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Bill Nye, Ken Ham, and the Catholic Third Way


Did you watch the big debate last night between Ken Ham and Bill Nye? It was an excellent exchange with good points made on both sides, but decidedly missing from the debate was the fuller and traditional Catholic view. Thus for the purpose of our dialogue here at Strange Notions, I'd like to explore the "third way" absent from last night's event.

How are Catholics taught to view the world? To quote the apologist Frank Sheed, in the very beginning of his book Theology and Sanity: “There is the intellect: its work is to know, to understand, to see: to see what? To see what’s there.” Ken Ham represented the young earth creationist view, arguing that historical science should be interpreted literally according to the English translation of the Bible. Bill Nye represented the “science guy” view, arguing that historical science should be interpreted according to the laws of nature that can be observed. Yet the Catholic view could summarily be described as natural realism.

The question under debate last night was, “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” Let's compare the positions.

Ken Ham, Biblical Creationist

Ken Ham argued that terms must be defined correctly. He defined “science” as either observational or historical. The science that develops spacecraft, smoke detectors, and antibodies, for instance, is observational, based on experiments in the present. The science that deals with origins is historical. “Molecules to man” he said, is not about technology. No one was there to observe it.

He accused the secularists of imposing the “religion of naturalism” on kids when textbooks teach that “molecules to man” is scientific fact. But since the Bible teaches something else, evolution and creation are two opposing world views. His strongest point was that “observational science confirms creationism,” because if Biblical creation is true then we should expect to find evidence of intelligence, we should expect to find that animals produce offspring after their own kind, we should expect the human race to be one race, we should expect from the Tower of Babel for different groups to have different languages, and we should expect to find evidence of a young earth, and he furthered, we do. We do find that the world is ordered by laws of logic and laws of nature, we find that finches beget finches and dogs beget dogs, we find that the human race is one and that people have different languages, and he believes we find scientific evidence of a young earth. If kids were taught this, then they would accept the moral laws of the Bible too, such as those regarding marriage, abortion, euthanasia. The teaching of the “religion of naturalism” is responsible for moral decay in our culture. Ham wants children to be taught the right foundation, namely that they are special and made in the image of God.

Bill Nye, the Science Guy

Bill Nye, on the other hand, argued that scientists do not make the distinctions Ham makes, and that even most of the billions of people who are religious do not believe in a 6,000 year old earth. He mentioned the limestone and the fossils everywhere, millions of layers of ancient life. “How could those animals have lived their lives and formed these layers in only 6,000 years?” he asked.

He mentioned the snow-ice rods found in Greenland that contain 680,000 layers of packed ice, trapping ancient pockets of air, and the California bristlecone pines that are over 6,000 years old. Old Tjikko in Sweden? That tree is 9,550 years old. How could that be? Even more, the Grand Canyon features layers upon layers of ancient rock containing fossils of sea animals, trilobites, clams, oysters, and mammals, but without any of the “higher” animals mixed in with the “lower” ones. Nye challenged Ham to find one example anywhere in the world where all forms of animals were mixed together in the layers of rock. He argued that observational experience does not support the creation account.

“Here’s the thing,” Nye said, “what we want in science is an ability to predict, a natural law that is so obvious and well-understood that we can make predictions.” In the fossil record, we find a sequence of animals. Historically, when there were missing links and people wondered if there was a fossil that filled that gap. For example, after finding reptiles and amphibians people wondered if there was some animal in between that had characteristics of both. But then that which was predicted was indeed found.

Nye later argued that, “Ken Ham’s model doesn’t have prediction capability!” He claimed that kids were not being taught to appreciate observational science, but instead to believe an account in a book that could not be observed. Therefore, he argued, such teaching hinders education and produces future adults who cannot innovate new technology. He pointed out that scientists now can use a drug based on Rubidium to do heart imaging without having to cut open a patient. “There’s no place like that in Kentucky [where Ham’s Creation Museum is located] to get a degree to do this kind of medicine. I hope you Kentuckians find that troubling. You have to go out of state for that.” This, I think, was rhetorically powerful but probably his weakest point.

The Traditional Catholic View

There is another way to view this whole discussion, though, and it is how Catholic scholars have traditionally viewed the order in nature. I described it earlier as natural realism. It is a Biblical worldview, the same worldview of the early Christians and the same worldview of the Christian scholars in the Middle Ages when modern science was born.

Throughout the Old Testament, the naturalness of the universe, the predictability and order, the power of God as Creator and Lawmaker are emphasized: “The Lord...the God of hosts, the same who brightens day with the sun’s rays, night with the ordered service of moon and star, who can stir up the sea and set its waves a-roaring.” (Jeremiah 31:35) The prophets spoke of God as the Creator of the universe, the one who “measured out the waters in his open hand, heaven balanced on his palm, earth’s mass poised on three of his fingers” (Isaiah 40:12). This naturalness, by which I mean the rationality in reality, is densely featured in the Wisdom literature, in the references to God’s wisdom in the created world and its stability:

"The Lord made me [wisdom] his when first he went about his work, at the birth of time, before his creation began. Long, long ago, before earth was fashioned, I held my course.
Already I lay in the womb, when the depths were not yet in being, when no springs of water had yet broken; when I was born, the mountains had not yet sunk on their firm foundations, and there were no hills; not yet had he made the earth, or the rivers, or the solid framework of the world." (Proverbs 8:22-26)

The Old Testament is the story of the unity between cosmic and human history, describing how the Maker of the World is also the Shepherd of His People.

"Sure knowledge he has imparted to me of all that is;
how the world is ordered, what influence have the elements,
how the months have their beginning, their middle, and their ending,
how the sun’s course alters and the seasons revolve,
how the years have their cycles, the stars their places.
To every living thing its own breed, to every beast its own moods;
the winds rage, and men think deep thoughts;
the plants keep their several kinds, and each root has its own virtue;
all the mysteries and all the surprises of nature were made known to me;
wisdom herself taught me, that is the designer of them all." (Wisdom 7:17-21)

This naturalistic mindset was present in the Old Testament, as well as in the New, and it thrived among the early Christians. For instance, Athenagoras in the second century noted that “neither is...it reasonable that matter should be older than God; for the efficient cause must of necessity exist before the things that are made.” Irenaeus, also in the second century, emphasized that faith in the Creator of all was the basis of Christian belief. Clement urged in his Exhortation to the Greeks a confident attitude toward nature, a view of the world created by a rational Creator:

"How great is the power of God! His mere will is creation; for God alone created, since He alone is truly God. By a bare wish His work is done, and the world’s existence follows upon a single act of His will."

St. Augustine in the fourth century showed an appreciation for quantitative relationships. His view was that knowledge of the quantitative exactness of the natural world, including the cosmos, could not help much in understanding the biblical message. Augustine also rejected any biblical interpretation which denied or ignored the established conclusions of natural studies. He was explicit on this point. Read this with the Ham and Nye debate in mind:

"It is often the case that a non-Christian happens to know something with absolute certainty and through experimental evidence about the earth, sky, and other elements of this world, about the motion, rotation, and even about the size and distances of stars, about certain defects [eclipses] of the sun and moon, about the cycles of years and epochs, about the nature of animals, fruits, stones, and the like. It is, therefore, very deplorable and harmful, and to be avoided at any cost that he should hear a Christian to give, so to speak, a “Christian account” of these topics in such a way that he could hardly hold his laughter on seeing, as the saying goes, the error rise sky-high." (Sancti Aureli Augustini De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim, in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinoram, Volume XXVIII, Section III, Part 1.)

Augustine realized that when statements of the Bible conflicted with hypotheses of the workings of nature, and when reason and observation provided no clear solution and decisive evidence, nor did Scripture seem to be explicitly literal, then the matter was open to further inquiry. Whenever scientific reasoning seemed to settle a matter, however, he urged that Scripture would have to be reinterpreted. When it could not be settled, he said that questions which “require much subtle and laborious reasoning to perceive which the actual case” he had no time for because “it is not needed by those whom [he wished] to instruct for their own salvation and for the benefit of the Church.” In other words, he knew that salvation did not come from knowledge of the natural world.

This is to show that, traditionally, Christians have not rejected reason and observation in favor of a literal Biblical interpretation. They had a natural view of the cosmos and sought to understand it as far as reason could go. It seems, in other words, they would have rejected Ken Ham’s view.

The Catholic scholars in the Middle Ages, when modern science was born, continued this worldview, guided by faith in a rational Creator. They rejected conclusions drawn beyond observations that contradicted the Christian Creed, such as pantheism and animism, but whatever they observed and measured, they viewed it all as a work of Creation and asked questions about how these created things worked. This is covered in much more detail in my book, Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki. Jaki's writings, of course, cover this in even more detail. So rather than belabor the point, I will move on.

Even into the twentieth century, this view has been maintained. In 1909, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a document, Concerning the historical nature of the first three chapters of Genesis. The decisions are summarized below, taken and highlighted from Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma.

"a) The first three Chapters of Genesis contain narratives of real events, no myths, no mere allegories or symbols of religious truths, no legends.
b) In regard to those facts, which touch the foundations of the Christian religion, the literal historical sense is to be adhered to. Such facts are, inter alia, the creation of all things by God in the beginning of time, and the special creation of humanity.
c) It is not necessary to understand all individual words and sentences in the literal sense. Passages which are variously interpreted by the Fathers and by theologians, may be interpreted according to one’s own judgment with the reservation, however, that one submits one’s judgment to the decision of the Church, and to the dictates of the Faith.
d) As the Sacred Writer had not the intention of representing with scientific accuracy the intrinsic constitution of things, and the sequence of the works of creation but of communicating knowledge in a popular way suitable to the idiom and to the pre-scientific development of his time, the account is not to be regarded or measured as if it were couched in language which is strictly scientific.
e) The word “day” need not be taken in the literal sense of a natural day of 24 hours, but can also be understood in the improper sense of a longer space of time."


How Does "Natural Realism" Fit Into the Debate?

The Catholic view is, as Frank Sheed said, to see “what’s there.” It is an open-minded, curious, and confident view that science, the application of mathematics to objects, can reveal the laws of nature—and it is a humble view that admits those laws are profound and not fully known. The goal is to reconcile faith and science, but as long as our knowledge is incomplete, then it is acceptable to clarify where the incongruities seem to be with an attitude toward reconciliation.

If there is an apparent conflict, it is the result of partial knowledge, not actual conflict. We must keep searching.

So what's the answer to the debate question, “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” The answer is yes, if creation is taken to be "creation of all things by God" as understood by the Old Testament and Christian authors. Also, the answer is yes so long as it is understood that man, as a rational creature made in the image of God, is capable of discovery, but is also a discursive creature who learns in steps, and therefore does not possess omniscience.

This attitude seems to be missing in both Ken Ham’s and Bill Nye’s arguments. Perhaps there is some truth to both of their arguments, and perhaps some error. The fuller and balanced Catholic view admits this and says:

“Keep going, keep studying, keep researching, keep debating. Teach kids science in science class and religion in religion class. Instruct kids in the virtues, to will to do good an to avoid vice. Encourage kids to use their intellects, to think and learn, to discover and innovate because they were made for it. Teach them to pervade all willing and learning with a confidence in a Creator who ‘ordered all things by measure, number, and weight’ (Wisdom 11:20), a God who holds everything in existence and interacts in the history of mankind in the same manner as He rules the cosmos. For that is your origin.”
(Image credit: Chicago Now)

Dr. Stacy Trasancos

Written by

Stacy A. Trasancos is a wife and homeschooling mother of seven. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University and a MA in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She teaches chemistry and physics for Kolbe Academy online homeschool program and serves as the Science Department Chair. She teaches Reading Science in the Light of Faith at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. She is author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki. Her new book, Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science (Ave Maria Press) comes out October 2016. She works from her family’s 100-year old restored lodge in the Adirondack mountains, where her husband, children, and two German Shepherds remain top priority. Her website can be found here.

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