Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Teaching truth as fact

"In the High and Far-Off Times the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk. He had only a blackish, bulgy nose, as big as a boot, that he could wriggle about from side to side; but he couldn't pick up things with it. But there was one Elephant—a new Elephant — an Elephant's Child — who was full of 'satiable curiosity, and that means he asked ever so many questions…"
That's the first sentence of "The Elephant's Child" by Rudyard Kipling. It's one of a series called "Just So Stories" that he wrote for one of his daughters. The story is about a baby elephant (full of 'satiable curiosity) who up until that time had only "a blackish, bulgy nose, as big as a boot" and who has his nose stretched by a deceitful crocodile.

And that, dear children, is why elephants have long noses. You can look it up.

Kipling wrote about a dozen of these stories, including:

*How the Whale got his Throat - Explains how the whale was once a fearsome predator who ate humans, but was changed by one of his victims.
*How the Camel got his Hump - Explains how the idle camel was punished.
*How the Rhinoceros got his Skin - Explains why Rhinos have folds in their skin and bad tempers.
*How the Leopard got his Spots - You can guess.....
*The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo - The story of how the kangaroo turned from a grey, wooly animal with short, stubby legs, to the athletic animal we know today.
*The Beginning of the Armadillos - The story of how the hedgehog and the turtle transformed into the first....armadillos.

None of these stories are factual. None of them happened. None should be given equal time in a science textbook.

Some of them, however, contain truth. Not TRUTH, but truth. For instance, the truth in "The Elephant's Child" is that when a gullible person runs into a deceitful person, bad things happen to the gullible person. Or perhaps the truth in the story can be found in the cliche "Curiosity killed the cat".

The Jewish/Christian scriptures also give us some stories. They include:

*Why is there a rainbow? - Genesis 9:12-16. This story explains how God put the first rainbow in the sky, as a promise to never again destroy the earth with a flood. The truth in that story is that even if you live in London, it will eventually stop raining.

*Why do people speak different languages? - Genesis 11:4-8. This story explains what happened when people tried to build a tower (The Tower of Babel) that would reach to heaven, and God put an end to the project by giving everyone a different language. The truth in that story is obvious to anyone who has worked in China for a month.

*Why don't snakes have legs? Why do people have to work? Why does it hurt women to have babies? - Genesis 3:14-19. 1) If snakes had legs, they'd be lobbyists. 2) Obama and Biden are asking that same question. 3) We'd be overpopulated otherwise.

You get the idea. These are stories. Some of them are good. Some of them, like the story of Abraham attempting to sacrifice his son Isaac, are barbaric and should be avoided.

Many Christians obsess over the story found in Genesis 1:26-27 . (Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.) They want to be sure this story gets equal time in science classrooms. They try to influence textbook publishers and purchasing committees. It influences how they vote. They give biology teachers hell. They take the issue to court.

So where are the people who should be protesting against "Godless Linguistics"? Do you remember the chart that was usually in the front of your middle school Grammar and English books? The one that showed all the different families of languages? The chart makes no mention of The Tower Of Babel ! ! ! Where's the outrage? Where are the protesters?

Remember your elementary school science teacher shining light through a prism and explaining the color spectrum? Did he take time to explain that this phenomenom didn't exist before the flood in Genesis? Did he explain that the resulting rainbow was a promise from God, and not a mere reorganization of light? From now on, shouldn't the Genesis Flood Story be given equal time when Optics is taught?

Spinal blocks and epidurals during childbirth are immoral, since they are an attempt to lessen the curse found in Genesis 3. Am I missing something here?

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Fundamentalists are very selective in their protests.

There are some great, great stories in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Like Kipling's "Just So Stories" they're an attempt at explaining why the world is the way it is. They were the best we could do at the time. When we read them, we should be looking for the truths, not the facts. That's what the person who created them intended.

"When I was a child I spoke as a child I understood as a child I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things." I Corinthians 13: 11

So put down your picket signs. Stop lobbying textbook publishers. Leave the biology teachers alone. Grow up.


Francis Shivone said...

TWC -- You know I love the TWC Blog.

And I am somewhat sympathetic to the idea --- but ---

It is as problematic as the fundamentalist idea and is a deconstructionist balderdash. That is, if the Incarnation is Truth.

So, to be even more pugnacious -- You are both wrong.


Your friend, Francis

Anonymous said...

It all depends by wht you mean by "truth" as you rightly say Allen.

I recall a while back on Samizdata saying that it is impossible (or irrelevant) for any Christian to believe the whole of the Bible is literally true. Some is poetry such as the Psalms which, as you say, may contain truths but are not "truth". And what of Christ's parables? Does it matter whether there ever was a good Samaritan?

One of the Biblical truths which I find most fascinating is the genesis thing about women giving birth in pain and that being linked to knowledge. Human evolution is another way of looking at it. The reason I'm communitacting with you via Blogger and via the expedient of picking off your ticks is the dramatic increas in the size of the simian -> hominid -> us head the evolution of which rapidly exceeded the speed of the female pelvis (which in any case had an evolutionarily more pressing appointment with going bipedal).

I find it fascinating. Perhaps the origins of Genesis lie far back in the observations of pasturalists that their livestock gave birth more easily than their women but weren't as good company. If so it incorporates a proto-proto-proto-scientific observation.

I heartily recommend a book called "Return to Soddom & Gomarrah" about Archeology and Biblical and other stories. Joshua and his trumpets, for example. It is conjectured that the walls came tumbling down (and on at least one occasion it looks like they did) because of under-mining by the Israelites. What better distraction for the noise of mining than marching a brass-band round and round...

I found it interesting because in my erstwhile discipline (Astrophysics) sometimes very ancient records sometimes prove to be scientifically useful.

Anonymous said...


To quote Pilate, "What is Truth?"

I doubt he'd been mugging up on Derrida's collected works the night before.

Now, I don't believe some guy called Moses descended from a mountain with the word of God in blazing letters on stone-tablets but...

Do I believe, "Though shalt not Steal". Yes, I do.

People often say things like, "Shakespeare knew much truth about the human condition". Yup, he did. That doesn't mean I ever believed there have been any (much less two) Gentlemen in Verona or in the literal truth of Midsummer Night's Dream.

You must have heard a joke and thought (like Homer Simpson once did) "That's funny because it's true". Or had a similar experience with a novel or film?

Surely you see what TWC was getting at?

"Truth" can be what is absolutely the case. It can be what actually happened and it can also be metaphorical. These are maybe different kinds of truth but nobody said life has to be straightforward now did they?

Francis Shivone said...

Actually Nick M. I don't disagree with you. Although I do consider Derrida and his ideas to be the "end of the end" of the Western Tradition (I'll blame the beginning of the end on Descartes). After deconstructionism anything is and will be possible.

Random points (and then I am done, because I am neither a philosopher or theolgian):

No one believes that Jesus was made of wood because he said, "I am the door."

When I refer to the Incarnation as Truth, capital T, I mean it in a more ontological sense, that, if Christ IS Truth, as he said, and not just a describer of truthful parables, I am obligated to Him in a way that is more than cerebral.

Also, there has been for well 4000 years a funny idea that theology as the study of God is in part a study of the revelation of God. What and where do we start?

The Pilate quote was cute but a dodge since Pilate was asking a far more profound and honest question, more applicable to moral theology or ethics than philosophy.

By the way, the earlier Greeks like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle rejected Derrida-type ideas as just plain silly.

Christian tradition adopted from Jewish tradition praying the Psalms during certain hours of the day, I don't think anyone who does that would suggest that every disposition of David is considered an admirable one. But that is not the same as saying it is not revelation.

Twenty years ago I could engage in this discussion for days (given enough grog), now -- I punt my way out of these discussions quickly.
(I could call "the Jesuits," who actually enjoy this sort of thing, if you would like to continue)

My motive here was mostly to tweak Allen, which we do reciprocally.


Thanks, FCS.

Francis Shivone said...

P.S. -- If anything is revelation besides the Good Book it must be Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear, maybe Mozart, and the Constitution of the United States, oh, and a couple episodes of Seinfeld.

Ciao, dude.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

I keep asking Francis to drag some Jesuits in here, just to see what they have to say. He has yet to make this happen.

When time permits, check out FS's excellent blog. If you're wanting to know where to eat in Ft Worth TX, or wondering what the Catholic Church is supposed to be doing on certain days, he's your man.

Francis Shivone said...

Allen -- you had me worried. I thought I was going to slide one by you.

As to the DNC and the mania, I have watched too much, and all of Senator Clinton's speech. It's a a personally assigned penance for my sins.


Anonymous said...

Ever read Borges? He once claimed writers invented their influences in the sense that Borges is influenced by Poe but that only becomes the case after Borges writes.

Which brings me to...

"The earlier Greeks like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle rejected Derrida-type ideas as just plain silly"

So they refute an idea that hadn't been thought of earlier? Yeah, I guess that's possible...

"...if Christ IS Truth, as he said, and not just a describer of truthful parables, I am obligated to Him in a way that is more than cerebral."

Makes no sense. God incarnate is truth makes as much sense as saying Coke is beer. You are engaging in pure mysticism here. Nothing against that, mind, sort of.

...But I'd have much more time for the idea that this guy said he was God (or of God or whatever) and said he spoke the truth. That makes much more sense to me than an entity being the truth. The later is meaningless to me. For me it's the difference between the idea that Niels Bohr is the truth and the Copenhagen Interpretation is the truth.

Anyhow, FS, I'm just now gonna click onto your blog.

Francis Shivone said...

Nick -- As I like to say, a slow minded person can never win an argument with a smart person, and you my friend are very smart.

Nevertheless . . .

1, If God became man (in carne), everything we know must be known through that reality. If he did, he did, if he didn't, he didn't. I'm not sure why that is mysticism (not there's anything wrong with that).

2. Socrates' (Plato) disputations on justice are the first arguments against the same arguments Derrida makes, i.e., skepticism about knowing and meaning.

I'm done. Really.

(What I have read, I do like Borges, very much)

Thanks for commenting on the Food blog.

Anonymous said...

"If God became man (in carne), everything we know must be known through that reality."

This I disagree with. How can Ugg the caveman have known how to skin a mammoth through Christ thousands of years before Christ?

How come I know 2=2=4? That's outside of God's jurisdiction. It's a brute fact of reality. I have read a bit on the philosophy of mathematics (only marginally easier than doing mathematics) and I always come back to it just is.

My understanding (please correct me if I am wrong here) is that the Christian God cannot go against logic and that logic has (in a sense) a higher status than even God himself. It is one of the things I like about Christianity compared to some other religions because Christianity is not paving a royal road to absurdity with divine intentions.

The Islamic theologians cocked that one up becuase there is a key verse about "Allah's hand not being fettered". Essentially this means Allah can do what the eff he likes whether it is logical or not.

Practically speaking this led to the ossification of Islamic science in the C12th and is the reason why Islam is currently throwing it's toys out of it's self-imposed the playpen.

The Christian belief in miracles is not the same. That's physical "aberrations" but not logical ones. Not that anyone would care to differentiate when their baffled doctor vists them and says "You're tumour has vanished and I'm totally scoobied".

Anyhoo the point remains that logical truth and even The Good is higher than God. Otherwise we're in a situation where God is a whimsical bugger having a lark. Otherwise we're Allah's Ant-farm and Allah is an eight year-old kid with a magnifying glass.

Not only is that not a God I'm gonna believe in, it's not a God I would even want to try to believe in.

There are things even God can't change such as 2+2=4 and any God who attempts to say otherwise is Big Brother torturing Winston Smith.

Anonymous said...

Good post, and it captures the essence of what Campbell was saying with the Power of Myth. It is not necessary to believe in the literalness of a story in order to gain insight from it.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I had no idea Kipling was a follower of Lamarck (who thought traits evolve - are acquired - by use in individuals - like a giraffe stretching its neck).

Interesting post.

Sidenote: I think we biologists should take churches to court. When they teach genesis and the creation of Eve from Adam's rib, we should make them give equal time to the evidence from developmental biology that, technically, it seems that man is made from woman. Consider that female genitalia is more of a "default pathway", which is then further induced and sculpted into male genitals when the "male program" is switched on.

breakerslion said...

I would take anything Derita said with a grain of salt. Nobody is quite sure why Moe called him "Curly Joe", he couldn't hold a candle to Curly. Was it wishful thinking, or some attempt to build confidence? ... Oh wait, you were talking about Derrida, the Master of Obfuscation. Oh well, same observation, different characters and reasons.

Speaking of obfuscation, I find it in a lot of religious arguments. I have heard arguments that are practically the equivalent of this:

"So 2 + 2 = 4? How so? If I take two plates and then another two plates and put them in a bag, there's a lot more than four things in the bag. What about all the air? If I break those plates, there are a lot more than four pieces in the bag ... so two plus two doesn't always necessarily equal four, does it? For that matter what is 'two'?"

Before you lob the accusation of "straw man" at me, this is a burlesque, but not much of one... which brings us full circle back to the Stooges.

You might hear it said that the Christian God can't act outside of logic and/or physics, but then you will have to endure all kinds of mental gymnastics to reconcile that statement to the Biblical accounts of His/It's actions. Much simpler to chalk it all up to ignorance and fraud.