Sunday, March 31, 2019

Can a Scientist find common ground with a young-earth creationist?

This is a response to this post by Jimmy Weiss.  For more background, see this.

Let me start with the positive: I am grateful to Jimmy for taking the time to write his article.  I asked him to do it because we had been having a very cordial, constructive, and, at least for me, instructive discussion on Reddit and I wanted to be able to share that with a wider audience.

Second, one of the things that impressed me about Jimmy was his intellectual honesty.  In my experience, many Christians when confronted with some of the more odious parts of the Bible (particularly the Old Testament) become defensive, or even get offended.  Jimmy didn't.  He tackled all of my questions head-on without ever flinching.  Needless to say I was not much persuaded by his answers, but just the fact that he was willing and able to provide them at all impressed me.  I actually learned a lot.

Third, I think we really do have some common ground.  Jimmy is willing to take math and science pretty seriously, and I (I like to think) am willing to concede when my position is on less-than-rock-solid ground.  For example, I believe that life began through a process of abiogenesis despite the fact that science has not yet figured out how it happened, or even how it could have happened.  There's a lot of (plausible, at least to me) speculation about how it might have happened but no one has yet been able to convincingly fill in the details.  Nonetheless, I believe very strongly that science will eventually fill in the details, but at this point that is an article of faith.  Yes, science has a pretty good track record of filling in details (which is the basis of my faith) but as investment advisors perennially remind us: past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Unfortunately, that's kind of where my optimism ends with regards to Jimmy's article.  He starts out with his own speculation about our common ground:
I believe that Ron and I are agreed on all but one of these preconditions.  As I understand them, in order for us to be able to make any sense at all of the universe, we have to accept a few basic axioms.  The first is that the laws of logic are absolutely true.  These laws include: 
(A) The Law of Identity, which states that something is what it is, and whatever exists must have a specific nature. 
(B) The Law of Non-Contradiction, which states that something cannot be itself and not itself at the same time, in the same way, and in the same sense. 
(C) The Law of Excluded Middle, which states that a statement is either true or false, with no third option.
He doesn't say which of the three is the one I'm presumed not to agree with, but in fact I don't agree with any of those three.  I have a pretty nuanced view of ontology, so I don't accept the continuity of identity in general, and certainly not as an axiom.  (I have no idea how Jimmy got the idea that I would accept this.  I pointed him to the 31 Flavors article several times, and we never actually discussed this "law of identity".)

His formulation of the "law of non-contradiction" gets into the same muddy waters as continuity of identity. I certainly accept something that could be called a "law of non-contradiction", but I wouldn't characterize it the way he does in terms of "things being themselves".  I would simply say that if you find yourself having concluded that P is true and NOT P is also true, then you've done something wrong.

With regards to the law of the excluded middle, there are clearly statements for which this is not true, e.g. "Donald Trump is a scoundrel" or "Polar bears are beautiful." Even seemingly straightforward statements like "Socrates is a man" can be problematic. That statement was (probably) true at one time, but it isn't true any more because Socrates is dead.

So I'm going to just ignore all that and take my own stab at a starting point that I think (hope?) Jimmy (and everyone else) will agree with.

I hereby propose the following hypothesis (or perhaps I should say "I hold this truth to be self-evident"):
The most reliable information you can possibly have about reality is your own subjective experiences.
It seems self-evident to me because your own subjective experience is the only information that you actually have direct access to.  I dub this Ron's Law of Reality or RLR just so we can refer to it.  Note that by "subjective experience" I include things like the subjective experience of reading a book or having a conversation with someone or seeing someone perform a scientific experiment, or even performing one yourself.

I don't know if the RLR is actually self-evident, but just in case it isn't let me advance an argument for it: think about what it would be like to receive reliable information about reality that was not part of your subjective experience.  Somehow you would find yourself knowing something, but you would have no idea how you came to know it.  Not only that, but you would not even be aware that you possessed this knowledge, because that awareness itself would be part of your subjective experience.  That knowledge and the means by which it was acquired would have to somehow be completely hidden from your conscious self.

Now, there are some things that are kinda sorta like that.  For example, your heart beats whether or not you are aware of it, and so you might say that you "have information" about how to make your heart beat even though you are completely unaware of what that information is or how you got it.  I would say in that case that this information is not resident in "you", it is resident in your body, and your body is not you.  The you to which the RLR refers is the thought processes inside your brain, or, if you prefer, your soul.  (In that regard you (pun intended) could consider the RLR to be a tautology because I've simply defined "you" as "that which has subjective experiences.")

Assuming you're still with me on that, I think we can go a little further before we really start to diverge.  There are some aspects of subjective experience that are common to the vast majority of human beings.  For example, our subjective experience divides up into two regimes, which we call "being awake" and "dreaming".  "Being awake" is more coherent than "dreaming".  In both regimes we perceive the existence of other agents with which we interact, but the cast of characters across episodes of "being awake" tends to change more slowly than it does between episodes of "dreaming".  Furthermore, "being awake" is subject to more uniform laws and constraints than "dreaming".  When we are awake there is a lot of regularity and limitations: we can't fly unassisted.  The sun and planets move in predictable patterns.  And, moreover, everyone agrees on a vast range of these experiences while "being awake" whereas everyone's subjective experience while "dreaming" seems to diverge.  Different people have different dreams, but, at least to a certain extent, we all seem to have very similar subjective experiences while "being awake" (though even here there are divergences, such as the question of whether or not something tastes good).

All this is, I hope, uncontroversial, perhaps even to the point of tiresomely belaboring the obvious.  But bear with me, there is a reason for this, because what I am going to say next is going to be far less obvious.  The divergence between science and religion occurs, I believe, in what happens next: having lived for a while and accumulated some subjective experiences, a human being naturally comes to ask some Deep Questions.  In particular, I think there are two different Deep Questions that people naturally ask.  They are both perfectly good questions, but which one you choose to ask first has a profound impact on your thought processes from that point on.

The first Deep Question is: What are the laws that govern my subjective experiences? (And in particular, what are the laws that govern the regularities of Being Awake)?

The second Deep Question is: What is the purpose of my having subjective experiences in the first place?

My thesis is that the first question leads to science, the second to religion.

(N.B. I am using the word "purpose" here to refer to what philosophers call teleology.  To restate my thesis in more technical terms, the difference between science and religion is that religion accepts teleology as an axiom (or at least as a possibility worth putting considerable effort into pursuing) and science doesn't.  I'm sure this is not an original idea, but it doesn't seem to be very widely appreciated either.)

I am a Scientist (which I capitalize to distinguish it from being a lower-case scientist, who is someone who does science for a living.  An upper-case Scientist is someone who accepts science as a reliable process for learning about reality) so I choose (or perhaps chose in the dim and distant past) to ask the first question.  But there's nothing wrong with asking the second question instead.  It's a perfectly respectable question.  And if you choose to ask that instead it leads down a very different road.

For starters, in order to ask what the purpose of having subjective experience is you have to accept as an axiom that it is at least possible for there to be such a purpose, otherwise the question makes no sense.  Likewise, if you are going to ask the first question then you have to accept as an axiom that it is at least possible that there are laws that govern the regularities of subjective experience (at least those parts that have regularities).

If you start with the first question, then you discover that there are laws that govern a lot of our subjective experiences, at least the wakeful ones.  Moreover, these laws are at root quite simple and elegant and have very wide-ranging applicability.  The heavens are not, as the ancients once believed, fundamentally different from the earth.  The stars are made from the same stuff that we are and operate according to the same laws.  It all hangs together quite nicely, and by the time you learn enough of it you get to the point where if someone proposes something to you that doesn't fit the laws of physics you reject it out of hand because it just doesn't make sense at this point that some random thing should violate the laws of physics.

However...

If you start with the second question, and hence the presumption that it is at least possible for there to be a purpose to subjective experience, then Jimmy Weiss's arguments start to make a lot more sense.  That argument goes something like this (and Jimmy, please correct me if I get part of this badly wrong):

The subjective experiences we have while we are awake are very powerful evidence that there exists some kind of objective reality which we call the universe (on this religion and science mostly agree).  The natural next question to ask, if you're on the teleology track, is: what is the role of the universe in the purpose of our subjective experience (which is, keep in mind, what we are endeavoring to discover)?  And the natural answer is that the universe exists for the purpose of allowing us to exist so that we can have subjective experiences.  In other words, it was made for us.

(Or something like that.)

By the time both camps get around to asking Where did the universe come from? they have already diverged past the point of reconciliation.  Science gets you to the Big Bang, at which point it kind of throws up its hands (at least for now) and says, "We just don't know."  But more than that, science says, "It's OK that we don't know.  Not knowing is a perfectly normal state of affairs.  We'll figure it out some day.  In the meantime, don't worry about it."

But if you're on the teleology track, not knowing how the universe came about is not OK because it leaves a crucial question unanswered: if the universe was made for us, who (or what) made it?  A universe made for us but by nothing makes no sense.  Remember, we're assuming teleology (or at least the possibility) as an axiom here.  It might be possible that the universe was created by nothing, but that is (on the teleological view) the kind of extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence, and ignorance doesn't qualify.  We have to keep looking for the answer.  And, happily for us, there is an answer: the universe was made by an exceptionally powerful, potentially ineffable entity, i.e. a deity, who made it for us, and hence cares about us.

And it's all downhill from there.  (Note that I don't mean that to be pejorative, though I did mean it to be slightly humorous.  What I mean is that once you get this far, the remaining arguments are pretty straightforward by comparison.)

One of the things that atheists often ask about religious people, and particularly about YEC's is, "How can they possibly believe that crazy shit?"  Because some of the things that YECs believe make absolutely no sense whatsoever in light of modern scientific knowledge.  The difference in the age of the universe between the YEC view and the modern scientific view is six or seven orders of magnitude.  That's the equivalent of estimating the distance from Los Angeles to New York as a couple of millimeters.  It's simply ridiculous.

Well, the way they get to believe "this crazy shit" is (I claim) by starting with the teleological question and taking it very seriously.  For a scientist, an answer that is wildly at odds with the data makes no sense.  But for a YEC, an answer that denies the existence of purpose (or even merely throws in the towel) makes no sense.  So... the universe must have been created by a deity for us, and who therefore cares about us.  How do we make progress from there?  Well, it seems reasonable that if such a deity existed, it would have made arrangements (because it cares) for us to make further progress, and lo and behold there is this book that purports to be exactly that (that is, the means for making further progress).

On this view, the Bible is not mythology, it's the fulfillment of a prediction made by our theory!  And it provides a very satisfying answer to the teleological question: our purpose is to reconnect with  this deity that created us!  And, as a bonus, that reconnection will right all of the wrongs that have happened in this life, so not only do we get an answer to the Big Question, we also get an eternal and infinite reward!  What reasonable person could possibly argue with that?

And this is the reason I respect Jimmy Weiss.  He really takes this seriously.  If the Bible really is the Word of God, then it must be the case that the universe was created in six days, because that's what the Bible says.  I have a lot more respect for that than I do for self-identified Christians who cherry-pick the Bible.

It's no crazier on its face than accepting that we don't really exist, that objective reality is an illusion, because that's what Schroedinger's equation says.  It is in this regard, in our willingness to unflinchingly accept the logical consequences of our core beliefs even when they turn out to be deeply unintuitive, that I consider myself and Jimmy Weiss to be kindred spirits despite the fact that we end up in very different places at the end.

18 comments:

Don Geddis said...

"we have to accept a few basic axioms [...] (C) The Law of Excluded Middle, which states that a statement is either true or false, with no third option."

This one seems not only not to be an axiom ... Even worse, it's actually false.

There are lots and lots of famous statements which cannot reasonably be assigned either true or false. We can start with Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. But if you just want common sense versions, self-reference gets you there quickly: "This sentence is false." Or: "The set of all sets that do not contain themselves." Does that set contain itself? Or not?

Kind of tough when an argument starts with an "axiom" that is actually just false.

Ron said...

@Don:

> There are lots and lots of famous statements which cannot reasonably be assigned either true or false.

That's true (and I said as much in my post, and gave examples). But this:

> We can start with Godel's Incompleteness Theorem.

... is not one of them. Goedel's incompleteness theorem is unambiguously true. In fact, it can be proven to be true.

Did you mean to cite as your example the Goedel sentence G whose semantics are "This statement cannot be proven in formal system X?" Because that statement is also unambiguously true (if formal system X is consistent), it just can't be proven to be true in formal system X.

> Kind of tough when an argument starts with an "axiom" that is actually just false.

Yes, I totally agree. However, in light of the above, in this case it's a bit of the pot calling the kettle black, no?

I am disappointed that Jimmy's reboot ran off the rails right from the outset. The argument he presented in private was much more challenging to refute. That's why I presented my own paraphrase of it. There's no sport in refuting YEC on scientific grounds. The challenge is trying to understand how an otherwise reasonable-seeming person can come to believe it, or, perhaps a better way to phrase it, how someone who is willing to listen to counter-arguments and not just stick their fingers in their ears can *continue* to believe it.

Don Geddis said...

"and I said as much in my post, and gave examples"

Yes, I saw your examples. They were fine, but I thought were a bit more confusing than something as simple as "this sentence is false".

"Goedel's incompleteness theorem is unambiguously true. ... Goedel sentence G ... is also unambiguously true (if formal system X is consistent)"

Yes, yes yes. What I meant to be referring to, is the original claim that "a statement is either true or false". Godel's work showed the way to the realization that there will always be statements that cannot necessarily be labelled as "true" or "false". That was the analogy that I was trying to make. Godel defeated a hope among mathematicians, that there might someday be an automated procedure which might take any claim as input, and (eventually) correctly label the claim as "true" or "false". Because of Godel's work, we know that such a goal is actually impossible. There will always be statements, for any proposed system, that cannot be labelled with either option.

Notice, for example, even in your own claim just now: "the Goedel sentence G whose semantics are "This statement cannot be proven in formal system X?" Because that statement is also unambiguously true (if formal system X is consistent)" It sounds so promising! The statement G is "unambiguously true". How wonderful! Oh, wait. You needed to add another clause in parentheses. So, it actually turns out: statement G isn't quite so "unambiguously" true as you hoped. Labeling all such statements G as "true" is wrong. They are not all true.

Ron said...

> I thought were a bit more confusing than something as simple as "this sentence is false".

Perhaps. But I had a reason for choosing the examples I did. I also have a reason for not telling you what that reason is just yet. And I even have a reason for pointing out that I'm not telling you the reason I chose those examples, but I *am* going to tell you what *that* reason is: it's because I think you're stuck in a deep intellectual rut and I want to try to knock you out of that rut. All of the foregoing was to prime you for that, to try to change your mode of thinking, to try to get you to "jump out of the system" to borrow Doug Hofstadter's phrase. Keep all that in mind as you read the following.

> Yes, yes yes.

No. You're missing the point. You're focused on the trees and failing to see the forest.

But, as a totally separate matter, you're also getting the trees wrong. I'm going to beat you up for this because you (and it's not just you, it's most atheists) beat up on YECs for getting the trees wrong -- which they do, but is equally beside the point.

> Godel's work showed the way to the realization that there will always be statements that cannot necessarily be labelled as "true" or "false".

No. Goedel's work showed that not all mathematical truths can be formally proven. That is not at all the same thing.

(I'm not done, BTW.)

> You needed to add another clause in parentheses.

Yes, that's true, but...

> So, it actually turns out: statement G isn't quite so "unambiguously" true as you hoped.

No, that's not true. The reason I had to add the parenthetical is that if formal system X is not consistent, then the statement G is unambiguously false. But either way, its truth value is unambiguous.

> They are not all true.

That's true. Some of them are false. But none of them are ambiguous.

So that's it for the trees. Let me take another whack at showing you the forest.

The question I'm trying to ask is not: is YEC correct? Nor even: could YEC be correct? The answer to both of those questions is, obviously, an unambiguous: no.

The question I am asking (go back and look at this to refresh your memory) is: how does *anyone* sustain a belief in YEC in the face of overwhelming evidence that YEC is false?

Well, here are some possibilities:

1. They are ignorant of the evidence

2. They are idiots who don't think things through

3. They are lying about their beliefs

The interesting thing about Jimmy Weiss is that AFAICT he's a refutation of all three of these hypotheses. He's not ignorant, he's not an idiot, and I don't believe he's lying. So how does he do it?

The answer to that question is not going to have anything to do with Goedel's theorem or the liar paradox.

Jimmy Weiss said...

Hi Ron!

Still figuring out this platform. I decided to respond to your points in two different posts, in order to keep things self-contained by topic. Not sure if that will be the best way to do that. Let me know what you think!

https://legacyoflewis.blogspot.com/2019/04/responding-to-ron-garrets-distinction.html

https://legacyoflewis.blogspot.com/2019/04/responding-to-ron-garrets-challenges-to.html

Ron said...

@Jimmy:

That's entirely up to you.

At some point I think it would probably be a good idea to make a list of all the loose ends (or at least as many as we can) from our Reddit discussion and deal with them one at a time.

Don Geddis said...

"I had a reason for choosing the examples I did. I also have a reason for not telling you what that reason is just yet. And I even have a reason for pointing out that I'm not telling you the reason I chose those examples, but I *am* going to tell you what *that* reason is: it's because I think you're stuck in a deep intellectual rut"

And I resent your pompous attitude on display here. You haven't even named this supposed "deep intellectual rut" that I'm claimed to be stuck in -- much less shown that I'm actually stuck in it.

"Goedel's work showed that not all mathematical truths can be formally proven. That is not at all the same thing."

I think those are pretty darn similar, and that connection was the only thing I meant to allude to by my reference to Godel. The layman version of the Godel sentence is, "this statement cannot be proven by this formal system". The self-reference is the key. Which is the same key behind "this statement is false."

"I'm going to beat you up for this ... The reason I had to add the parenthetical is that if formal system X is not consistent, then the statement G is unambiguously false. But either way, its truth value is unambiguous."

Fair enough. If you think that distinction is critical, then I'm content to concede the point. I don't think we disagree on the math. I intended my reference more informally than you took it, but if you want more precision, that's fine.

"The question I am asking ... is: how does *anyone* sustain a belief in YEC in the face of overwhelming evidence that YEC is false?"

Yes, I know. You made that very clear in your posts. This is just not a question that I share your interest in.

(I consider it a pretty easy question to answer, a matter of simple human psychology. Most humans make decisions for emotional reasons, and use their powers of rationality primarily for rationalization, not for making decisions. People are intensely tribal. Most US voters reliably vote all Republican or all Democrat down the ticket, regardless of the candidate, regardless of the policy positions taken. The basic answer to "how" someone sustains such a belief is: cognitive dissonance. Just the same mechanism used in pretty much every other decision anyone makes. It's the rare person who is able to train themselves to approach decisions like a scientist, and be led by the data to unwanted conclusions, rather than searching for support for desired conclusions. It's the exception that needs the explanation, not the common case.)

"He's not ignorant, he's not an idiot, and I don't believe he's lying. So how does he do it?"

You may have found an individual who is very rare, and has a deep intellectual exploration and support of an otherwise untenable theory. You may be interested in the intellectual structure he built, to sustain his desired beliefs. I don't share your interest, and I don't think -- even if you understood his unique case better -- that it actually says much about the vast majority of other religious (or YEC) folks.

But feel free to explore things that interest you. I was only intending to make one minor comment on what I thought was a very flawed beginning to his whole argument.

Ron said...

@Don:

> I resent your pompous attitude on display here.

Sorry about that.

> You haven't even named this supposed "deep intellectual rut" that I'm claimed to be stuck in -- much less shown that I'm actually stuck in it.

Sorry about that too. I mistook this:

> This is just not a question that I share your interest in.

... for missing the point.

Publius said...

@Ron:
>We have to keep looking for the answer. And, happily for us, there is an answer: the universe was made by an exceptionally powerful, potentially ineffable entity, i.e. a deity, who made it for us, and hence cares about us.

Except: God of the Bible isn’t deduced from questioning, or investigations, logic, or natural laws.

God is a revealed god. He revealed Himself to Moses and Abram. The ultimate and complete revelation was in Jesus, his life, teaching, and ressurrection. There will be no further revelation, as after Jesus, there is nothing more to be said.

Ron said...

@Publus:

> God is a revealed god. He revealed Himself to Moses and Abram.

And Mohammed and Joseph Smith and Yitzhak Kaduri and Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

And, just the other day, to Chaim Kanievsky.

> There will be no further revelation

And, apparently. to you as well.

Publius said...

Well, apparently you agree that God is a revealed god.

Of course, you can't stay on topic as you have veer off into an atheist attack point against religion. Some things I guess are too tempting.

extra Ecclesiam nulla salus

Publius said...

He who as ears, let him hear

@Ron
>The question I am asking (go back and look at this to refresh your memory) is: how does *anyone* sustain a belief in YEC in the face of overwhelming evidence that YEC is false?

Well, here are some possibilities:

1. They are ignorant of the evidence

2. They are idiots who don't think things through

3. They are lying about their beliefs


They may have knowledge that you don't have. Knowledge that you can't get from reading a book. You have been told how to obtain this knowledge, but you refuse. Your pride stops you. You therefore suffer spiritual blindness.

1 Corinthians 2:14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 1:18-19 The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. As the Scriptures say, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.”

2 Corinthians 4:3-4 If the Good News we preach is hidden behind a veil, it is hidden only from people who are perishing. Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God.

John 12:39-40 This is why they could not believe: Isaiah also said, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not perceive with their eyes, and understand with their mind and turn, and I would heal them.”

2 Peter 3:3-4 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.

1 Corinthians 1:21 or since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

Matthew 13:15-16 For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them. “But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear.

John 8:11-12 “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.”

2 Corinthians 3:16 But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

Luke said...

Wouldn't it be worthwhile talking about where the law of the excluded middle is true? I got a big clue from Wikipedia:

>> The law of excluded middle is logically equivalent to the law of noncontradiction by De Morgan's laws. (WP: Law of excluded middle)

So under a properly restricted domain, that law seems just fine. The question is, how much of YEC-related conversation can take place within such a restricted domain? Not all use of language need take advantage of all features of language; even mathematics needs to be wary of this, as the Russell's paradox shows.

There seems to be an analogy here, between working with the simplest possible theory, and the simplest possible domain of language. Excess complexity can easily stymie clear thinking.


An example candidate for all of this is:

     (G) God exists.

Is there a non-excluded middle? This can of course depend on how you define 'God', but we use terms which aren't exhaustively defined all the time. Sometimes we find out that they didn't refer like we thought, other times we find out that further articulation makes it an even better match to reality. But with all the vagueness that is 'God' in (G), is there a non-excluded middle?

Luke said...

@Ron:

> It's no crazier on its face than accepting that we don't really exist, that objective reality is an illusion, because that's what Schroedinger's equation says.

(1) I'm a little confused by this, as I thought everyone at our first Dialogos meeting agreed that there was an "external world". Is that importantly different from "objective reality"?

(2) Are you saying that the reality described by Schroedinger's equation is more real than "your own subjective experiences"? Or is it that by taking "your own subjective experiences" to be the most reliable thing, that you are forced to accept the very particular understanding of reality you have come to?

Unknown said...

>I have a lot more respect for that than I do for self-identified Christians who cherry-pick the Bible.

I can see your respect for this. I respect it as well, but is cherry-picking bad if the "bad" stuff is left behind? Cherry picking is moving a away from the religion and just taking the good stuff. If we keep doing that, at some point we'll have nothing left, right?

I'm just thinking of my cherry-picking family members. I think they are living a happier, freer life because of leaving some crazy shit behind. :-)

Luke said...

@Unknown

> … is cherry-picking bad if the "bad" stuff is left behind?

Thomas Jefferson allegedly did this. He also wrote the following:

>>     Later Jefferson wrote even more extravagantly to William Short, his private secretary, about the execution of Louis XVI (“the expunging of that officer”). The logic of his words has rightly been described as closer to Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and Pol Pot than to Washington, Hamilton and Burke.
>>
>> >> The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it is now. (The Long Affair, 147)
>>
>> (A Free People's Suicide, KL 766–72)

We could also look at Germany, which pioneered liberal Christianity. It was the most Enlightened nation of the world. What did it end up doing the first half of the 20th century? I propose that eliminating the ""bad" stuff" in the Bible is a way for us to pretend there is no ""bad" stuff" within ourselves. That opens the door to systematic slaughter (or forced starvation) and scapegoating. Nietzsche's prediction of 100,000,000 deaths was correct.

> I'm just thinking of my cherry-picking family members. I think they are living a happier, freer life because of leaving some crazy shit behind. :-)

Sharp knives are sharp: they can be used for life-saving surgery or heinous torture and murder. Shall we dull all knives?

Ron said...

> … is cherry-picking bad if the "bad" stuff is left behind?

Obviously not, but here's the problem: how do you decide what the "bad" stuff is?

If you had a fool-proof way of distinguishing the good stuff from the bad stuff you could apply that standard not just to the Bible but to *everything*. You wouldn't need the Bible at all!

The whole *point* of the Bible is supposed to be that it's the inerrant Word of God. It is supposed to *be* the standard of what is good. That is why people defend it so vehemently.

Luke said...

@Ron:

Disclaimer: If the bit I quote below is restricted to a strict subset of [remotely orthodox] Christianity, then the rest of what I say is aimed only to the person who mistakenly thinks you are talking about all [remotely orthodox] Christianity.

> The whole *point* of the Bible is supposed to be that it's the inerrant Word of God. It is supposed to *be* the standard of what is good. That is why people defend it so vehemently.

In science, anomalies are highly valued as pointing us toward new discoveries. But when it comes to religion, anomalies (including exceptions to what you say right here) are … to be utterly ignored?

Any tool which helps pierce façades of hypocrisy and self-righteousness will also function to build better façades. Any tool which helps break down tribalism can be used to enhance tribalism. Understanding how the mechanism works lets you alter it in a plethora of directions, and/or alter perceptions of it. Now if you cherry-pick your evidence, you can show the tool doing 100% good things or 100% bad things. But what is the proper scientific attitude toward such cherry-picking?

To understand a phenomenon, one must be able to measure it with a tool which is sufficiently stable. If your ruler is randomly changing in length, you will be rather restricted in what you can measure and understand. I suggest seeing the Tanakh and NT as a tool which is "sufficiently stable". But it is a hermeneutic tool: by seeing how others interpret it, you learn much about them. What you learn is 100% predicated upon your own understanding, so it is a relative measurement. But relative measurements can get us quite far. I know there is a lot of Enlightenment prejudice that we are or could become distortion-free tools upon which reality imprints itself and we receive it perfectly; hopefully by now we know this is completely and utterly false. We are the tools with which we measure reality—defects and all.

It is actually the doctrine of original sin which permits me to fully relativize my own position and say that my own interpretation of the Tanakh and NT could be arbitrarily wrong. I do not stand upon the ground of absolute Right and Wrong; I have done my best to vomit up the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. No term or concept in Christianity or Judaism is immune from utter perversion, as can be seen by how 'temple of the LORD' was understood in Jeremiah's time (Jeremiah 7:1–15). Yoram Hazony, an orthodox Jew, has a fascinating discussion of that in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.