Sunday, April 12, 2009

AtF: Introduction

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, After the Flood is a book purporting to give the real history of a 4.5 billion year-old planet compressed in to six thousandish years. Still, I couldn’t help but laugh when the second sentence of the book turned out to be historically inaccurate.
It is commonly thought in this present age that nothing is worthy of our belief unless first it can be scientifically demonstrated and observed to be true. This idea, known today as empiricism, has been around since the 1920s, and says basically that nothing is to be taken on trust, and that anything which lacks direct corroboration must be discarded from mankind's find of knowledge as simply not worth the knowing.
Empiricism has not been around since the 1920s. No way, no how, nuh-uh. It’s technically been around since the Greeks. The modern understanding of empiricism stretches back to the Enlightenment. We might not have gotten around to calling it “empiricism” until somewhere in the neighborhood of the early 20th Century, but it’s been a major philosophy for a couple centuries. Note, too, that this definition of empiricism is, quite simply, wrong. Empiricism says that we must discard any claims that cannot be verified, but there are plenty of abstract concepts that have not been discarded from the annals of history. Moreover, there are still things in science which can’t be directly corroborated, yet which we still know plenty about and teach in schools. We cannot replicate gravity or evolution in a lab, yet we teach them as fact. This is the root, by the by, of the stupidity of the “it’s just a theory,” argument from the Creationists. Too, there’s an interesting bogey word in that first sentence. “[N]othing is worthy of our belief...” is a statement that automatically frames an argument. I believe that my new PC based laptop is better than an equivalent Mac. I don’t actually need to scientifically demonstrate this as true, since I simply don’t like Apple products all that much. An Apple fanboy could show up right now and argue for the rest of the day that Macs are better and even if I came to agree with my annoying new companion, you wouldn’t see me trading in my funky new Asus tonight. I’ve been meaning to talk about framing for a while. At its core, of course, framing is simply a psychological term used to describe the way people look at the world. It’s gotten a lot of play in the creation/evolution debate lately because the creationists use the concept, but use it completely wrong. See, most of the Discovery Institute types actually seem to know on some level that they cannot actually argue against evolution and have no traction in a push against real scientists. So they instead “frame” the argument. And by “frame,” I mean, “intentionally misquote,” and “change or remove inconvenient words.” This is a despicable practice. It’s the sort of thing that a historian would lose all credibility over. Sometime during college I got out of the habit of using ellipses in my quotations. They’re perfectly acceptable, especially if you’re using, say, two sentences that are separated by a third that’s not on the topic of discussion. However, taking out that middle sentence and replacing it with an ellipsis might make it look like I’m trying to change the author’s original intent. This is a bad practice. See, any scientific or historical discussion absolutely requires all involved parties to understand where all other parties are coming from. So if I write an article debunking someone’s work and I cut out key arguments that work against my intent, I can rightfully be accused of poor scholarship or, at worst, outright lying. Sadly, it seems that the literal Biblical interpretation club doesn’t operate under this strenuous set of rules for honest discourse. I’ve actually seen instances where a creationist has changed a scientist’s words, then argued against the changed words. I’ve also seen this defended by way of saying, “Well, the original author didn’t actually understand what he was saying.” Seems to me that it’s a lot easier to argue against someone who doesn’t understand what he or she is saying. I mean, if someone said that Napoleon was the greatest general in the American Civil War, it makes a lot more sense to say he died a good four decades before that particular war than to say that my opponent said he was the greatest general of late 18th/early 19th century Europe and then argue against that opinion. But, y’know, that’s just me. Anyway, the very first sentence of After the Flood is a minor example of framing. “Those damned empiricists,” we’re supposed to say, “They just don’t know when to give up, do they?” It’s reminiscent of a conversation I recall from Humanities class my senior year of high school. I believe we were discussing David Hume, who, as I recall, was an empiricist (who managed to be born more than two hundred years before empiricism existed!). Anyway, we had this weird conversation about the necessity of experience that’s central to empiricism without actually understanding what it meant. It got to the point where several people in the class (me included, probably) were asking questions like, “So if he saw a car racing down the street would he still step in front of it because he wouldn’t know he’d get hit until it happened?” Lesson: high school kids are stupid. This obfuscation of the nature of empiricism tells us pretty much exactly where After the Flood is going. The author then gets in to the explanation of why empiricism led him to his little project:
On the one hand I had the Bible itself claiming to be the very Word of God, and on the other I was presented with numerous commentaries that spoke with one voice in telling me that the Bible was nothing of the kind. It was merely a hotch-potch collection of middle- eastern myths and fables that sought to explain the world in primitive terms, whose parts had been patched together by a series of later editors.
This sounds reasonable to me. This is, in fact, called “The Documentary Hypothesis.” I learned it at Western Illinois University. But I don’t think you’ll see those words anywhere in After the Flood. Our author then decides to create his own test:
Now, it simply was not possible for both these claims to be valid. Only one of them could be right, and I saw it as my duty, to myself at least, to find out which was the true account and which was the false. So it was then that I decided to select a certain portion of Genesis and submit it to a test which, if applied to any ordinary historical document, would be considered a test of the most unreasonable severity. And I would continue that test until either the book of Genesis revealed itself to be a false account, or it would be shown to be utterly reliable in its historical statements.
This sounds brilliant. I mean, that’s what historians do with any historical account. It’s why we look for multiple accounts and attempt to read between the lines of national myth and self aggrandizement. This might actually shape up to be real, unadulterated history.
The test that I devised was a simple one. If the names of the individuals, families, peoples and tribes listed in the Table of Nations were genuine, then those same names should appear also in the records of other nations of the Middle East.
Um…we have problem here. Now, you’re perfectly allowed to read the intro for yourself. It’s why I linked to the online version. If you do, you’ll see that he does explain between my two block quotes what the Table of Nations is. Basically, it’s a collection of genealogies and a list of what nations those genealogies led to that takes up Genesis 10 and 11. Genesis 10:9 introduces us to Nimrod, then verses 10-12 tell us about him. “The beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went forth in to Assyria, and built Ninevah and Rehoboath-Ir and Calah, and Resen between Ninevah and Calah: that is the great city.” (NASB) Now, I’m not entirely up on my ancient Mesopotamian cities and provinces. However, I do know that Babel (Babylon), Assyria, and Ninevah existed. There are plenty of extra-Biblical sources for the existence of these things and we have lots of archaeological evidence. I’ve seen a bunch of it myself at the Oriental Institute. He might just be on to something here. In fact:
But when, over my twenty-five years of research, that confirmatory evidence grew past 40% to 50%, and then 60% and beyond, it soon became apparent that modern wisdom in this matter was wide of the mark. Very wide of the mark indeed. Today I can say that the names so far vindicated in the Table of Nations make up over 99% of the list, and I shall make no further comment on that other than to say that no other ancient historical document of purely human authorship could be expected to yield such a level of corroboration as that!
Well, I guess that’s done. He’s created an “unreasonably severe” test and the book of Genesis has lived up to it. There’s nothing more to say. I’ll see everyone in church next Sunday. But one of those literalist churches, none of that liberal Presbyterian or UCC stuff for us. No, sir. Oh, wait. I have a problem. There’s absolutely nothing severe about this test. In fact, it’s pretty much a self-fulfilling test. Yes, Ninevah and Babylon existed. So what? The Illiad mentions lots of places that actually existed, but that doesn’t mean that we have to take its account of a ten-year war between the Greeks and Trojans literally. The existence of Troy doesn’t automatically confer upon us the existence of Helen, Achilles, or Odysseus. And what of Nimrod of the many cities? Well, Babylon goes back to at least the time of Sargon I, which puts its historical founding sometime around or before 2400 BCE. Ninevah was probably founded at least five or six hundred years later. And poor Nimrod came after the flood, which means his life was shortened to a maximum of 120 years, so I have a hard time believing that he managed to found both cities. Moreover, this account of Nimrod doesn’t actually match up to the book of Genesis itself. Genesis 11 starts with the foundation of Babylon and the building of the Tower of Babel. Nimrod doesn’t appear. Furthermore, both Genesis 10 and 11 end with the genealogy of Shem. In Genesis 11, we’re further told that Shem lived five hundred and two years after the flood. In fact, Genesis 6:3 is where life spans are limited to 120 years and yet there are at least 9 people who live longer than that between Noah and Abram. I could probably go on all day. But I won’t. There are two things to note from this. First, a test of a historical document cannot be considered “unreasonably severe” if it’s simply built on seeing if things mentioned in one place are also mentioned in another. In fact, this is a pretty simplistic test, since it doesn’t require any external sources to mention the Hebrew people at all. Lots of people knew about Babylon and Assyria, after all. Second, there’s a lot of interesting redundancy in the Bible. We have two creation stories, two flood myths, and now we have two genealogies of Shem. Note, too, that at no point has the book managed to discount the possibility that the book of Genesis was stitched together from a collection of other sources. The Documentary Hypothesis or a similar approach actually increases the possibility that the accounts would have accurate place and people names. It also increases the likelihood that we’d end up with multiple accounts of the same thing, like the descendants of Shem. And I’ll leave it at that for now. EDIT: Um, I kind of forgot to make this clear, but the odds of the records from Genesis 10 and 11 being 99% accurate are extremely long. Like, basically impossible. I was simply too busy mocking his style to really get in to the content...


Jeffrey said...

Thanks for the link!

This reminds me of Beversluis' book about C. S. Lewis, and all the false dichotomies and straw men he would constantly set up. I credit that book with teaching me how to really tear apart a poor philosophical argument.

One comment on Genesis 6:3: this is consistent with some literal interpretations. Maybe it meant that the flood was coming in 120 years. This doesn't line up perfectly, as we've already been told Noah is 500, while the flood came when he was 600. But this is well within the reasonable parameters of what could be expected from simply putting genealogical data together at the expect of perfect chronology.

Years ago, I remember a Creation magazine article about aging and a women who was something like 123 years old. I don't know AiG's exact position on Genesis 6:3 (I've heard it both ways from YECists), but this particular article felt no need to combat claims about her age.

Geds said...

When discussing people who think they can figure out genealogies by the book of Genesis, it always makes sense to default to literalist interpretations...

I've never read the book you mention, but I have noticed that Lewis is all about false arguments. Mere Christianity was actually a pretty good primer for how to lead an argument and act like your interpretation of things is the only way to see them.

hapax said...

Happy co-opted vernal equinox / fertility festival, Geds!

Nice bit of snark, here, but I must quarrel with this line:

"We cannot replicate gravity or evolution in a lab, yet we teach them as fact. "

As far as I know, researchers have to go to extraordinary efforts to *eliminate* gravity from any experiment. And evolution is replicated in labs ALL THE TIME -- it's pretty hard to biopharmacology, for example, without it. I myself replicated evolution in high school, and had the pretty red-eyed fruit flies to prove it.

(Speciation, now, is a bit trickier, mainly because nobody really agrees what the heck a species is anyhow)

Oh, and to come to poor old Clive Staples defense (and you know I would) -- I don't think it's quite fair to accuse him of deliberately creating bad framing. His aim, after all, wasn't so much to "convert the heathen" -- to create rigorous arguments *against* certain beliefs -- as to "confirm the Christian" -- that is, to provide a means to be *for* certain beliefs without abandoning rational thinking.

As to whether he was successful at the latter, YMMV of course. But I'm not sure that its exactly appropriate "framing" to hold him up to a standard he wasn't trying to meet.

Geds said...

Wow. Is this your first visit to the interwebs in the last forty days, hapax? If so, I'm honored. Unless that was a different Slacktivite and I just don't remember so good...

And, yeah, the framing thing was more of a tangent. Like I said, it's something I've been meaning to discuss, but haven't gotten around to. Since this book is basically fan service to the creationist faithful, he's not technically framing.

But there is still a blatant misunderstanding of an opposing viewpoint that I wanted to point out. And I'm totally not going to ever get around to writing about framing, so I took what opportunity I could.

PersonalFailure said...

Damn, now I have to worship Yhwh and the Greek Pantheon. That's going to get . . . twitchy.

hapax said...

Yes, Geds, I'm the same hapax. (Odd, though, considering the meaning, how many people on These Interwebs have that as a username!)

I actually spent a good deal of yesterday posting on various library, publishing, and other book-sites about the amazonfail debacle. (If you don't know about this, google "amazonfail" as one word, and read some of the posts, and get ready to get furious)

It was nice to come here and read your essay about a comparatively familiar, low-tech, (dare I say cozy?) type of idiocy.

Geds said...

Hey, now. I know you're the same hapax. I think that cjmr was taking an interbreak, too, and I wasn't sure if I remembered both of you being off or if I was remembering wrong.

And, no, I hadn't heard about amazonfail. That's...that's jackassery of the first degree.

Although I'm glad I could create some cozy idiocy to snuggle up with.

hapax said...

Ah, no, Geds, I didn't mean to imply that you CREATE the idiocy. I just enjoy the way you gleefully MOCK it.

Geds said...

D'ya get the impression that we're just not on the same wavelength here? Because that's the vibe I'm feeling...