A Review of Chapter 5 of The Christian Delusion

Chapter 5 of The Christian Delusion is entitled “The Cosmology of the Bible” and is written by Edward T. Babinski.  The opening sections of the chapter briefly describe the cosmologies of ancient Near Eastern cultures.  Ancient Israelite cosmology was similar to the cosmology of the surrounding nations.

The main section of the chapter focuses on the Bible’s description of the universe and how it differs from our modern scientific understanding of the universe.  The impact that this chapter will have on any individual Christian will be tied closely with that Christian’s view of the inspiration of Scripture.  I will attempt to remain critical of Babinski’s claims even though I accept that the Bible’s cosmology is pre-scientific.

The author notes that God is depicted as having had conflicts with various foes at creation (Ps 74:12-17; 89:11-13; Job 26:7-13; 38:1-11).  The first three passages contain the words of humans and therefore are probably not problematic for any Christians.  In the final passage God is speaking to Job.  In my opinion the Book of Job is not an historical account.  To judge the book on historical or scientific grounds is to miss the message of the text.  I realize that many, if not most, Christians will disagree with my opinion on Job’s historicity.  If that is the case they must offer some explanation for God’s apparent lack of scientific accuracy.

Babinski goes on to examine Genesis 1.  The firmament separating the waters above from the waters below (vv. 6-8; cf. Gen 7:11-12; cf. Pss 104:1-3; 148:3-4; Prov 8:27-28) is problematic for the Christian trying to find science in Scripture.  Considerable space is taken up with a discussion of the solid firmament.  It is noteworthy that the author cites a number of works from evangelical Christians in this section.  The alert reader may begin to ask if the Bible’s cosmology is that big of an issue for Christianity considering the fact that it does not trouble a number of Christians.

Babinski goes on to cite a number of passages that imply the earth is flat (e.g., Isa 40:22), particularly those that speak of the ends of the earth or the ends of heaven.  We must be careful not to take poetic passages and idioms too literally.  Many of us use similar language and don’t believe the earth is flat.  I am not denying that some biblical authors believed the earth is flat.  Rather, I am saying that poetic passages and idioms should not be mined for scientific opinions.  Likewise, visions and dreams should not be looked to for scientific facts (e.g., Dan 4:10-11).

The writer moves on to examine what the biblical authors thought was under the earth.  Some passages speak of the earth resting on the waters (e.g., Ps 24:2) while others speak of pillars (e.g., Job 38:4-6).  I wonder whether Babinski believes these descriptions should be harmonized with each other or not.  Regardless of his opinion, many Christians may take these differences to indicate that the Bible is more concerned with theology than geology.  Once a Christian adopts such a position a chapter such as this will have little impact on his faith.

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27 thoughts on “A Review of Chapter 5 of The Christian Delusion”

  1. Thanks very much for reading and reviewing my chapter in TCD. I think we both agree on many matters pertaining to Genesis 1.

    We might also agree that the literalistic interpretation is pretty well ensconced in Evangelicaldom, and that we’re both glad to see new books and new sites arising by Evangelicals to challenge such literalism, such as BIOLOGOS.

    You asked whether I would try to harmonize different descriptions of how the earth was supported? No, I would not attempt to harmonize them since the ancient world likewise held multiple opinions as I stated in my paper. They didn’t know what lay beneath the earth, and even predicted as in Jeremiah that such knowledge would probably remain unknown. So they relied on God to stretch out the earth and sky and keep them in place, as well as their kingdoms.

    Whether or not the three-tier scheme of creation impacts one’s faith as you say it doesn’t, is another question. Do you believe there are beings under the earth as Paul made plain that he believed? Or a prince of power of the air more or less directly above your head? I also suspect that you take the last few chapters of the Bible, which depict the “descent” of the “New Jersualem” no more literally than the first chapter.

  2. Hello Edward, I don’t believe there are living beings under the earth (as opposed to in the earth, e.g., worms) nor do I believe their is a physical kingdom located above my head. Regarding Revelation 21, I try to understand the symbolism of the passage. A strictly literal reading of apocalyptic literature would ignore the richness of the imagery.

  3. Hi, I’m uncertain of your name, is it “Jay?”

    Isn’t the primary question not what you believe but what Paul believed and wrote about, and the author of Revelation? What you believe is of course what you believe, but what about the beliefs of the authors of the Bible?

    PAUL
    . . . so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
    http://bible.cc/philippians/2-10.htm

    REVELATION
    And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.”
    http://bible.cc/revelation/5-13.htm

    PAUL
    (Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)
    http://bible.cc/ephesians/4-9.htm

    REVELATION
    And no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the book or to look into it.
    http://bible.cc/revelation/5-3.htm

    This is mere “imagery” to you, and that’s fine. But do you also think it was pure “imagery” to Paul and the author of Revelation?

    You admitted in your review that at least some biblical authors believed the entire cosmos was a three-tier affair with heaven above, a flat earth below, and mysterious regions beneath the earth as well. The OT mentions people coming up from the earth, and Job says God sees the spirits in the great deep. The NT makes similar statements in the verses I cited above.

    You are agreeing that you do not see things the way the authors of the Bible saw them. You see only worms under the earth, no beings at all. And as telescopes have revealed, the heavens are filled with flying asteroids, comets, stars forming and exploding, even galaxies colliding (google up some pics to see those). And the earth is a tiny lifeboat bobbing perilously in space with earth-orbit-crossing asteroids, and with life-less-boats to our immediate left and right (Venus and Mars).

    So we agree. The Bible begins with a non-scientific tale of the creation of a flat earth cosmos, and ends with the non-scientific tale of a heavenly city sent down from God’s heavenly abode above our heads, and that between those myths lay some fictional books as well, such as Job.

    We also agree that young-earth creationism’s literalism is not good for Christianity. So you and I agree with the vast majority of information the I compiled from scholarly sources. If you find any words or sections of my chapter that make sense to you and that you can use to help to awaken other Christians to at least asking more questions concerning their literal interpretations of Genesis 1 and the end of Revelation and Job, then by all means, please use what I have written in part or in whole.

    Thanks again for reviewing the chapter!

  4. Hi, Edward:

    Hi, I’m uncertain of your name, is it “Jay?”

    Yes.

    Isn’t the primary question not what you believe but what Paul believed and wrote about, and the author of Revelation? What you believe is of course what you believe, but what about the beliefs of the authors of the Bible?

    The primary question, in my opinion, is the intended message of the biblical authors. A passage like Philippians 2:10 is stating that the living and the dead (those under the earth) will bow down to Christ.

    This is mere “imagery” to you, and that’s fine. But do you also think it was pure “imagery” to Paul and the author of Revelation?

    To be clear, I was saying that apocalyptic literature often uses imagery. I don’t think we can say for certain what Paul or John thought about geography/cosmology. The belief that the earth was round was held by many before and during the first century. It’s possible that Paul held more “modern” views on geography but still used “unscientific” language in his letters. Of course, it’s also possible that Paul held “unscientific” views on geography and used “unscientific” language in his letters. I see no way to tell which is the case. Since Paul’s letters are not geography lessons it makes little difference to understanding his message.

    So we agree. The Bible begins with a non-scientific tale of the creation of a flat earth cosmos, and ends with the non-scientific tale of a heavenly city sent down from God’s heavenly abode above our heads, and that between those myths lay some fictional books as well, such as Job.

    As you can see from some of my reviews on other chapters in TCD, I do not care for the use of the term “myth” unless it is precisely defined, for the term is often more pejorative than informative. I might agree that Genesis 1-11 is myth, depending on the definition one uses. Calling Revelation an apocalypse seems much more helpful than calling it a myth. To be clear, when I say a book or passage is fiction it is not meant in a disparaging way.

  5. “We don’t know what Paul really meant?”

    “We don’t care because his message can be understood aside from his idea of the cosmos?”

    The same rationalizations could be used to try and defend a belief in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian religious writings.

    I’ve also read that English Bibles fail to render fully the meaning of the third phrase in the original Greek of Philippians:

    . . .that at the name of Jesus every knee should
    bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth [katachthonion] (Phil. 2:9–11)

    Doesn’t katachthonion refer to “the beings down (kata) in the chthonic (chthovios) or subterranean world?” For biblical writers wasn’t “the underworld” as real as the heaven overhead and the surface of the earth? Are you really attempting to argue that these terms were merely poetic figures of speech?

    As for how cosmology affects the message of one’s religious views I mentioned it in my article in the beginning, middle and end, of my article. I mentioned how ideas of kingship influenced, even defined, ideas of a deity’s “commands, presence,” etc., and how a belief in a nearby deity in heaven above the earth affected the rise of a priesthood, temples and sacrifices to secure the kingdom and the cosmos itself. And how such a belief in a three-tier cosmos persisted throughout the books of the OT and NT, of God in heaven above, things rising to, and descending from heaven above. Metaphorically interpret all of that and what are you left with?

    Where exactly does the history end and the fiction begin? Take the tale of Jesus’s bodily resurrection and bodily ascention in Luke. Where does the first century “fiction”-making begin? Does it begin with the ending of Luke’s Gospel in which the raised Jesus shows himself and asks for a piece of fish to prove he’s “not a spirit, but has flesh and bone,” and then “led them out to Bethany” and then “rose” bodily up into the sky? Or does the “fiction”-making only begin with the “rising” part?

    In other words, it doesn’t appear to be only “cosmology” we’re taking about but a whole story made of ragged legendary cloth.

    As Strauss also pointed out. . .

    We know that anyone who wants to go to God and the precincts of the Blessed is taking a needless detour if he thinks this means he has to soar into the upper levels of the air. Surely Jesus would not have taken such a superfluous journey, nor would God have made him take it. Thus, one would have to assume something like a divine accommodation to the world-picture people had back then, and say: In order to convince the disciples of Jesus’s return to the higher world, even though in fact that world was by no means to be sought in the upper atmosphere, God nevertheless staged the spectacle of Jesus’s elevation. But this would be turning God into a sleight-of-hand artist.

    David Friedrich Strauss, Das Leben Jesu, 1837
    ____________________________

    It was the common belief among the Jews that the Messiah would transcend the greatest of the patriarchs and prophets; and if Enoch was translated, and Elijah went up in a fiery chariot, it was only natural that the Messiah should ascend to heaven.

    G. W. Foote, Bible Romances, No. 14, The Resurrection, 1880
    ____________________________

    The ascension of Jesus into cloudy concealment seems to have been modeled directly upon Josephus’ [first century] telling of the story of the ascension of Moses before the forlorn eyes of his disciples.

    Robert M. Price, “Of Myth and Men: A Closer Look At the Originators of the
    Major Religions–What Did They Really Say and Do?” Free Inquiry, Winter 1999/2000
    ____________________________

    There were ascents into heaven made long before and quite apart from Jesus. The Roman historian Livy, described the ascension of Romulus, the founder of the city of Rome, who came to be venerated as a god: One day Romulus held an assembly of the people before the city walls to review the army. Suddenly a thunderstorm broke out, wrapping the king in a thick cloud. When the cloud lifted, Romulus was no longer on earth. He had gone up into heaven.

    Stories of ascensions were told in antiquity about other famous men, for example, Heracles, Empedocles, Alexander the Great, and Apollonius of Tyana. Characteristically the scene is set with spectators and witnesses, before whose eyes the person in question disappears. Often he is borne aloft by a cloud or shrouded in darkness that takes him from the eyes of the people. Not infrequently the whole business takes place on a mountain or hill. (Gerhard Lohfink, Die Himmelfahrt Jesu)

    From this standpoint, Jesus’s Ascension was nothing out of the ordinary. Jesus too, disembarked from a mountain, the Mount of Olives, for heaven. The point is that from a mountain it’s not quite as far to heaven.

    Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Putting Away Childish Things
    ____________________________

    Millions of Muslims believe Mohammed “ascended into the sky” riding a horse. Makes me wonder whether Mohammed caught up to Jesus and galloped past? Or, being the gracious prophet that he was, gave Jesus a lift?

    E.T.B.

  6. Hi Edward:

    The same rationalizations could be used to try and defend a belief in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian religious writings.

    That’s fine by me.

    Doesn’t katachthonion refer to “the beings down (kata) in the chthonic (chthovios) or subterranean world?” For biblical writers wasn’t “the underworld” as real as the heaven overhead and the surface of the earth? Are you really attempting to argue that these terms were merely poetic figures of speech?

    I’m not arguing that Paul is or is not using merely a figure of speech. I am saying we can’t be sure exactly what Paul’s cosmological views were because he does not go into any detail about them.

    Metaphorically interpret all of that and what are you left with?

    You need not interpret it metaphorically. To take your example, perhaps Luke believed that Jesus ascended to heaven by going through a solid firmament of some kind. I can still take Acts 1 as an historical report of what the ascension looked like to the disciples while not adopting Luke’s cosmological opinions.

  7. Jay,

    What is your view of inspiration called (if it has an official name), and also do you find any specific support for it in any of the books of the Bible itself?

    Ben

  8. Jay,

    I suspect that you ought to become a Catholic for it’s “rich symbolism,” and forget about reality entirely since the latter subject seems to bore you.

    Indeed, why not continue adding books to the Bible if you’re in favor of rationalizing away anything in ancient books that raises questions and keeping only what you say is “gold.” I’m not saying that would be wrong either. I think there’s excellent books and excellent portions of books that lay outside the Bible, and so I seek the best in every book and every person, and eschew the religious belief that one particular book or collection of them is holier and more inspired than all other works ever written or that ever will be written.

    As for Paul’s and Luke’s and Matthew’s and the author of Revelation’s cosmological views, there’s every reason to believe they were of a three-tier cosmos with beings under the earth, on it, and directly above it. You can’t say, “we have no idea.” We have an idea.

    The recent works of Edward Adams provide correctives to N.T. Wright’s ignorance on the subjct, and I do mean ignorance:

    Stars Will Fall from Heaven: Cosmic Catastrophe in the New Testament and Its World (Library of New Testament Studies) by Edward Adams You can read some of the above online and see where Wright is wrong.

    Constructing the World: A Study in Paul’s Cosmological Language (Studies of the New Testament and Its World) by Edward Adams (Author)

    Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism (Brill’s Scholars’ List) by Adela Yarbro Collins

    Cosmology and Eschatology in Hebrews: The Settings of the Sacrifice (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series) by Kenneth Schenck

    Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew (Supplements to Novum Testamentum) by Jonathan T. Pennington

    Cosmology and New Testament Theology (Library of New Testament Studies) by Jonathan T. Pennington (Editor), Sean M. Mcdonough (Editor)
    ____________________________

    LASTLY, I think the cosmological views of biblical authors DO relate to theology in ways that raise significant questions of which you presently seem to wish to remain blissfully unaware.

    Genesis 1:16 depicts the sun and moon as “two great lamps” [literal Hebrew translation]. Those “great lamps” were made to “light” the earth, to “rule” the earth’s days and nights, and, “for signs and seasons” on earth. But a couple thousand years after the Bible was written, astronomers discovered a curious thing about that “great lamp” the moon. They discovered that Mars has two moons. Yet Mars has no people who need their steps “lit” at night, or who need to know the “signs and seasons.” Even more curiously, it was discovered that Neptune has four moons, Uranus has eleven, Jupiter has sixteen, and Saturn has eighteen moons (one of them, Titan, is even larger than the planet Mercury). The earth was created with just moon, and it “rules the night” so badly that for three nights out of every twenty-eight it abdicates its rule and doesn’t light the earth at all–at which time creationists bump into each other in the dark.

    E.T.B.
    ____________________________

    THE GALACTIC HABITABLE ZONE
    What fraction of stars in our Galaxy might play host to planets that can support multi-cellular life? Lineweaver and others have calculated the probable extent of hospitable space for complex life in the Galaxy, called the “Galactic habitable zone.” The criteria include distance from deadly supernovae, enough heavy elements to form terrestrial planets, and enough time for life to evolve. Based on these criteria, the Galactic habitable zone is an annular region between 7 to 9 kiloparsecs from the Galactic center and contains about 10% of the Milky Way stars with ages between 4 to 8 billion years old. [The Milky Way, like most of the 100 billion other galaxies in the cosmos, contains roughly a billion stars.]
    – Science, Vol. 303, Jan. 2, 2004 http://www.sciencemag.org

    Keeping in mind the above “odds,” there may be plenty of possible planets on which life might exist. But what does that imply about the Bible’s understanding of the cosmos when interpreted literally as in Genesis and the New Testament? See the following quotations to understand the questions raised by the notion of “[intelligent] life elsewhere in the galaxy.”
    – E.T.B.
    ____________________________

    “A NEW HEAVEN?”
    EVEN FOR PEOPLE LIVING IN DISTANT GALAXIES?
    According to the book of Revelation a “new earth” and a “new heaven” will be created after Jesus returns. Occupants of other planets throughout the hundred billion galaxies of our present “heaven” will no doubt be surprised to receive such an unearned favor, all because of what happens on our little world. Or is this simply another example of how the Hebrews viewed the earth as the flat firm foundation of creation with the heavens above created simply for the earth below?

    E.T.B.
    ____________________________

    Though it is not a direct article of the Christian faith that the planet we inhabit is the only inhabited one in the cosmos, yet it is so worked up from what is called the Mosaic account of creation, the story of Eve and the forbidden fruit, and the counterpart of that story, the death of the Son of God–that to believe otherwise renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous, and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air.

    Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
    ____________________________

    So long as people believed, as St. Paul himself did, in one week of creation and a past of 4,000 years–so long as people thought the stars were satellites of the earth and that animals were there to serve man–there was no difficulty in believing that a single man could have ruined everything, and that another man had saved everything.

    Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Fall, Redemption, and Geocentrism,”Christianity and Evolution
    ____________________________

    Did Jesus die uniquely to save the sins of human beings on planet Earth, or is he being strung up somewhere in the universe on every Friday?

    Michael Ruse, “Booknotes,” Biology & Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 1, Jan. 1999

  9. Ben, I wouldn’t say that I have a well thought out view of inspiration. I am more interested in whether a certain biblical figure is inspired than whether a certain book of the Bible is inspired. For example, I am more interested in whether Jesus is the Son of God than whether the Gospel of Mark is inspired by God. The criteria given in Deuteronomy 18:22 for identifying false prophets could also be used to identify those who are not inspired by God.

  10. Edward:

    As for Paul’s and Luke’s and Matthew’s and the author of Revelation’s cosmological views, there’s every reason to believe they were of a three-tier cosmos with beings under the earth, on it, and directly above it. You can’t say, “we have no idea.” We have an idea.

    We probably know the general outlines of the cosmologies of the biblical authors, but that does not mean we know the details of their cosmologies. For example, you assumed that the author of Revelation believed the earth was flat, despite the fact that Pliny said most people in his time knew the earth was round. In other words, even if John believed in a three-tier cosmos, we still don’t know whether he believed the earth was flat or round.

    The recent works of Edward Adams provide correctives to N.T. Wright’s ignorance on the subjct, and I do mean ignorance:

    Thanks for the book recommendations but I have not mentioned NT Wright in this discussion. If you want some idea of how I interpret apocalyptic texts you can see my commentary on Daniel 7, 8, 9, and 10-12.

    LASTLY, I think the cosmological views of biblical authors DO relate to theology in ways that raise significant questions of which you presently seem to wish to remain blissfully unaware.

    I’m aware of such questions but I either find them insignificant (moon) or impossible to answer (aliens).

  11. Interesting.

    I’ve tried to follow the logic of some liberal theologians before in terms of concepts like “differential authority” and the like (and even tried to solve some Biblical issues with it), but haven’t had much success thinking their thoughts after them. It always kind of makes sense in theory, but in practice I never really know how to apply it consistently (and that’s just so I can understand where they might be coming from).

    Ben

  12. Hi Jayman,

    I saw your name mentioned at Steve Hays’ blog, Triablogue. Glad to know you sometimes dialogue with YEC Calvinist inerrantists. Unfortunately there do not appear to be enough moderates like yourself to go round when it comes to dialoging with inerrantists. Most camps seem to stick to themselves, or seek to dialogue with certain other camps, I suppose.

    But if you admit people are attracted to various camps of thought that they feel most comfortable or rational in joining, and if you admit that such people are simply people like you and I and aren’t necessarily demons and devils, then you might also have some doubts, as I do, concerning whether or not people will be judged based on whatever belief-camp they feel most comfortable in.

    I see beliefs as lying along a spectrum, and not even a straight line spectrum, but more of a Darwinian “tree” or “bush.”
    __________

    Back to your latest reply, if you find claims of cosmology insignificant, then how do you feel about living in a cosmos in which hundreds of asteroids have been catalogued that pass through the earth’s orbital path? How do you feel about five mass extinction events in the past? There’s even evidence concerning more localized extinction events within the past 10,000 years caused by an asteroid(s) pummeling north armerica soon after the first human settlers arrived from the land bridge from Asia. There was also a photo on the cover of Astronomy or Sky & Telescope concerning the discovery that our upright primate ancestors, the Australopithicines probably saw a supernova explode so near the earth (I think they mesured its distance from earth in single digit light-years) that it brightened their nighttime sky. Just a little nearer, and such a nova might have spelled the end before our species even began.

    To know that life is rare among our eight planets, and also limited to the crust of the planet, and we die if we rise or ascend five miles from that crust in either direction, and the crust moves beneath us, spews hot smoke and choking ash into the air, that storms and winds and waves can crush us, killing hundreds of thousands at a time like the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and that no matter how many temples we build, animals we sacrifice, gods we worship, we’re all still at the mercy of nature’s coughs and belches and lightnings, tornadoes, hurricanes, seems a bit beyond what the ancients believed in my opinion.

    They believed they primarily at the mercy of conscious beings who controlled the weather, the earth’s movement/earthquakes, etc., Such people attempted to reach the gods to ask them to spare mortal lives, to ensure the stability of harvests and kingdom and of heaven and earth, and thought they could accomplish much via proper worship.

    But people knowing the cosmos today have to juxtrapose the idea of an even more merciless cosmos than their ancestors did. For their ancestors believed that even if the gods decided to flood the world, the gods would spare some and start over again soon enough.

    We have more doubts today than they did. If the big nugget hit the planet, the chaos would not subside overnight. It might take millions of years before some life form reemerged with intelligence. Or if not the big nugget, than a solar flare enveloping the world, a star rushing too close near our own (they’re all flying round out there on gravity’s tailwinds), disarranging planets. (Our star has already passed through a section of the Milky Way in which other stars were being sucked into our galaxy from a cluster just outside it, so at least that danger is passed till the next galactic swirl brings our star near that jostling star-sucking region.)

    _________________

    Secondly, a question. What miracles or sayings in the Bible appears more or less credible to you? James McGrath recently mentioned that someone told him:

    “The ascension is harder to believe in than the resurrection.”

    http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2010/05/from-archives-iron-man-and-ascension.html

    ______________

    Lastly, cosmology is but one area of study concerning the Bible’s ancient Near Eastern milieu. We know not only the debt that Israel’s priestly writiers owed to earlier cosmological notions. We also know for instance that before the alleged time of Moses (even if you accept an historical Moses and an historically early date for the Exodus and the receiving of the commandments direct from Yahweh), that Hammurabi’s Code already existed, and Mesopotamians already believed Hammurabi had rec’d his laws directly from the hand of his high deity.

    Likewise, the story of King David receiving directions on how to build his temple directly from the deity himself, Yahweh, is not the earliest such story. And earlier story (by all accounts including conservative Christian accounts), is the one about king Thutmose receiving directions directly from his god on how to build that god’s temple. One inerrantist theologian at Gordon Conwell wrote about these two stories in a book recently and found he could not deny that David’s story had an ancient Near Eastern predecessor.

    Lastly, what do you say about the earliest religious atrifacts of all, from the paleolithic or stone age? Drawings of animals, mostly, men with antlers, large bellied women, carvings of animals (recently uncovered in some of the oldest known standing structures, in Turkey). Writing too a long while, and during that time it appears a form of religion known as animism was prevalent, as it remains among some primitive societies even today. Later, when the ancient Near East developed agriculture and large cities arose, kings arose, and priests, and high gods in henotheistic pantheons more closely resembled humans than not, and the commanding words of kings were co-opted for how such gods were deemed to act, via commands of the head and heart. Then monolatry and finally monotheism arose.

    This is a great article that sums up recent developments concerning research into the rise of monotheism. Fascinating summary of those developments, published in 2009:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=IGcI-F0pxswC&lpg=PA208&dq=%22The%20Babylonian%20Influence%20on%20Israelite%20Religion%22%20gunkel&pg=PA169#v=onepage&q=%22The%20Babylonian%20Influence%20on%20Israelite%20Religion%22%20gunkel&f=false

  13. Correction, I erroneously left off the “k” in “writing too a long time,” it should read “writing took a long time to develop,”

  14. Edward:

    (1) It’s quite time consuming to respond to various opponents. I’d have to quit my job to pump out as much content as someone like Steve Hays. The interested party can still find both sides of the story if he wants to.

    (2) I do doubt how much of God’s judgment will depend on the beliefs we hold. Suffice it to say that I am a Christian universalist. I don’t deny that some will be punished but I believe the punishment will be finite in duration.

    (3) The possibility of life on earth being eradicated by a cosmic catastrophe is probably no more/less scary to me than it is to you. If it is God’s will then so be it (that’s not to say we shouldn’t attempt to stop it). The Christian should live every day as if it might be his last.

    (4) The rarer life is in the universe the harder it would be for me to take naturalists seriously. Each lifeless earth-like planet we discover would make it more and more difficult to explain how life arose on earth through solely natural causes. Of course it is unlikely that we will closely study many earth-like planets in my lifetime.

    (5) Credible miracles and sayings is quite a large topic. By credible I am taking you to mean historical. The historicity of the events in Genesis-Judges is difficult to gauge because of the lack of corroborating evidence. I realize people contest the historical details surrounding David and Solomon but I have a hunch that the biblical record may be largely vindicated in my lifetime. The historical details in the Bible after Solomon’s time seem generally reliable. The miracles of Jesus are the best-attested in the Bible for even his opponents seem to grant that he worked wonders.

    (6) I think understanding the ANE background is important for understanding the OT. Both similarities and differences must be noted. I’m skeptical of making claims about the religious beliefs of past societies based solely on artifacts and not writing. I suppose your question is something like, “What happened to those who lived before God’s revelation to the patriarchs/Israel?” I don’t claim to have an answer. I trust God has dealt justly with them.

  15. YOU: “(4) The rarer life is in the universe the harder it would be for me to take naturalists seriously. Each lifeless earth-like planet we discover would make it more and more difficult to explain how life arose on earth through solely natural causes. Of course it is unlikely that we will closely study many earth-like planets in my lifetime.”

    ME: The relative lifeless of a universe that contains over a hundred billion galaxies also constitutes evidence of life’s extreme rarity, of it taking tremendous odds simply for life to arise in the first place. So I wouldn’t be all that happy interpreting the relative absence of life in such a vast cosmos as if it only constituted evidence that naturalism was false. Such an absence of life can lead to either faith, or, as I just pointed out, doubt. In fact, the evidence that living things on this planet alone have undergone several mass extinctions in the past should be disconcerting enough, because what kind of a Grand Plan involved a Designer shaking up his etch-i-sketch like that? Oops? Now on to something else?

    Look at the vastness of the cosmos with over a hundred billion galaxies. Astronomers continue talking about the possibility of discovering simple living organisms on one or two moons in our solar system that look like they have liquid oceans of some sort beneath their frozen crusts (oceans heated by the cores of those moons themselves). They are also looking into ways to read the spectrum of light emitted by each extra-solar planet to tell whether such planets have oxygen-nitrogen based atmospheres, even whether or not there’s plant life there. Hopefully we can afford to continue searching the skies with newer and better satellite telescopes. A new satellite telescope is currently detecting dozens and dozens of previously undetected extra-solar planets as was mentioned in an endnote in my chapter.

    YOU: “(5)…The miracles of Jesus are the best-attested in the Bible for even his opponents seem to grant that he worked wonders.”

    ME: If we only had actual writings of Jesus’ opponents to read. The Gospels are already too late and likely composed during a time of increasing tension between “Jews” and “Christians,” for us to know with certainty what Jesus and his opponents literally said to one another. And Crossan points out that itinerant preachers speaking about “kingdoms” like Jesus would have been knocked off by the Romans no matter what time he had lived during the tumultous 250 years or so of Jewish unrest under the Romans, many minor Jewish revolts, and two major ones.

  16. On the subject of the origin of life I would like to add that stars produce all the elements of the periodic table of the elements naturally via gravitational attraction of simple hydrogen atoms and the fusion of these “simplest of atoms” inside stars–as the star ages and also as they explode, which forms the heaviest elements with the most protons and electrons. That process is dubbed, nucelosynthesis and/or nucleogenesis. It’s happening now, naturally, inside stars. Stars are also continuing to form, naturally, and rings of matter around stars are continuing to form planets. And on those planets various molecules are forming from the range of atoms found on each world. The study of how the first self-replicating molecules arose is called “abiogenesis.”

    Here’s an interesting video on some recent abiogenesis hypotheses “The Origin of Life – Abiogenesis – Dr. Jack Szostak”
    http://youtu.be/U6QYDdgP9eg

    See also “Abiogenesis FAQs Articles on the Origin of Life”
    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/abioprob/

  17. Edward:

    The relative lifeless of a universe that contains over a hundred billion galaxies also constitutes evidence of life’s extreme rarity, of it taking tremendous odds simply for life to arise in the first place. So I wouldn’t be all that happy interpreting the relative absence of life in such a vast cosmos as if it only constituted evidence that naturalism was false.

    I’m not saying a mostly lifeless universe is, by itself, a strong argument against naturalism. It would be one argument among many. But, if you are going to hypothesize that life originated on Earth through natural means, then you will have to explain why there is no life on other earth-like planets, if that turns out to be the case. You could say it is extremely unlikely that life will arise even with earth-like conditions but then we’d have to ask what evidence you have for that claim. Perhaps you are just assuming that’s the case to save your pet theory. Can your theory of abiogenesis be falsified?

    If we only had actual writings of Jesus’ opponents to read. The Gospels are already too late and likely composed during a time of increasing tension between “Jews” and “Christians,” for us to know with certainty what Jesus and his opponents literally said to one another.

    The perspective of the opponents’ can be found in Christian writings. Much like my perspectives can be found in your comments to me. We can know that Jesus was considered a miracle worker with the same level of confidence we can know most any other fact from antiquity.

  18. YOU: ” if you are going to hypothesize that life originated on Earth through natural means, then you will have to explain why there is no life on other earth-like planets, if that turns out to be the case. You could say it is extremely unlikely that life will arise even with earth-like conditions but then we’d have to ask what evidence you have for that claim. Perhaps you are just assuming that’s the case to save your pet theory. Can your theory of abiogenesis be falsified?”

    ME: We don’t know if there is “no life” on “earth-sized planets,” or even on Mars (where liquid water seasonally appears http://io9.com/5827462/scientists-confirm-there-is-liquid-water-on-the-surface-of-mars, and which may have had more liquid water in the past, neither have the tests of Maritan landers proven that simple life forms or their fossils might not be found on Mars), not to mention that the moons of Jupiter and Saturn may have liquid water lurking beneath their icy exteriors.

    See this map of “all the water” in our solar system: http://io9.com/5827649/a-map-of-all-the-water-in-the-solar-system In fact one of the building blocks of water, “oxygen” is the third most abundant element in the Universe, though still not nearly as abundant as the two elements before it, Hydrogen and Helium. But in the case of oxygen it reacts readily with the most abundant element, hydrogen, creating water, which is one of the most stable chemical molecules. It should not be surprising then for water to be found on earth-sized planets, non-earth-sized planets, extra-solar planets and moons, comets, etc. http://www.u24u.com/What_s_New/The_Universe/the_universe.html

    Astrobiologists also have determined certain zones of likelihood in which life as we know it may exist on extra-solar planets. There’s the planetary zone round each star in which water remains mostly in liquid form. And there’s even a “Galactic Havitable Zone,” the part of each galaxy (out of the hundreds of millions of galaxies out there) that is most likely to support life. Though as already mentioned, even a moon with an icy exterior that lay outside the zone of liquid water and even outside the Galactic Habitable Zone, could still have enough heat in its core to support a liquid ocean beneath its frozen surface, and thus provide a possible haven for the development of self-replicating molecules.

    The Biblical creation story treats the earth’s creation and structure in line with ancient ideas of a a three-tier cosmos (heaven, earth, under the earth), a cosmos surrounded by primeval waters held back by divine design and/or divine mght. The earth is so central in such a cosmos that the first light is created to light the earth and to set up periods of time on earth, setting the earth-clock in motion for holy days and holy festivals in which to worship the creator. That’s what it means, when a few days later, the sun, moon and stars are “made and set” above the earth , to light it, rule its night and day, and for “signs and seasons.” The latter Hebrew term is found again in the priestly law codes where it is used to depict the time between holy days and holy festivals dedicated to Yahweh. The same is true in the Enuma Elish or Babylonian creation story, where Marduk sets up the stars and moon so that people can measure out the time between holy days and festivals.

    Of course no one back then knew, nor seemed to even suspect that the earth was but one planet among many, that our sun was one star amony many, that our moon was but one of many moon first seen via Galileo’s telescope, circling nearby planets in our own solar system, planets with no people on them and who thus would not require such objects in order to keep time between holy days and festivals.

  19. YOU: The perspective of the opponents’ can be found in Christian writings. Much like my perspectives can be found in your comments to me. We can know that Jesus was considered a miracle worker with the same level of confidence we can know most any other fact from antiquity.

    ME: Your original statement was that “The miracles of Jesus are the best-attested in the Bible for even his opponents seem to grant that he worked wonders.” My point was that we don’t have the works of Jesus’ opponents, unless you are referring to works composed later than the Gospels and in reaction to them, and in reaction to Christian claims in general, which are not works of opponents who were contemporaneous with Jesus and viewed his alleged miracles. As for wonder workers and Messiahs and apocalyptic madness during the entire 250 year period from the occupation of Palestine by Rome until the second major Jewish revolt, we are talking about a time when Josephus says some miracle workers or claimants had thousands of followers. http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/kooks.html A time when charismatic Jewish miracle-working figures also existed, as well as exorcists, and people expecting a supernatural battle to take place between the sons of light and darkness (see the Dead Sea Scrolls). Nor was the Hellenistic world any less filled with stories of miracle workers and even an Emperor cult with its own temples throughout the empire and the Emperor spoken of using majestic titles that Gospel writers would later reuse and apply to Jesus. “Son of God,” “divine,” “God incarnate,” “Lord,” “Redeemer,” “Liberator,” “Savior of the World,” All of those were the titles of the Roman Emperor Ceaser Augustus before Jesus ever existed. http://youtu.be/8Axx5Vx0j8A

  20. Ed:

    We don’t know if there is “no life” on “earth-sized planets,”

    I made it clear I was speaking hypothetically. The question remains: what will you do if the predictions of astrobiologists turn out to be wrong?

    My point was that we don’t have the works of Jesus’ opponents,

    Which is irrelevant in determining whether we can know anything about what they thought of Jesus. You act as if the Gospels were not written within living memory of Jesus’ ministry. Even the Jesus Seminar is receptive to the authenticity of Mark 3:25 as a response to Jesus’ opponents.

  21. As far as I know astrobiologists have no idea what the chances of life are, so odds are their predictions will be wrong in any event and probably because they were framed as speculations anyhow. We have no prototype original replicator and so have no way of assessing the actual odds of life emerging anywhere. And if we have that replicator, then who cares about life on other planets? We’ve already basically proven abiogenesis works at that point. Although I suppose one of the criteria for assessing whether or not it would be the proto-replicator would be that its construction was within the actual realms of chance the vastness of the molecular lottery the universe presents.

    Anyway, finding lots of life on other planets, or if we find “too much” life might imply intelligent design. Perhaps if we make breakthroughs on understanding abiogenesis, and find lots of life teeming worlds above the threshold of what we expect, that might mean aliens have seeded the galaxy or something.

    So it is a little bizarre to see the idea that not finding life on other planets counts against naturalism. It’s a molecular lottery to begin with *in principle*, and it’s a bit like being baffled that other people didn’t win the million dollars just because you did. Would that refute the lottery? So falsification is a bit of a red herring in that particular regard.

    We should also compare the naturalistic hypothesis with a competitor theistic hypothesis on balance. The Christian theistic hypothesis (short of loading it with ad hoc assumptions to make it fit reality) predicts that a loving creator god would be intimately and overtly involved with its creation. There would be no problem of divine hiddeness, argument from religious confusion and unbelief, no argument from evil, prayer studies wouldn’t even be necessary to show that they were answered regularly, etc. and all the other ordinary indicators that such a god simply doesn’t exist.

    If we are allowed to be incredulous about abiogenesis, because science hasn’t shown us the mechanism, why are we not allowed to be equally incredulous about special creation? Have theologians shown us that magical mechanism? Where is the epistemic fairness?

    And that’s just mechanism. What about comparing the plausibility of the ontology of the philosopher’s god to the ontology of a hypothetical proto-replicator? We know that molecules can combine into all sorts of things and we know that that sort of thing is going on all over the universe. For all we know, why wouldn’t a chance molecule get stuck in the bare physical constitution required for assimilating other atoms and/or molecules and making copies?

    On the other hand, we have god as some kind of immaterial entity. Something without height, length, width, depth, location or any other physical characteristic. And what the heck is that exactly? Sounds like philosophers have just tossed out all the existency things about a thing and kept the label for show.

    So to sum up:

    1. Scientists are in no position to make accurate predictions at this point. We can’t solve the Drake equation, etc. Don’t take every sensational headlines seriously.

    2. Finding a lot of life in the universe might not help the naturalistic hypothesis.

    3. Naturalistic abiogenesis is expected to be exceptionally rare in principle whereas the big competitor as a loving god is expected to show up and actually act like it.

    3B. We could toss this in here that the primitive Bible cosmology predicts a relatively small snow globe universe where god is magically in charge of all the forces of nature and instead we find a ginormous universe that would be *needed* (not just accommodated) for a molecular lottery to play out. (this point is for the conservatives, but you do basically admit that’s what is in the Bible, even if you don’t take it seriously.)

    4. We may not understand abiogenesis, but theologians can’t be said to be ahead of the game in terms of proving that god has creative powers.

    5. We know that complex physical constitutions of molecules are possible, but “immaterial” things have not been shown to even make coherent sense as a hypothesis.

    And to end in the spirit of things as presented, what would count as the closest thing to falsification of naturalism on this point would probably be if the scientific world collectively gave up on exploring the issue because all they came up with were dead ends. But that’s just not the case. They’re exploring the issue from a number of avenues (top down and bottom up) and as a lay person I don’t feel I’m in a position to call them fools for doing so. I’ve sampled some of the literature and it seems promising enough. There are lots of things about that level of reality that I didn’t know.

    So, that wouldn’t be an absolute falsification, since they may just have failed to find the needle in the infinite hay stack, but again, not finding god behind the holy mountain didn’t very well falsify theism, did it? And I think theologians have collectively given up on that approach and stopped talking to burning bushes.

    I will also say that abiogenesis, in my estimation, is probably the weakest evidential link in the overall case for naturalism. However, on balance, it still seems stronger than any argument for theism that I can think of.

    Ben

  22. YOU: The question remains: what will you do if the predictions of astrobiologists turn out to be wrong?

    ME: The predictions? I only said that thanks to the recently launched Kepler satellite they have evdience of well over a hundred nearby extra-solar planets, and there’s also mounting evidence that water is not extremely rare in the cosmos, and that at last estimate there’s over 300 billion GALAXIES in this cosmos, each galaxy containing a billion or more stars. If the odds of abiogenesis are small, the odds of molecules coming together to form living things at least some place some time, are not that small in this gynormous energetic cosmos. This is the kind of cosmos one might expect if abiogenesis were true. It’s even got stars that continue to make bigger and bigger elements as we speak. New stars themselves continue to form naturally in parts of this cosmos. I guess the authors of the Bible didn’t feel it was worth mentioning that miracle, but instead chose to lump together as happening all at once the creation of “the sun, moon and the stars also,” all “made and set” in the sky once and for all, just to light the earth (most star-light does not light the earth), and for the purpose of counting out the time between holy days and festivals.

    YOU [beginning by citing me]: “My point was that we don’t have the works of Jesus’ opponents,” Which is irrelevant in determining whether we can know anything about what they thought of Jesus. You act as if the Gospels were not written within living memory of Jesus’ ministry. Even the Jesus Seminar is receptive to the authenticity of Mark 3:25 as a response to Jesus’ opponents.

    ME: You brought up Jesus’ opponents, Your original statement was that “The miracles of Jesus are the best-attested in the Bible for even his opponents seem to grant that he worked wonders.” I pointed out that we had no writings by opponents who were contemporaneous with Jesus. Nor do I doubt Jesus had opponents and responded to them. It’s plain even from the Gospels that he was unable to convince many people to follow him. Christianity itself didn’t take Judaism by storm. Jerusalem and Galillee remained Jewish, there was no huge Jesus revival going on. Certainly none that Josephus mentions, who doesn’t spent much time on the Jesus cult at all, and later Christian writers probably added to what little Josephus did say. Neither does Paul mention having tremendou success converting Jewish synagogues. He seems to have converted a bunch of God fearers though, Hellenists interested in Judaism, who didn’t even need to be circumsized to join Paul’s new revised Judaism.

    So, speaking of Jesus’ arguments with opponents, and what may or may not have been said, I tend to doubt that all the arguments went exactly as recorded by the Gospel authors, and even doubt that all such encounters actually happened.

    Same with the miracle stories. There were already tales of miracles and healing, and exorcists in Jesus’ day. There were also tales of virgin births and pronouncement stories concerning people’s births, even just in Judaism alone such tales were found in the OT and other Jewish writings. Virgin births also occur in Hellenistic writings. The emperor of Rome, who was born before Jesus’ day, had his own cult and temples and tales in which he was born of a virgin as well. People believed in exorcisms and healings. Honi the Circle drawer, a charismatic Jewish figure from around Jesus’ day was supposed to have some God-given control over the weather. There was a second charismatic Jewish figure as well, but tales of yet others may have been lost in the Jewish revolts. But what if Jesus’ tales were actually no more convincing than any TV healer or TV exorcism? Maybe people didn’t need to see any healings of exorcisms more convincing than those you and I have seen on TV in this day and age? As for other miracle tales that followers began passing around about Jesus (until they reached the ears of Gospel authors in the Hellenistic world who first wrote them down), there’s much we could discuss. I suspect urban legends and enthusiasm for the cause are to blame. I plan on writing something sometime about the only miracle of Jesus’ pre-crucifixion ministry found in all four Gospels, the feeding of the 5,000. I’ve been reading the latest theological works on it, including some Evangelical assessments. Even Evangelicals who write books on Jesus’ miracles admit it’s a tale of lower probability than others, and there’s reasons why that is so.

  23. Ben Schuldt:

    As far as I know astrobiologists have no idea what the chances of life are, so odds are their predictions will be wrong in any event and probably because they were framed as speculations anyhow. We have no prototype original replicator and so have no way of assessing the actual odds of life emerging anywhere.

    I agree that we are speculating. But, nonetheless, many naturalists assure us that life originated through entirely natural processes and that naturalism concerning abiogenesis is not speculation.

    So it is a little bizarre to see the idea that not finding life on other planets counts against naturalism. It’s a molecular lottery to begin with *in principle*, and it’s a bit like being baffled that other people didn’t win the million dollars just because you did. Would that refute the lottery? So falsification is a bit of a red herring in that particular regard.

    The assertion that it’s “a molecular lottery to begin with in principle” is an example of trying to pass off speculation as something more. You just admitted that we have no way of assessing the actual odds of life emerging anywhere. Perhaps the odds are high or certain that life will emerge naturally or perhaps it is impossible for life to emerge naturally. We don’t know.

    As for the lottery example, it is somewhat dis-analogous since we aren’t even sure if there is a molecular lottery to begin with. But if you hypothesize that under certain conditions life will arise a certain percentage of the time, but this percentage does not match reality, then this at least counts against the hypothesis in question.

    We should also compare the naturalistic hypothesis with a competitor theistic hypothesis on balance.

    I agree, which is why I said the creation of life is just one argument among many. It is most certainly not a decisive argument against naturalism.

    If we are allowed to be incredulous about abiogenesis, because science hasn’t shown us the mechanism, why are we not allowed to be equally incredulous about special creation? Have theologians shown us that magical mechanism? Where is the epistemic fairness?

    I believe God is the Creator because of deductive arguments for the existence of a First Cause and because I believe He has revealed Himself in the Bible (or at least parts of the Bible).

    For all we know, why wouldn’t a chance molecule get stuck in the bare physical constitution required for assimilating other atoms and/or molecules and making copies?

    The creation of life through secondary causes is compatible with theism so I’m not saying it could not happen. But, even if it did happen that way, the molecules still need a First Cause.

    On the other hand, we have god as some kind of immaterial entity. Something without height, length, width, depth, location or any other physical characteristic. And what the heck is that exactly? Sounds like philosophers have just tossed out all the existency things about a thing and kept the label for show.

    Existence and “physical existence” are not the same thing.

    5. We know that complex physical constitutions of molecules are possible, but “immaterial” things have not been shown to even make coherent sense as a hypothesis.

    Mathematicians make use of immaterial things all the time. Books such as Irreducible Mind and The Soul Hypothesis explore the hypothesis that the mind is not material. Perhaps they are wrong but it is not because their hypotheses are incoherent.

    but again, not finding god behind the holy mountain didn’t very well falsify theism, did it?

    If you hypothesized that God lived behind the mountain then at least that God hypothesis has been falsified even if other forms of theism are possible.

  24. Ed Babinski:

    The predictions? . . . . If the odds of abiogenesis are small, the odds of molecules coming together to form living things at least some place some time, are not that small in this gynormous energetic cosmos. This is the kind of cosmos one might expect if abiogenesis were true.

    With talk of expectations you are implicitly making predictions (or ascribing predictions to astrobiologists). If the odds of molecules coming together to form living things are not that small in the universe as a whole then we should expect to find life on other planets.

    So, speaking of Jesus’ arguments with opponents, and what may or may not have been said, I tend to doubt that all the arguments went exactly as recorded by the Gospel authors, and even doubt that all such encounters actually happened.

    I should also note that Josephus stated Jesus was known as a miracle-worker. He may not have been an opponent of Christianity but he was an outsider. I see no reason that the atheist cannot accept that Jesus thought he worked miracles and that the public also thought he worked miracles.

    But what if Jesus’ tales were actually no more convincing than any TV healer or TV exorcism? Maybe people didn’t need to see any healings of exorcisms more convincing than those you and I have seen on TV in this day and age?

    The category of “TV healer/exorcist” is too vague to make anything of it. I’ll merely point out that many of the miracles recorded in the Gospels are not easy to explain in naturalistic terms.

  25. “Existence and “physical existence” are not the same thing.” Show me a characteristic of a “non-physical thing” that isn’t also a “characteristic” of nothing. Nothingness isn’t going to change any time soon. Nothingness has no beginning. Nothingness is uncaused. Nothingness isn’t concrete. Nothingness has no height, length, width, depth, or location. Nothingness can’t cause things to happen. We only understand nothingness in terms of what it isn’t. Nothingness isn’t anything in particular. We can’t tell one nothingness from another nothingness. Etc. And this should be no surprise. As I said, you can’t toss out every possible existence related quality and expect to have something in the end. It’s just a label on nothing. Philosophers have backed themselves into a non-category. Mathematicians use numbers, as in their own cognitive mental states like calculators and the idea that thoughts are magic has nothing going for it other than “it seems like it” and “I don’t get it.” On the other hand, the theory that thoughts are mechanical has an ever growing inventory of evidence supporting it as I’m sure you are aware. Why do magic thoughts even need brains at all? Why aren’t our thoughts perfect if they are magic and immutable? How could our minds be different in any way from each other (or from our own selves at different times) if there is nothing to distinguish them (without the luxury of physical distinction)? If qualia doesn’t do anything logistically other than look pretty why is it even there? Etc. I honestly have no idea what philosophers could even hope to be referring to *in principle* when they pretend like the category of “immaterial things” is a viable hypothesis. I can sort of appreciate how physical mental states could be confusing philosophically *in addition* to that, but I don’t see how anyone can settle on the magic hypothesis.

  26. Ben Schuldt:

    Show me a characteristic of a “non-physical thing” that isn’t also a “characteristic” of nothing.

    Let me first note that the definition of “physical” is vague. I’m not sure what definition, if any, you have in mind. I am taking it to refer to something that is composed of matter. By “matter” I am referring to atomic and sub-atomic particles that have a mass. See below for where I think your attempt to equate God with nothingness fails and, in the process, show that God is conceived as having characteristics not shared with nothingness.

    Nothingness isn’t going to change any time soon.

    Nothingness has neither actuality nor potentiality. God has actuality but not potentiality. God does not undergo change because He is pure actuality. Nothingness does not undergo change because it does not exist.

    Nothingness can’t cause things to happen.

    This obviously distinguishes nothingness from God as the First Cause who does cause things to happen.

    As I said, you can’t toss out every possible existence related quality and expect to have something in the end.

    Defining God as pure actuality and the First Cause (to use the above examples) is clearly not tossing out every possible existence-related quality.

    Mathematicians use numbers, as in their own cognitive mental states like calculators and the idea that thoughts are magic has nothing going for it other than “it seems like it” and “I don’t get it.”

    Even if you don’t agree with them, you can at least summarize the dualist position accurately (here I am using the term dualist to refer to any position that does not equate the mind with the brain). The basic dualist argument is: (1) we know the properties of matter, (2) we know the properties of the mind, (3) we know that the properties of matter and mind are not compatible with each other, (4) therefore the mind is not solely matter. The argument appeals to knowledge, not ignorance.

    On the other hand, the theory that thoughts are mechanical has an ever growing inventory of evidence supporting it as I’m sure you are aware.

    I am not denying that there is interaction between the mind and the brain. With that said, I am not aware of any plausible materialist account of (1) inherent intentionality, (2) qualia, and (3) consciousness. These properties of the mind cannot be reduced to matter.

    Why do magic thoughts even need brains at all?

    I don’t believe the mind needs the brain to think. The mere fact that in our bodily existence they happen to be linked does not indicate that the mind needs the brain.

    Why aren’t our thoughts perfect if they are magic and immutable?

    You’re going to have define “magic” and “immutable thought” for me to answer that question. I would define “magic” as the attempt of a human to elicit a supernatural entity to act on his behalf through ritual. That doesn’t help when discussing the mind. If I were to guess, I would take an “immutable thought” to be a thought that never changes. Perhaps it would entail one and only one thought being in your mind for eternity. Again, this doesn’t help answer your question. Moreover, it is not clear why a thought should be perfect merely because it is “magic” and “immutable.”

    How could our minds be different in any way from each other (or from our own selves at different times) if there is nothing to distinguish them (without the luxury of physical distinction)?

    Minds could be differentiated by the contents of the mind (e.g., memories, experiences, interests).

    If qualia doesn’t do anything logistically other than look pretty why is it even there?

    Qualia self-evidently exist whether we know why they’re there or not. The dualist (again loosely defined) thinks qualia provide perception to a mind that can actually do things. Your question seems better posed to a materialist.

    I honestly have no idea what philosophers could even hope to be referring to *in principle* when they pretend like the category of “immaterial things” is a viable hypothesis.

    Don’t confuse a logical deduction with a (scientific) hypothesis. Of course parapsychologists do test the immaterial mind hypothesis experimentally. Belief in the immateriality of the mind can rest on both kinds of argument. Also keep in mind that the term “immaterial” refers to something that does not fit a specific definition of “material.” Perhaps if you think of it that way it won’t seem so strange.

    I can sort of appreciate how physical mental states could be confusing philosophically *in addition* to that, but I don’t see how anyone can settle on the magic hypothesis.

    “Magic” is simply a pejorative term. A little reading shows how and why certain philosphers are dualists (I gave a simple summary above). You may disagree with them but try to at least engage in the argument. It isn’t “magic” to believe the mind is irreducible. If a sub-atomic particle turns out to be irreducible no one is going to call it “magic.”

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