Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Carrier-Ehrman Smackdown

Some time ago I got interested in the question of whether Jesus ever, in fact existed. I read all of the mythical-Jesus books I could find, as well as the scholarly defenses of a historical Jesus - at least, all I could get my hands on. The latter were somewhat thin on the ground. It was clear that in scholarly circles this was a non-question, or rather, a settled one: nearly everyone agreed that there was a historical person at the root of Christianity. The mythicists were flying in the face of this consensus, and flying none too professionally. At least, so it seemed to me, as an amateur. In spite of some initial plausibility, mythicists never seemed to put together a convincing picture of how Christianity had come about without a founding personage.

It was a time-consuming and frustrating process. In the absence of a good scholarly source that addressed the mythicists point by point, I had to try to piece together what their response might be should they choose to give it. The results of my efforts, for what they are worth, can be found via the link above.

But now, the game has changed. Two recent books by respected scholars lay out the evidence for a historical Jesus, and guess what? They come to opposite conclusions.

In this corner, representing the scholarly establishment, is the renowned Bart Ehrman. Ehrman is professor of religious studies at UNC, and is a widely published scholar of both professional and popular works. An agnostic, he has no apparent dog in the fight. I haven't read the book, but he promises to show the flaws in the most popular mythicist views.

In the other corner, representing the disestablishmentarians, is the scrappy young Richard Carrier. Carrier's book came about in an unusual way. Though only a student, he had already earned an internet reputation as a rational voice and as someone sufficiently knowledgeable about Christian scholarship to be able to answer anything the religious shock troops could throw at him. A number of his fans began asking him to investigate the historical Jesus and write up a convincing case for whatever conclusion he reached. He said he would do it if enough people contributed enough money to make the (considerable) effort worth his time. He has since completed his Ph.D. (Columbia, ancient history) and the first volume of two he wrote in response to the requests.

I have a lot of respect for Richard. He writes well and argues clearly. His contribution to The Christian Delusion was probably the best of the lot. So I had great hopes when he decided to take on this project. I haven't read this book, either, but some of what I've heard gives me pause.

For one, he mentions The Jesus Puzzle as one of the sources for his (tentative though it is) mythicist conclusion. This book I have read, and found it less than impressive. Though Doherty is probably the most scholarly of the mythicists (until Richard came along), his version, in my opinion, just doesn't cut it. It doesn't even come close.

Too, Carrier says he wrote this first volume because New Testament scholarship was in such a disastrous state that he first had to put everything right before he could proceed. Now, having slogged through some of this stuff myself, I have some sympathy for Carrier's claim here. There do seem to be points where, for instance, certain assumptions have become so common that they are accepted as fact (I'm thinking of the standard dating of the Gospels as an example). But for a newly-minted Ph.D. to barge into another field, announce what a mess it is, and proceed to lay down the law about how it should be done right - well, that seems a bit of chutzpah. But that's not enough for Richard: he's also going to show how "all valid historical argument is and must be Bayesian, and any methods or arguments that are not, are not logically valid or sound." So he's going to revolutionize the methods of general history as well.

Call me slightly sceptical. But at any rate, if you are interested in the question at all, you don't need to slog through a couple dozen books to try to get at the root of the issue, the way I did. You can pick up these two (well, three) books, written by Genuwyne Scholars Tee Em, and learn about the arguments on both sides.

Me, I'm feeling all been-there-done-that. I'll get to them, eventually.


Monday, March 26, 2012

Reason Rally Redux

I made it down in the drizzle to the great atheistic coming-out. I was surprised by the gender balance; a Washington Post article said at least half the attenders were women. Ethnically, it was overwhelmingly white, though black atheists were there and visible (there was a Black Atheist booth in the tent).

The highlights for me were: Tim Minchin, consistently funny and incisive. How he can cram a complex philosophical idea into two lines of poetry I don't know. And Nate Phelps, son of Westboro Baptist preacher and hate-mongerer Fred Phelps. To me, this was the emotional core of the meeting. Nate talked about his pain growing up in that environment, and the struggles he had breaking free of it, and his sadness to see his family there and the gulf between them.

Dawkins gave a good speech, as usual, but ended with a disturbing call for atheists to ridicule religion. Ridicule can certainly be an effective rhetorical technique, and I enjoy me some PZ as much as the next atheist. But ridicule is no part of rationalism. At a Reason Rally, we should have been talking about how to use reason more effectively, not how to circumvent it with cheap rhetorical tricks.

I live near DC but have been avoiding big rallies like this for many years: they seem to bring out the worst in people. This one was different. It had (for the most part) a very positive feel; a celebration of reason and science, and an opportunity to be surrounded by people who draw their wonder and joy from the real world.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

More Nothing

I'm still trying to figure out what the problem is that theists have with scientists who talk about a universe originating "from nothing." They say, "It's not from nothing if it's from a quantum vacuum. A quantum vacuum isn't nothing." But creation by God isn't creation "from nothing," either. It's creation from God. So if scientists instead have creation from a quantum vacuum, why is that worse?

In a blog post, (atheist) Richard Carrier puts a different spin on the "from nothing" argument. He says that if we start with truly nothing, then anything can happen. For "of nothing, nothing comes" is a law - and in a condition of true nothingness, there are no laws to prevent anything from happening.

I think this is a mistake. In order for anything to "happen", there must be a time dimension. And time (we know from modern physics) is a physical thing: a property of our universe, not some universal that exists independently of space.

Theists have had more practice thinking about timelessness: after all, God has been considered a timeless being for, well, a long time. William Carroll points out that, theologically speaking, creation is not a change:

As Thomas Aquinas notes: creatio non est mutatio (creation is not a change). It is true, Thomas would say, that all change requires a pre-existent something which changes: from nothing, nothing comes, that is, if “to come” means to change....

The Creator is the complete and continuing cause of whatever exists, and to create, so understood, does not call into question the truth of the principle that all change begins with something which undergoes the change. Nor does the first principle of change call into question the intelligibility of creation out-of-nothing. Creation is a relationship of absolute dependence; it is not a change. Whether the universe as a whole has a beginning or not concerns the kind of universe that is created, not the more fundamental issue of whether it is created. An eternal universe would be just as much a created universe—and created out-of-nothing—as one which had a temporal beginning.
But he fails to see that his point about a timeless God also applies to a timeless quantum state:

Many think that to explain the Big Bang as the fluctuation of a primal vacuum eliminates the need to have a Creator. But the Big Bang “explained” in this way is still a change and, as we have seen, creation, properly understood, is not a change at all.
Wrong: in the vacuum-fluctuation picture, the origin of the universe from a timeless quantum state is not a change. One could say, rather, that the quantum vacuum is the timeless source of our universe of time and space. Just as it would be wrong to consider creation by God as an event that takes place in time, so it is wrong to think about the vacuum-fluctuation origin this way. It is not a change in the quantum vacuum. (It's not clear to me if it's even correct to say the quantum vacuum causes the universe to exist. Does causation require time?) It's a relation of absolute dependence - but not of temporal change.

I think Carrier's point can be better made by saying that "of nothing, nothing comes," if it is true at all, is true as a physical law, and so it is something that applies only to our physical universe. If we begin with the assumption of true, philosophical nothing, then nothing can be said about what can or can't be the case. (Apart from logical contradictions, as Carrier notes.)

Ultimately, Carrier's conclusion is almost correct:

So if something always existed for no reason, and our options are that this something was either God or a simple quantum vacuum, the evidence confirms it was the latter.

Except that, instead of "always existed," we should say "timelessly existed."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Swinburne: God Exists

Over at the Secular Oupost, Bradley Bowen is taking a look at Swinburne's argument for God.

Part 1.

Part 2.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Touch Some Woo

I caught the first episode of the new series, Touch, last night. The show is well-done and David Mazouz, who plays the mute boy, is adorable, but oh my goodness what a load of nonsense we are supposed to swallow to suspend our disbelief. The dad (Kiefer Sutherland) won't accept that his son is unreachable, so he Googles "mutism cell phones" and the very first link that he clicks leads him to an elderly African-American gentleman (apparently stolen from the Samuel L. Jackson character in Unbreakable) who any normal person would immediately conclude is completely off his rocker. Kiefer buys it hook, line, and sinker.

What does he learn from this magical black man? Apparently quantum mechanics means the whole universe is interconnected so that autistic kids can access omniscience through cell phone towers. If you didn't watch it, you probably think I'm joking, or at least exaggerating. I'm not.

After the recent spate of shows that invoke angels, spirits, psychic powers, and whatnot to help people in trouble, maybe I should be glad that this show eschews the supernatural for some "science" to get its groove on.

Sorry. This show just left me with a bad case of indigestion.

Free Brownies!

You'll never guess how....

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Marriage Equality - Update!

Well, as expected, the Maryland Senate passed, and the governor signed, the marriage equality bill. (Woo-hoo, again!)


In Maryland, residents have the right to challenge by petition any law passed by the legislature. Naturally, equality opponents are organizing to get the signatures needed to put marriage equality on the ballot in November. So no celebrating yet - the job isn't done. In the most recent polls, 50% of Marylanders are in favor of marriage equality. What counts, of course, is how many vote that way.

Meanwhile, Russell Blackford points to some interesting articles and discussions about the issue.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Reason Ralliers?

If you're coming to DC for the Reason Rally, shoot me an email and let's get together. I might even be able to offer lodging. (Need to check with a Higher Power.)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

More Ado About Nothing

Christian philosophers are all worked up about nothing these days. Literally nothing. I mean, "nothing" is what they are all worked up about.

Let's try that again. Apparently Lawrence Krauss's new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing,  has struck some kind of a nerve.  A blog post by Mark Brumley and an article by William Carroll strike back. They accuse Krauss, Hawking, and other scientists of fallacies and philosophical naivete. (A Feser post from last year makes similar points about a video from New Scientist.) It seems to me, though, that they're more worried about scientists stepping on their toes than about actual philosophical errors.

Now, I haven't read Krauss's latest, nor Hawking and Mlodinow. I'm just going on what the objectors themselves write, and on what I know from my own attempts at science writing. But consider these three points:

Point 1: These books are popular science

They were written in an attempt to make difficult scientific topics accessible, and interesting, to non-scientists. They're not philosophical treatises. Anyone who expects a book like this (or, worse, a video from New Scientist, of all places) to show a sophisticated understanding of Aristotelian-Thomian metaphysics ought to have his head examined. 

On the other hand, an article, or even a blog post, by a philosopher, who takes issue with fallacies and philosophical naivete in another's work, ought to be held to a higher standard, don't you think? Which brings me to 

Point 2: It's not equivocation if you explain the difference.

All three writers accuse the scientists of the equivocation fallacy: using one word in two different senses, in a way that confuses the meanings. 

Carroll: "But since these various “nothings” are really something, the ancient principle of the natural sciences remains true, despite clever ploys to equivocate about what one means by nothing."

Brumley: "So they equivocate. They talk about "nothing" as if they mean nothing but they really mean something."

Feser: "They aren’t serious physics, they aren’t serious philosophy, they aren’t serious anything except seriously bad arguments, textbook instances of the fallacy of equivocation. "

Is this what Krauss is doing? Here's what Carroll writes about Krauss's book:

Offering a striking landscape of ever deeper senses of “nothing,” he [Krauss] concludes: “We have discovered that all signs suggest a universe that could and plausibly did arise from a deeper nothing—involving the absence of space itself...."

And here's a quote from Krauss that Carroll cites

Some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine ‘nothing’ as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe. But therein, in my opinion, lies the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy, for surely ‘nothing’ is every bit as physical as ’something,’ especially if it is to be defined as the ‘absence of something.’ It then behooves us to understand precisely the physical nature of both these quantities. And without science, any definition is just words. 

Hmm. Sounds to me that, far from trying to create confusion by confounding the different senses of "nothing," Krauss is being careful to specify that the "nothing" he is talking about is different from other kinds of nothing. So the complaint isn't really about equivocation, it's really just a whine: "But the 'nothing' you're talking about isn't our 'nothing'!"

That, it seems to me, is exactly Krauss's point. Various scientific concepts of "nothing" have empirical content, and so are more useful than abstract philosophical definitions, which don't. Carroll, in contrast, seems to be proud of the fact his philosophical "nothing" has no connection with the real world:

It also remains the case that the fundamental question of why there is something rather than nothing is a metaphysical and theological question—and with respect to such a question the natural sciences necessarily have nothing to say. [emphasis added]

Got that? The natural sciences necessarily have nothing to say about these issues. Metaphysics and theology must never have any observable consequences, for if they did, the natural sciences would have something to say about it. The real message here is "Get out of our bailiwick, you meddling scientists!"

Point 3: Philosophical Naivete?

I suspect that these authors are right when they say most scientists are philosophically naive. Most working scientists are too busy with their own research, teaching, grant writing, etc., to spend a lot of time perusing the philosophical literature. Maybe Krauss really botches things when he gets philosophical - I don't know. Certainly I have my own philosophical reservations about pre-big bang scenarios. (E.g. multiverse models: how would we ever test if there are other universes out there?) But the objections of these sophisticated philosophers seem rather ... silly. Naive, even.

We already saw how they all declare "equivocation!" even though no equivocation is in sight. The scientist's other great sin, it seems, is... doing philosophy.

Brumley: "He [Krauss] rejects the idea that it is the responsibility of philosophy rather than science to tell us what nothing is. How he scientifically arrives at this conclusion is impossible to say because it is not a scientific conclusion but a philosophical one--only he seemingly doesn't know it. How embarrassing."

Carroll: "As we saw, for Krauss: “without science, any definition is just words.” One wonders what scientific evidence supports such a claim!"

 You can almost see them rubbing their hands together and saying, "Gotcha!" Here's Krauss saying how useless philosophy is, and here he is philosophizing! What a hypocrite!

The problem is, he doesn't (as far as I can see) say any such thing. He's not complaining about philosophy in general, he's complaining about philosophical definitions of "nothing" that are untestable. And he's contrasting them to scientific conceptions, where actual experiments in the real world have forced us to re-think what we mean by "nothing."

From such a group of distinguished philosophers, I would have hoped for a little more philosophical sophistication.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Philosophy of Cosmology

Did the universe have a beginning? If so, need there have been a cause? Can time have been infinite in the past? Does physics have anything to say about these issues, or are they purely philosophical? Or meaningless?

Thanks to Peter Woit of Not Even Wrong, I came across these two blogs dealing with cosmology and its philosophical implications. Peter says the list of questions on the first blog are "orthogonal to ones I find interesting." If your interests are not completely parallel to Peter's, you might want to check them out.