Friday, July 29, 2005

The Alpha and the Omega (The Bible and God)

There are a few things that need to be said in an overview sort of fashion before I dive in.

The mantra of the student of the Bible is "context, context, context..." It's always important to remember to look at the context before criticising any Bible passage. One of the most important contexts is the somewhat obvious and overlooked fact that what you are reading is part of a book that's about "God", and all that entails.

I've heard it said many times that if you can believe Genesis 1:1, the rest is easy. Indeed, one of the most important things to remember about just about anything you read in the Bible is that this is the story of a being supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, and completely good. The question should rarely be, "How could that have happened?" but occasionally, one might be fair in asking, "Why would something else not have happened?" While I don't know that one can effectively second-guess God, I don't think it's wrong to intellectually question things that God does. That's straying from my main point a bit, but it's important because I don't want to fall into the pattern of "God said it, I believe it, that's all there is to it." There is a level where a Christian has to just accept, but if you aren't a believer in the God of the Bible, this will be wholly unsatisfying; and even as a believer, one runs the risk of committing intellectual suicide, which opens the door for many things, most notably heresy.

Getting back on track to the point I wanted to make at the beginning though, there are more than a few moments in the Bible where something absolutely bizarre happens, and a casual unbelieving reader is likely to shake their head in disbelief. One of the biggest ones in the book of Genesis is actually the story of Noah, which I have had various skeptics point out to me as a story that's physically impossible on numerous levels. Frankly, I think Bible believers largely miss the absurdity of the story, and envision it as a simplistic children's Sunday school tale, with a cute little boat having animals standing two by two on the deck with smiling faces--and invariably giraffes with their heads stuck through a window towering over the rest. Well, that's unkind of me, but I do think many people simplify almost to that level, when truthfully the logistics are a nightmare. The thing for the skeptic to remember is that this story is one of the works of God.

The Bible reads a lot like science fiction in a way, especially to the non-believer. It's my view that in a good science fiction story, the reader is often presented with a specific item about which to suspend their disbelief, and after they've done that, the story should flow naturally. In the movie "The Terminator", the item is that a cyborg has been sent to the present from a nasty dystopian future. If you can buy that, the rest of the story makes sense and flows pretty well. In the case of the Bible, whether you believe it as true in real life or not, you have to accept that this is a story about "God", a being as described above. Once you accept (if only for the sake of following the story) that there is a "God", the rest should make sense. Thus when we come to Noah, the answer to most of the problems comes down to, "God did it." Maybe you don't buy that God exists, but you need to accept it as a major part of the context of the story for it all to make sense.


marauder said...

Interesting comments about Noah and the Flood, but I've noticed in the past that many of the problems skeptics have with that particular story are self-generated and not inherent in the text.

As you note in a separate post, it's incredibly ethnocentric to insist that a taxonomy that doesn't match ours is scientifically flawed and without merit. Yet this is what many people seem to do when they discuss the account of Noah's flood; i.e., they assume that two of every kind of animals, as defined by our taxonomical heirarchy, were present on the Ark, and that Noah gathered them up.

Not so; first, the text indicates that two of every animal came to Noah, except for the sacrificial animals, which he was told to gather (the verbs are very different). Additionally, we assume that two of every animal means two tigers, two lions, two cheetahs, two leopards, two ocelots, two jaguars, two pumas ... when all these animals can be interbred and produce viable, fertile offspring. Our own modern taxonomy in this case is based partly on geography rather than on a by-the-book definition of species. When you consider the number of interbreedable species, discount the aquatic species that would have been better off outside an ark, and remind yourself that a Noah or an Utnapishtim would not have had to worry about microscopic, parisitic or plant and fungi species, the unmanageability of the job is quickly reduced. Once the ark lands and life begins to disperse, speciation sets in as descendants of the Cats adjust behaviorally to their new haunts, and also shed undesirable physical characteristics through the thoroughly demonstrable process of natural selection.

Interestingly, analysis of human DNA samples from around the world has shown that there is only a very slight variation in our DNA, much less than scientists had expected, given evolutionary data and models. One of the scientists studying the samples came to the conclusion that our hunter/gatherer ancestors reached a point of near-extinction; i.e., the human race came within a hairsbreadth of dying out at one point in the past, although the survivors evidently have proved prolific enough to spread out across virtually every terrain imaginable.

All this of course means nothing to the skeptic wishing to disbelieve the Bible's claims of divine inspiration; and to be sure, the lengths many Christians have gone to to find scientific justifications for their faith have been absurd in many instances.

In the end, I choose to believe in the origins that I do because they fit my paradigm better than the alternatives, but anyone who chooses to insist on the early chapters of Genesis as a history textbook is surely missing the point. Rather than a blow-by-blow account of the technique, methodology and sequence of God's creation, the early chapters of Genesis are an account of God's majesty, man's culpability in sin, the grief our sin has caused for God, and his earnest desire to restore creation to its pre-Fall state, with as many of us with him who will come.

And now I think I'll steal these comments of mine for my own blog.

Brucker said...

Thief. ; )

When I get to Noah, I'll talk a bit about how speciation is only one of many problems. The acquatic species problem is itself more complicated than you think, as, taking the story at face value, you'll find that really the ark was the *only* inhabitable place in the whole world for a brief period of time.

Thanks for commenting, though; I was wondering if anyone ever would.

marauder said...

I'm not sure about that; the Bible records that the fountains of the deep broke forth (presumably some sort of seismic activity, if we want to pursue a somewhat literalist meaning), but verses 20-22, while they're quite emphatic about the death toll, make no reference to the creatures that live under the sea.

But as you say, we can dicker about that when the time comes.

Na said...

Hybrids are generally sterile, and the reason for the drop in human numbers was the eruption of Toba 74,000 years ago sending the world into a 6~10 year volcanic winter.

Na said...

So you're saying use those characteristics of god (the paradox ladened "all powerful", and a definition of "all good" that uses god himself as the sole reference point for what goodness is) to judge his actions in the book, and not his actions in the book to judge him using a more human orientated morality. If you do that, he does nothing that is impossible and nothing that cannot be thought of as good - even if threatening his followers to make them kill men, women and children and punishing those that don't might not seem good, if you accept that goodness isn't related to human well-being, but instead to whatever god does, says and is, then it is good, because god did it.

"Everybody knows that the dice are loaded" Leonard Cohen

Brucker said...

You're right about omnipotence being "paradox ladened". I've discussed it at length in other contexts, but in this blog I tend to skip over deep theological questions in favor of examining the text at hand. Maybe I needed to go deeper here. (I did address it briefly in this post, and on my other blog, I discussed the nature of God's morality. Unfortunately, my best examination of the nature of God's omnipotence was on another website that no longer exists.)

I don't want to set ground rules for examining the Bible that lead to intellectual suicide. If I approach the Bible as described--God having no limits or standard for morality--then what's to discuss? Take the whole Bible and say, "God did it BECAUSE, and He is good BECAUSE. The end." That's not just logically void, it's boring. So I'll try to clarify some things.

God is omnipotent, but as you imply, that word's loaded. Saying God can do anything whatsoever, leads to silliness like, "Can God make a rock so big He can't lift it?" and less-obvious silliness like, "Why doesn't God make everything bad go away?" The first question highlights the logical problem, and the second, the difficulty of generating a meaningful theodicy.

So when I say that God is "omnipotent" lately I've qualified the meaning to remove it from these issues. Since some disagree, I use the term "quasiomnipotent" to make the distinction that God, in being quasiomnipotent, is limited by--at the very least--logic. God doesn't have to make rocks He can't lift, but on a more practical level, God is required to not do two actions that are mutually exclusive. The latter distinction brings a number of Biblical verses into question immediately, but that's good.

If I had time, ability, and inclination, I'd love to examine implications of quasiomnipotence. God being subject to logic is almost obvious; less obvious is what it implies elsewhere. For instance, I strongly suspect God cannot subvert mathematics, which is close to logic. There may be implications in other areas, even morality, which was your other issue.

While there are some who believe that whatever God does is moral by definition, I think this is another over-simplification. There may be some slight logical merit to the idea that God, in being God, gets to define morality as arbitrarily as He wants, but like skeptics, I don't like what this implies. In discussions of sin and free will, it's often said that an action cannot truly be "good" without a "bad" alternative. If we say that for humans, why not God? God may never do evil, but it seems silly to discuss the "goodness" of God if it's not at least conceptually possible.

As I addressed in the second link, I'd say God has to deal with the same moral issues we do, but the way He deals with them can be different because of His higher level of authority and knowledge. It's like how police may exceed the speed limit when chasing a suspect, or parents tell children to go to bed at seven but they themselves stay up until midnight. (It often comes up whether God can be considered a murderer when technically, He caused the death of every single person who ever lived.)

The view I take is there are actions on God's part I can see the morality thereof, ones I cannot but can guess, and ones that stump me. Generally, in the third category I'd be willing to admit the possibility of God acting in an immoral manner, but honestly, I'm not likely to ever claim one of God's actions as definitively immoral, so there's that.

I hope I did more to clarify the issue than further confuse it. Either way, thanks for your comment, it was very insightful.

Na said...

Thanks for your impressive in depth response.

As I put at the end of your post about morality, the move from omnipotent to quasi-omnipotent only takes you from the most unlikely thing to the most unlikely thing that can exist, whatever that entails.

You can talk about the goodness of god without it being conceptually possible for him to do evil, if god is amoral, but you consider the course of his amorality to be the foundations of what you call good in your morality. Morality requires there to be a 'good' and 'bad' to be morality. If I happened to be so inclined I could watch an ant and write down what it does throughout its life. I could then say that the actions of that ant are the bases of what I will call 'good', and the further removed an action seems to be from the actions of that ant the more 'bad' that action is. The ant itself remains amoral, but it would be my 'good'. I think that is what god ends up being by some peoples definition, but they don't really think too much about it.

As I have said in your morality of god post this idea of accepting that what seems to be evil done by god to some people is actually good when looking at a bigger picture that only god knows has some nasty ramifications. But to add a little extra, it seems this idea means god only cares about the 'amount of goodness' in the end, whenever that is. Until then, whether he makes someone suffer or not is just a means to that end. That doesn't sound too pleasant either.

Brucker said...

Sure, metaphysically, there is a sense in which God is a highly unlikely being, but there is also a sense in which it is highly unlikely for the universe itself to exist. As many have asked, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" For a large portion of the people on earth, the preference is to believe that there is a higher being or higher purpose that provides a reason for the universe to exist. However, I'll admit that that in itself, even if it held any real weight (it's almost essentially argumentum ad populum after all) it doesn't automatically imply that this higher being is the God of the Bible.

I don't quite understand what you are saying about God and morality here. If you're saying that some people simply claim that God defines morality, and this has odd implications, I'd say you're right. I've heard people express this without realizing the circular reasoning at play: "Let us praise God because He is good!" Okay, but tell me, what do you mean by saying that God is good? "Well clearly God is good because in His very essence, He establishes the standard for what goodness is!" But wouldn't that be like saying you want people to praise me because I'm 6'4", and you know being 6'4" is a praiseworthy attribute because I am 6'4" and you know that I am praiseworthy? You're really just saying we should praise God for being God; doesn't that seem strange? (Sometimes people don't like to let me talk in group Bible studies.)

I think I see what you're saying about God's morality, and I'm not sure what to say in response. Actually, if anything, my response would be that I think you're underestimating the possible ramifications, since I don't believe God is a utilitarian. In what I am saying about God's long-term purposes, I am not trying to imply that God is in any way trying to make things "pleasant".

Na said...

I would say that the reason something exists as opposed to nothing is at most an unknown, as opposed to unlikely - though as a note of interest; taking that we apparently know matter and anti-matter particles are always spontaneously generating and canceling each other out, meaning that there is a net lose/gain of 0, Hawkings suggests that this is how the universe came into being; from this view, our something comes from nothingness taking a different state @_@
However, I guess you could still ask why nothingness isn't more stable. But why posit the most unlikely thing as an answer? Also, I don't understand the claim of the higher purpose, what do people think they are trying to achieve?

:D I liked the group Bible studies comment!

So being that you don't think that the nature of god defines what good is and you don't think god is interested in the well being of everyone (as that would make him utilitarian), or well being in the future (as that would mean trying to make things "pleasant"), but you do think he's good; what exactly is goodness to you?

Brucker said...

Sometimes trying to work out whether something had significance after it happened (in this case, the universe coming into existence) has some strange implications to it. There's a sense in which the answer to "Why is there something instead of nothing?" is really, "If there were nothing, then you wouldn't be here to ask that question!"

While Hawking's suggestion may imply some level of plausibility, there's something about certain aspects of science that we simply can't know with certainty, and can't examine scientifically. The big bang is an excellent example of this: Because of certain things like background radiation, Doppler shifts of the light coming to us from other galaxies, etc., we can say it's quite likely that there *was* a big bang. However, as for what *caused* the big bang, we have nothing but essentially untestable hypotheses, since we can't do repeatable experiments in regards to creating the universe.

I'm not sure what you're asking about higher purpose. if you're asking what that higher purpose *is*, then I'd have to say that varies from person to person, and is largely shaped by their metaphysical beliefs. If you're asking why we need a higher purpose at all, I'd say it's because existentialism is in many ways quite horrifying to some people, even if they don't know what existentialism is.

Your last question's a really deep one, and I think I'd like to give it some thought rather than say the first thing that comes off the top of my head when I'm rather tired. So, I'll try and follow up later.

Na said...

I want to bring us back to the point I was originally responding to that took us to the present science chat. You equated the unlikeliness of god, to the unlikeliness of the universe. I was pointing out that this is not at all true. God, which is without anything but anecdotal evidence, is apparently granted anything (or by your standards anything within the limits of logic). This makes it by definition the most unlikely thing possible. The universe on the other hand is not up for debate, it exists, there is clear direct evidence for it. It's likelihood, I would say is at least at present unknowable. It could be highly likely, but even if the chances of the universe coming into existence were slim; relative to God (the most unlikely thing possible) the chances of the universe coming into existence would still be vast, because of it's limitations.

We both agree that evidence shows that the big bang was likely, but you go on to then talk about the difficulty of saying what caused it, which is fine and all, but then to turn around and posit the most unlikely thing possible as a likely cause just seems bizarre.

With the higher purpose thing, religious people claim that their religion gives them a higher purpose and meaning that is unattainable to those without religion. Higher suggests worthiness and a purpose presupposes a goal. What is the lofty outcome that can only be achieved through religion that they want to bring about. And if there are different ones, can you give me a few examples.

Brucker said...

I think I might get what you're saying about God being "the most unlikely thing possible." I'm not sure I agree, though. Certainly, there are a lot of philosophers/theologians that will drag out the "prime mover" argument, implying that if anything at all exists, there needs to be a supernatural being behind it. While I've never really bought this as an indisputable argument, it does hold some appeal to me nonetheless. When you try to posit what caused the big bang, "God" is a convenient answer, even if not convincing to everybody.

Whew, the "higher purpose thing" is a doozy, and I may not be qualified to give a thorough answer to it. First of all, I've said many times that I'm not one of those people who believes atheists can't have morality; this also goes for having a "worthy goal" in life. I think what most religious people feel is that there is something somehow more significant to pursuing the purposes of a higher being than simply making up their own purpose. In the case of Christianity, there are some New Testament verses that suggest all activities a person does that are not done for God will be worthless in the afterlife. It seems clear that an atheist isn't going to be doing things for God's glory; why would they?

That sort of why religion allows for a higher purpose, but "what is the lofty outcome"? There's a lot of difference of opinion on that and I'm honestly not sure what my own opinion is. Probably too tired again.

Na said...

I think my previous answers in this thread have dealt with the view I take of the prime mover argument.

I'm guessing this isn't right, but it seems that if the "higher purpose" is being taken from these New Testament verses, they are actually saying that the "higher" in "higher purpose" is nothing to do with worthiness, it's to do with your purpose being aimed at your existence in the higher plane after this, being nicer for you.

David Learn said...

Hybrids are generally sterile,

Generally, but not always. Tigons and ligers are fertile often enough that they can be further hybridized, producing creatures like li-ligers, and so on.

It's my recollection that sterility affects the male hybrids, not the females. Hybridization of this sort usually is confined to zoos and circuses and other artificial conditions, but there have been some cases where evidence of naturally occurring hybrids has popped up, such as a lion with tiger markings under its fur. I recall speculation that such hybridization may have been one of Nature's mechanisms for bolstering genetic diversity within species.

and the reason for the drop in human numbers was the eruption of Toba 74,000 years ago sending the world into a 6~10 year volcanic winter.

No argument here. I'm no creationist; I just understand the thinking behind the belief system.