Monday, December 29, 2008

Would Anything Change Your Mind?

C. Daniel Batson, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Rational Processing or Rationalization?: The Effect of Discontinuing Information on a Stated Religious Belief, 1975, 32:1, 176-184), conducted a study on religious belief and cognitive dissonance that reveals what many of us suspected about religious dogmatism.

Researchers used a questionnaire and a measurement scale to assign a value to the strength of religious belief for a group of test subjects. Then the subjects were asked to publicly declare (in front of the rest of the group) whether or not they answered “yes” to the question: Do you believe that Jesus was the Son of God? Next, they were all given an article to read and discuss. The article, they were told, was written anonymously and “denied publication in The New York Times at the request of the World Council of Churches because of the obvious crushing effect it would have on the entire Christian world":

Here is the text of the fake article:

-Geneva, Switzerland. It was learned today here in Geneva from a top source in the World Council of Churches offices that scholars in Jordan have conclusively proved that the major writings in what is today called the New Testament are fraudulent.

According to the information gained from the unnamed source within the headquarters of the World Council of Churches, Professor R. R. Lowry (author of The Zarondike Fragments and the Dead Sea Scrolls) assisted by other scholars, has been carefully analyzing a collection of papyrus scrolls discovered in a cave in the Jordanian desert near where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Contained within this collection of scrolls, Lowry and his associates have found letters, apparently written between the composers of various New Testament books, bluntly stating: "Since our great teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, was killed by the Romans, I am sure we were justified in stealing away his body and claiming that he rose from the dead. For, although his death clearly proves he was not the Son of God as we had hoped, if we did not claim that he was, both his great teaching and our lives as his disciples would be wasted!"

Though Lowry initially suspected the authenticity of these scrolls, he was later quoted as saying, "Through radiocarbon dating and careful study of the Aramaic dialect used in writing these letters, I have found it impossible to deny that the manuscripts are authentic. You can't imagine what a struggle this has been; I find no alternative but to renounce my former belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. I can no longer be a Christian."

When Dr. Ernest Carson Baker, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, was confronted with Lowry's statement by this reporter, he at first denied that it was true. After a few minutes of questioning, however, he broke down and admitted, "This thing has got us so upset we're just not sure what to do. We just can't let this story get out!" Apparently the only avenue open to the Church in the twentieth century is the same avenue which it took in the first century— conceal the facts and proclaim Jesus as the divine Son of God, even though it knows such a claim is a lie.

After reading the article, 24% of the subjects indicated that they accepted the article as true. The rest of them were unsure or clearly rejected it.

Then researchers re-measured the strength of the subjects’ religious beliefs. The results are remarkable and familiar. The subjects who had identified themselves as non-believers at the outset had their level of religious belief drop after reading the article. The believers in the group who indicated that they doubted the belief-disconfirming story had their level of religious belief diminish. And the believers who also said that they accepted the story as true had their religious belief strengthened.

Batson says, “Those who had not committed themselves to a belief stance, even though generally skeptical about the veracity of the article, showed a significant drop in intensity of belief on the post test. Those who had publicly identified themselves as believers but doubted the veracity of the article showed no significant change in intensity of belief. Those who had publicly identified themselves as believers and accepted the article as true showed a significant increase in the expressed intensity of belief.”

That is, even when faced with outright disconfirming evidence that they accept as true, rather than come to doubt that Jesus is the Son of God, the believers indicated having an even stronger belief. Batson puts the result clearly: “Publicly committed to an apparently untenable belief, subjects seemed more concerned with defending and justifying themselves than with dispassionately reading off the logical implications of their statements.”

Then Batson comments, “It has been said, "You will know the Truth and the Truth will make you free [John 8:32]." The present research seems to question this assertion. The more one publicly proclaims one's conviction about personally significant truths, the more one seems bound to these truths. One is less free to modify one's position, to take account of new, discrepant information. But perhaps this is not what is meant by freedom in the above statement. If it means that one will be free from the rational process of taking account of all relevant information in the formulation of one's beliefs, than the present research seems clearly supportive.”

It is hard to conceive of a more clear, objective demonstration of outright irrationality.

Let me offer some further speculations. When we engage with the non-believer in a discussion about the evidence, arguments for the existence of God, intelligent design in the cosmos, the origins of the human moral capacity, and all of the other contentious topics surrounding religious belief, the non-believer typically assumes that there is a point. That is, when we argue about religious matters, the (clearly idealistic) goal is to achieve some rational progress on what conclusions are epistemically responsible to believe. We are all concerned (or at least we should be) with having sensible beliefs that fit with the facts, as best as we can ascertain them. If not, then there’s really no point to the exchange of views other than vain pronouncements of dogmatism.

What the evidence in Batson’s study shows is something that we have all seen at work in the words and behaviors of many believers. There are a great many religious adherents who are simply and obviously unconcerned with the facts. They are resolved to maintain their views in the face of blatantly contradictory evidence, even more so in cases where they profess to accept the contradictory evidence as true.

It should be obvious how frightening this tendency among religious believers is to the rest of us who have not been seduced by the religious urge. It should be obvious how dangerous this tendency among religious believers is to all of us. It is also obvious, although Batson’s study doesn’t document it, how widespread this sort of dogmatic irrationalism is.

So the believer who wants to discuss the reasons for disbelief with us owes us an accounting. We have substantial grounds for suspecting that their commitment to their dogma will lead them to be unresponsive to reasoning or evidence. Even worse, we have evidence for thinking that as the counter evidence increases, so will their stubborn refusal to think clearly about it. And we have substantial grounds for suspecting that their attachment to their dogma has nothing to do with reasons or evidence, despite their assertions otherwise.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

My Private, Unassailable Knowledge of God

The Reformed Epistemology movement has constructed an elaborate explanation of how they think God beliefs are justified. In short, RE believers claim to have a direct immediate access to God through a witness of the holy spirit, religious experience, or sensus divinitatus. What’s important about this new source of knowledge is that it is private, it cannot be refuted by any contrary evidence, indeed, it rejects evidence altogether. This path to God is direct and veridical—without mistakes or confusions.

Here it is in William Lane Craig’s words:

Plantinga's model involves crucially what is usually called the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. In his model the Holy Spirit functions on the analogy of a cognitive faculty, producing beliefs in us. I myself prefer to think of the Spirit's witness either as a form of literal testimony or else as part of the experiential circumstances which serve to ground belief in God and the great truths of the Gospel. In either case His deliverances are properly basic. By that I mean that the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for him who has it; that such a person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God; that such experience does not function in this case as a premise in any argument from religious experience to God, but rather is the immediate experiencing of God himself; that in certain contexts the experience of the Holy Spirit will imply the apprehension of certain truths of the Christian religion, such as "God exists," "I am condemned by God," "I am reconciled to God," "Christ lives in me," and so forth; that such an experience provides one not only with a subjective assurance of Christianity's truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and that arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for him who attends fully to it.

After they argued that classical foundationalism was dead because it couldn’t how its basic principles were known: “Only those beliefs that we apprehend clearly and distinctly are true.” itself was challenged. Is knowing that principle itself something we apprehend clearly and distinctly? Or through justification? The idea behind RE was that we could apprehend more things directly and know them than just Descartes list of internal thoughts. When I see a flower, I am immediately aware of its title, and of its beauty. When it appears to me that the person I am talking to is angry, that’s something I know without any inference or reasoning. I know it directly and immediately.

How is it that they come to the confident conclusion that the deliverances of the holy spirit are veridical, objective knowledge? Because of features of the experiences themselves. The testimony of the Holy Spirit confronts them directly and does not misled them, they say. And the experience itself is so powerful, it eclipses whatever power to raise doubts some other ideas might have had. This internal source of knowledge of God gives the believer perfect assurance that any possible defeater that comes up is mistaken.

The RE development represents a retreat away from classic attempts to prove God’s existence on independent, non-circular, inter-subjectively verifiable grounds. The Holy Spirit has given this Christian the perfect answer to everything. The voices are internal and private. But what they instruct is without any doubt because the feelings are intense and authentic and unmistakable feeling. And the feelings give me perfect unassailable assurance that no matter what sort of counter evidence I encounter, it must be wrong. I have an internal, self-authenticating source of knowledge that cannot be mistaken.

There are a lot of objections to make to this sort of view. First, presumably even the RE adherent would admit that not all of the strong, passionate feelings like this that people have are authentic, even some of the ones where the subject is convinced that the experience is real, veridical, and religiously significant. They must be willing to admit that there are some false religious experiences that feel similarly compelling. If not, then they’d have to accept that all of the powerful, spiritual experiences that people have had count equally as objective knowledge. The problem is that too many people have had too many experiences like this that produce beliefs that are blatantly contradictory. They can’t all be correct. And surely the RE advocate wants to have some ground from which to argue that the Zoroastrians and the Palugans are wrong when they directly experience their gods. So the question is how does one tell the difference between the authentic visions and the bogus ones? Especially if the bogus ones are insisting that there’s are authentic just as vigorously.

Second, how can any mere feeling inside one’s own head be sufficient to give you a defeater for any possible counter evidence that comes along? Mere feelings in the head that are not manifest as objects in the world are notoriously subjective and unreliable. You can’t trust your strong feelings to tell you the truth about the world. And the only way we’ve ever had to check those feelings is to go look and confirm or disconfirm whether it was there. Cross-checking outside the voices in the my head, especially with other observers are the only or at least the best method we’ve ever had for separating the true from the false. It’s patently contrary to a thousand lessons every one of us has learned the hard way in our daily lives where the thing that felt sooo right in our minds turned out to be completely off the mark.

Third, consider the bigger picture here. There are millions of Christians and born-again evangelical Christians in the United States who wield enormous political, social, and economic power. They battle to set our school agendas, they put politicians into office, they vote for social agendas, and they propagate their ideas to the next generation of Americans. And here we are being told that ultimately the source of justification they have for their entire ideology is a set of intense, undeniable feelings they have in their minds. Furthermore, these ideas cannot be challenged (or even experienced) by anyone on the outside. In principle, they cannot be defeated because the feelings themselves inform the feeler that nothing else is so true or trustworthy.

The problem, obviously, is that the ideology has co-opted the RE’s capacity to think straight. Their dedication to the ideology has eclipsed all other concerns, even the person’s capacity to reason. Once someone is this far gone, the rest of us can only hope that the voices in their heads don’t start telling them to strap on a dynamite backpack or try to hasten the apocalypse by instigating World War 3.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The RNA World

Special guest column by Reginald Selkirk:

Many Creationists will point to the complexity of modern biological cells and proclaim that something so complex could not possibly have assembled by pure chance, therefore God (or the unnamed-for-legal-reasons Intelligent Designer) must have done it. Sometimes the argument will be made more specific, such as that N proteins of M residues each must be necessary for a minimally functioning cell, and when you calculate the probability of those proteins appearing together simultaneously, with a 1/20 chance of a particular amino acid residue in each spot of each protein sequence, the odds are astronomical. Or they may point out that proteins are necessary for the replication, transcription and translation of genes, and genes are necessary for encoding proteins, so that there is a chicken or egg circularity to any origin schemes. Such arguments do not point out legitimate weaknesses in evolutionary theory, they only highlight the ignorance of the typical Creationist about matters of biology.

Before we get started on a discussion of the origin of life, let's get the timeframe straight. Current evidence tells us that the age of the universe since the Big Bang is about 13.7 billion years. The age of planet Earth and the solar system is about 4.5 billion years. These dates are supported by several independent fields of science and lines of evidence, including astronomy and radiochemistry. Anyone denying these figures can take their ball and go home right now, because the game they are playing is not science.

The main problems with the "cells are too complex" argument are 1) that it looks at a modern cell, and 2) that naturalistic evolutionary processes are mistakenly perceived as being entirely random.

To tackle the second misconception first, evolution is not entirely random. Variation in organisms due to various forms of mutation or recombination are indeed presumed to be random, but the natural selection which weeds out the failures and allows the successes to flourish is anything but random. To suggest that evolution is entirely random is akin to stating that since any foot race has an element of randomness which might influence the outcome, the Olympic 100 meter dash is equivalent to a lottery. Not so, the participants were selected at many different levels before they even made it to the Olympics. With evolution, the argument is even more absurd, since successful organisms replicate themselves more successfully, and thus have more chances for their offspring to participate in subsequent rounds of competition.

Modern cells are indeed complex. A great deal of the chemistry involved has been worked out in the last century or so. First of all, there is no evidence indicating that the chemistry that takes place within organisms is different than chemistry that takes place outside of cells. Biochemistry has identified most of the metabolites involved, and they conform to known physical and chemical laws. The same sort of reactions occur inside and outside cells. The same atomic theory holds, and the same electron orbital theory. There is no magic ingredient that makes a living thing alive. Chemicals can be synthesized from nonliving sources and introduced into living systems, where they will behave identically with chemically identical biogenic compounds. Much of modern molecular biology consists of using biologically derived catalysts (enzymes) to facilitate reactions outside of living things. Vitalism is dead, and biochemistry killed it.

The Creationist mistake is assuming that modern, complex cells were present at the origin of life. This is analogous to supposing that since cavemen could not construct a modern Mercedes Benz, therefore automobiles cannot have been invented by men, but must have been introduced into modern society by gods or space aliens. (This is an analogy. Analogies are made to illustrate arguments. They should not be stretched too far.) We know that early humans worked their way up through wheelbarrows, carts, chariots, animal-drawn carriages, and early engine-driven carriages before the current incarnations of autos "evolved." In a similar manner, biologists who accept and understand evolution (i.e. almost all of them) believe that early forms of life were much simpler than those we see today, which are the result of billions of years of evolution. Thus, the Creationist argument based on the complexity of modern cells is a straw man fallacy.

Modern cells mostly follow the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology, which proposes that genetic information is stored in DNA, that the information is transcribed into RNA, and then translated into proteins. At the time of the Central Dogma (late 1950s), DNA was viewed as the central repository of information, RNA was viewed as a relatively unimportant go-between. Most of the functional stuff in organisms is done by proteins. Proteins form most of the enzymes which catalyze metabolic reations. Proteins fill structural roles within the cells (microtubules and actin fibers) and outside cells (collagen in ligaments, keratin in skin, crystallin in the lens of your eye). Proteins transport things from here to there (hemoglobin in your red blood cells, ion pores in cell membranes). It is hard to imagine modern cells without proteins. But remember, we're not concerned with modern cells, but with the ancient precursors of modern life, which may even predate the development of cells.

One important exception to the Central Dogma which carries important insights into biological function and history (and shows the lack of respect scientists have for any "dogma") is reverse transcriptase, an enzyme which copies RNA into DNA. RNA (ribonucleic acid) and DNA(deoxyribonucleic acid) are closely related linear polymers which both fall into the general class of nucleic acids. DNA's ability to store and replicate genetic information is based on its ability to form double-stranded helices with base pairing. RNA shares this important property. DNA can form a double helix with DNA, RNA can form a double helix with RNA, and DNA and RNA can form a double helix together. This is how DNA is copied into RNA in cells in order that genes might be read and translated by the ribosomes. Reverse transcriptase is an enzyme which performs the opposite function, it starts with a strand of RNA, and using the double helical base-paring properties of nucleic acids, constructs a complementary DNA chain. In the modern world, reverse transcriptase is used by retroviruses, viruses which transmit their genes as RNA, but which can copy themselves into the DNA genome of the host. Prominent examples of retroviruses include HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and chicken pox. The discovery of reverse transcriptase allows us to imagine a world without DNA, in which celular genetic information was carried in RNA, as it is in many viruses even today.

As already stated: consistent with evolutionary thinking, biologists propose that early forms of life were simpler than those available for study now. Once the main ingredients of cells were worked out in the middle of the 20th century, people started wondering about which of the major linear biopolymers, DNA, RNA or protein might have come first. RNA was a favorite candidate because not only can it carry and replicate information in the same manner as DNA, but it is more chemically reactive than DNA and could presumably catalyze chemical reactions. The term RNA World was first used by Walter Gilbert in 1986, although others had already made similar suggestions.

Although RNA's theoretical ability to catalyze reactions was known, no examples of RNA catalysts had been identified, and this was a sticking point for the RNA World hypothesis for quite a while. I will digress a bit here and mention that RNA is comparatively difficult to work with in the laboratory. DNA and protein can be extracted from cells without too much difficulty, but RNA is chemically less stable than DNA, and RNase, an enzyme which specifically breaks down RNA, is ubiquitous. It is all over your hands, it is pretty much everywhere. An obvious reason for this is that RNase helps protect you against attack by viruses, many of which carry their genome as RNA. To isolate RNA in the laboratory requires careful technique and the use of chemicals which inhibit the action of RNase.

Francis Crick, famous as one of the discoverers of the DNA double helix, wrote a book on directed panspermia in 1982, Life Itself. Directed panspermia is the idea that aliens deliberately seeded life on earth by sending starting organisms across interstellar space. This does not really answer the question of the origin of life, but it does allow one to push the answer back a few billion years, since the aliens would presumably have to evolve for a few billion years before they reached the technological sophistication necessary to seed other planetary systems. However, one cannot push the origin of life back too far, because astrophysics tells us that the heavy elements which make up much of life ("heavy" means anything heavier than hydrogen and helium to an astrophysicist) were created in early stars. Directed panspermia has a lot of difficulties of its own, and the only reason I mention it is because Crick stated as one motivation for writing his book the fact that no RNA catalysts had been identified at that time.

It wasn't too much longer before the first RNA catalysts were identified, and Thomas Cech and Sidney Altman shared the Nobel Prize in 1989 for those discoveries. RNase P is a piece of RNA which cleaves RNA. These discoveries renewed interest in the RNA World.

What other evidence might exist for the RNA World? First of all, we must adjust our expectations to the question. We are wondering about an environment that existed over 3 billion years ago (possibly closer to 4 billion) and left no macroscopic fossils lying around, as the dinosaurs did. A large portion of the Earth's surface has been recycled over the planet's history by the forces of plate tektonics. Any chemical evidence of the RNA World may have been scavenged by later, more successful life forms to which it gave birth. Modern cellular life has now been identified at deep ocean vents, in polar ice caps, in hot springs, and deep underground. Life is now almost everywhere on our planet, and is even believed to be responsible for creating the oxygen-containing atmosphere which allowed for the evolution of large oxygen-breathing life forms such as ourselves.

One way to deal with this challenge is to look for "molecular fossils" within the cells of modern organism. That is, evidence of our origins may be embedded within the make-up of our own bodies, and within the cells of all living organisms. To summarize briefly, additional RNA enzymes have been identified. DNA raw materials in cells are constructed from RNA raw materials, which points to RNA metabolism as being earlier and more central than DNA metabolism. This conversion is carried out by ribonucleotide reductase, and forms of that enzyme in all known branches of life appear to be homologous (descended from a common origin.) This supports the RNA World, and also suggests that gene-encoded proteins preceded the introduction of DNA to cellular metabolism. More recent speculation supposes that the shift from RNA to DNA as the primary genetic storehouse came about as a result of competition between viruses and their hosts.

The capstone of evidence for the RNA World has come within the last decade from researchers working on ribosomes, the protein-producing factories within cells. Ribosomes have been worked on for quite a while, but they are huge as enzymes go, consisting of dozens of subunits of both RNA and protein. Only around the turn of the century did these huge complexes succumb to the technique of X-ray crystallography, which uncovers the structure of molecules down to the atomic level. And the information uncovered was very exciting: the catalytic core of the ribosome is a ribozyme, i.e. an RNA enzyme. The implications of this for origin of life studies is clear: cellular proteins are manufactured by RNA (with a few odd exceptions), and they always have been. The Creationist charge of chicken:egg::DNA:protein circularity is based in ignorance of biological fact.

The evidence for the RNA World is not as extensive as the evidence for evolution through natural selection, or the evidence for quantum mechanics, but it is solid enough to convince most biologists that it is a sound theory of what an early stage of life on this planet looked like. This still leaves many questions: What was the nature of the RNA World: what, where and when, etc. What came before it? How did we get from there to where we are now? The existence of unanswered questions is not a reason to give up and praise God, it is a reason to do more science, and researchers are doing just exactly that.

If you would like to learn more about current theories on the origin of life, i recommend the book Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins by Robert Hazen (ISBN-13: 978-0309103107)

A few web links on the origin of life:

You might notice that most of these links are a few years old, I recycled them from a previous summary. Rest assured that scientific research has continued since then.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Intelligence is Inversely Related to Religiousness

Believers have frequently attacked atheism on the grounds that it must be mistaken because so many intelligent people accept the claim that God is real. Then a list follows. The implication, if there’s an argument here at all, is that by not believing, the atheist asserts that all of these brilliant people are crazy, or at least mistaken. But surely, so many people who are so smart couldn’t be so wrong. Or something to that effect.

The fallacious appeal to authority is clearly a problem in these arguments. There’s also a great deal of confirmation bias going on. We can find lots of smart people, like Ptolemy, who believed that the Sun orbits the Earth, or like Aristotle who believed that the four basic elements of matter are earth, air, fire, and water. So specific appeals to individuals and their beliefs won’t tell us much about what’s reasonable.

But if we were to take a broader view of what smart people think on the whole, could that give us some leverage on the question of what is most reasonable to believe? It won’t settle the matter of course. Belief trends among smart people can be just as mistaken as Aristotle’s earth/air/fire/water scheme. But one would be foolish to disregard what the most educated, intelligent, and thoughtful people in the human race thought was true. If there are significant trends in what they take to be true, that should count as substantial justification for all of us. That’s a large part of what justifies the rest of us in believing that smoking causes cancer, or that oxygen is real, afterall. Which views are justified are, in part, a function of the social-epistemic context. One’s standards of justification and background information are tied, in part, to what the people around you think. Aristotle wasn’t irrational, just mistaken.

In a recent meta study in Intelligence (“Average Intelligence Predicts Atheism Rates Across 137 Nations”), Richard Lynn, John Harvey, and Helmuth Nyborg identified some telling conclusions:

1) Worldwide, there is a substantial negative correlation between intelligence and religious belief. That is, as intelligence goes up, religious belief goes down.

2) Furthermore, there is a significant decline of religious belief with age among children.

3) In the 20th century, as the intelligence of the population has gone up, religious belief has gone down.

In their discussion, the authors cite several familiar explanations from the previous surveys for why the correlation exists:

Frazer, in The Golden Bough, concludes that “the keener minds came to reject the religious theory of nature as inadequate. . . religion, regarded as an explanation of nature, is replaced by science.”

Kuhlen and Arnold argue that “greater intellectual maturity might be expected to increase scepticism in matters of religion.”

Inglehart and Welzel assert that people in the pre-industrial world have little control over nature, so “they seek to compensate their lack of physical control by appealing to the metaphysical powers that seem to contrl the world: worship is seen as a way to influence one’s fate, and it is easier to accept one’s helplessness if one knows the outcome is in the hands of an omnipotent being whose benevolence can be won by following rigid and predictable rules of contact. . . one reason for the decline in traditional religious beliefs in industrial societies is that an increasing sense of technological control over nature diminishes the need for reliance on supernatural powers.”

The authors also note that the United States is anomalous “in having an unusually low percentage of its population disbelieving in God (10.5%) for a high IQ country.”

It is no accident that disbelieving God comes with increased information and increased IQ. The correlations are too robust for that. And the explanations for the correlation here are at least plausible. So data shifts a burden of proof onto the shoulders of the believer, particularly the one who would cite a list of smart believers to defend their position.

U.S. District Court: Intelligent Design is a Farce

In a landmark case in Pennsylvania (Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District) the U.S. District Court addressed the question of whether Intelligent Design should be taught as a legitmiate scientific theory and as a competitor to evolution in high school biology.

The answer was a resounding “no.” Not only that, the Court put the veracity of the ID arguments on trial, assessed the state of the evidence in its favor, and carefully scrutinized its claim to be a scientific theory. It unequivocally concluded that Intelligent Design is an utterly unsupported farce and a duplicitous scheme to replace legitimate science education with religion.

Here are some of the most interesting passages from the Court’s conclusion:

It is therefore readily apparent to the Court that ID fails to meet the essential ground rules that limit science to testable, natural explanations. (3:101-03 (Miller); 14:62 (Alters)). Science cannot be defined differently for Dover students than it is defined in the scientific community as an affirmative action program, as advocated by Professor Fuller, for a view that has been unable to gain a foothold within the scientific establishment. Although ID’s failure to meet the ground rules of science is sufficient for the Court to conclude that it is not science, out of an abundance of caution and in the exercise of completeness, we will analyze additional arguments advanced regarding the concepts of ID and science.

ID is at bottom premised upon a false dichotomy, namely, that to the extent evolutionary theory is discredited, ID is confirmed. (5:41 (Pennock)). This argument is not brought to this Court anew, and in fact, the same argument, termed “contrived dualism” in McLean, was employed by creationists in the 1980's to support “creation science.” The court in McLean noted the “fallacious pedagogy of the two model approach” and that “[i]n efforts to establish ‘evidence’ in support of creation science, the defendants relied upon the same false premise as the two model approach . . . all evidence which criticized evolutionary theory was proof in support of creation science.” McLean, 529 F. Supp. at 1267, 1269. We do not find this false dichotomy any more availing to justify ID today than it was to justify creation science two decades ago.

ID proponents primarily argue for design through negative arguments against evolution, as illustrated by Professor Behe’s argument that “irreducibly complex” systems cannot be produced through Darwinian, or any natural, mechanisms. (5:38-41 (Pennock); 1:39, 2:15, 2:35-37, 3:96 (Miller); 16:72-73 (Padian); 10:148 (Forrest)). However, we believe that arguments against evolution are not arguments for design. Expert testimony revealed that just because scientists cannot explain today how biological systems evolved does not mean that they cannot, and will not, be able to explain them tomorrow. (2:36-37 (Miller)). As Dr. Padian aptly noted, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” (17:45 (Padian)). To that end, expert testimony from Drs. Miller and Padian provided multiple examples where Pandas asserted that no natural explanations exist, and in some cases that none could exist, and yet natural explanations have been identified in the intervening years. It also bears mentioning that as Dr. Miller stated, just because scientists cannot explain every evolutionary detail does not undermine its validity as a scientific theory as no theory in science is fully understood. (3:102 (Miller)).

As referenced, the concept of irreducible complexity is ID’s alleged scientific centerpiece. Irreducible complexity is a negative argument against evolution, not proof of design, a point conceded by defense expert Professor Minnich. (2:15 (Miller); 38:82 (Minnich) (irreducible complexity “is not a test of intelligent design; it’s a test of evolution”). Irreducible complexity additionally fails to make a positive scientific case for ID, as will be elaborated upon below.

We initially note that irreducible complexity as defined by Professor Behe in his book Darwin’s Black Box and subsequently modified in his 2001 article entitled “Reply to My Critics,” appears as follows:

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system which is composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional . . . Since natural selection can only choose systems that are already working, then if a biological system cannot be produced gradually it would have to arise as an integrated unit, in one fell swoop, for natural selection to have anything to act on. P-647 at 39; P-718 at 694.

Professor Behe admitted in “Reply to My Critics” that there was a defect in his view of irreducible complexity because, while it purports to be a challenge to natural selection, it does not actually address “the task facing natural selection.” (P-718 at 695). Professor Behe specifically explained that “[t]he current definition puts the focus on removing a part from an already- functioning system,” but “[t]he difficult task facing Darwinian evolution, however, would not be to remove parts from sophisticated pre-existing systems; it would be to bring together components to make a new system in the first place.” Id. In that article, Professor Behe wrote that he hoped to “repair this defect in future work;” however, he has failed to do so even four years after elucidating his defect. Id.; 22:61-65 (Behe).

In addition to Professor Behe’s admitted failure to properly address the very phenomenon that irreducible complexity purports to place at issue, natural selection, Drs. Miller and Padian testified that Professor Behe’s concept of irreducible complexity depends on ignoring ways in which evolution is known to occur. Although Professor Behe is adamant in his definition of irreducible complexity when he says a precursor “missing a part is by definition nonfunctional,” what he obviously means is that it will not function in the same way the system functions when all the parts are present. For example in the case of the bacterial flagellum, removal of a part may prevent it from acting as a rotary motor. However, Professor Behe excludes, by definition, the possibility that a precursor to the bacterial flagellum functioned not as a rotary motor, but in some other way, for example as a secretory system. (19:88-95 (Behe)). As expert testimony revealed, the qualification on what is meant by “irreducible complexity” renders it meaningless as a criticism of evolution. (3:40 (Miller)). In fact, the theory of evolution proffers exaptation as a well-recognized, well-documented explanation for how systems with multiple parts could have
evolved through natural means. Exaptation means that some precursor of the subject system had a different, selectable function before experiencing the change or addition that resulted in the subject system with its present function (16:146-48 (Padian)). For instance, Dr. Padian identified the evolution of the mammalian middle ear bones from what had been jawbones as an example of this process. (17:6-17 (Padian)). By defining irreducible complexity in the way that he has, Professor Behe attempts to exclude the phenomenon of exaptation by definitional fiat, ignoring as he does so abundant evidence which refutes his argument. Notably, the NAS has rejected Professor Behe’s claim for irreducible complexity by using the following cogent reasoning:

[S]tructures and processes that are claimed to be ‘irreducibly’ complex typically are not on closer inspection. For example, it is incorrect to assume that a complex structure or biochemical process can function only if all its components are present and functioning as we see them today. Complex biochemical systems can be built up from simpler systems through natural selection. Thus, the ‘history’ of a protein can be traced through simpler organisms . . . The evolution of complex molecular systems can occur in several ways. Natural selection can bring together parts of a system for one function at one time and then, at a later time, recombine those parts with other systems of components to produce a system that has a different function. Genes can be duplicated, altered, and then amplified through natural selection. The complex biochemical cascade resulting in blood clotting has been explained in this fashion.

As irreducible complexity is only a negative argument against evolution, it is refutable and accordingly testable, unlike ID, by showing that there are intermediate structures with selectable functions that could have evolved into the allegedly irreducibly complex systems. (2:15-16 (Miller)). Importantly, however, the fact that the negative argument of irreducible complexity is testable does not make testable the argument for ID. (2:15 (Miller); 5:39 (Pennock)). Professor Behe has applied the concept of irreducible complexity to only a few select systems: (1) the bacterial flagellum; (2) the blood-clotting cascade; and (3) the immune system. Contrary to Professor Behe’s assertions with respect to these few biochemical systems among the myriad existing in nature, however, Dr. Miller presented evidence, based upon peer-reviewed studies, that they are not in fact irreducibly complex.

First, with regard to the bacterial flagellum, Dr. Miller pointed to peer- reviewed studies that identified a possible precursor to the bacterial flagellum, a subsystem that was fully functional, namely the Type-III Secretory System. (2:8- 20 (Miller); P-854.23-854.32). Moreover, defense expert Professor Minnich admited that there is serious scientific research on the question of whether the bacterial flagellum evolved into the Type-III Secretary System, the Type-III Secretory System into the bacterial flagellum, or whether they both evolved from a common ancestor. (38:12-16 (Minnich)). None of this research or thinking involves ID. (38:12-16 (Minnich)). In fact, Professor Minnich testified about his research as follows: “we’re looking at the function of these systems and how they could have been derived one from the other. And it’s a legitimate scientific inquiry.” (38:16 (Minnich)).

Second, with regard to the blood-clotting cascade, Dr. Miller demonstrated that the alleged irreducible complexity of the blood-clotting cascade has been disproven by peer-reviewed studies dating back to 1969, which show that dolphins’ and whales’ blood clots despite missing a part of the cascade, a study that was confirmed by molecular testing in 1998. (1:122-29 (Miller); P-854.17- 854.22). Additionally and more recently, scientists published studies showing that in puffer fish, blood clots despite the cascade missing not only one, but three parts. (1:128-29 (Miller)). Accordingly, scientists in peer-reviewed publications have refuted Professor Behe’s predication about the alleged irreducible complexity of the blood-clotting cascade. Moreover, cross-examination revealed that Professor Behe’s redefinition of the blood-clotting system was likely designed to avoid peer- reviewed scientific evidence that falsifies his argument, as it was not a scientifically warranted redefinition. (20:26-28, 22:112-25 (Behe)).

The immune system is the third system to which Professor Behe has applied the definition of irreducible complexity. Although in Darwin’s Black Box, Professor Behe wrote that not only were there no natural explanations for the immune system at the time, but that natural explanations were impossible regarding its origin. (P-647 at 139; 2:26-27 (Miller)). However, Dr. Miller presented peer-reviewed studies refuting Professor Behe’s claim that the immune system was irreducibly complex. Between 1996 and 2002, various studies confirmed each element of the evolutionary hypothesis explaining the origin of the immune system. (2:31 (Miller)). In fact, on cross-examination, Professor Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fifty- eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not “good enough.” (23:19 (Behe)).

We find that such evidence demonstrates that the ID argument is dependent upon setting a scientifically unreasonable burden of proof for the theory of evolution. As a further example, the test for ID proposed by both Professors Behe and Minnich is to grow the bacterial flagellum in the laboratory; however, no-one inside or outside of the IDM, including those who propose the test, has conducted it. (P-718; 18:125-27 (Behe); 22:102-06 (Behe)). Professor Behe conceded that the proposed test could not approximate real world conditions and even if it could, Professor Minnich admitted that it would merely be a test of evolution, not design. (22:107-10 (Behe); 2:15 (Miller); 38:82 (Minnich)).

We therefore find that Professor Behe’s claim for irreducible complexity has been refuted in peer-reviewed research papers and has been rejected by the scientific community at large. (17:45-46 (Padian); 3:99 (Miller)). Additionally, even if irreducible complexity had not been rejected, it still does not support ID as it is merely a test for evolution, not design. (2:15, 2:35-40 (Miller); 28:63-66 (Fuller))

And from the concluding remarks:

After this searching and careful review of ID as espoused by its proponents, as elaborated upon in submissions to the Court, and as scrutinized over a six week trial, we find that ID is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community. ID, as noted, is grounded in theology, not science. Accepting for the sake of argument its proponents’, as well as Defendants’ argument that to introduce ID to students will encourage critical thinking, it still has utterly no place in a science curriculum. Moreover, ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.

The full text of the court's decision is here:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Santa and the Believer’s Real Idea of God

When people are prompted to give an account of what God is and they know that what they say is under scrutiny, they are inclined to describe a “theologically correct” being. That is, after centuries of debate and scholarly inquiry, philosophers and theologians have developed a highly abstract description of a being who possesses a set of carefully defined properties. Questions and challenges about the notion of God that the Old Testament Hebrews touted, for instance, have led us to explain God in ways that are less easily rejected as implausible. The general direction of these accounts has been away from anthropomorphism. The most simple, and objectionable, accounts of God that has been present in traditions have been highly anthropomorphic. God is conceived of as a person who occupies specific times and places, perhaps the way we do. He goes walking in the Garden of Eden, he argues with contrary humans, he impregnates women, he has desires and beliefs, he learns about events, he reacts to human actions as if he didn’t see them coming, and so on. Characterizing God in personal terms such as these is at odds with the more abstract and infinite properties of omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, transcendence, immutability, timelessness, and so on. The abstract God is not easily reconciled with the personal God. If God is the infinitely powerful creator of the universe, why would he resort to such terrestrial and human means to achieve his ends such as messengers, floods, sermons, and petty miracles? If God is transcendent and outside of time and space, how is it that he forms a personal, loving, intimate relationship with you when you pray on Tuesday night at 10:32 in Pittsburg?

In practice, believers seem to appeal to whichever description is necessary to address the questions at hand. If one is enduring some hardships from cancer, then God is a personal, loving presence who will help you through your difficult time. If the atheist is raising hard questions about how to reconcile the existence of God with what we know about the origins of the universe and life, then God is transcendent—above and beyond the physical universe. It’s long been recognized, at least since Aquinas, that these two stories about God are at odds with each other. The official account from philosophers and theologians, at least when they do not have a sympathetic audience, has been to always favor the highly abstract, non-anthropomorphic account of God. The abstract God account has more potential to solve more sticky theological problems and atheistic challenges. The personal God talk, many people will insist, is really just metaphorical and shouldn’t be taken that seriously. Excessively anthropomorphic accounts of God are even slightly embarrassing to the believer, or the non-believer who focuses on them has failed to see the real nature of God. Consider this question that seems to be factually accurate concerning the anthro-God, but sounds like a sneering, low blow coming from the atheist: “Do you believe in a giant, invisible magical being who reads minds and grants wishes? Seriously?”

The answers that the believe can give might be to say “yes, but his real nature is not as silly as that sounds,” or “no, God is something much more abstract and profound that the question suggests.”

Some recent evidence from cognitive psychology sheds some important light on the equivocations about God’s nature that believers frequently commit. It appears that when prompted, or when they are being careful, people will typically give a theologically correct, abstract, and less-personal account of God. But when we test them to reveal their unspoken assumptions and their default ideas about God, they really do have a individual person in mind who lives in space and time, who acts like a human, who hears (God has ears?!?), who literally watches (God has eyes?!?), and who goes first to one place to answer a prayer, and then to another to perform a minor miracle.

Here’s the abstract from Justin Barrett and Frank Keil’s article, “Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts,” (Cognitive Psychology, 31, 219–247 (1996)) Email me for an electronic copy of the whole article.

We investigate the problem of how nonnatural entities are represented by examining university students’ concepts of God, both professed theological beliefs and concepts used in comprehension of narratives. In three story processing tasks, subjects often used an anthropomorphic God concept that is inconsistent with stated theological beliefs; and drastically distorted the narratives without any awareness of doing so. By heightening subjects’ awareness of their theological beliefs, we were able to manipulate the degree of anthropomorphization. This tendency to anthropomorphize may be generalizable to other agents. God (and possibly other agents) is unintentionally anthropomorphized in some contexts, perhaps as a means of representing poorly understood nonnatural entities.

Barrett and Keil played brief stories to a number of subjects and then asked them questions about the events of the story. Their hypothesis was that if the subjects had strong anthropomorphic ideas about God, they would unknowingly fill in details of the stories to answer the questions that were more anthropomorphic than the story’s details. So they were given this story, for example,

It was a clear, sunny day. Two birds were singing back and forth to each other. They were perched in a large oak tree next to an airport. God was listening to the birds. One would sing and then the other would sing. One bird had blue, white, and silver feathers. The other bird had dull gray feathers. While God was listening to the birds, a large jet landed. It was extremely loud: the birds couldn’t even hear each other. The air was full of fumes. God listened to the jet until it turned off its engines. God finished listening to the birds.

And here’s the amazing part. When questioned about the story, subjects made comments such as these:

‘‘God was listening to two birds singing in a tall tree next to an airport. When a large jet landed, God listened to it because he could no longer hear the birds. Then he listened to the birds again.’’
‘‘. . . A jet came and began destroying the beauty and even took God’s attention away . . .’’
‘‘. . . The noise was so loud God couldn’t hear the birds . . .’’
‘‘. . . God could only hear the jet until it turned off its engines . . .’’

They were also given this story:

A boy was swimming alone in a swift and rocky river. The boy got his left leg caught
between two large, gray rocks and couldn’t get out. Branches of trees kept bumping into him as they hurried past. He thought he was going to drown and so he began to struggle and pray. Though God was answering another prayer in another part of the world when the boy started praying, before long God responded by pushing one of the rocks so the boy could get his leg out. The boy struggled to the river bank and fell over exhausted.

And they answered:

‘‘This story suggests that God cannot listen to more than one prayer at a time, however, he will get to each prayer and answer it in time. Much like Santa Claus delivers toys to all houses in one night.’’

(Note: These are well-educated, adult American subjects.)

What the study shows is that for all of our fancy philosophical and theologically abstract descriptions of God as the transcendent source of reality, what’s really lurking in believer’s heads at the bottom of all of this is an idea of God who is pretty much the bearded guy in the robe who’s a human with magical powers. They will deny it, but the evidence indicates that the mental image they have in mind is pretty much the same as Santa Claus.

Monday, December 15, 2008

God Doesn’t Want You To Believe The Bible

Suppose the almighty creator of the universe with the power to control every aspect of reality had sought to achieve a state where all or most normal, thoughtful adult human beings could reflect on the evidence available to them and come to believe that he exists. Could such a being create a state of affairs where being with our powers of reasoning could consult the evidence and conclude that God is real? It would seem that bringing about such a state of affairs would be a trivial matter for such a being. I am not all powerful, all knowing, or all good, yet I can make my existence perfectly obvious to humans.

Is the current state of affairs that most human beings are in one where the existence of such a being is obvious or reasonable? There are a great many people who believe, certainly. But there are a great many who do not. There are billions of Buddhists, for example, who do not believe in the existence of an all powerful creator God. Even those people who believe are doubtful about God’s existence being obvious or clearly indicated by reason. When polled, a great many of them respond that belief in God can only come through faith. And certainly in human history we can find billions more people for whom the existence of such a being was not obvious or reasonable.

What is the evidential situation we are in regarding the Christian God? Our central piece of evidence is a book that is made up of a collection of writings by a wide range of authors. The contents of this book have been culled from a much large body of religious writings over the course of centuries that make a wide range of inconsistent claims about the existence, nature, and history of this God and his actions. Humans have done that culling to arrive at a book that is alleged to be the one, true perfect source of inerrant information about this being.

If the all powerful, all knowing creator of the universe had sought to make his existence known and reasonable through that book or its stories, could he have done a better job? Could the miracles of Jesus have been bigger? Could they have been attested to by more sources? By more reliable witnesses? Could they have been reported by the original eye-witnesses instead of the hearsay reports we have? Could Jesus’ divinity have been less ambiguous? Could the same stories about a 1st century religious leader have arisen even though he was not a supernatural being? Could a more careful and systematic investigation into the stories about Jesus’ supernatural powers have been pursued? Were there people who were contemporaries of Jesus who were not convinced? Could the evidence for them have been better? Could the history of the documents that report the stories about God and Jesus have been less muddled by controversy, fragmentation, and ambiguity?

Most people would agree that the answers to all of these questions are “yes.” We can readily imagine a hundred ways in which the case for God on the basis of the Bible could have been better. It seems quite clear that if God had really intended humanity to believe on the basis of the Bible, he could have done a better job. If God had really intended humanity to believe on the basis of the Bible, he would have done a better job.

Since he didn’t, believers are left in difficult situation. They might argue that there are mitigating circumstances that made it impossible for God to have given us a better body of evidence. That’s embarrassing because the being in question is supposed to be the infinitely powerful, knowledgeable creator of all of reality. What mitigating circumstances could possibly interfere with his getting what he wants? They might argue that it is humans, not God who have meddled with and corrupted the body of evidence, making it not as compelling as it could have been. Maybe it was our freewill and our inherent sinfulness and corruption that lead to the compromises in the evidence for God? But surely an infinitely powerful being could have made his existence better know and better recorded while preserving humanity’s freewill. And this response seems to acknowledge that the body of evidence is insufficient to warrant reasonable belief. If the believer responds that it is a mystery that only God can understand why the evidence is not better than it is, then she has conceded the point that the evidence is not better and it is not reasonable for us to believe on the basis of it. “It is a mystery why X is true,” is not reasonable grounds for believing that X is true.

Since the body of evidence is not better, and since God could have made it vastly better than it is, what are the implications for those who do believe on the basis of that evidence?

If such a being as God had the goal of bringing it about that belief was reasonable on the basis of the Bible, then he would have made it a vastly better body of evidence than it is. So that being must not have had the goal of bringing it about that belief was reasonable on the basis of the Bible. God doesn’t want us to believe on the basis of the Bible; if he did, he would have done a much better job on it. So if someone believes on the basis of the Bible, then it would appear that they are believing in a fashion that is contrary to God’s will. Furthermore, by attempting to construct a reasonable case for God’s existence on its basis, they are doing something that God himself does not appear to be seeking. It would appear that they are distorting, obfuscating, or even violating the real nature of the world that God has created. It would appear that they are actively undermining God’s plans, whatever they might be, and adding to the general confusion, controversy, and grounds for non-belief. By seeking to achieve something that God himself does not want (and could easily achieve if he wanted to), they are thwarting God’s intentions, and contributing to an state of affairs where reasonable believing is harder than God intended it to be.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Jesus Sharpshooter Fallacy

The Texas Sharpshooter gets his rifle and fires a round at the side of a barn. Then he goes over, draws a big circle around the bullet hole and proudly announces that he’s a perfect marksman.

It has become very common for Christians to proclaim the virtues of the Bible. It’s a singular, coherence narrative, they say. Or they are awestruck by the seeming consistency between the different Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life (they aren’t very consistent, but we’ll leave that alone for the moment.) They marvel that Jesus was the culmination of lots of Old Testament prophecies about a savior. They say, “How else could so many people over so many centuries come to agree about so much and have such an integrated view about what God is?” The book itself, it seems, is evidence enough that the book itself is profoundly accurate.

What the modern believer often fails to realize is that they are at the receiving end of a very long, complicated historical Sharpshooter fallacy. From the time of Jesus until about 250 A.D., hundreds of early Christian writings came into existence and began to circulate among early followers. These documents told a wide range of stories about Jesus, God, and the early history of Christianity. In some Jesus was not resurrected from the dead; he was only a man. In others, the course of events is very different than that told in the four Gospels. Intense debates and analysis resulted. By sometime in the mid 200s, those debates were being won by a sect of followers who had settled on the 27 book canon of the New Testament that we have today. Part of what was on their minds, it seems, were questions about consistency, plausibility, coherence with other older texts, and unification. That is, when these 2nd and 3rd century Christians were sifting through all of these hundreds of documents they made a deliberate effort to settle on one story. They consciously excluded the stories that did not seem to fit with the favored view, they even ruled some texts heretical. In short, they took a very large set of diverse writings and carved the version of the New Testament that we have out of them. That’s why you haven’t been reading the stories in Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Twelve, Gospel of Peter, Gospel of the Basilides, Gospel of Mathias, Acts of Andrew, Acts of Paul, Acts of John, and the Epistle to the Laodiceans. And That’s why you probably haven’t heard of Marcionism, gnosticism, the antitactici, Montanism, and other apocryphal writings, especially the ones that do not tell the same stories about Jesus.

So for the modern Christian to hold that book up centuries later and marvel at its coherence and unified message creates an ironic embarrassment. The reason that that book has those stories with those features in it and not some others is because a bunch of the early Christians went through all the early writings and found the ones that would hang together in that fashion. You’ve been handed an impressive looking bullseye, with a bullet hole through the center, but what they didn’t tell you is that after taking thousands of shots at a barn, they just found the one they liked and drew a circle around it. It’s a bit like leaving some money in an old savings account, forgetting about it, and then being surprised to find it in there years later. Except in the Bible case, Christians are using this false fortuitous event as support for a whole world view from the Iron Age, and wrecking our social, educational and political structure in the process.

It’s a wonder then, perhaps even a miracle, that the doctored text that we got isn’t more coherent and unified. But even a casual read reveals countless inconsistencies. Take just the accounts of the resurrection that we get in the four Gospels, and let’s throw in the non-cannonical Gospel of Peter.

In the Luke account, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women go to the tomb, find it open, talk to two men in shining garments, and then go tell what they saw to the other disciples.

In Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb, find it open, and find one man sitting there in white inside. They talk to him, then they run away in fear and they do not say “any thing to any man; for they were afraid.”

In the Matthew account, Mary Magdalene and the “other” Mary go to the tomb. A great earthquake opens it by rolling the stone away. They go inside and find an angel of the Lord in white. Then they leave with fear and joy and run to bring the disciples word.

In the John account, Mary Magdalene (by herself) finds the tomb open. She goes and gets Simon Peter and the other disciple “that Jesus loved.” The two of them go to the tomb and find it empty. They leave, but Mary stays crying. Then two angels appear to her. Then Jesus himself appears to her. She talks to him and then goes to tell the rest of the disciples.

In the Gospel of Peter, the account of the resurrection that suggests grave robbing, and perhaps that’s part of why it got thrown out when they were “tidying” up and getting their story straight. In it, the Jews get Pilate to put Roman guards at the tomb. The guards hear a voice and then see two men come down from the sky and then carry a body out of the tomb. Later, Mary and her friends find someone dressed in white in the tomb who claims that Jesus is gone.

The Jesus sharpshooter fallacy and the starkly different stories of Jesus that persist should raise serious questions for anyone who thinks that this book can be employed as a reliable historical document or trusted for accuracy. The billions of Christians in the world celebrate the empty tomb, for instance, as the proof of their dogma, but if we include the Gospel of Peter account, then in four out of the five accounts, the tomb isn’t found empty at all; rather some one or two people (“angels”) are found inside. And in one case, they are seen removing the body. And none of the accounts tell the same story about who went to the tomb and the series of events after.

So now instead the Christian claim that the Jesus story is remarkable isn’t even as good as our hapless Texas sharpshooter. He shot one bullet at the barn and then drew the target around it after the fact. The baffling messiness of the resurrection stories are more like spraying thousands of bullets into the barn wall, drawing a convoluted shape around a handful of them, and then proudly announcing that you are an incredible shot.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Jesus Magic

I argue and discuss this stuff for a living (what a cool job!). And the way I think of it often is that what the arguments I present do, if they are good ones, is force someone to make some choices about what their view about X is. What the Salem Witch Trials argument does, and does well, is force the Christian who thinks that we should believe that Jesus REALLY did perform magic on the basis of the Gospels to take one of two positions. They can argue that it is not reasonable to think that the women accused at Salem really were performing magic themselves on the basis of that evidence, but on the basis of the Gospel evidence it is reasonable to think that Jesus performed magic. Or they can bite the other bullet and agree that their standard of proof requires them to admit that both Jesus and the witches REALLY did perform magic. As I see it, both of these positions are really embarrassing to any smart person who thinks about it—but the prevalent acceptance of the Jesus miracles as real seems to have diminished the extent to which people are embarrassed by it who should be.

If you argue that the women in Salem weren’t really performing magic, even though we have a truckload of evidence comparable to the Jesus evidence that they did, then you have to argue that the Jesus case is somehow different. These attempts quickly appear to be ad hoc, special pleading, or otherwise inconsistent. But people will rarely admit being inconsistent straight out, especially when they get mad. If the believer takes the other route and argues that they were all performing real magic, then at least that position has the virtue of some consistency and it isn’t so flagrantly ad hoc. The embarrassing part is that this person has said something that the vast majority of thoughtful, educated adults find utterly ridiculous, namely that those women really were performing magic. The Salem Witch Trials, in the minds of the vast majority of thoughtful people, are the consummate example of just how far astray human enthusiasm and fear can take even large groups of people into irrationality. Indeed, the reasons historians are so interested in the case is that we're all sure that they weren't witches, but all of those otherwise normal, reasonable people got themselves convinced that they were. What's remarkable is that so many people could talk themselves into something that was so clearly false.

And by "really performed magic, we don’t mean they had some books or they merely did some rituals, but that they actually summoned some supernatural, miraculous forces and caused events to happen outside the ordinary course of nature. If a person in the 21st century who has a decent education and can read the newspaper and otherwise think for themselves is willing to stand up in public and say, “Yes, it is reasonable to believe on the basis of the witch trial evidence that Sarah Goode and Rebbecca Nurse and the rest actually were witches,” then I confess I don’t know what else to say. II take that admission to be a flat out reductio of their view about the authenticity of the Jesus magic stories. I think the discussion at this point has probably reached the end of any constructive use. That strikes me as so childish and irresponsible that I just can’t be charitable with the reasons I am hearing any more and I have to conclude that the person in question is simply too deep in the grips of an ideology to be reasoned with. I know that this sounds ad hominem, but at some point, I am just not willing to keep chasing down the issues and arguing vigorously for points that I take to be plainly obvious and common sense. Arguments have to come to rest on some common foundations. We often run into this problem when we try to deal with someone who is deeply wrapped up in a conspiracy theory. Ultimately, there's just no reasoning with them because obvious absurdities don't bother them. This position is akin to taking the view that astrological forecasts really do work. The only sort of person who really insists on that is someone who just hasn’t thought about it very much, or someone who just doesn’t know very much, or who is so enamored of the idea that they just can’t see straight any more. While I do think it is very important to have open, constructive talks about God beliefs so that we can try to sort the question out, some people just aren’t going to relent because they have too much invested in the God worldview’s being right. And that investment will force them in the end to not be reasonable.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

More Bad Answers to Good Questions: Witches and Reasonable Proof

I have been asking a perfectly legitimate question of the Christian believer: Given that the claims of so many other religious believers about the existence of a supernatural being have turned out to be false, why should we think that the Christian God is any different?

One of the other arguments that I have been getting, and one that I have heard from years as it has circulated in Christian apologetic communities is this one:

The historical evidence we have concerning the miracles of Jesus is so compelling and so much better than the evidence for other religious traditions, we are reasonable in concluding that the other gods are not real, but God and the claims about Jesus are true.

First, I should note that I simply do not have the information to evaluate whether such a claim about Christianity is true. I have not consulted the comparable historical documents for all of the thousands of other religions on the planet. But I have encountered many people in many different non-Christian traditions who make very similar assertions about the historical origins of their religion. It is certainly common in Islam to make this argument about its superiority. I doubt that it is true about Christianity (or Islam), and I doubt that many of the people who claim it is have actually done the sort of careful investigation into those religions to make the decision. More likely, the people who make this claim are making it about the religion that they are most familiar with, the one that the grew up in, the one that they favored and followed long before they considered any questions about the evidence or whether the religion is reasonable.

But let’s consider the various claims that are made in support of historical argument anyway:

There were multiple eyewitness accounts of the miracles of Jesus, not just a few isolated people. Thousands of people are purported in the Gospels to have witnessed his healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry. (Note, of course, that a report in the Gospels about many eyewitnesses is not the same as having many eyewitness accounts.) Furthermore, when Jesus was crucified, he wasn't buried in secret. The tomb was widely known and accessed. If it contained his corpse, then a story about his resurrection would have been very difficult to fake. A number of people found the tomb empty. On several different occasions, different groups of people are purported to have experienced Jesus resurrected from the dead.

The witnesses are not a homogenous group of religious zealots. They are from diverse backgrounds, with different educations, and social standings. They were not a strange, fringe group.

It is highly unlikely that the witnesses had any ulterior motives. The witnesses stood to gain nothing from retelling what they had seen. In fact, they stood to lose a great deal. Early Christians were socially ostracized for their beliefs, persecuted, and even killed. The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every reason not to. Such an event would have been outlandish to them, yet they still believed. They were so convinced that they gave up their jobs, their wealth, and their families to become Christians.

The people surrounding the eyewitnesses believed them and were impressed enough to convert. The passion and conviction of the original believers was so profound that it conquered the doubts of all those around them. A whole religious movement that has lasted for thousands of years and spread to millions of people has sprung from the eyewitness accounts.

Many of the events of the New Testament have been historically corroborated. Archeologists, historians, and other scholars have been able to find a great deal of independent evidence that confirms many of the historical claims such as the reign of Herod, the destruction of the temple, the growth of the early church.

The Gospels focus on a real, historical person. They are not comparable in their age to a book of mythology about Paul Bunyan, or fairy tales. They present their account as a factual record of the events in history, not as allegory, or fiction. Furthermore, the Jewish tradition of transmitting history accurately and reliably was highly developed and successful.

Once we consider all of these factors, according to the argument, it would seem that no other hypothesis can explain all the elements of the story of Jesus as well.

Here’s the problem: Consider the Salem Witch Trials and the claim that the women who were accused actually were witches.

First, hundreds of people were involved concluding that the accused were witches. They testified in court, signed sworn affidavits, and demonstrated their utter conviction that the women were witches. Furthermore, they came from diverse backgrounds and social strata. They included magistrates, judges, the governor of Massachusetts, respected members of the community, husbands of the accused, and so on. These people had a great deal to lose by being correct—men would lose their wives, children would lose their mothers, community members would lose friends they cared about. It seems very unlikely that they could have had ulterior motives.

Additionally, in the Salem Witch Trials, they conducted thorough, careful, exhaustive investigations. They deliberately gathered evidence, and made a substantial attempt to objectively sort out truth from falsity. In the court trials, they attempted to carefully discern the facts. As a result, people became convinced that the accused were witches. They had little ulterior motive. No financial gain. They lost friends and family.

Furthermore, that there were witch trials in Salem and that many people were put to death has been thoroughly corroborated with a range of historical sources. We have a great deal of primary historical sources that document the events. In fact, we have a far better overall body of information concerning the witches in Salem than we have concerning the miracles of Jesus. The trials were a mere 300 years ago, not 2,000. We have the actual documents; we do not have any of the original Gospels, only copies from the 200s and 300s, as much as three centuries after the alleged events. The original documents are typically dated from about 20 to 100 years after the events surrounding Jesus’ death, and were based on hearsay accounts of the witnesses. In Salem, we have the actual, sworn testimony of people claiming to have seen the magic performed. For Jesus, we have only the four Gospels, two of which (Matthew and Luke) heavily borrow their stories from Mark. For the Salem witch trials, we have enough evidence to fill a truck. See this website for images of hundreds of the original documents:

By any reasonable measure of quantity and quality, the evidence we have for concluding that Sarah Goode and the women in Salem performed black magic is vastly better than the evidence we have for concluding that Jesus performed magical miracles. Yet it is simply not reasonable to believe that the women in Salem really were witches or really performed magic. I take it that is obvious to any reasonable person that even though they were tried, convicted, and executed for witchcraft, they were not witches and they did not perform any magical acts.

Nor do I need to defend any particular alternative explanation, such as the rotten rye grain/hallucination theory, in order to reasonably conclude that they weren’t witches. I can be sure that they weren’t witches even if I don’t know all of what really happened.

So what the Salem Witch Trials show is that it is possible to meet an even heavier burden of proof than the one boasted about by the advocates of the historical Jesus argument, and it is still not reasonable to believe that anything magical happened. By every general criteria of the evidence concerning Jesus’ miracles, the evidence is better for magic at Salem.

The result, then is that no clear headed person should accept the claim that the historical evidence for Jesus’ miracles makes it reasonable to believe that Jesus really did perform magic. The advocate of the historical argument for the Jesus miracles is now in a very embarrassing position. She must either argue that the women in Salem really were witches and the miracles of Jesus were real, in order to be consistent, or she must argue that the women in Salem weren’t really performing magic, but Jesus was, and that can be determined on the basis of these two bodies of evidence.

But it gets even worse. We have hundreds of other examples in history where the Jesus miracle burden of proof has been met, but no magic occurred. The Inquisition in the Middle Ages tried, convicted, and documented the magic and supernatural activities of thousands of people. Giordano Bruno, for example, was convicted of dealing in magic and divination, among other things, and burned at the stake. Similar investigations and convictions have occurred all over Europe, in Britain, Ireland, in New England, and all over the world. In fact, the Saudi Arabian judicial system convicted a woman of witchcraft in April of 2008!

So now, in order to be consistent in following their trumped up standard of proof, the historical Jesus believer has to accept all of these instances as justifying a magical conclusion as well. It’s not just that Jesus performed magic—there are supernatural claims everywhere that we have to believe too. A reasonable person, I have argued, will see through this ad hockery and conclude that the only consistent and plausible conclusion is that none of this magic, including the miracles of Jesus, happened.

And for the record, I do not think that any of the claims in the historical argument about the evidence for the Jesus miracles stands up to any serious scrutiny.

Monday, December 8, 2008

500 + 1: Bad Answers to a Good Question—Science has a record with as many failures as religions.

In a comment on the last post, Casey gives us a very nice statement of an interesting objection:

Caloric, Phlogiston, luminous aether, epicycles, flat earth, the four humors, four elements, etc. I could name 500 "dead" scientific theories. So why believe that String Theory is correct? Science accepts that Phlogiston could end up being correct but until we get new evidence then we are to reject it.

"But these were all supernatural claims which have failed"

And these are all natural claims that have failed

"But we have gained information each time, and we're closer to the truth"

The same could be said for religious claims coming closer to understanding God's true nature.

"But there are a number of rivaling religious claims, and historically religious figures didn't act as if everyone was getting closer to the truth"

There are, similarly, a number of scientific theories which rival each other currently and historically each proponent of a scientific theory thought they had it figured out to some extent.

"But science is supposed to get things wrong, it's built into the system"

Why not grant the same fallibility to religious claims.

Now, this does still pose a problem to the theist since this analogy suggests the theist should be confidant that their religion is right as much as a scientist is confident that a particular theory is right, which is a significant blow to the extent faith should play.

Here’s the problem:

There’s a deep disanalogy in the cases. In science, we actively seek out disconfirming evidence for a hypothesis, and when we find it, we discard the model that doesn’t fit with our observations. Successive attempts to model, disconfirm, and arrive at a story that makes successful predictions and that accounts for our observations, including the ones that refuted the earlier models, entitles us to claim that the latest theory is better.

The project here has been to try to find some grounds to think that Christianity is different from the other bogus supernatural, paranormal, and magical claims, especially when it seems to fail for all the same reasons. Furthermore, Christianity is not the culmination of a progressive process of theorizing, testing, and revising. Like the other religions, it claims to have gotten it right from the start. It doesn’t build on their failures by learning and revising. It claims to have had an exclusive, complete representation of the whole truth all along, just like all of the other religions that have collapsed. Christianity can’t claim to have improved and progressed from the other failed religions—the vast majority of Christians haven’t even heard of most of the gods on that list. Neither Christians, nor the followers of the other gods, claim to have achieved a more comprehensive description of the world on the basis of the failures of other religious doctrines.

It would be ironic and perverse of the believer to claim, in response to my argument, that their belief in God and their doctrine is actually a sort of quasi-scientific hypothesis that is subject to the disconfirmations and revisions of scientific models of reality. If the Christian responds to my argument by suggesting that they are in a process of successively revising and improving our account of God in the light of new information and developments, then they’ve got a number of problems. The Christian religious tradition and doctrines, along with most other religious traditions, are fundamentally static. They claim to have an original, direct access to the truth that cannot and does not change with time. To find out what’s true about reality, they consult their book and their God. If what we see in the world appears to conflict with the book or what God says, then it is the observations that must be wrong. To allow that the central claim upon which the whole institution is built can be tested and revised in the light of any historical or empirical developments gives up the whole Christian enterprise.

We should welcome such a move from the Christian because it amounts to their giving up the whole foundation of truth that their movement claimed to be based upon. Revising their story about God’s nature would be rejecting the entire basis of authority that pitted them against scientific modeling of the world in the first place. If they budge on those sacrosanct foundations at all, then the whole edifice will immediately tumble down. If, contrary to what they’ve been saying for millennia, religious revelation has no special access to the truth, then it’s got no legitimate claim at all.

Let’s put the point this way. At some point in their histories, the U.S. and the British patent offices refused to take any more patent applications for perpetual motion machines. After considering stacks and stacks of crazy schemes that did not work, they felt entitled to put an end to a dead end pursuit. “We are not going to waste our time pursuing some far-fetched possibilities because we are justified in concluding that the whole enterprise is based on a mistake.” Only people who are caught up in the romance and who don’t know any better continue to try to build perpetual motion machines. I have been arguing that we can draw a similar lesson from the trash heap of history that is piled high with countless tales of religious bullshit. Only here, people’s fanatical attachment to religious ideas have kept them from acknowledging that they are throwing their lives away for an anachronistic fantasy.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

500+1: Bad Answers to a Good Question, part 1.

The Christians and I seem to be agreeing for the most part about this: There are a vast number of claims being made about the existence of supernatural beings by people in history that are false and that are incompatible with Christianity. Our reasons are different, it appears, but the 500 gods on the list aren’t real, and lots of the other supernatural claims that people make have turned out to be false. The Christian has a problem, however, because they need some non-ad hoc, non-circular, and reasonable way to draw a line between the supernatural claims that they think are true and the ones that aren’t. My argument has been that none of them exist.

So I’m asking a perfectly legitimate question of the Christian: Given that the claims of so many other religious believers about the existence of a supernatural being have turned out to be false, why should we think that the Christian God is any different?

Many of the answers that I am getting, when they are not outright personal attacks on me or other attempts to change the topic entirely, seem to fall into a few categories. For now, I’ll just address a couple of the worst reactions I am getting:
Internal Answer 1: “I can feel it in my mind.” I have a special revelation that my God is real. I have some religious experiences that inform me that my God is the one, true God and all of the others, even though those people say the same thing, are false.

Problems: Even if you’ve had these sorts of religious experiences or heard voices in your head, or had what you thought was a communiction with an invisible, magical, supernatural being, you can’t reasonably expect the rest of us to think that this is a satisfying answer to the problem that has been posed. You’re special revelations don’t give us any more reason to believe that the Christian God is the one true God any more than someone’s having a special religious experience is adequate justification for thinking there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Your magic voices in your head aren’t grounds for me to think that the Christian God is different from the others. That just tells me, again, that you’re convinced on some inaccessible and internal basis that your right without any appeal to independent or external corroboration. We knew that you prefer Christianity, but we were looking for some reasons to think it’s different.

Imagine having a trial for a murderer and using the accused man’s own avowals of his innocence as the ultimate test of this guilt. “I am sure in my mind that I am not guilty, your honor,” he says. “Oh, well, in that case, take the handcuffs off of him and let him go,” says the judge.

And this all fails to note that lots of the believers in the other traditions have the very same intense, personal, private feelings that their god is the one, true god. Suppose some atheists also insist that they have some special areligious experiences in their thoughts that gives them a special revelation that there are no gods whatsoever? Would you think that is a satisfying reason to reject Christianity?
Furthermore, even if you’ve had these sorts of experiences, you should be highly suspicious even of their adequacy to provide you with justification for the exclusivity or reality claims. Special feelings in your mind, even if they feel really, really poignant and authentic aren’t adequate grounds by themselves, especially when the matters in question are so important. The question is: why is the Christian God any more likely to be real than all of the others that are not? None of us should accept “because it really really feels like that is true in my mind” as an answer.

Internal Answer 2: The doctrines of Christianity give us reasons to deny that the other gods exist. God said to have no other god before me. He said he was the one, true God. Those other religions are inferior, pagan pursuits that are based on the wrong god.

Problem: This response is as circular as the last one, only with a slightly larger diameter. The question at hand is, given that every other god claim seems to be mistaken, why should we think Christianity is any different? The answer can’t be, because Christianity itself insists that it’s different. Lots of them say that. Again, this is like the murder trial example. But now, suppose that a mobster is on trial, but instead of asking him if he’s guilty, we check with all of his fellow racketeers, murderers, and drug dealers who were his partners about his guilt. Then when they all insist that he’s innocent, we let him go.

So the problem that I have posed is, given that there are so many thousands or even millions of supernatural claims that have turned out to be mistaken, what reasons do we have for thinking that the supernatural claims of Christianity are any different. What we’ve seen here is that it’s not a sufficient to answer that you can feel it in your head or that the institution itself insists that it’s the only real religion.