“How do you know? Were you there?” is a summary dismissal of evolution and “Old Earth” science favoured by many creationists — who weren’t there either. It is a form of escape hatch. The idea is that if we cannot personally verify what we’ve inferred from evidence, then we cannot be certain of facts and theories when it comes to describing the world as it was millions of years ago, therefore the world must be young. The argument is indexed as TalkOrigins claim CA221.
When considering historical evidence, first-hand accounts (primary sources) are generally taken as better evidence than second or third-hand accounts and those written down long after the fact. However, this is a mere guideline and the first-hand accounts can often be subject to greater bias. “How do you know? Were you there?” presumes that only first-hand, eyewitness testimony is reliable – and so it is invalid to make inferences about things beyond our immediate observations.
This assumption is notably odd given our attitudes to personal accounts in other areas of life. In a court of law, eyewitness testimony is considered relatively weak evidence compared to physical evidence (e.g., from DNA or CCTV footage) because human memory is provably terrible, people can lie, exaggerate or forget events, and contradictions can mount when multiple stories conflict. It is also very unlikely that one would believe extraordinary claims by word-of-mouth and an eyewitness statement alone. Therefore it is not valid to say that, because someone was not personally present, they cannot make a very informed and very accurate appraisal of a situation given other evidence.
The obvious problem with the argument is that anyone using this argument also wasn’t there to see the event. But compare to holy books: how does the believer using this statement know that it is eyewitness testimony when they weren’t there when the testimony was given? Indeed, who could have even been the eyewitnesses during creation week?
The phrase is a self-contradicting, thought-terminating cliché. Much of our knowledge is about things which are too big or too little, too fast or too slow, too distant or otherwise inaccessible, to be directly observed. Indeed, the real power of science comes from our ability to know and reason about things that are directly and indirectly observable through instruments that are much better calibrated for the intended observation than the unaided eye. This is how scientific theories work: by building up a chain of causality from what the theory predicts, to what indirect evidence it produces and then what direct evidence that indirect evidence will manifest as. This can be looking at fossils to gather evidence about what creatures lived millions of years ago, or it can be looking at what lines and squiggles will appear on a computer screen to show the existence of the Higgs boson.
In June 2011, Ken Ham was most pleased over one of his school-age followers asking the “were you there” question of a NASA scientist who was talking about multi-million year old Moon rock. Ham himself was very smug over the situation, stating how atheists always went ballistic over incidents like this — although most atheists, freethinkers and rationalists view Ken Ham’s brainwashing of young children to be outright horrifying. PZ Myers wrote a lengthy open letter to Emma B, the girl in question, covering in detail exactly how the scientist did know. He sums up the main problem with the “were you there?” component of this loaded question:
One serious problem with the “Were you there?” question is that it is not very sincere. You knew the answer already! You knew that woman had not been to the moon, and you definitely knew that she had not been around to see the rock forming 3.75 billion years ago. You knew the only answer she could give was “no,” which is not very informative.
The take-home message from this is simple: “how do you know?” is far more interesting than “were you there?”. Naturally, Ham lost his shit over this.
When teaching children, we tell them they should politely ask the question “Were you there?” when talking to someone who believes in millions of years and molecules-to-man evolution. If someone replies by asking the same question, as you have done, we say, “No we weren’t there, but we know Someone who was there, Someone who cannot lie, who knows everything, and has always existed. And this One has revealed to us what happened in the past in His history book called the Bible. Are you interested in reading God’s history book to find out what the Word of One who was there tells us about the true history of the world?”
We can count up the false arguments here. Firstly, it offers no actual proof, merely argument by assertion. Secondly, it still conflates actual evidence with hearsay and uncorroborated eyewitness testimony — whether it’s God, Jesus or the myriad authors of the Bible — this alone proves nothing. Thirdly, it’s simple special pleading that their indirect evidence is right but a scientist’s isn’t. Fourthly, it’s just a plain and simple cop-out akin to “my mate Dave down the pub said …”.
Alternately, we can respond by asking what they are asking (again): “How do you know that the special ‘Someone’ possess all these attributes? Were you there to witness the Bible being written?”