Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The “ancient history” of Genesis 4-11: myth or history?

In this essay I discuss the so-called “ancient history” in the beginning of the Book of Genesis – more specifically the post-garden stories. In general Biblical Criticism takes them as myth whereas traditional Biblical scholarship takes them as referring to real historical events. As before, I use the Sumerian hypothesis in my analysis of these stories. I show that the Biblical Adam, Enoch, the deluge, Nimrod and the confusion of languages correspond with similar stories in Sumer. What shall we make of this?

Our study of the Book of Genesis now brings us to the post-Garden of Eden stories. These are found in Genesis 4-11. Together with the garden story, these belong to the so-called "ancient history", that is, the prehistory to the Biblical patriarchal tradition. In this part of the Book of Genesis we read how Cain murdered his brother Abel, how Enoch was taken to heaven as well as about the Great Flood, the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages.

What should we think of these stories? Did they really happen? That depends on where they originated. Biblical Criticism assumes that the Book of Genesis was written relatively late in Israel's history – some even think that it was written during or after the Babylonian exile. In that case the stories were merely taken from the Babylonian and other traditions. As such they were not part of Israel's own prehistory – they were taken from elsewhere and added before the patriarchal stories to give the (false) impression that Israel's history is as old as that of their enemies, the Babylonians. On the other hand there are the traditional view that these stories are part of the authentic prehistory of Israel. The question is: Who is correct?

Both these approaches have its problems. Biblical Scholarship – which I discuss in some detail elsewhere [1] – is saddled with modernist presuppositions from its formative years which grounded the paradigmatic commitments of the discipline. Modernist scholarship wrongly assumed that they had some objective vantage point from which to “scientifically” evaluate the traditions of “primitive” peoples such as the Israelites. As such these Biblical traditions were taken – on grounds that had been thoroughly discredited in recent years – as having no value whatsoever as sources about ancient history.

Whereas traditional scholarship rejected this approach, some among them venture to the opposite pole, understanding the stories in a way that stands apart from the historical context to which they belong. This led to interpretations which are in constant need of direct divine intervention to explain the seemingly unrealistic nature of the stories, for example, the story about the confusion of languages through which God is said to have created all the languages of the world. Although I accept that God’s interaction with his people included various miraculous events, it seems to me superfluous to call upon miracles to explain things for which perfectly natural explanations may be available – often unconvincing interpretations necessitates miraculous explanations.

In all the essays in this series I work from the Sumerian hypothesis [2], which states that these stories were brought by the Abrahamic family from their homeland in Sumer to the land Canaan. I give various reasons to support this view. The reason why they show agreement with similar stories in Babylonia, is that both traditions go back to a very early epoch in Sumer.

Since both the Hebrew and the Babylonian traditions belong to a shared Sumerian heritage, the correspondences and differences are easily explainable. I argue not only that the Hebrew tradition is authentic; I also argue that these early stories go back to real events in ancient Sumer. I show how some of the stories, such as that about the confusion of languages, makes sense only when we understand the original Sumerian context.

Where did the Biblical stories originate?

When we want to examine the origin of the stories in the ancient history of the Book of Genesis, we have to carefully consider the literary style in which they are presented. We should ask where this same or a similar style is found in ancient literature – which would help us to place the Hebrew text within the appropriate epoch. We should also consider the ancient context in which these stories are said to have taken place to see if they are of historical significance.

The ancient history of Genesis 4-11 have a very distinct style which differs from that of the patriarchal history as well as the other historical narratives given in the Bible. As such there cannot be any doubt that this style is unique to this piece of Biblical literature. What distinguishes the ancient history is 1) genealogical lists of the earliest remembered forefathers, 2) particularly long lifetimes accorded to these people, some of whom are said to have lived for nearly a millennium, 3) short accounts of events related to some of these persons – some in-between the genealogies and others within the genealogies, 4) a Sumerian background for some of the stories (taking place in the land “Shinar”) [3].

Readers who are acquainted with the Sumerian King List would immediately recognize a close agreement with that text – in line with the reference to that land in the text itself. The Sumerians were a people who lived in ancient Mesopotamia from the sixth (some would say fourth) to the late third millennium BC. They established a remarkable civilization and ruled for many years over the land. The Sumerian King List was probably complied during the reign of king Utuhegal of Uruk during the end of the third millennium BC although the oldest copies found so far date from the time of the Isin dynasty early in the second millennium BC [4].

The Sumerian King List was complied from various king lists from earlier periods. Also included are the names of legendary kings mentioned in the epic tradition. As with Genesis 4-11, the list contains genealogies of early forefathers, some of whom also lived centuries-long lives as well as short comments about some of these figures. The difference between the texts is that the Hebrew text includes short stories between the different genealogical lists, whereas the Sumerian King List does not. This is, however, not too far removed from the Sumerian King List which also uses information from Sumerian stories (some of which correspond with the Biblical ones).

One may also compare the Hebrew tradition with the Amoritic king lists from the Old Babylonian Period (during the early second millennium BC). In this case the king lists of the historical kings were also preceded by the names of their forefathers. The difference is, however, that these lists do not ascribe such long lifetimes to these forefathers as we find in the Sumerian King List and one also do not find the short commentaries typical of that list. So, although the ancient history in Genesis serves as preamble to the patriarchal narratives (of Abraham etc,) in a similar way that the Amorites’ list their forefathers before the reigns of their kings, the correspondence with the Sumerian King List is much closer.

This clear correspondence between the ancient history in Genesis and the Sumerian King List forces us to consider two possibilities, namely that the Hebrew tradition which is recorded in the ancient history 1) was written during the epoch when that style was still in use, which would be some time during the early Old Babylonian Period (the time when Abraham is said to have lived), or 2) was written down many centuries after the Sumerian King List by an author who intentionally copied the style of that ancient document (which was not in use during the period of writing).

Let us first consider the first possibility. According to the Bible Abraham’s family originated from the city of Ur in Sumer. If we take this story serious as a true reflection of historical events [5], then this immediately explains why the Hebrew text has so much in common with the Sumerian King List, namely that it originated in the very milieu where that style was in use. All the stories in the ancient history (except the final one in Gen. 11) belong to the period before Abraham’s own lifetime – as such they would be part of an older tradition which was delivered in the contemporary style within the context of Abraham’s family. The slight difference with the Sumerian King List, in that the genealogies are interrupted by short stories, would be a special feature of the Hebrew tradition.

What about the second option, namely that the author may have imitated the style of the Sumerian King List? In my view this option has serious problems. Why would the author try to imitate a style that had been out of use for more than a thousand years? Why do we not find any information from Sumerian or Babylonian origin in this ancient history, including the story of creation (which also includes many Sumerian features – see part 1 of this series; the link is at the bottom of this essay), which belong to the post-Old Babylonian period as such! All the data in the ancient history in the Book of Genesis belongs to the Old Babylonian and older strata of tradition in Sumer. (This does not include the reference to the “Chaldeans” [6], which I consider as a typical addition made by a later editor.)

This absence of elements from the post-Old Babylonian tradition is especially obvious in the creation accounts which differ substantially from each other. This strongly suggests that the author wrote before the later developments in Babylonian thought took place (which include the idea that the champion of the gods created the universe from the body of the monster that he killed). Although one might find comparisons between the ancient history in the Book of Genesis and other later traditions on an ad hoc base, this is not good hermeneutical practice. Although one can obviously not exclude the possibility that the Biblical author used such an ad hoc approach, any serious scholar should prefer an interpretation in which all aspects of the story are understood within one systematic and coherent manner - and this should explain the absence of post-Old Babylonian material in the Book of Genesis. 

On the trustworthiness of the ancient history in Genesis 4-11

We may now engage in more detail with the information in the ancient history of Genesis 4-11. Of special interest in this regard, is that the genealogies in the Book of Genesis incorporate data which seems to come from the Sumerian King List! Also, most of the stories find a direct equivalent in ancient Sumerian tradition. In fact, about all the main figures and events mentioned in the Hebrew text go back to such persons and events in ancient Sumerian tradition. I do not suggest that the Hebrews merely copied the Sumerian tradition. Rather, in my view this suggests that this information belonged to a Semitic tradition handed down by the Abrahamic family – who is said to have originated in that land.

I now give a short summery of the information in the Hebrew text and then show how it agrees with the ancient Sumerian tradition (which includes an ancient Semitic tradition within Sumer itself).

a) The garden story of Adam and Eve (Gen 2:4-3:24)
b) The story of Cain and Abel (not found in the Sumerian tradition [7]) (Gen. 4:1-16)
c) The story of Enoch, who was taken alive to heaven (Gen. 5:18-24)
d) The story of the Great Flood (Gen. 6-9)
e) The story of Nimrod who ruled in Uruk and Babel (Gen. 10:8-12)
f) The story of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages (Gen. 11:1-9)

In the Sumerian tradition we have the following stories:

a) The story of Adapa – the earliest remembered person who brought civilization to the land
b) The story of Etana, who was taken on the back of an eagle to the abode of the supreme god
c) The story of the Great Flood
d) The story of Enmerkar who ruled in Uruk and Eridu
e) The story of the confusion of languages.

Although the Biblical stories have clear correspondences with those from ancient Sumer, there is no systematic account of events in Sumerian tradition similar to that found in the Biblical tradition. We may, however, reconstruct Sumerian history in such a way that it is consistent with the Biblical account of events. This is quite remarkable because the Biblical author did not had a Sumerian outline to work from when he complied his version of ancient events.

So, how did the Biblical author know how to arrange his history – placing the personages in the correct historical context? An obvious answer is that we have an authentic tradition that really goes back to the relevant period. It is difficult to see how a late author would have been able to do that! This implies that the ancient history in Genesis 4-11 should be taken in exactly the way that it is presented, namely as the prehistoric tradition of the people of Israel that was handed down from generation to generation through the ages.

In this essay I discuss the stories of Enoch, Nimrod and the Tower of Babel. I show the correspondence with their Sumerian equivalents; I also show how they fit into a viable reconstruction of the history of ancient Sumer. I do not discuss the story of Adam-Adapa – I did that in part 1 of the series. I also do not discuss the story of the Great Flood. I leave that for the next part.

Enoch-Etana

The first story to be discussed is that of the Biblical Enoch. According to the Bible Enoch was the seventh descendant from Adam. He is said to have been a holy man who was taken alive to the abode of God. Over time there developed an important tradition in Hebrew circles about Enoch which resulted in some books being written under his name somewhere between the third and first centuries BC. He is also mentioned in a few places in the New Testament.

The Biblical Enoch corresponds with the Sumerian Etana. According to tradition, Etana was the very first person to become king (called “lugal”, i.e. a warrior-king) in ancient Sumer. In the Sumerian King List, Etana is mentioned as the king of Kish, a city in the northern part of Sumer. Of special interest to our discussion, is the fact that the rulers of Kish seem to have been Semites. This would be consistent with the Hebrew tradition in which Enoch is remembered as an early forefather of the Hebrews, who were Semites.

The name Etana means "he who went up to heaven/An". According to the story of Etana, he was taken to the abode of the supreme god An [8] on the back of an eagle. At first Etana got frightened by the height, but eventually he seems to have reached that heavenly destination (our available cuneiform text is broken at this point). This agrees with the story that Enoch went to the abode of God. The eagle in the Sumerian story may depict the divine Spirit.

There are also some differences between Enoch and Etana. According to the Hebrew tradition Enoch lived three generations before the deluge; in the Sumerian King List the dynasty founded by Etana is placed lower down after the deluge. How would one explain this? Various Sumerian scholars have mentioned the problems regarding the King List – especially the fact that the order of the various king lists in the King List should not be taken as a chronological order since the author, who lived many centuries after the events, merely added them together without knowing how they should follow each other and where they overlap.

Insofar as the date of Etana is concerned, we may probe a little deeper. It is interesting that the first dynasty after the deluge is said to be that founded by Meskiagkasher, the forefather of the House of Uruk. He is said to have been both king and priest. The problem is that Etana was supposedly the very first king who ruled in the land. How do we reconcile these differences? I would suggest that Etana ruled before the deluge and Meskiagkasher thereafter, in line with the Biblical tradition about Enoch [9].

Nimrod-Enmerkar

The next person to be discussed is Nimrod. According to the Biblical tale, Nimrod was the son of Cush, the son of Ham, one of the sons of Noah who survived the deluge. That places him a few generations after the deluge. He is said to have become a mighty king – he was also a “mighty hunter”. His kingdom stretched from Babel and Erech (Uruk) in the south of Sumer to Akkad and Calneh (Nippur) and even to Nineveh, Rehoboth (Mosul), Resen (?) and Calah (later called Nimrod) in the north. He is typically associated with the events surrounding the Towel of Babel, not only since this city is mentioned as part of his kingdom, but also because his name may be interpreted as originating from the Hebrew word mârâd, which means “he rebelled” in accordance with the Biblical depiction of those events.

The Biblical Nimrod corresponds with the Sumerian Enmerkar. Enmerkar was a great king from the House of Uruk of whom various epic tales were told. He was one of the greatest legendary kings in the history of Sumer. The consonants in the first part of the name Enmerkar spells “nmr”, which may be vocalized as Nimrod. The last part of his name, “kar”, may be read as “hunter” [10]. The name Enmerkar may therefore be interpreted as Nimrod, the hunter.

According to his stories, his family originated from the land of Aratta [the Biblical Ararat [11]) in the northern Zagros mountains [12]. His father Meskiagkasher came from Aratta to establish himself in Sumer. This name may be shortened to Kash, which corresponds with that of Cush, the father of Enmerkar in the Biblical tradition. Enmerkar became a mighty king who conquered even the far-away land of Aratta to establish his rule over all of ancient Sumer and beyond. He is said to have built the city of Uruk in the area of the temple of An where his father originally settled. Various innovations are ascribed to him, among which is the first writing. He is also said to have brought the goddess Inana from Aratta to Sumer.

These things belong to the Uruk period in Sumerian history, which followed directly after the deluge, which left a 2.7-3.7 meter thick layer of mud which was found by Sir Leonard Woolley at Ur. This is consistent with the Sumerian King List which places the rule of this family directly after the deluge. The Uruk period is the time during which the city of Uruk was built and when the first writing was developed which eventually led to the discovery of phonetic writing towards the end of that period. This is also what evidence for the goddess Inana's first attestation in Sumer suggest. Furthermore, towards the end of this period the House of Uruk ruled over a very large geographic area to the north and west – this is usually called the period of the “Uruk expansion”. This is consistent with the literary tradition about Enmerkar. It is also consistent with the comments about Nimrod in the Bible.

There cannot be any doubt that there is a remarkable consistency between the Biblical tradition of Nimrod and the Sumerian tradition of Enmerkar – which refers to historical events during the Uruk period in Sumer. What is also interesting, is that some of the other names of the members of this family correspond with those in the Sumerian tradition. The Bible mentions a certain Raamah, meaning “Thunder”, as a brother of Nimrod. This corresponds with the Sumerian Lugalbanda, who was Enmerkar’s successor in the King List and who was identified with the “Thunderbird” (as part of the family of that bird) in one of the stories told about him. The Biblical Raamah had Sheba (“Seven”) and Dedan as sons. Sheba corresponds with the seven young men who is associated with Lugalbanda in one of his stories. Dedan may refer to Daos, a variant form of the name Dumuzi, the successor of Lugalbanda in the Ling List [13]. 

The correspondence between the Biblical and Sumerian traditions regarding the historical Nimrod-Enmerkar suggests that the Biblical source material did not only include information from oral tradition (probably handed down in family context) but also from the literary tradition of ancient Sumer, including from the Sumerian King List itself. We may now suggest that the correspondences between the ancient history of Genesis 4-11 and the King List imply not only that the original author of this source material was aware of that list and used a similar literary style, but also that he took it as guide for his own history writing which included data from the King List itself. The period during which this is most likely to have happened, is the Old Babylonian period (i.e. in the early second millennium BC) during which the Sumerian King List would have served as model for such history writing. The Biblical author obviously reworked this material to produce the ancient history that we find in the Book of Genesis.

The Tower of Babel

This brings us to one of the most interesting stories in the Biblical tradition, namely that of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages. The problem with the Biblical tradition, is that the city of “Babel” was not on the map in the early period in which the Bible places this event, namely in the post-deluge period. So, how did the name Babel became associated with Nimrod and the story of the confusion of languages? The answer is actually quite simple: later authors such as the Babylonian priest Berossus (and the Biblical editor) referred to Eridu under the name Babel [14]. The reason is that both Eridu and Babylon was written as Nun.ki in cuneiform – resulting in this name being read as Babel in later times.

One can immediately see that Eridu is meant. The Bible mentions the cities under Nimrod’s control in Sumer as “Babel and Erech [Uruk]”, which would refer to Eridu and Uruk as two of the most important cities in southern Sumer during that period – not mentioning Eridu would be very strange indeed (when we take "Babel" as Eridu then the Biblical list of cities also proceed more naturally from the most southern ones to those in the north). In accordance with the Biblical story, Eridu was a very important religious center at that time where people from all over Sumer gathered to celebrate their festivals. It was known as the oldest sanctuary in Sumer and was rebuilt in the time of Enmerkar into a huge temple terrace (the typical ziggurat did not exist at that time) according to the literary tradition [15]. The building of the city of Uruk and the Eridu platform during the reign of Enmerkar is consistent with the Biblical story that the people built a city and a “tower” in Sumer in the time of the confusion of languages.

What about the confusion of languages. This is also part of Sumerian tradition where it was called “Nudimmud’s [Enki’s] spell”. It is mentioned in one of the stories about Enmerkar which date from the late third millennium BC. The appearance of this "spell" in a story about Enmerkar is consistent with the association between Nimrod and the confusion of languages in Biblical tradition. We read: “(In) the (whole) compass of heaven and earth the people entrusted (to him) could address Enlil [son of An], verily, in but a single tongue… (The) lord of Eridu [Enki] enstrangled the tongues in their mouths as many as were put there. The tongues of men which was one” [16].

Where did this story originate? A simple explanation – which is maybe a too simplistic one – would be that the story was meant to describe how the various languages of the world came into being through one miraculous divine event. In the Biblical genealogy that precedes the story of the Tower of Babel, we read that languages came into being as humans became dispersed over the earth (Gen. 10:5, 31). This is indeed how different languages evolve. Since this stands in direct contrast with the explanation for the origin of languages given in the story of the Tower of Babel, we should ask ourselves if the typical interpretation of our story is correct? Maybe the original story was about something other than the origin of languages.
Image result for tower of babel picture
"Tower of Babel" by Lucas Van Valckenborch (1568)
In line with such an alternative reading we find that the Biblical author uses different words when he refers 1) to the tongues/languages (lâshôwn) that formed when humans became dispersed and 2) when he speaks about the confusion of language/speech (sâphâh). This may imply that two different things are referred to. Whereas the meaning of lâshôwn is obviously, sâphâh is not. The Hebrew word sâphâh literally means “lip” and refers to “speech” as the way in which we pronounce words. This way of pronunciation may refer to any particular way or convention in which words are pronounced.

In my view the confusion of speech at the Tower of Babel – which I take as referring to the huge temple platform at Eridu – was not about the origin of different languages at all. It was about something different! There is an event at the end of the Uruk period that shows a remarkable agreement with the story of the confusion of speech. At that time it so happened that the Sumerians started reading their script in phonetic fashion. As such the convention of pronunciation changed.

Before the arrival of phonetic writing, the pictographic symbols of the Sumerians merely identified items in the context of accounting; now they were arranged in accordance with phonetic pronunciation. Before that time there was one unified convention for the pronunciation of the same symbols, namely that they had one meaning which referred to generally understood items of which the particular pronunciation was not important (they were pronounced differently by the various language speakers); the new convention of pronunciation involved combining such symbols in phonetic fashion in accordance with the way that we speak. Suddenly different language speakers – Semites and Sumerians respectively – read the combination of symbols in a totally different fashion which the others could not understand if they did not know that language. One can imagine that this would have led to enormous confusion.

We now find that the change to phonetic reading at the end of the Uruk period can explain the upheaval at that time. This is the time when the long continuous rule of the House of Uruk came to an end. The new rulers of Sumer were from the House of Kish in the north. At that time there was a “considerable displacement of peoples” with many people abandoning the land [17]. At Eridu the large limestone terrace was left deserted overnight [18]. This is also the picture given in the Bible according to which the confusion led to the dispersion of the people of Sumer all over the world.

Conclusion

In this short essay I discuss the "ancient history" of the Book of Genesis. I argue that this preamble to the patriarchal traditions was part of a very old Hebrew tradition that was handed down in the midst of the Abrahamic family since the time when they left Ur in Sumer to migrate to Canaan. This would explain the remarkable correspondence between this Biblical tradition and the Sumerian King List insofar as both were written in a very similar style and refer to the same historical persons and events. The Biblical tradition is consistent with the Sumerian tradition regarding events from the pre-Old Babylonian Period (all the relevant persons and events belong to an ancient Sumerian tradition from the time before the end of the third millennium BC). 

In fact, the Biblical tradition is consistent with a viable reconstruction of Sumerian history from the time before the deluge until after the Uruk Period (ca. sixth to early third millennia BC) – something that is not even found in Sumerian tradition where the ancient history of the land must be reconstructed from the textual sources and archaeological data. The obvious question is: How did the Biblical author know to order those stories about the persons and events? It does not make sense that the author wrote it down many centuries after these things happened. Rather, he merely recorded an ancient tradition handed down to him. I argue that we have good reason to think that we have a true tradition before us which refers to real historical events.

[2] The Sumerian hypothesis stands primarily in opposition to the Babylonian hypothesis. For more details on the Sumerian hypothesis, read: The Book of Genesis - the Sumerian hypothesis
I also criticize the Documentary hypothesis as a prime example of bad hermeneutics. See
A critique of Biblical Criticism as a scholarly discipline 
Can we still believe the Bible? A hermeneutical perspective
I present a viable alternative to the Documentary hypothesis:
Who is Elohim?
[3] There are also other unique characteristics of the ancient history that I discussed elsewhere such as the use of the divine “us” (see part 7 of this series; at the bottom of this essay).
[4] Jacobsen, Thorkild. 1939. The Sumerian King List. Chicago: University of Chicago. p141.
Michalowski, Piotr. 1983. History as Charter. Some Observations on the Sumerian King List. Journal of the American Oriental Society 103(1):237-248.
[5] I previously showed that the important events included in the story of Abraham are consistent with the wider ancient Middle Eastern chronology when the Mesopotamian “high” chronology is used together with K. A. Kitchen’s “low” chronology for the Twelfth Dynasty in Egypt.
[6] The name Chaldeans refers to the Neo-Babylonians from the time of the Babylonian exile.
[7] Some Sumerologists have proposed that the Biblical story of Cain and Abel may be related to the Sumerian disputation between Enkimdu and Dumuzi. In both cases the dispute is between an antediluvian farmer and shepherd. In my view the correspondence is not detailed enough to justify a shared tradition in the way that I am proposing.
[8] I previously argued that the Hebrew God was worshiped already in ancient Sumer, where he was called An by the Sumerians. The name An means “most high”, similar to the Hebrew El-Elyon (Most High God). In my view the names El and An are like God (in English) and Dieu (in French). In both cases this God was worshiped as the father of the gods. See part 7 of this series.
[9] The kings listed under the first dynasty of Kish actually includes three such lists, which mean that the last kings on the list were far removed in time from the first ones. The expression “XX became king”, which usually introduces a new dynasty in the Sumerian King List, is used tree times in this dynasty of Kish. This implies that three different lists are combined within the framework of the list that mentions Etana. The first of these consists of a list of Akkadian names (the language of the eastern Semites), which may refer to the ancestors of the kings of Kish. The second list commences with Etana, and would refer to the first dynasty of these kings. The third list commences with Enmebarragesi, who ruled towards the end of the Uruk period. In my reconstruction of events, the House of Uruk ruled during the Uruk period, which commences directly after the deluge. The only place where the first dynasty of Kish would fit in, would therefore be before the deluge.
[10] Rohl, David. 1998. Legend The Genesis of Civilization. London: Century. p215.
[11] The reasons for taking the Sumerian Aratta as the Biblical Ararat would be discussed in the next part of the series.
[12] Vanstiphout, Herman. 2003. Epics of Sumerian Kings. The Matter of Aratta. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. p67
[13] Jacobsen 1939:73
[14] Jacobsen 1939:60
[15] Vanstiphout 2003:59, 85
[16] Jacobsen, Thorkild. 1987. The Harps that once… Sumerian Poetry in Translation. New Haven: Yale University. p290.
[17] Crawford, Harriet. 1991. Sumer and the Sumerians. Cambridge: Cambridge University. p182.
Algaze, Guillermo. 1986. The Uruk World System. The Dynamics of Expansion of Early Mesopotamian Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago. p16.
[18] Leick, Gwendolyn. 2001. Mesoptamia. The invention of the City. New York: Penguin. p17, 18.

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref. wmcloud.blogspot.com)
The author has written a book on the Sumerian roots of the Bible (Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012)) and is a scientist (PhD in Physics; MA in Philosophy). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, science and eschatology.

Read also the other parts of the series on the Book of Genesis:
Intro: The Book of Genesis - the Sumerian hypothesis
Part 7: Who is Elohim?

If readers find the article interesting, they are welcome to share it or forward it to others, including their pastors or other scholars. 


Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Posts on this blog

Over the past six years Dr. Willie Mc Loud (PhD in Physics, MA in philosophy, MBL, author of various books) has posted a wide variety of essays regarding science, philosophy, religion, current events, eschatology and other topics on this blog. In these essays he engages with all sorts of important questions regarding our human existence such as: Do we have good reasons to believe in God? and: Why should we trust the Christian narrative? Although the author is a committed Christian, his answers are not a rehearsal of traditional views and arguments. In fact, he presents new, relevant and sensible answers to the pressing issues of our day and age. A scientist-philosopher himself, he values the importance of good hermeneutics (interpretation) in answering questions regarding the Bible and science, history and so forth.

The blog is dedicated to all those skeptics who are willing to read with an open mind and carefully consider the various nuanced aspects of the issues at hand. When we really listen to each other, we may find true answers in real conversation. At the same time the essays provide Christians with the tools, knowledge and information needed to engage with unbelievers in everyday conversations about their faith. To facilitate the reader's access to these essays, the most important ones (all with links to the essays) are listed below according to the topic they belong to. Essays which are "highly recommended" are marked with an asterisk. Readers are welcome to use the information, share or forward the essays and make use of them as they see fit [1]. 


1. Science, Philosophy and God

Part 3: Science and metaphysics: in search of Russell's teapot. (*)
            Presenting a new argument for the existence of God
Part 5. In defense of the soul

A critique of archaeology as a science
An archaeological perspective on the Bible
Presenting a new ancient Middle Eastern chronology
A critique of Biblical Criticism as a scholarly discipline (*)
A hermeneutical perspective on the Bible (*)
Is the spirit world more than an idea?

2. Origins in the Book of Genesis


3. Eschatology



5. Discovering the Keystone, Solving the Riddle of The Red Serpent after 40 years by Guillaume Brouillard (Griffel Media, Cape Town, 2009). 


6. Spiritual/geestelik

Meeting God
The Power of God
Wrong choices
Something or Someone is missing? (Dr. Francois Carr)
A message for the church
God hoor
Die profeet

7. Dialogistics/Apologetics

Towards a new dialogistic approach
Engaging with atheists and agnostics
Biblical inspiration: in a postmodern world
Faith and reason: finding the balance
The importance of the Septuagint in Biblical studies
Darwin's Doubt (book review)
The God Impulse (book review)

8. Current events

Brexit: What to expect
A New Iranian Empire is rising
The European Union: forever rising
Is a Third World War brewing?


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Wednesday, 1 March 2017

In defense of the soul

In this essay I argue that we have good reason to think that the soul exists. I use the Kantian conception of the soul as point of departure - and show how this may find its application in contemporary quantum physics. I discuss the Penrose-Hameroff theory of consciousness in which they understand the soul in terms of quantum information which may continue existing after death. This is the fifth part in the series Science, Philosophy and God.

Long ago there was a time when about everybody believed in the existence of the soul. Although the ancient peoples had various conceptions of the soul, they all believed that humans have souls which continue to exist after their death. In their view the body governs our interaction with the material world and the soul governs our interaction with the spiritual world (spirit world). In our own time the situation is very different. Whereas religious people in general believe in the existence of the soul, the non-religious does not.

One may propose that the soul is the great divider between believers (not only from the Christian faith) and atheists. The reason is that atheists in general do not believe in the existence of the human soul (there might be black swans!). Although atheism is often presented only in terms of non-belief (not believing in God or gods), the soul is part of a metaphysical worldview which is typically associated with religious belief. In spite of this, one may think that at least some atheists would try to understand any data that may be consistent with the religious conception of the soul within their own conceptual framework. We are, however, not even close to this happening and the purpose of the present essay is to present a working concept of the soul and then to argue that this is not only consistent with science, but also that we have - even at this early stage - good reason to think that the soul most probably exists.

The main question is: What would science be looking for insofar as the soul is concerned? What would be a sensible way to think of the soul which would allow scientific scrutiny thereof? As before in this series, I use the Kantian conceptual structure as point of departure. I show what the Kantian conception of the soul entails and also how that concept may find its empirical confirmation in science (although, as in the case of dark matter, I think that only indirect empirical confirmation would be possible). I then argue that our current scientific knowledge is more in line with the possible existence of the soul than in conflict with it.

The Kantian conception of the soul

Kant distinguishes between three concepts of the self, all of which are closely connected with his concept of the soul. These are the "self as appearance", the "logical self" and the "noumenal self". The first two concepts are part of Kant's epistemology (the study of knowledge claims) and the second of his moral philosophy. Even so, Kant discusses all of these in his critique of rational psychology in the second part of his famous Critique of Pure Reason which focuses on epistemology.

What does Kant mean by these concepts? By the "self as appearance" - also known as the "phenomenal self" - Kant means one's sense of oneself as one appears to oneself (in inner sense). Kant argues that all efforts to arrive at some knowledge about the soul through an analysis of the way in which we appear to ourselves are doomed to fail since insofar as such appearances are used to formulate a concept of our "logical self" (a pure analytic concept), which is then used to say something about the existence of the soul, that it is a step taken too far. Logical concepts do not necessarily imply a corresponding kind of existence!

We cannot proceed from an analytic judgement (i.e. from a judgement regarding pure concepts) to one which involves existence (for which a synthetic judgement is needed) without showing how that would be possible in the framework of our senses. We may formulate logical concepts but their reference to really existing things can only be established when these concepts are complimented by empirical data given in the senses (and by extension, in experiment). Knowledge about the soul - as (transcendental [1]) ground for the phenomenal self - would only be possible if we can apply that concept to data given in our senses in the framework of space/time. This cannot happen with regard to the soul (I discuss the Kantian conception of knowledge in [2]).

The second concept is that of the "logical self". In this case Kant refers to the "I" as logical or formal conception of the unity of consciousness. This is that self-consciousness (also called apperception) which produces the thought (representation) "I think". The "I think" must be able to accompany all my thoughts - otherwise it would not be the identical I. The one identical I which can logically be conceptualized as the self which underlies all my thoughts, is the "logical self". Although we can form a clear concept of this self within the wider context of our human ability to obtain knowledge of objects, we cannot in any way gain knowledge about this self itself for the reasons given above.

The third Kantian concept under discussion is that of the "noumenal self" (which corresponds with the traditional concept of the soul). The distinction that Kant makes between the phenomenal and noumenal realms underlies the difference between the phenomenal and noumenal selves. Whereas we all have some experience of the phenomenal self, we can only think about the possible existence of the noumenal self (the word "noumenal" is derived from the Greek word "nous", meaning mind). What distinguishes the noumenal self from the "logical self", is that the concept of this self involves the idea of freedom (of choice) within the context of Kant's practical/moral philosophy (the logical self is also produced through an "act of spontaneity", but this is understood in the context of Kant's epistemology).

In Kant's program, his epistemology and his moral philosophy stand very much apart. The first is discussed in the Critique of Pure Reason (the first Critique) and the second in his Critique of Practical Reason (the second Critique). Although Kant follows a transcendental approach (as he calls his philosophy [1]) to both, the points of departure and the way in which these are presented are very different. Whereas the "logical self" is the necessary thought of oneself as an identical self which may obtain "objective" [2] knowledge when certain epistemological conditions are in place, the "noumenal self" is the necessary thought of oneself as the agent of one's own actions in the framework of morality.

According to Kant there is a "gap" between our thinking about ourselves in the world of knowledge and science and our thinking about ourselves in the world of morality. This has led some interpreters to identify Kant's phenomenal and noumenal realms with the scientific and moral realms. One often finds that these are treated totally apart as if they do not impact on each other and theologians with a Kantian (or even German) philosophical background usually think in these terms. For them Kant's famous words in the preface to the second edition of the first Critique where he says that he had to "remove" knowledge (from the noumenal realm) in order to make space for belief implies this. And this is true: for Kant we have no sensible access of the noumenal realm and can therefore not say anything substantially about that in scientific terms.

So, the problem is the following: in Kant's epistemology the "logical self" does not necessitate the existence of the soul nor does his moral philosophy. There is no possible way to know whether the soul really exists. Kant writes: "[T]he conclusion is that in no way whatsoever can we cognize [gain knowledge of] anything about the constitution of our soul that in any way at all concerns the possibility of its separate existence" (B420). So, why is the soul important in Kant's metaphysics (which is not a dogmatic metaphysics)? The reason is that the noumenal self or soul allows us to introduce the concept of free choice in morality. Since the soul's existence would be in the noumenal realm outside nature where determinism (mechanism) rules, it is not contradictory to ascribe freedom (free action) to the soul.

The Kantian philosopher Udo Thiel states it nicely: "If I think of myself as a noumenon, I think of myself as existing independently of the conditions of our experience (space and time), and, consequently, I think of myself as not being affected by spatiotemporal determinations and in that sense as 'free' (B310)" [3]. So, even though we can never gain any knowledge of the soul in Kant's system, we can form a clear concept of the soul as existing outside the phenomenal realm and as such as governed by another principle, namely spontaneity (for Kant spontaneity underlies freedom to act [4]).

Kant's relevance for today

The problem for the Kantian position is that Kant acknowledges that we cannot gain any knowledge about the possible existence of the soul. Although we may form a coherent concept about the soul, as existing in the noumenal realm, we cannot "know" whether the soul really exists. For Kant our human senses are just not able to confirm or deny that. In the view of atheists, this is a very comfortable position: arguing that the soul may exist but that we can never empirically establish its existence. For them this comes close to a "God in the gap" position, even though Kant gave very good reasons for his position.

Although Kant acknowledged that there is a"gap" between the world of experience (science) and that of morality, he also presented a scientific philosophy in which this gap is closed. He did this in his Critique of the Power of Judgement (the third Critique). In this (final) Critique Kant introduced another approach, which actually lies at the basis of all our interaction with both nature and morality, namely that as humans (with our kind of constitution) we have no choice but to introduce certain regulative ideas (guiding ideas; hypotheses) which can never be confirmed or denied, but which regulate the conceptual framework through which we engage with the world. In science, for example, we need the regulative idea that the world is ordered even though this can never be proven empirically [2]. In fact, this is the basis of all science. For Kant, the soul is another such regulative idea (although this is not discussed in the third Critique). Kant also introduced the idea of reflective judgement, which is not determinative (providing final outcomes) but which serves merely as an estimation of what the world may be like [5]. This kind of judgment operates together with regulative concepts.

The third Critique provides the basis from which we may consider the issue of the existence of the human soul. In the spirit of this Critique we may regard the existence of the soul as a working hypothesis in science. But how could we overcome the problem that all knowledge of the soul is ruled out in Kant's philosophical system? There is actually a way out. I have proposed that Kant's system may be reworked to bring it in line with contemporary scientific thought [6]. This may be done when we allow that time be combined not only with proper space as we find in the Kantian system, but also with ideal (conceptual) space as we find in quantum physics, where time is coupled with Hilbert (abstract) space.

When we introduce this change, we find that Kant's noumenal realm - called the supersensible realm in this Critique - is consistent with our current conception of the quantum realm (in both quantum mechanics and quantum field theory). This way of presenting the noumenal realm in the context of science is also in the spirit of the third Critique, where Kant introduced the noumenal realm within the framework of his philosophy of science. There he states quite unequivocal: "The power of judgment, through its a priori principle of judging nature in accordance with possible particular laws for it, provides for its supersensible substratum (in us as well as outside us) determinability [i.e. that it can determine outcomes as phenomena] through the intellectual faculty [i.e. we can think it]' (5:196)" (my accentuation).

I previously argued that Kant's noumenal realm is confirmed in quantum physics in the sense that his conceptualization thereof is in line with our theoretical (mathematical) and experimental understanding of the quantum realm [5]. Now we may recast the Kantian concept of the soul in such a quantum context. The soul as noumenal self would be that part of humans which exists in the quantum realm, which allows us to make free choices and which continue to exist after our death. This means that the soul is within the framework of scientific inquiry - something that Kant never thought would be possible. Although we may never be able to empirically demonstrate the existence of the soul (as Kant believed), we may be able to indirectly establish its existence in a similar way that we (indirectly) establish the existence of quantum particles even though they are not within experimental reach in their pre-measurement phase.  

Searching for the soul

Since the time of Kant science has established that the most important characteristic that Kant ascribes to the soul, namely spontaneity, is indeed to be found in the context of the quantum realm [7]. One should remember that it was to account for freedom of choice (grounded in spontaneity), that Kant introduced the concept of the noumenal self in the first place. Although this in itself obviously does not necessarily mean that the soul exists, it is nonetheless significant that spontaneity exists in our world in line with Kant's suggestion - and also that it exists exactly in the quantum realm which corresponds with Kant's noumenal realm. 

What would scientists be looking for when they search for evidence of the soul? According to the Kantian conception of the soul, they would be searching for an integrated part of our human existence which lies beyond our material bodies in the quantum realm, but which are nonetheless closely interwoven with the body in the context of consciousness, for example. The soul would involve a coherent, permanent form of existence which goes beyond mere quantum particles - one may suggest some kind of quantum "body", i.e. a non-material body, which corresponds with the pre-measurement state of quantum entities in the sense that it is not an appearance in space-time. (The soul would include aspects that are beyond the current scientific understanding in quantum physics; it may even include aspects that go beyond quantum physics itself). For the soul to continue existing after death with some kind of conscious mind, this quantum body must be able to store information independently from the body. Although the soul would be outside the direct reach of our senses and instruments, it may be within the reach of indirect empirical confirmation.

The British scientist-philosopher Sir Roger Penrose, who is an emeritus professor from Oxford University, together with Stuart Hameroff, emeritus professor at the University of Arizona, have developed a quantum theory of consciousness which they understand in terms of the soul. According to their neurological theory, consciousness is explained in terms of packets of information stored on the quantum level in microtubules in the brain [8]. In fact, we should not only think of consciousness as a packet of information stored in quantum states in the brain, but also that this information may survive death. Regarding the soul, Hameroff said in the documentary Through the Wormhole, which was aired in 2012 on the Science Channel: "If the patient dies, it is possible that this quantum information can exist outside the body, perhaps indefinitely, as the the soul" [9]. Insofar as their theory ascribes the soul to the quantum level, their view is consistent with mine.  

Image result for penrose soul
Sir Roger Penrose
In my view the possible confirmation of the soul is something which lies in the distant future - although arguments for believing therein may soon become part of current scientific debate. One may, for example, think that the soul exists in the framework of black matter - where theoretical scientists have proposed that humans have a body similar to our physical body existing of black matter [10]. As such this would be a quantum body, which is beyond direct empirical observation, but which nevertheless exists as part of our human existence. Although science cannot as yet determine whether this is indeed the case, there cannot be any doubt that scientific debate has changed dramatically over the last few years and that the existence of the soul as working hypothesis to explain things such as consciousness and freedom of choice (as a pillar of our justice system), makes good sense. 

The existence of the soul would negate atheism. It would support the religious worldview. If confirmed, the current conflict between religious and atheistic narratives would probably be superseded by one in which the various religious narratives are closely scrutinized for their consistency with reality. This is where the ascription of spontaneity and freedom of choice to the soul is particularly important. In the Judaeo-Christian view this is the basic requirement for the soul which allows humans to live up to the God-given moral law [11]. If we do not have free choice, this requirement is nonsensical. If the soul is indeed found to exist in the quantum realm where spontaneity rules, it would serve as a major confirmation of the Judaeo-Christian worldview. Then the quest would be to show how the soul interacts with the body to allow for free choice [12]. 


One may in fact argue that since spontaneity has been confirmed in the context of the quantum realm, that we have good reason to think that humans have freedom of choice (it is consistent evidence since the first is a necessary requirement for the second). But for humans to have freedom of choice, they would need a very complicated quantum aspect operating in the context of the human body which allows for such choice to become possible. Such a quantum aspect is consistent with our conception of the human soul - especially when viewed in terms of Kant's noumenal self. This means that we have good reason to think that humans have souls (the opposing view which rejects the possibility of the soul based on the metaphysical view that the universe is deterministic, has become untenable.)

Conclusion

Although we cannot as yet confirm or deny the existence of the human soul, the total rejection of this idea which characterized modernist times is long gone. We may proceed within the context of Kant's third Critique to present the noumenal self or soul (and even the logical self insofar as consciousness is concerned) as a sensible hypothesis which may govern a coherent scientific project. Science has already established that spontaneity is part of our world on the quantum level in accordance with Kant's proposal in this regard. It may soon establish that coherent "quantum bodies" exist and eventually that such a body (presumably a very complex one) is an integral part of our human existence.

Modernist man took a very superior position with regard to the ancients. The soul was one of the things - together with God - that they rejected as untenable. Now, everything has changed. If (when?) science establishes that such a quantum body underlies our physical body, the acknowledgement that science only presents us with a very reductive view of our world would be dramatically exhibited. In fact, since spontaneity would be an integrated part of such a quantum body (since it belongs to the quantum realm!), the case for God as giver of the moral law (for which freedom of choice is necessary) would become very strong indeed. Readers should ask themselves whether they would bet their eternal happiness on science not finding evidence for the soul over the next one hundred years? If the soul exists, life after death does - and from the Judaeo-Christian standpoint one have much to gain from belief in God [13].

[1] Kant calls his philosophy 'transcendental idealism'. By 'transcendental' Kant means that his idealism is concerned with the possibility of and conditions for (objective) experience, and as such with a priori cognition.
[2] See part 2 of this series
[3] Thiel, U. 2010. The Critique of Rational Psychology. In Graham Bird (ed.) A Companion to Kant. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
[4] Kant writes: "It is especially noteworthy that it is this transcendental idea of freedom [i.e. absolute spontaneity] on which the practical concept of freedom is grounded, and the former constitutes the real moment of the difficulties of the latter, which have long surrounded the question of its possibility" (A534/B562, B461-2; my accentuation).
[5] I simplify the Kantian conceptions such that lay readers would find them easier to understand.
[6] See part 3 of this series
[7] See part 1 of this series
[8] Stuart Hameroff summarizes the Penrose-Hameroff theory in an academic article in Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience: "The Penrose–Hameroff theory of 'orchestrated objective reduction (Orch OR)' identifies discrete conscious moments with quantum computations in microtubules inside brain neurons, e.g., 40/s in concert with gamma synchrony EEG. Microtubules organize neuronal interiors and regulate synapses. In Orch OR, microtubule quantum computations occur in integration phases in dendrites and cell bodies of integrate-and-fire brain neurons connected and synchronized by gap junctions, allowing entanglement of microtubules among many neurons. Quantum computations in entangled microtubules terminate by Penrose 'objective reduction (OR),' a proposal for quantum state reduction and conscious moments linked to fundamental spacetime geometry. Each OR reduction selects microtubule states which can trigger axonal firings, and control behavior. The quantum computations are 'orchestrated' by synaptic inputs and memory (thus “Orch OR”)." (in Front Integr Neurosci, Vol 6, 2012. See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3470100/
[9] https://youtu.be/3WXTX0IUaOg
[10] See, for example, http://www.space.com/21508-dark-matter-atoms-disks.html
[11] Some moral philosophers and theologians may argue that equating the soul with a quantum body as part of our human existence, would lead to the infringement of science on the moral terrain. Although my approach do away with the strict divide between the scientific and moral realms typical of Kantian (and German) thinking, it does not undermine the validity of our moral existence. In my view we should not ground morality on the Kantian divide between the realms of science and morality, but rather on the divide between humans and animals. Although one may argue that human morality got some of its features from animal behavior (as some atheists do), it is exactly our human dignity (menswaardigheid) which grounds human morality. And this is the very essence of Christianity - we have value because God loves us in a special way.
[12] In the above-mentioned article [8] Hameroff argues that free will may be accounted for on the quantum level insofar as "conscious free will" is concerned. He writes " Regarding consciousness occurring 'too late,' quantum state reductions seem to involve temporal non-locality, able to refer quantum information both forward and backward in what we perceive as time, enabling real-time conscious causal action. Quantum brain biology and Orch OR can thus rescue free will." Although the spontaneity observed in quantum physics is harnessed to explain free will as I propose, there cannot be any doubt that we are still far from a full understanding of free will. In my view, one would require a much more complex quantum structure in line with my idea of a "quantum body" to explain that.
[13] Although my view comes close to identifying the quantum realm with the spirit world (spiritual world; see part 4 of this series), I do not in fact equate them. Rather, I argue that the quantum realm is not only consistent with our basic conceptualization of the spirit world (as the noumenal world), but is also our first level of contact with that world in the context of science. As such the soul as quantum body does not mean that the soul is only a quantum body. No, it may include aspects that go even beyond the quantum realm.
Nonetheless, the identification of the soul/spirit (we may distinguish the soul and the spirit but cannot separate these from each other - it is the spirit that gives the human soul its eternal dimension) with a quantum entity opens the question regarding the Spirit of God. Does He also belong to the quantum realm? One may propose that in the same way that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God in the flesh, that His Spirit realizes His presence in the spirit realm - which in the context of our present discussion implies that He operates in some way within the quantum realm. One of the features of the quantum realm is that entities are connected non-locally - which on some level may imply being present everywhere.
One may argue that insofar as God exists outside his creation, He even stands outside the spirit realm - that is, if we view it as part of God's creation (it involves spiritual entities as created beings). This would mean that when we read that "God is spirit" (Joh. 4:24), it merely means that God manifests Himself as Spirit and that this is the way in which we as humans have communion with Him. 

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref. wmcloud.blogspot.com)
Dialoger

The author is a scientist-philosopher (PhD in Physics, MA in Philosophy). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy and science.

Science, Philosophy and God. Part 1: The problem of spontaneity in quantum mechanics
Science, Philosophy and God. Part 2: Science and our restricted human understanding
Science, Philosophy and God. Part 3: Science and metaphysics: in search of Russell's teapot
                                                      A new argument for the existence of God
Science, Philosophy and God. Part 4. Science and the spiritual realm