Friday, April 23, 2010

The Implications of the Historical Jesus Question

          For Christians to take the historical case for Jesus’ resurrection seriously is a surprising and, on the whole, positive thing.  By even engaging in the discussion about whether or not we have sufficient evidence to think that Jesus came back from the dead suggests a number of important presumptions.  First, and most obviously, engaging the topic indicates that you think the evidence matters.  This is a vast improvement over the host of peculiar, and a-rational accounts of belief and its functions that have proliferated in the post-modern era.  There are Wittgensteinian, Fideistic, Kierkegaardian, Tillich-ian, and Plantinga style approaches among many others, where, in one form or another, a straight up appeal to the facts is not considered necessary or even important to the grounding of religious belief.  They aren’t interested in what actually happened or what our evidence is.  As I see it, the insufficiency of the evidence for the resurrection utterly undermines the whole edifice of Christianity; as these non-evidentialist thinkers see it, the lack of evidence doesn’t matter in the slightest.  So for the Christian to take the question seriously with those views in the background represents a huge step forward.  It would seem that the historical believer and I agree about the basics at least:  whether or not we have adequate historical evidence for thinking that Jesus was real and that he returned from the dead after being executed matters.  

Second, what a willingness to engage in the discussion about the historical evidence also suggests is that this believer is prepared, at least in principle, to change her mind if that is indicated by the evidence.  She thinks that since the historical facts are X, Y, and Z, then presumably, she would admit that if those had been different—if Gospels were different, or if different archeological evidence had been found, or if the facts about how the story of the resurrection came to be known by us was different--then that would warrant her concluding that Jesus was not resurrected.  So if the historically minded Christian believes that the facts about the  Jewish oral tradition, or the history of the early church, or the things that Paul wrote in his letters all help to fortify the case for the resurrection, then we must assume that if some of those facts had been different, then she would acknowledge that the case for Jesus is not very good.  You can’t have it both ways.  You can’t argue that all historical evidence, no matter what it had turned out to be, supports your thesis no matter what or you’re not really giving a historical argument at all.  And you can’t just employ those historical facts that suit you while ignoring the ones that are more uncomfortable. 

If the historical Christian is being intellectually honest with herself and with us, then she must be prepared to accept that the historical evidence could, in principle, disprove the existence or resurrection of Jesus too.  That’s what gives her argument force (if it has any at all).  She can say to the non-believer, “Look, you’re not being reasonable.  Here is ample evidence that shows that the things that I believe are true.  When we consider all of the relevant facts, they show that Jesus was real, and he was resurrected.  Not believing in the face of this evidence is irrational.  So failing to be a Christian is irrational.”  (I freely admit that this is a rare and peculiar breed of Christian, but this view has some virtues that shouldn’t be ignored.)  A really good question for the historical Christian, then, as I have been coming back to again and again here, is “what sort of historical evidence (or lack thereof) would lead you to conclude that Jesus was not resurrected?”  If the answer is that there is nothing that could dissuade them, then there’s something seriously amiss.  The same goes for the non-believer like myself who argues that there is insufficient historical evidence to prove the resurrection.  What would convince me that it did happen?  I’m pretty sure that there could be a sufficient historical case that I would find convincing.  The problem is, however, that the evidence we actually have is orders of magnitude worse in quantity and quality than it needs to be to meet that burden.

Another interesting aspect of the situation with the historical Christian is that she probably already acknowledges many cases in history where we have comparable evidence for the occurrence of some alleged supernatural event, but she does not think we should accept that evidence at face value.  At the Salem Witch trials, during the Inquisition, at the founding of many world religions, and in many other ancient histories there are tales of magic, witchcraft, demon possession, visions of angels, the voices of gods, and miraculous events, but viewing them from our vantage we do not conclude that any of them were real.  Richard Carrier points out that in Herodotus’ book on the Persian Wars, he reports without a hint of doubt “that the temple of Delphi magically defended itself with animated armaments, lightning bolts, and collapsing cliffs; the sacred olive tree of Athens though burned by the Persians, grew a new shoot an arm’s length in a single day; a miraculous flood-tide wiped out an entire Persian contingent after they desecrated an image of Poseidon; a horse gave birth to a rabbit; and a whole town witnessed a mass resurrection of cooked fish.”  But the historical Christian will readily acknowledge that there was no witchcraft at Salem, black magic during the Inquisition, confrontations with the angel Moroni, or a mass resurrection of cooked fish.  The skeptical principles that we apply to historical reports about fantastic, supernatural, and implausible events must be applied with uniformity to all historical cases, not just to those that we wish to reject because of prior religious convictions.  See my posts on the Salem Witch Trials for much more. 

The other implication of the historical approach to Jesus is that one’s belief in Jesus now hangs entirely on the contingent and shifting state of the historical evidence.  If some important find is dug up tomorrow that has significant implications for the Jesus story--an authentic, lost Gospel where Jesus says that he is going to fake his own death and resurrection, or something of that nature—then the believer would have to change her mind. 

I suspect, however, that the mind changing is not likely to happen with many believers, even ones who insist that their belief in based on the historical evidence for Jesus.  For many believers, they will engage in the discussion about the historical Jesus and they will argue vigorously for the positive conclusion as long as it suits them.  But no argument and no historical evidence could in practice actually dissuade them.  If that is the case for a given believer, then this discussion is actually undertaken in bad faith, as it were.  This is a believer for whom the evidence doesn’t really matter, she just says that it does.  She’s deceiving us, and possibly herself by saying otherwise.  Many of these believers will happily concur with any pro-Jesus argument from history that they hear, while treating any historically skeptical argument about Jesus with an artificially high level of criticism.  Prior enthusiasm and commitment to a Christian ideology when brought to the historical question of Jesus creates a non-disconfirmable position.  Pro-historical argumentation is accepted with little critical scrutiny, while anti-historical arguments meet with inordinately high levels of skepticism and criticism.  All historical evidence is to the greater glory of God. 

As a result, the faux historical believer and the historical non-believer are actually playing two very different games, although one or both of them may not realize it.  The faux historical believer is cheating—there is no outcome in which she doesn’t win.  If she’s arguing for the historical evidence, but in practice she wouldn’t actually accept a good historical argument against Jesus, then, in effect, the only historical arguments that she will accept are the ones that support her conclusion.  She believes, and she would believe no matter what the state of the historical facts.  So the time and energy spent on the discussion could have been better spent by both parties. 

Let me be more specific about how the deck gets stacked in favor of one’s favored conclusion.   We now have a mountain of empirical evidence that confirms what everyone who’s had one of these conversations already knows: humans have a very strong tendency to find evidence for the conclusion that they favor.  That is, our beliefs and the evidence we find to justify them are distorted in the direction of our desires.  This can be abundantly evident when the Christian comes to the historical Jesus debate with a strong prior conviction that Jesus was real and that he really was resurrected.  If that prior enthusiasm is present, then it’s not hard to find, skew, or misrepresent the evidence in a way that pads it in your favor.  Furthermore, the distortions often happen completely without your awareness.   Here’s are two telling questions:  how frequently does someone become a Christian as a result of his considering the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection?  I’m not asking about how often are people led to Christianity by reading the Bible, but rather from consulting the historical arguments that would establish that anything stated in the Bible is true?  By contrast, how often does someone adopt the Christian views held by his parents from his childhood, and then conclude that there is a compelling historical case for the existence and resurrection of Jesus? 

Here’s a tiny portion of empirical evidence about the effects of desire on belief formation and evidence gathering, taken from Jonathan Baron’s Thinking and Deciding. 

McGuire, W. J.  (1960).  A syllogistic analysis of cognitive relationships.  In M.J. Rosenberg, C. I. Hovland, W.J. McGuire, R. P. Abelson, and J.W. Brehm (eds), Attitude organization and change(pp. 65-111).  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press. 

Svenson, O.  (1981).  Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers? Acta Psychologica, 47, 143-148. 

Weinstein, N.  (1980).  Unrealistic optimism about future life events.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39 806-820. 

Babad, E.  and Katz, Y (1991).  Wishful Thinking—against all odds.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 21, 1921-1938. 

Weeks, J.C.  Cook, E.F., O’Day, S.J., Peterson, L.M., Wenger, N., Reding, D., Harrell, F.E., Kussin, P.,  Dawson, N.V., Connors, A.F., Jr., Lynn, J., and Phillips, R.S.  (1998).  Relationship between cancer patients’ predictions of prognosis and their treatment preferences.  Journal of the American Medical Association,  279, 1709-1714. 

Lowin, A.  (1967)  Approach and avoidance:  Alternative modes of selective exposure to information.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 1-9. 

Frey, D.  (1986).  Recent research on selective exposure to information.  In L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 19, pp 41-80).  New York:  Academic Press. 

Brenner, L.A., Koehler, D.J., and Tversky, A.  (1996). On the evaluationof one-sided evidence.  Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 9, 59-70. 

So the real question that is more fundamental than the historical evidence for Jesus is, did you come to the historical debate to confirm what you already believed, namely that Jesus was resurrected miraculously, or do you come to the historical debate prepared to accept the results of applying fair, uniform, and appropriately skeptical standards of reasonableness whatever results they may indicate? I’m really only interested in discussing it with the latter. 

Carrier, Richard.  “Why the Resurrection is Unbelievable,”  in The Christian Delusion, ed. John Loftus.  Amherst, NY:  Prometheus Books, 2010.  291-292

Monday, April 19, 2010

Objections: Doesn’t the Case Against the Resurrection Make You a History Skeptic? And Preserving the Jesus Story through the Jewish Oral Tradition

Ken Pulliam has offered this comment about my plan to debate the resurrection soon in Sacramento.  The questions are good and important, and can’t be easily dealt with in the comments section of the previous post.  So I’ll give a more complete answer.  Ken’s comment:

This is excellent and you are right on target. 2 considerations: 1) Some will say that if what you are saying is correct, we can know nothing about ancient history and very little about more modern history, this objection needs to be anticipated and answered. 2) While your opponent may not raise it, some Christians have argued that the telephone game is a completely erroneous analogy because of the Jewish method of passing along oral tradition. It is believed that they memorized the teaching of the rabbis verbatim and were careful to pass it down verbatim. While this may have been true of SOME Jewish disciples, to argue that it was true of Jesus' disciples is another matter. They were fishermen, "blue collar" people if you will for the most part and had not been trained as some of the more educated and hand selected disciples of the leading rabbis had. A great source on Oral Tradition in general is Oral Tradition as History by Jan Vansina(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).

In addition, on the subject of Eyewitness Testimony, an article was just published this month rebutting the book by Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. It is entitled: “How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research” Journal of Biblical Literature 129 (2010) 177-197. 

Thanks Ken.  These are great questions.  This is right, there may be the objection that if we apply my critical standards to other ancient historical sources, we’ll have to reject them too.  My short answer is that if those other historical bodies of evidence are as poor as what we have for the resurrection, then we’d be right to be skeptical. 

But the more serious answer involves some of the details of my critique of the case for the resurrection.  Why not reject the claim that Caesar crossed the Rubicon too on the basis of my historical skepticism?  Well, the situations are not analogous.  In my argument against the resurrection, the biggest factors that undermine the reliability of the transmission process that brings the Jesus stories to us all involve the question of supernatural, magical, or paranormal events.  The case I make against the alleged eyewitnesses depends in large part on what I’m calling the Lourdes Problem.  

We know from Lourdes France that people are remarkable unreliable when it comes to miracle claims.  That is, people have different levels of reliability depending on the subject matter, their competence, and a number of other factors.  When illiterate, Iron Age religious converts make claims about supernatural events occurring, we’d do well to be very skeptical of them.  In fact, because of their era, their lack of knowledge, and their ignorance about a host of relevant psychological factors, we should be even more skeptical of them than we are about modern religious converts.  And what the Lourdes, France example shows us (along with a lot of other contemporary religious and paranormal testimonies) is that perhaps only one in millions of people who claims the have witnessed a miracle actually has.  At Lourdes a panel of only modestly skeptical “experts” established by the Catholic Church has recognized a mere 67 authentic miracles out of the thousands that they have considered, and of the millions of people who have gone there and thought they saw a miracle.  Other examples, as I have outlined in many previous posts, give us more reasons to doubt miracle testimony.  But when people make claims like, “Caesar crossed the Rubicon,” the nature of the event and absence of some of the religious/psychological and educational factors that undermine the miracle claim are not present.  That’s why, if we apply my argument to the origins of Islam with Mohammed’s visions from Allah, or Joseph Smith’s rapturous encounters with the angel Moroni that produced Mormonism, the obvious answer is that we should be highly dubious.  The argument I’m giving would be uncontroversial to most people if I was pressing for the conclusion that there was no real black magic at Salem, Mass., or that the heretics tried and tortured by the Inquisition were not possessed by demons or guilty of witchcraft.  I’m giving a more rigorous account of why we reject lots of historical magic claims, and of course that applies to the alleged return from the dead by Jesus in the first century too.  I have several other points to make in the presentation about why ancient testimony about supernatural events is much more unreliable than many other sorts of claims that we accept from ancient people. 

What about the second question:  Does the Jewish Oral tradition give the historically minded Christian some hope of proving the reliability of the people who brought us the Jesus stories?  I don’t think so for several reasons.  First, as far as I understand it, the Rabbinical oral tradition had a very specific purpose that was antithetical in several ways to the Jesus resurrection story.  The oral tradition was preserved for a set of specific laws given to the Jews by God from Moses.  These laws were to be committed to memory and passed on in a very deliberate fashion from Rabbi to student under specific circumstances.  And the context was confined to these laws and some of their elaborations.  It’s far fetched, to say the least, to suggest that the Jews would violate the centuries old customs of this tradition and immediately fold in a story about a renegade Jew with some radical teachings that amount to an overthrowing of the Jewish religious doctrine.  The oral tradition wasn’t for outrageous stories, and it wasn’t used for stories about a heretic who was rejecting traditional Judaism. 

Furthermore, it’s well established that in the first few centuries after his death, the early followers were engaging is a great deal of open, free development of writings about the new religion.  Here’s what Kurt and Barbara Aland, respected scholars on this topic, have to say:

“Until the beginning of the fourth century the text of the NT developed freely.  It was a “living text,”  unlike the text of the Hebrew Old Testament, which was subject to strict controls because (in the oriental tradition) the consonantal text was holy.  And the NT text continued to be a “living text” as long as it remained a manuscript tradition, even when the Byzantine church molded it to the procrustean bed of an ecclesiastically standardized and officially prescribed text.  Even for later scribes, for example, the parallel passages of the Gospels were so familiar that they would adapt the text of one Gospel to that of another.  They also felt themselves free to make corrections in the text, improving it by their own standards of correctness, whether grammatically, stylistically, or more substantively.  This was all the more true of the early period, when the text had not yet attained canonical status, especially in the earliest period when Christians considered themselves filled with the Spirit.”  The Text of the New Testament:  An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism

The point is that there was a great deal of talk, the story was spreading by word of mouth among Jews and non-Jews, from city to city.  By the 3rd and 4th centuries, there are thousands of manuscripts of different sorts in circulation that contained a wide variety of stories, anecdotes, sermons, and  metaphysical speculations about Jesus and his teachings.  In fact, as the modern Bible was canonized, thousands of these other documents, with their varied accounts that often contradicted the Bible account outright, were deliberately excluded.  We know that all manner of stories were proliferating and that there was a self-conscious attempt with canonization to settle on one account at the exclusion of the others.  Given this proliferation of stories, free talk, and upheaval of traditional Judaism, it won’t do to insist that an obscure and conservative Jewish tradition would have given us a clear, high fidelity line back to the original event of the resurrection. Finally, I’ll just make an appeal to your common sense.  We all know good and well how much people will talk, especially about some extraordinary event, and how the telling and retelling of stories through many people amplifies the distortions and variations on themes.  People just aren’t that good at carefully preserving the exact details of a story they have heard, even when the event is perceived to be of enormous significance. 

Shortly after the news of the space shuttle Challenger disaster went out, Ulric Neisser and Nicole Harsch had students in a psychology class write an account of where they were and what they were doing when they found out. Then two and a half years later, they had those students write another record of what they were doing when they heard the news. It is significant that before they saw the earlier record, the students predicted that their memories were accurate. But when the two accounts were compared, the details matched in fewer than 10% of the paired accounts.More than 75% of the accounts had significant errors, some of them dramatic. Yet, even when confronted with this clear evidence to the contrary, many students refused to believe that their later memories were inaccurate.

Neisser, Ulric and Nicole Harsch, “Phantom Flashbulbs: False recollections of hearing the news about Challenger” in Eugene Winograd and Ulric Neisser, eds. Affect and Accuracy in Recall: Studies of “flashbulb” memories (Cambridge U Press, 1992), 9-31.

There are more details about the empirical evidence that shows how bad we are at preserving records of important events in this earlier post:  Remembering God

So once again, thanks Ken.  Unless I’m really missing something, I’m not overly concerned about these two objections.  

Friday, April 16, 2010

An Accumulation and Amplification of Doubts

It’s not uncommon for critics of the Jesus story to cite the Telephone Game as an analogy for why we should doubt the information we have about him.  In the Telephone Game, a group of children sit in a circle.  The first kid whispers a sentence into the ear of the second, the second whispers it to the third and so on.  When the last kid compares notes with the first one, the original sentence has often been warped beyond recognition.   The analogy is supposed to be to the long series of people that the Jesus story passed through from the alleged eyewitnesses, to those who repeated the story, to the authors of the Gospels, to the scribes to copied the Gospels that we have now.  We can’t trust the information coming out of this conduit to be the same as the information that went in.

The response to the Telephone Game analogy by historically minded Christians has been to argue that for various reasons, the process that preserved the Jesus story would have been highly accurate so our worries are misplaced.  I won’t review the specifics of the argument here. 

A superficial grasp of the argument that I’ve been making might liken it to the Telephone Game criticism.  But as I see it, the Telephone Game doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the multitude of obstacles that stand between us and accurate information about what, if anything, happened with Jesus. 

Here are some slides that I will use in an upcoming debate.  Some explanation is in order.  Between 35 CE and 2010, a great many people and events interposed between you and the alleged resurrection of Jesus.  You challenge is to try to form a reasonable opinion about the reality of the resurrection on the basis of information that has been fed through many layers of filtration, interference, psychological distortions, social and political forces, and so on.  So the real question becomes, given the path through history that the ressurection story has taken, should you believe it?  My answer has been “no.” 

We can divide the layers of interference into five groups:  the alleged eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, the people who heard the story from them and repeated them until the authors of the Gospels wrote them down 30 to 100 years later, the athors of the Gospels, the copiers who copied and recopied the stories over the next two centuries, and the canonizers who made a deliberate effort to cull one particular narrative about the life and death of Jesus out of thousands of early Christian writings that were circulating around until the Christian Bible as we know it was formed.  That’s Alleged Eyewitnesses, Repeaters, Authors, Copiers, and Canonizers. 

I’ve been arguing on this blog that there are a variety of doubts we should have about every one fo these stages of the history of the story.  Some of these doubts are fortified by recent psychological research, some of them are corroborated by Bible scholars, some of them are epistemological, and some of them are probabilistic.  So here’s a time line that gives us a representation of these layers and some of the doubts that I have raised about their fidelity in transmitting the Jesus story. 

Each item is linked to a previous blog post or other source that explains in more detail what the problem is here:
The Alleged Eyewitnesses: 

The Repeaters
Mark Bottle Neck

Copy Errors


In my version of the Telephone Game, there are thousands of people in the chain, spread over many centuries.  Many of them are illiterate, Iron Age peasants.  Some of them are suffering from bereavement hallucinations.  Some of them are apparently having epileptic seizures complete with religious visions.  Many of them are deliberately discounting any information that they receive that does not conform with the account of Jesus that ends up in the Christian Bible.  They refuse to pass on any other information, and they even go out of their way to destroy those accounts so that no one else can have access to it.  They are deeply committed religious converts.  They are subject to a variety of psychological effects and fallacies like the Asch effect and confirmation bias that they would not have been aware of.  Many of their memories actively reorder, reimagine, and retell the events that they are repeating.  Many of them are highly disposed to accept wild, supernatural and magical accounts of spiritual forces at work in the world because they don’t know of any better way to explain things they see.  They lack education, hence they are highly prone to superstitions and religiousness.  They are notoriously bad eyewitnesses.  And they are remarkably unreliable, like other humans, at accurately reporting the occurrence of miraculous events. 

So now, with this embellished picture of a huge circle of humans and their various problems in mind, what shall we think are the odds that a piece of important information that is fed into the system at one end will be accurately and completely transmitted to the other end? 

One thing we need to know to answer that question is a simple point from probability reasoning. 

I won’t make things tedious by trying to put an actual number on the fidelity of the each of the layers of interference.  But the Lourdes Problem—the general unreliability of humans giving miracle testimony—is significant.  Even by a very conservative estimate, the vast majority of cases of human miracle testimony are false.  Even a dedicated believer would have to concede that when people typically claim that some miraculous event or divine intervention has occurred, there is a better explanation.  It would be exceedingly generous to put the accuracy rate at 1/100.  It would still be generous, given how effusive humans are with miracle claims, to put the rate at 1/10,000.  The Lourdes example suggests it should be orders of magnitude lower than that. 

So if a reliability rate of .001, .00001, or .000000001 is appropriate, the effect of this number alone on our signal degradation estimate will be devastating.  That is, the cumulative effect of all of these layers of doubt is to undermine our confidence that the resurrection really occurred.  The Lourdes effect alone is sufficient to lead us to reject the historical resurrection claim.  There is a staggering burden of proof facing anyone defending the historical case for Jesus.  And it will not be met with the paltry provisions of the Bible.  

Monday, April 12, 2010

Debate: Did Jesus Return from the Dead?

One of my colleagues, Prof. Russell DiSilvestro and I are going to have a debate and discussion at a Sacramento church about the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.  If you've read the blog in the last year or so, you've seen a lot of arguments that I have developed for the conclusion that it isn't reasonable for us to believe on the basis of the crummy little body of evidence we have.  Prof. DiSilvestro is a Christian and has the view that there is a compelling historical case to be made for the resurrection.  He's a sharp guy and he's very interested in this question, so this should be a very stimulating discussion.  Here's the announcement.  If you're in the Sacramento area, I encourage you to come and participate.  If nothing else, you'll get to see me on a church podium.  That's got to be worth something.  And I confess that I've had a secret wish to get invited to a big church to do this for a long time.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


In his book, Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett makes an important distinction.  When we inquire whether someone believes in God, the answer we get often doesn’t distinguish between people who believe in God and people who believe in believing in God.  That is, many people who say "yes" to the question may only be acknowledging that they think that believing is a good thing.  They maybe just be stating their intention to believe, or expressing their general approval for believing.  Or they could simply be answering the way that they know is most highly approved of and they may feel the social, economic, and familial pressures towards believing.  There is not a comparable set of influences inflating the numbers of people who will report that they do not believe.  So the result is that polls that tell the percentages of the population who believe in God on the basis of these self-reports will give much higher numbers of believers than there really are. 

Testing for and distinguishing between belief versus belief in belief is very tricky business however.  Now Dennett and Linda LaScola, a clinical social worker, have done something quite remarkable on the topic, and possibly for the first time in  Preachers Who Are Not Believers

Through private channels they have found a number of practicing clergy in American Christian churches who do not believe in God.  And they have compiled several extensive interviews with them about the curious lives they are living.  These are preachers and ministers who give sermons,sing God's praises,  lead prayers, counsel, and advice all within the Christian community, but they are, for all intents and purposes, atheists.  

Dennett and LaScola have gotten then to talk openly about how they came to doubt their convictions, what their lives are like, what their futures hold, their relationships with their families and other believers, and what it’s like to be “in the closet.” 

The stories are just amazing.  And the revelations are telling.  All of them have found ways to deal with the cognitive dissonance. 

“Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don’t believe what I’m saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that’s what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that’s what I’m doing.” 

It is also evident that the comfort and security of an ecumenical job has a lot to do with their staying with the church. 

"So maybe there’ll be a divorce between myself and the Presbyterian Church. I need to feel fulfilled, and I need to provide for myself and my family. I can go back and get new education and training, but I’ve got to do something."

“I’m where I am because I need the job still. If I had an alternative, a comfortable paying job, something I was interested in doing, and a move that wouldn’t destroy my family, that’s where I’d go. Because I do feel kind of hypocritical.

“If somebody said, ‘Here’s $200,000,’ I’d be turning my notice in this week, saying, ‘A month from now is my last Sunday.’ Because then I can pay off everything.”

And all of them cite the difficulties with reconciling what the Bible really says with what they learned in Sunday school.  Actually sitting down and reading the Bible carefully and looking at the textual criticism literature generated a crisis of faith for all of them.  You can't actually believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans, or that a guy lived in the belly of a whale, or that Jesus was born from a virgin.  They also acknowledge the profound problems with literal interpretations or putting too much stock in anything in the Bible states given its convoluted history. 

“Well, I think most Christians have to be in a state of denial to read the Bible and believe it. Because there are so many contradicting stories. You’re encouraged to be violent on one page, and you’re encouraged to give sacrificial love on another page. You’re encouraged to bash a baby’s head on one page, and there’s other pages that say, you know, give your brother your fair share of everything you have if they ask for it.”

All of the respondents report that doubts like their own are widespread among others in their trade.  But there is an unwritten code of silence, a secret that each one acquires individually, and each one knows that the others know it, but no one dare acknowledge it publicly. 

The confessions here give us some new insights into some of the most mystifying behaviors of the clergy that unbelievers have observed with incredulity.  We can’t fathom how smart, educated, thoughtful people can possibly believe the things that they seem to earnestly  report believing.  We grow frustrated with the endless convoluted rationalizations, evasions, and logical gymnastics.  And we shake our heads because we just can’t see how they can really mean what they are saying.  The simple answer is that they don’t.    What several of the subjects acknowledge is the legitimacy and seriousness of the challenges and arguments that atheists have been raising against the received views within their sects.  For some of them, the atheistic arguments worked to change their views about God.  Scientific claims cannot be reconciled with religious doctrine;  God cannot be an anthropomorphic, personal being.  We don’t have sufficient evidence to prove a virgin birth or a resurrection.  Pointless suffering cannot be reconciled with a loving creator.  God doesn't fulfill some necessary explanatory function in the world, and so on. 

They are, as many non-believers have long suspected, systematic and pathological liars.  Admittedly, they think that they can continue to preach, sing, pray, and counsel towards some greater, positive, humanitarian goals.  But the simple fact is that in order to continue doing what they see as good work, they must flatly lie to people who trust them, and who do not have the benefit of their education to know better.  They exploit the ignorance and fears of the masses.  And they leverage their extensive training in apologetics, and psychology to manipulate their congregations into believing things that they acknowledge are false. 

Even worse, they continue to implant outrageous and false stories into the heads of children where they will take hold and create a new lifelong struggle to reconcile deep-seated and emotional convictions from childhood with reality they discover as adults.  Ironically, despite the staggering conflict and anguish in their own minds, they persist in propagating the delusions that will duplicate them in the minds of thousands of others.  They hide their struggles in order to infect others with it. 

If they weren't responsible for such a harmful misrepresentation, their stories would be more heartbreaking.  They have been trapped in a prison where they cannot say any of this publicly.  They will lose their jobs, their support networks, and their families.  And they have been made to suffer tremendous psychological tensions in order to keep up appearances while sealing off their doubts. 

What their examples should make us reflect on is how to change the culture so that the clergy who are the primary broadcasters of  the mythology can be liberated from it more easily if and when they put 2 and 2 together.  We can only hope that this groundbreaking study by Dennett and LaScola opens the door a bit for more of the clergy to come out of the closet.  

These examples also suggest several specific ways we can help them.   Many of us in the non-believer community (myself included) are naively inclined to take believers at their word when they offer arguments for God's existence or justifications for believing.  But these examples should remind us that many of so-called believers, even the important among them actually don't even buy all the nonsense themselves.  They say what they are supposed to say, but it would appear that they are trying to convince themselves as much or more than they are trying to convince us.  We must remember that the best response to the broken arguments may be, "I don't think you actually believe that.  And I know that you've felt the force of the doubts against God that I am raising."  What they need to see is that it would be worse to sustain the lie than to come out and clear their minds and conscience of the bad faith their peculiar situation has created. 
“I didn’t plan to become an atheist. I didn’t even want to become an atheist. It’s just that I had no choice. If I’m being honest with myself. . . .  I want to understand Christianity, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. And I’ve wanted to be a Christian. I’ve tried to be a Christian, and all the ways they say to do it. It just didn’t add up.”
“The love stuff is good. And you can still believe in that, and live a life like that. But the whole grand scheme of Christianity, for me, is just a bunch of bunk.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Santa Principle

Here's a write up of some material from Michael Martin that we use in my philosophy of religion course.  It gives a fairly lightweight summary of a strategy for proving that God does not exist.  Some of the material is rudimentary, but many of the issues are relevant and interesting for our discussions here on the blog:

Can We Prove the Negative?  Atheism and the Santa Principle

In the tradition of natural theology, philosophers have long thought about the prospects for drawing reasonable conclusions about what is real or true in this fashion: A successful argument for a claim p will be a set of reasons (different than p) that are true and that when taken jointly would imply the conclusion p to a reasonable person who does not already believe p.  The back story is complicated, but the idea is that if Smith is trying to convince Jones to believe p where Jones doesn’t already believe it, then Smith’s job is to present reasons, arguments, evidence, and information relevant to p and in a way that logically supports the truth of p.  Then if Jones is reasonable, and if Jones, after considering all of that information, thinks that all of it (or enough to it to do the job) is true, then Jones would also accept p.  We think there is sufficient evidence, for example to make it reasonable for a person who considers it in the right light to conclude that smoking causes cancer.

Atheists and theists often disagree about a number of things.  The central claim that they  diverge on is the claim that God exists.  They usually try to resolve those disagreements by means of arguments understood in the sense above.  They sometimes think of each other as being irrational  because the other refuses to change her mind about the issue.  What these disagreements often boil down to is not just stark irrationality on the part of one side or the other.  More often there are background assumptions, evidential claims, rules of inference, or questions of epistemic justification that they diverge on.  That is, their disagreement about God has more to do with different views about other non-God issues. 

Interestingly, this model of how a disagreement can be resolved by successful argument rarely if ever actually describes the sort of process any of us, theists and atheists included, undergo to arrive at our beliefs.  People rarely just change their minds after a sober and objective period of reflection on the evidence.  The way we acquire our beliefs and our behavior with regard to defending them or sustaining them is much more complicated, neurological, and organic.  What does happen is that your belief structure seems to make gradual shifts and each shift in attitude about one matter, especially if it is important, ripples outward and has an effect on lots of other beliefs, dispositions, and emotional reactions.  To make matters more complicated, we aren’t very good judges of what we believe, or why we believe it.  Priming studies, in psychology, for example, show that neurological processes are set in motion towards a reaction long before we are consciously aware that we have seen or heard something consciously.  In one study, college men were shown a number of pictures of different women and asked to judge which ones they thought were more attractive.   Unbeknownst to the men, the researchers made sure that in some of the pictures the women’s eyes were dilated and some were not.  Eye dilation is one physiological reaction indicating emotional openness, sexual attraction, and intimacy.  The results showed that the men tended to pick out the women with dilated eyes as the more attractive ones.  But when asked why they picked those women, they had no idea that the eye dilation had anything to do with their choices.  They would confabulate theories and elaborate answers about having a preference for certain hair colors, or women looking like someone, and so on.  But the single most predictive factor for their choices was eye dilation.  These studies show how little we know about our own beliefs, and the reasons that we have them.  

Nevertheless, we can aspire to the ideal standard of listening to arguments for opposing viewpoints about God and other matters with an open mind, considering them thoughtfully, and then objectively assessing the truth of that evidence, and then being prepared to accept the rational implications of that evidence.  We should accept those conclusions that are best supported by the evidence, even if we typically don’t.   

So what’s the rational thing to do when you hear a successful argument?  The answer is simple:  accept the conclusion.  Put more formally as we would in a critical thinking class, if a reasonable person who does not already believe p:
  1. understands and believes that all of the premises in the argument for p are true.
  2. understands and believes that the premises when taken jointly imply p
  3. then, that person is rationally committed to believing p. 

So under what circumstances are we being irrational then?  This turns out to be a very complicatd question.  A flagrant case of irrationality and one that would produce a lot of cognitive dissonance in most of us would be a case where we understand and believe all of the evidence that has been offered for a conclusion, and we understand and believe that the all of that evidence deductively or inductively implies that p is true, but we refuse to accept it.  In practice, it is rarely obvious to an individual that he is guilty of doing this.  He will often offer rationalizations or explanations that seem to lessen the cognitive dissonance.  He will explain away the apparent strength of the evidence for p or produce other mitigating considerations that seem to diminish the powerful reasons in favor of p on the one hand, and he belief that p is not true on the other.  But sometimes, when we are being careful and very honest with ourselves, we can catch ourselves making this sort of mistake.  If the matter is weighty and we are emotionally invested on the wrong side of the argument, it can take a great deal of courage and intellectual integrity to face and accept the unappealing conclusion.  Being able to recognize when we are being irrational and then taking steps to fix it are valuable cognitive virtues to cultivate for a number of reasons. 

But the believer in God and the disbeliever often have rational disagreements too.  That is, they can have legitimate differences of view that do not clearly reduce to stark irrationality on one side or the other.  What are the sources of these rational disagreements?  They often differ about which premises are true.  They can also disagree about whether or not the premises jointly imply the conclusion.  If these are empirical disagreements, about whether or not it is possible to be a moral person without believing in God, for instance, we can go and look and settle it.  Or if the disagreement is over whether evolution actually happens, we can look at examples in nature to find out the facts.  If this disagreement is not empirical, and is more conceptual or abstract, the differences can be harder to identify and resolve.  But thoughtful discussion can often help both parties make a lot of progress. 

One point of contention about atheism involves the prospects for ever giving a successful argument for the non-existence of something. That is, many people doubt that while we can know and prove that some things are real, it is not possible to prove that something doesn't exist.  As they see it, you cannot prove a negative because:  1.  you have never managed to look everywhere.  Since we have finite time and resources, there is always somewhere we have not looked.  2.  Lacking evidence that shows something is real does not imply that it isn't.  That might just show that you don't have the evidence.  Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as they say.  3.  You could always be wrong.  Humans are fallible, they overstate things, they leap to conclusions.  And the atheist who claims to know that God isn't real is overstepping the bounds of what the available evidence could show us.  4.  We just don't know what sorts of things are out there, or what God might be like.  If God is something unlike anything we have imagined or investigated, then it would be a mistake to conclude that he isn't real.  If there is a God, his nature and properties would be far beyond our powers of comprehension.  So we wouldn't be able to even get our finite minds around him.  Failing to comprehend something shouldn't be grounds for rejecting its possibility or its existence.  

There are a number of problems with this "You Can't Prove a Negative" view.  And they are problems that indicate the route that many atheists have taken to make their case.  The first problem is that it is reasonable to conclude that there are many things that do not exist.  You most likely believe that unicorns, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, elves, currently living dinosaurs, and Bigfoot, or some other creatures are not real. In the case of some creatures that have been alleged to be real, the existence of confessions and alternative explanations make it particularly easy to believe that there is no such thing.  We have learned that the first famous Loch Ness Monster photograph, taken by Christian Spurling, was a hoax to trick a London newspaper.  Some members of the group have confessed that the Patterson film footage of Bigfoot was faked as well.  Crop circles, we have discovered, were the work of a couple of enthusiastic skeptics who mashed down the wheat in amazing patterns during the night.  None of these confessions proves the negative in a strong sense.  The Loch Ness monster could be real and the picture was faked.  But if those pieces of evidence previously played a significant role in one's evidence for the creature, undermining them may be enough to topple the justification for them. And they suggest alternative explanations for many other pieces of alleged evidence that should be considered carefully.  

The second problem with the Can't Prove a Negative view is that it is (probably) accurate to describe your view of many other gods as atheism.  That is, you are already an reasonable atheist about lots of other gods.  It has been proven to your satisfaction, or you have evidence or considerations that lead you to reasonably conclude that many allegedly real gods are not real.  Consider:  Anansi, West African god who is brings rain, stops fires, and performs tricks; Brekyirihunuade is the highest god in the religion of the Akan people.  He knows and sees everything; Cghene is the supreme God of the Isoko people of southern Nigeria.  He created the world and all peoples; !Xu is the central benevolent and omnipotent god of the bushmen of southern Africa.  He is the sky god to whom the souls of the dead go;  Gefjun, the Norse goddess of fertility and agriculture; Sobek, the Egyptian crocodile god of water. And there are many others.  In fact, there are over 2,800 listed here.  

If it is accurate to characterize your attitude towards Gefjun as this:  "Gefjun isn't real."  then either it has been proven to your satisfaction that she isn't real, or you believe it unjustifiably and you should be an agnostic about her existence (and all 2,800 of the others.)  When atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens say that they are just atheists about one more god than you are, this seems to be the point they are making.  They have simply extended the reasoning that led you to think that those weren't real to one more god.  More importantly, you don’t believe that any of those beings are real.  And you think it is perfectly reasonable to be an atheist about them.  So it’s a mistake to say that negative existential claims about God or gods aren’t reasonable and can’t be proven. 

Some philosophers like Michael Martin, Michael Scriven, Theodore Drange, Nicholas Everitt, J.L. Mackie, and others have given analyses of the circumstances under which is is reasonable for us to conclude that something is not real.  Martin, taking the lead from Scriven, believes that we can form a general policy that describes these cases where we believe that some X does not exist.  We can call it the Santa Principle:

A person is justified in believing that X does not exist if all of these conditions are met:
  1. the area where evidence would appear, if there were any, has been comprehensively examined, and
  2. all of the available evidence that X exists is inadequate, and
  3. X is the sort of entity that, if X exists, then it would show.

That is, you should conclude that X isn't real when you've looked long and hard in the areas where evidence would be if there was any, and none of the evidence has been strong enough to justify believing, and finally, the thing we are looking for is the sort of thing that would appear in some way, or manifest itself in a way that we could recognize.  

So now we have seen that it is possible to prove the negative, and that you already believe many negative existential claims justifiably.  And we have a rough idea of what it might take to prove it.  The question that remains is, "are these conditions met with regard to God?"  Many philosophers think that they are.  Let's consider the conditions one at a time.  Is it the case that the area where evidence would appear for God, if there were any, has been comprehensively examined?  We are using "evidence"  broadly here to include a priori or conceptual considerations, arguments, empirical evidence from biology, physics, and cosmology, and so on.  Philosophers have considered countless versions of the teleological, cosmological, ontological arguments, the argument from miracles, intelligent design, the problem of evil, faith, and on and on.  The topic has been one of the most heavily debated and carefully considered in the discipline for more than 2,000 years.  God may be the sort of being that is difficult to identify or conceptualize, but it should not be said that we have not been doing our very best to answer the question.  

Is it the case that of the available evidence--the arguments, reasons, empirical considerations, a priori analyses, and so on--is inadequate to show that God exists?  Does that evidence, on the whole, suggest that God is real or not?  By and large, the consensus among philosophers (both believers and non-believers) is that none of the arguments for God's existence succeed.  It is also clear that the majority of philosophers who are familiar with these arguments do not believe.  A recent Philosophy Studies survey reported that 73% of philosophers accept or lean towards atheism, while only 15% accept or lean towards theism.  (12% reported "other.")  Phil Papers Survey  It would also appear that most people have serious doubts about the prospect of giving anything like a proof or successful argument for the existence of God.  So it would appear that the second condition is met.  In his book Atheism:  A Philosophical Justification, where Michael Martin presents the Santa principle he systematically presents and analyzes all of the best current arguments for the existence of God, and finds them all wanting.  Scriven, Drange, Everitt, Sobell, Mackie, Oppy, Gale, Nielsen, Fales, and many others have gone through those arguments too and they all find serious objections to all of them.  Some theistic philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, and William Alston disagree, however.  They believe that there are successful arguments for God's existence.  Judging from the Phil Papers Survey, their view appears to be in the majority, but there is a serious and interesting set of disagreements between them and the former set of philosophers.  There will be some people, therefore, who will argue that the second condition in the Santa Principle has not been met.  The available evidence for God's existence is adequate, as they see it.  So if they are right, the Santa Principle will not apply to God and we should not conclude that there is no God on its basis.  

What about the third condition?  Is it the case that God, if he exists, is the sort of being who would be detectable, comprehensible, arguable, or manifest to us in some way?  If there is a God, would we be able to know it?  To answer that question, let's consider another question:  if God exists and he has infinite power and knowledge as he is often alleged, would he be able to make his existence manifest to us if he chose?  Would it be within God's power to show himself to us? I think most people's answer, believers and non-believers, is yes.  God appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush, Allah spoke to Muhammed in a vision, God interacted with Adam and Eve, Jesus is thought to have communicated God's existence and message to people.  If God could do those things, it seems that he would be able to do even more to make his existence apparent if he so chose.  At this point in the discussion, many people will remark that God would be an extraordinary being with properties far beyond our ability to comprehend.  So we should hesitate to infer his non-existence from his non-obviousness, as it were, to us.  These are legitimate concerns.  Let us return to them in a moment.  The question will be, what is the appropriate sort of cognitive attitude for us to take towards the existence of non-existence of things that we cannot, by hypothesis, understand?  

It is worth noting that many people, including many believers, think that God's existence is manifest in the world around us, in our minds, in our prayers, and so on.  It turns out that it is hard to construct a successful argument from these considerations, but the point is these believers do think that God's existence is the sort of thing that is manifest or discoverable by us.  So if it is discoverable, and we have made exhaustive inquiries into the realms where we would expect to make that discovery, and we have come up empty handed, then it appears that the Santa Principle applies to God and we should conclude that he does not exist.  At least, this is what the long list of atheological philosophers above think we should conclude.  

Put more schematically, we can ask, is God like Santa?  Those philosophers would argue that we have a successful argument (in the sense of "successful argument" from above).  
  1. If conditions A,B, and C, are met concerning an entity, then it is reasonable to conclude that no such entity exists.
  2. Conditions A,B, and C are met concerning God.
  3. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that God does not exist. 

Now let us return to the "But God's nature is a mystery," response we briefly considered above.  Several claims are often made about our inability to understand God, and these considerations might lead us to think that the third "showing" condition is not met.  Or they might bear on the first or second conditions.  God’s real nature is vastly beyond our conceptual abilities.  So our attempts to understand God’s nature, motives, plans, and existence are handicapped by our limited conceptual tools.  Even though the arguments for God’s existence seem to fail, he could or does exist in some unconceived fashion.  A related claim that is often made is God’s goodness is so far beyond anything we can imagine, that what appears to be evil is actually good and part of God’s plan.   The problem is our limited intellects, not the impossibility of God’s existence.

What can we say about these points about our ignorance or limitations?  Some of these points are correct:  There are mysteries, we have our limits.  But now the question is, what attitude is reasonable to take towards the existence or non-existence of things that are at or beyond the limits of our abilities?  One point seems to be clear.  The mystery response appears to undermine theism.  If there exists something that is ex hypothesi beyond our capacity to understand, then it cannot be reasonable to form any positive belief about it.    That is, it is inconsistent to simultaneously assert that it is reasonable to believe in the existence of something AND it is beyond our comprehension.  So the views that God is mysterious and God is real do not sit easily together.  

How do we ordinarily treat similar hypothetical and incomprehensible possibilities?  It is possible that God is the sort of thing that cannot, in principle, be grasped by human understanding.  The universe could be populated with any number of things like that.  It could be that any of the thousands of gods on our list from above, such as Anansi, Brekyirihunuade, Cghene, !Xu, and Gefjun are real, but their natures are beyond our comprehension.  The problem is that you probably don't think that they are real.  Suppose that you expressed your doubts about the reality of Gefjun, or Paluga to a devoted follower.  And in response, she said, "But Paluga's infinite nature is beyond comprehension.  You can't possibly think that your finite human doubts make it unreasonable to believe in Paluga's existence."  You probably wouldn't be convinced by this defense.  In fact, you probably wouldn't even elevate your view of Paluga from atheist to agnostic because it is possible that Paluga's nature is too far beyond your powers of understanding for you to draw a reasonable conclusion.  It is possible that any of these other supernatural beings that you think aren't real (and many more we haven't thought of) could have natures that are beyond human comprehension, but in their case, that possibility isn’t suficient to lead you to be a serious agnostic about them.  You still don’t think they are real, even though they might exist out there somewhere that we haven’t investigated yet, and even though they might have natures that vastly exceed our capacity to undertand.  So either your atheism about them is unjustified because you should be agnostic about all of them 2,800 of them, and God is just one more supernatural hypotheses that you are waiting to draw a conclusion about, or you are reasonably atheistic about them and God falls into the same category.  At least, that is the situation that suggested by the application of the Santa Principle.  Atheism about all of these beings, including God, is reasonable.  It's justified.  If we know that there is no Santa on the basis of these considerations, then ceteris paribus, we know that there is no God.   

But why isn't agnosticism the reasonable attitude to take?  Isn't the safe, reasonable, and thoughtful attitude to take that we should suspend judgment about God, and the infinitely long list of other things that could be like this? Atheists who are defending the Santa Principle argument, call them Santa Claus Atheists, do not think that agnosticism is not reasonable here.    It isn’t reasonable to be agnostic about Santa, the current existence of dinosaurs, the Tooth Fairy, unicorns, and Sobek.   So it isn't reasonable to be agnostic about God.  Once a certain threshold of investigation has been met, it is no longer reasonable to believe in X, or even to be agnostic about X.  This is not to say that we must be dogmatic, or unrelenting about this conclusion.  To be reasonable, we must always be willing to consider the evidence and be prepared to revise our views in the light of new information.  So the atheism conclusion is defeasible.  We have proof that there is no God, they argue; it is justified.  But we can change our minds should that become necessary.  (One interesting question to ask is, what sort of evidence, hypothetically, would prove it?)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

My Magical Mind and God

One of the arguments that have been circulating amongst apologetically and philosophically inclined believers lately is the so-called argument from consciousness.  The reasoning roughly runs like this.  No matter how advanced or complete a scientific explanation of consciousness becomes that is based on an external, empirical investigation of the brain, there are some facts about mind that it will not and cannot even in principle explain.  No scientific account will be able to tell us why any particular state of our neurons produces just this internal conscious feel rather than some other.  We can analyze the brain states correlated with eating a ripe banana all we want and explain it all the way down to the molecular level, but none of that explanation will ever account for why it tastes just the way it does instead of like a guacamole.  Then somehow, improbably, these arguments move from this alleged irreducibility of mind to God.  The only way that brain states can be accompanied by any phenomenal states at all, the only thing that could have made them actually feel like something (with banana flavor) to you inside there is if God set it up that way.  (See Richard Swinburne's The Existence of God, Robert Adams' "Flavors, Colors, and God," and J.P. Moreland's "Argument from Consciousness."

If that last bit lost you, from “there are things about mind we don’t understand yet,” to “therefore God is real,”  you’re not alone.   There's a lot of work that needs to be done to connect the dots and a lot of serious philosophers of mind, philosophers of religion, or cognitive scientists aren't buying it.    The argument hasn't gotten much traction in peer reviewed academic journals.

This God of the neural gaps line suffers from a familiar problem in philosophy.  Very often philosophers will consider the radically disparate ends of some phenomena and its alleged mechanical, physical, molecular, or material causes, and throw their hands up at the prospects of ever connecting the two.  When we consider it from our philosophical (and evangelical) armchairs, it seems like that just can’t be any way that mere atoms of matter, molecules, or meat could possibly be responsible for the transcendental joys of listening to Beethoven, or the nuances of a fine French meal, or the rapturous elation of love.  From the inside, mere meat just seems too different from what it feels like to be me.  It just seems to debasing, dehumanizing, and demoralizing to render us down to simply brains.

Part of the problem here arises from linking such a low level physical account with such abstract, high level mental states, and then trusting our imaginations and our intuitions to be a reliable guide to what can or cannot be accomplished by serious scientific research.  I can’t fathom how a vast and complicated physical system like O’Hare airport in Chicago can possibly function either when I watch the janitor at gate 263B empty the trash.  My imagination and intuitions are red lined when I try to leap from my micro access perspective at the gate to what the whole, vast system is doing.  But it would be silly for me to conclude on similar grounds that the airport is therefore some sort of magical, transcendent, emergent, or immaterial entity.

Another part of the problem comes from people confidently concluding that science can never possibly do X, or neuroscience will never explain Y when they just don’t know much about it.  It’s very easy to make these kinds of sweeping pronouncements from a position of ignorance.  That’s also why serious neuroscientists and cognitive scientists aren't about to shut down their research labs because they find the reasoning behind the “Consciousness therefore God,” argument to be so compelling.  A note from history:  declarations that science will never do X usually prove to be quite embarrassing.

Here’s an interesting relevant bit from Cristof Koch’s book The Quest for Consciousness that summarizes one of the major theories we have to explain consciousness now.  Koch is a leading neuroscientist--Professor of biology and engineering at Cal Tech--working on the subject.  Neuroscientists have been looking for the neural correlate for consciousness (NCC) for a while.  They seem to be zeroing on some likely candidates.  (Please don’t argue at this point that correlation doesn’t imply causation—I’m well aware of that and the discipline of neuroscience is well aware of it.  If you’re really sure that the neural events in your brain that correlate with your thoughts are not the causes of your thoughts, then you wouldn’t mind if we, say, opened up your skull and excised those regions of brain tissue, or poured acid on them, right?)  So the view that has emerged involves certain neural firing structures outcompeting or out-shouting, as it were, other firing structure/patterns for temporary ascendency to being more globally broadcast across the brain.  Think of the cases when you can’t get that annoying Lady GaGa song out of your head.  That’s a informational/representational neural firing pattern that has achieved some temporary fame-in-the-brain, as Dennett puts it.  Eventually those neurons will get exhausted and something else will move to the forefront.  But Koch is the expert.  Let him explain it:
"The NCC involve temporary coalitions of neurons, coding for  particular events or objects, that are competing with other  coalitions. A particular assembly--biased by attention--emerges as the  winner by dint of the strength of its firing activity.  The winning coalition, corresponding to the current content of consciousness, suppresses competing assemblies for some time until it either fatigues,  adapts, or is superseded by a novel input and a new victor emerges.  Given that at any one time one or a few such coalitions dominate, one can speak of sequential processing without implying an clock-like process.  This dynamic process can be compared to politics in a democracy with voting blocks and interest groups constantly forming and dissolving. 
Francis (Crick) and I postulate that the NCC are built on a foundation of explicit neuronal representations.  A feature is made explicit if a small set of neighboring cortical neurons directly encode this feature.  The depth of computation inherent in an implicit representation is shallower than in an explicit one.  Additional processing is necessary to transform an implicit into an explicitly representation. "  (47) 
There's lots more, but that's a good start.  This offers us amateurs a glimpse of what part of a neurobiological account of mental phenomena might look like.  And it’s surprisingly potent to explain a lot of things that might have otherwise seemed inexplicable.  So at the very least, we should not gallop off on the God horse when a clear answer to the big how question eludes us.  Those answers have always come into focus through the steady, diligent, and hard work of science.  And it’s closing the gap on this so-called miracle too.