Monday, January 17, 2005

The thick rotundity of the earth

Is a flat earth an article of faith among Bible-believing Christians? Every now and then a liberal or outright unbeliever will accuse the Christian of inconsistency for failing to credit the biblical witness to a flat earth. This accusation is made, not because the accuser believes in a flat earth, much less because he believes in the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Quite the contrary, he brings this up to embarrass the Christian and put pressure on his faith. A unbeliever will bring this up to show that faith in Scripture is absurd, while a liberal will bring it up as a wedge issue to show that we ought to hang loose about the inspiration and authority of Scripture and demythologize it at will, subordinating Scripture to prevailing philosophy of the day.

Both the liberal and the unbeliever will use this as a double-daring dilemma. They will seize on some "outlandish" claim of Scripture and parade it under the nose of the Christian. If a Christian dares to call their bluff, this will prove that he's beyond the reach of rational discourse. If a Christian declines to call their bluff, this will prove that he really doesn't believe the Bible either. What are we to make of this?

1. As a matter of fact, a Christian is honor-bound to affirm whatever the Bible affirms, and to deny whatever the Bible denies. This follows from its identity as the word of God, the word of the omniscient and almighty Maker of the world.

That doesn't mean that a Christian is expected to swallow a whole lot of nonsense. For the God of the Bible is a rational God--is, indeed--the exemplar of reason. However, this is not a standard or selection-criterion that we impose on Scripture, choosing what we're prepared to believe. Rather, this is a presupposition of our faith in Scripture. Whatever God says, even if it should, in some cases, go against the available evidence, is still to be believed.

2. This debate usually operates on the assumption that primitive people believed in a flat earth. This, however, seems to be a bit of academic propaganda to promote modernity over against Christian tradition. A good corrective to this is supplied by J. Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Praeger Paperback 1997).

Another informative treatment is supplied by C. Hapgood, Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings (Adventures Unlimited Press 1996). On the basis of comparative ancient cartography, Hapgood illustrates a knowledge of spherical trigonometry dating back thousands of years.

In addition, Hugh Moran & David Kelley, in their monograph on The Alphabet and the Ancient Calendar Signs (Daily Press 1969), have documented the phenomenon of ancient transoceanic navigation.

There is, then, no prima facie presumption that Bible writers believed in a flat earth. And, indeed, if Noah built an ark to cope with the demands of a global flood, then this technology would pass on to his descendants--and thereby kick-start circumnavigation.

The ancients, who were far more attuned to nature than most moderns, were hardly unobservant. It would be a simple thing to analogize from the shape of the sun and moon to the shape of the earth.

Likewise, one of the early proofs for the sphericity of the earth was the phenomenon of departing ships disappearing below the horizon, or approaching ships reappearing above the horizon. The Greeks inferred the sphericity of the earth from this observation.

Now thousands of the ancients had had occasion to observe this common phenomenon, and it's reasonable to assume that the more intelligent among them drew the same inference, even if we have no records to that effect. We have no records for most things that were ever thought, said, and done--yet we don't depend on a record to know that certain things had to be to get from where they were to where we are today.

So when we approach the Bible we need to clear our minds of modern-day prejudice.

3. The Bible generally depicts earthly events at the eye-level perspective of an earthbound observer, since it was revealed for the benefit of earthlings rather than Martians!

And that relative reference-frame is accurate as far as it goes. After all, most modern astronomy is ground-based astronomy.

Beyond that, it's not so much that Scripture depicts the earth as flat, but rather as cubical. That is to say, the OT sometimes represents the world as a house built by God. This isn't an accommodation to obsolete science or mythology. Rather, it's a theological model. It portrays the Lord as the architect of the world. The world is a "house" (Job 38:4-6) with "windows" (Gen. 7:11; 8:2; 2 Kings 7:2, 19; Is. 24:18; Mal. 3:10) and "doors" (1 Kings 9:35; 2 Chron. 6:26; 7:13; Ps. 78:23; Rev. 4:1; 11:6; 19:11) and "stairs" (Gen 28:12; Amos 9:6). This is picture-language--but with a purpose.

In addition to the "housing" metaphor there is the figuration of the cosmic "tent." This sets up an intentional parallel involving the tabernacle as a microcosm of the cosmos. For a full vetting of these connections, cf. G. Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission (IVP 2004); D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (HarperCollins 1988), 78-99.

4. Intellectual snobbery has a pecking order. The Darwinist looks down upon the creationist, the creationist looks down upon the geocentrist, the geocentrist looks down upon the flat-earther.

A lot of this has nothing to do with evidence, and everything to do with saving or losing face. To some extent, every culture is a shame culture. Most of us could not prove the thousandth part of what we believe on any given subject.

I happen to believe that the earth is spherical. But suppose, for the sake of argument, I wanted to play the role of agent provocateur? How would you me wrong? The obvious arguments won't go very far, because it doesn't take much ingenuity to come up with symmetrical counterarguments.

Yes, the earth appears to be spherical from certain vantagepoints (outer space, ships at sea), but maybe that's an optical illusion due to the curvature of light.

Or maybe the external world is really a VR program run by aliens. We are to aliens what lab rats are to us. How would you disprove that hypothesis? Indeed, such a theory would cut the knot on those intractable Zenonian paradoxes of locomotion, would it not?

Suppose that some really bright guy like, say, the late Richard Feynman, decided to play devil's advocate with his class and make a case for a flat earth? In fact, this would be a useful exercise. Don't you suppose that Feynman could argument circles around his students?


Thanks for the article:

I take more interest in the first part as it relates to the Bible. A few comments:

1. The census under Quirinius is an old chestnut. The fact that liberals keep coming back to the same flea-bitten handful of stock objections is, to me, an evidence of how very weak their case is. In any event, I've already addressed this objection in my review of the Time & Newsweek articles.

2. In the same connection, I read people who say that Matthew and Luke disagree, but they never show me how Matthew and Luke disagree. From what I can tell, Matthew and Luke agree on many things, and disagree on nothing.

3. O'Connor is, indeed, a distinguished scholar. There are distinguished scholars who affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, as well as distinguished scholars who deny it. So scholarly distinction does not, of itself, broker the issue.

4. The RCC has done a 180 on this issue. Traditional Catholicism affirms the inerrancy of Scripture. It formally committed itself to that proposition at Trent and Vatican I. And it suppressed the modernist movement in the 19C. That, however, drove the modernist movement underground. The RCC began to soften its position under Pius XII, in his encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu (1943).

And Vatican II quietly revised and restricted inerrancy to the parts of Scripture which deal directly with the knowledge of salvation. This happened after a vigorous floor debate at St. Peter's, where the sessions took place.

<< One product of such intellectual contortions is "creation science" and
an insistence on the literal truth of the proposition that God took
seven days to create the world, with the evidence from fossils as a
kind of decorative, but confusing, extra. Even wackier, from the
secular viewpoint, is America's "biblical astronomy" movement which
insists, under the guidance of a Dutch-born astrophysicist, Gerardus
Bouw, that the sun goes round the Earth. >>

This jumbles together a whole lot of things.

1. Before the Economist makes fun of creation science, it should make some effort to read and respond to the argumentation. I happen to know or know of a number of folks in this field. One studied at Caltech. Another studied at MIT (got his doctorate there). Another has a doctorate in astronomy. Yet another has a doctorate from Harvard in paleontology, where the late Stephen J. Gould was his thesis advisor.

2. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the world was made in seven days. Would a prefabricated world look any different from a world billions of years old? How would you detect the difference? What evidence would count against it?

The Economist doesn't consider the implications of creation ex nihilo. I, for one, fail to see how the proposition is easily falsified, if at all.

3. As a rule, the creationist community attributes the fossil record, not to creation, but the flood.

4. As to geocentrism, I don't see that this is even a question of science proper. According to modern astronomy, both the sun and its satellites are in a state of mutual motion, so there is no fixed frame of reference.

In addition, it has always seemed to me that the theories of Mach and Einstein on equivalent forces and equivalent reference-frames would make it easier to defend geocentrism, if one wanted to. In fact, I recently ran this very question by a professional astronomer I happen to know (John Byl), who confirmed my intuitions:

"Yes. According to general relativity one should get the same observational results, regardless of whether the earth is considered to be at rest, with the rest of the universe revolving about it, or vice versa. (See D. Lynden-Bell et al., "Mach's Principle from the Relativistic Constraint Equations," Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1995 Vol 272: 150-160)."

Geocentrism appears to be obviously false, but appearances are deceiving.

5. Speaking for myself, I don't take sides on some of these scientific disputations because I'm an antirealist in my philosophy of science. The fundamental problem is how the mind perceives the material world. Perception involves a process of information transfer from the sensible, via sensation, to the mind. But in order for information from the outside to reach our consciousness, it must encoded and reencoded in the form of electromagnetic and electrochemical information. Even this analysis is deceptively objective, for it is also the deliverance, not of the raw input, but the output as it permutates through our sensory blackbox.

But, in that event, our mental representation of the external world is not a miniature photograph of the world, but a cryptogram. And the ciphertext need bear no resemblance to the plaintext. So I'm quite sceptical of all our scientific constructs--whether in creation science or conventional science.


<< Wouldn't parts of this analysis presuppose scientific realism? After all,
you refer to electromagnetic and electrochemical information, and their
encoding processes. But if antirealism were true, we wouldn't even know this much. >>

That's why I weaseled in the further disclaimer to the effect that "Even this analysis is deceptively objective, for it is also the deliverance, not of the raw input, but the output as it permutates through our sensory blackbox."

So even the scientific analysis of our sensory processing is at yet another remove from reality. This how the percipient perceives the perceptual process, using sensory enhancements supplied by science. So this is a scientific description of the process, but it doesn't get behind the process. Indeed, the sensory enhancements add yet another layer to the process.

And this poses a dilemma for scientific realism. If it's true, it's false.

That was always a profound point of tension in Quine's philosophy. He treated science as the measure of all things, and yet he also said "science itself tells us that our information about the world is limited to irritations of our surfaces," and his final book carried the sceptical title _From Stimulus to Science_. How do you justify such a vast extrapolation from such a tiny database?

<< Is there a way to draw the line here? >>

Yes! Divine revelation. Propositions are abstract, including propositions about the external world. And God's knowledge of the world is not filtered through the veil of perception.

As view sensory input as analogous to radio carrier waves on which you can piggyback a message.

But were it not for revelation, I do think we'd be in the same epistemic boat as Berkeley's oyster.

I'd add, though, that unlike Quine, I don't believe that sense knowledge is the only knowledge there is.

In addition, the cryptological interpretation isn't limited to a scientific analysis of perception. For it not only works at a sensory input level, but a sensory output level.

In order for me to type this email, I must encode my thoughts in some material medium. Yet there is no correspondence between the nature of thought and the verbal tokens which serve as a code language for my mental expressions. So the outgoing direction of the mind/body interface will afford an analogue to the incoming direction of the mind/body interface.

Likewise, it doesn't follow that a scientific analysis is totally useless on my view. Rather, the scientific evidence would need to be rephrased or paraphrased in cryptological terms. For example, you could still mount teleological arguments based on irreducible or specific complexity, but they would apply at the level of the ciphertext rather than the plaintext.

There would be some loss of concrete information, but isometries between the abstract structure would remain. And propositional information would be unaffected.

Indeed, a cryptological analysis would add another lay of complexity to account for the correlation between the ciphertext and the plaintext. You'd have a cryptological version of a teleological argument, with God as the cosmic cryptographer.

Or you could still use dating techniques, not to establish an absolute date, but a relative date between analogous cryptograms.


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