Bill Nye commented in a recent video that creationism was inappropriate for children. He asserts that “evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science,” and cites dinosaur bones, radioactivity, distant stars and deep time as things explained exclusively by evolutionary cosmology. He suggests that if the evolutionary model is ignored, the resulting worldview is “crazy,” “untenable,” and “inconsistent.” Nye adds, “if you want to deny evolution and live 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.” Nye’s comments invite us to consider some fundamental aspects of science and to wonder whether Nye is speaking forthrightly about science, or if he is talking about something else entirely. I suggest he is doing the latter.
Before science can be engaged in practice, it must be defined. Scientific grounding goes a long way in determining what is and what is not allowed in scientific practice, and consequently, governs how the data may be interpreted. The inductive scientific method has been defined as that method or procedure of systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses (Oxford Dictionary, entry for scientific.). While deduction (e.g., use of logic and mathematics) is also a critical part of science, observation is generally recognized to be the only acceptable evidence of truth, at least in a scientific sense. But there is more to grounding of science than the definition of the method.
Historian of philosophy, W.K.C. Guthrie asserts that “Philosophy and science start with the bold confession of faith that not caprice but inherent orderliness underlies the phenomena, and the explanation of nature is to be sought within nature itself” (W.K.C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol I: The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 44.). Guthrie’s statement is important, as it implies the goal of philosophical and scientific pursuit (discovering the orderliness) as well as its limitations and boundaries (only nature itself may be consulted in the process). In Guthrie’s model science attempts to explain the phenomena of nature with no appeal to anything beyond the phenomena itself. Consequently, this model is only as effective as the phenomena are explanatory of the phenomena. To put it another way, if explanations of reality lie outside the phenomena, then they are indeterminable by science. Science, then has limited jurisdiction and can make no claims regarding the historical (that which has already happened and is not repeatable) or the unobservable (that which may not be perceived by naturalistic measures).
Likewise, philosopher George Couvalis introduces his The Philosophy of Science by saying,
The belief that many scientific theories have been justified objectively is allied to the view that scientific theories can be justified by observation because observation gives us direct access to the world. [emphasis mine] Taking this view, science provides an ideal method for acquiring knowledge which should be emulated whenever possible–the answer to the central problem of epistemology, ‘how can we get knowledge?’, is ‘follow the methods of science as much as possible’ (George Couvalis, The Philosophy of Science (London, UK: Sage Publications, 1999), 11.).
Couvalis’s statement is not particularly problematic except in its materialistic assumption. Certainly, he is correct that there are many scientific theories justified objectively by observation (though keep that phrase in mind, as it proves problematic for evolutionary theory). But it is presumptive to imply that because it grants perhaps the most direct access to the world (through the senses), that it offers the ideal method for acquiring knowledge. Defined in this way, science can only be the ideal method for acquiring knowledge regarding that which is observable or perceivable by the senses. Following the methods of science as much as possible is the perfect recipe for ascertaining truths about that which is ascertainable through scientific methods. But regarding things immeasurable by scientific methods, science must be silent. Consequently, science is tremendously helpful – it is indeed ideal in many ways, but it is not without its limits, and if the practice of science is to be objective, then its grounding must be objectively undertaken as well.
The scientist who is a creationist is governed by the presupposition that there exists more than simply the material building blocks of nature, and that the orderliness is a product of a divine influence. That presupposition is not scientific, in the sense of being demonstrable by the use of sense, rather it is grounded in some understanding of divine revelation. In short, for the creationist, the data itself (the phenomena) provides many explanations, but none regarding origins, considering that the origin is neither observable nor repeatable. Still, observation generally shows that wherever there is something an origin is implied (the principle of cause and effect illustrates this), so origins are important matters of discussion, even if indiscernible by scientific methods.
The creationist recognizes that the undertaking of ascertaining origins is outside the jurisdiction of scientific method – if for no other reason than the event has passed and cannot be accessed again outside of historical (or revelatory) accounts. If once there was something that originated from nothing, following that event there would presumably no longer be nothing, rendering impossible the prospect of observing and repeating the making of something from nothing. Further, we should not expect that nothing would ever be again [at least not with us around to observe it]).
By contrast, the scientist who is an evolutionist is, in practice at least, governed by the presupposition that there does not exist more than simply the material building blocks of nature, and that orderliness is not a product of any divine influence, for such a divine foot is not allowed in the door. That presupposition is also outside the scope of science, being non-justifiable through scientific methods. It is grounded not in observation (for there is nothing observable in the material realm which can disprove the existence of something in any potential non-material realm). Rather it is derived by faith in a particular pre-understanding of what is. Consequently, the creationist and the evolutionist stand on equal footing, both holding to explanatory presuppositions which cannot themselves be justified by scientific methods. Both are grounded in faith, still they face in opposite directions.
To illustrate, Carl Sagan famously asserted that “the Cosmos is all that is, ever was and ever will be” (Carl Sagan, The Cosmos (New York, NY: Ballantine, 1980), 1.). This is, however, a decidedly unscientific statement in all three of its components. First, science has no way of determining all that is. By any definition, science requires some type of observation or measurement. Our inability to observe or measure beyond a very limited scope disallows such a statement as being scientific. Second, science has no way of determining – or even testifying to – all that was in the past. Even Sagan recognized that humanity, as a species, is very young and would not have been in position to observe (or measure) the early days of the Cosmos. On what basis then can he assert a materialistic premise in eternity past? Simply, faith. Finally, while science certainly has a predictive element, to assert that the eternal future will be just like the eternal past has nothing whatsoever to do with science, being far separated from anything resembling scientific method.
The point in all this is simply that evolutionists and creationists are accessing the same data, following the same rules of method in handling that data, but often interpreting the implications of that process differently in light of their distinct faiths. Interpreting implications is not a part of scientific method. For example, scientist A and scientist B, working together, discover that cows can be cloned and uncover a method for doing just that. Scientist A, however believes, based on her presuppositions that cows should not be cloned, while scientist B, in light of her own presuppositions has no such ethical concern. These ethical implications of science have nothing to do with the application of the method itself, belonging to a different jurisdiction. Science deals with can, but has nothing to say about should.
Again, Scientist C and scientist D, working together, analyze two fossilized teeth from different species to discover whatever facts can be learned. Genetic analysis of the teeth shows similarity, but radiocarbon dating shows the teeth to be thousands of years apart. Scientist C, based on his materialistic pre-understanding, assumes relationship, and that the more recent tooth was descended from the earlier. Scientist D, on the other hand, based on his own metaphysical pre-understanding does not assume relationship and considers it a probability that neither descended from the other. Both scientists have handled the data in the exact same fashion, but their hypotheses regarding the implications of the data are informed by other disciplines, not by science. To assess the legitimacy of those hypotheses we must consult the disciplines that gave them rise.
With respect to theories of origin, creationism isn’t science, and neither is evolutionism. Being transparent about that fact helps us to understand that when considering origins we are in the realm of worldview, not science. With that understanding in view, we can have a civil and informed dialogue, and one that is respectful of each representative worldview. We should no more discard science than we should worship it as exclusive arbiter of truth, instead we must simply acknowledge that understanding the implications of science is a multidisciplinary endeavor.