The Divide, Part II: Interpretation of scripture and limits of science


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The interpretation of scripture
Part of the reason for the division is in the interpretation of scripture. I would like to be a little speculative in interpreting a small bit of scripture by way of explanation. Consider this fragment from the second chapter of Genesis. “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

When a writer sits down to write, he has a message inside of his head and he uses tools at his disposal to transmit that message. When the reader reads what is written, he reads the words and tries to recreate the message. The author of Genesis was a story teller. He uses very concrete images in the transmission of his message. The reader will read a verse like the one I’ve quoted and a movie will begin to play in his head, recreating that story.

This re-creation might also be informed by other bits of culture such as the line from the Tennessee Ernie Ford song saying “Some people say man was made out of mud / Poor man is made out of muscle and blood.” But the images are so concrete the movie played by most people will be similar. An anthropomorphic God uses his hands to sculpt a statue that he then animates by blowing into its nose.

But God is not anthropomorphic. Man is theomorphic, made, as was said, in the image of God. What does it mean to be in the image of God? It is clear, to me at least, that what is meant here is beyond the physical. If we accept that, we might ask how much of the language being use is symbolic rather than literal.

The word for breath is the same as the word for spirit in Hebrew. The Hebrews had not separated the concepts; to them they were the same. Is it possible that breathing the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils involved more than moving molecules of air around, but was an act of spirit?

Those who live close to the earth have indeed observed that Man is made from dust because he clearly returns to it. Our mental movie has God fashioning man from dust like a potter fashioning a pot from clay. What if God approached the task through tools of his own? In making man from dust, might God have first used an amoeba? Might he have used a chain of such creatures to create a body until the last step of creation was the addition of God’s own spirit?

I see nothing in this account that contradicts the account in Genesis, only a certain interpretation of it.

The limits of science

Science as a mode of adding to the sum total of human knowledge has been quite successful. It deals with that which can be quantified in an objective way. Let me be so bold as to suggest there are things, worthwhile things, what can’t be so quantified. Love, for example, cannot be measured in Newtons or Joules or kilograms. One cannot go a lab supply outlet and purchase a few milliliters of affection.

Scientists will remind us that there are chemicals in the brain that cause us to feel in particular ways. Doubtless are there is a particular mixture for puppy love, one for fatherly love, and one for the feelings a boy has for his dog. One day we might even be able to amble down to the drug store and buy a potion to make us feel the way we felt the night of our first kiss. Science might be able to make it possible to do that.
But science will never be able to tell us whether we should.

And we should also be careful not to confuse the feeling of a think with the thing itself. Love is not a feeling; the feeling is our response to love.
Love is something that is neither matter nor energy nor information, but it nonetheless exists, and science cannot deal with it. Love is by no means unique in this sort of existence.

Science can say that status evolved as part of the social organization of the human species, and that social organization itself evolved because of a selective advantage for groups in nature. It can say that there are certain biological rewards attached to the gaining of status and certain penalties attached to its loss in terms of chemicals released into the brain. But it can’t tell you the reason Cain killed his brother. Cain killed Abel because Cain was jealous.

Jealousy came first; the chemicals came afterward.

Good stuff, Okie. "be careful not to confuse the feeling of a think with the thing itself." Can't help but *think* this may have been a Freudian slup? :D

I think sometimes people misplace emphasis. It seems to me fitting to use quantitative methods when questing for quantitative answers, and qualitative methods when questing for qualitative answers. Too often I see people use qualitative methods to resolve quantitative questions, and quantitative methods to resolve qualitative questions. And then wonder why the answers are skewed. Or worse, don't seem to notice the answers are skewed...
Yep. *nods head in agreement*

It's the classic argument... Before people say that science can answer all questions, and a lack of scientific proof is an absence of existence, they need to consider love.

Ask a scientist if she loves- their mother, their husband, who ever- and she does. Then ask her to prove it scientifically. The best that can be done is point to her actions that are evidence of her experience of love. Even the chemicals in her brain that cause the "love" feeling/thought are happening for a reason. We know they are not initiated at random, but rather for certain people. So they are an effect, not a cause. They are somewhere in the middle of the chain of reactions, not the prime mover. What is the cause? I've never heard a suitable answer.

We know that choosing an action can produce an emotion (and those hormonal cascades). Smiling, for example, can produce calmness and happiness if we are conditioned that smiling is associated with these feelings. Breathing deeply and slowly can make us calm, even when we were feeling anxious. We can choose our emotions. Conversely, sometimes before we even consciously are aware of it, our body is doing things- our heartrate speeds up and our eyes dialate when we are attracted to someone. Joy makes us bubble with laughter. But what is in us that observes all this and thinks about it- the one that stands outside the hormones and feelings, the one who interprets and chooses? Who is it in me that says "snap out of it" when I am wallowing in despair?

The spiritual experience is similar. I can't quantify my journey, and it is unnecessary as it would be non-useful. I can prove it only as others can prove that they love- that my actions are evidence of my experience of the Divine.
Makes me contemplate the "Interpretation of science and the limits of scripture."

The blessing of science is it moves forward with new information. Once we have a new telescope, a new microscope or the results of a new test or a faster computer that can finally solve an equatioin...we use that and grow from it.

So much of religion gets stuck in a limited interpretation that has long since outlived its usefulness as literal.