bookmark_borderThe Professor, the Abductee, and the Aliens

What do you get when you partner a chaired professor of religious studies at a prestigious university with a popular writer in order to study the paranormal? According to The Houston Chronicle (3/6/16), Jeffrey Kripal, who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair of Religious Studies at Rice University, has teamed with Whitley Strieber, author of such books as The Wolfen and Communion.
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Science-may-scoff-but-Rice-professor-and-6872867.php
The Wolfen tells of deadly wolf-like creatures that terrorize a modern city. Communion is a story of alien abductions. One of these two is presented as a work of nonfiction. Kripal and Strieber have combined their talents to produce a new work, presumably also a work of nonfiction, The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained, published by Penguin Random House. To answer the question asked in the first sentence: What you get is nonsense on steroids.
I met Jeffrey Kripal some years ago. Sharp guy. No kook. He showed his perspicacity by inviting me to give a paper at a colloquium (ahem). I was impressed by his office, which looked like it could have belonged to Sheldon Cooper. It was decked out with a most impressive collection of Marvel Comics superhero memorabilia. I certainly cannot fault him for that. My office has a large collection of dinosaurs, my 1964 Aurora Plastics Corporation Godzilla model, and a stuffed Marvin the Martian doll. I do not fault anyone for enjoying fantasies. I do fault them when they write books defending fantasies as real and castigating scientists and skeptics for looking at such claims with gimlet eye.
The book consists of Strieber’s first-person reports of encounters with the paranormal and Kripal’s academic analyses of those experiences. For instance, Strieber claims that he was taken from his Hudson Valley cabin in 1985 by a group of trolls, giant insects, and a deceased friend. Kripal bristles at the suggestion that such experiences are merely “anecdotal.” He says that empirical science is the wrong tool to use to assess such claims. Really, it is just looking in the wrong place. According to The Chronicle, he says that employing the methods of science to debunk claims of the paranormal is like declaring that zebras do not exist when you have only looked for them at the North Pole.
I have a better analogy. Suppose that the majority of visitors returning from the Polar Regions report only the usual arctic fauna—polar bears, walruses, seals, etc. However, some report having seen strange black-and-white striped horse-like creatures, but every scientific expedition sent to follow up such reported sightings fails to find the reported beasts. Further, suppose that there are known physiological conditions related to hypothermia and snow blindness that cause people to sometimes hallucinate tropical creatures in the arctic. For instance, there was the famous Norwegian Blue parrot sighted in remote northern fjords. In such a circumstance, what should we conclude—that there actually may well be zebras in the arctic despite the consistent failure to confirm them, or that the reports were more likely hallucinatory?
Hypnopompic and hypnagogic hallucinations and other hallucinatory experiences by non-psychotic individuals are common and well documented in psychological literature. A recent popular report on the nature and frequency of such experiences is Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations. Sensory deprivation also causes hallucinations as night-flying pilots and long-distance truckers have discovered. The recently bereaved quite often have a hallucination of their lost loved ones. A friend of mind suffering from sleep deprivation and driving late at night on a lonely road reported seeing a “cartoon dog” running alongside her vehicle. When the brain is starved of sensory input, it makes up its own. In short, non-psychotic people have often believed that they were seeing strange things and have interpreted those experiences in various ways, depending on their beliefs. When people think that they have been abducted by trolls, giant insects, and dead friends, it is not at all biased or dismissive to suspect that it is a hallucinatory experience.
The real issue, says Kripal is the nature of consciousness. Here is Kripal as quoted in the Chronicle article:
“The standard, conventional view is that consciousness is brain process and nothing more. But there is another model you encounter in religious literature, and that says that the brain does not produce consciousness; it reduces it. It [the brain] acts like a radio receiver. Consciousness is cosmic, and the body and mind are set up to filter it.”
This same sort of idea (I will not dignify it by calling it a “model”) shows up in the writings of Christian apologist (and self-described “Christian cage fighter”) Dinesh D’Souza. In his book The Soul Fallacy (Prometheus, 2015), Rutgers University cognitive scientist Julien Musolino quotes D’Souza as asking how we can be sure that …”the brain is a manufacturing plant for the mind and not merely a gateway or transmission belt” (p. 172). Apparently, D’Souza also thinks that the brain might be a receptor for a cosmic soul signal (Musolino, p. 172).
I’m curious. If the brain is a radio receiver of the signal from the Cosmic Consciousness Network (CCN), then why aren’t we all picking up the same broadcast? As Musolino puts it:
“If thirty million Americans can tune in to watch the Super Bowl, what would prevent thirty million brains from receiving the same signal or one brain from receiving thirty million signals? And how exactly do soul signals get connected to the right brains (p. 173)?”
Other questions abound: Does one’s entire consciousness emanate from CCN? Does it broadcast your toothaches or feelings of constipation? Could we tune the brain as we tune a radio so that it gets a broadcast we like better (fewer toothaches and more spontaneous happy feelings, say)? Is that what opiates and recreational drugs do? Why don’t you get poorer consciousness reception when you go through a tunnel, or even in bad weather like satellite TV? Is the consciousness signal carried on a wave? If so, does the strength of the signal vary with the inverse square of the distance from the broadcast point? Where is the broadcast from? Heaven? Could we build artificial consciousness detectors? Maybe the CIA could use one to tune in on what Vladimir Putin is thinking. Why not? Do nonhuman animals also get consciousness signals, but with a smaller range of channels? Is a dog’s consciousness therefore more like basic cable while ours has HBO, Cinemax, and all the other premium channels? Do clairvoyants and telepaths get even more channels?
At this point Kripal and D’Souza could mount a high horse and decry the note of levity and ridicule I have allegedly introduced into a supposedly serious discussion. Not at all. If these questions sound ridiculous, it is not because they are inappropriate questions but because of the oddness (to say the least) of the hypothesis. Given that hypothesis, these are perfectly legitimate and reasonable questions. They are questions that cry out for answers if the hypothesis is accepted. Well, in that case, the reply might be, rude questions can also be asked about the lacunae in the materialists’ account of mind. Materialist accounts of mind still cannot explain everything. Tu quoque! Nyah Nyah!
It is important to distinguish between questions not yet answered and those that, in principle, cannot be answered. It is hard to see that the above questions directed at the “broadcast hypothesis” can ever be answered, or, what is the same thing, it seems that any answer would be arbitrary and ad hoc. What questions do materialist accounts of mind face that are not only unanswered but unanswerable? What about the “hard problem.” The so-called hard problem is often posed as a set of questions: Why should consciousness arise from any set of physical processes, however complex? Will it not always be a mystery how the phenomenal and qualitative aspects of consciousness arise from the firing of neurons? As William Lyons put it (Matters of the Mind, Routledge, 2001, p. 194), “…there do not seem to be any fundamental laws of physics or chemistry that shed light on how subjectivity and phenomenal qualities of consciousness arise out of physics. Or, to put it another way, you cannot extract subjectivity out of a heap of micro objectivity.”
For the sake of argument, let’s say that the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry cannot (fully) explain why certain operations of neural machinery constitute, say, a feeling of remorse or a perception of yellow. Neither, however, can such laws (fully) explain why certain operations of vocal machinery constitute, say, the singing of “Un bel di vedremo” from Madama Butterfly. To explain the latter you not only have to describe the physical machinery and its operations, you also have to adduce the fact that such operations are the physical realization of something (non-mysteriously) nonphysical—an aria composed by Giacomo Puccini. Puccini’s aria is not a physical thing; it is an abstract pattern that can be physically realized in indefinitely many ways: It can be sung, hummed, played on a piano, played by a whole orchestra, or recorded by etchings in vinyl or the tiny bumps on a CD track. Whether a given physical state is a realization of that pattern is dependent on the laws of physics—as, of course, is every physical thing—but is not fully determined by those laws. It does not fully “arise out of physics” as Lyons puts it. Part of the determination of the event is by the abstract pattern, not physical law.
What applies to “un bel di vedremo,” would also apply to Beyoncé’s latest song about her butt, or any number of other familiar performances, like reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance.” If there is nothing fundamentally and irremediably mysterious about many happenings that cannot be fully explained in terms of the basic laws of physics and chemistry, then why, in principle, should the hard problem be so hard? Proponents of the hard problem answer by offering their intuitions. Such intuitions have precisely their face value. Indeed, it might be wise to recall Daniel Dennett’s salutary warnings about “intuition pumps.” At the least, I think that we should put worries about the hard problem on hold until we have solved the “easy problem,” i.e. we know in detail just what the physical brain is doing, at every level, when we have particular forms of consciousness. If and when we solve this “easy” problem, we should then ask ourselves how hard the hard problem looks. At that point our intuitions might have changed.
Kripal also takes mandatory swipes at “debunkers” and “scientific materialism”:
“I make a distinction between skeptics and debunkers…Skepticism has a noble history going back to ancient Greece. Skeptics are skeptical of everything. Scientific materialism is not skeptical of scientific material[ism]. It assumes it. It’s ideology…Scientific materialism can explain everything but us. It cannot explain consciousness.”
Too bad that big questions cannot be settled by confident assertion.
If, as Kripal admits, “scientific materialism” can explain everything else, how can he be so confident that it cannot explain consciousness? Is this some form of the gambler’s fallacy? “Yeah, this horse has won every race up to now, but I am going to bet against him in this race because he is due for a loss.” Is it “ideology” to back the horse that has won every—every—race up to now?
Kripal concludes that experiences such as Strieber’s are not really about trolls and giant insects:
“What dead loved ones who sometimes show up in these alien abduction events suggest to me…Is that these events aren’t about space ships and invasions. This is what we call ‘religion.’ This is about the soul. This is about death. This is about immortality.”
I really hope that Kripal is wrong about saying that “alien abduction” experiences are “religion.” If they are, then I am afraid that he has made things easy not just for debunkers of abduction scenarios, but for debunkers of religion.

bookmark_borderWilliam Lane Craig’s Logic Lesson – Part 2

I admit it.  I enjoyed pointing out that William Lane Craig had made a major blunder in his recent discussion of the logic of deductive arguments (with premises that are probable rather than certain).
However, there are a variety of natural tendencies that people have to reason poorly and illogically when it comes to reasoning about evidence and probability.  The fact that a sharp philosopher who is very experienced in presenting and analyzing arguments could make such a goof just goes to show that it is easy for people to make logical mistakes and to reason illogically, especially when reasoning about evidence and probability.
So, I think it is worth taking a little time to carefully review Craig’s mistake in order to LEARN from his mistake, and to understand how the logic really works in this case, so that we can avoid making the same mistake ourselves, and so that we can more readily notice and identify when others make similar mistakes in their reasoning.
In the March Reasonable Faith Newsletter Craig asserted a FALSE principle about valid deductive arguments that have premises that are probable:
… in a deductive argument the probability of the premises establishes only a minimum probability of the conclusion: even if the premises are only 51% probable, that doesn’t imply that the conclusion is only 51% probable. It implies that the conclusion is at least 51% probable.
 
One way that this principle can fail is because of the fact that a valid deductive argument can have multiple premises and because standard valid forms of deductive inferences/arguments require that ALL premises be true in order to work, in order to logically imply the conclusion.  In the case of a valid deductive argument with multiple premises that are probable rather than certain, it is usually the case that ALL of the premises must be true in order for the argument to logically imply the conclusion.
If the probable premises of such an argument are independent from each other (so that the truth or falsehood of one premise has no impact on the probability of the truth or falsehood of other premises in the argument), then the simple multiplication rule of probability applies, because what matters in this case is that the CONJUNCTION of all of the probable premises is true, and the probability of the conjunction of the premises of such an argument is equal to the product of the individual probabilities of each of the probable premises:
P
Q
THEREFORE:
P and Q
If the probability of P is .5, and the probability of Q (given that P is the case) is .5, then the probability of the conjunction “P and Q” is .25..  Here is an example of such a valid deductive argument:
1. I will get heads on the first random toss of this fair coin.
2. I will get heads on the second random toss of this fair coin. 
THEREFORE:
3. I will get heads on the first random toss of this fair coin, and I will get heads on the second random toss of this fair coin.
The probability of (1) is .5, and the probability of (2) given that (1) is the case is also .5 (because these two events are independent–what comes up on the first toss has no impact on what comes up on the second toss), so the probability of the conjunction of (1) and (2) is .25.  Thus, the probability of (3) is .25.  This example shows that the probability conferred on the conclusion of such an argument can be LESS THAN the probability of any individual premise of the argument.  This is because when you multiply one number that is greater than zero but less than 1.0 by another number that is greater than zero but less than 1.0, the product is LESS THAN either of those factors.
The same mathematical relationship holds when the probability of the individual probable premises is greater than .5:
4. I will not roll a six on the first random roll of this fair die.
5. I will not roll a six on the second random roll of this fair die.
THEREFORE:
6. I will not roll a six on the first random roll of this fair die, and I will not roll a six on the second random roll of this fair die.
The probability of (4) is 5/6 or about .83, and the probability of (5) given that (4) is the case is also 5/6 or about .83 (because these events are independent).  Since both premises have to be true in order to logically imply the conclusion, the multiplication rule applies in this case, so the probability of the CONJUNCTION of (4) and (5) is equal to the product of the probabilities of each individual premise:  .83 x .83 = .6889  or about .69, which is LESS THAN the probability of each of the individual premises.
Based on this sort of mathematical relationship, we can devise an example on which Craig’s principle will FAIL:
7. I will not roll a six or a five on the first random roll of this fair die.
8. I will not roll a six or a five on the second random roll of this fair die.
THEREFORE:
9. I will not roll a six or a five on the first random roll of this fair die, and I will not roll a six or a five on the second random roll of this fair die.
The probability of (7) is 4/6 or about .67, and the probability of (8) given that (7) is the case is also 4/6 or about .67 (because these are independent events).  The probability of the conjunction of (7) and (8) is equal to the product of their individual probabilities: .67 x .67 = .4489 or about .45.  To be more exact the probability of the conjunction of (7) and (8) is equal to: 4/6  x 4/6 = 16/36 = 4/9 = .44444444…  Thus, although the probability of each premise is greater than .51, the probability of the conclusion (9) is less than .51.  Therefore, Craig’s principle FAILS in this case.  Thus, his principle is FALSE.
Here is one more similar counterexample against Craig’s principle:
10. I will not select a heart card on the first randomly selected card from this standard deck.
11. I will not select a heart card on the second randomly selected card from this standard deck (after replacement of the first card back into the deck).
12. I will not select a heart card on the third randomly selected card from this standard deck (after replacement of the first and second cards back into the deck).
THEREFORE:
13. I will not select a heart card on the first randomly selected card from this standard deck, and I will not select a heart card on the second randomly selected card from this standard deck (after replacement of the first card back into the deck), and I will not select a heart card on the third randomly selected card from this standard deck (after replacement of the first and second cards back into the deck).
The probability of (10) is .75, and the probability of (11) given (10) is .75, and the probability of (12) given both (10) and (11) is also .75.  The probability of the conjunction of these three premises equals:  .75 x .75 x .75 = .421875 or about .42. Thus, the probability of the conclusion (13) is .421875 or about .42, which is LESS THAN .51, even though each of the premises has a probability that is GREATER THAN .51.
Here is my final counterexample based on the multiplication rule:
14. I will not roll a six on the first random roll of this fair die.
15. I will not roll a six on the second random roll of this fair die. 
16. I will not roll a six on the third random roll of this fair die.
17. I will not roll a six on the fourth random roll of this fair die.

THEREFORE:
18. I will not roll a six on the first random roll of this fair die, and I will not roll a six on the second random roll of this fair die, and I will not roll a six on the third random roll of this fair die, and I will not roll a six on the fourth random roll of this fair die.
Each of the premises in this argument has a probability of 5/6 or about .83.  The events referenced in the premises are independent from each other, so the probability of the conjunction of premises (14), (15), (16), and (17) is equal to:  
5/6  x  5/6  x  5/6  x  5/6 =  625/1,296 = .4822530864…  or about .48.  So, the probability of each premise is greater than .51, but the probability of the conclusion (18) is less than .51, so Craig’s principle FAILS in this case, and thus Craig’s principle is shown to be FALSE.
There is another way that Craig’s principle can FAIL, and that is because one probable premise in a valid deductive argument can have a dependency on another probable premise in the argument, and this can result in conferring a probability on the conclusion that is less than the probability of the individual premises.  I will explore this second issue with Craig’s principle in the next installment.

bookmark_borderWilliam Lane Craig’s Logic Lesson

The March Newsletter from Reasonable Faith just came out, and it includes a brief lesson in logic from William Lane Craig. However, the lesson presents a point that is clearly and obviously WRONG, and it promotes bad reasoning that could be used to rationalize UNREASONABLE beliefs.  It appears that WLC is himself in need of some basic lessons in logic.
William Craig recently debated a professor of philosophy named Kevin Scharp at Ohio State University, and in the current Reasonable Faith Newsletter, Craig criticizes what he takes to be Scharp’s main objection to Craig’s apologetic arguments:
What was odd about Prof. Sharp’s [correct spelling: Scharp] fundamental critique was that, apart from the moral argument, he did not attack any of the premises of my arguments. Rather his claim was that all the arguments suffer from what he called “weakness.” For even if the arguments are cogent, he says, they only establish that God’s existence is more probable than not (say, 51% probable), and this is not enough for belief in God. 
Why did he think that the arguments are so weak? Because I claim that in order for a deductive argument to be a good one, it must be logically valid and its premises must be more probable than their opposites. Prof. Sharp [sic] apparently thought that that is all I’m claiming for my arguments. But in our dialogue, I explained to him that that was a mistake on his part. My criteria were meant to set only a minimum threshold for an argument to be a good one. I myself think that my arguments far exceed this minimum threshold and provide adequate warrant for belief in God. I set the minimum threshold so low in order to help sceptics like him get into the Kingdom! 
This reply makes a fair point.  Establishing a minimum threshold for an argument to be considered “good” does not imply that no good arguments have premises that exceed this minimum.  Thus, when Craig claims that his deductive arguments for God’s existence are “good” arguments, he is NOT saying that the premises in these arguments each have a probability of only .51.
But then Craig goes further and provides this short lesson in logic (or lesson in illogic, as I shall argue):
Besides, I pointed out, in a deductive argument the probability of the premises establishes only a minimum probability of the conclusion: even if the premises are only 51% probable, that doesn’t imply that the conclusion is only 51% probable. It implies that the conclusion is at least 51% probable. Besides all this, why can’t a person believe something based on 51% probability? The claim that he can’t seems to me just a matter of personal psychology, which varies from person to person and circumstance to circumstance.
Thus, Prof. Sharp’s [sic] fundamental criticism was quite misconceived, and since he never attacked the arguments themselves, he did nothing to show that the arguments I defended are, in fact, weak.
Craig’s claim that “even if the premises [in a deductive argument] are only 51% probable” this “implies that the concusion is at least 51% probable” is clearly and obviously false.  This is, for me, a jaw-dropping mistaken understanding of how deductive arguments work.
First of all, deductive arguments can have multiple premises.  If multiple premises in a deductive argument each have a probability of only .51, then it is OBVIOUSLY possible for such arguments to FAIL to establish that the conclusion has a probability of “at least” .51.  For example, consider the following valid deductive argument form:
1. P
2. Q
3. IF P & Q, THEN R
THERFORE:
4. R
Suppose that the probability of P is .51 and that the probability of Q (given that P is the case) is also .51.  Suppose that we know premise (3) with certainty.  What is the probability conferred on the conclusion by this argument?   In order for this deductive argument to confer any probability to the conclusion, BOTH P and Q must be true.  Thus it only takes ONE false premise to ruin the argument.  The probability of the conclusion would NOT be .51 but would, rather, be .51 x .51 = .2601  or about .26.   This is a simple and obvious counter-example to Craig’s claim.
Another problem is that there is almost always other relevant information that could impact the probability of the conclusion of an argument.  So, one might well be able to construct additional relevant deductive arguments AGAINST the conclusion in question.
Suppose that X implies that R is not the case, and Y implies that R is not the case, and Z implies that R is not the case.  Then we could construct three additional deductive arguments against R:
5. X
6. IF X, THEN it is not the case that R.
THEREFORE:
7. It is not the case that R.
===============
8. Y
9. IF Y, THEN it is not the case that R.
THEREFORE:
7. It is not the case that R.
===============
10. Z
11. IF Z, THEN it is not the case that R.
THEREFORE:
7. It is not the case that R.
Suppose that the probability of X is .9, and the probability of Y is  .9, and the probability of Z  is .9.   Suppose that the truth of X, Y, and Z are independent of each other.  Suppose that the conditional premises in each of the above arguments is known with certainty.  In this case, what probability is conferred on the conclusion that “It is not the case that R”?
Let’s (temporarily) ignore the prevous deductive argument in support of R, and imagine that X, Y, and Z are the only relevant facts that we have regarding the truth or falsehood of R.  Each of these three valid deductive arguments would, then, individually confer a probability of .9 on the conclusion that “It is not the case that R”.  Therefore, if we combine the force of these three arguments, they will confer a probabilty that is GREATER THAN .9 on the conclusion that “It is not the case that R”.  All we need is for ONE of the premises (X, Y, or Z) to be true, in order for the negative conclusion to be secured, and each of the three premises is very likely to be true.
We can analyze the probabilty calculation into three cases in which at least one of the three premises is true:
I. X is true  (probability = .9)
II. X is not true, but Y is true  (probability = .1 x .9 =  .09)
III. X is not true, and Y is not true, but Z is true (probability = .1 x .1 x .9 = .009)
Add the probabilities of these three cases together to get the total probability conferred on the negative conclusion:
.9 + .09 + .009 = .999
Thus, the combined force of these three deductive arguments would make it nearly certain that “It is not the case that R”, assuming that these three arguments encompassed ALL of the relevant evidence.
But we also have the posititive evidence of P and Q to consider, which will, presumably increase the probability that R is the case and reduce the probability of the negative conclusion that “It is not the case that R”.
Adding in this additional relevant evidence, however, could make the overall probability calculation significantly more complex.  It all depends on whether the truth of P is independent of the truth of X, Y, and Z, and whether the truth of Q is independent of the truth of X, Y, and Z, and whether the truth of the conjunction “P and Q” is independent of the truth of X, Y, and Z.  If there are dependencies between the truth of these claims, then that will rquire additional complexity in the probability calculation.
If for the sake of simplicity, we assume that the truth of P is independent of the truth of X, Y, and Z, and the truth of Q is independent of X, Y, and Z, and the truth of “P and Q” is independent as well, we can at least conclude (without needing to do any calculations) that the overall probability of R will be greater than .001 and less than .2601, in which case Craig’s claim that the probability of the conclusion must be “at least 51%” is clearly false in this case, in part because of additional relevant evidence against the conclusion.
Thus, there are two major, and fairly obvious, problems with WLC’s claim: (1) deductive arguments with multiple premises can confer a probability on the conclusion that is LESS than the probability of any particular premise in the argument, and (2) there is almost always OTHER relevant information/data that impacts the probability of the conclusion of a particular deductive argument (which has premises that are only probable), and consideration of this additional evidence might very well lower the all-things-considered probability of the conclusion.
These two points are fundamental to understanding the logic of deductive arguments for the existence of God, so Craig’s apparent confusion about, or ignorance of, these points is shocking.

bookmark_borderBird Sighting: The Greater Right-Winged Texas Loon

This story has already been noted on at least one other atheist site, but I have to run it here also. It looks like Mary Lou Bruner, a wacko who says that Barack Obama was a gay prostitute, is headed for the Texas State Board of Education:
http://www.slate.com/blogs/schooled/2016/03/02/mary_lou_bruner_extremist_who_thinks_obama_was_a_prostitute_heads_to_runoff.html
As I have noted here (many times) before, Texas is Bizarro World. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality works tirelessly to make things easy for big polluters. Attorney General Ken Paxton, the chief law enforcement official of the state of Texas, has been indicted for securities fraud. The State Board of Education assiduously promotes ignorance. Under their leadership, Texas schoolchildren learn that Moses was practically a Founding Father and that the Ten Commandments inspired the U.S. Constitution. The crackpot fantasies of David Barton are preferred over the scholarship of real historians (David Barton is to a real historian as Milli Vanilli was to the Rolling Stones.). A few years back Don McLeroy, a young-earth creationist dentist who was chair of the SBOE strongly promoted the inclusion of “intelligent design” in the science curriculum. However, this Bruner character is extraordinary even in such a context. It is hard enough to believe that she was actually a teacher in the public schools. It is nearly impossible to think of a situation that would parallel putting her on the State Board of Education. Here are some possible parallels: Putting Bernie Madoff on the Securities Exchange Commission; making Jeffrey Dahmer the New York Times food critic (sorry); giving Bashar al-Assad the Nobel Peace Prize.

bookmark_borderPopper on Falsifiability

Karl Popper famously said that the criterion demarcating science from nonscience was falsifiability. Scientific theories and hypotheses are falsifiable; it is always possible to cite specific observations that would prove them wrong. Dinosaur fossils found in Tertiary strata would falsify the claim that the K/T extinction event gave dinosaurs the coup de grace. Nonscience, on the other hand, makes unfalsifiable claims. For instance, daily “sun signs” astrological claims are so loosely expressed that it is hard to see what would count as a decisive falsification. “You will have a day full of opportunity tomorrow” is compatible with almost any kind of day in which you are neither dead nor comatose.
The discussion in the comments section of another post started on the subject of Popper and falsifiability, but, alas, has become rancorous. In an attempt to shed light without (I hope) adding to the heat, let me quote from the sixth chapter of my book It Started with Copernicus (Prometheus Books, 2014, pp. 293-295):
Does falsifiability give us a sound demarcation criterion for distinguishing science from nonscience? For instance, when something like YEC [young-earth creationism] comes along that challenges established science and claims scientific credentials for itself, can we deploy the falsifiability challenge to discredit it and consign it to the trash can of pseudoscience? Here it is important to make a distinction between the intransigence of scientists and the unfalsifiability of a theory.  It may well be that proponents of YEC will dismiss, distort, or ignore all contrary evidence.  They will thereby defy Popper’s characterization of the true scientific attitude whereby bold conjectures are made and equally bold attempts are made to refute them.  Defenders of YEC seem to be interested in buttressing, by any means possible, a dogma dictated by their fundamentalist convictions.  To be fair, though, even the most indisputably genuine scientists can be awfully pigheaded and just as inflexibly attached to their own theories.  There is a story often told about Einstein that he was informed by an eager graduate student that his theory of general relativity had been strongly confirmed by observation.  Einstein reportedly shrugged.  When asked by the student what he would have done had the observations gone against his theory, Einstein supposedly said: “Then I should be sorry for the Dear Lord.  The theory is correct.”
Falsifiability has to be a logical, not a psychological criterion.  It must be a standard that scientific theories, and only scientific theories, can pass.  The fundamental problem with using falsifiability as a demarcation criterion is that it is impossible to formulate that criterion so that it is not either too loose or too strict.  A demarcation criterion is supposed to be a gatekeeper, like one of those big guys with the velvet rope at an exclusive gala event.  He is to let in only the invited celebrities in and keep out the hoi polloi like you and me.  A demarcation criterion must admit only genuinely scientific theories and keep all others out.  However, if “falsifiable” is construed too loosely, all sorts of pseudosciences might pass the test.  A proponent of YEC, for instance, could say “Sure, I will believe in evolution if you produce a missing link that is precisely in the middle between apes and humans in all of its anatomical features.”  Evolutionary theory does not predict such half-and-half missing links; transitional creatures are mosaics with some derived features and some ancestral ones.  Still, the creationist would meet Popper’s criterion, loosely construed, fair and square.  He has mentioned a possible discovery that would conclusively falsify his evolution-denying theory, so his theory would have to count as scientific.
On the other hand, if we make the conditions for falsifiability too strict, we will rule out some theories and activities that are unquestionably scientific.  Practically every theory clashes with some evidence or observation.  Newtonian celestial mechanics famously clashed with two well-known observations: The orbit of the planet Uranus was not what would be expected on the basis of Newtonian theory.  Also, there was the problem with the precession of the perihelion of Mercury.  A planet’s “perihelion” is the point of its elliptical orbit where it is closest to the sun.  Mercury’s perihelion “precesses,” i.e. it moves from one point along the orbit to another.  According to Newtonian theory this should not happen.  These anomalies were eventually understood.  The perturbations in Uranus’s orbit were due to the presence of another planet, Neptune, which was eventually discovered.  The precession of Mercury’s perihelion was later explained by Einstein in terms of relativity theory.  However, during the many years that these anomalies went unexplained, should Newtonian celestial mechanics have been regarded as unscientific because it was falsified by observation?  Surely, if any theory has ever been scientific, Newtonian celestial mechanics was.
A criterion that cannot walk the fine line between being too strict and too lenient is not a useful tool for demarcation.  In fact, almost all philosophers of science now agree that there is no single criterion that distinguishes science from nonscience.  Science is just too multi-faceted and complex an activity to characterize or categorize simply.  I think that all we can really say is that a good theory will have many virtues and few vices and a bad theory will be the opposite.  Sometimes a theory has such egregious vices and so few and minor virtues that it is rightly stigmatized as “junk science,” or “pseudoscience.”

bookmark_borderResponse to William Lane Craig – Part 14

Here is my main objection to William Craig’s case for the resurrection of Jesus:
In order to prove that Jesus rose from the dead, one must first prove that Jesus died on the cross. But in most of William Craig’s various books, articles, and debates, he simply ignores this issue. He makes no serious attempt to show that it is an historical fact that Jesus died on the cross.  For that reason, Craig’s case for the resurrection is a complete failure.
Here is WLC’s main reply to my objection:
The reason that I personally have not devoted any space to a discussion of the death of Jesus by crucifixion is that this fact is not in dispute. This historical fact is not one that is controversial among biblical scholars. 
Craig supports this point by giving examples of biblical scholars who express great confidence in the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus and Jesus’ death on the cross: Luke Johnson and Robert Funk.  In Parts 2 through 8 of this series, I argued that the example of the biblical scholar Luke Johnson fails to support his point.  In Part 9 of this series, I review the context of my discussion about the views Luke Johnson and Robert Funk.
In Part 10, I argued that Robert Funk was not as certain about Jesus’ death on the cross as Craig claims.
In Part 11, I argued that Funk’s specific skeptical beliefs about the Gospel of John imply that gospel to be completely unreliable, and that this by itself casts significant doubt on the claim that Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified.
In Part 12 and Part 13, I argued that Funk’s specific skeptical beliefs about the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew imply that events and details about the arrest, trials, or crucifixion of Jesus found in Luke or Matthew that correspond to events or details found in the Gospel of Mark do NOT provide corroborating evidence to support the historicity of those events or details, and that any unique events or details (that go beyond what the authors of Luke and Matthew borrowed from the Gospel of Mark) are very unreliable.
Given these skeptical implications of Funk’s specific beliefs about the Gospels of John, Luke, and Matthew, the ONLY canonical Gospel that could posssibly provide significant evidence for the arrest, trials, and crucifixion of Jesus is the Gospel of Mark.
In this post, we shall see that the Gospel of Mark is viewed as an unreliable source of information about Jesus, and that the Passion Narrative in Mark is even more dubious and more unreliable than the rest of the Gospel of Mark, based on Robert Funk’s specific skeptical beliefs about this Gospel.  Therefore, the canonical Gospels fail to provide solid evidence for the claim that Jesus was crucified and that Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified.
The Gospel of Mark has many of the same basic problems as the other Gospels, according to Funk in his book Honest to Jesus (hereafter: HTJ):

  • It was not written by one of the original disciples of Jesus  (HTJ, p.116)
  • It was not written by an eyewitness to the life or death of Jesus (HTJ, p.50)
  • It was written between 70CE and 80CE, forty to fifty years after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus (HTJ, p.38)
  • Most of the sayings and teachings ascribed to Jesus in Mark are not from the historical Jesus (HTJ, p.41)

Funk and the Jesus Seminar examined all of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, and many of these sayings were judged to be probably unhistorical.  I looked at the Jesus Seminar evaluations of these sayings from chapters 4, 5, and 6 of the Gospel of Mark and they judged 34 verses to be black or gray, and 16 verses to be pink, and 0 verses to be red (see The Five Gospels, pages 54-67).  The colors can be interpreted as follows (The Five Gospels, p.36):
red: Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it.
pink: Jesus probably said something like this.
gray: Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own.
black: Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.
Thus out of a total of 50 verses from chapters 4, 5, and 6 of Mark, only 16 of those verses were judged to be such that “Jesus probably said something like this.”  The remaining 34 verses were judged to be either probably or definitely NOT something that was said by the historical Jesus.  This means that the Jesus Seminar judged that only 32% or about one out of three verses in these chapters of Mark were probably historically correct (i.e. verses that were categorized as pink), and that about two out of three verses (in these chapters) were probably NOT historically correct (i.e. verses that were categorized as gray or black).  In other words, the Gospel of Mark is very unreliable in terms of the sayings and teachings that it ascribes to Jesus.
Given the specific skeptical beliefs of Funk about the Gospel of Mark, and given the view that the Gospel of Mark is very unreliable in terms of the sayings and teachings attributed to Jesus, one would rationally and objectively infer that the Gospel of Mark is probably also very unreliable in terms of the actions attributed to Jesus and the events related to the life and death of Jesus.
The Jesus Seminar has also investigated the specific actions and events portrayed in the Gospel of Mark, and evaluated the historicity of those actions and events.  It should come as no surprise that the Jesus Seminar determined that the Gospel of Mark was also very unreliable concerning claims about the actions of Jesus and the events related to his life and ministry.
I looked over the evaluation of the “acts of Jesus” by the Jesus Seminar in the first 13 chapters of the Gospel of Mark, prior to the Passion Narrative (see “Inventory of Events” in The Acts of Jesus, pages 558-561) .
The Jesus Seminar evaluated 64 different acts or events from those chapters and judged that 20 of them were either red or pink.  The remaining 44 acts or events were judged to be either gray or black.  Here are the meanings of those color categories (The Acts of Jesus, p. 36-37):
red: The historical reliability of this information is virtually certain.  It is supported by a preponderance of evidence.
pink: This information is probably reliable.  It fits well with other evidence that is verifiable.
gray: This information is possible but unreliable.  It lacks supporting evidence.
black: This information is improbable.  It does not fit verifiable evidence; it is largely or entirely fictive.
Thus, according to the evaluations of the Jesus Seminar, only about 31% of the events in Chapters 1 to 13 of the Gospel of Mark are probably true or correct (i.e. were categorized as either red or pink) and that about 69% of the alleged events in those chapters of Mark are probably not true or correct (i.e. were categorized as either gray or black).  This confirms the previous reasonable inference that the Gospel of Mark is also very unreliable concerning the actions of Jesus and the events in his life.
Given all of the above skeptical assumptions and conclusions about the unreliability of the Gospel of Mark, one would rationally and objectively infer that the Passion Narrative (hereafter: PN) found in this Gospel was also very unreliable.  Thus, it should be no surprise that Robert Funk has a very skeptical view of the PN in Mark.  In fact, Funk appears to believe that the PN in Mark is even LESS reliable than the rest of this Gospel:
The use of tales that circulated in oral form prior to Mark ceases with the beginning of Mark’s account of the passion, which reaches its climax, of course, with the arrest, trial, and crucifixion.  Most of these elements are products of Mark’s narrative imagination, although he may be drawing on historical reminiscence in a few instances.  (HTJ, p.131)
Since Funk believes that the PN in Matthew and Luke is based primarily on the PN in Mark, his skeptical comments about the PNs apply to the PN in Mark:
The story of Jesus’ arrest, trials, and execution is largely fictional; it was based on a few historical reminiscences augmented by scenes and details suggested by prophetic texts and the Psalms. (HTJ, p.127)
So, Funk believes that “most of these elements” in Mark’s PN are “products of Mark’s narrative imagination” and that scenes and details in Mark’s PN were “suggested by prophetic texts and the Psalms.”
Funk throws a bone to believers in saying that the author of Mark “may be drawing on historical reminiscence in a few instances”; he does not say that the author of Mark is certainly drawing on historical reminiscence in a few instances; he also does not say that the author of Mark is probably drawing on historical reminiscence in a few instances.  This implies that the author of Mark MIGHT NOT “be drawing on historical reminiscence in a few instances” and that the entire PN in Mark might well be purely a product of the author’s “narrative imagination”.
Not only was the author of Mark not an eyewitness to the events of the PN, but most of Jesus’ disciples fled after his arrest and thus were not present for the alleged crucifixion of Jesus:
Most of Jesus’ followers fled during or after his arrest, but a few, especially the women, Mary of Magdala in particular, may have witnessed the crucifixion.  We do not know how their memories came to inform the creation of a passion narrative many decades later, if indeed the narrative reflects any eyewitness observation at all. (HTJ, p.220)
Notice that there are two layers of doubt expressed here:  (1) there might have been no followers of Jesus who were eyewitnesses of the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, and (2) even if there were a few followers of Jesus who were alleged eyewitnesses of the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, the PN in Mark might not reflect any observations or testimony from those eyewitnesses.
Funk has serious doubts about the historical reliability of the story of the Last Supper, which is reported in Mark 14:12-26:
The words spoken by Jesus at the last supper…do not fit with the Passover celebration. …The breaking of the bread and the common cup were elements introduced into the meal by Christian interpreters who took it as a memorial to the death of Jesus rather than as a reminder of the exodus. …The counterpart in Mark 14:22-25, in which Jesus speaks of his own body and blood as a sacrifice, is thus not a part of the original passion story.  (HTJ, p.226)
Funk doubts that there was a Jewish trial, which was reported in the PN of the Gospel of Mark (14:53-65):
It is entirely probable that the trial before Jewish authorities was a fiction.  (HTJ, p.220-221)
Funk doubts that there was a Roman trial, which was reported in the PN of the Gospel of Mark (15:1-15):
It is not likely that a Roman trial was held.  (HTJ, p.221)
 
As previously noted, Funk believes that many of the details in the PNs were derived not from memories or stories from eyewitnesses, but from the Old Testament and other sacred texts:
Many details of the passion story were suggested by the Psalms, particularly Psalms 2, 22, and 69.  Other sources include prophetic texts such as Isaiah 53 and Zechariah 9-14, together with stories of David (2 Samuel 15-17) or the suffering righteous martyr (Wisdom of Solomon 2 and 5).  Christian scribes searched the Greek scriptures diligently for proof that Jesus had died in accordance with God’s will. (HTJ, p.232)
Examples of this are given by Funk (HTJ, p.232-233) :
Casting of lots for the clothing of Jesus [see Mark 15:24] was inspired by Psalm 22:18…
Crucifixion between two theives [see Mark 15:27] was based on Isaiah 53:12…in conjunction with Psalm 22:16…
Striking, insulting, and spitting on Jesus [see Mark 14:65 & 15:16-20 & 15:29-32] were prompted by Isaiah 50:6….
Disrobing and rerobing in mock coronation [see Mark 15:16-20] were prompted by Zechariah 3:1-5.
Funk approvingly references John Crossan’s very skeptical views about how the PNs were thoroughly shaped by Jewish scriptures:
In his brilliant study, John Dominic Crossan has shown that virtually every detail connected with the passion was based on some scripture.  That prompted him to conclude: We know virtually nothing about the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus other than the fact of it.  The stories of the arrest in the gospels are themselves fictions; we only infer that he was arrested because we know he was executed.  About the trial, or trials, we have no historically reliable information at at all. (HTJ, p.233)
Funk appears to agree with Crossan that “We know virtually nothing about the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus other than the fact of it.”
Thus, Funk has serious doubts about the stories and details in the PN of the Gospel of Mark concerning the Last Supper, Jesus’ arrest, the Jewish trial, the Roman trial,  and many of the details related to Jesus’ alleged crucifixion.
In addition to fictional events and details generated on the basis of the O.T. and other sacred writings, Funk points to other events and details in Mark’s PN that are fictional:
In addition to events and details suggested by scripture, the passion story contains a number of pure fictions. Judas Iscariot the betrayer [see Mark 14:17-21 & 43-46] is in all probabilty a gospel fiction. (HTJ, p.234)
Joseph of Arimathea [see Mark 15:42-47]is probably a Markan creation. (HTJ, p.234)
Barabbas (son of “Abba,” the Father, or “son of God”) in Mark 15:7 is certainly a fiction, as is Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus in Mark 15:21. (HTJ, p.235)
It is clear that not only does Funk believe that the Gospel of Mark is in general very unreliable, but that Funk believes that the PN in the Gospel of Mark is even more unreliable than the rest of this gospel.  The PN in Mark is filled with fictional characters, fictional events, and fictional details, according to Funk.
Therefore, because the Gospel of Mark was the ONLY canonical gospel that could possibly provide solid evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus and for the claim that Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified, given Funk’s specific skeptical beliefs about this Gospel, and particularly about the extreme unreliability of the PN in the Gospel of Mark, one cannot rationally conclude that it is highly probable that Jesus died on the cross, and that Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified, at least not on the basis of the canonical gospels.
Given Funk’s skeptical beliefs and views concerning the unreliability of the canonical gospels, great confidence in the historical claim that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross is rationally unjustified.
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UPDATE  (3/3/16):
I took a look at the Jesus Seminar evaluation of the historical reliability of the PN in the Gospel of Mark.  The Jesus Seminar divides the PN in Mark into 18 events.  It categorized 3 of these events as gray, and 15 of them as black.  It categorized 0 of these events as red, and 0 of these events as pink.   Thus, according to the Jesus Seminar 0% or 0 out of 18 events in Mark’s PN provide information that “is probably reliable”, and 100% or 18 out of 18 of the events in Mark’s PN provide information that is either unreliable or  improbable.  Clearly, the Jesus Seminar judged the content of Mark’s PN to be  extremely unreliable, and to be significantly LESS reliable than the contents of Chapters 1 through 13 of the Gospel of Mark, in terms of the events described in those chapters.
However, the Jesus Seminar also evaluated a few “Core Events” in the PN of the Gospel of Mark more favorably (as pink or red), including the crucifixion of Jesus and the death of Jesus.  So, I plan to examine  (in a future post) those judgements of the Jesus Seminar about “Core Events” in Mark’s PN.