Search This Blog

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What if Eve had been a trained scientist, Part 2

Today I am finally following up on a project I started much earlier this year in which I proposed the following thought experiment:  What would have happened in Genesis 3 if Eve had approached the "temptation" with rigorous methodological doubt and disciplined inquiry?  Please refer to that post for some context.    

Right away I will admit that this thought experiment goes against the grain of the story in Genesis 2-3.  The Eve in that story is remarkably incurious and suggestible.  Furthermore, the approach my Eve will employ is not natural to humans now and there is no reason from the Biblical story to think it was natural for Adam and Eve.  You will have to suspend disbelief.

This leads to an even more fundamental issue: What precisely did Eve know already by the time she encounters the serpent in Genesis 3? The story tells us very little. She is familiar with some form of the Genesis 2:16-17 prohibition, but we don't know how she learned it. She knows a language in common with Adam and the serpent. She has some awareness of what good food is and apparently has some conception of wisdom and its value. She knows enough about Adam to share the fruit with him. Presumably she heard Adam make his famous exclamation in 2:23, and if so she has some conception of marriage and at least a little experience at living as a wife. Presumably she has some experience with the garden itself and is aware that there are other fruit trees there. She accepts that the prohibition came from God. Her facility with language implies some kind of knowledge about a host of other matters, but it is diffcult to assess how far this would extend.

No traditional theology I know about is willing to stop at this minimalist account of Eve's knowledge. The Christian orthodoxies I've encountered will pull in the "cultural mandate" (Genesis 1:26-28) and knowledge of God as creator (Romans 1:20) as a bare minimum. 

"Why," you ask?

"Why not?  The narrator's economy is no license for unbridled minimalism.  He expects us to fill in the details, most of which are obvious to everyone but the intentionally obtuse."   Really?  OK then, but it never hurts to get things out in the open, even the "obvious."  Our Eve is going to ask Yahweh Elohim, the serpent, and Adam to humor her and repeat out loud in clear language all those unspoken, "obvious" assumptions.  In other words, once Eve has been confronted with the serpent's statements, she is going to seek clarification.  

But before we get too far into the matter of clarification, we need to ask what position Eve should take on the fundamental issue.  Under what circumstances, if any, will she act against the prohibition?   Like anyone else, Eve will begin her formal investigation with some prior experience.  She already knows Adam as a husband to some degree.  The only indication we are given of the amount of time they had already spent together is that Eve was not yet pregnant.  Most likely it hadn't been very long.  But even if for a short time we can assume some natural affections. 

What Eve knew of Yahweh Elohim is even less clear.  All we have to go by is what she tells the serpent in Gen. 3:2.  What she thought of or felt about Yahweh Elohim prior to the temptation is anybody's guess.  Did she "fear," love and trust him or was she already suspicious of him?  If the latter, "sin" in the Pauline sense would already have been at work in her heart.  Most versions of orthodoxy would resist this assumption , and making it doesn't further my case either.  Therefore, I am going to presume that Eve was predisposed by affections for Yahweh Elohim and Adam to obey the prohibition. 

Once confronted with the serpent, Eve's first order of business, then, would be to commit herself to continue to obey the prohibition until she had a very good reason to do otherwise.  How good would that reason have to be? 
1.  She would need to be convinced that Yahweh Elohim was wrong about the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit or that he was unjustified in forbidding it to her or that the benefits of eating the forbidden fruit were worth the price of dying.
2.  She would need to be convinced that eating the forbidden fruit would not break the bonds of affection between her, Adam, and Yahweh Elohim or that there is something very wrong with those affections and they should not be allowed to influence her decision.

In short, it would take overwhelming evidence in support of points 1 and 2 before she would seriously consider eating the forbidden fruit.  The serpent would have to convince Eve that Yahweh Elohim and/or Adam are either incompetent or lying.  This is a high bar for the serpent to get her over.  Furthermore, Eve has no prior relationship with the serpent and so no bonds of affection with it.  The serpent's odds of success appear to be terribly low.  Some people want to improve its odds by suggesting that "empiricism" or methodological doubt entails that Eve (or Adam) must eat the fruit to learn what will happen.  This  is patently ridiculous. 

Eve's second order of business would be to clear up the confusions confronting her after the confrontation with the serpent.  She should have been bothered by many of them before the encounter.   A simple start would be to present an identical list of questions to all the other major players in the story and weigh their answers.  The questions to be posed ought to accomplish the following:

1.  Clarify the meaning and purpose of the prohibition.
2.  Clarify the motives underlying the statements already made by the other major players.
3.  Provide enough information to develop some specific tests for each of the other players' trustworthiness and the accuracy of his statements.

Here is the list of questions:

  1. Explain in some detail what "death" means?
  2. What does "in the day you eat of it" mean?
  3. Why should eating from the prohibited tree result in death?
  4. Why would eating from the prohibited tree result in "knowledge of good and evil?"
  5.  What precisely is "knowledge of good and evil?"
  6.  Are any other trees in the garden of special significance?  If so, which are they and what is their significance?
  7. Why was this not all explained more clearly before now?
  8. Please describe in some detail who Yahweh Elohim is, where he comes from, and what he wants from me?
  9. Please describe in some detail who Adam is, where he comes from and what he wants from me?
  10. Please describe in some detail who the serpent is, where he comes from and what he wants from me?
  11. How is it that the serpent can talk?
  12. How is it that the serpent knows about the prohibition?

I will save the next steps for another post and give anyone who wants to a chance to really step in it with premature criticism. :^}

Friday, November 12, 2010

To argue or not to argue

That is the question.  Especially online.  A lot of people seem to think that trading comments in a blog combox with a user named "packersdude" who presents himself in the guise of a hunk of swiss cheese gives them a license to ignore normal rules of polite conversation.   Until we develop some kind of online equivalent to body language and social space, people will say things online that they would probably not say to someone's face.

I gained new appreciation for this after observing and being involved in a recent series of blog comment box exchanges provoked by people's differing reactions and responses to the death of Ken Pulliam, the author of  In life Dr. Pulliam had come to reject the fundamentalist Christianity he was trained in and wrote numerous posts explaining why he believed Christianity was wrong.  His sudden and unexpected death took everyone by surprise.  People began posting condolences and remembrances of Ken on his facebook page and in the comment boxes on the posts that he had scheduled for release in the days after his death. 

A furor erupted over what most took as a hostile, contemptuous comment to one of the posts.  The commenter and his critics filled most of the combox with accusations and insults.  The criticism spread to at least two other blogs on the day Ken's post appeared.  The original commenter then posted commentary about Ken and a defense of his provocative comment on his own blog, and at least one other blog run by an associate of the original commenter posted a criticism of the critics.  People, including me, continued to post comments on all these blog sites either defending or criticizing the original blogger and each other.   I even traded some emails with the original commenter.

Reflection on this set of incidents has led me to some definite conclusions about whether to argue or not online.  If your goals are to learn something, gain and give some respect for good thinking, and persuade somebody that your way of thinking is right every once in awhile, you have to think like a rhetorician.  There has been something of a revival of interest in rhetoric in academia over the last few decades.   This renewed interest dovetails with studies in human psychology that argue emotions often help us to think better.   Usually we associate emotions with poor thinking.  True enough, especially when emotions are intense. But people are people after all, not logic machines.  Our emotions and thoughts are part of a feedback loop; the influence goes both ways and can lead to  better results than if we were merely machines.

I find it ironic that in the recent disputes the evangelical Christians, who supposedly believe we are not machines, were far quicker to dismiss the arguments of critics as "emotional thinking," whereas the atheistic critics, who are supposed to believe that humans are chemically-powered machines (according to one blogger's tendentious reading of Richard Dawkins) expressed more emotional self-awareness and more accurate assessments of the emotional effects of the language used in the exchanges.  If the evangelicals were just as self-aware and accurate they did not express it very well.

At any event, if you want to persuade people you have to take account of the whole person of your audience, not just the coherence of your arguments and the clarity and accuracy of your language.  With that in mind, here are some of my conclusions:

To argue:
  • When you and your opponent's specified intention is to arrive at the best answer to the presenting issue. One or both of you may think you already have the best answer.  That's fine.  If you believe you have already considered all the relevant evidence and arguments, or that some evidence or arguments are so overwhelmingly persuasive to you that nothing new could change your mind, then you have the opportunity to persuade someone else.   If your enemy takes that view, there is still room for useful discussion.
    • She may be willing to consider counter-arguments to some of her supporting points. Consider this example:  If an opponent is totally committed to Biblical inerrancy because giving that up undermines her faith in God, she may still be willing to consider arguments against solutions to a particular problem in the Bible.  You point out flaws in all the arguments she uses to resolve an apparent contradiction in the Bible.  She may say, "You're right.  None of my solutions work.  We will just have to wait for further light."  You may think your opponent is engaging in wishful thinking, but she did give your arguments serious consideration and you won a limited victory.  Many people have abandoned a core belief system in favor of something else after a period of repeated small defeats. 
    • She may persuade you too.  Just because a person is highly resistant to criticism doesn't mean she is wrong.
  • When something in another person's arguments really bothers you and you think the reason it bothers you is that there is something wrong with her argument or her motives in advancing the argument.  You may be wrong.  Arguing is a good way to find out.
Not to argue:
  • When you or your opponent will not admit problems in arguments even when nearly everyone else sees them and can describe them in nearly identical terms.   In this case, something else is in the way.  Better to break off the argument and deal with the interference or wait for another opportunity.
  • When you present a more elaborated and better supported version of a basically valid argument others have previously made to your opponent, and your opponent rejects your argument in virtually the same terms as she rejected the previous versions.  Clearly something else is in the way.  
  • When you or your opponent in the process of pointing out the other's errors makes equally or more egregious errors.   
    • One or both of you has gotten in over her head and need to learn more about the issue under discussion, or
    • The discussion has gotten too heated.  Break it off and give the parties a chance to gather their thoughts.
  • When you and your opponent are fighting to get in the last word, and that last word is intended to put the other "in his place."  
    • This is one of the most common tendencies in blog combox arguments.  Tit for tat is a highly successful negotiation strategy, but only if the parties are willing to engage in proactive gestures of good will at critical junctures.  Otherwise,  the discussion will inevitably become an insult arms race.  The main issue gets lost and people who came into the argument hostile leave with greater hostility. 
    • When you feel the need to criticize someone's personal behavior, you need to be able to stand in her shoes and hear your comments from her perspective.  You may not be able to do this well at all, but you should still try.  If you want the person to act differently (and if you don't, why are you criticizing in the first place?), you have to consider what is likely motivate her to change.  
    • You can awaken guilt and shame in another person and at the same time increase her self-respect.  This tends to increase the odds that she will regard your criticism as a friendly act and be motivated to change.  On the other hand, you can awaken shame in another person and at the same time humiliate her.   This tends to increase the odds that she will regard your criticism as a hostile act and strike back against you or herself.
  • When, despite your best efforts to moderate the tone of an argument and keep the main point in focus, your opponent keeps running the discussion off the rails or becomes increasingly hostile.  Something else is in the way again.  Let it go.
  • When you have been beaten.  If your opponent demolishes one of your arguments and you realize it, admit your error and move on.  If she demolishes all your arguments, maybe it's time to rethink your whole position. 
Since hardly anybody (nobody?) reads this blog, I post this mostly as a public witness against myself should I violate these guidelines in the future.