Friday, October 23, 2020

Randi's Million Dollar Challenge And The Eisenbud Challenge

James Randi did some good things, and he ought to be getting some positive coverage in the context of his death earlier this week. But the coverage has been far too positive, which is unsurprising in light of the media's biases. You can read our archive of posts on Randi here. While the media give so much attention to Randi's Million Dollar Challenge, keep in mind his failure to meet a challenge in the other direction:

Nevertheless, with his usual bluster, Randi accepted a $10,000 challenge (a considerable sum in those days) to duplicate the Serios phenomena and make good on his claim.

Of course, confidence is easy to feign, and Randi does it routinely in his role as magician. He also cleverly takes advantage of the occasional high-profile case he successfully exposes as fraudulent, by publicizing those successes and creating the impression that he's a generally reliable guide when it comes to the paranormal. So Randi's dismissal of the Serios case was all it took for those already disposed to believe that Serios was a fake, and it was probably enough even for those sympathetic to parapsychology but unaware of Randi's dishonesty....

What the TV audience never learned was that when the show was over and Randi was pressed to make good on his wager, he simply weaseled out of it. To keep that side of the story under wraps, Randi prohibited publication of his correspondence on the matter. That was undoubtedly a shrewd move, because the letters show clearly how Randi backed down from his empty challenge. However, Randi's original letters now reside in the library at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and researchers, finally, can easily confirm this for themselves. When Serios's principal investigator, Jule Eisenbud, died, I was assigned the task of going through his papers. I collected all the material relevant to the Serios case and deposited it in the Special Collections section of the UMBC library. (This includes correspondence, the original photos and film, and signed affidavits from witnesses.)...

But there's no documentary evidence of Randi having even attempted to duplicate the Serios phenomena under anything like the conditions in which Serios succeeded, much less evidence of his having actually pulled it off....

In fact, the history of parapsychology chronicles some remarkable examples of dishonest testimony and other reprehensible behavior on the part of skeptics....

Skepticism is just as glib and dishonest now as it was in 1882 when the British SPR [Society for Psychical Research] was founded. In fact, despite sensible and careful dismantling of the traditional skeptical objections, the same tired arguments surface again and again. And those arguments all too easily mislead those who haven't yet heard the other side of the story or examined the evidence for themselves.

(Stephen Braude, The Gold Leaf Lady [Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2007], 22, 34, 126)

See my post here about how other magicians have misled people about the paranormal.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Letters Of Gold

"Are ye ashamed to be corrected? This is the vice of the proud. It is, forsooth, a degradation for learned men to pass from the school of Plato to the discipleship of Christ, who by His Spirit taught a fisherman to think and to say, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.' The old saint Simplicianus, afterwards bishop of Milan, used to tell me that a certain Platonist was in the habit of saying that this opening passage of the holy gospel, entitled, According to John, should be written in letters of gold, and hung up in all churches in the most conspicuous place. But the proud scorn to take God for their Master, because 'the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.' So that, with these miserable creatures, it is not enough that they are sick, but they boast of their sickness, and are ashamed of the medicine which could heal them. And, doing so, they secure not elevation, but a more disastrous fall." (Augustine, The City Of God, 10:29)

Monday, October 19, 2020

The Gospels' Agreement About James And Corroboration Of Other Sources

In a post yesterday, I discussed agreements among the early sources regarding the apostles. Some evidence that's often neglected in that context is what the gospels tell us about Jesus' brother James.

I've discussed their material on him elsewhere. Something I don't believe I've discussed here before, though, and it's something that doesn't seem to get much attention in general, is James' position in the lists of Jesus' siblings in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3. Notice that the two lists are different, and there are some differences in the surrounding context, so it's not just a matter of Matthew's copying Mark, Mark's copying Matthew, or both's copying some other source. What I want to focus on here, though is how they list the names of Jesus' brothers in a different order, yet agree in putting James first. As I've mentioned before, the order in which names appear in a list can be determined by a wide variety of factors. James could be listed first because he was the oldest brother of Jesus. Or it could be because he was the most prominent for whatever other reasons. Or it could be both. Maybe James was the most prominent, which was partly because he was the oldest and partly because of one or more other factors. Whatever the cause of his being listed first in both documents, that's consistent with his prominence elsewhere. He's prominent in Acts, much more prominent than the other siblings listed with him in Matthew 13 and Mark 6. He's the only sibling of Jesus mentioned by name in the resurrection appearances discussed in 1 Corinthians 15. He's the only brother of Jesus mentioned in Galatians 1-2 and the only one named anywhere in Paul's letters. Jude identifies himself in connection with James (Jude 1), but James sees no need to appeal to a relationship with any of his brothers in his letter. This sort of greater prominence James had, in comparison to his brothers, is corroborated by the passages in Matthew 13 and Mark 6.

Several years ago, I wrote an article addressing why the gospels don't include any reference to the resurrection appearance to James. I said that the best explanation for their not including the appearance to James is a desire to be consistent with their previous focus on Jesus' earliest followers and a desire to honor those earliest disciples. You can read the article just linked for a further discussion of that subject and others that are related. I want to note here, though, that since one of the gospels that doesn't include the appearance to James is Luke, there's an implication that Luke wanted to honor Jesus' earliest disciples above individuals like James in the manner I just described. That's significant in light of the fact that some people deny that Luke viewed James as an unbeliever during Jesus' public ministry. I've argued that Luke 8:19-21 probably alludes to his unbelieving status. But even if we didn't have that passage, or even if my view of it is wrong, I think the absence of any reference to the resurrection appearance to him is best explained if he was an unbeliever in the relevant timeframe. Even if I'm wrong about both of these matters, the meaning of the Luke 8 passage and the absence of the appearance to James, there has to be some reason why all of the gospels don't mention that appearance. And that's further common ground they have about James.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

How Much The Early Sources Agree About The Apostles

In a recent post on Peter's prominence in the New Testament, I mentioned a significant similarity in how Matthew 14:29 and John 21:7 portray Peter. When people discuss agreements among the gospels and other early Christian sources, agreements about Jesus get the most attention, for good reason. But there are many agreements on other matters as well, including about other individuals. Peter is a good example, and I provide some illustrations in my post linked above (his impulsiveness, his outspokenness, etc.).

But something else should be noted, which doesn't get as much attention, and it's illustrated in the passages in Matthew 14 and John 21 mentioned above. Notice that the passages not only portray Peter behaving so similarly, but also agree about the behavior of the other disciples. They're more reserved, more hesitant to act, or however you'd put it. That's also reflected in another passage I cited in my earlier post, John 20:6. John refrains from entering the tomb, but Peter goes in. There are many examples of agreements like these in the gospels, Acts, Paul's letters, etc. That's a problem for skeptical views that involve less common ground among the early Christian sources, higher levels of carelessness, and so on.