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Should You Play Chess with a Pigeon?

Posted by Peter Brian Barry on

Peter Brian Barry

Peter Brian Barry

There is a meme that is currently making its way around the internet concerning the recent debate between Creationist advocate, Ken Ham, and popularizer of science (and fellow bow-tie wearer) Bill Nye.

It begins like this: Don’t play chess with a pigeon. Why? Because the pigeon is just going to crap on the board, knock the pieces over, and strut around like it won the game. And how!

As far as I can tell, the meme is a latent criticism of Nye’s willingness to engage at all with Ham in what can only loosely be described as a debate. Ham is pretty clearly the pigeon and he’s certainly been strutting after the debate; a book purporting to “debunk” Nye’s arguments is already in press and fundraising for Ham’s Creation Museum is in full swing. Predictably, both sides and their allies claim victory. As a philosopher. I can’t help but be interested.

In the interests of full disclosure: I’m an atheist, and I’ve said as much on the show. So I suppose I have a bias in favor of Nye’s position and a bias against Creationism—not intelligent design necessarily, but Creationism. I have colleagues who defend a fairly complicated version of intelligent design who would shudder at being identified as a Creationist.

Should Nye have accepted the offer to “debate”? Of course he should have. I stand with a long line of philosophers who have held that all opinions, however outrageous or implausible, should be on full display in the court of public opinion.

Even someone who thinks that Ham’s particular Creationist doctrine can’t really claim to know that Ham is wrong unless he knows the details of that doctrine. Ham is right to pursue the debate and Nye was right to participate.

What was most discouraging from my perspective was Ham’s fear of philosophy. This was on full display at the end of the debate: when asked if there was anything that could change his mind, Ham was lost for words.

My complaint isn’t that Ham places faith in the Bible. I understand that many people of faith feel that they have to place their faith in the religious text of their faith if they are to be a member of that faith at all.

But putting one’s faith in the Bible—or some other religious text—isn’t really going to help here. After all, there are any number of conflicting ways to interpret that text and even particular Christians disagree about how it should be read.

And that’s where the fear of philosophy comes in: someone who is unwilling to even consider the possibility of some other hypothesis, some other theory, isn’t doing philosophy. They aren’t doing science either, as far as I can tell.

Opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Andy Rapp, Q-TV, Delta College, or PBS.

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Currently Speaking host Andy Rapp

Veteran journalist Andy Rapp has been hosting Currently Speaking since 1999.

Each week, he's joined live in the studio by journalists, academics, and experts. Along with viewers at home, they tackle the local, national, and global issues that matter most.