Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Rethinking the Exodus

I saw this film and met the film-maker a few months ago.  I was very impressed by it and wholeheartedly recommend seeing it.  Here are my thoughts on it which I recently posted on HuffPo:

In his classic "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," physicist, historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn introduced the world to the term "paradigm shift." He posited that rather than developing in a linear, step by step fashion, science tends to undergo periodic revolutions that wholly reshape how we understand the earlier research.

He divided the revolution pattern into five distinct phases:

1. The pre-paradigm phase, in which there is no consensus on any particular theory.
2. Normal Science, in which puzzles are solved within the context of the dominant paradigm.
3. The Crisis Phase, when after significant efforts of normal science within a paradigm fail.
4. Scientific revolution, the phase in which the underlying assumptions of the field are reexamined and a new paradigm is established.
5. Post-Revolution, the new paradigm's dominance is established and so scientists return to normal science, solving puzzles within the new paradigm.

Kuhn cited Atomism in Chemistry and the Copernican Revolution as classic examples of his theory. Today we can easily add cosmology, biology, neurology, food science and others to the list.
For scientists like Kuhn (and chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi) the scientific endeavor is inherently fraught with subjectivity and as such is a relativized discipline. People, no matter how intelligent, are biased and scientists, being people themselves, are no less subject to this phenomenon than anyone else. At its heart then, the inherent resistance to the cognitive dissonance caused by competing scientific models is much more of an emotional matter than a scientific one - it involves a willingness to accept and make peace with a reality that is unlike what was believed or hoped for. In this regard, Dr. Kuhn's five stages are akin to Kubler-Ross's Five Stages of Mourning - a gradual process of letting go.

It's in that light that we should view the scientific evidence of the Biblical Exodus. The world of Archaeology has long held that the arc of Near Eastern history has been meticulously mapped and that no concrete evidence has ever emerged to suggest that there had been an actual mass migration out of Egypt. Until now - perhaps.

Filmmaker Tim Mahoney has spent the last twelve years exploring the state of our collective understanding of the evidence (or lack thereof) of the Biblical Exodus. He has traveled the globe and spoken to the world's leading experts on the topic. As a religious Christian it was a personal matter for him and one who's twists and turns caused him no small amount of doubt, fear and confusion. "Patterns of Evidence" is a feature length documentary that he has written and directed - and it details the conclusion that he drew at the end of his journey.

Like other scientific revolutions, the earlier paradigm is based on a certain set of assumptions - which if accurate will tell the true historical story. But if they are not, they can easily prevent the true story from ever coming to light.

As Mahoney recently explained:

"Mainstream archaeologists would say that if the Exodus ever happened, it happened at the time of Rameses, because of the biblical text that said the Israelites were building the city of Rameses. Yet when people understood Rameses lived around 1250 B.C., they didn't find evidence for this type of story in that time period."

"But other archaeologists said to look deeper," he continued. "Beneath the city of Rameses, was another city, much older, called Avaris. And that city was filled with Semitic people. It started very small, just as the Bible says, and over time it grew into one of the largest cities of that time. And that is where we find, I think, the early Israelites. That's the pattern that matches the story of the Bible. It's not at the time of Rameses, but it's at the location of Rameses."

Clearly that would be a significant detail.

Another fascinating line of thinking that he follows concerns the discovery of a royal tomb of an unknown figure who was of Semitic stock and of an area of housing that bears a striking resemblance to those in the area that the Hebrews were said to originate. Could this be evidence of Egypt's Goshen neighborhood that the Book of Genesis says the Hebrews settled in? Is it possible that the unusual tomb is that of the Biblical Joseph?

Mahoney again explains:

"The story of Joseph tells of how he was sold as a slave and came into Egypt and then he rose to become this leader, second in command in Egypt. Well, in Avaris, the archaeology shows a small group of Semitic-type people came in, and then there's this house that matches the area where they would have come from. On top of that house a palace was built. They had tombs behind this palace. And this palace had a statue, and it was the tomb of a Semitic leader."

"The interesting thing is this statue found in the remainder of this tomb, a pyramid tomb - which was only given to royalty types - why did a Semitic character have this? What some people are saying is that this matches the story, maybe that prestige that Joseph would have received."
He also points out that the tomb contains no bones - a detail that accords with the Biblical account but would be unlikely otherwise as thieves generally have no interest in the bones but only in whatever spoils the tomb might contain.

Patterns of Evidence is an engaging, visually pleasing and fascinating piece of film-making whatever one believes. It's meticulously presented and researched and gives a remarkable amount of air time to the detractors and as such cannot be accused of polemics or propagandizing.

Scientific revolutions take time. I sense that this may be the opening salvo in a brand new one.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Seven Things Atheists Get Wrong

I had been meaning to post this for a while - an interesting perspective from a friend of a friend (David Marcus) at the Federalist:

In a spectacular and telling failure of journalism MSNBC reported recently that Pope Francis “broke with Catholic tradition” by asserting that the Big Bang theory is real. Instantly, the Internet responded with the name Georges Lemaitre, one of the creators of the Theory of Universal Expansion who also happened to be a Jesuit priest. He is also the first entry on a Google search of “Catholic Big Bang.”
That the MSNBC author did not bother to do one search before making a pronouncement about the faith of a billion people displays abysmal incompetence. But it also reflects very skewed and dangerous ideas about the nature of religion widely held in the media and creative class. As atheist Sam Harris put it in his article “Science Must Destroy Religion”: “the conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero sum.” This confrontational attitude ,which is unnecessary and harmful, springs from a slew of misconceptions about religion as a human phenomenon.

It was apt that MSNBCs misnomer about the Catholic view of science concerned creation. Often the origin of the earth and of man plays a central role in the science versus religion debate. There are jokes about cave men riding dinosaurs, deep concerns about our children being exposed to the idea of intelligent design, and disdain thrown upon those who question the almighty power of science. But, frankly, creation, while fascinating, is not the most important aspect of the atheist critique of religion. Morality is. The means by which the earth was made plays an insignificant role in our daily lives. Moral choices, on the other hand, are made every day, and they have long, lingering effects.

2. Religion Is the Foundation of All Morality, Not Merely an Expression of It

The atheist approach to the non-empirical question of “how do we determine right from wrong” tends to be a negative ad campaign listing the horrors done in the name of religion. Whether it is the Inquisition or ISIS, atheists argue that these barbarities stem directly from the intolerance of religious texts and practices. On the surface it can be a persuasive argument, but upon deeper reflection it becomes murky.
Christopher Hitchens, of all people, inadvertently exposed the complexity of religion’s relationship to morality and barbarism in a debate. Confronted with the fact that Stalin was an atheist who committed genocide, he said:
In Russia in 1917 for hundreds of years billions of people had been told that the head of the state is a supernatural power...This has been inculcated in generations of Russians for hundreds of years, if you are Josef Stalin, himself a seminarian from Georgia, you shouldn’t be in the totalitarianism business if you can’t exploit a ready made reservoir of credulity and servility.
Hitchens is too clever for his own good here. In broadening the scope of immoral actions caused by religion to capture the acts of atheists, he broadens it so completely that it captures everything. Hitchens, in his eagerness to blame religion for Stalin’s atrocities asserts that religion is the foundation for all moral choices, not merely those made in religion’s name.
He is absolutely right. All of us, whether atheist, agnostic, or a member of a religion, practice morality based on religion. Without religion there would never have been morality. There was no peaceful, Adamite paradise of moral choice which religion sullied millennia ago. Before religion, there was murder and rape and all manner of horrors just as there are today. It was religion that first sought to constrain human actions through a moral code, not science. The same credulity and servility that led Russia to support Stalin leads us to believe that right differs from wrong and that we must choose (or serve) that which is right.

3. Religion Was the Foundation of Society, Not an Addition to It

In his insightful essay, “Primitive Religion and the Origin of the State”[1] philosopher Marcel Gauchet goes a step farther, arguing that without religion there would be no state. He writes that “by going back in time to the religious tie between supernatural founder-givers and human heirs-debtors, we can elucidate the system of primitive links that produces the social space.” It was this debt to supernatural, irrational powers that created the very notion of acting in accordance with what is good. Whether all, or some, or none of the admonitions in Leviticus or the Koran are really moral is beside the point. They are part of humanity’s search, stretching to the invisible past, for guidelines or maxims that produce good actions and the structures to encourage them.

4. Atheists Do Believe

The question most often posed to atheists who complain about the presence of the Ten Commandments or a creche in public spaces is, “Since you don’t believe, why does it bother you so much?” This is the wrong question. The right question is, “Since you do believe, why does it bother you so much?” Because most atheists do believe, and I stress the word believe, that they are capable of understanding right from wrong. They provide no scientific justification for such a belief because no such scientific justification exists.

5. Science Can’t Teach Us Right from Wrong

Even if it were proven that there is a “generosity gene” or that there are evolutionary advantages to cooperative behavior, such things would not inform us how to act in a given situation. The activation of a gene or the selfless actions of our ancestors may well provide a subconscious impulse for moral action, but that impulse must still be translated to the conscious mind. Upon finding a $20 bill on the floor, we must still decide whether to keep it or look for its previous owner based on stories we tell ourselves. Science cannot tell us these stories, and the moment it tries to it becomes religion.
The idea of a cold finite existence ending in complete oblivion is not the harshest concept an atheist must swallow. Far more present and paralyzing is the notion that our actions are devoid of moral consequence. As Hitchens points out, so ingrained is our credulity towards morality and our servility to it that most people cannot ignore it. It is not merely silly superstitions that atheists seek to remove from our personal and policy choices, it is the idea that an objectively, morally correct choice is even possible. But even if we accept the premise that morality is entirely subjective, we still have to decide how to act.

6. Religion Complements Science, It Doesn’t Oppose It

This is where religion, far from being the natural enemy of science, comes to its aid. Just as believers must always fight nagging doubts about the truth of their beliefs, the atheist must fight nagging beliefs when confronted with moral choices. Just as there is no paradox in a believer knowing that science can reveal important details of how the physical world operates, there is no paradox in an atheist knowing that religion and its ancient history of moral investigation is relevant to moral understanding.
In his masterpiece “The Glass Bead Game,” Herman Hesse envisions a future Europe in which there are two basic powers. The first is the elite group of players of the game, a mysterious enterprise in which all of human knowledge is manipulated and combined to create pure, rational truths. The other is the Roman Catholic Church, which remains essentially unchanged in the world of the novel. Hesse knew that at some points the cold, rational understanding of the world must give way to metaphysical musings. The book’s central character stands between these two powers, influenced by both. Most Americans stand similarly between these obligations to science and to religion.

7. Ignorance of Religion Is Ignorance of History, For Atheists and Everyone

The systematic removal of religious texts, practices, and imagery from our public lives is not a worthy goal. When the Ten Commandments are placed on a wall, nobody believes they are the actual tablets Moses brought down from Sinai’s mount. They are a representation of an ancient message that one can believe is sacred or secular but that one cannot claim is insignificant. It is possible to encounter and explore a religious text without imbuing it with supernatural significance. Harold Bloom does just that in his insightful “The Book of J,” which explores the work of one Old Testament writer through the lens of literary criticism.
Secular approaches to religion such as Bloom’s are far superior to the idea of hiding religion from education or public discourse. We have to understand that for thousands of years our culture and every culture based its moral choices on very simple sets of stories—stories which many of us have stopped telling each other. That has a terrible effect on our ability to understand our culture and its past. Try reading “Moby Dick” without a working knowledge of the Bible. It becomes little more than a tall tale about fishing.
Showing respect for a person or culture’s religious beliefs, even if you disagree with him, is simple common courtesy. I am asking atheists to do much more. I am asking them to understand and embrace the role religion played in creating the world we live in, and to see that religion was not merely the author of good moral choices or bad moral choices but of the very concept of moral choice.
Later in his essay, Harris argues that “religion is fast growing incompatible with the emergence of global, civil society.” This, in a nutshell, is what atheists get wrong. It is only through religion, and its metaphysical, moral obligations that global society is possible at all. As Harris pulls the offending thread of religion out of the global moral tapestry, it falls apart, replaced only with his preferences. In the end the battle, between atheists and believers in the area of moral choice is little different than the battle between Jews and Muslims. All of us have contributions to make, and no side will ever prove its unique power to teach us how we should choose.
[1]Gauchet, Marcel, “Primitive Religion and the Origin of the State,” New French Thought,Lilla, Mark (1994).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Love - Not Just About Chemicals Anymore!

Here is some standard materialist thinking about emotionality.  In a nutshell:

              1. Physical existence is the only kind of existence
              2. People experience emotions, therefore
              3. Emotions have a physical cause

For many years we have been hearing about the causal link between the experience of love and a chemical called Oxytocin. The story went something like this:

              1. People have genes
              2. Genes have a "drive" to reproduce
              3. Evolution selected Oxytocin to help ensure that parents would care for their offspring
              4. "Love" is really just Oxytocin tricking us into keeping our genes going

So leaving aside the high improbability of a functional gene ever randomly developing and not attempting to account for how a chemical arrangement like a gene would come to "want" something like reproduction and not bothering to ask how the species could have survived before it had evolved its Oxytocin, materialists have a new problem - Oxytocin, it seems, doesn't even do what they thought.

A science writer known as Neuroskeptic has recently published a piece in Discover entitled "Oxytocin: Two New Reasons For Skepticism."  Apparently, according to researcher James C. Christensen "quite a lot of previous Oxytocin research may be flawed."  Later in the study, Chistensen details how he and his team extracted and measured Oxytocin levels in people who were asked to play "the Prisoner's Dilemma" game (which requires participants to make decisions based on trust or lack thereof).  They assumed that there would be an obvious relationship between the Oxytocin levels and the level of trust but what they found was that there are "no significant correlations between Oxytocin and behavior."

And there's the rub.  Maybe there's not much of a correlation between chemicals in the body and behavior overall.  Could it be that chemical changes generally occur on the heels of emotional ones and not the other way around?  If so, what would then be the true source of our emotional experience?  Theists have long asserted that there is both a physical and non-physical component to a human being. These components work in tandem to create the full experience of being human. 

Science is at a loss as to how to explain many aspects of human behavior and experience .  The main reason for this lack of explanatory prowess is rooted in materialist assumption #1 above.  Once science comes to acknowledge that there are aspects of existence that are not rooted in physicality but rather in metaphysicality they may be able to explain the human experience of love.

Science is great, but always remember that it's constantly being revised.  Always take it with a few grains of salt when they make their proclamations - especially ones that seem to fly in the face of spiritual reality.