bookmark_borderAdamson’s Cru[de] Arguments for God – Part 7

There are more pathetic arguments given by Marilyn Adamson in the section of her web article that she characterizes as her first reason (out of six) for believing that God exists:

The complexity of our planet points to a deliberate Designer who not only created our universe, but sustains it today.

 After her crappy argument based on the size of the Earth and it’s distance from the Sun, she gives another crappy argument based on the properties of water:
Water…colorless, odorless and without taste, and yet no living thing can survive without it. Plants, animals and human beings consist mostly of water (about two-thirds of the human body is water). You’ll see why the characteristics of water are uniquely suited to life:
It has wide margin between its boiling point and freezing point. Water allows us to live in an environment of fluctuating temperature changes, while keeping our bodies a steady 98.6 degrees.
Water is a universal solvent. This property of water means that various chemicals, minerals and nutrients can be carried throughout our bodies and into the smallest blood vessels.
Water is also chemically neutral. Without affecting the makeup of the substances it carries, water enables food, medicines and minerals to be absorbed and used by the body.
Water has a unique surface tension. Water in plants can therefore flow upward against gravity, bringing life-giving water and nutrients to the top of even the tallest trees.
Water freezes from the top down and floats, so fish can live in the winter.
Adamson not only fails to explain how these properties of water are supposed to provide evidence for the existence of God, she also fails to give any clues as to why they might be considered evidence for God.
Given the absence of any explantion by Adamson, one might reasonably impose the logic of her first argument concerning the size and position of the Earth on this second argument about the life-sustaining properties of water.  To parallel Adamson’s reasoning about the Earth, we need a premise that asserts the Natural Improbability Thesis about Water:
(NIT-W) Given our knowledge of the laws of nature, and of the general configuration of matter and energy in the universe, and of the natural processes involved in the development of material substances, it is IMPROBABLE that natural processes would lead to the formation of a substance that possesses all of the various life-sustaining properties of water.
This assumption suggests a contrast with the alternative view that there exists a God who could, and who probably would, guide, or intervene in, natural processes in order to bring about the formation of a substance that possesses all of the various life-sustaining properties of water. This second key unstated premise of Adamson’s argument I will call the  Divine Guidance Thesis about Water:
(DGT-W) If God exists, then given our knowledge of the laws of nature, and of the general configuration of matter and energy in the universe, and of the natural processes involved in the development of material substances, it is PROBABLE that at least one substance comes to exist with all of the various life-sustaining properties of water, because if natural processes would not cause this to happen on their own, then God would probably guide, or intervene in, those natural processes to bring about the existence of such a substance.
If (NIT-W) and (DGT-W) are both true, then the existence of water with it’s various life-sustaining properties would provide some evidence for the existence of God. But if (NIT-W) is false (or dubious), then Adamson has failed to show that the existence of water constitutes evidence for the existence of God. And if (DGT-W) is false (or dubious), then Adamson has failed to show that the existence of water constitutes evidence for the existence of God.
It is clear and obvious that (NIT-W) is false. Given our knowledge of the laws of nature, and of the general configuration of matter and energy in the universe, and of the natural processes involved in the development of material substances, it is actually PROBABLE that natural processes would lead to the formation of a substance that possesses all of the various life-sustaining properties of water.  Water is H2O, and the various life-sustaining properties of water are the results of the laws of physics and chemistry.  If you have matter consisting of electrons and neutrons and protons, and if those components of matter interact in accordance with the laws of physics and chemistry that we know about, then they can form hydrogen and oxygen, and hydrogen and oxygen can combine to form H2O, and this substance, which we call “water” will necessarily have all of the life-sustaining properties that Adamson mentions.
In other words, given the laws of nature that we know about, and given the general configuration of matter and energy in the universe, there is nothing improbable about the existence of water and its various life-sustaining properties.  So, (NIT-W) is false.
One could try to rescue Adamson’s argument from water by shifting the argument away from one about divine intervention in natural processes to an argument from fine-tuning.  If we think of God as a supreme engineer, then we can argue that the existence of water and it’s life-sustaining properties are to be expected given the laws of nature and the general configuration of matter and energy in the universe, because God would have designed the laws of nature and the general configuration of matter and energy so that it was PROBABLE that water would be produced by the natural processes that bring about the existence of various material substances.  Nature produced water because God designed natural laws and matter in such a way that natural processes would be likely to produce water, among other material substances.
Such an argument would not be as obviously bad as one based on (NIT-W).  However, Adamson provides absolutely NO REASON whatsover to think that alternative laws of nature and alternative configurations of matter and energy in the universe would probably fail to produce a substance with the various life-sustaining properties of water.  So, if Adamson intends to be giving a fine-tuning type of argument here, she has utterly failed to provide any rational support for the key premise of this argument.
Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine how such an argument could be made.  How can we determine what are all of the various alternative systems of natural laws that could have existed?  This seems like it would be an infinite set of alternatives, and a subset of these alternatives would be an infinite number of alternative sets of highly complex systems of natural laws that would be too complex for any human being to comprehend in one lifetime (even if those laws were all clearly written out in English and mathematical formulas in a massive encyclopedia).   Also, how can we determine whether or not some hypothetical-imaginary-alternative set of natural laws would be likely to produce a substance with the life-sustaining properties of water?
Finally, even if we could somehow overcome these daunting intellectual challenges, what about the possibility that an alternative set of laws of nature and configuration of matter and energy could produce a substance with several life-sustaining properties, but a set of properties somewhat different from those of water?  In other words, even if an alternative system of laws and configuration of matter and energy failed to produce water, it might well produce a substance that was just as good, or even better than, water in terms of sustaining life.  But that would invalidate the results of the previously described investigation into alternative sets of laws of nature, and would add a whole new layer of complexity to the already daunting intellectual challenge.
If Adamson’s argument is based on the natural improbability of water, then a key premise of her argument is clearly false.  On the other hand, if Adamson’s argument was intended to be based on the natural probability of water (i.e. a fine-tuning argument), then she has a very serious intellectual challenge (i.e. a huge burden of proof) in order to show that alternative systems of laws of nature and alternative configurations of matter and energy would be unlikely to produce water (or some other substances with equally impressive life-sustaining properties), a very serious intellectual challenge that she has made ZERO intellectual effort to meet.  In short, either a key premise of her argument is false, or else a key premise of her argument is very dubious and without any rational support.

bookmark_borderAdamson’s Cru[de] Arguments for God – Part 6

Cosmic pluralism, the plurality of worlds, or simply pluralism, describes the philosophical belief in numerous “worlds” in addition to Earth (possibly an infinite number), which may harbour extraterrestrial life.  
(from Wikipedia article “Cosmic Pluralism“)
In my criticism of Adamson’s initial argument for the existence of God, I pointed out that cosmic pluralism is an idea that has been around since the beginning of Western philosophy about 2,500 years ago (the pre-socratic philosopher Anaxagorus advocated cosmic pluralism, for example), and that cosmic pluralism was advocated in Europe more recently by Giordano Bruno, about 430 years ago. Furthermore, cosmic pluralism was a view held by many of the leading philosophers that are usually covered in introductions to philosophy and in history of philosophy courses: Gottfried Leibniz, Rene Descartes, George Berkeley, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant. Some of the founding fathers of our nation were cosmic pluralists: Thomas Paine, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and probably Thomas Jefferson too.
I previously pointed out that science fiction books, stories, movies, and television programs often assume the truth of cosmic pluralism, so even if Adamson was completely ignorant of the history of philosophy and ignorant about the cosmological beliefs of our founding fathers, she ought to have been aware of the idea of cosmic pluralism from science fiction books or movies or television shows.
One might object that cosmic pluralism is a matter of speculation.  Anaxagorus was not a scientist, at least not in the modern sense.  He did not use a telescope to observe the planets in our solar system or the stars in our galaxy.  Bruno was not a scientist; he was a philosopher and theologian.  Bruno arrived at his theory of the universe based on abstract philosophical and theological reasoning, not on the basis of empirical science, not on the basis of careful observations and measurements, not on the basis of experiments.  Science-fiction stories and movies might well assume the truth of cosmic pluralism, but that doesn’t mean that we ought to believe that cosmic pluralism is true; fiction can be based on false or unproven assumptions.
In the previous post in this series I pointed out that Bruno may have been influenced to adopt cosmic pluralism and the view that the universe was infinite by the English mathematician and astronomer Thomas Digges.  Furthermore, Bruno was burned at the stake (by the brilliant Christian leaders of the Roman Inquisition) in 1600, and just ten years later Galileo published the first scientific work of astronomy based on observations made with a telescope: Sidereal Messenger (or Sidereal Message).  In that publication, Galileo reported that he was able to see many more stars with his telescope than what others had been able to observe with the naked eye. In 1750, the English astronomer and mathematician Thomas Wright published a book which suggested that observed faint nebulae indicate that the universe includes far distant galaxies.  By the end of the 19th century, astronomers were able to observe about 125 million stars using the telescopes available at that time. In 1920, there was the “Great Debate” in astronomy over whether the universe includes far distant galaxies beyond our own galaxy (as Thomas Wright had proposed back in 1750). In that debate the astronomer Heber Curtis argued that Andromeda and other  nebulae were separate galaxies. In 1925, the astronomer Edwin Hubble presented a scientific paper that provided powerful evidence supporting Curtis’ view that the universe included far distant galaxies.
So, we see that from the time of Giordano Bruno through the 1920’s scientific investigation of the universe has provided more and more evidence supporting cosmic pluralism. However, until fairly recently, we had no scientific proof that there were other planets in the universe outside of our own solar system.  Although astronomers and other scientists have long supposed that there were other planets in other solar systems (called “exoplanets”), scientific proof of this did not exist until near the end of the 20th century:
For centuries philosophers and scientists supposed that extrasolar planets existed, but there was no way of detecting them or of knowing their frequency or how similar they might be to the planets of the Solar System. Various detection claims made in the nineteenth century were rejected by astronomers. The first confirmed detection came in 1992, with the discovery of several terrestrial-mass planets orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12. The first confirmation of an exoplanet orbiting a main-sequence star was made in 1995, when a giant planet was found in a four-day orbit around the nearby star 51 Pegasi. Some exoplanets have been imaged directly by telescopes, but the vast majority have been detected through indirect methods such as the transit method and the radial-velocity method.  (from the Wikipedia article Exoplanet)
Many planets and planetary systems have been discovered in recent decades:
Over 3000 exoplanets have been discovered since 1988 (more specifically, 3412 planets in 2554 planetary systems, including 578 multiple planetary systems, have been confirmed, as of 23 May 2016).    (from the Wikipedia article Exoplanet)
So, we now know that Giordano Bruno’s view of the the universe was largely correct.  There are at least 100 billion planets in our galaxy, the Milky Way galaxy, and there might well be about 10 trillion planets in our galaxy.  If we use the lower estimate and assume this to be an average number for a galaxy, then the approximate number of planets in the observable universe is about the same as the number of stars:
200,000,000,000 galaxies  x  100,000,000,000 planets/galaxy =
 20,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets
Most of those planets are not hospitable places for plants and animals and humans, but even if only one-in-a-million planets was suitable for living creatures, that would mean that about this many planets would be suitable for life:
 20,000,000,000,000,000 planets
If there are anywhere near this number of planets that have conditions suitable for sustaining living creatures, then it is virtually certain that there are other planets in other solar systems in the universe that have living plants and animals on them, and it is highly probable that among those other planets in other solar systems that have living plants and animals, there are some intelligent animals that have developed language, mathematics, and knowledge about natural phenomena.  In other words, scientific investigation of the universe has shown that it is highly probable that cosmic pluralism is correct.
Giordano Bruno should not have been burned at the stake.  If anyone deserved to be burned at the stake, it was the shit-for-brains Christian leaders of the Roman Inquisition who should have been barbequed.  My thanks to Adamson for reminding us of the history of ignorant, dogmatic, and brutally oppressive Christian leaders in Europe by her failure to make any mention of Giordano Bruno or of cosmic pluralism, which constitute an obvious objection to her pathetic and intellectually worthless initial arguments for the existence of God.
 

bookmark_borderWhat is Christianity? Part 15

In his book Naming the Elephant (hereafter: NTE), the Christian apologist James Sire raises various objections against his analysis of the concept of a “worldview” that he had presented in his earlier book The Universe Next Door (hereafter: TUND).
I have reviewed three of Sire’s objections to his earlier cognitivist analysis of the concept of a “worldview” and argued that those objections were unsuccessful (see previous posts 10, 11, 12, and 13).
I plan to review more of Sire’s objections from NTE, but for this post I will simply re-iterate and reinforce a basic argument against Sire’s proposal in NTE that we take a worldview to be “a way of life”:

  1. Sire (and nearly all Christian apologists) believes that “The Christian worldview is true.”
  2. The belief that “The Christian worldview is true.” makes sense ONLY IF a worldview is something that can be true or false.
  3. But, if a worldview is “a way of life”, then a worldview is NOT something that can be true or false.

THEREFORE:

4. Sire (and nearly all Christian apologists) must either give up the belief that “The Christian worldview is true.”  or else he must reject the belief that a worldview is “a way of life”.

It is clear in TUND that Sire believes that a worldview is something that can be true or false.  In the “Preface to the Third Edition” he speaks of worldviews as being “true” and as needing “justification”:
…I am convinced that for any of us to be fully conscious intellectually we should not only be able to detect the worldviews of others but be aware of our own–why it is ours and why in light of so many options we think it is true.  I can only hope that this book becomes a stepping stone for others toward their own self-conscious development and justification of their own worldview.  (TUND, p.10, emphasis added)
Furthermore, his very definition of “worldview” in TUND includes a clear reference to the idea of truth:
A worldview is a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic makeup of our world.  (TUND, p.16, emphasis added)
But it is not just in the earlier book TUND where Sire speaks of worldviews in terms of truth and falsehood.  In the very first paragraph of the Preface of NTE, we find Sire still talking about worldviews being true or false:
Moreover, developing a cognizance of my own worldview has provided a way of orienting not just my own thoughts but my whole take on life itself.  I have, in short, long been interested in detecting the basic intellectual commitments we make as human beings, reveling in their variety, delighting in the depth of their insight when they have grasped the truth and despairing over their disastrous consequences when they have proven false.  (NTE, p.11, emphasis added)
And, at least initially, Sire more or less repeats the definition of “worldview” from his previous book, including the reference to truth:
A worldview is composed of a number of basic presuppositions, more or less consistent with each other, more or less consciously held, more or less true.  (NTE, p.20, emphasis added)
But in later chapters of NTE, Sire raises objections to his previous cognitivist analysis of the concept of a “worldview” and rejects that previous analysis:
First, a worldview is not fundamentally a set of propositions or a web of beliefs. That is, it is not first and foremost a matter of the intellect.  (NTE, p.123)
Despite rejecting his previous cognitivist analysis of the concept of a “worldview”, Sire persists in speaking about worldviews in terms of truth and falsehood.  At the end of Chapter 6, for example, Sire speaks of a worldview being “objectively true”:
Traditional Christians in general are not about to give up the idea of objective truth.  I do not think I speak only for myself when I say that every fiber in my being cries out for a worldview that is not just my own story, my own set of propositions, my own interpretation of life, but one that is universally, objectively true (NTE, p.118, emphasis added)
In Chapter 7 of NTE, Sire uses the words “true” and “false” and “accurate” of worldview “assumptions”:
The presuppositions that express one’s commitments, may be true, partially true or entirely false.  Since there is a way things are, the assumptions one makes about this may be more or less accurate.   (NTE, p.129, emphasis in original)
Sire illustrates this point with the important example of the Christian-worldview belief that “there is a God”:
If there is a God, and we believe in God, our belief is a true belief.  (NTE, p.129, emphasis added)
Later in Chapter 7, Sire speaks about the possibility of having “contradictions in our worldview” and the need to “eliminate” such contradictions:
One inconsistency is quite common.  Some self-confessed Christians believe in reincarnation.  I am convinced that those who do this have not understood very well what Christianity teaches.  For if it is true that each person is made in the image of God, then each person is unique.  The doctrine of the resurrection of the body at the end of human history assures that each person is that same person and that person alone.  But reincarnation involves the notion that one individual at death reverts to a state in which he or she can return as another individual in another body.  This happens not just once but over and over.  The two concepts of what happens at death–resurrection and multiple, perhaps eternal, reincarnations–cannot both be the way things are.   One precludes the other.
If we are to have a Christian worldview, we will want to eliminate the contradictions in our worldview.  (NTE, p.131, emphasis added)
Concern about contradictions in a worldview implies a concern about TRUTH of the beliefs or assumptions that constitute the worldview.  Note that Sire explains the problem or contradiction here by using the concept of truth: “For if it is true that each person is made in the image of God, then each person is unique.”  Worldviews can contain contradictions, because worldviews are composed of beliefs or assumptions which can be true or false.
Near the end of Chapter 7, Sire speaks about “errors” in worldviews:
Some errors in worldview will become apparent and be eliminated only with much prayer and supplication.  That will be true of our own errors as much as those of others whose views we try to change. (NTE, p.135, emphasis added)
The idea that a worldview can contain “errors” supports the previous statements by Sire where he speaks of worlview “assumptions” being “true, partially true or entirely false.” (NTE, p.129).
At the end of Chapter 7, Sire re-iterates his view that ontological assumptions, such as belief in the existence of Godare the most basic and important aspect of a worldview:
…because the mainstay of one’s worldview is ontological, a commitment to a specific notion of fundamental reality, we will take a person’s notion of God or nature or themselves to be the most important aspect of their character.  Their support or rejection of any ethical principle–say prochoice or prolife–is less fundamental than the notion of what is ultimately real.  Christians proclaiming either ethical principle will do so primarily from an understanding of who God is… A change of position on this issue [i.e. on their understanding of who God is] will mean worldview change at a deep level. (NTE, p.135-136, emphasis added)
The primary ontological belief in the Christian worldview is that God exists.  As we saw earlier, this belief or assumption is one that Sire thinks can be true or false:
If there is a God, and we believe in God, our belief is a true belief.  (NTE, p.129, emphasis added)
Although Sire raises many objections against his earlier cognitivist analysis of the concept of a “worldview”, and although he rejects this cognitivist analysis, he continues to speak of worldviews in terms of “assumptions” and “presuppositions” and “beliefs” which are to be evaluated as  “true, partially true or entirely false.”  (NTE, p.129).  And since Sire also continues to speak of worldviews as potentially being “objectively true” (NTE, p.118), Sire is caught in a significant self-contradition: he must either give up his claim that a worldview is “a way of life”, or else he must give up his view that a worldview is something that can be true or false.

bookmark_borderWhat is Christianity? Part 14

Here are the main conclusions and claims that I have argued for or asserted in previous posts:

  1. A religion is fundamentally about ideas, claims, and beliefs (see post #1).
  2. Christianity is a religion (see posts #2 & #3).
  3. Christianity is NOT a relationship with Jesus Christ, because Christianity can be true or false, but a relationship cannot be true or false (see posts #2 & #3).
  4. In his book Worldviews, the religious studies scholar Ninian Smart asserts that there are six different dimensions to a religion, and the philosophical or doctrinal dimension is only one of those dimensions (see post #4).
  5. In his earlier book The Universe Next Door, the Christian apologist James Sire defines the term “worldview” in terms of beliefs or presuppositions, in keeping with my cognitivist view of religions and worldviews (see post #4).
  6. In a more recent book called Naming the Elephant, Sire challenges his previous conception of worldviews, and he proposed a revised conception of the idea of a worldview, one that runs contrary to my cognitivist view of religions and worldviews (see post #5).
  7. In Naming the Elephant, Sire proposes the idea that a worldview is a kind of commitment, but this understanding of worldviews seems incorrect, because a worldview (e.g. the Christian worldview) is something that can be true or false, but a commitment is NOT something that can be true or false (see post #5).
  8. Christianity is NOT a kind of religious expereince, because Christianity can be true or false, but an experience is NOT something that can be true or false (see post #6).
  9. Although I agree with Ninian Smart that a religion has a number of dimensions that include more than the doctrinal or philosophical dimension,  the doctrinal or philosophical dimension is more important and more basic than the other dimensions, and there are various indications of the centrality of this dimension in Smart’s discussions about worldviews in his book called Worldviews (see post #7).
  10. The doctrinal or philosophical dimension of a religion is more important and more basic than the narrative or mythic dimension, because we can recognize and identify a story as being a RELIGIOUS story only because we can recognize and identify stories that have a religious meaning, and we can recognize religious meaning only  by recognizing and identifying religious beliefs that are expressed or reinforced by a particular story (see post #8).
  11. The doctrinal or philosophical dimension of Christianity is more basic and more fundamental than the ritual or practical dimension of Christianity, because what makes something a religous ritual or a Christian religous ritual as opposed to being a non-religious ritual, is that the ritual has a religious meaning or significance and such a meaning or significance is necessarily and unavoidably tied to religious beliefs or doctrines (see post #9).
  12. Ninian Smart uses the word “worldview” in order to emphasize the fact that there are secular analogues to religions (e.g. Marxism and Secular Humanism). Given the way that Smart uses the word “worldview”, a religion IS a worldview, namely a religious worldview, as opposed to a secular worldview.  However, I intend to use the word in a narrower sense than this. I intend to use the word “worldview” to refer to the doctrinal or philosophical dimension of a religion or of a secular analogue to a religion (see post #10).
  13. One can have a philosophy of life, without that philosophy being clearly and logically and systematically developed.  James Sire’s point here seems reasonable and plausible; however, this does not constitute a good objection to his earlier concept and definition of “worldview” (see post #10).
  14. “What is missing from my seven questions is not content but existential relevance.” (NTE, p.97).  This objection can be re-stated in terms of practical concerns: Sire’s seven worldview questions lack a proper emphasis on practical and ethical concerns.  If we broaden Sire’s question (6) just a bit, then that would help Sire’s seven questions to have a proper emphasis on practical or ethical concerns. Here is my suggested alternative:  (6A) How should I live my life? (What are the main criteria for judging that a life is/was a good life, a well-lived life? What are the main obstacles to acheiving such a life?).    Although Sire’s seven questions might not have done a great job in capturing the heart of ethics, I think if we revise his question (6) to (6A), and if we understand that there are ethical aspects to questions (3) and (7), then Sire’s set of worldview questions would provide a proper emphasis on practical and ethical concerns (see post #11).
  15. The third objection that James Sire raises against his older conception of worldviews, is that it makes more sense to understand a worldview as being “a way of life” (NTE, p.97) rather than to understand a worldview as being “a system of thought” (NTE, p.98) because of “the practical, lived reality of worldviews…” (NTE, p.100).  Sire appears to believe that there is a conflict between understanding worldviews in terms of “intellectual categories” and recognizing that worldviews are “tied to lived experience and behavior.” Since beliefs are an “intellectual category” and since our beliefs–especially our worldview-related beliefs–impact and influence our choices and actions, it is clear that Sire’s third objection fails. Worldviews can be understood in terms of “intellectual categories” such as beliefs and assumptions and propositions and presuppositions, and this does NOT imply that worldviews are disconnected from “lived experience and behavior” (see post #12).
  16. Walsh and Middleton (Christian theologians quoted by James Sire in NTE) put forward two different metaphorical expressions (“incarnated in a way of life” and “a perceptual framework”) as challenges to the clear and common-sense concept of a worldview as “a system of beliefs”.   However, both metaphors, when examined more closely, support my cognitivist view of worldviews and disconfirm Sire’s claim that a worldview is “a way of life.” (see post #13).

bookmark_borderWhat is a Microaggression?

OK, this is way off topic, but I asked my colleagues for clarification and have gotten almost no response. I guess (a) they do not care about the issue (odd), or (b) they think that I am just trying to stir up controversy (not on this occasion), or (c) they are, for whatever reason, hesitant to speak up on the issue (Why would this be?). One thing I know about our commentators here at SO is that they are not at all hesitant to speak up on controversial issues, so I will raise the question here: What is a “microaggression?” In academe we have been hearing a good bit lately about so-called microaggressions and how to prevent them. However, I am must not sure what they are. My fear is that unless we define microaggressions clearly and have definite, objective criteria for identifying them, in suppressing such alleged aggressions, we might censor or stifle the rough-and-tumble of free and open discussion.
 
Universities must stand for freedom of speech if they stand for anything, but free speech means that some people’s feelings are going to be hurt. It is impossible to allow freedom of speech and not to allow considerable freedom to offend. For instance, atheists in some of my philosophy classes might say things that would be offensive to conservative religious people—and vice versa—but I do not see how this can always be avoided in frank and open discussion. On VERY rare occasions I have had people in class discussions use hateful epithets like “fag” or other terms of derision. In those cases, I don’t have to say anything but just open the floor to the other students who then let the offender hear about it in no uncertain terms. But what is a “microaggression” and what is just a blunt (and perhaps uninformed) opinion does not seem clear to me. Consider the following statements that might very well be made in a class discussion:
 
“Black lives matter? Sure, but what we should say is that ALL lives matter.”
 
“No, I do not want a biological male in the same locker room with my teenage daughter.”
 
“Religion is just the opiate of the people, as Marx said.”
 
“It violates freedom of religion to require a devout Christian to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.”
 
“What is wrong with the term ‘illegal immigrant’? They are immigrants and they are here illegally.”
 
“Sharia law is opposed to American principles.”
 
Every day I read the letters to the editor of the Houston Chronicle, and statements like this are made there all the time. Sure, they are possibly uninformed or insensitive, but should we treat them as aggressions if they are voiced in class? Should we discourage such statements, or just allow other students to respond to them?
 
I am really genuinely curious and concerned. I want all of my students to feel welcome in my classes, but I also want them to feel the freedom to express their convictions frankly in open discussion. Any light readers can shed would be appreciated.

bookmark_borderCritical Historians vs. the Dogmatists (Believers or Deniers)

Several recent discussions here at SO have addressed the perennially fascinating issue of the historical Jesus. In fact, in one guise or another, this is one of our most popular subjects for discussion. Recently, there have been abundant comments from “mythicists” who argue that the Jesus of the Gospels is a figure of myth or legend. This thesis was famously defended by G.A. Wells in a number of works. Wells argued that the evidence for the so-called historical Jesus was really no more compelling than the “evidence” for such indisputably legendary figures such as Wilhelm Tell. I think that it is fair to say that the mythicist view has not had much impact on mainstream history or biblical studies. Mythicists would no doubt counter that scholars who take a more traditional approach to the issue of the historical Jesus reject mythicism because the mythicist hypothesis would deprive them of a subject matter! The quest for the historical Jesus becomes like the quest for the historical Hercules.
Be that as it may, to me, as a philosopher, it seems as though much of this discussion occurs in an epistemological vacuum. When epistemological aims are unclear, controversy tends to veer between dogmatism and dismissal, with ringing declarations, much sarcasm, and the proliferation of straw men. What, then, is the historian’s aim? History is generally written in the form of an interpretive narrative that aims to reconstruct a set of past events in their appropriate context and provide guidance as to the causes, effects, and significance of the events. History, of course, is a cognitive enterprise like mathematics and natural science. Are its epistemic aims the same as those other fields? If asked to identify the epistemic aspirations of these fields while standing on one leg, my necessarily very succinct answer would be this:
Mathematics: Proof
Natural Science: Probability
History: Plausibility
Mathematics has traditionally set the highest standard because of its a priori nature and the concomitant certainty of its conclusions. Hence, establishing their claims more geometrico was for long the standard of proof for many philosophers, especially within the rationalist tradition. In natural science, on the other hand, conclusions are a posteriori and always, at least in principle, tentative and revisable (In practice, I don’t think we need to worry that Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood will be overturned.). Nevertheless, to qualify for the honorific designation “science,” a field must demonstrate that its theories are subject to robust and rigorous empirical constraint. Even “soft” sciences like paleontology (now including paleobiology) set strict standards for empirical stringency. Hence, we can say that the natural sciences seek to provide the most probable accounts for the phenomena within their domains given the total evidence available and with careful qualification of conclusions given the noted lacunae in the evidence. In science, plausibility is not enough; a stricter standard is required.
Historians, on the other hand, must usually settle for plausibility. In my view, all theoretical reasoning is basically the same. A thesis is asserted and the evidence for and against is critically examined. A thesis that emerges relatively unscathed from the crucible of critique and defense is tentatively accepted. To the extent that there is a distinctive scientific method, it is merely the employment of tools, such as experimental and quantitative methods, that allow scientific theories to enjoy empirical constraint of superior stringency. One laudable effect of rigorous empirical constraint is that it narrows interpretive freedom. In the early stages of inquiry, the meager results can fit with many diverse interpretations by the qualified parties. However, as data points are filled in, the range of acceptable interpretations narrows, and some formerly plausible views are definitively ruled out. For instance, before 1980, theories concerning the demise of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous were all over the place. Speculation is rife when the evidence is small. However, in recent decades the evidence explaining the K/T extinctions has mounted and the range of acceptable theories has narrowed.
Historians, however, are often confronted with situations in which a considerable latitude of interpretation is possible and there hardly admits the possibility of further limitation. This is true even when the historian is writing about relatively recent events, and even events that occurred within living memory. I am in the final stages of completing a book on the nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958 (I alternate between work in philosophy and in the history of science.). These events took place merely sixty or seventy years ago, and they were extensively documented at the time. Many of the participants and victims of these events have left memoirs and other accounts, and there are abundant archival sources. Yet, even here the historian faces frustration in attempting to say just what happened when and just why it happened.
For instance, one of my main emphases is the Castle Bravo test of March 1, 1954, which was predicted to have a most likely yield of six megatons but “ran away” to a stupendous blast of fifteen megatons (1000 times the yield of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima). The crew of the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon #5, and hundreds of native Marshallese were severely irradiated by fallout from the test. Why did these terrible events happen? The darker theories charging conspiracy are easily rebuffed, but many questions remain about just why greater precautions were not taken given the dangers, known or knowable at the time, of the potential of radioactive fallout to reach inhabited areas. What prompted a spurious sense of certainty and control on the part of those conducting the tests? I and my coauthor offer answers in our book, but we would not claim that our answers are final or complete. Hardly any historian can make such a claim with integrity.
When dealing with ancient events, the cautions I state above must apply a fortiori. When one writes about recent events such as the nuclear tests, the historian faces an embarrassment of potential sources. For instance, archival materials are so abundant that one hardly knows where to begin or what to include and what to exclude. For the historian of ancient history, the extreme paucity of contemporaneous written records by eyewitnesses and the lack of unbiased accounts makes the task of historical reconstruction especially onerous and fraught with peril. The evidence comes to resemble a Rorschach blot onto which contending ideologies can project what they want to see. For instance, those who want the Gospel narratives to support and confirm their faith will not have a difficult time “finding” the “evidence” that does so. Dogmatic deniers, on the other hand, will start with the assumption that it is all hokum and will pounce on any discrepancy or ambiguity as proof positive that the Gospels are fiction and that their authors were ax-grinding fantasists. How do we save history from the ideologues? If we cannot, let’s be honest and just admit that you get from an examination of the Gospels exactly what you bring to it, and just let the whole thing go.
Unless it is taken so far that it becomes another kind of dogma, skepticism can be a middle course between credulity and dogmatic denial. I recommend that we approach the Gospel texts exactly as the modern critical, skeptical historian approaches the works of Herodotus or Thucydides. A critical historian today approaches the ancient historians with an interrogative intent. We ask tough questions of the text and see if an answer is forthcoming either from the text itself or from any other source, generally textual or archaeological. We assume neither that the text is impeccable nor that it is worthless.
What standards guide this questioning process? Will not those very standards be brought into question when the historical investigation abuts the grounds for religious belief? For instance, we doubt Herodotus’ stories about divine interventions at the Battle of Salamis precisely because historical inquiry is guided by a naturalistic heuristic just as much as natural science is. But won’t religious apologists complain that such reliance on “post-Enlightenment” historiographic standards bias the case against them?
This complaint conflates a default assumption with an invincible conviction. Initial skepticism, even very deep skepticism, about miraculous events, is not a problem unless the skepticism becomes dogmatism that refuses to consider the evidence. Apologists have no grounds for complaining that the job of convincing the rational skeptic is hard and that they have a lot of work to do. They willingly took on a tough job and they cannot reasonably complain that it is tough. It is not reasonable to ask historians to suspend the rules that they apply to all other inquiries as soon as the investigation turns to Christian claims. To do so would be a gross case of special pleading on the part of the apologists.
On the other hand, those for whom debunking Christianity is a task that calls for genuinely religious fervor, are equally at odds with the assumptions of the critical, skeptical historian. For the critical historian, skepticism is a tool for discovery, not an agenda that dictates a conclusion. The emotional needs of dogmatic believers or deniers are simply a distraction for the critical historian. When historians read Herodotus today, they need not dismiss him as the “father of lies” as Plutarch called him, nor take him at face value when he tells us, for instance, just what Xerxes supposedly said to his generals when planning the invasion of Greece. What is needed is a similarly judicious dedication to sorting fact from fantasy when reading the Gospels. If you come to the task sure ahead of time that the Gospels are fact or equally certain that they are fantasy, you cannot be a historian and the historian’s goal of plausibility will elude you.

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exist? Ehrman’s Complete Failure – Part 5

Because my main objection to a key argument in Chapter 3 of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) is a strong and decisive objection (i.e. Ehrman provided ZERO historical facts to support the main historical premise of a key argument),  I have felt some concern that my identification or interpretation of the ABSIG argument (Agreements Between Seven “Independent” Gospels) might have been incorrect or inaccurate.  In my view, Ehrman is an intelligent and knowlegable N.T. scholar, so it seems unlikely that he would do such a lousy job of supporting the main historical premise of a key argument.
Because of this concern, I have gone back through Chapter 3, as well as some key parts of Chapters 2, 4, and 5, to double-check myself.  As a result of a brief review of these chapters, I have one correction to make to my characterization of Ehrman’s viewpoint, and I also have located key passages that support my identification of, and understanding of, the ABSIG argument in Chapter 3.
First, I will reinforce my identification and interpretation of the ABSIG argument, then I will make a correction to my characterization of Ehrman’s viewpoint about the existence of Jesus.
CONFIRMATION of my Identification & Understanding of the ABSIG Argument
The most important passage supporting my identification and understanding of the ABSIG argument is found in Ehrman’s discussion about oral traditions behind the written sources allegedly used by the authors of the seven “independent” Gospels:
Where did all these sources [i.e. “the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century”] come from?  They could not have been dreamed up independently of one another by Christians all over the map because they agree on too many of the fundamentals.  (DJE, p.86, emphasis added)
In this passage Ehrman argues against the skeptical view that Jesus was an invention of early Christian believers on the grounds that the earliest written sources about Jesus “agree on too many of the fundamentals”, which is a reference to a phrase from a sentence earlier in the same paragraph: “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death…”.  Thus, one reason why Ehrman rejects the skeptical position that Jesus was an invention of early Christian believers is that the written sources behind the seven “independent” Gospels “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death…”.
The roots of this line of reasoning go back to Ehrman’s discussion in Chapter 2 of DJE about the nature of historical reasoning about evidence for an historical event or historical person:
Moreover, in an ideal situation, the various sources that discuss a figure or an event should corroborate what each of the others has to say, at least in major points if not in all the details. …if you have multiple sources from near the time that tell many stories about…[a particular historical figure]…that corroborate one another’s stories–then you have good historical evidence.  (DJE, p.41, emphasis added)
Clearly, this principle is intended to be applied in the case of Jesus and the Gospels, and clearly the historical reasoning on page 86 of DJE is intended to be an application of this principle to the evidence from the seven “independent” Gospels (and the written sources allegedly used by the authors of those Gospels).
Note that Ehrman refers to “various sources” that “tell many stories” and that “corroborate one another’s stories”.  This suggests that Ehrman will go on to discuss various Gospel sources that “tell many stories” about Jesus (especially since the next Chapter is titled: “The Gospels as Historical Sources”), and that “corroborate one another’s stories” about Jesus.  The phrase “many stories” ties into a phrase later used in Chapter 3: “many of the basic aspects of Jesus’ life and death”, and the word “stories” clearly applies to the various stories about Jesus found in the seven “independent” Gospels (and their various alleged written sources).
That this is an important part of Ehrman’s historical reasoning in Chapter 3 of DJE is also shown by the emphasis placed on this point by means of repetition of the point by Ehrman in Chapter 3:
All of these written sources I have mentioned are earlier than the surviving Gospels; they all corroborate many of the key things said of Jesus in the Gospels; and most important they are all independent of one another.  (DJE, p.82, emphasis added)
Yet many of them [i.e. “the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century”], independent though they be, agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death…  (DJE, p86, emphasis added)
They [i.e. “the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century”] could not have been dreamed up independently of one another by Christians all over the map because they agree on too many of the fundamentals. (DJE, p.86, emphasis added)
…these independent witnesses [i.e. “a number of surviving Gospels–I named seven…”] corroborate many of the same basic sets of data [about Jesus](DJE, p.92, emphasis added)
The historical principle given in Chapter 2 speaks of the requirement that “multiple sources” that are “from near the time” of the person or event in question and that “tell many stories”  should “corroborate what each of the others has to say, at least in major points…” in order to provide “good historical evidence” for the alleged person or event.
The ABSIG argument asserts there are seven “independent” Gospels that are based on several “independent” written sources, and that these alleged written sources “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’ life and death…”.  Clearly, there is an argument in Chapter 3 that is based on alleged Agreements Between Seven “Independent” Gospels, and which makes use of the principles of historical reasoning given in Chapter 2, concerning corroboration of “multiple sources” about “many stories” or “many basic aspects” of the life of Jesus.  So, I feel confident that I have presented an accurate interpretation of a key argument by Ehrman in Chapter 3 of DJE.
CORRECTION to my Characterization of Ehrman’s Viewpoint
In the second post in my series on “Did Jesus Exist?”, I raised an objection to Ehrman’s general approach to this question:
Because Ehrman never stops to clarify and define the word “Jesus”, he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?”, and because he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of this question, he is in no position to think clearly about this question, and he is in no position to prove or to establish that it is the case that “Jesus” did exist. 
While I still believe that Ehrman was unclear about the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?” and I still believe that he failed to adequately clarify the meaning of the claim “Jesus exists”,  and that he failed to provide a clear definition of the word “Jesus”,  I failed to note a few passages where Ehrman appears to indicate at least a partial list of basic attributes of Jesus which clarify the meaning of the word “Jesus” and the meaning of the claim “Jesus exists”.
There is at least one passage in Chapter 3 that hints at some basic or essential attributes of “Jesus”:
…they [i.e. “the Gospels”] provide powerful evidence indeed that there was a historical Jesus who lived in Roman Palestine and who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.  We will see in the chapters that follow that this is not the only kind of evidence we have for the existence of Jesus.  (DJE, p.70, emphasis added)
In this paragraph Ehrman appears to view evidence related to the specific attributes of (a) living “in Roman Palestine” and of (b) being “crucified under Pontius Pilate” as relevant evidence for answering the question “Did Jesus exist?”.  This suggests that these two attributes are basic or essential attributes of “Jesus”, at least for the purpose of answering the question “Did Jesus exist?”.  (Since there were numerous people living “in Roman Palestine” who were “crucified under Pontius Pilate”, these two basic attributes are obviously insufficient to formulate a definition of “Jesus”.)
This hint in Chapter 3 is reinforced in the conclusion of Ehrman’s positive case for the existence of Jesus at the end of Chapter 5:
WHAT CAN WE SAY in conclusion about the evidence that supports the view that there really was a historical Jesus, a Jewish teacher who lived in Palestine as an adult in the 20s of the Common Era, crucified under Pontius Pilate sometime around the year 30?  (DJE, p. 171, emphasis added)
In the above passage, Ehrman appears to view various attributes of Jesus or aspects of Jesus’s life as being directly relevant to the question of the existence of Jesus.  This assumption is even more clear when Ehrman recaps the conclusion of his positive case at the beginning of Chapter 6:
Up to this stage in our quest to see if the historical Jesus actually existed,  I have been mounting the positive argument, showing why the evidence is overwhelming that Jesus really did live as a Jewish teacher in Palestine and was crucified at the direction of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.  It will be equally important for us to learn what the historical Jesus said and did, since the mere fact of Jesus’s existence does not get us very far.  (DJE, p.177, emphasis added)
Here it is clear that Ehrman is separating out two different sets of attributes of Jesus or aspects of the life of Jesus.  First there are the basic aspects that are tied to the question “Did Jesus exist?”:  (a) a Jewish teacher, (b) living in Palestine, (c) who was crucified, (d) who was executed at the direction of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.  Second, there are other non-basic aspects about “what the historical Jesus said and did”.
Clearly, Ehrman has some ideas about which alleged attributes of Jesus ought to be considered basic or essential, and which alleged attributes are non-basic or non-essential.  Although there is some consistency in Ehrman’s various short lists of basic attributes, the lists do vary from one passage to another in his book DJE.  Furthermore, there is no discussion or justification of any of Ehrman’s lists of basic attributes.
Although I admit that the logic of Ehrman’s viewpoint on the existence of Jesus is not as grossly flawed as I had indicated in the objection that I raised in the second post of this series, I still believe that Ehrman’s failure to make a serious effort to clarify the question “Did Jesus exist?” and to define the word  “Jesus” is a major flaw with his positive case for the existence of Jesus.

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exist? Ehrman’s Complete Failure – Part 4

A Brief Review of My Previous Objections
One key argument for the existence of Jesus presented by Bart Ehrman in Chapter 3 of Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) is based on an historical claim about alleged Agreements Between Seven “Independent” Gospels:
(ABSIG) There are seven Gospels which were written within “a hundred years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death” (DJE, p.78) that are “either completely or partially independent” from each other (DJE, p.78) and yet they “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death” (DJE, p.86).
One problem with the argument is that a strong version of the argument requires forty to fifty pieces of historical evidence (i.e. forty to fifty specific passages quoted from the seven “independent” Gospels), but  Ehrman provides ZERO pieces of historical data in support of  the historical premise of this argument: (ABSIG).
Another problem with Chapter 3 in general, and the ABSIG argument in particular, is that Ehrman is UNCLEAR about the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?”.  Specifically, Ehrman never attempts to clarify or define the meaning of the word “Jesus”, nor does he provide a clear explanation or definition of what he means by a “basic aspect” of the life or death of Jesus.  Before Ehrman can prove that “Jesus exists”, he needs to identify what the “basic” or essential aspects/attributes of Jesus are, so that he can then (potentially) prove that someone who had those attributes actually existed.  Since Ehrman did not clarify or define the meaning of the word “Jesus”, he was in no position to present ANY arguments for the existence of “Jesus”.
A third problem with the ABSIG argument is that Ehrman does a poor job explaining and clarifying the crucial concept of “independence”.  First of all, his use of the phrase “independent Gospels” is misleading and confusing, because, for example, the Gospel of Matthew is one of these “independent” Gospels, but a large portion of Matthew was based on the Gospel of Mark.  The author of Matthew used Mark as a source of information about Jesus, as Ehrman himself points out.  Because the evidence needed to support (ABSIG) is specific passages from the seven Gospels, the real issue concerns the independence of the PASSAGES presented to support the claim that there is an agreement between some of these Gospels on a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus.  So the “independence” of the Gospels (as books) becomes irrelevant.
Furthermore, the concept of “independence” is not as clear and simple as it first appears, and upon closer examination it has numerous implications, especially when we are talking about the claim that several passages (concerning a basic aspect of the life of Jesus) are independent of each other.  If we have six such passages, for example, then there are 30 different potential dependencies between these passages which must be eliminated in order to show that the passages are independent of each other.  This means there is a significant burden of proof on anyone who attempts to provide historical evidence in support of (ABSIG).  Since Ehrman offered ZERO pieces of historical evidence in support of (ABSIG) he never had the opportunity to take on this burden of proof, and thus made no efforts along these lines.
Today I will discuss another problem (or potential problem) that faces anyone who attempts to provide actual historical evidence in support of (ABSIG).
Independence of the Basic Aspects/Attributes of Jesus
Ehrman never provided actual historical evidence in support of (ABSIG) so he had no opportunity to work at meeting the burden of proof to show that the relevant PASSAGES from the seven “independent” Gospels were PASSAGES that were independent from each other (as well as from other possible sources).   Similarly,  Ehrman never provided a list of “basic aspects” of the life of Jesus; he never defined the essential attributes of “Jesus”, and so he had no opportunity to work at meeting the burden of proof to show that those attributes were reasonable and significant attributes to use for the purpose of investigating the question “Did Jesus exist?”
One likely problem or objection that Ehrman would face (from me at least) if he ever gets around to defining the essential attributes of “Jesus”, is that his list of essential attributes will probably contain attributes that are NOT independent of each other.
The independence that I have in mind is different from the concept of the independence of sources or passages.  Lists of important or essential attributes of Jesus typically involve attributes that are not “independent” given that we understand “independent” in the sense that is used in relation to probability calculations.  It is crucial, for the purposes of supporting (ABSIG) that either the basic attributes of Jesus are independent from each other, or (failing that) that we determine the degree of dependence between each of the various basic attributes.
There is no discussion of this issue by Ehrman simply because he never gets down to the business of actually providing historical evidence in support of (ABSIG), so the issue of the independence of “basic aspects” of the life of Jesus, or of essential attributes of “Jesus”, does not come into view.   But if someday Ehrman (or a Christian apologist) attempts to provide actual historical evidence for (ABSIG), then they are likely to run into this problem.
In his book, The Real Jesus, Luke Johnson’s argument for the basic historicity of the Gospels runs into a problem because Johnson fails to notice the degree to which some of his basic attributes of Jesus have dependencies on each other.  I have commented on this in my series of posts responding to criticisms from William Lane Craig.
This concern about the independence of basic or essential attributes of Jesus grew out of objections to apologetic arguments concerning alleged fulfilled messianic prophecies.  Consider the following objection raised by Tim Callahan in Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment? (hereafter: BP) against Josh McDowell’s presentation of allegedly fulfilled prophecies about Jesus:
McDowell has fudged his figures a bit by taking one incident and breaking it into two to get an extra prophecy or using one prophecy as the source of two separate fulfillments. … Numbers 8 and 9 on his list are that Jesus was a descendant of Jesse, fulfilling Is. 11:1 and that he was of the house of David, fulfilling Jer. 22:5. Since David was the son of Jesse, if Jesus were a descendant of David he would also be a descendant of Jesse. Thus, this should be one prophecy, not two.  (BP, p.113)
One can broaden Callahan’s objection by use of the concept of “independence” from the context of probability calculations.   Because being a descendant of David implies being a descendant of Jesse, these two (alleged) attributes of Jesus are NOT independent from each other.  If Jesus is the descendant of David, that impacts the probability that Jesus is the descendant of Jesse; it raises the probability of the latter attribute to: 1.0  (certainty).  So, if possession of attribute A by Jesus impacts the probability that Jesus possesses attribute B, then attributes A and B are NOT independent attributes.
Furthermore, if possession of attribute A by Jesus makes it certain or likely that Jesus also posses attribute B, then we need to be cautious about overestimating the significance of the fact that Jesus possesses BOTH attribute A and attribute B.
Jesus was generally believed by early Christians to be “the messiah”.  The messiah was expected to be a Jewish male, from the tribe of Judah, a descendant of King David, who would be born in Bethlehem, who would be righteous and a devout worshipper of Jehovah, and a wise man who was obedient to and close to Jehovah.  Because of these expectations, a list of basic attributes like the following is highly problematic:

  • A jewish male
  • who was the messiah (or claimed to be the messiah)
  • who was from the tribe of Judah
  • who was a descendant of King David
  • who was born in Bethlehem
  • who was righteous
  • who was a devout worshipper of Jehovah
  • who was a wise man (or was believed to be wise by many)

All of these attributes (and more) are implied or at least made probable by the second attribute: “who was the messiah (or claimed to be the messiah)”.
More precisely, anyone who sincerely believed that Jesus was the messiah would be likely to also believe that Jesus possessed the other attributes in this list.  So, if the author of a Gospel believed that Jesus was the messiah, then we would reasonably expect that author to also believe that Jesus possessed all of these other attributes as well (even if they had no evidence, no facts, and no sources of information indicating that Jesus possessed those other attributes).
So, if and when Ehrman (or some enterprizing Christian apologist) makes a serious attempt to provide actual historical evidence supporting (ABSIG), then I, for one, will take a very close look at the list of basic or essential attributes used to define the word “Jesus” and to clarify the claim “Jesus exists”, and one of the things I will be looking for is whether those attributes are in fact independent of each other.
If I find there are dependencies between the attributes, then I will be checking to see whether Ehrman (or the apologist) has identified those dependencies and whether the degree of dependence has been properly assessed and taken into account in evaluating the significance of the conjunction of those various attributes in the descriptions of Jesus found in the seven Gospels.

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exist? Ehrman’s Complete Failure – Part 3

The Independence of Passages vs. Books
Among the seven “independent” Gospels to which Ehrman’s ABSIG (Agreements Between Seven Independent Gospels) refer are the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark.
A “basic aspect” of the life or death of Jesus is the claim that Jesus was crucified by the Romans.  There is agreement between Matthew and Mark on this “basic aspect”:
And they [the soldiers] crucified him [Jesus], and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. – Mark 15:24 (NRSV)
And when they [the soldiers of the governor] had crucified him [Jesus], they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; – Matthew 27:35  (NRSV)
According to Ehrman these are “independent” Gospels, so here we have an agreement between two “independent” Gospels on a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus.  Can we put this into the matrix diagram as an instance of agreement between at least these two Gospels? No.  That would be a mistake.
The problem is that the author of Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as a primary source of information about Jesus.  This passage in Chapter 27 of Matthew, as Ehrman would no doubt agree, was based on the passage about the crucifixion of Jesus in Chapter 15 of Mark.  So, this passage in Matthew is DEPENDENT on the passage from Mark.  Because of this dependency,  the passage in Matthew does NOT provide any confirmation or corroboration of the passage in Mark.  The author of Matthew got this information from reading the Gospel of Mark.
So when Ehrman claims that the Gospel of Matthew is an “independent” Gospel from the Gospel of Mark, this is misleading and confusing.  Hundreds of verses in Matthew are based on verses from Mark.  So, it is clear that much of the Gospel of Matthew IS dependent upon the Gospel of Mark.  Ehrman is just pointing out that there are some verses and passages in Matthew that are NOT based on Mark, and which thus probably do not have a dependency on Mark.  One CANNOT simply compare passages in Matthew and Mark and upon finding an agreement on a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus, declare that Matthew has corroborated that basic aspect found in the Gospel of Mark.
What this means is that as a general rule, when one finds an agreement between two (or more) of the seven so-called “independent” Gospels, one must then ask a crucial question:
Are these PASSAGES independent of each other?
Because Ehrman uses the term “independent Gospels” in a way that allows for the Gospel of Matthew to be considered an “independent Gospel” in relation to the Gospel of Mark, such supposed independence is irrelevant when we examine individual passages from various Gospels.
But when we look for agreements between various Gospels concerning basic aspects of the life or death of Jesus, we are examining individual passages, not entire works or books.  Therefore, any claim to the effect that one passage from one Gospel confirms or corroborates a passage from some other Gospel concerning a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus, we need a JUSTIFICATION of the claim that the two PASSAGES in question are independent passages. The fact that the two passages are from so-called “independent” Gospels is irrelevant and does not answer the crucial question at issue.
Because Ehrman never bothered to offer one single passage from any of the so-called “independent” seven gospels, there was never an opportunity for him to JUSIFY the claim that one passage from one of the seven Gospels was independent from another analogous passage (about the same basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus) in another of the seven Gospels.  But if Ehraman had produced forty or fifty passages, some from each of the seven Gospels, in order to make a strong case for his key premise (ABSIG), then he would have had to JUSTIFY many different claims about the independence of these passages from their analogues in the other Gospels.
We will soon see that this would be a rather daunting task, one that might well require multiple chapters of a book to accomplish.
The Logic of Independence
The concept of “independence” is more complex than it initially appears to be.  So, let’s start with as simple an example as possible, and then work our way towards examples of greater complexity.
Ehrman puts very little effort into discussing the concept of “independence”, but the little that he does say about it has some very significant implications.  It is worth taking a bit of time to think about the meaning of the word “independence” and what it implies.
Suppose that there are only two books in existence, and that these are the ONLY two books ever written (so far in human history): Book-A  and Book-B.
One logical possibility is that the author of Book-B used Book-A as a source.  In this case Book-B would be dependent on Book-A.  The contents of Book-A are thus, in effect, a cause of the contents of Book-B, at least of part of the content of Book-B, so let’s represent this situation with an arrow going from A to B:
A–>B     (B is dependent upon A)
Another logical possibility is that the author of Book-A used Book-B as a source.  In this case Book-A would be dependent on Book-B.  The contents of Book-B are thus, in effect, a cause of the contents of Book-A, at least of part of the content of Book-A, so let’s represent this situation with an arrow going from B to A:
A<–B   (A is dependent upon B)
Another logical possibility, which is probably very rare in reality, is that it is BOTH the case that Book-A is dependent on Book-B AND  Book-B is dependent on Book-A:
A<–>B   (A is dependent on B AND B is dependent on A)
How could this be possible?  Wouldn’t this involve circular causation?  Actually this is possible if, for example, both books were being written in the same time period (say the same four-month period), and when the author of Book-A had completed the first half of Book-A (say at the end of the first two months),  the author of Book-B obtained a copy of that half of Book-A and used it as a source for the second half of Book-B, and if when the author of Book-B completed the first half of Book-B (say at the end of the first two months), the author of Book-A obtained a copy of that half of Book-B and used it as a source for the second half of Book-A.  In this way, it is possible for Book-A to have a dependency on Book-B while Book-B also has a dependency on Book-A.
If we limit ourselves to evaluating the indpendence of PASSAGES rather than BOOKS, then this third logical possibility becomes even more unlikely and remote, because it is very unlikely that two authors would be writing analogous passages in the same short time frame and also read each others partial drafts of the passage prior to completing the writting of their own passage (this might, however, happen with cheating on Essay exams at colleges!).
If we can establish that Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A, does that mean that Book-B is independent from Book-A?  I’m not sure.  It depends on how we understand the meaning of “Book-B is NOTdependent on Book-A” and it depends on whether “independence” is a symmetrical relation.
If “Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A” just means that the author of Book-B did not use Book-A as a source, then it does not follow from this claim that Book-B is independent from Book-A.
Suppose that the author of Book-B had read Book-C and used that book as a source.  Suppose further that the author of Book-C had used Book-A as a source.  In this way even though the author of Book-B did not use Book-A as a source (and perhaps never even set eyes on a copy of Book-A), the information that came from Book-C might have been obtained (by the author of Book-C) from Book-A.
This is a circumstance in which it might well make sense to say that “Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A”  (meaning that the author of Book-B did not read Book-A or copy from Book-A) and yet it could also be the case that “Book-B is NOT independent from Book-A” (meaning that some of the information in Book-B can be traced back to Book-A, via Book-C).
Of course, I specified earlier that Book-A and Book-B were the only two books in existence, so on that assumption there could be no Book-C to complicate matters.
However, even if there were NO OTHER BOOKS besides Book-A and Book-B, a similar complication could arise because information can be transferred verbally (e.g. by oral tradition).  So, even in my super-simple imaginary world where there are only two books in existence, things can get complicated and confusing because there could be an oral tradition that transfers information from Book-A to the author of Book-B without the author ever laying eyes on a copy of Book-A.  (The complexity is just getting started.)
Another problem is whether “independence” is a symmetrical relation.  Equality is a symmetical relation.  If  X = Y, then it follows that Y = X.   So, asserting that X = Y  implies that Y = X.   If “independence” is a symmetrical relation, then asserting that “Book-B is independent from Book-A”  implies not only that “Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A” but also that “Book-A is NOT dependent on Book-B”.
It is not necessary to resolve this question right now about whether “independence” is a symmetrical relation, because even if we decide that “independence” is not symmetical, we still need to determine whether there are any significant dependencies in ANY direction between various passages of the seven Gospels if and when somebody gets around to actually providing specific passages from these Gospels in order to support the key historical claim (ABSIG).
The complexity involved with establishing “independence” of sources grows rapidly as we increast the number of books or the number of passages in question.
Suppose that somebody produces four different passages from four of the seven “independent” Gospels, and suppose these four passages agree on a specific basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus.  What are the various possible dependencies that need to be eliminated?
Let’s refer to the four passages as A, B,  C, and D.  In order to justify the claim that these four passages were independent of each other the following dependency claims would need to be shown to be false (or very improbable):
A–>B
A–>C
A–>D
B–>A
B–>C
B–>D
C–>A
C–>B
C–>D
D–>A
D–>B
D–>C 
In short, one would need to argue against all twelve of these possible “dependence” relationships.
But we know that other books and other passages exist besides just these four passages, so even if one shows that none of these twelve depdency relationship exist, there are other possible dependencies that could still undermine the claim that these four passages are independent of each other.
For example, there might be another passage E from one of the remaining three Gospels, and these four passages that agree with each other might all be dependent upon passage E.  In that case, there would be only ONE actual source of this information, and there would be NO CORROBORATION between the four passages that were put forward as evidence for (ABSIG).
If there are basic aspects of the life of Jesus that are allegedly agreed upon by five or six or seven different passages from different Gospels, then the possibilities for dependency relations are multiplied further.  For five passages, there are 20 different possible dependencies (5 x 4 = 20) that must be ruled out.  For six passages, there are 30 different possible dependencies (6 x 5 = 30) that must be ruled out.  For seven passages, there are 42 different possible dependencies (7 x 6) that must be ruled out.  This does not include the task of ruling out dependency relations with other passages outside of the passages that are presented as evidence.
I hope that this brief discussion of the concept and logic of “independence” shows that the claim that several passages from several Gospels are “independent” from each other is a claim that carries many significant implications, and thus involves a serious burden of proof that may require numerous arguments and justifications to support, none of which you will find in Chapter 3 of DJE, because Ehrman does not even begin the task of providing historical evidence.
Because Ehrman never put forward ANY passages from ANY of the seven “independent” Gospels as evidence in support of (ABSIG),  he never had the opportunity to start building the necessary complex justifications required to show that such passages were in fact “independent” from each other.
 

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exist? Ehrman’s Complete Failure – Part 2

Existence vs. Basic Aspects/Attributes
“Did Jesus exist?” – What does this question mean?
Clarity is a gateway standard of critical thinking.  If you are UNCLEAR about the meaning of a question, then your thinking about that question will also be unclear, and your thinking will probably not be very useful or productive or logical so long as you remain UNCLEAR about the question at issue.
On the one hand, it is certain that there was no Jewish man who lived in Palestine in the first century  named “Jesus”.  That is because “Jesus” is a name in the English language, and the English language did not exist in the first century.  Question settled!  That was easy.
On the other hand, if the question is asking whether there was a Jewish man who lived in Palestine in the first century named “Yeshua” (in Aramaic), that question can also be answered with certainty.  Yes, there was such a man.  In fact, there were thousands of Jewish men who lived in Palestine in the first century named “Yeshua” (in Aramaic).  Aramaic was the language of Palestinian Jews in the first century, and “Yeshua” was a very common name at that time.  Question settled.  No need for further discussion.
Obviously, I have not really settled the question “Did Jesus exist?” here.  Clearly, the question is NOT merely asking whether there was a Jewish man by the name of “Yeshua” who lived in Palestine in the first century.  But if that is not what the question is asking, then what IS the question asking?  It turns out that it is not so easy to say what this question is asking.  So philosophy (or at least logic and critical thinking) has an important role to play, as it usually does, right from the start.  We need to clarify the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?”
One important failure of Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) is that Ehrman never asks this basic question of clarification:
What does the question “Did Jesus exist?” mean?
The clarity and quality of Ehrman’s thinking about the question “Did Jesus exist?” suffers because of this fundamental mistake.   Furthermore, because of his basic unclarity about the question at issue, Ehrman appears to make the same sort of blunder that was made by Thomas Aquinas when Aquinas discussed the question “Does God exist?”.
In Summa Theologica Aquinas attempts to first prove the existence of “God” and then he goes on to try to prove that God has various divine attributes.  Ehrman similarly thinks that the question of the existence of Jesus can be settled prior to showing that various basic aspects of the life of Jesus (as portrayed in the canonical gospels) are factual.   Here are some comments by Ehrman where he seems to treat these as two separate issues:
The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist. (DJE, p.4, emphasis added)
…a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist.  He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic.  But he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him.  (DJE, p.6, emphasis added)
[My goal is] to show that there really was a historical Jesus and that we can say certain things about him.  (DJE, p.37, emphasis added)
These [surviving Gospels] all attest to the existence of Jesus.  Moreover, these independent witnesses corroborate many of the same basic sets of data–for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.  (DJE, p.92, emphasis added)
Would someone count as BEING “Jesus” if that person was not Jewish?  I don’t think so.  Would someone count as BEING “Jesus” if that person was not crucified by the Romans?  Probably not.  These “basic aspects” or attributes of Jesus seem to be more than just trivial claims about Jesus.  They seem to be a part of the meaning of the word “Jesus”, part of how we determine whether or not a particular person was in fact “Jesus”.
Aquinas and Ehrman both failed to recognize the need to DEFINE the thing that you want to talk about BEFORE attempting to prove that it exists.  This is a basic mistake in logic.
Knut Tranoy raises a serious objection against the way Aquinas approaches the question “Does God exist?”:
To prove or to produce evidence that a certain being, x, exists, is, one might say, to prove that a certain set of compossible properties is actualized.  That is, we cannot prove or know that x exists without at the same time knowing something about the nature or essence of x.
To prove the existence of God is, then, to show that the properties ascribed to the Christian God in the Bible are actualized in one and only one being.
(“Thomas Aquinas” in A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p.110)
Tranoy sums up the logical principle this way:
Before we can try to prove anything at all we must, of course, have some idea of the nature or properties of the being whose existence we want to prove. 
(“Thomas Aquinas” in A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p.110)
In order to prove the existence of God, one must START with a definition of God, and this is commonly done by means of a list of key (or basic) divine attributes.  For example, here is a list of basic divine attributes that I use to clarify the meaning of the word “God”:

  • an eternally bodiless person
  • an eternally omnipotent person
  • an eternally omniscient person
  • an eternally perfectly morally good person
  • a person who is the creator of the universe

Ehrman never explains what he means by a “basic aspect” of the life of Jesus, but I suspect that the word “basic” here is leaning in the direction of “essential”.  In other words, some aspects of the life of Jesus are very important and central from the point of view of Christian faith, and other aspects of the life of Jesus are less important and less central from the point of view of Christian faith.  That Jesus was crucified by the Romans is a very important and cenral aspect of the life of Jesus from the point of view of the Christian faith.  That means that the “basic aspect” of Jesus being crucified by the Romans is a good candidate for being an essential attribute of Jesus.  In other words, this is an aspect or attribute that we could reasonably include in a DEFINITION of the meaning of the word “Jesus” for the purpose of clarifying the question “Did Jesus exist?”
But lots of Jewish men were crucified by the Romans in first century Palestine, so these basic attributes would not be sufficient by themselves to define the word “Jesus”, since the point is not to locate a whole GROUP of Jewish men, but to identify exaclty ONE particular Jewish man.  So, what we need, and what Ehrman failed to provide, is a clear definition of the word “Jesus” for the purpose of clarifying the question “Did Jesus exist?”, and that definition, in order to be plausible and useful, will need to specify several basic aspects or attributes, just like my definition of “God” specifies several basic attributes of  God, in order to clarify the question “Does God exist?”.
Because Ehrman never stops to clarify and define the word “Jesus”, he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of the qeustion “Did Jesus exist?”, and because he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of this question, he is in no position to think clearly about this question, and he is in no position to prove or to establish that it is the case that “Jesus” did exist.
I have some other serious objections to raise against Ehrman’s ABSIG argument (Agreements Between Seven Independent Gospels) for the existence of Jesus, but they will have to wait for another day.