When I was an undergraduate, I was having a very hard time in my Quantum Mechanics course. Try as I might, I just couldn’t “wrap my head” around what I was being taught. I went to the teacher’s assistant for the course and explained my problem. “Sandy, I just don’t get this stuff. I am doing everything I can but none of this stuff makes any sense to me.”
His response was very gratifying. “Rob what you mean when you say that you don’t get it is that you do not have an intuitive understanding of what is going on at the quantum level. I am a post-graduate researcher in this field and I did my PhD among some of the greatest experts on Quantum Mechanics in the world and nobody understands this stuff intuitively. We have a mathematical model of how the quantum world works and we crunch the equations and make a prediction and then we do an experiment to verify that prediction and it works. You will never understand quantum mechanics intuitively. All you can do is work the math.” What a relief to know that I was not alone.
I thought of this incident when I was watching an atheist talking about morality in the Bible. “To find good morality in the Bible”, this atheist argued, “you have to ‘cherry pick’ the good bits.” Why did this argument remind me of my undergraduate course in Quantum Mechanics? Because it seems to me that teaching advanced moral principles to people who are not ready for them is like teaching advanced scientific principles to uneducated people. For human beings to have a real understanding of truth requires a slow process of growth and development that requires many generations. A correct understanding of this slow process of growth answers the “cherry picking” argument.
The Slow Advance of Scientific Understanding
Let us imagine teaching a course on Quantum Mechanics in kindergarten. Does this seem like it would be a particularly useful exercise to you? Would any of the children understand what you were saying? After completing the course, would any of the children understand how nuclear magnetic resonance imaging equipment works? Would they understand laser induced cooling? What do you think?
It seems to me that the children in an average kindergarten class will not benefit from a course in quantum mechanics. Beyond that, many of them would not benefit from a course in quantum mechanics at any point in their entire lives. Only gifted children with a prerequisite understanding of mathematics, chemistry and physics can benefit from taking a course in quantum mechanics. Such a course is the culmination of a lifelong process of education in science. To a mind unprepared by such a process of education, the ideas of quantum mechanics are gibberish without context or meaning.
So how does a human being grow in the knowledge and understanding of basic scientific principles that allow for an advanced understanding? Looking back on my education, the approach that was used and seemed very effective was a historically based approach. In such an approach, the student is introduced to the historical problems that precipitated various fields of study. The early and obvious answers of the first thinkers in various fields are taught along with the fatal problems with those basic approaches. After the difficulties are understood, the breakthrough concept or experiment that led to the next advance in understanding is introduced. Step by step, the gradual process of historical growth in our scientific understanding is recapitulated in the classroom until the current frontier of our understanding is reached. At the end of this process, the student understands the history, language and methods of science as well as the basic principles that govern the natural world.
To see the way this historical education process worked in practice, consider my education concerning celestial mechanics. At first, I was taught about the geocentric model and how the apparent solidity and immobility of the earth made this the obvious first solution to basic questions about the motions of the stars and planets. After this, I was introduced to the retrograde motion of the observed planets that challenged that basic understanding. I was then introduced to the heliocentric circular model and saw how that approach solved the problems with the observational evidence posed by retrograde motion. I was then introduced to the celestial mechanics made possible by Newton’s laws of motion. Finally, I was shown Einstein’s eclipse prediction and the small relativistic correction that is necessary to the Newtonian predictions. All of these advances took generations in historical time, but only a few days of class time. While I could easily have laughed at those ancient thinkers for their foolish mistakes and lack of understanding, the fact that every small step eluded generations of thinkers more gifted then myself restrained my mirth. Evidently, even seemingly small advances can be more difficult than those of us on the other side of a breakthrough can appreciate.
The Slow Advance of Moral Understanding
When an atheist argues that picking “good morality” out of the Bible requires “cherry picking”, this is like arguing that finding “good understanding” out of the history of science requires “cherry picking”. Does the fact that there are errors in the history of science invalidate the pursuit of science? Likewise, does the fact that there are errors in the history of the pursuit of God invalidate the pursuit of God? Though we may easily laugh at our predecessors, the fact is that every small step in the process of advancing human understanding is extremely hard. While an atheist might laugh at the moral lessons those early people were learning, a quick review of recent human history should restrain our mirth.
Was it just half a century ago that America had Jim Crow laws? Was it just seven decades ago when Germany, one of the most educated and scientifically advanced nations in the world, launched a war of aggression that resulted in tremendous atrocities and mass murder on an unbelievable scale? Was it only a century and a half ago where people in the American South were justifying the ownership of other human beings? Was it just twenty years ago when the two most advanced nations on earth were increasing their stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction capable of destroying all life on earth? Do we not now condone the murder of millions of unborn children by their mothers? Are you really so solipsistic as to think that you are morally superior to all those who have come before you?
God’s Approach to Teaching Morality
To me there seems a very natural progression in God’s teaching of morality to human beings in this world. God started with brutal and vicious barbarians who represent the nadir of human thinking about morality. He chose these people as His own and put them through a course in basic morality. First, God rescued these people out of slavery and gave them the basic “ABC”‘s of morality in the Law of Moses. He didn’t immediately start them off with “don’t own slaves” and other advanced principles, because this would have been meaningless gibberish to them and they would just have ignored Him. Likewise, He didn’t initially stress the value of all human life because He wanted them to discover this importance for themselves. After generations and generations of legalism where the nation of Israel executed divine judgment on the nations around them only to commit worse crimes themselves just a few years later, the nation of Israel is ready for a message of love, grace and forgiveness. In the fullness of time, this message is delivered by Jesus Christ living the perfect life of sacrifice and dying to provide us the divine forgiveness we all need. I have elucidated these ideas further in The Nature of the Atonement, Understanding the Old Testament series and A Reformed Christian Quiz.
An Obvious Counter Argument
Now the atheist above would immediately argue, “Well if God was truly good, He would have skipped the whole process of growth in understanding and jumped directly to the advanced principles”. There are two basic objections to this argument.
First of all, while the idea that human beings will instantaneously grasp moral truths without any process of learning sounds nice, it would only produce a “lip service” level of knowledge in real human beings. Only by working through the process step by painstaking step can a human being truly grasp the underlying principles and obtain a genuine understanding. This necessity of having the student discover the truth for themselves is the basis of the Socratic method and is also the way Rabbis taught their disciples in ancient Israel. Indeed, even Jesus used the method of asking questions of His disciples to get them to see truth for themselves.
The second answer to this question is that God did give them the advanced concepts very early on. Consider the following verse from Leviticus:
“‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:18)
Unfortunately, this verse was gibberish to those early Hebrew barbarians. They never thought to ask how this verse fit in with the other teachings and laws in the Old Testament. Had they questioned and asked, the growth in their understanding would have been greatly accelerated and atheists would not now be able to laugh at their early attempts at pleasing God and say that you have to “cherry pick” to find morality in the Bible.
Say what you will about God’s methodology, it has quite clearly been very successful. Over the course of many generations, the nation of Israel has become the most enlightened and advanced people the world has ever known. Look at Jewish contributions to science, literature, law, philosophy, medicine, human rights and the arts. Has there ever been another such nation? Studying their early attempts at morality has made me a better person just as studying the mistakes of ancient scientists has aided my understanding of science.