Saturday, December 02, 2006

Something from nothing?

Part of an ongoing exchange with an email correspondent. His remarks are in quotation marks:

“Are you saying that we should not assume the law of conservation is valid beyond the furthest point currently detectable by telescopes or radio telescopes?? (I assume that's what you mean by "observable".)”

We should not assume that the law of conservation is operable in a hypothetical alternative universe—seeing as we don’t have any empirical evidence regarding the existence of such a universe, much less its physical laws.

“Why would the validity of that law depend on the capacity of our instruments?”

Our knowledge of a natural law is limited to our observation of nature. A hypothetical alternative universe would be unobservable or indetectible even in principle.

“Mills is merely applying the law of conservation, stating that the law forbids something, i.e. ex nihilo creation.”

We’ve been over this ground before.

“Such extrapolation of a known law, and a fundamental one at that, seems far more sensible, and in keeping with the known facts about the universe, than the truly incredible leap that theists postulate with the notion of divine ex nihilo creation. I would argue the law of conservation, i.e. that you can't get something from nothing, is more fundamental than other laws.”

Two problems:

i) There’s nothing sensible about extrapolating from the only universe we know and know to exist to the physical conditions of a hypothetical alternative universe which is both unknown and unknowable.

ii) You keep speaking of creation ex nihilo as a “postulate.” There are both philosophical and scientific arguments for creation ex nihilo. For example:

“Unless you axiomatically posit a supernatural intervention whereby the mass-energy necessary to constitute our universe is placed into the "acorn" of the BB, it has to be assumed that the mass-energy for the BB was pre-existent in some way, whether it originated in a previous collapsed universe or a quantum vacuum fluctuation (more about this below) or was just inherent in the BB acorn.”

i) You’re oscillating between mass-energy and the law of conservation. These are not interchangeable concepts.

ii) You also toy with a number of different cosmological models in the course of your reply. So you argument, even if otherwise sound, would only be sound with reference to one (or more) out of several competing cosmological models.

iii) Creation ex nihilo does not entail a BB acorn.

“I think there is far more reason to believe the law of conservation would apply to the acorn (i.e. to mass-energy compressed into an ultra-dense point) than any supernatural explanation.”


“In other words, to show that God created the universe ex nihilo through the BB, you have to axiomatically posit the existence of God to start with.”

No, theistic arguments can work in either direction. You could begin with theistic arguments that independently establish the existence of God, and then redeploy that conclusion as a premise for creation ex nihilo—or you could marshal philosophical and scientific arguments for creation ex nihilo, and redeploy that conclusion as a premise for the existence of God.

“God created the universe because God exists. But you haven't proven the existence of God, you've just posited his existence -- you've just put him into the equation. A conjuring trick indeed!”

This gets to be a bit tedious. God is not merely a postulate. There are a variety of theistic arguments for the existence of God.

“If time as we know it was created with the BB, then the "raw materials" of the BB would have to be considered "timeless" until the t=0 moment when the BB started spewing them out in a rapidly transforming state (with energy being converted into particles of matter) creating a fast-expanding universe. That's what I meant.”

Which assumes that timeless matter/energy—matter/energy without duration, is a coherent concept.

But time is a fundamental property of physical objects as we observe them.

“But in recent years several theories have come out which question the idea that the BB was a singularity from which time began and propose that it was "not a boundary to spacetime but simply a phase through which the universe passes" (Sean Carroll and Jennifer Chen, University of Chicago.)”

Does this mean that you now retract your previous appeal to timeless matter/energy?

“This little survey shows that the classical timeless (or pre-time) BB singularity is not cast in stone, and that the possibilities of a universe prior to or encompassing our present universe are being seriously considered.”

There’s a basic difference between possibility and conceivability. To know that a hypothetical alternative universe is, indeed, possible, we would need to have a detailed knowledge of its physical structure. But we’re only scratching the surface of our own universe, much less a hypothetical, alternative universe.

“Gabriele Veneziano (CERN), a string theory pioneer, discusses two of the non-singularity theories in an article called "The Myth of the Beginning of Time", He concludes by saying that "at least two potentially testable theories plausibly hold that the universe--and therefore time--existed well before the big bang. If either scenario is right, the cosmos has always been in existence and, even if it recollapses one day, will never end." This would seem to preclude a singular divine creation event.”

A “potentially testable” theory is two steps removed from actual evidence for such a scenario. It is untested. And it is, at best, potentially testable. So it’s untested, and until it’s tested, it may not even be testable.

“They postulate infinite entropy, with new universes being created out of “empty” high entropy space – through quantum fluctuations – by new big bangs that continue the process of increasing entropy. This would also seem to preclude a Biblical creation event.”

Assuming, for the sake of argument (which I deny), that Christians postulate the existence of God, why is it illicit for Christians to postulate the existence of God due to its explanatory power in accounting for the origin of the universe, but it’s licit for a secular scientist to postulate a secular cosmology to do the same?

“Nevertheless, they show that it is possible to come up with scientifically plausible naturalistic explanations for the origin of our universe that don’t require leaping to the conclusion of a divine creator.”

A “potentially testable” theory doesn’t begin to “show” the actual possibility of a naturalistic explanation.

“This is acceptable, but when you posit a supernatural explanation, you're jumping the gun in a big way. You're short-circuiting science. Even if science doesn't have an explanation for something today, it could in 20, 50, 200 or 500 or 1000 years.”

You are now resorting to secular fideism. Your faith-commitment to the future of science.

“I don't see any justification for shutting the door on a scientific, naturalistic explanation.”

And you are now implicitly defining science in terms of methodological naturalism. But methodological naturalism is subject to formidable criticisms:

“Given that we're probably locked into our universe, and may never be able to go outside it (or peer outside it using various instruments), or into a black hole, we may never finally or conclusively solve the mystery of cosmic origin. In other words, there may be a naturalistic explanation, but we might not be able to discover it given physical limitations. But that still doesn't justify a supernatural explanation.”

Sorry, but this is secular fanaticism. Even if no naturalistic explanation will ever be available, naturalism is always preferable to supernaturalism!

“Positing God as an explanation only obscures things further: From where / out of what / how did God create the energy in the universe??”

Since that is not what creation ex nihilo implies, the question is miscast.

“I think the theories I've mentioned above try to tackle this issue. But while we may be able to explain the Big Bang, i.e. what gave our universe its start, we may have to take as an absolute given the existence of the underlying or preceding energy that permeates (or permeated) the pre-universe or multiverse.”

Take as “an absolute given.” More secular dogma. This is secular fundamentalism.

“Again, this is an extrapolation from something known.”

An extrapolation from something known what? You’re assuming that a hypothetical alternative universe would be analogous to our universe. If you already knew that, then you wouldn’t need to “extrapolate” from one to the other. The fact that you have having to extrapolate from one to the other betrays the fact that you don’t know the situation to be analogous, in which case the extrapolation is wholly unwarranted.

“In positing divine ex nihilo creation, you make a huge leap into the unknown without any solid basis.”

Into the unknown what?

“Any or all of them may turn out to be wrong. That's how science works. Delving into the origin (and future) of the universe is cutting-edge science which requires imagination and original thinking on the part of astrophysicists.”

If you have to appeal to “cutting-edge science,” then there’s no reason to have any confidence in cutting-edge science since today’s cutting-edge science is different from tomorrow’s cutting-edge science or yesterday’s cutting-edge science.

“See directly below for more details. But let me say here that the question of how God pulled off this trick is indeed the key question. If you evade this question, it means you simply want to impose a solution (God as the cause of the universe) without any justification, apart from your religious faith.”

Which disregards the philosophical and scientific arguments for creation ex nihilo.

“The universe and the Big Bang are known phenomena and science tries to explain their origin. In this case, the very feasibility of the action (i.e. creation ex nihilo) by the posited actor (God) determines whether that actor being the cause of the phenomena is a plausible hypothesis. To posit something as the cause, you have to give a plausible explanation of how the cause led to the effect. To say that Cause X caused Effect Y, without explaining how X caused Y makes the case of X being the cause rather flimsy. Wouldn't you agree?”

No, I don’t agree. For there is no agreed upon model of causality in the philosophical literature. Not even close.

We don’t begin with a theory of causation. Rather, we begin with what we take to be contingent events, which we infer to be effects of *some* agency or agent.

The inference does not depend on having an off-the-shelf model of causality to work with.

“Regarding the statement that follows, Christopher Hitchens has said that "What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof".

Which evinces his utterly ignorance of natural theology, philosophical theology, and Christian apologetics.

“As you concede, atheists don't have to disprove the existence of God, but certainly it's a good idea for them to explain how living things and the universe came into being and how they function and develop without God and why the concept of God is fundamentally flawed.”

No, it’s more than a good idea. It’s a burden of proof. The atheist, by virtue of his being an atheist, believes that a world without God is significantly different from a world with God (“God” as defined in Judeo-Christian terms).

Therefore, an atheist maintains that theism and atheism carry very different implications for reality. They are not equivalent descriptions of reality.

Hence, atheism has a burden of proof internal to atheism to exclude the implications of the alternative thesis. To show that the world is not the way it would be if God is real.

“If by "evidential parity" you mean parity in the amount of evidence for their existence, yes I don't think there's any more proof for the Christian God, than for Zeus, or for leprechauns. If you believe in the Christian God, then of course you think there's no parity. True, the Christian God is attributed with far more than are leprechauns. Leprechauns are not claimed to have created the universe or life on Earth or to be responsible for tsunamis or saving lives during tsunamis. So in that sense, it's true, there's no parity. The evidence base for God is far bigger, i.e. the amount of what is presented as evidence. But, for an atheist, all this purported evidence fails to prove the case.”

With all due respect, have you ever attempted to even *look* at some of the evidence? Here’s a bare sampling of some of the online material:

“Yes, there are indetectable phenomena which leave detectable effects, but these are all natural phenomena. God, as a supernatural entity, is not part of science -- far from it.”

Is this another appeal to methodological naturalism?

“I realize that a Christian apologist would use everything in the universe as evidence for God, but the argument from design has been rather thoroughly punctured by philosophers and scientists from David Hume to Dawkins.”

Has it now? Have you actually studied some of the counterarguments?

Even Thomas Nagel, a leading secular philosopher, had to take Dawkins to task for his inept misstatement of the design argument:


Let me first say something about this negative argument. It depends, I believe, on a misunderstanding of the conclusion of the argument from design, in its traditional sense as an argument for the existence of God. If the argument is supposed to show that a supremely adept and intelligent natural being, with a super-body and a super-brain, is responsible for the design and the creation of life on earth, then of course this "explanation" is no advance on the phenomenon to be explained: if the existence of plants, animals, and people requires explanation, then the existence of such a super-being would require explanation for exactly the same reason. But if we consider what that reason is, we will see that it does not apply to the God hypothesis.

The reason that we are led to the hypothesis of a designer by considering both the watch and the eye is that these are complex physical structures that carry out a complex function, and we cannot see how they could have come into existence out of unorganized matter purely on the basis of the purposeless laws of physics. For the elements of which they are composed to have come together in just this finely tuned way purely as a result of physical and chemical laws would have been such an improbable fluke that we can regard it in effect as impossible: the hypothesis of chance can be ruled out. But God, whatever he may be, is not a complex physical inhabitant of the natural world. The explanation of his existence as a chance concatenation of atoms is not a possibility for which we must find an alternative, because that is not what anybody means by God. If the God hypothesis makes sense at all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of physical science: purpose or intention of a mind without a body, capable nevertheless of creating and forming the entire physical world. The point of the hypothesis is to claim that not all explanation is physical, and that there is a mental, purposive, or intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of physics, because it explains even them.



“No, you do need a good reason to deny the eternal validity of the law of conservation -- beyond your religious belief. Having doubts is one thing and even that requires some justification, but going as far as outright denial is another matter.”

Actually, I don’t need any reason to deny the eternal validity of such a law. Rather, the onus is on those who believe it to offer some reason to believe it in the form of hard evidence.

“I think your prior religious belief is in fact your reason. Your belief system requires divine ex nihilo creation, so naturally, you deny something that would preclude this.”

i) This sort of objection is a two-edged sword, for I could say exactly the same thing about the motives of the atheist.

ii) More to the point, one doesn’t have to be a Christian to be utterly sceptical of MWI. There are many secular critics of MWI in the scientific community.

“You say "the only basis" -- well, our universe is quite a huge basis!”

Yes, but of course, we’re not talking about “our” universe, now are we?—but about a hypothetical alternative universe.

“Of course, positing a God "solves" this problem at one level since you then supply a "source" for the energy coming out of nothing. However, you are then taking a gigantic leap into the unknown and the unknowable -- it's indeed a leap of faith, pure and simple. In positing God, you're also at the same time preventing any explanation of ex nihilo creation. You're only explaining who the agent is (to the extent such a transcendent unknowable agent can be explained or defined!),”

There are standard definitions of the divine attributes in philosophical and systematic theology, viz.

P. van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil (Oxford 2006), Lecture 2.

E. Wierenga, The Nature of God (Cornell 1989)

“While there is still much that science needs to solve and discover, it seems in this case a fairly safe bet to rely on top-notch scientists like Guth and Hawking.”

1.It’s not a safe bet when today’s top-notch scientists contradict each other. If they knew where the truth lay, they wouldn’t propose so many mutually exclusive cosmological theories. So they really don’t know what they’re talking about. Rather, they’re groping in the darkness of a measureless cave with a box of matches.

2.And, speaking of Hawking, he’s a classic antirealist in his philosophy of science. As he said in his debate with Roger Penrose:

“He's a Platonist and I am a positivist. He's worried that Schrödinger's cat is in a quantum state, where it is half dead and half alive. He feels that can't correspond to reality. But that doesn't bother me. I don't demand that a theory correspond to reality because I do not know what it is. Reality is not a quality you can test with litmus paper. All I am concerned with is that the theory should predict the results of measurements.”


“You are here postulating a transcendent realm beyond the reach of science. Again, that's a giant leap. If it is beyond science, then it's beyond our knowledge.”

You are now equating scientific knowledge with all knowledge. This is a hopeless position:

i) Science depends on metascientific assumptions. See the aforementioned materials on methodological naturalism.

ii) There are fields of knowledge, such as history, which are not reducible to science. History accentuates the particular and unrepeatable, science the universal and repeatable.

“Yes, numbers do exist, but not as a physical reality in the universe, but as human constructs to describe reality. In the case of possible worlds, we are talking about real physical entities that may or may not exist, not abstract constructs.”

A real nonexistent physical entity. Care to rephrase that?

“Besides, the fine-tuning argument also employs hypotheticals, i.e. other possible values for the Big Bang constants (the cards in Penrose's royal-flush-yielding deck). How do we know other values are possible? And anyway, as I've written before, our universe is not particularly bio-friendly, a point you haven't responded to. There is a vast amount of cosmic material out there -- galaxies, stars, planets, nebulae, etc -- that is not life-bearing or life-enabling, most which certainly had no effect on the emergence of life on our planet. Why would a cosmic designer need to create a vast mostly lifeless and non-life-permitting universe in order to generate intelligent life on one little planet? Surely he would have found a much more efficient way to do this, if that was his main goal -- unless he wanted to keep a small group of humans employed as astronomers and astrophysicists! Hawking writes in A Brief History of Time (Chpt. 8) that "the strong anthropic principle would claim that this whole vast construction exists simply for our sake. This is very hard to believe." Indeed!!”

i) You’re lifting “biofriendly” from a NYT review I sent you of Dawkins’ new book. I myself did not deploy the fine-tuning argument in the course of our exchange.

ii) However, the point of the argument is not that you need a big universe for life to exist on planet earth, but that you need a big universe for life to exist anywhere at all—whether here or elsewhere in the universe.

“Besides, it took billions of years after the BB for life to start evolving on our planet. Life on Earth adapts to the environment it finds itself in. The universe was not somehow designed to enable life, and particularly life on Earth; rather, life and human life arose slowly in very difficult conditions through evolutionary adaption. As Francois Tremblay writes in his article "The Many Problems of the Fine-Tuning Argument": "We should no more be surprised at how well the universe fits us, than we should be surprised at how well a baked cookie fits its mold".”

Well, I don’t share your operating premise. I don’t subscribe to macroevolution—much less naturalistic evolution. For one thing, evolutionary psychology undermines the foundations of reason, which renders the entire thesis self-refuting.

“The physicist Victor Stenger has done simulations that show that quite a few alternative universes (i.e. those where the four main constants would have different values) would "allow time for stellar evolution and heavy element nucleosynthesis" which are essential for the emergence of life, though of course other values would not yield our form of life.”

Computer simulations are a sorry substitute for empirical evidence.

“Another point, made by physicist Sean Carroll in his article "Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists", is that what we consider physical constants could be "merely local phenomena, in the sense that there are other regions of the universe where they take on completely different values." I think by "universe" he means "multiverse" as he goes on to speak of "innumerable distinct expanding unverses" consistent with the theory of "eternal inflation". He writes further that "In a universe comprised of many distinct regions with different values of the coupling constants, it is tautologous that intelligent observers will only measure the values which obtain in those regions which are consistent with the existence of such observers."

Now you’re resorting to an appeal which is diametrically opposed to your prior insistence on the universality and eternality of the law of conversation.

“But even without positing other universes, the point remains that life arose where it was possible to arise given the existing conditions. Earth may or may not be the only planet where such conditions developed. It's far-fetched to assert that the BB was pre-arranged to create those conditions, which would also mean that movements and combinations of matter (from the elementary particle level on up) following the BB were precisely programmed and guided all the way up to the formation of the Earth and beyond, including the correct placing of the Earth in its orbit.”

You apparently interpret the fine-tuning argument to imply that life *had* to originate given certain initial conditions.

Is that the argument? Or is the argument that, given the origin of life, certain initial conditions had to obtain, and these conditions are fine-tuned for the possibility of life, not the inevitability of life. That’s what I’ve read in Christian formulations of the fine-tuning argument:

“The fine-tuning argument falsely assumes that human beings are supposed to exist and then argues that things were therefore set up and steered to bring human beings into existence, and that therefore there was a conscious supernatural agent who did this. This is fallacious thinking that looks at things backwards. It starts from the ending point.”

i) No, this strikes me as a caricature of the fine-tuning argument, which, in turn, piggybacks on a caricature of ID theory:

ii) Let’s also keep in mind that one doesn’t have to be a doctrinaire Christian to be impressed with the fine-tuning argument. Freeman Dyson was the one who famously said it’s as if the universe knew we were coming.

“By the way, how do Christians reconcile the BB, which the great majority of astrophysicists agree took place 13-14 billion years ago, with their Genesis-based view that mankind was created in the same week as the Earth and the whole universe, and that mankind is only a few thousand years old? Besides this, Genesis says light on Earth -- and day and night -- were created before the Sun was, among various other nonsensical assertions. How do you get light on Earth -- and day and night -- without the Sun??”

Well, there’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is that a Christian can either reinterpret the Bible to agree with popular, or else he can reinterpret popular to agree with the Bible.

Former strategies include the gap theory, day/age theory, revelatory day theory, analogical day theory, and framework hypothesis.

Latter strategies involve a direct challenge to the methods and assumptions of popular science. This can take several forms:

i) One can challenge BB and/or conventional dating schemes. John Byl and Kurt Wise take this approach.

ii) One can invoke creation ex nihilo to distinguish between the inception of the initial conditions, and the resultant cyclical processes from that frontloaded fiat.

It would be analogous to the difference between the time a watch is made, and the time a watch is set for.

iii) Dating involves the measurement of time, which—in turn—raises the question of whether time has an intrinsic metric. If not, then the age assigned to the universe by popular science is merely an artifact of our conventional chronometry. For a discussion of the issues, cf.:

“Your point only supports Dawkins' argument since theists argue the emergence of mankind was improbable without divine intervention -- and complements my argument that apparently improbable things do happen all the time, that many things may be improbable at one level, but are not so improbable at another.”

This confuses the epistemic improbability of our knowing the outcome, given a physically deterministic system, with the metaphysical improbability of a physically deterministic system coming into being.

“I think that when you ask a question like "what is selecting for the instantiation?", you are implying what you want to prove, namely, the existence of an Intelligent Selector. At any rate, if we are to speak of "selectors", the selector or selectors can indeed be a naturalistic factor or any number of them.”

Can it? Why does one possible world obtain rather than another?

“I wasn't referring to the psychological process of abstraction. I meant abstract constructs, which can indeed include numbers. If you're saying God is an "abstract universal", I have to repeat what I've said earlier in this email and in my previous one: I don't think an abstract form can create a universe. To say that God exists in the same sense that numbers exist is not much of an argument for the existence of a God that created the universe and mankind. Numbers are human constructs to describe reality. If you're saying God is like a number, then you're admitting that God is a human construct!! And then, I'd have to say to you: welcome to the atheist camp!!”

A couple of basic problems:

i) If you’re going to adopt conceptualism, then the physical universe does not exemplify an objective, mathematical structure. Rather, that is a merely human, psychological projection on an otherwise amorphous universe.

ii) Apropos (i), the theories of mathematical physics do not and cannot, on that view, be truly descriptive of the universe. They do not correspond to any extramental reality.

So you’ve just consigned all of your cosmological theories to the cosmic dumpster.

Why Did The Early Christians Claim A Virgin Birth?

A claim of a virginal conception in ancient history isn't something that can be directly examined. We make judgments based on more indirect criteria (whether the supernatural is possible, the genre of the accounts, the sources available to the authors, etc.). In earlier posts, I've argued for some of the evidence that indirectly supports the Christian belief that Jesus was conceived of a virgin, such as the earliness of the gospel accounts, their genre, the availability of relevant sources, and the Divine inspiration of scripture. What I want to do in this post is address some common arguments that are raised against the doctrine.

People often compare the Christian virgin birth accounts to unhistorical birth accounts in Jewish or pagan sources. However:

"Yet most alleged parallels to the virgin birth (see Allen 1977: 19; Soares Prabhu 1976: 5-6; cf. Grant 1986: 64) are hopelessly distant, at best representing supernatural births of some kind (Barrett 1966: 6-10; Brown 1977: 522-23; Davies and Allison 1988: 214-15; Hagner 1993: 17; even further are ancient biological views, e.g., Arist. Gen. An. 3.6.5; Ep. Arist. 165). Certainly pagan stories of divine impregnation, which typically involve seduction (e.g., Ovid Metam. 3.260-61) or rape (Ovid Metam. 3.1-2), bear no resemblance to a virgin birth. Even most proposed Jewish parallels (Daube 1973: 6-9; cf. also 2 Enoch 71; Gen. Rab. 53:6) are too late or on closer examination have little merit (cf. Brown 1977: 523-24); Philo’s claims that God supernaturally opened wombs (Schweizer 1975: 33; cf. Vermes 1973: 220) probably simply imply that only God can provide conception (cf. Gen 30:2; cf. Meier 1991a: 221-22)." (Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], pp. 83-84)

Ben Witherington comments that "most scholars" think that the infancy narratives are more like Jewish infancy accounts than pagan birth legends (in Joel B. Green, et al., editors, Dictionary Of Jesus And The Gospels [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992], p. 60). Darrell Bock writes that there’s a "consensus" among scholars to reject the view that the virgin birth was derived from pagan mythology (Luke, Volume 1, 1:1-9:50 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994], n. 4 on p. 103). Bock also makes another relevant point. If the concept of a virgin birth was so important to the Christians that multiple gospel authors would be willing to fabricate an account, then why is it that "the virgin birth plays only a minor role in Luke and is largely absent from the writings of the early church and the church fathers" (ibid., p. 112)? Ben Witherington explains:

"It is doubtful that the idea of a virginal conception was part of Jewish messianic expectations in or before the era when the Gospels were written...It is difficult if not impossible to explain why Christians would create so many problems for themselves and invite the charge of Jesus' illegitimate birth by promulgating such an idea if it had no historical basis." (in Joel B. Green, et al., editors, Dictionary Of Jesus And The Gospels [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992], p. 70)

In the second century, Justin Martyr commented:

"Now it is evident to all, that in the race of Abraham according to the flesh no one has been born of a virgin, or is said to have been born of a virgin, save this our Christ." (Dialogue With Trypho, 66)

It doesn't seem that a virgin birth was a common Messianic expectation or a common claim. And the idea that Christianity borrowed the concept from paganism is unlikely even aside from the differences mentioned by Craig Keener above. Christianity arose in a highly anti-pagan atmosphere, and the alleged pagan parallels are of too vague a nature to prove what critics want to prove. The doctrine of the virgin birth originated in a highly Jewish religion that was centered in Israel. The earliest Christians believed that their gospel was "to the Jew first" (Romans 1:16). They considered the Jewish people their "fathers" (Romans 9:5). They viewed pagan religion as a system of "ignorance" (Acts 17:23) and "foolishness" (Romans 1:22-23). Pagan gods were "no gods" (Galatians 4:8). Pagan religions were viewed as demonic (1 Corinthians 10:14-22). Pagan religions left people "dead in trespasses and sins" and "without God and without hope" (Ephesians 2:1, 2:12). The infancy narratives are written in a highly Jewish context, with many citations of Old Testament scripture, references to Jewish tradition, Hebraisms, etc. Since conception by means of intercourse with the pagan gods was common in pagan mythology, the Christian concept of a virgin birth is more anti-pagan than a parallel to paganism.

The best explanation for why the early Christians claimed a virgin birth is what Luke suggests in the opening verses of his gospel. They believed that it happened, even though the Messiah wasn't commonly expected to be born of a virgin and even though a virgin birth wouldn't do much to appeal to the Gentile world. Celsus, a second century critic of Christianity, rejects the virgin birth account, as we would expect, but attributes the virgin birth claim to Jesus Himself (Origen, Against Celsus, 1:28). The timing of the gospels and their sources suggests that the virgin birth claim was circulating when close relatives of Jesus were still alive. The claim may have been widely circulating even prior to Jesus' death, as Celsus suggested.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Hermetic Order of the T-Blog


“When did Patrick Chan become a T-blogger? Did I miss something?”

Yes, you missed it, but the induction ceremony is by invitation only.

We flew the company jet to Stonehenge to perform the customary rites of initiation under the superior conjunction of Venus.

The installation involves the usual formalities, viz. blood pact, Latin imprecations, hazing rituals, secret handshake, trial by ordeal, and cyanide caplet (in case he’s ever captured by the liberal establishment), &c.

(We used to dispense cyanide capsules, but due to product tampering, it was necessary to switch to caplets to preserve the purity of the dosage.)

Our trial by ordeal is modeled on the venerable precedent of David’s dowry (1 Sam 18:25f.), only Philistines are hard to come by these days, so the novitiate is permitted to substitute Darwinians for Philistines to complete the quota.

Another novitiate was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the T-Blog that evening, but we have yet to release his name to the media since we have him working under deep cover to facilitate the pending coup d’etat by the Truly Reformed.

Insiders & outsiders


“I realize that Joe Mormon has similar parts on his side of the equation. He's unconvinced by F.F. Bruce, at least to the extent Bruce disagrees with the LDS Prophets. IN my experience, he doesn't suppose McConkie is going to convince me all by itself, as for him he relies on his interpretations of his scriptures and his own personal/metaphysical experiences.”

The unspoken assumption here is that insiders are impervious to outside criticism and vice versa.

But this is obviously false. Where Mormonism is concerned, there are cradle Mormons who are conversant with the wider world of scholarship, and this has had an impact on their belief-system.

That accounts, in part, for controversies over academic freedom at BYU due to tensions between the faculty and the hierarchy.

Then there are cradle Mormons who come to agree with the Christian countercult literature and leave their hereditary faith entirely.

And, of course, this isn’t limited to Mormonism. There are outsiders who convert to Christianity, as well as insiders who deconvert.

The same could be said of other religions and ideologies. Insiders and outsiders can change places.

The opposing positions are not incommensurable. And it’s not as if there’s a firewall between insiders and outsiders which prevents intellectual and theological immigration or emigration. To the contrary, the traffic flows both ways.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A generous heterodoxy

Just caught this in the combox of a recent post:


For the record, I don't claim to know if Mormons are saved or not. I don't know enough, and am not an authority on the subject. I love and respect my Mormon friends, even though I think they are seriously mistaken on many issues. My Mormon friends think I'm similarly mistaken, and love me right back, all the same. We are on equal footing in that regard.



Gentle_Savior said:


thank you for your kind words.

I love when people can find common ground, and take joy in our Savior, rather than incite hate and other bad feelings, simply because people think differently on things.

Aw, shucks! These guys sure are right.

Just because we think differently on a few things -- such as God, creation, sin, heaven, hell, and salvation -- is no need to start arguing over them.

Instead, what the world needs now is love -- sweet love! It's the only thing that there's just too little of.

And no, not just for some, but for everyone.

You know, it's quite intolerant for anyone to think otherwise. And intolerant people are just mean! Nasty. Especially those -- *grrr* I get so mad just thinking about it! *argh* -- those... those... those no good, dirty Bible-believing, fundy Christians from Hicksville who probably voted for an ignoramus like Bush in the last election!

On the other hand, if you are a Christian but don't really believe in the Bible -- like, if you're willing to ignore the miraculous parts -- or only believe in the parts you want to believe in, and for example allegorize the other bits, then you're cool. If you were a movie, Ebert would give you a big ole thumb's up. Keep up the good work.

If you're not that sort of Christian, sorry to break it to you, but you must change or die. Yup, that's right. Progress is the only way forward. Those who do not move ahead, fall behind. Or at least stand still. Or something like that.

Yeah. So. Anyway.

What we need is to love one another and not judge one another. What we need is to judge one another but in a nice way. What we need is to judge one another in a nice way, which means if you disagree with me here, then you're plain stupid and immoral!

Napoleon Dynamite would call you a freakin' idiot.

Also, about the whole truth thing. Who are you to say you know what "the truth" is, huh?! That in itself is the height of arrogance.

Sure, I don't deny there is truth or at least a truth or at least various truths which are all equally true. It's the whole "we'll all reach the top of the mountain even though we're climbing up from different sides of it" thing, you know. But what I do deny is that you have a monopoly on the truth.

Or even that the truth is somehow within your ability to grasp. Or understand. Or comprehend. Or whatever other synonyms I can find in the thesaurus.

News flash: It ain't.

News flash: You don't know everything.

News flash: Change the channel.

Because if you say you know the truth, then, well, that just ain't right! Ain't no one got a corner on the truth. What's true for you may not be true for me. And what's true for me may not be true for you.

It's all about perspective, you see. You -- we -- just need a bigger perspective.

But no one can have such a perspective. Only God can. Only God can have a bird's eye view of all things. So unless you're God, you just don't know. You don't know what you're talking about. You don't know nothin', son.

Oh, so you say you have evidence? Facts? Figures? Rational arguments?

Well, let me tell you something, mister, you can have all the evidence you want, but it won't be enough.

Why not?

First, because how do you know future evidence won't disprove current evidence.

And second, well, anyone can prove anything with the evidence.

So there. I win. Again.

I know you probably don't get it. But it's a whole Zen thing: "Bodhisattavas never engage in conversations whose resolutions depend on words and logic."

What do we make of the Bible then?

Like I said, if you read the Bible, that's cool. More power to you. After all, so many classics of literature were inspired by it. The Bible is a terrific read as literature.

Just be careful about actually believing it and trying to live by it. That'll get you into hot water.

I mean, you don't want to become one of those fundy hicks I mentioned above. Stuck in their own little world. Going 'round and 'round on the merry-go-round of ignorance and intolerance. Modern day Puritans. Grim faces, dour demeanors. Jonathan Edwards and his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" foolishness. The whole nine yards.

Best watch out or they'll shoot you down in cold blood with their muskets. That's right. Those card-carrying members of the NRA have no feelings.

They've all been brainwashed, too. Believe Adam and Eve rode a brontosaurus to the edge of the earth when it was still flat. Which would've been before God banished the 10 lost tribes to Mars.

They all talk the same. Use those secret "Christian" words that outsiders don't quite get. Smile at each other knowingly from time to time. Like they're in on some joke you're not.

They all dress the same, too. Pretty Sunday dresses for the ladies and tacky suits for the gents. And notice their shiny belt buckles and black boots. It's part of some sort of a *wink* *wink* *nudge* *nudge* shared Christian club secret. Say no more, say no more.

We're all left behind as far as the inner workings of these Bible belt believers goes, but they're all left behind as far as the important things in life go -- friends and family, a sense of community, love and respect for another, etc.

And of course, the truth.

Ah, the truth.

We know the truth, they don't. Actually, let me rephrase that. We know enough about the truth to know there is no truth, or to know that no one can arrive at the truth in any absolute sense, but they don't.

Ain't that the truth.

Again, it's fine to read the Bible as literature.

It's even fine to read it as conveying certain morals conducive to the educated modern person.

But know your limits. The Bible is not to be read as a science textbook. Or a history textbook. Or a music textbook. Or a calculus textbook. Or a medical textbook. Or any other textbook. Except for a literature textbook. That's the only one that's legit.

So read the Bible as an evolving story. Draw deep from the well of the Bible. Take its stories as your own.

Renew yourself in this way. Reform yourself. Revolutionize yourself.

But don't rebel against yourself. Don't go crazy, man! What I mean is, don't do these things at the cost of not being yourself. Rather be yourself. Let your individuality flower. The sky's the limit.

Above all be genuine, authentic, true to the grander themes of the Bible. Don't nitpick about words and definitions. Don't get bogged down in exegesis.

Throw off the chains of the past. Throw off the shackles of creeds and confessions and catechisms and the like. Free yourself from the historical "traditions" of Christianity, which have only weighed it down through the ages.

Indeed, what we need today is a new, modern day Reformation. One not based on divisive things such as reason and doctrine, but one based on love and understanding.

So, please, don't be confined to antiquated, reductionistic, systematic theology. Don't try to wrap your mind around the Bible. It can't be done. The Bible's story and message is bigger than you are. You are only part of the story.

Only let the theme of love steer your ship to its golden shores. From the Grey Havens to the Undying Lands. Only then shall your ship dock safely in the harbor.

For is it not true that all who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved? Certainly that's the case. Since Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and heck, even sailors brawling in a pub have called on the name of the Lord in some way, who are we to exclude them? They wouldn't exclude us. (Except for maybe the sailors. But we wouldn't want them anyway. Chauvinistic pigs.) They would include us. Hence we should include them. It's a compassionate Christianity. In other words, let us love them as they love us. For we are on equal footing in that regard.

And bring in the sheep. That's what's important. That's what's most important. Bring in others. Share the story of Jesus Christ with them. Bring the conversation to them.

(Especially to those who were victims of 19th century European colonialism and 20th century American imperialism. These are perhaps the ones who most desperately need to hear a lovely little story about a kind, good-natured man with a big heart named Jesus.)

Be the change you want to see in the world.

And remember: It's all about love.

Unreasonable reasons



So let me see if I can summarize your answers.

To the question of why the event was so private you would answer that it was in fact more public than the gospels indicate, but we just have no evidence to substantiate this claim.


We do have evidence. It’s not a case of the event being more public than the gospels indicate.

Based on comparative analysis of 1 Cor 15 and the Gospels, we can see that the witness list varies from one writer to another.

So the writers are selective rather than exhaustive in whom they mention.


To the question of why you would accept the testimony of anonymous unknown authors you respond that they are not anonymous and unknown.


i) There are occasions in which it is perfectly reasonable to accept anonymous testimony.

ii) But that’s not an accurate classification of the Gospels.

iii) And there are certainly advantages to knowing something about the author.


To the question of visions you say in fact vivid and powerful visions and communications with God do in fact continue to occur. You don't really address the issue of why these happen to pagans as well.


There may be a semantic confusion here. To begin with, I used the word “analogous.”

In addition, Carrier didn’t limit himself to visions from God, but included numinous apparitions generally (gods, angels).

In should also be clear from the bibliography I cited that I was casting a wider net, including a variety of apparitions, viz. angels, ghosts, incubi, doppelgängers, &c.

For example, paganism and necromancy go together.

“And of course you do believe Matthew's account of the rising of the corpses and the earthquake.”

I affirm the earthquake.

“Corpse” is your word, not mine. What rose from the grave were glorified saints.


You say that if the resurrection were reported by Tacitus, Suetonius, etc we probably wouldn't believe them anyway. That's beside the point, but I would grant it as true.


Beside whose point? Carrier’s? He’s the one who raised the (alleged) privacy of the Resurrection as a reason to disbelieve the report.

So it is relevant to his point—and that’s what I was responding to.


If they did report this event, I think at that point you'd be approaching what one might call "ordinary" evidence. Extraordinary evidence is necessary to demonstrate a miraculous claim. If credible historians reported these things, it would be good evidence, but not enough to overcome the initial implausibility of the claim, or to overcome other evidential problems.


So you say. But, of course, I’ve been over the same ground with you and your brother on several occasions now. All you do is to repeat your oft-refuted objections.

Speaking of which…


But what we really have is not just a lack of ordinary evidence. We have the worst sort of evidence a person could ask for. Private appearances to biased, committed followers.


You keep perfuming and repacking the same rotten, maggoty meat. Its shelf-life expired years ago.

The question is not whether the NT writers who bear witness to the Resurrection had a bias.

Rather, the question is the source of the bias. What experience led them to become committed followers in the first place?

The witnesses to the Resurrection did, indeed, have a bias—a bias to disbelieve. What event overcame their sceptical bias?

But you would rather rehash the same oft-refuted objections since oft-refuted objections are the only objections you have left.


I'm sure you'll respond with questions about the appearance to the 500, or to James, or to Paul.


Actually, that’s not how I was planning to respond—although there’s nothing wrong with such a response.


As to Paul, he clearly uses the word "appear" elsewhere in the sense of a visionary appearance, not a physical appearance, so it is not at all clear the appearances to him or the 500 involve a physically resurrected person.


I’ve been over that ground in my review of TET.


As to James, I don't recall that the gospels indicate that Jesus appeared to him.


Which is a red-herring.


Paul's earlier accounts do. So it could very easily be that the gospels negative portrayal of Jesus' siblings is a later slur against Jesus' blood relatives, just as the Sunni's and the Shi-ites battle about whether it is important to be a blood relative of Mohammed or if blood relations are unimportant and fidelity to the teachings is everything.


The comparison with the Sunni and Shia undercuts your thesis. Indeed, many religious are conspicuous for their vicious battles over succession.

What’s conspicuous about the NT is the low level of rivalry on display.


As to the authors of Scripture, the evidence for the claim that they are known is quite threadbare, relying on such unreliable witnesses as Papias and Polycarp. I don't find that at all compelling, though I suppose you do.


You’ve grossly understated the evidence. Jason has been over this ground with you many times before.

Likewise, if you consult standard reference works by conservative scholars, they will go over the internal, text-critical, and patristic evidence.


But even if we did know who these people were, how would we be able to determine if they were credible?


You’re asking questions I’ve repeatedly answered in the past.


As to visions, do you have any reliable illustrations you can point me to of people experiencing this from God? I'm aware of many experiences of this type of thing from Christians that I know personally and I also have good reasons to think they are phony.


I already referred the reader to a bibliography, and I cite many more titles along the same lines in my review of TET.


With regards to Matthew's account of the dead coming out of their graves and the earthquake, I wonder if you can see how hard this is for reasonable person to accept. It's just the sort of story you'd expect to hear from someone prone acceptance of fabulous false tails, and it's just the sort of thing that would have been widely reported had it actually happened. Do you see why reasonable people would have a hard time with this?


They are only as reasonable as the unreasonable reasons they’re giving me for their disbelief.

It's all relative—relatively speaking



I get the idea that you *don't* understand the point about subjectivity here at all.


Objectivity, or the lack thereof, is irrelevant to the definition of an internal critique.

And it’s equally irrelevant to the definition of an external critique.


Do we suppose the Mormons look at that and say 'Ya know, we'd never thought of that. You've pretty much demolished Mormonism, there, Chuck!'? I get the sense from "Chuck" that he thinks his critique is something like that. And to him, I'm sure it is. But to the Mormon, it just looks ignorant and foolish.


Who are you debating—me or Chuck?

For the record, I’ve done a critique of Hugh Nibley, who was the leading Mormon apologist of his generation.

And, of course, there’s a lot of fine countercult material on Mormonism by Blomberg and others.

This thread is not a critique of Mormonism. I never said I was making a case against Mormonism in this thread. Mormonism was cited as a counterexample by others.

Rather, this thread is about the degree to which religious experience is, or is not, a valid appeal.

I can’t miss a target I was never aiming at in the first place.


When you ask, "Is his testimony corroborated?", you're begging the central question of *who* decides what constitutes "corroborated" or not. Clearly, from your posts, you feel entitled to pronounce judgment on this question, and any others. Your arguments are compelling, because you say so, and your critics? Their arguments are lame because you say so.

So maybe you can tell me *who* determines, for example, what the *right* worldview is to "cohere with" in your statement above. Are you assuming we *start* with your worldview in judging Mormon's claims?


A couple of issues:

i) There are general criteria for assessing testimonial claims. Not all of the criteria are equally applicable to every individual case. That depends on the precise nature of the testimony. Testimony is not all of a kind.

ii) Your question is irrelevant to the distinction between an internal critique and an external critique. An individual value-judgment will be rendered in either case. Sorry you’re such a muddled thinker.

I’m no more judgmental that you are when you indulge in YEC-bashing.

iii) The question of “who” gets to decide is not the “central” question. That’s just another one of your irrelevancies. Anyone is free to render his own value judgment.

But you yourself obviously done regard all positions as equally valid. You don’t regard YEC as just as good as TE.

You’re one of those schizophrenic individuals who likes to intone relativist rhetoric in an absolutist tone of voice.


You're indulging yourself, at the expense of others, to the baseline worldview, what you call "our worldview". But that worldview is just as subjective as a Mormon's or an atheists (with an atheist's being arguably *less* subjective). "Chuck Liddell" responds with the virgin birth question, and then *really* wants an answer from Joe Mormon, as if he thinks Mormons are caught in their own trap! Apparently, he's so stuck in thinking that everyone else's arguments are subordinated to *his* paradigm, that he doesn't suspect that Mormons might have an internal rationale that resolves this.


Notice how judgmental Touchstone is when it comes to Chuck. He’s far more judgmental of Chuck than he is of Joe Mormon.

Touchstone is a very judgmental relativist.

BTW, it wouldn’t hurt him to define his terms instead of yelling “subjective” at every turn.


That's just a lot of self-flattery, isn't it? Ask a Mormon if that's a "gotcha" and he will laugh just like Paul Manata laughs when Exapologist points to an eschatological "gotcha" in Paul's framework.

Gotcha's are in the eye of the beholder. "Victorious" arguments are in the eye of the reader. You're free to accept or deny others claims as you see fit, as am I. I don't rule out all such experiential claims, nor do I accept them all at face value.


Are you debating me or Manata?


But I don't make pretenses to having some right to decide what is objectively "true" that supercedes a Mormon's or an atheist's, or another Christians.


Oh, I see. And is it objectively true that you “don't make pretenses to having some right to decide what is objectively ‘true’"?

And if it’s not objectively true that you “don't make pretenses to having some right to decide what is objectively ‘true’,” then we can safely ignore your disclaimer.

Indeed, since you “don't make pretenses to having some right to decide what is objectively ‘true’,” then we can safely ignore all your arguments for evolution.

Thanks for refuting yourself. That’s a real timesaver.


Not at all. You can accept or reject any testimony you want. Just don't pretend that *your* rejections are binding on *them*.


You have a love affair with straw man arguments. Did I “pretend” that my rejections are “binding” on a second party?

“Binding” in what sense? Logically compelling? Morally compelling? Psychologically compelling? Legally compelling?


They're not, unless you are prepared to accept their (and other) dismissals of your Christian faith as binding on you.


Of course, this is simple-minded, as if we cannot treat any argument as good or bad unless we treat every argument as equally good or bad.

Observe the steady intellectual deterioration in Touchstone’s reasoning.

Can't keep a good man down!


These are questions Richard Carrier asked on his Blog. I was wondering if the people at Triablogue could answer them, especially the first one. And if you have answered these questions already, or very similar ones already, could you provide the link to those posts?


Jason has already responded in the combox:

I’ll add my own two cents to the kitty:


1."Why was the death of Jesus so public, but his resurrection so private?"


i) Why should we accept the assumption that his resurrection was a private affair?

Carrier is apparently assuming, without benefit of argument, that the only witnesses are named witnesses.

But as Richard Bauckham argues in his new book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans 2006), the named witnesses are named, not because they are the only witnesses, but because they would be the witnesses known to the reader.

ii) For a man like Carrier, the number of witnesses is irrelevant to the credibility of the report.

If the Resurrection were reported by Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, Pliny, the Talmud, &c., he would treat this as evidence, not that the Resurrection ever occurred, but as further evidence of how hopelessly superstitious ancient writers were.

For a man like Carrier, the more testimony you have to the supernatural, the more that testifies to the credulity of the witnesses. For him, sheer quantity is an argument, not for veracity, but gullibility.


2.You seem to trust what the Gospels say is what actually happened. I want to understand why. I have an analogy that I think might help. Suppose I hauled you into court on a murder charge, and the only evidence I had against you was a bunch of letters that described you murdering the victim in vivid detail. Of course you would ask who wrote those letters. I answer, "Joe, Mike, Bob, and Dan." You then ask, "Who are they?" And I answer, "I don't know for sure." That's a dead end, so you would ask, "How do they know any of the things they claim in those letters?" And I answer, "I don't know. They never say exactly where they are getting any of their information." Okay. Imagine that happened to you. Would you conclude that I had a convincing case against you? Do you believe the jury should conclude that you committed the murder those letters describe you committing?"


This is an argument from analogy minus the argument. It is predicated on unspoken and unsupported assumptions regarding the anonymity and late dating of the Gospels.

Not only does he offer no supporting argument for his assumptions, but, by the same token, he ignores the counterarguments as well.


3."In the Book of Acts the Apostles are having vivid and powerful visions and dream communications from God all the time. We hear of similar experiences reported in that era from Jews and pagans, who were also having vivid and powerful visions and dream communications from a variety of gods and angels. Why isn't this happening now? And why was that happening back then, even to pagans and Jews, who weren't seeing or hearing what the Christians were seeing and hearing?"


i) Actually, contemporary reports of analogous phenomena are commonplace. There’s a vast parapsychological literature on this subject, some of which is quite scholarly. For example:

R.W.K. Paterson, Philosophy and the Belief in a Life After Death (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1995.

Michael Stoeber and Hugo Meynell, Eds., Critical Reflections on the Paranormal (New York: State University of New York Press, 1996).

James Houran and Rense Lange, Eds., Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (McFarland and Company, Inc., 2001).

David Lester, Is there Life After Death? (McFarland and Company, Inc., 2005).

David Fontana, Is There An Afterlife: A Comprehensive Overview of the Evidence (O Books, 2005).

Lance Storm and Michael A. Thalbourne, eds., The Survival of Human Consciousness: Essays on the Possibilities of Life After Death, ed (McFarland and Company, Inc., 2006).

ii) However, that widely-attested phenomenon doesn’t lead survivors to exhume the graves of the deceased to see if they’re empty or not. And that phenomenon is not an argument for mass hallucinations.

iii) The Book of Acts and Gospel of Luke share a common author. In the Gospel, Luke goes out of his way to distinguish the Risen Christ from a ghost.

The Lucan corpus distinguishes a resurrection from a vision. Carrier should either treat the Lucan corpus as reliable on both counts or unreliable on both counts. Otherwise, his selective appeal to the Lucan corpus is arbitrary.

iv) Both Luke and John attribute physical and tangible properties to the Risen Christ.

v) Gary Habermas, for one, as dealt with this line of objection:


4."The Gospel according to Matthew says (27:52-54) 'the graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints who slept rose up and came out of their graves after His resurrection, and went into the Holy City and appeared to many'. Do you believe this happened?


Yes, it actually happened.


If Yes: How could this amazing event have escaped everyone else's notice, even the other evangelists? If No: How could the author of Matthew get away with such a lie?"


i) Obviously it didn’t escape “everyone’s” notice, otherwise we wouldn’t have a report of this very event in Matthew.

ii) Every gospel has something you don’t find in the others. That’s’ why we have four gospels. There’s be little point in writing four identical gospels.

iii) Carrier seems to envision a Night of the Living Dead scenario, in which rotting zombies terrorize downtown Jerusalem. He’s been watching too many B-movies.

Assuming that the resurrection of these OT saints is analogous to the Resurrection of Christ, they would easily blend in with the general population. For they would look like ordinary mortals who had never died.

They would only be recognizable to surviving friends, neighbors, and family members.

iv) And even if you knew this person, you wouldn’t assume, just by catching a glimpse of a familiar face in a crowd, that the look-alike was, indeed, your dead friend or acquaintance.

To the contrary, you’d assume that it couldn’t be your dead friend or acquaintance. Just an eerie coincidence.

v) Remember, too, that glorification doesn’t restore the decedent to however he looked at the time of death. If he died as a 90-year-old, he wouldn’t come back as a 90-year-old. Rather, glorification would restore him (or her) to a youthful, ageless appearance.

vi) So the resurrected saints would not be instantly recognizable. They would have to seek out survivors, where there were any (depending on how long they’d been dead), identify themselves, and explain what happened.

Imagine the shock and initial disbelief if your mother, who died 20 years ago, suddenly turned up on your doorstep!

vi) Carrier is also assuming that every survivor who had such an encounter wrote it down in a diary.

vii) He is further assuming that every private record, or any private record, would survive the ravages of time. But our written records, even by famous writers of the day, are exceptionally sparse.

"The Measure of All Things"

Prof. Robin Le Poidevin has written a book entitled Travels in Four Dimensions: The Enigmas of Space and Time. The first chapter is available online (PDF). It provides a good introduction to the philosophy of time. Well worth reading.

Knowledge by acquaintance



Let's keep it simple, then.

Joe is a devout Mormon, and makes the following statement:

“I, Joe, have received a revelation from the Holy Spirit that the Gordon B. Hinckley is a true prophet of God. And that further more, all of the past presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been chosen of God as prophets, seers and revelators.”

That's not the Mormon Prayer. This would be a separate kind of revelation. Now, if this is Joe's claim, how does it get dismissed, according to your post? Specifically, how might you dismiss it in a way that doesn't leave Exapologist dismissing *your* testimony on the same grounds?

Is there a way?


1.Before answering his specific question, let’s step back a few paces. Touchstone and the interlocutor are acting as if no one is entitled to claim knowledge by acquaintance or mount an argument from experience unless everyone is entitled to do the same.

But this is absurd. Given, on the one hand, the fact that we all rely on experience as a major source of information, then knowledge by acquaintance, and existential arguments, are unavoidable.

On the other hand, every appeal to knowledge by acquaintance is not a legitimate appeal. Certain conditions must be met.

As I’ve said before, the argument from religious experience is a subdivision of the argument from experience generally, which is—in turn—a subdivision of knowledge by acquaintance.

There is nothing special about the argument from *religious* experience that isn’t applicable to experience in general.

Paradigm examples of knowledge by acquaintance would include perceptual beliefs as well as mnemonic beliefs.

2.Are we going to say that an appeal to sense knowledge is illicit unless an appeal to sense knowledge is inerrant?

Or take our memories. In many cases, it’s not possible to verify our memories.

And it’s also possible, as we all know, to misremember a personal experience.

Does this mean that no appeal to memory is licit unless every appeal to memory is licit?

Once again, that’s absurd. We all rely on memory, even if our memories sometimes fail us.

Now there are some philosophers who would take that position. But, if so, they wouldn’t limit their scepticism to religious experience. Rather, they would apply their scepticism to experience in general.

So the average critic of religious experience doesn’t have this option unless he intends to slit his own throat in the process.

3.Let’s go back to Touchstone’s hypothetical: “Now, if this is Joe's claim, how does it get dismissed, according to your post?”

This existential claim is subject to a variety of undercutters and defeaters. I’ve gone over all that ground before.

4.” Specifically, how might you dismiss it in a way that doesn't leave Exapologist dismissing *your* testimony on the same grounds?”

As I’ve said on several occasions now, I don’t regard the argument from experience as automatically binding on a second party.

Whether we accept or reject someone’s testimony is contingent on a variety of criteria, viz. the character of the witness, as well as his competence. Was he an eyewitness? Did he rely on firsthand information? Is his testimony corroborated? How does his testimony cohere with our worldview? With what’s possible or probable?

Is the critic going to say that we should never accept anyone’s testimony unless we accept everyone’s testimony?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

"Distinct impressions"



I get the distinct impression now after reading a lot of your posts that you use technical/philosophical language to obscure your arguments. I don't know whether that's a conscious choice or not, but this post is a good example of needlessly ornate forms getting in the way of an idea.



I get the distinct impression now after reading a lot of your comments that you use impressionistic language to obscure your poverty of arguments. I don't know whether that's a conscious choice or not, but this comment is a good example of needlessly impressionistic verbiage getting in the way of an idea.

Incidentally, what’s the difference between a distinct impression and an indistinct impression? Or is the distinction—how shall we say—impressionistic?

What the Evangelutionist is really attempting to do is to play both sides of the fence. He is raising an intellectual objection to my position, but he’s also retreating into an anti-intellectual bunker.

At T-blog, we get these schizophrenic objections all the time. On the one hand we’re accused to being too fideistic. On the other hand, we’re accused to being too philosophical.

The interlocutor was the one who framed the question in terms of epistemic *justification*. And he seems, intentionally or not, to be operating with an internalist constraint on knowledge.

That being so, one cannot engage his objection without drawing technical/philosophical distinctions regarding internalist/externalist models of justification:

I’m responding to the interlocutor on his own level.


If my Mormon neighbor comes to me and tells me about his visitation by the Angel Moroni, testifying *explicitly* to the truth of the Book of Mormon and the status of Joseph Smith Jr. as a prophet of God, what would you tell him was actually happening?


Short answer: I ‘d tell him that he was deluded.


Now, with respect to my Mormon friend, you suggested that his experience may be shown to be (i) non-specific or (ii) otherwise disproven.

As far as specificity, go ask your friendly Mormon neighbor, and you'll learn that they specifically have the truth of the Book of Mormon validated by what they claim to be a veridical experience.


Are you trying to be obtuse?

I don’t have any uniform opinion about the religious experience of Mormons in general since their experience is individual and variable. It all depends on the example.

A Mormon can enjoy a religious experience which has nothing to do with the Book of Mormon.

With respect to the Mormon prayer, I already did a post on that a long time ago, which I mentioned in reply to the interlocutor. So I’ve answered that question before you or he ever asked me about it.


Relating that back to your argument that if you have positive knowledge of snow, no ignorance of snow can deny this positive knowledge. So here, the Mormon is saying "I have truth" -- "I have direct knowledge of snow". Since that's the case, it seems you've given the Mormon a powerful defense, as it's own you claim for yourself.


That’s an argument from analogy minus the argument.


As for being falsified elsewhere, on what grounds would the Bible, Qur'an or the Book of Mormon be falsified?


A couple of issues:

i) The Bible can be falsified iff the Bible is false. But if the Bible is true, then it cannot be falsified.

ii) Both Mormonism and Islam are Christian heresies. As Manata points out, this means that they can be falsified on internal grounds alone—although they can also be falsified on external grounds.


I thought the whole point of this was that the external arguements *weren't* conclusive?


i) And why did you think that was the whole point? The sufficiency or insufficiency of external arguments was never the issue of this particular thread.

Rather, the issue was the sufficiency or insufficiency of religious experience.

Sometimes religious experience is sufficient, but at other times religious experience is insufficient. The latter case is where external arguments come to the fore.

ii) But it also depends on the purpose to which religious experience is being put. Are we talking about religious experience simpliciter, or the *argument* from religious experience?


If the external arguments aren't conclusive, then you've got yourself chasing your tail.


I have no opinion on whether external arguments *in general* are either conclusive or inconclusive. That would all depend on *which* external argument we’re talking about.


if "other grounds" exist, and they are experiential, then those experiential evidences have the same doubt cast on them as the experience we began with -- the Muslim's veridical experience viz. Allah and the Qur'an, and the Mormon's veridical experience viz. the Book of Mormon.


And who equated the “other grounds” with existential arguments? In my discussion, I set the existential arguments in *contrast* to the “other grounds.”

It didn’t take long for the Evangelutionist to revert to form: total incomprehension and misrepresentation of the opposing position.


As near as I can tell, then, the argument winds up simply with naked assertions of "other grounds", grounds not specified.


The first move Touchstone makes is to allege that I use “technical/philosophical language to obscure my arguments.”

Having thus proceeded to strip my arguments of their technical/philosophical qualifications, he then throws up his hands and exclaims them to be “naked assertions”!

One would be hard put to find a better example of a straw man.


Rejection on grounds of specificity wouldn't make sense for the Mormon who received a "testimony" of the truth of the Book of Mormon, unless you're prepared to allow that such a "tetimony" might be true.


Evidently the Evangelutionist is unable to keep more than one idea in his head at a time. Mormonism was not the only example that the interlocutor deployed.

There is no one criterion to apply in every case, because the examples of religious experience are necessarily diverse. Some religions posit different truth-conditions than others. And individual adherents vary in their range of religious experience.


But I wonder how you would reject the Mormon's experience as different than your own then. What are these other grounds?


I’ve already given a detailed answer to that question. The Evangelutionist disregards all of the detailed argumentation, then expresses his puzzlement at the absence of an answer.

Answers are beside the point when dealing with a disputant who lacks the mental discipline to follow an argument.


It seems your whole argument would depend on that.


He didn’t begin to engage my “whole” argument. Instead, he tried to reduce my “whole” argument to a simple-minded caricature.

Experimental religion


“1) You took Exapologist to say that one of the main reasons that he stopped believing in Christianity was that he saw a failure in the arguments for Christianity.”


“2) You said that this could not be the case for you because you have many reasons to believe in the God of Christianity. You divided these reasons into (at least) two types: (a) arguments (b) religious experiences.”

No, I think what I said is that I rejected his apologetic paradigm. That’s not quite the same thing as making an autobiographical statement about what my personal reasons happen to be for what I believe, and how, or to what extent, I’d distinguish between my existential beliefs and my analytical beliefs. My point was more general. Not just about me.

It isn’t easy to distinguish these in practice. However, I was responding to the way in which exapologist described his own loss of faith.

Speaking for myself, I think it’s fair to say that religious experience is either a predominant or even dominant factor in my Christian faith.

However, I can’t give you percentages, or tell you where one leaves off and the other kicks in.

On the one hand, I have a lot of arguments for my faith. On the other hand, I have a lot of counterarguments against the alternatives.

How far the analytical process confirms the existential process, or how far the existential process feeds into the argumentative process is, at this stage of the game, elusive of strict or even approximate demarcation.

“3) I took you to mean that you base your faith on both of these and that these do not overlap.”

No, they do overlap, but they don’t coincide.

i) Some experiences are resistant to any degree of formalization.

ii) Other experiences are susceptible to formalization up to a certain point.

iii) Still other arguments are not based on personal experience.

“4) I wondered how religious experience could offer a basis of belief if it was not also, itself, in an argument (thereby, making all of your faith grounded on argument).”

i) Keep in mind that I wouldn’t begin with *religious* experience as the paradigm. Rather, I’d begin with experience in general, experience qua experience, as the paradigm—of which religious experience is a special case.

ii) I don’t think it should be especially controversial to say that some of our beliefs originate in experience rather than argument.

“I questioned this because: (i) Other people have experiences they take to be religious, but that you may (or may not) consider to be ‘truly’ religious (i.e. you don't consider them to be experiences in which they encounter the only, true, living God).”

i) I have repeatedly denied the very position you impute to me. A non-Christian can enjoy a veridical religious experience.

ii) But not every religious experience, even if veridical, is a redemptive experience. The subject can have a veridical religious experience without entering into, or presupposing, a soteric relationship with God.

I’m using “redemptive” as a synonym for “soteric.”

iii) In addition, as I’ve also said before, the experience of God varies in its range of specificity.

iv) Apropos (i)-(iii), to experience God in nature is one thing, to experience an answer to prayer in the name of Jesus is quite another thing—to take two examples.

In both cases, the subject may encounter the true God. But these two encounters are hardly equiparent in their soteric significance or sectarian attestation.

“(ii) The fact that others have religious experiences (in the broad sense you describe) seems to demand that you reflect on your own experiences and question whether or not they were ‘true’ religious experiences (i.e. they are encounters with the only, true, living God) or whether they are false like the experiences of others.”

You’re building on a series of faulty assumptions.

“5) In order to verify those experiences, however, you would need to base that on other things (presumably arguments). In this sense, I thought that your faith was also based entirely on arguments like the view you attribute to Exapologist.”

Yes, in order to *verify* an experience, we need to go beyond the experience itself; but I can know something by acquaintance whether or not I verify it, or whether or not it can be verified.

For example, I remember conversations I had with my grandmother. At this distance, it would be impossible to verify some of my memories. There is no independent record of our conversations. And she’d been dead for 30 years.

But this doesn’t mean that none of my memories count as knowledge. And this doesn’t mean that I should automatically doubt any memory of mine that I cannot verify.

Indeed, it isn’t even possible to systematically verify memory, for even if I attempted to verify my memories, I would have to remember the results of my verification.


Imagine a world in which I was raised in Saudi Arabia and, quite naturally, became a Muslim. During my lifetime, I had many experiences that I took to be religious. There were moments at mosque, when I considered the teachings of Muhammed, when I spoke with an imam, etc.

One day, a Christian missionary happened along and asked me about my faith. I said that it was based on arguments and my own religious experiences. The Christian missionary carefully reviewed my arguments and demonstrated them to be false. I tell the missionary, though, "That's fine, but my faith is also based on my many religious experiences. Those experiences are not based on arguments."

How would the missionary respond? I know you said this was context dependent (e.g. faith in the Koran brought about by religious experience that can be challenged on other grounds), but this seems to take us right back to my question.

For example, you have a religious experience upon which you (partly) ground your faith in the Christian Bible. Someone challenges your experience of the Bible in the way that you challenge the Muslim's experience of the Koran. Someone points out that prophecies were not fulfilled. What good are the religious experiences at this point?


i) There is no uniform answer to this question because it depends on the erudition and sophistication of the Christian in question.

Some Christians will be unable to rise to the challenge.

ii) However, you are combining to questions in one:

a) Is a Christian’s religious experience sufficient to ground his own faith?

b) Is a Christian’s religious experience sufficient to refute a Muslim?

I’ve said all along that the argument from religious experience is basically a subdivision of defensive apologetics rather than offensive apologetics.

In the nature of the case, it’s only compelling to an insider, not an outsider—since the outsider is a stranger to the particular experience in question.

A Muslim cannot enter into the distinctive religious experience of a Christian, or vice versa.

However, the fact that religious experience may be insufficient to refute the rival faith of an outsider does not, of itself, mean that religious experience is insufficient to ground the faith of the subject.

Religious experience may or may not be sufficient to ground the faith of the subject. That depends on the details of the experience. Its veridicality (or not). It’s level of specificity. It’s soteric character (or not).

iii) If a Muslim were to challenge my faith, I would not appeal to my own experience to refute him.

Rather, I would marshal arguments for the Bible, as well as arguments against the Koran.

The varieties of religious experience




I was hoping you would allow me to finish my original comment before responding (I noted that I ran out of time in the middle of it).

I wasn't asking how a religious experience can be an argument. Instead, I was making the point that you state in your # 15 and #16 above (viz. that it is possible to mistake the nature of the experience).


i) This isn’t just a private conversation between you and me. This is a public forum. I write for the benefit of others, as well as you.

Even if some of my answers aren’t answers to your questions, they may be answers to questions which others may have.

I reserve the right to comment on whatever I want, whenever I want.

ii) I’d add that some of my distinctions, beyond #15-16, are relevant to your own questions.


In your first post, you pasted a definition of religious experience. It read:

“Let’s define an ‘experience’ as simply an event or occurrence that one consciously lives through (whether as a direct participant or as an observer) and about which one has feelings, opinions, and memories. Let’s define the term ‘religious experience’ quite broadly, that is, as any experience which one *takes to be religious*,” S.

This definition would obviously include Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, etc. As long as there is some kind of experience (i.e. an event or occurrence that one consciously lives through . . . and about which one has feelings, opinions, and memories) and a person "takes [that experience] to be religious," then a religious experience has occurred.


1,Yes, this initial definition is broad enough to cover both veridical and non-veridical religious experience, or Christian and non-Christian religious experience.

2.Remember, I don’t deny that a non-Christian can have a veridical religious experience.

What I deny is that a non-Christian can have a redemptive religious experience—unless the effect of that experience is to convert him to the Christian faith.


[This definition is, of course, different from the one you adopted above when defining a "veridical experience." Here you say, "For purposes of this discussion, I’m defining religious experience as an experience of God—a way of experiencing the existence and/or nature of God." I'm still working with your first definition.]


Yes, because you’re primarily interested in the question of veridicality, so to address that question, we need to move to a narrower definition.

This doesn’t obviate the broader definition. But the level of the definition is pegged to the level of the question.

Your protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, my initial response was responsive to the point you’re driving at. You are, in fact, going beyond the preliminary definition to pose a more discriminating question.


Now, my question was not about how to turn an experience into an argument for anyone else, but rather, how the religious believer takes that religious experience him/herself.

In a previous post, you wrote, "To put it another way, I’d distinguish between the reasons I have for what I believe, and the reasons I’d give an outsider." In the context the reasons you have for what you believe are religious experiences--you wrote, "For much of what we believe is a result of experience. We form our beliefs at a largely subliminal level."

So, much of what you believe is the result of your religious experience. My question is not how you can turn that into an argument, but rather, how you can contend that yours are indeed "religious" experiences and not psychological experiences when you discover that other people have religious experiences that you believe to be "false."


1.Except that you do want to promote the experience to the level of an argument. Only, in this case, you want the believer to have an argument for his own sake. How can he explain to himself that his religious experience is veridical?

Your demand still amounts to an argument, even though the argument is not intended to persuade anyone else.

2.But you’re also failing to consider the distinction I drew in #11. You are implicitly operating with an internalist constraint on knowledge, according to which the subject can only know God by experience if he can explain how his religious experience is veridical.

I deny your internalist constraint on knowledge.


In other words, imagine that you go to church this Sunday and therefore "place yourself in a religious environment." During that service, the pastor reads a text of Scripture and asks the congregation to engage in prayer about this text before he begins his (I'm assuming your church pastor has to be a "him" and not a "her") sermon. During that prayer, you have a "religious experience" (I don't know your particular understanding of the nature of religious experiences, but assume that whatever it is, it is an experience that is in accord with your theology of religious experience). This religious experience had the result of further convincing you that your Christian faith was valid.


1.As a matter of fact, I don’t delimit the possibility of a religious experience to a formally religious setting.

My immediate point, in context, is that you have unbelievers who justify their unbelief by appeal to their religious inexperience. Yet they go out of their way to avoid a religious environment. So their appeal is circular.

It’s not that you can only have a religious experience in church. But if you make a concerted effort to avoid the Bible, or the company of Christians, &c, and then complain about your lack of religious experience, there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy at work: Your absence of religious experience is not unrelated to absenting yourself from a religious environment.

There isn’t a one-to-one correlation. But there is a correlation.

2.I think it’s quite possible to have a religious experience outside of a formally religious setting.

For example, I think the argument from design is a form of the argument from religious experience. It’s possible for a Buddhist or Taoist or Communist or Hindu or Mormon or Mohammedan or Nazi or Baal-worshiper to experience God in nature. But that’s not a redemptive experience.

Likewise, it’s possible for an atheist to experience God in nature. But he refuses to identify his experience as a religious experience. He reinterprets and misinterprets his experience in naturalistic terms.


So, you have had this religious experience. In talking with a Muslim, however, you find that he went to his mosque, read a text of Scripture, prayed over it, and also had a "religious experience"--remember that I am using your original definition so that any event or occurrence about which one has thoughts and takes to be religious is a religious experience. Like your experience, this experience convinces the Muslim of the validity of the Islamic faith.


Yes, I agree with you that according to the original definition (a la Davis), both incidents could be classified as examples of religious experience. I haven’t retracted the original definition.

Yet you want to go beyond that to press the question of veridicality. And I’m happy to address that question as well.

But that’s a narrower question. The original definition was deliberately undiscriminating. It was framed in such a way as to be neutral on the question of veridicality.

So, to answer your question, we do need to shift to a narrower definition.

My problem is when religious experience is defined in narrowly mystical terms.


My question is not how the two of you will argue about whose experience was "genuine" and whose was not, but rather, how YOU will justify to yourself that YOUR experience was genuine and the Muslim's was false.


Actually, you’ve folded two questions into one.

1.The first question goes back to the issue of internalism. Is it possible for the subject to have a veridical religious experience unless he can demonstrate the veridicality of his experience?

Once again, I deny your internalist constraint. We have many veridical experiences, religious or otherwise, which we may be in no position to prove.

Knowing x, and knowing how I know x, are two different things as far as I’ve concerned.

2.As to how I’d show that a Muslim’s religious experience is non-veridical, that depends, in part, on the specificity of the experience.

i) Not every religious experience is a sectarian religious experience. It may be a more generic religious experience, like the apprehension of God’s existence from our encounter with the natural world.

ii) Regarding your particular example, it’s quite possible to show that his experience of the Koran does not and cannot validate the Koran, for the object of his experience can be (and has been) falsified on other grounds.

As I mentioned in my previous post, you have many options. You can simply deny that the Muslim had the experience. You could say their experience was the result of a demon. [I don't think that you would say the experience really was of God in this case, though, since it validated the Islamic faith.]


In principle, these are all viable options, and in some cases they may be applicable. But I don’t need to exercise any of these options to sustain my position.


Another option, however, would be to say, "It seems that people can have experiences that they take to be religious that are really only psychological experiences. So, you read the Bible, and the Holy Spirit convinces you of the truth of it via a religious experience. A Muslim reads the Quran and is convinced of the truth of it via another religious experience. You could say that the Muslim's religious experience is psychological and yours is religious, but could you not also conclude that there are psychological experiences that people take to be religious and that you cannot be certain on the basis of the religious experience alone that yours is not one of those psychological experiences.


i) You’re now confounding knowledge with certainty. Knowing something, and being certain about what I know, are two different things.

I may know something because I read about it in a reliable source. I remember what I know, but I no longer remember the source.

And so I may begin to doubt whether I know what I believe because I can’t recall how I came to learn about it.

ii) For me to be certain, I may have to go outside my experience. But an external check is not a prerequisite for the veridicality of my experience.


In short, if "much of what [you] believe is a result of experience," how do you know that the experiences that you "take to be religious" are not merely psychological experiences instead of true, religious experiences?


As before, we need to distinguish between the “can I know/do I know?” question and the “how can I know?” question.

To answer the question of *how* I know my experience is (or is not) veridical, I will need to go beyond the bare experience.


Perhaps, you have a particular "religious" experience with the Bible because of how that book is viewed by society and your community (e.g. it is sworn on in courts because it is thought to have some binding power over people, people revere it, it is the center of religious ceremonies, etc). How do you rule this out as a possible explanation of your experience and take that experience, instead, to ground "much of what [you] believe"?


See above.


It seems to me, that to answer this question, you must go beyond experience to arguments. If your experience is justified with arguments, however, then the true ground of your beliefs are not the experiences per se, but the arguments underlying those experiences.


This piggybacks on your persistent, methodological error. You fail to distinguish between the grounding of knowledge and the grounding of certitude.

Yes, to answer your question, as you’ve chosen to frame it, we must go from experience to a supporting argument. But that’s a second-order question. A belief *about* what I know (or don’t know) as a result of experience.


If this is the case, then you, like exapologist, could be said to base your beliefs on arguments. If these arguments become no longer convincing to you, then it seems your beliefs (i.e. your faith) would falter.


Excepting that it isn’t the case for all the reasons I’ve been giving in this post and the last.


You, on the other hand, say that "much of what [you] believe is a result of experience." It appears, however, that these experiences must have an argument that grounds them. So, how is your story different than Exapologist's?


See above.