Friday, March 4, 2016

Dialogue with a Skeptic

Person: Why is there no archaeological evidence of the Israelites living in Egypt or of the Exodus?

Me: Is that absence of evidence or evidence of absence? It is known from the historical record that lions lived in the Levant, but archaeological digs would persuade one that they never existed there, because there's not a single bone.

Peter: Two million people wandering the desert for 40 years would leave archaeological evidence.

Even Jewish archaeologists admit the Exodus never happened.

Me: There may have been more than two million lions wandering the Levant over the course of its history. But they left no evidence. So why should we expect that two million Jews would leave archaeological evidence?

Kenneth: Lions are notorious for not leaving campsites, but humans do. A huge group of people (reportedly the entire Israelite population of Egypt) moving around the desert would leave some evidence (There are countless ancient campsites found scattered around, and for groups much smaller than what was reported in Exodus.

Me: Back in the 19th century skeptics were saying that the Hittites were a made up nation and probably a metaphor for the enemies of Israel. That is, until they later dug up evidence that the Hittites actually did exist. Today, you can even take a college class in the Hittite language.

Have you considered that maybe, instead of assuming that you as a 21st century Facebook user have better knowledge of ancient history than the writer of the Pentateuch, you should give the benefit of the doubt that the people closest to the events written about actually knew their ancient history better than you do?

Kenneth: Israeli archaeologists went looking for evidence of the Exodus. These weren't nefarious atheists bent on disproving the Bible out of spite; these were Jewish academics looking for what they considered the original deeds for the state of Israel. And they found nothing. I wonder if you've considered that maybe, just maybe, the Bible isn't a history book or a science text.

Peter: You've really got to hand it to those two million Jews. They were way ahead of their time with recycling and all. They picked up all their rubbish before they left the desert like good little environmentalists.

Me: Peter, do you want to have a serious discussion or not? If you are going to rudely ignore all of my words, then I am forced to politely ignore all of yours.

Peter: Be my guest.

[Peter then drops the conversation]

Me: First of all, if you're going to put words in my mouth and insinuate that I believe that all archaeologists are nefarious atheists, then it's clear that you don't want to have a serious discussion.

And archaeologists went looking for the Hittite empire and found nothing, that is, until one day they found something. You're confusing absence of evidence with evidence of absence. There was absence of archaeological evidence for the Hittite empire until evidence was found, and right now we are in an analogous situation with the Exodus.

And you are not merely asking me to consider that the Bible isn't a history textbook. You're asking me to consider that Jewish archaeologists, who were many thousands of years removed from the historical context, know more about ancient history than the people closest to the historical context. And that is stupid and I will not entertain such a thought.

Kenneth: I didn't put words into your mouth. A fairly common tactic by Christians posting here is to dismiss scientific and academic research as being untrustworthy since colleges and university are notorious dens of Satan chock full of heathens; I was merely addressing that objection up front.

You're clearly an educated guy. I just wonder if you apply the same intellectual rigor to claims made by the Bible as you do claims from other faith traditions.

Me: Scientific and academic research are untrustworthy because scientists and academics say right upfront that all of their research is tentative and thus subject to future revisions and even future falsification. That means that they don't trust what they're producing, but nonetheless produce it as means of facilitating discussion and discovering the right questions to ask (along with avenues of research).

I am a graduate student, so I live right in the middle of those notorious dens of Satan chock full of heathens.

I think that the Roman Catholic Church is basically correct when they claim that other faith traditions are not entirely false, but are merely inchoate, incomplete understandings of God. Take Tenrikyo for instance. It was a monotheistic religion founded by a Japanese woman (independently from Christianity) that teaches
  1. There is one God, who is called God the parent, who is the caring creator and parent of all living things.
  2. The human body is not completely under control of the human will and has an innate tendency to do evil
These are clearly divine truths that are discernible from nature itself, and we should not be surprised that other people discovered such. As the Apostle Paul said, the gentiles have a conscience that teaches them right from wrong even though they do not have God's special revelation. But the difference between other faiths and Christianity is that Christianity is God's final word, spoken through His Son in these last days. (Hebrews 1:2).

Kenneth: What you are saying is a weakness in academic work is actually its strength. Human knowledge should always be subject to revision in light of new discoveries. It is supremely arrogant (as well as intellectually stagnant) to claim some field of study is beyond examination or criticism.

And why didn't God reveal Himself in Japan? Or China (which was much more literate than any contemporary Mediterranean culture) for that matter? It seems within the power of an omnipotent God to get His word out without human help, but that's not how it happened. This as much as anything is evidence against God's omnipotence, benevolence, or even existence.

Me: It is its strength, but that immediately precludes it from being the truth, because one of the characteristics of truth is truthfulness (which is to say, constancy and immutability). It is its strength in that it guarantees new avenues of research and fields of inquiry to be generated, but it means that whatever is generated cannot be taken by itself as truth. It needs some other means if it is to be proven and established as truth.

This is basically what Sextus Empiricus (from whom we get the word "empirical") argued, which is that we should give up on searching for truth because everything we discover will always be merely tentative and subject to change. I think that Empiricus goes too far, because there clearly does exist a notion of truth, but this notion of truth needs ways to be established other than trial-and-error research.
And he did reveal himself in both Japan and China. That's why both countries have growing Christian populations.

Kenneth: Come on, you know research (especially scientific research) is not merely "trial and error." Scientific theories explain huge sets of data and make predictions regarding future discoveries and applications, features notably absent from faith and religion. I don't see it as a strength that one set of knowledge (religious "truth") is immune to revision.

Odd that it took so many centuries for human missionaries to reach China and Japan, when God supposedly wants to have a personal relationship with every descendant of Adam.

Me: If religious truth were subject to revision, then it can't possibly claim to be the truth, because one of the (very important) properties of truth is constancy. Anything that can be revised can't be truth. Period.

And science move forward by serendipitous discoveries along with experimentation (that's the "trial" part) and falsification of existing theories (that's the "error" part). Therefore, it seems to be fairly accurate to describe scientific progress as trial and error.

Where and when missionaries travel to distant regions is a question of history that is unanswerable. Francis Xavier believed that that India was a purely heathen nation, as there was little to no evidence of Christianity ever making it there. That is, until he went there and discovered that several churches claimed to be founded by the Apostle Thomas (along with some archaeological evidence later suggesting that someone in 40-50 AD did make an itinerary from Judea to the Yemeni island of Socotra to India). The Book of Daniel showed that Nebuchadnezzar repented and believed in God, even though there is no corroboration from the historical record, and Jesus said that the people of Nineveh will rise and condemn the Pharisees, even though there is little corroboration of there being a mass repentance in the land of Nineveh.

History is a very subjective, very biased field of study. The phrase "the winners write history" didn't become a proverb because it was wrong, but because nearly everyone knows that the written history we have is fragmentary and one-sided. We will never know who God has called and who he as reached out from history alone. But I do believe what Moses wrote in the Book of Deuteronomy when he said:
For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?' Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?' No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. [Deuteronomy 30:12-14]
Kenneth: Why is your "truth" not demonstrable? If it is something ostensibly constant, why are there such wildly inconsistent interpretations of this "truth?" Indeed, Christians have been disagreeing on what is the truth since Christianity began. If it is such a rock solid, unassailable truth, why do so many people claim that their ideas of truth are superior to someone else's when both are supposed to be reading from the same book? This indicates to me that there is no basic truth, just opinions of what each person thinks as truth.

Me: Pontius Pilate said the same thing to Jesus: "What is truth?" (John 18:38)

Because truth is not always repeatable and demonstrable. Do you believe that scientists are right when they say that dark matter exists? Then not only do you believe something that is not demonstrable, but you also believe something that contradicts are most fundamental and best-verified understanding of physics too, because there is no particle in the Standard Model that interacts with only the weak force and gravity, which is what is required for dark matter.

So you yourself believe that truth does not always have to be repeatable or demonstrable (or indeed, even consistent with our best-verified laws of physics).

Actually, Christianity has been remarkably consistent with the truth. All Christians for the past two thousand years have agreed upon the three fundamental doctrines:

(1) The death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.
(2) The Trinity
(3) The Hypostatic Union

What we don't see, for instance, are four different sects of Christianity started over which ones of the gospels to follow, which is what we would expect to find if the four gospels were truly contradictory (personally, my view is that the Bible that we have is inerrant, but discrepant, meaning that there are no fundamental errors or contradictions, but there are discrepancies, which means that it's not possible to get one unique harmonization of history or science with the Bible, nor is it possible to get one unique harmonization of Jesus' life.)

Kenneth: Trial and error is a gross simplification of the scientific method, but I will stipulate that your definition is technically accurate. But there is an aspect of the scientific method you appear to discount: it works. The scientific method has directly led to an unprecedented explosion of human knowledge and advancement.

Weren't you just admonishing me to not put words into your mouth? I'd ask you to extend to me the same courtesy. To answer your question, there aren't any scientists that I know of positing that the Standard Model is the only possible understanding of physics and that dark matter is a blasphemous and can't possibly exist because it's existence contradicts the Truth.

Gnostics might disagree with your contention. Although you'll have a hard time finding one to ask, since their understanding of Christ was in contradiction with other Christians' ideas and they were dealt with rather harshly for their doctrinal disagreements (or blasphemies, if you prefer). And I don't think I need to tell you about the many, many non-canonical books of the Bible that have been discovered. So to be accurate, I think you'd need to say that the doctrines have only been agreed upon since the Bible was compiled and the canon was established.

Me: I never denied that science works. Indeed, it definitely does work. Classical mechanics also works, and every engineer uses it, even though all physicists regard classical mechanics to be so fundamentally flawed that it is irreconcilable with reality (classical physics can't explain either permanent magnets or black body radiation. Both of these are macroscopic, which is to say, grossly obvious and non-trivial phenomena that require quantum mechanics to fully understand).

My intention wasn't to place words in your mouth, but simply to point out that the existence of dark matter cannot be demonstrated and contradicts our understanding of physics, just like the resurrection and many of the miracles of the Bible. But that doesn't mean that you're a fool for believing in dark matter. Indeed, we know you're not because demonstrability is not a necessary criterion for establishing something as truth.

The consensus among historians is that the Gnostics were a completely unrelated religious movement that later tried to latch onto Christianity. 

As for the canon, we know that the canon was established at a very early date because we have epistles of Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius wrote what amounted to thank-you notes to the churches, and we still have them. What is significant to us is that he was writing in the last quarter of the first century and he quoted extensively from almost all the NT books, using them as scripture. Since this was private correspondence, he was only able to do that because the recipients also held the same documents to be holy scripture. This entails that the NT was in its modern form very, very early.

Kenneth: My reading indicates that the genuineness of Ignatius' letters is in some dispute (I wonder what led you to place trust in fallible human academics in this matter while distrusting them on other matters). But setting that debate aside, the fact that he was admonishing heretical teachings of other Christian sects is evidence of my earlier point that the doctrines of Christianity weren't settled for many decades after the date given for Christ's death.

Dark matter and the Resurrection are not analogous. Evidence for dark matter is not based upon eyewitness accounts of semi-literate peasants from 1,000 years ago. Scientists are actively searching for ways to detect dark matter using knowledge accumulated through many decades of research. And when (or if) dark matter is detected, it won't require people to just shut up and accept on faith that they have it right beyond any question; the discovery will be peer reviewed and scrutinized to verify accuracy.

Me: I never said that all of academia was always wrong, only that we cannot be sure of what is right and what is wrong without some additional means of establishing truth. Indeed, if I believed that academia was totally worthless, I wouldn't be an academic myself. What I am not using here is academic consensus, but rather abductive reasoning. The letters of Ignatius, letters of Clement, and letters of Polycarp fall under the ancient documents rule, which means that all four sets of documents can be taken as being likely written near the end of the first century or beginning of the second century. By itself this proves nothing, but it establishes the foundation for my argument.

Each of these writers make extensive citation of the New Testament, which means two thing: that the authors knew of the New Testament canon and that the readers of these epistles knew of the New Testament canon, and most importantly, that by the last first and early second century, the New Testament canon was widely received as such, as the audience of all three letters were widely disparate, which means that some time must have past before the reception of the New Testament and the writing of these letters. So by abductive reasoning and Occam's razor, the New Testament canon was received in its modern form at a very, very, early date.

You are, of course, right in one sense: dark matter and the resurrection are not analogous, because one is a historical claim while the other is a claim on how reality currently operates. But no analogy is exact, and the purpose of my analogy was to show that the epistemological justification of both the resurrection and dark matter involves something non-demonstrable (right now) and that contradicts our current understanding of physics (there's a lot lot lot more evidence for the Standard Model than there is for the ΛCDM model). Similarly, we Christians believe that Christ's resurrection will also be verifiable and scrutinize one day (As the angel said in Acts, "This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." (Acts 1:11)). The point is that even though right now neither are demonstrable, that doesn't mean that therefore we are obligated to disbelieve in both, because epistemological justification extends beyond that of demonstrability.

All peer-review means is editing. The New Testament was "peer-reviewed" by the recipients of Paul's epistles, the church in Jerusalem led by James, and the twelve apostles (or whoever of the twelve were still alive: cf. Acts 12:2). 

Also, I doubt that the apostles were semi-literate. In fact, given that first-century Judaea was one of the more well-educated regions of the Roman Empire and that also existed in major cross-roads between the Aramaic-speaking Jews and Syro-Phoenecians and the Hellenistic Decopolis and remains of Ptolemy's Egypt, it is highly likely that the apostles were not only literate, but bilingual in both Aramaic and Greek.

As for heretics in the Church, the job of Christian pastor-teachers is to teach the truth, which also means fighting off attacks to the truth. Some doctrines were not just disputes over the canon, but also over misinterpretation of scripture. Some people were twisting scripture, and it was up to these church fathers to correct them. So some of the heresies had nothing to do with the contents of the canon at all. Lastly, and more importantly, there's no amount of evidence that can convince some people. Look at how well the perpetration of 9/11 has been established, and look at how many Americans still believe that it was an inside job. So the existence of heretics can't really be used as proof that the canon and early teachings weren't well-established, as there probably would have been heretics no matter how much evidence or how well-established the foundation of Christianity was.

Kenneth: While I accept that the 12 apostles may have been literate, I find it highly unlikely that the same level of literacy existed across the supposed 500 witnesses to the Resurrection, which was who I was referring to as semi-literate peasants. I have a question that I'm genuinely curious about (this isn't a trap question but an honest query): what epistemological justification do you have for dismissing other religions?

Me: The question is based a false premise, because I don't dismiss other religions, most importantly because other religions are not mutually exclusive to Christianity with regard to propositional truth (what they are mutually exclusive is regarding claims to revelation). There is overlap between Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and various traditional religions, and I accept what they have in common, namely:
  1. There's some perfect, greater power over us.
  2. We can't be our own masters and live life as if we're the only person that matters.
  3. Something happens when we die that's related to our morality or spiritual status.
  4. Things will be good one day.
So I suppose the real question is "what epistemological justification do you have for dismissing the claims of revelation of other religions?" And the answer to that question is that only Christianity and Judaism are based on mass revelation of God to humanity, while every other revelation is strictly private (such as Muhammad's or Joseph Smith's) or mostly philosophical and thus heavily based on assumptions of nature (Buddhism) or entirely traditional and based on maintaining social order (most indigenous religions).

Kenneth: The peer review done by the apostles doesn't seem all that rigorous, particularly with the inconsistencies found in the Gospels. From an outside perspective, it seems more like a one writer buttressing the claims of another, glossing over inconvenient data. Mass revelation was localized to one chosen tribe (Judaism) and in one small corner of the Roman Empire in the case of Christianity. That was my earlier question that has gone unanswered. Why were there no "mass revelations" in ancient China? Or Peru? Or Australia? Those unlucky areas subsequently received revelation, but in many cases hundreds or thousands of years later. Why was revelation concealed from these people if God seeks to reach all humanity?

Me: The gospels have discrepancies, not inconsistencies. From an outside perspective, it looks like four writers producing their own work from memory of what happened without considering the others, which means we have a basically consistent story with roughly the same order of events, but with numerous discrepancies that prevent a complete and final harmonization.

And I did answer it. But I'm going to elaborate on my answer. Nobody is ever deprived of knowledge because of luck. As Moses said, nobody has to go down from heaven to bring the word or cross the sea, because God is near your very heart.

There are two unbiblical answers to the question of the unlearned: the first one is don't worry, they'll be okay, and the second one is that they will go to Hell. Both of these go beyond what is written. But let’s go back and examine this question again. It assumes that there is a place that does not belong to God and that there are events beyond God’s control—but that is not true. All things are the Lord’s, and all people are the work of his hands. If God went to all the trouble to die on the cross to save sinners, and if it is his will that no one will perish, then we can certainly trust God to do the right thing. If we have a problem with this one, then imagine how big a problem God has with this, since he’s the one who died on the cross. It’s no armchair speculation for him! So I’m sure he’s worked out a solution, even if we do not know (or even if we cannot and are too limited in our intellect) to know the solution.



Kenneth: You're an intelligent, educated guy but you still outsource your thinking when it comes to biblical claims, even ones as absurd as a talking donkey.

An equally likely explanation for the inconsistencies is that they were transcriptions of oral traditions written decades after the events were purported to occur. This explanation has the added benefit of fitting with the fact that the oldest manuscripts date from the second century.

Me: The problem with your theory is that the oldest manuscripts are so dispersed across the Roman Empire that a significant amount of time must have passed between the creation of the original autographs, the distribution of these texts, and the creation of these manuscripts, taking us back to some time in the middle of the first century. This was not only pre-Internet and pre-publishing, but pre-postal system. If you wanted to take a letter, you basically had to wait to find someone who was going there, give them a copy, and hope that he would make it there at his own leisurely pace.

We aren't that different in our epistemology, because both of us hold to these two fundamental epistemological truths:
  1. Good evidence needs to exist before we accept that a phenomenon exists.
  2. No matter how bizarre a phenomenon is, if there is good evidence for it, we must accept it.
Take, for instance, the phenomenon of Elitzur–Vaidman bomb-testing, which states that it is possible to directly and experimentally test the bomb detonation rate of a set of bombs without detonating them. This is just as bizarre and ridiculous as the talking donkey, in my opinion. But because we have good evidence, I accept it as possible.

So the real dispute is whether or not Moses (and Peter) counts as good evidence (here's a good spot for a digression: people talk about the documentary hypothesis for the origin of the Pentateuch, but that is just one of three theories in Pentateuch scholarship: the other two are the supplementary hypothesis and the fragmentary hypothesis, but skeptics seldom seem to be aware of these two other theories). After weighing all the evidence together, I've come to the conclusion that they do, but this wasn't an instantaneous or overnight process. It requires the development of trust, not only by knowing the scriptures, but also by learning to trust God.

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