Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Mass Amnesia Event

I’ve been told that I make a false idol of reason, that I put my faith in science. I think the suggestion here is that if I were to suspend rationality and, let’s say, read the Bible through the “lenses” of faith, I would come to understand the capital-t truth of God, Jesus, etc. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to don the lenses of faith in something that I don’t already believe in, but never mind that for now. I’d like to demonstrate (though, I admit, not prove definitively) that confidence in reason is not an act of faith.

To that end, I offer the following thought experiment, which I call the Mass Amnesia Event.

When the hypothetical Mass Amnesia Event (let’s call it MAE) occurs, you and I, and every single human being on the planet will forget absolutely everything. We forget our names, who are relatives are, how to communicate. We can’t read books, we can’t use computers. We don’t even know that we’ve forgotten anything. The effect of the MAE is permanent and irremediable. The slate of civilization has been wiped clean.

Such an event, I’m sure, would lead to death and chaos just as soon as the post-MAE humans figured out how to beat one another with sticks and stones. So, let’s make a couple of assumptions. First, some humans will survive the chaos; their natural desire for basic needs will lead them to eat and survive and multiply. Let’s also assume that, eventually, some humans will pool their resources; they’ll re-invent language, cooperate to increase their chances of survival, and rebuild societies.

Now here’s a question. In the post-MAE societies, which stands a better chance of being reconstructed to exactly its former (pre-MAE) status: faith or reason?

I would think that both faith and reason would make a comeback. I think it’s likely that we would see syllogistic reasoning appear; in turn, I think mathematics and geometry would be re-discovered; maybe even scientific method would develop again and usher in a new age of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. At some point, it seems quite possible that the logic, mathematics, and science after the MAE would be indistinguishable from (or, at least, very similar to) its counterparts before the MAE.

But the religions that emerge after the MAE would be very different. Perhaps some of the properties of religion would be the same: blood sacrifices, the need for atonement, the imposition of impossible rules (e.g. “Thou shalt not covet”). However, what will be entirely different is the content of religion, the stuff one actually has faith in: the gods, the prophets, the scriptures, the messiahs, etc.

To put it another way, some of the contents of science and reason, as they stand today, have arisen from their social and historical antecedents. Still other discoveries were quite accidental, such as: Teflon, penicillin, radioactivity. But might some of these discoveries have yet arisen in different historical contexts? There are many instances of discoveries that were converged upon independently by people of different social and historical backgrounds. For example, both the Mayans and the Hindus discovered the number zero, both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz invented calculus.

On the other hand, the contents of religion are entirely dependent on social and historical antecedents. Arabia and Persia did not independently discover the “truth” of Islam. Muhammad said that the Qu’ran was revealed (conveniently enough) to him and him alone by Allah. Most of you reading this probably think that Muhammad just made the Qu’ran up as he went along. So, if there was no Muhammad, there’d be no Islam, and no one else would have independently discovered its truths (save by divine intervention).

Yesterday I posted a poll asking readers to erase one of the following great works from history: Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni, or Gustave Eiffel’s Eiffel Tower.* By now it should be obvious that the only one that can be safely consigned to oblivion is Newton’s Principia, because it is the only one whose contents would have been rediscovered by someone else (and without divine intervention).

So, I judge religious beliefs based on what I know about reason and science. If I seem to make a false idol of them, it's because of their relative consistency compared to religions, and not because of any act of faith my part.

(hypothetically) Philosobot

* I ripped this question from the pages of Daniel Dennett’s book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995, Simon & Schuster). He, in turn, had borrowed it from an article by British psychologist Nicholas Humphrey (1987, “Scientific Shakespeare.” Guardian, August 26).


  1. Hello Eric....and peace......(sorry for my anti-Dawkins rant yesterday but my disdain for the pied pipers of perdition got me going once again)

    Some inital thoughts at 5 am upon my first read-through of your essay. I will re-read it with more scrutiny and try to grasp your drift after my coffee. : )

    You cannot manufacture “faith.” You cannot make yourself believe something. You either do or you don’t. But faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17).

    By the way, I found an excellent site to compare Bible translations and check for yourself what the word is behind the word (lexicon) and other helps. I continue to be amazed at how the KJV shines above the competition for accuracy and majesty. Anyway...try

    When you read a book purported to be authored by Dawkins, how skeptical are you that Dawkins wrote the book? He claims to have written it, so you read the book and become influenced by it, not that you accept every statement. Same with the Bible. If you could put skepticism on hold, tentatively accept God as the Ultimate Author, and read the Bible like any other book, letting it permeate your mind and heart, you could end up with....FAITH!

    Man did not invent language. God did. He gave Adam language. It was Hebrew. Languages were confused at Babel. Eventually we will return to a pure language. I believe it will be a pure form of Hebrew (Zeph. 3:9). Many English words come from Hebrew. Tzipporah becomes sparrow, for example. Check out Isaac Mozeson, Edenics, for more on that subject.

    Impossible rules? Thou shalt not covet......

    You are free to covet (desire something).....just not free to covet someone else’s belongings and treasures. Is that too much to ask? For the lower nature, it probably is. That is why God provided a way to have a higher nature that chooses good over evil.

    I had a completely different concept of what the poll was all about. I thought Peter had posted it to illustrate something about his metacognitive psycho-babble. My brain analyzed the categories as a choice between one’s least favorite wonders of civilization: mathematics, literature, music, or architecture. I chose Eiffel’s tower because it reminds me of the Tower of Babel, thus a negative connotation in my mind. Please be kind in psychoanalyzing me. : )

    Shalom, Tandi

  2. Your presupposition here is that God does not exist. If God does not exist, then we would see an entirely new set of religions. If God does exist, then He would presumably set about calling people to himself, teaching them to love eachother sacrificially. His communications to people world-wide would be interpreted different ways (as they are now), but certain threads like mankind's need for reconciliation with eachother and with the Holy would be consistent.

    Don't you think your reasoning is a bit circular here?

  3. Hello Samm,

    Circular, yes. The point of the article is to demonstrate the difference between science and faith in these regards. Note, too, that even if the post-MAE population had Bibles, there is no telling how their understanding of the Bible would develop. For example, literacy might redevelop with years or generations after the MAE, and the Bible is a likely book to be found and read. However, it might be understood as mere literature without divine inspiration. In fact, without the human chain of tradition going back to the ecumenical councils, how would a reader of the Bible even know it was supposed to be a book from God (it never explicitly claims so for itself)? I guess that the appendices of most Bibles will make that claim, so that might fill in that niche. Yet, who is to say that the post-MAE Bible readers would come to the conclusion of the Trinity, personal predestination, the pre-tribulation rapture, etc. In fact, they may eventually discover systematic theologies years after rediscovering the Bible. In such an event it is likely that the Bible clerics would consider the former dogmatic systems odd. They might read of the Reformation emphasis on “justification by faith” vis-à-vis the Catholic Church’s emphasis on works and faith….in so reading they might think, “Wow, it’s crazy how much this polemic colored and skewed Bible reading for four-hundred years,” as they posit a different theology of the same.

  4. And in the same manner, the sciences could develop in startling different manners, esp. if a tribal group was in conclusion. You don't have to look further than Incan mathematics to see that there are plenty of things to be discovered outside of our current system.

    I'm confused as to your point, however. You put a lot stock in say, Einsteinian physics and many Christians put stock in Augustinian theology. Without books, etc. it's doubtful that either would arise again.

    If there is a God, He (or your favorite pronoun) could presumably communicate again to mankind through profits and through experience and through nature, etc. If there is not a God, people could possibly make up religions again to suit their sociological needs and these could be entirely arbitrary and different (though I believe that all religions essentially speak to human's desire to restore their relationship with the Holy, precisely because the Holy exists).

  5. by "conclusion," i mean "seclusion." ha.

  6. hahahaha... and by "profits" I meant "prophets," clearly, I'm having a time of it.

  7. Hello Samm,

    Let's limit the intervening variables. So, first, let's say that all literature disappeared along with the MAE. Second, let's posit that there are no outside (natural or supernatural) interferences. This will help to level the playing field.

    It is true that "science" may take on a number of forms and make a number of assumptions that differ from us today. It may take humanity quite some time to come to the necessary assumptions to even allow the development of science to take place. However, science differs from culture in the way that it requires real-world feedback. It relies the empirical. The more grounded science is in the empirical, the more refined it becomes and the more limited the outcomes. Culture, with its groundings in human creativity, I believe is less limited unless there is profit pressure.

  8. Why are you sure MAE would lead to death and chaos just as soon as the post-MAE humans figured out how to beat one another with sticks and stones?

    Both faith and reasoning have developed differently in different parts of the world that are or have been secluded from the rest of the world. Although there maybe be some things in common for how both faith and reasoning have developed. In my opinion the only reason there is anything universal about either is because of the beatings with sticks and stones.

    Christianity is based on Christ and his teachings so I agree with MAE it is very doubtful that people would come to the conclusion that some one they have no knowledge of is a savior from their sinful stick and stone beating nature.

  9. Hello Tandi,
    I am replying to your reply to Philosobot  …

    By “faith” Philosobot meant a belief system that is grounded in events and “information” that is not obtained through reason. In the case of traditional Judeo-Christian religion, the belief system is only knowable through special revelation. The individual or the group could not attain to the “information” in the belief system by reason alone.

    Yes, the KJV is very literal. That is one of its benefits, but by no means does that make it any more inspired than the Yusuf Ali translation of the Quran or the even more literal Everett Fox translation of the Pentateuch which is more literal than the KJV.

    Your challenge about the Bible is unique. You are essentially asserting that one should accept a book’s author and consider the implications of authorship. Let me ask you, though, who told you that God is the Bible’s author? I mean, I never saw his name on the cover…even of my King James Bible.

    I am convinced that English was the original language. I mean, how could it not be? Elements of the English language can be found in nearly every language on Earth. There cognates in Arabic, Spanish, German, Russian, etc. How could that not be unless English was the first language? Obviously, God spoke to Adam in King James.

  10. I personally am not a big fan of the King James Version because it has some problems. It adds words and phrases not in the original languages. It mistranslates some words due to the primitive state of Hebrew and Greek scholarship in the 17th century. It uses obsolete English words. It uses words whose meaning has changed since the 17th century. It doesn't take advantage of recent archeological and manuscript discoveries. The grammar and phrasing do not conform to modern style standards.

    KJV is a bit too literal, with a silly result like: (1 Sam 9:2 KJV) "And he had a son, whose name was Saul, a choice young man, and a goodly: and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he: from his shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people." A better translation is (1 Sam 9:2 NRSV) "He had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else."

    My opa told me that God's prefered language is Dutch. He also said that Jesus was a Friesian and those responsible for His death were Groningen.

  11. Hello Zee,

    Those damn Groningen! Yes, I knew about the Dutch connection. That's why I married Biggums, actually, because I knew she was godseed, and I wanted in on the chosen race.

    Your example from the NRSV is excellent. The KJV is sometimes overly word-for-word, and word-for-word correspondence is only one and not always the best translation mechanism when trying to convey meaning from one language to another. Your critiques of the KJV are very relevant. I agree; however, there are some that feel to criticize the King James Bible is to defile holy ground.

  12. Oddly enough thats why I went out with Biggums sister for a short time. Opa and Oma were very pleased.

    I reserve the Roman helmet for the Groningens and those who don't like my criticizm of the King James Version.

  13. Hello Zee,

    Thank you for the humor about the defectiveness of the KJV. Sorry to make light of your remarks, but I am used to hearing them.....yet you are probably unaccustomed to hearing the other side of the story with any serious consideration of the evidence. The more the KJV comes under attack, the more I am persuaded God’s signature is on it. It might as well say, “written by God” right on the cover. But if it did, who would believe it anyway. It would just be considered spurious, like 2 Peter and the pericope de adultera. Sometimes you have to look for internal evidence of authorship, such as in trying to determine who writes in the name of Dutch Kleo. Oy is usually a giveaway word.

    I am not familiar with the word Groningen, but I do know that the Friesian is an absolutely gorgeous breed of dressage and carriage horse with feathered fetlocks. From context, I would gather that the unfamiliar words Groningen and opa are connected to the Netherlands. Opa = grandfather, right? It is fun to learn new words. If you are not familiar with dressage or fetlock, you could try a dictionary. For KJV words, try Webster’s 1828 dictionary, readily available. Let us all expand our knowledge base, as Scriptulicious often recommends. I am going to investigate Groningen right now.

  14. I actually have a lot of respect for the King James Version I just do not think it is perfect. Just like you suggest and Webster's Dictionary to provide clarity I think refering to a number of translations of the Bible is a great reference when studying scripture.

    Opa is grandfather in Dutch, German, and the tongue of God (according to Opa). I am familiar with Friesian horses. Friesian horses and a good portion of my ansestors all came from Friesland. Gronigen has different meaning depending on the context.

  15. Let me just say, KJV debate is, well, ridiculous. This is one topic where I actually have done my homework. Not getting into it, but I can recommend some pretty conclusive reading on the matter.

    Scriptulicious, I do feel we're venturing very far into the speculative realm. The only point of clarification I'd like to make is about your use of the word "outside." You're essentially saying that if all we had was the natural, all we'd come up with is naturalism. I can agree with that. Without divine intervention, I don't think any communication with the Holy would be possible. Religion would develop, but not the redemption myth I am compelled by.

  16. Who is debating the KJV? I thought we were talking about horses.

  17. Tandi seems to put it forward as a direct revelation from the most high... just happens to be a button for me.

  18. It seems to be working for her. I'm my opinion other versions work better for me for the most part. She could say that Skittles don't taste like the rainbow but actually taste like kisses from John the Baptist for all I care. Either way both KJV and Skittles will find their way into my life from time to time.

  19. Hi everyone:

    Why chide ye with me? The KJV is as good as any; there's no such thing as a perfect translation, as I'm sure Scrip (Dutch Kleo?) will eventually post about.

    Tandi: When I originally read the Humphrey/Dennett question, I took it as a matter of personal taste also and picked the Eiffel Tower (overrated eyesore that I think it is). But it's unlikely that anyone else would have built it if Eiffel had not, so it makes the cut. Also, I'm happy to hear you say that I'm free to covet! :)

    As for language being a gift from God... well, obviously I think language is a human invention (and one of our better ones at that). I wonder, is there anything in Genesis 1 (or in the rest of the Bible) that would still have meaning for you if you were forced to read it as a metaphor?

    Samm: I don't think it's a circular argument because I don't think it's an argument, not in the classical sense anyway. It's just a thought experiment meant to generate conversation, which it seems to have done, and what it demonstrates is not definitive (as I said parenthetically).

    If I said that I had definitive proof of the primacy of formal logic, and that proof itself used formal logic... well, obviously that begs the question.

    Also, my point doesn't necessarily assume no God. The idea was that science could re-establish itself without divine intervention, though I didn't anticipate Tandi's objection that language itself was resultant of divine intervention.

    Finally, I did assume that all the literature was gone (or inaccessible due to the lack of language). Sorry if I was not clear about that.

    Zee: Why do I assume the death and chaos? Call me pessimistic, but it seems we humans have a proclivity for these things.

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments.


  20. Hello Eric,

    You asked,

    I wonder, is there anything in Genesis 1 (or in the rest of the Bible) that would still have meaning for you if you were forced to read it as a metaphor?

    I understand many passages of the Bible as metaphor, as well as understanding them literally where they are meant to be taken literally.

    Maybe you can help me make a metaphor out of the first verse of the Bible. I am having difficulty with that one. Seems pretty straightforward and literal:

    In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth.

    In the beginning = there was a beginning

    God = a Being

    Created = the Being did something

    Heaven and Earth = resulting in this planet, solar system, etc.

    How am I misinterpreting this?

  21. Tandi:

    Not that I believe God had anything to do with the creation of the universe. But if I did believe, I think I could probably imagine a metaphor. Seems pretty straightforward:

    In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth = At some finite time in the past, God created the hot, dense primordial conditions and wrote the physics which caused them to expand, creating everything in the universe (which, oh my gosh, includes the heavens and earth!)

    And this would make perfect sense because, if I believed that God dictated the Pentateuch to Moses, God would have had to explain about 400 years worth of mathematics and physics and chemistry before Moses could even dimly understand the marvelous complexity of this achievement. So, God would have simply said "in the beginning I created heaven and earth", and left it for the generations to come to work out the details.

    We don't imagine that the Big Bang happened, Tandi, it is the only viable explanation we have to explain the expansion of the universe that we observe. The evidence for it is incredibly strong, and if someone says otherwise, they're lying to you. You can close your eyes and plug up your ears to this, or you can develop a more sophisticated theology and an appreciation for science.