F Rosa Rubicondior: Saint Augustine's Blunder

Friday 17 August 2012

Saint Augustine's Blunder

St. Augustin - Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674)
(Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
Here's an interesting quote from one of Christianity's favourite thinkers - Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE).

First, a little background information:
[Saint Augustine] was a Latin philosopher and theologian from Roman Africa and generally considered as one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all times. His writings were very influential in the development of Western Christianity...

After his conversion to Christianity and baptism in AD 387, Augustine developed his own approach to philosophy and theology, accommodating a variety of methods and different perspectives. He believed that the grace of Christ was indispensable to human freedom, and he framed the concepts of original sin and just war.

When the Western Roman Empire was starting to disintegrate, Augustine developed the concept of the Catholic Church as a spiritual De Civitate Dei (City of God), in a book of the same name, distinct from the material Earthly City. His thoughts profoundly influenced the medieval worldview. Augustine's City of God was closely identified with the Church, the community that worshipped God.

In the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, he is a saint and pre-eminent Doctor of the Church, and the patron of the Augustinian religious order... Many Protestants, especially Calvinists, consider him to be one of the theological fathers of the Reformation due to his teaching on salvation and divine grace. In the Eastern Orthodox Church he is also considered a saint, his feast day being celebrated on 15 June. He carries the additional title of Blessed. Among the Orthodox, he is called "Blessed Augustine", or "St. Augustine the Blessed".

So, St. Augustine is famous and respected throughout Christendom as a philosopher and one of the fathers of theology whose writings are regarded as at least semi-divine if not actually divine.

Unfortunately he made a crass blunder: he made a testable prediction - something that is almost a cardinal sin in religious apologetics.

Here is what he has to say about the subject of a spherical earth and whether people could exist on the far side of it:
But as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours that is on no ground credible. And, indeed, it is not affirmed that this has been learned by historical knowledge, but by scientific conjecture, on the ground that the earth is suspended within the concavity of the sky, and that it has as much room on the one side of it as on the other: hence they say that the part that is beneath must also be inhabited. But they do not remark that, although it be supposed or scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form, yet it does not follow that the other side of the earth is bare of water; nor even, though it be bare, does it immediately follow that it is peopled.

It is too absurd to say, that some men might have taken ship and traversed the whole wide ocean, and crossed from this side of the world to the other, and that thus even the inhabitants of that distant region are descended from that one first man. [My emphasis]

Source: De Civitate Dei, Book XVI, Chapter 9 — Whether We are to Believe in the Antipodes,
translated by Rev. Marcus Dods, D.D.; from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library at Calvin College.
So there we are, using Bible 'science', one of Christianity's foremost thinkers and the father of theology has proved that, even if earth is spherical, the idea that there could be people living on the far side is absurd because, being all descended from one man, namely Adam, they couldn't possibly have got there.

Yet, when European explorers got to the New World, to the East Indies, the Pacific Islands and the 'Antipodes' of Australia and New Guinea, not only had we shown that earth was indeed spherical and the 'Antipodes' existed, but there were people living on the far side of it, and had been there for thousands of years.

Augustine's confident prediction had been falsified.

Now, when science has a theory which makes a testable prediction which turns out to be falsified this is normally considered grounds for abandoning the theory. Not so with religious apologetics. Augustine's prediction was based on the theory that everyone alive on Earth was descended from Adam (actually the Bible says we are all descended from Noah but be that as it may). Was that theory abandoned when the prediction it made was falsified?

Of course not. Like so much else with theological 'proofs', reality didn't support it and, as is usual with Christian apologetics when the facts turn out to be the opposite of what was predicted, suddenly the 'reasoning' behind the prediction is also dispensed with. For example, you never hear creationist theologians who still admire Saint Augustine, turn his 'logic' round and argue that, because there were people living on the far side of Earth, they could not have been descended from Adam.

Yet, if St. Augustine's argument, that there could not be people on the far side of earth if we are all descended from Adam, was true, then the presence of people on the far side of earth proves we are not all descended from Adam.

Strangely, to a theologian, the brilliance of an argument, the validity of the 'facts' upon which it's based and the reliability of the logic is contingent on the conclusion. If the conclusion turns out to be different to the one required, the once brilliant argument suddenly dulls and loses its utility value, and can be dispensed with. As usual, when the dogma isn't supported by the evidence, the evidence must be ignored.

But of course, the person who dreamed it up in the first place is no less brilliant for being shown to be wrong, just so long as his other arguments still have a utility value for theologians and religious apologists by supplying them with the conclusions and 'proofs' they want.

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  1. Augustine was wrong. So what?

    1. Yep. The founder of Western Christianity was wrong. There are people living on the far side of the earth where they couldn't have got to if they were descendants of Adam, as the article says.

      Well done for being able to comprehend written English.


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