Thursday, March 26, 2015

Prediluvian history

I'm going to repost some comments I left at Lydia McGrew's blog reviewing Walton's book on The Lost World of Adam and Eve. My comments are not directly in response to her review, but in response to other commenters.
Some professing Christians have an oddly compartmentalized plausibility structure. For instance, I've read things by Stanley Jaki on Genesis, Lourdes, and Fatima. Jaki rejects the traditional interpretation of Gen 1-3 on naturalistic grounds, yet he takes Lourdes and Fatima very seriously. What makes Lourdes or Fatima credible, but Gen 1-3 incredible?
Posted by steve hays | March 24, 2015 2:30 PM
"Presumably the available evidence."
That raises a host of interesting questions:
i) Many times, we have no evidence for a historical event over and above historical accounts of the event in question. Sometimes there may be independent corroborative physical evidence, but oftentimes not.
What's our evidence for the Battle of Waterloo? Historical accounts.
Depending on one's view of Scripture, the account of Gen 2-3 is, itself, evidence for the occurrence of what it records.
ii) There are people who think Gen 2-3 is literally ridiculous, but implicitly believe that a consecrated wafer contains the entire body, blood, soul, and deity of Christ. Seems like an oddly segregated belief-system to me.
iii) Normally, humans are the product of a human male impregnating a human female. But if the Virgin Birth is true, then that's an exception–just as the creation of Adam and Eve would be exceptional.
Now, if you did a full medical workup on Jesus, I assume he'd be indistinguishable from someone conceived by procreation. If, however, God bypassed ordinary natural processes in the conception of Jesus, the available evidence will be consistent with either a natural or supernatural origin. Both interpretations are empirically adequate and empirically indistinguishable–but only one is right.
Suppose I arrive late at the feeding of the five thousand. I see a crowd eating fish and bread. I assume fishermen caught the fish in the nearby lake, while bakers produced the loaves of bread. And that's a reasonable operating assumption, given my limited evidence.
If, however, Jesus miraculously multiplied fish and bread, then my inference was wrong. It didn't take that factor into consideration.
iv) Apropos (iii), how we evaluate the evidence depends, in part, on presuppositions that we bring to the evidence. Presuppositions that lie outside the evidence proper–although there may be evidence for our presuppositions.
If the effect is the end-result of allowing nature to take its course, then that's one thing. If the effect is the immediate result of supernatural agency, that's another thing. And it may not be possible to retroengineer the cause from the effect. We may be able to retrace the process provided that it was a normal process. But what's the evidence for the proviso?
To take a comparison: in robotics it's possible to make a robot that can make other robots like itself. Most robots will be made by other robots. But the initial robot in the series must be designed and constructed by an engineer.
From a scientific standpoint, I don't believe that either heliocentrism or geocentrism is true. These are relative reference frames concerning relative motion.
Now, if you take it to the next step by asking about the underlying causes of their respective motion(s), like gravity, then the physics will be very different.
Posted by steve hays | March 21, 2015 11:12 PM
[Wittgenstein] once greeted me with the question: "Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis?" I replied: "I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth." "Well," he asked, "what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?" E. Anscombe, An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus (Harper & Row, rev ed.,1965), 151.
Posted by steve hays | March 22, 2015 12:30 PM
I think we need to draw some distinctions, or at least make some implicit distinctions explicit:
i) We should distinguish between what Gen 1-3 means, and whether its meaning is normative for Christians.
ii) Apropos (i), some theologians do it backwards. They begin with what they think is true, then interpret Gen 1-3 accordingly. They discount interpretations which they think are false.
Problem is, they don't let the text speak for itself. They often begin with their modern scientific understanding. That's their standard of comparison. They then use that as the interpretive grid. But, of course, that's anachronistic.
iii) Apropos (ii), exegesis typically seeks to ascertain original intent or authorial intent. The text means what the author intended to convey by his choice of words.
An exegete consciously avoids imposing his own preconceptions onto the text. Rather, he attempts, if only for the sake of argument, to assume the viewpoint of the author. For instance, a Dante commentator will view the text through the Dante's cultural lens. Not what makes sense to the commentator, but what would make sense to Dante–given Dante's time, place, and outlook.
iv) One potential objection is that, given the dual authorship of Scripture, what is normative is divine intent, not human intent. Indeed, Walton tries to salvage inerrancy by recourse to speech-act theory. For him, the narrator's locutions are errant, but the divine illocutions, behind the locutions, are inerrant.
However, an obvious problem with that dichotomy is that we can only access the illocutions via the locutions. Typically, an author uses certain locutions to express his illocutions.
God communicates truth through the instrumentality of the human author. Hence, the human intent expressed in human locutions can't be at cross-purposes with the divine intent or divine illocutions.
v) A theistic evolutionist can be a theist for philosophical reasons and an evolutionist for scientific reasons.
The problem, from a Christian perspective, is when there's an effort to make theistic evolution intersect or coordinate with Scripture. That characteristically results in hybrid interpretations. The "Adam" of theistic evolution isn't the Adam of Genesis. At best, the "Adam" of theistic evolution is a makeshift construct. Equally artificial from both an exegetical and scientific standpoint.
vi) In principle, one can bypass that stopgap compromise by sidelining Scripture altogether. However, Christianity claims to be a revealed religion. Biblical revelation can't be sidelined if the result is to remain Christian.
If, however, the correct interpretation is theologically normative, then evolution can't be permitted to leverage either the interpretation of Scripture or the content of Christian theology.
Posted by steve hays | March 21, 2015 11:45 PM
Let's provide a baseline standard of comparison–between the Adam of Genesis and the Adam of theistic evolution (of which there are various models).
In Gen 2-3:
i) Adam has no animal, human, or prehuman ancestry.
ii) Adam is directly created from inanimate raw materials.
ii) Eve is directly created from organic matter (i.e. a tissue sample supplied by Adam).
iii) All humans, past and present, are descendants of Adam and Eve.
iv) Humans die because Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, which cut them off from the tree of life.
Posted by steve hays | March 22, 2015 12:03 PM

"Lydia, Let me just ask directly…"
While we're at it, it would be instructive for Step2 to lay his own cards on the table. Are you an atheist? Secular Jew? Liberal Catholic? Lapsed Catholic?
What's your frame of reference? What's the tacit plausibility structure that you're bringing to your criticisms of Lydia's reviews?
"(technically they should have died that very day)"
i) That's a stereotypical village atheist objection. One problem with that objection is the critic's conceit that the narrator was too dense to realize that he made God contradict himself, as if God forgot his threat.
Even if you deny the inspiration of Scripture, a prudent exegete doesn't simply presume that a storyteller is blatantly inconsistent. Rather, a prudent exegete considers what it must have meant to the storyteller.
ii) "In/on the day that" is an idiom for "when." That's why more literal versions reproduce the phrase as is in Gen 2:4 while more dynamic versions render it idiomatically in 2:4.
By itself, the adverb ("when") doesn't specify the time at which something will happen. Rather, that's the earliest starting point at which it can happen. It can happen anytime after that terminus ad quo, but not before that.
"On a similar debate at Feser's blog somebody brought up the notion that Adam/Man was an in-tribe reference, the first of his tribe but not the first of his kind."
What's the exegetical argument for that claim?
"There are references to agriculture in Genesis and all evidence puts towards agriculture being a much later development than the biological evolution of our species."
i) To begin with, I believe that Lydia rejects "the biological evolution of our species." Therefore, your objection is predicated on an operating assumption that she doesn't grant.
You suffer from a persistent inability to engage people on their own grounds. You need to cultivate critical detachment and critical sympathy. That's an intellectual virtue.
"If you include the other activities Adam’s descendants were described doing in the Bible only a few generations later such as building a city, raising livestock, making flutes and lyres, and forging bronze and iron, the picture is much clearer and harder to dismiss. Constructing simple musical instruments like flutes has some evidence at 42,000 years ago, building wooden settlements and raising livestock are unknown before 15,000 years ago and the oldest known copper mine only dates to 9000 years ago."
i) Know-how can be independently discovered. For instance, it's not as if learning how to make fire was a onetime event.
ii) Likewise, newfound knowledge can be lost. Know-how can be forgotten. War, famine, natural disaster, epidemics, &c., can not only wipe out settlements, but wipe out the knowledge required to pick up where things left off.
If you were to ask a 19C AD Egyptian how the pyramids were built, he wouldn't have a clue. Consider scholarly debates about the logistics of the Easter Island statues, or the construction and function of Stonehenge.
Step2 seems to be operating with a "stately progress of science" model, but technological innovation can be, and often is (esp. in the past), sporadic, geographically isolated, and subject to interruption or reversal.
"Otherwise 'spiritual death' is a misnomer."
i) I'm curious as to where Step2 comes up with these very confident proclamations. What commentaries have you read? What exegetical monographs have you read? Or are you just winging it based on what seems obvious to you, from your own cultural standpoint–millennia later?
ii) In the Pentateuch, to be alienated from God is to be alienated from the source of life and wellbeing. Take how the Pentateuch characterizes the moral and spiritual degradation of pagan nations.
Posted by steve hays | March 23, 2015 1:04 PM
"…all evidence puts towards agriculture being a much later development than the biological evolution of our species."
One of the problems with that claim is the way it posits the development of "agriculture" long after the emergence of the human species.
Aside from the ambiguity of what constitutes "agriculture," it also turns on what type of evidence would signal the moment when the human species came on the scene. What kind of evidence demarcates humans from nonhuman hominids? What kind of evidence early in the paleoarcheological record do you think uniquely identifies a human presence–in contrast to nonhuman homids? Morphology? Artifacts? If the latter, what kind of artifacts?
Posted by steve hays | March 23, 2015 2:34 PM
Step2's archeological objections are confused at multiple levels:
i) He doesn't bother to cite the passages he alludes to. What does he mean by "agriculture"? Is he alluding to the "garden" of Eden? To Gen 3:18-19? To Noah's "vineyard"?
At the risk of stating the obvious, there's such a thing as wild wheat and wild grapevines. That doesn't require selective breeding. Sowing seed doesn't require artificial selection. You can get drunk on fermented grape juice.
ii) Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the descriptions in Gen 4:17-22 are anachronistic. That doesn't ipso facto mean the account is unhistorical. For instance, take the historical plays of Shakespeare–like Julius Caesar. This is about people who really existed. About a real event (the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar). It is set in a real place (Rome).
However, the characters speak English rather than Latin. And in the original performance, the actors wore Elizabethan garb rather than period Roman attire.
So even if (ex hypothesi) Gen 4:17-22 is phrased in anachronistic terms, that doesn't make it unhistorical. Rather, that would be a case of the narrator using imagery or terminology from his own time, familiar to his own audience, to describe the past. By comparison, Bible prophecy describes the future using imagery and terminology contemporaneous with the prophet and his immediate audience.
i) Step2 seems to be dependent on a particular English translation. However:
ii) The Hebrew text doesn't use the technical jargon of forging or smelting metal. Just consult standard commentaries (e.g. Hamilton, Matthews).
iii) Hebrew uses the same word for copper and bronze. Although bronze is an alloy, copper is a native metal.
In addition, there are surface copper deposits. It doesn't require copper "mines" to access. Depends on the quantity required.
Likewise, meteoric iron is a native metal. Ancient people used meteoric iron before they developed metallurgy.
iv) In addition, metal artifacts can be melted down to reuse the metal to make a newer artifact. So some earlier artifacts are destroyed in the process. There goes the "evidence."
v) To piggyback on Lydia's observation, Genesis situates Eden somewhere in Mesopotamia. Likewise, the ark bottoms out on the Armenian plateau. That's the setting for "early man" in Genesis.
Hence, even if the deluge was local, Noah's flood devastated the original human population centers (where Genesis places man). You can disagree, but my immediate point concerns the inner consistency of the narrative.
Keep in mind, too, that since this is both a flood plain and river basin, debris would wash downstream into the sea. It would literally wash the archeological evidence down the drain. That's what it is: a drainage basin.
vi) Gen 4:17 doesn't specify what the structures were made of. Suppose they were wooden structures. Would that survive millennia of erosion (and periodic flooding)?
Suppose it was a tent city (cf. 4:20), like Plains Indian communities.
What if these were adobe buildings? Mud huts made of sun-dried mud-brick (with thatched roofs). Those are perishable structures. Consider how little has survived in the Nile Delta from Pharaonic times.
vii) It's not uncommon for stone buildings to be dismantled to reuse the blocks to build something else.
viii) Having livestock (4:20) does not imply selective breeding. These can be tame wild animals.
ix) It isn't necessarily easy to distinguish wild animals from domesticated animals. Consider debates about whether Dingoes are wild canines or feral dogs.
x) In addition, feral livestock may interbreed with compatible wild species. They "revert." So that complicates the analysis. Consider feral pigs which interbreed with wild pigs. That produces hybrids.
xi) The text says nothing about pottery. And "pottery" is equivocal. Does that refer to earthenware that's fired in a kiln (e.g. ceramic, porcelain)? Or sun-dried clay pots (e.g. terracotta)? The latter are quite perishable.
Posted by steve hays | March 25, 2015 1:41 PM
In reply to Zachary:
i) "Incest" is a vague designator inasmuch as the term itself fails to distinguish between parental incest and sibling incest. Although parental incest is intrinsically evil, that doesn't mean sibling incest is intrinsically evil.
ii) In addition, the Levitical regulations combine purity codes with a penal code. That's because ancient Israel was a theocratic nation-state. Like any nation-state, it has a penal code. Many laws are moral laws.
But additionally there is a focus on ritual purity, due to Israel's cultic holiness. These don't concern intrinsic good and evil. Rather, their function is emblematic.
Some laws are tied to the unique redemptive-historical status of Israel, whereas other laws regulate or sanction the kinds of social behavior that any nation-state must legislate.
Posted by steve hays | March 25, 2015 12:38 PM
In fact it's said that there's a critical period after which children lose the ability to master a language–if they were deprived of linguistic exposure. Yet that wouldn't make feral children subhuman.
Posted by steve hays | March 23, 2015 4:17 PM
Luke Breuer:
"I question the truth of this. See my comment about autistic children."
Your comment on autistic children doesn't interest me. How's that even comparable?

On the one hand are children with normal brains, but no exposure to speakers during the critical period of language acquisition.
On the other hand are children with underdeveloped brains (in some respects) who are exposed to speakers during the critical period.
In addition, autistic kids range along a continuum. Some are savants.
You're somebody who disagrees for the sake of disagreement.
Posted by steve hays | March 23, 2015 5:30 PM
"Steve, your last comment has a tinge of badgering and bullying."
Tony, constructive dialogue presumes an adequate degree of common ground. Unless one is using an interlocutor as a foil, it can be a monumental waste of time to debate someone whose plausibility structure is so different from yours that the two of you can't see eye-to-eye on anything concerning the issue at hand. You pour ever more arguments down a bottomless drain.
Every intellectual discussion must take certain things for granted. Absent sufficient common ground, the conversation quickly becomes sidetracked into endless preliminary issues.
There's nothing wrong with asking-or even demanding–that a critic tell us where he's coming from. If he is committed to an outlook that's antithetical to the outlook of the writer, then further discussion is typically futile–unless it's simply convenient to use him as a foil to rebut stereotypical objections.
Posted by steve hays | March 25, 2015 3:24 PM

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