Sunday, August 31, 2008

Jesus - historical evidence: another quick response to Sam

Sam, you say:

"My point here is to say that it is illegitimate to expect certain forms of high-quality evidence to be available. That doesn't make the lower-quality evidence that is available more true, it just means that it isn't a criticism of that evidence to say 'it's not higher quality than it is'."

If I understand you correctly, I am amazed and shocked by this - genuinely.

Crap evidence - i.e. evidence no where near good enough to rationally support a belief - is crap evidence. Pointing out that, were the belief true, better evidence couldn't necessarily be expected, is simply irrelevant to the question of whether or not it's crap evidence.

If my toddler says a fairy came in the night and did magic tricks in her bedroom, that's crap evidence it's true. Saying "Ah, but Stephen, you forget that, if there were such a fairy visitor, well, she'd be very unlikely to leave much better evidence of her visit - so it's no criticism of this evidence for a fairy visitation that it's not higher quality than it is!" would, I suggest, be a patently bullshit thing to say.

It's certainly a very good criticism of this evidence for fairy visitation that it's crap, whether or not higher quality evidence could be expected.

If significant numbers of biblical scholars think otherwise - and indeed think this a credible move to make in defence of the rationality of various Christian claims about Jesus made on the basis of the NT documents - well, then, wow! I'm genuinely gobsmacked.

This shows an astonishing - I am tempted to say almost wilfull - misunderstanding of how evidence actually works.

The suggestion seems to be that, if we should expect little evidence for the truth of certain claims (if they're true), we should then lower our standards and deem those claims fairly reasonable on the basis of weak evidence.

This would make belief in widespread alien abductions come out as fairly reasonable!

Quick response to Sam

Hi Sam

You're going to give me the evidence for Jesus' historicity. But you start with more questions. Gosh, a lot of questions. Here are answers to some.


First you say:

P1: there are various historical texts which describe Jesus
P2: these texts explicitly or implicitly refer to miraculous events
P3: miraculous events cannot happen (they are 'pretty obviously silly')
P4: these texts have no (or: very little?) historical validity.

Is that a fair summary?"


No. It's not. It's a bit of a caricature. I don't say miracles are impossible. My view is miracles are extraordinary events such that, to be reasonably confident one happened, we need more than just the kind of evidence that would be reasonable for mundane events. We need really good evidence. As Carl Sagan said - "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Do you disagree (yes or no)?

I then say that the fact that there are very many miracles attributed to Jesus in these stories means we then need really good - indeed, pretty extraordinary - evidence before it is reasonable to accept the miracle reports. Again, do you agree (yes or no)?

I also then run the Bert analogy, which is very clear - if my friends say someone called Bert visited them last night, I'll take their word for it. But if they say Bert did amazing miracles in their front room before leaving, well their claim that these things happened is now no longer nearly good enough evidence even for the claim that Bert really exists, let alone that he did any of the things they claim. Do you agree with me about that? (yes or no).

In a nutshell: as things stand - with no independent corroboration of either claim, my friends' miracles claim severely reduce the credibility even of their claim that there was such a person.

Conclusion, then, is - the many miracles (constituting a very substantial chunk of the text - not a few passages) in the Jesus stories mean these texts need to provide much higher quality evidence for J's existence than we possess for, say, Socrates' existence. Either that or we need some independent corroboration that J exists.

As it is, setting aside the miraculous stuff, the stories in the NT look to me otherwise really no better, and probably rather worse, for Jesus' existence than it is for Socrates' existence.

That, then, makes it, prima facie, very reasonable to doubt whether there was a Jesus. Which is all I am suggesting, remember. I can't see where my reasoning goes wrong here, can you?

Second, you ask the following:


"I would next want to ask: what sort of evidence could reasonably be expected? Video testimony is out, for example, as is detailed scientific analysis along the lines of a crime scene investigation. I agree that records of a crucifixion that named 'Jesus of Nazareth' would be very helpful, but is the absence of such evidence particularly surprising?"

MY REPLY. Are you suggesting that, because, if J existed, we shouldn't expect particularly good evidence for J's existence beyond what we have, then that's good enough evidence that he did exist?

If so, I say "Cobblers!"

First off: the answer to the question "what evidence should be expected if true?" depends which particular claim is in question. If it's the tombs opening after the crucifixion and the dead walking the streets of the city, etc. then I would expect some independent corroboration. The truth of other claims might be less likely to result in such corroboration.

However, this question is in any case a red herring. The question is not: what evidence should we expect if it's true? But: what evidence is there that it's true? It's the latter claim we are looking at, not the former.

Compare the Bert case. If Bert does exist and did perform those miracles before my friends in their sitting room, what further evidence should I expect that this happened, beyond their testimony? None, particularly. But that's not to say that their testimony is, then, pretty good evidence either that Bert exist or that he did those miraculous things. It's very clearly neither.

all the best

Friday, August 29, 2008

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, chpt 1.

Chapter One: A deeply religious non-believer

I won’t recount the contents of each chapter, as I am assuming you will have read them. Instead I will pull out a few points I think of particular interest.

Much of this first chapter is devoted to explaining that while scientists will sometimes talk about God – e.g. Einstein and Hawking both do – they use the word in an unusual way. Einstein, as Dawkins clearly, shows, did not believe in any sort of personal God or creator/designer God, and was perhaps something of a Spinozistic pantheist.

Dawkins next turns his attention to the special reverence and privilege that he believes attaches, quite undeservedly, to religious belief.

There are two issues here:

(i) are religious beliefs and views given special privileges and respect? and
(ii) if so, do they deserve those privileges and that respect?

Dawkins answer to (i) is yes, they are, and it seems hard to deny he is right about that. What Dawkins does not address, certainly in this chapter, is whether a case might be made for answering “yes” to the second question. Dawkins here just assumes the answer to (ii) is “no”. Some religious readers will want to argue the correct answer is “yes”

Actually, I looked at some of the most obvious arguments for a “yes” answer to (ii) in this article I posted a few months ago, if you are interested in pursuing this point. I explain that (i) the onus is on those who think the religious and their beliefs are due special respect to justify this discrimination in their favour (if they cannot, they are guilty of simple prejudice), and (ii) I can find no good justification for privileging religious beliefs in this way. Certainly, the most obvious justifications fail spectacularly.

I, like Dawkins, am particularly struck by the way religious experts are called on whenever an ethical issue is debated. As Dawkins observes:

“whenever a controversy arises over sexual or reproductive morals, you can bet that religious leaders from several different faith groups will be represented on influential committees, or on panel discussions on radio and television. I am not suggesting we should go out of our way to censor the views of these people. But why does our society beat a path to their door, as though they had some expertise comparable to that of, say, a moral philosopher, a family lawyer, or a doctor?”

Well, there are reasons the religious will give to justify giving religious perspectives a platform, alongside such other experts, and some might yet be good reasons. Here are some:

(i) religion has, historically, tended to be one of the main forums in which such ethical questions have been raised and addressed.
(ii) religious leaders have often thought harder and longer about ethical issues than most of us
(iii) religious leaders may have built up some expertise dealing face to face with people struggling problems and trying to offer help and advice.
(iv) religious leaders represent large groups defined in large part by their ethical outlook.

But do these facts justify beating a path to the door of the religious leaders whenever ethical issues are discussed? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

One last thing. I would add this point about expertise on ethical matters. Even if religious leaders do have rather more expertise and insight than most of us when it comes to ethical issues, that doesn’t entail we should defer to them. As I explained a while back, while it might make sense to defer to a chemist on chemical matters, or a plumber on how your pipe work should run, you shouldn’t defer to anyone – not even a religious leader – on moral matters. The responsibility for making a moral judgement cannot be handed over to an “expert” in the way that the responsibility for making a chemical or plumbing judgement can.

This is something many (not all) religious people deny. They think their leaders are “experts” to be deferred to in just this way. They are, I think, dangerously wrong to think that. See the War For Children’s Minds, chpt 5.

Jesus - historicity and theories of reference

Incidentally, one issue of importance here is how reference works. For the issue, in effect, is whether in using "Jesus" now, we are referring to an historical individual.

One theory of reference is the "fit" theory. You use "n" to refer to x if and only if there is an individual that uniquely fits (most of) your "n"-related beliefs. I refer a certain individual using the name "Socrates" just in case that individual uniquely fits (most of, many of) the beliefs I associate with "Socrates" (sch as that he was the master of Plato, etc.)

On this type of theory (Russell, Searle), someone is Jesus just in case they uniquely fit (most of) the beliefs/descriptions we associate with "Jesus".

Another theory is the causal theory (associated with Kripke). Someone is baptized "Jesus". The name gets passed on from one person to the next, and from one generation to the next, each using it with the intention it should refer to whoever they got the name from used it to refer to. A reference preserving causal chain can then maintain reference to that individual across the millenia, even if the beliefs we end up with about "Jesus" are mostly wrong.

There are other theories too. Clearly, which theory you go for may impact on the issue of whether there was an historical Jesus.

Jesus - historicity

Hello Sam

You say:

Stephen - you keep asking for the evidence, and I'd be quite happy to provide a worked example of what is considered as evidence, but I want to first ask the question: do you consider all of the documents gathered into the New Testament to be invalid as evidence? Because there is very little else. (NB if you _do_ think it invalid, then I would take it as confirmation of your 'unreasonableness'!!)

My response: What might reasonably support the claim that a particular historical individual existed? Prima facie, four rather inconsistent documents, written by true believers some decades after the event, telling a story about that individual, attributing extraordinary miracles to him in not just one or two, but many of the episodes, is not, by itself, terribly good evidence even for the existence of such an historical figure (not even when you add Paul, who seems to know very little about Jesus). Not enough to make me confident such a person even existed.

As I say, if the documents simply said there was such a person, I'd give it more weight. But the fact that almost every episode of the Jesus story involves miraculous claims integral to the story that are pretty obviously silly undermines that support.

I can't really believe you think otherwise. But I am stressing the "prima facie". I am happy to acknowledge there may be something about these documents and what they claim that I'm currently ignorant about, which actually makes at least the *existence* of such a person fairly likely.

Given what I know (which is much less than what you know) I'd currently put the probability of there even being such an individual at or possibly below 50 percent. Let's be clear, though, that I also doubt the hypothesis that Jesus is entirely mythical. At this stage, given the evidence available to me, I'd say it was no better than 50/50 whether there's a single historical individual as the subject and source of these stories.

What would you say the percentages are, and why? Obviously you won't say 100 percent - so it would be helpful to have a figure. Perhaps we're only 15 percent apart?

P.S. I just read all of Mark - the earliest Gospel. It's a great story. No nativity story, of course. But loads of miracles, especially in first eight or so chapters - the story pretty much is the miracles for the entire first half. Then we get more teaching coming in. But much of it is weird and I can't believe you think it should be taken literally: the kingdom of God coming in their lifetime, Jesus cursing a fig tree for failing to provide fruit out of season (he approaches it, having thought it would have figs, and disappointed, curses it - charming!) - the rich man being as likely to go to heaven as a camel to pass through eye of a needle, etc. But hardly any actual narrative other than miracle stories. Then right towards the end, we finally get a bit of non-miraculous extended narrative. A rather terse account of betrayal and crucifixion in 14 and 15. Followed by the biggest miracle of all at 16. In short, Mark is almost wall-to-wall miracles of one sort or another, plus various weird and cryptic teachings, with hardly any real non-miraculous narrative at all, except of course for 14-15.

This, I think, makes my Bert analogy particularly relevant. If what an ancient document - the earliest, and probably a source for two of the others - reports is mostly miraculous, the suggestion that, nevertheless, the non-miraculous bit of the story is quite likely to be substantially true is pretty questionable isn't it? Even if the document were written by a supposed eye-witness, which it wasn't?

But look that's just me looking at this earliest text myself, without the benefit of any training. I am aware I do need educating (really- I'm not being sarcastic.)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mad for doubting Jesus' existence

Yes it seems I am a "mad philosopher" Go here.

I have asked the author to post my comment saying my arguments are not being accurately represented and readers should come here to check for themselves. I wonder whether he will allow it through moderation?

POSTSCRIPT - The author - Doug - did, so my thanks to him. Maybe he will comment here. Hope so.

Jesus - historicity debate continues

Gosh I really have upset a lot of people by simply questioning whether Jesus is a historical figure!

Remember, I don't say he wasn't a historical figure (some of you seem to have missed this; even Rev. Sam suggests I "deny" - I don't). I just have my doubts whether he was. It may be those doubts can be allayed by the empirical evidence.

If Sam has the evidence, let's see it.

I am simply refusing to accept Jesus' historicity on the say so of "biblical scholars", the majority of whom are Christian. (I also note anon said in his comment: "MANY of the Jewish historians and Biblical scholars I read then... doubted the historicity of Jesus".) If I am going to be convinced of the historicity of Jesus, it will be by the evidence itself.

So let's see it.


1. By the way Peter, in your comment you say:

[quoting Stephen] "Hmm. Are you nuts, or significantly biased, for not taking the vast majority of Koranic scholars’ word for it that Mohummad was God’s prophet?"

- This really isn't fair. Presumably, Sam believes that Muhammad existed. That Muhammad was God's prophet is not analogous to Jesus *existing*.

My reply: Peter I think you miss my point about Koranic scholars - the point is, very many religious textual scholars are highly partisan. They are - it's just a fact. That's just one of the several reasons I have for not unquestioningly accepting their say so on this matter. I am illustrating the point that it's not "nuts" to be cautious, even when they are more or less unanimous. (EDITED SLIGHTLY 2PM 28THAUGUST)

2. I ran this analogy earlier (in response to the claim that there's as much evidence for the existence of Jesus as there is for the existence of Socrates):

If two friends tell me that a man called Bert visited them at home last night, I have every reason to believe them. That's evidence enough.

But if they then tell me that Bert flew around the room, then dropped dead, and them came back to life again, before turning the sofa into a donkey, well then that's no longer nearly good enough evidence that they are telling the truth, is it?

In fact, not only am I justified in rejecting their testimony about the miracles, I would now also be wise to suspend judgement on whether any such person as Bert even exists, let alone did the things they claim.

The moral is pretty obvious, I think. No one claims Socrates performed extraordinary miracles in front of audiences of thousands. The gospels claim Jesus did. That is why we need rather better evidence for his existence than just the say so of four rather inconsistent documents written by the faithful decades after the event.

Kosh 3 now says:

I do think the distinction between whether "there was a man x", and whether "there was a man x bearing supernatural properties y" is one worth making. The evidence may much more easily support the former and not the latter.

Bert works against the latter, not the former. In the Bert scenario the claims of supernatural powers are so incredible as to undermine the idea that there was any such person as Bert at all in the house (perhaps the two were on LSD). In the case of Jesus I don't see that same 'washing out' applying, because I can see a plausible way in which the supernatural stories were simply added.

Yes of course the distinction is worth making Kosh. I make it. I also agree that the evidence could support the view that Jesus existed more than it supports the view he did miraculous things. In fact I think it does (very slightly!).

But you objection to my Bert analogy is no good, I think. For compare: I can similarly see a plausible way in which there was a person called Bert, and he spiked my friends' drinks and made them think he did miraculous things in their living room. That's possible, I agree. Indeed, that there was a person called Bert that visited them is indeed a little more supported by the evidence than is the hypothesis he flew around the room. But notice that that doesn't mean I am now justified in thinking there was any such a person Bert. I'm clearly not.

Ditto Jesus.

Precisely because of all the extraordinary claims of many miraculous things done by Jesus, I need rather more evidence for his existence than just four rather inconsistent documents (plus Paul, who has no first hand knowledge, and in fact knows remarkably little about Jesus) written decades after the event.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sam gets "blunt"

Here's the Rev. Sam's main response to my previous post (from his comment):

Amazing. Now where to begin?

First, a distinction between believing that Jesus was a historical figure and believing, eg, in the resurrection or other miracles. The latter is, obviously, much more open to debate and that _isn't_ what I'm asserting here.

My assertion is that nobody sane doubts that Jesus was an historical figure, ie that there was an itinerant Jewish teacher called Jesus who lived and was crucified in Palestine 2000 years ago. To deny this is good prima facie evidence that non-rational factors are at play in forming a judgement, the same sorts of non-rational factors that Stephen criticises as being parallel to believing in fairies. Denying that Jesus was an historical figure, is, I contend, an equally egregious intellectual error.

So, that's the assertion, and bringing in red herrings like Bert flying around the room is just muddying the water - effective rhetoric but nothing more substantial. Biblical criticism has historically spent a lot of time discriminating between the (supposed) "legendary" bits (= 'flying around the room', miracles generally) and a more robust historical core. Dismissing _all_ of the historical evidence on the basis of a philosophical disagreement about what is humanly possible plays to prejudices nothing more.

Why am I so blunt on this? Well, a bit of autobiography first - I have studied this subject at undergrad and postgrad level - indeed you could say I have a professional interest in it - and I suspect that's something not widely shared amongst this readership. But is this just special pleading from biased sources? (Stephen: "I know lot's of Biblical scholars think there's good evidence for Jesus' historicity. Trouble is, they tend to be true believers! That's I'm not too impressed by arguments from authority in this context.") No, for the simple reason that the formative tutor for me in NT studies was himself an atheist who was quite prepared to see the miracle stories as largely made up. He isn't an exception, there are lots of Biblical scholars and scholars in related disciplines (Ancient Near Eastern history) who share the consensus that Jesus was an historical figure. I repeat - point to someone with expertise in the subject matter who disagrees!

But in a more mind-boggling comment Stephen goes on to say "I wouldn't, and don't, rely on Biblical scholarship either way here" - so how and why is your position fundamentally distinct from that of a Creationist vis-a-vis evolution? Creationists display no regard for the consensus of opinion within the relevantly qualified community, you're displaying no regard for the consensus of opinion in this relevantly qualified community (an opinion, I repeat, shared across Christian, agnostic, atheist etc).

Now that is why I believe that to assert "I just don't know whether the historical figure Jesus existed" is at best disingenuous. It is not the product of a dispassionate search for the truth, and it is not, I believe, a viewpoint that any reasonably informed and neutral observer would ever hold. I repeat - it simply shows, as with creationist argumentation, that common standards of rationality and respect for truth have been left behind.



Sam says:

“My assertion is that nobody sane doubts that Jesus was an historical figure, ie that there was an itinerant Jewish teacher called Jesus who lived and was crucified in Palestine 2000 years ago.”

Well I am doubting it. I don't deny there was such a person. I am just not sure there was. I doubt. I guess I must be insane.

Sam challenges me:

“I repeat - point to someone with expertise in the subject matter who disagrees!”

OK, here’s an example:

“Even if there was a historical Jesus lying back of the gospel Christ, he can never be recovered. If there ever was a historical Jesus, there isn't one any more. All attempts to recover him turn out to be just modern remythologizings of Jesus. Every "historical Jesus" is a Christ of faith, of somebody's faith. So the "historical Jesus" of modern scholarship is no less a fiction.”

“It is important to recognize the obvious: The gospel story of Jesus is itself apparently mythic from first to last."

-Robert M. Price, professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute (Deconstructing Jesus, p. 260)

I guess Professor Price is “insane” too. Indeed, he doesn't just doubt, he denies!

Now I am sure you will say “But Price is a biased atheist!” Well yes, he is an atheist, and perhaps he is biased. I am certainly not taking his word for anything. I am sure you will add, “OK, you’ve got one naysayer, but most Biblical scholars don’t doubt there was an historical Jesus”. And that is true. But I don’t really trust them either, I am afraid. Here are two reasons why:

1. First off, many – I guess a big majority – of Christian Biblical scholars think that there is also evidence in the Bible for the divinity of Jesus. Perhaps not conclusive evidence, but enough to give some support to that claim. Trouble is, other Biblical scholars, Muslims, look at the same texts and say –“No, the evidence is not there.” Instead, they look at the Koran and other documents and conclude there’s pretty good evidence Mohummad is God’s prophet. Christian textual scholars look at those same documents and say, “No there isn’t.” Clearly, then, many of these “expert” scriptural scholars, when religious, are very partisan indeed. That should immediately give us pause for thought.
2. Personal experience. I have read books by University-based Biblical scholars that demonstrate an extraordinary level of gullibility. I have also talked to University-based religious folk who have told me, with a straight face, that Josephus provides good evidence for the historicity of Jesus. This leads me to think that much that goes by the name of “biblical scholarship” ain’t exactly rigorous.

You are telling me I must be nuts, or at least significantly biased, if I don’t take Christian Biblical scholars' word for it that there was a historical Jesus.

Hmm. Are you nuts, or significantly biased, for not taking the vast majority of Koranic scholars’ word for it that Mohummad was God’s prophet?

It may be that there is good evidence for the historicity of Jesus. You, being much more expert than I, may be in possession of that evidence. But I have not seen that evidence myself, yet. And I have, it seems to me, pretty good reason not to take the word of either you or “Biblical scholars” generally. So I remain, for the time being, undecided. Does that makes me “insane”?

Don’t think so. Indeed, I have raised what seem to me to be very good general grounds for doubting not just whether Jesus was God and did miracles, but whether he existed at all.

I note that your response to my Bert analogy (of which I am rather proud, actually - I think it's strong) is simply to call it “rhetoric” and “playing to prejudices”. But you don’t actually have any response to it, do you, other than a simple appeal to authority: “But most Biblical scholars say…”? If you do, say what it is...

I don't dismiss historical evidence. Quite the opposite. I want to see it. If you've got it, wheel it out!

What I dismiss are arguments from authority in this context.

P.S. The fact that some of the small minority of atheists who are Biblical scholars believe there was an historical Jesus doesn't cut much ice with me, I'm afraid, given the dominant Christian culture in which they were educated.

“To deny that [Jesus] was a solid historical figure is to my mind a certain indication that standards of rationality have been left behind."

Sam and Jamie both think there's good evidence that Jesus was a real historical figure. The Rev. Sam says:

“To deny that [Jesus] was a solid historical figure is to my mind a certain indication that standards of rationality have been left behind."

Jamie suggests there's as much evidence for Jesus as there is for Socrates, whom we all accept was a real person.

Let's compare the evidence for Jesus and Socrates. In both cases we have a few documents thousands of years old saying this person existed.

First some minor points:

One difference is, those writing about Socrates actually knew him and heard him speak. Not so in the case of the four Gospels written decades after Jesus supposedly lived. Nor, in the case of Socrates, do we have a lot of other documents (other Gospels) that contradict these four. Nor do the Socrates documents contain many internal contradictions. Nor do the Socrates documents report many amazing events that, if they really happened, would almost have been reported elsewhere (such as the earthquake after Jesus' death resulting in the splitting of the Temple and the dead coming out of their tombs and roaming the streets of the City where they were, as Matthew reports, "seen by many") - there being no other records of these events at all.

I could go on, but this is all small beer compared to the real evidential deficit, which is this.

If two friends tell me that a man called Bert visited them at home last night, I have every reason to believe them. That's evidence enough.

But if they then tell me that Bert flew around the room, then dropped dead, and them came back to life again, before turning the sofa into a donkey, well then that's no longer nearly good enough evidence that they are telling the truth, is it?

In fact, not only am I justified in rejecting their testimony about the miracles, I would now also be wise to suspend judgement on whether any such person as Bert even exists, let alone did the things they claim.

The moral is pretty obvious, I think. No one claims Socrates performed extraordinary miracles in front of audiences of thousands. The gospels claim Jesus did. That is why we need rather better evidence for his existence than just the say so of four rather inconsistent documents written by the faithful decades after the event.

My view is - I just don't know whether the historical figure Jesus existed. There's not enough evidence. The parallel drawn with the historical evidence for Socrates is misleading.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Jamie - bit more on reason being my "religion and God"

Hi Jamie

You say that I make reason my religion and my God, despite my denying it and giving the example of compassion and morality which I think at least as important as reason. Here's a quote from you:

Stephen: The examples you list (compassion, morality) would be subject to your continuum of reasonableness, correct? Therefore, reason is more important because it is the standard by which you judge. For ex., if you did not think a moral choice was reasonable you probably wouldn't make that choice.

My reply. Yes morality is subject to reason, but that doesn't entail I think reason supreme. Unlike Kant, I don't think reason can ultimately underpin or justify morality. Reason can reveal e.g. contradictions in our moral beliefs etc. It can also reveal unacknowledged consequences of our moral beliefs. But it cannot conjure up our basic moral principles in the first place. They are primary. Reason necessarily plays a secondary role. So no, I don't consider reason of supreme importance.

Jamie, you then say:

Emile and Anticant postulate that [Stephen's supreme value] is truth [not reason], I think. But I'd say that you would even subject truth claims to reason, again making reason more important.

So if reason if even more important than truth then reason is your god. And if reason is a god, then why isn't that a religion?

My response. As I say, reason is not of *supreme* importance to me. I have already illustrated that. Yes I apply reason - but why? Only because I believe it is our best route to the truth. So it turns out I value reason only because I value truth (if I were genuinely convinced reason doesn't lead to truth, I would cease relying on it). So that makes truth a higher value for me.

See - reason is neither my God nor my religion (but maybe truth is!). It's just that I, like you, think it very important, and rely on it constantly so far as trying to find out what's true is concerned.

You do too. You will even use it to support your religious beliefs if you think it can. But the minute reason looks like threatening your religious beliefs, well then, in effect, you stick your fingers in your ears and go "Nope, I am not listening - you can't trust reason - it's just another faith position!"

Of course anyone can do that, to defend any belief, no matter how nuts it is.

If I did it to defend belief in fairies, you'd think I was a nutter.

So why do you make it here? It's utterly mystifying.

Jamie's latest email

Jamie writes:

[quoting Stephen] Many religions, cults, etc. are designed - or, more accurately, have evolved - to be intellectual black holes. They encourage self-sealing patterns of thought which effectively lock you inside. Get sucked in, it's almost impossible to reason your way out again.

If what I'm saying is true -- that the worldview (intellectual humanism or whatever) in which you are operating is a religion/cult/philosophical-system -- then you, by your own definition, are in an intellectual black hole. You have a self-sealing pattern of thought which locks you in. You can't see that what I'm saying is true, just like I can't see that what you are saying is true. You are a true believer.

To answer your question, religion can be defined as "a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance", which doesn't necessarily mean "worship" in the liturgical sense. And it seems to me that you ascribe supreme importance to logic and reasonableness. For better or worse, I would say that I use reason and logic as a tool (though perhaps I don't use it well!), but I ascribe supreme importance only to God/Jesus. I think Rev. Dr. Incitatus got the point I was trying to make in his post on your page.

I get the sense that our dialogue is coming to a close. Thank you again for being so generous with your time. I hope that my perspective has given you blog fodder or arguments for your book if nothing else. I really do appreciate your thoughts and have already ordered one of your books.

Stephen now quickly responds:

Jamie, I don't say reason is of supreme importance. I think it very important, but other things are at least as important, such as compassion, morality, etc. etc.

So, even by your revised definition, reason is still not my religion. Nice try though!

As for your suggestion that I am the one in the intellectual black hole (which I sort of predicted you'd say, of course), well, let's go step at a time.

We both agree that reason is important (if not of supreme importance) and agree it is a very useful tool for getting at the truth, right?

Yet you insist on not applying reason to a specific subset of your beliefs - just because those beliefs tell you not to (rather, they encourage you to "have faith" - you must just believe).

That kind of view, I suggest, is a hallmark of cults - and of a rather insidious sort of mind-control. I am sure you will recognise that any, say, New Age cultist who agreed to turn their critical faculties off when it comes to the beliefs of the cult has fallen into an intellectual black hole, right?

But that puts you in one too, right? Perhaps you will agree.

Question is, why do you suppose I am also in such an intellectual black hole? After all, I am not the one sealing off a particular set of beliefs and insisting they not be assessed for truth in this way (just because they tell me not to!) am I? Hey, I even subject my reliance on reason to critical scrutiny!

Is reason a religion?

Hi Jamie

I am going to respond to just one thing here - which is your comment (in comments on previous post) that reason is a religion too.

Hmm. What is a religion? I think it must involve worship, right? Well, I don't worship reason. It's just that reason and observation are the only tools we have for getting at what's true. So I use them. So do you, of course, constantly.

Think of your head as a basket towards which many beliefs are tumbling. There are all sorts of nutty beliefs out there that you might adopt - from the the thought that the Antarctic is populated by crab people to the belief that the Earth's core is made of cheese. These beliefs will quickly fill up your head if you don't filter them.

We apply reason as a filter, to try to keep as many of the false ones out as possible. Of course reason is not 100% reliable. But it is (and this is a key point) truth-sensitive. Subject beliefs to rational critical scrutiny and you are much less likely to end up with a head full of nonsense. Those who don't apply this filter will quickly end up with a head full of false beliefs.

Now the thing about many religions is, they encourage you to turn the filter off. They know their religious beliefs are unlikely to get through, so they try to inject them early, while you are a kid and your critical defences aren't properly built up, or they tell you, later, that reason has its limitations and that you should therefore, in the case of this particular religion, turn it off.

Well, reason does have it's limitations, I think. I don't suppose it can necessarily answer every question. But it's the best tool we have if we want to dig out the truth.

Very many cults - from the great religions to wacky New Age movements, suggest, in one way or another, that you turn your filter off and just accept that THEY KNOW - they have access to THE TRUTH.

But should you? Should you just go with what they, or their book, tells you - setting to one side the issue of reasonableness?

No matter how well-meaning and sincere they are (and many are, of course), the answer, if you want to believe what's true, has surely got to be "no".

You rightly use reason every day of your life. Indeed, you constantly trust your life to it.

That doesn't make reason your, or my, religion. Reason is not a religion - it's just an indispensible tool if you want to believe what's true. In the same way that my legs are an indispensible tool for getting around, which I rely on constantly. The fact that I do rely on them doesn't mean I worship my legs, or that they are my religion.

Any belief system that insists that, while you may use reason in every other area of your life, you should turn it off when it comes to these beliefs, should, I'd suggest, be approached with great caution. For this is one of the hallmarks of an intellectual black hole.

Many religions, cults, etc. are designed - or, more accurately, have evolved - to be intellectual black holes. They encourage self-sealing patterns of thought which effectively lock you inside. Get sucked in, and it's almost impossible to think your way out again.

Suppose you have fallen into such a black hole. To outsiders, you look like just one more credulous victim - but of course, to you on the inside, everyone outside seems profoundly ignorant of THE TRUTH to which you now have special access! Indeed, to you as an insider, it seems that you are the one that is now free, and the outsiders are the ones that are trapped!

I am sure that, when you look at New Age cults, etc. you recognise that this is, indeed, how they operate. Is it possible that Christianity is much the same sort of black hole, only a particularly powerful, and of course rather more longstanding, one?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Jamie's latest response

Here is Jamie's response to my reply to him here.

Believing in Jesus as God does not answer these questions. Believing puts the priority of life on a relationship with Jesus (which gets into spiritual/mystical issues, I realize) and that makes all other issues secondary. For instance, I believe that a primary man existed who caused the Fall even if I can't prove reasonably when he existed. (Perhaps that will be discovered or proven at some future point.) The reason I believe in that primary man is because that is what the Bible (Romans 5:12 & others) teaches in the plan of redemption (from a Reformed theological perspective).

One might say that this is an insular or circular argument (the Bible is true because it says it's true and therefore I believe it). My point, though, is that because I accept that Jesus is God (not the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus) then the things the Bible teaches about him are True, and that includes things I don't fully understand.

L. Ron Hubbard was not God, so it wouldn't matter much if four or five people witnessed his resurrection.

Your email outlines some reasons for thinking that Jesus either didn't exist (not enough non-Biblical evidence) or wasn't God (his life was myth or embellished over the last 2,000 years); that would seem to me to put him in the "liar" category. As I said, if you think him a liar (or non-existent) or lunatic then any Philosophy will do because there's no Absolute Truth. All things are relative, including ideas of god, history, existence, etc.

Jesus is what the whole Bible is about. Jesus is the lynchpin in the plan of redemption. Jesus is the counterweight to Adam. Jesus is what separates Christians from Jews and Muslims because we see him as the fulfillment of the Law (Jews) and the only true Prophet (Muslim). Jesus is the "word made flesh"; he is the Bible. His importance to Christians (true believers, not just religious persons) can't be understated. Without him as Absolute Truth then any person, thing, idea, or system can take the place of Truth; it can become god.

So that's why the evil isn't a problem. It had a beginning and it will have an end.

Thanks again,

Jesus - "Mad, bad or God?"

Following on from preceding post, the "Mad, Bad or God" challenge so often put by Christians (first put by C.S. Lewis) is really an example of the fallacy of false dilemma (as Kyle P. points out in comment on preceding post). In the Philosophy Gym, I call it the salesperson's fallacy, because it is commonly used by salespeople.

The "Mad, Bad or God" challenge is being used to "sell" Christianity by presenting us with just three options, which then seem to force us to choose "God" as most probable answer. It works by airbrushing out other, far more likely, answers (see preceding post).

Here's the entry:

False dilemma (the salesperson’s favourite)

It is common to argue like this:

Either A or B
Not A
Therefore B

This is often a perfectly acceptable form of argument, as in this case:

Either John has a driving license or else John is not permitted to drive.
John has not got a driving license.
Therefore, John is not permitted to drive.

This argument, on the other hand, is not acceptable:

Either 1 + 1 = 5 or 2 + 2 = 5
It is not true that 1 + 1 = 5
Therefore, 2 + 2 = 5

Why not? Because, unlike in the first argument, the alternatives presented in the either/or premise could both be false. People often construct such arguments without registering that both alternatives might be false, as in this example:

Either we cut welfare or the government goes into the red
We cannot allow the government to go into the red
Therefore we must cut welfare

In this case, there are other options not mentioned, such as raise taxes. Customers are often railroaded into making bad decisions by a salesperson’s use of false dilemma:

Either you give a substantial donation to the Blue Meanie Cult or you will have an unhappy life.
You don’t want an unhappy life, do you?
So make that donation!

Either you buy the Kawazuki K1000 for great home sound entertainment, or else you make do with second rate rubbish.
Are you really prepared to accept second rate rubbish? I thought not.
So you have no choice, do you? You have to buy the Kawazuki K1000!

Jamie correspondence: Jesus and the "Mad, bad or God" challenge

A nice Christian guy called Jamie has got in touch after he heard my podcast on the problem of evil. Here's the latest exchange (done with his permission).

Jamie writes:

I won't call it "the problem of evil" anymore since that's a misnomer. I was going off the title of the podcast. So as I understand it then, you were answering that problem (during the podcast) by basically refuting the idea of god (including an all-powerful, all-good god) on the grounds of reasonableness.

If I've got that right, let me address the god/evil idea from a whole other angle. Instead of starting with God, start with Jesus. (And I'll assume that there is enough documentation of his life to agree that he existed.)

C.S. Lewis said something like "Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord." If one believes him a liar or lunatic then any other Philosophy will do. Anything.

But if he was Lord then that changes everything. A believer is bound to accept the whole of the Bible, even with the apparent gaps and inconsistencies. So if one holds to that central Truth (Jesus is Lord) then all the rest of life has to be figured out in relation to that. And that results in centuries of philisophical discussions (starting with the first apostles). Some of the time -- even today -- that means grabbing at straws as new ideas, arguments, and philosophies come up.

I'm not sure I can adequately sum up what the Bible says about Jesus in an email, but I think it is accurate to say that the whole Bible (from Genesis to Revelation) is about Jesus and God's redemptive work through Jesus.

So when I mentioned the perfect solution to the God/evil issue in my first email I was talking about that redemptive plan (the corruption of everything from the Fall), which you dismissed as silly. But the reason it is not silly to me is because I have answered the question of Jesus by saying he is Lord and am therefore bound to the whole of the Bible.

May I ask what "school" (if that's the right word) of philosophy you consider your arguments?

Thanks again for taking the time to discuss this with me. Like I said in the first email, I appreciate the way you work counter-arguments in to your responses.


My response:

Hi Jamie

Happy Sunday will do, and the same to you!

I'm not sure I want to let you off the hook so far as the problem of evil is concerned - saying "Jesus solves that" isn't enough. OK, let's suppose believing in Jesus saves us and the world. But when did the world get corrupted in the first place, and by whom? How, by us believing in Jesus, will that prevent the tectonic plate movement - driven by (God-given!) laws of nature - which is the real cause of earthquakes and tsunamis? Why has God allowed literally unimaginable pain and horror to be unleashed on human beings and other sentient creatures over many millions of years - even if he's going to stop that horror now on the condition that we believe in Jesus?

I just can't make any sense of this.

I also don't buy the "Mad, bad or God" challenge that theists use to try to recruit new believers. The are lots more possibilities.

First off, I am not sure whether Jesus existed, or if he did, what he did and said. Remember, we have four documents, written decades after Jesus lived, by true believers, saying there was this person and he did these things. None of the authors was an eyewitness, it seems. It's all second-, third- or fourth- hand testimony. There were, in addition, many other gospels that the Church later suppressed. These gospels contradict the "official" four on many points (in some, Jesus does not even die). Even if we can put them to one side as "later" and "unreliable" (as the Church did), the fact is they illustrate that, at that time, the faithful were not at all shy about adding their own embellishments to the story, and indeed, just making stuff up. But then how can we be sure the four official Gospels don't involve a lot of made up stuff?

We also know that large chunks are made up (e.g. the nativity story was clearly bolted on).

There is no independent historical corroboration of anything AT ALL in the Bible at all about Jesus, despite the fact we are talking about astonishing miraculous events witnessed by literally thousands of people, and indeed very notable other events, such as the earthquake after Jesus' death, the massacre of all first born children born in Bethlehem ordered by Herod, etc. Just take this example (the earthquake after the crucifixion, in which tombs were opened and many dead came back to life and walked into the Holy City and were seen by many - Matthew 27:51-53):

Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, 52 and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

No one else mentions this! Not even the other gospels! Perhaps because it was made up.

I am sure you will say "But what about Josephus"? Yes there's a paragraph referring to Jesus (quite possibly doctored) But Josephus wrote decades later, and there is no reason to suppose he was doing anything other than reporting what Christians told him. In which case it's not independent corroboration at all.

If four Scientologists said, now, that they saw L Ron Hubbard resurrected, and witnessed him saying and doing some amazing and profound things, would you believe them? Of course not. But then why should we lend much credence to four documents produced by four somewhat anonymous true believers, who weren't even eyewitnesses themselves, decades after the alleged events, in the case of Jesus?

Real myths are generated in complex ways. It's rarely a case of someone simply going nuts, or deciding to fib. There is often a grain of truth in there somewhere. I would guess that's true of the Jesus story. Certainly, there were many people going round claiming to be the Messiah at about that time (as The Life of Brian correctly portrays). If one of them, somewhat deluded, but certainly not mad, then had their life-story heavily and imaginatively embellished (not all in one go, but by increments, through retellings, etc.) - at a time when such embellishment and myth-making was very much the norm - and that's how we ended up with the Jesus myth - I find that entirely plausible, don't you?

have a good day, Jamie.


Saturday, August 23, 2008

Gary Glitter - what do we do about paedophiles?

Gary Glitter is back in the UK after completing his sentence for having engaged in sex with under age girls back in Thailand. The tabloids are, of course, having a field day, unleashing all the venom and bile they can muster against this convicted "paedo" and "ageing pervert".

I have been thinking about how we should deal with paedophiles recently, and have come to a few surprising conclusion (that's to say, I surprised myself). Let's start with a thought experiment.


Suppose that you find yourself inhabiting a world in which mature responsible adults have the bodies of children, and immature, vulnerable children have the bodies of mature adults.

Gary Glitter would find himself very much at home if born into such a such a world. He can have consensual sex with those he finds sexually attractive.

I, on the other hand, am in trouble. I find myself sexually attracted exclusively to individuals who are immature and vulnerable and certainly not in a position to enter responsibly into any sort sexual relationship. Of course, that's not my fault. But what if I nevertheless act on this impulse? Then I have done something very wrong, undoubtedly. Something for which I can be blamed.

But (and here is the key question), finding myself born into such a world, could I be sure that I would not ever succumb to temptation? Actually, I couldn't be sure. My drive to have sex with adult-bodied women is very strong, and I am not sure I could succeed in suppressing it over an entire lifetime. Put me in a situation where I am surrounded by such adult-bodied, yet immature and vulnerable individuals, could I be trusted? Or would my resolve gradually weaken? Might I begin to find all sorts of justifications for having the occasional grope, etc.? Let's not forget how many Catholic priests have succumbed.

I'd like to believe that, stuck with those desires in that situation, I would be strong and virtuous. But I am aware that I may well flatter myself. Fact is, I wouldn't trust me.

So here are some of the conclusions I am inclined to draw:

The fact that I inhabit a world where my sexual desires can be satisfied without harming the innocent and vulnerable, whereas Gary Glitter does not, is a matter of my good fortune and his Glitter's bad luck. There's nothing much that either one of us can do about our desires, or about the kind of world we find ourselves in.

And we can't be held morally responsible, surely, for things that are outside our control.

Glitter can control his damaging behaviour, of course. And he has failed to do so. That's terrible. However, I'm not at all confident I, or indeed, many of us, would fare any better in controlling our behaviour, were we in his position.

But then there is a question about just how culpable he is. Blameworthiness is a matter of degree, and I am suggesting that, while blameworthy, he may not be nearly as blameworthy as most of us suppose (the issue here is moral luck.)

However, while I don't blame Glitter for his desires, and while I find it difficult to get too judgemental about his behaviour, I'm also inclined to think that paedophiles, if innately stuck with that desire, are unlikely ever to be "cured" (anymore than I could be "cured" of my desire for adult women, were I to find myself in a situation where that was deemed aberrant).

My best guess is that most of those sexually attracted primarily to children will always pose a very significant risk to children. No matter how good and sincere their avowed intentions might be right now (compare the decision to pack in smoking: it's often sincerely and passionately declared, but rarely followed through).

In which case, while they might not deserve a lifetime's incarceration or very close monitoring and control, that may nevertheless be justified.

I am also inclined to think that merely being found in possession of child pornography warrants the imposition of a lifetime's close control and supervision. Whether deserved or not.

Friday, August 22, 2008

THE POWER OF PRAYER II: Muslims blame Christian prayers for Muslim leader’s death.

Following up on a recent post about how effective Christian prayer has supposedly been in reducing pump prices in the US, there's now more news from Nigeria about the alleged power of Christian prayer.

ILORIN, Nigeria, August 14 (Compass Direct News) – Blaming the death of their leader on Christian prayers, an Islamist group that launched a hate campaign in response to an evangelistic event in 2004 is reportedly attacking Christians in this Kwara state capital with renewed virulence, area Christians said.

Muslims are attacking Christians because they think that Christians prayed for the death of their leader, and their prayers worked.

Why would their prayers work, though, if, as Muslims think, Christianity is a false religion? Very weird.

Go here for the report.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


DETROIT AIRPORT chairs, originally uploaded by stephenwilliamlaw.

Here's a photo I took waiting for plane at Detroit airport last month. Click to see other photos on my flickr site.

Lash and Turner on internet?

I have just been reading Nicholas Lash's (a collegue at Heythrop) piece on the Impossibility of Atheism. I also read Denys Turner's thing (his inaugural Cambridge lecture) a while back in which he argues similarly. I will shortly write something on these two very influential pieces. But I am wondering, before I do, if either is available anywhere on the internet.

Sam Norton - you know of any links?

Also, Sam, I read the Lash book you recommended (Believing Three Ways in One God). I can't see how it helps with the problem of evil. You want to explain?

The "Impossibility of Atheism" is chpt 2 of Theology for Pilgrims by Lash. The Denys Turner is "How to Be An Atheist" (2001), which is in a collection of his papers, I believe.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Prayer reduces fuel prices

A prayer group in Washington DC is claiming the credit for the recent sharp drop in the US price of petrol. Go here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Spellberg "warns" the Muslims

There's an interesting discussion going on at Butterflies and Wheels about an academic who allegedly "warned" Muslims about an upcoming book. Here's "the story" followed by "the question".

The story

From 'You Still Can't Write About Muhammad' by Asra Nomani in The Wall Street Journal.

A journalist named Sherry Jones wrote a historical novel about Aisha, who was married to Mohammed when she was 6, though he waited until she was 9 before having sex with her. The novel was due to be published this August; last April Random House sent it to several people for comment, including Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. Jones has put Spellberg on the list because she had read Spellberg's book, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of 'A'isha Bint Abi Bakr. Spellberg thought the book was terrible; on April 30 she called Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in her classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site. Amanullah says she was upset and that she told him the novel 'made fun of Muslims and their history'; she asked him to 'warn Muslims.'

Jane Garrett, an editor at Random House's Knopf imprint, dispatched an email on May 1 to executives, telling them she got a phone call the evening before from Spellberg (who is under contract with Knopf to write Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an).

"She thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence," Ms. Garrett wrote. "Denise says it is 'a declaration of war...explosive stuff...a national security issue.' Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons. Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP."

Random House also received a letter from Spellberg and her attorney, saying she would sue the publisher if her name were associated with the novel.

Spellberg told the WSJ reporter, '"I walked through a metal detector to see 'Last Temptation of Christ,'" the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. "I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography."


The question

B&W is asking academics, journalists, free speech advocates and the like the following question:

Given the Wall Street Journal's account, what do you think of Spellberg's actions?

My answer:

The qualification, “Given the Wall Street’s account” is important. It’s difficult to be sure, on the basis of a newspaper article containing second-hand quotes, precisely what Spellberg said and did. She may have been subtly or not so subtly misunderstood. I would be wary of launching any sort of attack on Spellberg on the basis of just this evidence.

If Spellberg did not like the book, then of course she should be free to say so. She should also be free to warn the publisher that, in her opinion, its publication is likely to result in violence. Certainly, that information shouldn’t be denied the publisher, should it? If Spellberg knew the book would probably provoke violence, it would be irresponsible of her to keep that information from the publisher, particularly as that seems to be have been one of the publishers' concerns.

Again, if Spellberg is being asked her opinion on whether it is wise to publish, given this threat, and her view is that it’s not, she should be free to say so. We don’t want to curtail Spellberg’s freedom of speech in order to defend freedom of speech, do we? I wouldn't want to censor Spellberg's views; nor would I encourage her to censor herself.

However, if the news report is accurate, it seems that Spellberg went further. The phone call to Amanullah asking him to “warn Muslims” is peculiar. Why would she do that? Deliberately drawing widespread Muslim attention to the book – indeed “warning” them via a Muslim website - is obviously likely to provoke exactly the violent response she wants to avoid. My guess is that Spellberg was, at this point, panicking about her own safety, and doing whatever she could publicly to dissociate herself from the book lest violent Muslims later pronounce her guilty by association. If so, that doesn’t reflect quite so well on her.

As for Spellberg’s views – well, mine differ. I don’t think we should allow ourselves to be silenced by violent religious zealots. The more of us are prepared to stand together and say, “No – we will say what we want”, rather than just pathetically cave in to the nutters, the better.

But that’s a criticism of Spellberg’s views, not her actions, which is what the above question specifically addresses. Actually, most of what Spellberg did, I have no problem with. True, the alleged contacting of Amanullah to “warn Muslims” doesn’t reflect well on Spellberg. But of course, we can’t be 100% sure that this even happened as described (perhaps Amanullah’s account of what Spellberg said is not entirely accurate). At this point, I’d give Spellberg the benefit of the doubt.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion

OK, let's get started with the first book. It will be The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

We will go through the book in ten weeks. I will cover one chapter per week, starting with Chpt 1 "A Deeply religious Non-Believer".

Two weeks today - Sat 30th August - (or shortly before) I will post a short piece on the first chapter, and all can then contribute via comments.

If you don't yet have a copy, it's available from amazon here...


I am thinking of starting a blog book club. We pick a book. Each week we do a chapter. I write up a little piece on the chapter and all can then contribute...

You get two weeks' notice to acquire the book.

Does this appeal to anyone?

A God and Religion theme, and maybe broaden out later to philosophy generally. Fairly accessible books. Currently I am thinking: The God Delusion, The Devil's Delusion (which I just read, and which I loathed, predictably).

Friday, August 15, 2008

Sye's proof


Just to sum up:

1. We looked at the "proof" on your website. It turned out to turn on the premise that there can be no objective laws of logic without the Judeo-Christian God. You say you don't just assume this but argue for it, and suggest the supporting argument (which you call "the impossibility of the contrary") lies behind the "continue" button. But there's no supporting argument there, and you weirdly refuse to set the argument out. The larger argument fails, then, as a "proof" for it helps itself to a premise that is contentious, challenged and, as yet, unsupported.

2. We then turned to how atheists might "account for" the laws of logic. This conversation was complex, as "account for" covers at least two quite separate issues (the question of how to justify such laws, and the question of what might metaphysically underpin them or make them hold). However, we saw that, again, you have no argument for this conclusion (other than something you call the "impossibility of the contrary", which you constantly allude to, but never actually explain). Worse, I presented three examples of atheist-friendly solutions to the puzzle of how the laws of logic might be "accounted for", none of which you've been able to refute. So, again, your claim that atheists are in principle unable to "account for" logic looks rather flimsy.

True, you do have a whole stock of rhetorical moves that you make in order to deflect attention away from these facts. I lampooned some of them here.

Info from the committee at BCSE

Britain's answer to Creationism in science classrooms

Did you know that there are several active groups of creationists here in the UK?
Did you know that they are actively working their way into science classrooms without the knowledge of parents and sometimes even without other teachers at the schools being aware?
Do you want to do something about it?

The British Centre for Science Education (BCSE) is a group dedicated to promoting and defending science education in the UK. It is run as a cooperative organisation by part-time volunteers with paid membership and a public forum where the general public can debate the key issues involved. It has no full time members of staff and believes in the tools for everyone to think for themselves - Science, Education and Reason - and the outcome – Democracy, Pluralism and Liberty.

The BCSE has become deeply worried about attacks on science education, particularly from creationists funded from the USA, and our campaign is dedicated to keeping all forms of creationism including Intelligent Design out of the science classroom in the UK.

The BCSE actively monitors creationist activity and is aware that leading creationists are deliberately keeping their in-school activities secret so as to stay out the media spotlight. Leading figures in two such groups have said this. We are always looking to raise awareness of this issue and to gather and collate information on creationist activities which threaten good science education in the UK.

We have a comprehensive Wiki of intelligence, a free community forum, and we have cultivated several links with major media players in the UK.

Now that the creationists have realised that they will not gain media support they are trying to hide their school activities from the public gaze. We are therefore now looking to attract new members who can be on the look out for items in their local press, local public meetings and local school activities to help us keep tabs on things and keep creationism out of science classrooms in the UK.

The BCSE is open to all, irrespective of religious or political affiliations, who wish to oppose the tide of creationism in the United Kingdom.

Email contact ;
Membership applications ;

Monday, August 11, 2008

British Library Event

Here's some advance notice of an event I am doing in December (it's not yet being publicized). Booking details to follow.

“The Big Read: London writers meet the Readers”

To celebrate the close of the National Year of Reading and the culmination of the Camden Big Read, the British Library is hosting an exciting evening with some of London’s most innovative and stimulating writers. Participants of this unique event will be able to engage with a diverse panel consisting of Sarfraz Manzoor, journalist and author of Greetings from Bury Park, Stephen Law, editor of THINK and author of The War for Children’s Minds, Esther Freud stage write and author of Love Falls, Ekow Eshun Art Director of the ICA and author of Black Gold of the Sun, Diran Adebayo broadcaster and acclaimed British novelist of My Once Upon a Time in addition to Adam Thirwell author of Miss Herbert and assistant editor of Areté.

Participants are encouraged to read at least one of the above titles before coming to the event in order to gain the most of this of the extraordinary occasion. The Camden Big Read runs from August – November.

The above titles will be available in Camden libraries and will also be discounted for purchase in the British Library Shop.

Although the event is free, advance booking is required.

December 16th
Conference Centre Auditorium

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Another presuppositionalist

Just discovered this talk, with accompanying slides, which pushes the same atheism-bashing argument - atheists cannot allow for or justify logic and reason.

The website is here. From there you can download the talk (mp3) and also the accompanying slides (example to the right).

The author, David Anderson, is a creationist, and has a blog here.

On which I also found this sort of argument:

The goal of those who want to live their life without God is to find some justification for doing so. In general, they put their hopes in science. They hope that they will be able to reduce all of human life and experience ultimately to biology, reduce that biology to chemistry and then reduce that chemistry to physics. In other words, they hope to explain everything as the inevitable outworking of impersonal laws. Nothing transcendent or greater than the universe will be required to explain anything happening in the universe. Well, apart from the tricky question of the origin of the universe itself, for which as I pointed out atheologian Richard Dawkins gave us the amusing but ultimately tragic answer "we're working on that".

Supposing that this reduction could be carried out though, using as yet unfound explanations, what does that leave us with?

Note the assumption that all atheists are materialists - indeed, crude reductive materialists.

Quine (from my book "The Great Philosophers")

"…for all its a priori reasonableness, a boundary between the analytic and synthetic statements simply has not been drawn. That there is such a distinction to be drawn at all is an unempirical dogma of empiricists, a metaphysical article of faith." Quine

Quine is one of the most influential philosophers of the Twentieth Century. The son of a schoolteacher mother and entrepreneur father, Quine studied mathematics and logic at Oberlin College before winning a scholarship to Harvard. He spent his entire teaching career at Harvard, holding the Edgar Pierce Chair of Philosophy at Harvard University from 1956 to 2000. During WWII, Quine worked for US military intelligence.


Two kinds of truth

Many philosophers have drawn a distinction between two kinds of truth. Take these two sentences:

All bachelors are unmarried males
All vixens are female foxes

Both are true. But why? It’s tempting to answer: because of what the words “bachelor” and “vixen” mean. These sentences are true in virtue of meaning. The expression “bachelor” has the same meaning as “unmarried male”. They are synonymous expressions. So “All bachelors are unmarried males” is guaranteed to be true simply by virtue of the meaning of the words that go to make it up. And the same, you might suggest, is true of “All vixens are female foxes”.

We might add that, because these sentences are true in virtue of meaning, so there is no possibility of them being falsified by experience. Their truth is guaranteed, irrespective of how the world turns out to be.

Philosophers call those truths that are true in virtue of meaning analytic truths. They are contrasted with non-analytic, or synthetic, truths, such as:

All bachelors live in the vicinity of the Earth

This sentence is also true. But it is not true in virtue of meaning. The truth of this sentence, its tempting to say, is of an entirely different sort. This sentence is true because it correctly describes how things stand – as a matter of fact all bachelors do live in the vicinity of the Earth. Had they not, the sentence would have been false.

It seems, then, that there are two kinds of truth: analytic truth and synthetic truth.

  • {{{{{TEXT BOX:Explaining a priori knowledge
  • Armed with the notion of analyticity, several empiricist philosophers have attempted to explain how a priori knowledge is possible.
  • A priori knowledge is knowledge that can be established independently of the evidence provided by our five senses. It seems we can know a priori, for example, that all bachelors are unmarried. We don’t need to go out into the world and examine lots of bachelors to check are all unmarried. We know, even before we even start to look, that they will be. It seems we can also know a priori that 2 + 2 = 4 and that every surface is extended. And, according to Anselm (chpt XX), we can know a priori that God exists.
  • You can see how we might try to explain how certain truths can be known a priori by appealing to the notion of analyticity. How can I know, without examining any bachelors, that they are all unmarried? Because “bachelor” just means “unmarried male”. So I need only understand the meaning of the words that make up the sentence to be in a position to know that the sentence is true.
  • Armed with the notion of analyticity, we can also explain why it is a necessary truth that ever bachelors is also an unmarried male. If “bachelor” just means “unmarried male”, then “All bachelors are unmarried” says that all unmarried males are unmarried, which is a logical truth (for to deny it would involve you in a logical contradiction).
  • Of course, it is debatable whether all a priori necessary truths are analytic. But if they were, that would certainly explain why they are a priori and necessary. Which is why many philosophers have been drawn to the idea that all a priori necessary truths are analytic.END OF TEXT BOX.}}}}}

Quine’s attack on the analytic/synthetic distinction

The analytic/synthetic distinction has been one of the bread and butter distinctions of philosophy ever since Kant, who introduced the terms (though something like the distinction can be found in the work of Hume and Leibniz). While not all philosophers were convinced that all a priori necessary truths are analytic (Kant wasn’t), there was, before the 1950’s, a broad consensus that the analytic/synthetic distinction was a real one, and that there were, indeed, two categorically different kinds of truth. So when Quine presented a powerful-looking argument that the analytic/synthetic distinction was, in effect, empty, and that no distinction could be made between those true statements that are true purely in virtue of meaning and those that are not, the effect on the philosophical community was electrifying. Indeed, as a result of Quine’s work, many philosophers (particularly in the U.S.) are now convinced that there is no cogent notion of “analyticity”.

How does Quine attack the distinction?

The web of belief

According to Quine, our beliefs about the world form a web. They face the test of experience not separately, but collectively:

our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually, but only as a corporate body

Suppose, for example, that I believe that the Earth is flat. But then I come to possess two pieces of evidence that suggest my belief is false. A sailor tells me that he has sailed around the world and come back to the same place, and someone else has drawn my attention to the fact that, when boats disappear over the horizon, they disappear from the bottom up, as if the surface of the sea curved downwards.

These two pieces of evidence might together lead me to have doubts about the Earth being flat. But of course they are far from conclusive. I might deal with the sailor’s testimony by supposing that he is either lying or deluded about having sailed round the world. And I might try to deal with the observation about distant ships by supposing that light rays travelling close to the surface of the sea are somehow bent over a distance.

Of course, as more evidence against my theory that the Earth is flat begins to pile up, I might be more inclined to abandon my theory. But the fact is that, as long as I am prepared to make increasingly far-reaching adjustments to my other beliefs – my beliefs about the reliability of the testimony of sailors, about light, and so on – any apparent recalcitrant evidence can always be dealt with.

Now according to Quine, those beliefs that philosophers are inclined to call “analytic” are simply those beliefs that are particularly well-entrenched in our web of belief. They are the beliefs we will be slowest to give up, given recalcitrant evidence.

But, insists Quine, no belief is absolutely immune to revision in the light of experience in the way that “analytic” truths are supposed to be. Given that enough recalcitrant evidence mounted up, we might decide that, rather than making ever more complex and dramatic adjustments to the rest of our web of belief, the most satisfactory solution would simply be to abandon one of the supposedly “analytic” and/or “necessary” truths (interestingly, some have suggested that developments in quantum mechanics require that we revise the laws of logic).

No satisfactory definition of “analytic”

The other key component to Quine’s attack on the notion of analyticity is that no satisfactory explanation of the notion can be given. We can define analyticity in terms of meaning, of course, by saying that the analytic truths are those that are “true in virtue of meaning”. But, says Quine, the philosophical notion of meaning is just as opaque as that of analyticity. We might also try to explain analyticity in terms of the notions of the notions of synonymy, definition, and necessity. Indeed, each of these terms might be defined in terms of the others. The problem is that together they form a tight little circle of notions none of which is ever properly explained.

Here’s an analogy. Suppose I define a “wibble” as a collection of “woobles”, a “wooble” as an adult “doofer”, and “doofers” as the things that, when fully-grown, go to make up “wibbles”. I have defined each of my terms. But I have left you none the wiser as to what, if anything, I mean by them.

Quine’s point is that we are in a similar situation with respect to “analytic”. Yes we can define the term using other terms, but not in such a way that we get any closer to understanding what it is supposed to mean.

Of course, if I were to point to a pod of whales and say “That is a wibble”, what I mean by “wibble” suddenly becomes much clearer. Can’t we similarly explain what “analytic truth” means? Can’t we explain what it means by just providing some examples, such as “All bachelors are unmarried”?

No, says Quine. For why suppose that, say, “All bachelors are unmarried” is unrevisable in light of experience? True, we might not be able easily to envisage circumstances under which we would consider it false. But just because we can’t easily envisage such circumstances doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

If Quine is right that our statements are answerable to experience not individually, but collectively, and that any statement is potentially revisable in the light of experience, then even those statements that philosophers have traditionally called “analytic” are revisable. But then to point to such statements as examples of what “analytic” means would really be to beg the question. For if Quine is right, they are not analytic.

Since Quine’s attack on the notion of analyticity, it has largely, though not totally, fallen out of philosophical favour.

Sye - a third atheist "account" of logic

As we are still talking about whether atheists can "account" for (i.e. justify, allow for, and explain) the laws of logic, here's a third possibility outlined in next post.

Quine's view is that the laws of nature are not necessary. This is a popular view (more so in the U.S., largely because of Quine's influence). Quine considers them very high level empirical propositions. And revisable in the light of experience.

Sye will have to shoot this theory down too, as well as the two I have already presented....

Of course, even when you, Sye, have dealt with these three, there are innumerable other possibilities you must rule out. What you really need is an argument that rules out all atheist-friendly accounts in principle.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Mountain biking - the bad news.

Back in UK. And have had a surprise. X ray reveals clean break to left clavicle and severe dislocation of the right clavicle at shoulder. Oh dear!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Sye-dim presuppositionalism

I have to go off for maybe a week. Will be back. Carry on with out me.

In the meantime, I produce a sketch of my own presuppositionalism I have been developing. It goes like this.

My claim: Sye's mind is addled and his thinking unreliable because he was hit on the head by a rock.

Prove this is false Sye.

Try to, and I will say - "But your "proof" presupposes your mind is not addled and you can recognise a proof when you see it. So it fails."

Ask me to prove my claim and I will say: "But prove to me your mind is not addled, then, Sye". Which you won't be able to, for the above reason. I might then add, with a flourish - "So you see, it's proved by the impossibility of the contrary".

And of course I have a good explanation for why your brain is addled - you were hit by a rock.

Is my claim reasonable, then? Of course not. It's bullshit. I really can't see how
your position is any less of a bullshit position. Can you?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The "missing" foundations of logic

One thought that may be bothering Sye (though who can tell?) is: what makes the laws of logic hold? What explains and accounts for their necessity? What prevents it from ever being the case that a proposition P is both true and false? What makes the law of non-contradiction true?

Ages ago I suggested one possible answer to this type of question: these questions may themselves be confused.

Suppose someone asks "What makes all stallions male? What is this strange force - a super force - that forces the world to be such that nothing is both a stallion and not male?

Clearly, this person is confused. Nothing is required to make it the case that all the stallions are male. rather, "stallion" just means male horse. Understand what "stallion" means and you are immediately in a position to know they will all be male. Indeed, there is nothing to make the case because "non-male stallion" does not describe some state of affairs that the world some conspires to prevent from obtaining. Rather, that combination of words makes no sense, given how "stallion" and "male" are used. So there is nothing to "prevent".

Now consider this. "and" and "not" are defined in logic by truth tables (which is why I asked if Sye knew about truth tables).

"P and Q" is true if, and only if both P is true and Q is true, and false otherwise. "Not P" is false if P is true, and vice verse.

Given these definitions of "and" and "not": "Not [P and not-P]" is guaranteed to be true. The law of non-contradiction obtains because of what "and" and "not" mean. To ask, "But what makes it the case that both P and not-P can't both be true is to misunderstand how "and" and "not" are used in logic.

In short, the question: "What makes it the case that P can't be both true and false?" is confused, and makes no sense. There's nothing to "make the case", because there is nothing to prevent. "P and not-P" does not describe some state of affairs that the world somehow conspires to prevent from occurring. It does not describe anything at all. That combination of words is just ruled out by the rules governing "and" and "not".

So here, Sye, is another, different, atheist-friendly treatment of your request to "explain" or account for" the laws of logic. There's actually nothing to account for or explain.

By the way, I am not endorsing this atheist-friendly answer either. Just putting it up for Sye to shoot down. Can he?