The Phenomenal Language Argument And the Creation Accounts

I'll be gone for a week and a half, so this will be my last post until I get back. Let me leave you with something good to talk about:

Christians will argue that God described his creation of the world to the Biblical writers in “the phenomenal language of their day,” given that we still talk about the “sun rising,” and so forth. But it’s more likely that the Bible merely reflects ancient views of cosmology based upon a mythic non-historical consciousness. To see what the Hebrews believed about the universe see here.

Isn’t it crystal clear God could’ve described the universe differently in order to teach human beings about the vastness and age of the universe? Why didn’t the author of the first Creation account in Genesis start out by saying:

"In the beginning God created an immeasurable universe of billions of stars, some of which are billions and billions of miles (cubits) away, through a process that took billions of years out of which he finally created the sun, moon, and a spherical earth which revolves around the sun. On it he created water, land, the beasts of the sea, and eventually every living thing on it. Finally he created human beings to rule over everything he created."
I just don't see why God didn’t reveal this, if he exists, or why ancient people couldn't have had a good grasp of what he said. It certainly would be easily understood, and would not later be undermined by the findings of modern astronomy. By stating that the earth was spherical or that it went around the Sun would’ve done wonders for Biblical credibility with the dawn of modern science, since it would predate what science would later discover.

Apologists will argue that ancient cosmological beliefs were not important for God to correct; since all he wanted to do was to let humans to know that it was HE who created it. But when we reflect on the Galileo affair and the irreparable harm it did to the Christian faith once astronomers understood the vastness and age of the universe, one can only shake her head in utter amazement God didn’t foresee that because he didn’t reveal this, it would lead many of us to doubt the Bible. I am an atheist because this very problem started me down the road of doubt. Does God really not care about the fact he didn't tell human beings the truth about the universe? By not doing so, God has produced many unbelievers who don’t see any true divine revelation in the Bible!

Apologists will object that if God had revealed this to the ancient world it would’ve been laughed at by the ancients who knew differently, just like Socrates was laughed at in Aristophanes’ play called, The Clouds, for suggesting rain came from the clouds rather than from the sky itself. Several things can be said about this objection.

In the first place, if God had directly revealed this to Adam and Eve then all humanity would’ve accepted what God revealed. It would be the consensus opinion which would require evidence to prove differently. Secondly, if God actually did the many miracles claimed in the Bible, they would be considered strong evidence to believe what he said about the universe as well. Thirdly, God could also have provided Adam and Eve with the knowledge to confirm what he said by telling them how to make a telescope, for instance. Fourthly, if God had revealed the truth about the universe then human beings, especially believers, would find ways to confirm what he said, just like believers today try to confirm the stories in the Bible. So revealing this would also speed up what we know about the universe, and since it predated our discoveries, it would be strong evidence that the God of the Bible exists. Lastly, we must place this lack of divine foresight in the context of other things God could’ve revealed, but didn’t. He could’ve revealed to us how to discover penicillin; but didn’t. He could’ve unambiguously condemned slavery; but he didn’t. He could’ve condemned honor killings, witch burnings, and Inquisitions, but he didn’t. In fact, the Bible does not contain one single statement that could not have been written by a person living in that time period. The best explanation for this is that the God of the Bible doesn’t exist.

27 comments:

toomanytribbles said...

i don't even know why i'm mentioning this or where i read it, but...

they say that primitive man thought that the sun circled the earth because it looked that way...
... so what would it have looked like if the earth circled the sun?

Craig Duckett said...

The 'Primordial Account' of Genesis (chapters 1 -11) is written from the viewpoint of an anonymous third-person 'observer' or 'eyewitness' to the events described and presupposes this witness's account to be true and accurate based on...what?

Fundamentalist and literal interpreters of the Bible take for granted the descriptions of Genesis 1 - 11 as given qualifiers without deliberating on how this anonymous third-person 'observer' actually 'knows' any of this. Since there was no 'eyewitness' (presumably) perched off in space somewhere observing Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, The Flood, the Tower of Babel, et al, then we can only assume that the events described by the anonymous third-person 'observer' are neither journalistic accounts nor percipient observations, but interior 'spiritual' narratives generated through preternatural 'revelation' or interpretative 'visions'. As such, as naturalistic 'accounts' meant to explain the origins of the earth, mankind, and culture, they are by necessity meaningless since the interior (subjective) descriptions of this anonymous third-person 'observer' must be accepted on "faith" as exterior (objective) descriptions from a time and place where no exterior (objective) descriptions could have possibly been made. We are supposed to take the anonymous third-person observer's 'word' that this is how it all went down even though there was no anonymous third-person 'observer'.

Now, fundamentalist and literal interpreters of the Bible might want to argue that the anonymous third-person 'observer' is actually 'God' and it was God who 'revealed' these events to the author (or authors) of the Book of Genesis, inferring that we are to take these interior (subjective) 'revelations' or 'visions' as exterior natural 'history' and without further adieu.

This inference makes no sense, however, since the initial inference of the anonymous third-person 'observer' being 'God' is itself an inference and a presupposition. Why? Because we have no reason to believe that ANY of the events described in Genesis 1 - 11 happened (or did not happen) the way described because (1) there was no anonymous third-person 'observer' perched somewhere in space writing it down as it happened, (2) the notion of the anonymous third-person 'observer' being 'God' is an inference based on a preceeding inference that is itself impossible, and (3) if the events described were the result of interior 'revelations' or 'visions' then they are wholly subjective and interpretive and meaningful only to the person experiencing the 'visions'. One person's interior 'visions' does not make natural 'history' or satisfy the claims of inerrant 'truth'.

Joseph said...

the Bible does not contain one single statement that could not have been written by a person living in that time period. The best explanation for this is that the God of the Bible doesn’t exist.

That is indeed the best explanation. But isn't the apologist's argument that if God had revealed information that could not have been written by a person living in that time period, then that perhaps would've been too much information? Not enough of a test of faith, or something like that.

(Just playing devil's advocate there).

IrishFarmer said...

Aww, and here I thought you were going to keep your word about this article actually being good. :p

David B. Ellis said...


Not enough of a test of faith, or something like that.


Which, of course, assumes that believing something on weak evidence is a GOOD thing.

A rather dubious assumption.

Jason said...

I'm really interested in hearing how the 'Phenomenal Language Argument' can be considered rational. If a Christian put forth the equivalent of this sort of argument, you'd hear no end to it.

Just because God could have done something but didn't really doesn't mean anything. E.g. God never uses the phrase "billions of stars in the universe" in Genesis. Therefore, God isn't real because if He was, he would have described the universe. This isn't an argument, it's a conditional statement and it's rather telling when people need to resort to this sort of stuff to "debunk Christianity".

IrishFarmer said...

Right on, Jason.

Shygetz said...

Jason said "Just because God could have done something but didn't really doesn't mean anything."

Sure it does. If God does exist, it tells you something of His nature. The fact that God chose to reinforce ancient misconceptions rather than teach new facts about the universe does seem to indicate that God, if He exists, is not anti-ignorance.

Explains a lot, don't you think?

Jason said...

Shygetz,

Whether or not people struggle with the nature of God isn't a logical foundation for a "God doesn't exist" argument. The two issues are unrelated. Anti-ignorance God isn't automatically non-existent God.

Stargazer said...

I think part of the reason this argument gets tangled is because we get caught in the specificity of examples. The problem for me is not so much that God should have supplied specific cosmological information as that so much misinformation was provided. Might be better if nothing had been said about creation at all! :-)

James F. McGrath said...

My one concern is that this argument is in serious danger of committing the fallacy of the 'excluded middle'. A liberal to mainstream Christian viewpoint would assert that these writings reflect the religious views of people in this particular time and place. They clearly were not right about everything. But being wrong about some things does not prove that they are wrong about everything. Whether their religious insights are of lasting value surely cannot be determined on the basis of their sharing the worldview of their time any more than Plato's value (for example) can be assessed in that way. For that, other discussions are needed.

In short, it doesn't help your case to claim that this particular argument proves more than it really does.

P.S. It was Alfred North Whitehead who asked why it took so long for people to realize that the earth moves around the sun. When told it looks that way, he asked "Well, how would it look if the earth moved around the sun?!"

Shygetz said...

james said: "A liberal to mainstream Christian viewpoint would assert..."

The blog's stated goal is to debunk Evangelical Christianity, not liberal Christianity (seriously, read the banner). While some arguments also work to debunk other forms of Christianity (as well as other theistic religions), the stated target is Evangelical Christianity.

jason said: "Whether or not people struggle with the nature of God isn't a logical foundation for a "God doesn't exist" argument. The two issues are unrelated. Anti-ignorance God isn't automatically non-existent God."

You said, and I quote:

"Just because God could have done something but didn't really doesn't mean anything."

I pointed out that you were wrong. It does mean something, and something rather important, I think. It shows that your God (if He exists) is not anti-ignorance, and is unwilling to teach His people important things about the universe. He is more than willing to not only let their misconceptions go uncorrected, but to reinforce these misconceptions by lending the power of His word to them (e.g. Galileo's troubles).

This argument that God doesn't exist is not a deductive argument; rather, it is a single piece of evidence towards a larger inductive argument. If an all-knowing God existed, then He could have told humanity things about the world that they did not already know. The Bible contains no such things. Rather, it does contain references to things that we now know to be false (stationary planet, sun revolving around earth, existance of a firmament, corners of a planet, listing of certain animals as chewing their cud when they do not, etc.) but that were commonly accepted as true in the days in which the texts were written.

It is evidence for a natural origin of the Bible, although not conclusive by itself. And it certainly says something about the character of God, if He does exist and was involved in the Bible's authorship--he had no problem misleading His people by supporting factually incorrect statements that they already believed to be true.

Jason said...

Joseph said: "It shows that your God (if He exists) is not anti-ignorance, and is unwilling to teach His people important things about the universe.

Instead, God taught His people all that boring relevant stuff like prayer and sin and laws and prophecy and eternal life. Understanding salvation vs. understanding gamma rays...It's a tough call. :)

“If an all-knowing God existed, then He could have told humanity things about the world that they did not already know.”

He could have. But He didn't. It's still a conditional statement and Christianity still remains entact.

“And it certainly says something about the character of God, if He does exist and was involved in the Bible's authorship--he had no problem misleading His people by supporting factually incorrect statements that they already believed to be true.”

No one seemed particularly upset by this in Scripture so either they were fine with God misleading their forefathers or you’re wrong. It’s a happy ending for believers either way.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Jason: You are the current master of the rhetorical trick of deliberately misunderstanding an argument. This, of course, lets you beat the strawman you create around the ears with your sarcasm -- and might even fool people into thinking you've attacked the real argument being made.
But even more it frees you from the necessity of having to confront that argument and its implications -- and again you hope you can fool people into not noticing that you haven't actually thought about it.

So lets try again. No one but you has mentioned gamma rays or similar advanced scientific concepts. (In fact, he didn't teach anthing that would rule out such concepts.) We have suggested first, that a god who 'epitomizes truth' as you clain for your god, would not have -- unnecessarily -- lied about aspects of science. ("It ain't what he didn't say, it's what he said that ain't so.")

Second, almost all people claimed that theirgod taught them "all that boring relevant stuff like prayer and sin and laws and prophecy and eternal life." And presumably your god, were he real, would have known that.

But he also was, supposedly, "planning for the long haul," speaking not just for then, but for all times. He must have known what a great advantage it would have given him, how much more convincing his message would have been, then and in the future, if he had revealed just one simple concept that was unknown to the world, but which would be proven true.

And these concepts really are simple. It takes about three short paragraphs to prove the world is round, one simple test to demonstrate that 'light things fall as fast as heavy things,' etc.

Imagine a prophet, or Moses, writing something like the following:
"Oh people of Israel, when you meet those who doubt that your God is true, ask them to tell you which is true. Is the world round or flat? And when they answer you that it is flat, say the following...

"And then say unto them, that our God is truly the maker of the World and knows all things, and has revealed this to us, to prove He is Who He is."

Any of a dozen concepts would have done.

And another thing, these are not merely 'nice things to know.' Your God, in the Old Testament, was a war god as well. Think how much advantage he could have given his people by showing them again, simple ideas that would have advanced them above their neighbors. Think even if he'd given them the idea of zero and positional notation. That alone would have given them calculations that could have assured victory in many a battle.

Or finally, imagine -- as I have said in other contexts -- a prophet saying 'Oh Israelites, your God wishes his words to be preserved inviolate, and so he says unto you that if you carve his words into blocks of wood, you can make many copies so that they will not be lost through the errors of memory or of copying by fallible human hands.'

Is your god such a fool that he did not know how strong these arguments would have been, how much they would have helped his words be heard throughout the world and across time?

Jason said...

Jim said: “...and might even fool people into thinking you've attacked the real argument being made.”

Sorry but I wasn’t aware a real argument had been made. What is it, exactly? That God didn’t impart information regarding the vastness and age of the universe so He doesn’t exist? Is that it? Again, that's not an argument, it's a conditional statement.

I happily agree that it’s not recorded that God imparted information about the age of the universe. This changes nothing. Christianity still stands, God still exists.

Shygetz said...

prup makes an excellent argument, and yet again Jason chooses to ignore it an pummel his strawman.

Instead, God taught His people all that boring relevant stuff like prayer and sin and laws and prophecy and eternal life. Understanding salvation vs. understanding gamma rays...It's a tough call.

You're right...the all-powerful God just HAD to choose one or the other, so he chose the one that was unprovable. How convenient for you.

No one seemed particularly upset by this in Scripture so either they were fine with God misleading their forefathers or you’re wrong.

Yeah, who would have guessed that a book compended by the leaders of a faith wouldn't include writings that criticized the faith. Another miracle, eh? Are YOU ok with God misleading you and your forefathers? If He misled you about some things, why do you assume that He is not misleading you regarding the nature of salvation, prayer, and all that other stuff that you claim is important?

It’s a happy ending for believers either way.

Well, they do say ignorance is bliss...

Sorry but I wasn’t aware a real argument had been made. What is it, exactly? That God didn’t impart information regarding the vastness and age of the universe so He doesn’t exist?

God didn't impart ANY useful information to his people. Oddly enough, the only "facts" that God "revealed" in his word were things already commonly believed by the people. God LIED (or, if you prefer, intentionally misled) about aspects of the physical world. Why should I believe all the stuff about prayer, salvation, etc. if He can't get the shape of the planet he supposedly created right?

Christianity still stands,

As does Creationism, even though it has been thoroughly disproven. Religiously-motivated ignorance is a stubborn stain.

God still exists.

Evidence? Of course not, how silly of me to ask.

Jason said...

Good on you, shygetz. Now, what’s the real argument here? That God didn’t impart information regarding the vastness and age of the universe so He doesn’t exist?

Shygetz said...

The original argument from the post is in bold. I will quote it for the lazy:

"the Bible does not contain one single statement that could not have been written by a person living in that time period. "

The later argument put forth is that the Bible did not impart any new testable information that was not commonly believed by man at the time of its writing, even so far as to include many instances of factually incorrect statements.

Evangelical Christianity claims that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, and that the Bible is the true word of God. And yet, it includes falsehoods about the physical world (that just happened to be what people already believed at the time). It includes no verifiable truths about the world that were not common belief at the time. Therefore, the notion that the Bible is the true word of an infallible God is incompatible with its description of physical reality. On the other hand, the Bible's description of physical reality is perfectly compatible with the idea that it was written by humans of the time.

Jason said...

Shygetz,

"The Bible does not contain one single statement that could not have been written by a person living in that time period."

This isn't an argument, it's a statement. Likewise:

"The Bible doesn't contain a single statement about ice cream."

This isn't an argument, it's a statement.

No one's arguing the Bible's contents in terms of new and previously unknown information any more then we're arguing whether or not ice cream was invented by the Israelites.

If the Bible claimed to have testable information that was not commonly believed by man at the time, you'd have a case. But it doesn't. Your so-called 'argument' is based on an incorrect assumption about the purpose of the Bible.

Shygetz said...

Jason, do you truly have the attention span of a four-year old? I elaborated upon the argument in the post. It really wasn't that long. Read the last two paragraphs rather than stopping at the first.

Jason said...

Shygetz,

I don't think you're understanding. The Bible never claims its divinity is based on imparting information regarding the age and size of the universe in an era where this information wouldn't have been known.

It's an argument from silence and it's not terribly effective.

"It includes no verifiable truths about the world that were not common belief at the time." God didn't need to or want to share this information at that time.

From the original post: "Isn’t it crystal clear God could’ve described the universe differently in order to teach human beings about the vastness and age of the universe" Isn't it crystal clear that God didn't need to or want to share this information at that time?

Claiming falsehoods about the physical world is a completely separate argument so I'm not sure why you keep bringing it up. Read the original post, there's nothing in it that touches on the 'falsehood' claim.

Tommy said...

Here's one I haven't seen raised before which I thought of.

In Genesis, before Noah's flood, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are described. Now, if there was a worldwide flood that covered the entire surface of the Earth, all of the rivers of the world would have been erased.

Once the flood waters receded from such tremendous heights, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers would have been gone.

Lee Randolph said...

Hi Jason,
what i think you are not considering is the concept of 'reasonable expectation'.

heres an analogy.
I find one afternoon that I have blood in my poop. I don't know any doctors so I find one in the yellow pages. I go to her office and find no receptionist. I shake hands with her, sit down in a normal looking office and describe my problem. She gives me baby aspirin, says don't worry about, it will be fine and then charges fifty dollars.

At this point, most of my expectations about her have not been met and I am thinking that she is a fraud. I am justified in asking her questions to try to determine what qualifies her claim of being a doctor.

The bible is the same way. If you want to say that the bible was divinely inspired, meaning 'breathed from god' then there are some reasonable expectations that would set it apart from its peers that we can presume. This article and some others here explore this expectation and are asking "what makes people think this book is the inspired word of god other than it says it is?".

Just like the doctor didn't have any 'doctory' properties, the bible doesn't have any perceptible 'godly' properties, so by default, there is no reason to believe that it has any more importance than any other religious scripture.

so if you want to claim that the bible doesn't say that it should tell us about zero, or describe quantum mechanics, fine. But it does say that it is the word of god, so I say, it doesn't look like it so why should I believe it is? For example, it gets science, history and geography wrong. Thats not very godly behavior from a being that supposedly is timeless and knows everything etc. It doesn't seem that god was much help in writing the bible. If the facts that can be verified empirically are wrong, it has set a precedent about its behavior that we can apply to the rest of the bible. By precedent we can doubt that anything else in the bible is correct.

I claim fraud on the bible.

Jason said...

Lee,

You claim fraud on the Bible because it doesn't meet your reasonable expectations. However, nothing's been debunked and nothing's been disproven. That's all I'm pointing out.

Tommy said...

Jason, see my comments above. A worldwide flood would alter the landscape and wipe out previously existing rivers, so how come the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are mentioned in Genesis BEFORE the flood?

In Isaiah 19:5-7, it reads "The waters of the river [the Nile, that is] will dry up, and the riverbed will be parched and dry. The canals will stink; the streams of Egypt will dwindle and dry up. The reeds and rushes will wither, also the plants along the Nile, at the mouth of the river." This so-called prophecy dates from approximately 700BCE. Well, it has been 2,700 years and the Nile River has yet to dry up.

In Genesis 17:8, god tells Abraham "The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you." Well, there is a span of some 2,000 years where the descendants of Abraham did not have possession of the land of Canaan.

I could dig further, but I think I have given you enough to chew on for now.

Jason said...

Tommy,

I'm prepared to discuss the original post. If you'd like to start up another discussion regarding a different topic, point me in the right direction.

Jason

Matthew said...

Jason says:

"I'm really interested in hearing how the 'Phenomenal Language Argument' can be considered rational. If a Christian put forth the equivalent of this sort of argument, you'd hear no end to it."

Jason, I am not sure what you're asking here. Do you disagree with the "phenomenal language argument" and wonder how anyone could consider it a legimate explanation of the Bible geocentric language, for instance?

"Just because God could have done something but didn't really doesn't mean anything. E.g. God never uses the phrase "billions of stars in the universe" in Genesis. Therefore, God isn't real because if He was, he would have described the universe. This isn't an argument, it's a conditional statement and it's rather telling when people need to resort to this sort of stuff to "debunk Christianity""

I don't think this as necessarily debunking Christianity. I do think it's a legimate theological question and if the Christian god decided to reveal this kind of advanced information, it might make the Bible's claims to be of divine origin more credible and easier to believe.

I believe that the reason why the Bible describes the world using geocentric language is because the authors really did believe it and I do believe that an all-knowing divine being would've had them say something different. I am not suggesting a divine being need to reveal scientific insights many years before their discovery by actual science but that the langauge just not be scientifically inaccurate.

Matthew