bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exist? Ehrman’s Complete Failure – Part 1

I was recently asked to participate in a public discussion/debate about the question “Did Jesus Exist?”.  I don’t plan to argue in favor of the mythicist position, just because I don’t think I would do it justice.  I’m not a mythicist, and I have not studied any mythicists in recent years (I read some of G.A. Wells books years ago, and I read Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle some years ago).  But I do have significant doubts about the existence of Jesus, and especially about the strength of the historical case for the existence of Jesus.
In order to prepare for the discussion,  I pulled out my copy of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) and began to re-read his positive case for the existence of Jesus.  I have criticized part of his case previously, so I began reading with the assumption that his case was weak and problematic, at least the initial argument that he makes based on seven allegedly independent Gospels, in Chapter 3.  Upon re-reading this Chapter, my conclusion is that this important part of his case is not just weak, it is a complete and utter failure.
I’m reminded of William Lane Craig’s argument for the claim that “Jesus died on the cross” in his book The Son Rises.  I went through Craig’s argument, line by line, and showed that while he made dozens of historical claims, there was not one single historical fact in the entire passage (there was one reference to one passage from one historical document, but upon examination of the document, the passage, its authorship, and its content, there was no real evidence for the specific historical claim being asserted).
I realize that Ehrman is not a Christian believer, and so obviously he is not a Christian apologist.  But there is a clear parallel between Chapter 3 of Did Jesus Exist? and WLC’s argument for the claim “Jesus died on the cross” in his book The Son Rises.  In both instances, we are set up with the expectation and promise that a strong historical case will be made for a basic Christian belief, but the case includes arguments that are virtually FACT FREE.  I suspect that Ehrman’s thinking was corrupted by exposure to Christian apologetics, and this has, sadly, led him to construct arguments for historical claims without bothering to mess with those inconvenient little things known as historical facts.  Jesus Freaking-H-Christ! (… an historically relevant curse for this occasion).
I respect both WLC and Ehrman.  They are both intelligent men and knowledgable about their fields.  They are both hard-working scholars.  I have learned much from both Craig and Ehrman.  I don’t claim to be smarter than they are, or to have more knowledge than they have, nor do I claim to work harder than they do.  They are scholars and I am not a scholar.
Nevertheless, I could do a better job defending these basic Christian beliefs with one hand tied behind my back while blindfolded.  I am very confident that I could do a better job, because I would make use of actual historical facts to make my case.  I may not be a brilliant scholar, but I know better than to make a fact-free case for an historical claim.  WLC and Ehrman evidently missed that memo.
Here is how Ehrman characterizes himself and his view on the question of the existence of Jesus:
But as a historian I think evidence matters.  And the past matters.  And for anyone to whom both evidence and the past matter, a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist.  (DJE, p.6, emphasis added)
Apparently evididence matters to Ehrman, except when he is laying out a key argument in his case for the existence of Jesus, because he doesn’t bother to provide ANY historical evidence for his key historical premise, though many dozens of pieces of historical evidence would be required to properly support that premise.
Here is how Ehrman characterizes his main goal in the book:
My goal, however, is neither to please nor to offend.  It is to pursue a historical question with all the rigor that it deserves and requires and in doing so to show that there really was a historical Jesus and that we can say certain things about him.  (DJE, p.37, emphasis added)
Making an argument for an historical claim without presenting any historical evidence in support of the key historical premise of a key argument means that Ehrman not only fell short of fully realizing this goal, it means that Ehrman completely and utterly failed to even partially acheive this goal, at least in terms of the argument about corroboration between seven Gospels that he presents in Chapter 3 (he does manage to do a somewhat better job with the argument presented in Chapter 4).
Ehrman’s positive case for the existence of Jesus is given in Part I, which encompasses Chapters 1 through 5.  But Chapter 1 just introduces the mythicist viewpoint, and Chapter 2 basically dismisses all of the non-Christian writers/sources.  So, the positive case for the existence of Jesus is given in just three chapters:  Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and Chapter 5.  The title of Chapter 3 indicates the content of the argument in that chapter: “The Gospels as Historical Sources”.  Craig miserably failed to prove that “Jesus died on the cross” largely because he made the absurd assumption that he could do this in just a few short pages.  Ehrman makes bascially the same mistake in Chapter 3 of DJE.
The basic principle used in this key argument was spelled out in Chapter 2, but is nicely summarized in Chapter 3:
…historians,  who try to establish that a past event happened or that a past person lived, look for multiple sources that corroborate one another’s stories without having collaborated.  And this is what we get with the Gospels and their witness of Jesus.  (DJE, p.75)
There is more than one argument presented in Chapter 3, but a key argument is summarized by Ehrman at the end of Chapter 3:
We are not dealing with just one Gospel that reports what Jesus said and did from sometime near the end of the first century.  We have a number of surviving Gospels–I named seven–that are either completely independent of one another or independent in a large number of their traditions.  These 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)
One could summarize the key premise of this argument in one sentence (about: 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).
The agreement on “the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death” is asserted by Ehrman about the written sources that were allegedly used in the composition of the seven Gospels.  But we know of the content of the alleged written sources of these seven Gospels only by carefully studying the content of the seven surviving Gospels;  we don’t have manuscripts of the alleged written sources (with the exception of the Gospel of Mark, which was one of the sources used in the composition of Matthew and in the composition of Luke).  We only have manuscripts of the seven surviving Gospels. So, any alleged agreements between the written sources behind the seven Gospels must be discernable in the existing texts of the surviving Gospels.
In the above quotations, there is a subtle clue that indicates Ehrman has failed to do his homework on this argument. The word “many” in the phrase “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death” points to a fundamental flaw of Chapter 3.  The word “many” is vague.  If Ehrman had actually investigated the evidence on this issue “with all the rigor that it deserves and requires”, then he would have provided a specific number here, instead of the vague quantifier “many”.  But he did not do his homework, and so he was unable to provide a precise quantity.
Agreement on three or four characteristics of Jesus or events in Jesus’s life might qualify as “many” agreements, but that would not be very impressive as an argument for the existence of Jesus.  Presumably, a strong case would involve something on the order of one or two dozen agreements on “basic aspects of Jesus’s life”.  But let’s just consider a conservative and round number of agreements that could potentially constitute a strong case: TEN.
Since we are talking about seven “independent” Gospels, a perfect argument for ten basic aspects would involve about 70 pieces of historical evidence, in which each of the seven Gospels has at least one passage that confirms each of the ten “basic aspects of Jesus’s life”.  But some of the “Gospels” are not very extensive, so those Gospels would probably only confirm a few of the ten basic aspects.  Even the more extensive Gospels might not confirm all ten basic aspects of the life of Jesus, and yet the overall argument could still be fairly strong.
It seems to me that a fairly strong argument could potentially be made if an average of five out of seven Gospels confirmed each of the ten basic aspects.  Then we could justifiably say that “Each of the ten basic aspects of the life of Jesus is confirmed by most of the seven Gospels”.
A matrix diagram is the obvious way to present an overview of the relevant historical data.  An ideal matrix, one that represents what is potentially a fairly strong case, would look something like this, where an “X” means that there is at least one passsage in that Gospel that confirms the basic aspect of Jesus’s life (click on the image below for a better view of the matrix diagram):
Ideal Matrix
In order to support this ten-aspect matrix, one would need to provide about 50 separate pieces of historical data, i.e. fifty different specific passages from the various seven gospels.  In some cases, a single passage from one gospel will support two or three basic aspects, reducing the required number of pieces of data.  But in some cases, one gospel will have two or three passages confirming just one aspect, increasing the number of pieces of data supporting the diagram.  So although this diagram does not require exactly 50 pieces of historical data, the number of pieces of historical data supporting this diagram would probably be close to 50.
If only two or three out of the seven Gospels support a given basic aspect, on average, then the argument for the existence of Jesus would be pretty weak, and the matrix diagram would look something like this:
WEAK Case Matrix
Note that even to make this very weak argument for the existence of Jesus, one would need to provide about 20 to 30 pieces of historical data (quotations from about 20 to 30 passages from the seven “independent” gospels).
Does Ehrman’s matrix look like the first one, with lots of X’s and very few blanks? Or does his matrix look more like the second one, with only a few X’s here and there and lots of blanks?  Neither.  Ehrman has no matrix diagram at all.
OK, that is not a deal breaker.  We can fill out a matrix diagram for Ehman, based on the historical evidence that he provided in Chapter 3.  How many pieces of historical data does Ehrman provide that we could use as the basis for constructing such a matrix?  Does he provide 50 passages from the seven Gospels? No.  Forty passages from the seven Gospels? No.  Thirty passages? No.  A measly twenty passages?  Nope.   Ehrman provides exactly ZERO passages from the seven “independent” Gospels to support his key premise (ABSIG).
So, here is the appropriate matrix diagram representing Ehrman’s argument from the agreement between seven “independent” Gospels (ABSIG):
No Case Matrix
I am not impressed, and I am certainly not convinced.
Ehrman does sometimes quote a Gospel passage in Chapter 3, but not for the purpose of showing how that Gospel supports a specific “basic aspect” of the life of Jesus.  In Chapter 3, Ehrman quotes Luke 1:1-3 on pages 73 and 79, but not to show that this Gospel confirms a specific basic aspect of the life of Jesus that othere Gospels also confirm.  The quotation of Luke on page 79, for example, is to support the general claim that “the Gospels…were based on earlier written sources…” (DJE, p.78).
Ehrman quotes three passages from the Gospel of Mark and one passage from the Gospel of John on pages 87-89, but the point of that evidence was to show that these Gospels include written sources that ultimately were “based on oral traditions” (DJE, p.86) that were “originally spoken in Aramaic, the language of Palestine.” (DJE, p.87).  The purpose of these quotes is to support the claim that the Gospels can be traced back to early oral traditions, traditions that existed shortly after the standard date for the crucifixion of Jesus.
On page 90 of DJE, Ehrman quotes a passage from the third chapter of the Gospel of John, but the purpose of that quote is just to illustrate how Aramaic can be used to determine that some Gospel passages (like the one quoted from John) are NOT based on early oral traditions about Jesus (which were in Aramaic).
There are no other quotations from the four canonical Gospels in Chapter 3 of DJE.  There are also no quotations in Chapter 3 from the Gospel of Thomas, or from the Gospel of Peter,  nor are there quotations from “the highly fragmentary text” called Papyrus Egerton 2.  Therefore, there are ZERO quotations (from any of the seven “independent” Gospels) that are given in support of the key historical premise (ABSIG) of a key argument in Ehrman’s positve case for the existence of Jesus.
If Ehrman had provided twenty to thirty different passages, some from each of the seven “independent” Gospels, showing that two or three of the Gospels support each of ten “basic characteristics” of the life of Jesus, then I would conclude that he had presented an argument which was potentially, at best, a very weak argument for the existence of Jesus. But Ehrman has in fact provided ZERO relevant quotations from the seven “independent” Gospels, so this argument is a complete and utter failure.  It should persuade nobody, because there is no historical evidence provided to back up the main historical premise of this argument.
In Chapter 3 of DJE, Ehrman has presented a FACT FREE argument for the existence of Jesus, which is completely contrary to his claim that he thinks “evidence matters” and completely contrary to his goal to pursue the historical question of whether Jesus exists “with all the rigor that it deserves and requires”.  Ehrman promised devotion to evidence and he promised scholarly rigor, but what he delivered is pure BULLSHIT, at least with his argument concerning Agreements Between Seven Indendent Gospels (ABSIG).
There are other serious defeciencies with this argument in Chapter 3, but I will save discussion of those for another post.

bookmark_borderWhy I Do Not Equate Religious Belief with Mental Illness

I’m not a psychiatrist, but as a teenager I worked for an elderly woman who I later found out was a paranoid schizophrenic with organic brain decomposition. (As an aside, if you have any empathy at all, it’s impossible to get to know someone like this and not find their situation heartbreaking.) I agree that you cannot talk the mentally ill out of their delusions, hallucinations, etc. But this would only be relevant to the claim that all religious belief is mental illness if it were the case that all religious belief is the result of mental illness. But I don’t think all religious belief is the result of mental illness and I’ve never seen a convincing argument for why we should think otherwise.
For my part, I’m impressed by work in the cognitive science of religion which supports the idea that most humans have a Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD). HADD explains why most people, especially most neurotypicals, have an overwhelming tendency to explain mysterious phenomena by appealing to invisible agents. It also explains why people on the Autism spectrum, who have varying degrees of mindblindness (and so to varying degrees are unaware of the beliefs, desires, and even (in severe cases) the existence of visible agents), are more likely than neurotypicals to be naturalists.
If that explanation (HADD) is correct, I wouldn’t call theistic belief a mental illness any more than I would call other types of cognitive biases a form of mental illness. Instead, if I were going to use labels at all, I would call supernatural belief the result of an often effective but imperfect cognitive mechanism, a mechanism which is the byproduct of blind evolution by natural selection.
Also, if it were the case that someone cannot be persuaded to change or give up entirely their religious beliefs, then we would expect that testimonies of converts and deconverts would make no mention of rational arguments. But that isn’t what we find. There are many people who became atheists because of something they read, whether it was Richard Dawkins’ GOD DELUSION, Bertrand Russell’s WHY I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN, or whatever.

bookmark_borderWhat is Christianity? Part 13

Worldview as a Way of Life?
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).
The sub-section of Chapter 5 where Sire presents this third objection is called “Worldview as a Way of Life” (NTE, p.98-100).  The first sentence in this sub-section is worth careful examination:
While worldviews have been overwhelmingly detected and expounded using intellectual categories, from the first there has been a recognition that they are inextricably tied to lived experience and behavior.   (NTE, p.98, emphasis added)
Sire thinks it was a mistake to understand worldviews primarily in terms of “intellectual categories”, categories such as “beliefs” and “propositions” and “assumptions”.  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.”  In the previous post, we examined a strong version of this view, namely the view that these are mutually exclusive claims:
(MEC) If X is best understood in terms of “intellectual categories” (such as “beliefs” or “propositions”), then X cannot be tied to lived experience and behavior.
I argued that worldview-related beliefs and assumptions, especially ethical beliefs, can be directly “tied to lived experience and behavior”, and thus that (MEC) is clearly false.
Another attempt to support the view that a worldview is “a way of life” is based on comments from the theologians Brian Walsh and J. Richard Middleton:
Worldviews are best understood as we see them incarnated, fleshed out in actual ways of life.  They are not systems of thought, like theologies or philosophies.  Rather worldviews are perceptual frameworks. (from Transforming Vision, quoted by Sire in NTE, p.98)
These comments, however, actually provide evidence against the view that a worldview is a way of life, and they provide evidence that supports my view that a worldview is a system of thought or a system of beliefs.
These comments by Walsh and Middleton presuppose the following claim about the incarnation of worldviews:
(WIC) A worldview can be incarnated in a way of life.
The first thing to note is that it is clear that a set or system of beliefs “can be incarnated in a way of life.”  Thus, my cognitivist view of worldviews is fully compatible with (WIC).
The second thing to note is that it is clear that it makes no sense to say that a way of life “can be incarnated in a way of life.”  Thus, Sire’s view that a worldview IS a way of life is NOT compatible with (WIC).  Therefore, the comment by Walsh and Middleton about worldview incarnation supports my cognitivist view but is contrary to Sire’s claim that a worldview is a way of life.
The word “incarnated” is a metaphor.  What does it mean?  God is invisible and intangible.  To say that God became “incarnated” in Jesus, is to say that Jesus is God in a visible and tangible form.  Similarly, (WIC) implies that a worldview is something that is ordinarily invisible and intangible, but that becomes visible and tangible when the worldview is “incarnated” in a way of life.
We can see and observe the behavior and habits of a person and of a group of people.  Thus, we can see and observe a way of life.  But, (WIC) implies that a worldview is not ordinarily something that we can see and observe.  This makes perfect sense if a worldview is a system of thought or system of beliefs.   We cannot see or observe thoughts or beliefs in the way that we can see or observe actions and habits and practices.
So, if we understand the meaning of “incarnated” in (WIC), then it is clear that it makes perfect sense to think about a worldview as being a system of thought or system of beliefs that can be incarnated in a way of life, and it is clear that it makes no sense to think about a way of life being incarnated in a way of life, because a way of life is already something that we can see and observe, and thus there is no need for a way of life to be “incarnated” at all.
The next comments by Walsh and Middleton also support my cognitivist view of worldviews, and do not support Sire’s view that worldviews are ways of life.  Walsh and Middleton argue that worldviews are “not systems of thought” but rather are “perceptual frameworks”.  This is basically a self-undermining argument.
First of all “perceptual frameworks” is an unclear metaphor, and thus it has an immediate disadvantage relative to the clearer and more common-sense view that a worldview is a system of beliefs.  But, if we unpack the meaning of this metaphor, it becomes fairly clear that this is just a confused way of referring to a system of beliefs.
The phrase “perceptual frameworks” is not only a metaphor, it is a mixed metaphor.  The primary literal meaning of “perceive” is to have a SENSORY experience: especially “to see or hear” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College edition).  Walsh and Middleton actually use the word “seeing” in this context:
Worldviews are “ways of seeing,” Walsh and Middleton say, and add, “If we want to understand what people see, or how well people see, we need to watch how they walk…”  (NTE, p.98)
The problem here is that a blind person has a worldview, and deaf people also have worldviews.  So, a worldview is NOT about literal seeing or literal hearing or about sensory experiences.  Thus, the word “perceptual” must be taken non-literally, or at least not in terms of the primary meaning of the word.  A secondary meaning of “perceive” is: “to become aware of in one’s mind; acheive understanding of” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College edition).  In other words, the non-literal meaning of “perception” is about: cognition, thinking, knowing, and believing.  A blind person can think.   A blind person can have beliefs.  A blind person can know things.  That is the sort of “perception” that we are talking about, when we use the phrase “perceptual framework”.
What about the word “framework”?  What does this word mean?  The framework of a building is the physical part of the building that provides structure and stability to the building.  That is the literal sense of the word.  But we aren’t talking about buildings.  We are talking about cognition, thinking, knowing, and believing.
What is it that provides structure and stability to thinking and cognition?  We have basic assumptions or beliefs that provide stability and structure to our thinking.  Our thinking and cognition and believing has a logical structure.  Some beliefs are more basic, more fundamental to our thinking and believing, than other beliefs.  So, we can reasonably infer that the non-literal meaning of “framework” is: beliefs that are basic or fundamental to our thinking and believing.  Such basic beliefs provide structure and stability to our thinking and believing.
So, “perceptual framework” does NOT refer to a literal physical framework that provides structure and stability to our vision or hearing (whatever that might mean); rather, this phrase refers to a set of basic beliefs that provide structure and stability to our thinking and believing in general.  In other words, when you get past the unclear metaphor and down to the literal meaning of it, the phrase “perceptual framework” actually refers to a system of thought or a system of beliefs.  So, Walsh and Middleton are arguing that we should set aside the clear literal phrase “a system of beliefs” and replace this phrase with an unclear metaphor “a perceptual framework”, a metaphor that when analyzed turns out to be a reference to a system of beliefs.
Therefore, Walsh and Middleton 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 are contrary to Sire’s claim that a worldview is “a way of life.”

bookmark_borderScience and Religion: The Clash of Ideals

In my previous post I argued that science and religion still can and do clash, especially concerning the implications of evolutionary theory and neuroscience. Specifically, an account of human origins that views Homo sapiens, like every other species, as the highly improbable end-product of a very long series of contingencies and accidents, cannot rest easily with worldviews in which humanity is an essential element if not the centerpiece of creation. Further, many if not most religions require that there is a spiritual element or essence that constitutes the true human self, a soul or mind that purportedly survives bodily death and confers special abilities like libertarian freedom. Yet neuroscience, a rapidly growing and successful research program—or cluster of research programs—finds no evidence for incorporeal souls and assumes as a regulative idea that there are none and that brains are sufficient for all mental functions. Science cannot prove that the human species was not intended or that souls do not exist, but it renders such suppositions gratuitous and pointless.
Perhaps, though, the greatest potential conflict between religion and science is epistemological. It is easy to slip into facile and misleading thinking on this point. Atheists all too often assume that religious belief is a product of faith, which they then helpfully characterize as an excrescence of irrationality, something like Ambrose Bierce’s definition from The Devil’s Dictionary: Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.” Surely, anybody who believes propositions, especially those of the deepest personal significance, on the basis of faith so defined is a fool and anyone who defends such belief is dishonest.
Faith may be more reasonably depicted, as John Hick does in An Interpretation of Religion, as an exercise of interpretive freedom. Hick argues that the universe may reasonably be construed in either a naturalistic or non-naturalist manner; the universe is religiously “ambiguous” he says. Further, all acts of cognition, even the most spontaneous and mundane, involve an interpretive element; we see cats as cats, not as, some empiricist philosophers have had it, as sets of sense data from which we may infer cats. At the mundane level, most of our interpretations are determined for us. We cannot see cats as anything but cats. At other levels we enjoy a considerable degree of interpretive freedom that permits us to regard things as under one aspect or another without being compelled into such an interpretation. Thus, says Hick, those who have found their “depth” experiences in religious contexts, or who have found deep satisfactions in activities such as worship or prayer may reasonably exercise their interpretive freedom to see the world as “charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins) and themselves as living in the presence of the divine.
Whatever you think of Hick’s view, surely it is not simply knuckleheaded. Faith is not believing anything you damn well please and to hell with the evidence. In my view, Hick makes an excellent case for the reasonableness of faith as a sort of global openness to the transcendent. Where I think his account of faith fails is with respect to the particular claims of particular religions. Hick rejects those particular claims and advocates a religious pluralism that sees the world’s great religious traditions as equally valid approaches to the transcendent. Unquestionably, though, many religious people will find such pluralism thin and jejune, lacking in the sort of definiteness and “blessed assurance” that they crave and which traditional, particularist creeds promised. Compared to the robust claims of, say, Roman Catholicism, Hick’s pluralism will seem to be a watery gruel when people crave spiritual red meat. In non-gastronomic terms, Believers desire specific assurances that it is hard to see how Hick’s pluralism can provide or that his idea of faith can accommodate. It would be a real stretch Hick’s idea of interpretive freedom to say that it encompassed the swallowing whole of the Athanasian Creed.
When, therefore, we move from a general, vague claim about a transcendent dimension of reality to the particular creedal claims of religion, the epistemological chasm between science and religion begins to open. Science and religion both represent attempts by human beings to come to terms with the confusing and often frightening universe that we encounter. Scientific explanations and religious explanations are based on very different means of verification. Science poses bold hypotheses and subjects those hypotheses to the most exacting tests we can impose upon them. Those hypotheses that survive this trial by fire are never, or hardly ever, taken as proven, but are tentatively accepted as confirmed to a greater or lesser degree and assumed for practical purposes. Some scientific claims, such as the claim that things are made of atoms, are so well confirmed, and so fundamental to our entire body of scientific beliefs, that it is hard to imagine anything that could overturn that claim. Nevertheless, the scientific ideal is to give up our theories, however deeply entrenched they are, once that they are shown unquestionably to be at variance with data.
Religion, on the other hand, inevitably seeks absolute truth and seeks to know it absolutely. Religion, by its nature deals with ultimate concern, that which is of the highest possible importance. Clearly, people crave certainty when the issue is of the highest importance. Historical or scientific investigation can never impart the degree of certainty demanded for knowledge of The Absolute. Hence, to receive the degree of assurance that is craved, there must be a leap of faith, a commitment beyond the evidence, an affirmation of one’s whole being as belonging to a purported Truth that cannot be proven. Religious commitment cannot be tentative or contingent; it demands through-and-through dedication of one’s whole being, something much deeper than Hick’s exercise of interpretive freedom. The religious ideal is not to hold on to hypotheses only so long as they pass our empirical tests, but to discover a Truth to which we can adhere forever as our most precious possession. The real conflict between faith and reason is therefore not that faith is opposed to reason in some simplistic way. Faith is not believing whatever you like, in defiance of reason, if need be. Faith simply demands more than reason can possibly deliver.
It appears to me, then, that there is indeed an unbridgeable chasm between the epistemological ideals of natural science and those of creedal religion. The former seeks knowledge that, however robustly confirmed, cannot become sacrosanct and invulnerable. The pride of science is how even fundamental theories and assumptions can be changed when contrary facts become unassailable. In just the past decade or so, astrophysicists have had to accept the existence of a mysterious “dark energy” force when they found, wholly contrary to all prior expectation, that the universe at cosmological distances is not only expanding, but that the expansion is accelerating. Can you think of any religion that likewise makes is basic claims and assumptions similarly revisable? Is the oneness of God, the divinity of Christ, or Mohammad’s status as The Prophet revisable for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, respectively? They cannot be. You simply cannot have a religion whose basic affirmations are precarious in the way that scientific theories must be. The upshot is that the relation between science and religion need not be one of eternal warfare. In many circumstances, a modus vivendi will be found. There may even be times of mutually beneficial interaction. But when basic ideals are irreconcilable, a potential for conflict cannot be banished.

bookmark_borderThe Resurrection: Types of Skeptical Views

The traditional Christian view of the resurrection of Jesus involves a number of beliefs or claims:

  1. Jesus existed.
  2. Jesus was crucified.
  3. Jesus died while he was on the cross.
  4. After he was crucified, Jesus was buried in a stone tomb in the evening on the day that he was crucified.
  5. The stone tomb where Jesus was buried (on the day that he was crucified) was empty on Sunday morning, about 48 hours after Jesus was crucified.
  6. On Sunday, about 48 hours after Jesus was crucified, some of Jesus’ disciples had experiences that they believed were ordinary sense experiences of Jesus as a living, walking, and talking person in a physical body (i.e. not a ghost or spirit).

There are different degrees of skepticism about religious beliefs.  First, there are different degrees of disbelief or doubt.  The strongest sort of skepticism asserts that a specific belief is CLEARLY FALSE.  A slightly weaker form of skepticism asserts that a specific belief is PROBABLY FALSE.  An even weaker form of skepticsim asserts that a specific belief is NOT PROBABLY TRUE, and the weakest form of disbelief is to assert that the belief is NOT CLEARLY TRUE .
Second, there are degrees of skepticism in relation to the epistemological role of the belief that the skeptic challenges: how basic or essential is the assumption in the believer’s system of beliefs?  Skepticism about the existence of God is an extreme form of skepticsm, because belief in the existence of God is a very basic belief for Christians (and Jews and Muslims).  Skepticism about whether Jesus literally walked on water is a less extreme form of skepticism, because one could doubt that particular story about Jesus while still maintaining belief in the existence of God, and even while maintaining the belief that Jesus was the divine Son of God and savior of humankind.
There are different skeptical views in relation to the resurrection story.  The most extreme skeptical view rejects claim (1) as false or as probably false or as being dubious or unjustified.  If (1) is clearly false, then all of the five remaining claims must also be rejected, since they all presuppose that Jesus existed.  If (1) is probably false, then all of the five remaining are probably false (or probably involve a false assumption).  If (1) is a dubious claim or an unjustified belief, then so are the remaining beliefs or claims.  Call this TYPE I skepticism about the resurrection:
TYPE I: skeptic doubts (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), and (6).
The next skeptical view is only slightly less extreme: (1) is true, but (2) is rejected as clearly false, or as probably false, or as being dubious or unjustified.  If (2) is clearly false, then the four remaining claims–other than (1)–must also be rejected, since they all presuppose that Jesus was crucified.  If (2) is probably false, then the remaining claims are also probably false (or probably based on a false assumption).  If (2) is dubious or unjustified, then the remaining claims are also dubious or unjustified.  Call this TYPE II skepticism about the resurrection:
TYPE II: skeptic doubts (2), (3), (4), (5), and (6), but not (1).
The next sort of skepticsm is less extreme: (1) is true and (2) is true, but (3) is rejected as clearly false, or as probably false, or as being dubious or unjustified.  Call this TYPE III skepticism about the resurrection.
Since claims (4), (5), and (6) only presuppose that Jesus was crucified–claim (2)–and do NOT presuppose that Jesus died on the cross,  one could be a TYPE III skeptic, and yet accept some or all of the remaining three claims. So, there are different sub-categories for TYPE III skepticism:
TYPE IIIa: skeptic doubts (3), (4), (5), and (6), but not (1), and not (2).
TYPE IIIb: skeptic doubts (3), (4), and (5), but not (1), and not (2), and not (6).
TYPE IIIc: skeptic doubts (3), (5) and (6), but not (1), and not (2), and not (4).
TYPE IIId: skeptic doubts (3) and (6), but not (1), and not (2), and not (4), and not (5).
TYPE IIIe: skeptic doubts (3), but not (1), and not (2), and not (4), and not (5), and not (6).
Because claim (5) presupposes the truth of claim (4), there is no coherent skeptical position in which claim (4) is doubted but claim (5) is accepted.
The next sort of skepticism accepts the first three claims of the Christian story, but doubts the fourth claim.  Call this TYPE IV skepticism.  It is possible to doubt or reject (4) but accept claim (6), so there are two sub-categories of TYPE IV skepticism:
TYPE IVa: skeptic doubts (4), (5) and (6), but not (1), and not (2), and not (3).
TYPE IVb: skeptic doubts (4) and (5), but not (1), and not (2), and not (3), and not (6).
The next sort of skeptic accepts the first four claims, but doubts claim (5).  Call this TYPE V skepticism.  Doubting or rejecting (5) does not require that one also doubt (6),  so there are two sub-categories of this type of skepticism:
TYPE Va: skeptic doubts (5) and (6), but not (1), and not (2), and not (3), and not (4).
TYPE Vb: skeptic doubts (5), but not (1), and not (2), and not (3), and not (4), and not (6).
The final sort of skeptic doubts only claim (6), and accepts the other five claims:
TYPE VI:  skeptic doubts (6), but not (1), and not (2), and not (3), and not (4), and not (5).
Based on the above analysis, there are twelve different types of skeptic, just in terms of which of the six basic resurrection claims are doubted and which are accepted.  There are further permutations of these twelve types of skepticism based on the degree of disbelief the skeptic has for any particular doubted claim.  We should distinguish at least four different levels or degrees of doubt:   CLEARLY FALSE,  PROBABLY FALSE, NOT PROBABLY TRUE, and NOT CLEARLY TRUE.
For a few of the above TYPES of skepticism only one claim is doubted (VI, Vb, IIIe), and there are only four permutations for each of those types of skepticism,  in terms of degrees of disbelief.
But when there are multiple claims doubted, many permutations of those types of skepticism are possible, since one doubted belief may be thought to be clearly false, while another might only be thought probably false, and a third viewed only as not clearly true.  Many different permutations are potentially possible for the other types of skepticism.
In some cases the degree of doubt for one claim will determine the appropriate degree of doubt for other claims.  For example, if a skeptic believes that (1) is clearly false, then this implies that the other five claims are also clearly false (or are based on an assumption that is clearly false).  But in other cases, the degree of doubt for one claim will NOT determine the appropriate degree of doubt for another claim.  For example, if a skeptic believes that (4) and (5) are clearly false, and also doubts (6), the degree of doubt about (6) might be less, perhaps just that (6) is not clearly true (that it is dubious or unjustified).
Since there are AT LEAST four permutations for each of the twelve types of skepticism, there are AT LEAST 48 different sorts of skepticism about the resurrection story when we take into account both which beliefs are doubted and the degree of disbelief the skeptic has towards the doubted beliefs.

bookmark_borderWilliam Lane Craig Admits that His Fine-Tuning Argument is Based Upon Speculation

In my last post, I reported that WLC has reached the same conclusion I have regarding the scale of the universe as evidence against theism. After re-reading his article, I realized I missed an even more important announcement. Although he would deny it, in the same article he also admits that his fine-tuning argument is based upon speculation. Here’s the money quote:

Indeed, once we launch into speculating about universes operating according to different laws of nature, then we have completely lost our tether and have no idea whether such worlds would be preferable to a world like ours, especially in realizing God’s redemptive purposes for creatures created in His image. (boldface mine)

Craig argues we have no idea whether God would prefer such speculative universes to our actual universe, but he misses the fact that precisely the same point about “speculating about universes” also defeats an implied premise of his cosmic fine-tuning argument. That argument crucially depends upon an implied premise about the ratio of the number of (hypothetical) life-permitting universes to the number of (hypothetical) life-prohibiting universes. But, for the very reason Craig just gave, any estimates of such ratios are based upon pure speculation.
Indeed, this is pretty much the same point made by physicist Sean Carroll in his debate with Craig:

First, I am by no means convinced that there is a fine-tuning problem and, again, Dr. Craig offered no evidence for it. It is certainly true that if you change the parameters of nature our local conditions that we observe around us would change by a lot. I grant that quickly. I do not grant therefore life could not exist. I will start granting that once someone tells me the conditions under which life can exist. What is the definition of life, for example? If it’s just information processing, thinking or something like that, there’s a huge panoply of possibilities. They sound very “science fiction-y” but then again you’re the one who is changing the parameters of the universe. The results are going to sound like they come from a science fiction novel. Sadly, we just don’t know whether life could exist if the conditions of our universe were very different because we only see the universe that we see.

So, once again, we are beginning to see smalls signs of progress in Craig’s positions. 🙂

bookmark_borderWilliam Lane Craig Endorses My Argument from Scale against Theism!

He doesn’t mention by name, of course, and may not have even had my argument in mind, but the sort of Bayesian considerations he raises support my Bayesian argument from scale, in two ways. First, he agrees with me about the “direction” the evidence points (against theism). Second, he agrees with me about the “magnitude” of that evidential support (very weak). (The words “direction” and “magnitude” are not Craig’s words, but were inspired by David Schum, who pointed out long ago that evidence has “vector-like” properties.)
To be fair to Craig, he claims that this naturalistic evidence is greatly outweighed by other theistic evidence. But, as is typical of so many people who make such claims, he merely claims that. What he does not do is present an argument for that.
Regardless, this is progress. Next we need to get Craig to finally admit that facts about evil / pain / suffering also count against theism.
See his post here.

bookmark_borderHow Science and Religion Still Clash

“Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every new science, like the serpents strangled by the infant Hercules.” That is how T.H. Huxley classically expressed the “warfare” theory of the relationship between science and religion. On that theory, science and religion are playing a zero-sum game. One advances at the expense of the other. Eternal and irreconcilable opposites, science and religion only flourish by excluding the other.
A number of contemporary writers, especially some of those associated with the “new atheist” movement, still apparently advocate the “warfare” model of science vs. religion. Professional historians of science, on the other hand, long ago rejected that view as simplistic and myth-ridden. Historians such as Ronald L. Numbers, David C. Lindberg, and Martin J.S. Rudwick have provided a more balanced view. True, science and religion have not always enjoyed a happy and peaceful coexistence either. Professional historians have not replaced the “warfare” model with an equally simplistic model of harmony and mutual benevolence. Neither view would be true to the complexities and nuances of actual history, which is always messy and always resists facile categorization. Allow me to recommend the following volumes edited or written by professional historians of science that provide an antidote to the “warfare” model:
God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, edited by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers. The University of California Press.
When Science and Christianity Meet, also edited by Lindberg and Numbers, Chicago University Press.
Earth’s Deep History: How it was Discovered and why it Matters, by Martin J.S. Rudwick, University of Chicago Press.
As I say, though, it is far too sanguine to think that science and religion have not conflicted in the past and will not in the future. Andrew Dickson White, writing in the 1890s hoped that the conflict between theology and science was over, but it is not and will not be in the foreseeable future. Here I would like to mention some ways that science and religion still are at least potentially at odds.
1) Evolution. What? Haven’t mainstream denominations all accepted evolution? Did not John Paul II declare that evolution was “more than just a theory,” that is, that it is settled science? Isn’t it just a fringe of fundamentalists and cranks that continue to beat the drum for creationism and its dressed-up cousin “intelligent design?” Well, most religious bodies may have reconciled themselves to some aspects and implications of evolutionary theory. Only Ken Ham and his ilk worry about fitting dinosaurs onto the Ark or squeezing earth history into 6000 years. But, as Daniel Dennett observed, Darwinism is universal acid; it has implications that threaten to eat through many ideologies, both sacred and secular.
            The most radical implication of evolution is not that humans are descended from non-human ancestors or that the Genesis scale for earth history is off by six orders of magnitude. The most disturbing consequence is that humans were not intended. There is nothing in evolutionary theory that indicates that human beings, or any other species, was in any sense fated to be or somehow “in the cards” all along. A core principle of Darwinism is that organic variation occurs independently of the survival requirements of organisms. However much a shrub growing in a desiccating environment might need a deep tap root to access subsiding ground water, the variations that occur in any generation will not be influenced by that need. If, by chance, such a deep tap root does develop in members of that species, then there will be strong selective advantage for such individuals. If the requisite adaptation does not occur, the species will likely go extinct in that region. Nature “intends” neither the survival nor the extinction of that species. The processes that impose environmental challenges and the processes that govern organic variation occur independently of each other.
The upshot is that evolution is a highly contingent process. Environments impose many different kinds of problems and organisms respond with many different kinds of solutions. Which solution will arise to work in a given environment—or if any will—is not something foreseeable. Shit happens. One day you are a Tyrannosaurus living it up in the latest Cretaceous, snacking on Edmontosaurs, and having a good time, when—BANG!—the asteroid hits. Hasta la vista dinosaurs; hola mammal diversification! As if the ordinary chanciness of the evolutionary process were not enough, occasionally mass extinctions reboot the whole ecosystem. Had the K/T event, whatever it was, not occurred, then there would not have been the extraordinary diversification of mammals, and we would almost certainly not be here.
So, what happened was this: A few million years ago a particular species of primate, one not special in any way, chanced upon bipedality as the solution to its environmental problems. Its descendants, equally accidentally, added big brains to the mix. These were not the only solutions possible, and extinction was a definite danger all along. We are damn lucky to be here. We were no more meant to be here than the tufted titmouse or the spiny anteater. Big brains is one solution to life’s challenges. Many, many more are possible, and we do not even know if big brains will be adaptive in the long run. I would place my bets with the cockroach. They were here 250 million years before we were, and my bet is that they will be here 250 million years after we are gone.
For every religion, humans are central to the purpose of the cosmos. We WERE meant to be here. A history of the earth without humans would have been like Hamlet without the brooding prince or Moby Dick without the obsessed Ahab. The story would be radically incomplete, indeed incoherent and incomprehensible. Religious apologists have denied that their doctrine is “anthropocentric,” and have asserted that it is “theocentric” instead. That is, God is the main character, not us. But what would God be without intelligent creatures to know and worship him? What good would it be to be God among the bees, oak trees, and crocodiles that know you not and have no free will to offer in response to your love? Defenders of design arguments take it for granted that the world was designed for us. Indeed, all of those finely-tuned constants are there in order to allow for complex, intelligent life (i.e. us). The God worshipped by Christians would not be satisfied with, e.g. turtles; it had to be us.
Surely, then, for the religious it must be unsettling, to say the least, to be told that we were not meant to be and that, so far as the best science informs us, we are indeed a cosmic accident. Nothing, absolutely nothing, in what we know about the development of the earth and its biosphere indicates that there is anything special about us or that we were “meant” or “intended” in any way at all. Our existence as a species is just as much a product of luck as the existence of each of us as individuals. So, yes, evolution and religion can still clash.
2) Neuroscience. What will happen to you if you ingest 250 micrograms of lysergic acid diethylamide? You will experience vivid hallucinations and extraordinary distortions of perception and awareness. After taking a few such “trips,” you will quit your job at Harvard, move to Haight-Ashbury, grow your hair out, take the name “Moonflower,” go to love-ins and be-ins, listen to Cream and The Dead, and…Oh, sorry, I was having a flashback to 1967. Anyway, we now have overwhelming evidence that anything that changes your brain changes you.
The books of the late, great Oliver Sacks, such as The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and An Anthropologist on Mars, show in sometimes amusing and sometimes disturbing detail just how disruptions of brain function can alter what we consider the most fundamental aspects of ourselves. We might become convinced that our closest loved ones are strangers, though we admit that they look and act just like our friends and relatives. We might come to feel that an arm or leg, or a whole side our bodies, does not belong to us. We might stop seeing the world in color, and have a hard time eating when we see our favorite foods as disgusting shades of gray.
Has neuroscience proven that all mental function is caused by, reducible to, or realized in brain functions? Has science proven that there is no soul? Well, insofar as a soul is a metaphysical entity, perhaps science cannot disprove its existence. However, as Owen Flanagan notes (The Problem of the Soul) it is at least a regulative idea—a guiding principle—of neuroscience that we think, feel, will, desire, perceive, and do all other mental activities with our brains. That is a basic heuristic or methodological assumption of all brain science. The upshot is that minds and souls, as incorporeal substances a lá Descartes, have no place and play no role in one of the most rapidly growing and productive of the natural sciences.
In general, when naturalistic hypotheses displace supernatural ones, they do not do so by proving the supernatural hypotheses false. They do so by making them useless. The neuroscientist can say of the soul, as Laplace did when asked by Napoleon where God fits into his celestial mechanics, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” Further, souls bring with them quite a bit of troublesome baggage. They make us ask uncomfortable questions like this: At what point in evolutionary history, or where in present day nature, does mentality require a soul? If humans must have a soul, what about bonobos, or monkeys, or cats, or crocodiles, or oysters? Did Australopithecus have a soul, what about Homo habilis? Homo erectus? Homo ergaster? Neanderthals? Cro-Magnons? Just where in the natural world, or in evolutionary history, do we drive the golden spike to indicate where brains are no longer sufficient and a soul is required? There seems to be no non-arbitrary answer to this question.
The most inconvenient baggage of the soul-hypothesis is the one it has been carrying all along: How do we conceive of interactions between soul and body? That question was first posed to Descartes by Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, and it has not—and cannot—be answered. As Flanagan notes, a Cartesian dualist must bite the bullet and say that mind influences matter by a kind of psychokinesis. Of course, this bullet can be bitten, and dualists can just live with it. It does, however, unquestionably complicate worldviews to add spiritual entities with occult powers of interaction, and surely we should not so blatantly violate Ockham’s razor without a very good reason. Can dualists offer such a reason? Here I simply refer the reader the “Great Debate” between Andrew Melnyk and the Christian philosophers Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliafero posted in the Modern Library of the Secular Web. Melnyk defends a physicalist view of mind and Goetz and Taliafero defend substance dualism. In my not-so-humble opinion, Melnyk wins hands down. Read Chapter Eight of my book It Started with Copernicus for my complete presentation and evaluation of this debate.
Religion, however, seems to need souls. They are explicitly included in the ontologies of many religions. Krishna assures Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita that the body is not the reality, but the soul, and that in killing the body you only destroy the wrapper, not the goodie inside. Further, as Goetz and Taliafero note, without souls it becomes very hard to maintain some things that are very important to many religions. Obviously, there is the afterlife. If not the soul, what survives death? Some might say that the Christian doctrine is one of resurrection, not survival. However, the resurrection hypothesis raises deep conundrums about personal identity. Once the person is utterly destroyed, say vaporized in a nuclear explosion, how could a simulacrum, even one endowed with the memories of the original, be the same being? A continuously conscious soul, or something like it, would seem to be required to maintain the sort of continuity required for a continuous personal identity. If I ceased to exist, what would be the point in creating another just like me—but not me—to go to heaven or hell?
Further, as Goetz and Taliafero argue, a soul seems to be required for libertarian free will. If we are to be held responsible by God for our lives, and appropriately rewarded or punished in the afterlife, surely WE must be fully responsible for all of our good and bad choices. Determinism, even “soft” determinism, seems incompatible with eternal rewards and punishments based upon our supposedly free choices. If we choose with our brains, however, it is hard to see how those choices are not determined. The brain is a physical system and as subject as any other such physical system—a computer, say—to physical determination by electrical and chemical causes. Sending people to postmortem punishment (or reward) because of what their brains did does not seem a fair or just proposition. Neuroscience would explain why some people believe, and so accept grace, and some people do not.
It appears, then, that there are also at least potential clashes between neuroscience and religion. Maybe the relation between science and religion is not one of constant warfare, but the occasional street brawl will still occur.

bookmark_borderApologist Responds? Check. Uncharitable? Check. Uses Cheap Shots and Insults? Check.

I stopped reading Triablogue some time ago, but today I decided to make an exception. After I posted my comment about the twin hypothesis, I thought to myself, “I’ll bet Steve Hays responds to this and uses the ‘Village Atheist’ tag.” My prediction was accurate. (See his post here.)
In my comment, I didn’t defend the twin hypothesis. I didn’t even lay out Cavin’s case for the Twin hypothesis in his Ph.D. dissertation. All I did was define the hypothesis in order to prove the point that Reppert did not consider a mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive set of possibilities. It wasn’t my goal to defend the twin hypothesis. I certainly didn’t expect anyone to find the twin hypothesis convincing based upon my stating the mere definition of it, anymore than I would expect anyone to find any controversial hypothesis about any subject convincing, just by hearing the name and definition of that hypothesis.
Again, it wasn’t my goal then and it isn’t my goal now to defend the twin hypothesis. I do not even claim that it is true. But I do claim that it cannot be so simply dismissed on the uncharitable, ill-conceived grounds Hays provides. In fact, all of Hays’ “Is Jeff…” questions are misdirected; the questions should begin, “Is Cavin…”(Without going into details, I’ll just say that Hays’ objections are about as sophisticated as atheists who think “What caused God?” is some kind of “Gotcha” question for theists, as if they had never considered such objections before.) Regardless, I’d encourage anyone interested in the topic to read Cavin’s Ph.D. dissertation, which implicitly answers all of Hays’ objections.
An interesting fact about the dissertation: it was written at the University of California at Irvine under the supervision of philosopher of science Brian Skyrms and the late philosopher of religion Nelson Pike. UC Irvine is a well respected school; Skyrms is (and Pike was) highly respected. Because Cavin successfully defended the twin hypothesis in his dissertation at such a prestigious university under the supervision of such well-respected philosophers, Cavin hardly deserves to be ridiculed as a “Village Atheist.”  Ditto for Keith Parsons. In the past, I might have been offended on Cavin’s (or Parsons’) behalf if Hays’ use of the ‘Village atheist’ tag weren’t so misplaced; I now think it is a badge of honor for an atheist to be called a “Village Atheist” by theists like Hays.
Atheists have their village idiots. Theists have theirs. But neither Cavin nor Parsons nor Hays belong to such groups. In fact, notice how calling someone a village idiot (or village atheist or village theist) personalizes the debate; instead of talking solely about the arguments, Hays also brings in implied judgments about the intelligence of the persons who make those arguments. But this is simply embarrassing. For Hays.