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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Russell’s Teapot, the God Debate, and Cunningham’s Law

Back on Feb. 4, 2014 I got into a heated conversation with one of my friends (let’s call him Phil for the purposes of this story) about the absurdity of the Bill Nye “the science guy” vs. Ken Ham religious debate. In case you didn’t watch it, what transpired was the classic argument about whether science and the study of evolution through natural selection is superior to the belief that all life on Earth is a result of a divine entity (in this case protestant Christianity).

Side note: Bill Nye is a former aerospace engineer and one of America’s leading champions of the teaching of science in its public schools. Ken Ham is the curator of a Christian themed museum which, inter alia, attempts to show through physical evidence and the dispute of accepted scientific methods that the Earth was created in the manner described in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible (more specifically, the book of Genesis).

What transpired was a nearly 3 hour debate involving one of the world’s oldest questions: “How did we get here?” As a person who considers himself intellectually flexible I attempted to set aside my personal biases and beliefs to consider both arguments equally with as much neutrality as possible. Both sides acquitted themselves fairly well using the now very predictable Power-Point slide show and lecture combo which has become de rigueur at such modern venues. Point and then counterpoint, followed each other like a well-choreographed dance. Argument and then rebuttal. It was really standard stuff for any debate. In fact, it wasn’t until the contest was half-way finished before I had an incredible insight which I later shared with my friend. I told Phil that the debate really wasn’t about which origin story is more valid, but in fact was really about a deeper and more insidious argument. The real story, which I believe was getting lost in the weeds, was about who bears the onus of proving an origin story? The person stating it? Or the person attempting to call BS?

Here is where my friend and I disagreed about who actually won the argument. According to Phil, Ken Ham had “beat the socks off” Bill Nye because Nye failed to produce a single physical specimen or other similar example of “the missing link” between human beings and other primates. I said, “what about the Tiktaalik (first example of a “walking fish”) that Bill Nye demonstrated in his Power-Point slide as proof of evolution through natural selection?” My buddy Phil wasn’t buying it. He said that the connection between the Tiktaalik and modern man was too distant, and therefore evolution and, by extension, natural selection fails. So then I said, “what about when Bill Nye brought up the fact that we share almost 98% of our genes with chimpanzees? As far as Phil was concerned, if it were true that humans and chimps share much of the same genetic code then somewhere on the planet there would exist a chimp capable of speech. In other words, Bill Nye’s arguments fell flat on their noses and the moderator should have rung a bell and rushed to lift Ken Ham’s arm into to air as if he had just won a 15 round heavyweight boxing match simply because Bill Nye failed to produce a talking chimp.

That’s when I told my buddy about Russell’s Teapot and although it did not forever change his opinion about the origin of the world, I think Phil gained a new found respect for my ability to analyze current events.
This post is already much too long so I won’t bore you with details that you can learn on your own by clicking on the hyperlink. (It’s basically a theory posited by one of the best logicians of the modern era in which he is calling BS on religion. Russell compares modern religions as behaving like people who make a claim that a porcelain dish is floating somewhere in space, yet invisible to even our most sensitive telescopes. Furthermore, the fact that nobody can prove that the teapot does not actually exist is therefore proof, in of itself, that the teapot does exist. Confused? Here’s Russell’s Teapot (“RT”) put even more succinctly:

The burden of proof is on the claimant, not the disclaimer.”

Bertrand Russell  at 44 yrs. (1872-1970)

That is when it dawned on me that this debate was doomed from the beginning because both sides were working towards different goals while using different sets of tools. For example, Ken Ham’s debate technique could best be described as a variant of a phenomena that I wrote about last week called “Cunningham’s Law” (“CL”). Here is that theory in short:

Ken Ham had essentially rigged the debate by saying, “Prove my improvable assertions wrong using evidence which cannot exist.” So in a sense Bill Nye entered this debate operating under the perception that Ham had somehow “posted the wrong answer onto the internet” and therefore it was Nye’s duty to attempt to “fix Ham’s code” by giving him the right answers.
Whereas, Ken Ham was operating under the principles of Russell’s Teapot. From his perspective, whatever evidence produced by Bill Nye, and the community of scientists that he represented, could never sufficiently convince him that a Christian God did not create the Earth in less than 6,000 years. Primarily because Ham knew going in, that “even the most sensitive telescope Nye could produce would invariably still be unable to detect the teapot that he had claimed was floating out in space”.

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