Feb 26 2009

“Before the Dawn”

Published by under Talks

“Before the Dawn”

[A presentation by Donald Feist to the Dunedin Sea of Faith group, February 26, 2009.     It was made using quite a few Overhead Projector notes and illustrations  – most of which are  not included here.   Hence this version is in some places notes, rather than a full script.]

The trigger for this talk came from something Thelma said last year. She asked something about being able to believe in the Virgin birth, or the bodily resurrection.   What this started for me, was thinking that is it valuable to understand how far we’ve come in 500-600 years –  because once it was possible for people of intelligence and integrity to believe things like this,  whereas now it is not.

So, I want to help you travel back to before the revolution started –

back 500 years – before about 1500 BCE.

To do this, I’m going to read from this book:  “The Book of Beasts:

which was written in the 12th Century.

I shall read several entries, partly because I think you’ll enjoy them

and more importantly in order to get into their world   –

to get the feel of how they saw things,

the sort of things they accepted without question,

and how they reasoned.

First,  for comparison, here’s the entry in Wikipedia,

under the heading  “Tiger”:

“The tiger (Panthera tigris) is a member of the Felidae family;

the largest of the four “big cats” in the genus Panthera.

Native to much of eastern and southern Asia,

the tiger is an apex predator and an obligate carnivore.

Reaching up to 4 metres in total length and weighing up to 300 kilograms,

the larger tiger subspecies are comparable in size to the biggest extinct felids.  Aside from their great bulk and power,

their most recognizable feature is the pattern of dark vertical stripes

that overlays near-white to reddish-orange fur, with lighter underparts.”

3. Now, from the “Book of Beasts” is the entry under “Tiger” :

“Tigris the Tiger gets his name form his speedy pace.  For the Persians, Greeks and Medes used to call an arrow ‘tigris’.

The beast can be distinguished by his manifold specklings, by his courage and by his wonderful velocity.   And from him the River Tigris is named, because it is the most rapid of rivers.

Now the Tigress, when she finds the empty lair of one of her cubs that has been stolen, instantly presses along the tracks of the  thief.  But this person who has stolen the cub, seeing that even though carried by a swiftly galloping horse he is on he point of being destroyed by the speed of the tigress, and seeing that no safety can be expected from flight, cunningly invents the following ruse.

When he perceives that the mother is close, he throws down a glass ball, and she, taken in by her own reflection, assumes that the image of herself in the glass is her little one.  She pulls up, hoping to collect the infant.  But after she has been delayed by the hollow mockery, she again throws herself with all her might into the pursuit of the horseman, and, goaded with rage, quickly threatens to catch up with the fugitive.  Again he delays the pursuer by throwing down a second ball, nor does the memory of his former trick prevent the mother’s tender care.  She curls herself round the vain reflection and lies down as if to suckle the cub.  And so, deceived by the zeal of your own dutifulness, she loses both her revenge and her baby.”

Now, here is what the book says about the bear:

“Ursus the Bear, … is said to get her name because she sculptures her brood with her mouth.  For they say that these creatures produce a formless foetus, giving birth to something  like a bit of pulp, and this the mother-bear arranges into the proper legs and arms by licking it.  This is because of the prematurity of the birth.  In short, she pups on the thirtieth day, from whence it comes that a hasty, unformed creation is brought forth.

A bear’s head is feeble;  the greatest strength is in the arms and loins, for which reason hey sometimes stand upright.

Nor do they  neglect the healer’s art.  Indeed, if they are afflicted with a serious injury and damaged by wounds, they know how to doctor themselves by stroking their sores with a herb whose name is Flomus, as the Greeks call it, so that they are cured by the mere touch.

A sick bear eats ants.

Numidian bears excel others so far as the thickness of their shaggy hair, but the creature itself is the same wherever they breed.

They do not make love like other quadrupeds, but, being joined in mutual embraces, they copulate in the human way.  The winter season provokes their inclination to lust.  The males respect the pregnant females with the decency of a private room, and, though in the same lairs for their lying-in, these are divided by earth-works into separate beds.”

Thirdly,  here is the antelope:

“The antelops is an animal of incomparable celerity, so much so that no hunter can ever get near it.

It has long horns shaped like a saw, with the result that it can even cut down very big trees and fell them to the ground.

When it is thirst, it goes to the great River Euphrates, and drinks.  Now there is in those parts a shrub called Herecine, which has subtile, long twigs.  Coming therefore to the shrub, it begins to play with the Herecine with its horn, and while it plays, it entangles the horns in the twigs.  When it cannot get free after a long struggle, it cries with a loud bellow.   But the hunter, hearing its voice, comes and kills it.

Do thus, also, O Man of God, thou who dost endeavour to be sober and chaste and to live spiritually!  Your two horns are the two Testaments, with which you can prune and saw off all fleshly vices from yourself, that is to say, adultery, fornication, avarice, envy, pride, homicide, slander, drunkenness, lust and all the pomps of this world.  Thus will the angels reward you with the virtues of heaven.

But beware, O Man of God, of the shrub Booze, and do not be entangled in the Herecine pleasure of Lust, so as not to be slain by the Devil.  Wine and Women are great turners-away from God.”

And finally, here is the crockodile:

“This is called a cocodryllus from its crocus or saffron colour.  It breeds in the River Nile:  an animal with four feet, amphibious, generally about thirty feet long, armed with horrible teeth and claws.  So great is the hardness of its skin that no blow can hurt a crocodile, not even if hefty stones are bounced on its back.  It lies in the water by night, on land by day.

It incubates its eggs in the earth.  The male and female take turns.  Certain fishes which have a saw-like dorsal fin destroy it, ripping up the tender parts of its belly.  Moreover, alone among animals, it moves its upper jaw, keeping the lower one quite motionless.  Its dung provides an ointment with which old and wrinkled whores anoint their figures and are made beautiful, until the flowing sweat of their efforts washes it away.

Hypocritical, dissolute and avaricious people have the same nature as this brute  –  also any people who are puffed up with the vice of pride, dirtied with the corruption of luxury, or haunted with the disease of avarice  – even if they do make a show of falling in with the justifications of the Law, pretending in the sight of men to be upright and indeed very saintly.  Crocodiles lie by night in the water, by day on land, because hypocrites, however luxuriously they live by night, delight to be said to live holily and justly by day.   Conscious of their wickedness in doing so, they beat their breasts; yes, but with use, habit always brings to light the things which they have done.

The monster moves his upper jaws, because these people hold up the higher examples of he Fathers and an abundance of precepts in speech with others, while they show in their lower selves all too little of what they say.

An ointment is made of its evil dung because bad people are often admired and praised by the inexperienced for the evil they have done, and extolled by the plaudits of this world, as if beautified by an ointment.   But when the Judgement, sweated out by the evils perpetrated, moves its anger to the striking, then all that elegance of flattery vanishes like smoke.”

Discssion: Now tell me, what can you pick up from that [6.25]

about the way they saw the world,

about the way they thought?

5. Now let’s move on to what has happened between then and now.

“To understand just what has happened in this 500-year period from the 16th through the 20th centuries,  we need to look back to the originators of the scientific mode of inquiry.

The first need was to displace a long list of intellectual assumptions:

that the celestial bodies were made of material different from the matter of the Earth and follow different physical laws in their movement;

that celestial movements must be circular;

that the Earth was only some five thousand years old;

that the various species of plants and animals were fixed in the


that the universe was best understood as a great chain of being in hierarchical


that humans were placed on the Earth as a temporary setting for

their spiritual development;

that the most reliable source of understanding was to follow the teachings of the ancients rather than the observable evidence of  the present.”

– [Swimme and Berry,  “The Universe Story” pp. 227-228]

Note that the Earth is shown in detail and with considerable accuracy. It is the centre of everything, with the sun and all the planets circling round it. But the heavens are also drawn in a very different way – because it was believed that where the Earth was composed of four elements – Earth Air, Fire and Water – everything beyond the Earth was made of something utterly different – Aether.
(click to enlarge)

This is how things were seen to be up to 500 – 600 years ago.

click to enlarge
What has happened since then?

Here are some of the people who introduced the most significant changes:

Copernicus: [1543] “he was essentially a thinker rather than an observer”

[but observations were still important]

He was one of the first to use of maths and reason together.

Galileo: [c. 1590 ]

– precise measurement and  repeated observation

“Galileo has been called the “father of modern observational astronomy”,

the “father of modern physics”, the “father of science”,

and “the Father of Modern Science.”

Kepler [1630] [mathematics and astronomy]

Kepler Mars Retrograde

Kepler Mars Retrograde

[3 laws of planetary motion  [which were not proved until Newton]

Newton [1687]

His … Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, is considered to be the most influential book in the history of science,”

“He achieved the unique triumph of formulating the mathematical law of gravitational attraction …”

Reputed descendant of Newton's apple tree, at the Botanic Gardens in Cambridge

Reputed descendant of Newton's apple tree, at the Botanic Gardens in Cambridge

“Newton’s stature among scientists remains at the very top rank…. “

The reason for this lies in his work in  Mechanics, optics, calculus as well as gravity and linking universal gravitation with Kepler’s Laws of Planetary motion.

Overlapping with these people,  others were making discoveries  in quite different areas:

Not only exploring the skies  – even before that,  started exploring Planet Earth:

Columbus [Westward to the Americas]

Vasco da Gama [Eastward around Africa to India]

And others were exploring the human body:

Vesalius “The father of modern anatomy”

(click to enlarge)

William Harvey:

[We don’t have a system of veins, and quite separate system of arteries, with blood pulsing like the tides – but one system through which blood circulates.]

As we look at the new knowledge being introduced during years,

another quite different stand is at least as important  –

concerning not what we know, but how we know, and how we learn.

Francisan friar named William from a village of Ockham in Surrey –

Principle of “Ontological Parsimony” –

“One should always opt for an explanation in terms of the fewest

possible number of causes.”    …..

William lived well before all these other things started happening,

but this principle of thinking systematically became enormously important.

Francis Bacon [1620]

“Men have sought to make a world from their own conception

and to draw from their own minds all the material which they employed, but if, instead of doing so,

they had consulted experience  and observation,

they would have the facts and not opinions to reason about,

and might have ultimately arrived at the knowledge

of the laws which govern the material world.”

Comment on him:

By abandoning deductive reasoning

that was based on traditional arbitrary premises,

and substituting the principle of inductive reasoning,

he formulated a new system for the interpretation of nature”.

For example:

If, every time I eat eggs, I get an itchy rash,

and I never get such a rash when I don’t eat eggs,

and he more egg I eat, the worse the rash,

safe to conclude that it is eating eggs that causes the rash.

Elementary, my dear Watson  – but 400 years ago, revolutionary.

Because of this leap forward in how to reason,

it has been claimed of Francis Bacon:

“He is rightly regarded as he father of modern scientific research”.

One more person in this bracket:

Renee Descartes [1637]

“The first modern thinker to provide a philosophical framework

for the natural sciences as these began to develop.”    …..

Beginning with doubting everything that can be doubted,

“he finally established the possibility

of acquiring knowledge about the world

based on deduction and perception.”

i.e.  based on combining observation and reasoning.

This may sound highly academic and unnecessary  –

but vital for making science intellectually respectable,

and not just a hobby for the idle rich.

With all this going on within barely more than a century,

easy to sympathize with John Donne, when he said:

“[The] new Philosophy calls all in doubt,

The Element of fire is quite put out;

The Sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit

Can well direct him where to look for it.”

[John Donne  1611]

Any comments or questions to this point ???

Here now are a few more landmarks in the more recent centuries:

Charles Lyell “Principles of Geology – being an attempt to explain

the former changes to the Earth’s surface by references to causes

now in action”.    [Pub. 1830]

New time scale for geological processes and the Earth.

Charles Darwin “Origin of Species”   [1859]

Sigmund Freud [c. 1900]

“Freud’s life work may be broadly summarised as the exploration of the

unconscious mind”

His name may represent the whole field of psychology –

a new level of understanding what it means to be human.

Albert Einstein Theory of Relativity  – 1905

“ Time and space are not absolute but merely relative to the observer”   –

also energy and mass are equivalent.

Edwin Hubble [1925]

“ He profoundly changed astronomers’ understanding

of the nature of the universe

by demonstrating the existence of other galaxies besides the Milky Way.”

Crick and Watson [DNA]    [1953]

My selection somewhat arbitrary   –

it aims to mention those who did not simply  increase our knowledge,

but forced a shift in how we understand things.

Do you want to add others   ???

Now let’s try to pull all these things together:

“Neither the intellectual development proposed by Descartes and Bacon ….

nor the social development proposed by Marx ….

nor the geological development of the Earth proposed by Lyell ….

nor the biological development proposed by Darwin ….

gave any indication that the universe was itself evolving in an identifiable sequence of irreversible transformations.

In each instance the supposition was that the universe itself was there in some stable manner.”

This insight is very new.

It recognises that nothing is fixed,  nothing is completely stable.

Everything  –  absolutely everything  – is evolving.

In talking about things evolving,  I could have talked this evening

about the way the English language has been evolving

from the time of Shakespeare,

or the King James translation of the Bible, until today.

But that evolution of our language,

for all the problems of understanding it can create,

has been quite minor compared with

the enormous change that has taken place in that time

in what we use language for  –

how we think,

how we know,

how we reason,

as well of course,  as what we know.

if you were able to get back past all of those innovators,

into that distant, foreign world in which that “Book of Beasts” was written,

then I’m quite sure you would find no difficulty  –

in accepting that the mother of Jesus was still a virgin

when Jesus was born  –

or accepting that Jesus was raised bodily three days after he died,

and later ascended bodily into the heavens.

Ideas like those, and many other miracle stories throughout the Bible,

Would not create the slightest problem for your intelligence or your integrity.

Because all  those ideas

were all of a piece with the general way they understood

what was possible, and how things worked  – and how God worked.

The world in which we live

is, in many ways,

the same world that the people of 500 years ago lived in.

But in this vitally important way,

of what we know, but even more, of how we know

it is an utterly different world.

So that many things that were quite comfortably believable in that world,

are simply not believable,  for people of intelligence and integrity,

in the Western world of the 21st Century.

So  –  I’ve had my go.

Now is your chance  to react  –

to tell me what you think I’ve left out

where you think I’ve gone wrong  –

or even what you agree with.


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