all. Nye’s weakest argument had to do with his claim—made twice—that billions of religious people accept modern science. He provided a chart that included vast millions of adherents of other world religions and announced that they are religious but accept modern science. That is nonsense, of course. At least it is nonsense if he meant to suggest that these billions believe in evolution. That is hardly the case. Later, he lowered his argument to assert that these billions of people use modern technology. So, of course, do creationists. There are few facilities in the world more high-tech than the Creation Museum.
Nye is clearly not a fan of theistic evolution, since he argued that a purely natural argument should be quite enough for the “reasonable man.” He seemed to affirm a methodological agnosticism, since he sees the question of a “higher power” or “spiritual being” to be one of little intellectual consequence. He did argue that nature is a closed system and that natural selection can allow for absolutely no supernatural interference or influence. In this respect, he sounded much like Stephen Hawking, who has argued that God may exist, but that there is nothing for him to do.
Ken Ham is a Young Earth Creationist (as am I), but the larger argument was over worldviews, and the debate revealed the direct collision between evolution and the recognition of any historical authority within Genesis 1-11. As if to make that clear, in making one of his closing arguments, Bill Nye actually went back to cite “this problem of the ark.”
The ark is not the real problem; autonomous human reason is. Bill Nye is a true believer in human reason and the ability of modern science to deliver us. Humanity is just “one germ away” from extinction, he said. But science provides him with the joy of discovery and understanding.
The problem with autonomous human reason is made clear by the Apostle Paul in Romans chapter 1:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom 1:18-23 ESV).
The problem with human reason is that it, along with every other aspect of our humanity, was corrupted by the fall. This is what theologians refer to as the “noetic effects of the fall.” We have not lost the ability to know all things, but we have lost the ability to know them on our own authority and power. We are completely dependent upon divine revelation for the answers to the most important questions of life. Our sin keeps us from seeing what is right before our eyes in nature. We are dependent upon the God who loves us enough to reveal himself to us—and to give us his Word.
As it turns out, the reality and authority of divine revelation, more than any other issue, was what the debate last night was all about. As the closing statements made very clear, Ken Ham understood that fact, but Bill Nye did not.
The central issue last night was really not the age of the earth or the claims of modern science. The question was not really about the ark or sediment layers or fossils. It was about the central worldview clash of our times, and of any time: the clash between the worldview of the self-declared “reasonable man” and the worldview of the sinner saved by grace.
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Paragraph 17 of this essay was revised at the suggestion of careful readers, to whom I extend appreciation.