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Ancient Science and Modern Ignorance

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Part of the modern Christian (at least the SDA) theology (and accepted attitude, what is a better word for this) is that when the Bible gets a piece of science correct, this must be because of divine inspiration owing to the unadvanced science of the day. Looking at the historical records however, it seems clear that this attitude owes much to the perception which was created in the 15th-18th centuries and especially during the “modern era” which saw old times and other peoples (“other” usually being anyone not European, and/or not Christian) as being undeveloped, and that the development of history had inevitably advanced from the savage, rude and undeveloped past into the developed present, leading on to an ever greater future.

Much has been discovered in the intervening period between the 19th century and now which suggests that history is not linear at all but that there have been significant technological developments in the past and even entire developed civilizations which we did not know about and which developed outside the Greek-European line of descent popularly imagined in many circles 200-300 years ago. Discoveries point to a much more diverse development and an interconnected world, with groups of people developing knowledge and technology only to die out or be forgotten, sometimes even transmitting this knowledge through contact, trade or conquest (theirs or others) and subsequently losing the knowledge themselves. Much has been developed then lost because it has not been transmitted to future generations (on this note, it follows that the greatest contributor to human progress is the storage and transmission of human knowledge).

Most likely key developments such as cities, the rudiments of science, of law, of religion and government, were developed dozens if not hundreds of times throughout history, only to be partially or fully lost. Our modern misconception is a fundamental mis-valuation of the developments of the past, a misconception not limited to just religiously-minded thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries. After all we must remember that their knowledge of the world was quite limited and they can be excused for some degree of pride in what they managed to accomplish; while on the other hand the rampant disrespect for native culture and disregard of evidence of previous development, usually regarded by them as little more then an intellectual novelty, is inexcusable. Colonizers and explorers performed an extraordinary balancing act, managing to see the advancement of native ways, for example their skills with plants or in tracking game, while ignoring the necessary level of culture and intelligence which this implied. Development has been destroyed by conquest, genocide or natural forces throughout history, leaving only fragmentary remains to history.

Uncomfortable though this may be for Christians and other religiously-minded folk (the Jews who maintain tradition over modern science, or Muslims who espouse the Quran’s infallibility because of the same type of mostly ambiguous science facts which Christians point to in the Bible), it lends weight to the argument that the Bible was more a product of its time then of divine inspiration. Knee-jerk liberalism from some in the Christian community who support the wholesale redaction of the Bible into “inspired” or “non-inspired” versions according to some definition of allowable events (just when is an event a miracle?), reasonableness (is Revelation a fundamental revelation of truth expressed in figurative language, or just a set of possibly deranged imaginings incorporating/creating Christian symbology and hopes of the time) or historical background (do you default to seeing scripture as inspired or not inspired? How do you call inspired a book while in the same breath saying it was heavily and fundamentally influenced by the times?) goes against the grain of the faith I was brought up within.

Guiding my whole perspective on this issue is the most fundamental principle which I have devised in my examination of truthfulness, that is the examination of religion, belief and faith, in fact all sectors of human thought which inspire or necessitate confidence, which must necessarily mean that I apply the same metric to science as well as religion. The fundamental question when examining any assertion is the question: “How likely is it that this developed through merely human means?” How likely is it that a scientific hypothesis is true as opposed to an alternative theory, if you apply this acid test of “Human Origin”. The higher the chance that the statement or belief is not human in origin, then the higher the chance that it reflects reality, since after all, even true theories created by humans must be true because they reflect the real world.

Going by this human-origin metric it seems almost obviously wrong to assume that when a nearly 2000-3000 year old book gets a piece of science correct, it is automatically the result of divine inspiration. I presume merely that if a human(s) or a process of human causation could have originated the science or the behavior which is attributed to divine causes, then the cause was probably not divine. This metric is independent of other metrics such as the philosophical question of whether a deity exists, whether causation always holds and so on. Remember that the Bible also seems to get science fundamentally wrong (Joshua’s commanding the sun to stand still is a case in point). There are somewhat arguable points (might the implied definition of the value of pi in Exodus be a simple misunderstanding of the measurements?) and many more cases of simple ambiguity where it is hard to figure out what is being said because the text doesn’t say very much. Ambiguity seems a requirement of religious books which can be taken as a good thing (enabling a nuanced understanding of religion, God’s will etc) or bad (why are there contradictory statements in a book meant to serve as the inspired guide to God’s own? Couldn’t he have made the thing look a little less like it was written by a bunch of people over thousands of years then pulled together after the fact?).

The inside view of religion created by that religion, the “meta-experience” of religion, of course helps to dispel these clouds at least in the mind of believers, especially those brought up from birth to believe. If my own experience tells me anything, this “inside view” makes it much harder to see the text in any sort of true outside perspective, especially if a person has a genuine religious experience related to the religion and stands to lose their community if they reject the text. People believe in the meta-religion and defend the core tenets of the group (denomination, faith) because they tie that group together and insulate it from the outside. Commonly held beliefs are a powerful social adhesive, and the best religions create a powerful meta-narrative (stories, symbols, rituals, community, traditions both person and corporate) which draws and holds people because it fills fundamental humans needs for community and meaning. Bolstering the community with shared thinking patterns, even ones which are manifestly strange or peculiar, may even serve to bind the group together, creating a sense of defensiveness among those who sense the disapproval of others and thus circle the wagons to protect themselves from the outsiders desecration of their special doctrines.

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Written by logand

March 28, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Posted in Philosophy, Thought

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