Saturday, February 11, 2006
History, Creation, Observables, and Scientific Theories
As startling as specific claims may be, I am more interested in Velikovsky's unorthodox method of inquiry and physical theory. He begins with the working hypothesis that all stories reported has direct observation in the ancient chronicles are strictly true—if the Bible reports that the sun stood still, then it did (as the tug of Venus briefly halted the earth's rotation). He then attempts to find some physical explanation, however bizarre, that would render all these stories both mutually consistent and true. Most scientists would do exactly the opposite in using the limits of physical possibility to judge which of the ancient legends might be literally accurate.
Now, I'm not here to defend Vellikovsky, but there is something in Gould's crticism that is fundamentally wrong. Gould criticized Vellikovsky for his method of inquiry. Here is the question -- how does science operate? Does it not proceed by observations which are then systematized? When conflicting views of physics were developed by electromagnetics and classical physics, finding a physical explanation that rendered both these observations true was the concept of general relativity, which, last I heard, was still enjoying scientific success, even though at the time many thought that it was outside the limits of physical possibility.
Vellikovsky's method is simply to take observations at face value. Since the writers of these histories were there and we were not, they are the best ones to report what it was that they saw and did. Should we rewrite observations because they don't fit in with current theory, or should we rewrite current theory when it conflicts with recorded observations?
Obviously ancient histories will not be error-free. However, that is not the same as unreliable. A modern false dichotomy is that you must either view scriptural history as 100% accurate without even a single mistake, or you must view it as a fairy tale. But we do not hold any other history or account to such a standard. If the existence of an error or even a set of errors would cause a historical work to be considered fantasy, then the whole of Western history should be discarded at once. But we do trust histories to be reliable, and the existence or possibility of the existence of isolated errors does not keep us from viewing historical accounts as being true and reliable.
It is a complete shame that Vellikovsky's primary idea is seen as some bizarre view of planetary motion. What Vellikovsky brought to the table was not a physical theory of space, but a collection of observations that demanded explanation. The specific explanation that Vellikovsky put forth is interesting but ultimately irrelevant. What Vellikovsky pointed out was that, in these periods of time, there were earth-wide events that are testified to from cultures around the world which had no contact.
Now, I haven't read Vellikovsky's books yet (I have a few sitting on my shelf), so these examples may or may not be representative of his. But bear with me.
What's interesting is not just that the Bible reported that the Earth stood still, but that it was corroborated by many other cultures. Now, on the other side of the world, they did not experience a prolonged day. They experienced a prolonged night! And we find stories there of not a long day but a long night.
And then the flood. Richard Dawkins once compared questioning evolution with questioning the existence of the Roman empire. I assume that his thinking was that while we might not have documentation of every day of the Roman empire, the historical evidence overwhelmingly testifies to it. However, while the Roman empire made its mark in history, there were many cultures that had never heard of it. However, what culture in the whole world does not have testimony to the great flood? The flood is the most widely-testified to event in history. (Well, almost. Actually, the most well-attested idea in history is the seven-day week, which is not only present in a huge number of cultures worldwide, but is also present throughout the biological world, including single-celled organisms, in what is called circaseptan cycles -- however this isn't observation so is only tangential to the present conversation).
Now let's get back to Gould. Scientists rely on observation to build models. While we may have circumstantial evidence of what happened in the past, historical documents provide the only first-hand evidence of what occurred. Should not a scientist conform their theories to observations, rather than the other way around? Do not scientists often rely on the observations of others? Why is it then out-of-bounds to consider the observations of the ancients in consideration of physical theory?
The question is one of trust. Scientists tend to trust each other more than those outside their field. They don't trust ancient documents. However, is this not simply an instance of chronological snobbery? How is the decision to trust another scientist's data set not the same as the decision to trust the written observations of the ancients? Why is one data set necessarily scientific and the other one not?
Ultimately, what sets Creationists apart is that we trust the historical writings of the Hebrews. This is not a blind trust, as many before us have shown how it connects with surrounding histories, including Josephus and Ussher. Ultimately, our physical theories must conform to the observations -- if we trust those that gave us the history, then there is no reason to exclude their observations any more than one should exclude non-confirming data from an experimental data set.