Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Inerrant, Infallible Word of George Lucas

I recently saw a Facebook thread in which Star Wars fans were explaining the odd design of the Millennium Falcon. The question was raised regarding why the cockpit is on the side of the craft rather than in the middle, a design flaw that makes visually navigating something like a ridiculously jam-packed asteroid field even more difficult than the 3,720 to 1 success ratio certain protocol droids might estimate. The consensus was that it was primarily designed to be a cargo vessel and was later modified as a smuggling vessel. That makes some sense until one looks at the similarly flawed design of the B-Wing, which was supposed to be a heavy attack craft in the Star Wars universe. Other explanations had to be offered for that apparent flaw. All the while interlocutors were pointing out the obvious: it looks freakin' cool and was part of the imagination of the filmmakers, so who cares? It's just a movie.

I read another thread where fans tried to grapple with the timeline in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke is seemingly trained in the Jedi arts in what appears on screen to be the span of a few hours. The best the hard-core fans could come up with, apart from really complicated theories involving the ad hoc use of time dilation, was that the Millennium Falcon took three to six months to journey without the aid of hyperdrive from the edge of the asteroid field to the mining colony on Bespin within the Anoat system, which just happened to be really close to (or the same as) the Hoth system. But even if it's six months or up to a year, that's still a really compressed timeline for training that starts out with Luke having flashes of Force use largely outside of his deliberate control, to achieving a level considered "most impressive" by one of the most powerful Jedi ever. Upon return to Yoda in the third film he's told that the only training he has left is to confront Vader. Yes, I know. He's the Chosen One's kid, but unlike his virginally-conceived father, he's a half-breed Jedi. Not to mention it took years of training for his father to get as good as he was. But again, who cares? It's a movie. It's sci-fantasy. Shut off your brain and enjoy it.

Remember that aforementioned asteroid belt Han Solo was perilously navigating in a poorly-designed converted cargo ship? Well, it turns out asteroid belts in the known universe typically have quite a bit of space between the various chunks of rock. Like, hundreds of thousands of miles between them. The only time you would see one with a bunch of crap jammed close together would be in the early formation of a planetary system. Even then, the belt stabilizes in about a million years, well before a system like Hoth could develop an ice world with highly-specialized life-forms. Never mind that habitable planets with homogenous climates like the ones featured in the Star Wars universe could never exist in the first place. The official story from the Star Wars canon is that the Hoth/Anoat asteroid belt formed when a couple of outer planets collided with each other. Well, that's all fine and good and might explain the compact nature of the debris field, to an extent. However, there simply wouldn't be enough mass between those two rocky planets to create such a compact belt that goes around an entire planetary system. Additionally, the in-universe source material for the odds given by C-3PO is contradictory. The Marvel comics adaptation gives the odds at 2,467 to 1 and a radio dramatization puts the odds at 720 to 1. What did C-3PO actually say? And then there is the problem of explaining just how giant, silicon-based gastropods came to survive in such an environment.

One of
the most frequently cited discrepancies is from A New Hope. In the Mos Eisley cantina, Han brags about his ship making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. Since most film-goers are not astrophysicists, the problem here largely goes unnoticed. A parsec is a measure of distance, not time. Making sense of what Han says here in this context is quite difficult, but of course, fans have proposed solutions, as shown in that Wookieepedia link above. One is that Han was trying to see if his potential employers were complete rubes in order to determine whether or not he could fleece them. This presumes that in a galaxy in which faster than light travel is a fairly rudimentary accomplishment and people can just farm moisture on desert planets, that the average Joe doesn't know the difference between a measure of distance and a measure of time on a macro scale. Possible, but hardly plausible, especially since neither Luke nor Obi-Wan ever calls Han out on his bullshit.
Damn right.

The other proposed solution is that Han was not referring directly to his ship's speed, but rather the shorter route he was able to travel by skirting a nearby black hole cluster with intense gravitational pull. This explanation presents the exact opposite problem as the last one, as it would mean that Obi-Wan and Luke would've had exhaustive knowledge of this specific clandestine smuggling run as well as having an understanding of the maneuver involved in Han's boast. Neither explanation is particularly satisfactory. Why? Because the real answer to this problem, just like all the other discrepancies found in the Star Wars canon, is so friggin' obvious. It's the same answer to the question of why things go "boom" when they explode in the vacuum of space. It's a movie, dude. Plot holes, bad physics and factual errors are to be expected.

It's relatively easy to point out plot holes and contradictions in expanded epics like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but if that work is around long enough and has enough of a cultural impact, you can bet hardcore fans will eventually work out rationalizations for those contradictions and attempt to reconcile the inconsistencies. At the end of the day all you can do is point them out and ask, "Really, guys, which makes more sense: George Lucas wasn't an astrophysicist and didn't know that a parsec was a unit of distance rather than time...or...that your ridiculous, convoluted explanation is correct?" I'm sure that if pressed, most of these folks will back down and admit that, yes, these are actual discrepancies that come with story-telling of any kind and they are just having fun with it when they attempt rationalizations for them. It's what geeks do.

But what if someone is committed to the notion that George Lucas must be infallible, lest their entire worldview collapse? What will they do? My guess is that obvious discrepancies would somehow become merely "apparent" and as long as some remotely possible explanation could be devised, regardless of how improbable and convoluted it is, the discrepancy would be dismissed. The explanation would be deemed satisfactory. Why do I suspect this? Because I've been there, done that, and bought the apologetics books. A not-so-long time ago in a worldview far, far away...I believed and taught biblical inerrancy.

While the vast majority of adherents to that doctrine are simply blissfully unaware of the rather numerous examples of discrepancies and errors in their supposedly favorite book, there are a number of inerrantists that are observant enough or have stepped outside the bubble enough to have been confronted with them. Consequently rationalizations and explanations rather similar to the ones devised by Star Wars fans abound. Often there are multiple and contradictory explanations, like that Kessel Run bit, but that doesn't matter. The inerrantist only needs to demonstrate there is a possible "out" in order to quell the problem and move on, all the while scoffing at skeptical objections as though they are no big deal. Why is this? Because the blatantly obvious answer is ruled out as a possibility from the very beginning. Jonathan MS Pearce illustrated this via a tidy syllogism over at Debunking Christianity a few years ago:
1) The Bible never makes contradictions
2) All alleged contradictions can be harmonised
3) Since the Bible never makes contradictions, all harmonisations are inherently more probable than the idea that there are contradictions
4) All harmonisations stand
C) Therefore, there are no contradictions in the Bible.
Thanks to the first premise, there really is no way to directly argue someone out of this as it’s completely circular. If someone won’t even admit that something like the accounts of the death of Judas in Matthew 27 and Acts 1 are contradictory when both clearly provide completely different answers to questions like how Judas died, who bought the field, what prophecy it fulfilled and how it got its name, then the results of confronting them with other such examples are likely to be similar. When someone believes the Bible is a magic book that can never be wrong even when it looks like it is, that's what's going to happen.

It matters little to them that the extraordinary claim here is that a collection of ancient books is cumulatively inspired by an all-knowing, all-powerful, completely infallible, and yet also invisible and otherwise undetectable spirit-being and therefore inerrant. As the vastly more extraordinary claim, it requires extraordinary supporting evidence. The ordinary claim is that the Bible is entirely a human product. So when one sees things like apparent errors, which one would expect to see if the ordinary claim is true, it follows that one would give the ordinary claim the benefit of the doubt and not the much more extraordinary claim...unless one simply can't allow that for other reasons, of course.

I still think pointing out problems in the Bible is important work, though. I call it piling on the dissonance. Eventually, maybe, just maybe, an inerrantist will be confronted with enough of these internal contradictions, inconsistencies, discrepancies, etc. that they'll start to look carefully and closely at the ridiculous and convoluted "solutions" proposed by professional apologists. Maybe they'll have a moment of clarity, take a step back and say to themselves, "What if the Bible really is just a collection of ancient books produced entirely by flawed human beings apart from divine aid? What would that look like? What happens to the discrepancies then? Do they have a more reasonable explanation?"

What if Star Wars wasn't written by an astrophysicist with an eye for detail and meticulous continuity, but rather by an ingenious student of film who cobbled together the mythic motifs put forward by Joseph Campbell, borrowed elements from several different film genres and then incorporated them all into a science fantasy epic? What would that look like?


  1. Great post. I wish everyone were as critical about things they believe as they are about the things they (dis)like. If they could be critical of whatever the subject on its own merits and values then the world would be a better place.

    One of my best friends is extremely critical of the manga (like Naruto, One Piece, etc.) he and I both read yet when it comes to the book of Matthew he cites that as a source of spiritual fortitude. He is ostensibly unwilling to commit that level of criticism to a supposed holy book because then the descent into heathenry would begin but is perfectly fine doing so to a series involving a Japanese HS boy always and consistently running a 4.2 40.

  2. You're describing what happened to me, you know. That's exactly how it rolled. I got hit with so many problems and contradictions that even someone as stubborn as I can be (ahem) had to take note of them.


  3. I love this post, such a perfect comparison. I read it a couple of days ago but had to come back because I was just watching a video that is a perfect example, but it applies whenever they try to make any contradiction or inconsistency or obvious horror in Scripture line up. In this video the apologist takes every bit of the scripture and twists it so that it means the opposite of what the simple reading of it would say. It's actually quite impressive: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6V-zIw_I6mM

    1. Thanks, Claire. That's some serious spin that would make a press secretary blush. It's funny, but I actually would've taken issue with that apologist's interpretation when I was a Calvinist. As one of the commenters on that YouTube vid pointed out, nowhere in scripture does it say that God doesn't hate anybody. In fact, there are several places where God clearly states that he unequivocally hates the sinner and not just the sin (Psalm 5:5, 11:5, Lev. 20:23, Prov. 6:16-19, Hos. 9:15).

      He's right about Esau being a stand-in for all the Edomites. I'm not sure how that makes Yahweh look better, though. Plus, it's pretty obvious that Yahweh supposedly hating the Edomites was little more than a convenient excuse for the Israelites to justify their subjection and enslavement of them with a divine stamp of approval.

  4. Yes, I agree, his explanation actually ends up making Yahweh look worse! It's a tale as old as humankind that God always conveniently hates our enemies as much as we do. Thanks again for this article, I find I can't watch or read any of these apologists now without picturing a comic con style group of geeks standing around arguing canon.

  5. Alright now. We've given you more than enough time. Where's Moses at now? ;)

  6. As for discrepancies and contradictions, try this:

    The resurrection of Jesus is, by the Christian "worldview", the most important event in the history of the world (perhaps even of the Universe). Surely an inerrant book would give a consistent description of Easter Week. Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation has a book, LOSING FAITH IN FAITH, that has a chapter pointing out that if you try to write a simple chronology of that week, NOT omitting any detail described in the Bible, saying what happened where, who was there, what was said, then what happened next, you cannot do it. There are too many discrepancies and contradictions between the different Biblical accounts.