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Were you there? (Talk.Origins)

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Response Article
This article (Were you there? (Talk.Origins)) is a response to a rebuttal of a creationist claim published by Talk.Origins Archive under the title Index to Creationist Claims.

Claim CA221:

(In response to any claim about the history of life) Were you there?

Source: Ham, Ken. 1989. Were you there? Back To Genesis 10a (Oct.),

CreationWiki response:

When dealing with evolution in the classroom and in other areas of life, an answer that creationists can give is "Were you there?". Talk Origins attempts to counter this idea with a number of arguments.

(Talk.Origins quotes in blue)

Yes, because "there" is here. Events in the past leave traces that last into the present, and we can and do look at that evidence today.

When a person asks that question "were you there?", they are asking "were you at that place at that time to observe what really happened?" When people normally talk to each other about past events in general and ask "were you there?", for example, when a sports game was won or lost, or when something monumental happened where you had to be there to experience it, would it be sensible to answer "yes, because 'there' is here" if you were not that there at that time?

The question "Were you there?" is posed by creationists to highlight that the study of origins is a historical science. In contrast, the fields of physics and chemistry are operational science. In historical science, deductions are made about an historical event by examining the traces that are left by the event. However it is impossible to verify that these conclusions are correct because no one witnessed the original event, and there is no way to 'rewind' and watch again. Operational sciences on the other hand are based on repeatable experiments. If an individual proposes that one of the laws of physics is incorrect, then they are free to conduct an experiment to demonstrate their theory. If disagreement persists, further experiments can be conducted.

It is true that events in the past can leave traces. But then again, they may not. There may also be several different possible events that could have lead to the observed traces. Further, subsequent events may obscure or even erase traces. Also those traces can be so slight as to disappear, or too big to be humanly perceived. For example, I just took a step outside today onto some dried concrete. Go there 100 years later, and show me the traces. Other people may have left footprints, so I dare you to pick me out from them. Even if I was the only one and it was on slightly wet concrete to leave an impression, what can you tell me about me from that trace I left? You see, there are so many possibilities and external factors that to even try to make a certain interpretation be considered undoubtedly true is ridiculous. Now it is true that with maybe more evidence you could make some more interpretations and raise some possibilities, but since you were not there when I made that impression, and you cannot ask me anything about it, then all you can do is come up with some possibilities based on assumptions, but no way of objectively verifying your findings. All you have is "possibilities".

To summarize:

  • there is no way to be certain about a historical event
  • study of a historical event is limited by the evidences that remain
  • events may or may not leave traces.
  • there may be different possible events that could have left the observed traces
  • if they do leave traces, without documented historical records, in real life there are many external factors, including time itself, that can limit the absolute certainty of reconstructions of past events.

So even with events leaving traces, it is still not enough to say "Yes, because "there" is here". To be awfully blunt, "there" is not here.

If this response were a valid challenge to evolution, it would equally invalidate creationism and Christianity, since they are based on events that nobody alive today has witnessed.

With respect to the scientific study of origins, creationism and evolutionism are both limited by the limitations of historical science. However, the question "Were you there?" is not normally posed as a proof of creation. Rather it is used in rebuttal to those who claim that evolution is (an observed) fact.

Although nobody alive today has witnessed all the events in the Bible from the very beginning, the claim is that, unlike evolution, the vast majority of events were witnessed by someone alive who could record what actually happened. Thus this challenge of "were you there?", when rationally applied, would be a valid challenge to evolution, which has a vast amount of history that is beyond intelligent and relatively unambiguous witness and record, and outside human experience altogether. So in simpler words, should the evolutionist retort, saying that the creationist wasn't there either, the creationist can respond, saying that they know someone who was.

There are many significant events in scripture that were witnessed by a vast number of people, and recorded via a nationally widespread traditional knowledge (i.e., knowledge that is handed down from father to son) which could be counter checked by other accounts, and written accounts such as the scriptures. These, in turn, are even more validated by archaeological discoveries and concur with the historical writings.

The author's answer is based on his own belief that there is no Deity or Creator that has revealed himself to man. Based on that belief, he is bound to come up with his faith-based conclusion. But if the Creator described in Genesis does exist, and he does, then he would have been there to witness what happened since he did it, and, being eternal, he would be alive today. He has communication abilities so he would have communicated his works to his creation. Again in simpler words, should the evolutionist retort, saying that the creationist wasn't there either, the creationist can respond, saying that they know Someone who was. That's a simple reasonable refutation, simply based on a different set of assumptions.

A more useful and more general question is, "How do you know?" If the person making a claim can not answer that question, you may consider the claim baseless (tentatively, as someone else may be able to answer). If the answer is subjective -- for example, if it rests on the person's religious convictions -- you know that the claim does not necessarily apply to anyone but that person. If you can not understand the answer, you probably have some studying to do. If you get a good answer, you know to take the claim seriously.

His answer again betrays his subjectivism and relativism, i.e., what is true for you may be true for you, but doesn't necessarily have to be true for me. If truth is subjective and it rests on a person's beliefs, then, sure, the author has a point.

But if there is objective truth, a truth that is the same for everyone, and it is built into a person's 'religious' beliefs, then their explanation can still be classed as true for everyone.

Also, even if you can get a logically "good" answer, even a "scientific" answer, it still has to be taken tentatively since the assumptions the logic is based on can render the answer or conclusion wrong if it is faulty. And science, especially when dealing with the unobserved, unrepeatable, untestable past (outside human experience), can only give provisional or highly probable answers. If something is just probably true, then there is still a possibility that it is not. That's why such answers that to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Also the grand theory of evolution is based on a person's religious belief in naturalism, or the powers of Nature. If the author's logic holds true, then if a person gives you an answer based on that belief, then, in his own words, "you know that claim does not apply to everyone [or objective reality] but [just] to that person". Example of this: the very author of the Talk Origins pages.