Ken Ham’s Humean Skepticism or “Hey, Ham Your Enlightened Roots Are Showing”

In a recent post, Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell does what Ken Ham and AIG do in the majority of their posts. She responds to a recent scientific publication in which researchers write about something related to the theory of evolution or the age of the universe. Then she and the team at AIG attempt to offer an alternative explanation of the same evidence. Their explanation is supposed to undermine the conclusions and assumptions of the researchers and validate (or conform) to the texts of Genesis 1-11 which they interpret scientifically.

As title of Mitchell’s article suggests, Mitchell and the AIG see the problem as stemming from differing world-views or presuppositions. The presupposition of the so-called “secular” scientists is that the universe is billions of years old, the presupposition of AIG (which they base on their interpretation of the Bible) is that the earth is less than 7,000 years old and that the catastrophic flood described in Genesis 6-9 was a global flood and occured around 4,300 years ago. Like AIG, I do think there is a clash of world-views and presuppositions going on in this “debate” (it cannot be called a dialogue) but it is not the clash identified by Ken Ham and AIG. The clash is between the implicit skepticism of AIG and the Christian tradition. The unacknowledged skepticism of Ken Ham and his followers is evident in their radical distrust of human reason and their claims about our access to knowledge about the past. Statements about the past in AIG articles are strikingly similar to enlightenment philospher David Hume’s radical skepticism with respect to the idea of causation. 

The battle of presuppostions as defined by Ken Ham and AIG are introduced to begin Mitchell’s refutation of the researchers. These are not presented as competing hypotheses but competing prejudices and the final arbiter is God because God was there. The Bible offers an eyewitness account of the circumstances that led to the relevant data, according to Ken Ham and the team at AIG. Mitchell writes,

What kind of catastrophe could have deposited all that material over such a huge region? We know of no comparable event happening today, so the present is not the key to the past. We must therefore either deduce how these geologic layers came to be in light of the historical record—God’s eyewitness account in the Bible—or else assume, as this group of scientists has done, that the layers accumulated over millions of years.

The scientists studying the region are studying these beautiful rock formations and fossils in the present. They have collected a great deal of observable information about the mudstones, the fossilized pollen grains, plants and animals buried in them there, and the charcoal and carbonate nodules in these rock units. They catalogued the kinds of pollen, plants, and animals preserved in these rock layers. They obtained reflectance measurements on pieces of charcoal and isotopic ratios on carbonate nodules. But that is where the observable data in their study ends. The rest of the study consists of interpretation, extrapolating from the observable, testable data to the unobservable, untestable past. 

Notice how Mitchell emphasizes the seemingly obvious claim that we do not have immediate access to the events of the past. We only have access to observable, testable data and everything else is intepretation and speculation. But the presuppositions of AIG go further, as fallible human beings, we cannot be trusted to infer the historical causes of the data in front of us. Therefore, our only access to the past is through what AIG calls “historical science” which amounts to eyewitness testimony (God’s eyewitness testimony — human beings are fallible after all).* As Joel Anderson has pointed out, Ken Ham and AIG are remarkably inconsistent in practice. That is, human testimony or “speculation” in favour of old earth or evolutionary theories is frequently discounted by AIG because of its fallible source. However, AIG accepts testimony when it is in favour of their position or supports their claims. (See the reference to Mt. St. Helen’s in this article and their recent post on “selected” Church Fathers.) The logic mus be something like this: “Of course, I may reference Martin Luther on the age of the earth because he is obviously merely reporting the eyewitness report of Scripture and not relying on fallible human reason on this point.

Like David Hume, AIG places a great deal of emphasis on our immediate sensory experience in contrast to our “extrapolations” (or inferences) about the causes of what we see. In the above quote, we do not even seem to be able to extrapolate (infer) from localized disasters to a large scale catastrophe (by which they mean the flood). Such skepticism seems to call into question anything done in a lab. The radical skepticism of their position is further clarified in what follows:

The authors of the study collected a great deal of data. But what did they actually see? All they saw were rock layers containing carbonate nodules and fossils of animals, pollen, and plants, and pieces of wood and charcoal. They measured isotopic compositions and the light reflectance of the charcoal. They identified and inventoried the dead plants and animals buried in those rock layers. They did not, however, see any wildfires. They did not see the flora and fauna living in the region. They did not even see any ancient soil. They did not measure the atmospheric carbon dioxide content of a long ago place. They did not measure the temperatures of wildfires. All their conclusions about the conditions of the place and time that produced these rock layers depend wholly on their belief that the layers were deposited over millions of years and reflect the local environment.

WARNING WHAT FOLLOWS IS SELF INDULGENT HUMOR

Take that CSI. I would not want anyone from AIG on my investigative team. But, if I were on trial for murder and there were no eye-witnesses, I would want my jury filled with people from AIG. Their criteria for reasonable doubt is extremely low. “Members of the jury, we have shown that the evidence presented by the prosecution as evidence of murder, can also be explained by a global catastrophe. Unless you doubt the eyewitness testimony of God, you must acquit the defendant. If the flood fits, you must acquit.” Self indulgence complete.

As you can see, Mitchell, Ham, and the folks at AIG, in their emphasis on our present sensory experience (aka observable, testable data), demonstrate a palpable skepticism with respect to our ability to infer causes from their observable effects. The researchers only had charcoal. They did not have fire.

WARNING: SELF INDULGENT HUMOR 2

I would love to be Ken Ham’s child. He needs a biblical name. Let’s call him Kenaan. I can hear it, now.

Ham: Son, who broke the vase?

Kenaan: I don’t know.

Ham: It wasn’t broken when your mother and I left and you were home alone. Isn’t that your baseball?

Kenaan: Dad, there are many other possible explanations for why a vase might be broken and why my baseball might be lying in the shards. You are extrapolating based on your fallible human reason and your beliefs about the nature of boys and a belief that baseballs break vases. Have you ever seen a baseball break a vase?

Ham: Well, know I haven’t, Son. However, when I was a boy, I broke a window playing cricket.

Kenaan: Dad, a window is not a vase. All you have is shards of vase and a baseball that looks very similar to my baseball, and I may not even be the same boy that you left here this morning.

Ham: Son, did you . . .

Kenaan: Dad, let me finish. If there is one thing that you have taught me, its that the past is the past and when there is more than one possible explanation for the evidence, no matter how implausible, then we must turn from observational science to historical science. Dad, did you see me break the vase?

Ham: No, son, I didn’t.

Kenaan: Does it say anywhere in the Bible that I broke the vase?

Ham: No, son, it doesn’t.

Kenaan: Then Dad, I think we’ve learned all we can here. Let’s leave this mess for Mom to clean up. We have an Ark to build.

Self-Indulgence Complete. Return to Serious Argument.

In his influential work An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume argues that all our ideas come from our sensory experience our sense impressions. The idea of causal connection or necessary connection is not one of these impressions, it is not something we see. Rather, it is something that we feel to be true based on our customary (habitual) and frequent association of two or more sense impressions that tend to follow each other.

In other words, when we say that “thing 1” causes “thing 2”, it would be more correct to say that we have the habit of thinking “thing 2” after “thing 1.” Their may or not be any real connection between the two things. We cannot know either way because we do not have direct access to the world outside our minds. According to Hume, if I speak of the smell of a rose, upon self-examination, we come to understand it is more accurate to say that the impressions of a certain flower shape, the colour red, and a particular fragrance often accompany each other.

Hume uses the examples of billiard balls and a vibrating string. He writes, “We say, for instance, that the vibration of this string is the cause of this particular sound. But what do we mean by that affirmation? We either mean, that this vibration is followed by the sound and that all similar vibrations have been followed by similar sounds: Or, that this vibration is followed by the sound ,and that upon the appearance of one, the mind anticipates the senses, and forms immediately an idea of the other. We may consider the relation of cause and effect in either of these two lights; but beyond these, we have no idea of it.” (Hume, Enquiry, Oxford University Press, 1999, 146) In other words, Hume is skeptical about our ability to say anything definitive about cause and effect in the external world.

Hume’s skepticism is radical. Some might argue, and this is my understanding of his argument, that Hume is skeptical about our minds having any real relation to our own bodies. (Think “mind in a vat” from Philosophy 101.)

Now, I am not suggesting that Ken Ham is so committed to skepticism that he would suggest that the mind has no real connection to our body. Indeed, I doubt that Ham sees himself as a skeptic at all. However, the barrier he erects between our present experience and our knowledge of the past is akin to Hume’s skepticism with respect to causal relations. Mitchell, in accord with Ham and AIG, states that because we do not have present access to a global flood, our present experience is of no help to us. Interestingly, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume employs a similar argument to discount miracles (and I suspect global catastrophes). That is, since Hume (and assumes most his contemporaries) does not see miracles today, then it is highly improbable that they occurred in the past. It seems to me that Ham differs from Hume primarily in his belief that the Bible offers infallible scientific data about the past and in his inconsistency. As I suggested, I do not think Ham and Mitchell are aware that they are skeptics and would likely refute the charge and, as a result, they are inconsistent in their practices. Hume takes his skepticism to its logical conclusion.

In conclusion, I would like to point out the sad irony of Hamean skepticism. In the name of defending God, the Bible, Creation, the Church and young minds, Ham’s radical distrust of our ability to reason, his radical skepticism about our access to the past, and his self-serving definitions of “observable” and so-called “historical science”, run counter to the Christian tradition which he claims to defend.

Far from being radically distrustful of the human capacity to reason, many (likely most) theologians, up to and beyond the Protestant Reformation, saw in this faculty our “likeness” to God. Indeed, some went so far as to suggest that our ability to reason and think God’s thoughts after Him (by which they often meant seek to understand and discover the world God made) constituted what in Genesis 1 is called “the image of God in man.” Moreover, it was assumed that the created order could be grasped by reason. We can never come to understand God by mere reason alone but we as part of creation, as being’s made in God’s image, and endowed with minds that reason can fathom what God has made. We can infer causes from effects. We can extrapolate. We can theorize. We can change our minds based on new evidence. We can dialogue. Some historians of science argue that it this Christian perspective, the perspective that has a basic trust of the human ability to reason and assumes that world is rationally ordered, that gave rise to what we now refer to as the modern scientific method.

If we follow Ham’s method, we lose our access to the past, we lose our ability to reasonably infer cause from effect, we lose our trust of human testimony, and, in the end, we may even lose our minds.
“Answer a fool according to his folly, don’t answer a fool according to his folly, you will regret it either way.” ~ Kierqohelet

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