Sunday, October 31, 2004

I can only agree with the comments made about the inadequacy of evidential apologetics. I was staying in a bed and breakfast on Wednesday night and found a copy of Josh McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict on a shelf there. This is a book I have never looked at before but I was intrigued because it was the subject of a mass debunking exercise by a group of infidels (including our own anonymous poster) which is probably still available on the II site somewhere (yes, here we are).

The mistake made by McDowell and other evidential apologists is that they do not allow for other explanations a part from the one that they want us to believe. Most of the II critique is based on the idea that McDowell should have included all the opposing views rather than making his presentation look like an open-and-shut case. This criticism is obviously bogus, but the mere existence of the opposing views invalidates much of McDowell's argument. For instance, he claims that because the death of Jesus fulfilled so many Old Testament prophecies, it must prove he was the son of God. Well no, it does nothing of the sort, especially if the Gospels are written precisely with those prophecies in mind. Likewise, even if we grant the central historical facts of the passion narrative, we are still miles away from proving the resurrection - especially to someone whose world view forbids miracles. As Sherlock Holmes said "Eliminate the impossible and what is left, however unlikely, must be true." As the resurrection is viewed by some as impossible, another theory, however unsupported, must be true.

Which leaves us with a central truth about evangelism. Conversion is a matter between the individual and God. No human being can convert anyone. All we can do is allow ourselves to be used as instruments when He needs them for His own work. As our commentators said, apologetics is better off debunking the opposition rather than proving its own case. It is the defense advocate and not the prosecution.

Friday, October 29, 2004

I read my first incunabula yesterday.

This is rather more significant than it sounds as will become clear once you know what an incunabula is. The word is the Latin for 'cradle' and it refers to any book printed before 1st January, 1501 - that is, during the 15th century. As printing was only invented after 1450, we are talking about the very birth of printed books, hence the connection with 'cradle'. An incunabula is the holy grail of bibliography which means they are very expensive to buy (prices start well in excess of £10,000). This is partly because there are so few left in private hands while the big libraries have thousands. The one I read is held by Cambridge University Library and was a treatise on the calendar and arithmetic intended for students.

Another thing about incunabula is they tend to be pretty ugly. Not all of them, of course. Some are virtually indistinguishable from the illuminated manuscripts they replaced with gorgeous hand painted rubrication and illustrations around the printed text. But most are not like that and reflect the primitive print technology of the time and the need to cut costs to survive in the market place. Woodcut pictures exist but these are nothing compared to the intricate copperplate pictures that appear in the mid-sixteenth century. Worse for the reader, early books tend to be printed in a gothic typeface that is really hard to read. They also contain all the abbreviations that scribes used to use to cut down their work load. Compositors (the men who set up the type for printing) used these abbreviations to try and keep each line about the same length and produce a fully justified finish.

Shortly before 1500, Roman typefaces (and I'm seeing one now on my screen even if you the reader have a different one on yours) became popular because they were clear, elegant and took up less space while using less ink. They spread all over Europe from Italy, except to Germany where people continued to use gothic for centuries. So, if you actually want to read a book it is usually best to make sure it was printed after about 1550. In that case it will be easier to read, better illustrated, less abbreviated and, above all, a huge deal cheaper.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

From the CADRE Blog, BK has an quotation about the intellectual decline of atheism. Of course, you do not need to tell me that many atheists on the internet are not exactly intellectual giants but the point about Anthony Flew and Dan Barker is also instructive. Flew is an esteemed, though very old, philosopher who has recently been having something of a crisis of faith over his atheism. Dan Barker is a musician who writes low brow books about how he hates Christianity.

Of course, you could retort that many Christians are not exactly brilliant intellects either. True indeed, but I'd suggest that this doesn't matter much. At root, Christianity does not claim to be an intellectual movement but a religion for everyone whether they are packing high calibre brains or not. And sure enough there are enough high calibre brains to make a mockery of any claim that Christians cannot be that clever.

Atheism however claims to be based on reason, rationality and logic. It is almost entirely an intellectual movement and consequently if it is losing the philosophical conflict it loses everything. The rude health of Christian philosophy and the decline of atheist thought is a much bigger threat to the later than it would be to the former. Atheism risks becoming something that people of a certain age and mind set grab onto instinctively (largely because it makes them feel intellectually superior) but will drop when it turns out that actually the clever guys are all in the other camp. I don't want to declare victory too early but the signs look good.

Of course, after the defeat of atheism, the much more difficult job will be the defeat of apathy.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Here's a short extract from Pliny the elders Natural History:

On the west side of the Dead Sea, away from the coast, where there are
harmful vapours, lives the solitary tribe of the Essenes. This tribe is
remarkable beyond all others in the whole world, because it has no women, has
rejected sexual desires, is without money and has only the company of palm
trees. Day by day the crowd of refugees is renewed by hordes of people
tired of life and driven there by the waves of fortune to adopt their
customs. Thus through thousands of ages - incredible to relate - the
race in which no one is born lives for ever; so fruitful for them is other men's
dissatisfaction with life!

Below the Essenes was the town of Engeda, second only to Jerusalem in the
fertility of its soil and in its groves of palm trees, but now, like Jerusalem,
another heap of ashes. Then comes Masada, a fortress on a rock, not far
from the Dead Sea. This is the extent of Judea. (V:73 - 4)

A few things to note. First, Pliny is happy to use the word 'hordes' to refer to the people joining the Essenes. This is an example of Latin hyperbole, much like Tacitus describing the Christians killed by Nero as a 'multitude'. Those who claim the use of the word 'multitude' as evidence of Christian forgery in Tacitus clearly know nothing about Latin literature. Second, and more interestingly, this passage strongly implies that the Essenes kept going after the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem in the First Jewish War. They are usually assumed to have packed it in about this time. Pliny could easily be mis-informed but we cannot just assume the Essenes ended as Vespasian's legions marched into Judea.
Hmm. Well I see this politics business looks like it is taking over my blog! So thanks to all of you who made comments, but I think I'll leave off this subject at least until the ambient temperature associated with the US election has reduced a bit. Then perhaps, my thoughts on politics posted here will be limited to where religion is directly involved.

So in the meantime back to the diet of neuroscience and ancient history!

Monday, October 25, 2004

Thanks for the comments. A hiding to nothing, Elliot, is a pointless or counter productive activity.... a bit like blogging.

While Guardian bashing is fun, the more serious point is that the War on Iraq/Terror has produced a fault line in Europe between a minority who, even with misgivings, accept that the world changed on 9/11 and a majority who believe that if we were all just nicer to each other then everything would be OK. Hence, most Europeans assume that if only the Israelis would talk to the Palestinians, then they could work something out. They do not realise that Arafat has already twice turned down the very deal that the Israelis are being urged to offer him. Likewise, most Europeans think that if you act weak and harmless then you get left alone. Alas, human nature never was and never will be like that. The weak get kicked unless the strong protect them.

At heart I am a liberal and a cultural European. I prefer Italian food that comes from Italy to pizza from Chicago. I adore France and the French. But I despair of this continent's politics. We destroyed ourselves in two world wars. Walking the ugly modern streets of Dusseldorf or Cologne is a sobering experience for a Brit as we were the ones who flattened the beautiful mediaeval cities. But we seem to have thought that just because we have stopped fighting each other means the rest of the world is ready to stop too. Sadly, this is not so.

Even worse, the European left has forgotten the meaning of liberalism and tolerance. I mentioned the case of Buttiglione, the Italian Catholic now the target of an inquisition by socialist MEPs in Brussels. Buttiglione says he thinks homosexual acts are wrong but they should not be made illegal. His opponents say this is bigotry. Surely, all Buttiglione is doing is being tolerant. You CANNOT tolerate something of which you already approve. I do not 'tolerate' the glass of port I'm currently enjoying because I like it - but I do tolerate the people who smoke in my local pub as they inconvenience me. To tolerate something is to disapprove of it and yet let people do it anyway. But for the Left tolerance is no longer enough because they insist that we must all actually approve of their moral decisions. That, to me, sounds like fascism and it sounds like trying to impose morality in exactly the same way the Left accuse Christians of doing.

This all leaves me in something of a quandary because I would rather identify with liberal opinion and yet I find many of the things self-proclaimed liberals are saying to be utter rubbish or worse. So I find myself pushed politically right - or perhaps the right is moving towards me...

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Over here in England, many people are watching the US election with baited breath (although, to be frank, most probably don't know its happening). It is true that the outcome does effect us as well and so Americans have a considerable responsibility to the rest of the world to make the right decision. However, I'm certainly not about to tell them what the right decision is as this seems to cause more harm than good.

An example of offering a word of friendly advice going horribly wrong is the Guardian's efforts to influence the vote in Clark County, Ohio. Never have I seen such patronising liberal stupidity in my life. Can the Guardian's editors, desperate for a Kerry victory, really have thought that getting Richard Dawkins, a man genetically incapable of empathic with ordinary people, to tell Americans how to vote would have anything but a detrimental effect. The Guardian, however, is unapologetic.

At root, the biggest fault line between Europe and the US is over religion. Read some European newspapers and you would think that most Americans are religious fundies who would rather live under a theocracy than democracy. The Guardian itself publishes endless op-ed pieces about how conservative Christians are about to take over. To be fair, they pick a lot of this up from left wing American writers who are just as convinced that Texas is the new Iran. You could say that people who can't tell the difference between the Southern Baptists and Islamic terrorists are not even worth the time of day, but actually Islamicists often get a better press from many liberals in Europe than do Christians. It is hard to escape the impression that a sizable majority here are quietly cheering on the insurgents in Iraq against the Americans. For people like me who genuinely like Americans, are not afraid of their religious outlook and do not consider matters like abortion to be beyond discussion, European bigotry can get depressing. But there is no sign of it changing and I suspect matters will get worse if the bigots claim the scalp of Rocco Buttiglione whose only crime is to tolerate homosexuals rather than actively approve of them.

On another note, thanks to Elliot for his suggested links. I will come on to consciousness, and especially why I think Nancey Murphy is on a hiding to nothing, later on.

Friday, October 15, 2004

I think that what most people are most concerned about with respect to evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and related topics is that they seem to suggest that we do not have freewill and hence moral responsibility is meaningless. No one would deny that we are in some ways influenced by our environment: for example brutalised children are more likely to end up as brutal and people who have excellent educations are generally cleverer. This is partly because the brain continues to develop as we grow and so our lives directly effect how it develops. However, there is nothing inevitable about this and people often surmount serious disadvantages through their own choice and determination. So, I don't think anyone could say that the fact we are effected by our surroundings means we have no freedom at all.

I think it is best to see our genes as part of our environment and thus they give us certain predispositions without the inevitability that would preclude our freedom of choice. A very similar argument raged in the Middle Ages over the extent to which behavior was determined by the stars. On one side were the astrological extremists like Cecco D'Ascoli who claimed that our lives were determined in advance by the stars under which we were born. Freewill did not exist and with it went moral responsibility. Opponents often admitted that there was something to astrology but said that the stars could only give rise to predispositions and could never entirely negate freedom and morality. The Church, of course, aided by thinkers such as St Thomas Aquinas, insisted that moral choice did exist and those who claimed our personalities are determined by the stars are wrong. St Augustine rejected the efficacy of astrology all together, raising the argument that twins born under the same stars could have very different fates.

If genetics and neuroscience do not logically have to conflict with the doctrine of freewill, many people believe that the associated ideas about the mind being a purely physical phenomenon do make freewill impossible. But this, I suggest is an entirely separate question. We can accept that things can influence us without it leading to the lose of freedom. My thoughts on the much more serious difficulty of what the mind actually is, I will come to in a later post.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Evolutionary psychology has been getting a bad press of late. It gets mixed up with social Darwinism, eugenics and various other nasties. Progressives hate it because it goes against two of their cherished principals: that we are all nuture rather than nature, and that man can make himself perfect. The idea that there is such a thing as a perfect society has driven idealists since Plato and millions have died in the twentieth century in pursuit of the dream. But, if evolutionary psychologists are right, we are hardwired to behave in ways that make a perfect society impossible. This makes the whole idea very unpalatible to those who believe in progress and great for conservatives who claim that the tradition ways are best as these are the ones our wiring best suits us too.

As for the Christian, or at least Catholic, they could say they knew it all along. St Augustine is not flavour of the century with liberals but his insight into human nature makes him one of the great psychologists. He realised that human beings have instincts to behave in ways that they know are wrong and furthermore that those instincts can never be fully resisted. In other words, we always end up sinning. Augustine's later years were taken up arguing with a British fanatic monk call Pelagius who went around dressed in rags and refusing all luxuries. He claimed that just as long as we were all as ascetic as him, we could get to heaven from our own efforts. Augustine replied that if we all had to behave like you then most of us are off to hell anyway. Unlike Pelagius, Augustine recognised that it is human nature to sin and that we cannot escape that nature through out own efforts. Again, this is terribly unpopular with idealists.

However, Augustine's insight went even further. He realised that human nature was a universal and that we must be born with it. Therefore, it must be inherited and have resulted from events that formed the creatures that humans are today. Of course, he know nothing about genes which is how we inherit part of our nature. But he would agree with evolutionary psychologists who claim that much of how we behave today is due to events that took place to our distant ancestors. Augustine postulated that the cause was the Fall of Man that meant that humans inherited a propensity to sin from their parents. But the effect on our behavior today is the same and Augustine perfectly worked out both the proximate cause and the effect.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

There is a new Jesus Mythologist in town. Tom Harpur, a Canadian religious affairs journalist, has published a book called the Pagan Christ. It is, by all accounts, unadulterated trash but he has been given an easy ride by many of his friends in the journalism trade and is making quite an impression in Canada. W Ward Gasque has written a devastating and incisive critique which demonstrates that Harpur uses out of date sources that no real scholar would touch with a barge pole. Harpur is either being extremely gullible or deliberately disingenuous by quoting all sorts of stuff that any expert could have told him to avoid. His reply to Gasque here (scroll down), is a study of special pleading and dishonesty. That he complains professional Egyptologists have not yet read his sources would be funny if it wasn't so completely arrogant. It is like complaining that geologists have not made themselves familiar with the latest tract by Graham Hancock. Harpur also says his detractors are only ultra-conservative or fundamentalist Christians. He clearly has no idea about the religion he used to profess or the people who subscribe to it. JP Holding has also attacked the Pagan Christ in his own inimitable style.

Yes, people like Harpur make me angry. He is pompous, disingenuous and out of a quick buck. It is impossible that a reasonably intelligent person who has read as widely as he claims to have done would believe a word he writes - which means he cannot believe it himself. He makes the usual claim that his book was not written for scholars and uses this both as an excuse not to ground his work in facts and sources, and to ignore the objections of those who do. Writing a popular book without bothering to do the spade work is dead easy. Scholarship, as I am rapidly finding, is very hard work.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

A new term has started at Cambridge but for us graduates that only means we have to dodge undergraduates in the streets. Meanwhile, I am trying to sort out our new home which is proving rather time consuming.

A reader has emailed and asked about Bart Ehrman's work including The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New millennium. The former must be one of the most ill used books in New Testament studies and is reviewed by JP Holding here. His opinion is that it is not particularly scary. Ehrman shows how orthodox Christians amended a few passages which heretics had been misinterpreting in order to prevent them from being abused. The cases Ehrman presents are, frankly, not exactly earth-shattering and are based on a careful analysis of the various surviving texts. Of course, internet critics have tried to use Ehrman to show that the New Testament is completely unreliable and that Christians were happy to corrupt texts wholesale. In fact, Ehrman demonstrates the reverse - he shows that the changes made were small and largely inconsequential and that the NT has been "reconstructed by scholars with reasonable certainty - as much certainty as we can reconstruct any book of the ancient world."

His second book has also caused concern to some. It is actually far less interesting than Orthodox Corruption as it is simply the latest in a long line of books by scholars that recreate the historical Jesus as they would like to see him. We have had Jesus the cynic sage, Jesus the teacher of wisdom, Jesus the peasant revolutionary and now Jesus the apocalyptic prophet. Essentially, Ehrman takes the bits of the New Testament which demonstrate what he wants to show and ignores all the rest with some flimsy justification. This is exactly what Burton Mack, Dom Crossan and all the rest of the historical Jesus crowd have been doing for years. I don't think we should worry about yet another tome being added to the pile. As I've be saying for ages, historical Jesus studies are a castle built on air and can tell us almost nothing about the real Jesus except a few facts about his life. All the rest of the genre is purely fiction.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

So, the authors of the Holy Blood and Holy Grail ("HBHG") are suing Dan Brown for using their plot for the blockbuster novel, the Da Vinci Code ("DVC"). No one would deny that DVC is based on HBHG, but can Brown be accused of plagiarism? If HBHG was marketed as a work of fiction, there would be no contest, but in fact it is claimed to be fact. For that reason, I'm not sure they can complain that their ideas have been used as they are not claiming the plot was the work of their imagination. They say they were merely uncovering facts that must then be in the public domain. Of course, the irony is that HBHG is fiction and the authors did make it up. It will be interesting to see if they will admit this to win the case.