Exploring the wonders of geology in response to young-Earth claims...

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Feedback RE: Bill Nye's Plea

I felt that the following comment from my previous post (about Bill Nye) warranted its own spot, so I am reposting it here:

Mark H. writes:

"I think that you should consider more the implications of a YEC point of view. Ask yourself this question: What would you do if you believed that the Bible definitely teaches the YEC position? There would then be a conflict between the Bible and mainstream science. How would you respond to it? What would be the rational response? In my view, as I think that there are objectively conclusive/certain reasons to think that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, the rational thing to do would be to accept the claims of the Bible and assume that mainstream science is wrong on these issues. After all, mainstream scientists themselves admit that their convictions are only (very highly) probable, not absolutely certain; and probable arguments, no matter how strong, revert to 0% evidence when up against objectively certain claims.

So for YECs who have this view of what the Bible is and what it teaches, their rejection of the mainstream scientific paradigms on these issues is entirely rational. They are doing exactly what they should be doing. And their attempt to rebuild science on what they take as biblical foundations is entirely appropriate and rational, and we should all join in with them. IF YEC assumptions about the Bible and what it teaches on this issue are valid, all of this follows.

So the real point of controversy, the real issue, is what the Bible is and what it teaches on this issue. The scientific evidence is not the determining factor in this dispute. It is important, but it is rationally overridden by other concerns.

I know you know the biblical issues are important, and thus you have used many blog posts to provide an alternative interpretation of the Bible on these issues. And I also recognize that presenting the scientific evidence clearly can force people to go back and rethink the biblical issues. But I do think it would helpful to consider further the rationality and logic of YEC scientific claims, given certain assumptions.

As you know, I have held this YEC position in the past, and I would hold it still if I had not come to the conclusion that there are legitimate ways of reconciling biblical teaching and mainstream science. I am still agnostic on many scientific claims, but I will not oppose them with any strong conviction, because I do not believe I have the clear backing of God's Word behind me, but just my own non-expert opinion."


Thanks for commenting, Mark. I think your reasoning above is not only clear and concise, but very relevant to understanding how the public discussion over evolution actually works.

"What would you do if you believed that the Bible definitely teaches the YEC position?"

Remember that I held this position for many years, even while studying geology at the university. My response was not unlike your suggestion, and I sought for a means—with absolute confidence—to explain the rock record according to a paradigm defined by what I deemed "biblical history". If the data appeared to support long ages without a catastrophic flood, I had rational reason to believe that our scientific interpretation was not yet up to par.

But my post was not about what YEC's should do or where the real controversy lies, as you put it. My interest is in how YEC's might respond the message of this video and why the video will ultimately be ineffective. I think you made that point well in your comment: they proceed with absolute certitude that their interpretation of scripture trumps any contrary evidence from geology/biology.

I ultimately left that paradigm for two reasons, as you know. First, YEC's were demonstrably wrong in their explanations of geological data and often lied about that data. Moreover, their methods were entirely ad hoc, wherein they would take scientific studies by 'secular' scientists and introduce any arbitrary reason necessary to make their case before a non-expert audience. This is not only bad science, but a morally questionable approach by those who 1) claim to be evangelists and 2) hold graduate degrees and ought to know better.

Secondly, I realized that there is no more certitude in biblical exegesis than in the natural sciences. Each often deals in multiple competing hypotheses/methods to obtain information from a complex dataset, and neither are comparable to mathematic logic, in which following 'the rules' always yields the correct answer. Geology and biblical exegesis are similarly hermeneutical sciences, but when it comes to reconstructing history, radioisotope geochronology (for example) allows for far more numerous tests to verify its assumptions and conclusions than (for example) interpreting the relationship between Genesis 1 and primeval events. We rely on the historical sciences, moreover, even to know whether our copy of Genesis 1 matches those from ancient Israel, let alone to translate it accurately.

This is not to promote skepticism regarding the authority of the biblical text, and you know that I believe the records to be reliable and authoritative. I would suggest, however, that 'our certitude' in what the Bible claims can never trump historical evidence completely because it depends thereupon. You cannot even argue that Genesis 1:1 ought to be translated a certain way without referring to historical evidence that is no less disputable than most geological evidence. Thus I cannot agree that scientific evidence "is rationally overridden by other concerns." I would also dispute the claim that any part of the Bible was intended to or could give us more detailed information about Earth history than the geological sciences. I am convinced that attempts to make the Bible yield such information are anachronistic products of modern hermeneutical methods. If my conviction is valid, then YEC paradigms are not merely illogical, but they place massive, unnecessary stumbling blocks before our society and (more importantly) the doors of the church.

"I will not oppose [many scientific claims] with any strong conviction, because I do not believe I have the clear backing of God's Word behind me, but just my own non-expert opinion."

One of the most fascinating and beautiful characteristics of the biblical text, in my opinion, is its innate ability to transform people and cultures across time and space. One might say that it is the living word of God. But to utilize this aspect of the text requires that we are mindful of its dynamic complexity—its poetics—and that we recognize that the experience of reading the text (its affect on us, the reader) should not be divorced from the academic pursuit of its meaning. In other words, reading scripture in faith is no less important that obtaining the 'true meaning', which often is not so simple and may even depend on the context of the reader. New Testament expositions of the prophets are a prime example, I think. It is this feature, in any case, that separates the secular academic from the Christian academic in the natural sciences. It is in faith that we explore creation just as we explore the revealed Word. One does not trump the other, but both are made sensible by that faith. The very pursuit of knowledge in each discipline produces divinely inspired wisdom, often through getting the 'wrong' answer time and again. Thus if we claim certitude in one field where we have none, we preclude ourselves from much of what God has yet to reveal to us.

Or so I view my own journey thus far, and this rejection is the source of my frustration when YEC hermeneutics become the justification for rejecting claims of modern science and even prevent the student from learning or examining them properly.


  1. Thanks for your response, Jon. I think I basically agree with your approach.

    I would add, and I think you will agree, that the level of conviction with which we ought to hold various interpretations is something that can only be determined on a case by case basis. In some cases, both in the interpretation of Scripture as well as in the natural sciences, there is enough evidence available to provide a nearly undefeatable level of conviction for a certain conclusion. There can be Scriptural passages where the objectively correct interpretation is so clear as to warrant nearly certain conviction. And the same is sometimes the case in the natural sciences. So I think you are correct to point out that we can't put either biblical interpretation or the natural sciences above the other as more reliable in any kind of a priori fashion. It comes down to an analysis of specific cases.

    Looking at it this way, we can say that the YEC position is that their interpretation of Genesis 1, etc., is so objectively conclusive as to counterbalance any of the arguments regarding the age of the earth from the natural sciences. The only way to confirm or refute that position would be to actually examine these texts in their full context, and in the context of all of our knowledge, and see if the YEC claim is correct. And I know that your position is that you have done that and found that their interpretation is not based on anything like sufficient evidence.

    And perhaps you would say, in reverse, that the evidence for an old earth from the natural sciences is so conclusive as to counterbalance the best arguments made for the YEC interpretation of Genesis 1, etc.

    As you know, my own opinion currently is that I think the young-earth interpretation of the Bible is nearly (though not exactly quite) as conclusive as YECs think it is, but because of Omphalos-type theories (such as http://freethoughtforchrist.blogspot.com/2012/07/creation-and-nature-of-time-or-neo.html) and perhaps other possibilities, this does not entail a contradiction with mainstream science. I find myself unable to come to strong conclusions regarding the scientific data in itself, and so I am mostly agnostic on that, and prepared to go where other evidence (such as biblical evidence) might seem to lead (though, as I said, I currently don't think it leads to any clear place on this).

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on Omphalos-type theories sometime.


  2. Mark, I've had some debates with Omphalosites (new word!) before, so here are some observations:

    1. To accept Omphalos, you have to be able to suspend rationality - ie, you have to believe that things are something different to what they are by all accounts.
    2. The problem with the epistemology outlined in (1) is that not only is it entirely arbitrary, subject to the whims of him who holds it, it is also entirely defenseless against the variety of Omphalos-type thinking jokingly called "Last Thursdayism" - ie, you were created, with memories, only last Thursday. This cannot be disproved, given the Omphalos epistemology.
    3. Thus, the Omphalos epistemology, means nothing can really be believed, and thus, how do you know Scripture? (for instance).
    4. Thus, Omphalos requires a particularly deceptive deity, a Loki so-to-speak, which is not in accordance with Scripture.

  3. No Loki involved in biblical creation, this guy give us a very good explanation for a new version of biblical Omphalos theory.