Friday, December 31, 2010

An Amazing Year -- Best of 2010

When 2009 ended, didn't you just want a whole lot more of Textuality? Well you got a lot more, regardless. We have about double the number of posts in 2010 from what was published in 2009.

To those of you who read the silly things I write: thank you. I hope that these posts do something for you, whether that means making you smile, pursue a link, reference an article, reflect on a personal view, appreciate something in your life, or whatever.

To those of you who read the silly things I write and then comment on them: a big thank you. Your comments do something for me. I appreciate the insight, perspectives, and knowledge you bring here.

Proceeding month-by-month, here are what I think are the best of the best from 2010:
January: Lots of Atheism posts, the best of which is, in my opinion, Biblical Translation: Why It Matters. I also like the "wisdom" post I made for my birthday, Forty Lessons for Forty Years.

February: The post on the Beatles, Holy Crap, The Beatles SUCK!, brought a shit-storm of comments from one guy who takes it all too seriously. God's Love Versus Yours is an interesting piece on perspective.

March: This was another high-volume month. To me, the single best post is You Atheists, Always Talkin' 'Bout Gawd! because the concept and "person" of God is such a gaping hole in religious apologetics. The philosophically-minded theists tend to abstract God away to the ether, and the biblically-minded theists tend to recoil at how morally horrible the God of Israel really is. If Atheism Is False, Then... is cute but not meaty enough. It doesn't quite succeed as I had wanted.

April: Growing in Reason: Talking to Children About Unbelief may be the best post of the month. It's straight-talk and good advice.

May: I'm most proud of Evolution's Gaps versus Creationism's because it looks carefully and thoughtfully at what evolution as a science is and is not. The article also considers what evolution's opponents claim. The conclusion of the piece is, I think, both devastating and inescapable. I also like The Best Case for Atheism and The Best Case for Atheism, Christianity Edition. The arguments are high-level but easily investigated; we need "Cliff's Notes" versions of things, sometimes.

June: I think the most important article this month is Let the Dead Bury Jesus, which reflects on the current fact that "the sources we possess do not establish the conditions for a verdict on the historicity of Jesus." I also like the analysis and argument in Why Russell's Teapot Still Serves. My take-down of anti-materialist rhetoric, Materialism and All There Is, is pretty good.

July: In Goodbye Atheism, Hello Walt Whitman I thought--I really did!--that I'd focus much less on writing about Atheism vs. Religion and much more on Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I think that this has not quite turned out to be the case, but I'm generally happy with the pace for moving through Whitman.

August: The argument that DISPROVES ATHEISM gets more views than any other single post on Textuality.

September: Kuzari Principle: Index of Posts sums up all the work and all the conversation on the Kuzari Principle.The first Kuzari post had been in April. The best two posts in this series are Definitively Refuting the Kuzari Principle (July) and Going Nuclear on the Kuzari Principle (September). I think Studying Atheism is a good post.

October: Ultimate Meaning: Index of Posts captures material from my second series, dealing with the idea of ultimate meaning. My Christian Wife is a self-interview on my wife, our marriage, and our parenting. The post got picked up at Parenting Beyond Belief. The Autumn of Our Content is a personal post about my kids, the Fall season, and that damn time which keeps rolling on. Finally, I like The Last Prejudice? because it discusses the persecution complex that seems to be so in vogue among Catholics recently.

November: Two personal posts top my list for this month. No One Cares tells of my family's struggle to work with the health care system to assist my mother. My Goal's Beyond recounts the history of this blog from 2005 up to present day.

December: I am happy with the post on Information Theory and its (mis)use by intelligent design creationists. The post on Civil Discourse is decent but needs ongoing revision.
Above, I have not listed any of the posts in the series on James Kugel's How to Read the Bible because that series remains in progress. I have no doubt that the series would make the grade for a 2011 wrap-up.

I am pleased with the progress of Textuality this year. The blog has been home to a diverse mix of articles, images, arguments, videos, links, and conversations. I look forward to more of the same and to some of the new in 2011.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Finding a Way Home (The Song So Far, Q4)

This was a rough last month or so. I was far too busy and stressed.

Music helps, and this song has been a favorite for a long time.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Civil Discourse, Sidelights, and Theistic Argumentation

Can we please get back to what we were talking about before?
The little kerfuffle documented in the post and comments of "The Creationist Is/Ought" deserves reflection. I won't shy away from the charge of being a bit of a troublemaker, but I also think that GEM is being a baby.

My observations on the key events:

(1) Perhaps I jumped the gun at calling "censorship" at Uncommon Descent. Who knows, if I had not reached out to GEM and/or mentioned that my post had been in moderation for between 36-48 hours to that point, then maybe my post would have been released anyway. Maybe not. Speculation is a waste on this.

(2) Did I "slander" GEM with the comment about Torquemada? No, I don't believe so. Here's what I said:
The Creationist Is/Ought is an argumentative bait-and-switch. You think you're getting a straightforward argument but what you're getting is evangelism. The evangelism can be of the soft-shoe variety, as with Dembski, or it can be more of the Torquemada sort, as with a character called "GEM of The Kairos Initiative," who describes himself as "A Caribbean-based applied scientist, educator and strategic change/ transformation advocate and facilitator."
Now, I admit that it's an asshole-ish comment, and deliberately so. The comment says that GEM has the argumentative and persuasive style of a grand inquisitor. It's no compliment, and it's more than snarky. But I also think the comment bears truth. GEM displays both dogmatism and fanaticism. His flailing rhetorical attacks can be off-putting. I won't psychoanalyze GEM, but I suspect his Torquemada tantrum is partially the result of his seeing that there's something to the comparison.

(3) I also exacerbated things by teasing GEM in a later comment:
But be honest, have you ever wanted to burn someone at the stake?
I suppose if I had placed a smiley emoticon at the end, the comment might have been taken in a more jocular spirit.

(4) Is the Torquemada reference offensive? Well, GEM certainly wasn't amused and wanted both an apology and a retraction.
You will observe that the slanderous association with Torquemada and the later vulgar reference are still there, as is an accusatory comment about whether I have wanted to burn people at the stake.

Now, I think you will also see that at no point des LT respond seriously to my pointing out thsat torquemada’s behaviour was not even reasonably typical of Spanish Catholics att he time, including how two leading sints in Spain at the time, objected seriously, and how Las Casas actually projected God’s destructive judgement on Spain for her crimes in the New World. And, discussion of comparative difficulties worldview issues is not at all even remotely associated with thumbscrews, racks, and bundles of dry branches.

LT has yet to seriously account for such an invidious comparison, but instead has tried to make light of it.
(5) As an apology, I offered the following to GEM:
You say I “owe” you an apology for the association with Torquemada. Let me first clarify that I did not call you “Torquemada” nor did I associate you personally with him. What I did was liken your style of argumentation and persuasion to that of an infamous Inquisitor.

To be sure, this was a deliberately over-the-top comparison designed to dramatize my perception of your approach. It was supposed to be humorous but also to seem close enough to truth to get you to tone it down a bit.

Now, upon reflection, I apologize for making a hurtful statement and will try to restrain myself better in the future.
But GEM found this unsatisfactory. Apparently, he won't be happy unless I perform a rhetorical auto-de-fé.

(6) Do I retract the comment? Sure, why not? I hereby retract any statements I have made here or at Uncommon Descent which directly or indirectly associate the Internet character known as "GEM of TKI (or Gordon)" and the historical individual Tomás de Torquemada.

(7) Will I remove anything I've posted? No. I don't see the need. If people think I'm a dick, so be it.

(8) On vanishing comments here at this blog: I gotta admit that I don't know where this is coming from. When people submit comments, I get an email notification. I know from experience that if a comment is too long Blogger will give a message on it, but I have had long comments still get posted. As far as I know, the only way for comments that have been posted to "vanish" is for either me or the original poster to delete the comment manually. I have not deleted any comments. I don't screen comments. I do, however, have moderation turned on for OPs that are older than 10 days.

(9) All this Torquemada business was an uninteresting sidelight to what I actually wanted to have GEM discuss, namely his specific reasoning behind the thesis --
We live as contingent creatures amidst a world of other contingent creatures, in an observed cosmos that is evidently finely balanced at an operating point that allows for C-chemistry cell based, intelligent life.

Such a contingent cosmos implies a necessary being as its ultimate ground. That necessary being would be the ultimate reality. (emphasis added)
(10) Eventually, however, GEM gives the following as the chain of reasoning for his God conclusion:
a – The genetic code (yes, CODE, as in, LANGUAGE) based DNA [right arrow] mRNA [right arrow] Ribosome + tRNAs [right arrow] protein chaining process is precisely a case of discrete-state, code-based information system processing, i.e. instantiation not metaphor or analogy. (This, at length, LT had to concede.)
Let me point out that code and language are not necessarily equivalent, at least linguistically. To a linguist, and this is partially my training, codes typically represent languages and have no syntax or structure of their own.

True language, on the other hand, meets all of the following conditions: (i) it is a mode of communication; (ii) it has semanticity, in that its signals have meaning; (iii) it has a pragmatic function; (iv) it has interchangeability, which is the ability of participants to both send and receive messages; (v) it has cultural transmission, in that users can learn the language system from other users; (vi) it has arbitrariness, in that the form of the signals is not logically related to their meaning; (vii) it has discreteness, which is the property of having complex messages built up out of smaller parts; (viii) it has displacement, which is the ability of users to communicate about things not present in space or time; and (ix) it has productivity, which is the ability of users to produce and understand any number of messages, including messages never expressed before and expressing novel ideas.

GEM's use of code and language requires serious justification. Are these terms denotatively appropriate or are they human convention for nicely approximating a conception of how genetic processes function?

But if we are using the language of communication, then we need to ask what specifically acts as sender, what as message, what as receiver. GEM is trying to set up the idea that because we have a coded or linguistic process, then we must have a sentient being to conceive of the (coded or linguistic) message and input it into the sending source. But I tend to think the receiving source is more important in functional communication. Thus, we people can look at the top of a mountain and believe it resembles a human face (e.g., the Old Man of the Mountain), yet we need not consider it a non-human communication with representational status.

Now, however, we can address what many of us know: that there is such a thing as genetic code that performs real functions within living organisms. Yet the presence and function of a code is only part of the story. There is a historical dimension, and there is a biological dimension related to the receiving "decoder" that is related to that history. When we consider the parts, history, and functionality of genetic code processing in living organisms, I think that what we can trace back in time remains squarely in the natural. We don't need to imagine a "programmer" at some point in the dawn of life; we need to imagine a simple interaction where a second organelle emerges as a replication of the first, then replication with a difference, then structured replication, and phased replication. Of course, I'm neither a biologist nor a geneticist, but my point is that I find it much harder to imagine a scenario where God just poofs one or more life forms into existence. The God scenario short-circuits history and biology, and just leaves us to marvel at the code.

GEM continues:
b – Moreover, this digital information system is a key part of a self-replicating entity that also interacts with and acts on its environment, i.e the cell indeed instantiates the generic von Neumann type self-replicator.

c – Given the implied complexity and the fact that even so small a set of digital, coded, functionally specific information as 1,000 bits sits in a configuration space of 2^1,000 ~ 10^301, the whole observed cosmos of ~10^80 atoms across its lifespan and changing state every Planck time could not credibly undergo enough states to sample 1 in 10^150 of that space. That is, a random walk search of that config space rounds down to no search.
GEM's argument in Item C seems to amount to COMPLEXITY, therefore NO EVOLUTION. It appears to be an argument from personal incredulity based on the idea of teleology. That is, the result of the process is really unlikely and the chances of getting to that specific result are almost infinitesimal. Yet, this is post hoc thinking, if I've represented GEM correctly. And if so, notice how we are skipping over history, functionality, and the very real environmental ecology within which any cell must fight to exist. Item C also seems to switch venues from the biological (Items A and B) to the cosmos at a quantum level.

However, I must admit that I am not quite certain about what GEM is saying in Item C. The numbers and terms like "configuration space" are out of my daily ken. Moving on:
d – So, chance, the other source of highly contingent outcomes [natural selection filters simply cut off lower or non-functioning sub populations so, it does not create configurations] is not a credible explanation for such an information system. Intelligence routinely produces objects and systems that exceed this threshold, e.g. this post.
The suggestion in this item is that if chance (coded here as natural selection) is not a credible explanation, then creationism wins by default. Of course, natural selection is not at all the whole of evolutionary processes, and I give an overview of evolution here. GEM then says:
e – Credibly, life is designed. [And by an intelligence, and in a cosmos that sits at a finely and complexly balanced operating point that facilitates such C-chemistry cell based life, i.e the cosmos is also credibly designed. Something very much like God is credible.]
Whoa, GEM has leaped far into "ought" territory here in Item E. What does "designed" mean; that is, what are the defining and the attendant properties of design? Can things be ordered and patterned without being designed? How did we get from the idea of very complex in Item C to the idea of "designed" here? GEM needs to show his math now: what else besides apparent complexity indicates (not implies) design? We are in no position at this point to deal with other terms such as "intelligence" and "God."
f – Of course, I raised the issue of an implication above. It turns out that LT up to the point where I corrected him, seems to have conflated the act of inferring — which is subjective — with the fact of implication. But, once we have some claim P, that cannot be true and another claim Q is false, then P = > Q, i.e. IF P is so, THEN Q must also be so. (For instance, if I am typing this post then I must be alive, intelligent, purposeful and able to speak and write English.)
GEM misses my point, I think. Implications rely on assumptions about P and Q, and these assumptions need to be examined along with the premise of implication. GEM's example, for instance, doesn't imagine that GEM actually may not know not a lick of English at all and is instead typing from an English exemplar. If GEM is merely copying a sheet of paper from another source, then a critical element of the implication is flawed. Similarly, GEM's claim that a contingent universe implies an intelligent creator cannot simply be accepted at face value. I'm not accepting the implication just yet because I'd like to "peek under the covers," as it were. And when we peek, we find some serious gaps and flaws, as I have already demonstrated above.

We go forward with GEM:
g – Of course, there is an “I” — a subject — who makes the inference just above; but, once it is well warranted, it is a fact that stands on its own merits. It is objectively true.
I'm not sure what these assertions of the "I" and objective truth are supposed to mean or do. It seems as though GEM is trying to suggest that his implication of a creator (or a credible creator) is objectively true. But the implication is unsupported and the assumption of objectivity is nonsensical at this point. In other words, GEM's inference is not "well warranted." He's trying to sneak in his inference as an objective truth, but it just doesn't work and he needs to accept this.
h – And, chains of thousands or millions of such implications are routinely used in math, science and technology, as well as management and daily life, so we just as routinely hang a lot more than our hats on implications and well-warranted inferences to such implications.
This unsupported assertion glosses over the fact that sitting around dreaming whether life is designed has little resemblance to the practical application of reasoning and implication. This item provides no support for the main argument.
i – To object to an implication because it is an implication or because a subject infers it — because one does not like where it points, is thus selective hyperskepticism: making a question-begging and inconsistent objection that would not be made in a materially similar case of comparable warrant where one agrees with the conclusion.
Sigh: Actually, I question the implication more than object to it. You, GEM, have the burden to show the implication is both valid and sound. So far your points have failed to meet this burden; this, unfortunately for you, is a fact.
j – Of course, the context of the objection was the inference from a contingent cosmos to a cause of that cosmos, and onward to the existence of a non-contingent, necessary being as the ultimate ground for the observed credibly contingent cosmos.

k – This brings to bear a now common objection to reasoning on cause and contingency. To that the classic, simple example of a fire is a sufficient counter:
1: A fire has a beginning, it needs to be sustained in existence [it needs fuel heat and oxidiser in an exothermic chain reaction], and it may go out.

2: A fire is contingent, i.e its beginning and existence depend on things beyond it. (There are circumstances on which it can and will exist, and there are circumstances where it cannot exist.)

3: That is it is caused, has sufficient factors that allow it to spring into existence, and has necessary factors that if absent will block its beginning or cut off its existence.

4: Such factors are termed: CAUSES.

5: A sufficient cluster of causal factors will trigger and sustain a fire, and absence or removal of a necessary factor will prevent its beginning or make it go out.

6: Just so, our observed cosmos credibly had a beginning, and has been sustained in existence to today. It is contingent, was caused, and is caused.

7: But, an actualised infinite regress of causes (as was pointed out above, cf 44) is absurd, so the chain of causes that led to our cosmos terminates.

8: Once we have a contingent cosmos, we have a root cause that is self-sufficient, i.e it is not contingent, does not depend on other causes, and cannot go out of existence due to want of a necessary causal factor.

9: We have just described what philosophers call, a necessary being.

10: The real issue is which candidate for this is the best, e.g. a wider deeper material cosmos out of which sub-cosmi bubble up from time to time at random, or an intelligent, purposeful designer.
The reasoning here is flawed when GEM tries to get from a fire on Earth to the very beginning of space-time in our universe. I think the points I make to tgpeeler are relevant as a response here to GEM's 10-point scenario:
Let me ask, though, whether you find terms such as “past,” “cause,” and “first” problematic in the context of the origins of the universe. Are these terms, as we are using them here, appropriate and applicable to the origins of the universe?

When it comes to our universe, we have a scientific case for claiming that we can explain it without having to go outside of it. For a very high-level, 101, explanation of what I’m saying see Sean Carroll’s video at

One of the arguments I’ve made to Kairos is that when going “outside” our universe, we are hard-pressed to extrapolate from the present (e.g., as you say, “things are changing in the present”) to a past as far back as the very origins of our universe.

So, I think most everything that you or I could possibly say about a “first cause” would not only be uncertain, but I might wager it would be wrong (including this statement I just made). But now I’m speculating wildly, too.

I said before that we have a scientific case for the universe creating itself from nothing (I think this is close enough to the famous statement from Hawking’s recent book). I’m not saying it’s a great or even a good case; I’m only asserting that there is a case. This much I think is indisputable.

So, I have your case and I have Hawking’s case. I think the question at this point is how should reasonable people evaluate the two cases against each other (and other cases, as may be appropriate). Taking a neutral stance toward both cases, we need to know what criteria to apply in determining the quality of cases and the comparative evaluation.

My intuition is that this is as far as any of us can go.
GEM's banking on the infinite regress problem as a way to smuggle in the need for a designer (i.e., God). Most everything GEM talks about, from DNA codes to chains of implications, address what appears to be his need to posit a first cause.

GEM continues:
l – But already, we have reason to believe our cosmos is designed, so a designer is plainly the more credible cause; unpalatable though that may be to LT and ilk.
Unfortunately, we don't really have such reason to believe our cosmos is designed. GEM has given no definition of design and he has not really addressed competing theories in any detail, so how could they possibly be undercut?
m - Similarly, once we see that we are morally governed creatures, it is credible that we are under moral law and a Lawgiver
Assuming that we see and understand what "morally governed" means. Paley would be proud to see the watchmaker analogy coming in here. It's also credible, I think more credible, that as a matter of human convention we understand ourselves as morally governed creatures. GEM finishes with the expected claim:
n - The best overall candidate is a Creator-God who as to his character is good.
I disagree, and I don't think GEM or anyone else has shown it.

Ultimately, this whole mess amounts to this, an argument made by GEM:
The aggregate complexity and specific, functional organisation of that system scream design to all but those who are deafened by a priori commitments to denying what would overturn their comfortable, amoral materialism.
Design, he says, is obvious...except to people like me who are prejudiced against the idea. Surely, I have no good reason to doubt or question his conclusion of design. Certainly, I must maintain my skepticism because otherwise I would have to submit to God as my moral authority and thereby become a Christian practitioner.

This is, of course, hogwash. Whatever the case for design, it is speculative and only partially helpful. Mainly, design is an answer to a question we are not asking. GEM's argument has no persuasive force toward design. The argument is undoubtedly sensible, and that may be enough for some to set themselves in the design camp, but it's not really backed very well by data. GEM's best argument is the analogy with the fire in Item K. Finally, I bristle at GEM's use of the Argument from Psychology.

Look, I have no problem with living as commanded in the Torah if it's all true. I have no problem in principle with being a prayer guy, or a kippah guy, or a mitzvah guy. I don't even have a problem with accepting Jesus as my personal savior. Just make me forget everything I know about reasoning, history, language, and the way the universe works.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Did Jesus Heal With Marijuana? Was Moses High on the Mountain?

And to all a good night.
 I can't make this stuff up:
According to pot historian Chris Bennett's chapter on “Early/Ancient History” in Dr. Julie Holland's The Pot Book - 2010 Park Street Press - Jesus didn't smoke pot, he rubbed it on people in the form of medicinal holy oil. Archaeological evidence shows Mesopotamia had been rife with the stuff since the time of the Assyrians until 400 years after Jesus' death. Through a strange story of linguistics, being a Christian literally means 'a person with pot oil smeared over their face,' Bennett says.
The article continues:
The ancient Jews had a love-hate relationship with the tall, fragrant cane stalks of hemp, according to the original Old Testament. First Jehovah spoke to Moses through it, but later Jehovah rejected sacrifices with pot-infused oil because of its foreign roots. By the time of Jesus' birth, pot use was restricted to royalty, and Jewish priests like the Levites, Bennett says. There's no way to know who taught Jesus how to heal with pot oil, but there's a huge gap between Jesus' alleged virgin birth and the time he begins to minister. It's possible Jesus learned it from outlaw priests, Bennett speculates. Supplies would've come from traders along the Mediterranean coast. No one knows for sure.
I hope this story harshes no one's mellow.

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 6): The Cost of Modern Biblical Knowledge

Knowing what we do about the Bible, can we approach and understand it as we did before such knowledge?
We continue to read through the subsections of Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.

After leading us through his high-level conclusions about the achievement of the ancient biblical interpreters, Kugel asserts the proper frame for understanding both ancient interpretation and the Bible-as-Scripture. Largely through the wisdom mentality, ancient interpreters transformed the texts of Israel’s library--stories, laws, prophecies, songs--into moral instruction and “metaphors or timeless examples of the ways of God and men.”

Kugel says, “One would not be wrong to think of this transformation as, in effect, a kind of massive act of re-writing.” Indeed, I myself have made an analogous argument regarding the Christian Old Testament: I argue that the Old Testament is a different book than the Hebrew Scriptures because of the way in which the collected (and collective) texts are approached and understood by Christian believers.1,2

The Hebrew Scriptures, then, are the product of the way they were approached and understood by ancient interpreters. This thesis is one of the main ones that the first 35 chapters of the book aim to demonstrate. In those chapters, Kugel says, we see “the biblical texts in their original settings and meanings,” on the one hand, and “what those texts were later made out to mean by Jewish and Christian authorities,” on the other hand.

Modern biblical scholarship has been able to excavate the original meaning of these texts. This scholarship began with the aim of uncovering the “real Bible,” but that never happened. The “real Bible,” we will recall, was imagined to be still-Scripture but apart from any doctrinal approach and understanding.3 Instead, researchers discovered that Scripture was both the texts and the religious ways they were understood.

The question thus becomes what do we do now that we are aware that there is more than one Bible? We understand both the original meanings of the texts and the religious meanings later attended to them, so how, then, is one to relate to Bible knowing all this?

Kugel’s answer is quite wise and appropriately nuanced, yet not free of problems:
The first step in formulating an answer to that question, it seems to me, is to understand that the answer must depend very much on who is doing the asking. I do not think it can ever be the same for both Christians and Jews, or for Catholics and Protestants, or even for Episcopalians and Southern Baptists.
We might also add Atheists to this list. I like Kugel’s answer because it seems correct that different religious or non-religious macro-groups will have distinct assessments of what the Bible is; what its role can be in individual, communal, and national cultural life; and what its role should be. I also like that Kugel’s answer suggests that an individual must actively and knowingly determine her or his answer; that is, “what is to become of the Bible for me?”

But Kugel’s answer also seems problematic, at least at this point in our reading. Kugel has clearly distinguished between several Bibles:
  1. The biblical texts in their original settings and meanings.
  2. The Bible as a set of texts and a way of approaching them in religious traditions.
  3. The “real Bible,” the unfiltered communication of God to man, and the record of that interaction.
  4. The Bible as a set of texts and a way of approaching them to study their historical and cultural sources.
As I read him, Kugel’s main concern is Bible #2, the Bible of religion. Yet, I’m uncomfortable to think that we can simply acknowledge these other Bibles and then just disregard all but one. Instead, I think the consequence of having the genie out of the bottle (to paraphrase Kugel) is retaining all of the Bibles. Just as we cannot separate the Biblical texts from the way of approaching them, as in Bible #2, so too I don’t think we can separate Bible #2 from Bibles #1, #3, and #4. I think this is the cost of knowledge.

But Kugel has much more to say on approaches to the Bible, so it will be worthwhile to hold onto this problem and see how it plays out in the rest of this fascinating chapter.

  1. Historical Jesus: No Clear Picture
  2. Biblical Translation: Why It Matters
  3. Kugel's HTRTB (Part 2): The Achievement of Modern Biblical Scholarship

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Theism Does Not Ground Ought

Law grounds "ought," not theism.
An interesting argument from the gallery:
no worldview, apart from theism in which the Creator-God is inherently good, has a foundational IS that can credibly ground OUGHT.
This statement is not true.

No theism, even the theism of an "inherently good" creator-god, can ground "ought."

Why? Because strictly speaking, such a theism represents an hypothesized description of the origins and state of the world.

Atheism doesn't recognize the existence of any gods, and finds gods useless in describing the world. All theisms reverse this: each has a pet god or gods, and uses them to help describe the world. Atheism and theisms alike are descriptive, not prescriptive.

The foundations for prescription, for ought, reside in socio-political organization, notably law.

We don't need to specially plead for someone's brand of theism. It's a worldview like all others and subject to the same limitations.

The Creationist Is/Ought

Will creationist Lucy allow humanist Charlie Brown to address the football? You know the answer.

Creationists have a peculiar habit of starting with facts and then extrapolating from them wildly. I call this "the Creationist Is/Ought." They'll begin, for instance, with a statement on how amazing a living cell is or how fantastic a galaxy is. But then they use this statement to argue that the very first-ever living cell or the very first-ever galaxy had to come about because of the magic of their god.

It goes the other way, too. They'll make the obvious point that Atheists reject the existence of gods and then go on to claim that Atheists think life is meaningless and empty. This second part is bunk for me as well as for many Atheists I talk to.

But this is why it can be so difficult to argue with creationists. They have lots of the facts, but they're also cramming these facts into a pre-set agenda. They argue their unwarranted extrapolation, denigrate the more reasonable limitations allowed by the facts, and "orientalize" a more empiricist bent.  Plus, creationists don't want their agenda out on the surface, so they try to couch the facts and the speculations carefully.

For example, when intelligent design creationist William Dembski argues, as he did in his recent debate with Christopher Hitchens, that --
We now know that every cell (and all life is composed of cells) is a vastly complicated assembly of interconnected technologies that argue for intelligent design. We need to be engineers to understand what’s inside the cell, and the level of engineering we find there far exceeds anything humans have invented. (emphasis added)
he applies the language of ingenuity and intent to frame the cell (and all life) as, ultimately, an invention of a being that far exceeds the capabilities of the human. Dembski's language, not his facts, reinforces a design hypothesis. His use of "engineers" is interesting, too, because it seemingly promotes technical understanding while not mentioning at all biological and historical understandings. No doubt, we should should seek to understand what's inside the cell from the standpoints of the technical (what parts, what structure, what local function), the biological (what process, what role), and the historical (what precursors, what changes or differences).

*  *  *

The Creationist Is/Ought is an argumentative bait-and-switch. You think you're getting a straightforward argument but what you're actually getting is evangelism. The evangelism can be of the soft-shoe variety, as with Dembski, or it can be more of the Torquemada sort, as with a character called "GEM of The Kairos Initiative," who describes himself as "A Caribbean-based applied scientist, educator and strategic change/ transformation advocate and facilitator." Here is an example of his style:
Nor, am I merely giving metaphors. If you do not know that the genetic code is a 4-state discrete code, you are utterly too ignorant to be a part of this discussion. If you do know that, you know or should know that such an entity is an instantiation of a digital code based system.
Further, as just one example, the protein manufacturing process using mRNA, AA-loaded tRNA and ribosomes is a step by step, code driven finite process that takes in inputs and generates defined outputs. That is, it is a physically implemented algorithm. If you don’t know that, you are not ready for this discussion. Kindly, go do a 101, starting from the linked above.

If you do, and try the “metaphors” dismissal, you have no excuse for the above “metaphor” remark.

Rhetoric ruses into reality: CRUNCH!
GEM recently made the following argument to me:
We live as contingent creatures amidst a world of other contingent creatures, in an observed cosmos that is evidently finely balanced at an operating point that allows for C-chemistry cell based, intelligent life.

Such a contingent cosmos implies a necessary being as its ultimate ground. That necessary being would be the ultimate reality.
GEM goes on (and on), but I want to pause here because our discussion quickly became de-railed partly because of an offhand comment I had made.

GEM’s argument is familiar enough. In the end, it’s a Cosmological Argument: a contingent cosmos presupposes having been caused by a necessary being. The extra stuff -- fine-tuning, ultimate ground, ultimate being -- is window dressing. The relevant objections to GEM’s argument, then, are that (1) the causal relationship between the cosmos (even a finely tuned one) and the necessary being is suspect and that (2) the existence of a necessary being requires justification per the principles of causation or sufficient reason.

The Creationist Is/Ought happens in the transition from the fact -- a contingent cosmos -- to the unwarranted speculation -- the necessary being (i.e., God). That first paragraph talks of contingent creatures, fine-tuning, and "C-chemistry cell based, intelligent life." And then in the next paragraph, boom! A "necessary being" with no obvious connection to what's come before and with no explanation as to why or how the necessary being arrived to become the cause of the contingent cosmos.

But GEM and I never got into these issues because the discussion got de-railed. How? Well, it started when I said --
Implies? I disagree. In any case, I wouldn’t hang my hat on an implication.
My primary aim in this comment was to disagree that there was a clear and present implication from the contingent cosmos to the necessary being. Implication requires a reasonable connection between the antecedent (contingent cosmos) and the consequent (necessary being), and in GEM’s argument this connection was based only on assumption. My point, then, was that GEM needed to explain how we know that necessary beings cause contingent universes to exist.

My second statement, however, was made off-handedly. What I meant by the statement was that implications are funny things, and we need to keep some perspective on them. Implications can be strong or weak. They can be clear or muddy. They can be misleading, depending on how one gauges the relevance of the conditions to the consequences. No one should “hang their hat” on an implication in argumentative discourse because implications are not automatically iron clad; indeed, they are very much in the realm of interpretations. When people assert implications, they also better do a good job of connecting the dots between antecedent and consequent. Simply asserting “X implies Y” is not itself compelling, and asking someone to accept an implication on its face is intellectually dirty.

But I guess this point didn't make it through to GEM, who in response to my statements became indignant and accused me first of “selective hyperskepticism” --
Going further, do you understand what implication means, i.e. P = > Q?

[P is sufficient for Q so that if P holds P will also hold, and Q is necessary for P so that unless Q holds, P cannot hold?]

That every time you depend on an aircraft or airplane or computer or similar designed system with underlying laws and mathematical specifications, you are relying on the power of implication to hold in the real world?

In short, you routinely rely on the logic that you want to reject when it is inconvenient to your preferred worldview.

That is classic selective hyperskepticism.
And then of rejecting the very basis of reasoning --
You are the one who tried to dismiss the logic of implication, which is also closely connected to cause-effect thinking. Indeed, it is foundational to inferential reasoning.
GEM seems fairly apoplectic. Questioning a weakly formulated implication is hardly the same as dismissing all inferential reasoning, and it’s not inconsistent at all. We're having a discussion with reasoning as a main part of the subject, for FSM's sake.

What are the lessons in all this? A first lesson is that the logic of the Creationist Is/Ought is poor. One has to call out the issue immediately and not let the discussion proceed until the "ought" is excised. Related to this is the lesson of not getting distracted by other "oughts" or soupy terms, such as GEM's additional gobbledygook on fine-tuning, ultimate ground, and ultimate being. These terms are apart from the main claim being made and so will have to wait for later or another time. Although one's blood pressure might go way up in the presence of nonsense terms like "ultimate ground," one needs to follow the old advice of choosing battles.

A third lesson is the general hysteria of creationists when you aren't playing their game. If you don't get all starry-eyed about "C-chemistry cell based, intelligent life" on the way to their "oughts," they become abusive and belligerent. It's not difficult to see why. People generally don't want to go back and check their math, but especially in what they consider their strong suit.

*  *  *

UPDATE: But of course I take requests! GEM has asked for some substantiation to my claim that the Uncommon Descent site has "censored" my comments. So, here's an image of what's happening (click to enlarge):

The title of the thread can be seen in the blue stripe at the top of the image. Post #37 remains "awaiting moderation," as does the post before it, which was submitted on 12/14. There's your substantiation.

GEM, your 48-hour demand is amusing and dickish. Settle yourself down and let's have a conversation. Would you like to respond to anything specific in what I've posted here?

*  *  *

Well, whaddaya know? For some mysterious reason (wink, wink), UD has taken my last comment out of moderation. Funny, that.

Unfortunately, it doesn't help either GEM's argument or style of argumentation.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 5): How the Bible Became the Bible

King Solomon, by Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1308-11)
Last time, we learned from James Kugel that ancient biblical interpreters changed the whole character of ancient Israel's library. These interpreters developed a set of assumptions about the texts that yielded a rich body of interpretations. These interpreters and their interpretations together made the Bible into a coherent and holy text.

In the subsection "How It Happened" (Chapter 36, How to Read the Bible), Kugel goes into more detail about how ancient interpreters and their interpretations came to change what the Bible was, what it meant, and how it signified.

One way ancient interpreters were able to re-define the Bible was by resolving apparent contradictions in biblical law. This happened fairly early. As an example of an apparent contradiction, Kugel gives Exodus 12:8 and Deuteronomy 16:7, which concern the Passover sacrifice:
  • Exodus 12:8 -- And on this night, they shall eat the flesh, roasted over the fire, and unleavened cakes; with bitter herbs they shall eat it.
  • Deuteronomy 16:7 -- And you shall boil [it] and eat [it] in the place which the Lord, your God, will choose, and you shall turn away in the morning and go to your dwellings.
These and other, more complicated examples show how ancient biblical interpreters reinforced their axiom that the Bible did not and could not contradict itself. Because they were able to produce cogent interpretations supporting the axiom, interpreters developed the view that the Bible often does not say what it means; rather, it contains many hidden implications.

Another way ancient interpreters were able to change the Bible was by establishing the view of some texts as timeless ethical instruction. This view prevailed for the prophetic texts. Toward the end of the biblical period, the rise of apocalyptic writings aided the sense that the prophetic texts retained contemporary messages and, hence, real value for the day.

The ancient texts changed meanings in other ways. Newer psalms seemed to encourage private, ritual recitation, while original psalms had been used in temple worship. Kugel gives Psalm 119 as an example of this new kind of psalm:
Praiseworthy are those whose way is perfect, who walk with the law of the Lord. Praiseworthy are those who keep His testimonies; who seek Him wholeheartedly. Not only have they committed no injustice, they walked in His ways. You commanded Your precepts, to keep diligently. My prayers are that my ways should be established, to keep Your statutes. Then I shall not be ashamed when I look at all Your commandments. I shall thank You with an upright heart when I learn the judgments of Your righteousness. I shall keep Your statutes; do not forsake me utterly. (Ps. 119:1-8)
Examples like this show the development of a perspective in which reading and studying texts, done in the right way, became a form of offering to God. Kugel points to the Song of Songs as another vivid example of a text that must have undergone radical reinterpretation. By around 180 BCE, Kugel suggests, the great literary heritage of Israel's past was discernibly becoming Scripture, as these texts became seen as metaphors and timeless examples for moral and religious conduct.

So how did it happen? Kugel's main answer seems to be "wisdom writings and the wisdom mentality." He says:
It is really the wisdom mind-set that made so many ancient texts into Scripture. Like wisdom writings, all of Israel's ancient library now became a series of eternally valid lessons, the wisdom of the ages. History, for example, was not history but instruction, and the people whose lives it charted thereby acquired a representative character: they all became the "righteous man" and the "wicked man" of the book of Proverbs, their lives exemplars of either all good or all bad.
The Bible as we know it today very much consists of not only the texts but also the wisdom mentality used to read the Bible. Together, the texts and the wisdom mentality have produced very many individual motifs--all of this is the legacy of the ancient biblical interpreters.

I am struck by the magnitude of the achievement of ancient interpreters. Their attention to detail and their creativity are amazing, and I'm impressed with not only the changes of meaning for Israel's ancient library but also the accumulation and expansion of meaning over time. Surely, Kugel means to have us appreciate the ancient interpreters as no less sophisticated and innovative than the modern biblical scholars. The accomplishments of both are great and admirable in their own ways.

Wednesday Comedy: Dave Attell

Dave Attell represents the style of comedy I like best: non sequitur, raunchy, spontaneous, sometimes goof-ball.

I think Attell drinks as much as we all suspect.

And one more for good measure.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Historical Jesus: As Long as You're Looking . . .

Anyone seen a carpenter?

As the Christmas season rolls in, I think it’s fitting to re-visit a favorite theme of this blog, the historical Jesus.

This year, I see more scholars focusing attention on the question of the historical Jesus. Interestingly, it’s precisely the question aspect that is being considered seriously. This has not always been the case. Indeed, scholars and amateur theologians alike have by and large simply assumed that there was a historical Jesus, even if, as R. Joseph Hoffmann has said, “[T]he sources we possess do not establish the conditions for a verdict on the historicity of Jesus.”

In this post, I’ll provide four quotes from the introduction (a draft, I presume) of a book coming out next year from Equinox Press, Is This Not the Carpenter: A Question of Historicity?, a collection of essays on the subject edited by Thomas L. Thompson and Thomas S. Verenna.

“The Quest for the Historical Jesus” is a section within the introduction. The editors remark there that scholarly aversion to the question of the historicity of Jesus has ultimately been bad for the discipline:
For some time, New Testament scholarship has avoided direct questions regarding the historicity of Jesus. Their assumption of an historical Jesus has been secured within a debate about the sayings of Jesus and the events of his life, as referenced in the New Testament, reflect either Jesus’ own life and teaching or a construction of early Christianity. The dichotomous structure of this debate has typically made alternative explanations for the ubiquitous allegorical interpretations and narrative reiterations and allusions of a wide variety of both ancient Near Eastern and biblical motifs, themes and tropes irrelevant in the eyes of many scholars, in spite of the fact that an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament figures of Jesus, Paul and the disciples as historical can at times be shown to ignore and misunderstand the implicit functions of our texts.
In this quote, several important themes in New Testament scholarship emerge: avoidance of the question, assumption of the historicity of Jesus, bifurcated scholarly debate emerging from this assumption, and problems related to the functions of the texts of early Christianity.

The editors continue:
The question of historicity, itself, however, remains unaddressed and there is, accordingly, little discussion of the central questions regarding the significance and function of our texts. One has begun with the unwarranted assertion of a “probability” of an historical Jesus existing in ancient Palestine and freely presented one or other of such a possible figure as a viable alternative to the only known Jesus--the mythic one of our texts. Jesus has become a "concrete entity with recognizable parameters."
If I read this passage correctly, the editors are stating that the Jesus of the early Christian library is definitely mythical. Although scholars might generally agree that there was some Jesus sometime in history, the very same scholars also generally agree that the “real” Jesus was not the one portrayed in the early Christian texts. From this agreement numerous “real” Jesuses have sprung, from itinerant preacher to prophet and exorcist.

Unfortunately, none of the “real” Jesuses are any more historical than the textual Jesus. The quest for the real Jesus was based from the start on flawed assumptions:
Historical Jesus research did not come about through the discovery of an actual historical Jesus as focus for such research. Despite what many have suggested, the data we have is no more useful for an understanding of an historical Jesus today than it had been a century ago. Even what little had been understood as known to scholars of the nineteenth century--such as the existence of widespread Jewish expectations for an apocalyptic messiah--has been found wanting. The ancient world’s many mythic and theological representations of a figure comparable to the Jesus of New Testament texts are not alone decisive arguments against historicity, but they are part of the picture, which needs to be considered more comprehensively. Literarily viable figures have been represented—historically--in many clarifying ways.
The editors close this section by stressing the legitimacy of the skeptical approach to the question of the historical Jesus.
An historical Jesus is a hypothetical derivative of scholarship. It is no more a fact than is an equally hypothetical historical Moses or David. To the extent that New Testament literature was written with literary, allegorical and, indeed, theological and mythic purpose, rather than as an account of historical events, there is significant need, not to speak of warrant, to doubt the historicity of its figures to the extent that such figures owe their substance to such literature. The best histories of Jesus today reflect an awareness of the limits and uncertainties in reconstructing the story of his life. Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Sarah, Ruth and Boaz, Jonah and his big fish are but a handful of characters found in the Bible, without the slightest historicity. They are literary creations. The figures of New Testament discourse must also be critically examined in the same light, for the New Testament is to be defined neither as a history of the early Christian church nor as an account of the life of a man named Jesus and of that of his followers. (emphasis added)
So, where is Jesus this year? Well, we’re not sure. He’s not in the New Testament and he’s so far not been in scholarship. I’ll look under the tree. . . .

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Stories the Witless Tell

I pity Joe Carter.

A Spanish proverb observes that "Wit without discretion is a sword in the hand of a fool."

Want an example? See the ill-advised and lame "When Nothing Created Everything." Joe Carter at First Things decides to riff on a mis-interpretation of a statement by Stephen Hawking, "the universe . . . create[d] itself from nothing." Carter turns this into a basis for a satirical creation myth. Here's a taste of it:
In the beginning was Nothing, and Nothing created Everything. When Nothing decided to create Everything, she filled a tiny dot with Time, Chance, and Everything and had it expand. The expansion spread Everything into Everywhere carrying Time and Chance with it to keep it company. The three stretched out together leaving bits of themselves wherever they went. One of those places was the planet Earth.
The misrepresentation lies in Carter's taking "Nothing" as the subject actor instead of what Hawking had stated, the universe. Had Carter wanted to do his mock myth right, he would have posted, "In the beginning, the universe created itself from an extremely dense and massive singularity." Instead, Carter combines the opening verses of Genesis and John with a narrative form akin to the creation myths of ancient and aboriginal cultures. Carter's is not a particularly clever piece, and it actually reflects poorly on the myths of Genesis and John.

Here, for one point of comparison, is Genesis 1:1-5:
In the beginning of God's creation of the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. And God saw the light that it was good, and God separated between the light and between the darkness. And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night, and it was evening and it was morning, one day.
And here's John 1:1-5:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Both Genesis and John are unmistakably better crafted than Carter's new creation story. Yet their rhetorical superiority highlights that they are themselves tales borne from human imagination. The God of Genesis is a twiddler on earth. He lifts and separates here, gives other things names there. He's not so much creating as cooking and decorating. In contrast, the God of John is far away. John's myth is about the "Word," Jesus. He tells the legend of Jesus, the hero who rode into town to face down the local gang.

Carter's purpose in his pseudo-myth is further undermined by the fact that it obviously holds much greater knowledge and understanding about the universe than either Genesis or John. Carter's use of abstract concepts, references to inflationary cosmology and the composition of the far solar system, psychological and philosophical terms, and so on all show that Genesis and John knew relatively little (and perhaps cared little) about their larger world. Theirs was the most rudimentary understanding of the earth, its physical make-up, and its physical history.

More than this, however, Carter's piece is boring. Apart from allusions to the Scripture it truly vaunts, it draws upon little of actual myth and choose instead an allegorical bent (allegory, the refuge of the literary minded pedant). Carter surely stays away from the Genesis and John exemplars deliberately, away from the anonymous precursors who wrote the scriptural texts, because a well-wrought mock myth would have reminded us that Genesis and John are myths too. Had Carter followed his biblical models faithfully, he would have underscored their status as myths. And more jarringly, he would have focused attention on the unpleasant fact that they would surely be thought of as myths except for the efforts of tax-aided preachers, television pundits, and tradition-addled parents.

By the way, here's a fuller quote--no ellipses!--from Hawking, his statement as reported in many news outlets worldwide:
Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.
The verdict on Carter's effort? No points!

Wednesday Comedy: Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia is one of my favorite working comics. His jokes and delivery have both intelligence and quirkiness, which often go so well together.

Here's Mike on religious music:

Here's one on hypochondria and genuine illness:

Monday, December 06, 2010

Reminder of Life

Continuing our study of Walt Whitman’s 1855 edition (the first) of Leaves of Grass, page 29 begins with the poet continuing to assert his work. The poet is a “reminder of life,” we learn on the previous page. On the current page, the idea of life is focused to virility and vitality, as the poet makes “short account of neuters and geldings” and instead favors “men and women fully equipped.” The poet is immersed in socio-political activity also. The poet himself beats “the gong of revolt” and participates in making plans with fugitives.

But our page is distinguished by the poet naming himself:
Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist . . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . . no more modest than immodest.
With images of unlocking and opening doors moving next to bold assertions against degradation and for human connection, the poet claims the most audacious role in the American democracy:
I speak the password primeval . . . . I give the sign of democracy;
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.
The poet again draws on lists and anaphora to explain his instrumental purpose, to make audible the repressed and oppressed sounds that animate America:
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars—and of wombs, and of the fatherstuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the trivial and flat and foolish and despised,
Of fog in the air and beetles rolling balls of dung.

Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts . . . . voices veiled, and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.
I do not press my finger across my mouth,
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.

I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing hearing and feeling are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.
These lists make the poet appear as a reflection of America. The poet is not only a painter of scenes or a smith of beautiful and polished artifacts. For this poet, life is generated and fueled everywhere, and even sex and death may be addressed freely.

The poet’s final claim of this remarkable page asserts the thorough divinity of the poet.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from;
The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.
The poet here authorizes and sanctifies his role. He is a priest of life, a prophet, and a miracle worker who transforms puritan angst into humanist piety.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Yes, Virginia, America Is a Banana Republic

Below is a remarkable and unfortunately true speech made recently by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. I wish we had more in government like him.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 4): Why You Read the Bible the Way You Do

Manuscript of the Apocryphal work 'the Wisdom of Ben-Sira' (Ecclesiasticus) from the Cairo Genizah, now in the Cambridge University library.

Modern biblical scholarship wrought a new way of reading the Bible. OK, but what was the old way and where did it come from?

In How to Read the Bible, James Kugel describes this old (or rather, traditional) way of reading the Bible--as well as the new way developed by modern scholars. Kugel's Chapter 36, the book's final chapter, sums up this traditional approach with several examples:
  • The story of Isaac foreshadows the crucifixion of Jesus.
  • Psalm 137 was a prophetic piece written by David.
  • The prohibition of child sacrifice to the worship of the pagan god Molech was a reference to intermarriage (see Leviticus 18:21).
  • The different texts of the Bible completely agreed with one another on fundamental matters.
  • In all the Bible there were no inconsistencies, factual errors, or scribal mistakes.
  • The biblical texts, no matter how many centuries earlier they were composed, were addressed to readers today.
As we see, in the traditional way the Bible is viewed as saying and meaning much more than is apparent at the text's literal level. For many of us, the traditional way is a familiar approach to the Bible. We understand the Bible as having layers of meaning, as requiring teachers and commentary to help us decipher messages that we cannot access simply by reading the Bible's words and stories. In addition, the traditional approach invests the Bible itself with an authority and timelessness that reflects a particular understanding of its divine source--the Bible becomes an embodiment of the ideal wisdom and order ascribed to Israel's God. This traditional way of reading the Bible and understanding what it really is, says Kugel, derives from the efforts of the Bible's earliest interpreters:
[T]his whole way of approaching the Bible is the product of its ancient interpreters. There is little in the biblical texts themselves to suggest that they were intended to be read in this fashion. Nevertheless, that is how they came to be read, and it was this way of reading that made the Bible what it was for so many centuries, a divine guidebook full of instruction and wisdom, yea, the word of God....Disquieting as it may be, one is left with the conclusion that most of what makes the Bible biblical is not inherent in its texts, but emerges only when one reads them in a certain way, a way that came to full flower in the closing centuries BCE.
Kugel describes the traditional way of reading as having evolved gradually over several centuries. I choose the word "evolved" deliberately to evoke the natural and naturalistic process outlined by Charles Darwin as well as to allude to memetics, the cultural corollary to Darwinian evolution. My point in this choice of diction (I don't see that Kugel uses the word) is to suggest that the traditional way of reading is not "better" or "more correct" or "natural" for having developed and solidified as it did. If were were to "rewind the tape" of events--to borrow a thought on biological evolution from Stephen Jay Gould--the traditional interpretations of the Bible might have been different, even wildly different, than the ones we actually inherited.

If I may depart from Kugel even further, I think we can and should consider the traditional approach to reading in terms of two distinctions made by Jacques Derrida in his "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." One distinction is the "ethic of nostalgia for origins," which "dreams of deciphering, a truth or an origin which is free from freeplay." Another distinction, however, "affirms freeplay and tries to pass beyond man and humanism." This mode of interpretation has no tether to an "author" or an "original intent." The interpreter in this mode works creatively and unbound by one text; this reader selects, breaks apart, moves, and reconfigures meaning by using outside materials and internal connections.

My point is that ancient interpreters--and modern biblical scholars, too--employ both modes of interpretation. At least, I see these two modes in what Kugel has been describing. The ancients seek both to reveal the hidden mysteries of the Bible, a Bible that is intentional in every word and even every letter. They also delight in "hard interpretations," readings that are not obvious at all from what might seem the likely sense of the text. In his typically eloquent way, Kugel characterizes this predilection of the ancients in another excellent book of his, The Bible As It Was:
Sometimes they [ancient biblical interpreters] depart from the straightforward meaning because they feel they have to: the text as is appears to them illogical or seems to contradict something else in the Bible. And sometimes, they take an apparent pleasure in willful, even playful, distortion--as if the interpreter were saying: "Look, read the text my way and you will see that this or that surprising conclusion can be derived from it." (56)
We can trace these two modes of interpretation in modern biblical scholarship, too, from the quixotic quest for the "real" Bible to the creative analyses and hypotheses produced from reading the texts alone, at first, and then from engaging knowledge produced from other disciplines relevant to biblical study.

I've introduced this "post-structuralist" sensibility here to normalize interpretation as something that adheres to both the ancients and ourselves in much the same way, if not in the same details. On the other hand, the details remain exceedingly important and interesting. We cannot dismiss or trivialize the special history of the traditional approach to the Bible. Understanding that history is critical for understanding the Bible and its significance, as well as for understanding the pleasures and perils of interpretation.

We return, then, to Kugel's narrative on the evolution of the traditional approach to the Bible. For Kugel, the traditional way of reading the Bible becomes more formalized and normalized in the centuries around the BCE-CE line:
This is the period in which, in the interpretations found found in the biblical apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, biblical texts are for the first time explicitly held to be replete with hidden meanings and subtle hints, so that when the Bible says X it often really means Y.
Kugel cites this period as having had a "radical" effect. The biblical texts change little. What changes and becomes systematized are the assumptions that readers bring to the task of reading the Bible.
Soon enough, those assumptions were generating a large body of actual interpretations, and each new interpretation only reinforced the overall approach that interpreters were taking.
Ancient interpreters, through their assumptions, gradually changed the whole character of the biblical texts. In the next section, Kugel goes into more detail about how and where--where textually, that is--the changes happened.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Information Doesn't Get You God; The Bible Doesn't Get You Science

Have you ever been involved in an online discussion--on a blog, forum, social media site, etc.--and been completely flummoxed by your discussion partner's vague terms? It's totally frustrating because you're trying to hone in on details and facts while your interlocutor is making one sweeping statement after another. In these dialogues, if you don't want simply to walk away, you get to the heart of the argument only with extreme effort.

Recently, I was involved in a long and winding discussion at Uncommon Descent. By the end of it, I was able to get one of the discussion partners, "bornagain77," to explain to me what exactly his real argument was concerning the origins of the universe and the status of the Christian Bible.

Bornagain77 (BA77) had not, in my view, given a clear and straightforward description of what he meant by the expression, "God is the basis of reality." In particular, I was puzzled by "basis of reality," which could have referred in context to a material basis, a basis in physical law, or a logical basis. After some wrangling between us, he finally gave me this:
LarTanner, ‘the basis of reality’ is not a solid material particle as materialism had originally postulated but ‘the basis of reality’ is instead reducible to transcendent information as Theism had originally postulated. i.e. John 1:1 (Wheeler, Zeilinger). That transcendent information is its own independent entity, separate from matter/energy was confirmed with the refutation of the hidden variable argument (EPR; Bell, Aspect). That transcendent information exercises dominion of ‘material’ was established by quantum teleportation experiments (Zeilinger). That the transcendent information is ‘alive’ is established by the fact that a ‘decision’ must be made to create a temporal universe from that ‘timeless’ transcendent eternal reality that infinite transcendent information occupies (Craig), as well as by the necessity for a transcendent ‘first mover’ to explain quantum wave collapse to each point of unique observation in the universe (Planck).

etc.. etc.. etc..
I then tried to play back the main idea of his argument, as follows:
Ah… I think I’m seeing your point. Your claim is that the universe is made of immaterial information rather than material particles. You are drawing on quantum mechanics to make the case here.


If so, I take it that you see John 1:1 as a statement that “in the beginning” immaterial information was present before the macro-particles making up the visible universe.

Again, correct?
To which he responded:
1. Yes
2. Yes, It, immaterial information, is the only solution that satisfies all requirements necessary for the first cause, first mover, by empirical confirmation and moreover satisfies the questions of origins without leaving the bounds of empirical science as the absurd materialistic conjectures of the multiverse and many worlds do.
He later added this tidbit:
The falsification for local realism (materialism) was just greatly strengthened:

Physicists close two loopholes while violating local realism
Excerpt: The latest test in quantum mechanics provides even stronger support than before for the view that nature violates local realism and is thus in contradiction with a classical worldview. By performing an experiment in which photons were sent from one Canary Island to another, physicists have shown that two of three loopholes can be closed simultaneously in a test that violates Bell’s inequality (and therefore local realism) by more than 16 standard deviations.
I want to take the time here, as opposed to over at Uncommon Descent, to consider BA77's view. Let's list some of the main arguments he makes:
(1) BA77 claims that the universe, and everything in it, is fundamentally made not of particles or energy but rather of information.

(2) He asserts that information is transcendent, which I guess means that it's separate from and not necessarily constrained by matter.

(3) He brings in various arguments from areas in quantum mechanics to claim that information, beyond being separate and transcendent, is alive, intelligent, and (I think) eternal.

(4) He sees the Christian Bible (e.g., John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.") as making specific references to the true workings the universe, with these true workings revealed by branches within science, such as quantum mechanics.

(5) He sees Christian belief, including the statements of the Bible, as making true statements about the physical origins and workings of the universe.

(6) He sees Christian belief and materialism as irreconcilable and opposing views.

My thoughts on the above points:
(1) The claim that the universe is made of immaterial information needs to be handled carefully. I cannot simply take the claim on BA77's word, and I cannot rely only on these articles and videos that he has selected. BA77 is not himself a working cosmologist or quantum researcher, as far as I know. Even if he were, I would be well-advised to read up on available work in the relevant areas, especially work that makes BA77's claim in a properly nuanced way. It has nothing to do with BA77 or his views. I simply need to know much more to be able to agree or disagree with him. I also know how easy it is to have essentially true statements get misunderstood and misapplied. For instance, "Social Darwinism" is a decent example of a misapplication of Darwin's theory of evolution.

After some cursory research of my own, my emerging view is that BA77 may be too ambitious in making information alone the fundamental building block of the universe. For example, Anton Zeilinger, whom BA77 cites, gives the fundamental principle of quantum mechanics as an answer to the question "What can be said about an elementary system?" Zeilinger's answer is that an elementary system carries one bit of information (see New Scientist article here). But information therefore seems to presuppose a system. If there's no elementary system, there's no bit of information. Information seems to be encoded into the system, and the behavior of the system is determined by its informational content. Indeed, BA77's assertion that "transcendent information is its own independent entity, separate from matter/energy," seems to be contradicted by Zeilinger himself:
In the history of physics, we have learned that there are distinctions that we really should not make, such as between space and time… It could very well be that the distinction we make between information and reality is wrong. This is not saying that everything is just information. But it is saying that we need a new concept that encompasses or includes both.
Almost needless to say, the above scenario suggests that information in no way "exercises dominion" over matter. It suggests, rather, that information doesn't "exercise" anything and that a human value like "dominion" can only be applied awkwardly.

(2) I think #2 falls if information is not separate and independent, as seems to be the case based on where my thoughts above in #1 end.

(3) See #2. Information may have several or all of the properties that BA77 mentions. But it follows from where my thoughts end in #1 above that information, while duly amazing, need not be identified with gods or godliness.

(4) This claim seems to me to be balderdash. Forget for one moment the problems of translating John 1:1. How does reading this verse as proto-quantum mechanics not constitute a vast and irresponsible stretch? The Greek word "logos," as used circa 30-100 CE, cannot reasonably be interpreted as "information" in a quantum theory sense. Now, I appreciate the creativity involved in reading the Bible as a code for the physical workings of the universe, but to get a quantum reading in this one verse, we also have to excise it from the following verses, in which it seems pretty clear that the logos ("word" or "saying") is metonymy for Jesus. So this claim doesn't hold up at all for me, and I see this kind of free reading as an example of the believer projecting herself or himself into the mirror of religion.

(5) See my thoughts in #4 above.

(6) I suppose that Christian belief and materialism are indeed irreconcilable. It may also be true that materialism is becoming less tenable, which is what BA77 seems to claim with the link to the article on the new Bell test. This article, incidentally, describes work performed by Anton Zeilinger's group, so BA77 is clearly a fan of the Z-man.

However, let's think about local realism for a moment. BA77 seems to equate local realism and materialism, but they are not the same. Local realism says that distant objects shouldn't simultaneously be affected by measurements we take of a different, close-by object. Local realism makes clear sense in a materialist framework. The violation of local realism, on the other hand, doesn't make clear sense in a materialist framework. If local realism can be violated at the quantum level, as seems to be the case, is materialism falsified? Maybe.

But look at the other side: Does the partial or total failure of materialism mean the truth of Christian belief? No, not at all. Does the partial or total failure of materialism mean the truth of theism? No, not really. Are materialism and theism the only alternatives? No. I have said before that I am probably a materialist:
I probably am a materialist but I really don't know enough about either materialism, its philosophical alternatives, or the data behind it all to have a cogent opinion.
Clearly, I'll need to revisit my position and perhaps revise it into a cogent opinion.

Scientific confirmation of non-local causality can only tell us that the universe is more interesting and less familiar than we thought--even in our wildest religious fantasies. Confirmation of non-local causality tells us nothing about deities, the supernatural, bibles, divine plans, covenants, the afterlife, morality, sin, or anything that makes up the meat and potatoes of religion. Thus, to use non-local causality as a data point in favor of theism is not only premature but disingenuous.
Want more information?
Computational Capacity of the Universe

Implications of a Holographic Universe for Quantum Information Science and the Nature of Physical Law

The Reality Tests

Stephen Meyer's Bogus Information Theory and then Reply to Paul Nelson

Test Your Knowledge of Information Theory

Violation of Local Realism with Freedom of Choice

When and Where Did Information First Appear in the Universe?