Sunday, November 29, 2009

Why the Bible Is False

The Bible is false because it asserts the occurence of events that could not have occured, events that were – and are – impossible. Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells us the title character was visited by the ghost of his father. Do we believe this? Tolkien’s The Hobbit is set in a time between the dawn of fairies and the dominion of men. Do we believe this? The Bible tells us of many things that happened, and for millennia people have believed that these things actually happened.

Creationists and religionists think, incorrectly, that skeptics bear the burden to “disprove” the Bible. In fact, they are the ones who need to come up with more than “the Bible says so” as support for the claims of their belief, particularly claims relating to divinity, miracles and divine inspiration.

Now, I should say unequivocally that I support the right of people to hold whatever beliefs they do. If someone wants to believe religion is true, that’s fine. If someone wants to practice religion, then I say go ahead in peace. But I will not have these beliefs entered into a public arena that I share without counters being offered. So, as is common during post-Thanksgiving in America, if people want to carp about “keep Christ in Christmas,” then I want to mention that the evidence for Jesus is highly flimsy and that Jesus is over-rated anyway.

It’s important to understand truth as best we can. I have no illusions about my own intellectual capabilities and limitations. Understanding truth means trying to consider matters while also recognizing these capabilities and limitations. In the end, all we can do is make questions and formulate hypotheses. For me, the idea of faith has become increasingly repugnant. I view faith as an attempt to seduce the intellect into motionlessness. I can only see faith as the reason for not giving due skepticism to the outrageous claims of the Bible, claims that would be challenged heartily in any other intellectual domain.

In what follows, I will present ten impossible things from the Hebrew Scriptures and ten from the New Testament. None of these things could actually have happened. If someone were to claim that these things happened just today, no one would believe it without more than a book’s say-so. I offer these examples as a representative sample of what makes religion factually and morally wrong, in my opinion.

Religion tells people that these things are true, and religion's collective bodies of interpretation do everything in their power to cover over the bare absurdity of what the Bible says. I have explained before my low opinion of interpretation, so I’ll refer the interested reader to that article. Religion also insists that its texts and its interpretations are superior; indeed, religion falsely and maliciously claims that one cannot be good without belief. This contemptuous insistence places religion in a morally dubious hoop, a zone of totalitarian oversight on free inquiry and expression.

Here, then, are ten impossibilities in the Hebrew Scriptures. I’ll try to keep the commentary to a minimum.
(1) Genesis 1:1 (and following) – The creation story, one of two non-identical accounts. A literal six-day creation and completion of the Earth and/or the universe is impossible.

(2) Genesis 5:5 – Adam lived 930 years. Methuselah (Genesis 5:27) lived 969 years and holds the record. Such life spans for human beings are impossible.

(3) Genesis 7 – The flood. A worldwide flood. WORLD-wide. The entire fucking planet, including animals. That’s just mean. And what are we to make of all the millions of species somehow getting to the ark, living there together, and then dispersing? Sorry, it’s all gotta be BS. Speaking of which, how many tons of manure had to be shoveled off the ark every day?

(4) Genesis 32:25-31 – This is a beautiful and strange passage. Jacob wrestles all night with “a man.” But this man seems to have super-human power. He also re-names Jacob as Israel. Jacob seems to think he has wrestled with God, or an angel, or some other emissary of God. I admit this may not necessarily seem an impossible story, since maybe Jacob wrestled with a talented guy. However, it sure is a mysterious story – in a good way – that to my mind smacks of legend. Despite my sense of the story's factual impossibility, I admire the doggedness in the character Jacob to pursue a blessing.

(5) Genesis 37:5 – This is the first of Joseph’s dreams which prophesy the future. That’s impossible.

(6) Exodus 14:15 (and following) – This is the parting of the sea episode. It’s stirring (no pun intended), but impossible.

(7) Exodus 16:15 (and following) – Manna from heaven. Nope. See also the impossible water from a rock, Exodus 17.

(8) Exodus 17:8 (and following) – This is where Moses’ upraised hands cause Israel to win the military battle, while his lowered hands cause the opposite. It’s impossible.

(9) Numbers 16:31 – God has the Earth open up and swallow some men, their wives, their little children, and their possessions. Everything goes. It’s a terrifying, impossible story.

(10) Joshua 10:12-13. One of the biggies for me: The sun stands still for a whole day. The moon stays too. Im-pos-si-ble, no doubt about it.
Christians seem to hold the tacit impression that even if the Hebrew Scriptures are false, or have some falsity, the truth claims of the New Testament remain unharmed. After all, to them the New Testament supersedes the Hebrew Bible.

I suspect this is one reason that Christianity doesn’t relate the Mount Sinai story as Judaism does. In the Jewish account, God speaks directly to all the people. In the Christian account, Moses mediates between God and the people. The difference here is absolutely essential because the Christian account better prefigures the Jesus model, which is the view Christians want presented. If Christians had to talk about God speaking directly to the Jewish people, some clever fellow might wonder why Christians now need an intercessor.

However, the New Testament is rife with its own impossibilities, to say nothing of its own contradictions and historical inaccuracies. H.L. Mencken characterizes the matter brilliantly in his Treatise on the Gods:
The simple fact is that the New Testament, as we know it, is a helter-skelter accumulation of more or less discordant documents, some of them probably of respectable origin but others palpably apocryphal, and that most of them, the good along with the bad, show unmistakable signs of having been tampered with.
And now, here are ten impossibilities in the New Testament. As with the Hebrew Scriptures, I’ll not add much commentary.
(1) Matthew 1:18 – This is the virgin birth, or not quite. Apparently Mary is impregnated not by Joseph her husband but by “The Holy Ghost.” So, we have a double impossibility. Mary becomes pregnant, but no sperm entered her: that’s impossible. The second impossible thing is this “Holy Ghost.”

(2) Matthew 10:1 – Jesus gives his disciples “power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease.” It’s the last bit that’s concerning, that these twelve random dudes now get to claim the power to cure sickness and disease. Yeah, right. They didn’t get any magic healing power. That’s impossible.

(3) Mark 16:6 / 16:12-13 – Jesus apparently dies and then reappears alive three days later. Sorry, that’s impossible. Real dead folks don’t come back to life.

(3.5) Matthew 27:50-53 - After Jesus dies, "The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people." However, nobody else seemed to note this rather unusual event and record it for posterity. Since we've already mentioned that real dead people don't come back to life days after having died, let us now mention that it's really really impossible for dead people, even holy people, to return to life because of someone else's death.

(4) Mark 7:32 (and following) – This one is plain gross as well as impossible. Jesus heals a deaf and dumb guy by this weird finger, spitting, tongue touching thing. Sorry, real deaf people can’t be healed by putting fingers in the ear.

(4.5) Luke 1:44 – Fetal John leaping for joy, in the womb. I know babies kick and all, but this one still gets BS points because it’s Mary’s voice that causes John to jump for joy. You get it, right? The whole Jesus-John-save-the-world thing is a carefully crafted, fore-ordained plan. It’s hard to find something that seems more contrived than this story.

(5) Luke 4:5 – There’s an honest-to-goodness devil here showing Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world.” All of them. Really. The devil. The de-vil. Riiiiiiight.

(6) John 2:9 – This is the water into wine bit. We know, however, that the molecules of water and wine are quite different. Do we believe in magic, in the power to change one substance into another by hoping it will come true? No, sorry, we don’t buy it.

(7) John 6:19 – Jesus walks on water. Levitation, ooooh. But really, we know this is BS. We really do.

(8) John 14:14 – “If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.” Liar, liar, pants on fire.

(9) Acts 16:26 – Earthquake on demand.

(10) 1 Corinthians 15:39 – This is kind of a science one, but the verse basically suggests that all life on Earth is of different flesh. Factually, it’s just wrong. Thus, it’s impossible.
I have much more to say, but I’ll close with a few observations.

One, I have focused exclusively on the things these Bibles say. I’ve simply related text-content. Why should we believe that the universe was created and completed in six regular days? Why should we believe that a man could be born of a virgin? These claims are made plainly and straightforwardly. Given modern knowledge, we might try to resolve the disconnect between text and fact by arguing that the texts are speaking metaphorically. But the literal readings are surely to be preferred because they match with textual precursors from other cultures and the original listeners/readers/authors would not have been privy to our modern knowledge anyway.

Two, I have avoided discussing the really stupid content of the Bibles, such the near-sacrifice of Isaac and Jesus' insistence that families be broken up to follow him. The Bibles - yes, I'm using plural - reek with the fecal scent of ancient tales and outdated petty morals. Much in the Bibles is actually interesting and even wise, but plenty-plenty more is no better than boring garbage that we best remember only to avoid thinking that way.

Three, and this is related to the first point, I have not discussed any of the considerable difficulties to faith presented by archaeology, history, or textual scholarship. These disciplines overwhelmingly support the idea that the Bibles and their religious traditions have decidedly human origins. Mutually reinforcing lines of evidence argue against the god hypothesis and doctrines such as Biblical inerrancy. Indeed, the Bibles are often the best witnesses against a pro-supernatural argument.

Four, I have not discussed any of the teachings and commentaries on the text-content problems. Talmud, kabbalah, Catholic church father writings, and so on: these are all earlier attempts to render sense from the non-sense of the Bibles. Indeed, these interpretations come to supersede the original texts because otherwise we are faced with some really goofy tales and strictures.

In this fourth realm we start to get the dubious claims of unbroken chains back to Sinai, in the case of Talmud, and “divine inspiration” in the case of Church writings. When I talk of religion as a collection of solutions to made-up problems, this is what I mean.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Ten Commandments: What I Want for My Children

My oldest child is six years old, turning seven in a few months. She believes in Santa Claus and in the religious view of the world. She believes that God exists, that Jesus actually returned to life from the dead, and that the stories taught in her Bible are unproblematic. My daughter has a strong mind and a very big heart, and she’s full of passion. One day, she will realize that Santa doesn't fly through the night on Christmas Eve. She’ll figure out all by herself that a lot of what the Bible relates is evil, irrational, and generally irrelevant.

And the Bible is most certainly a text to be questioned seriously. For example, if one accepts the Noah’s Ark story as true, then God killed an awful lot of people and animals. Across the planet, they all died in a most horrific way. If one believes the Jesus story, then God sacrificed himself to himself – rather egocentric and not much of a sacrifice, really. Since just declaring faith that Jesus is God gets people out of "hell" and into "heaven," one wonders why the omniscient deity did not offer the belief option to Noah’s generation.

I have full confidence that one day, all my children will arrive at the conclusion that religion is man-made and that gods are fictional. When we get to this point, I will talk to them about morality and about basic principles for living an upstanding life. Since they will have already heard of the Ten Commandments, I may offer them a list of precepts like the following:
(1) You are a human being, one of many humans past and present. You are connected and yet different from other people. You are connected yet different from other animals on Earth. You are connected yet different from the Earth that is your home. Respect yourself and all that share connection with you.

(2) You are neither inferior nor superior to anyone or anything. Develop your own opinions, values, and ideas. Be willing to share, discuss and even change your mind. But don’t compromise your integrity. Ultimately, the only help is self-help.

(3) Watch your language. In all matters, speak carefully, considerately, and charitably - but especially when speaking about people. Listen vigorously and ask thoughtful questions. Challenge and criticize bad ideas, even when good people hold them.

(4) Care for both your body and your mind. Nourish them, exercise them, and rest them. Avoid agitating them, but don’t avoid a challenge. Follow your passions, but don’t allow them to govern you.

(5) Respect your mother, your father, your elders, and your ancestors because your life includes some of their lives. Respect is not reverence, and it’s not blind devotion. Those who have come before you have lived, struggled, succeeded, failed, loved, lost and journeyed in much the same way as you do now.

(6) Respect all life, your life and other lives. No one has more right to live than anyone or anything else.

(7) Appreciate relationships, especially romantic relationships. Cherish your own relationships and do not disturb others’.

(8) Respect ownership. Take only what has been freely given to you and what you have legitimately purchased. Express gratitude to people; giving and sharing freely is the highest form of expressing gratitude.

(9) Speak up to help people when they are in trouble. Don’t lie about others. Don't permit injustice.

(10) Enjoy your life now and all that you have. Every day is unique and unrepeatable.
This is how I write ten basic principles. I place a premium on respect for people, living things, and relationships. My children may write their principles differently. They may focus on respect differently than I do. They may add more items to the list or subtract some. When the time comes, we'll talk about it. That's the point, ultimately.

And note that I have deliberately avoided the word "commandment." I cannot command my children to believe what I believe how I believe. I should not do so. My children are not Christian, Jewish or Atheist. They will one day and by themselves tell me what they are at that time. I will accept and respect their decisions.

I look forward to talking with my children some day about reality and about happiness. I hope for many conversations about personal character, values, and accomplishment. My children deserve these conversations. They deserve to know that I think they should live fully and wonderfully. They deserve to know that I think they can indeed live so, that all people can.

What I want for my children goes well beyond a holiday or a season. I want them to have a life, a life of many lives. I want them not to have the world but to be an active and positive part of it. And I want them to think of their contribution in terms of the universe, not just the world. Ultimately, I want them to connect themselves to the real universe, not a filtered and fictional one.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Keith Jarrett: Boldly Going

Having been a serious Keith Jarrett fan for about 20 years, I can say unreservedly that Jarrett has been the musical artist of my maturity. I own almost 30 different Keith Jarrett recordings, and I have seen him perform live with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. Jarrett remains a central figure in my listening, even though in recent years, I have branched out to the music of such performers as Marilyn Crispell, Dave Holland, Evan Parker, Irene Schweitzer, Tomasz Stanko, Bobo Stenson, Esbjorn Svensson, Ralph Towner, and John Zorn.

Jarrett’s catalogue is quite diverse. I have several recordings with the American Quartet, which included Charlie Haden, Paul Motian and Dewey Redman. This was a hot group, bridled and bristling with tension. The Survivor’s Suite is, to my mind, their most stunning effort. Jarrett’s European Quartet was perhaps more celebrated. Drummer Jon Christensen and bassist Palle Danielsson are spectacular players, but saxophonist Jan Garbarek was a superstar to rival Jarrett. Garbarek played with an utterly singular combination of tenderness, soul, and intensity. Songs such as “Sunshine Song,” “Blossom,” “Long as You’re Livin’ Yours,” and “The Journey Home” capture this quartet at its stunning best.

Since the 1980s, Jarrett has teamed up with Peacock and DeJohnette in the so-called “Standards Trio.” But the group has made two very good “free” recordings. The group is highly professional, sometimes a bit self-indulgent, but just awesome in their collective powers.

Jarrett’s solo piano recordings have been the main draw for me. The first one I owned contained concerts from Bremen and Lausanne. I had never heard anything like it before, but I connected with it immediately. Here was Jarrett, totally bold, walking onto stage and composing on the spot. He was improvising, but he was composing also. To me, that’s the essential difference between Jarrett and many free players. Jarrett doesn’t just play and let the notes extend off into the stratosphere. He’s at once trying to bring out a form from the notes and to let that form morph into something else. And that's what was so exciting for me, the fact that I was going on this journey too and discovering what was to come. He wrung these lush, rich sounds out of the piano. He music expressed exuberance as well as reverence, and he was a font for endlessly emerging musical ideas.

As a listener, I appreciate the daring and the risk-taking of a performer like Jarrett. I admire Jarrett’s continued willingness to experiment and explore in and through his music. I no longer follow Jarrett single-mindedly like I once did, but I see Jarrett’s music as part of my life for the rest of my life. I think this is because in my impending maturity I still see living life as a kind of improvisation, as a daring expression that must be taken up boldly. As long as I see things this way, Jarrett’s music is relevant, indeed central, to my life.

Against Interpretation

I don’t trust interpretation. I take very little stock in it.

Many years ago, a scholar (and now sometime New York Times columnist) Stanley Fish wrote a fairly famous essay called “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One.” The essay is terribly interesting because it reveals how great, consistent interpretations can be made without any basis in reality. An interpretation is very much a work of art. It is much less so a legitimate hypothesis about the world.

I’ll try to summarize what I see as the important part of the essay. Fish’s students, who are learning about English religious poetry of the seventeenth century, walk into their classroom and see this on the chalkboard:
Ohman (?)
This list had been put on the board for the class preceding the one on religious poetry. It is actually a list of surnames. These are linguists and literary theorists: Roderick Jacobs, Peter Rosenbaum, Samuel Levin, J. P. Thorne, and so on.

Here’s what happens next, according to Fish:
When the members of the second class filed in I told them that what they saw on the blackboard was a religious poem of the kind they had been studying and I asked them to interpret it. Immediately they began to perform in a manner that, for reasons which will become clear, was more or less predictable. The first student to speak pointed out that the poem was probably a hieroglyph, although he was not sure whether it was in the shape of a cross or an altar. This question was set aside as the other students, following his lead, began to concentrate on individual words, interrupting each other with suggestions that came so quickly that they seemed spontaneous. The first line of the poem (the very order of events assumed the already constituted status of the object) received the most attention: Jacobs was explicated as a reference to Jacob's ladder, traditionally allegorized as a figure for the Christian ascent to heaven. In this poem, however, or so my students told me, the means of ascent is not a ladder but a tree, a rose tree or rosenbaum. This was seen to be an obvious reference to the Virgin Mary who was often characterized as a rose without thorns, itself an emblem of the immaculate conception. At this point the poem appeared to the students to be operating in the familiar manner of an iconographic riddle. It at once posed the question, "How is it that a man can climb to heaven by means of a rose tree?" and directed the reader to the inevitable answer: by the fruit of that tree, the fruit of Mary's womb, Jesus. Once this interpretation was established it received support from, and conferred significance on, the word "thorne," which could only be an allusion to the crown of thorns, a symbol of the trial suffered by Jesus and of the price he paid to save us all. It was only a short step (really no step at all) from this insight to the recognition of Levin as a double reference, first to the tribe of Levi, of whose priestly function Christ was the fulfillment, and second to the unleavened bread carried by the children of Israel on their exodus from Egypt, the place of sin, and in response to the call of Moses, perhaps the most familiar of the old testament types of Christ. The final word of the poem was given at least three complementary readings: it could be "omen," especially since so much of the poem is concerned with foreshadowing and prophecy; it could be Oh Man, since it is man’s story as it intersects with the divine plan that is the poem's subject; and it could, of course, be simply "amen," the proper conclusion to a poem celebrating the love and mercy shown by a God who gave his only begotten son so that we may live.
I ask you: how can you trust interpretation after reading this? Anything, anything at all, can be interpreted. And it can be interpreted in ways that are insightful, sensible, and worldview-changing.

These students get an interpretive frame – it’s a religious poem – and then proceed to hook up the text to the frame. I have no doubt that the students could have developed an equally viable interpretation with a different frame.

And this is why I find a religious view of the world hard to take seriously: it’s just a frame, after all. However happy religious adherents claim to be, however beautiful their cities, however tender their friendships, however healthy their children, however skilled their artists, however abundant their harvests, and however kind their weather – the religious view is just a frame. (Forgive me, Ursula K. Le Guin.)

An interpretive frame is not reality, and it need not be reality. Rather, it is a fiction, a scenario, an imposition. Reality and truth are incidental, maybe even accidental, to the frame. Don’t get me wrong, interpretations are great. I love ‘em. But I don’t trust ‘em. They seem to me like the object of caution in Bob Dylan's song: “And don't go mistaking Paradise / For that home across the road.”

Now, some smart person might rightly challenge that I should examine and criticize my own interpretive frames. I go after the religious frame, that person will say, so why not go after the non-religious frame too? This would be a fair question, but let's remember that the religious frame dictates, among other things, the existence of an interventionalist supernatural being that cannot be seen or independently verified. Indeed, only texts and tradition insist that such a being exists or ever has existed. In its positive claims about reality, the religious frame imposes a more restrictive view than an atheist frame.

My atheist frame, too, is an imposition, but one that does not introduce an inscrutable being. It is less restrictive than the religious frame insofar as it does not necessarily rule out a god or gods. In other words, the atheist frame is not necessarily anti-theist whereas the theist frame is automatically anti-atheist. The difference between religious and atheist frames is one of degree rather than kind: the religious frame assumes the existence of things, and their fundamental stability, when it has no justification to do so. The atheist frame makes assumptions and claims about reality, but invites the independent testing and questioning of these assumptions and claims.

Regardless of whether one applies a religious or an atheist frame to some text, interpretation is suspect. The worst interpretations seek to confirm the frame itself, and confirm it from within rather than independently. For instance, they will approach a poem as a religious artifact, and they will produce a reading shows the poem expressing religious ideas. This inside operation - also known as confirmation bias - is the sort of reasoning we need to be cognizant of and that we need to avoid, if our goal is to get closer to reality.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

No Historical Jesus?

A modern American person cannot escape Jesus. That name, that imagery and iconography, the followers - Jesus is everywhere. If one is not a Christian, life can feel like a constant argument against a steady barrage of Jesus 'facts' and 'theology.' Just to get some peace from the world, many Jews tend to take the position that "Jesus was a good guy, a Jew like me who had some great ethical teachings."

Unfortunately, many who profess to be Christian know very little about the history of Christian beliefs or about the many serious questions surrounding the historicity of Jesus. They rarely seek to know if any physical and historical evidence actually supports the hypothesis that Jesus existed as a person in the world.

The rarity may seem strange since, presumably, Jesus is the central figure of Christianity. Except that often the centrality of Jesus seems not to be the case. In the beliefs and practices of even major holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, Jesus is not so much a person as the person that stuff happened to. Someone was miraculously born of a virgin (who was herself born of a virgin) in a stable? Oh, it was Jesus. Someone was crucified and later rose from the dead? Oh, it was Jesus.

I've always been struck at the emptiness of Jesus, and I think this emptiness may actually contribute to keeping people in the churches. All the shit happened to Jesus, but he doesn't ask anything of you directly. His emissaries in church ask, but you know them and they're OK. Go to church and celebrate the shit that happened, and then pass the money over to the emissaries.

It's about being together in a community and affirming that shit happens. It's not about Jesus; it's about the shit that happened. It's not about Jesus; it's about Christianity.

And so we come to Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, authors of The Jesus Mysteries, who offer a different view of Jesus and Christianity. As I see it, they hypothesize that modern Christianity is based around one big misunderstanding about Jesus. They say:
The traditional history of Christianity is hopelessly inadequate to the facts. From our research into ancient spirituality it has become obvious that we must fundamentally revise our understanding of Christian origins in the most shocking of ways. Our conclusion, supported by a considerable body of evidence in our book, The Jesus Mysteries, is that Christianity was not a new revelation. It was a continuation of Paganism by another name. The gospel story of Jesus is not the biography of an historical Messiah. It is a Jewish reworking of ancient Pagan myths of the dying and resurrecting Godman Osiris-Dionysus, which had been popular for centuries throughout the ancient Mediterranean.
The similarity of the Jesus narrative to pagan myths is well known. In modern times, however, we tend to equate myths with lies. This is not how the ancient world understood myths.
It is hard for us today to imagine the Jesus story being consciously created, but this is because we have misunderstood ancient spirituality. Myths were not seen as untruths as they are now. They were understood as allegories of spiritual initiation, which encoded profound mystical teachings. Reworking old myths to create new ones was a standard practice in the ancient world.
These are serious and high-impact claims being made. It should be noted that neither author is, so far as I know, an academic researcher. But folks such as G.A. Wells, Gerd Lüdemann, and many others have done real work that makes a "Christ-myth" theory not only viable but very likely. After all, according to the myth, a man comes to life after being dead three days. That man then ascends to heaven. It's a nice story, but let's not forget that such an occurrence would go against the way the world actually works. We need to employ the reality principle every now and again.

So, having taken a several grains of salt, we hear more from Freke and Gandy:
The conquests of Alexander the Great had turned the Mediterranean world into one culture with a common language. This created an age of eclecticism, much like our own, in which different spiritual traditions met and synthesized. Jewish mystics of this period, such as Philo Judeas, were obsessed with synthesizing Jewish and Pagan mythology. In light of all this, it is actually no surprise that some group of Jewish mystics should synthesize the great mythic hero of the Jews, Joshua the Messiah, with the great mythic hero of the Pagans, Osiris-Dionysus.

At the time, both Pagans and Christians were well aware that the Jesus story was a myth. The early Christians, known as Gnostics, understood the Jesus story as allegory, not history, and even called Jesus by the names of the Pagan Godman. The Gnostics were brutally eradicated by the Roman Church in the 4th and 5th centuries, and since then we have believed the official propaganda that these Christians were dangerous heretics who had gone Pagan.

Actually the evidence suggests the opposite is closer to the truth. The Gnostics were the original Christians, just as they themselves claimed. They had synthesized Jewish and Pagan mythology to produce the Jesus story and many other extraordinary Christian myths largely unknown today. The Roman Church was a later deviation, which misunderstood the Jesus story as history. It was, as the Gnostics said at the time, an imitation Church teaching a superficial Christianity designed for the masses.
The authors clearly make a target of the Roman Catholic Church's brand of Christianity, as well they should. But I part ways with the authors when they obviously sympathize with the Gnostics:
Roman Christianity, and all its subsequent offshoots, is based on the idea that if you believe in the existence of an historical Jesus you will go to heaven when you die. For the Gnostics, however, Jesus is an everyman figure in an initiation allegory. They taught that if you yourself go through the process of initiation symbolized by the Jesus myth, you would die to your old self and resurrect in a new way. The Greek word we translate as resurrect also means awaken.

For the Gnostics, Christianity was about dying -- the idea of giving up your mortal body and awakening to your immortal essence as the Christ within -- the One Consciousness of the Universe. This mystical enlightenment was not something that happened after death, but could happen here and now.
I am intrigued by the different picture of Jesus that the authors paint, clean-shaven and such:
The historical figure of Jesus has been so central to Western culture that it is hard to question his existence. As soon as we hear his name we can see him in our mind's eye, in his flowing white robes, with long hair and a beard. Yet this picture of Jesus was not created until the 8th century. Early portrayals of Jesus show him clean-shaven with short hair and wearing a Roman tunic. St Paul says that long hair disgraces a man, so presumably his image of Jesus was not the same as ours.
In the next passage, the authors err by going all sensationalist on us - "everything you thought you knew is WRONG!!!" If anything makes me think these folks are snake-oil salesman, this is it. However, their points about the paucity of physical evidence for a historical Jesus are legitimate. I wish more Christians would ponder these ideas a bit more.
The fact is that everything we think we know about Jesus, like this romantic picture of the bearded savior, is a creation of the human imagination. Actually there is barely a shred of evidence for the existence of an historical Jesus and this dissolves on closer inspection. Paul, the earliest Christian source, shows no knowledge of an historical man, only a mystical Christ. The gospels have been thoroughly discredited as eyewitness reports. Other bits of traditional evidence, such as references to Jesus by the Jewish historian Josephus, have been shown to be later forgeries. If solid evidence had existed, there would have been no need to have created such fabrications.
The authors try to close out with a statement that basically they are helping people be even more spiritual. They somehow have the secret to help people be happier and more personally in touch with the divine. This is voodoo mystical shit. It's the same old story: there's something better, somewhere, out there, "beyond" this reality. I don't understand why people repulse themselves from reality.
A little over a century ago most people believed the story of Adam and Eve to be history. To most thinking people today its is obviously a myth. We predict that within a generation a similar revolution will have taken place in our understanding of the gospels. People will look back at the beginning of the 21st century and be amazed that a culture with the technology to travel to the moon could see the fabulous story of Jesus as anything other than a myth. However, we do not want to dismiss the Jesus story as nonsense. For us it is truly the greatest story ever told, because it has been thousands of years in the making. It is a perennial tale that has fascinated the human soul since the dawn of time.

Whilst our ideas clearly rewrite history, we do not see ourselves as undermining Christianity. On the contrary we are suggesting that Christianity is in fact richer than we previously imagined. According to the original Gnostic Christians, the Jesus story is a perennial myth with the power to impart the mystical experience of Gnosis, which can transform each one of us into a Christ, not merely a history of events that happened to someone else two thousand years ago.
So, this is interesting stuff unfortunately packaged in sensationalism. Interested readers will be better served by reading the excellent review by Richard Carrier of Earl Doherty's book, The Jesus Puzzle.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Putting the Watchmaker Analogy to Bed

I have been working for some time on an extended refutation of the Watchmaker Analogy. It's the only argument creationists really make. Everything else is window dressing.

However, before I could finish what would have been a masterpiece of flawless logic and argumentation, The Edge posted excepts from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's forthcoming book, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.

One of these excerpts treats the Watchmaker Analogy very well, so I will present it here instead of my own piece. However, in case you are a creationist (and therefore lazy and challenged), I will bracket out the specific part that shows the Watchmaker Analogy fails. Here it is, slightly edited to fit context:
The process of replication can give rise to the illusion of design - that is, design without the foresight of an actual designer. Replicators make copies of themselves, which make copies of themselves, and so on, giving rise to an exponential number of descendants. In any finite environment the replicators must compete for the energy and materials necessary for replication. Since no copying process is perfect, errors will eventually crop up, and any error that causes a replicator to reproduce more efficiently than its competitors will result in that line of replicators predominating in the population. After many generations, the dominant replicators will appear to have been designed for effective replication, whereas all they have done is accumulate the copying errors which in the past did lead to effective replication.
This means that we have an alternative to watchmaker-makes-the-parts-of-a-watch. We know that complicated things with a coherent purpose can in fact - in fact - arise without a designer. But I'm summarizing. For the full story, keep reading.
3. The Argument from Design

A. The Classical Teleological Argument

1. Whenever there are things that cohere only because of a purpose or function (for example, all the complicated parts of a watch that allow it to keep time), we know that they had a designer who designed them with the function in mind; they are too improbable to have arisen by random physical processes. (A hurricane blowing through a hardware store could not assemble a watch.)

2. Organs of living things, such as the eye and the heart, cohere only because they have a function (for example, the eye has a cornea, lens, retina, iris, eyelids, and so on, which are found in the same organ only because together they make it possible for the animal to see.)

3. These organs must have a designer who designed them with their function in mind: just as a watch implies a watchmaker, an eye implies an eyemaker (from 1 & 2).
4. These things have not had a human designer.

5. Therefore, these things must have had a non-human designer (from 3 & 4).
6. God is the non-human designer (from 5).

7. God exists.

FLAW: Darwin showed how the process of replication could give rise to the illusion of design without the foresight of an actual designer. Replicators make copies of themselves, which make copies of themselves, and so on, giving rise to an exponential number of descendants. In any finite environment the replicators must compete for the energy and materials necessary for replication. Since no copying process is perfect, errors will eventually crop up, and any error that causes a replicator to reproduce more efficiently than its competitors will result in that line of replicators predominating in the population. After many generations, the dominant replicators will appear to have been designed for effective replication, whereas all they have done is accumulate the copying errors which in the past did lead to effective replication. The fallacy in the argument, then is Premise 1 (and as a consequence, Premise 3, which depends on it): parts of a complex object serving a complex function do not, in fact, require a designer.

In the twenty-first century, creationists have tried to revive the Teleological Argument in three forms:

B. The Argument from Irreducible Complexity

1. Evolution has no foresight, and every incremental step must be an improvement over the preceding one, allowing the organism to survive and reproduce better than its competitors.

2. In many complex organs, the removal or modification of any part would destroy the functional whole. Examples are, the lens and retina of the eye, the molecular components of blood clotting, and the molecular motor powering the cell's flagellum. Call these organs "irreducibly complex."

3. These organs could not have been useful to the organisms that possessed them in any simpler forms (from 2).

4. The Theory of Natural Selection cannot explain these irreducibly complex systems (from 1 & 3).

5. Natural selection is the only way out of the conclusions of the Classical Teleological Argument.

6. God exists (from 4 & 5 and the Classical Teleological Argument).

This argument has been around since the time of Charles Darwin, and his replies to it still hold.

FLAW 1: For many organs, Premise 2 is false. An eye without a lens can still see, just not as well as an eye with a lens.

FLAW 2: For many other organs, removal of a part, or other alterations, may render it useless for its current function, but the organ could have been useful to the organism for some other function. Insect wings, before they were large enough to be effective for flight, were used as heat-exchange panels. This is also true for most of the molecular mechanisms, such as the flagellum motor, invoked in the modern version of the Argument from Irreducible Complexity.

FLAW 3: (The Fallacy of Arguing from Ignorance): There may be biological systems for which we don't yet know how they may have been useful in simpler versions. But there are obviously many things we don't yet understand in molecular biology, and given the huge success that biologists have achieved in explaining so many examples of incremental evolution in other biological systems, it is more reasonable to infer that these gaps will eventually be filled by the day-to-day progress of biology than to invoke a supernatural designer just to explain these temporary puzzles.

COMMENT: This last flaw can be seen as one particular instance of the more general and fallacious Argument from Ignorance:

1.There are things that we cannot explain yet.

2. Those things must be caused by God.

FLAW: Premise 1 is obviously true. If there weren't things that we could not explain yet, then science would be complete, laboratories and observatories would unplug their computers and convert to condominiums, and all departments of science would be converted to departments in the History of Science. Science is only in business because there are things we have not explained yet. So we cannot infer from the existence of genuine, ongoing science that there must be a God.

C. The Argument from the Paucity of Benign Mutations

1. Evolution is powered by random mutations and natural selection.

2. Organisms are complex, improbable systems, and by the laws of probability any change is astronomically more likely to be for the worse than for the better.

3. The majority of mutations would be deadly for the organism (from 2).

4. The amount of time it would take for all the benign mutations needed for the assembly of an organ to appear by chance is preposterously long (from 3).

5. In order for evolution to work, something outside of evolution had to bias the process of mutation, increasing the number of benign ones (from 4).

6. Something outside of the mechanism of biological change — the Prime Mutator — must bias the process of mutations for evolution to work (from 5).

7. The only entity that is both powerful enough and purposeful enough to be the Prime Mutator is God.

8. God exists.

FLAW: Evolution does not require infinitesimally improbable mutations, such as a fully formed eye appearing out of the blue in a single generation, because (a) mutations can have small effects (tissue that is slightly more transparent, or cells that are slightly more sensitive to light), and mutations contributing to these effects can accumulate over time; (b) for any sexually reproducing organism, the necessary mutations do not have to have occurred one after the other in a single line of descendants, but could have appeared independently in thousands of separate organisms, each mutating at random, and the necessary combinations could come together as the organisms mate and exchange genes; (c) life on earth has had a vast amount of time to accumulate the necessary mutations (almost four billion years).

D. The New Argument from The Original Replicator

1. Evolution is the process by which an organism evolves from simpler ancestors.

2. Evolution by itself cannot explain how the original ancestor — the first living thing — came into existence (from 1).

3. The theory of natural selection can deal with this problem only by saying the first living thing evolved out of non-living matter (from 2).

4. That non-living matter (call it the Original Replicator) must be capable of (i) self-replication (ii) generating a functioning mechanism out of surrounding matter to protect itself against falling apart, and (iii) surviving slight mutations to itself that will then result in slightly different replicators.

5. The Original Replicator is complex (from 4).

6. The Original Replicator is too complex to have arisen from purely physical processes (from 5 & the Classical Teleological Argument). For example, DNA, which currently carries the replicated design of organisms, cannot be the Original Replicator, because DNA molecules requires a complex system of proteins to remain stable and to replicate, and could not have arisen from natural processes before complex life existed.

7. Natural selection cannot explain the complexity of the Original Replicator (from 3 & 6).

8. The Original Replicator must have been created rather than have evolved (from 7 and the Classical Teleological Argument).

9. Anything that was created requires a Creator.

10. God exists.

FLAW 1: Premise 6 states that a replicator, because of its complexity, cannot have arisen from natural processes, i.e. by way of natural selection. But the mathematician John von Neumann showed in the 1950s that it is theoretically possible for a simple physical system to make exact copies of itself from surrounding materials. Since then, biologists and chemists have identified a number of naturally occurring molecules and crystals that can replicate in ways that could lead to natural selection (in particular, that allow random variations to be preserved in the copies). Once a molecule replicates, the process of natural selection can kick in, and the replicator can accumulate matter and become more complex, eventually leading to precursors of the replication system used by living organisms today.

FLAW 2: Even without von Neumann's work (which not everyone accepts as conclusive), to conclude the existence of God from our not yet knowing how to explain the Original Replicator is to rely on The Argument from Ignorance.
Believe me, this is just what I was going to say.

Oh, and I've noticed that over at Uncommon Descent, they're already going ape-shit over Goldstein's book and arguments. For example, they insist that Goldstein's Teleological Argument is not the one they make.

Yes, they are actually trying to argue "That's not MY teleological argument you're talking about," kind of like the old chestnut, "That's not MY religion you are talking about."

One commentator cries:
This analysis doesn’t work because the argument is mis-stated. The first premise is not “anything which exists must have a cause”, but “anything which begins to exist must have a cause”, which makes a huge difference in the analysis. Well known theistic philosopher William Lane Craig states the Kalaam Cosmological Argument this way:
Premise 1 – Anything that begins to exist must have a cause
Premise 2 – The universe began to exist
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe must have a cause.
Another commenter posts this:
This is not the classical teleological argument, I’m not even sure that it’s Paley’s argument (which likewise is not to be confused with the classical teleological argument).
The Kalam Cosmological Argument is a joke, a sad attempt to delay the inevitable.

The notion of "begins to exist" is about as fuzzy an idea as we can get. When did I begin to exist? At precisely what moment? It's like Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, where one can proceed infinitely to smaller and smaller levels. Think long and hard, but in the end it's people who decide and define when something "begins to exist." The notion is a man-made construct, a logical convention that nature has no obligation to honor.

Then of course there's the problem of God. When did God begin to exist? How do we know whether he did or didn't begin to exist? If the universe had a cause, did that cause have to be supernatural? Could it have been caused by, say, another universe? Could the laws of physics have allowed it to be caused, such as we were told by physicist Lawrence Krauss?

I've mentioned it before. Logic is great stuff except when it doesn't work or when messy reality gets in the way.

Goldstein has solid philosophical credentials (much better than those who criticize her) and is under no obligation to respond every time a creationist wants to try moving argumentative goalposts. In the end, the Kalam Cosmological Argument falls in just the same way as the other variations of the Teleological Argument.

Good night, watch. Good night, watchmaker.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Adolf the Creationist

I'm happy to put to bed the awful lie that creationists love. "Hitler and Darwin, they say. "Darwin led to Hitler. SQUAWK!!"

Ed Brayton shows us how Hitler used creationist ideas and lots o'GAWD to make his assertions.

While we're at it, Brayton also comments on why the "survival of the fittest" line of Social Darwinism is so stupid next to what the theory of evolution actually is and does.