Monday, July 28, 2014

No, really, I don't care about Jesus

Richard Carrier noticed that I had tangentially commented upon his new book, On the Historicity of Jesus, and commented upon my comment. It seems that some people aren't quite clear on the fact that, no, really, I don't care about Jesus.

Now, Carrier seems to get it. If the contents of his blog post accurately reflect his views, he pretty much gets it in total. The fact is, I just don't care whether Jesus existed or not because the only reason I think the question is relevant in any way other than being somewhat interesting trivia (given the impact that character has had on the Western world and thus the whole world) is in the religious context that follows from it.

Particularly, had some Jesus 100% certainly existed at the right time and place, itinerant preacher of radical Jewish thought, or whatever, but the cult of Christianity hadn't taken off, Jesus would be a historical footnote of hardly any more interest except in niche corners of first-century Near East history than the question of whether or not there was some historical figure of Hercules/Heracles or Achilles. (Were they just legends, or are they based on real historical figures? Why doesn't any one really care? Chew on that for a minute, and you'll see exactly how I feel about Jesus.)

On the other hand, if 100% certainty applied that there was no Jesus or anything like a historical Jesus but some cult of Christianity, maybe starting with the Apostles and maybe starting with Paul (or maybe starting some other way entirely), did arise, and Christianity took off from there, we're pretty much in the same place we are now. The only difference to Christianity, which seems substantial but probably isn't if we think about how religious beliefs actually work, is that Jesus would be yet another metaphor for something divine.

There are, of course, people who would have their faith shaken by a discovery that switched us from a state of generally accepting that Jesus may have/probably did exist to (a hypothetical) one of Jesus not existing, but as Carrier notes correctly, to put it into other words, it's really a case of majoring in the minors. If religions were really concerned with accepting facts, they'd have died out at least a century ago.

There are also, of course, as Carrier astutely points out, ancillary benefits to the broader investigation of history to put so much attention on the question of Jesus' alleged existence, and given the role Christianity has had on shaping the world, there is bound to be worth in digging into some (maybe much) of that via the historical methods. On this, Carrier makes it very clear, we agree pretty much in total. Of course, I will note that digging deeply into any significant historical figure will bear similar fruit (with significance only mattering in the sense that it provides enough focus to do the thing, really), and I note this to point out yet again more of why I simply don't care about the case of Jesus in particular.

Just as an aside, one thing Carrier does get wrong about me is that I also do not care about counter-apologetics, effective or otherwise. I did, don't get me wrong, but I don't any longer. This, like my statement about historians and their activity pursuing questions like that of Jesus' existence, isn't to dissuade people from doing it if they enjoy it or think it serves some purpose. It's simply to say that I do not actually care about it, which is to say that for the purposes I am aiming, I don't find it particularly useful (these are not, as some suggested, ideas that have anything to do with mathematics or physics).

I've mostly written these posts about not caring for two purposes in fact: (1) to state that I, personally, do not care about the historicity of Jesus (along with why), and (2) to encourage other people to see the endeavor in the same context that I see it, "majoring in the minors," something like what John W. Loftus called "icing on the cake" in a blog post about the death of philosophy of religion just today. What I especially hope to convey with this line of thought is that I don't think that the matter of the historicity of Jesus (or counter-apologetics, for that matter) are big parts of the push toward becoming a post-religious society. They may fulfill important or even necessary roles, but I don't think they're big ones, and I don't think people should get caught up putting more stock in them than they're worth. I could be wrong, but I think Carrier agrees with me on this point.

So, this is to say, I really don't care about the historicity of Jesus, and I'm saying that speaking as someone deeply interested in pushing the cultural conversation toward becoming post-religious. The reason is that, for a number of reasons, I think it's pretty much irrelevant. So no, really, I don't care about Jesus, or rather whether or not a historical figure behind that character really existed, like really don't care.

(Note: And that, what a historical figure behind the Jesus character existing means, is something I'm still not satisfied about, even after Carrier's reply to that, though to be fair, I didn't read the chapter in his book where he explains what he means by a historical Jesus. As I tried to explain in my previous post on this topic, part of the problem is that when it comes to religious beliefs like we often deal with, it doesn't matter much what someone says they mean by ideas like "historical Jesus" or "theism" so long as someone can cobble together something else that they can mean by that and not feel too out-of-sorts about their beliefs. When it comes to these kinds of beliefs, either the beliefs or desire to believe comes first, probably from cultural context, and much of the rest is cobbled together after the fact to support it, I think.)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Mathing: Cycloid motion, illusions, and "Bad Astronomer" Phil Plait

The other day, on his blog on Slate, "Bad Astronomer" Phil Plait (who I don't think is probably really a bad astronomer, whatever monicker he's chosen for himself) presented a little piece he called "Cycloid motion: An illusion based on spirographics." Check it out, or just watch the video he embedded, because I'll embed it too.


So Plait identifies the illusion as being that these dots aren't really rolling around like it looks like, they're just moving in straight lines back and forth in a way that creates that illusion. In a way of thinking about it, he's right, but, if he thinks that means we can't say that the dots aren't really rolling around, he's wrong. Why? Math.

I don't need to get into any details of the mathematics here because someone else, John Baez, already did it (long before this video was made) and made a very handy website that not only explains it but also illustrates it. See that here, like really, do.

As Baez illustrates, what we're witnessing is a particular presentation of a special case of one circle rolling around inside of another, that case where the smaller inside circle is exactly half the diameter of the larger one that it's rolling around inside. By the quirks of trigonometry, if we take a circle half as big as another circle and roll it around the rim of the bigger one, the points on the diameter of the smaller circle move along diameters (straight line segments) of the larger circle.

This video presents an invisible circle with eight equally spaced points highlighted around its circumference rolling around the inner circumference of a circle twice as large. This isn't totally abstract either--the idea dates back almost a thousand years to the invention of a device known as a Tusi couple that takes advantage of this trigonometric fact to convert rotational motion into oscillating linear motion, where the visible dots could represent pegs on the teeth of a gear. (There may be a lesson here about being able to construct viral "illusion" videos using engineering-practical mathematical results that most people just aren't aware of, but I digress.)

In other words, this isn't an illusion, really. It's two phenomena at once, depending upon how we want to look at it. On the one hand, we have a group of dots that we can organize as being on the rim of a circle half as small as the one they're rolling around inside--so we really do have the eight dots rolling around the inside of the larger circle like it appears. On the other hand, we have a group of dots moving back and forth along eight diameters of the circle in straight lines (which happen to be equally spaced because the dots are equally spaced).

Neither interpretation is right or wrong, but the one that takes the object inside to be an (undrawn) circle rolling around the inside of a larger one is probably in many ways more mentally economical because it requires us to keep track of very little whereas keeping track of eight moving dots whose speeds change in specific ways (according to trigonometry) while being initially arranged in a certain configuration seems to require a great deal more effort.

Again, though, I really urge you to check out Baez's explanation because it shows more general cases that are actually a lot cooler than this one. Also, don't take it out on Plait. The most important bit is that he recognized that it is actually something cool going on (and was able to talk about mathematics related to it that ties into his speciality, astronomy, in a cool way, including the ever-awesome Spirograph toy that I also greatly enjoyed as a kid).

Friday, July 25, 2014

Freethought Blogs--The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Atheism?

It's a bastion for many self-described atheists that atheism isn't a religion, but that line gets harder and harder to maintain as time goes on. At this point, now that an atheist has called for an excommunication, it seems like it might be a losing battle.

Don't get me wrong--I don't think atheism constitutes anything that could be like a religion! And it isn't just on the technicality that religions seem to somehow require something to do with the supernatural, particularly some brand of theism, that it fails to qualify. What I, with many, mean by "atheism" can only be understood as a non-position--not believing in gods--except maybe to philosophers staring at the thing in all the wrong way (by thinking that not believing something is a form of believing something negative--even if it is, so what?). That is, it's a non-position unless someone decides to make it into something more than that, which I think constitutes an error that might easily be read as being very "religious" in nature.

Religion, specifically, is doctrinal. It has particular doctrines (some of which happen to be theistic) that it adheres to explicitly, these often being called "creeds" like the Nicene creed or the Apostle's Creed. It seems some people seem to want to make "atheism," whatever the hell they mean by that, doctrinal too. It's a grand error that is still enormously comedic, even if it is getting tiresome and shows all the signs of becoming tragic.

But... an excommunication? Yes, it seems so. Here's what that word means, to be sure.
Excommunication is an institutional act of religious censure used to deprive, suspend, or limit membership in a religious community or (as in the present discipline of the Catholic Church) to restrict certain rights within it.
"Freethought" Blogger, or so the brand says, Greta Christina, whom I've been impressed with in the past for various reasons, typed up quite the contribution earlier today, one that I've been blessed with seeing a link to about a dozen times and finally, reluctantly, acquiesced to reading. She's (justifiably, I'd say) mad at an angry blowhard on the Internet that goes by the monicker "The Amazing Atheist" for saying all sorts of "vile and unacceptable" things.

Again, to be sure, I wouldn't say, or even think (I don't think) any of those kinds of things and am no fan of their content (and I will not be reproducing them here, though Christina did, so you can read it there if you choose), but as is becoming cliche, I do have to respect and defend his right to say them unless it is legitimately illegal. (This is to imply that if he is legitimately threatening, that's a problem, even if the legal issue on that point regarding speech via the Internet isn't settled yet, and this idea isn't open to wanton interpretation but is, in fact, carefully legally defined and regularly adjudicated upon by judges and magistrates.) Let me make this double-plus-clear, I personally find the content in question, produced by "The Amazing Atheist," crass, tasteless, and unnecessarily offensive, and if I had been acting in editorial capacity over him regarding it, I would not have published it for that reason. Further, I'm no fan of it. If you are, though, that's your business, and as you'll see, I completely get it about the free speech issue.

Christina half-titled her considered rant, "Is There Any Line You Think Should Not Be Crossed?" I'll answer in a moment. The other half troublingly reads, "The Amazing Atheist, and What the Atheist Community Apparently Is Okay With." That will need addressing too, and not just for the histrionics tied up in "is apparently okay with," which she seems to defend mostly by appealing to the opinions of some people and with the slightly problematic assumption that "Neutrality is not neutral. Neutrality supports the status quo." (Neutrality is neutral, by definition, and this only makes sense under the assumption that the status quo is evil and, in context, really also requires that the reason someone is being neutral isn't a good one, but this is a separate topic entirely.)

Christina makes some important points

First, let's talk about what Christina gets right. She is quite lucid on the point that the stuff that "The Amazing Atheist" said is "vile," and as usual, she is on point with bringing awareness to the fact that there are people for whom that kind of speech is harmful. She's even correct in noting that what "The Amazing Atheist" is up to is really bad for the atheist brand (more on this in a moment too). She does a great job of exposing the fact that there is something misguided in forgiving the vile by means of the fact that he is occasionally funny, "happen[s] to agree with [something you think] (broadly construed), and "sometimes [says] clever things about creationists." This last point is really important too--we really should be freethinkers and try to avoid rallying around someone just because he or she brands him- or herself as an atheist.

Christina really nails this bit too, absolutely: "It is deeply distressing that this is a controversial issue in our community. It is deeply distressing that we even have to have this conversation." I couldn't agree more--except, given the context, with the use of the phrase "our community," which I again promise I will get to later. 

Greta Christina is a passionate and articulate voice for many of the causes she finds worthy, and that's commendable, and she has done a fantastic job clearly stating many articles that are of importance to atheists (e.g. why atheists are often so angry, for which she is probably rightly best known). That said, I think I can take a stab at her question, though it will take some doing.

One thing she misses

I see this a lot, and I think the thing she's missing by identifying atheism as a kind of community is that what we're really talking about here is people, and I don't mean this in the mushy moist-robot-with-feelings sense. What I mean is that I think it's a mistake to identify as atheists, as I will elaborate upon at the end, and that what she needs to be calling "The Amazing Atheist" out for is being a vile, crass, or what-have-you person by saying those things. That he's an atheist should be completely immaterial.

And I think this problem is endemic to thinking about an "atheist movement" or "atheist community." Take an example from David Silverman, director of American Atheists, that showed up on Twitter recently, which he was addressing to a couple of notable rabbis (Rabbi Shmuley and Rabbi Spero). He tweeted, though I only know the context to be related to giving children herpes in the metzitzah b'peh ritual in which a Jewish man sucks the blood directly from the penis of a freshly circumcized baby,
If ANY atheist hurt kids I'd step in. Too bad and can't be bothered
Silverman immediately went to a moral comment about atheists. I offered him an improvement on Twitter that he immediately accepted, replacing "atheist" with "person." Of course, Silverman was talking about in-group behavior, the problem seemingly being that Jews are tolerating a harmful practice from other Jews because of their Jewishness, but there's really no meaningful reason to group atheists or to imply to people who already make this mistake as a matter of course that in-group thinking applies to the notion of atheists. As I've said, though, more on this topic later.

About line-crossing

In general, is there any line I think should not be crossed? No. No, there is not, so long as we are within the law, but it is, of course, far more complex than that.

This is free speech, as plain and simple as the question comes, and free speech, to be free speech, must be, well, free--admitting only the most reasonable restrictions. Those restrictions aren't up in the air, and they're not out there for grabs or dictation by any group or individual that might like to employ them. They're part of our legal structures (United States, and more broadly). There are, and should be, limits on free speech, but those are legal determinations. Of course, Christina isn't exactly saying that "The Amazing Atheist" shouldn't be allowed to say what he said, but if he is allowed to, then she hasn't got much business telling him he isn't and may be acting supremely irresponsible by attempting to harness the Internet Rage Machine, Social Justice Wing, against him.

Particularly, since Christina notes that "The Amazing Atheist" engaged in speech that could be construed as threatening, since that already is not protected speech in the United States, with a Supreme Court case pending on whether or not, and when and when not, Internet threats constitute legitimate threats, there's not really any need for her to make such a declaration. If she has a legitimate case, or people she is affiliated with do, they should file a suit and appeal it all the way up to The Nine if they have to (not that now would necessarily be such a great time to do that, what with how The Five of The Nine happen to see things like this).

Free speech might literally be the one true sacred article of a free, secular society. Free speech is the cornerstone upon which all of our other freedoms are petitioned, secured, and defended. We must take guarding free speech very, very seriously--yes, more seriously than some of its consequences--and so, no, so long as it is within the law, there is no line I would draw on what someone can say, including the reprehensible. If there's a question about the legality of certain acts of speech, there are venues through which this can be pursued. There are ways to handle instances when someone's legally secured free speech is reprehensible or harmful, including denouncing it publicly, but attempting to police it or manufacture nonlegal consequences for it really probably isn't a good one (even if it seems to be one we evolved to engage in, but that's evo psych and I understand that's not something to freethink about over there).

To put it plainly, while I don't know what may be the worst way to deal with someone venting spleen about something, I'm quite sure that telling him that he can't or shouldn't is probably right up there, particularly when one of the things he's venting spleen about is being told that he can't or shouldn't speak in a certain way. I also don't know the best way in this, or any, case. Ignoring someone who is harassing you can be very difficult, as can be getting the law to be of much help in those cases (I've lived this and know firsthand that the legal venues are often insufficient in this regard--such is a cost of a necessarily imperfect system that does, and should, assume innocence over criminal guilt). What we are witnessing here is the classic trick of navigating the difficult canyon between positive and negative rights being done very badly by everyone involved.

The excommunication

Lacking a good way to deal with these things in many cases, we often default to bad ones. Of course, a great deal of speech is utterly tasteless and frequently utterly inappropriate, but that doesn't make it illegal. Perhaps with the kind of irony that must be savored for its bitterness, there is at least one good reason to say such things, though, and it's probably only one really legitimate reason: because we can, and that itself is precious. The irony, of course, is that the only really good reason to say really horrible things like this, assuming they are not legitimately threatening speech and thus unprotected, is to stand up to people daring to tell us that we can't, be they censors for Islam in Pakistan or, well, I'll just let Christina say it,
In many instances, of course we can agree about some things while disagreeing about others, and agreeing when someone says (X) doesn’t automatically mean you agree when they say (Y). But when someone crosses a clear line into vile and unacceptable behavior, the community needs to make it clear that this behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. We need to show that some lines absolutely should not be crossed, and that if people cross them there will be consequences.
Granted, all she's calling for here are consequences to saying vile things, which people should be on the receiving end of. But what are these consequences she's referring to? Excommunication (from what?--yeah, I know, I'll get to it).
Shunning is an extreme measure. It is a last resort. We are a social species, we need other people, and deliberately pushing someone out of a community is a strong and harsh response to bad behavior. Accepting human imperfection, accepting that everyone screws up and does things we have serious problems with, and being willing to move forward from that, is absolutely necessary if we’re going to live and work together.

Shunning is an extreme measure. But if we are never willing to do it, even in the face of the most despicable behavior, we are saying that we will tolerate anything. Literally anything. We are saying that there is no line that cannot be crossed.
While it's clearly not specifically true that we would tolerate "literally anything," particularly at the individual level where it really makes sense to talk about, we can make no bones about the fact that she is asking to shun someone from a "community" as a "strong and harsh response to bad behavior," this being called for nonlegally since if the speech is legitimately illegal, there are other effective responses that deal with it. Specifically, Christina is asking, addressing atheists in particular,
Is there any line that someone could cross that would make you unwilling to support them or work with them? Is there any line that someone could cross that would make you not link to their videos, not share their blog posts, not upvote them, not post admiring comments about them in public forums, not buy or promote their books? Will you really support the work of absolutely anyone, regardless of how vile their behavior has been, as long as they say one thing you happen to agree with?
She later adds, technically accusing "The Amazing Atheist" of wanting to rape people (which is potentially libelous (not protected speech) if he does not actually want to do so and is acting in a comedic or otherwise artistic fashion, which would bizarrely include trolling, however tasteless, crass, and vile, and however and hurtful it is to hear),
You cannot welcome people of color into our community, and also welcome racists. You cannot welcome LGBT people, and also welcome homophobes. And you cannot welcome women, and also welcome hateful misogynists who want to rape us.

This is a call for excommunication from... we'll get to that. Let's check this out, to be sure. It looks very much like Christina is calling for an act of censure used to deprive, suspend, or limit membership in a community (do not link, share blogs, upvote, make admiring comments about, buying or promoting their books, welcome into the community) or to restrict certain rights within it (certain kinds of speech). The only things missing from the outright definition of an excommunication here are the words "institutional" before "act" and "religious" before both "censure" and "community." And now I can talk about that thing I keep saying I will.

The atheism community, and the atheism movement

Greta Christina, in this post alone (it being a frequent topic both for her and for "Freethought" Blogs in general), explicitly uses the word "community" in the context of an "atheist community," twelve times (including once in the full title) and explicitly mentions the "movement," in the context of an "atheist movement," three more. With a few possible exceptions obvious enough not to require mentioning, few things are more deeply woven into the fabric of "Freethought" Blogs, and somewhat more widely among people who happen to be atheists, than the notion of a vibrant and important "atheist community" that is engaged in a (apparently extraordinarily Progressive) "atheist movement."

That takes care of the "institutional," then, the institution being the imagined (orthodox?) "atheist community" that must take itself so seriously as to purge itself of unsightly "members." Though it isn't religious, being specifically irreligious, the community she is talking about is pretty clearly doctrinal on some doctrine that blends certain kinds of Progressive "social justice" with "atheism." That said, I think we have on our hands a legitimate case of a call for an excommunication from The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Atheism, better known as "Atheism+" or "Freethought Blogs." Of course, amongst self-identifying atheists, this particular community is every bit as universal as the Catholic (which means "universal," by the way) Church, which is to say not universal at all except in their own minds. Note also that at its broadest, apostolic means "on a mission," which seems undeniable in the case at hand. As to "holy," we'll cover that in just a second.

This is where the problem lays: misidentifying atheism as a thing, a community, a movement, a brand. Note that if we aren't concerned with the atheism brand, or the flawed idea that atheists somehow form a community by virtue of... what, exactly?, "The Amazing Atheist" is exactly what I said in the first place, nothing more than an angry blowhard on the Internet.

How did this happen?

Christina's phrase for it was "community standard." Morality and culture are profoundly interrelated concepts, something like two sides of the same coin. Groups of people gather together for whatever reasons, realize things they have in common, and bond. This defines a community. That community evolves a moral framework about acceptable and unacceptable behavior for that community, and we get a subculture (since it is technically a community within a broader community nearly every time and imports most of its cultural ideas from broader cultures nested all the way up). As it works out, that moral framework concentrates the community and eventually defines it, and the whole thing becomes self-reinforcing. This is exactly what Christina seems to think is happening or has happened with "atheism." As she writes,
And that’s especially true in the case of rape threats, persistent harassment of women, and other misogynist behavior — because in the atheist community, we don’t, unfortunately, currently have a clear ethical standard that this is unacceptable. We have a culture in which it’s depressingly common for people to engage in this behavior, and for other people to defend, rationalize, trivialize, dismiss, or victim-blame it — without consequences, or without serious consequences. Leaders in the movement do this, and remain leaders. We need to change that culture. We need to make it unmistakably clear that we do not tolerate this behavior. Promoting people’s work who engage in this behavior is tolerating it. And tolerating this behavior helps perpetuate it. (emphasis hers)
Observe how she talks about needing a "clear ethical standard" for "the atheist community." We, meaning "atheists" or atheists in the "atheist community," have a "culture in which [something about community-specific moral values]." That culture has a "movement" associated with it with "leaders [who behave in ways that do not comport with her view of the moral framework of the community] and remain leaders." And "we need to change this culture [by redefining the moral framework that defines it and adhering to that by creating a way to institutionally censure people who violate it]." Guess what. Here's your "holy," meaning that which is considered morally excellent. (I can account for the aspects of this term wrapped up in the "spiritual" and "consecrated to God" in a cogent way too, but I will not do so at present, just to let you know.)

The entirety of her piece reads with exactly that tone: there exists an atheist community whose moral standards need to be defined and used to strengthen and purify the community, not least because we're concerned about the brand image as our "movement" grows. And so, based on the insistence that atheism is so important that it be a thing, we have a clear call for an atheist excommunication by a notable figure in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Atheism. What a shame.


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Edit: The original version of this post referred to the means of ostracism as "extralegal" when the author meant "nonlegal." The author regrets the error, and it has been corrected.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Why I really don't care if Jesus existed or not

A while ago, I wrote a post on here about why I don't care whether or not Jesus existed (except, perhaps, as an article of historical interest, something like the footnote it probably should be). The reason is simple enough: God doesn't exist, Christianity is false anyway, and so it doesn't matter if Jesus existed as a historical figure. Sure, I mean, it's interesting, but I don't care for the reason that anyone might think it's important, which is to say that I don't think it's important because it's irrelevant where it's relevant. I care about whether or not Jesus existed in a way similar to whether or not Socrates did, which is to say that it has absolutely no bearing on my day-to-day or even academic existence to find out a positive or negative answer to that question--that is, it's trivia.

Of course, that post--and this one--was motivated by an upsurge in discussion about Jesus mythicism, the position that Jesus (very probably) did not exist and is simply a mythic construction. As historian and highly motivated atheist Richard Carrier is both very interested in this topic and in a sphere of activity bordering my own, the discussion that prompted the first post I made on this topic probably followed from something he did. This one certainly does, as Carrier recently published a book specifically about the historicity of Jesus, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, published last month by Sheffield Phoenix Press.

To be clear, I haven't read Carrier's new book. (Why would I? I'm not kidding when I say that I don't care about whether or not Jesus existed.) I don't say this to dissuade anyone from reading it or taking it seriously (though the latter would be a separate topic to the one I'm talking about here). It's just full disclosure, not that it matters because I'm not going to argue or even talk about his book beyond noting that it seems to have stirred up a conversation on a topic that I hold a controversial view--not caring a jot.

I will note briefly that I think the Jesus mythicism discussion is kind of a non-starter in any discussion with a Christian. The only thing that's needed to accomplish all the work desired by Jesus mythicism when it comes to talking to Christians about their faith--unless we obtained absolutely solid evidence that there was no Jesus (which is probably impossible)--is done simply by the idea that it's possible that there was no Jesus. Peter Boghossian's questioning approach to bring honesty about what we can claim to know is more than enough: How do you know Jesus really existed? Isn't it weird that there aren't any reliable sources for his existence outside of the Bible? What exactly is it, other than the Bible, that leads you to conclude that Jesus must have existed? Those kinds of questions do all the work of Jesus mythicism where it matters (unless you are a professional historian working in this field) unless something settled the question absolutely one way or the other--they introduce honest doubt in a position that Carrier undersells in his subtitle.

So here, extending from the fact that Christianity is false anyway, whether a historical Jesus existed or not (honestly, it's ridiculous), I'm going to talk about why I (really) don't care if Jesus existed or not.

I don't know what "a historical Jesus existed" means.

This isn't me playing dumb. I don't think you know what it means either. The reason is that it could refer to about a bajillion different things that would qualify accepting the idea that a historical Jesus did exist in very different ways. For instance, is a historical Jesus a character exactly as portrayed in the Bible (which Gospel, or maybe Paul's epistles?)? Is it some character upon whom those stories are based? Is it some movement that got Jesus as a figurehead, maybe fictionally symbolic? Is it a fictional character with inspiration found in various real-life ones but made totally fictional by the Evangelists or other early Christians?

Flatly, I don't know what is being talked about, then, when someone starts talking about a historical Jesus, so I don't know (or care) whether or not it makes for evidence of a real historical figure. Unsurprisingly, the religion is totally the problem here, and it is why it seems disanalogous to the similar question about Socrates, who was mentioned earlier. Note that it really doesn't matter if Socrates existed or not--the information we have about him from Plato, and everything we've done with it, is every bit as useful and interesting in either case. The same would be true about Jesus if it weren't for the fact that Christians believe it as if it were literally true, which is isn't.

What I want to do here is talk about different ways that we might conceptualize "a historical Jesus existed" and see kind of what's wrong with each of them.

Did Gospel Jesus Exist?

This question asks if the character portrayed in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, particularly in the Gospels, existed or not, as portrayed. This, by the way, is exactly what most Christians believe to be the case, and not only is it unlikely, it's so staggeringly unlikely as to be beneath serious consideration by all but believers and Sophisticates™. The character portrayed in the New Testament is clearly legendary, at the very least, especially once we grow up enough to recognize that God doesn't exist, which sort of neuters the whole thing.

Yeah, but did a real character that the New Testament tries to portray exist?

Really, though, it's way worse than that. Though it sounds like irritating pedantry or even trolling to ask, the question "which (New Testament) Jesus?" is of profound relevance. Even a cursory read through the New Testament, even at times through Jesus-Colored Glasses, reveals that there's no way the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and John are talking about the same figure. Indeed, it's unlikely that Mark, Matthew, and Luke are talking about the same guy either. And then there's the rest of the New Testament--we get yet another Jesus from Acts (though very Lucasian as "Luke" authored both books) and another from Paul's epistles (and arguably another still in Revelation). Compounding this problem, even a cursory glance at Christians both past and present and their umpteen heresies and umpteen-thousand (no joke) Christian denominations, each with their own unique take on the Gospel Jesus, leaves us staggering to figure out who any "Gospel Jesus" is or what he might have actually believed or taught.

Now, there is one Christian scholar, E.P. Sanders that I have read rather extensively on the topic of a historical Jesus carved from the New Testament accounts of that character (which is really all we have). Sanders makes clear that there are real issues considering the John-Jesus to be of the same mold as the Synoptic-Jesus. Even this more reasonable figure (or group thereof), though, he whittles down considerably in The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin, 1996) to try to get to a believable character that might have existed in history that can be drawn from the (synoptic) Gospels. Not surprisingly, Sanders is not universally accepted by Christians in his historical figure, many of the critiques indicating that he cuts away far too much.

The New Testament of the Bible, though, is a Christian manifesto. It's very difficult to take this character seriously, particularly given that the Bible portrays him doing impossible things. Perhaps a real character can be extracted from this, as Sanders seems to do rather conservatively (until he gets all weird at the end of that book and just takes the Resurrection nearly whole cloth). I don't care, though, because the ridiculous claims of Christianity don't hold water and aren't true anyway, which is to say that any Jesus character that might be real that can be extracted (at great effort) from the New Testament accounts isn't the Jesus of Christianity.

Is this pared-down character what is meant when people say "a historical Jesus existed"? I'm not sure, but I'd be very, very surprised if any but the most liberal (or desperate) Christians accepted it, which is to say that without going very far at all (just removing all of the magic, as did Thomas Jefferson in The Jefferson Bible), we're already past the point of irrelevance on the question of Jesus' existence.

As an aside, Jefferson considered Jesus to be the most inspiring moral teacher of all time, which is plainly ridiculous as well. Jesus advocated all kinds of cultish, weird, and abjectly stupid things to do (like cutting off your own testicles in order to get to go to an imaginary paradise after you die, casting "bad branches" into (eternal) fire, being unconcerned with investment for one's future, giving up everything you own and begging (which not everyone can do for obvious reasons), and hating one's own family to follow him). I don't know what character Jefferson was talking about even after having read The Jefferson Bible if he thinks that Jesus was a great moral teacher of any age, much less a timeless one, but it is possible that the Jefferson Jesus was a real person, not that it matters.

Maybe the New Testament narrative, including Jesus, is based upon something real, though?

Honestly, I think this is the most plausible case, but, as I keep saying, I don't care. There are a number of ways that a character that became the Jesus of the New Testament, through much story-telling and tall-tale-telling, plus religious doctoring, might have "existed." 

Maybe there was a cracked apocalyptic Jewish teacher, of the ascetic Essene sect or otherwise, at the time whose name was Yeshua (the Aramaic equivalent of the Greek "Jesus"). Maybe there was a whole movement of such a cult, with John the Baptist somehow integrally related, or not. Maybe some of both was going on, meaning that there was a character named "Jesus" in such a cult, with Jesus not particularly special within it though the whole thing stuck out a little. Maybe those got lumped together into figurehead that was real or fictional, called "Jesus" in the New Testament. Like I said--I think something like this is probably the most plausible scenario, not least because of Christopher Hitchens's astute observation that the outright fraud in the Gospel birth narratives (which is obvious) is possibly best accounted for by assuming a real figure that needed to be squared with an unreal story somehow.

Here's the relevant question, though, because we've gotten pretty far from the New Testament to accept any of this: Is this a "historical Jesus"? Is this what we mean by that phrase? I'm not sure, but a case could be made that it would qualify, particularly if someone is desperate enough to believe that they'll grasp any straw that seems to make their beliefs distantly possible.

Particularly, consider the case of there being no real Jesus, or a very unimportant member of this particular charismatic movement/cult named Jesus, but that this whole movement got summarized under the name of Jesus when writing the Gospels down. That's pretty damn far from "a historical Jesus existed," in both cases, and yet it kind of qualifies in that it would imply that the Jesus narrative is at least (fairly loosely) based upon real historical events. Who cares, though?

Anyway, is this what people are talking about when they say "a historical Jesus existed"? I doubt it, even if it is, to me, the most plausible scenario regarding the question. Certainly, we've gone way beyond relevance to Christian beliefs since this would equate them with following the beliefs that evolved out of some failed crackpot apocalyptic cult that might or might not have even included a member by the relevant name.

Maybe it's even looser than that.

This is going to sound ridiculous, but I think to be fair to an examination of the meaning of "Did (a historical) Jesus exist?", we must go even further. Consider, then, if you will, a similar question: Did (a historical) Albus Dumbledore exist?

Surely this looks flippant, but I'm quite serious. Obviously, we know that J.K. Rowling created the character of Albus Dumbledore for her Harry Potter series of fantasy novels. (Technically--we don't know this. Rowling could have been moved by the real version of the magic presented in the story to write an inspired text about real characters outside of her own knowledge, or she could have written the story aware of the reality of it only to have her memory modified by a well-placed obliviate memory charm, so even Rowling's insistence that the story and its characters are fictional creations lies outside of our epistemic horizon, which kind of makes meal of that whole line of argument to ignorance for Jesus.)

Here's the catch, though, that's more relevant than that long parenthetical thought: Rowling has explained plainly that her inspiration for the character of Albus Dumbledore, benevolent and wise (and fictional) headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, was partially one of her own school headmasters as a girl. That is to say that there was a real character upon whom Albus Dumbledore is based as a fictional extension. Does that mean that there was a historical Albus Wulfric Percival Brian Dumbledore, then?

Strangely, and hopefully you're following me here, the question isn't so ridiculous anymore. In parallel, in order to qualify in the case of Jesus, we'd need only to know that some original source material, some purveyor of oral tradition, or any of the Evangelists, particularly Mark, or even Paul or John (the author of Revelation), was using a real person as a basis for a fictional extension called Jesus.

I know this is a common technique in writing fiction--many (perhaps most or all) fictional characters have some basis in real characters (or combinations thereof) in the author's life. Thus, even if there wasn't even a real apocalyptic movement that bears Jesus' name now or anything remotely like what we'd accept as a historical figure of Jesus at all, it is plausible that the authors of those stories had someone real in mind when they wrote about Jesus, or perhaps someones. Would that qualify as a "historical Jesus"? (I don't think so, but given that we're talking about something that isn't true anyway, Christianity, why on Earth not?)

Seriously, I don't know what it means

So, I'm not kidding when I say that I have no clear idea of what people are talking about when they ask me if I think a real/historical Jesus existed. I guess ultimately, they're asking me either
  1. Do you think some particular (usually "the one I'm thinking of myself") character of Jesus was a real historical figure or not? To this question, I don't care because Christianity isn't true anyway, and that's really the only reason it matters in the usual context, which is to say that any such character that might have existed isn't relevant to the spirit of the question. (Note: History is interesting and all, but we don't need to find out Jesus wasn't a real historical character to realize that much of Western culture and thus world history was based upon Christian fiction, really. Clearly, it was.) Or,
  2. Do you think any character that we could argue ourselves into calling "a historical Jesus" existed? To this question, I don't know but would guess a qualified "probably, but why should I care?" The qualification is everything though: any that I think have a chance of existing--since Christianity is false anyway--again are irrelevant to the usual spirit of the question.
Since both of these cases could entail about a bajillion possible things for what is meant by "a historical Jesus," I don't care. Since it doesn't matter anyway, I really don't care. I simply don't think the historicity of Jesus constitutes an interesting question (besides as a historical footnote) because I have no clear idea what is meant by that question and, no matter what is meant by it, it's pretty irrelevant to the spirit of the question, which seeks to establish that Christianity might be true. It's not.

Just to tie up the loose end: I also don't care if people like Richard Carrier or other historians want to try to sort this out--more power to them. And so far as a matter of history is concerned, though I referred to it as a footnote, it is of some importance, I suppose. But it is only of any importance at all as a point of historical fact and thus is profoundly unimportant in the ongoing discussion about Christian beliefs in our contemporary world (which I guess is the main motivation, particularly for outspoken and ardent atheist writers and speakers like Richard Carrier). So, I'm not saying people shouldn't care about the question as a matter of history, but they should do so realizing that without absolute proof one way or the other, they aren't doing anything terribly important in the cultural debate about religion.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Christians say the darnedest things--the Insider Test for Faith

In the spring of last year, John Loftus published a book called The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion is True (Prometheus, 2013) in which he developed an argument that first appeared in the early chapters of his magnum opus, Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (Prometheus, 2008). The basic premise of the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) is simple and yet devastating to religious belief: examine your religious beliefs as if you were an outsider, the same way you do for religious beliefs that you do not already hold. It is a simple call for intellectual honesty when it comes to one's religious beliefs.

Predictably, and lamentably, it has created a whirlwind of religious gibbering about why (a) the test must somehow be illegitimate and (b) even though the test is illegitimate, Christianity passes it. I ran into something decidedly funny the other day, though--someone claiming not only that Christianity passes the OTF but also that it passes the (made-up) insider test for faith. (I'm not linking to it because I don't want to give it undeserved attention, but for the hunters out there, it was on the Patheos network.)

Of course, the word "test" in "insider test for faith" strikes me as hilarious, the kind of patently ridiculous thing that only the tragically pitiable could come up with. How does Christianity (of course) pass the "insider test"? By "cohering with spiritual experiences and religious desires."

This reminds me ever so much of the famous analogy by the wonderful Douglas Adams, in The Salmon of Doubt,
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.
The entire notion of there being an "insider test" for faith is a tragedy. Faith is the glue holding the insider inside. All insider tests for faith will necessarily confirm the faith because that's what faith does. It's simply another lie of the faith to think that it could do otherwise. The Outsider Test for Faith is a call to intellectual honesty; the insider test is a way to keep circling the drain of self-delusion.

Of course, the insider can't usually see that faith is a cognitive sinkhole, a system of biases and "trust" that keep the faithful believing the articles of faith, and that is the real tragedy. Mucked-up thinking like this is merely a symptom of the bigger problem, which comes down to relying upon an epistemological framework that protects articles of faith from legitimate challenges, which is rationalizes away.

Talking about materialism and naturalism is a waste of time

An annoying and common request from people who want to believe in certain kinds of supernatural entities, usually God, comes in the form of denouncing materialism. The usual approach is ham-handed, as we should expect, asking for "positive evidence for materialism." As is often the case, a certain tendency of philosophers lies at the root of this irritating, persisting problem (which is nugatory, as I intend to discuss).

First, what is materialism? I'll keep it brief, not really going into detail but rather just giving a succinct definition (with which I have some issues).
In philosophy, materialism is the doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.
So immediately we see both the problem with the unreasonable demand for "positive evidence for materialism" and with the notion of materialism, as defined philosophically, itself. I'll address each of these issues in turn.

Positive evidence for materialism? An annoying dodge.

"Positive evidence for materialism" is an annoying dodge, one designed specifically to distract people from the fact that we very apparently live in a material universe and to suggest that there's anything like "positive evidence" for any alternative. All of the evidence we have, by the very definition of evidence, supports the existence of the material world. None, incidentally, supports the existence of anything non-material (or, specifically, "spiritual").

Worse, if we look at the definition of the philosophical position called materialism--that nothing exists except matter, etc.--we immediately run upon the problem that "positive evidence" is basically a demand for something impossible. To provide "positive evidence" for materialism would require us to definitively prove empirically that nothing at all, anywhere, ever, is anything but matter, its movements, and its modifications. (I trust that energy is contained within those via Einstein's famous connection between the two.) An appeal to ignorance is all that's needed to defeat any claim to "positive evidence" for materialism, so it's a useless dodge, a waste of time, to even bring it up.

Thus, I think of this demanding "positive evidence" for materialism to be more of what I have called a talisman meme than anything of any substance. When people spout talisman memes--easily repeated ideas of little or no worth waved about to ward off ideas they don't like--they're attempting to distract from productive conversations that would be destructive to things that they want to believe.

"Positive evidence for materialism" is one such talisman meme, a disingenuous call for something impossible that hopes to distract people from the fact that the material universe is all we know exists in order to try to mitigate the damage that fact does to particular cherished belief systems.

What's wrong with materialism?

Oh, philosophy, this is how you shoot yourself in the foot all the time. First, note that the philosophical definition of materialism is that it is a doctrine. How obsolete. Second, note that it applies a universal--all is matter, nothing else. How obsolete too.

This, though, is a common bane of philosophy, aiming to provide humanity with the "right" doctrines that apply universally. It is a bane for at least two reasons, both of which amount to giving people reasons to argue over things that are ultimately pointless, as demonstrated by people demanding "positive evidence for materialism." (The other is that people don't really think that way, in terms of picking and choosing particular universally applicable doctrines and remaining purely consistent with them, or at least they don't think that they do and are thus prone to ignore the doctrines when it comes to it. Of course, philosophy goes on to create even more of a public relations nightmare for itself by gleefully pointing out when people are failing to be consistent with doctrines that they think they espouse.)

The point isn't--and never should have been--to declare a doctrine that says all is material and then adhere to it. The point is that all we've ever observed is material, or can be accounted for materially (e.g. thoughts in the latter category). In other words, an assumption of materialism is provisional and thus not really an assumption that we've used to paint ourselves into a corner.

Oh, and literally all of the evidence points us toward accepting that something like materialism is very probably true. Do you see the difference? We're not aiming for a doctrine here that applies like a supertruth but rather for a best-guess about the world we live in. We don't need stupid assertions that "nothing exists but" when we can just keep doing as we're doing, looking at the world and seeing what we see, taking it for what it is, whatever it is.

I don't think it needs to be that way, though. I think our fictional accounts are fully demonstrative of innumerable ways in which non-material, by which I mean "spirit" or "magic," entities can be imagined to interact with the world in a meaningful way, a way that we could, in principle, detect and make sense of. The fact is, though, that despite a lot of looking for such, we never, ever find it. (We may, of course, but it really need not be mentioned.)

Missing the point

Materialism, then, as a philosophical position, misses the point. The point isn't to declare that we've figured out how the universe works and then dance around with our unknowable supertruth, squabbling endlessly with people who have adopted different ones. The point is that everything we see points us in a direction that's like materialism without the dogma inherent in it.

More than that, talking about materialism as though it is important to do so misses the point (this goes also for the similar "naturalism," a philosophical viewpoint according to which everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted). As soon as someone brings these words up, I instantly distrust whatever they're about to say. What we (effectively, which is to say almost surely) know is that the material world exists, nature exists. We do not know more than that, and there's nothing gained by pretending that we do by asserting ourselves as adherents of doctrines like materialism or naturalism, though there's lots to be lost--these stupid arguments about whose assumptions are better are, to put it plainly, a grand waste of time and talent and an open invitation to keep talking about the world and our knowledge of it in the wrong ways.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Thinking philosophically

I fired a trio of tweets (on the Twitters) earlier that I think deserve a little elaboration--something Twitter is pretty flawed-awful for. They are
  1. I think most people should learn to think philosophically, but most people, including many who do it, shouldn't be philosophers.
  2. And yes, I think most people should learn to think scientifically, but most people, including many who do it, shouldn't be scientists.
  3. And also yes, I think the fact that I felt a need to qualify the first tweet with the second implies a turf war between the fields.
Thinking philosophically

When I say that I think most people should learn to think philosophically, what I mean is that I think most people should learn to think seriously, reflectively, with an open mind to ideas that deserve consideration, honestly, as logically and rationally as possible, clearly, and, critically, critically.

Thinking in this way is a prerequisite to doing philosophy, but it isn't required to do philosophy, and it does not entail thinking like a philosopher, which is something I think most people should not do. Thinking like a philosopher is very specialized and should only be engaged in by philosophers, and doing it well is hard enough to formulate the second half of my opinion in that first statement--even many philosophers shouldn't be philosophers. It's simply too damn hard to do good philosophy for most with the title to do well by it, and bad philosophy is a humongous problem (for philosophy most of all, probably). Doing philosophy (qua philosophy) badly is virtually guaranteed to yield fruits that are simultaneously bombastic and nugatory, a potent and dangerous mix that can make one drunk with self-importance, particularly when what one is really best at "philosophically" is lawyering for one's thoughts, beliefs, and arguments.

Most people would benefit from thinking philosophically, but to think like philosophers would, in most cases, make them insufferable because they would also, mostly, be bad philosophers. Encouraging that by making them actual philosophers, whether for institutional reasons--someone has to teach those Phil 101 and intro logic courses to angry freshmen who don't care or want to be there, after all--or otherwise) would be even worse.

Thinking scientifically

When I say that I think most people should learn to think scientifically, I first mean that they should be thinking philosophically, per the above, since in a manner of speaking, the sciences are a specialized subdomain of philosophy. In addition, scientists must think very skeptically with a constant eye to observation, particularly observations that would falsify hypotheses. Scientists must also think statistically, and, even more than philosophers, must be ready and willing to abandon ideas that observations disconfirm.

Being a scientist, though, is also hard, especially being a good one, but it's hard in a different way than philosophy. I don't want to say that there are no bad scientists out there, or that there aren't people doing bad science--clearly there are both--but the barrier to entry into many of the sciences is significant, particularly the "hard" sciences like physics and chemistry, along with biology to an increasing degree. Particularly, one has to be good at mathematics, versed in the relevant scientific principles, and competent juggling theoretical and observational approaches, even if one specializes in one or the other.

This brings us to an important difference between science (as a specialized subdomain of philosophy) and philosophy. Being a good philosopher is hard; becoming a scientist at all is hard. This doesn't create an ideal situation for science, where we have only good scientists and good science, obviously, but it does provide a weed-out mechanism by which bad scientists are often kicked out of the system before becoming a professional in their field. (And, of note, many of the issues with bad science boil down to ethical quandaries, some of which have their deepest roots in having too little money for the research that people are doing.)

Most people, though, still shouldn't become scientists, even if they should probably think scientifically and definitely become at least basically scientifically literate (this being a necessity of the modern world, if we're honest). Not everything is research--someone has to actually go out and build things, and sell things, and do services, and so on and so forth, and science is just one niche in a working community filled with specialists that needs to be filled.

Turf war

The reason I added the second tweet, and thus the third one, is because I expected blowback from my matter-of-fact statement about philosophy saying that I'm attacking philosophy when, indeed, I'm not. Indeed, I expected the "scientism" brigade to come down upon it in force (at least in principle, as I think they largely ignore me now for misunderstanding me on this point). At any rate, what I mean by all of this is that I expected the first tweet about thinking philosophically versus being a philosopher to be misinterpreted as another shot fired "for science" in the ongoing turf war between those two fields, a false dichotomy if ever there was one.

Though it often gets denied, it seems rather clear to me, sitting outside of it, that there is a turf war between the sciences and philosophy. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that scientists don't see themselves as a specialized kind of philosopher (and thus brand the philosophical endeavor as a waste) and that philosophers (to the degree that they're not also scientists and thus not equipped to work that way) don't like to give up their primacy in fields that they've long been the chief guardians of that branch of human knowledge.

Sam Harris, though, is right: "the boundaries between disciplines are mere conventions and that we inhabit a single epistemic sphere in which to form true beliefs about the world." In this sense, the war seems futile, petty, and institutional to the point of being almost tribal. I do hope we can get past it.