Sunday, October 10, 2010

Newton's bucket


"That's not addressing the point I made in my chapter. The point was that the Bible tells us that objects in the sky were moving, stars, constellations, the sun, and some verses even state that God was directing such movements. But the movements that the ancients saw were only apparent. The stars coursing? That's because the earth rotates. The constellations rising and falling on the horizon throughout the year? That's because the earth circles the sun annually. But "God" is praised for directing, moving such objects. But they aren't moving, not at all. It's like praising God for making the trees go by when you're driving down the street."

There’s nothing wrong with attributing relative motion to divine agency. And one frame of reference is mathematically equivalent to another. Consider the alternative scenarios of Newton and Mach on the rotating bucket.

At the purely descriptive level, it’s isn’t even meaningful to say that one moves around the other–rather than vice versa. Absolute motion is a useful fiction–nothing more. For the sun is also moving in relation to other reference frames. The reason we say the earth moves around the sun is because we assign a causal priority to the sun, viz. gravity–like Bas van Fraassen’s example of the flagpole’s shadow. There’s a causal asymmetry between the two, despite a kinematic symmetry.

Or do you think we should revert to Newtonian physics, with its stipulative categories of absolute time, space, and motion?

“That means they perceived the earth as stationary, exactly as other verses state, God "has established the earth, it shall not be moved."”

Which has reference to seismic activity, not celestial motion. You continue to retroject Ptolemaic astronomy back onto texts that are innocent of any such theoretical concerns.

“So they believed God's power was demonstrated in both cases, in the case of daily and seasonal movements of celestial objects in the sky above the earth, and in the case of keeping the earth still, unmoved.”

Why should there be seasonal variations in their perceived position if the earth were flat? Wouldn’t that involve a static relation? Seasonal variations in their perceived position assume a spherical earth (i.e. axial tilt) revolving around the sun.

“That's my argument from the chapter, and it demonstrates that the ancients did not perceive the earth as moving, but believed all of the objects in the sky were moving.”

No. What it demonstrates is that Ed Babinski is projecting his wooden interpretation onto the text. It doesn’t begin to show that this is what the text mean to the ancients.

One of your chronic problems is how you act as though you can construe a literary description in isolation to the outside world which the author and reader daily observe beyond the words on the page. But the ancients were quite able to compare a literary description with their real world experience.

For instance, they traveled widely. On ships or by land (e.g. trade routes). They knew perfectly well that the real world extended beyond the horizon-line of a mountaintop view.

Likewise, explorers could observe changes in the position of the constellations at different latitudes. Cf. Charles Hapgood, Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings; Christina Roseman, Pytheas of Massalia: On the Ocean.

That’s not consistent with a flat-earth cosmography.

“About your view that to shake a flat earth means to shove things off its edges, all I can say is that neither Egypt nor Babylon nor Israel believed that they lived at the edge of the earth.”

i) That’s another example of your incorrigible naiveté. Even if (ad arguendo) royal propaganda located the kingdom at the center of the universe, royal historians knew enough about the actual geography of a far-flung empire not to take that literally.

ii) Moreover, if you place a marble in the center of a table, and shake the table (sideways or up and down), the marble will roll off the table.

“They each perceived their nation as lying at the center of the earth. I point this out in an endnote in my chapter.”

Which is a good example of your shoddy scholarship. You cite White’s off-discredited Warfare opus as your source of information (TCD 138n34). In the meantime, you ignore real scholarship dealing with your prooftext. But your interpretation is dubious. Cf. Daniel Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 25-48, 447-48.

“Neither does the Bible say God shakes the earth at a 90% angle. Neither do you have to interpret the line in Job (about God picking up the earth by its edges to shake the wicked out of it) in a fundamentalist fashion. I do not interpret it that way in my chapter. I cited that verse as a metaphor that coincides with the ancient flat earth perception of the cosmos as found in other verses in Job and the Bible.”

If you now admit we should avoid construing this type of imagery in “fundamentalist fashion,” but instead make allowance for figures of speech, then that sinks your entire argument.


  1. Steve Hays, Paul Manata, an I have already made a lot of the relevant points that need to be made in The Infidel Delusion (in chapter 5 and in some appendixes). I suggest that people review the points we made there and ask how much Ed has actually been interacting with what we've argued.

    One of the points I made in The Infidel Delusion is that there are more than two possibilities regarding the cosmological views of ancient sources. They may have held a false cosmology. They might have had a correct view. But they also may have been agnostic or inconsistent. Steve's position (and Paul's and mine) doesn't require that the Biblical authors were as knowledgeable of cosmological issues as the most informed scientists today or even the average American or the average literate person today, for example. If somebody like Isaiah knew that he didn't have much information about the physical structure of the universe, he could use the language of appearances while describing some aspects of the universe without intending to claim that he knew more.

    When Steve gives examples of how ancient people could have realized that the cosmology Ed attributes to them was incorrect, we shouldn't just ask ourselves whether those ancient sources are likely to have figured out the correct cosmological position on a given issue. We should also ask whether they knew enough to be agnostic, to suspend judgment. Even if they didn't know the right conclusion, they could have known enough to refrain from reaching a wrong conclusion. If they realized their own ignorance, they wouldn't need to have as much cosmological knowledge as a modern person in order to avoid error.

    I don't know much about astronomy. I have some relatives who are more interested in the subject, even to the point of spending a lot of money on a telescope. When I visit them, we sometimes look at the stars or try to find a planet or some other object in the sky that's supposed to be visible that night. Let's say we had been following an object from 9 P.M. until 11 P.M. At 11 P.M., I point at the sky and mention that the object had moved from one position to another. What do I mean? I could be saying that the object actually moved. I could be saying that it moved and that the earth moved, resulting in the change from 9 P.M. to 11 P.M. Or I might just be referring to appearances, knowing in the back of my mind that an appearance could be misleading. We allow for that sort of imprecision in many contexts, such as when we refer to a sunrise or sunset. We may not know a lot about whether and how much objects in the sky move and whether and how much the earth moves. But we know what appearances they produce. We also know that appearances are often misleading (an oar appearing bent in the water, etc.), and we know that an appearance could have multiple potential explanations. I don't have to know much about astronomy in order to avoid error on the subject. Recognizing my own ignorance goes a long way. I can confine myself to the language of appearances, as people often do when they're commenting on astronomy, cars, or some other subject they don't know much about. Yes, somebody could misunderstand such language or misrepresent it, but that's part of the ambiguity and complexity of human language. If I tell an auto mechanic that my brakes are squealing, he knows that I may not define "brakes" the same way he does, that it might be a problem with some part connected to the brakes rather than the brakes themselves, etc. Any mechanic with common sense is going to know that the average person often defines his terms differently than a mechanic does and often uses the language of appearances. He'll allow for some ambiguity and some phenomenological language without concluding that his customer is wrong.

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    Keep in mind that the Bible was written by dozens of authors. As Ed and other critics take us through a tour of the Bible, pointing out the alleged cosmological errors of each author along the way, ask yourself how likely it is that each author had the sort of detailed cosmological belief system that critics allege. Should we believe that every psalmist the critic quotes was claiming to have that much knowledge about the sky, stars, water, etc.? Every author of Genesis (however many the critic suggests), every author of Isaiah (however many the critic suggests), was claiming to have that much knowledge about such a vast cosmological system?

    At this point, the critic might acknowledge that most likely some Biblical authors were agnostic on such issues, but then reverse the argument. How likely is it that none of the Biblical authors thought they had so much cosmological knowledge?

    There are a few problems with that response, though. I've addressed some of them in The Infidel Delusion, and I'll just touch on a portion of them here.

    First of all, if the critic is going to use such a scaled back argument, then he needs to revise his claims accordingly. He can't just cite every passage in the Bible that refers to the earth not being moved, for example, and suggest that each of those passages is erroneous. He'll have to nuance his argument more than critics usually do.

    Secondly, most educated people are realistic enough to largely realize their own ignorance of cosmological issues (and many other things) in the modern world, and it seems likely that the same would have been true in the ancient world. Steve and I have already cited examples of church fathers acknowledging their own ignorance of cosmological issues. Educated individuals who placed confidence in the sort of cosmological system Ed refers to probably were a minority. (I refer to "educated individuals" for reasons Steve has explained in the past. All of the Biblical authors were literate, which by itself sets them apart from most other people in their day, and they seem to have been above average in some other ways.) It could be argued that the Biblical authors recognized their own ignorance of cosmology as individuals, but trusted a false cosmology they received from the educational system of their day, from religious authorities, or from some other source. But an argument would have to be made for that conclusion, and some accompanying problems would have to be addressed. Why would such a cosmology become established to begin with? If such a cosmology was accepted because it came from schools, religious leaders, or some other source, then why is that cosmology (as Ed presents it) contradicted by the Biblical authors at times (see the examples Steve and I cited in The Infidel Delusion)? In other words, I doubt that the average educated individual in the ancient world would have been confident about his own knowledge of cosmology, and I don't see why we should think the average educated person accepted a cosmological system like Ed's on some other basis.

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    Third, even if we assume that a false cosmology was held by a particular Biblical author, the issue isn't settled. Assume, for example, that one of the psalmists believed in a false cosmology. Even assume that he often articulated that false cosmology when he spoke and wrote. A Christian could argue that the Biblical author didn't advocate that false cosmology when he was writing scripture. For example, even though the psalmist held a cosmologically false belief that the earth doesn't move, he was referring to the earth's stability in some other sense when he wrote his psalm. An argument would have to be made for extending the author that benefit of the doubt. And Christians do argue for the Divine inspiration of scripture. They don't just assume it without argument.

    In a discussion with WAR_ON_ERROR earlier this year, I said that I think the cosmological argument against the Bible has some merit. It is significant that so many false cosmological views and cosmological ignorance existed in the past, that the Biblical authors sometimes made comments that could be taken as false cosmological claims, etc. But I don't think the argument is significant enough to refute Christianity or Biblical inerrancy on its own. It can strengthen a cumulative case, but I don't think it's sufficient by itself. And I think the larger context favors inerrancy rather than errancy.

    In closing, I want to say that I don't understand a comment Ed recently made. He said something to the effect that our focus should be on cosmological beliefs prior to about 600 B.C. But he assigns late dates to a lot of the Old Testament, and he's been citing New Testament and other later documents as alleged examples of a false cosmology. Why draw a line at 600 B.C., then? And given the wide diversity of views that existed in the late Old Testament era and beyond, why should we think there was radically less diversity before then? Did everybody or a large majority believe in one false cosmology prior to about 600 B.C., then the mixture of false views, correct views, and agnosticism that we see in later sources suddenly arose and persisted in the following centuries? That doesn't seem likely. I suspect that cosmological beliefs prior to 600 B.C. were more nuanced than Ed has been suggesting.

  4. Hi Jason and Steve,

    I agree with Jason that my chapter does not in itself constitute a refutation of Christianity nor even biblical inerrancy. Ingenious defenses will always exist. There were some Christian flat earthers in the early church such as Cosmas Indicopleustes, some of whose writings have survived, and there were Christians who were vociferous flat earth advocates in the late 19th century and early 20th century in Britain and the U.S. who used to debate spherical earth scientists in public--and those who attended such debates often voted the flat earthers the winners. Schadewald's articles on the topic are located HERE--scroll down to the story of Voliva of Zion, Illinois in the 1920's.

    Today I assume there are no more flat earthers--at least none willing to take up the challenge of defending such a view in public, possibly because we now have photos and videos of what the earth looks like from space. Though Charles K. Johnson, a late 20th century flat earther and editor of The Flat Earth News, exclaimed that even those photos were faked, as well as the moon landing, and attempted to explain away arguments for a spherical earth just as his early 20th century flat earth predecessors once did.

    But even with flat earth Christians gone there remain some willing take up the challenge of defending geocentrism in public. Quite interesting. Like the flat earthers, they too cite the Bible as their primary reason for mounting such a defense.

    If I could rewrite the conclusion to my chapter in TCD, I'd use the conclusion I composed for my most recent blog post, on geocentrism. An Evangelical Christian and well known blblioblogger acknowledged my conclusion was worth pondering. Click HERE.

  5. Hi Steve and Jason,

    On my use of "600 BCE" that you both cite as a puzzle. . .

    First, pardon my use of "600 BCE" when I meant "6th century BCE," i.e., the 500s BCE.

    The sixth century BCE is when Mark Smith (and other scholars) think the book of Genesis was most likely composed and/or finalized, i.e., the time when the Babylon exile ended. Though some scholars suggest an earlier date for Genesis, namely, ninth century BCE.

    The sixth and fifth centuries BCE are also significant for being the time when the earliest Greek notions of a spherical earth are known to have appeared. Though the spherical earth idea remained speculative and didn't catch on universally until centuries later.

    Prior to the 5th and 6th centuries BCE in Greece the world appeared so flat and firm that there was no need to even argue the point.

    For instance in the 5th century BCE the great historian and traveler, Herodotus (oblivious of the earth being a sphere) yet ridiculed the outline of the land that others employed, because he knew the earth was longer east to west than it was north to south. See Herodotus' view of the earth reconstructed from his writings HERE. He was also among the earliest to point out reasons for dividing the land into three distinct continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa. To quote Herodotus:

    "I see numbers of persons drawing maps of the world without having any reason to guide them; making, as they do, the ocean-stream to run all round the earth, and the earth itself to be an exact circle, as if described by a pair of compasses, with Europe and Asia just of the same size."

    Herodotus tells us that Homer lived about four centuries earlier than Herodotus himself. And we know from Homer's works that he depicted the earth like the round shield of Achilles, "On the shield he made lands, sky and sea, tireless sun and full moon and all other stars crowning the sky... Finally, around the extreme border of that heavy shield, he made the Ocean River." (Homer Iliad XVIII) The sun, moon and stars lay beneath a solid sky. Beneath the earth, Hades and deeper still, Tartarus (Iliad VIII 16), "I throw him down in the dark Tartar, where the abyss under the earth is deeper... as far from the earth, as the earth from the sky." Homer calls the earth "infinite" Iliad VII 446, meaning "very large" like a maximum circle of the celestial sphere. About the borders of the lands: Homer Iliad XIV - "I go to see the borders of the fertile lands, Ocean..."

    Note this summary from Seely (or click HERE for the full text with endnotes):

    Homer's view of the universe, as well as Hesiod's, is the usual scientifically naive view: "The sky is a solid hemisphere like a bowl. It covers the flat round earth." The earth is clearly a disc. Thales (c. 600 B.C.) and Anaximander (c. 575 B.C.) both conceived of the earth as a disc. Anaximenes (c. 550 B.C.) thought it was flat, but shaped "like a table." Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 525 B.C.) believed the earth was flat. In the beginning of the fifth century B.C., however, the idea of the earth as a globe apparently began to emerge. Both the Pythagoreans (c. 500 B.C.) and Parmenides (c. 475 B.C.) are usually credited with accepting the view of the earth as a planetary globe. Anaxagoras, Empedocles and Leucippus, however, (all c. 450 B.C.) supposed the earth to be flat as did Democritus (c. 425 B.C.).

    In addition, the majority of Greeks down to 400 B.C. still thought of the earth as disc-shaped, as is clearly evidenced by the fact that map makers in the time of Herodotus (c. 400 B.C.) uniformly rendered the earth as a disc. As for Herodotus, Thomson says "Nowhere does Herodotus betray a suspicion that the earth may not be flat."

    It is in Plato (c. 375 B.C.) that one first finds a sure clear description of the earth as a globe. Plato's Phaedo describes the earth as "round" (108E) "like a ball" and as his Timaeus (38C,D) shows this is within the context of a geocentric universe. Thomson says, "Certainly it was Plato's adoption that gave the globe a wider currency." From Plato on, nearly all philosophers thought of the earth as spherical. However, nonscientific writers and common people went on believing the earth was flat.

    The ancient western view of the earth's shape from Homer to Plato (or possibly the fifth century B.C.) was then most commonly that of a single continent in the shape of a flat circular disc. Further, even into New Testament times most common people continued to believe the earth was a flat single continent."

    The Hebrews did not give us a spherical earth, the Greeks did. Hebrew cosmic geography is ancient Near Eastern, as scholars point out who have noted all the parallels. This is not "Babinski's" view, it's the view of scholars fluent in the field of ancient Near Eastern cosmic geography. I list some of their classic texts at the end of endnote 2 in my chapter.

  7. Steve, Your view on Enochian cosmography is noted. But neither Enuma Elish, Genesis 1, nor The Book of Enoch are making purely political statements when they are writing about cosmic geography.

    Also note the cosmic geography verses from the Book of Enoch that are cited in THIS article, and also in THIS book (A Study of the Geography of 1 Enoch 17-19: "no One Has Seen what I Have Seen" By Kelley Coblentz Bautch).

    Lastly, Augustine and Basil are 4th century CE. At least 800 years or more after the OT was composed and formalized. Even several hundred years after the NT was composed.

  8. I said that the sort of diversity of views we see in the late Old Testament and New Testament eras probably existed prior to 600 B.C. as well. Ed hasn't disproven that position, but instead has cited examples of errant cosmological beliefs among some sources before and after 600 B.C. I haven't denied that there were errant views. Diversity, which is what I've argued for, requires the presence of error. The sources Ed has referred to were often arguing against the positions of other individuals. They did that because there were multiple views. There wasn't one model that everybody was following. The early advocates of a spherical earth cited evidence for it that was commonly available and existed prior to 600 B.C. Steve and I have given many examples of that sort of evidence that was widely available, related to the shape of the earth and other cosmological issues. Ed has given us no reason to believe that there was one cosmological model prior to about 600 B.C., the one he keeps attributing to the Biblical authors.

    Ed writes:

    "Lastly, Augustine and Basil are 4th century CE. At least 800 years or more after the OT was composed and formalized. Even several hundred years after the NT was composed."

    Do you believe that Daniel was written prior to the second century B.C., then? I doubt it. And do you date every New Testament book to the first century A.D.? Skeptics sometimes date some of the books to the second century. Even if you date all of them to the first century, Basil wrote less than three hundred years later, which shouldn't be referred to as "several hundred years after". And I've cited sources who lived earlier, like Athenagoras and Theophilus of Antioch. We see a diversity of views well before the fourth century, both among people in general and among Christians in particular.

    Besides, the relevance of the lateness of these sources depends on the context of the discussion. As Steve has explained more than once, he was responding to what you said about people who didn't have modern scientific knowledge. Just as people living before 600 B.C. didn't have modern scientific knowledge, the same is true of people who lived in the fourth century B.C. or the fourth century A.D.


    “The sixth and fifth centuries BCE are also significant for being the time when the earliest Greek notions of a spherical earth are known to have appeared. Though the spherical earth idea remained speculative and didn't catch on universally until centuries later. Prior to the 5th and 6th centuries BCE in Greece the world appeared so flat and firm that there was no need to even argue the point.”

    So the earth appeared to be flat and firm until Greeks speculated about the sphericity of the earth? How would speculation about the sphericity of the earth alter the way the earth appeared to human observers?

    If you stipulate that the earth looks firm and flat, then speculation about the sphericity of the earth will be in spite of appearances to the contrary. Speculation does nothing to change appearances. Rather, speculation changes the interpretation of appearances. It has no effect on what we actually see.

    “There were some Christian flat earthers in the early church such as Cosmas Indicopleustes.”

    Isn’t this a backdoor admission that other early Christians were not flat-earthers? If so, they didn’t need satellite photography to arrive at that conclusion.

    “In addition, the majority of Greeks down to 400 B.C. still thought of the earth as disc-shaped.”

    Does a disk have “corners”? If you’re going to take “disc” imagery at face value, then you can’t take “corners” at face value. A square is not a disk. At most, only one could be a literal description. But if you don’t take the spatial imagery of “corners” literally, why take other spatial imagery at face value?

    “Today I assume there are no more flat earthers--at least none willing to take up the challenge of defending such a view in public, possibly because we now have photos and videos of what the earth looks like from space.”

    But, of course, the Greeks didn’t have satellite photography, yet that didn’t hinder them from proposing spherical models of the earth.

    “However, nonscientific writers and common people went on believing the earth was flat.”

    How do you know what “common people” believed? They left no records of what they believed.

    “Further, even into New Testament times most common people continued to believe the earth was a flat single continent.”

    Really? What about coastal, seafaring peoples? It would be an easy matter for some sailors to discover otherwise. Fishermen blown off course, not to mention explorers.

    “But even with flat earth Christians gone there remain some willing take up the challenge of defending geocentrism in public. Quite interesting. Like the flat earthers, they too cite the Bible as their primary reason for mounting such a defense.”

    Since I don’t share the hermeneutical assumptions of either group, that’s a nonstarter.