Archer on Old Testament Law

In this post I produce a mashup – in the form of a short script – of two of my current interests: The irrationality of Christian belief, and my favourite tv cartoon show for adults: Archer.
The inspiration for this comes from the coincidental timing of this blog post elsewhere, and my current and ongoing enjoyment of the dialogue and characters in Archer.

[Warning: Contains adult themes and immature sexual references. And probably isn’t funny.]


Archer on Old Testament Law

Archer is made up as an archetypal Jesus, including a white cloak, long hair and a beard. Lana is Mary Magdalene. All other characters are dressed as peasants appropriate to the place and time, but reflecting their ‘normal’ characters. Malory reclines on various cushions and rags with an eye mask on, hugging a gourd to her chest.

Archer [Monotone as appropriate for a biblical reading]:
Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.

Cheryl:
You mean, like, throwing up?

Cyril:
What the hell are you talking about, Archer?

Archer:
That’s Jesus, Cyril.

Cyril:
Whatever. What are you saying?

Archer:
It means that what makes you a good person is what you say, not what you eat.

Ray:
Archer…

Archer:
JESUS!!

Ray:
Jesus… Isn’t what you do more important than what you say?

Archer:
I mean… Sure. If you’re going to take that attitude, then, I suppose…

Lana [as Mary Magdalene]:
Archer, it’s not like you’re telling us something we don’t already know.

Archer:
Goddammit, Lana – I mean Mary – will you please call me Jesus, or by my full title as your Lord and Saviour…!

Lana:
Oh, you have got to be kidding me.

Archer:
Gee, Lana, I guess it is easy to forget that I stopped you from being, ah… what was it again…? Oh, that’s right. Stoned to death!

Lana:
They weren’t really going to stone me.

Cheryl [Chuckling]:
They totally were!

Archer:
… And why, as a woman of loose morals, you put out for every uncircumcised moron this side of Judea, but you can’t bring yourself to do the horizontal crucifix with the one guy that saved you from a goddam psychotic, murdering, middle-eastern lynch mob?

Lana:
Because you’re an asshole.

Archer [Shouting]:
I’m the Son of God!

Malory:
Sterling, could you keep it down, please? I’m struggling with the fires of Nebuchadnezzar inside my brain right now and I could really do without all the shouting.

Lana [Laughing]:
What the shit are you talking about?

Archer:
Mother… Tell them. Please…

Malory [Lifting the mask from one eye]:
Sigh– I was young. I didn’t know what was involved. He plied me with [sipping from the wine gourd] alcohol…

Lana:
Didn’t know…? Plied you with alcohol? You were date-raped!

Malory:
Oh, there’s no need to go all social-warrior, Lana. I wouldn’t say “raped” exactly. I mean, this was an event of –ahem– Biblical significance…

Archer:
Mother!

Pam:
Wow – [giggling] Mrs Archer. Kudos to you. How do I get me some of that biblical action…?

Archer:
Can we please get back to what defileth thee?

Cyril:
OK, Arch- I mean, Jesus…

Archer [rolls eyes]:
Finally.

Cyril:
You said that which goeth into the mouth NOT defileth a man…

Archer:
Right.

Cyril:
Except for pork, oysters, and various water fowls, right?

Cheryl:
What about ocelots…?

Archer:
Well, no. Anything you eat ends up in your stomach, and therefore eventually gets “cast out into the draught”. So I mean, that means you can eat whatever you want. Ok?
But I wouldn’t suggest eating an ocelot. Ocelots are totally awesome.

Krieger:
But we’ve never been able to eat bacon and shellfish.

Pam [Gnawing a pork knuckle]:
Wait – is bacon bad or something?

Lana:
What, apart from being associated with stroke and congestive heart failure…?

Krieger:
Lana, it’s 32 A.D. There’s no possible way you could know that.
Pam, pigs are an abomination, as well anything else with a cloven hoof.

Pam:
What’s a cloven hoof?

Lana:
A camel toe.

Pam [Laughing, tugging her draping clothes upwards into her crotch, pork knuckle still in hand]:
Ha ha! Let’s keep a look out for some abominable ‘cloven hoof’ action, then…
[Pause.]
[No response.]
What? Nothing…?

Cyril:
The point is, Pam, that Archer – I mean, Jesus – is saying we can now eat bacon, even though it’s illegal.

Pam:
Bacon is illegal? Since when…?

Lana:
Only since God told Moses that, like, a thousand years ago.

Pam [Laughing]: Well, shit, there’s a memo I’m glad I missed!
Wait [hiding the pork knuckle behind her back] – the penalty isn’t stoning, is it? I mean, if we get to chill out and pass around a massive Bob Marley, I’m totally fine with that as a punishment. But if it means getting actual rocks thrown at your head, well…

Cheryl:
They’d tie you up first, right…?

Ray:
So, Archer, what about all that stuff you said before about not coming to destroy the law, but to fulfill it…?

Cyril:
Hey, Ray, that’s a very good question!

Archer:
What – Ray? No – Cyril – that’s not a very good question at all. In fact, it’s a very dumb question.

Krieger:
So… Are we keeping all of the laws about stoning people who work on Sundays, or aren’t we?

Archer:
No, Krieger, we are not stoning people who work on Sundays…

Cyril:
What about the laws about not wearing clothing made of mixed threads, or not sowing fields with multiple crops?

Archer:
Again, Cyril, no, these are not laws we need to enforce any more. People just went a bit too crazy with all that Old Testament stuff. I mean, like you said, it’s 32 AD. It’s not, like, the Bronze Age.

Cyril:
So if we’re not enforcing those laws any more, how can you be here to “fulfil” them?

Archer [Exasperated]:
Jesus Christ, Cyril, you’re the goddamn lawyer here. You tell me!
Maybe – just maybe – it’s because as the one and only human incarnation of the supreme, singular, non-contingent creator of all existence, I’m not about to – I don’t know – say that all the Old Testament laws were just mistakes and now we have to start from scratch again.
God. Doesn’t. Make. Mistakes!

Pam:
Err… I’m confused.

Cheryl:
Yep – me too.

Ray:
So am I.

Malory [Still under her mask, taking another swig from the gourd]:
Sterling, we’re all confused, including me, and I’m supposedly the mother of the Son of God.

Archer:
Please, mother, can’t you at least call me Jesus..?
Of course you’re confused. That’s why I’m here.

Lana:
Well, so far, you’re not helping.

Archer:
What? Not helping? I suppose you’d say that all of those blind, lame and leprous peasants I just healed were disgruntled now that I didn’t leave them anything to bitch about for the remainder of their short, miserable lives?

Lana:
So, what – are you now going to take away the earthly suffering of every single person in the world? Coz, you’ve kinda set up that expectation now.

Archer:
I mean, that’s not the point…

Cyril:
Well, what is the point, Archer? Because performing a few faith-healing miracles here and there, while giving us mixed messages about which of God’s laws we should obey and which we should forget about it isn’t exactly setting a consistent platform for theism.

Archer:
Well if you’d all just shut up and listen for five minutes, I’ll try to explain.
All of the laws of Moses are perfectly valid laws – for the time of Moses. Some of them we keep – like the 10 Commandments – and some we don’t have to worry about any more – like not eating bacon, or crabs. I’m here now…

Pam: [Snicker…]

Archer: [Forcefully]
I’m here now… [Calmly] to provide a transposition, or a refraction, of the old Moses laws for our current times.

Lana [Laughing]:
A transposition…?

Krieger:
What do you mean by a “refraction”?

Malory [Still under her mask]:
Sterling, what in the name of three types of hell and the holy spirit are you crapping on about…?

Archer:
Jesus! Look, it’s quite simple, you people. I was obviously put here to give all of humanity an updated perspective of everything that’s good. Think of me as a glass prism, that bends the light of the laws of Moses. The actual details of the old laws weren’t important. What was important was just that people obeyed them for God as well as for themselves.

Ray:
So really, the law that you’re here to fulfill is just that we should obey God.

Archer:
That’s right, Ray. Now you’re getting it.

Pam:
Even if God says you can’t eat camel toes?

Archer:
Pam, God doesn’t care about you eating camel toes, or anything else for that matter. I’m here to show that the obedience of humanity to God is a constant throughout time, and those old laws, which were appropriate for that time and place, are now refracted through my presence. It’s like everything else in the Old Testament – like the talking snake, the fall of man, the flood of Noah, and what have you – so that all of these things can now be seen properly. In the way they should be seen.

Lana:
As made-up stories.

Archer:
What? Goddammit, Lana! Haven’t you been listening? NOT made-up stories. True stories. Just…. refracted.

[Pause.]
[No response.]

Everyone but Archer: [Simultaneous collective burst of laughter]

Pam [Quiet aside]:
Cloven hooves! [snicker]


On John Dickson On Stephen Fry

John Dickson has published a response to Stephen Fry’s recent little hypothetical of what would you say if you met God…? 

After reading this piece twice, I was left still confused about who it is actually targeted at, but I’m now concluding that, despite the ‘thought experiment’ challenge offered within, it is actually targeted at the potentially wavering faithful, and not atheists at all.  The title sub-clause (…if You’re a Christian) seems to verify that.  Even so, it doesn’t offer those folks anything more than a call to stay the course and to remember that God really does love you.

As to Stephen Fry’s comments, Dickson says:

…there are reasons it cannot succeed as a logical case against God’s existence or goodness.

Except that – and this is the key flaw in Dickson’s piece – Fry was not making an argument for the non-existence of God.

He was answering a question based on a set up statement of conditional logic.  In other words, “… if the Christian God turned out to be real, and you got an audience with Him, what would you say?”

He was not asked “what is your reason for not believing in God?”.

What follows then is a rather pointless invitation from Dickson, apparently based on the above incorrect assumption (ie., that Fry was making the argument from evil as a demonstration that God doesn’t exist) to try and view the issue through the eyes of a Christian.

To what end?  Most atheists that would even bother to consider this already recognise that Christians are satisfied with the answer about God’s eternal mystery. Patronisingly walking us through Christian thinking, as if there will be some new revelatory material to be discovered, demonstrates only that there is still nothing new or powerful to be added to arguments of theism. It does remind us, however, that one of the almost defining characteristics of belief seems to be a blasé and irresponsible credulity.

… the extravagant, unnecessary display of divine love in the cross provides adequate warrant for taking God on trust for everything else.

And there we are.

The atheist might dismiss this as the “God’s ways are mysterious” cliche, but it is surely just cool logic: God is all-knowing and we are not, so there’s an obvious knowledge gap to recognise.

This brings us back to Stephen Fry.  Indeed, atheists are not at all satisfied by the God-works-in-mysterious-ways position.  Hence, with the opportunity to have a 1-on-1 the Big G Himself, Fry’s question about suffering is a perfectly reasonable one, given that He’s chosen a moment only after our mortal death to make Himself known without ambiguity to the honest sceptic.  Indeed, the real opportunity then would then be God’s, to set the record straight about a few things.

I have attempted the atheist form of the thought experiment. I am just hoping atheists will return the favour and acknowledge that, on Christian assumptions, suffering remains emotionally unsettling but not intellectually crippling.

The point is already made above that this is windmill-tilting.  But Fry has already taken the thought experiment one step further, at Gay Byrne’s invitation, by assuming that the Christian God is indeed real.  Furthermore, there may indeed be a morally cogent bigger picture to evil and suffering that our mortal minds couldn’t comprehend, as Dickson insists.  Therefore, if God is capable of showing Stephen Fry that he is indeed real, then He should be able to answer Fry’s question. Right?

I’ll Pray For You. And Deny Your Free Will.

I hear frequently from Christians the offer that they will pray for someone who is not a believer. No doubt there is a range of possible meanings by such an offer. It may be just a cynical, passive-aggressive insult. It could be an innocent and simple request to generally keep the recipient safe from harm.

Or, it may be a request that God help the person to come to know and understand Him. This implies a potential path to belief, faith and eventual salvation for the prayed-for person.

Prayer seems to take different forms – not all prayers are requests (some are offers of thanks). However, request prayers are thoroughly pointless. When someone makes a request of God through prayer, it can only be with a childish naivety that they would ever expect their request to be granted. Leaving aside the fact that prayer has been shown not to work, the thinking (or lack thereof) behind the request prayer seems to be that the human act of praying itself will somehow influence a omniscient deity’s decision-making.  As if he didn’t already know what the praying person was about to ask for.  And as if His mind hadn’t been fully made up before said prayer about smiting or saving someone, or delivering world peace, or fixing the cataracts of Sam’s mum, or allowing a particularly pious football team to be more deserving of a victory on a given day.

More profoundly illogical than this is the prayer for a non-believer – that somehow they will change their minds, see the light, allow God into their hearts, and (eventually) become a Christian.

In the previous post here, I described one of the core Christian doctrines – that of the existence of free will.  This is the assertion that we all have the choice of what we believe.  We are apparently free to choose to accept the Christian God, or to reject Him, according to Christianity.

As part of a recent online discussion with some Christians, I made the point that “praying for an atheist” in this way is completely contrary to the notion of free will.  Their reply was that when Christians do this, they obviously don’t mean something in the sense of a “spiritual mafia” (their words), or a forced, instantaneous conversion.  They were implying a more gentle persuasion approach – one in which God would reveal Himself more subtly, not make the person believe, but rather help them to, perhaps over a course of time and through interactions with other believers.

But this misses the point that even such a ‘gentle’ approach contravenes the principle of free will with respect to belief.  If God plays any role whatsoever in influencing the thinking of a non-believer, then He has interefered with the free will of that person in their apparent choice to not believe.  It makes no sense for an omniscient God, who wants their subject to believe and indeed follows through with the evidence or revelation required, to do so in a way that just falls short of success – even if that success takes the form of a last-minute death-bed conversion.

The belief or non-belief position of a person is something that is arrived at by a complex psychological process.  It is influenced by the teachings of people close to that person from a young age, the individual learnings and discoveries throughout their lifetime, the persuasion of others and the memories and lessons from the individual’s past. Basically the sum total of all of a person’s experiences.  There may even be a biological or genetic component to the psychology of faith vs. scepticism (although I personally doubt the significance of such a component in the context of all the other aforementioned influences).  The power of all of these factors demonstrates that free will, and certainly the supposed free will of theistic belief, is clearly a psychological illusion. We cannot examine our beliefs in a conscious manner that is independent from these influences.

However, Christians that believe in limited atonement – and this seems to be nearly all of them – insist that free will of belief is true. Therefore they cannot escape the point that if they pray for a non-believer (ie., make a request to God to persuade them of the Christian ‘truth’), then they are asking God to intervene – no matter how gently or subtly – and influence the belief system of the individual in question.  It is a direct contravention of one of the core tenets of Christian belief.

Of course, the logic of this will be lost on most Christians who still feel the need to pray for their atheist friends.  The next time one of them does, see what they come back with when you point out the flaw in their logic.  If they do see it, perhaps they have the potential to see some of the other logic flaws in their beliefs.

Free Will, Belief and Salvation – The flaw in the heart of Christianity

One of the key components of Christian doctrine is the notion of free will. This is the freedom to make conscious decisions and choices about what to think.

Free will is a controversial and much-discussed topic, unresolved by science or philosophy. It is also confusing, because people use the term to mean different things. I use it here in the more classical context, which says that free will is our ability to make decisions independent of the constraints of our physical circumstances and selves. It implies a dualist nature of consciousness – a component of our conscious mind that exists independent of our brain and body (a ‘soul’ perhaps?).

Suffice to say, my view is that this type of free will is an illusion. There is no component of our consciousness that exists outside of our brains, and therefore no free will that allows us to think in a way that is independent of our physical selves, our memories and our environment.  No scientific observations have ever been made to demonstrate that a dualist free will might exist. And while we all have a compelling sense that our thoughts are our own to control, we do not have any persistent sensation of our thinking occurring outside our physical bodies or independent of our physical circumstances. At least, I don’t, and I would doubt and dismiss the claims of anyone who said that they did have such experiences (ie., free of brain chemistry-altering substances and psychological disturbances).

Christians (and followers of other religions) maintain that belief and worship of their God is a conscious choice – an ability endowed by free will. Believers are saved (they go to heaven when they die); non-believers are damned (they go to hell).  According to Christian free-willers, when we reject belief, we are doing so entirely of our own volition. There is more than one philosophical argument against this position, including the point that if God is omniscient and omnipresent, then He must already know what all of our conscious decisions will ever be. This therefore means they must be predetermined, putting a lie to the claim that our decision-making ability was ever truly free. Theists have an out-clause for this argument, however, and for those interested I suggest looking up the wafflings of William Lane Craig and others to hear the rhetorical gymnastics of how they escape from it.

But I’m more concerned with the direct, more personal and less metaphysical observations of conscious thinking. What we know – what we come to believe (or disbelieve) – is not something that is wholly (or at all) within our control. Everything we ever learn is the result of life-long conscious experiences – what we’ve been taught by others, what we’ve discovered and how these things have been shaped by our memories, our circumstances and environment, and even our genetics. Although it may ‘feel like’ any conscious decision we make is truly under our control, it is impossible to eliminate influences from these sources.
In a recent online discussion with some Christians, I made this point to them. And yet they still argued that I had the ‘choice’ to believe. In response to my suggestion that God needed to be more convincing if He truly wanted me to believe in Him, one said that He had already done enough, and that ‘the rest was up to me’.

No.

If God is truly omniscient then He ought to know what kind of knowledge is sufficient to convince a skeptic in the 21st century. He should know that contemporary society, for which none of us are individually responsible, contaminates us with the bogus trappings of modern lifestyles and of centuries of recorded history of superstition and alternative belief systems. He should know that we ought to be discerning about what we accept as truth and what we reject as lies. And He should see that many of us are already discerning about those things.

So no. If God really, truly, wants us to believe, then He needs to do more. The fact that He apparently chooses to reveal himself to only a subset of the human population demonstrates either that He isn’t there at all, or that His existence isn’t consistent with the claims of Christianity – in particular that we are all equal in the eyes of God. For if all people were truly equal, then all people ought to be given the same opportunity at salvation by the Christian God making himself known to them.

Science is not a Movement: Reflections on Steven Pinker and his Critics

Until about a month ago (ie., Aug 2013), I’d never even heard of Steven Pinker. Or Leon Wieseltier, or Massimo Pigliucci, or even Daniel Dennett. I do have a background in science, in a ‘previous life’, but more than 15 years ago my career shifted sideways, via software development project management to sales and marketing (which seems to rank with used car salesmen, real estate agents, and lawyers for nobility of professions).

I’m a complete newcomer to discussions involving scholarly philosophy, having only recently joined in a handful of online debates that seemed to have drawn battle lines between scientific rationalism and theology. Nothing more (or less) than an opinionated layperson directed by a little bit of reading and some common sense.  I’ve never had any respect for religious beliefs, but have been comfortable generally to live and let live. Provided the believers don’t force their beliefs onto me, hijack our secular public institutions, or try to indoctrinate my children, they can continue to practice harmlessly whatever they want.

I had always assumed that religious beliefs were a result of a particular upbringing, combined with a tendency to superstition, a deep faith, and various other psychological factors and symptoms of ignorance. So I was surprised to find recently that there are intelligent and articulate Christians in Australia that actually believe that rational approaches, empirical evidence and science in general provide support for their beliefs in God. Indeed, in one particular Facebook debate I found myself buried in, one particular theist (apparently a PhD student in philosophy) declared that “an empirical approach [to life] should lead to belief [in God]”.

The attitudes of some of these articulate Christians is that science is not capable of providing answers to some of our most profound human questions, and in fact philosophy and theology are the only relevant tools to address such things. Some go further and assert that empiricism is a rather less important approach than is philosophy in our collective goals of learning about our universe. But more on this later.

Following an unassuming Twitter lead, I discovered Steven Pinker’s recent piece referring to scientism. Here was another ‘thing’ I hadn’t really encountered until now, but in light of the arguments I was having with theists, his essay made complete sense. In fact, I found it truly inspirational – this section in particular:

…As for literary scholarship […] Linguistics can illuminate the resources of grammar and discourse that allow authors to manipulate a reader’s imaginary experience. Cognitive psychology can provide insight about readers’ ability to reconcile their own consciousness with those of the author and characters. Behavioral genetics can update folk theories of parental influence with discoveries about the effects of genes, peers, and chance, which have profound implications for the interpretation of biography and memoir—an endeavor that also has much to learn from the cognitive psychology of memory and the social psychology of self-presentation. Evolutionary psychologists can distinguish the obsessions that are universal from those that are exaggerated by a particular culture and can lay out the inherent conflicts and confluences of interest within families, couples, friendships, and rivalries that are the drivers of plot. And as with politics, the advent of data science applied to books, periodicals, correspondence, and musical scores holds the promise for an expansive new “digital humanities.” The possibilities for theory and discovery are limited only by the imagination and include the origin and spread of ideas, networks of intellectual and artistic influence, the persistence of historical memory, the waxing and waning of themes in literature, and patterns of unofficial censorship and taboo…

It’s no surprise that Pinker’s piece would attract criticism. But what is surprising is the nature of that criticism and how aggrieved the critics seem to be with his goal of the collective discovery of truths using science as a key source of knowledge.  From Leon Wieseltier:

…Is the beauty of ancient art nullified by the falsity of the cosmological ideas that inspired it? I would sooner bless the falsity for the beauty. Factual obsolescence is not philosophical or moral or cultural or spiritual obsolescence…”

Scientists have no issue with the ‘beauty of ancient art’.  What they do have an issue with is when this is declared to be truth. Wieseltier’s attitude seems to be that the humanities, including the arts, have some grasp on intrinsic human truth that science has no access to. The suggestion seems to be that the ‘false beauty’ of the humanities is more important than the truth offered by scientific investigation. No doubt this will be a debate without end any time soon, but I have to disagree with this view with extreme prejudice. Scientists don’t claim to have all the answers, but are accused of arrogance when venturing opinions outside of their original fields of study. This attitude of keeping ‘science’ in its own well-demarcated box is classic hypocrisy by virtue of arrogance!

Science is concerned with the truth of nature. It can provide some insights into the aesthetics of nature and art and human reasoning, but this in no way diminishes the beauty of those things. But more importantly, it can – and should – replace any claims of the natural ‘truth’ of those things.

This ‘scientism’ thing – if it really is a ‘thing’ and not just a pejorative label – might be a movement.  I suspect it isn’t really though, despite Dr. Pinker’s embrace of the term. Science, on the other hand, definitely is not a movement.

As I mentioned previously, scholarly philosophy is something very new to me, and while I am yet to appreciate that it has a whole lot of practical value, in past few days I had started to warm to the ideas of Massimo Pigliucci. However, I have been left disappointed by the views expressed in this piece.  Here are a few selective snippets:

…Pinker seems to ignore much research in the history and sociology of science that shows that sometimes that system goes wrong, occasionally worrisomely wrong (e.g., a lot of medical research on drugs is seriously flawed, particularly – but not only – when the funding for it comes from the pharmaceutical industry).

…He also conveniently dismisses or minimizes the problems that science and technology have brought to us: it’s ok for science to take credit for vaccines (as it should), but not ok for critics to point out nasty stuff like atomic bombs and biological warfare. See, those aren’t really the results of “science,” but of bad politicians misusing science. This is such a naive understanding of human power relations, not to mention of the complex social role of science, that it is downright laughable.

…he should have acknowledged that some criticism of science is well founded and sorely needed.”

Pigliucci isn’t using the terms science and scientism interchangeably here. A distinction between these terms is implicit but clear throughout his piece. The thoughts behind these statements (and throughout the article) seem to position science as some kind of worldview, or movement, with some kind of coherent collective agenda.

Science is not a movement. It is a method. It is a collection of tools, an approach to understanding our universe and our ourselves. Science has no agenda.

While there are various processes that can help us formulate ethics, nothing can be said about the ethical accountability of the processes themselves. A process, in general terms, does not belong to any category that can have an ethical position as one of its attributes! (I learnt the language of category errors from some recent reading in philosophy.)

While science can be ‘hard’ (even according to Pinker), it is a technique accessible to anyone.  Having some formal training can make one better at doing good science. But anyone can formulate a view, test with empirical data, and form a conclusion and/or modify their original views. Here is a good summary by Richard Feynman (thanks to Prof. Brian Cox for referencing this in a recent lecture I found on youtube). This is ten minutes long, but the key part is in exactly the first one minute:

Throughout the history of scientific discoveries, the role of philosophy as an authority to explain nature, including our existence, has been edged gradually and progressively out of relevance.  This does not mean that the importance of the humanities in the large has declined. Arts, as far as I can tell, are no less valuable today than they were in antiquity. The role of ethical studies and discourse for our institutions, both public and private, may have even increased in recent times, supported strongly by empirical data.

But ‘science’ does not over-step its boundaries.  I don’t accept – and nor should anyone – that scientists shouldn’t be allowed to venture opinions outside their main field, nor attempt to apply the scientific method and conclusions to questions that they couldn’t attempt previously. Scientists deserve to attract criticism for their interpretation of the evidence and their reasoning, but not for the fact that their formal training was in a discipline outside their main area of research. Challenging arguments is valid discourse. Ad hominem (or perhaps, ‘ad communis’?) arguments are not.

Science is simply a process. It helps us discover what is true and real. It doesn’t discriminate. Science can even help us explore the realities behind ‘the beauty of ancient art’. But intrinsically, it doesn’t care whether we like those realities or not.

Superstition and scepticism

This post is a further reply to the conversation started on the Atheist Forum blog, here.

Our Different Backgrounds and Cognitive Processing
The last few comment posts here are certainly highlighting our impasse, but also provide some important indicators for me about our different backgrounds, education, and beliefs.
I mentioned previously that I’ve had some formal training in the sciences, which include the neurosciences in particular. Throughout this part of my education, I was often struck by the capabilities and capacity of the human mind for cognition, abstract thought and imagination. And also by some of the profound effects that ‘natural’ external influences, and our own physiology, can have on these processes.
I am convinced there is nothing more complex that we have ever encountered (so far!) than the human brain. I am also convinced that this capacity of the human brain has evolved ‘naturally’ over the course of millions of years, driven initially by environmental pressures that favoured the most primitive behaviours of planning and decision making. (More on this in another post, perhaps.)
The entire body of human scientific knowledge has demonstrated overwhelmingly that the world – in fact the whole universe – is natural . And this is very important: This includes the astonishing capability of the human brain to imagine, construct and assume the existence of the supernatural.

Psychological Predisposition to Superstition
On the subject of Port Arthur ghosts – and this may sound offensive, although I don’t mean it to – you (and many, many others, I’ll grant) are inclined to believe that ghosts exist because you are more psychologically predisposed to accepting superstitious claims. This is a normal, natural, human property, perhaps an evolutionary side-effect of the important and very valuable emotion of fear. I must admit that I take for granted that most Western educated adults understand this, so I continue to be surprised when apparently smart people seem to be drawn in to what are obviously (to me) bogus claims.
Beliefs, hallucinations, odd feelings: These are things that are certainly very real. Scientists have measured these things for decades, perhaps even a century or more. Ghosts themselves: These things are as-good-as-definitely not real. I’m convinced that if they were, scientists would have ‘measured’ them too by now. More on that in a moment.

‘Quick to Dismiss’
In some of your comments there is an implication that I (and presumably other sceptics) are ‘quick to dismiss’ miracles and the supernatural, in particular when no strong alternative hypotheses are offered. I’d like to counter this by asking you to step into the shoes of a sceptic, just for a moment. Many of us sceptics (although again, I speak only for myself) have not formed our world views hastily. Over the course of decades of our own lives, we have read, studied, experienced, experimented on and observed the world and the people around us. Those of us with questioning minds exempt nothing from enquiry and challenge. That includes deeply-held societal beliefs and behaviours and even the nature of our own existence and creation. So while ‘quick to dismiss’ seems like an accurate description of our response when it comes to some supernatural claim, please understand that an enormous amount of thought and analysis has already gone into considering that something belongs in the category of superstition.

Ghosts Revisited
As mentioned above, this includes ghosts. Consider any report of ghosts: What do they comprise of? At their strongest, they interfere physically with the ‘natural’ world and people within it. These interferences must therefore be measurable objectively, and yet they have never been shown. We are left to rely on people’s personal (and occasionally, collective) verbal accounts. Hearsay. Not evidence.

Coming down the spectrum of ghost interferences, we have the more common accounts of visualisations (seeing them!), sounds, and even tactual accounts (ie., feeling their touches). Again, if these experiences are true to human senses, they are measurable by objective means – cameras, sound recorders, etc. Yet again, never has there been conclusive evidence recorded. Within a couple of years, the large hadron collider in Europe has allowed us to measure the effects of sub-atomic virtual particles. These must be some of the most elusive things in the entire universe. Ghost experiences are so ubiquitous that I suggest they are a daily occurrence throughout the entire world. And yet, no scientist has ever published a single picture of a ghost in the nearly 200-year vast and pervasive history of accessible photography, and been taken seriously. The logical contrast is astounding: We can measure virtual frikkin’ particles!, and yet the ghosts that apparently visit us every day remain statistically non-existent.

Moving on, at the simplest end of the ghost experience then is the basic visceral sensation of another presence. The hard-to-describe ‘feeling’ of someone else being present, but not physically. I imagine every single thinking, feeling person on earth, and who has ever lived, has experienced such a feeling, perhaps many times during their lives. Again, these sensations are measurable. Heart rates quicken, skin temperatures drop, pupils dilate, stress hormones are excreted into the blood stream. Physiological feedback loops are invoked and these responses can be amplified. Hallucinations – visual, auditory, and tactile – can be experienced. And the human brain, with a little bit of the right kind of environmental stimulation (like a dark room, or even a verbal suggestion), is capable of producing all of this. These things have been demonstrated in the laboratory, countless times. The evidence is falsifiable. The experiments are repeatable.
Staying within the shoes of the thorough and honest scientific researcher, prepared to lay bare all of his/her materials, recordings, conclusions to their independent peers, how readily will you stand up and say, “I’ve seen a ghost.” In light of all our knowledge and all the logic described above, it is this type of conclusion that is hasty.

Rationalising Superstition
The sceptic does not dismiss people’s accounts of seeing ghosts as readily as it might seem. Instead, the sceptic considers these reports against an exhaustive and well-understood history and science on the nature of superstition and human physiology and psychology. We then ask simply, what is more likely – that a ghost really was present? Or that the astonishingly powerful human mind imagined it?
Given the above background, hopefully this helps you understand why the sceptic turns to Occam’s Razor. We favour the natural explanations, not simply as the more logical, but also as the obvious.

Joseph Smith Revisited (Briefly)
I haven’t come back to the Mormons in this post, but it’s somewhat reassuring to learn that you treat these claims with scepticism: “…it appears the most reasonable explanation is that Smith created the story of Mormon.”
Indeed – this entire cult is differentiated from the rest of Christianity on the basis of a mythology that is utter bullshit.
And yet, 14 million people in first-world countries are vested heart and soul in this bizarre collection of beliefs. What are they seeing that the rest of us are missing?

And Finally, The Resurrection Revisited
“…Yet, if I do demonstrate that this is unlikely [that one or more persons made up the resurrection story], I would suggest that it is on the sceptic to either revise their theory or accept the thesis? Would that be fair?….”
Rob, if you have successfully been able to get into the shoes of the sceptic as I’ve tried to describe above, then you’ll understand that I see your question almost as a kind of logical non sequitur.

By all means, give it your best shot. If you have some compelling evidence that is truly new, I’ll be open to it (and I reckon you’d be in the running for a Nobel Prize).
However, I do doubt, in the strongest, most sincere terms, that you will be able to get within a million miles of convincing me that the resurrection wasn’t made up. If the evidence really was overwhelmingly convincing and truly incontrovertible, I’d already believe in it.
I suspect that applies to the other five billion non-Christians on the planet too.

Conversation on evidence for the resurrection

This is a summary of some recent dialogue posted in the comments section of a recent blog post by Robert Martin of The City Bible Forum in Melbourne.
Nothing new added here – this is simply just a re-capture of comments material.

I was with you for a moment there, Rob.
Not agreeing, mind you, but I was keeping up with the internal logic of what you were saying.

But then this at the end:
history has shown there is a way to resolve the conflicting claims of religion. It is through the one who comes and claims to be ‘the way the truth and the life’ and lives an extraordinary life, death and resurrection consistent with this claim.

…And thus the logic collapses in on itself once again. The unfalsifiable and unassailable assertion that I have the one true truth.

You know my position on the resurrection, Rob. Show us the video evidence, or it didn’t happen.

Robert:

Paul,

Thanks for your comments and I appreciate you accepting my internal logic. ;-)

I completely understand how you reject that claim, but I did want to put it in there to demonstrate very briefly why I believe what I do. In terms of the resurrection, have a look at this presentation I delivered earlier in the year. It’s fairly comprehensive, but would love your thoughts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7E2zMq8IRC4

Thanks for the interaction!

Rob

Thanks for the link, Rob. This is certainly edifying in terms of understanding what Christian scholars believe and what their evidence is.
However, I assume you realise that none of this has any impact on the views of a sceptic? It provides some grist for the mill when preaching to the less-informed converted, but there is no additional basic argument that makes the assertion any more compelling.

Here’s a superficial response to some of the points:

You say that science, mathematics and philosophy can’t tell us about whether or not the resurrection happened. They’re the wrong tools.
That’s correct, but each of these tools can give us some insight into the rationality and likelihood of miracles. And another tool, history, can complement these by showing examples of extraordinary claims that turned out to be unsubstantiated hype.
In fact, while there are plenty of extraordinary claims that have not been investigated fully and objectively, every single one that has been, ever, in the history of civilisation, has been shown to be not a miracle, not supernatural.

Unfortunately the investigative journalism approach, at least in this instance, doesn’t provide us with anything else that could be considered as proof. It’s not even objective.
Using the gospels of the bible as evidence for other truths in the bible is begging-the-question. “It must be true, because it’s in the bible, and the bible says that everything in the bible is true.”

The New Testament letters are the same thing. Everything supporting the bible’s claims was prepared by folks with a vested interest in the cause.
It wouldn’t make sense for any of the early bible writers to include – in the bible itself – any contradictory claims.
Conveniently, there is no Book of Trevor, in which the claims of the resurrection were debunked by Trev, who discovered Steve behind the tomb dressing himself up in drab robes and sheep’s blood, preparing a diabolical little party trick on those already convinced by the divinity of the living JC.

You cite other examples, including WWII journalism and historical accounts of Augustus, and the fact that we don’t reject these historical details. I assume you realise that again there is no convincing argument here.
Historical accounts of Augustus winning, say two dozen battles against the odds, is remarkable. But it doesn’t require any special leap of faith to accept. Further evidence and discovery might reveal he only won a dozen of those, and was actually defeated most of the time. This might require a major re-think of aspects of Roman history. But it wouldn’t affect our current world views at all. And if there were claims based on written accounts that somehow Augustus won his battles on his own while riding a winged horse, modern historians wouldn’t be likely to take them seriously.

On the “six historical facts”, no fundamental truths there either.
Eyewitness accounts again amount to hearsay.
The other points about the rise of Christianity and changes in the behaviour of the personalities involved are not evidence of the resurrection of course. Arguably the modern rise of Mormonism (14 million, according to Wikipedia) is far more abrupt and astonishing than the rise of Christianity from the 1st C. AD. And this is a movement, (in modern times, with all our education, experience, enlightenment and scepticism) based on the visions of a man who was apparently told to translate the divine golden plates he dug up somewhere. Conveniently, the physical golden plates were taken away again by one of his angelic visions before anyone – other than his closest disciples of course – had the chance to give them a really good going over.

You conclude that the sceptical view “betrays philosophical pre-suppositions”, rather than relying on actual evidence. And with this, again, there seems to be a complete dismissal, and even reversal, of the concept of the burden of proof.
That’s a more polite way of saying that you’ve got things arse-about.

Robert:

Paul,

Again I apologise for not getting back to you sooner. But here we are – a new week and new opportunities to discuss.

I’m glad you admit that science and maths can’t tell us whether the resurrection happened. Yet, I’m concerned with your definition and discussion of ‘proof’. Also, I don’t think I said that “It must be true, because it’s in the bible, and the bible says that everything in the bible is true.” I outlined 6 historical facts which need to be explained – some of which are recorded in the Bible. I think that the Bible’s explanation, best explains these facts. Further, we can’t reject the Bible outright as an historical source. It must be admitted into a discussion into the resurrection because it is a document which emerged in history and that fact must also be explained.

I take the argument from bias, but the key question is, not ‘were they biased’ (because they obviously were), but ‘what caused them to be biased?’. Otherwise this argument becomes pointless and there is no point in reading anything because everyone is biased – e.g. don’t read the God Delusion because Dawkins is biased!!

I admit it would be interesting to see the Book of Trevor!! Yet, it’s non-existence is perhaps reason to think that perhaps the biblical narrative has some truth?

When considering the resurrection, and any historical question the important thing to ask is, ‘what is the inference to the best explanation?’ You can’t ‘prove’ it happened (and you can’t prove it didn’t) as it is not mathematics or science. The key test is: then what best explains the facts??

You have outlined some weaknesses in my theory (I disagree, but there isn’t time to go into that in detail now – FYI – the rise of Mormonism is actually comparable with the rise of early Christianity – see the work of Rodney Stark). But aside from pointing out weaknesses, can you reconstruct a plausible alternative? ie. can you better explain the 6 facts I outlined?

Would love your input again.

Rob

Hi Rob,
I had started preparing a more comprehensive response on the philosophical impasse of Christianity and atheism, which we have now reached in this discussion. But it was way too long for the comments section here, so instead I’ll just make some shorter clarifications of the arguments I was trying to make earlier.

When I used that quote – “It must be true, because it’s in the bible, and the bible says that everything in the bible is true…” – I wasn’t trying to ascribe that quote to you, or even suggest that it was directly paraphrasing something that you said. I was simply trying to highlight the logical fallacy of using the Bible itself as historical evidence of any miracle, including the resurrection.
It is possible that there are various ‘unbiased’ historians that will attest to some of the historical events recorded in the Bible. However, Christians – including Christian scholars and historians – are the only people that will say the Bible is a factual historical record on the divine miracles of Christ. Again: You may find independent historical reports of folks saying that the resurrection occurred. There may be a dozen of these reports, or even an account that there were 500 or even 10,000 eyewitnesses. But this is not “evidence”! It is not a record of facts. It is hearsay.

It is a testament to the success and power of early Christians and the compelling aspects of their ideas and ideals that Christianity continues to endure so strongly now. You can point to the lack of any “Book of Trevor” to support the claim of the resurrection. But Bible sceptics look at this differently. If any such hypothetical counter-claims ever existed, it is obvious that they would have been found and destroyed, perhaps very early in Christian history. It is just another reflection of the adage that history is always written by the victors.

As to any alternative explanation, I don’t have any. But then, I’m not making any claims that require defending. This is the point about burden of proof: Bible sceptics do not have any case to answer, because we do not need to explain a lack of a claim.
When I try to rationalise to myself your so-called “six historical facts”, I do so in the context of the entire history of Christianity, and in fact all human superstition prior to it. The various chapters of the Bible have been hand-transcribed, hand-copied and even re-written countless times over the past 2000 years, and until the relatively recent invention of the printing press, this was done entirely and exclusively by those dedicated to the faith. This fact alone exposes it to the sceptic and renders it a work obviously prepared by vested interests.

The consequences of all the “changes” reported that coincide with the early rise of Christianity are not special, and that is why I cited the rise of Mormonism as a comparison, which you seem to agree with. In a period of less than 200 years, a 14-million-strong worldwide movement has arisen from an origin of a single prophet with an extraordinary claim of direct divinity. Joseph Smith also started with a small core group of eyewitnesses to the divine golden plates (the Mormon miracle) and, conveniently, no remaining falsifiable evidence for them. Furthermore, the high priests of Mormonism have also re-written history, changing their rules as they progress in the face of outside scrutiny. The origin of the Church of LDS is also a matter of historical record, as are the changed beliefs and lives of the earliest Mormons.
I assume you agree with me that the founder of Mormonism was either deeply deluded, or (more likely) an audacious and highly charismatic con man. (Presumably you would be Mormon today rather than a ‘garden variety’ Christian if you bought into any of their insanity.) The point is that human history is replete with examples of ideologies and movements that have appeared, grown and expanded with the dogmatic fervor of their followers, who all view their ideologies with perfect internal consistency. They all have their own historic accounts that demonstrate their intrinsic truths.

To the non-believers, although Christianity may be more successful than many (or indeed all) of these, it is fundamentally no different in its nature to any of them. If the Bible is true about the resurrection, this should be a fact that is obvious and undeniable to all of humanity, and not just the privileged few that have been born into Christianity or converted by their peers, and have then been gifted with some kind of special ability to look beyond their scepticism.

Robert:

Paul,

Thanks for your comments. I have a few things to say in response (as I’m sure you expected ;-) )

There is a lot to say, but I’ll just hone in on your comments about alternative explanations. I think you miss my point about providing an alternative explanation. I’m not saying that I’m trying to prove the resurrection, I’m saying that there are 6 historical faces that require explanation. I think the best explanation is a resurrection – you reject that – yet you fail to provide an alternative hypothesis. Hence, using the scientific method, surely in that absence of a better hypothesis, we need to accept the one that best explains the facts? Would that be fair? You can’t duck the issue of burden of proof. Skeptics DO have a case to answer if a reasonable case has been set forward which explains the facts. Skeptics MUST provide a better alternative explanation.

You could change the argument to be the same as a climate change skpetic – i.e. ‘a climate change skeptic has no case to answer because there is no need to explain a lack of a claim’.

Thoughts?

Also, you need to be careful in distinguishing the sociological growth of an organisation with the origin of the beliefs of an organisation. I don’t think any of my arguments said that Christianity was true because it grew so fast. Yet you do need to explain where the original beliefs of the Christian faith came from, which were different to the prevailing culture.

Rob

Rob, I missed this response somehow, so the timing might be a little on the late side. Here goes, anyway. The conversation point is now about alternative explanations and burdens of proof, etc.

To summarise your position, your claim is that there are six historical “facts” that support the claim of a divine resurrection, and that the occurence of the resurrection is the best possible explanation for the combination of these facts. You also refer to the burden of proof, and challenge sceptics that they must provide an alternative explanation to cover off the “six historical facts”.

With respect, Rob, I don’t think you fully appreciate the concept of burden of proof as it applies to extraordinary claims.
When proposing an extraordinary claim – and I think we would both agree that re-animation of a 3-days-dead corpse is an extraordinary claim – the burden of proof is upon the claimant, and not the sceptic.

Occam’s Razor applies. We assume a more rational explanation is more likely (in fact, obvious), ahead of one assuming a supernatural intervention.
The number of alternative, more likely and more natural explanations to the resurrection claim is uncountable. To put it in the bluntest possible terms, the original witnesses were either deceived, were the victims of ‘groupthink’ or some other mob behaviour, or they just made it up. Just because a historian records that “500 witnesses” saw a re-animated Jesus walking around with holes in his hands doesn’t make it true. Maybe those people were confused. Maybe there weren’t really that many. Maybe he lied because it was a great story to tell.

I don’t know, and I don’t care. I am not obliged to elucidate any alternative theory.
There is no burden of proof required to disprove an outrageous claim.

“…You could change the argument to be the same as a climate change skpetic – i.e. ‘a climate change skeptic has no case to answer because there is no need to explain a lack of a claim’. …”
This is correct, unless these people are also climate scientists making a specific claim supported by observations. In burden-of-proof terms, amateur climate change sceptics indeed have no case to answer.

However, the big difference between climate change and the resurrection, is that there is independent, reproducible scientific data demonstrating that climate change is real. The claims of climate change are based on falsifiable research data. The claims of the resurrection are hearsay.

“…I don’t think any of my arguments said that Christianity was true because it grew so fast. Yet you do need to explain where the original beliefs of the Christian faith came from, which were different to the prevailing culture.”
Again, no. To repeat, I was using the history of Mormonism to illustrate a point, about it how rapidly it has taken hold of a certain section of society in the US in a space of less than 200 years. It has some similarities to Christianity in this respect, because it was also against the mainstream prevailing culture in the US.
If you think I need to provide an explanation as to where the original Christian beliefs came from and how it could arise against such an antagonistic cultural backdrop, I simply point to Mormonism as another example. Christianity is not “special” in this regard. You don’t need to resort to divine miracles as an explanation for the emergence of a popular movement.