Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Were You There?

Recently I sat down and watched the excellent PBS series Evolution. It was a very well-made series, it explained a lot of the basic concepts and gave a fairly comprehensive overview of the theory itself. The final episode was devoted to the question "what about God?". The episode was not to give an answer on the question, rather to show the struggle in the community and especially with fundamentalist Christians of the reconciliation of their belief in a divine being and the science behind the process. The man who epitomises the outright ignorance of the general population is Ken Ham, and his way of hardening believers against any 'evolutionist' was to ask them the question "where you there?". Now aside from treating his congregation like 4 month old babies with downs syndrome, the question is outright fallacious and misleading. Only a fool would expect this to actually be an answer; it's the logical equivalent to Goddidit. But there he is, getting the sheeple to mimic his poor reasoning.

Absurdity manifested
The question itself is absurd, it puts an incredible amount of focus on direct observation as the only form of tangible evidence. This is akin to saying that a murder with no witnesses is unsolvable, after all no-one saw the crime take place. In courts, it turns out that anecdotal evidence is unreliable; an eyewitness tale must be consistent with the evidence gathered at the crime scene. That forensic evidence, gathered after the event, is the cornerstone of any murder trial. This is precisely what happens in science.

In a murder trial, all pieces evidence are facts. Facts on their own are meaningless, it's the narrative that strings them together. The narrative is the theory of events, it must be consistent with all the facts. An inconsistent narrative that is contradicted by facts will lead to an acquittal. Likewise in science, observable facts are all around us; they are the end product of cause and effect. It's a theory that seeks to explain the facts and any inconsistent theory is thrown out. If the man accused of murder has proof he was in another state at the time the murder took place, then the theory that he committed the murder is wrong.

Evolution is the narrative of life that best matches all the facts that are observed now. Why should the small variation that's seen now be any different on a long term scale? This is why creationists fail when they try to distinguish between micro and macroevolution - it's the same process over a longer time frame. Macroevolution has been observed both in the lab and in nature, where genetic variation has become so large that two different populations can no longer reproduce. Over a longer time frame, the variation will only increase even further as both populations will sit forever genetically isolated but continue to mutate.

When looking at the fossil record, it tells it's own narrative of the types of species that lived at that part of history and the progress of evolution. When we look back at early Cambrian rocks, there are no humans let alone vertebrates; there are only invertebrates. Looking a bit closer to the present, there are fish and arthropods, but no land animals of any kind. Around 380 million years ago, the first amphibians emerge. This tale goes on and on. The narrative of the fossil record only makes sense when it's put in the context of evolution. The mechanisms under which evolution works are the only tangible explanation for the fossil record the way it is.

Who wrote the bible?

Maybe the argument needs to be thrown back on those making the argument. Since they use the bible as the infallible word of God, maybe the question needs to be asked "where you there?". Of course you just can't ask God whether he wrote the bible or not, ever since he came down as Jesus he's not taking calls any more. So how was the bible written? Unless God came to earth and wrote endless pages of text, did all subsequent copies, revisions and translations, then the bible is the work of man and thus subjected to the same fallibility as creationists like Ken Ham talk about with science.

Of course man wrote down the stories, even if they were divinely inspired, it was still a book written by men, revised by men, and translated by men. All holy texts can at best be divinely inspired; manifestations of messages handed through mental manipulations by a divine being. To have a deity write their own holy book would be impossible, everything cultural we know is a man-made device. For the Torah it wasn't even one man who wrote it, there were four different sources it was all compiled from. Just read Genesis chapters 1 and 2 to see the different authorship, there are two different versions of the creation story in the first two chapters of the book. Now did man come before animals or did animals come before man?

The problem with the man-made stories of Genesis is that no-one was there to view them. It was not a first-hand eyewitness account, no-one was there to see God making the world and everything in it. Likewise it suffers from the same falsehood as creationists are trying to say about science: no-one was there to see it. The belief that the holy books are indeed inerrant relies deeply on faith and it propagates on naïvety, there's nothing in the the bible to suggest it's the inerrant work of an infallible deity. Rather the glaring contradictions, the inconsistencies, the poor language and having nothing in the bible that couldn't have been written by 1st century authors, would all tend to point at the fact that the book is a man-made socially-constructed volume.

There's one place to turn to which can shed light on the historicity of a document: archaeological evidence. It turns out that Israel weren't the only tribe keeping notes about events in the middle east 3,000 years ago, so some of the stories can be checked against the records of others. People and places can be independently confirmed through impartial evidence; this evidence can be dated by a variety of methods such as carbon dating or the types of technology. Looking at the Jesus story, those who wrote the gospels had never seen Jesus in the flesh, they were most likely not even born when Jesus lived. They certainly weren't there to witness the birth of Jesus, which is why one story has an age no later than 4BCE and the other would put the birth at 6CE. These stories would have been derived from the Gospel of Mark which was written at least after 70CE.
So were the authors of the gospels there for Jesus? No, that would explain why the books don't align with history. Just as the authors of the Torah weren't there on the history of the planet, which would explain why the science and the text doesn't add up. When the facts don't fit the narrative, the narrative must be wrong. The bible is the inerrant word of God in the same way as a holy being that commits infanticide can be considered all-loving.
If the Bible is telling the truth, then God is either untruthful or incompetent. If God is truthful, then the Bible is either untruthful or erroneous. - Rev. Donald Morgan


John Knight said...

Not to defend YECers, but...

Many scholars place Mark c. A.D. 50. Matthew is sometimes placed as early as A.D. 50, but usually around A.D. 60, IIRC. Even Luke is probably not later than A.D. 70, as it seems to have been written (along with Acts) as part of a legal defense for Paul.

The later dates for the Gospel accounts seem to have less to do with any direct evidence than with the assumption that the Gospels "must not" be eyewitness accounts. You can obviously find other scholars who share your presuppositions willing to offer a late dating, but you should not take their guesses as ... well, as Gospel.

Kel said...

The earliest I've ever seen Matthew dated was at 55CE, and those are the ones who use Matthenian priority. The point about the birth still stands regardless, even IF the gospels were written by the direct followers of Jesus (which does seem incredibly unlikely), there's no way any of them could have bore witness to the birth or Jesus' early years. Where they there? Of course not.

Markian priority for the texts and the destruction of the 2nd temple as a marker for the time of writing do seem the best point of reference that we can tell looking at the history of the book. It's just lucky they didn't include the Gospel of Peter where it was Herod who crucified Jesus. :P

This is the best estimates I can find of scholarly consensus on dating -
Mark: ~65-73CE
Matthew: ~70-100CE
Luke: ~80-100CE (probably 80-85CE)
John: ~90-110CE (no one author)

Of course, as with all history it's prone to revision - as any idea should be as new evidence comes to light. I'm more than happy to be wrong, it's not my religion after all. ;)