Monthly Archives: February 2011

Dating the New Testament

I was having a discussion on another message board about the trajectory of New Testament writings and the subtly changing “eschatology” that is tracable along that trajectory. In earlier works, Christians thought that the world was going to end soon and that they would be around to see it. As time went on and Jesus did not come (a “second time”) the immanent εσχατος (eschatos – end) was minimized and “internalized”. Using two endpoints in Christian writings, we can see this in effect. Sort of like using Photoshop to morph one image into another.

1 Thessalonians 4:15-18

15 Spoken in the word of the Lord, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

John 18:36 (New International Version, ©2010)

 36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Luke 17:21 

21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is inside you.” 
It’s hard to reconcile these two. Some might think I’m taking these two passages out of context, but these works were not all written in “one context” to begin with; at least not the “one context” that 2nd century – and up to the present day – Catholics (I include just about all modern Christianities as “Catholic”, since they are all descended from the universalists [catholicoi] who emerged as orthodoxy) have forced on us. I picked these two because, like I mentioned with the little Photoshop analogy, they represent the earliest and the latest “orthodox” Christian writings. So, without further ado, here is my timeline for the creation of Christian works:
1. Authentic Paul (50 – 60 CE)[*]:
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • 1 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Philipians
  • Romans
  • Philemon
2. Pseudo-Paul: (55 – 62 CE)[*]:
  • Ephesians
  • Colossians
  • 2 Thessalonians
3. Revelation of John (66 – 73 CE)
4. Gospel of Mark (c. 85 – 150 CE)[**]
5. Gospel of Matthew (Gospel of Mark – 150 CE)
6. Epistle of James (70 – 220 CE [Origen])
7. Epistle to the Hebrews (70 – 220 CE [Origen])
8. Epistles of John (Gospel of Mark – 180 CE [Irenaeus]) – These letters presuppose some Christians who were claiming that the Christ hadn’t come in the flesh. So the earliest that this letter could have been written would be the end of the first or beginning of the second century. This was when more non-Jewish, Platonist Christians (those who saw the Platonic world as “good” and its material equivalents as “bad”) were becoming widespread. Many of these “heretical” Christians used the descent of the Holy Spirit in Mark as their evidence that the Christ (as the Holy Spirit) was not flesh.
9. Gospel of John (100 – 140 CE [Valentinus]) – This gospel presupposes that Christians would be kicked out of synagoges for professing Jesus as the messiah. This doesn’t seem to have happened until well into the time period of Rabbinic Judaism.
10. 1 Peter (Jude – 180 CE [Irenaeus])
11. Epistle of Jude (1 Peter – 180 CE [Muratorian Canon])
12. Pastoral Epistles (120 – 180 CE [Irenaeus])
  • 1 & 2 Timothy
  • Titus
13. Gospel of Luke (120 [Marcion] – 150 CE)
14. Acts of the Apostles (120 [Marcion] – 180 CE [Irenaeus])
Justin Martyr is the first orthodox Christian to cite our canonical gospels, so he is the latest possible date for those works. He was writing sometime around 150 CE.
It’s my opinion (and that of some scholars) that our canonical Luke and Acts of the Apostles are anti-Marcion works. This is also evidenced by the plethora of “Acts of…” type literature that littered the 2nd century and beyond. Placing Acts of the Apostles in the first century divorces its production from the time period of its popularity as a genre by almost 100 years. In other words, Acts of the Apostles makes sense as a product of the environment that produced various other Praxes type of writings that Christians were writing in the 2nd century. There were no Christians writing Praxes type works in the 1st century, so its production in that century would make it an abberation.
So reading these works along their diachronological trajectory, we can see that the nature of the kingdom of god changes from immediate cataclysm to that of an internalized sort of spiritual kingdom. In authentic Paul and Mark, the earliest Christian writings, we see that Jesus was supposed to come within the lifetime of those who were still alive; that Jesus was the “firstfruits” of the general resurrection (the general resurrection being a sign of the end times). At his trial in Mark, for example, Jesus asserts that the high priest who tries him will see “the son of man sitting at the right hand of the mighty [one] and coming on the clouds of heaven”. The high priest obviously died before the Parousia of Jesus (or the son of man), so this should be seen as a false prophecy by Jesus.
Modern Christians get around this embarrassing Jesus by pointing out the later written Christian works. But that’s the point. These later Christians saw those same problems and that’s one of the reasons why they wrote their works. They too were embarrassed by the Jesus and Paul that said that the world was going to end just around the corner.
In its inception, Christianity was a death cult obsessed with the end of the world. The “social gospel” message was a side effect of that major premise. As in, we should be nice to each other because we are going to be judged. And judgement is going to come soon… very, very soon. The modern day Christians who are prophesying the end of the world any minute now are just being true to the original Christian message.
And, if you do insist on reading the New Testament as one whole (catholicos) to whitewash this particular evolution of eschatology, then you will be faced with other contradictions.
[*] The terminus ante quem (latest possible date) for these works would be Marcion’s canon, which he seems to have compiled and/or published around 130 – 140 CE.
[**] This is what the terminus post quem (earliest possible date) and terminus ante quem (first witness to said work, or latest possible date) that scholars should be using. But since NT scholarship is still a religionist enterprise, these sorts of wide margins are unacceptable for the lay (Christian) public.
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Posted by on February 28, 2011 in eschatology, new testament


Neuroscientists Watch Memories Form In Neurons

More ammunition against psi-ists:
Our ability to form long-term memories depends on cells in the brain making strong connections with each other. Yet while it’s not well understood how those connections are made, lost or changed, the process is known to involve the movement of the AMPA receptor protein to and from those neuronal connections.

Reporting this week in Nature Neuroscience, researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have discovered by watching live neurons that the AMPA receptor goes where it needs to be with the help of the 4.1N protein, without which long term memories are not formed.

“This has been a long-standing challenge in the field, trying to see a process that involves a handful of molecules and occurs so quickly, on the order of one-tenth of a second,” says Richard Huganir, Ph.D., professor and director of the Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins. “We just haven’t had the right tools.” Huganir’s research team spent a year building a new microscope to do the experiments.

Removal of the Amygdala makes you literally fearless:

Although clinical observations suggest that humans with amygdala damage have abnormal fear reactions and a reduced experience of fear [[1], [2] and [3]], these impressions have not been systematically investigated. To address this gap, we conducted a new study in a rare human patient, SM, who has focal bilateral amygdala lesions [4]. To provoke fear in SM, we exposed her to live snakes and spiders, took her on a tour of a haunted house, and showed her emotionally evocative films. On no occasion did SM exhibit fear, and she never endorsed feeling more than minimal levels of fear. Likewise, across a large battery of self-report questionnaires, 3 months of real-life experience sampling, and a life history replete with traumatic events, SM repeatedly demonstrated an absence of overt fear manifestations and an overall impoverished experience of fear. Despite her lack of fear, SM is able to exhibit other basic emotions and experience the respective feelings. The findings support the conclusion that the human amygdala plays a pivotal role in triggering a state of fear and that the absence of such a state precludes the experience of fear itself.
Scientists extract images directly from the brain:
A device that reveals what a person sees by decoding their brain activity could soon be a reality, say researchers who have developed a more sophisticated way to extract visual stimuli from brain signals.

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, US, developed a computational model that uses functional MRI (fMRI) data to decode information from an individual's visual cortex – the part of the brain responsible for processing visual stimuli.

“Our research makes substantial advances towards being able to decode mental content from brain activity as measured using fMRI,” Kendrick Kay, a co-author of the study, told New Scientist. “In fact, our results suggest it may soon be possible to reconstruct our visual experiences from brain activity.”

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Posted by on February 24, 2011 in psi


The Darwinian Problem of Evil

This is a compilation of posts I made at another message board:
Lastly, I saw nothing in your post that explained why god would create a world where for one living thing to live another living thing has to die… and not just die, but die painfully. Because the world he supposedly designed is a predatory one. Animals get stalked, chased, and eaten alive by other animals. And they die cruel, painful deaths. Some other animals starve to death. Others are buried alive in landslides, or burned to death in volcanic eruptions/forest fires.

This is an incredibly sadistic world that has existed for millenia before the first human being came onto the scene. The millions (if not billions) of life forms extinguished in the most brutal of fashions had absolutely no moral bearing on anything that any humans have done today. What moral lesson did any human learn about a cute, wide-eyed baby puppy with fluffy ears 3 million years ago who was evicerated by jackals? No human being was around 3 million years ago.

But according to Christianity god was around. He designed the entire scenario for no other audience but himself.

I am ultimately forced to conclude that the Christian god is the most evil being conceivable. And that's not just rhetoric either. I can't think of any being more deplorable. It gives me the image of a child who takes two roosters out into the wilderness under the veil of night just so he can see the two attempt to kill each other, and with no witnesses around. Sadism for his own personal enjoyment.

Natural selection explains why the world is a predatory one. That's because it's restricted by natural laws and scarce resources. What's god's excuse?

Edit: I forgot to also mention that even in a world without free will, sentient beings could still learn. Free will just means that your actions are deterministic, not the information that goes into those actions. Thus free will seems unnecessary to learn about morality, since free will isn't a necessity for learning. Animals can learn, and even some very rudimentary AI can learn. Neither as far as I'm aware, is said to have free will.


You're still arguing from the problem of human suffering. There's some wiggle room in these types of arguments, but you're not taking into account the billions of years of non human suffering.

Billions of years of suffering by sentient beings other than humans. BILLIONS. Imagine someone stabbing you with a knife making a non-life threatening wound every second for 1 billion seconds. Do you know how long that would last? 1 billion seconds? 30 years. Every second for 30 years straight someone stabbing you. Would you then conclude that the person stabbing you actually cares about you in any way? Would you think that the person stabbing you was a doctor trying to perform some sort of surgery?
No. Any rational person would think that this maniac-stabber is completely and utterly sadistic. Any rational person who starts with the evidence that we have first and then forming a conclusion on the evidence would conclude that the stabber is completely debased. On the other hand, someone who has a presupposed belief in the benevolence of the stabber will of course come to the [completely absurd] conclusion that the stabber is benevolent. Their arguments for the stabber's benevolence would obviously appeal to unknowns (that can never be demonstrated) so that they can give themselves some wiggle room out of the most glaringly obvious conclusion.
Again, evolution by natural selection makes the most sense out of this scenario of billions of life forms suffering. The universe was not made for us, so we (as in, all living things not just humans) have to struggle to survive in our little pocket of the universe. It makes sense that the universe is indifferent to us. The benevolent god idea makes absolutely no sense given the evidence.

But god designed the world so that lions have to crush a gazelle's neck in order to survive. Why would a benevolent god of love design a world like that? Why would god design a world where cute furry baby penguins starve to death in the Arctic? Why would god design a world where worms make burrows out of the eyes of mammals causing intense pain and blindness?

If you assume that god created the entire universe for our benefit, none of this has any rhyme or reason. It's all gratuitous suffering. It's like going to a pound shop and buying a baby puppy and feeding him for a couple of months before throwing him off an overpass into oncoming traffic. Anyone in real life who does that would rightly be considered mentally ill or sadistic. But god gets a free pass for doing the equivalent and worse for billions of different animals for millions of years — and still be referred to as a “god of love”.
Was god unable to make the world in any other way? “Then why call him god?”

There's more to an innocent game of tag than meets the eye. When gorillas play the playground favourite, it teaches them a valuable life lesson about unfairness, social boundaries and retaliation. That, at least, is the conclusion of the first study to observe the primates' reactions to inequity outside a controlled laboratory setting.

Young gorillas often engage in play fights that resemble what children do in a game of tag: one youngster will run up to another and hit it, then run away. The other gorilla then gives chase and hits the first one back


They found that the gorilla that did the hitting almost always moved to run away before its victim started moving. The researchers argue that this means the hitter is expecting retaliation and has therefore learned something about acceptable social behaviour.

“Lower” animals have a sense of justice as well. Justice is really a function of social animals; any grouping of social animals will have a system of “justice”.
So you agree that a world were we see gratuitous suffering is incompatible with the existence of an all powerful god of love? The conclusion from this observation is that an all powerful god of love doesn't exist. You seem to agree with all of the premises but don't want to accept the necessary conclusion.

Let's look at this from a different angle; and corret me if I'm wrong in my assessment.

Say you've been seeing a girl (or a guy? I don't know your gender/preference lol) for a couple of years. You're in a serious relationship and have an agreement not to cheat on each other with a different person. For a couple of months now, you notice your significant other spending more over time at work, is coming home late smelling like cologne/perfume that is not theirs, is starting to be less intimate with you, and seems distant.

One night you notice on his/her cellphone while he/she was sleeping that they got a text message that said “I enjoyed last nite teehee xoxo”.

Now, these observations are consistent with a significant other who is cheating on you. They are not consistent with a significant other who is not cheating on you. I think you are agreeing that these observations are consistent with [a world where an all powerful god of love doesn't exist / the significant other is cheating], yet you want to believe the opposite; that there actually is an all powerful god of love / the significant other has some good reasons for giving all of the telltale signs of cheating.

I'm not in the business of wanting to believe and then living my life as though what I want to believe is true actually is true. That is simply living a delusional life. And I think delusions are bad. I would prefer to see things how they actually are so that if there are things that are wrong with how things actually are, I can make the necessary adjustments to how I go about in the world or to change the world to make it better.

I would rather not stay with a significant other who is cheating on me. I would rather not lie to myself so that I stay faithful to the [in actually nonexistent] loving relationship. I would rather not live on an empty promise.


Posted by on February 23, 2011 in apologetics, cognitive science


Objective Scholarship

Secularism in Religious Studies and the Jesus Myth Hypothesis
The primary problem I see in New Testament scholarship since reading about the arguments for a “non-historical” Jesus is one of objective scholarship. This was touched on by a blog post that Neil Godfrey linked to on his blog. In that blog post, “Quixie” points out the following dogmas that would surely hinder any unbiased look at any well-reasoned arguments for an ahistorical Jesus:
Are most New Testament scholars Christian?
Yes, by far. I think most do self-identify as such.
Do most of them believe that Jesus was born miraculously of a virgin?
Most of them? … Hmm … Possibly.
Do they believe that Jesus miraculously rose from the dead on that first Easter morning?
Yes, almost universally.
In context, he was talking about things that NT scholars have a “consensus” on, but this consensus isn't one that is arrived at via critical scholarship. To me, this signals a pretty large hurdle that has to be overcome in NT scholarship. One that was also touched on in Hector Avalos' “The End of Biblical Studies”.
The problem is secularism.
In a comment James McGrath makes, he states that not all NT scholars believe the things that “Quixie” listed. I agree (and a book I highlighted in a previous post pointed out this divide of belief between NT scholars and laypeople). But there most certainly is one dogma that almost all NT scholars believe: That's the resurrection of Jesus. While not all NT scholars believe it as a historical fact or believe in a physical resurrection, they do believe the resurrection as some sort of fact nonetheless (McGrath's comment leads one to think of a sort of Christian specific version of the fallacious NOMA). I don't see how a scholar can be objective and unbiased in his or her approach to the NT while still holding on to this belief.
As far as I know, the only NT scholars that don't believe in the resurrection of Jesus (whose books I've read) are all infidels: Bart Erhman, R. Joseph Hoffman, Robert M. Price, and Hector Avalos. I mean, I have to wonder… if the resurrection of Jesus isn't a historical fact, then what kind of fact is it? (Should what we believe happened in history be restricted to historical facts and what logically follow form those historical facts? I guess that would be another blog post/note altogether).
If all of the other religionist NT scholars believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then a priori there must have been a Jesus that lived and died in the first place. This presupposition largely exists due to the [some other qualifier besides “historical”] resurrection. They all have a fundamental roadblock from travelling the road of any sort of argument against the historicity of Jesus impassionately. Worse yet, I get the impression that this roadblock includes having experiences and encounters with the risen Jesus… possibly every Sunday. 
This roadblock is inherently a supernatural event, and thus precludes any pretense at secularism.
Of course, I don't believe that Jesus rose from the dead. What I do think is that the first Christians (whoever they are and whenever they lived) did believe in some sort of resurrection of Jesus. I think that statement would be a statement of historical fact. But their facts are not my – or our – facts. At least, not the facts of a modern secularist. That their facts are not our facts is something that (from what little I've gleaned) Earl Doherty is trying to bring to light.
Out of the list of non-theist NT scholars that I wrote above, only Price is any sort of proponent of an ahistorical Jesus. Erhman is a historicist. Hoffman is, I think, either agnostic or apathetic, and Avalos' position I'm not sure of.
What Is A Christian?
This, I think, brings me to another problem. Can a scholar of the NT still be a Christian if they don't believe in the resurrection of Jesus in some fashion? Besides Robert Price's identification as a “Christian atheist”, I'm not sure. Modern Christianity has as its unifying “fact” that Jesus rose from the dead. Anyone who doesn't toe that line seems to be removed from the Christian religion, either willfully or by the wider community.
From my own point of view, while I was a Christian I considered myself one because I was trying to be “Christ-like”, which ostensibly meant following the example that Jesus provided and following his teachings. But there are plenty of non-Christians who either follow or admire the teachings of Jesus (like Thomas Jefferson and Ghandi) and didn't consider themselves “Christians”. 
Historically, not all ante-Nicaean Christians believed in the resurrection of Jesus, since this wasn't the cornerstone of their faith. Many of these Christians also only followed the teachings of Jesus; some of these Christians even made fun of their “orthodox” bretheren for worshipping death because they worshipped a dead man. It wasn't Jesus' death that conquered death, it was his teaching – ostensibly pointed out by the first line of the gospel of Thomas.
So the question I have is whether a modern Christian could still consider themselves a Christian and be a proponent of an ahistorical Jesus. For me, it seems like a “no”. However, a secularist would be more open to discussing the historicity of Jesus without the added pressure of whether its conclusion would prove or disprove their fundamental worldview. Hopefully in the future there will be more non-Christian scholars of the NT and history who will tackle the issue.
GRE in one month for me, though!
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Posted by on February 16, 2011 in Uncategorized


The Word of the Lord

Is 1 Thessalonians 4.15-18 a Pauline quote of Jesus? Let's look at the suspect passages.
1 Thess 4.15-18
15 Spoken in the word of the Lord, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.
16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
This is comparable to Mark 8.34-9.1, where Jesus mentions to a crowd that those who are standing there with him will “not taste death until they see the kingdom of god has come with power”:
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
35 For whoever wants to save their soul will lose it, but whoever loses their soul for me and for the good news will save it.
36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?
37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Mark 9

 1 And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
Jesus also repeats the same sentiment at his trial:
60 Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?”
61 But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
62 “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
This implies that the high priest who tried Jesus should have seen the Son of Man descending from heaven during his lifetime.
So was Paul quoting Jesus? Based on these facts alone it would seem pretty obvious. But then there's my previous post that shows Paul's inconsistent use of the non-titular “lord” in his letters. Or, his letters are quite consistent and that Paul thought that Jesus was present at the Exodus (1 Cor 10.9). Complicating things, the phrase “[by the] word of the lord” (λογω κυριου) that Paul uses in 1 Thess 4.14 is a somewhat standard phrase from the LXX (other times being rendered as ρημα κυριου), especially from the Nevi'im:
1 Kings 13.1
…εξ ιουδα παρεγενετο εν λογω κυριου
 …by the word of the Lord [a man] came from Judah
και επεκαλεσεν προς το θυσιαστηριον εν λογω κυριου
And by the word of the Lord he cried out to the altar
Isaiah 1.10
ακουσατε λογον κυριου αρχοντες σοδομων
Hear the word of the Lord rulers of Sodom
Isaiah 2.3
…και λογος κυριου εξ ιερουσαλημ

…and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem
Jeremiah 1.3
και εγενετο λογος κυριου προς με λεγων…

And the word of the Lord came to me saying…
Jeremiah 6
ακουσατε λογον κυριου πασα η ιουδαια

Hear the word of the Lord all in Judah
Ezekiel 3.16
και εγενετο μετα τας επτα ημερας λογος κυριου προς με λεγων

And after seven days the word of the Lord came to me saying
Ezekiel 13.1
και εγενετο λογος κυριου προς με λεγων

And the word of the Lord came to me saying
Hosea 1.1
λογος κυριου ος εγενηθη προς ωσηε…
The wordo f the Lord came to Hosea…
Hosea 4.1
ακουσατε λογον κυριου υιοι ισραηλ…
Hear the word of the Lord children of Israel…
Joel 1.1
λογος κυριου ος εγενηθη προς ιωηλ τον του βαθουηλ

[The] word of the Lord came to Joel the son of [Pe]thuel
Amos 7.16
και νυν ακουε λογον κυριου…
And now hear the word of the Lord…
Jonah 1.1
και εγενετο λογος κυριου προς ιωναν τον του αμαθι λεγων

And the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amatti saying
Jonah 3.1
και εγενετο λογος κυριου προς ιωναν εκ δευτερου λεγων

And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time saying
Micah 1.1
και εγενετο λογος κυριου προς μιχαιαν…
And the word of the Lord came to Micah…
Zephaniah 1.1
λογος κυριου ος εγενηθη προς σοφονιαν…
[The] word of the Lord came to [Ze]ph[a]niah…
Zephaniah 2.5
ουαι οι κατοικουντες το σχοινισμα της θαλασσης παροικοι κρητων λογος κυριου εφ' υμας χανααν γη αλλοφυλων
Woe to you who live by the sea, you Kerethite people; the word of the Lord is against you, Canaan, land of the Philistines.
…and so on throughout the books of the Prophets (and some Ketuvim like Daniel). So by itself, saying [by the] word of the Lord does not necessitate a saying of the Jesus of the gospel narratives. But I do think that Paul thought that Jesus “said” this, just as Paul probably thought that Jesus was the one giving inspiration to the Prophets.
What's interesting is that Paul doesn't number “the Lord's” παρουσια (arrival). He doesn't mention a “second arrival” (or second coming), which would be something like δευτερο παρουσια, but only “arrival”. Paul also explicitly states that the Lord will come down from heaven. This is consistent (I guess) with Paul thinking that the Lord was present at the Exodus and killed some Hebrews with snakes. Someone who was equal to (ειναι ισα θεω) and in the form of (μορφη θεου) Yahweh (Phil 2.6) and through whom the world was created and sustained by would most certainly have existed during the Exodus.
Many scholars believe that the part of Philipians that I quoted is a hymn that precedes Paul, thus there would have been other Christians – prior to Paul – who thought that Jesus was in the form of and equal to Yahweh. And if Jesus created and sustained the world, then it would make sense that he was present at the Exodus.
So is Paul quoting Jesus? I think he is, but he's not quoting any earthly Jesus. Paul probably got this “word of the Lord” by revelation.
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Posted by on February 11, 2011 in early Christianity, paul


God Has No Reason For His Existence

A while back I had a conversation with a Christian about theism vs. atheism. She made a point that if there was no god, then life would be meaningless. This is a common reason that most people have for believing in god. I replied to her statement asking her what meaning god apparently provides for “life”.

She took the bait. She mentioned something about god how “makes sense” of “life”, but there were a whole bunch of assumptions underlying the words that she used; I detected a bit of C. S. Lewis “logic” in her reply (as in, it was more of a rhetorical argument [i.e. “sounds cool”] and not a logical one). Ignoring what she meant by “makes sense”, I thought I’d concentrate on the “life” part. I told her that her answer didn’t actually answer my question since she only meant human life. She then revised her statement to include all other life forms as well. I could have went into the evidential or logical problem of evil at this point. But, again, I didn’t want to detract from a new idea I had rattling in my head.
So then I asked her “Is your god alive, or dead?”. “Alive” she said. So then I asked her the question a third time: What is the meaning or purpose of life?
And that gets me to the title of this blog post. God has no reason for his/her/its existence. She conceded that at this point she didn’t know what the purpose of life – as I’ve defined it – was (I rejoined that the purpose of life is to live, but that’s not the subject of this post 🙂 ). Ultimately, if the thing that gives your life meaning itself has no meaning for its existence, doesn’t that mean by implication that your life has no meaning? So the theist and the atheist are in the same boat: Life cannot be given meaning by some outside force. All meaning-giving things are inherently arbitrary.
For example, if the purpose of your life is to dedicate your life to something greater than yourself, then by definition god cannot have any legitimate purpose for his existence because nothing is supposed to be greater than god. Even if there were some meaning or purpose for god’s existence, whatever this purpose was would be more important than god.
At this point, a more sophisticated theologian might bring up the whole “contingent” vs. “necessary” being argument. I actually think this makes god’s existence even more absurd.
As I’ve gathered, when most philosophers talk about necessary beings, they are talking about beings whose existence is not dependent on any other “thing”. This is one of the reasons why Dawkins’ Ultimate 747 Gambit fails. In that formulation, Dawkins’ argument only works on things that have evolved. But no one believes in a god that evolved, they believe in a god that has always existed. A god that is “necessary”.
My problem with this is that anything that is deemed “necessary” is always less important than the thing that it is necessary for; the thing that is contingent on its necessity. Rubber wheels are necessary for trucks, but the truck itself is more important than the wheels. Any time we talk about necessity, we are implying a need. The thing that is needed is always more important than the precursor for that need. If we want functioning trucks, then we need rubber wheels.
So if god is necessary for this universe, then god’s purpose for existence is the universe! So positing a necessary god makes whatever it is that god is necessary for to be more important than god himself. And no one would say that human beings are more important than god since that’s also not a god that anyone believes in.
Again, this complaint with necessary beings only comes into effect when trying to figure out the reason for the necessary thing’s existence. Human beings are necessary for building computers, but this doesn’t mean that computers are objectively more important than humans. The relative importance is taken into effect once we have determined what is necessary for computers, i.e. what we need to get computers. The focus of that question – because of the nature of the question – places more value on computers than humans. But outside of that specific question, I would not posit that computers are more important than humans because outside of that context, humans are not defined as being “necessary”.
At this point I admit that this is a semantic argument over what it means to be “necessary”. Possibly to get out of this we would have to state that the god of the theologians is the converse of “contingent”, which would be “non-contingent”. That is, that god is a being that doesn’t need anything prior to it in order to exist. But this brings us back to my first point – that this proposed god has no reason for its existence; this non-contingent god is meaningless. Bringing up the Christian’s complaint at the beginning of this post – that without god life is meaningless – means that there’s nothing inherently bad about something being meaningless, since either god itself is meaningless or that – using the implications of “necessary” – god is less important than us and the universe.
Going even further than that, because everything that god is – by some definitions – is “good”, then meaningless itself would also be a good thing! By implication, this would make a meaningless life “good” in the same manner that love is “good”. Since everything that god is is good by some theists’ definition (like god is love), then meaninglessness would also be good, and would be something to strive for if you want to imitate godliness.
The existence of god seems to be one big mess of absurdities.
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Posted by on February 7, 2011 in god, meaning of life, necessary being


History and Bayes’ Theorem

Tom Verenna has posted a pdf from Richard Carrier wherein Dr. Carrier describes how Bayes' Theorem can be applied to historical inquiry. I've often wondered how we can claim some things occured in history without any sort of metric for determinig its historicity. Where's the dividing line between historical and unhistorical? Usually the historicity of some event is described in subjective terms like “very likely”, “not likely”, “probably”, etc. Even though history is not a science, there should be criteria for discerning what is historical that is more rigid than the aforementioned subjective terminology.
Dr. Carrier presents Bayes' Theorem with the following form:
P(h | e.b) = P(h | b) x P(e | h.b) / [P(h | b) x P(e | h.b)] + [ P(~h | b) x P(e |~h.b) ]
P = Probability (epistemic probability = the probability that something stated is true)
h = hypothesis being tested
~h = all other hypotheses that could explain the same evidence (if h is false)
e = all the evidence directly relevant to the truth of h (e includes both what is observed
and what is not observed)
b = total background knowledge (all available personal and human knowledge about
anything and everything, from physics to history)
P(h|e.b) = the probability that a hypothesis (h) is true given all the available evidence (e)
and all our background knowledge (b)
Looks awesome enough. To illustrate the problem with the logic of how most historical arguments are formed, Dr. Carrier begins by introducing syllogistic argument for historicity:
Major Premise 1: All major cities in antiquity had public libraries.
Minor Premise 1: Jerusalem was a major city in antiquity.
Conclusion: Therefore, Jerusalem had a public library.
But Major Premise 1 is a bit unreasonable to assert, since we don't have the type of knowledge that would allow us to say that “[a]ll major cities in antiquity had public libraries”. The most we could say is that most major cities in antiquity had public libraries. But this weakens the deductive strength of the conclusion, i.e. we would have to temper it with “Therefore, Jerusalem more than likely had a public library”. But this is the subjective language I was talking about. Complicating things, we don't have the historical strength to assert with 100% confidence that Jerusalem was a major city in antiquity. There's a “high probability” that it was, but this is again subjective language.
So we would begin with assigning general probabilities to these premises. But once we do that, we would need a method that accurately slides the probabilities in one direction or another based on the weight we give each type of evidence. This is where Bayes' Theorem comes into play. Say we explicate the above syllogism like so:
Major Premise 1: There's a 60% chance that any major city in antiquity had a public library
Minor Premise 1: There's a 90% chance that Jerusalem was a major city
Conclusion: 60% * 90% probability that Jerusalem had a public library
This results in a 54% chance that Jerusalem had a public library. But how would we factor in more evidence, say a manuscript from antiquity asserting that Jerusalem had a public library? We would need some way of adding this additional evidence that doesn't rely on straightforward multiplication, since this would lead to diminishing probabilities as more evidence is gathered!
(The following I numbered for clarity)
If we use Bayes’ Theorem to determine the likelihood that Jerusalem had a public library, and if the following data is the same (note that this model of the problem and these percentages are deliberately unrealistic—realistically they should all be much higher, and the evidence is more complicated):
60% chance that any major city in antiquity had a public library [this would be the major premise]

90% chance that Jerusalem was a major city [this would be the minor premise]
60% chance that there was a library if there is a document attesting to a library [this is additional evidence]
90% chance that we have a document attesting to a public library in Jerusalem [also additional evidence]
1. P(h|b) = (0.6 x 0.9) + x = 0.54 + x = The prior probability that Jerusalem was a major city and (as such) would have a public library [x is negligible, but inserted into the equation to account for a prior probability that Jerusalem was not a major city but had a public library. For this example it is assumed to be 0%.]
2. P(~h|b) = 1 – 0.54 = 0.46 = The prior probability that Jerusalem did not have a public library = the converse of the other prior (i.e. all prior probabilities that appear in a Bayesian equation must sum to exactly 1, no more nor less, because together they must encompass all possible explanations of the evidence for Bayes’ Theorem to be valid).
3. P(e|h.b) = 1.0 = The consequent probability that we would have either some specific evidence of a public library at Jerusalem and / or no evidence against there being one.
For (3) in other words, assuming the historicity of the public library at Jerusalem and our background knowledge, finding evidence for it (like the ancient manuscript) would be no surprise. But it would also be no surprise if we found no evidence (again, like the manuscript) for this public library. So either way, the evidence that we have right now is consistent with Jerusalem having a public library.
4. P(e|~h.b) = 0.4 = The consequent probability that there would be a document attesting to a public library in Jerusalem even when there wasn’t a public library there (i.e. the converse of the 60% chance that such a library existed if we have such a document).
P(h | e.b) = 0.54 * 1.00 / [0.54 * 1.00] + [0.46 * 0.40]
P(h | e.b) = 0.54 / (0.54 + 0.184)
P(h | e.b) = 0.54 / 0.724 = 0.746 = 75%
RESULT: […W]e get the plausible result of a 75% such chance. And this was found with unrealistic percentages that biased the result against there being a library there, which means a fortiori we can be highly certain Jerusalem had a public library. This illustrates the advantage of using unrealistically hostile estimates against a hypothesis, since if the conclusion follows even then, we can have a high confidence in that conclusion.
Well isn't this just pulling percentages out of your nether regions? Not necessarily:
One common objection to using Bayes’ Theorem in history is that Bayes’ is a model of mathematical precision in a field that has nothing of the kind. This precision of the math can create the illusion of precision in the estimates and results. But as long as you do not make this mistake, it will not affect your results. The correct procedure is to choose values for the terms in the equation that are at the limit of what you can reasonably believe them to be, to reflect a wide margin of error, thus ensuring a high confidence level (producing an argument a fortiori), regardless of any inexactness in your estimations. For example, surely more than 60% of major cities in antiquity had public libraries (the evidence is compellingly in favor of a much higher percentage, provided ‘major city’ is reasonably defined). But since we don’t have exact statistics, we can say that the percentage of such cities must fall between 60% and 100% (= 80% with a margin of error +/-20%). With such a wide margin of error, our confidence level remains high (see appendix). We are in effect saying that we might not be sure it was 100% (or 90% or even 80%), even though we may believe it is, but we can be sure it was no less than 60%. Since that is the limit of what we deem reasonable, so will our conclusion be (the conclusion is only as strong as an argument’s weakest premise, and each probability assigned in a Bayesian equation is the formal equivalent of a premise).
So there you have it. This is my simple interpretation of Dr. Carrier's article, so read it on its own terms if you find mine lacking :). One of the references that Dr. Carrier makes is to Eliezer Yudkowsky's intro to Bayes' Theorem. There's a bit more I want to write about Bayes' Theorem and the ad hocness that I see in religious debates, but I'll save that for a future post.
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Posted by on February 2, 2011 in Bayes

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