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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Applying induction to "holey" writ

Suppose we walk into a library - thousands of thousands of books all arranged in tidy rows and ordered by our good friend the Dewey Decimal Classification System. We walk around and look at all the different kinds of books there are - philosophy, religion (we walk fast around that one, only stopping to laugh at the Raelian books), social sciences, language, and so on and so forth. Suddently I stop at one specific spot in the library, point to a book and shout "AHA ! I found it ! This book is infallible !", and start reading it and regurgitating it as absolute truth.

You would say I am very silly, and for good reason. Books do not reflect absolute truth. They might be such a reflection, by accident, but we have no reason to think that they are, and no way to know it for sure. So choosing a particular book, any book, as reflection of absolute truth seems absurd on the face of it, completely arbitrary, completely irrational.

But if I had pointed at the Christian Bible (as opposed to the Satanic Bible, which is a far superior book), a great number of people would agree with me. Why ? Is there anything special about that book ? Certainly not scientific advances : it was written before any such advances. Not wisdom : it was written by people who, by and large, were uneducated, violent, and invented their gods in their own image. Not research : in fact, no research was involved in its composition at all.

The Bible is the greatest example of how horrible "writing by committee" can become. Its books have more than a dozen authors, dispersed in space and time. They were chosen by the interplay of political wrangling in the ebullient, predatory Christian movements feeding off the weak and decaying Roman Empire. There was nothing planned about the Bible.

Did God inspire the Bible ? Well, for one thing, we would need to know what it means for a supernatural being to "inspire" anything. Does this mean that this being can actually enter people's minds and twist them ? If so, this only reinforces the serious problem of the co-existence of God and free will, to which Christians have no answer (for a taste of this problem, see the end of my entry "Unspoken assumptions in denying free will" - a future entry will go more into the details of this problem). So any attempt to justify this inspiration only creates more problems for god-belief.

Not that I want to go into alternate histories (although I find the topic fascinating), but if a group of barbarians slaughter the bishops assembled at the Council of Nicea, the Bible, and the Christian religion, would have turned out quite differently. So how can the Bible possibly be absolute truth ? This is utter nonsense.

All the other books we know were written and made by people. They are composed of paper and ink, and hopefully a nice cover. They are all to be examined critically, and we do not assume that they contain absolute truth, even though we may like some and dislike others. Even the most rabid Christian does not read his favourite theologian or demagogue (depending on his level of education) with absolute truth in mind.

So the question then becomes, how can we possibly assume that all of these inductive facts magically become false when applied to the Bible ? Is there anything that overrides these considerations ? Unless one already subscribes to the bankrupt Christian worldview, nothing can do this.

Now we have to examine the liberal position on the Bible. So maybe the Bible is not infallible, but it can still be true or valid in some way. Perhaps the Bible is a moral guide, or a historical relic, or whatever you happen to believe about it.

Here we run not into an inductive problem, but a problem of logic. One of two things must be true : either the Bible is special, or it isn't. Either the Bible is the exception to all other books ever written in the history of man, or it isn't. Either you accept the Christian worldview, or you don't.

If you believe that the Bible is infallible, then you deny yourself free will (thus invalidating your own belief), you break induction, and you also open yourself to all sorts of epistemic problems, such as determining which books are infallible and which are not. So you run into Mormons, who believe that Joseph Smith's inane ramblings are infallible, and that sort of case. So there is really no defense against this sort of corruption.

On the other hand, if you don't believe that the Bible is special, then it must be examined like any other book. And when you take the conscious decision to do that, you come to realize pretty quickly that it rests on no evidence. Evolution, history and archaeology disproves most of its claims, natural morality makes most of its rules abhorrent, and plain good sense makes basic contradictions apparent. The "holey" Bible has more holes than Peter Singer's moral system.

Either "God" is absolute good or absolute evil. Either "Jesus" is the son of God, saviour of mankind, and greatest thinker in history, or it is a corrupt, despicable mythical invention. There's no middle ground possible here.

Isn't that a dangerous position to take ? Am I encouraging fundamentalism by saying these things ? Well, I don't think anyone should be ashamed of the obvious truth. But more importantly, I don't think that this sort of logic actually encourages anyone. Religious belief, fundamentalist or not, is not based on logic but on hedonism. Liberal Christians will continue to believe in their fuzzy and soft brand of religion, because that is what gives them the most mental satisfaction or pleasure. Fundamentalists will continue to get off on condemning and being self-righteous. This is a personality trait which I, or no one else, can really change.

Post a Comment


12 Comments:

At 1/08/2006 7:44 AM, Blogger Niels declaimed...

Rational enquiry? No, that's strictly forbidden.

 
At 1/08/2006 2:40 PM, Blogger Matt TheHat declaimed...

You're only laughing at the Raelians? While true, they are a funny little cult, they do have the most logical ideas I've seen in a "religion". No, I do not count myself as one, they denied the allegations of orgies so I decided not to join. I just like looking at different cults. It seems to me that if they had a theory about that, I would consider it plausible. But since they claim that Rael was contacted, the only one contacted, and you need to do what he says, then yeah, it's a funny cult.
I know someone who, after being given a Book of Mormon from a Mormon, decided to read it. After reading it she concluded that the only possible explanation was that he was visited by aliens.

 
At 1/08/2006 3:47 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

When did I ever talk about the Raelians ?

 
At 1/08/2006 4:23 PM, Blogger The Atheist Messiah declaimed...

Who is peter Singer?

I too hate the soft middleground that "liberal" Christians take on the bible. At least the fundamentalist nutballs have the guts to say what they believe with conviction.

Liberal Christians like the warm feeling they get from reducing God to a neutered, harmless distant friend. Not the all-powerful and vindictive God the fundamentalists love so much.

 
At 1/08/2006 5:01 PM, Blogger Matt TheHat declaimed...

(we walk fast around that one, only stopping to laugh at the Raelian books)

Just a comment that got me thinking.

 
At 1/08/2006 7:09 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

Oh that. That was from personal experience. ;)

 
At 1/09/2006 12:44 PM, Blogger Johan declaimed...

"Books do not reflect absolute truth".
Now that's true. What's more, I can prove that they never do ;-)
http://meaning-fromwithin-illusion.blogspot.com/

My pleasure.

 
At 1/09/2006 4:14 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

Very...nicely...done!

 
At 1/11/2006 8:17 PM, Blogger freethoughtmom declaimed...

francois,
Just one more perspective I've run into... those that feel the bible is not that special, but still are unwilling or unable to give up religion anyway. It's completely illogical, but some people turn to religion for emotional reasons. Logical arguments have no sway.

Some days I feel like I should have pointy ears like Spock.

 
At 1/24/2006 5:29 PM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce declaimed...

For what it's worth, the classic Christian doctrine of inspiration is more like compatibilism about free will than this idea that what philosophers now call libertarianism about freedom. The view is that God can and does work through the personality and thought processes of the person doing the writing, so that it is both what God wants to say and what the person writing it wants to say. Anyone with a compatibilist view of freedom (as you seem to have, judging by the post you linked to) should have no problem with this.

It's a strange argument to say the Bible itself would have turned out differently if events had gone differently in terms of how people interpret it. But it's also question-begging. It assumes that God does not guide history. After all, if God can guide history, then God may well have guided things so that the Council of Nicea made the decisions it made. So this is no argument against the very people you're arguing against, because you're assuming what you're trying to prove.

I've never even heard of any archeological discovery that disproves anything in the Bible. Many things the Bible says are not confirmed or disconfirmed in archeology, but that's no disproof, and it turns out that as time goes on more and more things are being confirmed that had been doubted. It's nothing like the case of Mormons, whose entire premise is flat-out refuted by archeology.

I do agree with your main point, however. There really are two options, and those who want some in-between position are actually going against what Jesus himself said repeatedly.

 
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