Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"The Goldhearted Miner," by the Esbjörn Svensson Trio

My favorite song this year, the incomparably gorgeous "Goldhearted Miner" by the Esbjörn Svensson Trio. Sadly, pianist Svensson died in June 2008 as the result of scuba diving accident.

Bertrand Russell on God

Feeling the need to cleanse this blog's palate after Dylanesque's abject ignorance, I'll give here a 1959 interview of Bertrand Russell.

The Religious Do Not Have an Objective Moral Standard

An apparent hit-and-run commenter thought (if you can call it that) to bring in the ol' objective morality tripe:

Morality must be linked to some truth, yup the big "T-word." Sorry, you can't get away from it. What is the truth? That's a whole 'nother discussion.
I'm almost disappointed the commenter did not quote Dostoevsky, but I'm also unsurprised that he (assuming the commenter is a male) chose to introduce a big, vague concept - capital-t truth - without describing it at all. Instead, he wanted to skip away blithely with cotton in his ears and holy lenses distorting his sight.

The poor commenter's point has been refuted since the time of Socrates, yet people STILL raise the point continually, as if it's news. Anyway, perhaps people will review this video before they think again of posting the "I-have-an-objective-standard-of-morality-while-your-morality-is-all-a-matter-of-personal-opinion" rubbish.

I hope it shuts them up, but they don't respond well to reason, so I doubt it.

As has been noted before, the objective morality of the religious usually and conveniently projects the moralizer's personal preferences onto "what God wants."

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Beginning of the Universe

Closer to Truth presents a fascinating series of interviews on whether the universe had a beginning.

The answer is yes, about 13.7 billion years ago. The universe originated spontaneously, out of nothing, because the laws of quantum physics require particles to pop in and out of existence. Yet, and this is remarkable, the laws of physics - the same laws that describe the universe - would seem to have existed before the universe itself.

The Big Bang, we learn, may have itself arisen out of cosmic inflation, which is to say that the Big Bang may have a history and pre-history. But whatever this prior state, the Big Bang happened because the laws of physics made it happen.

One nice thing about this video is that it leaves us with a question: Why? Why did our universe begin? Why the laws of physics? The video nicely suggests that the proper answer is silence. It's not god, gods or even no gods. The answer for now is silence.

Best Posts of 2009

To close out the year, I want to link to ten posts that present substantive content and best represent the development of my thought:

1. In January, I posted the first of two musings on the music and import of the Rolling Stones.

2. In April, I responded to a complicated formulation of the Argument from Ontology. I rejected God's existence on the basis of the argument because I found the initial premise flawed.

3. Also in April, I returned to one of my favorite themes, Atheism and morality. This time, I critiqued what I felt was a silly and wrongheaded post from one of the UD non-scientists.

4. In July, I expanded on a response to a book reviewer. The reviewer was squealing for joy over Paul Moser's The Elusive God. I found the review and the book's central argument to be based on an unreasonable condition: believe in God and be willing to transform yourself through God, and the evidence of God's existence will be made clear. (Posts 8, 9 and 10, below, also touch on matters that relate to why Moser's condition is unacceptable.)

5. In October, I wrote about Bob Dylan and why I think he's (still) so great.

6. Also in October, I pointed out how atheists are cast as the Other by the religious, allowing them to avoid dealing with the intrinsic contradictions and evils that ground belief.

7. In November, I returned to a subject that fascinated me this year: the historicity of Jesus. In this post, I used an article on the subject to delineate my thoughts. I lean toward the idea that Jesus was mythical but I recognize that the case is not strong and that the Jesus-was-historical argument is only slightly weaker. New evidence could easily change my mind.

8. Also in November, I made what I think is one of the more important statements I have ever made. The statement was on interpretation and how even a great and plausible interpretation need not be grounded in anything like reality. The frame is more important than the interpretation.

9. November also saw another important post, this time on the impossibilities presented in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. I focused on things that were outright unable to happen in the known universe. For some reason, we don't have high demands for independent corroboration of these impossible things. This post resulted in the best discussion of the year.

10. In December, I have posted lots. Yet, I feel that my comments on science and consistent standards of skeptical inquiry deserve most to be listed here.

This was a productive year. Much more so than I expected. As 2010 arrives, I wish to pursue many of these themes in more depth and I hope to introduce new ones, too.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

2009: Year in Review

No way to deny that 2009 has been a busy year in many ways. I've posted much here in the past few months, which is a little ironic because at one point I thought about retiring the blog. This has generally been a good year, too. I'm especially happy to report this because in January 2009 I was probably as much on edge about the state of the world as anyone else:
These projects make me pretty excited about the year ahead and all that is to come. Perhaps I should acknowledge the general gloom and doom that surrounds everyone right now. Yes, the economy is dreadful and getting worse. War seems everywhere and endless. The environment seems not only to be transforming in front of us but exacting revenge. Heartache and head-shaking inanity – not to mention insanity – seem to underlie the behavior of ordinary people everywhere. I recognize this, but I don’t care. I can only do what I do, and that must be enough.
The projects I am referring to above include training for a marathon, two book projects, and a series of music retrospectives.

I never ran that marathon. I am in somewhat better shape now, but I can do better. I never got those book projects off the ground, but that was because I became involved in a few new ghostwriting efforts and also had to get my new dissertation work established.

Fortunately, I did manage to post a few articles on music, which I think came out well. I wrote about the Beatles, the Rolling Stones (first, second), Keith Jarrett (first, second), and Bob Dylan.

The kids and the family are doing well. We've had our share of health flare-ups, most recently with my mother in the hospital, but I think we'll come through OK. About health and about everything, there's not much to be except optimistic and positive - and resolved to work hard to create situations that foster these outlooks.

To all who read and follow along: I wish you good health, optimism, positivity, resolve, laughter, reason, and pleasant music. We live in great potential, and I think of humans as machines for converting potential into reality.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How I Became an Atheist

My journey to Atheism has been long and complicated. My title indicates that I "became" an Atheist, but the truth is that I always was an Atheist to some extent. I only needed to recognize and embrace it.

I grew up in a Jewish household, but my family was not particularly religious. We went to Conservative synagogues, which seemed plenty religious to me when I was a kid. At least, I thought we Conservatives were a religious cut above the Reform temples, which held services in English. In my Conservative household, though, we observed only the "big" holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, Purim and Passover. I don't recall observing other Jewish holidays or even Shabbat.

From the time I was in third grade until I was bar mitzvahed, I went to Hebrew School. As with "regular" school, I wanted to do well in Hebrew school, so I worked at it. Nevertheless, my belief was not exactly iron-clad. One time, when I was maybe 9 or 10 years old, I declared to my younger brother that I did not believe in God. On the other hand, around the time of my bar mitzvah, I had seemingly swung around the other way, as I considered going on with my Jewish education after the bar mitzvah. I even wondered whether being a rabbi was something that would suit me for a vocation.

To this day, however, I hold onto a fondness for Judaism that has little to do with religious belief or feeling and has everything to do with family. I remember being in synagogue on the High Holy Days during my youth and adolescence. I loved to pray in song alongside my father, so much did I enjoy hearing his beautiful tenor voice. Even a few weeks ago, I brought my family to my brother's home for Hanukkah. My father and mother, my brothers and their families -- we all sang together and had a delightful time. I associate these moments of family goodness and togetherness with Judaism. For me, being with my family is a Jewish thing.

However, along with my confessed soft spot for Judaism, I harbor great reservations about the religion. For example, I do not absolve Judaism of its tribalism, of its bastard children Christianity and Islam, and of its myriad hardships for those who have believed. This troubling side of Judaism is surely also part of my family heritage. Maybe because I have an indestructible core of love for Judaism, I realize now that, like all religions, Judaism must not be regarded as a statement of truth about the universe and its life forms, including people.

This realization about Judaism came slowly to me. For most of my adulthood, I regarded Judaism fondly but also harbored an unsure feeling about the existence of God and the reliability of the Bible. Why was God so present in the lives of Biblical people and so absent in the lives of modern people? Why were there so many different faiths that claimed to be the one true religion? If Judaism was true, why wasn't Christianity or Islam? Why did the Bible repeat itself in some places and contradict itself in others? Where and how were the 'books' of the Bible written? By whom were they written and for whom?

In graduate school, I learned about some of the analogues to stories in the Bible, such as the flood in Gilgamesh. I also learned about the problems of textual transmission: texts came in different versions. Some contained errors and corruptions that were preserved. Some were added to or revised. Some were re-cast in the cultural idiom of the new society. Religious doctrines appeared to me to be works in progress, the records of people trying to reconcile the incongruities of earlier texts. For all this, I never broke with Judaism.

As a matter of fact, in 2005, after I'd started this blog, I decided to become more Jewish. I wanted to live a more authentically Jewish life. I studied with Chabad rabbis. I davened every day, and donned tallit and tefillin. I read the weekly Torah portions. I lit candles on Shabbat and sought to refrain from working.

In 2007 or so, I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I wasn't impressed at first. On this very blog, I wrote this about the book:
I picked up a copy of Richard Dawkins’s The G-d Delusion. It’s a good way to test and define the faith I have been working to cultivate. I won’t give his precise argument – the title of his book does that, anyway. I appreciate the challenge offered by the book, even if the voice reminds me of everything that I associate, negatively, with British intellectualism. A kind of mean-spirited, elitist polemic presented to be wit.

Yet as a result of what I have read so far, I am more and more coming to conclude that, to twist a familiar saying, “The man who believes in G-d’s existence and the man who doesn’t are both right.” Maybe G-d, the One I hope will inhabit the place I am building in my heart, will exist only for me and only in the way I “construct” him. Hence, the “delusion” that Dawkins refers to, the self-reflecting belief, or fiction, that the constructed G-d preceded the constructor and, indeed, had constructed him instead.
Since I wrote this, I've come to find myself in close agreement with the main arguments Dawkins makes for evolution, for atheism, and against religious irrationality. Looking back, however, I see that I was struggling against reason to maintain belief in God. I wanted to believe, and Dawkins's book did not deter me from continuing in that desire. But I also see that I understood God as a personal projection, a concept useful for thinking about the world but of dubious existence in a genuine sense.

And I might have stayed in this mindset for a good long time except for what happened next: I became a ghostwriter and researcher for an Orthodox rabbi. He was looking for someone to help write his book, which would be a Jewish response to the "New Atheism." I was ambivalent about the project. Indeed, I was certain I wasn't the guy for the job. I knew some about religion but I wasn't as knowledgeable or passionate about it as I felt I needed to be. I knew even less about the natural sciences. I had read some science books, but that was it. Evolution was something I only knew in a two-sentence definition.

I wanted to do a good job for the rabbi, so I read and read and read and read. Everything I could get my hands on I devoured and annotated. At first, the rabbi wanted me simply to update material that he had used in previous debates. This material was -- no joke -- over 20 years old! I very quickly saw that the rabbi was using outdated information and arguments. I told him that everything needed to be re-done from scratch because the old arguments weren't going to cut it anymore. He wanted to use old quotes that were taken out of context. He wanted to use "gaps" reasoning. He wanted to blame Darwin for Hitler. It was bad material and, worse, it was bad reasoning.

On the other side, I found the scientists provocative, self-critical, careful in their reasoning, and measured in their words. I saw immediately the difference between people who write from direct, first-hand knowledge of the science they put forth and hacks (like me) who aren't scientists and don't do science day after day. Don't misunderstand: I am not talking about the "experience" of science or the "experience" of religion. I am talking about working closely with the primary sources of data, documenting the methodology and data, and using the findings to ask questions about the strengths and weaknesses of various relevant hypotheses about the world. In all the religious explanation of unsavory or incoherent passages in the Bible, I never saw the same level of intellectual rigor, methodological transparency, or questioning of presuppositions.

I should also mention that in the course of my research I was eager to learn about Intelligent Design (ID). However, I quickly discovered that ID was not going to help me develop what I thought would be a legitimate critique of the scientific side of the New Atheism. One big problem is that very, very few credible biologists and working scientists seem to be in the ID camp. Most of the staunch ID people seem to be lawyers, mathematicians, engineers and journalists. They focus a lot on denigrating evolution (which they call "Darwinism"). Sometimes they have critiques of science, but mostly they beef at the media presentation of scientific research and findings. The ID proponents don't seem to have any full-fledged research programs and findings that specifically advance their theory. However, my biggest problem with ID was that it was utterly superfluous. Touting intelligent design as a "best explanation" for the diversity of life earth seemed totally unnecessary in the face of the materialist phenomena which were the proper subject of science. Any preceding intention to such phenomena - whether from a super-human being or from a combination of natural factors - were actually irrelevant, so far as I could tell. In my estimation, while the New Atheists supported their rhetoric with evidence, logic and facts, the ID proponents supported their rhetoric with more rhetoric.

During the book project, I became ever more the religious skeptic. But I thought I could mount a new argument that posited the reasonableness of a certain kind of faith and that criticized the ideas of the New Atheists. The argument I eventually made for religion -- specifically about Judaism -- was that religion signified a particular way of seeking and achieving a comprehensive (cultural, moral, spiritual, etc.) personal fulfillment:
One can change affiliation, as one can switch political party affiliations. If one is born Jewish, however, one remains Jewish even if the choice is made not to exercise that inheritance. To me, choosing to be Jewish opens up many different ways to be personally fulfilled, beyond intellectual fulfillment and beyond social acceptance. To be Jewish is to be intensely curious about the universe, yet wanting more to learn from it than about it. To be Jewish is to experience real horror when people – any people, but especially Jewish people – behave barbarously, and to take some ownership and responsibility for not having fostered more peace in the world. If I am a Jew, it is not only because I say so, or because I pray and keep kosher. If I am a Jew, it is because every day, and throughout the day, I re-assert my belief that we will all make that connection with transcendence. When we do, and when we are all met together at that celestial place, these worldly identities won’t matter so much.
In the final manuscript, my critique of the New Atheism was that it over-valued science and scientific reasoning as freedom-protecting cultural forces: "Science is itself a blind watchmaker. Science theorizes nature and physical reality as a blind watchmaker because this is what science is. In essence, science projects itself onto the universe it seeks to describe." Richard Dawkins of course coined the term "blind watchmaker" to describe the way evolution worked. In applying the metaphor to science itself, I think I was getting at the idea that science was not a complete or totally consistent formal system: science needed to resist ideology and dogma, most especially from itself.

That book project was grueling for the writing, for the toll on other areas of my life, and for the stress of dealing with the person whose name would go on the published book. The project finished at the end of 2008. After this time, I kept reading the science and religion blogs that were part of the project. I continued studying the claims, reasoning, and evidence that people brought out. I began posting on some of these blogs as a commenter and debater. I kept learning, and I kept developing my positions. By summer of 2009, I realized that it was no longer rational for me to accept
  • The claim of existence for God or for any divinity.
  • The claim of existence for anything like the supernatural.
  • The claim of divine inspiration for the scriptures of any religion.
  • The claim of any sort of moral or social authority for any religious group. 
I determined that none of the religious faiths or their spokespeople were putting out anything other than fantasy. I decided that it was no longer responsible or honest for me to call myself anything other than an Atheist.

And so I say I am an Atheist.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Lunacy of Conservapedia

Don't ask why I was there. However, I was utterly shocked to read the following blurb about Joseph McCarthy:
Joe McCarthy (Joseph Raymond McCarthy, November 14, 1908 – May 2, 1957) was a two-term Republican U.S. Senator from Wisconsin. He dominated the anti-communist movement in the U.S., 1950-54, until his career was ruined by censure by the Senate. "McCarthyism" is the aggressive exposure of Communists influences in America and the people who protect them, and liberals will add 'with scant regard for due process'.
This is a disgusting dereliction of duty for a site that purports to be a source of reliable information.

McCarthyism was overly aggressive and ill-conceived from the beginning. It ruined lives, careers, and families. It was one man's witch hunt and a terrible failure on the part of the U.S. government and the American people.

I voted republican in the 2008 presidential election. I prefer tighter control on the U.S. budget and a general lightening of taxes. But if Conservapedia represents the mainstream views of Republicans - or if Republicans buy into that shit - then I can't imagine looking at a Republican candidate for a long time

I Get Email, Family Edition

I thought I had inadvertently dropped my sister-in-law as a Facebook friend. So I wrote an apologetic note along with a new friend request, which she accepted. The next day, she sent me this:

I have to be honest with you. I did remove you from my friends list awhile ago. And from J.'s. I don't wish to personally attack you, but some of your anti-Christian comments and especially the mocking remarks by some of your FB friends hurt me deeply and on a very personal level. My faith is who I am, my whole identity. I don't expect you to understand that because the Catholic Faith is experiencial; you cannot understand it all from a book, you have to experience it first hand.

J. on the other hand is a very impressionable young person who respects you. We are raising him to experience his Catholic Faith and are going to great lengths to instill this faith and a moral compass in him for life. I don't wish to have him reading Anti-Christian/Athiest and hateful remarks on your status updates or wall postings...of those of your friends.

So I hope you can forgive me, but I had to tell you the truth and I hope you can respect my feelings. I don't want to to feel like you have to "censor" your posts, so maybe it's best if we are just not FB's up to you. I love you no matter what, you are family and my love is unconditional. As far as I'm concerned our relationship as in-laws is the same as always.


"My faith is who I am." Wha? What a horrible thing to reduce oneself like this. By "faith," perhaps she means belief. Maybe she means the doctrines. Perhaps she means the rituals. She could be referring to the whole organization of Roman Catholicism. Maybe it's some combination of all these things. But isn't it downright creepy and sad for a person to think that her entire personal content boils down to pre-formulated, pre-packaged simulations of thinking and feeling?

The "faith is experiential" line is garbage. I've been in RC churches. I've been to the services more times than I care to recount. So she has a powerful experience in a church. Big deal. Some people experience getting abducted by aliens. Some people experience getting high on drugs and alcohol. Don't tell me I don't know or can't understand Catholicism because I've never been a Catholic and don't believe that any bit of it is true. As a medievalist, I've studied the primary texts and the formation of the church. I know the doctrines and what they say. I know the writings of the church fathers. I know what the New Testament says. I know a bit about the early church, and I know about the recent history of the church. I know Catholicism as well as she does. The only difference is that I don't ignore all the very good reasons for thinking it's hogwash.

Of course she seeks to shield her son from ideas such as atheism, from the idea that it might just be OK not to believe in Jesus or in any god or man-god. He may decide that not only is it OK not to believe but also that it's probably a more accurate view of reality.

Here is how I responded to her:
Hi M.,

Thanks for your message.

First of all, I’m grateful for your honesty. Let me also say back to you, “I love you no matter what, you are family and my love is unconditional. As far as I'm concerned our relationship as in-laws is the same as always.” I feel exactly this way, too. In your note, you ask directly for forgiveness, and I certainly do forgive you.

I apologize if anything I have written has been, or has appeared to be, “anti-Christian” or “hateful.” While I reject the idea that gods/demigods exist, and I criticize religion generally, I consciously try not to single out particular traditions. I am also sorry that your feelings have been hurt by anything I have written or by responses others have given to posts of mine.

I genuinely appreciate that you do not wish for me to “censor” my opinions, and I respect both your feelings and your decisions regarding which ideas come into contact with your children. Like you, I work to model ethical behavior and clear reasoning for my kids. And like you I strive to help them continue developing the moral character both to make mature life choices and to exercise intellectual courage.

Whatever you choose to do regarding Facebook is absolutely fine with me. Truly. I think of Facebook as rather silly theater. Like all toys, it’s fun. But it’s certainly not worth any real-life drama.

So, no problem-o. Thanks again for talking candidly with me.
I hope this reply conveys a few things:
  • That I am truly sorry her feelings got hurt. I am sorry, but I have not attacked her. I have criticized bad ideas and bad thinking. I'll keep doing it, too.
  • That I am unapologetic for my opinions and the work it took to discover what I thought was more right.
  • That being moral and being atheist are highly compatible. One doesn't need to be religious to instill a "moral compass" in his children.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Historical Exodus: Probably Not

Archaeology describes the past based on scientific evidence: artifacts, architecture, settlement patterns, animal bones, seeds, soil samples, anthropological models drawn from world cultures, and other modern methods.

What does archaeology tell us about the historicity of the biblical Exodus, the miraculous escape of 600,000 people from slavery in Egypt? Not much, and so far what it does tell looks unpromising for those who desire the Exodus narrative to be true as biblically reported. In a review article of Finkelstein and Silberman's The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, Sarah Belle Dougherty writes:
Physical evidence and historical texts confirm that Canaanites had traditionally settled in the prosperous east delta region of Egypt, particularly in times of drought, famine, and war. Some came as landless conscripts and prisoners of war, others as farmers, herders, or tradesmen. Egyptian historians tell of the Hyksos, Canaanite immigrants who became dominant in a great delta city and were forcibly expelled by the Egyptians around 1570 BCE. After the Hyksos expulsion, the Egyptian government controlled immigration from Canaan closely and built forts along the eastern delta and at one-day intervals along the Mediterreanean coast to Gaza. These forts kept extensive records, none of which mention the Israelites or any other foreign ethnic group entering, leaving, or living as a people in the delta.

Biblical scholars place the Exodus in the late thirteenth century BCE, and up to that time there is only one mention of the name Israel, despite many Egyptian records concerning Canaan. Nor is there any archeological evidence for a body of people encamping in the desert and mountains of Sinai in the Late Bronze Age. [Emphasis added]
Finkelstein and Silberman themselves state:
Sites mentioned in the Exodus narrative are real. A few were well known and apparently occupied in much earlier periods and much later periods -- after the kingdom of Judah was established, when the text of the biblical narrative was set down in writing for the first time. Unfortunately for those seeking a historical Exodus, they were unoccupied precisely at the time they reportedly played a role in the events of the wandering of the children of Israel in the wilderness. [Emphasis added]
Indeed, not only did the Israelites not escape Egypt and invade Canaan, they never left Canaan at all, say Finkelstein and Silber:
[T]he emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of the Canaanite culture, not its cause. And most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan -- they emerged from within it. There was no mass Exodus from Egypt. There was no violent conquest of Canaan. Most of the people who formed early Israel were local people -- the same people whom we see in the highlands throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. The early Israelites were -- irony of ironies -- themselves originally Canaanites!
What about Moses? Was there a historical Moses? According to Brian Britt, Associate Professor and Director of the Religious Studies Program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University:
Current discussion of the historical Moses reflects the division between maximalists, who accept much of the Bible as historically valid, and minimalists, who accept very little....Contrary to the impression given by television documentaries, maximalists have little evidence in their favor, though James K. Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford, 1999) makes as good a case as any. Barring dramatic new discoveries of evidence or interpretation, the division between minimalists and maximalists is not likely to be resolved. In fact, both camps increasingly place the Bible at the center of polemics over theology and ideology (evangelical Christianity and nationalism, e.g.).
Britt also notes that Moses myth studies are flourishing: "Such studies go beyond historiographic debates on the Bible to consider its cultural relevance and legacy for the present." Britt explains that the Moses myth reaches far and wide:
The Moses myth is so widespread that writing about him entails writing about culture. Recent books on the Moses myth include Dale Allison’s The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Fortress, 1993), an excellent study of Moses in the Gospel of Matthew; Jan Assmann’s brilliant Moses the Egyptian (Harvard University Press, 1997); and Melanie Wright’s study of popular culture, Moses in America (Oxford University Press, 2003). All of these studies go beyond the obvious point that each generation makes Moses in its own image by exploring how and why these images are made. The new Moses studies also shift from the search for the historical Moses to current preoccupations with memory, traditions, and representation. No longer a topic only for biblical historians, the study of Moses has, like the study of tradition itself, become interdisciplinary. Biblical scholarship joins literary theory and cultural studies, philosophy borrows from psychoanalysis and Judaic studies, ancient history merges with modern intellectual history. Such work generates not only new interpretations but new categories and methods, such as Assmann’s "mnemohistory," the history of memory.
Britt also challenges us to re-think the centrality of Moses to the Torah:
The biblical Moses is not as central to the Bible as many people think. No more than fourteen chapters of the 167 chapters of the Pentateuch, which is also known as the "Torah of Moses," deal primarily with the story of Moses' life, and even these chapters bear faint resemblance to conventional ideas of biography or hagiography. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Rewriting Moses: The Narrative Eclipse of the Text (Continuum/ T&T Clark International), the biblical Moses is an uncanny figure; the narratives around his birth, commission, leadership, and death challenge the reader to disentangle the man from the myth. In this way, biblical texts stimulate biblical tradition, which depends on unceasing streams of commentary. Conversely, the post-biblical myth of Moses points back to the biblical texts of Moses, the basis for his legend and legitimacy. To the first-century writers Philo and Josephus, Moses represented the pinnacle of Jewish tradition, and their Hellenistic biographies elevate him far above the Bible. Most biographies of Moses, from late antiquity to the present, resemble the portraits of Philo and Josephus, placing the life story of the great man at the center of tradition. Rabbinic Judaism, on the other hand, remained much closer to the biblical tradition in which Moses always stands second to a tradition of text, covenant, and God. [Emphasis added]
People often take "myth" as a pejorative term, especially so in the context of religious narratives. Increasingly, though, I am gaining respect for myths. They are resilient, viral, and flexible. They are not about true content but about packing in data: cultural data, social mores, ideological issues, personal hopes, and more. That's a pretty great thing.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Historical Jesus: No Clear Picture

I think it’s absolutely critical to have religions and religious belief put into a proper perspective. When we do this it becomes quite clear that religion establishes itself not on historicity and data, but on narration and authority. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, but it’s important to bear in mind because we have little rational basis for asserting the truth of a religion. Yet, many people accept that their adopted religion is true.

Let’s consider Christianity for an example of how attempts to assert historicity fail. It is December, after all, and Christian groups and believers are working overtime to repeat their message, "Our religion is true! Jesus was born, lived, died, and lived again!" I also want to state a hypothesis that I do not have enough evidence to verify (yet): Belief in Christianity being true does not depend on either the Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament being historically/factually true. I know, I know, the Hebrew Scriptures and the Old Testament are supposed to be the same thing. But they are not. I have a quote later by Gerd Lüdemann that indicates some of the difference. The point of my hypothesis, however, is that Christianity considers its own claims as unimpeachable and only secondarily concerns itself with defending texts outside of the New Testament. Beyond the hypothesis, my point is that Christianity's own historical and factual claims become highly problematic under scrutiny, and this is a fact that ought to be emphasized more.

For this consideration, we can do much worse than listening to someone like R. Joseph Hoffmann, who is Distinguished Scholar at Goddard College and head of the Goddard Program in Human Values. He is also Former Chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER) and Co-chair of The Jesus Project (2007-2009).

Hoffmann explains that our sources of information – including the New Testament itself – do not give a clear answer to whether a discernibly historical Jesus existed. The methodologies we use to evaluate sources also do not yield this clear answer.
[N]either the sources we possess nor approaches to them developed over the last two centuries yield any resolution of the question of his [i.e., Jesus’s] actual existence and that the Church’s description of his reality has never depended primarily on the status of such a question.
In other words, there simply is not enough evidence to establish the historical existence of the New Testament’s Jesus. We have reports by people invested in the stories they tell, but we don’t have the historical records we need to say “Yes, this person existed.”
Historically, the existence of Jesus to be indubitable would need to be demonstrated in the same way the existence of any other human being can be shown. The standard of proof is fairly high, making allowance for the age in which the person lived or is thought to have lived. Normally we would expect records, reports, artifacts (bones are best), or the writings of people who mention Jesus in their reports of other events. For example, a chronicle of the Roman administration of Pontius Pilate in Palestine with a mention of the crucifixion of an outlaw named Yeshu, a Galilean, would be very helpful. But we do not possess such a record. Instead, we possess reports written by members of a religious group that had very specific and self-interested reasons for retelling his story. And the way in which it is told differs so markedly from the sorts of histories the Romans were writing in the second and third century CE that scholars have acknowledged for a long time the “problem” of deriving the historical Jesus from the Gospels—and even more the problem of deriving his existence from the letters of Paul or any other New Testament writings.
Religion and religious belief only complicate matters. In the case of Christianity, the Christ figure that emerges by the 4th century bears little resemblance to anything of historical or physical reality.
To accept the “reality” of Jesus after the fourth century is to accept the rather bizarre figure immortalized in the icons, the Jesus of the fertile Christian imagination. This Jesus is a myth cobbled together from other myths—imperial, soteriological, apocalyptic and messianic, priestly, gnostic, stoic with a healthy dash of byzantine splendor tossed into the mix. To the extent that every Jesus is a composite of culture and theology, the Jesus of Nicaeo-Chalcedonian orthodoxy would have been quite impossible in a first or second century context, and for the same reasons–though his image is emblazoned on cathedral walls from London to St Louis in tribute to the famous “original” in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople—impossibly exotic to later generations. The rate of change in reframing the reality of Jesus between the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and since the Reformation is enough to suggest that theological definitions of reality relate more to love than to chairs; that is to say, they are impressions of interpretation rather than interpretations of fact.
Let me depart from Hoffman now and go to Gerd Lüdemann, Professor of History and Literature of Early Christian at Georg-August-University, Director of the Institute of Early Christian Studies, and Director of the Archive "Religionsgeschichtliche Schule." In the quote below, Lüdemann observes that the New Testament and the orthodox understandings of it not only affect our view of Jesus but also re-frame our view of the Hebrew Scriptures. In other words, the New Testament actually conjures and creates an “Old Testament,” a fictional/ized version of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Historical criticism has effectively undermined the validity of the great majority of Old Testament citations by the authors of the New Testament; indeed, it is seldom possible even to imagine that Old Testament writers can have had in mind the persons and events that New Testament writers claimed they did. The oft-proposed thesis that this issue cannot be resolved either negatively or positively does not hold. The long and short of it is that New Testament authors have systematically mistaken or distorted the meaning of Old Testament texts in the service of polemical and doctrinal agendas. Matthew’s five citations of prophecy in his nativity account are among the best-known examples of the practice, and perhaps the most comically inapposite. In the interest of honesty and better communication with the public, academic theology needs to demonstrate the same kind and degree of intellectual honesty that long ago led natural science to disavow the Ptolemaic world picture.
These are points that all relate to arguments I have made before on interpretation and religion-as-interpretation. As I see it, modern religions are interpretations promoting themselves and always referring back to themselves. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, but it’s important to bear in mind because the personal wonders we often ascribe to religion are often the product of practicing a religious interpretation and not the result of the religion’s status as truth or falsehood.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The New Atheism as Seen from the Outside and the Inside

The so-called "New Atheists" include Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, P.Z. Myers, and others. They are supposedly "militant" in their criticism of religion and religiosity, which gets them millions of fans as well as detractors.

So far as I know, these people never call themselves New Atheists. This name has been bequeathed on them by those who are offended by them or shocked by them or who generally don't like them. Apparently, at some time in the past atheists were more mild mannered and not writing best-sellers or garnering so much attention in the media.

However, I am always amused when critics of the New Atheism try to use a "fight fire with fire" rhetorical strategy. These critics apparently see themselves as erudite folk who can out-do (and out-duel) any of the New Atheists in sharp, witty, and devastatingly clever ripostes. But the critics usually fail on two counts. One, they never write so well as their atheist counterparts, and two, they never fail to avoid the arguments actually made from the atheist side.

Case in point: Kathryn Lofton's recent piece, "So You Want to Be a New Atheist." Lofton opens the essay ploddingly with some gratuitous hand-waving about the New Atheists being just as fundamentalist as their religious adversaries (yawn). Fortunately, her companion point is how diverse a group of evangelists the New Atheists are, which is sooo fortunate because we readers at least know from the outset that what we'll get from this piece will be very carefully considered bullshit:
It is, by now, old hat to say that atheism is just another literalism, defined less by the content of its complaint than by the style of its conveyance. Writing of Richard Dawkins, literary critic Terry Eagleton remarked that he had more in common with American TV evangelists than the refereed scientists to whom he claimed frequent recourse. This is then to correct the caricaturist’s image of the atheist—new or old—as a nihilist. Atheism has long been described, as Julian Baggini has explained, as “by its very nature negative” and dependent “for its existence on the religious beliefs it rejects.” While the reliance on comparative religions is indisputable, the presumed inherent negativity of atheism needs some definitional fine-tuning. If the screeds, tracts, speeches and, today, documentary films demonstrate anything, it is that atheists are not bleak existentialists. They are and have been variously colored in their impulses, ranging from sweet naturalists and happy materialists to rabid idealists and polemical ideologues. Atheists are not mere merchants of the negative, but are posited—by themselves, by their fans—as knights of deliverance. As one reviewer in the Atlantic wrote, “For a man who is frequently labeled a misanthrope, Christopher Hitchens has an unexpected faith in humankind.”
Lofton at least does not here call Dawkins et al. "New Atheists." But her long-winded blah-blah finally amounts only to "today's atheism has a messianic component equal to that of any religion."

Of course, this falsehood is so very tired and, more importanly, peripheral. It completely misses the point of atheism, whether it's new atheism, old atheism, atheism 3.0 or whatever. What is the point of the new atheism? In my humble opinion, it is this:

Your religious beliefs are not above questioning and criticism, and they shouldn't be allowed to govern our personal lives and public policies.

Too bad Lofton chooses not to engage any of the atheist arguments against religion's truth claims or against religion's long history of ineluctable personal persecution and public repression. We can only wonder why she has made such a choice.

UPDATE, 12/14/2009: Apparently, Lofton's post has been removed.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

(Your Imaginary) God Has No Rights on Me or You

I often get accused of holding an anti-supernatural bias, a pre-formed assumption that God does not exist. Because of this bias, I am told, I automatically close myself off to the wonder and beauty of the Bible or I blind myself to the self-evident signs in the world that ineluctably point toward "The Creator." If I were to be more open-minded, I would be amazed at how God's wisdom permeates everything that is, was, and ever will be.

I have indeed reached the conclusion that God does not exist, that no gods do or ever have existed. That conclusion came at the "end" of many years of thinking about the matter and going back and forth on it. I place end in scare quotes because it's entirely possible my view will continue to evolve over the course of my life. Since I'm parsing words I might also think more about conclusion: in some sense it was less a conclusion and more like admitting to myself that atheism was what I thought was true. Atheism did, and does, appear to me much more likely than the claims of religions about gods and miracles.

Having arrived at atheism, I now proceed in that frame of mind. I have an anti-supernatural bias insofar as I consider the matter settled. Someone once asked me what would change my mind. My answer: If my grandfather, who died in 1983, were suddenly to appear before me and my family to have a chat, then I would seriously re-think my views. If someone were to make a very specific prophecy - like, "a swarm of bees will descend upon the city and plunge it into darkness for three days" - and it came true in just this way, then I'd be very impressed. Such events nothwithstanding, I no longer find it useful or necessary to keep asking, "but what IF God exists and everything/something said in one or more holy books is true?"

My sense of being godless is that reality is far more beautiful, complex, expansive, and strange than any religion or belief can contain. The universe and its study far outshine the dessicate doctrines of the bible and its commentaries. I would much rather experience the world, know more about the universe, and learn about how humans struggle to apply ever-greater learning to ever-greater problems - problems which are usually of our own making, unfortunately. Religion to me seems limiting in the most unhealthy way: read only the holy texts, praise god/jesus/allah/ganesh, give money to the religious instituion. Lather, rinse, repeat. Trust in the lord and don't look too long at the stuff in religion that's troubling, inconsistent, or offensive.

So let me answer one more question I am often asked. What if God in fact exists? And what if it's the God of the Hebrew Scriptures that is God? Well, if it's true and if he's actually there, this is my answer:

God has no right whatsoever to obligate me - or my descendants or my ancestors or my countrymen or my fellow life forms - to behave or think in any way. God has no right to punish or reward me for what I think and what I feel. To God I owe nothing material, emotional, or intellectual. God may not infringe upon my personal liberties and I refuse to grant it permission to do so. If God and I are to be friends - and why not? - then these are some of the ground rules going in. All this applies to everyone: God has no rights on any of us.

But let's not lose ourselves in fantasy. There's every reason to think our universe and everything in it, including us, developed through natural means and without need of, or intervention by, anything that would fit mainstream definitions of "supernatural" (e.g. gods, demiurges, angels, fairies, and so on). There's no reason to think we have any knowledge of an inscrutable, onmipotent, omniscient, living, personal god.

Without such knowledge, it seems foolish to me for people to give their emotions, money, and intellect in worship of this god. Such people worship only themselves. Ironically, this is what they claim atheists do.

My question to my questioners is this: Why would we owe God anything, if he did exist and if he did make us? Why would all of our self-affirmed and self-asserted rights as individuals collapse before this being? I think it's well worth challenging the standard line of thinking that not only assumes God exists and made us but that also insists we owe God something (our worship, our praise, our labor) for this.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Postmodernism: An Apology

For some time I have wanted to write on postmodernism, or rather on the attack on it. Although I have obliquely addressed the subject before, I have been surprised at the seemingly universal revulsion afforded to postmodernism. I also must admit that I feel a bit defensive of postmodernism, not least because its critics seem to me to avoid the most central premises of postmodernist thinking. First, however, I’d like to sample some of the ways postmodernism comes under fire.

Here is one example, a quote from on why people should give to Richard Dawkins' non-profit foundation for reason and science:
Other opposition to science comes from a needling hostility to the very idea that there exists an objective reality, a reality about which we can obtain testable evidence. There are those who carry this politically motivated hostility to the lengths of valuing personal opinion, subjective feeling or just plain prejudice, over publicly testable evidence. “If astrology works for you, it is true for you.” Never mind whether there is any evidence that it works (there isn’t). If you are personally revolted by the suggestion that you are related to a monkey, your illogical conclusion that evolution must therefore be false is mistakenly ascribed just as much respect as a contrary opinion supported by very strong evidence. “Everybody is entitled to their opinion, and all opinions are equally valid.”
Another quote comes from Rebecca Newburger Goldstein:
I like to think that the shallower aspects of the intellectual scene of the last century have played themselves out. I mean in particular the assaults on objectivity and rationality, which often take the form of attacks on science. There's nothing less exhilarating than reducing everything to social constructs and to our piddly human points of view. The pleasure of thinking is in trying to get outside of ourselves—this is as true in the arts and the humanities as in math and the sciences. There's something heroic in the idea of objective knowledge; the farther away knowledge takes you from your own individual point of view, the more heroic it is. Maybe the new ideas that are going to revitalize the arts and humanities are going to be allied with the sciences. It's not, of course, that novels will all address scientific themes—that would be ridiculously restrictive. But I hope that the spirit of expansiveness that's associated with the pursuit of scientific truth can get infused into the arts and humanities.
As a third example, here is Steven Pinker in a review of an essay collection on "Darwinian Lit-Crit":
Fiction has long been thought of as a means of exploring human nature, and the current stagnation of literary scholarship can be attributed, in part, to its denial of that truism. The field’s commitment to the dogma that the mind is a blank slate and that all human concerns are social constructions has led it to focus on cultural and historical particulars, banishing the deeper resonances of fiction that transcend time and place. And its distrust of science (and more generally, the search for testable hypotheses and cumulative objective knowledge) has left it, according to many accounts, mired in faddism, obscurantism, and parochialism.
The three examples above all come from people on the science side of the spectrum, although Goldstein is rather a science-minded philosopher and novelist. Let me provide one more example, this time from well-known conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg:
Asked to define sin, Barack Obama replied that sin is "being out of alignment with my values." Statements such as this have caused many people to wonder whether Obama has a God complex or is hopelessly arrogant. For the record, sin isn't being out of alignment with your own values (if it were, Hannibal Lecter wouldn't be a sinner because his values hold that it's OK to eat people) nor is it being out of alignment with Obama's — unless he really is our Savior.

There is, however, a third possibility. Obama is a postmodernist.

An explosive fad in the 1980s, postmodernism was and is an enormous intellectual hustle in which left-wing intellectuals take crowbars and pick axes to anything having to do with the civilizational Mount Rushmore of Dead White European Males.

"PoMos" hold that there is no such thing as capital-T "Truth." There are only lower-case "truths." Our traditional understandings of right and wrong, true and false, are really just ways for those Pernicious Pale Patriarchs to keep the Coalition of the Oppressed in their place. In the PoMo's telling, reality is "socially constructed." And so the PoMos seek to tear down everything that "privileges" the powerful over the powerless and to replace it with new truths more to their liking.

Hence the deep dishonesty of postmodernism. It claims to liberate society from fixed meanings and rigid categories, but it is invariably used to impose new ones, usually in the form of political correctness. We've all seen how adept the PC brigades are celebrating free speech, when it's for speech they like.
These are four strong statements dismissing something that hardly seemed faddish when I was in graduate school for literary studies. In its various forms in deconstruction, psychoanalytic criticism, Marxist criticism, postcolonialism, gender and queer theories, and other permutations, postmodernism was taken quite seriously. I took it seriously. So did many of my professors. This is not to say that I or anyone necessarily became a fawning devotee of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, or anyone else. Some of us were skeptical, some were hostile, but most everyone thought that postmodernist ways of approaching literature and culture were worth thinking about.

They are still.

Let me then try to identify some common threads in the views of postmodernism expressed in the four examples above:
(1) Postmodernism opposes or challenges science.

(2) Postmodernism expresses skepticism at the idea of objective reality (or, better, "interrogates" it).

(3) Postmodernism promotes the idea that all opinions are equally valid.

(4) Postmodernism argues that all human concerns are social constructions.
To these four points we can add that Dawkins, Goldstein, Pinker, and Goldberg all seem to agree about the character of postmodernism. It is nonsensical, essentially political, and self-deceptive; in other words, it is really, really wrong.

Not that anyone's asked me to do so, but I'll make myself an apologist for postmodernism. Let's look at the four common thread points:

(1) Postmodernism opposes or challenges science.
This is not true, in my opinion, yet I feel there's nothing inherently wrong with those outside the natural sciences questioning and criticizing what science issues as its facts, methodologies, and philosophies. Nevertheless, postmodernism generally does raise matters that surely must trouble science because the whole enterprise of science as a separate and absolutely definable discipline comes under interrogation. If I may be forgiven for simplifying matters too much, postmodernism opposes and challenges not science but truth claims. For example, when biologist Jerry Coyne says that "evolution is true," we can agree with the claim at a factual level and yet also recognize that "evolution" is itself an ever-evolving understanding of how life on Earth developed. The postmodernist opposition and challenge is not to the factual status of the claim but to the idea that the statement is always true and only in a specific way. As evolution continues to be refined and older questions become resolved, the definition of evolution will also develop. The statement "evolution is true" means different things in 1859 and 2009, even though the words are the same. Unfortunately, I think often people use science as a generic, default term when they try to explain postmodernist attitudes to truth. To challenge science is radical, controversial, and sexy - I guess.

* * * * * *
HOWEVER, we can take a bit from über-postmodernist Jean-Francois Lyotard and wonder if my "postmodernism doesn't oppose science" stance is mere wishful thinking and woefully inaccurate. Lyotard is quoted as having said:
Science is a highly elaborated set of conventions brought forth by one particular culture (our own) in the circumstances of one particular historical period; thus it is not, as the standard view would have it, a body of knowledge and testable conjecture concerning the real world. It is a discourse, devised by and for one specialized interpretive community, under terms created by the complex net of social circumstance, political opinion, economic incentive and ideological climate that constitutes the ineluctable human environment of the scientist. Thus, orthodox science is but one discursive community among the many that now exist and that have existed historically. Consequently its truth claims are irreducibly self-referential, in that they can be upheld only by appeal to the standards that define the scientific community and distinguish it from other social formations.
The discerning reader will observe that Lyotard makes a more nuanced point than "science has been wrong before; therefore, modern science will be proven wrong in the future." Rather, his point is that social and cultural values influence not only scientific communities (which is unsurprising), but also the production of scientific knowledge (which is more suprising). I happen to agree with Lyotard that science is a set of conventions and a discourse. After all, this is the cultural aspect of science and its performance. While Lyotard may certainly be attacking science, the truth claim lies at the center of the critique. Lyotard certainly makes a strong claim, but I do not read him as rejecting the idea of objective reality, an idea we will discuss in more detail below.

* * * * * *

(2) Postmodernism expresses skepticism at the idea of objective reality.
I don't doubt that hard-core postmodernists jettison the idea of objective reality altogether. But I think most other postmodernists question our human ability to access objective reality using language, whether it be natural or even mathematical language. All language is imprecise and, as I asserted above, subject to change (to say nothing of misunderstanding). In other words, objective reality exceeds our linguistic systems. We don't seem to be able to say anything about objective reality that isn't either inconsistent or incomplete. Now, this doesn't mean necessarily that language constructs reality - another idea that gets treated below - but instead that it frames both our perceptions and our understandings of it. Reality isn't subordinate to language; however, language's effect is the perception of subordinating reality. The fiction that postmodernism exposes is that language is neutral, stable, and precise.

Postmodernism also notes, rightly, that we often talk about objective reality in almost transcendental terms, in the sense that it is supposed to be the thing outside our human systems that nevertheless provides an ultimate foundation and reference for these systems. I think this is an astute observation that helps us use language more consciously, that helps us avoid facile expressions that seem to portray some things as possessing intention or transcendence when they really do not have such properties.

(3) Postmodernism promotes the idea that all opinions are equally valid.
I tend to think of this as a straw man argument, a bad sound bite of a more important idea. As I understand postmodernism, the idea promoted is not that all opinions are equally valid but rather that no one opinion is fully and completely valid always and everywhere. Indeed, I like to think most postmodernists would agree with the substance of Isaac Asimov's great statement about our ever-developing knowledge, "right and wrong are fuzzy concepts." As I said in my comments to the first point, not the factual content of an opinion but its use and its disposition for those asserting it are the important matters. When Jonah Goldberg rails against postmodernism's critique of "Our traditional understandings of right and wrong, true and false" - well, what are these implied understandings of which he speaks? He tacitly assumes we know what these understandings are. He seems to imagine that we will be outraged that anyone dares question these long-standing beliefs. Yet there seems to be some disjunction, for he uses the plural understandings. Perhaps he is a bit postmodern himself. Perhaps he's not sure what the Capital-T truth is among these traditional understandings of right and wrong, true and false.

I think the postmodern stance on opinions can be explained also through the metaphor of grammar. If we want something to act as the subject of a sentence, we know we need a noun phrase in the nominative case: John, who, the bear, physics, love, a sleeping bee, colorless green ideas, and so on. Are some noun phrase subjects more valid than others? Perhaps, in the context of the rest of the sentence. But the point is that so long as something is a noun phrase and nominative, it can go into the subject position of a sentence. Just as a subject does something, does some work, so too does an opinion. Any opinion in its context will not only issue content but also perform work of an ideological, social and political nature. We don't need to go much farther here because the point is actually quite simple: it's not just about what the words of the opinion mean, it's also about the use to which the opinion is put.

(4) Postmodernism argues that all human concerns are social constructions.
More than the other points, the social constructionism idea seems to drive people batty against postmodernism. To understand the idea, read a great summary such as Paul Boghossian's:
To say of something that it is socially constructed is to emphasize its dependence on contingent aspects of our social selves. It is to say: This thing could not have existed had we not built it; and we need not have built it at all, at least not in its present form. Had we been a different kind of society, had we had different needs, values, or interests, we might well have built a different kind of thing, or built this one differently. The inevitable contrast is with a naturally existing object, something that exists independently of us and which we did not have a hand in shaping.

There are certainly many things, and facts about them, that are socially constructed in the sense specified by this core idea: money, citizenship and newspapers, for example. None of these things could have existed without society; and each of them could have been constructed differently had we so chosen.
The controversial part of social constructionism comes when the concept is applied to belief, as in beliefs about gender and race. Boghossian writes:
Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex, 1953) and other feminist scholars since, have illuminated the extent to which gender roles are not inevitable but are rather the product of social forces. Anthony Appiah (Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race, 1996, with Amy Gutman) has been particularly forceful in demonstrating that nothing physical or biological corresponds to the racial categories that play a pervasive role in our social lives, that these categories owe their existence more to their social function than they do to the scientific evidence.

Other claims are more controversial. Mary Boyle has argued that our belief in schizophrenia is socially constructed (Schizophrenia: A Scientific Delusion? 1990). Her claim is that there is no adequate reason to believe that the symptoms commonly lumped under this label are manifestations of a single underlying disease and, hence, that the search for its etiology by neurochemistry is doomed. Perhaps she is right: our understanding of mental illness is certainly in its infancy. On the other hand, there appears to be increasing evidence that the symptoms associated with schizophrenia are predictable significantly before their onset and that the condition is highly heritable. These facts point in the opposite direction.
The real question is whether social construction applies to everything, including knowledge from the natural sciences (see Andrew Pickering, Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar, and Richard Rorty). Boghossian quite fairly concludes:
At its best – as in the work of de Beauvoir and Appiah – social constructionist thought exposes the contingency of those of our social practices that we had wrongly come to regard as inevitable. It does so by relying on the standard canons of good scientific reasoning. It goes astray when it aspires to become either a general metaphysics or a general theory of knowledge.
I also think it's helpful to quote a section from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that cites new directions for social construction:
Constructionist Explanation and Integrative Models
Fitting the social construction of human traits or kinds together with an account of representations, we see that one can be more or less thoroughgoingly constructionist. Social role accounts of traits or kinds may be paired with constructionist accounts of the representations that structure the social roles, and indeed, this is the natural way to read much constructionist work: work that is committed to explaining both theories of human kinds and the traits those theories purport to explain by appeal to social agents. One might hold, for example, that both our theories about gender and the differential behavior those theories structure are products of social construction.

But, as we noted above, some naturalists concerned with explaining representations have suggested integrative models combining constructionist and cognitive (and sometimes nativist) explanations of those representations (e.g. Sperber 1996, Machery and Faucher 2005). When combined with social role accounts of human traits, such accounts offer the possibility of combining (partially) nativist accounts of representations of human traits or kinds with fully constructionist accounts of the traits or kinds those representations create via the production of social roles (Mallon 2003, 2007). Such an account not only offers a way of integrating constructionist accounts with work in evolutionary cognitive psychology, but also offers an avenue of rejoinder to Hacking's claim that the targets of the social sciences are “on the move.”—viz., that representation-structured social roles and the traits they explain are stabilized, in part, by the developmental stability of the cognitive mechanisms that help produce them.

Social Construction as Ultimate Explanation
The canonical way to understand social constructionism about human traits is as suggesting that human traits emerge from experience of the world and as emphasizing the role of culture in structuring the world so experienced. Such constructionism thus contrasts with nativist accounts of those traits.

Recent work by some scientists and philosophical naturalists have suggested a different role for social, cultural forces in shaping less proximal, more ultimate (but still naturalistic) explanations. The distinction between a proximal and ultimate explanation is one that indicates relative distance of the explanans from the explanandum. For example, one's eating the doughnut might be explained by one's desire for rich foods (a relatively proximal explanation), but it also might be explained as the product of the evolutionary pressures that produced such desires (a relatively ultimate explanation). While “ultimate” is frequently used to label organic evolutionary explanations (because they contrast with proximal explanations that invoke only intrinsic properties of an organism), recent work suggests the possibility that culture might provide relatively more ultimate explanations of some evolved traits. For example, Philip Kitcher (1999) suggests that a cultural practice of dividing persons into racial groups could itself result in biologically significant divisions among populations where those cultural practices result in significant reproductive isolation. Kitcher's point is simply that, in principle, such isolation allows biological differences among populations to be preserved and accumulate over time. While Kitcher expresses skepticism about whether this has actually occurred among contemporary populations that we think of as candidate races (e.g. contemporary American groups picked out by “black,” “white,” “Asian,” etc.), his model does suggest a possible role for culture as an ultimate explanation, one that shapes the evolution of traits.

In a different vein, recent work on niche construction—the process by which organisms successfully modify their environments in ways that benefit themselves and their offspring (Odling-Smee, Laland, and Feldman 2003)—has also suggests a role for culture in altering natural selection. While key examples of niche selection emphasize a role for artifactual culture or technology in shaping selection—for example, the cultural adoption of dairy farming creating selective pressure for lactose tolerance (Feldman and Cavalli-Sforza 1989, Holden and Mace 1997)—the niches may also be more or less structured by our cultural conceptions, including our conceptions of different kinds of person.

In a controversial recent paper, Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending (Cochran et al. 2006) have argued on the basis of a range of evidence that cultural practices of racial classification and discrimination against Jews in 9th to 17th century Eastern Europe created selective pressure for higher IQs but also certain genetic diseases (e.g. Tay-Sachs) linked to high IQ, specifically among Ashkenazi Jews (the authors argue that Ashkenazi Jews were very reproductively isolated by cultural practices during that period). Such a hypothesis combines Kitcher's suggestion of the biological significance of intracultural reproductive isolation that socially constructed racial classification may produce with the niche selectionist idea that culture may produce selective pressures resulting in biological adaptation. Work like Kitcher's, the niche selectionists', and Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending's is noteworthy in part because it is in a certain sense social constructionist, but because of its emphasis on social agents as ultimate rather than proximate causes, it is still quite jarring to many with social constructionist sensibilities.
This has been a long section with many quotes, but the ultimate point is that culture plays a central role in shaping human social environments, behaviors, identities and development. I don't think that anyone denies this point, and the point forms an answer to all four issues with postmodernism.

To move forward, the question is whether we are capable of arriving at objectively reasonable beliefs about how things are, beliefs that anyone would feel bound to regardless of their ideological perspective. To approach such a goal, there would need to be broad and un-coerced appreciation of what defines relevant evidence.

Even if social constructionism drives one batty, I think it's a positive value if it or other postmodernist approaches result in discussions around such concerns as relevant evidence and how we could and should establish it. The value of postmodernist thinking lies in its near-pathological opposition to the argument from authority. In another post, I used a quote that's relevant to rejecting arguments from authority and overcoming our own biases:
This is why questioning our own motives, and our own process, is critical to a skeptical and scientific outlook. We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process. The process (i.e., science, logic, and intellectual rigor) has to be more important than the belief.
Is postmodernism nonsensical, essentially political, and self-deceptive? I think no, yes, and often. Caricatured postmodernism often is nonsensical; actual postmodernism often is both affected and obfuscating. Postmodernism embraces political grandstanding and doesn't try to shroud itself in the fiction of "staying neutral." Postmodernism can be practiced as banal philosophy, as when Foucault's panopticon is applied to this or that social structure. However, I can only say that just as any idea should not be indicted for being used in a silly, oppressive, or evil way, so too should postmodernism not be charged with the wrongdoing of some practitioners.

Postmodernism focuses its skepticism on claims made in the cultural sphere, rather than in the natural sciences sphere. It has empirical dimensions, actual use of language, as well as speculative and philosophical. I dislike seeing people such as Dawkins, Goldstein, and Pinker dismiss postmodernism out of hand because I think postmodernism can be an ally. I dislike people such as Goldberg using postmodernism as a term like communist or fascist – call someone a "PoMo" and you can instantly grab a whole crowd of intellectual sock-puppets to echo your derision toward the person, no questions asked. This is why level-headed assertions of postmodernism should be made more available in the public arena than they are currently.

Universal Human Morality

Over at The Edge, Marc Hauser presents a brief essay arguing that humanity has a “universal moral code” and that it was largely instilled by evolution.

Hauser and his colleagues have performed many experimental studies of children and Internet surveys of people’s reactions to hypothetical moral situations. He provides a highly compelling case for the role of evolution in how we base our own moral judgments.
Recent discoveries suggest that all humans, young and old, male and female, conservative and liberal, living in Sydney, San Francisco and Seoul, growing up as atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and Jews, with high school, university or professional degrees, are endowed with a gift from nature, a biological code for living a moral life.

This code, a universal moral grammar, provides us with an unconscious suite of principles for judging what is morally right and wrong. It is an impartial, rational and unemotional capacity. It doesn't dictate who we should help or who we are licensed to harm. Rather, it provides an abstract set of rules for how to intuitively understand when helping another is obligatory and when harming another is forbidden. And it does so dispassionately and impartially.
And, so that people don’t think that he’s a victim of the naturalistic fallacy, Hauser closes the essay with this important bit:
Lest there be any confusion about the claims I am making, I am not saying that our evolved capacity to intuitively judge what is right or wrong is sufficient to live a moral life. It is most definitely not and for two good reasons.

For one, some of our moral instincts evolved during a period of human history that looked nothing like the situation today. In our distant past, we lived in small groups consisting of highly familiar and often familial individuals, with no formal laws. Today we live in a large and diffuse society, where our decisions have little-to-no impact on most people in our community but with laws to enforce those who deviate from expected norms. Further, we are confronted with moral decisions that are unfamiliar, including stem cells, abortion, organ transplants and life support. When we confront these novel situations, our evolved system is ill-equipped.

The second reason is that living a moral life requires us to be restless with our present moral norms, always challenging us to discover what might and ought to be. And here is where nurture can re-enter the conversation. We need education because we need a world in which people listen to the universal voice of their species, while stopping to wonder whether there are alternatives. And if there are alternatives, we need rational and reasonable people who will be vigilant of partiality and champions of plurality.
I’m glad work like this is being done because morality is a source of perpetual exploitation among theocrats. Cooperation requires the development of ethics, and ethics demand interpersonal sensitivity with expected compromise.

Morals are not out in space waiting to be received. Rather, they emerge from societies based on expediency.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Reject Science? At Your Peril....

A religionist made the following insane comment online about my article on biblical falsehood:
If we are going to reject any body of literature because it contains impossible things then we are going to have to reject science.
What a silly statement! I am pleased, however, that the commenter apparently concedes that the Bible contains impossible things.

Nevertheless, science is not - or not only - a body of literature. Science makes observations and hypotheses that can be reviewed, criticized, tested, confirmed, falsified, and modified.

The commenter brings out the old saw that science tells us the universe came from nothing. This line of argument is supposed to show that the claims of science are as strange as anything religion says. I agree with this, at least. From multiverses to apprent fine-tuning to dark matter and black holes, science presents a much weirder view of the universe than religion ever has been able to imagine. But science has something that religion does not: evidence. We don't take stock in the weird claims of science because they are weird or because some cool scientists has said it. We take such claims seriously because we have multiple lines of positive evidence behind them. For example, it is perfectly consistent with known laws of physics for the universe to have come from nothing. To illustrate, here is a video lecture from a researcher whose area of study is this very question of "something from nothing."

Of course with this view of science making wierd claims, the religious show once again that they are unwilling to accept scientific hypotheses for what they are, hypotheses. Rather, they want to transform science into another religion, which means they can either believe in it or not. They are unwilling to discuss the mathematical, physical, logical and philosophical bases of the apparently strange ideas that scientists will sometimes propose.

Yet they so arrogantly declare themselves and their narrow beliefs correct. They reject science (which they clearly avoid studying in an unbiased fashion) even though they rely on it every day. They reject the claims of other religions (do they believe Jesus appeared on the iron? what about the recent report of the Koran being written on a little child's skin?) even though they have no less reason to believe these other claims than they do to believe the claims they actually accept.

They uncritically accept a six-day complete creation, men living for 1000 years, the sun and moon 'stopping,' the sea suddenly parting and then returning to normal, earthquakes on demand, the ability of the dead to return to live, the existence of a realm in another dimension where immortal souls go to spend eternity, the ability of people to heal the sick with magic, the ability of people to levitate, a man-made boat containing all gazillions of kinds of life-forms on earth floating alone in a global flood that mercilessly killed everyone else, and so on.

All of this Bible stuff, they are fine with. That stuff is no problem at all.

Heck, they don't mind that most of humanity and land-based life would have died in the flood. They consider it a virtue that Abraham raised not a peep to have his son saved. They say nothing about Jacob's treachery against his own brother or about God's injustice against Adam and Eve. I suspect it's because deep down they know these are but fairy tales.

Yet, they utterly reject out of hand any observation from history, archaeology, textual analysis or anthropology that points toward the idea that the Bible was written by men, collected by men, interpreted and re-interpreted by men, and codified into a religion by men who quite naturally would have theorized that a god "out there, somewhere" was the author of everything, including their personal and national destines.

So, they reject everything except their own parochial vision of the world. The rest of us reject the Bible because it lies. The rest of us accept that the scientific method is the best tool we have to determine a true picture of our origins and our past. Science is the best way we know to generate explanations of the universe and how it works. Science offers the best methods we have ever devised to predict consequences of natural events and of human actions.

Religion offers nothing but institutionalized and socially funded fantasy. It lies about our past and our origins, it explains nothing about how the universe works, and it allows for no predictions of any useful sort.

If they really want to reject science, I wonder why they don't then go live in a cave with Osama bin Laden and stay there. Otherwise, I suspect they do accept science despite their explicit protests and tactily reject religion, which they adopt only as an egocentric tool for propping up a vain vision of themselves as righteous and special individuals.

In the end, my point is that we have a much stronger case for approaching the Bible as literature than for considering it a reliable source of information on the physical world, on human origins, and on human history. If your strongest counter-argument to my point is "You don't believe in miracles, you jerk," then reason is surely against you.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

God in the Mirror

Ever wonder why you and God agree so often?

An interesting new study that combines surveys, psychological manipulation, and brain-scanning finds that "God's will" is usually aligned with "my will." The study, by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, finds that people generally think that God's attitudes on important social issues line up with their own opinions. Shocker!

According to science blogger Ed Yong:
Religion provides a moral compass for many people around the world, colouring their views on everything from martyrdom to abortion to homosexuality. But Epley's research calls the worth of this counsel into question, for it suggests that inferring the will of God sets the moral compass to whatever direction we ourselves are facing. He says, "Intuiting God's beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber to validate and justify one's own beliefs."
Yong brilliantly uses the sockpuppet as a metaphor for relying on a deity to guide decisions and judgments. As Epley himself remarks, God usually tells us we're right:
People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God's beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing.
However, Steven Novella says on Neurologica that almost any time we try to infer what an other (either big "o" or little "o") thinks, we start from our own personal beliefs.
This is why questioning our own motives, and our own process, is critical to a skeptical and scientific outlook. We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process. The process (i.e science, logic, and intellectual rigor) has to be more important than the belief.