Bill Nye, Ken Ham, and Sissy Jupe Walk Into a Blog…

So I watched some of the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, although with an overall feeling of dissatisfaction. At the end of the question period, the two men were asked for the belief that most motivated them, or something like that. Ken Ham, of course, answered that it was his belief in Scripture. Bill Nye, on the other hand, answered that it was his belief in science, in the process and the body of knowledge, and in the joy of discovery. His answer reminded me of a favourite passage of mine from Hard Times by Charles Dickens. Here Dickens describes one of the central characters:

“Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir – peremptorily Thomas – Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all suppositious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind – no, sir!”

Dickens describes a scene in a classroom in which Gradgrind is instructing the headmaster on the importance of drilling Facts into the heads of the children. To demonstrate this, Gradgrind calls on “girl number twenty” (her name is Sissy Jupe) and begins by asking her what her father does:

“He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.”
Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.
“We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here… Describe your father as a horsebreaker. He doctors sick horses, I dare say?”
“Oh yes, sir.”
“Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier and horsebreaker. Give me your definition of a horse.”
(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand).
“Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!” said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers.
“Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours…”
“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
“Now girl number twenty,” said Mr. Gradgrind. “You know what a horse is.”

Dickens’ point here being that Sissy Jupe, having grown up around horses and being the daughter of a man who made his living with them, obviously knew what a horse was. In fact, her knowledge of horses was much more real than Bitzer’s, who had simply memorized a bunch of abstract information. Dickens is touching on a perennial question of philosophy: what is a thing? His answer, as it is movingly worked out through the novel, is that true knowledge of a thing comes through sense, experience and love, that it is relational and intimate. It is a knowledge that transcends the thing itself, that inherently fattens up and enchants the world. The answer Bitzer gave, on the other hand, was true only in the most tedious and anorexic sense.

But we live in Gradgrind’s world. That’s why Bill Nye’s answer makes so much sense to us, because using the scientific method to discover more facts about stuff excites us, and makes us think that we know that stuff. We can stand with Bitzer and list the decay rate of rubidium, the angle of earth’s ecliptic plane, and the speed of light in a vacuum. But science can never give the sort of knowledge of horses that Sissy Jupe had, and for thousands of years hopelessly unscientific peoples have had it. Bitzer’s facts can lead us to Sissy’s love, but only the latter is knowledge in the fullest sense. Prizing too highly the stark, material nature of science gives us the world that we live in, a world fat in facts but sickly lean in soul. A world that knows how rubidium decays, but not why families do; or knows how to use calculus to build a bridge, but not how to use discipline to build a boy into a man.

Not that I’m entirely impressed with Ken Ham’s approach, either. I do believe what Exodus 20:11 says, that “in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them,” and I won’t negotiate that. But neither do I think the answer to the materialist foundations of modern science is to raise up an army of counter-Bitzers, fact-mongers who raid the pages of Scripture for scientific theories. We’ll end up as wispy-souled as the materialists, then. What the Bible says is true and trustworthy, but it may not provide all the answers about our physical world that we would like it to give. Truth can be abused, even with the best of intentions.

Rather, I would hold that in all things it is more noble and praiseworthy to strive to know as Sissy did, to meet the world as a thing that far transcends its physical properties, as our souls transcend us, that we may pull psalms from behind the hills and anthems of praise from a tiny snowflake. Ultimately, to locate ourselves not in this world but in the one to come, seeking always the presence, that gloriously immeasurable presence, of our Creator God.

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2 thoughts on “Bill Nye, Ken Ham, and Sissy Jupe Walk Into a Blog…

  1. I missed the live stream because I was hosting Bible study, but judging from your remarks I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if he too had pointed out that science is a process; not a being, not a force, not an ideology. This discussion is religion vs religion or maybe one scienctific, or vs another, if they’re even different, but what evolutionists don’t have is a monopoly on science. The fact is that as much as we are motivated by Scripture, it is also true that Scripture motivates us to explore God’s creation- i.e., engage in the scientific method. More importantly, to the open eye, that search confirms a multitude of times over what the Bible is saying. The world around us doesn’t speak about spontaneously generated order and increasing functional complexity; it speaks about decay, degeneration and speciation. Even in the social sciences we see the same thing. In the 1960’s, the luminaries of the sexual revolution preached a gospel antithetical to biblical norms. Social conservatives protested, but for the next few decades society swung that way. But now we seeing the fruits of those choices born out in the population. Scientists and policy makers have noticed and have implemented policies aimed at moving society back in a more functional direction, bvut in the meantime, there’s still consequences. Just goes to show we should have listened to God along, which I think Ken Ham is getting at, but I think it’s also important to emphasize that Christianity motivates science, that, you know, it was the Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel who discovered the basic principles of genetic inheritance, still taught today, and that it’s what we see in our search that convicts us too.

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