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Monday, September 27, 2010

A "Biblical" way to escape methodological naturalism, Part 1

For those who have come upon this post from elsewhere, this is 4th in a series.  Look here, here, and here for the previous posts.  I would now like to discuss how the Bible deals with the relationship between data detectable, observable, and measurable by humans and human knowledge of God.  I have never encountered a survey of the type I am planning to undertake anywhere else.  This is most likely just another illustration of my miseducation and/or laziness.  In any case somebody somewhere with real scholarly credentials has probably written on this already.  If you know about any of these resources, please let me know!  

Let's start with enough of a review of orthodox Christian epistemologies to get us oriented to the Bible.  Epistemology is a tortured subject for Christians; there are significant areas of agreement among them, but the controversialists on the various sides usually argue that the distinctives of the opponent destroy the ability to justify one's knowledge of anything.  I am going to stick with things about which there is general agreement and leave areas of controversy aside for the most part.  OK, so from an orthodox Christian viewpoint, how do we know things?  We can start with the classic distinction between reason and revelation.

Reason here is much more comprehensive than just logical thinking; it is the set of tools and methods humans have available to learn about the world and God apart from God's specific "revelations."  It includes the use of our senses, the sciences, mathematics, intuitions. 

Revelation is typically broken up into two categories:  natural or general revelation and special revelation.  Natural revelation is what God reveals about himself in the existence, structure, character, and history of the physical universe around us and ourselves.  This has to be distinguished from our apprehension of God by experiencing ourselves and the world.   Natural revelation is an objective fact, regardless of whether any human beings have learned anything about God from it.

Special revelation is specific information not included in the categories under natural revelation that God communicates to specific human beings in one of several ways:  dreams, visions, auditory messages, miracles, via the media of prophetic messengers and inspired writers, and finally in the entire life, words and deeds, of Jesus of Nazareth.  Typically, theologians insist that God's revelation, even when miracles are involved, has a verbal component.  God "speaks" to us.    There are disagreements about how and in what forms God is still revealing himself, but there is at least general agreement among orthodox Christians of various traditions that the Bible is a revelation from God.  If we want to know what God has to say to us, we need to read or hear the Bible.

In my description of reason I managed to avoid the entire history of disputes over epistemology.   I did so intentionally.  Orthodox Christians believe that mathematics, logic,  and the empirical sciences are legitimate means to know the world, so long as they are employed under the overarching authority of God's revelation.   They believe the Bible teaches this.  I do not intend to question any of this now.  We will operate on this basis in our survey.

Natural revelation will play a relatively minor role in our survey, so I am foregoing further discussion of it.  Regarding special revelation, I would like to point out that there are two components here:  the medium and the message.  Did you happen to notice that all the means used in special revelation are empirical?  Even the most direct -- a message planted directly in the human mind by God -- has an empirical component.  I am now admittedly bringing in modern brain science, but why not?  Are we to suppose that when God revealed his laws to "Moses" or told Paul what to write that it made absolutely no difference in the pattern of their brain activity?   In other words, every act of revelation has a detectable, observable, measurable effect.

This leads us to consideration of the message.  Does the content of special revelation have a detectable, observable, measurable component?  Of course!  This is a commonplace admitted by all sides in regard to Christianity.  The Bible makes all kinds of at least theoretically testable claims about the past, present human experience, and the future.  The question I am interested in is more precisely this:  In what ways do the authors of Biblical books use their assertions of testable claims to convince readers to believe them?

For this purpose I want to look at the stories of Korah's rebellion (Numbers 16:1-50) and Jesus's post-resurrection appearance to Thomas (John 20:24-31).  I picked these stories because they include specific statements about their evidentiary value; otherwise I think they are pretty typical.   (For the story in Numbers, we can safely ignore disputes over whether it is a conflation of separate stories about a dispute over the position of the non-Aaronide levitical priests with Korah leading the pro-levites side and a dispute specifically about Moses's leadership led by Dathan and Abiram.)   In the former story a group of dissatisfied Israelites led by the Levite Korah and the Reubenites Dathan and Abiram confront Moses and Aaron with the accusation that they have usurped authority over Israel.  Moses tells the rebels to assemble themselves the next day.  The key text in Numbers reads (Num. 16: 28-34 NIV):
 Then Moses said, "This is how you will know that the LORD has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea: If these men die a natural death and experience only what usually happens to men, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have treated the LORD with contempt."  As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart  and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, with their households and all Korah's men and all their possessions.  They went down alive into the grave, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community.  At their cries, all the Israelites around them fled, shouting, "The earth is going to swallow us too!"
 According to v. 28, the people will know God sent Moses when they see the earth split open and swallow the households of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.  We note that Moses pronounces the coming event and its interpretation in advance.  We also note that the event itself takes place immediately after Moses's speech and takes away all those and only those against whom Moses said it would be directed.  The text provides us with the eyewitnesses' terrified reaction to the predicted demise of the rebels and  their households and their later (vv. 41ff) assessment that Moses and Aaron are somehow to blame for the deaths of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, their followers and their families.

In sum we see that the eyewitnesses of this series of events were left in no doubt that Korah, et. al.  died.  We do NOT see them expressing their belief that Moses is a true prophet of God.   Instead, they blame the deaths on Moses and Aaron.  Their comment in v. 41 is not elaborated upon.  Did they think Moses and Aaron could summon God to perform murders?  Did they think that Moses and Aaron had inherent powers over nature?   The point of the text seems to be that the people were wickedly obtuse.

The basic argument of the text is abundantly clear to the reader.  The Israelites may not get it, but we do.  If someone announces a miraculous and highly improbable event is about to take place in order to verify his claim to have a word from God, the speaker has given no evidence that he possesses any independent power to bring this event to pass, and this precise event takes place immediately afterward, it is reasonable to conclude that the speaker is telling the truth about himself and God.  Were we there, we would conclude Moses is a prophet and reject the arguments and leadership of any survivors of Korah's ilk.

I will continue with the story of Thomas and Jesus in my next post.

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