Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Spread out the sky

Most religious people do not think of themselves as antiscientific. No, they love science. They especially love it when science confirms previously held beliefs. One common argument is to point to a sacred text and say, "We know this is true now, because of science. But the ancient authors could not have known this unless they were divinely inspired. Therefore, science confirms our religion!" I've seen this same argument in pretty much every major religion. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism... But I will focus on a specific example from the Old Testament, one which I've heard more than once.

Thanks to recent developments in cosmology in the past century, we now know that the universe is expanding. The authors of the Old Testament could not possibly have known this without divine inspiration. So how is it that we have passages like that of Job 37:18? Job 37:18 says that God "spread out the skies". Clearly this is a reference to Big Bang cosmology, or maybe even inflationary cosmology (an even more recent scientific development).

While this argument is rooted in respect for science, it's so counter to basic critical thinking that it's hard to take the respect seriously. Do people who make this argument even bother to read the entire verse? Is that so hard?
Can you, with Him, spread out the skies, Strong as a molten mirror?
I mean, where does the mirror come in? Why isn't that part of the verse ever quoted in the argument? I guess it's because science has never thought of the skies, nor the universe, as a molten mirror. Quoting the entire passage would make the argument transparently stupid. I should also mention that it's not clear that "skies" refers to the universe, nor that "spread" refers to a process of expansion. In fact, I've heard that if you go back to the original language, it actually means "spread" in the sense of spreading a tent.

But even beyond that, even if we supposed that the passage was really referring to God expanding the universe, the argument is still nonsense. Suppose we had instead discovered that the universe is in a steady state. Would Christians then find a collection of passages which apparently refer to the steady state universe? I bet they could. If you throw enough vague guesses around, some of them will hit the target, no matter where that target is.

The problem is that once you already know what you're supposed to find, you will probably be able to find it. But if there were really something there, rather than just a collection of random guesses, then you should be able to pick out the pattern before you know what you're supposed to find. And obviously, this hasn't happened. No one has ever looked at Job 37:18 and decided that this means the universe is expanding. That would quite possibly be the worst piece of evidence for expansion that I've ever heard. And even if they did, "the universe is expanding" is a pretty nonspecific hypothesis, and could be right by lucky guessing. Big Bang theory is obviously so much more than just "the universe is expanding"--there also has to be some mathematical modeling for it to be specific enough to be falsifiable.

Right here is where people begin to protest, "That's not how the Bible works! You can't look at the Bible and make predictions. You can only look back at it, and see that the predictions of science were there all along." Well, let me tell you. That may not be how the Bible works. But it is how evidence and arguments work. Therefore, the Bible doesn't work as evidence, or as an argument. Stop using it as such, and perhaps I will stop attacking it as such.

4 comments:

DarkSapiens said...

Ah… It is so easy to make predictions a posteriori… Or reinterpret what was said to make it act like one…

I like your final conclusion, nice response, haha.

Regards!

Norwegian Shooter said...

Did you see the one about how "in the beginning God separated the Heaven and the Earth"? h/t PZ

PS Suggestion: add the widget to subscribe to your feed. I figured it out manually, but it would better for most people to have a button. You currently have at least 57 subscribers

Norwegian Shooter said...

Ooops. Can't read.

miller said...

Subscriptions have always been there, but I just added an rss icon.

I have to agree with PZ that if the new interpretation is indeed the correct one, it's mostly irrelevant. Either way, it says nothing about the real world. And looking at it as a fictional story, I don't think the change makes the story any better or worse.