Thursday, February 16, 2012

Genesis, Aliens, and Empiricism Gone Wrong

A Christian friend of mine and I have been debating back and forth for years now, and in one of the recent exchanges, he was chastising my reliance on empirical knowledge.  Pesky engineers, always leaning on empiricism.  I replied with something to the effect of "empirical data isn't everything, but it's pretty damn important."

I need to clarify.  Equally important as empirical data itself is having an accurate interpretation of that data.

In a 2006 interview with Bill Moyers (part of an excellent series called "on Faith and Reason" available on Netflix), Welsh climatologist Sir John Houghton (scientist, Christian, author, and leading figure in global climate change research) discussed the perspective of being a leading scientist as well as a lifelong Christian.  Houghton expressed how he didn't really see a conflict.  Pointing to the creation story in Genesis, he opined that it was obviously meant as a fable or metaphor because light was created on the first day (Genesis 1:1-5) while the sun and stars were created on the fourth day (Genesis 1:14-19).  Anyone knows that this is impossible.

That is, anyone knows that this is impossible now...

However, Genesis was written a long, long time ago; during a time before mankind fully understood the reflective, refractive, wave-like, and ray nature of light.  This is not to say that physics was any different back then, but rather they did not have the proper mental tools to completely understand them.

The picture to the right here is of Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming, roughly twenty minutes before sunrise.

To the left here, you see a picture outside of El Paso, Texas, roughly ten minutes after the sun has dropped below the horizon (figuratively speaking, of course).

Notice anything common in these photos?  Despite the fact that the sun is not visible, there is still light.  It may not seem so in the photos, but there was enough light to read books then!

What would someone five thousand years ago think about that?

To the right is a photo at approximately eleven in the morning in a small town in Hungary.  It was completely overcast that day, drizzling on and off, and the sun could not be seen.  Yet look at how bright it is.  Look at how well lit it appears, even under the awnings and trees.  There are no defined shadows.

What does this empirical evidence point to?  That the sun is the source of our primary light here on earth?  Or does it suggest instead that while the sun is a source of light, it is not the source of light?

The "light" of five thousand years ago was not the same as we understand "light" today.  It matched the empirical observations and the level of "scientific knowledge" which they had at the time.  Just like it was obvious that light appeared every day before the sun actually arose from the horizon, there was no difficulty in their understanding that "God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light" before there was a sun in the sky.  What appears to us today as fable, metaphor, or myth was very real and logical back then.

I have another good friend who is on the fringes of being a conspiracy theorist, and he has been hooked into the "ancient astronaut" theory.  As he was describing the theory and some of the evidence, I was very skeptical.  He kept prodding me to watch the History Channel's series called "Ancient Aliens."  In the spirit of being a good friend, and enjoying a challenge to my own belief systems, I took him up on it.

I had somewhat expected it to be a bologna and crazy sandwich, but the series actually has proven to be pretty interesting.  Check out this episode from Season 2, for example.  That's not to say I believe it.  It's not that I strain at a gnat (Christianity) and swallow a camel (aliens bred us to be a slave race, one of dozens of theories proposed during the series).  However, they point out many finds from archeology which are fascinating to ponder.  There are many more spectacular and mysterious megalithic structures on this earth than I was aware of, and that alone has made the series slightly addicting.

The show's investigators, theorists, and scientists do a pretty good job in establishing the possibility of ancient alien contact.  Logically it makes some sense too.  I mean, when you think that our planet is actually relatively young in our universe, if we allow for the possibility of intelligent life on other planets and efficient space travel, it is not impossible for aliens to have visited our planet a long time ago.  Unlikely, maybe, but not impossible.

However, the show also serves as an excellent case study in confirmation bias.  While the show does sometimes present alternate opinions, the major hosts have already sold themselves completely on the surety of ancient alien contact.  When you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  And apparently when you are an ancient alien astronaut theorist, every little bit of evidence which could possibly support that theory, no matter how flimsy, is accepted as factual evidence.  So many of their legitimate points, questions, and theories are sullied by junk science; by empiricism gone wrong due to incorrect interpretation.

Incorrect interpretation is just one reason why empiricism is not always the best tool in trying to arrive at the truth.  Other reasons will have to come in later posts... :-)


  1. Fun post, WF. And a good reminder of what we're doing when we rely too heavily on data. I like the photos and the seeing-the-light explanation.

    My wife has become addicted to Ghost Adventurers - three guys find a haunted place, spend the night locked in, film their experiences and collect evidence for the supernatural. She insists it's just entertainment, but I tend to see in it a long case study in confirmation bias.

    1. Thank you, Andrew!

      That's funny about your wife. My friend who is hooked on aliens also went through a period where he watched one of those ghost shows; I think Ghost Hunters? After watching dozens of episodes, he eventually lamented that they had practically nil as far as hard evidence, and it appeared to be a bunch of acting. Even so, it can be entertaining to watch. :-)

  2. Aliens aside, you are probably better off recognizing Geneses, et. all as oral tradition. There are a lot of consistencies with stories that must be remembered – they are all fanciful to a degree. We don’t seem to remember and repeat stories unless they have supernatural features. Written literature can be very different, but that is easy to forget.

    1. I am fairly certain many of the early Bible stories were oral traditions before being set down in writing.

      You do make an excellent point about supernatural features making them easier to remember. I hadn't really thought about that angle, but there probably is some truth to that.

    2. On a related note, Julian Jaynes has taken this misunderstanding to an art form, and has been honored by a dedicated society:

      The very testable rejection of this nonsense live among all pre-literate tribes. While their oral traditions can be quite fantastic, their minds work just like ours.

    3. That is a rather interesting theory Jaynes came up with, Alan! I hadn't seen that one before. Thanks for sharing it.

      I'd have to agree with you, though, that I think that their minds work just like ours do today. I haven't seen the testing results as proof, but I can understand a great deal from the written myths about how their minds worked.

  3. "Empiricism" is a theory of knowledge that asserts that knowledge comes only or primarily via sensory experience. (WIKI)

    But knowledge come from testing our feelings too, abstract relationships (Math & Logic) and others. Interestingly, Buddhists consider MIND to be one of the senses.

    Definitions and "isms" are so slippery.

    Then you say "correct interpretation" is important. But it is really correct "hypothesis testing" (a method) that is important -- for without that, we can't even begin to approximate a "correct interpretation".

    1. That's interesting about Buddhists. I know enough about Buddhism that the MIND as a sense doesn't surprise me, but I'd never actually heard of it enumerated as one of the senses. Cool!

      I'd agree that hypothesis testing is critically important, but I can tell you that I run into cases at work where it is impractical to rigorously test a hypothesis. You just assess the situation, jump to a conclusion, make a recommendation, and cross your fingers. :-)

      I would also go one step further that it is necessary to realize that you need to test the hypothesis. As with the daylight example above, it probably seemed as "obvious" back then as the nose on your face. When you can't discern an assumption from an observation, you get stuck in your mindset, and that is more of the angle of where I was coming from with "correct interpretation."

    2. Gottcha, makes sense --- well, to this mind!

  4. I enjoyed this lesson on empiricism. As valuable as empiricism is, it can be very misleading at times. And it can't be the *only* means by which science is done. For example, Einstein developed his revolutionary theories of relativity without it. (But then empirical evidence confirmed them, of course.)

    While I know this post wasn't primarily about Genesis 1 and the creation of the Sun, while I'm here, let me briefly explain my position on this. To put it simply, the Sun was created in Genesis 1:1, technically *before* the 1st day of creation. On the 1st day, the opaque atmosphere became translucent--just clear enough to allow the passage of light. On the 4th day, the translucent atmosphere became transparent--clear enough for an observer to observe the Sun and moon.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Mr. Wallflower! Great point about Einstein and relativity, too.

      Some time ago, you and I had discussed the Genesis 1 creation story. I know your position is built on the different Hebrew terms for "create," and possibly some other words as well. It is an interesting theory, but, as you may imagine, I still have some problems with it. ;-) But thanks for sharing the idea here, and if you happen to know of a link to a sight which explains that position for everyone to see, please don't hesitate to post it up here!