Monday, May 31, 2010

The Argonautica

According to the liberal Paul Seely:

"Ancient peoples were scientifically naive [in] that they did not distinguish between the appearance of the sky and their scientific concept of the sky. They had no reason to doubt what their eyes told them was true, namely, that the stars above them were fixed in a solid dome and that the sky literally touched the earth at the horizon. So, they equated appearance with reality and concluded that the sky must be a solid physical part of the universe just as much as the earth itself. "

http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/Ted_Hildebrandt/OTeSources/01-Genesis/Text/Articles-Books/Seely-Firmament-WTJ.pdf

A few comments:

1. I don’t question the fact that uninspired people living long ago probably had many inaccurate conceptions of the natural world. I’m just dealing with Seely’s overarching principle that the cosmography of the ancients was a transcription of appearances.

2. Take the Argonauts. Did Flaccus and Apollonius Rhodius write about the fantastic adventures of Jason and the Argonauts because the world appeared to have all these fabulous creatures? Likewise, did Ovid write the Metamorphosis based on appearances?

And what about Dante? He is writing from a prescientific perspective. Is Dante’s detailed cosmography of heaven, hell, and purgatory based on appearances? Is this what the afterlife looked like to an earthbound observer? I don’t think so. Rather, this is a literary and theological construct.

3. Even if, for the sake of argument, primitive peoples do judge by appearances, would that give rise to a transcultural cosmography? But don’t appearances vary from one place to another? Doesn’t the world present a different appearance depending on whether you live in the Arctic circle or the equator, Nebraska or the Andes, a tropical forest or a river valley, the East coast or the West coast?

4. Are appearances consistent with a flat-earth cosmography? What do we actually see as earthbound observers? Of course, if we live in tropical rainforest, we see very little. But suppose we have a more panoramic view.

a) We see the sun, moon, and stars appear to move across the sky. We also see that they always move in the same direction: clockwise, from east to west. (For now I’m omitting retrograde motion, which puzzled the ancients.)

Yet if the earth were flat, and the sun touched down because it literally came to the end of the world, then why would we see it rise in the east the morning after?

Why wouldn’t the sun reverse course? Alternate between clockwise and counterclockwise motion?

For the sun to “set” in the west,” but “rise” in the east suggests, does it not, that the sun went full circle? That it went “around” the earth?

b) Indeed, if during the daytime, the sun is moving in a semicircular path (the “dome of heaven”), and the sun rises each day in the same place, then that suggests a circular pathway. But if the earth is flat, then why is that necessary–or even expected? What is under the earth that the sun can pass through? Empty space? Does this mean the earth is floating in empty space?

c) Observers would also notice that the return time is about the same. Day and night are roughly the same duration.

To be sure, that varies. But the variations even out over the course of a year. When the days are long, the nights are short; when the nights are long, the days are short.

Yet if the return trip takes about the same amount of time, doesn’t this also suggest that the sun is moving in circles? But why would it go around and around unless the earth itself was round?

If the earth is spherical, then that’s why the sun would seem to move in the same concentric line.

d) At most, then, appearances would suggest a geocentric setting, but not a flat-earth cosmography.

e) In addition, primitive people were acquainted with relative motion, such as passing ships. So appearances could be consistent with more than one frame of reference.

13 comments:

  1. "Why wouldn’t the sun reverse course? Alternate between clockwise and counterclockwise motion?"

    Um, because they can clearly tell it doesn't do that? When I read Ecclesiastes 1:5, I get the impression that the author believes the Sun takes a shortcut under the earth rather than a full circle on the other side. What else does "hurries" mean?

    ReplyDelete
  2. WAR_ON_ERROR SAID:

    "Um, because they can clearly tell it doesn't do that?"

    Well, that completely misses the point–which is ironic when you impugn Bible writers for failing to think through the logistics.

    The question at issue is whether the circular trajectory of the sun naturally follows from a flat-earth cosmography. It isn't a question of solar motion in isolation, but solar motion in relation to the overall cosmography. Under the assumption of a flat-earth cosmography, why would the sun circle the earth rather than alternate between the eastern and western "ends" of the earth?

    "When I read Ecclesiastes 1:5, I get the impression that the author believes the Sun takes a shortcut under the earth rather than a full circle on the other side."

    If it's a "shortcut," then why are nights about as long or longer (depending on the season) than days? Do you think ancient observers were oblivious to the relative duration of day and night?

    "What else does 'hurries' mean?"

    Well, it would facilitate comprehension if you bothered to do some rudimentary research on that verse. As one commentator explains:

    "The verb translated 'hurries' means 'to pant.' The sun is like a runner endlessly making his way around a racetrack," G. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 285.

    So Solomon is using an athletic metaphor.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Alright dude.

    A: Whether or not I happen to get everything right all the time does not change the fact that we can't expect the majority of people to think things through all the time. There's just no connection there.

    B: You do seem to have a point about the equal length of time the sun is not visible, but I don't think you have much of a point about which path the sun takes that's inherently more compatible with flat-earthism. If the sun waited near the edge of the planet and ping ponged back and forth in the sky, it couldn't get genuinely dark, now could it? Heck, maybe the most compatible idea would be the sun not moving at all, and God turning the light switch off for a few hours so it doesn't get too hot. And if we are playing the "who is missing the point game" (which is silly), if the ancients are forming beliefs often based on appearances (which just isn't an extraordinary claim), then the issue is entirely moot, since the sun just does what it does and we'd expect that to have more weight than contrived "supposed to thinks".

    C: Obviously it can be a difficult task to think the thoughts of ancient people after them, and I'm not being dogmatic one way or the other. If they get things right, they get things right. But if they don't, I'm not just going to assume they always know what they are talking about. Where and when should we give them some credit? And when shouldn't we? There's no a priori telling where their concepts may start and stop in coherency. We just have to be careful and provisional with our claims since better interpretations that may give them more or less credit, but explain things better, do come along.

    D. Why does it seem like the athletic metaphor isn't being applied to the sun during the day? Maybe there's some nuance I'm missing there in Hebrew that enables the terminology to apply to the entire circuit, but it definitely doesn't show up in any of the English translations at all:

    http://bible.cc/ecclesiastes/1-5.htm

    ReplyDelete
  4. New thought:

    I was looking over the commentaries and it seems like there is a hidden assumption that the sun is actually having trouble climbing up from the earth's gravity well?

    Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary "Panting" as the Hebrew for "hasteth"; metaphor, from a runner (Ps 19:5, "a strong man") in a "race." It applies rather to the rising sun, which seems laboriously to mount up to the meridian, than to the setting sun; the accents too favor Maurer, "And (that too, returning) to his place, where panting he riseth."

    I knew there was something weird going on there.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Steve, if I understand it correctly, Gordon Clark was also a scientific anti-realist in his philosophy of science like you are. Would you have any special remarks or concerns about his view which has been termed "operationalism"?

    http://bible.org/seriespage/reformed-apologetics-christianity-conflict

    ReplyDelete
  6. WAR_ON_ERROR,

    I don't know why you keep putting so much emphasis on "thinking things through". Now you even refer to "the majority of people thinking things through all the time".

    As I mentioned in an earlier thread, a Biblical inerrantist would have alternatives to what you're suggesting. A Biblical author could be agnostic on a subject. He's not wrong about the issue, but he hasn't "thought it through" either. The use of the language of appearances isn't equivalent to a claim to have knowledge of an objective cosmology like what we would find in a modern scientific account. We don't assume that a poet who uses the language of appearance intends to deny a scientist's explanation of the same phenomenon.

    And, as I pointed out earlier, we wouldn't need a majority of people to "think things through all the time" in order for a correct view on some issues to gain a significant amount of acceptance, even acceptance by a majority. I cited the example of Pliny's reference to widespread knowledge that the earth is spherical in the first century A.D. Should we conclude that, therefore, "the majority of people were thinking things through all the time"? No, as I said in the previous thread, it probably was a matter of a smaller number of people influencing a larger number. The same occurs today. Many conclusions reached by scientists are popularized among people who know little about science.

    Your argument does have some value, as I said before, and some passages of scripture do lean in the direction of your conclusion. But even if we were to ignore some of the other factors involved, which Steve and I discussed in the other thread, the Biblical passages taken by themselves seem to be more complicated than you're suggesting. There are some Old Testament passages that use a term like "circle" or "vault" to describe the earth or its atmosphere, sometimes within a book that elsewhere will use a phrase like "corners of the earth". Even if some sort of atmosphere around the earth is being referred to as circular, not the earth itself, wouldn't a circular atmosphere be more naturally taken as something that would accompany a circular earth? You seem to be overly focused on passages that suggest an errant view of cosmology, while neglecting other passages that suggest ambiguity, poetic language, or a correct view of cosmology.

    Steve has mentioned some of the ways ancient people could have arrived at the conclusion that the earth is spherical. They also could have drawn the conclusion from a lunar eclipse or by concluding that the earth is like the circular objects they see in the sky, for example. We know that the spherical nature of the earth was understood by some people during the closing centuries of the B.C. era, and it was widely known in early church history. Yet, references to pillars of the earth, corners of the earth, and such continued.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Jason,

    My over-focus on people "not thinking things through" (thanks for asking, btw) should be seen as the direct reciprocal of the many times Steve argues things like "The Bible author can't mean x, because IF THEY THOUGHT THINGS THROUGH, they'd realize that didn't make any sense." Well, did they think things through? Or other times, "Since the Bible author COULD have known about certain evidence that leads to correct cosmological conclusions therefore they DID." It is fallacious reasoning. I would hope Steve would be savvy enough to realize I'm not necessarily going to argue in the opposite direction just because. I'm just letting the options breathe, so that when we approach the collective case for or against we aren't letting our biases go unchecked. I think Steven's reasoning could apply sometimes (like Steve's point about the sun being gone for half the day), it really does seem to me that Steve is over-applying it on other items.

    I'm not trying to make a full case here. As I've said in other comments I'm in the middle of preparing a massive post on the topic based off of Babinski's chapter in TCD. So if I don't pay homage to everything, it's because I'm thinking in a broader framework that I'm applying elsewhere. And I am taking your observations into consideration there.

    Ben

    ReplyDelete
  8. WAR_ON_ERROR SAID:

    "Or other times, 'Since the Bible author COULD have known about certain evidence that leads to correct cosmological conclusions therefore they DID.' It is fallacious reasoning."

    i) That conveniently disregards the thesis I'm responding to. Enns, Seely, Babinski et al. aren't contending that Bible merely could be mistaken. Rather, they contend that Bible writers were mistaken, and mistaken because they were in no position to know any better.

    ii) Moreover, as Jason has pointed out, evidence of the inspiration of Scripture factors into a Christian's consideration of what could or could not be the case.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Steve,

    Babinski's thesis isn't that he knows with absolute certainty that the Bible teaches a false cosmology, so your approach is fatally flawed in any event. There's no reason to prove there are possibilities since Babinski, in his chapter, already conceded a relative level of diversity (page 115). Maybe you need him to be making absolute claims about what every single solitary ancient believed about the cosmos in order to outweigh your entire investment in Christianity? I doubt that's what he thinks his argument is or even needs to be for any reasonable person to conclude that it is a much better explanation that the Bible teaches a false cosmology.

    The Christian Delusion delves into Bible prophecy and Jesus' resurrection as well. So it's not like they aren't counter-weighing your counterweights. :) Or at least attempting to. Those are just other battles.

    Ben

    ReplyDelete
  10. "Babinski's thesis isn't that he knows with absolute certainty that the Bible teaches a false cosmology, so your approach is fatally flawed in any event."

    That's a transparent throwaway line, like the disclaimer of Russell and Dawkins that they can't disprove the existence of God, any more than they can disprove the existence of a celestial teapot or indiscernible unicorns. That's just a ploy to render their position conveniently unfalsifiable by shirking the burden of proof. Same thing with Babinski.

    You need to get a new deck of marked cards.

    "There's no reason to prove there are possibilities since Babinski, in his chapter, already conceded a relative level of diversity (page 115)."

    But he keeps insisting on the triple-decker universe.

    "Maybe you need him to be making absolute claims about what every single solitary ancient believed about the cosmos in order to outweigh your entire investment in Christianity? I doubt that's what he thinks his argument is or even needs to be for any reasonable person to conclude that it is a much better explanation that the Bible teaches a false cosmology."

    To begin with, his argument suffers from sampling bias. And even within his biased sample, the evidence is equivocal.

    "The Christian Delusion delves into Bible prophecy..."

    You mean chapter 12? The old chestnut about how the NT teaches the 1C return of Christ? By John Loftus?

    Why would I read a bottom-feeder like Loftus on that contention? You think I haven't encountered that contention before?

    In all likelihood, I have a much better private library than John does on the relevant exegetical literature.

    "...and Jesus' resurrection as well."

    Since I wrote a book-length refutation of The Empty Tomb, why would I bother with the Reader's Digest edition?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Steve,

    If the skeptic (or anyone, really) is saying, "most monkeys are blue and have wings" and you feel the overwhelming urge to claim, "the skeptic said all monkeys are blue and have wings and yet here is just one that isn't like that. See how I've refuted them!" That's just not right. I don't know how you turn that into such a conspiracy. Conveniently overstating claims in order to knock down a straw-man has nothing to do with whether I'm an atheist or you are a Christian. It's just not something a fair person does. If you want to start the petty feuding, my response is: "Hey, look how transparent your defensiveness is when someone calls you on your bs."

    Speaking of which:

    "Since I wrote a book-length refutation of The Empty Tomb..."

    I have a huge series on that pending that definitely includes This Joyful Eastertide. Stay tuned! [actually, it'll be a while, since it's such a freaking huge series]

    Ben

    ReplyDelete
  12. WAR_ON_ERROR SAID:
    Steve,

    "If the skeptic (or anyone, really) is saying, 'most monkeys are blue and have wings' and you feel the overwhelming urge to claim, 'the skeptic said all monkeys are blue and have wings and yet here is just one that isn't like that. See how I've refuted them!' That's just not right. I don't know how you turn that into such a conspiracy. Conveniently overstating claims in order to knock down a straw-man has nothing to do with whether I'm an atheist or you are a Christian. It's just not something a fair person does. If you want to start the petty feuding, my response is: 'Hey, look how transparent your defensiveness is when someone calls you on your bs.'"

    You're not advancing the argument or making a constructive contribution to the debate. Instead, you repetitiously paraphrase the same claims ad nauseum. You need to find a new playmate. I have other things to do with my time. Get a hobby.

    ReplyDelete
  13. "You're not advancing the argument or making a constructive contribution to the debate. Instead, you repetitiously paraphrase the same claims ad nauseum."

    Well if you'd listen the first time... ;)

    just teasing, Steve.

    Ben

    ReplyDelete