A New Cosmic Tension: The Universe Might Be Too Thin

I don’t think that seeing dusk or dawn automatically makes obvious the implication that the light from the sky comes from the sun. Even seeing a solar eclipse might not cinch the issue. If you were used to thinking of the light from the sky as something separate from the sun, one might just take it for granted that the sun accompanies the daytime light rather than considering that there might be a relationship of causation there.

That might not be what the human author and audience of Genesis 1 were thinking of with the light appearing on day 1 before the sun on day 4. But it’s a possibility that’s not entirely unreasonable for a pre-scientific culture, in my mind.

Really? Have you ever seen one?

I believe that’s exactly what they were thinking.

I have - I was in England at just the right time for the one in the spring of 2015. A couple hundred kilometers south of the path of totality, it still got the sun down to a sliver. It was quite spectacular. I remember thinking how the dim light of the eclipse had a distinct quality to it, different from that of dusk or dawn.

But I can’t say for sure what an ancient Israelite, seeing the same eclipse, would have inferred about the relationship between the light of the sky and the light of the sun. If they were used to thinking about the two as separate things, the fact that they dimmed at the same time might have just been seen as another correlation like the fact that they travel together. It’s not the way it appears to you, but it might have been the way it appeared to them.

That is in fact my point: what things appear to be depends in part on knowledge. It’s obvious to me that the light in the sky comes from the sun, and the explanation for dimming of the sky’s light at dusk and during an eclipse is also so obvious as not to need conscious thought. The same is true for the appearance of the night sky: it looks to me like infinite space, not a dome in which the stars are fixed. So much for “the phenomenological view”.

I’m afraid I don’t understand how this impacts the validity of a phenomenological interpretation of Genesis 1. What matters, in that case, is how the world appeared to the original author and audience, since that it who it was written by and to.

Yes. All along I’ve been saying that how it appears to us is not necessarily how it appeared to them. They did indeed think, apparently, that the sky was a solid dome, that it possessed its own light independent of the sun, that the earth was flat, and so on. And they put that understanding into Genesis, not because they intended it as a phenomenological view but because they believed their phenomenological view represented reality. They had no problem with the sun being created several days after day and night already existed, because they thought that day was independent of the sun. The sun rules the day but doesn’t cause the day.

That, or it might be that it didn’t even occur to them to make a distinction between phenomenology and realty. Either way, I don’t see an issue for seeing Genesis 1 as inspired by God - I think God can condescend to speak to people in terms they understand, even if those terms presume things which are only true on a phenomenological level.

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Sure, if describing the actual nature of the world wasn’t the purpose at all. And in that case, one shouldn’t consider Genesis as a guide to the order, timing, or nature of past events.

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Oh, that. Sure, I agree with you that doesn’t seem phenomenological. Given the usual light/darkness metaphor for good/evil I don’t see that as a cosmological statement at all.

So if I understand you correctly, you are not merely claiming that phenomenological language has no place in Biblical interpretation? You are in fact claiming that there is no such thing as phenomenology at all and you are advocating eliminative materialism? I find that hard to imagine. Does knowing that a speaker uses the interaction of an electromagnet with a permanent magnet to produce vibrations in the air stop you from hearing the musical instruments? Or does knowing that paintings are simply pigments brushed onto a canvas stop you from recognising the image? If a psychologist asked you to do a Rorschach test would you answer that all you could see is ink and paper? Does knowing that everything is made of atoms stop you from perceiving the objects around you as solid? Since the letters I am typing are merely abstract shapes represented on your computer screen by coloured dots how are you able to understand what I am typing?

You seem curiously sure of what people thought thousands of years ago. How do you know this?

You’re saying that it’s a metaphor? That’s not how the story seems to work. It’s a straightforward account of the construction of the universe, the second step of which is separating day from night.

Yes. I’m saying that the intention is to describe reality, not appearance.

No, though I don’t know what eliminative materialism is. The answers to the rest of your questions are all “no”. Then again, the night sky really does appear to me as a vast expanse of mostly empty space.

You seem to be hyperventilating. Relax.

By their descriptions of creation, which read as if told by an omniscient (in the literary sense) narrator. God does this, God does that, God sees what he did, God pronounces it good. Now it’s conceivable that the writers didn’t consider the actual described events as the important lesson to be derived, but what is described seems reasonably clear.

John_Harshman Secular Avian Phylogeneticist
September 30

You seem to be hyperventilating. Relax.

That is both amusing and an excellent example of what I am explaining. It is my son’s 16th birthday. He wanted to play virtual reality computer games with some friends. So I have the day off work, and I am sitting in a comfy chair watching him and his friends jiggling around wearing helmets and headphones. If I were any more relaxed I would fall asleep, so I thought I would relieve the boredom by checking out PS.

Now, just as you are unable to accurately judge the breathing rate of a 21st century native English speaker by my writing, why are you so sure you know what non-English speakers from a different millennium and culture are thinking by reading a translation of their writing?

I suspect you are making the same kind of error that YECs make. Henry Morris was a 20th century hydraulic engineer. He read Genesis 1-11 with the mindset of a 20th century hydraulic engineer, and imagined it was written for that purpose. When I approach any ancient manuscript or story the first question I ask myself is not “what does this mean to me?” But “who wrote this, in what context, and what did it mean to them?” And that is a very difficult question to answer. So I collect various interpretations, and I study what archaeology can tell us about the people involved and the lives they led. I don’t assume they had the same world view as me.

For a non-biblical example, I live on the North Island of New Zealand. It is called “he ika a Maui” in the Māori language. The legend is that it was a great fish that Maui caught from his brother’s waka (or canoe). Now the funny thing is that when you look at a map the North Island does kind of look like a stingray, and the South Island does kind of look like a waka with an oar sticking out at Banks Peninsula, and Stewart Island as the anchor stone. So what is the correct way to understand this legend? Was it a helpful illustration to help them memorise the shapes of the islands? Or did they literally believe the North Island was made of fish? I should add for those who don’t live here that it looks like rock. It doesnt look like fish, smell like fish, and I can’t imagine anyone trying to eat it. But the legend seems to state quite straightforwardly that it is a fish.


What answer have you come up with to that question?

I have managed to spend only one week in New Zealand, most of it on South Island. Some day I hope to go back. Managed to see a rifleman, which was a major goal. Also, Fergburger in Queenstown was excellent, as advertised. Now, on North Island I got to see a saddleback. If we ever get to travel again, I’ll try for more.

The bird, I hope.

This is why we have Latin names. Acanthisitta chloris, not a soldier of the 60th or 95th regiments of foot.

Well I never come up with a final answer to anything because I am always looking for new data, or new interpretations of the current data. My wife calls it “paralysis by analysis” :rofl:

But currently I find the hypothesis that Genesis 1-11 was written to provide 21st century English-speaking westerners with a straightforward factual account of the material origins of the universe the least plausible option.

Also I think that there doesn’t have to be one single reason or motivation, there could be multiple factors.

So the first step is dating. The dating of place-names mentioned in Genesis 1-11 and the lack of references to it in the rest of the hebrew scriptures make a late date seem most plausible. Some suggest it was written during the Babylonian exile, to preserve their sense of identity in exile or justify their return under the edict of Cyrus. But there have been some interesting archaeological discoveries recently that cast doubt on that ( eg the silver scroll amulet dated before the exile).

Another possibility is that it was written during the reforms under Josiah, to strengthen their sense of national identity and acceptance of those reforms.

But another position I found more recently is based on its similarity to other Ancient Near Eastern origins legends. In this case it may have served as a theological rebuttal to those other legends. So for example instead of the sun being a great god or goddess like the other ANE religions, the sun gets demoted to a very minor role which isn’t even mentioned until after plants. Since the pharaohs were called sons of ra from the 4th dynasty that could be a quite pointed attack on the authority of the Pharaohs.

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Great. Of course nobody has ever made any such claim. Enough with the straw-man attacks.

Sure. The factors you mention are potentially reasonable, but you neglect the idea of multiple factors. In each case you mention, there’s no reason to reject the additional factor that the writers thought this was actually what the world looked like and how creation happened. There are certainly specifics in the story that go considerably beyond what would be needed to preserve or strengthen a sense of identity or to put foreign gods in their place. The “firmament” is a metal dome placed over the earth, and that seems superfluous to mention if there’s no factually descriptive purpose in addition to any others.

This also seems to have nothing to do with a phenomenological interpretation or with a metaphorical meaning of darkness and light.

Hah, how I wish that were true! People don’t usually spell it out so clearly, but I certainly encounter that assumption on a regular basis. for example: https://reasons.org/explore/publications/facts-for-faith/read/facts-for-faith/2000/07/01/big-bang-the-bible-taught-it-first!

I think there is. Take the Egyptian creation legends I mentioned for example. I often hear people say “Egyptian mythology says…” and then they proceed to cherry-pick a particular version of a particular Egyptian myth. In fact there are a bewildering variety of Egyptian creation myths which wildly disagree with each other. Was the world created by 4 male frog gods and 4 female snake gods? Or was it created by the self-engendered Atum? Or did Ptah speak everything into existence? Or did Amun create the other gods with something like the call of a goose? Or did it hatch from an egg? Is the sky goddess Nut a naked woman or a cow? Does Nut swallow the sun at the end of the day? Or does Ra take it on his barge through a doorway into the underworld after spitting out all the other gods that he swallowed in the morning? Do some of the other gods travel with him on his barge through the underworld? Or is the sun rolled across the sky by Khepera, a dung beetle?

This was one of the subjects I was researching during NZ’s covid shutdown back in March. These myths overlapped in time, were used almost interchangeably, and seem to have been regularly blended to make new versions. So I see three logical possibilities:

  1. The Egyptians thought every one of these was actually what the world looked like and how creation happened, or
  2. Various Egyptians believed one version was Real and the others were just phenomenological, or
  3. The Egyptians thought of them all as phenomenological metaphors and didn’t see any conflict.

But if you consider that they accepted all of these as being actually a description of reality I’d be very interested in hearing the evidence that led you to that conclusion.

I stand corrected. But nobody here has made that claim.

I don’t see the relevance, since Genesis is not a collection of Egyptian creation myths. Nor do I see the relevance of phenomenology. Genesis 1 doesn’t describe what things look like; it tells how the world was constructed and explains its structure. Perhaps a fourth possibility is that they interpreted all the stories as literally true and explained the discrepancies is due to their limited understanding, or explained them away. You know, just like many people do with Genesis 1 and 2.

I don’t know anything about the Egyptian creation stories. You will have to ask someone else. We were supposedly discussing Genesis.