Thursday, February 12, 2009

Abducted by Aliens

Suppose a stranger comes up to you. He introduces himself. Let’s call him Smith. And he says that he has a very important story that he wants to tell you. There is a particular claim in that story that he thinks is very important for you to believe. But before he tells you the story, he tells you some details about how he came to know about it. As it turns out, the events in question didn’t happen to him. He didn’t see them. In fact, he hasn’t actually met or spoken to the people immediately involved in the story. The events in question actually took place a long time ago and then there were an unknown number of people between the actual events and the people who told him the story. But he’s quite sure that they are trustworthy. They were all honest, and well-intentioned. And he has heard that they were all passionate believers who were utterly sincere when they relayed the story.

As he thinks about it, Smith realizes that there are some other important details. “Now that I think about it,” he says, “the real events in this story actually happened hundreds of years ago. And there were some people who then retold the story for many decades before it was written down. But we don’t actually have the original documents where it was written down either. What we have are some copies of copies of copies of those original documents, where the original documents were based on retellings of retellings of retellings of the original story. I’m not sure really how many people there were in all of these intermediate steps between the actual events and you. I’m sure that they were all trustworthy, however. And they were all completely convinced about the authenticity of the story.” It occurs to you that from what he is saying, all of the people involved in the transmission of the story were zealous believers, so that if there had been some other relevant details or contrary evidence, it doesn’t seem likely that it would have survived unaltered.

So you ponder all of these layers of questions and unknowns as Smith prepares to actually divulge his important story. It concerns another man, call him Jones. Smith tells you a lot of things about Jones. But the most important part and the central claim of the story is that at one point Jones was abducted by aliens and disappeared off of the face of the earth.

Now you are in this situation. You have been told a story by someone who appears to be honest, sincere, and who believes in its truth without question. But he admits that there have been many people, many hands, and many years between the event in question and you. And the central claim that he wishes you to accept as true is that someone was abducted by aliens and never came back.

What’s the reasonable position to take with regard to Jones’ alien abduction? I think there’s no question that any reasonable person would reject it. I don’t even think most reasonable people would suspend judgment about it or be agnostic. Suspending judgment is typically the rational response when there seem to be equally compelling bodies of evidence for and against a claim. Surely your evidence in support of the conclusion that Jones was abducted by aliens is not equal in force to your evidence that no such thing happened. Smith seems like a trustworthy guy, but there are just too many unknowns, too many questions about the transmission of the story. And the story itself involves a claim that is simply outrageous and utterly unlike anything you have ever seen or heard. If a close friend who you know and trust came to you and tried to convince you that she had been abducted by aliens, you would be very skeptical. Even without the information transmission problems in the Jones story, the claim is one you would reject unless it met the highest burden of evidence. Furthermore, you don’t need to know what really did happen, or where or how the story might have been altered in order to be justified in disbelieving the story. The questions you have and the problems in the story by themselves are enough to justify rejecting it even without an alternative explanation. Given the obscurity of the event, it seems unlikely that anyone could ever really know what happened, if there was anything that happened at all.

The analogy here, obviously, is your epistemic position with regard to the resurrection of Jesus. The complaint will be that the story here is not analogous to the case of Jesus at all. There were hundreds of people who witnessed the miracles of Jesus. There are thousands of documents we have corroborating the events described in the New Testament. The people relaying the story were not some unknown strangers. The original witnesses were people of unquestionable integrity with no ulterior motives. Millions of people all over the world believe in the Jesus story. And so on.

In fact, we don’t have hundreds of eye witness accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. We have 3 or 4 accounts that were written down decades after the fact that report hundreds of witnesses. Mark, and John seem to have separate accounts, and Matthew and Luke were cribbed from Mark and a source known as Q. We don’t even have the original Gospel accounts. We have some copies of copies of copies of them from the 200 years or so after the originals were written down. There are lots of other fragments of documents from much later in Christian history. And there were many early Christian documents that were banned, excluded, or destroyed because they did not agree with the settled on canonical version of the story. We don’t know how many people there were between the actual events and the authors of the Gospel accounts. We know very little about the authors of the Gospels except that they were not eye-witnesses and that they were writing down a story that had come to them by word of mouth. What we know about the character or the motives of the people involved in the alleged events is part of the information that we are getting in the story itself. So those claims about their integrity or their lack of ulterior motives cannot be used to support the authenticity of the story that claims they have integrity. There is no question that there are millions of people who believe the Jesus story. But the fact that so many other people believe itself cannot be used alone to justify believing. If all of those people believe, then they either believe reasonably or unreasonably. If they believe reasonably, then they must have sufficiently justifying grounds for that belief. If they believe on the basis of a mistake, then more people believing because they believe just amplifies the mistake. If those people believe reasonably, then presumably it is because the story of Jesus’ resurrection itself is sufficiently supported by the evidence. Our source of information about the resurrection of Jesus is the New Testament. If we are going to consider the New Testament seriously as evidence, then we are now faced with all the layers of difficulty and complication in Smith’s story about Jones.

You have some choices here. The only options really worth considering are either rejecting both the Jones abduction story and the Jesus resurrection story, or rejecting the Jones story while accepting the Jesus story. The former is the most reasonable. But I assume that many believers will acknowledge that the alien abduction story is preposterous, but Jesus’ resurrection is different. The only way to argue for that sort of division, I think, is to argue that there is some important difference between the two cases that makes one silly but the other reasonable. We’ve considered some of those possible disanalogies, but none of them are adequate to overcome the alien abduction defeater to the Jesus story.

Suppose there are some other differences that the believer will present. If there are, for example, differences X, Y, and Z between the story as the believer sees it. Then lets test those differences for reasonableness this way. Let’s alter the Jones alien abduction story by applying the X, Y, and Z differences and see if the result is that it becomes reasonable to believe. That is, if there are disanalogies between the two cases, then what changes do we need to make to Smith’s alien abduction story about Jones to make it analogous? What changes do we need to make to the abduction story to make it reasonable to believe?

I think that one of two things will happen when we do that. Either it will become painfully obvious that the believer is guilty of engineering an ad hoc justification in favor of the Jesus story, or it will become clear that the sorts of additions that need to be made to Smith’s story in order to make it reasonable are not true of the Jesus case. What will become clear is that the believer’s ideological and emotional commitment to the Jesus story has led them to adopt a double standard of justification that is incoherent.

31 comments:

Teleprompter said...

Very thought-provoking. I wonder if we're going to have a valid discussion of this, or whether we'll be diverted by someone who's completely ignorant of all facets of the particular topic we're discussing yet again?

If people actually tried to respond to the content of your posts....

Matt S said...

I like this post. Very clear.

(tangent)
On the other hand, I would be happy if all believers just started an honest, holistic search for "god", like some buddhist kind of thing, instead of doing what they do now...
(/tangent)

M. Tully said...

Matt,

Great post. I think you hit the very real point when you wrote, "In fact, we don’t have hundreds of eye witness accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. We have 3 or 4 accounts that were written down decades after the fact that report hundreds of witnesses. Mark, and John seem to have separate accounts, and Matthew and Luke were cribbed from Mark and a source known as Q."

What I would like to hear from theists is why I should adopt the epistemology that accepts the above as evidence for an occurrence but denies the following:

"'Grieve not, Quirites! I have myself beheld Romulus ascending to the sky. He bade me tell you that he has become a god and is called Quirinus and also bade me admonish you by all means to choose someone as king without delay, and to continue to live under this form of government.' At this announcement all believed and were relieved of their disquietude."

I really want to know. What is the rationale for believing one and rejecting the other?

steve martin said...

All the early Christians had to do in order to live, was to deny Christ. That's all.

They wouldn't do it. They couldn't do it.

M. Tully said...

Steve,

I am not sure of your point. Is it that because people believed so much in an idea that they were willing die rather than recant, that the idea must be true?

Going along with that line of thinking, Hindus, Buddhists, and Native Americans have also died rather than renounce their religious beliefs.

Must they all be true, then?

Or were you trying to make a different point that I missed?

Reginald Selkirk said...

All the Koreshites had to do in order to live, was to deny Koresh.

Next.

Matt McCormick said...

The notion that some claim is true because there were some people who were so wrapped up in it they were willing to die for it, is just a non-starter. First, we don't really know how committed the disciples and followers of Jesus were to the doctrine. We just have a few fragments of text written decades later about the events based on retellings of retellings of retellings of them. Second, if someone is so consumed by some idea or doctrine that they will die for it is a better indicator of how suspicious it is and how irrational their attachment to it is. That tells me that they've lost all capacity to make rational decisions about it. I'd be much more impressed to see some level of skepticism and caution from them.

MM

steve martin said...

My point is this.

When Jesus was alive, they (His followers denied Him, deserted Him)

After He was crucified, buried, amd returned to them (after they saw Him)...

these SAME people who were so afraid of losing their lives...now were willing to die for Him.

I haven't chosen to die for Him. But I know that He is real because he has given me new life. He has climed me as His own in baptism and He has given me the faith to believe...othewise, I would never believe in Him of my own will.

I know that many here do not believe. That's ok. I can't, nor do I want to force anyone to believe.

But there may come a time, when you hear from the doctor that you have cancer, or when you are going through a divorce, or when you are gasping for your last breaths on your death bed...there may come a time when yuo will call out for Him. And He will be there for you. He will be there for you.

one billion daleks said...

Hello there Matt!

Just a few general comments, having browsed your blog ...

The i-Magi-Nation enjoys your Atheist blog, it is a most entertaining and stimulating read! Though for myself, I must admit I haven't yet figured out why you spend so much time on blogging, when your worldview seems to by-and-large be modelled on the Dawkins notion that we only exist to propagate our genetic code, then die. I can't see how on earth blogging aids to this end, except in some obtuse and highly diffused manner perhaps.

I wonder too, why Richard Dawkins doesn't simply live according to his worldview, and focus on maximising his input into the gene pool, instead of unneccessarily exposing his genetic endowment to potentially hostile opponents, thus enhancing the likelihood of having his genes prematurely annihilated!

Oh well, perhaps he is some sort of faulty mutation ...

Come to think of it, all multicellular organisms are really faulty mutations, because the most efficient way of propagating and mutating genes has always been the unicellular approach.

Still, determining what is 'faulty' is subjective, and requires an evaluative mechanism, which Nature doesn't possess does it ;)

Anyway, your R2D2 project seems to be progressing very well! daleks use R2D2s for all sorts of things - see picture here.

OK then,
All The Best! :)

Reginald Selkirk said...

Come to think of it, all multicellular organisms are really faulty mutations, because the most efficient way of propagating and mutating genes has always been the unicellular approach.

Still, determining what is 'faulty' is subjective, and requires an evaluative mechanism, which Nature doesn't possess does it ;)


Thank you for sharing your scientific ignorance with the world.

one billion daleks said...

Yes Reginald, quite. Apparently you don't realise that such cheap 'point-scoring' diversionary one-liners that attack the person rather than their point-of-view, actually say more about your intellectual capacity, than mine (see, I can do 'em too! ;)

Still, your attempt at intellectual thuggery is most timely, as it pre-empts any inclination on my part to bother participating further. Still, I'm quite content to just be entertained from the sidelines!

So Thank Q! for revealing straightaway, both the quality of demeanour, and the tone of discussion that could be expected here.

Anyway, I will shortly be publishing a critique of Atheism, demonstrating that it is just the latest subjective dogma that attempts to legitimise itself with the cloak of objective science. In a nutshell, Atheism is all about bluff - y'see ...?

So feel free to drop by to further abuse, amuse, and bemuse the i-Magi-Nation - anytime!

All The Best!

Matt S said...

"Anyway, I will shortly be publishing a critique of Atheism, demonstrating that it is just the latest subjective dogma that attempts to legitimise itself with the cloak of objective science. In a nutshell, Atheism is all about bluff - y'see ...?"

Daleks, I was an atheist before I got really into studying the theory of evolution. There's historical resaons for denying jesus and the christian god, plus philosophical reasons for denying all the other gods. We just happen to be into science and perhaps there's a confirmation bias, but I know of studies showing that religious worship is somehow beneficial. The question is though, are those worship activities something that can be done in a secular context, like meditation, or is god really just releasing extra serotonin into baptist preachers' nervous systems?

Reginald Selkirk said...

Come to think of it, all multicellular organisms are really faulty mutations, because the most efficient way of propagating and mutating genes has always been the unicellular approach.

Still, determining what is 'faulty' is subjective, and requires an evaluative mechanism, which Nature doesn't possess does it ;)
...
Yes Reginald, quite. Apparently you don't realise that such cheap 'point-scoring' diversionary one-liners that attack the person rather than their point-of-view, actually say more about your intellectual capacity, than mine (see, I can do 'em too! ;)

Still, your attempt at intellectual thuggery...


I was hoping your errors were obvious enough that I wouldn't have to provide a lengthy elaboration; that if you stopped for a moment's contemplation you might even be able to see the weakness of your own argument. But as they say, life is unfair. So then:

Multicellular vs. unicellular: One obvious mistake in your statement is the assumption that there is only one best way to survive and propagate. Not so. There are many ways to survive in the world. You can be faster, you can have better offensive weaponry (fangs, claws), better defensive weaponry (armor), you can burrow or climb or swim to places your predators cannot, you can use camouflage to hide, you can be poisonous to eat, and advertise this, you can find a food source no one else can reach or utilise, you can wait out conditions no one else can survive, you can put more effort into raising your offspring through the difficulty of being small and vulnerable, etc. If one niche is already occupied, you may be better off finding a new and different one than competing head-to-head with those who have already been refining their game for some time.

As for an evaluative mechanism, Nature most certainly does possess one: Natural Selection. The ones who survive and propagate are the ones whose genes are better represented in ensuing generations. This is so obvious that some have called it a truism, thinking that this is criticism. The idea is very simple, but very profound. The means by which an organism survives and propagates can be any of those mentioned above, or anything else. Survival is not a game with set rules.

In any one example, traits which affect survival may be identified, and in some cases measured with precision, and this has been done repeatedly by various scientists.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Anyway, I will shortly be publishing a critique of Atheism, demonstrating that it is just the latest subjective dogma that attempts to legitimise itself with the cloak of objective science. In a nutshell, Atheism is all about bluff - y'see ...?

I expect to see the same quality of argumentation which you have already displayed on the topic of science. Y'see?

Reginald Selkirk said...

Other ways to survive, which I didn't think of earlier:
Parasitize off some other organism which is successful. Form a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with a different organism. Cooperate with others of your kind in a social unit.

Reginald Selkirk said...

The origins of multicellularity - John Tyler Bonner, Integrative Biology 1:1 pp 27-36, 7 Jan 1999

Phagotrophy by a flagellate selects for colonial prey: A possible origin of multicellularity - MARTIN E. Boraas, DIANNE B. Seale and JOSEPH E. Boxhorn, Evolutionary Ecology 12:2 pp 153-164, Feb 1998, doi 10.1023/A:1006527528063

An Ecological Theory for the Sudden Origin of Multicellular Life in the Late Precambrian - Steven M. Stanlye, PNAS May 1, 1973 vol. 70 no. 5 1486-1489

Developmental expression of transcription factor genes in a demosponge: insights into the origin of metazoan multicellularity - Claire Larroux, et.al. Evolution & Development 8:2, pp 150-173, 23 Feb 2006.

On the origins and early evolution of multicellularity - A.G. Desnitski, BioSysstems 29, pp 129-132 (1993).

A twelve-step program for evolving multicellularity and a division of labor - David L. Kirk, BioEssays 27:3, pp 299-310, 15 Feb 2005

and on and on.

one billion daleks said...

Thank Q! for your replies.

Now, I don't want to 'hijack' Mr.McCormack's blog as it would be discourteous, so I will respond just the once and leave it at that.

But daleks enjoy a stimulating chat, and discussion can of course be continued in the future on the dalek blogs, if so desired.

So beyond this post, I will limit myself here to just notifying in due course when the dalek critique of Atheism is published.

OK then, onto the points raised!

Matt S ... I should perhaps clarify that daleks are not advocates for any 'religious' viewpoint.

It can be useful to bear in mind, that what is today referred to as 'Religion' was originally a sincere attempt at comprehending the nature of subjective experience, nothing more. Back then, it wasn't 'Religion' at all, it was simply mankind contemplating his place in the scheme of things.

And in that respect, Religion is a precursor to Science, and as such not intrinsically antagonistic. For in it's heyday, Religion was as sincere an endeavour as Science is today. Science has superceded Religion by being a superior explanatory device, that's all.

So from that perspective, the fact that Atheists persistently 'beat up' on Theists has become something of a ritual for them, an act of repeatedly rejecting a paradigm that was long ago proven untenable.

But for daleks, this has become somewhat tiresome!

Though to be fair, Atheists do provide a valuable service, being as it were a vigilant 'front-line' attacking any backsliding into simplistic and demonstrably false religious rationales.

So sure, Atheism is a significant advance on religious rationales, but because it invests so much effort into rejecting it's precursor, it is perhaps blind to it's own shortcomings as an explanatory device. In other words, as a set of concepts, Atheism is so obsessed with looking over it's shoulder distancing itself from what it has left behind, that it seems to have little capacity to critique where it is now.

The forthcoming dalek dissertation challenges Atheism in that light.

Reginald ... if you check back on my original comment, you'll find I said the most efficient way of propagating and mutating genes has always been the unicellular approach. But you are making a case for all sorts of best ways to survive and propagate (and a fine case you have made too, and also refreshing to see that you can come up with more than one-line quips! ;) :)

But there is a vast difference between what I am talking about: "the most efficient way of propagating and mutating genes", and what you are talking about: "best ways to survive and propagate".

So um, I think we may be at cross-purposes!

To elaborate just a little ... what is "best" is highly subjective, and your post ably demonstrates that. "Best-ness" cannot be meaningfully measured outside of whatever specific context it pertains to.

But what is "most efficient" is less subjective, given that efficiency can be measured. And efficiency can also be comparitively measured across different contexts.

Also, unicellular organisms have no impulse to "survive" as such, just mechanisms for evaluating environmental parameters. So for a single-celled entity, the "best way to survive and propagate" as you put it, is a non-issue, they just propagate.

OK then,
All The Best!

one billion daleks said...

Addendum

Whoops! sorry, I cut'n'paste from the wrong draft, so here the missing section, as an addendum for my post above ...

There are all sorts of "best" ways to acquire money, best being subjectively dependent on what is perceived as least hazardous to a particular expression of genetic code:

Create a profitable business.
Acquire a well-paid job.
Marry someone who is rich.

The most "efficient" way though, is to rob a bank. Sure, it's more brutish and hazardous than the "best" ways, but potentially far far more effective too!

Likewise, when it comes to propagating and mutating genetic code (which is the entire extent of my comment above that you have taken issue with), the unicellular strategy is far far more efficient than the multicellular strategy.

So your statement about my "assumption that there is only one best way to survive and propagate", is in itself an assumption on your part that what I meant by "efficient" was "best". And that I was talking about "survival", which um, I didn't mention at all.

Your post addresses "best ways to survive and propagate", and provides ample illustrative examples to that end. But as such, it is not about the "most efficient ways of propagating and mutating genes" at all.

Quite understandable, but nevertheless a misperception, thus as I say, we appear to be at cross-purposes!

Still, them's the perils of internet discourse for you eh!

All The Best!

Reginald Selkirk said...

Likewise, when it comes to propagating and mutating genetic code (which is the entire extent of my comment above that you have taken issue with), the unicellular strategy is far far more efficient than the multicellular strategy.

Now you're suffering from the same lack of detail of which you accuse others. What good does it do to propagate if the progeny do not survive? That is not "efficient." And as for mutating genetic code, once again you need to define "efficient," more mutations is not necessarily better. There may be a different and optimal rate of mutation for each situation.

one billion daleks said...

"What good does it do to propagate if the progeny do not survive?"

Reginald ... you seem to be adopting a rather anthropomorphic position on behalf of reproductive mechanisms there. I mean, are you suggesting that unicellular organisms might be somehow concerned by what is "good" for their genes ...?

I can't help feeling that this line of discussion has um, run out of steam. But Thank Q! Reginald for the interesting chat!

All The Best!

Anonymous said...

I like how the good ole professor here thinks religious people are rational and therefore wrong...isnt that some kind of ad hominem? People can be wrong and still be rational...very bad point sir

Teleprompter said...

Anonymous,

Believers may or may not have rational reasons; but if you read the article, you'd realize why believing some things and not believing other things *is* irrational; namely, that religious believers have a different standard for assessing religion than they do other things in life.

It's irrational because it's such a blatant double standard.

Then once consistency and objectivity are more valued by believers, people should be able to decide on the merits if they should believe something or not.

Anonymous said...

I dont see how believers have a double standard if they do not assent to beliefs by which you or others think are inconsistent with theirs. thats just name calling and not addressing the reasons why these alledged "irrational" believers" have a false view of the world.

Teleprompter said...

Anonymous,

Okay, let me explain further:

The Qur'an makes some claims about the supernatural. The Bible also makes claims about the supernatural.

Why do you believe one book's claims but not the other's?

Simple question.

If you honestly evaluate both, and conclude the one or the other is more reliable, fine. But I sense that you may not have applied the same standard to both books.

You dismiss the Qur'an, but you accept the Bible? Why?

What is your standard?

How do you sort out which claims are believable and which claims are not believable? How you tried to do this at all?

Anonymous said...

ok tele how about I give you the truth value "I" for an answer. thus you have incorrectly assigned a postion to me and other theist as having a double standard. I presume the atheist professor here suffers from logical analysis as well since most of his post draw false dichotomies of relgious peoples beliefs.

but, hypotheically if i believed the koran to be false and the bible to be true, how exactly does that give my position a double standard? The koran is a man altered copy of the bible...what about this explanation gives me a double standard?

Teleprompter said...

Anonymous:

Why would you believe that the Qur'an is man-altered but the Bible isn't? That is the question.

Steven Carr said...

'All the early Christians had to do in order to live, was to deny Christ. That's all.'

Galatians 6:12
Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.

Paul, who was there, says that people were persecuted on the issue of circumcision.

He also says church leaders compromised their beliefs to avoid persecution for the cross (NB not resurrection) of Christ.

Naturally, as the centuries wore on, these people became more and more brave.

By the end of the second century AD, John was being plunged alive into boiling oil , and being unharmed.

Although at the time of writing of Matthew 28:17, it had to be explained that some of them were 'doubters'.

And while Paul and Acts makes no mention of any preaching of almost all these 11 disciples,almost as though they had packed it all in, by the 21st century, these people are now so brave that they would rather be killed than deny Christ.

Probably in another 500 years time, the disciples will have marched on Rome to demonstrate outside Caesar's house their devotion to Christ.

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