Monday, April 30, 2012

Contra Stenger

Here is a paper from arxiv by Dr Luke Barnes of the Institute for Astronomy in Zurich entitled 'The fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life'. This focuses on the manifold errors of one Dr Victor J. Stenger. It is probably the best & most detailed discussion of the problem I have yet seen and is well worth a look; as is the blog he contributes to with 3 other cosmologists entitled 'Letters to Nature'.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

P'd off

Just when you think the ‘Jesus Myth’ controversy couldn't get any more surreal, out pops a paper from Stephen Law, a philosopher at theUniversity of London entitled “Evidence, miracles, and the existence of Jesus“ in which he concludes that the historical Jesus did not exist.  He does this by laying out two principles – P1 that if you get a series of extraordinary claims (i.e miracle stories without extraordinary evidence you have good reason to be skeptical and P2:

Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

I'm a little confused with how this works as a foundational principle for ancient history. For instance, of the Emperor Vespasian, the Roman historian Tacitus writes:

Among the lower classes at Alexandria was a blind man whom everybody knew as such. One day this fellow threw himself at Vespasian's feet, imploring him with groans to heal his blindness. He had been told to make this request by Serapis, the favourite god of a nation much addicted to strange beliefs… A second petitioner, who suffered from a withered hand, pleaded his case too, also on the advice of Serapis: would Caesar tread upon him with the imperial foot? At first Vespasian laughed at them and refused. When the two insisted, he hesitated. .. With a smiling expression and surrounded by an expectant crowd of bystanders, he did what was asked. Instantly the cripple recovered the use of his hand and the light of day dawned again upon his blind companion. Both these incidents are still vouched for by eye-witnesses, though there is now nothing to be gained by lying.

Does this mean we should deny the existence of Vespasian? Should we also deny the existence of Augustus because (according to Suetonius) he was sired by Apollo in the form of a snake. Now of course there is – by most standards – good independent evidence for both these historical figures – but as we have seen with the myther controversy, all of it can be dismissed as interpolations using the same methodology. Many other figures from history have miraculous occurrences sprinkled through our sources for them and could similarly be dismissed as fabricated.

Law concludes:

‘Our two prima facie plausible principles – P1 and P2 – combine with certain plausible empirical claims to deliver a conclusion very few Biblical scholars are willing to accept….

4. (P2) Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

5. The New Testament documents weave together a narrative about Jesus that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims.

6. There is no good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)

7. Therefore (from 3, 4, 5, and 6), there’s good reason to be sceptical about whether Jesus existed.
. . . So, our empirical premises – 2, 5 and 6, – have some prima facie plausibility. I suggest 2 and 5 have a great deal of plausibility, and 6 is at the very least debatable’

I think at this stage I have to present my own set of principles:

1) The Gavin Menzies principle – history and the methodology of historical research should be the art of historians who are properly qualified in their fields. Philosophers, English professors and retired submarine commanders can popularise, but beyond that should STFU (especially if they are 'introducing a new paradigm') .

2) The Egregious Jargon principle – history should remain free of the type of meaningless twaddle I have witness over the past few weeks – this would include Bayes probability theorem, obscure Marxist terminology, postmodern waffle, p’s q’s I’s brackets and other the other assorted excel formulas that seem to be creeping in. 

3)The James the Just principle – People that don't exist don't tend to have flesh and blood brothers (whose existence is multiply attested). 

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Jesus Wars

Those among us who remember the old Richard Dawkins forum will recall the ‘What can we possibly infer about the historical Jesus?’ thread; a near thousand page epic which outlived the demise of its host and gained a new lease of on the – inaptly named – rational skepticism discussion site. The exchange featured an assortment of ‘cut n paste’ cranks, goggle-geniuses and their hangers-on being given a vigorous and sustained intellectual beating by a Tasmanian Devil (the author of Armarium Magnum and The general thrust of the thread was one side arguing that the historical Jesus never existed and that the Gospels describe an essentially fictitious person. This has never been a very popular theory in academia. In his ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ for example, the historian Maurice Casey remarks:

‘This view is demonstrably false. It is fuelled by a regrettable form of atheist prejudice, which holds all the main primary sources, and Christian people, in contempt. This is not merely worse than the American Jesus Seminar, it is no better than Christian fundamentalism. It simply has different prejudices. Most of its proponents are also extraordinarily incompetent.’

Despite its perceived shortcomings the Christ Myth theory appears to have found widespread popularity on the Internet and among the New Atheist movement. As a result the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has authored a book entitled ‘Did Jesus Exist?’, answering very much in the affirmative.

This seems to have gone down like a lead balloon among the dawkinsia and his views have been criticized by, among others, Richard Carrier, Ophelia Benson, Jerry Coyne, Eric McDonald and P Z Meyers (who proclaimed ‘Carrier cold-cocks Ehrman’, ‘It’s simply bad history to invent rationalizations for an undocumented mystery figure from the distant past’- which, as a principle sounds like it would invalidate most of the field of Ancient History). Some of these, like Ophelia's are fairly mild critiques which take Ehrman to task for making statements that are too unqualified. The weirdest comes from Jerry Coyne who attacks Ehrman for being greedy for putting his blog behind a paywall (it's for charity stoopid!). The most vehement and hard hitting attacks have come from Richard Carrier - both here and here. Ehrman has begun to respond on his blog here and in his latest posting has linked to a rant by historian of religion and humanist advocate Robert Joseph Hoffman. Hoffman writes that:

This little rant (and it is a rant, I acknowledge and I do not apologize for it: somebody’s got to do it) will be followed next week by three essay-length responses to Richard C. Carrier’s ideas: The first by me, the second by Professor Maurice Casey of the University of Nottingham, and the third by Stephanie Fisher a specialist in Q-studies. We will attempt to show an impetuous amateur not only where he goes wrong, but why he should buy a map before starting his journey. Other replies will follow in course, and we invite Carrier, his fans, and anyone else interested in this discussion to respond to it at any stage along the way.

I have to say I am glad to see academics using the Internet to reach out to the general public and engage in debates like this. The fact is that that with the growth of the world wide web there has been a democratization of information. As a result, the type of fringe theories that would previously have been confined to obscure sections of the bookstore or self published works flogged at public events are now easily available and can  proliferate with astonishing speed. In an environment like this we need much more input from the real experts. The alternative is a public forum dominated by amateur crank-pots. 

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Friday, April 20, 2012

A Tribute to the Perfect Reader

When authors send their books out into the world, we leave them to fend for themselves. True, there will hopefully be some reviews. But these a strange beasts, often driven by an agenda and not necessarily based on a close reading of the book in question. What authors can rarely do is sit down beside one of their readers while she consumes their work thoroughly and attentively. This is especially the case for me since none of my family have been particularly interested in what I write about.

But I have been lucky enough on one occasion to silently follow a reader through my book. She was called Janet. Stuck in hospital at the beginning of last year, she brought a pile of books and wrote about what she thought of them each day on Librarything. For those that don't know, this is something like Facebook for bibliophiles.

A Google Alert let me know that Janet was working her way through God's Philosophers so I dropped by to eavesdrop. You can read her thoughts here. It is fascinating to follow her through the book and also very instructive for me to see where I had failed to explain something as well as I would like or had come across of defensive. I am very grateful to Janet for giving me an unparalleled insight into what it felt like for an intelligent layperson to read my book. I dropped her an email to say thank you.

At the start of this year, another Google Alert warned me that I was being talked about on Librarything again. This time, there was very sad news. It turned out that Janet had been in hospital for treatment for leukaemia and it had claimed her life in January. A group of her friends online had decided to engage in a group-read of God's Philosophers in her memory. Their discussion was also very instructive for me, and I have let it run its course before mentioning anything here. But I did want to say thank you to Janet. May she rest in peace.

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