A defense of Genesis 1-3
April 30, 2013 — 8:53

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , ,   Comments: 49

Consider this argument:

  1. If Christianity is right, every assertion of rightly interpreted Scripture is true.
  2. Genesis 1-3 is rightly interpreted literalistically.
  3. The approximate truth of our best relevant science contradicts the assertions of Genesis 1-3 when these texts are interpreted literalistically.
  4. Our best relevant science is approximately true.
  5. So, Christianity is not right.

Liberal Christians reject (1), and often (2) as well. Young Earth Creationists either engage in revisionary science and deny (3), or they simply deny (4).

The right way out of the argument is, of course, to reject (2). But in this post I want to undercut the argument in a very different way. Basically, I will argue against (3) by offering a defense–a logically possible story that is compatible with both our best science and a literalistic reading of Genesis 1-3, without scientific revisionism, scientific irrealism, or invocations of divine or demonic deception.

I am not claiming the story is true. In fact, I think it’s false. It is in tension with the Thomistic view of the soul which I hold (but I think it may be logically compatible with it). As I said, the right way out is to deny (2). My story is inspired by a hypertime story that I heard Hud Hudson give in a talk, but this version doesn’t need any hypertime.

The story is simple. First, everything happens exactly as it is described in Genesis 1-3 interpreted literalistically. Everything, including a light-studded dome (“firmament”), with waters above and below, creation in six days, vegetation without any sun or moon. Eve is literally taken from Adam’s side, and so on. (If we’re going literalistic, let’s go all out!) Then Adam and Eve sin, exactly as described in Genesis 3. All this happens in a universe–Paradise–where all of this is possible by the laws of nature.

God then kicks them out of Paradise. In the process, he destroys their bodies (i.e., he stops sustaining their existence) and puts their souls in stasis. But in Paradise, there was a law of nature that when the forbidden fruit is eaten, a Big Bang will occur (this could also be a miracle), initiating a 14 billion year process leading to some pretty clever apes in a universe better suited to sinners like Adam and Eve. God then takes the matter of two of these clever apes (if animals have souls, he de-souls them first, or perhaps he simply miraculously ensures that these two never get souls) and instills Adam and Eve’s souls in this matter.

And so all the science as to what has happened in the material universe since the Big Bang is right. (Of course, science doesn’t talk about souls.)

A materialist Christian could also run a variant of this story of Adam and Eve being asleep for fourteen billion years, but it would involve some miracles in the physical world and maybe disagreement with science at one point. (Maybe Adam and Eve’s brains are put in the bodies of some apes. Or maybe God is capable of so guiding indeterministic processes that there develop two apes that are just like Adam and Eve, and God can replace them with Adam and Eve.)

Of course, I don’t believe these stories. But they do show that premise (3) of the anti-Christianity argument is false.

(Cross-posted, in slightly earlier form, to my blog.)

Comments:
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Right, this seems to work.
    What I find more worrying though is not the weakness of such anti-theistic arguments, but the reality of how science is taught at schools. The physical sciences are taught as if they entail physical realism, which as a philosophical matter of fact they don’t. And probably most science teachers are not even aware of this fact about how they teach science.
    Take YEC for example. Surely the scientific models of physical phenomena entail that the Earth is very old. Nobody who knows some science disputes that. But from this it does not follow that the Earth is very old. Without positing the relevant metaphysics it’s not even clear what it means to say that “the Earth is very old”. For example, on Berkeley’s metaphysics where to be is to be experienced, it may well be the case that the Earth is not very old, even though God’s idea of the evolution of the Earth spans some 5 billion years.
    Another major example refers to the teaching of natural evolution and its “random mutations”. Natural evolution successfully describes biological phenomena without assuming that mutations are anything but random. But from this it does not follow that mutations are random.
    My point of criticism here is not really about the teaching of science at schools, but of the absence of the teaching of philosophy. It is not the task of science teachers to clarify points metaphysical. But a pupil who does not receive basic philosophical training will easily misinterpret what the science is teaching.

    May 1, 2013 — 16:27
  • Scientific realism is just ordinary commonsense realism taken to its logical conclusions. It is no more unreasonable for the science teacher to assume than it is unreasonable for a physical education teacher to assume that the students have bodies and for any teacher to assume that the students have minds.

    May 2, 2013 — 8:59
  • dixi

    The scenario offered is just one of may suppositions that disconnect Genesis from the account of current science. E.g., one could just say that God has somehow arranged things so science will get the answers it does even though those answers disagree with the inspired account. But without evidence or reasons to lead one to a position like this, and the whole exercise seems empty. Scripture is talking about something true, and is “literally” true if it is understood correctly; the whole problem has always been to understand what it is claiming. The account from nature is true if we have done our sums correctly. But have we ? For example, the evolutionary account seems to be premature. We don’t really understand the way biology works in sufficient detail to be able to claim evolution is proved. Appealing to long times and accumulation of random effects as they appear to offer some advantage is really just handwaving and a probable argument. The “scientific” thing to do would be to shelve the premature hypotheses, and just follow the realities of biology where they lead. One might wind up in a different place.

    May 2, 2013 — 16:42
  • “one could just say that God has somehow arranged things so science will get the answers it does even though those answers disagree with the inspired account”
    Yes, but that’s not what’s happening in this story. If this story is true, the answers science gets are *true* and do *not* disagree with the inspired account.

    May 3, 2013 — 9:38
  • Anonymous

    “The physical sciences are taught as if they entail physical realism, which as a philosophical matter of fact they don’t.”
    Which goes to show, to my mind, that it isn’t of very much significance just to show that something is logically possible. Just because you’re able to describe a scenario without implying a contradiction doesn’t mean that we should take it seriously (as Dr. Pruss hastens to point out). Yes, it is not guaranteed as a logical matter that the Earth is very old just because scientific models of physical phenomena imply that it is. But surely it makes it much more likely! Formally, P(The Earth is very old|Our best scientific models imply a very old Earth) >> P(The Earth is very old|Our best scientific models do not imply a very old Earth). The analogue of this statement for evolution would be “P(mutations are random|evidence and best available theory are consistent with randomness of mutations) >> P(mutations are random|evidence and best available theory are not consistent with randomness of mutations). I think we sometimes get lost arguing about what, exactly, entails what and lose sight of what the available evidence says about the likelihood of competing hypotheses.

    May 3, 2013 — 18:39
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Alex, ordinary common sense is often misleading, as science itself often demonstrates.
    And scientific realism contradicts theism, doesn’t it? For if scientific realism is true and mutations are actually random, then biological evolution is an unguided process and not a case of special providence as theism has it.
    Beside theistic considerations, the interpretation of quantum mechanics debacle is strong evidence against scientific realism. Scientific knowledge appears not be insufficient for describing how physical reality is (by “physical reality” I mean the reality which produces the physical phenomena we observe and science studies).
    One way or the other young people at basic education should receive philosophy classes for many reasons. And if they did they would understand that science does not entail scientific realism, and that arguably modern science falsifies it.

    May 4, 2013 — 2:39
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Anon, my point is that what “the Earth is very old” means depends on one’s metaphysical assumptions. And one can’t start arguing about the truth of some statement while its meaning is unclear.
    I know what “my father is very old” means for I have observed him become very old. I have observed the signs of age on my house, and have therefore a clear notion of what “the Parthenon is very old” means by projecting my experience to the experience of people living around Athens the last millennia. But expressions such as “the Earth is 5 billion years old” or “the electroweak symmetry broke before 10e-6 seconds after the Big Bang” are statements so far removed from even projections of my experience that their proper understanding within the scientific discourse must be restricted to the level of abstract models. It is not at all obvious what the probable truth of these scientific statements say about how actual reality is.
    More specifically it is not at all clear to me what the relationship is between the scientific symbol “t” and time. It is easy to get confused by scientific terms. Thus, as Bertrand Russell has observed in his “The Problems of Philosophy”, when it is said that “light is waves” what is really meant is that one physical cause of our sensation of light can be described as waves. Scientific terminology is often metaphorical, yet is understood literally by many.
    Thus scientific realism far from being a case of logical conclusion, is I think a case of faulty generalization, or perhaps of the continuum fallacy, which leads to reification error. In fact what scientific knowledge tells us about reality is a completely open question, and some thinkers (Plantinga for example) find that there is only superficial concord but deep conflict between science and what many people assume science is saying.

    May 4, 2013 — 2:44
  • Dianelos:
    “And scientific realism contradicts theism, doesn’t it? For if scientific realism is true and mutations are actually random, then biological evolution is an unguided process and not a case of special providence as theism has it.”
    First of all, scientific realism does not say that all our best scientific theories are true. Rather, scientific realism says something like “Scientific theories are meant to be interpreted as literal assertions” and adds an optimism about our ability to find the truth in many cases.
    Second, I don’t know that current biology does contradict special providence. There are various views on what “random” in the biological sense is. I have a paper defending the compatibility of evolutionary miracles with current biology, and there are other accounts of the compatibility of evolution and theism.
    “Scientific knowledge appears not be insufficient for describing how physical reality is”. But does scientific realism claim that science could in principle be complete?

    May 6, 2013 — 19:00
  • Angra Mainyu

    Alex,
    Briefly, and leaving aside probability, an issue is that your interpretation is not what’s usually understood as a literal interpretation of the creation account.
    In any case, one may point out that:
    1. In Genesis 3:22-24, Yahweh expels Adam from Eden so that Adam would not eat the fruit of the tree of life, eat it and live forever. Yahweh even placed a cherubim to guard the way to the tree of life. In that context, the guard was a reaction to Adam’s actions, to prevent further actions from him. There was no guards like that before (so, in particular, it was not a general guard against snakes/demons, but clearly one against Adam and perhaps other humans).
    2. If one adds Genesis 4:16, Cain settled east of Eden.

    May 8, 2013 — 1:10
  • Angra:
    Ad 1: Yeah, I missed that. But I saw that a different blog nicely extended my just-so by saying that the Eden part of the first universe was miraculously preserved from the destruction of the rest of the universe. I guess one might wonder what the point of the guard would be in that case, since presumably Adam–or at least fallen Adam (Jesus after the resurrection seems capable of walking through closed doors; that’s probably a special glorified-body power rather than something that Adam had, but maybe Adam had it, too)–can’t bridge the gap between universes. Well, it could be a symbolic guard, like the honor guard outside a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
    Ad 2: Yeah, but I was doing Genesis 1-3. I suppose one could interpret this as follows. The second earth in my story has similar geology to the first, and the place that Cain occupies on the second earth corresponds to east-of-Eden on the first earth.
    How plausible are these stories? Not very. But the point is that we can easily come up with various stories that reconcile the text-as-literalistically-interpreted with science. And if we can do that so easily, think how much easier it would be if we dropped the rigid literalistic interpretation constraint, allowing for small deviation from literalism (e.g., “east of Eden” and the guard stuff). And how much easier if we drop literalism altogether!

    May 8, 2013 — 8:47
  • Angra Mainyu

    Alex,
    1. In the story in the other blog, I get the impression that the garden would exist even in the early universe which, according to modern science, was far smaller than that, and also too hot and pressure was too high, etc., so that does contradict modern science. Similarly, when the Earth formed, it was very hot, etc., and no garden could have survived that. Moreover, there was no life at all. Then, it seems probably Thea hit the young Earth, and again there was no garden, rivers, etc.
    But you seem to interpret that differently, as having Eden in a different universe, if I read you correctly?
    In that case, there is still the issue of the guard.
    You might interpret it as a symbolic guard, but that’s not what the text says, so I’m not sure I would count that as a literal interpretation. (for instance, according to the World English Bible, the text reads:
    “ 22 Yahweh God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand, and also take of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever…” 23 Therefore Yahweh God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 So he drove out the man; and he placed cherubim* at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.”
    The text clearly said that Yahweh took action in order to guard the way to the tree – the tree he did not want Adam to eat from, so that Adam would not become immortal -, not that he placed the cherubim and the sword as symbolic guards.
    The interpretation you offer does not appear to be a literal one to me, at least not as the expression ‘literal interpretation’ seems to be usually used in the context of biblical interpretation.
    2. That too does not seem to be a literal interpretation to me, either. The text says ‘East of Eden’, and the word ‘Eden’ names the original garden, not a similar place.
    In any case, it seems doubtful to me that supporters of literal interpretations of the Bible would go for that kind of interpretation.
    3. At any rate, it’s not difficult to find many other parts of the Bible that, interpreted in the literal way (the straightforward way, the way nearly everyone interpreted it for most of Christianity’s history, etc.), are in conflict with modern science.
    For instance, one might as well use the Flood account, and there is a clear conflict between it and modern science.
    Regarding non-literal interpretations, sure one can come up with a number of stories. The question is also one of plausibility. How likely is it that that kind of interpretation is actually what the writers intended?
    If it weren’t for the fact that modern science contradicted much of the Bible, as it was usually interpreted, most people (including scholars) would almost certainly not have abandoned their literal interpretation of at least much of the text that is in conflict with science. Why should they?
    From another perspective, let’s say that science had found that the Earth was indeed young, that humans coexisted with dinosaurs, etc., that there was a time where carnivorous animals did not eat meat, there was a universal flood, etc.
    As far as I can tell, that evidence would normally have been taken as raising the epistemic probability of the existence of Yahweh, and I would say it should have. Why not?

    May 8, 2013 — 15:36
  • Angra Mainyu

    Alex,
    1. In the story in the other blog, I get the impression that the garden would exist even in the early universe which, according to modern science, was far smaller than that, and also too hot and pressure was too high, etc., so that does contradict modern science. Similarly, when the Earth formed, it was very hot, etc., and no garden could have survived that. Moreover, there was no life at all. Then, it seems probably Thea hit the young Earth, and again there was no garden, rivers, etc.
    But you seem to interpret that differently, as having Eden in a different universe, if I read you correctly?
    In that case, there is still the issue of the guard.
    You might interpret it as a symbolic guard, but that’s not what the text says, so I’m not sure I would count that as a literal interpretation. (for instance, according to the World English Bible, the text reads:
    “ 22 Yahweh God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand, and also take of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever…” 23 Therefore Yahweh God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 So he drove out the man; and he placed cherubim* at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.”
    The text clearly said that Yahweh took action in order to guard the way to the tree – the tree he did not want Adam to eat from, so that Adam would not become immortal -, not that he placed the cherubim and the sword as symbolic guards.
    The interpretation you offer does not appear to be a literal one to me, at least not as the expression ‘literal interpretation’ seems to be usually used in the context of biblical interpretation.
    2. That too does not seem to be a literal interpretation to me, either. The text says ‘East of Eden’, and the word ‘Eden’ names the original garden, not a similar place.
    In any case, it seems doubtful to me that supporters of literal interpretations of the Bible would go for that kind of interpretation.
    3. At any rate, it’s not difficult to find many other parts of the Bible that, interpreted in the literal way (the straightforward way, the way nearly everyone interpreted it for most of Christianity’s history, etc.), are in conflict with modern science.
    For instance, one might as well use the Flood account, and there is a clear conflict between it and modern science.
    Regarding non-literal interpretations, sure one can come up with a number of stories. The question is also one of plausibility. How likely is it that that kind of interpretation is actually what the writers intended?
    If it weren’t for the fact that modern science contradicted much of the Bible, as it was usually interpreted, most people (including scholars) would almost certainly not have abandoned their literal interpretation of at least much of the text that is in conflict with science. Why should they?
    From another perspective, let’s say that science had found that the Earth was indeed young, that humans coexisted with dinosaurs, etc., that there was a time where carnivorous animals did not eat meat, there was a universal flood, etc.
    As far as I can tell, that evidence would normally have been understood as raising the epistemic probability of the existence of Yahweh and some of his actions. That understanding would seem proper to me.

    May 8, 2013 — 15:41
  • Angra Mainyu

    Alex,
    1. In the story in the other blog, I get the impression that the garden would exist even in the early universe which, according to modern science, was far smaller than that, and also too hot and pressure was too high, etc., so that does contradict modern science. Similarly, when the Earth formed, it was very hot, etc., and no garden could have survived that. Moreover, there was no life at all. Then, it seems probably Thea hit the young Earth, and again there was no garden, rivers, etc.
    But you seem to interpret that differently, as having Eden in a different universe, if I read you correctly?
    In that case, there is still the issue of the guard.
    You might interpret it as a symbolic guard, but that’s not what the text says, so I’m not sure I would count that as a literal interpretation. (for instance, according to the World English Bible, the text reads:
    “ 22 Yahweh God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand, and also take of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever…” 23 Therefore Yahweh God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 So he drove out the man; and he placed cherubim* at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.”
    The text clearly said that Yahweh took action in order to guard the way to the tree – the tree he did not want Adam to eat from, so that Adam would not become immortal -, not that he placed the cherubim and the sword as symbolic guards.
    The interpretation you offer does not appear to be a literal one to me, at least not as the expression ‘literal interpretation’ seems to be usually used in the context of biblical interpretation.
    2. That too does not seem to be a literal interpretation to me, either. The text says ‘East of Eden’, and the word ‘Eden’ names the original garden, not a similar place.
    In any case, it seems doubtful to me that supporters of literal interpretations of the Bible would go for that kind of interpretation.
    3. At any rate, it’s not difficult to find many other parts of the Bible that, interpreted in the literal way (the straightforward way, the way nearly everyone interpreted it for most of Christianity’s history, etc.), are in conflict with modern science.
    For instance, one might as well use the Flood account, and there is a clear conflict between it and modern science.
    Regarding non-literal interpretations, sure one can come up with a number of stories. The question is also one of plausibility. How likely is it that that kind of interpretation is actually what the writers intended?
    If it weren’t for the fact that modern science contradicted much of the Bible, as it was usually interpreted, most people (including scholars) would almost certainly not have abandoned their literal interpretation of at least much of the text that is in conflict with science. Why should they?
    From another perspective, let’s say that science had found that the Earth was indeed young, that humans coexisted with dinosaurs, etc., that there was a time where carnivorous animals did not eat meat, there was a universal flood, etc.
    As far as I can tell, that evidence would normally have been understood as raising the epistemic probability of the existence of Yahweh and some of his actions. That understanding would seem proper to me.

    May 8, 2013 — 15:42
  • Angra Mainyu

    Alex,
    Sorry about the triple posting. For some reason, the post was not showing in my browser

    May 8, 2013 — 15:44
  • “You might interpret it as a symbolic guard, but that’s not what the text says”
    The text doesn’t deny it, either.
    Also, the text taken literalistically does not say that the angel was guarding the garden from Adam. One could say that it was guarding the garden from Satan, for instance.
    As for “East of Eden”, maybe what I offered is not exactly literal. But I think that where there is a replacement, one might rather naturally carry over the old names.
    More seriously: “If it weren’t for the fact that modern science contradicted much of the Bible, as it was usually interpreted, most people (including scholars) would almost certainly not have abandoned their literal interpretation of at least much of the text that is in conflict with science. Why should they?”
    Because of the internal tensions in the text between Genesis 1 and 2, for instance. Or for theological reasons like Augustine’s. He didn’t have any scientific evidence against a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1, but nonetheless did not go for one. Or out of a feel for genre–Genesis 1 might seem as more like a hymn to the glory of God’s creative activity than a precise historical account.

    May 8, 2013 — 17:42
  • Angra Mainyu

    There are many things that the text does not deny, but which one may nevertheless rule out in context. For instance, the text does not deny that Eve in Genesis 4 is not the same Eve as Eve in Genesis 3. But it appears clear in context that it’s the same Eve.
    Given the text of Genesis 3 (i.e., the part I quoted above), I would say the guard is clearly not symbolic, and that the guard was posted to guard Eden from Adam, and perhaps later from other humans, for the following reasons:
    a. According to the text (Genesis 3:22), Yahweh first states ““Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand, and also take of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever…”
    That was about Adam, not about Satan, who already knew good and evil, and was already immortal.
    b. Immediately after that, the text says “ 23 Therefore Yahweh God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 So he drove out the man; and he placed cherubim* at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.”
    The ‘therefore’ and ‘so’ connect Yahweh’s actions with the intent expressed in the immediately previous sentence (apart from the continuity of the text): what Yahweh was trying to accomplish by that was to prevent Adam (and, perhaps, later humans) from becoming immortal by eating from that tree, not to place a symbolic guard for some unstated symbolic reason, or to prevent Satan from reaching the tree.
    Regarding a potential similar garden also called Eden in Genesis 4, I’m not sure in which sense that would be a replacement (it definitely wouldn’t look like the original Eden, the entities in it would be vastly different), but in any case, the issue is not that people wouldn’t use the same names for geographically similar places (maybe ‘New Eden’ or something like that would be more likely, though quite frankly, given the huge ecological gap between the two places and the trauma of the expulsion, it’s hard to see that geographical similarity would likely prompt people to use such a similar name), but rather, that there is no indication in the text of such different usages of the term, so a reader familiar with the story would properly interpret that there is continuity and the name is used to name the same place.
    That interpretation is in fact what happened traditionally.
    But that aside: “Because of the internal tensions in the text between Genesis 1 and 2, for instance. Or for theological reasons like Augustine’s. He didn’t have any scientific evidence against a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1, but nonetheless did not go for one. Or out of a feel for genre–Genesis 1 might seem as more like a hymn to the glory of God’s creative activity than a precise historical account.”
    There seem to be two distinct issues here (among others, but in the context of this discussion):
    1. Whether most people – including most scholars – would have abandoned their literal interpretation of much of the biblical text (including but not limited to Genesis; for instance, other examples are the Flood, the movement of the Earth, the parting of the Red Sea, the claims about the census in Luke, etc.) without scientific evidence (I’m including archaeology and history, but one may leave them aside and there are still a number of passages).
    2. Whether they should have done so.
    As for 1., I would say that the evidence strongly supports a negative answer. In fact, until science showed that said accounts, as usually interpreted, was false, the literal interpretations remained as the predominant ones by far; there were some who disagreed, but they were a small minority.
    Regarding 2., that would depend on the specific case (e.g., Genesis, Flood, etc.), but (I get we disagree on this too) I would say that tensions in the text (or just contradictions) are more often the result of mistakes on the part of one author, or (in some cases) simply different authors writing different stories (because they heard different stories, and/or because they had different agendas, etc.).
    In any case, as I mentioned, if one is to make an argument against Christianity based on a literal interpretation vs. modern science, one may use other passages, not only Genesis 1-3 or 1-4.
    For example, in Genesis 6, Yahweh claims that he will kill everything on the Earth that breathes, aside from the Ark. But there was no time in the history of our planet in which everything on Earth (or at least, on the ground) was killed, except for a few organisms on an Ark (even the Permian-Triassic extinction wasn’t so comprehensive, and in any case it happened long before there were any humans on Earth).

    May 8, 2013 — 22:26
  • Hi, I’m the guy who posted on the “improvement”, I wish to address the point about the “symbolic guard”.
    Now no one, no matter how much of a “literalist” they maybe, truly believes that there exists in some part of this world a literal flaming sword alight with fire which literally turns back people who stumble upon the Garden of Eden physically and geographically. Whatever the intent of the “Flaming Sword” (to defend the purity of the Garden of Eden from the “fallen” man and/or the fallen world, etc), the point is that the “flaming sword” exists as a symbol to distinguish between the “Edenic” prelapsarian state or location from the fallen world and mankind.
    Therefore it is a false dichotomy to argue that either the sword is symbolic or its purpose is to prevent Adam and Eve from entering the Garden. It is not either-or but both-and, the Sword was placed there to prevent Adam and Even from entering the Garden, but *how* it does this is not specified. And it would be ludicrous to argue that the sword turns people away from the Garden of Eden literally by threat of being cut to pieces by it, thus the larger question of the symbolism of the Sword is the question of how does it distinguish and keep out sinful man and even fallen creation from its ideal state, etc.

    May 9, 2013 — 1:38
  • Alexander Pruss

    Angra:
    Sure, there are other places where a literalist reading is untenable.
    My interest in the beginning of Genesis, really, is the connection with theodicy: the problem of explaining the millennia of suffering apparently before the first human sin.
    Alex

    May 9, 2013 — 7:45
  • Angra Mainyu

    Hi, Dominic
    While no literalist believes that there is now a flaming sword, if they actually interpreted the text literally, it does say that the cherubim and the sword were placed there to guard the way to the tree, not as a symbol, so they would interpret that there was a cherubim and sword back then.
    Moreover, there are other examples of interventions by cherubim and other angels, etc., in the Old Testament, and generally a description of a world very different from what we see today. Christians who accept a literal interpretation of the stories tend to believe things were very different indeed, in the times described in the Old Testament, so there is a good chance that some of them (maybe most, I don’t know the numbers) believe that there was a cherubim and a flaming swords.
    Granted, it’s very probable that some of the people who describe themselves as supporting a literal interpretation reject the idea of a literal flaming sword and/or a literal cherubim. In fact, maybe even most of them do (as before, I don’t know the numbers).
    However, if one is going not by what the text says taking the words literally, but by what people who describe themselves as supporting a literal interpretation regularly believe, then the question of the cherubim and the flaming sword become a side note, since those people (nearly all, if not all) believe that the Garden of Eden was not some place in some alternate universe and/or alternate Earth, but an actual place on Earth – which is also clearly the intended meaning if it was meant to be an account of what happened, rather than the whole thing being an allegory, but even leaving that aside.

    May 9, 2013 — 10:05
  • Angra Mainyu

    Alex,
    I’m not sure how the matter would have an impact on theodicy. Could you clarify, please?
    It seems to me that that those who reject a literal interpretation on a number of other cases (e.g., the Flood) almost certainly reject a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 as well, so even if the variant you proposed is a literal interpretation (which I disagree with, for the reasons I gave earlier), that would not have an impact on theodicy on their views.
    On the other hand, in the case of usual literal interpretations that also take the other parts I mentioned as literal claims, the claims are untenable as you point out, and would remain untenable even if their theodicy worked.
    Side note: I don’t think their theodicy would work, anyway, for many reasons.
    For instance, it’s not even clear how Adam and Eve could possibly behave immorally (they had no means of knowing right and wrong before they ate the apple), but even if they could, that would not justify as far as I can tell the previous creation of a universe in which their immoral actions would result in all of that suffering for billions of years (and that’s leaving aside a lot of other actions, some before and some after Adam and Eve). But that’s another matter.

    May 9, 2013 — 10:25
  • Angra:
    1. I think a core message of Genesis 1-3, interpreted properly now, is that everything that was created was good and that all evil entered the world through sin. So it’s the latter that I am trying to explain.
    2. Yes, it’s not much of a contribution to theodicy by itself. A lot more work would be needed. I’m just saying how this story fits into my research program.
    3. Parenthetically, there weren’t billions of years of suffering on earth. Conscious beings evolved quite late, maybe 200-300 million years ago. Not that this makes a difference philosophically!

    May 9, 2013 — 11:53
  • Angra Mainyu

    Alex,
    Thanks.
    1. You mean you’re trying to explain how evil entered the world through sin? (if not, please clarify).
    If by ‘sin’ you meant ‘immoral behavior’, then ‘evil behavior’ and ‘immoral behavior’ seem to mean the same, so that would not seem to work. Do you mean something like ‘disobedience to Yahweh’s commands, or something like that?
    2. I see. On that note, and regarding another part of your suggestion, do Adam and Eve (the second time) live among other humans who aren’t persons or moral beings, but whom they regard as parents, siblings, etc., from whom they learn how to make tools, talk, etc.?
    On a related note (it’s relevant regarding an upper bound to the time of the hypothetical ensoulment), do you (and/or the hypothetical literalist) interpret the generations either in Luke 3 or in Matthew 1 literally?
    3. Parenthetically, right, there weren’t billions of years of suffering on Earth, though I would argue that there were more than 300 million years. For example, sharks or similar organisms (depending on one’s definitions, but as is generally accepted; still, what one calls them is not relevant here) already existed in the Silurian (i.e., even before 420 million years ago). Other fish are older, dating back to the Ordovician and some even to the Cambrian, well over 500 million years ago. I’m not sure if you’re rejecting that those fish felt pain?
    In any case, apart from Earth, the universe is huge (very probably even much bigger than the observable universe, even if finite at all) and much older than Earth, so there may well have been billions of years of suffering already.
    But assuming that there haven’t been billions of years of suffering in the whole universe yet, according to our best science the universe will last for many billions of years (at least) in a state capable of supporting complex living organisms (even though what will happen in a very long distant future is not clear and there are competing hypotheses, that much seems to be clear enough). So, it seems to me that the previous creation of a universe (not this one) by Yahweh (if it had happened as in the OP hypothesis, etc.) would have been such that the immoral behavior of Adam and Eve (or just one of them, perhaps) would lead (almost certainly, and applying our best science to the future of the universe in combination with the OP’s hypothesis, leaving aside other issues), to at least billions of years of suffering, and that’s in this universe alone (e.g., not counting an afterlife, which the Bible posits).
    I agree of course that whether it’s billions or millions is not of philosophical relevance in this context – while all other things equal, billions is worse than millions so I think there would be a small impact on a moral evaluation of the behavior of the person making such a universe, I get that none of the issues at stake hinges on that.

    May 9, 2013 — 20:34
  • Angra Mainyu

    A couple of clarifications:
    On point 1., upon further consideration, I think another alternative is that by ‘sin’ you did mean ‘immoral behavior’ but by ‘evil’ you didn’t mean ‘immoral’, but somehow something encompassing suffering of entities who don’t deserve it, etc.?
    If so, what you would be saying is that immoral behavior was the first evil so to speak, and a cause of there being other evils?
    That I would get, though I would not agree that that would be Adam’s or Eve’s fault even assuming the hypothesis that they existed, were expelled for disobeying, etc.
    On point 2., by an upper bound I mean an upper bound to how many years ago it might have happened, going by the hypothesis, since factoring in the genealogies in Luke 3 and the OT (mostly Genesis), together with knowledge of history and archaeology, would indicate a rather recent event (Matthew 1, on the other hand, doesn’t go so far back).

    May 10, 2013 — 7:58
  • Angra:
    1. I tend to use “evil” as just a translation of the Greek “kakos” or the Latin “malum” or my native Polish “zlo”. I don’t recognize a distinction between evil and bad stuff. Sin = immoral activity, understood in relation to God. (Necessarily, all immoral activity is sin and vice versa.) Yes, I am trying to explain how evil entered the world through sin, i.e., there is a sin or set of sins such that they are explanatorily prior to all evils (other than themselves, of course).
    2. Fair enough about the fish. I have no idea how much sophistication you need for pain or for suffering (the two may not be the same). Maybe fish do feel pain, maybe not. Maybe they suffer, maybe not.
    3. As for suffering off earth, we really don’t know if there is any. We don’t know if there is any life, much less conscious life, outside of earth, and even if there is, God might be miraculously preventing suffering there.
    4. The problem of interaction between early humans and non-human genetically similar hominids is a tough one, and it’s one I actually have myself, since I take it (on the force of the encyclical Humani Generis) that there was a single initial pair of humans. Perhaps they were miraculously informed as to who was who. Or maybe there were subtle or unsubtle behavioral or other cues. I don’t know. As to whether they or the others were tool users, it depends on what you count as tool using (e.g., sticks that chimpanzees use to collect ants?) and how far back this was.
    5. I don’t take the genealogies to be gapless. But young earth creationists who do will not be happy with my story.

    May 10, 2013 — 9:53
  • Angra Mainyu

    1. Okay, thanks for the clarification.
    2. I would say that at least many fish probably do feel pain, given similar behavior (they do look that they’re in pain, and that holds even in studies which show pain reactions similar to those of humans), and similar (even though not the same) brain structures.
    But this is a side issue here, as you point out.
    3. Regarding Yahweh’s (or God’s, etc.; the result is similar) preventing suffering off Earth, I think this is an interesting matter about what is compatible with present-day science. Science, as I see it (and as most scientists seem to do it) seek to explain the world around us (and by ‘the world around us’ I mean as far as one is able to go in some cases, but only focusing on concreta), including a description of what exists, how it behaves, even causes, and so on.
    On that note, I don’t think that an entity ‘miraculously’ doing stuff is compatible with science. For instance, someone might say that multicellular life only evolved on Earth because Yahweh prevented and is preventing such evolution everywhere else, or that, say, there are no stars beyond the observable universe because Yahweh is preventing star formation beyond that, but all of such claims clearly do not fit in with the explanatory account given by science. But pain is no different in that regard.
    In fact, if Yahweh were preventing suffering everywhere else, or the development of complex life, etc., and we found that out, it would be a scientific improvement over our present-day models to include a description of Yahweh’s activity, to the point to which we’re able to identify it.
    Since we do know that stars, planets, etc., form in the rest of the galaxy and in other galaxies, including planets with the conditions for life, without any good reasons to think that Earth is an exception with regard to life, the proper conclusion should be that there probably is life in many places elsewhere, even though it’s true that we don’t know how frequent it is. Multicellular life may take much longer so we don’t know, but it seems based on what we know that it will eventually evolve. And multicellular life gets also increasingly complex by means of evolution.
    4. That’s very interesting; thanks. I will address the issue later.
    5. Okay, but I think that that’s a difficulty, for the following reasons:
    a. There are biblical genealogies (e.g., in Genesis, and elsewhere in the Old Testament) that actually specify how old a man was when one of his sons was born, and then how old that son was when another son was born, and so on. Moreover, they give specific, detailed accounts of some of the interactions between a man, some of his sons, some of their sons, etc.
    It’s hard to see any indication in the Old Testament that they were not meant to be taken literally. b. Apart from being the predominant Christian interpretation historically (even among Catholics), a literal interpretation of those genealogies seems to have been traditionally accepted by ancient Israelites who learned about them, and then by Jews before Jesus. The same, goes, by the way, for events described in the Torah, like the Exodus, which was traditionally key in Judaism.
    c. Luke 3 seems to have a very similar genealogy, even though there is a difference that makes them incompatible (A problem here is that the two accounts are mutually incompatible, since according to Luke 3, Shellah was the son of Cainan, who in turn was the son of Arphaxad.
    On the other hand, according to Genesis 11, Shelah was the son of Arpachshad.
    The spelling is somewhat different, but there is no doubt that the two texts are talking about the same male line from Adam to Shella.).
    However, that seems to be evidence of an error, rather than a rejection of the accounts given in Genesis, which would have required an explanation – those accounts were normally accepted in the time of Jesus and early Christianity, and which the writers of the New Testament often mention to the Old Testament, accepting the accounts, even when speaking to an audience who believe them literally.
    d. That and other factors (like the relevance of patrilineal genealogies in Judaism, etc.), seem to support a literal interpretation (i.e., that the writers meant to give an account of what had actually happened), but on a literal interpretation, gaps would be errors.
    e. If, in any case, one rejects that the genealogies were meant to be read literally (but I think that that view would have a lot to explain given traditional Jewish practices, etc.), then it seems hard to see why one would consider that there are gaps in them, rather than their just being made up, to a considerable extent at least.
    Leaving that aside, assuming that a non-literal interpretation is correct in the case of the genealogies, then it would be almost certainly also correct in the case of most of Genesis, so it seems to me that literalism would be a mistaken interpretation anyway.
    Also, I agree a YEC would accept an interpretation of genealogies with gaps; I was aiming at a broader [potential] category, considering the possibility of someone who might the genealogies are true (i.e., no gaps), but still believe that Adam and Eve were ensouled at some point, etc., after a long evolutionary process.

    May 10, 2013 — 16:10
  • Angra Mainyu

    4. Some brief considerations on the issue of the first people.
    a. I think the issue of whether there was an initial pair of humans, and an initial pair of human persons, may be different ones. Neither words is precise enough for this context, as I see it.
    b. Leaving that aside, on the issue of tool using, I was focusing about tool making. Chimpanzees actually do make some primitive tools, like makeshift spears to stab bush babies. But I was thinking about considerably more complex tools, since I’m guessing you don’t hold that something chimpanzee-like might have been Adam and Eve’s parents.
    For instance, we may consider Homo habilis, which lived up to 1.4 million years ago, approximately. They already had stone tools that, while primitive, required cultural transmission much more complex than that of chimpanzees.
    c. I was thinking that your hypothesis would require a primate much more similar to us, but maybe not. Would you consider that Adam and Eve may have been something like Homo Habilis, with a 600 cubic centimeters brain? (i.e., would Homo habilis even qualify as a potential candidate, or is it ruled out?).
    d. You mention some ‘subtle or unsubtle’ behavioral cues. That would seem to require, based on scientific knowledge, some brain differences (at least, the brain is working differently). Yet, without a genetic difference, it seems direct changes in the brain would be required. Moreover, if they were to reproduce, they wouldn’t pass on those changes to their offspring, so their children too would require another modification.
    What I’m getting at is that that would seem to require either genetic engineering by Yahweh (i.e., he directly made them mutate, after they were born, or altered the embryos, or the ova, etc.), or Yahweh’s directly interfering with the brain development of Adam, Eve, and their offspring.
    Is that a correct interpretation of your take on that?

    May 10, 2013 — 16:50
  • Angra:
    I don’t know enough about the literary conventions regarding the genealogies, so I won’t comment on those.
    Regarding life elsewhere, we don’t currently have any unproblematic story about abiogenesis. In particular, we don’t know what the probability of abiogenesis on a planet like ours is. Sure, it occurred here on earth. But it might have occurred miraculously here, or it might be a really rare occurrence (and our observation of it is explained by anthropic bias).
    As for behavioral cues, we don’t have sufficient scientific understanding of the neural sources of behavior to be justified in saying that the brain explains all our behavior.

    May 11, 2013 — 9:52
  • Angra Mainyu

    Alex,
    Regarding the genealogies, it seems to me that even if one does not know enough about the literally conventions of the time, the general practice of the people of the time they were written to take them literally is good evidence that they were meant to be taken in that fashion.
    After all, the authors were familiar with the beliefs around them, so if they had intended for those genealogies not to be taken literally, chances are they would have taken steps to indicate that they weren’t meant to be so interpreted.
    That aside, I got the impression (which may have been mistaken) that you actually held that a literal interpretation of such genealogies was mistaken. But now that you say you don’t know enough about the literary conventions regarding the genealogies, I’m in doubt about your stance on this, so I’d like to ask:
    Do you believe that a literal interpretation of those genealogies is mistaken (i.e., do you believe that the authors of the text did not intend for them to be taken literally), or do you take no stance of whether it’s mistaken? (or some other alternative).
    On the ‘elsewhere’ issue, while we don’t have a solid grasp on abiogenesis, we do know that Earth is one of many planets in the Goldilocks zone (billions at least, if we count the whole observable universe), so given the similarity of all of the other processes (i.e., there are stars, planets, orbits we can predict pretty well with our models, known elements, EM emissions, etc.), I would assess that it’s very probable that however life started here, the same has happened at least in many other planets.
    In other words, we have billions of systems that are very similar in the way things work to the best we can tell, and we don’t have any concrete evidence of an exception in the way things work here. There appears to be no good reason to suspect that life is such an exception (and that’s counting only goldilocks planets).
    Also, life started early on Earth’s development, so in my view, one shouldn’t expect it to take long elsewhere, either. Multicellular life is another matter, but given that the universe will continue to the best of our knowledge in a stable enough state for many more billions of years, it seems to me that probably either there is such life, or there will be.
    Still, since this is a side issue in this context, I’d say we may just substitute ‘suffering for hundreds of millions of years’, or even ‘suffering for at least tens of millions of years’ for ‘suffering for billions of years’ in my first post about the matter, and leave aside the issue of life elsewhere or even in the future if you like.
    Regarding the brain, I don’t agree, at least in the sense that I find it vastly improbable that there were (or are) differences in behavior without differences in the brain. But it seems that if you posit that there might be different minds with the same brain, that is a rejection of the evolutionary account posited by present-day science, since (among other reasons):
    i. The changes in minds would not be based on DNA changes, but on something else, more precisely on an intelligent agent’s decision to make a certain kind of mind for the following generation. That decision is not dependent on previous overall reproductive success, or DNA mutations, or genetic drift, etc.
    ii. The changes are not gradual, but rather, as fast as the intelligent agent in question chooses (e.g., the ‘not so subtle’ behavioral cues).
    Granted, someone might still hold that there are such differences and question the modern scientific account; my point here is that the proposed account appears to be in conflict with present-day science, as far as I can tell.
    On the issue of earlier hominids and Adam and Eve, I was asking in order to get a better idea of what kind of entities might be candidates; on that note, I would like to ask whether something like Homo habilis is a potential candidate in the OP hypothesis (or in your own theory, if you prefer)?
    In other words, I’m not asking whether Adam and Eve were Homo habilis (either in the OP hypothesis or your own theory), but whether Homo habilis (or Homo erectus; that example would work too) is something you rule out (like, say, I know you’d rule out our last common ancestor with chimpanzees, else chimpanzees would be descendants of Adam and Eve), or something that you don’t (or the OP model does not) rule out.

    May 11, 2013 — 19:58
  • After all, the authors were familiar with the beliefs around them, so if they had intended for those genealogies not to be taken literally, chances are they would have taken steps to indicate that they weren’t meant to be so interpreted.
    That assumes the literal nature of the genealogies was important enough for them to bother emphasizing that to begin with.
    Which also relates to Genesis 1-3 as well: what part of it is central? What are we supposed to take away and understand? I think answering that question deflates a lot of the presumed importance of not just a literal, but a hyper-literal interpretation. Multiple interpretations may nevertheless find common ground on the same truths.
    There appears to be no good reason to suspect that life is such an exception (and that’s counting only goldilocks planets).
    The ‘billions of systems working in similar ways’ are doing so in relatively mundane terms. Life is pretty exceptional by any measure.
    The changes in minds would not be based on DNA changes, but on something else, more precisely on an intelligent agent’s decision to make a certain kind of mind for the following generation. That decision is not dependent on previous overall reproductive success, or DNA mutations, or genetic drift, etc.
    ii. The changes are not gradual, but rather, as fast as the intelligent agent in question chooses (e.g., the ‘not so subtle’ behavioral cues).

    Strict gradualism is dead in modern evolutionary theory – it’s not a requirement. Granted, swampman would be an extreme oddity, but a large change in a short amount of time really isn’t a conflict with the theory. At most, it would be odd.
    As for an intelligent agent acting in history – even directing mutations – that doesn’t seem to matter all that much. Elliot Sober’s pretty good on this point, but science as science is silent on the question of whether miracles or interventions took place in the course of evolution.

    May 12, 2013 — 1:59
  • Angra Mainyu

    Crude: “That assumes the literal nature of the genealogies was important enough for them to bother emphasizing that to begin with.”
    It’s not an assumption, but an assessment based on a number of reasons, such as the basically zero cost of pointing out that they were not meant to be taken literally (in terms of writing difficulty; they just had to say that the genealogies shouldn’t be taken literally) vs. the cost of making claims that nearly all people of their time would misinterpret (even if properly reading the matter; that was the usual belief after all, and the usual interpretation) and spreading a considerably large number of false beliefs about what they believed to be their creator.
    On that note, context makes the situation worse. The claims about the genealogies are a subset of a much larger number of other claims in the OT, which nearly everyone at the time also took literally, and in which the writers of the New Testament also made without reservations (that includes, by the way, the claims in Genesis 1-3).
    Making those claims in that social context would have have predictably led many people (nearly all converts among the Jews) to keeping a large number of false beliefs, and predictably led many other people (nearly all converts among non-Jews) to acquiring a large number of false beliefs. That includes the beliefs that the events described in the Old Testament involving the members of those genealogies (which give detailed accounts even of the age at which they had some of their sons, their age of death, etc.).
    Somewhat might say that a person at that time should not have taken them literally, but that does not seem to be the case, since:
    a. The writers lived in a social context in which the literal interpretation was nearly if not entirely universal, so that alone would give very good evidence to a person of the time that the writer also understood those genealogies and other events literally.
    b. The writers do not clarify (which, again, in terms of writing cost, costs zero) that those genealogies and other beliefs were not meant to be taken literally, given then no indication or evidence that would reduce the also high probability of a literal interpretation (point a.).
    c. The writers often appealed to the events described in the Old Testament to make part of their case, like the references in the New Testament to the Flood, Adam and Eve, Lot, Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses and the Exodus, etc. The most common interpretation of those descriptions among the Jews at the time was a literal one by far if not exclusively, and that was also the most common interpretation transmitted to non-Jewish converts.
    Crude: “ Which also relates to Genesis 1-3 as well: what part of it is central? What are we supposed to take away and understand? I think answering that question deflates a lot of the presumed importance of not just a literal, but a hyper-literal interpretation. Multiple interpretations may nevertheless find common ground on the same truths.”
    For the reasons I mentioned above among others, it seems that the literal interpretation (unless there was an intent to deceive, but that does not seem to be probable) is the most plausible by far.
    But we may add specific examples, for instance on the issue of Genesis 1-3, one may consider (for instance), 1 Timothy 11-15, which states (all quotes are from the World English Bible, but pick another one if you like):
    “11 Let a woman learn in quietness with full submission. 12 But I don’t permit a woman to teach, nor to exercise authority over a man, but to be in quietness. 13 For Adam was first formed, then Eve. 14 Adam wasn’t deceived, but the woman, being deceived, has fallen into disobedience; 15 but she will be saved through her childbearing, if they continue in faith, love, and sanctification with sobriety.
    That is a clear reference to the events in Eden, as literally described in the Bible, and tried to justify not having women in positions of power on the basis of those events. The writer should have expected that the audience of his time would understand those passages literally, and would even accept the rationale as good grounds for not permitting women in teaching positions, or in positions of authority over men, since that is precisely the given justification.
    There are many other occasions in which the New Testament authors appeal to the Old Testament in that way; in all of them, it would have been trivially easy to prevent the expected literal interpretation by saying that that did not literally happen.
    Crude: “The ‘billions of systems working in similar ways’ are doing so in relatively mundane terms. Life is pretty exceptional by any measure.”
    That seems to be an unwarranted claim; as far as I can tell, there is no good reason to suspect it’s exceptional in the sense that things that work in some way on planet planets P(1), .., P(10000000) will result in life in planet P(1) very quickly, but not in any of the others.
    In other words, that is assuming exceptionality where we have so far found none.
    That said, this is a side issue in this context, so I’ll leave it at that for now.
    Crude: “Strict gradualism is dead in modern evolutionary theory – it’s not a requirement. Granted, swampman would be an extreme oddity, but a large change in a short amount of time really isn’t a conflict with the theory. At most, it would be odd.”
    a. Unless you’re using ‘strict gradualism’ differently, that seems to be false. But maybe you’re using the term differently, in which case, terminology is not the issue here. Even punctuated equilibrium is gradual in terms of going from one generation to the next.
    Yes, present day evolutionary theory accepts large changes in short amounts of time as long as ‘short’ is taken to mean something like several generations but still short for evolutionary timescales.
    Granted, someone might say that something is odd in the sense of ‘extremely improbable’ but that actually seems to be in conflict with the theory, in the sense that the theory accounts for what happened precisely rejecting those improbable circumstances.
    For instance, you say that swampman would be an extreme oddity, but the thing is that an evolutionary account posits that swampman did not happen, even if it might if you consider QM probabilities (and reasonably so, since precisely the probabilities are astronomically slim).
    Granted, the kind of change that we’re talking about here is less than that swampman (though it’s unclear how much change is being proposed), but still extremely improbable if we’re talking about a jump that would make the offspring clearly identifiable as a different species, or something along those lines (or that would make the offspring clearly identifiable as persons, but not the parents).
    b. There is a second difficulty if we’re talking about different behavioral cues without differences in brains, which is the point i. that I made above (i.e., that the changes in minds would not be based on DNA changes, but on something else, more precisely on an intelligent agent’s decision to make a certain kind of mind for the following generation. That decision is not dependent on previous overall reproductive success, or DNA mutations, or genetic drift, etc.). On that note:
    Crude: “As for an intelligent agent acting in history – even directing mutations – that doesn’t seem to matter all that much. Elliot Sober’s pretty good on this point, but science as science is silent on the question of whether miracles or interventions took place in the course of evolution.”
    Science offers an account of what happened and how we got to have the life we see today that does not include the actions of the entity “Yahweh” engaging in genetic engineering along the way – or, for that matter, aliens from another planet doing so.
    An account that would include that would definitely not be any of the accepted mechanisms by which evolution on Earth took place, and indeed it would mean that the accepted present-day scientific model requires to be modified, in order to include such agent or agents. In other words, it would mean that the present-day account is, in that respect, mistaken.

    May 12, 2013 — 15:29
  • Angra Mainyu

    A little more on my take on the question of what present-day scientific accounts say, what is compatible with them, and some related issues:
    Let’s consider (for an analogy) the present-day scientific account of the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs.
    The present-day account – with some degree of detail and some open questions, of course – is that the impact of one or more large objects from space had a decisive impact, partly directly and partly by triggering a number of devastating changes in the climate and other events, even though other preceding factors may well have contributed, such as massive volcanic eruptions.
    But let’s say that Alice proposes the following theory:

    A1: Actually, several dozen species of small, smart non-avian dinosaurs survived all of that in at least some small areas, and would have been poised to colonize other niches, eventually evolve into larger species, etc., if left to their own.
    However, at that time, some aliens from another planet were observing the events, and (for reason X, whatever X is) they decided to kill off non-avian dinosaurs, which they accomplished by means of biological weapons.

    Is A1 compatible with the present-day account of the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs?
    The answer is clearly negative. If A1 is true, the present-day scientific account of the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs is flat wrong. Also, it’s not just that it’s a very good approximation to the correct explanation but it needs some adjustment in the details. Rather, adopting A1 would be recognized as a major shift away from the present-day scientific models of how life evolved.
    Now, it is true that the aliens in A1 might have used a biological weapon that would leave no trace in the fossil record. Purely for example, they might have used weapons that would just make the target dinosaurs starve to death, or would sterilize them so that they would not leave any offspring, etc.
    So, if one lists all of the statements about what we observed (like ‘we found such-and-such fossil’, etc.), and we add A1, no contradiction is entailed, so in that sense, A1 is compatible with observations.
    But that does not make A1 compatible with our present-day scientific account of the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. It’s not compatible.
    For that matter, there are plenty of different potential accounts that are in the sense specified above compatible with observations, yet mutually incompatible and incompatible with the present-day scientific account of the extinction of the dinosaurs. But scientists, like everyone else, extrapolate from incomplete information, make intuitive probabilistic assessments, etc., and in that way, they come up with an explanation of certain event or events – in this particular case, the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs.
    Perhaps, Alice might insist on her account, and say that present-day biologists are jumping to conclusions, doing bad science, etc., and that they should not give an account that is incompatible with A1. I would disagree with that of course, but that aside, the point I’m trying to get at here is that objection to the present-day scientific account would be precisely that – an objection to the present-day scientific account of the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs; A1 is incompatible with that account.
    Perhaps, Alice might push the issue and say that the account presently accepted by the scientific community at large is not a scientific account at all, and so that A1 is compatible with a proper scientific account of the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs given our present-day level of data.
    Terminology aside (‘scientific account’ may be somewhat ambiguous in this case) such a claim might lead to a discussion on which account is correct, etc. (if some people considered A1 worthy of discussion), but in any event, it’s clear that by positing A1 and making a claim that the account presently accepted by the scientific community at large is not a scientific account at all, etc., Alice is implying that what scientists have generally done and accepted in regards to the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs is epistemically erroneous, and led them to false conclusions; that implication is clear.
    Now, let’s consider the present-day scientific account of evolution of life on Earth – with some degree of detail and some open questions, of course.
    Among other features, that account proposes random (in the fitness sense) and gradual (even if sometimes ‘fast’ in large timescales) mutations plus natural selection as the main mechanism of evolution, though there is also other factors, such as genetic drift.
    However, let’s say that someone posits an account in which minds depend on both brains and souls, which are created by Yahweh independently of matters such as reproductive success or any of the processes posited by the modern evolutionary biology, so that the evolution of minds would escape DNA chances, and so natural selection, genetic drift and the like.
    Clearly, that too contradicts the present-day scientific account of evolution. In fact, even if some mutation is overall conducive to reproductive success given certain soul, it might be that Yahweh just changes the souls, etc.
    Similarly, if the account were not that minds depend on souls in the fashion outlined above, but that Yahweh engaged in genetic engineering, causing sometimes (say, in the case of some hominids) vast changes from one generation to the other in brain structure (or other changes, etc.), that too would conflict with the present-day scientific account of the evolutionary process, since in that case the process would not be dependant on reproductive success or any of the processes posited by present-day biology, or any approximate processes (purely for example, it might be that certain genes are detrimental, overall, to reproductive success, but Yahweh continues to modify following generations so that they all carry the genes, etc.).
    So, for the reasons given above, I would say that either of those accounts is in conflict with present-day biology and more precisely the present-day scientific understanding of the evolutionary process.
    Moreover, the differences are not in details, but rather each of them is a major disagreement with the present-day scientific understanding of evolution (Granted, someone might object to what difference counts as ‘major’, but just as when one often can properly say that an account is ‘roughly correct’, or ‘a very good approximation’, etc.; in this case, I’m assessing that the kind of differences here are so extensive that the present-day scientific account would not be roughly correct, or a good approximation at all).
    If someone posits a theory that combines both claims (i.e., Yahweh was both doing genetic engineering and creating different souls, etc., as outlined above), of course that too is incompatible with present-day evolutionary theory, and the disagreement is even greater than in each of the other cases.
    Granted, a Christian might claim that what is generally accepted by biologists as an account of the evolution of life on Earth is not even roughly correct, but also is not actually scientific (at least, in the relevant part of it), and further, one or more of the accounts involving Yahweh and outlined above (or some other similar variant) is fully compatible with a proper scientific account of evolution based on present-day data.
    In the end, we all need to make intuitive probabilistic assessments based on the available data, and I would then disagree with an objection to present-day models like the one outlined in the immediately previous paragraph (as those scientists accepting the present-day account also have a stance that at least implicitly disagrees with such an objection, and with the Yahweh-based models, which are incompatible with that present-day account), but in any event, the fact is that the account generally accepted by biologists in the context of their work as biologists is not compatible with any of the aforementioned Yahweh-based accounts, or any similar ones.
    Granted, there are scientists who believe in something like one of the Yahweh-based accounts, whereas none believes in A1, but that doesn’t affect the points I’m trying to get at, just as if there were some scientists who believed in A1, that would not affect the point about the incompatibility of the present-day scientific (or, if you like ‘accepted by the scientific community at large’, but I would also say it’s proper) account of the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs and A1.
    In line with the above, I would say that:
    a. If the data at the moment did not justify the present-day account that is accepted by the scientific community at large but is incompatible with A1, then those people who work on the field and are aware of that should try to correct that massive error by publishing the relevant papers, push for re-writing textbooks, and so on, unless they have some sufficient justification not to try (e.g., perhaps serious personal repercussions, etc.).
    b. If the data at the moment did not justify the present-day scientific did not justify the present-day account that is accepted by the scientific community at large but is incompatible with the Yahweh-based accounts, then those people who work on the field and are aware of that should try to correct that massive error by publishing the relevant papers, push for re-writing textbooks, and so on, unless they have some sufficient justification not to try (e.g., perhaps serious personal repercussions, etc.)
    As the text above indicates, my assessment is that the currently accepted views are justified and roughly correct in the cases considered above.

    May 12, 2013 — 19:03
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Alex:
    “scientific realism does not say that all our best scientific theories are true”
    Right, but I think it does say that the best understanding of reality is that the our best scientific theories give (when interpreted as literal assertions).
    Scientific theories are meant to be interpreted as literal assertions
    But then the scientific realist is required to believe that mutations are random, for this is the literal reading of evolutionary theory.
    “There are various views on what ‘random’ in the biological sense is.”
    I don’t think there is any ambiguity in what “random” means in the context of the Darwinian algorithm, as proved by how one simulates it in a computer.
    I haven’t had the chance to read your paper, but there are ways in which specific design is compatible with Darwinism (in the literal sense I understand). Consider for example this scenario: God designs the human in the abstract. Then builds a physical universe, lets Darwinism follow its random course, and observes the results. If human beings are not produced then God destroys that universe and builds a new one. After N tries a universe will obtain in which Darwinism will produce exactly God’s design. That universe God keeps and breathes consciousness into God’s creatures.
    Now proving logical compatibility may be fun, but does not help very much getting to the truth.

    May 12, 2013 — 22:20
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Angra:
    “the basically zero cost of pointing out that they were not meant to be taken literally”
    Consider the literary genre of “magical realism”. It is certainly not meant to be taken literally, but still pains are taken to make it appear realist. Come to think of it magical realism could be an effective literally device for transmitting theistic truth. For on theism everything is supernatural (“magical”), and “nature” simply refers to a supernaturally created and sustained order within part of creation.
    As for sacred scripture, I think the best understanding of the attitude of its writers is certainly not that they were trying to deceive people, nor that they were trying to write things down in a way that simple-minded people could understand. Rather, they believed in the literal truth of what they were writing, even while knowing that they were often making things up. What they were doing is devising an effective pointer to the transcendent by means of what moderns call “true myths”. Without actually knowing they were doing it. If that sounds “magical”, it is. All human creative work is magical.
    On the other hand I find that the best understanding of Christianity is that which entails the literal or physical crucifixion and raising of Christ. Of course what “physical” means depends on one’s metaphysical assumptions. Being a subjective realist myself, and given Christ’s humanity, I find it very natural to believe in Christ’s miraculous physical resurrection. That is I believe that the disciples literally experienced the risen physical body of Christ, that they saw Him in their midst, that He ate with them, spoke with them, and was touched by them – in a metaphysically identical way as before the crucifixion. Just as the Gospel records. This was the experience that opened the disciples’ eyes to the deeper truths of Christianity, and served as the power behind the great historical movement it produced.

    May 12, 2013 — 23:06
  • Angra,
    It’s not an assumption, but an assessment based on a number of reasons, such as the basically zero cost of pointing out that they were not meant to be taken literally
    First, it’s untrue that it’s ‘basically a zero cost’. It’s not even true that mistakes can be wholly avoided purely by altering the text – all interpretation questions implicitly assume not only an accurate text, but an accurate interpreter. Mistakes and imprecision are always possible.
    Second, however – ‘zero cost’ can be said to aptly sum up the cost of misunderstanding on this point.
    This alone renders the bulk of your reply irrelevant. Your criticism turns on the Bible’s contents being meant to communicate in such a way that there is zero room for misinterpretation on every possible point. There’s zero reason to accept this view.
    In other words, that is assuming exceptionality where we have so far found none.
    There’s no assumption of exceptionality – there’s ample evidence of it. Problems in the origin of life and the evolution of intelligent beings are different in kind from basic physical operations. You can disagree all you like, but it’s not going to help.
    Yes, present day evolutionary theory accepts large changes in short amounts of time as long as ‘short’ is taken to mean something like several generations but still short for evolutionary timescales.
    And there’s no long a barrier to ‘short’ meaning ‘in the space of one generation’. At best, it’s odd. Maybe even supremely odd. But that’s about it.
    Science offers an account of what happened and how we got to have the life we see today that does not include the actions of the entity
    Flatly false in the relevant sense. Science is pretty well quiet on the Origin of Life front. When it comes to the specific occurrences of evolution, what is had is a broad, broad outline – and what’s more, an outline shackled by methodology expressly. Again, see Sober on this for a very good reason why science is silent even on miracles and interventions in evolutionary history.
    But by all means, if you have references to peer reviewed research showing where scientists attempted to detect God’s activity in the evolutionary process, provide it. And I don’t mean ‘well they have this research, which I interpret in a certain way such that…’ I mean right in the abstract, “We decided to investigate whether God acted in the history of evolution.” That would be a very, very funny paper.
    Here, this will help: there is a key difference between ‘an account that is not scientific’ and ‘an account which conflicts with science’. If I say I went to the fridge to get a beer, that is not a scientific account of my behavior – it deals with intention, subjective experience, etc. A scientific account may describe said event entirely in terms of reductive physics. The account I gave, but it’s not in conflict with the scientific account – unless you want to shackle yourself to some heavy eliminative materialism. In which case, enjoy the swim.

    May 12, 2013 — 23:19
  • Angra Mainyu

    Hi, Dianelos,
    In the case of magical realism, we’re talking about a genre of fiction.
    If when you say that it’s “certainly not meant to be taken literally” you mean that the author does not intend for the story to be believed, and does not claim that it is true, then of course, I agree.
    That, however, if also the case of, say, novels that do not include any magical elements (or maybe I should say ‘magical’ due to the vagueness of the term, different usages, etc., which make it in my assessment too vague in most philosophical contexts. Still, I will use it with that caveat for now).
    The crucial issue in that case is that it’s fiction, not that the rules of the universe in the story are such-and-such and not some others.
    But if you meant something else when you say that it’s certainly not meant to be taken literally, please clarify.
    On your point that on theism everything is supernatural, I would say as before that the word ‘supernatural’ has so much variance across speakers (at least, and leaving aside other issues) that it’s not very suitable for philosophy (e.g., it tends to result in significant miscommunication, in my experience).
    You provided a definition of ‘metaphysical naturalism’ in another thread (i.e., “Metaphysical naturalism” refers to the idea that all the properties of whatever exists (whether physical or not) evolves by blindly following mechanistic laws, i.e. laws fully described by math (whether deterministic or probabilistic, whether analytic or algorithmic)”), so I considered you might be using ‘supernatural’ in a related sense (though I’m not sure which one).
    But if so, I don’t see good grounds for thinking that the meaning of words like ‘magic’ in any of its most common usages (or even the word ‘supernatural’, for that matter) can be captured or sufficiently approximated by the definition in question.
    That includes, as far as I can tell, the use in the context of the literary genre of magical realism.
    So, I don’t see that magical realism would be an effective literary device.
    Regarding the Bible, I’m not sure I get your point, but when you say that “ Rather, they believed in the literal truth of what they were writing, even while knowing that they were often making things up.”, that would seem to imply that it was meant to be taken literally, at least by their authors: they believed that what they were saying was true (literally), expected their readers to take it as such, etc. If I misunderstood that, please clarify; else, the problem is not resolved as far as I can tell.
    Granted, you might say that there is a non-human author that did not mean that in a literal way, but that seems to create two problems (at least):
    1. Why should one believe that?
    When I analyze a text written by humans, I take into consideration what the human writers mean. I know that normally (indeed, in all cases, for all I know), the human writer is the actual author of the text, not someone else. Given that, specific evidence to the contrary should be provided in order to reach the conclusion that there is a non-human author.
    2. A similar argument may be made about a potential non-human author: he could have easily clarify what he meant, without spreading false beliefs (people would properly interpret the claims literally, and (in my assessment, usually not so properly but still) believe them). The cost would be almost zero for him, it seems. So, it seems a deceitful intention (unless he too was in error) would have been present.

    May 12, 2013 — 23:54
  • Angra Mainyu

    Crude,
    1. As I said, the cost was basically zero in terms of writing difficulty; they just had to say that the genealogies shouldn’t be taken literally. The same goes for other parts of the text.
    While mistakes are always possible, stating that the genealogies (or other texts, etc.) should not be taken literally, or even that such events did not actually occurred would have prevented such interpretative mistakes in people who are reading in the context in their time, and/or in nearly everyone reading them in their time.
    2. As for the cost of spreading all of those mistakes, the cost for the writer might be zero if he does not care about spreading a vast number of falsehoods, which will almost certainly have consequences for many others along the road, or does not care about making moral points relying on a misunderstanding of things that never happened, etc.
    Crude: “Your criticism turns on the Bible’s contents being meant to communicate in such a way that there is zero room for misinterpretation on every possible point. ”
    That is not true, or approximately so. The writers could have easily taken steps to prevent many misunderstandings that should be expected from nearly all readers (or people to whom the story is read, etc.) at the time, even if such readers are at no fault.
    On the issue of exceptionality, you say that “There’s no assumption of exceptionality – there’s ample evidence of it. Problems in the origin of life and the evolution of intelligent beings are different in kind from basic physical operations. You can disagree all you like, but it’s not going to help.”
    I disagree, of course, and I’ve already explained why you’re assuming exceptionality where there is no good reason to assume there is. In fact, I was pointing out that there was no reason to assume that Earth was exceptional when it comes to the start of life at all when it was no exceptional on all of the other issues regarding how the universe works that we can check.
    I wasn’t talking about specifically whether life, its origin, etc., are ‘different in kind’ from ‘basic physical operations’. Your terms here are vague too, but if you’re suggesting that there is some soul or something like that, I see no good reason to believe so.
    As for the claim that “You can disagree all you like, but it’s not going to help.”, that depends on what you mean by ‘help’, but this seems to be getting pointlessly hostile.
    Crude: “And there’s no long a barrier to ‘short’ meaning ‘in the space of one generation’. At best, it’s odd. Maybe even supremely odd. But that’s about it.”
    You mean that there is no longer a barrier?
    It’s clear that some changes may happen, but still, it’s gradual. The offspring of any Homo habilis (for instance) would still be far more similar behaviorally to her parents than to, say, one of us, or even than to some H. erectus, say, 200000 later.
    The ‘supremely odd’ is precisely what would contradict the present-day account, if by that one understands it’s extremely improbable, since such events are, well, ruled out as extremely improbable. For instance, someone might say that a quantum event with an absurdly remote probability that results in some offspring that is very different from its parents is still just ‘supremely odd’ and ‘that’s about it’, but that would miss the point that such events are (even if implicitly) precisely ruled out as vastly improbable.
    Crude:
    “Science offers an account of what happened and how we got to have the life we see today that does not include the actions of the entity
    Flatly false in the relevant sense. Science is pretty well quiet on the Origin of Life front. When it comes to the specific occurrences of evolution, what is had is a broad, broad outline – and what’s more, an outline shackled by methodology expressly. Again, see Sober on this for a very good reason why science is silent even on miracles and interventions in evolutionary history.”
    You’re quoting part of my sentence, without the rest of it, and you’ve misinterpreted.
    What I said is: “Science offers an account of what happened and how we got to have the life we see today that does not include the actions of the entity “Yahweh” engaging in genetic engineering along the way – or, for that matter, aliens from another planet doing so.”
    Note that I did not talk about the origin of life, but about genetic engineering during the evolutionary process (not that I think you have a good case on abiogenesis, but rather, I was trying to be careful in order to avoid an objection like the one you raise and which would lead into a tangent).
    But if you’re going to say that I’m the one who wasn’t clear enough, or whatever, regardless, the point about evolution remains as before.
    On that note, on the point on evolution, I disagree, and already explained some of the reasons.
    Crude: “But by all means, if you have references to peer reviewed research showing where scientists attempted to detect God’s activity in the evolutionary process, provide it.”
    That makes an unwarranted demand. Of course, you know that I know that there is no such research in peer-reviewed journals, even if by ‘God’ you don’t mean ‘Yahweh’ (though in particular, I was talking about Yahweh, but whatever).
    I also know that there is no peer reviewed research in which scientists showing where scientists attempted to detect the activity of aliens from another planet at the end of the Cretaceous period, or a number of other hypothesis that are logically compatible with the data in the sense I described above.
    It does not change the fact that theories like the ones involving Yahweh and that I described above do contradict modern science (i.e., the generally accepted accounts of evolution), as does the one about the aliens.
    Crude: “I mean right in the abstract, “We decided to investigate whether God acted in the history of evolution.” That would be a very, very funny paper.”
    Yes, and the same for the activity of aliens with biological weapons that leave no trace in the fossil record and which allegedly targeted some dozens of species of small, smart non-avian dinosaurs survived in some unknown areas.

    May 13, 2013 — 0:30
  • Nathaniel Hagthorpe

    @Dianelos Georgoudis
    I, frankly, don’t see the problem with the randnomness of evolution. What biologists mean, when they speak of “random mutations” is things like 1. mutations with positive impact on the fitness of an organism do not occur more often, than mutations with negative or neutral impact, 2. mutation that reduce complexity are no less likely to occur than mutations to increase complexity, 3. in the life history of an organism there is a vast amount of beneficent, maladaptive, complexity increasing, decreasing e.t.c. mutations with no apparent order e.t.c. e.t.c. And similar claims are made about natural selection to rule out teleology (naturally selected mutations never benefit exclusively another species, complexity reduction is as likely to persist as complexity addition if it proves to be a survival benefit e.t.c.) All this claims are very well supported by evidence, so i don’t see how they can be rejected. And exactly these claims constitute “randomness”.
    Now, that doesn’t mean God can’t intervene. IF each mutation is ontologically open (for example based on real quantum indeterminacy), then God can create or change this mutation without breaking any natural law, this mutation can have wide consequences and, crucially, it will be indistinguishable for a scientist from a “random mutation”. Crude is right to point to Elliot Sober for this. That still means however, that if all what we know about evolution is true, the framework in which God can act is extremely tight. It creates some theological problems, that ask for explaining why God chooses to lay upon himself tight frameworks resulting from his own laws, but it’s not really a different problem, than explaining how God can work through history if modern historical science regards it as ateological or even no different, than the problem of explaining why suffering can hit good people of faith and evildoers can blossom. There are things to be explained, sure, but no contradiction with science included.

    May 13, 2013 — 8:09
  • Nathaniel:
    I worry that it’s rather more complicated than that. Biologists are trying to provide a stochastic explanation of certain features. Mere frequentist claims about lack of correlation and other statistical feature swon’t do that.
    Imagine a dishonest scaredy-cat casino owner. He knows that in the long run he is “statistically guaranteed” to make money off ordinary slot machines. But statistical guarantees aren’t good enough for him because he’s been reading some bad epistemology. So he rigs each slot machine to generate some particular sequence of results chosen by him in full detail. This particular sequence of results is exactly like a random sequence of results in terms of statistical features–it is chosen to have all the same frequency correlations, or lacks thereof–but is pregenerated and is not just statistically guaranteed to make money for him, but is causally guaranteed to make money for him.
    Now our dishonest scaredy-cat casino owner makes money just like a more ordinary casino owner would. But while the ordinary casino owner’s winnings have a correct stochastic explanation, the scaredy-cat’s winnings do not have a correct stochastic explanation–they just have an explanation in terms of rigging.
    The biologist is providing a stochastic explanation. Therefore, she essentially relies on more than just the facts about statistical correlations and frequencies in the explanation.
    “IF each mutation is ontologically open (for example based on real quantum indeterminacy), then God can create or change this mutation without breaking any natural law, this mutation can have wide consequences and, crucially, it will be indistinguishable for a scientist from a ‘random mutation’.”
    Sure. But the worry here is that even though it is empirically indistinguishable from a random mutation, it nonetheless is not a random mutation, and not being a random mutation, the scientist’s stochastic explanation, assuming randomness as it does, will be incorrect. It would be just like if God didn’t create any electrons, but miraculously produced all the effects that electrons would have. In such a case, the result would be “indistinguishable for a scientist”, but nonetheless our science would be mistaken.

    May 13, 2013 — 9:07
  • Dianelos:
    “I don’t think there is any ambiguity in what “random” means in the context of the Darwinian algorithm, as proved by how one simulates it in a computer.”
    Actually, one simulates it on a computer with a deterministic pseudo-random sequence, i.e., one generated by a formula whose successive results, while fully predictable from the formula, nonetheless have many of the statistical features of a genuinely random sequence.
    In the end, I probably agree with you on randomness, but the issues are rather complex and controversial.
    I discuss something like your repeated-run thought experiment here.
    On reflection, I do not know that the experiment is compatible with Darwinian evolution. It might undercut Darwinian explanations by trivializing them–i.e., even without natural selection, in this scenario, we will eventually generate everything.

    May 13, 2013 — 9:15
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Angra,
    To say that on theism everything is supernatural simply means that everything is as it is and is made to exist by the will of God.
    In general “supernatural” refers to spiritual order, or order caused by purposeful personal will. Whereas “natural” refers to mechanical order, or order instantiating purposeless/blind mathematical relations. Strictly speaking the natural and the supernatural are not mutually exclusive, in the sense that the natural can be caused supernaturally, but not the other way around.
    Now the idea that “magical realism” might be an effective literary device in sacred texts is as follows: Sacred texts are meant to make the reader realize the deeper spiritual or supernatural order behind everything, including the mechanical nature of the visible world. One way to achieve this is to fictionally bring out that spiritual order and make it visible on the surface. Place within a commonplace story “magical” events, in order to suggest the fact that whatever appears to be commonplace on the surface is also “magical”. (By “magical” I here mean transcending the commonplace/mechnanistic behavior of the things around us.) Now, as you say, magical realism is a literary device used in fiction, but this does not exclude its possible use in other types of writing, such as religious or sacred texts. One could even argue that magical realism is precisely what one finds in sacred texts when they speak of signs, prophesies, and miracles – but I don’t care to go down this path.
    By my claim that the writers of scripture believed in the literal truth of what they were writing while knowing that they were often making things up, I simply mean that they were good people who were not trying to deceive everybody, and that when, for example, they were writing down the long Jesus genealogies they were making things up probably believing that some supernatural force was guiding their hand. I happen to believe that this is not in fact so, and that scripture is a human work and thus amenable to error (both in its writing and in its reading). No matter how strongly its writers experienced God or how close to God they were. In any case the value of sacred texts does not lie in how literally true they are (in those parts where arguably literal claims are made), but in how well they orient the reader towards transcendental truth. The closest analogy to scripture is not history or science, but art.
    Having said that I happen to believe that the main events in the Gospels are historically true, and is much of Christ’s teaching recorded in it. What I find almost miraculous in the Gospels is how well the beauty and coherence of Christ’s message is presented, as well as how clearly Christ’s character is known when reading them – even though the texts were written and edited by several people, most of whom probably did not know Jesus personally.

    May 13, 2013 — 22:34
  • Angra Mainyu

    Dianelos,
    Thanks for the clarification on the ‘supernatural’ statement, and the use of ‘magical realism’.
    On that note, you suggest placing those so-called ‘magical’ events within a commonplace story. I would say that that’s magical realism as long a the story is intended as fiction, not if it’s meant to be taken as an actual story.
    Still, that is a terminological matter, not a substantive one as far as I can tell, so I won’t delve further on that point.
    On the question of the biblical authors, okay, I get your point. So, the writers of the biblical genealogies were in error about them. I have no objection to that. In fact – even if probably for different reasons -, I too believe that that’s the most probable scenario. On the other hand, I don’t know that they believed a ‘supernatural force’ (by that you mean ‘God’?) was guiding them; it may well be that they were just writing what others (sometimes people they trusted, sometimes multiple people who told about what others told them, etc.) told them.
    On the issue of the historicity of the events in the Gospels (especially those involving superhuman powers), as you know, my assessment of the truth of the events is very different from yours, but I think a discussion on that would take a very long time and thread, so I will leave it at that if you don’t mind (still, if you want to discuss the matter, let me know and I will get into details, even if in installments).

    May 14, 2013 — 1:21
  • Nathaniel Hagthorpe

    Alexander, on a side-note, i’ve forgotten to log in yesterday, so my yesterday’s response got lost somewhere in the approval process, could you please see if you can retrieve it?
    Meanwhile i’ve read your paper on the compatibility of special providence and evolutionary biology. If i understand it correctly, then you are saying, that reconciling evolutionary science and special providence is possible, as long as we deny that biology gives a scientist the right to declare an event “truly random”. So that biological science consists in applying that evidence about correlations and lacks thereof, about mutation frequency e.t.c. but statements about a mutation being truly random and excluding any supernatural agency would mean crossing the boundaries of science. Am i correct?
    If yes, i would agree with most of it, but i’m still not convinced God’s providence isn’t compatible with biologists giving probabilistic explanations. It’s the “either or” scenario, that seems somehow wrong. Special providence seems to me subtly different from the actions of the casino owner in your example. The casino owner is sidelining statistic rules, replacing them with something, which looks similar, but has no stochastic explanation whatsoever. Not sure same can be said about God, there is probably a way of speaking about him acting WITHIN the probabilistic boundaries. Two different intuitions lead me to it.
    1. Suppose a theological framework (i don’t endorse this view in this radicality), according to which we live in a reality where EVERY random event is nothing else, than God choosing between two options. He choses to follow certain self-imposed rules (that are mirrored in the laws of nature we observe), when deciding on each random event . What a biologist (or statistician in the case of the slotting machine) does then, is just observing the rules under which God acts. Then the statisticians formula (and let’s suppose, contra what we know from our world, that the results of the slotting machine are truly indeterministic), that predicts, for example, a 2% chance of a winning combination, would be correct, because it describes God choosing 2% of streaks to be winning ones. Now, suppose a very unhappy girl comes to the slotting machine, and God’s plan for her salvation includes letting her win. It seems that he can realize that without problem. The winning combination of the slot machine just has to fall under this 2% predicted by statistics (and obey other factors of course). He will have to let the machine show a loosing combination in 98% of other situations, sure, but he still got his special providence realized. That implies to me, that a situation is possible in which it is both true, that a winning streak has a correct probabilistic explanation and God still can be said of making use of his special providence in realizing this particular winning streak. It could be said, that in such a world there are no truly random events, i grant that, but there are still perfectly valid probabilistic explanations. I don’t think that in the real world God determines every random event, but it can be seen maybe as a divine privilege, of which he makes use occasionaly, but besides that lets nature, on His behalf, run it’s course. That would still mean he is not sidelining probabilistic explanations when he intervenes.
    2. The second intuition stems from my (very limited) knowledge of quantum mechanics. Of course probabilistic explanations there are an important part of the theory. Most physicists, when working with probabilistic formulae, will probably presuppose, that single quantum events are indeed truly probabilistic (which is the majority view in the field), while at the same time acknowledging, that some kind of Bohmean determinism could still be behind the quantum processes. I think they will not see Bohmean determinism as INCPOMPATIBLE with their probabilistic explanations. They will probably have no reasons to endorse it, sure, and if it’s true, it will mean, that there are no true random events, but that would be probably an additional fact to the probabilistic explanations of the scientists. The probabilistic explanations would still be valid. If am i correct, that’s exactly what could apply to God’s special providence. It would offer an additional fact to the probabilistic explanation, not cancelling it out.

    May 14, 2013 — 12:37
  • Nathaniel:
    The comment doesn’t seem to be there.
    Determinism and stochastic explanation might be compatible, but intentional rigging and stochastic explanation don’t seem to be. It might be that when you toss a coin, how it lands is a deterministic function of the initial spin and velocity, wind speed, etc. Nonetheless, when you’re not aiming at a particular spin or velocity, you can give stochastic explanations of why, say, about half of the tosses are heads. But suppose you have great precision in your tosses, so that you can get exactly the results you want, and what you want is to ensure that about half of the tosses are heads. At this point, the stochastic explanation is no longer correct.
    Now, the case of God may not be like this sort of rigging. But I am using this rigging to point out that the issue is with intention, not so much with determinism or lack thereof.
    You may want to read the paper I criticize in the paper you read.

    May 14, 2013 — 13:15
  • Nathaniel Hagthorpe

    Alexander, you helped me a lot in clarifying my thinking on the issue, great thanks! I think i begin to understand. One last point, however: how dooes a radioactive atom, that decays at a precise timepoint because of God’s will differ from an atom, that decays because of a hidden Bohmean deterministic variable with regard to it’s relation to the physicist’s probabilistic explanation? Does the fact, that case 1 also entails intentionality, really make a difference? For me, even after considering your coin-toss example, both atoms decaying seem to fit pretty equal into a mainstream probabilistic theory, bringing a deeper layer to it, sure, but i still don’t see how they contradict it or how one contradict it and the other not. Could you elaborate on this please?

    May 14, 2013 — 18:59
  • Well, I’m not completely sure the Bohmian stuff allows for probabilistic explanations, but I am allowing that for the sake of argument. The more I think about it, the more I think any probabilistic explanations involving Bohmian stuff will depend on the principle of indifference, and the principle of indifference is very dubious (there are many traditional arguments; here’s one that’s less discussed).
    Anyway, let’s grant that the Bohmian stuff works.
    Suppose there is only ever one atom decaying. Then in the theistic intentional case, God simply chooses the time at which the atom decays. In what sense can we say that the atom had, say, probability 1/2 of decaying within the next hour, if God simply chose to make it decay after 12 minutes? After all, can we assign probabilities or chances to divine decisions? Does God play dice with his will?
    But in the non-intentional Bohmian single-atom case, we can still try to assign a probability using something like a principle of indifference. (Yeah, problem. But we can try!)
    In the case of God’s choosing when to make the atom decay, there is no indifference, except at best epistemically. And epistemic indifference won’t be explanatory, but at most predictive.
    What I said about a single-atom case generalizes, I think. A choice of a single decay time is in fact probabilistically isomorphic to a choice of a sequence of a billion decay times (or any other finite number).
    (Here’s an easy proof of the last fact, for simplicity in the case of uniform distribution instead of exponential distribution. A choice of a single uniformly distributed number between 0 and 1 is probabilistically isomorphic to a choice of, say, 100 independent such numbers. Think of a single number between 0 and 1 as a sequence of digits, 0.(d1)(d2)(d3)…. Then given a uniformly distributed choice of such a number, we can generate, say, 100 uniformly distributed numbers. For instance, the first such number is 0.(d1)(d101)(d201)(d301)…, the second is 0.(d2)(d102)(d202)(d302)…, the third is 0.(d3)(d103)(d203)(d303)….)

    May 14, 2013 — 23:18
  • Nathaniel: I give a bit more detail of the sequence argument here.

    May 15, 2013 — 9:20
  • Nathaniel Hagthorpe

    Of course i fully agree, that a a number chosen by God isn’t genuinely random, and the sequence of divine choices doesn’t embody randomness either. The question for me is, if it follows from that, that probabilistic explanations are incorrect. Basically, the problem is not if special providence contradists philosophical assumptions of science, but it would worry me greatly if it would contradict the practices of science, of which probabilistic explanation seem to be an integral part.
    “In what sense can we say that the atom had, say, probability 1/2 of decaying within the next hour, if God simply chose to make it decay after 12 minutes? After all, can we assign probabilities or chances to divine decisions? Does God play dice with his will?”
    That would bring us back to the first intuition in my second post. God doesn’t play dice with his will, but we could say, that all probabilistic explanations are approximations to the habits of his will, in the same ways as natural law is often understood by neothomistic thought. An explanation of an atom having a 50% chance of decaying in the next hour would be still a correct explanation. It would just mean, that God decides to decay 50% of atoms in the first hour after them becoming radioactive, given all other factors. A single atom would have the possibility to decay at any point in time, of course, thus maybe affecting a special providential goal, but it still would fall under the physical explanation, because even after being fixed by God it is part of God’s general habit of decaying atoms exactly as described by the probabilistic explanations. It seems to me to boil down to if we accept that A. “Atoms have a chance of 50% decaying in the first hour” and B. “Atoms decay in 50% of cases in the first hour” as substantially different in their explanatory power. If they are different, we can say that God’s activity is incompatible with A, but should hang on A over B for the physicist (similar to the idea in your paper, if i got it right). However if we see A and B as basically interchangeable in scientific practice, we can grant the physicist A, while contending, that when speaking theologically, we always have the right convert all A to B. This still seems to me different from the coin toss example (there we have different physical explanations and very different physical processes playing out, here we have the same explanation, just with a difference in assumption, that, as i still think, should not be part of the explanation). But feel free to stop me if you think we are moving in circles.

    May 15, 2013 — 11:42
  • Yes, I agree that if the probabilities that science yields do in fact give measures of God’s tendencies to act a certain way, then this Thomistic story might well work. But I am very hesitant to make claims like: “God has probability 0.8827882 of doing such-and-such.” I don’t know if probabilities apply to human free actions, much less divine ones.

    May 15, 2013 — 11:57
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Alex,
    “Actually, one simulates it on a computer with a deterministic pseudo-random sequence”
    The Darwinian algorithm, as all stochastic algorithms, entails a random source. When one implements the Darwinian algorithm in a computer one doesn’t normally have access to a random source, and therefore uses a good pseudo random number generator instead. Nevertheless this decreases the effectiveness of the algorithm, and if one uses a sufficiently bad pseudo-RNG then demonstrably so. The reason is that anything but true randomness increases the probability that particular evolutionary niches will not be reached. In short, failing to use a true RNG diminishes the intelligence of the algorithm.
    “the worry here is that even though it is empirically indistinguishable from a random mutation, it nonetheless is not a random mutation, and not being a random mutation, the scientist’s stochastic explanation, assuming randomness as it does, will be incorrect.”
    The above only makes sense if one believes that scientific realism is true. Science discovers stable mathematical patterns present in physical phenomena, which sometimes are described as physical models. But even scientific models of phenomena are just models. It’s only the scientific realist who believes they also describe the physical reality that produces them.
    To illustrate this let’s use as an example the set of gravitational phenomena. Newton’s model describes them pretty well, but Einstein’s general relativity turns out to be a better model, i.e. more precise and more generally applicable. But general relativity does not disprove Newtonian mechanics; it just represents a better model. It is only on scientific realism that it makes sense to say that Newton was proved wrong. Two different models of reality cannot both be true, but two different models of phenomena can be, since the respective patterns can coexist.
    The theory of natural evolution is a model which successfully describes biological phenomena. It is based on the Darwinian algorithm and thus entails random mutations. Unless one is a scientific realist, this fact does not at all bother the theist. For if an unguided evolutionary process can produce the phenomena we observe, so of course can a guided one – as long as this guidance remains consistent with the empirical observations on which natural evolution is based. The right way to think about this is not that God here and there miraculously produces a mutation to keep evolution on the right track while taking care to hide that meddling from the scientist’s inspecting eyes, but rather that God’s special providence is as intrinsic a part of reality as general providence is. Here is the description of a metaphysics that is consistent both with modern physical science and classical theism:
    Consider the ideal physical science (or “science” for short) as the complete description of phenomena (“complete” in the sense of completely satisfying as an explanation). Today we know beyond reasonable doubt that science includes quantum mechanics and natural evolution, or at least something very close to them. According to science then the state of the universe evolves according to an indeterministic formula, and that given the appropriate environmental conditions complex biological life evolves.
    As the mechanical evolution of the universe is indeterministic, given the universe’s initial state there is a large number of histories of world states (or “worlds” for short) that could have evolved. Some of these worlds are such that they would falsify science even though science is the right description of the mechanism that produced them. To see this consider the much simpler indeterministic mechanism FC of tossing a fair coin a thousand times. A possible world what would be produced by FC would consist of a thousand heads. But were such a world to be observed one would conclude that FC is false even though it is true. Similarly science allows for the evolution of worlds full of magical-like observations, such as miracles, immortal people (see “quantum suicide”), worlds where people have biological features natural evolution cannot plausible explain, etc. Let us define the naturalistic property (or N property) as the property of a world in which the analysis of all phenomena by an ideal scientist will *not* falsify science. (By “ideal scientist” I mean a scientist having unlimited access to current phenomena as well as to computational resources.) Thus all worlds in which it is reasonable to believe that science is true has the N property. Worlds lacking the N property are such that one reasonably believes that science is false even though it is true.
    Further let’s define the property G as the property in which God’s special providence according to the understanding of classical theism obtains. G includes the evolution of humankind in the biological form and cognitive capabilities it now has. It includes the general history of Israel. On Christianity it includes the mission of Jesus of Nazareth in ancient Judea, as well as the writing of the Gospels in a form at least functionally similar to the one we now have. It may include much more, as, for example, the shape of the coastline of the Mediterranean. Or our brain’s reaction (which we call “experience of beauty”) when we behold the sea. (Here I do not discuss miracles which are normally considered part of God’s special providence, since the matter is irrelevant in the current context.)
    Trivially, since the G property only describes true features of our world, our world has the G property. And we assume that QM is true, which means that our world also has the N property. So how does God make to pass that the actual world have both the N and the G properties? Here’s one way: From the beginning of time God beholds all possible worlds. Within them there is a subset of worlds (or more precisely of “world state histories”) that have both the N and G properties. We know that this subset has at least one member, namely our world. But in fact this subset includes a huge number of possible worlds (which one might properly call “metaphysically possible worlds”). At each point in time God randomly picks one state out of all possible world states with have the N and G properties, and actualizes it into reality. Incidentally God’s special providence need not be fixed, but can itself evolve through God’s interaction with creation. God’s special providence is the deliverance of God’s free will within creation.
    The above metaphysical theory and easily be extended to also include human free will. Define the H property as the property of a world in which human free will, within the constrains of N and G, is actualized. For example right now I am typing these worlds on my computer and thus willing the physical state of my computer to represent them. Since the state of the computer I am freely willing is not one that contradicts either science or God’s special providence, God actualizes it into reality. In other worlds God implements human free will by randomly picking one state our of all possible world states which have the N, G, and H properties.
    In conclusion, physical law and the world’s initial physical conditions are such that a world is possible where the N, G, and H properties are always actualized. We know this is true since they are actualized in our world. Since God wanted to actualize a world with N, G, and H – God at original creation simply chose the appropriate physical law and initial conditions that make this possible.
    The above is a dualistic metaphysics which is not subject to the traditional philosophical problems dualism suffered from. It is remarkable that modern physical science should have the form that would solve so many of theism’s traditional intellectual problems. Incidentally, by having God randomly pick the actual state of the universe (among all possible states possessing the N, G, and H properties), the above metaphysics also simplifies the solution of the problem of evil, since natural evils are rendered random and thus do not require an individual justification.

    May 16, 2013 — 22:36
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