Saturday, January 2, 2010

What We Ask of Omniscience

This is from Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation:

Why doesn't the Bible say anything about electricity, or about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe? What about a cure for cancer? When we fully understand the biology of cancer, this understanding will be easily summarized in a few pages of text. Why aren't these pages, or anything remotely like them, found in the Bible? Good, pious people are dying horribly from cancer at this very moment, and many of them are children. The Bible is a very big book. God had room to instruct us in great detail about how to keep slaves and sacrifice a wide variety of animals. To one who stands outside the Christian faith, it is utterly astonishing how ordinary a book can be and still be thought the product of omniscience.
A cure for cancer is among hundreds of possibilities that might have established the Bible's authorship as exceeding the limits of the primitives who happened to be standing around when its anthologized parts first emerged: something detailed about the Goldbach Conjecture, or pi, or a listing of very large prime numbers; exact descriptions of the outer planets, the dark side of the moon, or the topology of the Rocky Mountains; descriptions of animals and plants living in Australasia, the Americas, within 200 miles of the polar caps, or in the deepest parts of the oceans; and so on.

Alas, no. The Bible expresses the priorities, grievances, prejudices, preoccupations, and other limitations of the people who wrote its constituent books, and nothing more. This being so, it announces its very human origins.


Ginx said...

Just playing God's advocate... why would God care if we died? We're mortal, and our place is supposedly in the next life. In that respect, medicine serves only to imprison us in this material existence for longer.

There's that, and the fact that the Bible was written by people whose only scientific knowledge was psychology.

Dale said...

Ginx, God might not care if humans die, but if so, it should be better explained why murder is wrong, why execution is among god's punishments, and why Jesus wants credit for having cured people (etc).

You raise an interesting point -- I wonder why Christians / Muslims / etceteras, even the most devout ones, seem to regard death in the same way that I do. They seem to genuinely prefer to stay alive, even "knowing" that heaven awaits. They seem to genuinely grieve over the deaths of those they love.

(Some of them do go all too happily to glorious martyrdom, but let's note that exception and speak of the rule.)

Some of them would insist they're only carrying out god's strict orders to cherish life over death, but I think it's easy to tell genuine responses of this sort from "following orders" ones, and this is genuine.

Oh well.

Ginx said...

Yeah, I was raised Catholic and knew it was all bullshit once the Popemobile was in use. If he's worried, what chance did I have?

Very strange indeed that death is supposed to be the beginning of a gift, but taking life is wrong unless it is for punishment.

I wonder how many would walk away from martyrdom if given the opportunity. That experiment would rank up there with the the Stanford Prison experiment in controversy.

Dale said...

Ginx, I would agree they had an intuitive grasp of psychology -- that is, the books that have endured are, by and large, those that most harmonize with 'deep' human pyschological tendencies, i.e., human nature. I don't think they had what deserves to be called a 'scientific' grasp of anything.