Theologians don’t get to slither out from under the rules of nature

Keith Ward sounds just like Ken Ham. It’s remarkable. You see, Ken Ham has this schtick in which he basically denies all of history: you weren’t there (the only valid evidence is eyewitness evidence captured through your biological senses), and because history isn’t repeatable, its study isn’t a real science, isn’t empirically verifiable, and is subject to whims and fads and therefore lacks any substantial objective core. Ken Ham says this kind of nonsense because he believes in a great elaborate line of historical bullshit, and wants to pretend that his illusions are on an equal footing with the evidence-based history.

Keith Ward is doing the same thing.

A huge number of factual claims are not scientifically testable. Many historical and autobiographical claims, for instance, are not repeatable, not publicly observable now or in future, and are not subsumable under any general law. We know that rational answers to many historical questions depend on general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment. There are no history laboratories. Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based, but the evidence is not scientifically tractable.

I keep trying to get this message across: the creationists (Ward is definitely not a fundamentalist/literalist sort, however) aren’t just out to corrupt biology, they stomp all over every scholarly discipline with great contempt. I agree that not every thing in the universe is scientifically verifiable or repeatable, but this cavalier attitude towards history is reprehensible. Yes, there are history laboratories: there are historians who do archaeology, chemistry, biology, astronomy and all kinds of hard sciences to confirm and test historical claims. The provenance and authenticity of documents is a major historical interest.

A discrete historical event may not be repeatable, but it is amenable to confirmation and validation. The source information can be independently verified. Multiple approaches can be taken to test a claim. Did Caesar invade Gaul? It only happened once, you don’t get to repeat the invasion, and no one alive was there, after all. But we can look at the archaeology of France, we can see the linguistic evidence, we’ve got documents from the time, and every time someone digs up a Roman cache from the first century BCE we are getting more information on the event.

I do consider it scientifically tractable. Evidence-based, empirical study and logical analysis are right there at the heart of the discipline of history.

But you know why Ward is doing this, right? It’s so he can claim Jesus, as a historical figure, is totally exempt from scientific examination.

Claims that the cosmos is created do not “trespass onto” scientific territory. They are factual claims in which scientific investigators are not, as such, interested. Scientific facts are, of course, relevant to many religious claims. But not all facts are scientific facts – the claim that I was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the miracles of Jesus, with the creation of the cosmos and with its end.

So, if I claimed that Keith Ward was hatched from a rotten turtle’s egg incubated in a dung heap, that would not be trespassing onto scientific territory? Because it happened in the past and no one directly witnessed it, my claim gets to stand unchallenged and unquestioned? I should think if I made a remarkable claim in defiance of a standard scientific observation — that humans are birthed in a standard mammalian way, and that Keith Ward is a mammal — I think I should certainly deserve an argument on scientific grounds against my assertion.

On his trivial claim that he was in Oxford, unobserved, I’d say it could be turned into question amenable to rational inquiry and verification. Is there evidence that is compatible with him being in Oxford at that time? Did he leave any traces, credit card receipts, was he spotted on a traffic camera, were there witnesses he didn’t see? Even if there actually is a complete absence of evidence and nothing we can directly test, we can at least whether the claim is compatible with what we know.

A better comparison with the miracles of Jesus would be for Keith Ward to claim he’d been on Mars last night. Can we evaluate that scientifically? Sure can. If he’s going to argue that, he’d better have a collection of Mars rocks, a spacesuit, and a rocketship in his back yard.

Again, I’m not claiming that everything has to be demonstrable as a scientific fact. A poem is not subject to a scientific determination of its truth. But the existence of a poem does not flout the nature of the universe, and doesn’t call into question the validity of physics, while Ward is blithely swapping in mundane experience as proof of extravagantly unlikely, ridiculous claims like the “miracles of Jesus”. Not only is it a very weak argument, it’s dishonest. It’s like saying you can’t disprove I had a drink of water this morning, therefore you you can’t disprove that my glass of water had cosmic consciousness and taught me how to fly.

Also, as long as you’re insisting on saying very silly things, could you at least have the courtesy to avoid using your ignorance to spit all over the entirely respectable and rational discipline of history?

(Also on FtB)


  1. lundahl.hans says

    Owlmirror, at it again, aren’t you!

    Denying existence of Adam and Eve, though genealogies are usually based on eyewitness accounts, on basis of mere theorising.

    Your challenge about Gospels as such has been answered over here:

    And as for evolution being evidence based, there is actually evidence against mammals having a common ancestor, as I have expounded on my own blog here:

    and defended against P Z Myers’ supposed solution around here: