Imperfect Copies and Evolution

We tend to think of evidence for evolution in terms of complex facts of geology and biology. But in fact there is pretty good evidence for the theory of evolution which is available to almost everyone, or least everyone who has some familiarity with various kinds of plants and animals, without any complicated study.

What happens when you take a thing, then make a copy, then make copies of the copies, and so on? If your copies are perfect, you will just get a bunch of identical copies of the original. But if your copies are not perfect, something else happens. Suppose you perform this process with photocopies of a sheet of paper with text on it. Over time, various discrepancies will creep in. For example, during one of your copies there may be a hair on the surface of the copy machine, and this hair will show up as an extra line on the copy.

Then, when you make copies of the sheet with the extra line, all the copies you make of it, and all the copies of the copies of that sheet, and so on, will all have an extra line.

At the end you will be able to divide your copies into at least two families: ones with the extra line, and ones without it. In practice you will not get just two families, but families within families within families, and so on.

There are two facts about living things, neither of which is all that hard to notice.

First, living things make copies of themselves. They are not perfect copies but imperfect ones, with differences from the original.

Second, living things are organized in the way discussed above, as families within families. Thus there are various kinds of dog such as the chihuahua and the golden retriever, which are both kinds of dog. And then there are dogs and wolves, which are pretty similar themselves. And wolves have a similar relationship with coyotes and jackals. And all of these canine species have a similar relationship with cat families, and so on.

These two facts are evidence for common descent, that is, evidence that all of these living things are remote descendants of a lengthy process of the imperfect copying of one original ancestor.

Nonetheless, the theory was rarely proposed, if not non-existent, before the eighteenth century. Empedocles anticipated the theory of natural selection, as in this statement by Aristotle:

Wherever then all the parts came about just what they would have been if they had come be for an end, such things survived, being organized spontaneously in a fitting way; whereas those which grew otherwise perished and continue to perish, as Empedocles says his ‘man-faced ox-progeny’ did.

Empedocles, however, implied (for example by speaking of “man-faced ox-progeny”) that things came to be by chance, and does not seem to have suggested common descent in particular.

Given the presence of evidence for common descent, why was the theory not proposed much earlier? I have two guesses regarding the reason for this. First, the existence of an apparently settled account in the book of Genesis. Second, the fact that it is difficult for people to conceive of long periods of time and of their effects. People have a hard time even with much shorter periods of time, let alone the idea of considering the effects of the passage of millions of years.

The 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission Statement on Genesis

Some days ago I quoted, without discussion, this 1909 statement from the Pontifical Biblical Commission:

Question I: Whether the various exegetical systems which have been proposed to exclude the literal historical sense of the three first chapters of the Book of Genesis, and have been defended by the pretense of science, are sustained by a solid foundation? — Reply: In the negative.

Question II: Whether, when the nature and historical form of the Book of Genesis does not oppose, because of the peculiar connections of the three first chapters with each other and with the following chapters, because of the manifold testimony of the Old and New Testaments; because of the almost unanimous opinion of the Holy Fathers, and because of the traditional sense which, transmitted from the Israelite people, the Church always held, it can be taught that the three aforesaid chapters of Genesis do not contain the stories of events which really happened, that is, which correspond with objective reality and historical truth; but are either accounts celebrated in fable drawn from the mythologies and cosmogonies of ancient peoples and adapted by a holy writer to monotheistic doctrine, after expurgating any error of polytheism; or allegories and symbols, devoid of a basis of objective reality, set forth under the guise of history to inculcate religious and philosophical truths; or, finally, legends, historical in part and fictitious in part, composed freely for the instruction and edification of souls? — Reply: In the negative to both parts.

Question III: Whether in particular the literal and historical sense can be called into question, where it is a matter of facts related in the same chapters, which pertain to the foundation of the Christian religion; for example, among others, the creation of all things wrought by God in the beginning of time; the special creation of man; the formation of the first woman from the first man; the oneness of the human race; the original happiness of our first parents in the state of justice, integrity, and immortality; the command given to man by God to prove his obedience; the transgression of the divine command through the devil’s persuasion under the guise of a serpent; the casting of our first parents out of that first state of innocence; and also the promise of a future restorer? — Reply: In the negative.

This supports a literal historical interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis, and is opposed to the interpretation I supported in that post. I consider the decision to publish this statement to have been a foolish decision on the part of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, even in 1909. However, the Catholic Church has a long history and tends to be fairly careful even in its apparently foolish behavior. We can notice some signs of care in this statement:

The first response says that “the various exegetical systems which have been proposed to exclude the literal historical sense of the three first chapters of the Book of Genesis” are not “sustained by a solid foundation.” Notice that in principle this could be true even if the first chapters of Genesis are not actually intended in a literal historical sense. It could also be true about the systems of the time, even if it is possible to build a solid foundation for an interpretation excluding such a literal historical sense.

The second response denies that the non-historical interpretations “can be taught.” It is strictly speaking a disciplinary decision, and is thus logically consistent with the opinion that such a non-historical interpretation is true, even if the decision only makes sense in view of the Commission’s opinion that such interpretations are reasonably likely to be false.

The third response denies that “the literal and historical sense can be called into question.” It too is a disciplinary decision, and does not exclude the possibility the text is not actually intended in a literal and historical way.

To someone unfamiliar with magisterial statements, these interpretations might seem to be nitpicking, but in fact this is simply the correct and careful way to read these statements. We can see a similar sort of care in the statement of Pope Pius XII on polygenism in Humani Generis:

When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

Pius XII is careful not to say that polygenism is false. Instead he says that “the faithful cannot embrace that opinion,” and explains that “it is no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled” with the teaching of the Church. This deliberately leaves open the possibility that it may become apparent later, and that likewise Catholics may be allowed to accept the opinion. Similarly, he adds “on this earth” to “true men” because if “true man” means a rational animal, then any rational aliens will be true men who are not descended from Adam. Since he does not wish to make any statement about aliens, he adds this qualifier to his statement.

In 1948 the Pontifical Biblical Commission sent a letter containing this paragraph to the Archbishop of Paris:

The question of the literary forms of the eleven first chapters of Genesis is more obscure and more complicated. These literary forms do not correspond exactly with any classical category, and are not to be judged according to Greco-Latin or modern literary forms. Hence the historicity of these chapters can neither be denied nor affirmed simply, without undue application to them of the norms of a literary form under which they cannot be classed. If, then, it is admitted that in these chapters history in the classic and modern sense is not found, it must also be confessed that modern science does not yet offer a positive solution to all the problems of these chapters. . . . If anyone should contend a priori that their narratives contain no history in the modern sense of the word, he would easily insinuate that these are in no sense of the word historical, although in fact they relate in simple and figurative words, which correspond to the capacity of men who are less erudite, fundamental truths with reference to the economy of health [salvation], and also describe in popular manner the origin of humankind and of an elect people.

One might say that the Pontifical Biblical Commission here is asserting that the first chapters of Genesis have an “invisible genre” which does not correspond to any other that is known. Consequently, Fr. Brian Harrison, rejecting this invisible genre, is rejecting this claim of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

In any case, although they imply that these chapters are in some “sense of the word historical,” this seems only to mean that the text should be taken to assert “fundamental truths with reference to the economy of salvation.” This is actually consistent with the genre I suggested, although I would not personally describe it as a historical genre. A story of this kind is generally intended to say or imply something about the world. In particular, as we saw, Genesis seems to say that the world once existed in some kind of perfect state, and that we fell from that state due to a human fault.

The interpretation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is consistent with the same reading:

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

This assertion is also consistent with a much more historical reading of Genesis 3. However, it is clear enough that such a more historical reading is not what the authors of the Catechism have in mind, as for example from this text:

The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: “It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.”

This text is not speaking of discoveries made by people from Answers in Genesis. As is evident from “development of life-forms and the appearance of man,” it is speaking of biological evolution, both of animals and of human beings. While this is not a specific statement about the events of Genesis 3, this acceptance of the theory of evolution implies a fairly generic reading of the chapter. This seems to imply a reading of Genesis very close to the one we have suggested.

Note that none of this prevents the 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission statement from being evidence for a literal historical reading. The evidence does not change sides. But it seems evident overall that it is more reasonable to accept a more generic, “mythical” reading as being the true sense of Genesis 2-3, whether or not you give any weight to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Nor is this deduced by the syllogism discussed by Fr. Brian Harrison. This is the most reasonable reading even if you think that Scripture is false.

Fr. Harrison also adduces the evidence that most Christians throughout history have preferred a literal reading of the text. But this is another story for another time.

Victory or Defeat

Earlier we commented briefly on this passage in Fr. Harrison’s essay on bomb shelter theology:

We can imagine a scenario in which, with the further advance of technology, space-ships can not only photograph, but also visit, the craters. But as the first landing-craft approaches the crater-floor, disaster strikes! As it descends past the rim of the crater, still 400 feet above ground-level, the craft is rocked by a resounding SPLASH! The crew feel first their boots, then their trousers and other clothes, soaked by a rising inundation of … water no human eye can see! With the whole of planet earth watching in horror on television, the craft takes its passengers to an invisible watery grave; but the last words transmitted to earth by the doomed radio-man before his equipment sputters out remain forever engraved on the memory of the human race: “The water! It’s (gulp) – it’s (glug) – SALTY!!” For the faithful, victory has indeed been snatched from the jaws of defeat: the naked Emperor turns out to be clothed in splendor and majesty after all. The only moon-water believers who seem slightly embarrassed in the midst of this spectacular triumph are the more radically progressive bomb-shelter theologians, who have for years been teaching the new generation of clergy not to be so naive as to anticipate this kind of outcome from the long-awaited crater-landing. It had become axiomatic in such sophisticated circles that moon-water is to be understood as not only invisible, but also intangible.

Fr. Harrison says that in this scenario, “For the faithful, victory has indeed been snatched from the jaws of defeat,” and characterizes the incident as a “spectacular triumph.”

Let’s compare this again with the quotation from Plato’s Gorgias which I mentioned at the time:

And what is my sort? you will ask. I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and very willing to refute any one else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute; for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two, just as the gain is greater of being cured of a very great evil than of curing another.

These are two very different ways of framing similar situations. For Fr. Harrison, why does he talk of triumph, or victory and defeat? Who is conquering and who is being conquered, and how does this happen? Basically this corresponds to talk of people “winning” and “losing” a debate. The faithful triumph over the unfaithful in the situation under discussion because the believers are proved to have been right about the moon water, and the unbelievers wrong, much as someone who wins a debate triumphs over his partner either by proving him wrong, or at least by making stronger and more convincing arguments.

For Socrates, on the other hand, at least in this passage, a discussion is not a debate where one person is trying to conquer another person. The purpose is to gain the truth. Socrates continues, “For I imagine that there is no evil which a man can endure so great as an erroneous opinion about the matters of which we are speaking.” The discussion is a collaborative effort to gain the truth, and not a question of one or the other person “winning.” Success means reaching the truth, no matter which partner ends up changing their mind, or even if both must change their minds.

In a debate, on the contrary, the purpose is not to establish the truth. I can win a debate without the truth, if my arguments are so convincing that my opponent concedes that he cannot reply to them, while I can give apparently good responses to all of his points. A debate is more like an athletic contest, and winning and losing exist in both in similar ways. By winning the debate or the athletic contest, I establish myself as the better man and my opponent as the inferior one. The real purpose here is status. Thus, proving that a religion is false would be a defeat for believers by lowering their status relative to unbelievers, and proving it true would be a victory for believers by raising their status relative to unbelievers.

For Socrates, in contrast, whoever passes from error to truth has attained a great victory, and a much better one than the supposed victory of the person who showed him that he was in error.

Concerns about status are not necessarily concerns about one’s own personal status. Thus for example we might consider this passage from 1st Maccabees:

The king’s officers who were enforcing the apostasy came to the town of Modein to make them offer sacrifice. Many from Israel came to them; and Mattathias and his sons were assembled. Then the king’s officers spoke to Mattathias as follows: “You are a leader, honored and great in this town, and supported by sons and brothers. Now be the first to come and do what the king commands, as all the Gentiles and the people of Judah and those that are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons will be numbered among the Friends of the king, and you and your sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts.”

But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, every one of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.”

I think it would be an excessively modern understanding to suppose that Mattathias is saying here, “The teachings of our religion are true, and therefore we cannot abandon them.” The contrast with the behavior of the Gentiles and the other nations under the rule of the king is instructive. Even if they “have chosen to obey his commandments, every one of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors.” Why does Mattathias mention the fact that the nations are “abandoning the religion of their ancestors,” in contrast to his own behavior?

If Mattathias simply believes that the teachings of his own religion are true, and the teachings of the religions of other nations false, then it would be appropriate for him to maintain his own religion, but it would be equally appropriate for the nations to abandon theirs. Instead, he appears to imply that abandoning the religion of one’s ancestors is a bad thing no matter what, that it is a bad thing on the part of the other nations, and that it would be a bad thing if he did it himself.

The concern seems to be that abandoning the religion of one’s ancestors is dishonoring one’s ancestors. The other nations are giving in to the king and dishonoring their ancestors, but we will not do that, instead choosing to maintain the honor which is due to our ancestors. This is not necessarily a bad motive on the part of Mattathias. As we saw elsewhere, asking whether one should practice a religion is not the same as asking whether certain teachings are true. It might be perfectly reasonable to say that I should practice the religion of my ancestors in order to give them due honor, even if they might have believed some things that were not true.

A similar concern is probably frequently involved in the idea that true religious doctrines should be things that are passed down from the distant past. If we accept the doctrine of the astronauts that no water can be seen on the moon, this will dishonor our traditions and our ancestors. The problem is that while the desire to honor one’s ancestors may be morally praiseworthy, it does not make it any more likely that their beliefs were actually true. And due to the nature of progress in truth, it is often the case that newer doctrines are truer than older ones.

C.S. Lewis on Bulverism

C.S. Lewis begins his essay on Bulverism:

It is a disastrous discovery, as Emerson says somewhere, that we exist. I mean, it is disastrous when instead of merely attending to a rose we are forced to think of ourselves looking at the rose, with a certain type of mind and a certain type of eyes. It is disastrous because, if you are not very careful, the color of the rose gets attributed to our optic nerves and its scent to our noses, and in the end there is no rose left. The professional philosophers have been bothered about this universal black-out for over two hundred years, and the world has not much listened to them. But the same disaster is now occurring on a level we can all understand.

We have recently “discovered that we exist” in two new senses. The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes. The Marxians have discovered that we exist as members of some economic class. In the old days it was supposed that if a thing seemed obviously true to a hundred men, then it was probably true in fact. Nowadays the Freudian will tell you to go and analyze the hundred: you will find that they all think Elizabeth [I] a great queen because they all have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source. And the Marxist will tell you to go and examine the economic interests of the hundred; you will find that they all think freedom a good thing because they are all members of the bourgeoisie whose prosperity is increased by a policy of laissez-faire. Their thoughts are “ideologically tainted” at the source.

The person probably most known for making the first point, about sensation, is John Locke. He says in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

9. Primary qualities of bodies. Qualities thus considered in bodies are,

First, such as are utterly inseparable from the body, in what state soever it be; and such as in all the alterations and changes it suffers, all the force can be used upon it, it constantly keeps; and such as sense constantly finds in every particle of matter which has bulk enough to be perceived; and the mind finds inseparable from every particle of matter, though less than to make itself singly be perceived by our senses: v.g. Take a grain of wheat, divide it into two parts; each part has still solidity, extension, figure, and mobility: divide it again, and it retains still the same qualities; and so divide it on, till the parts become insensible; they must retain still each of them all those qualities. For division (which is all that a mill, or pestle, or any other body, does upon another, in reducing it to insensible parts) can never take away either solidity, extension, figure, or mobility from any body, but only makes two or more distinct separate masses of matter, of that which was but one before; all which distinct masses, reckoned as so many distinct bodies, after division, make a certain number. These I call original or primary qualities of body, which I think we may observe to produce simple ideas in us, viz. solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number.

10. Secondary qualities of bodies. Secondly, such qualities which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities, i.e. by the bulk, figure, texture, and motion of their insensible parts, as colours, sounds, tastes, &c. These I call secondary qualities. To these might be added a third sort, which are allowed to be barely powers; though they are as much real qualities in the subject as those which I, to comply with the common way of speaking, call qualities, but for distinction, secondary qualities. For the power in fire to produce a new colour, or consistency, in wax or clay — by its primary qualities, is as much a quality in fire, as the power it has to produce in me a new idea or sensation of warmth or burning, which I felt not before — by the same primary qualities, viz. the bulk, texture, and motion of its insensible parts.

It is possible that this is actually mostly true, and mostly consistent with the philosophy of Aristotle, even though Locke would likely wish that the latter were not the case. Aristotle says in On the Soul:

If it is true that the movement, both the acting and the being acted upon, is to be found in that which is acted upon, both the sound and the hearing so far as it is actual must be found in that which has the faculty of hearing; for it is in the passive factor that the actuality of the active or motive factor is realized; that is why that which causes movement may be at rest. Now the actuality of that which can sound is just sound or sounding, and the actuality of that which can hear is hearing or hearkening; ‘sound’ and ‘hearing’ are both ambiguous. The same account applies to the other senses and their objects. For as the-acting-and-being-acted-upon is to be found in the passive, not in the active factor, so also the actuality of the sensible object and that of the sensitive subject are both realized in the latter. But while in some cases each aspect of the total actuality has a distinct name, e.g. sounding and hearkening, in some one or other is nameless, e.g. the actuality of sight is called seeing, but the actuality of colour has no name: the actuality of the faculty of taste is called tasting, but the actuality of flavour has no name. Since the actualities of the sensible object and of the sensitive faculty are one actuality in spite of the difference between their modes of being, actual hearing and actual sounding appear and disappear from existence at one and the same moment, and so actual savour and actual tasting, &c., while as potentialities one of them may exist without the other. The earlier students of nature were mistaken in their view that without sight there was no white or black, without taste no savour. This statement of theirs is partly true, partly false: ‘sense’ and ‘the sensible object’ are ambiguous terms, i.e. may denote either potentialities or actualities: the statement is true of the latter, false of the former. This ambiguity they wholly failed to notice.

Saying the sound and color are a “potentiality” when they are not being sensed, and actualized when they are being sensed, suggests very much the same thing as Locke when he says that sensible qualities are “such qualities which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us.”

However, by using the terms of “primary” and “secondary,” and saying that sensible qualities are “nothing in the objects themselves but…”, Locke suggests that there is something especially unreal about qualities such as color and odor, as Lewis mentions in his opening paragraph. This at least is a mistake on Locke’s part, since he failed to notice that there is no huge distinction between the aspects of a body that he calls “primary” and the ones that he calls “secondary.” Just as the color of an object appears differently in different lighting and so on, so a body looks larger or smaller depending on where it is situated relative to me. Likewise an elliptical object appears to have a different shape depending on my point of view. In other words, if there is reason to think that color is “nothing but the ability to look colored,” then there is an equal reason to think that shape is “nothing but the power to appear shaped.”

And I would say that both of these are true in a certain way, and false in a certain way, just as Aristotle did about the existence of white and black. They are false, if they are taken to mean that “grass is green,” is a false statement, or that is a subjective one. It is a true statement, and an objective fact about grass. They are true, if they mean that what we know about greenness is basically what we know from sensing it, and that being green means having the possibility of being sensed in this way. And the like is equally true of shape, size, quantity, hardness, and the other aspects that Locke calls primary.

C.S. Lewis is using this as a comparison with a critical analysis of people’s thought processes. Just as analyzing the causality involved in sensation can lead someone to say that sensible things don’t have an objective existence, so analyzing people’s thought processes could lead someone to believe that nothing is true. Thus he continues:

Now this is obviously great fun; but it has not always been noticed that there is a bill to pay for it. There are two questions that people who say this kind of thing ought to be asked. The first is, are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, does the taint invalidate the tainted thought – in the sense of making it untrue – or not?

If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology or philosophical idealism. The Freudian and Marxian are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside. They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on. If, on the other hand, they say that the taint need not invalidate their thinking, then neither need it invalidate ours. In which case they have saved their own branch, but also saved ours along with it.

The only line they can really take is to say that some thoughts are tainted and others are not – which has the advantage (if Freudians and Marxians regard it as an advantage) of being what every sane man has always believed. But if that is so, we must then ask how you find out which are tainted and which are not. It is no earthly use saying that those are tainted which agree with the secret wishes of the thinker. Some of the things I should like to believe must in fact be true; it is impossible to arrange a universe which contradicts everyone’s wishes, in every respect, at every moment. Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.” You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant – but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.

If being “tainted” means having causes that are not completely correlated with truth, then the true answers to Lewis’s questions are that either all, or nearly all, thoughts are tainted, and no, this does not necessarily mean that they are false. Virtually all thoughts are tainted in this sense because human beings do not usually have only a single motive for things that they choose to do, and this includes the choice to believe certain things. This need not “invalidate” the thoughts because obviously it does not guarantee that the thoughts are false.

Lewis is correct that pointing out that someone’s opinions match his desires does not prove that his opinions are false. However, we saw earlier that a person’s claim is evidence for what is claimed. This will be affected, however, by a person’s motives. If a person is motivated mostly by reasons which make his claim more likely to be true, then his claim is stronger evidence. And likewise, if he is motivated mostly by things which do not make his claim more likely to be true, then his claim is weaker evidence. Consequently, if I point out that such motives are a strong factor in a person’s belief, this is not a waste of time, nor is it irrelevant. It is quite relevant, because it weakens the evidence present in his claim, and consequently it becomes more likely that the thing is actually false.

Lewis continues:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see clearly enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it. I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.” For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it give no unfair advantage to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. That question remains to be discussed on quite different grounds – a matter of philosophical and historical argument. However it were decided, the improper motives of some people, both for believing it and for disbelieving it, would remain just as they are.

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited. And why should reason not be discredited? It would be easy, in answer, to point to the present state of the world, but the real answer is even more immediate. The forces discrediting reason, themselves depend of reasoning. You must reason even to Bulverize. You are trying to prove that all proofs are invalid. If you fail, you fail. If you succeed, then you fail even more – for the proof that all proofs are invalid must be invalid itself.

Lewis is himself engaging in something very like Bulverism here, or at least he is attempting to get others to do so. In the first place, the very invention of the name “Bulverism” is such an attempt. It has a ridiculous sound, and the only contribution it makes to the discussion is to make it appear that someone is doing something ridiculous. This is part of Lewis’s plan to “crush” Bulverism, namely by making people dismiss it out of hand, just as he says that they dismiss his positions out of hand.

Of course, as I already stated, Bulverism as defined by Lewis is indeed a bad thing. But this is not because a person’s motives are irrelevant, but because a person may be right despite his motives. And even if a person’s motives may weaken the evidence present in his claim, it would indeed be silly to think that the full response to an argument could be that the person does not have good motives relative to truth. If you are going to refute an argument, you should do that by discussing the matter of the argument. Lewis is quite right on this point.

Regarding Lewis’s last point in this paragraph, it is unlikely that many people actually had the intention to “prove that all proofs are invalid.” People really do have various motives for their beliefs, but this does not prove that their beliefs are false, nor does it show that their arguments do not work.

Lewis concludes the essay:

The alternative then is either sheer self-contradicting idiocy or else some tenacious belief in our power of reasoning, held in the teeth of all the evidence that Bulverists can bring for a “taint” in this or that human reasoner. I am ready to admit, if you like, that this tenacious belief has something transcendental or mystical about it. What then? Would you rather be a lunatic than a mystic?

So we see there is justification for holding on to our belief in Reason. But can this be done without theism? Does “I know” involve that God exists? Everything I know is an inference from sensation (except the present moment). All our knowledge of the universe beyond our immediate experiences depends on inferences from these experiences. If our inferences do not give a genuine insight into reality, then we can know nothing. A theory cannot be accepted if it does not allow our thinking to be a genuine insight, nor if the fact of our knowledge is not explicable in terms of that theory.

But our thoughts can only be accepted as a genuine insight under certain conditions. All beliefs have causes but a distinction must be drawn between (1) ordinary causes and (2) a special kind of cause called “a reason.” Causes are mindless events which can produce other results than belief. Reasons arise from axioms and inferences and affect only beliefs. Bulverism tries to show that the other man has causes and not reasons and that we have reasons and not causes. A belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes is worthless. This principle must not be abandoned when we consider the beliefs which are the basis of others. Our knowledge depends on our certainty about axioms and inferences. If these are the results of causes, then there is no possibility of knowledge. Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.

“Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes,” indicates that Lewis is confused.

Thoughts surely do have causes, and the efficient cause is generally the human will. Reasons and motives are both “why” people choose to believe things, and consequently are the formal aspect of that efficient cause, or in other words are final causes. It might seem a little strange to say that the fact that two and two make four is the final cause of my belief that if I have two shoes and acquire two more, I will have four shoes. But it only seems strange because we do not notice that final causes themselves come in varieties. And in any case, this is partly a question of framing. If I say, “I think I would have four shoes because to think otherwise would call into question that two and two make four,” then it is clear enough that my belief is for the sake of the truth that two and two make four.

Lewis fails to note the distinction between various types of causes, and so supposes that if thoughts have causes in an ordinary sense, they cannot have reasons, but this does not follow. Reasons are simply one of the causes that thoughts have, but they can have other causes at the same time.

Someone might say that this blog engages in a good deal of what C.S. Lewis calls Bulverism, and this concern is one of the “tainted thoughts” which led me to compose this post. Thus I summarize my response to this concern:

More or less all claims are affected by motives other than truth. But this is not irrelevant, because some claims are more affected by such motives than others, and to the extent that this is the case, this weakens the evidence contained in those claims. Thus I would not consider it irrelevant even if I point out someone’s motives without proving directly that he is mistaken.

Nonetheless, in practice I do not usually do this. Generally if I think that someone is wrong, I will argue this directly, and only reveal someone’s motives in addition, which even Lewis concedes can be relevant in that situation.

There is one possible additional objection, which Lewis does not formulate explicitly, but which he indicates when he says, “The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.” The objection would be that whether he is right or wrong is “the only real issue.” So even if you first argue that someone is wrong, proceeding to discuss his motives is inappropriate, since it is no part of the issue, and it seems merely insulting.

I disagree that whether someone is right or wrong is the only real issue. As I have stated before, I do not think I really understand someone until I understand why he says what he does. And real people do not only have reasons for their beliefs, but motives as well. So in order to understand someone as well as possible, it is necessary to know not only his reasons, but also any other motives that he has.

But since people rarely notice their own motives, this suggests that I am saying that frequently people do not even understand themselves. And this is quite true, and in this way St. Paul says that some have “turned to meaningless talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.”

Old and New

In a text quoted in an earlier post, Fr. Brian Harrison complains about new mysteries:

And that is precisely the point. What makes the “invisible water” laughable in the syllogism is the fact that it comes at the end, and not at the beginning. One expects religions to have mysteries, but normally they are traditional mysteries, handed down from what are (or at least, what believers understand to be) the authoritative, foundational sources of the religion itself. (This of course is the case with Catholic belief in the Eucharistic Presence.) But in our parable of the moon-water, its invisibility is a brand-new “mystery,” which no believer (or unbeliever) has ever heard of before! It pops up out of nowhere at the end of a syllogism. And it springs, moreover, not from some kind of organic or logical development based on the religion’s own doctrinal and spiritual patrimony; rather, it is forced abruptly upon the believers by a minor premise coming from an outside source which is coldly indifferent – even irreverent – toward these sacred sources: the merciless glare of empirical observation. The real incongruity in the situation, of course, is that the learned theologians are engaging in sophistry in accepting this new “development,” while the “stupid” fundamentalists (like the faithless bulk of their ordinary fellow-citizens) have enough common-sense to see that the whole thing is completely “phoney,” even if they might not be able to explain in an abstract way where the fallacy lies. As in the old fable, it takes the simplicity of a child to see that the Emperor is wearing no clothes.

The charitable interpretation of Fr. Harrison’s complaint is that religious mysteries should derive directly from the founder of the religion. Understood in this way, his complaint would have problems, such as the fact that logical implication remains valid even when applied to religious mysteries, as we pointed out in that post.

But someone more familiar with Fr. Harrison’s writing would be inclined to think that a less charitable reading is probably more accurate. The real issue for him is not whether or not the founder taught something. Otherwise he should complain that Christ did not teach that Mary would be assumed into heaven. The real issue for him is that religious mysteries should be traditional, handed down from the distant past. Of course, it is unlikely that he would actually make such a claim explicitly. He might not even notice that it is what matters to him. But it is in fact what matters to him. This is why he proceeds to say that “it is not in fact as easy as one might think to give an abstract exposition of this common-sense insight,” and then proceeds to formulate a false “principle” to exclude such a claim.

It is hard for him to explain precisely because his real reason is the feeling that religious mysteries cannot be true, unless they are handed down from the distant past. And if this feeling is taken as a claim about the world, it implies that religious mysteries can never be true. Every religious claim, as for example that Mary was assumed into heaven, must have once been made for the first time. It was once a new mystery, and at least in this case it is very unlikely that it was Christ who first made the claim.

Christ may have made the claim that bread becomes his body in an invisible way, or at least may have implied this by his statements at the Last Supper. But at the time the claim was new nonetheless, and one who really held the principle about new mysteries would have rejected the claim, like those in the Gospel of John who “turned back and no longer went about with him.”

The traditionalists of the time, one might say, would never have accepted Christ. And in fact they did not:

They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

Religious teachings, like all other kinds of teaching, have a beginning in time. And if they are true, they are true the very first time they are stated. Thus one who is to judge rightly about reality must be like the “scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven” who “brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Those Who Deserve to be Raised in Status

Tyler Cowen comments on the comments on his blog:

Imagine if I wrote a post that just served up a list like this:

The people who deserve to be raised in status:

Norman Borlaug, Jon Huntsman, female Catholics from Croatia, Scottie Pippen, Yoko Ono, Gordon Tullock, Uber drivers, and Arnold Schoenberg,


The people who deserve to be lowered in status:

Donald Trump, Harper Lee, inhabitants of the province Presidente Hayes, in Paraguay, doctors, Jacques Derrida, Indira Gandhi, and Art Garfunkel

You might get a kick out of it the first time, but quickly you would grow tired of the lack of substance and indeed the sheer prejudice of the exercise.

Yet, ultimately, the topic so appeals to you all.  So much of debate, including political and economic debate, is about which groups and individuals deserve higher or lower status.  It’s pretty easy — too easy in fact — to dissect most Paul Krugman blog posts along these lines.  It’s also why a lot of blog posts about foreign countries don’t generate visceral reactions, unless of course it is the Greeks and the Germans, or some other set of stand-ins for disputes closer to home (or maybe that is your home).  Chinese goings on are especially tough to parse into comparable American disputes over the status of one group vs. another.

I hypothesize that an MR blog post attracts more comments when it a) has implications for who should be raised and lowered in status, and b) has some framework in place which allows you to make analytical points, but points which ultimately translate into a conclusion about a).

Posts about immigration, the minimum wage, Greece and Germany, the worthiness of entrepreneurs vs. workers, and the rankings of different schools of thought or economists all seem to fit this bill.

Sometimes I am tempted to simply serve up the list and skip the analytics.

Tyler is right that debate is often for the sake of the end of raising or lowering the status of various groups or individuals. More importantly, though, it is also often a motive for belief in the claim that would tend to do this.

This is frequently the case in political discussions, as Tyler notes. Bob Seidensticker provides a good example of this in a post on same sex marriage:

These Christian leaders see themselves as fighting the good fight, but how will this fit with the judgment of history?

Here’s one answer. Jennifer Morse, president and founder of the Ruth Institute (“Helping the Victims of the Sexual Revolution”), was asked if she feared being embarrassed by the seeming inevitability of same-sex marriage. She replied:

I am not the slightest bit worried about the judgment of history on me. This march-of-history argument bothers me a lot.… What they’re really saying is, “Stop thinking, stop using your judgment, just shut up and follow the crowd because the crowd is moving towards Nirvana and you need to just follow along.”

You’ve got to admire that. She’s standing up for what she feels is right, unconcerned about whether it’s popular or how history will judge that position.

But let’s not pretend that the judgment of history is irrelevant. Remember George Wallace’s infamous 1963 declaration, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Was Wallace fighting the good fight with his stand for racial segregation? He would’ve said yes. History says no.

Those opposed to freedom for Southern slaves, women’s suffrage, and minorities’ civil rights were all fighting the good fight, like those opposed to same-sex marriage today. Just remember that history wins in the end.

Indeed, Jennifer Morse does think about the evaluation of history, it’s just that she thinks that she’ll be on the right side of it:

[Same-sex marriage proponents] are the ones who are going to be embarrassed. They are the ones who are going to be looking around, looking for the exits, trying to pretend that it had nothing to do with them, that it wasn’t really their fault.

No one fighting the good fight thinks that they won’t eventually be judged on the right side of history. I’ll propose that as the definition of fighting the good fight: taking a minority position now that you think will eventually, if only decades in the future, be seen as the morally correct one.

And there’s the problem—reading the tea leaves to see where society is moving. There is no reliable route to objective moral truth (I argue that what we imagine as objective moral truth is actually just widely shared or strongly felt moral beliefs). There is no celestial library where the answers to all moral questions are in a big book. The judgment of history is the best we’ve got, and we fool ourselves when we think that moral rightness is determined by anything more lofty.

It might seem shallow to base one’s moral convictions on what society will conclude fifty years in the future rather than on one’s conscience today. But make no mistake: the strength or sincerity of your convictions—about same-sex marriage or any moral issue—are irrelevant. Your stand today will be judged by the conclusions of that future society, and being on the right side of history is all that ultimately matters. Lose that, and you’re just another George Wallace.

Seidensticker makes his motives clearer than most by the denial of the existence of objective moral truth. According to him, objectively there is no true answer to the question of whether same sex marriage should be permitted or forbidden. Thus he concludes that it is important to “read the tea leaves” about “where society is moving,” so that we can hold the position that most people will hold in the future.

The purpose of this would be to raise our personal status, by having people in the future think well of us, and to lower the status of other people who thought differently. In Seidensticker’s case in particular, his concern is to raise the status of atheists and to lower the status of Christians and of religious people in general. According to him, it is “worse than you think” to be on the “wrong side of history,” because ultimately status is the only issue here.

In reality, of course, the “judgment of history” does have some weight because of the nature of progress in truth. But this is not an absolute weight, because such progress is not guaranteed, and especially over a short period of time such as a few decades. In contrast, far from making it more important, Seidensticker’s position actually would imply that future opinion has no weight, from the standpoint of truth. If there is no objective moral truth, the fact that some people in the future will mistakenly suppose that I was wrong in my morality (since I was neither right nor wrong) is basically meaningless.

In other words, Seidensticker’s position on same sex marriage is only intelligible as entirely motivated by status seeking, and in no way by truth, and he essentially makes this point himself.

We saw earlier that in many cases, we do not personally verify the truth of our beliefs, but trust some body collectively to present us with the truth of the matter. Trusting a certain body of people, and not trusting others, however, will tend to raise the status of the people who are trusted, and lower the status of the people who are not trusted. Consequently, a desire for raising the status of certain groups will often manifest itself by believing the claims of that group, and a desire to lower the status of certain groups will often manifest itself by disbelieving the claims of that group.

This often occurs in the evaluation of conspiracy theories. It seems that most theories of this kind are actually false, and so before investigation it is usually better to give the benefit of the doubt to the position that the theory is false.

For example, some people say that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and consequently should be considered ineligible for the presidency according to the constitution of the United States. I have not investigated this claim, and I assume that it is false, based on the fact that most such claims seem to be false. However, the claim is surely not crazy or insane in the way that many people suppose. Suppose that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and that this fact was noticed by someone on his team while he was running for president. If he were already in the situation where being elected president was a reasonable possibility, what is the probability that he and his team would attempt to hide the fact that he was born outside the United States?

It would be unreasonable to estimate less than 10% for this probability. It might be reasonable to give a much higher estimate, such as 75%. In any case, the probability of the conspiracy theory will end up being not dramatically lower than the prior probability that he in fact was born outside the United States, and there is no special reason for this prior probability to be particularly low.

But people notice that this claim would seem to vastly lower the status of Barack Obama, his team, the United States government, and perhaps of Democrats in general, and for these reasons they say that this theory is insane and crazy. It is not, even if it is false.

In other words, the fact that such theories in general do not seem to be correlated much with truth confuses the matter to some extent, and thus people who are in fact motivated by status appear to be motivated by truth more than they actually are.

The Genre of Genesis 2-3

Earlier we saw Fr. Brian Harrison’s complaint about the genre of the first few chapters of Genesis. Theologians think that a literal historical interpretation would say things that are false; consequently they conclude that the account in Genesis is not a literal historical account, in order to avoid saying that the account is false. But they do not have independent evidence for this, according to him.

Darwin Catholic addresses Fr. Brian Harrison’s essay:

This leads to my second major problem with Fr. Harrison’s analysis: His “invisible” literary style doesn’t seem to me to be terribly illusive but rather the product of an overly modern approach to literature. Genesis 1-3 are, I would say, myth. Fr. Harrison rejects this idea because he seems to have in his head a definition of myth something along the lines of “a false and silly belief that people used to have when they didn’t know any better”. Certainly, that is what all too many modern people mean by “myth”. However, I would say that those people are quite wrong in their assessment.

Although he’s talking about a slightly different genre, I would recommend Tolkein’s “On Fairy Stories” as a good discussion of true mythology, but I will attempt to cover some of the same ground with fewer words.

When I say “myth” I do not mean a “just so” story like such as Kipling wrong [wrote?]. Nor do I mean a superstition or false belief. True mythology is un-authored, going back so far in a culture that it is well known and available in many versions, not the product of any one author. It deals with serious questions about the world and human nature in a form that is not necessarily literally, historically true, because it deals with questions too old and basic for anyone to know the truth of in a historical fashion. In his recent First Things essay, Cardinal Schonborn pointed out the philosophical dangers of accepting the idea that to know a thing’s material/historical origin is to know its essence and meaning. (For example, the idea that if human beings evolved from lower life forms, that this tells us something deeper about human nature and humanity’s place in the divine plan, or lack thereof.) Mythology contains an implicit understanding of this distinction, in that it accepts that it may not accurately describe a thing’s historical or material origins while attempting to explain its essence.

So, for example, the Greek myth of Pandora’s box was not (I would argue) thought to be literally or historically true by the ancient Greeks. Giving the question due thought, one would not imagine that war, pestilence, greed, hate, envy, etc. were physical creatures trapped in a box, that a specific woman named Pandora released upon the world. Rather, the myth of Pandora’s Box attempted to address the origin of evil in the world (and man’s culpability in that origin) at a level more essential than the historical.

I would say that this is right, generally speaking, both about myth in general and about the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, although with some qualifications.

In general in ancient cultures many stories were handed down from the distant past in the way suggested here, “un-authored, going back so far in a culture that it is well known and available in many versions, not the product of any one author.” And as Darwin Catholic says, these stories are not historical accounts. Apart from the content, human memory is simply not transmitted that well. However, the question of whether people believed the accounts is a bit more complicated than he suggests. Basically his argument that if you “give the question due thought,” you would not conclude that the evils of humanity could be something trapped in a physical box, and consequently that the Greeks could not have thought the story of Pandora’s box was literally or historically true.

This is an overly optimistic assessment of the relationship between human thought and the truth. I agree that someone who gave the question due thought, in other words, the kind of thought appropriate to determining the truth of the matter, he would not think that such evils could have been once trapped in a physical box. And I agree that it follows that many Greeks, such as many philosophers and many ordinary thoughtful people, must not have believed that such accounts were literally and historically true. The problem is that there almost certainly were many people who simply never gave the question this kind of thought.

As Darwin Catholic points out, the origin of the story was lost to time. The first author was unknown. But this also means that the first intention of the story was unknown, and people could suppose, at least as one possibility, that it might have been intended in a literal and historical way. And again, people might simply fail to consider what kind of literature it might be. And things that happened in the distant past ordinarily have no concrete effects on my life in the present, and consequently the issue is remote from the senses. Thus people’s reasons for their belief about it may have little to do with knowing the truth. Thus the fact that one would not accept it literally after giving the issue due thought, is not a strong argument that people did not accept it literally. It is perfectly possible that many people would have said, at least in effect, “Of course I believe that Pandora’s box really existed. That is what Greeks believe.”

So many people may have taken such accounts literally, and many people may not have even considered the question. But the question of what the account really means, is either a question about what was meant by the author who composed the concrete version of the story, or a question about the reasonable way to understand such accounts. The author who composed the concrete version knew full well that he was inserting details that he was taking from his own imagination, and consequently unless he intended to deceive, he knew that it was not a literal historical account. And in any case the reasonable way to understand such accounts would be as Darwin Catholic suggests, namely as an attempt to understand the deep essence of things, without attempting to give a literal historical account of them.

Thus, while Darwin Catholic may not be entirely right about what people believed, he is right about the meaning of such accounts.

I would say that opening chapter of Genesis is more a philosophical account, but I agree that Darwin Catholic’s account applies to the account of the creation and fall in the following chapters.

The story in Genesis appears to be related to other stories from the ancient world. For example, the Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet XI) contains this story:

Then Utnapishtim spoke unto Gilgamesh (and said): “Gilgamesh, thou didst come here weary; thou didst labour and row. What now shall I give thee, that thou mayest return to thy country? I will reveal unto thee, Gilgamesh, a mystery of the gods I will announce unto thee. There is a plant resembling buckthorn; its thorn stings like that of a bramble. When thy hands can reach that plant, then thy hands will hold that which gives life everlasting.”

When Gilgamesh had heard this he opened the sluices that the sweet water might carry him into the deep; he bound heavy stones to his feet, which dragged him down to the sea floor, and thus he found the plant. Then he grasped the prickly plant. He removed from his feet the heavy stones, and the sea carried him and threw him down to on the shore.

And Gilgamesh said unto Urshanabi, the ferryman: “Urshanabi, this plant is a plant of great marvel; and by it a man may attain renewed vigour. I will take it to Uruk the strong-walled, I will give it to the old men to eat. Its name shall be ‘Even an old man will be rejuvenated!’ I will eat of this and return (again) to the vigour of my youth.”

At twenty double-leagues they then took a meal: and at thirty double-leagues they took a rest. And Gilgamesh saw a well wherein was cool water; he stepped into it and bathed in the water. A serpent smelled the sweetness of the plant and darted out; he took the plant away, and as he turned back to the well, he sloughed his skin. And after this Gilgamesh sat down and wept.

In this account a serpent steals the plant that would have given everlasting life. While this is  not exactly what happened in Genesis, it is somewhat similar. Nor can we suppose that it is a mere accidental resemblance, since the story contains other things which are evidently related to the book of Genesis, such as this story from the beginning of the same tablet:

Gilgamesh said to him, to Utnapishtim, the distant: “I gaze upon thee (in amazement), O Utnapishtim! Thy appearance has not changed, like unto me thou art also. And thy nature itself has not changed, like unto me thou art also, though thou hast departed this life. But my heart has still to struggle against all that no longer lies upon thee. Tell me, How didst thou come to dwell (here) and obtain eternal life among the gods?”

Utnapishtim then said unto Gilgamesh: “I will reveal unto thee, O Gilgamesh, the mysterious story, and the mystery of the gods I will tell thee. The city of Shuruppak, a city which, as thou knowest, is situated on the bank of the river Euphrates. That city was very old, as were the gods within it. Even the great gods, as many as there were, decided to bring about a deluge: their father, Anu; their counsellor, the warrior Enlil; their leader, Ninurta; their champion, the god Ennugi.

“On the fifth day I set in place her exterior; it was an acre in area; its sides were ten gar high; ten gar also was the extent of its deck; I added a front-roof to it and closed it in. I built it in six stories, thus making seven floors in all; the interior of each I divided again into nine partitions. Beaks for water within I cut out. I selected a punting-pole and added all that was necessary. Three šar of pitch I smeared on its outside; three šar of asphalt I used for the inside (so as to make it water-tight). Three šar of oil the men carried, carrying it in vessels. One šar of oil I kept out and used it for sacrifices, while the other twošar the boatman stowed away. I slaughtered oxen; I killed lambs day by day. Jugs of beer, of oil, and of sweet wine, like river water (i.e., freely) I gave the workmen to make a feast like that of the New-Year’s Day. To the god Shamash my hands brought oil. The ship was completed. Launching it was heavy work, and I added tackling above and below, and after all was finished, the ship sank in the water to two thirds of its height.

“With all that I possessed I filled it; with all the silver I had I filled it; with all the gold I had I filled it; with living creatures of every kind I filled it. Then I embarked also all my family and my relatives, cattle of the field, beasts of the field, and the uprighteous people—all them I embarked. A time had Shamash appointed, (namely): ‘When the rulers of darkness send at eventide a destructive rain, then enter into the ship and shut its door.’ This very sign came to pass, and the rulers of darkness sent a destructive rain at eventide. I saw the approach of the storm, and I was afraid to witness the storm; I entered the ship and shut the door.

“I entrusted the guidance of the ship to Puzur-Amurri, the boatman, and also the great house, and the contents thereof. As soon as early dawn appeared, there rose up from the horizon a black cloud, within which the weather god (Adad) thundered, and the heralds Shullat and Hanish went before across mountain and plain. The gods of the abyss arose. Nergal, the great, tore loose the dams of the deep. There went Ninurta and he caused the banks to overflow; the Anunnaki lifted on high (their) torches, and with the brightness thereof they illuminated the universe. The storm brought on by Adad swept even up to the heavens and all light was turned into darkness as Adad shattered the land like a pot.

“It blew with violence one whole day, submerging the mountains. Like an onslaught in battle it rushed in on the people. Nor could brother look after brother. Nor were recognised the people from heaven. The gods even were afraid of the storm; they retreated and took refuge in the heaven of Anu. There the gods crouched down like dogs; on the inclosure of heaven they sat cowering.

“Then Ishtar cried out like a woman in travail and the lady of the gods lamented with a loud voice, (saying): ‘The world of old has been turned back into clay, because I assented to this evil in the assembly of the gods. Alas! that when I assented to this evil in the council of the gods, I was for the destruction of my own people. What I have created, where is it? Like the spawn of fish it fills the sea.’ The gods wailed with her over the Anunnaki. The gods were bowed down, and sat there weeping. Their lips were pressed together (in fear and in terror).

“Six days and nights the wind blew, and storm and tempest overwhelmed the country. When the seventh day drew nigh the tempest, the storm, the battle which they had waged like a great host began to moderate. The sea quieted down; hurricane and storm ceased. I looked out upon the sea and raised loud my voice, but all mankind had turned back into clay. Likewise the surrounding sea became as flat as a roof-top.

“I opened the air-hole and light fell upon my cheek. Dumbfounded I sank backward and sat weeping, while over my cheek flowed the tears. I looked in every direction, and behold, all was sea. I looked in vain for land, but twelve leagues distant there rose (out of the water) a strip of land. To Mount Niṣir the ship drifted. On Mount Niṣir the boat stuck fast and it did not slip away. The first day, the second day, Mount Niṣir held the ship fast, and did not let it slip away. The third day, the fourth day, Mount Niṣir held the ship fast, and did not let it slip away. The fifth day, the sixth day, Mount Niṣir held the ship, fast, and did not let it slip away. When the seventh day drew nigh I sent out a dove, and let her go. The dove flew hither and thither, but as there was no resting-place for her, she returned. Then I sent out a swallow, and let her go. The swallow flew hither and thither, but as there was no resting-place for her she also returned. Then I sent out a raven, and let her go. The raven flew away and saw the abatement of the waters. She settled down to feed, went away, and returned no more.

“Then I let everything go out unto the four winds, and I offered a sacrifice. I poured out a libation upon the peak of the mountain. I placed the censers seven and seven, and poured into them calamus, cedar-wood, and sweet incense. The gods smelt the savour; yea, the gods smelt the sweet savour; the gods gathered like flies around the sacrificer. But when now the lady of the gods (Ishtar) drew nigh, she lifted up the necklace with precious jewels which Anu had made according to her wish (and said):

“‘Ye gods here! by my lapis lazuli necklace, not will I forget. These days will I remember, never will I forget (them). Let the gods come to the offering; but Enlil shall not come to the offering, since rashly he caused the flood-storm, and handed over my people unto destruction.’

This story is related to the account of the flood in the book of Genesis. This is not only true in a general sense, but also with respect to various details such as the dove released afterwards to determine whether or not the flood had sufficiently subsided.

This is evidence in favor of the position that Genesis provides an account of this nature, namely a story that is “well known and available in many versions,” as Darwin Catholic puts it. The fact that the tree of life and the tree of knowledge appear to be assumed to be familiar is an indication of the same thing. This is true even though there are other possible explanations which would attempt to maintain the literal truth of the account in Genesis, such as the claim that all other accounts are either derived from the account in Genesis, or from objective facts that Genesis narrates.

Likewise, the story in Genesis is idealized. Adam and Eve are placed in a perfect world where there is no death and work is not laborious. They are vegetarian, and it appears that the animals can talk. This detail in particular more strongly suggests that the account is not a historical one, since although there are many who accept most of these idealizations (such as those at Answers in Genesis) it is unlikely that anyone believes that it is an objective historical truth that animals used to be able to talk. All of this is also evidence that it is a story, even if one with a meaning about reality.

Causal considerations are evidence for the same thing. Given the weakness of human memory, there is simply no way for a person to give a historical account of such things. Without something like divine dictation, the author of the text could not have written a literal historical account because he could not have possessed one. And the text does not read as one would expect a text dictated by God to read, since it contains many things suggestive of the particular human circumstances of the author (e.g. the assumption that various things are familiar to the reader and that others are not, in a way that might reflect the situation of the original readers, but not our situation.)

And despite Fr. Harrison’s rejection of this kind of argument, any evidence that the things narrated in Genesis did not literally happen in that fashion, is evidence that Genesis is not the kind of account that requires this, even if it is also evidence for the theory that Genesis is a literal account, but a false one.

The main arguments for the position that the account is a literal historical one are that most Christians throughout history have believed this, and that the Catholic Church has made various statements supporting this interpretation, such as this one from the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1909:

Question I: Whether the various exegetical systems which have been proposed to exclude the literal historical sense of the three first chapters of the Book of Genesis, and have been defended by the pretense of science, are sustained by a solid foundation? — Reply: In the negative.

Question II: Whether, when the nature and historical form of the Book of Genesis does not oppose, because of the peculiar connections of the three first chapters with each other and with the following chapters, because of the manifold testimony of the Old and New Testaments; because of the almost unanimous opinion of the Holy Fathers, and because of the traditional sense which, transmitted from the Israelite people, the Church always held, it can be taught that the three aforesaid chapters of Genesis do not contain the stories of events which really happened, that is, which correspond with objective reality and historical truth; but are either accounts celebrated in fable drawn from the mythologies and cosmogonies of ancient peoples and adapted by a holy writer to monotheistic doctrine, after expurgating any error of polytheism; or allegories and symbols, devoid of a basis of objective reality, set forth under the guise of history to inculcate religious and philosophical truths; or, finally, legends, historical in part and fictitious in part, composed freely for the instruction and edification of souls? — Reply: In the negative to both parts.

Question III: Whether in particular the literal and historical sense can be called into question, where it is a matter of facts related in the same chapters, which pertain to the foundation of the Christian religion; for example, among others, the creation of all things wrought by God in the beginning of time; the special creation of man; the formation of the first woman from the first man; the oneness of the human race; the original happiness of our first parents in the state of justice, integrity, and immortality; the command given to man by God to prove his obedience; the transgression of the divine command through the devil’s persuasion under the guise of a serpent; the casting of our first parents out of that first state of innocence; and also the promise of a future restorer? — Reply: In the negative.

I agree that most Christians throughout history have believed that Genesis contained a literal historical account of the creation and fall, even though Fr. Harrison may exaggerate the uniformity on this issue. Likewise, the magisterial statements with which he is concerned, particularly this one from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, do support the position that the account in question is a literal historical one. These things are indeed evidence for the position that Genesis is such an account.

The Fall

Genesis 3 tells the story of the fall of the human race:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Eve exaggerates God’s command, adding the precept not to touch, while God had only said not to eat from the tree of knowledge.

It is possible that the reader is intended to understand the serpent to stand for a demonic power. However, this would be a secondary level of understanding. On one level the text is presenting a story which must be understood literally in order to be understood correctly. The serpent is as truly there as the loincloths made of fig leaves, for example. This is clear later when the serpent is punished by being made to crawl on its belly. Since this can only be understood in relation to the fact that real serpents do not have legs, we must understand a real serpent in this account, even if possibly one that had legs.

Given this fact, one might ask why Eve does not appear to be surprised that the serpent speaks with her. This can be understood from two things. First, the serpent is said to be “more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” This could mean that the serpent could speak but that the other animals could not. More likely, however, it simply signifies that the serpent was deceitful in a way that the others were not. The second fact is the odd fact we mentioned regarding the previous chapter, namely that the other animals were brought to Adam as potential partners. The most reasonable way to understand these things together is that all of the animals could talk, and therefore in an abstract way could be viewed as potential friends and allies of Adam. But in the concrete they were found to be wanting due to a lack of other kinds of similarity, and therefore God chose to create Eve as a more fitting partner. Eve is not surprised when the serpent speaks, therefore, because all of the animals can speak.

After eating the fruit, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” As was said in the previous post, the implication is that Adam and Eve had a greater perfection before the fall and consequently were not ashamed. They lose this perfection in eating the fruit, and become ashamed.

The account continues with the consequences of their misbehavior:

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
To the woman he said,

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
And to the man he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

Adam blames Eve, saying that it was her suggestion, and then blames God as well, saying “the woman whom you gave to be with me.” God then questions Eve, who blames the serpent. The serpent is not questioned, which suggests that God already understood its nature as “more crafty” than the rest of the animals.

Punishment is then announced for the three of them. The penalty for Adam consists in two things: the cursing of the ground and its consequences, and in his own return to the ground. The consequences of the cursing of the ground are that “in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.” It is possible that Adam was meant to care for the garden in the first place, but apparently it was not meant to be burdensome. From now on his work will be a burden. The ground will bring forth thorns and thistles, or in other words it will not be docile to his work. And finally, even what Adam takes from the ground will be inferior in quality, the “plants of the field.” It appears that in the garden there was enough fruit that eating these other plants was not necessary. Later in Genesis this is extended to the eating of meat as well:

The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.

This text implies that the human race was originally vegetarian, and that the animals did not begin to fear people until they started eating meat.

Adam’s second punishment is death, and God enforces it by removing the pair from the garden and preventing any possible return.

Adam and Eve

The book of Genesis, after the general account of creation in 1-2:4, proceeds to something like a historical account of creation in chapter 2. Here we find temporal sequence for the first time. We will consider whether or not the text has an invisible genre after looking at the account itself.

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

The text is not perfectly clear, but it appears to say that Adam is created on a barren earth where there may be seeds in the ground, but nothing has grown yet. Then a garden is planted in Eden, and Adam placed in that garden.

Eden appears to be a real place, known to the author. This is also suggested by other texts of Scripture such as this one from Ezekiel, “The merchants of Sheba and Raamah traded with you; they exchanged for your wares the best of all kinds of spices, and all precious stones, and gold. Haran, Canneh, Eden, the merchants of Sheba, Asshur, and Chilmad traded with you. These traded with you in choice garments, in clothes of blue and embroidered work, and in carpets of colored material, bound with cords and made secure; in these they traded with you.” The garden however would not be the whole of land of Eden, but a particular place within it.

The author seems to assume that the tree of life and the tree of knowledge are already familiar to the reader. We however have access to their meaning mainly through the biblical text.

In regard to the four rivers, only the Euphrates is assumed as familiar; descriptions are added to the other three, which suggests that the reader may not recognize the names immediately. This suggests that the text may have been composed in Babylon.

The system of rivers described is the opposite of what normally happens. Ordinarily smaller rivers join together into larger rivers rather than larger rivers dividing into smaller rivers. It may be described in this way in order to make the river of Eden responsible for the fertility of the whole world.

After this setting of the scene, the text continues:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.”
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

Here we have the command not to eat of the tree of knowledge, and the creation of Eve. The other animals are brought to Adam as potential partners, before being rejected as unsuitable. Consequently God decides to make Eve as a more suitable partner. These events seem a little strange. I will say more about this when we look at the account of the fall in chapter 3.

Adam and Eve are naked but not ashamed. St. Augustine explains this in his City of God (Bk. 14, ch. 17):

Justly is shame very specially connected with this lust; justly, too, these members themselves, being moved and restrained not at our will, but by a certain independent autocracy, so to speak, are called shameful. Their condition was different before sin. For as it is written, They were naked and were not ashamed, Genesis 2:25 — not that their nakedness was unknown to them, but because nakedness was not yet shameful, because not yet did lust move those members without the will’s consent; not yet did the flesh by its disobedience testify against the disobedience of man.

In other words, according to St. Augustine, people are ashamed of nakedness because sexual desire is not completely voluntary, and is often nearly completely involuntary. This may or may not be the real explanation for the fact of shame about nakedness, but it seems clear that either this consideration or something similar is implied by the text of Genesis. Adam and Eve were not ashamed because their condition was in some way more perfect than our condition.

Remote From My Senses

Earlier we saw that opinions about things more remote from the senses are more likely to be influenced by motives apart from truth. However, even if in principle a thing would have many obvious empirical consequences, it is possible that those consequences are quite unclear to me, or perhaps those consequences could only be seen by others. In such a case the matter may be remote from the senses in a personal way; I do not personally see how it would make a difference to me either way, or it can make such a difference to others, but not to me.

For example, Fermat’s Last Theorem was proven by Andrew Wiles in 1994. If the theorem were false, in principle this would surely have empirical consequences. But the proof is complex enough that this is basically a theoretical rather than a practical statement. Someone who is not a mathematician, or anyone who was not verified the proof for himself, simply has to trust mathematicians as a body about the fact that the proof is valid. Even for those mathematicians who have verified the proof for themselves, most likely they are more confident that it is true based on their trust in the community of mathematicians than in their own effort to verify it. If I am a mathematician who has verified it, I could easily have made a mistake. But it would be less likely that the same or similar mistakes were made by every single mathematician who tried.

In a sense, then, Fermat’s Last Theorem is somewhat remote from the senses for every individual person, including mathematicians. So why do we not see widespread disagreement about it, disagreement of the kind we see in politics and religion?

If Fermat’s Last Theorem were false, this would require either a conspiracy theory, or a quasi-conspiracy theory.

The conspiracy theory, of course, would be that mathematicians as a body know that Fermat’s Last Theorem is false, but do not want everyone else to know this, so they claim that they have verified the proof and found it valid, while in reality there are flaws in it and they know about them.

The quasi-conspiracy theory would be that mathematicians as a body believe that Fermat’s Last Theorem is true, but that they consistently fail in their attempt to verify the proof. There is a mistake in it, but each time someone tries to verify it, they fail to notice the mistake.

The reason to call this a quasi-conspiracy theory is that the most reasonable way for this to happen is if mathematicians as a body have motivations similar to the mathematicians in the case of the actual conspiracy, motivations that cause them to behave in much the same ways in practice.

We can see this by considering a case where you would have an actual conspiracy. Suppose a seven year old child is told by his parents that Santa Claus is the one who brings presents on Christmas Eve. The child believes them. When he speaks with his playmates, they tell him the same thing. If he notices something odd, his parents explain it away. He asks other adults about it, and they say the same thing.

The adults as a body are deceiving the child about the fact that Santa Claus does not exist, and they are doing this by means of an actual conspiracy. They know there is no Santa Claus, but they are working together to ensure that the child believes that there is one.

What is necessary for this to happen? It is necessary that the adults have a motive quite remote from truth for wishing the child to believe that there is a Santa Claus, and it is on account of this motive that they engage in the conspiracy.

In a similar way, suppose that mathematicians as a body were deluded about Fermat’s Last Theorem. Since they are actually deluded, there is no actual conspiracy. But how did this happen? Why do they all make mistakes when they try to verify the theorem? In principle it might simply be that the question is very hard, and there is a mistake that is extremely difficult to notice. And in reality, this may be the only likely way for this to happen in the case of mathematics. But in other cases, there may be a more plausible mechanism to generate consistent mistakes, and this is wishful thinking of one kind or another. If mathematicians as a body want Fermat’s Last Theorem to be true and to be a settled question, they may carelessly overlook mistakes in the proof, in order to say that it is true. Technically they are not making a deliberate mistake. But in practice it is the lack of care about truth, and the interest in something opposed to truth, which makes them act as a body to deceive others, just as an actual conspiracy does.

Scientists as a body believe that the theory of evolution is true, and that it is very certain. Wikipedia illustrates this:

The Discovery Institute announced that over 700 scientists had expressed support for intelligent design as of February 8, 2007. This prompted the National Center for Science Education to produce a “light-hearted” petition called “Project Steve” in support of evolution. Only scientists named “Steve” or some variation (such as Stephen, Stephanie, and Stefan) are eligible to sign the petition. It is intended to be a “tongue-in-cheek parody” of the lists of alleged “scientists” supposedly supporting creationist principles that creationist organizations produce. The petition demonstrates that there are more scientists who accept evolution with a name like “Steve” alone (over 1370) than there are in total who support intelligent design.

But there are many, like Fr. Brian Harrison, who think that the scientists are wrong about this. The considerations of this post make clear why it is possible for someone to believe this. If Fr. Harrison is right, scientists as a body would be engaging in a quasi-conspiracy. Many scientists are atheists, and perhaps they would like evolution to be true because they think it makes atheism more plausible. Perhaps such motivations, together with the motive of sticking together with other scientists, sufficiently explain why scientists are misinterpreting the evidence to support evolution, even though it does not actually support it.

If I have not studied the evidence for evolution myself, this argument is much more plausible than the same claim about Fermat’s Last Theorem, simply because there is no actually plausible motive in the mathematical case. But if there were a plausible motive, one would be likely to see such quasi-conspiracy theories about mathematical claims as well.