Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Entrenched Dogma vs the Philosophy of Science, Thoughts

It's been a while friends. Can't promise that I'll consistently post here again just yet, but let's see what happens.

I've been giving a lot of thought to the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, and have seen a pretty common question pop up. To put it succinctly, people have been wondering if the debate was even worth the time. I have a few thoughts I want to share.

For those of you that don't know what I'm talking about, you can check it out here if you want to. The debate was between a young earth/6 day creationist view of the origins of life and the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection, with Ham and Nye respectively representing their viewpoints in opposition to each other.

I was pleasantly surprised by a few things in this debate. Firstly, and most importantly, I cannot emphasize enough how right on Bill Nye was about how a lot of people, many of them religious, disagree with Ham's view of origins. Almost everyone I know disagrees, and a lot of them are deeply religious.

Ken Ham's Creation Museum and his arguments present a very interestingly disturbing view of the world. To break it down as succinctly as I can, he draws a distinction between observational science and historical science, and says that we cannot make any conclusions in historical science, because it is in the past. This point struck me as quite interesting and difficult to square with his very definite view of what happened in the past. On Mr Ham's view, we are meant to take his word for what happened in the past from the authority of a religious text and his literal method of interpreting it, because science cannot tell us anything accurately about the past. An interesting side-debate here might've been how he defines the past, since I presume science could tell us things about the recent past, otherwise crime scene investigation and things of that nature would be a complete dead-end. Regardless, Mr Ham backed up this criticism by drawing on numerous examples of how scientific conclusion aren't "quite right," criticizing everything from dating methods to the scientific method itself, whenever it treads on what Mr Ham calls "historical science." His view, of course, hinges on a view of the Bible as an inerrant and scientifically/historically accurate record of the past preserved by God, and his point was that any other source for the historic past is futile and incorrect.

We can debate the specifics of religious belief and authoritarian claims from religious texts until we're blue in the face. What really interested me is that Bill Nye did no such thing, he merely pointed out where Mr Ham was coming from repeatedly, and how those with similar religious beliefs to his do not agree, nor do they draw the same distinctions he does between "historical" and "observational" science, in contrast to the examples that Mr Ham started his presentation with. Mr Nye spent the rest of the time educating, which is one of my favorite things anyone can do in a debate setting where it's so easy to get caught up in points and counterpoints that the topic becomes obscured. Mr Nye explained multiple topics, especially the details of radiometric dating, in broad strokes and why they lead to the conclusions they do.

So on one side we have a person who references several people that agree with him and who brings forward criticisms of scientific concepts that are a threat to a view that he admits is an entrenched one, based in an authoritarian view of the universe (I believe God has said this, hence we must be wrong if we say differently), and on the other side we have someone who is educating, bringing forward data, pointing out the ways in which things do not add up and the ways in which other things do, and is honest about what they are disturbed by in the opposing view and what would change their mind (evidence). In addition, the invitation to Mr Ham to write a scientific paper disproving evolution by natural selection is extremely consistent with the scientific method, and I think made it obvious exactly what type of thought process difference we were seeing here.

I must answer the question of whether this debate was worth the time with a definite yes. Normally I dislike debates, but this one was a very interesting clash, and demonstrated the profound differences in thought processes between the two debaters, and perhaps the differences in schools of thought that they represent. I do not believe this was a debate between religion and science per se, especially since I know a lot of religious people who disagree with Mr Ham's view, I believe it was a debate between entrenched dogmatism and the philosophy of science. This is important, because it is very easy to criticize, very easy to bring forward one's dogma and make strong arguments, but it is far more difficult and worthwhile to take a step back from one's dearly held views and allow them to be destroyed or changed if there is evidence that can do that. The deeply religious can do this as well as anyone else, though it may end up changing them in unexpected ways that I could not begin to imagine.

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