12/26/08

Is the Bible Skeptical About Miracles? - Moses as Skeptical Scientist

Part 1: The Apostle Thomas: Patron Saint of Scientists?


What would you do if you saw a burning bush? A bush that had every appearance of being on fire and yet, was not being consumed by it?

To read/Or not to read


Would you instantly say, “Lord God Almighty!!!!!!!!!”

Would you say, “What a fascinating coincidence! The natural laws are interacting in a rather unexpected manner. Perhaps, someday we will find a materialist answer. S'mores anyone?”

Well, if you were like Moses you would do neither. Yet, in a way, he a bit of both (short of the s'mores).

In Exodus 3:2-3 we find Moses at Horeb and we learn that “Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, ‘I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.’”



Moses’ first reaction is to think critically, skeptically and scientifically: he thought about what he was seeing, he planed a course of action, he approached the phenomenon and he determined to examine it.

Then, “When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!…I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:4, 6). The reference to looking at God is in reference to v. 2 which stated, “There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush.” Angel of the LORD being a term synonymous for God Himself. It is likely a reference to a Christophany, a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. But this is theological minutia which goes beyond the scope of this essay.

Now, what would you do if God told you, very clearly, to go and do something?

Would you instantly say, “Yes, of course, here I go!”

Would you say, “Wow maaaaaan, I’m like sooooo hallucinating!”

Well, if you were like Moses you would do neither.

“‘I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ And God said, ‘I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain’” (Exodus 3:10-12).

Moses does not march off in lockstep but questions why he is chosen and for the task at hand. God recognizes that Moses, a sheep herding nobody, will need some evidence that it is God who is talking to him, sending him to confront Pharaoh who at the time was one of the, if not the, earth’s most powerful ruler. God states that Moses will succeed in bringing the Israelites out of Egypt and that they will enjoy the freedom of worshipping God at Horeb.
Thus, Moses will engage upon a scientific experiment, as it were. He engages upon an act knowing that he will either be unsuccessful or successful.

That he would be unsuccessful is most likely since Moses was one single man, who was a nobody, with no authority, and no army (and not even the support of the Jews, at that time). This would be evidence that God did not send him but that he just ate a bad falafel the night before which caused him to hallucinate.

That he would be successful would quite literally a one man against the world scenario. This would serve as confirmation that he had an encounter with God.

Next comes an exchange from which there is much to infer:
“Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:13-14).


God declares that He is the I AM, “I am who I am,” or “I will be what I will be.” This is understood to mean the self-existent one, the one who is, the one who is not moved by any greater external force. God is known as the one who is, was and is to come, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega.



Consider that time, space and matter came into being at a particular point, at the very beginning of time, space and matter. The Bible’s very first verse states, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
Look at it this way: “In the beginning [time], God created the heavens [space] and the earth [matter].”
Moreover, consider it this way: “In the beginning [time], God [a preexistent being] created [infused with energy, omnipotentlly designed] the heavens [space] and the earth [matter].”

Furthermore, it is reasonable to draw the following inferences:
Since time came into being at a particular point—whatever existed “before” then was timeless, or eternal.
Since space came into being at a particular point—whatever existed “before” then was infinite, or not restricted to locality.
Since matter came into being at a particular point—whatever existed “before” then was immaterial, or spirit and not affected by any natural laws.



Moses’ skeptical and scientific inquisitive nature would come into play time and time again as is exampled in life his story as found in the Bible.

19 comments:

  1. Now, what would you do if God told you, very clearly, to go and do something?
    Where's the evidence that the voice in his head was from "God"? A more reasonable conclusion would be that the simultaneous visual and auditory hallucinations had a common etiology, perhaps an hallucinogenic mushroom found its way into his shepherd's pie, or he was having a stroke, or...

    There are/were any number of naturalistic possibilities. Immediately jumping to the conclusion that something strange must necessarily be magic is the antithesis science.

    To Moses' credit there was no science at that time and it is easy to pardon his credulity. That excuse is not available today.

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  2. Dear MM, people these days hallucinate to degree Moses could only dream of. Hence bilocation, predicting future, stigmatas, reading thoughts, levitation and other magical tricks. Even after death some of them don't want to rot.
    The Power Of Supermushrooms (tm).

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  3. I think you confuse delusions with hallucinations sometimes. The Moses yarn describes hallucination. Being gulled by legerdemain is delusion.

    I saw David Copperfield disappear the Statue of Liberty on national TV one time. Hundreds of people on the site as well as millions of us others watching the show on TV all saw it happen. It was a masterful performance.

    But what has the studied craft of a modern illusionist to do with the ancient accounts of those unhinging of Moses?

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  4. MaskedMarauder;
    Thanks for the comment.

    Moses was exercising skeptical experimental science.

    From your statement that Moses was “Immediately jumping to the conclusion that something strange must necessarily be magic” makes me think that you are not at all aware of the story in question.

    Immediately jumping to the conclusion was precisely the very opposite of what Moses did.

    aDios,
    Mariano

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  5. Mariano,
    Immediately jumping to the conclusion was precisely the very opposite of what Moses did.

    First, approaching an allegedly burning bush is not an experiment, its plain old curiosity.

    Second, according to your own account:
    “When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!…I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:4, 6).


    He heard a voice in his head and he believed what it said immediately, without hesitation. Bada bing! Bada boom! Where is there any intercalary step of rational analysis?

    The only doubt expressed by Moses was whether or not he was the right guy for the job, not whether the voice was what it said it was.

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  6. Dear MM, thank you for proving my point.
    For agnostics/atheists any claimed miracle is either:
    a) not violating natural laws (placebo effect, other forms of autosuggestion like in case of stigmatas)
    b) impossible in the form presented which means it needs to rationalized, eg. there was no bilocation but it wasn't the same person in both locations or not at the same time (fraud, delusion, hallucinations).

    Demanding proof in such situation is an act of hypocrisy.

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  7. Dear MM, thank you for proving my point.

    I don't follow your logic here.

    Demanding proof in such situation is an act of hypocrisy.

    According to your account Moses did not demand proof. A voice in his head said 'I am God' and he said 'OK!'. It is impossible to be more credulous. How is accepting any stray notion that pops into your head skeptical or scientific?

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  8. MaskedMarauder;
    Thanks for following up on this.

    I hope that you will pardon me for being so forward but I must state that it appears that your MO is the typical pseudo-skeptical atheism MO of simply jumping to conclusions.
    The true skeptic would read the text, the complete text, and not come to conclusions based on partial info such as that which I provided for the sake of brevity (nor that provided by searching online for “Moses and burning bush and internet infidels” or some such thing).

    Moses’ first reaction is to examine the phenomenon.

    Next, he not only sees a bush burning but not being consumed but he sees the Angel of the LORD.

    Next, God tells him to go to speak with Pharaoh.
    Moses questions this.

    Next, Moses asks who he should say is sending him.
    And God tells him the Tertragramaton.

    The God predicts what it to come, “I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land…”
    “you shall say to him [Pharaoh]…let us go…But I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go…”

    More predictions follow.
    More doubts and question from Moses, more miraculous confirmations by God, etc., etc., etc. This goes on for days and so intercalary events are peppered thought.

    aDios,
    Mariano

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  9. @MaskedMaruder
    I think we have small misunderstanding here.
    When I listed bilocation, predicting future, stigmatas, reading thoughts, levitation and bodies preserved after death I was refering to miracles approved by Catholic Church, not Copperfield's tricks.

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  10. tremor: Pope v Copperfield : I was refering to miracles approved by Catholic Church, not Copperfield's tricks.
    What's the difference?

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  11. Mariano:Moses’ first reaction is to examine the phenomenon.

    Next, he not only sees a bush burning but not being consumed but he sees the Angel of the LORD.


    This is where it goes off the rails. Who said the apparition was an Angel of the LORD? Accepting raw perception at face value is gullible, not skeptical. It is very much anti-scientific.

    I don't look at anything that happens after this point because nothing after this point has weight. Unless it can be established that the voices he heard corresponded to something more or less objectively "real" in a conventional sense then nothing he did thereafter tested anything. There was no experiment, he didn't follow god's orders, ... he just did stuff for undetermined reasons.

    Did Joan of Arc whip the English because God did it, or because she was a good strategist, or because her dementia made her a charismatic leader inspiring the soldiers to heroic heights, or because....?

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  12. @MaskedMaruder
    What's the difference?
    In your had? None, see my second post.

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  13. tremor: What's the difference?
    In your h[e]ad? None, see my second post.


    The one about the fleece? Same thing. He goes to sleep and finds a wet sheepskin in the morning. Where's the evidence that the water was dew? How do you know a war mongering confederate didn't pour a bowl of water on the fleece while he was sleeping to dupe him into starting a war he wouldn't otherwise wage? Etc.

    If I wanted to trick some gullible and superstitious pacifist into starting a war that I wanted and he didn't, that's exactly the sort of stunt I'd pull.

    If he was really skeptical he would have stayed awake all night watching the fleece like a hawk.

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  14. @MaskedMaruder
    The one about the fleece?
    No, I should have written comment. I mean this:
    "For agnostics/atheists any claimed miracle is either:
    a) not violating natural laws (placebo effect, other forms of autosuggestion like in case of stigmatas)
    b) impossible in the form presented which means it needs to rationalized, eg. there was no bilocation but it wasn't the same person in both locations or not at the same time (fraud, delusion, hallucinations)."

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  15. tremor: "For agnostics/atheists any claimed miracle is either: ...

    You've over simplified the situation again, but, that aside, what other reasonable alternatives are there? Science isn't religion. We can't just stare at the ceiling for an hour and will ourselves to conflate credulity with reason.

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  16. @MaskedMarauder
    I've just noticed that I've misspelled your nick dozens of times yet you didn't complain.

    You've over simplified the situation again
    That's quite possible.
    what other reasonable alternatives are there?
    That people usually tell the truth.

    Note: by reasonable you mean what you're likely to believe as it fits your worldview. It's not like you're applying scientific aparatus in case of Moses for exmpale. Science is not omnipotent and won't tell if Moses really met God or he hallucinated.

    Science isn't religion.
    And religion is not science. We can't just come with new answers for the same questions time after time and take them seriously.

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  17. tremor:I've just noticed that I've misspelled your nick dozens of times yet you didn't complain.
    Typos are trivial and not worth fussing about.

    what other reasonable alternatives are there?
    That people usually tell the truth.

    People rarely know the truth with certainty. Errors, deliberate or not, are common, not rare.

    Still, I'm surprised to hear you making a statistical argument for matters usually accorded absolute categorical certainty, especially when we know that the probability of deliberately misleading people, especially in politics, religion, real estate and other high-stakes games, is well above zero. Even so, you dismiss without excuse the probability that Moses was mistaken. An honest recitation of an erroneous perception may be a true account, with respect to intentions, but it is still wrong. How do you distinguish between these alternative? You don't. You blindly accept the Party Line, verbatim, with no reservations. You wouldn't buy a used car on those terms, why buy a world view on them? That is not a reasonable thing to do.

    Note: by reasonable you mean what you're likely to believe as it fits your worldview.
    No, the conventional definition is OK with me: the ability to think logically regarded as a basis for knowledge, as distinct from experience or emotions
    By definition miracles are arbitrary contradictions of everything we've come to reasonably expect from nature. There is nothing from which they can be logically inferred or deduced. Nothing reasonable can be said about them because they are constitutively not reasonable.

    Science is not omnipotent and won't tell if Moses really met God or he hallucinated.
    Neither did Moses. My larger point is that Moses didn't even try to sort it out. He heard a voice say 'I am an angel of the LORD' and Moses said 'OK!' That is plain credulity, not reasonable or skeptical behavior.

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  18. @MaskedMarauder
    "That people usually tell the truth."
    People rarely know the truth with certainty. Errors, deliberate or not, are common, not rare.

    Sure, but perception, memory and communication play role not only in this situation.
    What I was referring is that people usually say what they think is true.

    Still, I'm surprised to hear you making a statistical argument for matters usually accorded absolute categorical certainty, especially when we know that the probability of deliberately misleading people, especially in politics, religion, real estate and other high-stakes games, is well above zero.
    You asked, what are other possibilities. For hundreds of miracles described in Bible and thounsends other that happened since them you don't see any possiblity that any of them are true.

    Even so, you dismiss without excuse the probability that Moses was mistaken.
    This event is a part of bigger book and fits it nicely.

    An honest recitation of an erroneous perception may be a true account, with respect to intentions, but it is still wrong.
    I agree here. Hence the concept of hallucination as an explanation of experiencing supernatural.

    How do you distinguish between these alternative? You don't. You blindly accept the Party Line, verbatim, with no reservations.
    For me the key is Jesus. I found Him to be the wisest and the most trustworthy. He approved Moses and that's enough for me.

    You wouldn't buy a used car on those terms, why buy a world view on them? That is not a reasonable thing to do.
    I'd buy from seller I trust.

    "Note: by reasonable you mean what you're likely to believe as it fits your worldview."
    No, the conventional definition is OK with me: the ability to think logically regarded as a basis for knowledge, as distinct from experience or emotions

    That sounds nice.

    By definition miracles are arbitrary contradictions of everything we've come to reasonably expect from nature.
    I don't understand. By definition miracles are not part of nature so of course you don't expect them from it.

    There is nothing from which they can be logically inferred or deduced. Nothing reasonable can be said about them because they are constitutively not reasonable.
    Miracles show that nature is not all. Each of them have a purpose. Moses was conviced by miracle to start mission of leading Hebrews out of Egypt. Jesus healed people to show that He has also the power to heal souls.

    Science is not omnipotent and won't tell if Moses really met God or he hallucinated.
    Neither did Moses. My larger point is that Moses didn't even try to sort it out. He heard a voice say 'I am an angel of the LORD' and Moses said 'OK!' That is plain credulity, not reasonable or skeptical behavior.

    That was reasonable for him since he, unlike you, didn't learn to think otherwise.

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