Thursday, August 19, 2010

The divine foot in the door


“I can't help but do that, because you never make your own positions on these issues plain. I never know whether you're making a point on behalf of someone else's position, which you are noncommittal on, or whether you do hold that position and are actually defending your own views.”

Since I’ve written extensively on these issues, it’s not as if I’m speaking in a vacuum when I respond to you.

At the same time I’m responding to you on your own terms. It’s true that that, of itself, doesn’t tell you where I stand, but then it doesn’t have to. You shouldn’t find it objectionable when somebody responds to you on your own terms.

I speak on behalf of others when I think you misrepresent them.

You also seem to think every issue in this exchange is susceptible to a “plain position.” But in questions of epistemology (among many other things), we must learn to live with certain ambiguities.

“No more duplicitous than it is for you to give biblical evidence in response to those biblically unwarranted arguments. If you think the Bible trumps certain (non-biblical) philosophical arguments, and then I argue that the Bible in fact doesn't provide such a trump card, you can't then complain that the original objection wasn't biblical. I'm simply going where you go, as you claim to be doing with me in another comment. If you offer biblical responses to my philosophical/scientific arguments, I have the right to engage those responses on biblical grounds.”

I think you oversimplify the question. If the Bible is authoritative, then it can rule out certain options. That’s not a direct disproof of the options. But it’s a legitimate move given the premise. Of course, that only works with an opponent who acknowledges the authority of Scripture.

We can also attempt to respond to him on his own terms. If he raises scientific or metascientific objections, like you’re doing, then we can respond to him in kind. That doesn’t have to be biblical, since the objection wasn’t biblical.

“For the umpteenth time, I'm not trying to. You're the one that insists on taking a factual view of Genesis, and then I engage with you on that level. I don't think there's any factual information to be gleaned from Genesis apart from the overall 'moral of the story', which is that God created the universe as a Temple for him to show forth his glory.”

I’m aware of your eccentric, reductionistic interpretation, which posits a false dichotomy between cosmic temple motifs and factual information about the world.

“And I take issue with your suggestion that I ‘write off’ Genesis 1 as parabolic, as if reading it that way in any way diminished its theological value.”

It diminishes the value of the text if the text is historical rather than parabolic.

“The prodigal son story is no less true, and no less valuable, for not being historical.”

Since it was never intended to be historical.

“I know they make that distinction, but 10,000 years simply isn't long enough to accommodate the full trajectories of all extinct species, even if there was a worldwide flood. So even with a flood some of the fossil evidence would simply have to be construed as fake.”

Maybe yes and maybe no. That’s a debate with many freely adjustable variables.

“You're confusing codification of information with its preservation. When a message is translated from English into Morse code, for example, everything in the original message is preserved, even though the carrier is different.”

A music score preserves the original message in the sense that you can reconstruct the music from the score. Yet there’s no direct resemblance between the music and the score. Notes aren’t tones. The score doesn’t sound like music. It doesn’t sound like anything. It’s just a bunch of marks on a page.

“When a ray of light bounces off an object at a particular angle and it reaches our eye, it gives us real information about the object's location, and that information is preserved through all the different stages of sensory processing.”

But other examples don’t serve your purpose as well. Different types of eyes sample different types of information from the sensible object. So which percept preserves a record of what the sensible object is “really” like?

And even that's tacitly circular, for we use the senses to sense the senses.

“Now it would be true to say that we don't receive ALL true information about objects, but we are certainly in contact with the objects themselves, not just our impressions of them.”

Well, that’s fatally equivocal. What you’re really describing is a chain of transmission. You might say that if I contact you through a letter, then you’re in contact with me via the letter. But that’s not the same thing as having direct access to me or my thoughts. That is mediate, not immediate, contact.

That may be more that adequate for many purposes, but let’s not confuse it with reality in itself. And, of course, it’s possible for me to write you a letter in which a lie about myself. If you had direct access to me, you might be in a position to know that my letter was a lie.

A different example would be a scribe who copies a letter, then another scribe copies the copy, and so on. Suppose you have a 10th generation copy of the original. It’s quite possible for that copy that to preserve the content of the original.

However, you can’t simply assume the process of transmission was reliable. And since you can’t directly compare your 10th generation copy with the original, it might diverge in certain unverifiable ways.

Of course, there are advantages to a text. Either the words and sentences are intelligible or not. If it’s jabberwocky, then you know it was garbled in transmission (unless you’re reading Lewis Carroll!).

But other scribal errors may be harder to detect, or even be indetectible. If some of the numbers are obviously too large or too small, that may indicate a scribe miscopied the numbers–although that could go all the way back to the original. (I’m speaking of textual transmission generally, and not the urtext of Scripture.)

On the other hand, if the scribe is dyslexic, he might reverse two digits, yet you lack the context to tell if that number is wrong.

Compare this to a cheap reproduction of a Renoir. Unlike a transcription, which may be obviously wrong in certain places, if the words and phrases are gibberish, you can’t tell from looking at the reproduction if it accurately reproduces the color scheme of the original. Propositional information has a built-in context in a way that nonpropositional information does not. If a word or sentence is unintelligible, then something is obviously amiss. But that’s not the case with nonpropositional information like a reproduction of a painting.

“What we know is to a significant extent determined by the thing known.”

True, but that conceals a caravan of vagaries.

“That is true of some representationist accounts of perception, but there are many other options. Thomas Reid's 'common sense realism' is one. James J. Gibson's ecological theory of direct perception is another.”

How does that address my example? Does a music score directly resemble the music it notates? If you didn’t know how to read music, could you hear the music from running your eyes over the page?

“If that's true, then your objection to scientific realism on the grounds of undercutting univocal correspondence is also defeated. Proximal stimuli don't have to resemble the distal stimulus in order to convey true information about it.”

Which misses the point. For instance, you can use a carrier wave to transmit propositional information. The carrier wave needn’t resemble the speech of the DJ. Rather, it encodes the speech of the DJ. But, of course, the decoded message does need to resemble the DJ’s speech. And that also supplies a built-in check on the reliability of the transmission process.

But the transmission of nonpropositional information doesn’t necessarily supply the same built-in verification. The colors of an art reproduction don’t have to make sense in the same respect as the words of a radio transmission. Whether the reproduction is brighter or darker than the original isn’t self-evident.

“But that's not the problem I was alluding to. The problem is whether all we have access to are our representations of the world, or whether we can claim that through those representations we have access to the external world.”

And I don’t think our representations alone can answer that question. In the case of successful communication, we can verify the correspondence.

And our sensory input adequately enables us to successfully navigate our environment. However, that’s consistent with a wide gap between appearance and reality, for all you need is a reliable correlation between what there is and what you perceive–like a flight simulator.

“That doesn't refute strict sensationism, since our perception of the intelligibility of the Bible is itself mediated through the senses which, as you claim for scientific realism, don't have direct access to what it is they are sensing.”

You’re equivocating over the word “perception.” There’s a difference between understanding a sentence and seeing a tree.

“No, that begs the question in favor of conventionalism.”

And writers like Van Fraassen and Le Poidevin (among others) give arguments for conventionalism. So that’s not begging the question.

“If you'll admit you don't have a noncircular method of validating Scriptural authority. To say that it's self-authenticating is deeply problematic at best. Even Paul didn't think it was. He appealed to the witnesses to the resurrection, to his own signs and wonders as an apostle, etc.”

You’re shifting ground:

i) I originally asked you if you had a noncircular method of measuring time. You initially offered some arguments, but to judge by this response, you’ve given up on that effort. If so, then we need to be clear on your concession.

ii) Your fallback argument is to see if you can generate an analogous problem for my own position. Unfortunately, all you’ve done is to posit an analogy. And on the face of it, validating the authority of Scripture doesn’t seem to be analogous to validating the measurement of time.

“So what do you think is the range of dating methods' reliability? How far forward and how far back in time can they extend?”

In the nature of the case, I think that’s pretty elusive.

But I can live with these ambiguities. I don’t suffer from your hankering for autonomy. God in his providence will enable his people to know what they need to know. It’s like sense-knowledge. Our senses are generally reliable, but fallible. I don’t have to draw a line. It’s ultimately up to God to ensure that our senses are right enough of the time to accomplish his purpose in our lives. We get it right when we need to get it right, as God would have it.

“The difference is whether the new sub-hypothesis to save the appearances is fruitful and advances the particular research program. The mature creation hypothesis certainly does not. Its only value is to save the appearances. It does not advance our understanding of anything one bit.”

i) To begin with, I was alluding to things like your novel, iconoclastic interpretation of Gen 1.

ii) Its value lies in whether or not its true. And if it’s true, then that does, of course, advance our understanding of the world–as well as our understanding God’s purpose for the world, in that respect.

“Your slipperiness can be incredibly frustrating at times. The aim of science is to discover true facts about the world. If Genesis 1 claims that the world was literally created in 7 calendar days, that is a putative fact about the world, and would fall under the category of attempting to teach 'ancient' science. But Beale explicitly denies that the narrative attempts to convey ancient science.”

Actually, I emailed his last night, and he responded this morning. I reproduced the passage you quote from The Erosion of Inerrancy, then said:

“From this statement he [Walters] infers that you don't think Gen 1 gives a true account of origins. By contrast, I take you to mean that while Gen 1 doesn't teach modern science in the sense of making specific scientific claims which anticipate modern science, you still think it makes general factual claims about the origin of the world as well as the origin of life on earth–and its claims in that regard are true. Is that an accurate summary of your position?”

This morning he told me that my summary of his position is correct.

“Just because it's an 'old canard' doesn't mean the solutions that have been offered are any good, anymore than free will being an old canard means that we've already solved that problem. That's sheer rhetoric.”

Since I’ve studied the issue, and you, by your own admission, have not, I have a considered opinion on that debate. But I’m not going to get into a lengthy digression on the issue.

“So the Genesis 1 days are just as phenomenological as another biblical author saying, for example, that the sun rises and sets? There is no sense in which those days were real time intervals?”

The Bible doesn’t adjudicate between the A theory of time and the B theory of time, or variants thereof. It doesn’t adjudicate between metrical conventionalism and metrical objectivism.

This doesn’t mean “there is no sense in which those days were real time intervals.” It’s not as if the Bible is disaffirming one position rather than the other–in that respect. The point, rather, is that you can’t pose more specialized questions than the Bible was designed to address, and expect to get an answer. There are instances in which you can certainly infer a logical implication from a Biblical statement. But it’s not a treatise on the philosophy of time.

“In other words, you interpret it so that it cannot even in principle be wrong.”

i) Depends on what you mean. The Bible makes claims about the world which, if there was a mismatch between the claim (correctly interpreted) and the referent, then that would falsify the Bible.

Which, however, doesn’t mean that’s a live possibility.

ii) On the other hand, since I think divine revelation is a precondition for human knowledge, then at that transcendental level I don’t believe the Bible could even in principle be wrong. That’s like asking if a truth-condition can in principle be wrong. The answer is, no. For truth and falsehood depend on truth-conditions.

“You can evade any factual challenge, for example that an ark of the size depicted in Genesis 7 would not have had room for all the species we know existed at the time, by appealing to the limits of the mental horizon of the author.”

i) That’s a straw man argument since, even on the global interpretation, the ark only has to accommodate representative natural kinds, not every species–which is a modern taxonomic classification.

ii) You’re also confounding the metascientific issue of how, if at all, we can independently compare one interval with another, with the practical issue of comparing one interval with another–given an agreed-upon metric.

iii) In addition, you’re also confounding the measurement of time and space, but these are asymmetrical. We can directly compare two spatial lengths if we lay them side-by-side in a way that’s not possible in the case of temporal “lengths”–given the linearity of time.

“Oh, no, you're not going to weasel out of that one.”

I daresay the Mustelidae family would bitterly resent your onerous comparison.

“If you claim that Genesis 1 gives us a fact about the world, that it was created in six calendar days, you have to give content to that statement, which means specifying exactly how long those days were, and how you came up with that length. Otherwise there's no traction with the real world, and no way to either confirm or disconfirm that statement.”

Yes, we have to give content to the statement, but that doesn’t mean we have to be more exacting than the author. It’s question of how Bible writers told time.

“By the way, I hope you know that Bas Van Fraasen considers as a logical corollary of his empiricist non-realism about science the empiricist non-realism of religion.”

You have a simplistic habit of taking acting as if I must issue a blank check to the scholars I cite. I quoted him on a narrow question regarding the measurement of time. That hardly commits me to his entire philosophy of science. And, of course, his philosophy of science has evolved over the years.

“If everyday perception and scientific observation don't put us in touch with things as they are in themselves, neither do religious experiences, including the so-called 'self-authenticating' ones or some appeal to revelation.”

i) That’s a very sloppy inference. First of all, everyday perception and scientific observation are often at odds.

ii) Why would knowing revealed truths depend on knowing the fine structure of atomic matter?

iii) Objects of knowledge are not all of a kind. How we know about one domain isn’t interchangeable with how we know about another. For instance, how we’re “put in touch” with moral truths or mathematical truths, is not equivalent to how we’re “put in touch” with tables and chairs.

Your final paragraph overlooks key distinctions that I’ve already drawn, so I’ll skip all that.


  1. You guys have really been going at it.

    Either one of you getting tired of not reaching agreement with the other?

  2. Hays' argument:

    Science is fallible, the Bible is infallible, and my interpretations of the Bible as I see them, are less fallible than yours.

  3. Truth Unites...and Divides,

    You're right. The original question of whether dreams are analogous to what God does with mature creation has now spawned a multitude of other debates that deserve their own separate discussion. We've been weaving in and out of all of these, responding selectively to individual sentences and going back and forth. The factuality of Genesis 1, the philosophy of time, the nature of perception, etc. We won't come to any reasonable conclusion about these issues in this format.

    So, although I do think that Steve's epistemology of revelation is blatantly wrong and his distinction between propositional and non-propositional information is untenable (just like Byl's distinction between observations and 'theoretical speculations'), I will have to let it rest for now. Perhaps at some point in the future I will directly engage that epistemology. While I have some sympathy for transcendental arguments for the existence of God, they cannot possibly, by any stretch of the imagination, make the Bible the indefeasible standard and guarantee of human knowledge. Appeal to a personal, providential God can, but not the Bible. Our confidence in the reliability of the Bible rests upon our confidence in the reliability of God, not vice versa.

    But one thing that I do want to resolve before bringing this debate to a close is what Beale thinks about whether Genesis 1 contains factual information. I've written him an email asking him to clarify exactly what factual information he thinks can be drawn from Genesis 1 about the nature and origin of the world. I doubt he really knows what Steve means by the difference between scientific and factual claims, and neither could he be expected to, because the difference is one of degree, not one of kind. If the only difference between the factual claims of Genesis 1 and those of modern science are their level of technical specificity, then they can still contradict modern scientific ones.

    It is one thing to not expect from the Bible a greater level of precision than would be expected in that culture, or to not demand that biblical historiography conform to our own standards of history writing (with citation, chronological arrangement of events, etc.) It is quite another thing to argue that interpreting the Bible by its own standards means that it couldn't be wrong even in principle. If Genesis 1 makes the factual claim that there was an Earth and vegetation before the sun and stars were created, that claim is in direct contradiction to modern science regardless of the precision (or lack thereof) of the biblical claim. It is a factual claim that is in direct contradiction to another factual claim.

  4. Hi J.D.,

    You're a theistic evolutionist, right?

    If so, then isn't this really about you being a theistic evolutionist and Steve being against theistic evolution?

  5. Hi TUAD (Sorry, your username is too unwieldy;),

    In a sense it would be right to say that's 'all' there is, but in practice of course a whole host of issues are implicated in this discussion. Questions arise about the nature and scope of the Bible's authority, the interpretation of scientific practice and theories, what to think about the Fall and human death, Adam and Christ, etc.

    So it's not as if one can be a theistic evolutionist and think about all these things just like a YE creationist would. Steve and others are right that there are serious questions involved here. But I would say that both sides have their work cut out for them. While the theistic evolutionist may have the burden of demonstrating that nothing essential to the faith is lost by reading Genesis 1-11 mythically or parabolically, YE creationists and others who deny the evolutionary narrative have to show that this denial is warranted. They have to show that there is something massively, incorrigibly wrong with modern science, and explain why we should discount or completely reinterpret the observations and conclusions of thousands of dedicated, hardworking researchers, many of them Christians themselves. So far I think it's safe to say that the latter side has not made a good case. So-called creationist 'research' literature is almost invariably riddled with basic factual errors, misunderstandings of the theories they are criticizing and does not present any better framework for doing science or understanding empirical observations.

  6. "Hi TUAD (Sorry, your username is too unwieldy;),

    In a sense it would be right to say that's 'all' there is, but in practice of course a whole host of issues are implicated in this discussion."

    Agreed, but if you don't mind, let's just use "theistic evolutionist" versus "anti-theistic evolutionist" as short-hand code for all that encompasses the "whole host of issues" that are implicated in the discussion.

    With regards to:

    "If Genesis 1 makes the factual claim that there was an Earth and vegetation before the sun and stars were created, that claim is in direct contradiction to modern science regardless of the precision (or lack thereof) of the biblical claim. It is a factual claim that is in direct contradiction to another factual claim."

    This reminds me of a thread I participated on recently. Please read the following post and the ensuing comment thread (especially the initial comments) as a more fully-orbed discussion about the "direct contradiction" that you find vis-a-vis the "factual claims".

    A Pastoral Answer to the Difficulty of Evolution and Biblical Authority