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Moral Deliberation, Religious Freedom & Church-State Separation

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I’m glad we live in a society where we have the freedom to believe whatever we want to believe.  No matter how crazy or dangerous some of these beliefs are, no matter how unreasonable and irrational some of them may be, and no matter whether some of these beliefs may hurt others and detract from their happiness and life fulfillment, we have the freedom to believe them nevertheless.  We also live in a representative democracy (for now at least), thereby granting us the freedom to vote for political representatives and the policies they stand for and in some cases granting us the freedom to vote for some of the particular laws themselves.  Combining these two freedoms, freedom of belief and freedom to vote, we have the freedom to vote for a particular candidate or law based on whatever reason or belief we wish.  It is this latter freedom that I believe is being grossly abused by so many in this country.

I’ve written previously about the imperative of democracy for any just society, but within that post I also mentioned the (perhaps) equal importance of moral deliberation within any just democratic framework.  People should be justifying their votes and their positions on particular issues through a moral deliberative process.  We do this to some degree already but not nearly enough and not in any useful public format.

We can’t simply leave it up to a room full of politicians to decide for us (as we primarily do now) as then all the individual perspectives that constitute and drive the public’s understanding of some issue become truncated, distorted, or superseded by some kind of misleading rhetorical caricature that can take on a life of its own.

Our society needs a political system which stresses the need to justify the laws enacted through moral deliberation not only to create more transparency in the political process but also to help resolve moral disagreements (to the best of our ability) through a process of open and inclusive critical discourse, helping to encourage citizens to form a more well-rounded perspective on public policy.  The increase in transparency is not only to help us distinguish between political aims that are self-interested from those that are actually in the public’s best interests, but also to point out the different fundamental reasons driving people’s voting preferences.  In order to point out errors in one another’s reasoning (if there are any errors), we have to talk with each other about our reasons and the thought processes that have led us to some particular point of view.  It may be that the disagreement is about a difference in what we value but often times its due to a rational argument opposing an irrational argument.

Moral deliberation would help us to illustrate when political or legislative points of view are grounded on beliefs in the supernatural or other beliefs that are not based on evidence that the opposing side can examine and consider.  We may find points of view that are dependent on someone’s religious beliefs, which if voted to become the law of the land, could actually exclude the religious freedom of others (simply by majority rule).

Let’s consider abortion and embryonic stem cell research as examples.  If through a moral deliberative process we come to find that people are voting to ban the right to an abortion or to ban the use of life-saving medical technologies that require embryonic stem cells, because they believe that human embryos have souls or some other magical property, then we need to point out that creating a law grounded on non-demonstrable religious beliefs (such as the belief in souls) is not something that can reasonably be implemented without violating the religious rights of everyone in that society that do not share their unfalsifiable belief in souls.  Those people should consider what they would feel like if a religion other than their own became endorsed by the majority and tried to push for legislation based on some other unfalsifiable religious dogma.

Ultimately, a majority rule that enacts legislation based on religious belief is analogous to eradicating the separation of church and state, but rather than having the church or churches with direct political power over our laws, instead they indirectly obtain their political power by influencing their congregations to vote for some law that is deemed acceptable by the church’s own dogma.  It’s one thing for a religious institution to point out what evidence or secular arguments exist to support their position or that of their opponents, whereby the arguments can at least move forward by examining said evidence and seeing where it leads us.  But when an argument is based on beliefs that have no evidence to support them, then it lacks the objective character needed to justifiably ground a new law of the land — a law that will come to exist and apply to all in a secularized society (as opposed to a theocracy).

If we are to avoid slipping further into a theocracy, then we need to better utilize moral deliberation to tease out the legislative justifications that are based on unfalsifiable beliefs such as beliefs in disembodied minds and magic and so forth, so we can shift the argument to exclude any unfalsifiable beliefs and reasoning.  Disagreeing on the facts themselves is a different matter that we’ll always have to deal with, but disagreeing on whether or not to use facts and evidence in our legislative decision-making process is beyond ridiculous and is an awful and disrespectful abuse of the freedoms that so many of our ancestors have fought and died to protect.

The arguments surrounding abortion rights and stem cell research, for example, once the conversation shifts from the personal to the political sphere, should likewise shift from those that can include unfalsifiable supernatural beliefs to those that eventually exclude them entirely.  By relying on falsifiable secular claims and arguments, one can better approximate a line of argumentation that is more likely to transcend any particular religious or philosophical system.  By doing so we can also better discover what it is that we actually value in our everyday lives.  Do we value an undetectable, invisible, disembodied mind that begins to inhabit fertilized eggs at some arbitrary point in time?  A magical substance that, if it exists, is inadvertently flushed out of many women’s uteri countless times (by failing to implant an egg after conception) without their giving it a second thought?  Or rather do we value persons, human persons in particular, with consciousness, the ability to think and feel, and that have a personality (a minimum attribute of any person)?

I think it’s the latter that we actually value (on both sides of the aisle, despite the apparent contradiction in their convictions), so even if we ignore compelling arguments for bodily autonomy and only focus on arguments from person-hood as they relate to abortion and embryonic stem cell research, we should see that what we actually value isn’t under threat when people have an abortion (at least, not before consciousness and a personality develops in the fetus around the 25th-30th week of gestation) nor is what we value with persons under threat when we carry out embryonic stem cell research, since once again there is no person under threat but only a potential future person (just as blueprints are a potential future building, or an acorn is a potential future oak tree).  If I choose to destroy the blueprints or the acorn to achieve some other end I desire, nobody should falsely equivocate that with destroying a building or an oak tree. Unfortunately, that is what many people do when they consider abortion or embryonic stem cell research, where even if they limit their arguments to falsifiable claims and make no mention of souls — they falsely equivocate the potential future person with an actual realized person.  In doing so, they falsely attribute an intrinsic value to something that is only extrinsically valuable.  It should be said though that the latter argument to ban abortion or embryonic stem cell research, while still logically fallacious, is at least based on falsifiable claims that can be discussed and considered, without any mention of souls or other non-demonstrables.

It should be pointed out here that I’m not saying that people can’t decide how they ought to act based on religious beliefs or other beliefs regarding magic or the supernatural.  What I am saying is that one should be able to use those non-secular reasons to guide their own behavior with respect to whether or not they will have an abortion or have their embryo used for stem cell research.  That’s fine and dandy even though I strongly discourage anybody and everybody from making decisions that aren’t based on reason and evidence.  Nevertheless I think it’s one’s right to do so, but what they most definitely shouldn’t do is use such reasons to justify what other people can or can’t do.

If I have a religious belief that leads me to believe that it is immoral to feed my children broccoli (for some unfalsifiable reason), should I try to make it a law of the land that no other parents are allowed to feed their children broccoli?  Or should I use my religious belief to simply inform my own actions and not try to force others to comply with my religious belief?  Which seems like a more American ideal?  Which seems more fair to every independent citizen, each with their own individual liberties?  Now what if I find out that there’s a substance in the broccoli that leads to brain damage if fed to children of a certain age?  Well then we would now have a secular reason, more specifically a falsifiable reason, to ban broccoli (where we didn’t before) and so it would no longer need to remain isolated from the law of the land, but can (and should) be instantiated in a law that would protect children from harmful brain damage.  This legislation would make sense because we value conscious persons, and because reasons that appeal to evidence can and should be examined by everyone living in a society to inform them of what laws of the land should and shouldn’t be put into place.

In summary, I think it is clear that our freedom of belief and freedom to vote are being abused by those that want to use their non-demonstrable, religiously grounded moral claims to change the law of the land rather than to simply use those non-demonstrable moral claims to guide their own actions.  What we should be doing instead is limiting our freedom to vote such that the justifications we impose on our decisions are necessarily based on demonstrable moral claims and beliefs (even if our values differ person to person).  And this still allows us the freedom to continue using any number of demonstrable and non-demonstrable moral claims to guide our own behavior as we see fit.  This is the only way to maintain true religious freedom in any democratic society, and we need to push for the kind of moral deliberation that will get us there.

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“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part III)

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In the first two posts that I wrote in this series (part I and part II) concerning some concepts and themes mentioned in Dostoyevksy’s The Brothers Karamazov, I talked about moral realism and how it pertains to theism and atheism (and the character Ivan’s own views), and I also talked about moral responsibility and free will to some degree (and how this related to the interplay between Ivan and Smerdyakov).  In this post, I’m going to look at the concept of moral conscience and intuition, and how they apply to Ivan’s perspective and his experiencing an ongoing hallucination of a demonic apparition.  This demonic apparition only begins to haunt Ivan after hearing that his influence on his brother Smerdyakov led him to murder their father Fyodor.  The demon continues to torment Ivan until just before his other brother Alyosha informs him that Smerdyakov has committed suicide.  Then I’ll conclude with some discussion on the concept of moral desert (justice).

It seems pretty clear that the demonic apparition that appears to Ivan is a psychosomatic hallucination brought about as a manifestation of Ivan’s overwhelming guilt for what his brother has done, since he feels that he bears at least some of the responsibility for his brothers actions.  We learn earlier in the story that Zosima, a wise elder living at a monastery who acts as a mentor and teacher to Alyosha, had explained to Ivan that everyone bears at least some responsibility for the actions of everyone around them because human causality is so heavily intertwined with one person’s actions having a number of complicated effects on the actions of everyone else.  Despite Ivan’s strong initial reservations against this line of reasoning, he seems to have finally accepted that Zosima was right — hence him suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of realizing this.

Obviously Ivan’s moral conscience seems to be driving this turn of events and this is the case whether or not Ivan explicitly believes that morality is real.  And so we can see that despite Ivan’s moral skepticism, his moral intuitions and/or his newly accepted moral dispositions as per Zosima, have led him to his current state of despair.  Similarly, Ivan’s views on the problem of evil — whereby the vast amount of suffering in the world either refutes the existence of God, or shows that this God (if he does exist) must be a moral monster — betray even more of Ivan’s moral views with respect to how he wants the world to be.  His wanting the world to have less suffering in it, along with his wishing that his brother had not committed murder (let alone as a result of his influence on his brother), illustrates a number of moral “oughts” that Ivan subscribes to.  And whether they’re simply based on his moral intuitions or also rational moral reflection, they illustrate the deeply rooted psychological aspects of morality that are an inescapable facet of the human condition.

This situation also helps to explain some of the underlying motivations behind my own reversion back toward some form of moral realism, after becoming an atheist myself, initially catalyzed by my own moral intuitions and then later solidified and justified by rational moral reflection on objective facts pertaining to human psychology and other factors.  Now it should be said that moral intuitions on their own are only a generally useful heuristic as they are often misguiding (and incorrect) which is why it is imperative that they are checked by a rational assessment of the facts at hand.  But, nevertheless, they help to illustrate how good and evil can be said to be real (in at least some sense), even to someone like Ivan that doesn’t think they have an objective foundation.  They may not be conceptions of good and evil as described in many religions, with supernatural baggage attached, but they are real nonetheless.

Another interesting point worth noting is in regard to Zosima’s discussion about mutual moral responsibility.  While I already discussed moral responsibility in the last post along with its relation to free will, there’s something rather paradoxical about Dostoyevsky’s reasoning as expressed through Zosima that I found quite interesting.  Zosima talks about how love and forgiveness are necessary because everyone’s actions are intertwined with everyone else’s and therefore everyone bears some responsibility for the sins of others.  This idea of shared responsibility is abhorrent to those in the story that doubt God and the Christian religion (such as Ivan), who only want to be responsible for their own actions, but the complex intertwined causal chain that Zosima speaks of is the same causal chain that many determinists invoke to explain our lack of libertarian free will and how we can’t be held responsible in a causa sui manner for our actions.

Thus, if someone dies and there is in fact an afterlife, by Zosima’s own reasoning that person should not be judged as an individual solely responsible for their actions either.  That person should instead receive unconditional love and forgiveness and be redeemed rather than punished.  But this idea is anathema to standard Christian theology where one is supposed to be judged and given eternal paradise or eternal torment (with vastly disproportionate consequences given the finite degree of one’s actions).  It’s no surprise that Zosima isn’t looked upon as a model clergyman by some of his fellow monks in the monastery because his emphatic preaching about love and forgiveness undermines the typical heavy-handed judgemental aspects of God within Christianity.  But in any case, if God exists and understood that people were products of their genes and their environment which is causally interconnected with everyone else’s (i.e. libertarian free will is logically impossible), then a loving God would grant everyone forgiveness after death and grant them eternal paradise based on that understanding.  And oddly enough, this also undermines Ivan’s own reasoning that good and evil can only exist with an afterlife that undergoes judgement, because forgiveness and eternal paradise should be granted to everyone in the afterlife (by a truly loving God) if Zosima’s reasoning was taken to it’s logical conclusions.  So not only does Zosima’s reasoning seem to undermine the justification for unequal treatment of souls in the afterlife, but it also undermines the Christian conception of free will to boot (which is logically impossible regardless of Zosima’s reasoning).

And this brings me to the concept of moral desert.  In some ways I agree with Zosima, at least in the sense that love (or more specifically compassion) and forgiveness are extremely important in proper moral reasoning. And once one realizes the logical impossibility of libertarian free will, this should only encourage one’s use of love and forgiveness in the sense that people should never be trying to punish a wrongdoer (or hope for their punishment) for the sake of retributive justice or vengeance.  Rather, people should only punish (or hope that one is punished) as much as is necessary to compensate the victim as best as the circumstances allow and (more importantly) to rehabilitate the wrongdoer by reprogramming them through behavioral conditioning.  Anything above and beyond this is excessive, malicious, and immoral.  Similarly, a loving God (if one existed) would never punish anyone in the afterlife beyond what is needed to rehabilitate them (and it would seem that no punishment at all should really be needed if this God had the power to accomplish these feats on immaterial souls using magic), and if this God had no magic to accomplish this, then at the very least, it would still mean that there should never by any eternal punishments, since punishing someone forever (let alone torturing them forever), not only illustrates that there is no goal to rehabilitate the wrongdoer, but also that this God is beyond psychopathic and malevolent.  Again, think of Zosima’s reasoning as it applies here.

Looking back at the story with Smerdyakov, why does the demonic apparition disappear from Ivan right around the time that he learns that Smerdyakov killed himself?  It could be because Ivan thinks that Smerdyakov has gotten what he deserved, and that he’s no longer roaming free (so to speak) after his heinous act of murder.  And it could also be because Ivan seemed sure at that point that he would confess to the murder (or at least motivating Smerdyakov to do it).  But if either of these notions are true, then once again Ivan has betrayed yet another moral disposition of his, that murder is morally wrong.  It may also imply that Ivan, deep down, may in fact believe in an afterlife, and that Smerdyakov will now be judged for his actions.

It no doubt feels good to a lot of people when they see someone that has wronged another, getting punished for their bad deeds.  The feeling of justice and even vengeance can be so emotionally powerful, especially if the wrongdoer took the life of someone that you or someone else loved very much.  It’s a common feeling to want that criminal to suffer, perhaps to rot in jail until they die, perhaps to be tortured, or what-have-you.  And these intuitions illustrate why so many religious beliefs surrounding judgment in the afterlife share many of these common elements.  People invented these religious beliefs (whether unconsciously or not) because it makes them feel better about wrongdoers that may otherwise die without having been judged for their actions.  After all, when is justice going to be served?  It is also a motivating factor for a lot of people to keep their behaviors in check (as per Ivan’s rationale regarding an afterlife requirement in order for good and evil to be meaningful to people).  Even though I don’t think that this particular motivation is necessary (and therefore Ivan’s argument is incorrect) — due to other motivating forces such as the level of fulfillment and personal self-worth in one’s life, gained through living a life of moral virtue, or the lack thereof by those that fail to live virtuously — it is still a motivation that exists with many people and strongly intersects with the concept of moral desert.  Due to its pervasiveness in our intuitions and how we perceive other human beings and its importance in moral theory in general, people should spend a lot more time critically reflecting on this concept.

In the next part of this post series, I’m going to talk about the conflict between faith and doubt, perhaps the most ubiquitous theme found in The Brothers Karamazov, and how it ties all of these other concepts together.

Some Thoughts on the Orlando Massacre

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My sincerest condolences go out to all the victims and the friends and families of those victims in the Orlando (“Pulse”) night-club shooting.  While it is still uncertain and under investigation whether or not there were any ties between the shooter (whom I won’t bother naming) and some Islamic extremist organization, there was in fact a proclaimed allegiance to such an organization voiced by the shooter himself to the police prior to the incident.  Even if no direct ties are found between the shooter and this or any other radical Islamic extremist organization, the possibility will remain that this was a “self-radicalized” or “self-actualized” Jihadist Muslim.  The man very likely knew that he was going to die one way or another that night (by police or otherwise) and so a belief in martyrdom and in an eternal paradise after death would have been perhaps the most powerful reason to not care about the consequences.  And a person believing that they are carrying out the wishes of an invisible magic man in the sky, and that are doing so in order to achieve eternal paradise, has more than enough motive to commit this kind of heinous act.

Obviously we don’t know what the man was thinking and can’t confirm his alleged motives, but if we take any of his own words seriously, then this is yet another incident that demands that the difficult religious conversation that many people want to avoid be opened further.  A conversation involving the topic of reforming Islam with the secular moderates that claim membership in that religion, and a conversation involving a recognition that when those religious texts are plainly read in their entirety, they clearly advocate for violence and oppression against non-believers.  There may be some good messages in those texts, as there are in just about any book — but to deny the heinous contents that also exist in those very same texts and to deny the real religious motivations of these murderers who are inspired by those texts is nothing but intellectual dishonesty and delusion.

Regressive liberals aren’t making things any easier as they throw out accusations of racism and bigotry even in cases where it is only the religious ideas themselves that are being criticized, with no mention of any race or ethnicity.  That has to stop too.  It’s true that many conservatives that are also racists and bigots and that have racist motives behind their anti-Islamic agenda, are also some of the same conservatives that are mentioning the dangerous ideas in Islam.  But as an intellectually honest liberal myself, I can both recognize and abhor those racist motives common to many conservative social and political circles, yet also agree with some of those conservatives’ claims pertaining to the dangers of certain Islamic religious ideas.

I suspect that one of the reasons for the origin of the regressive liberal movement and its commitment to eliminating any and all criticism of Islam is that it has conflated the racism and bigotry directed at Muslims that is often coming from conservatives (including political clowns like Donald Trump), with the criticism against Islamic ideas that make no mention of race.  I suspect that because many of these anti-Islamic claims are also coming from the same conservative sphere, that regressive liberals have unfortunately lumped all anti-Islamic claims into the same category (some form of racism and bigotry against Islam), when those two kinds of claims should be in entirely different categories.  There are criticisms of Islamic ideas that have nothing to do with race and there are criticisms of Muslims that are clearly racist — and the latter is what liberals and everyone should continue to fight against.  But the former type of criticisms are simply a part of a reasoned discussion on the topic and one that needs to take place in the public sphere.  I have propagated the former type of criticisms (based on reason and evidence, not prejudice or racism) and I have seen many other free-thinker and humanist advocates do so as well.

Bottom line — we have to begin to talk more about the dangers of believing in and relying on faith, dogma, revelation, and any other belief system not grounded on reason and evidence.  These epistemological “methods” are not only demonstrably unreliable and fallacious, but they are also being high-jacked by various terrorist organizations that have their own aims.  Even if the leaders of a dangerous extremist organization don’t actually believe in the religious ideas that they proclaim as their motivation, they know that if others do, and if others are already willing to die for their faith and to do it for such compelling reasons as eternal paradise, then those leaders can get people to commit heinous acts.  As Voltaire once said “Those who can make you believe absurdities can also make you commit atrocities.”  These words of wisdom still apply, even if the leaders that (initially) spread those absurdities don’t believe them. Now I think that many of the leaders that spread these ideas do believe them, but I’m betting that there are also many that do not.  If people begin to see the dangers of faith and dogma and are instilled with an ultimate appreciation and priority of reason and evidence, then these radical recruitments will be far less effective if not rendered entirely ineffective.

Religious ideas don’t get a free pass from criticism just because people hold them to be sacred.  Because, sacred or not, the reality is that this kind of muddled thinking can and has ended many innocent people’s lives throughout human history.  Bad ideas have bad consequences and it doesn’t matter where those bad ideas come from.  Despite the fact that we are living in a post-enlightenment age, not everyone has accepted that paradigm shift yet.  We must keep trying to spread the fruits of the enlightenment for the good of humanity.  It is our moral obligation to do so.

The Properties of God: Much Ado About Nothing

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Having previously written about various Arguments for God’s Existence, including some of the inherent flaws and problems with those arguments, and having analyzed some of the purported attributes of God as most often defined by theists, I decided to reiterate some of the previous points I’ve mentioned and also expand further on the topic. Specifically, I’d like to further analyze the most common definitions and properties of God as claimed by theists.  God is often defined by theists as an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent being that is also uncaused, beginningless, timeless, changeless, spaceless, and immaterial among other attributes.  God is also defined by many as some form of disembodied mind possessing free will.  Since this list of terms is perhaps the most common I’ve seen over the years within theological circles, I’ll simply focus on these terms to analyze within this post.

Omniscience, Omnipotence, Changelessness, and Free Will

The property of omniscience is perhaps the single most significant property within this list because if it is taken to be true, it inevitably leads to the logical impossibility of some of the other attributes in this list.  For instance, if God’s knowledge includes complete knowledge of the future, then God is unable to change that future.  That is, whatever future that God would be aware of must happen exactly as it does, and God would not have the ability to change such a fate (otherwise this God would have failed to know the future without error).  This leads to the logical impossibility of God possessing both omniscience and omnipotence, as God loses the ability to enact any kind of change whatsoever that isn’t already pre-ordained or known by this God in advance.  God would not only know the future of all events occurring within the universe (presumably mediated by the very laws of physics that this God would have created) thus eliminating any possible free will for all of humanity, but this God would also know the future of all his other actions, thoughts, intentions, etc., and thus God wouldn’t be able to have free will either.  One can try to preserve the theological property of omnipotence or free will by denying that of omniscience (by limiting God’s knowledge of the future in some way).  However, even if this God didn’t have the ability to know the future with 100% certainty as implied with omniscience, the absence of omniscience wouldn’t negate the possibility that this God may still have no choice or ability to act any other way (even if this God doesn’t know ahead of time what those actions will be).

Even if we accepted that God doesn’t have omniscience, and if we also ignored the possibility that God may still lack free will or omnipotence even in the absence of that omniscient foreknowledge, one must still explain how a definitively changeless being could ever instantiate any kind of change at all, let alone to create the entire universe, space, and time (which is dependent on change).  Is it even logically possible for a changeless being to instantiate change?  That is, could a being possessing a de facto property such as changelessness simultaneously possess a modal property or capability of change?  Even if it were logically possible, there doesn’t appear to be any way at all for the modal property to ever be self-instantiated by a de facto changeless being.

An outside causal force may be able to instantiate the change in the previously changeless being, but I see no way that this could be accomplished by the changeless being itself.  One may try to resolve this dilemma by positing that one aspect or component of the changeless state of God was the constant or changeless intention to eventually cause a change at some future time x (e.g. to eventually create the universe), but this attempted resolution carries with it the problem of contradicting the supposed theological property of timelessness, since there can’t be some future moment for any change to occur in any kind of timeless scenario.  This would suggest that some kind of temporal delay is occurring until the change is eventually realized, which is logically incoherent in a timeless scenario.  Thus, I see no reason or logical argument to support the claim that a de facto property of changelessness could ever co-exist with a modal property or capability of self-causing any kind of change, and thus a timeless or changeless being would be causally effete thereby negating the property of omnipotence.

Omnibenevolence

One major problem that I see regarding the property of omnibenevolence, is that the term itself isn’t well-defined.  Sure, one can easily grasp the basic concept of being all-loving or all-good, but exactly what standard is one using to define goodness, or love, since these are not objectively defined concepts?  Another way of describing this problem, within the context of Divine Command Theory, is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma (from one of Plato’s dialogues), where one must ask: Is something good because God says it is good, or does God say something is good because of some other quality it has?  If the standard of goodness comes from God (i.e. “it’s good because God says so”), then it is entirely arbitrary and this would also mean that the definition of omnibenevolence is circular and therefore invalid.  If the standard of goodness comes from some other cause or being, then that means that goodness is dependent on something other than God and this would also undermine the idea that God is uncaused or beginningless, since the property of God’s benevolence (even if omnibenevolent) would have been dependent on something other than God.  Beyond these problems it would also undermine the idea of God being omnipotent since God wouldn’t have the power to self-instantiate this standard of goodness.

Another problem with positing that God is omnibenevolent, is the oft mentioned Problem of Evil, which ultimately refers to the problem of how to reconcile the supposed existence and omnibenevolence of God with all of the suffering that exists in the world.  If God was truly omnibenevolent, then how can one explain the existence of any “evil or suffering at all?  If God doesn’t have the ability to create a universe without any suffering, then this is another argument against God’s omnipotence.  If God does have the ability to do this but doesn’t, then this is an argument against God’s omnibenevolence, assuming that the elimination of all suffering is in accord with the standard of goodness, as one would expect.

Some philosophers have attempted to form various theodicies or defenses to reconcile the Problem of Evil with the idea of an omnipotent and/or omnibenevolent God, but they are ultimately unsuccessful.  For example, some attempts to resolve this problem involve asserting that good simply can’t logically exist without evil, implying that they are relative to and thus dependent on one another, which basically reasserts the old adage “you can’t have the sour without the sweet”.  The problem with this argument is that, if taken further, it would also imply that an omnibenevolent being (as God is often defined as) is also logically dependent on the existence of an equal but opposite omnimalevolent being, or at the very least, that it is dependent on the property of omnimalevolence.  This would mean that if God is indeed omnibenevolent, then this property of God is logically dependent on the existence of omnimalevolence, and this is another argument showing that God is not uncaused or beginningless, because this particular property of God wouldn’t even be a possibility without the existence of something that is definitively not a part of God (by definition).

Beyond all of these problems mentioned thus far, there seem to be at least several possible solutions that God (if omnibenevolent and all-powerful) could employ to eliminate suffering, and if these possibilities exist, the fact that none of them have been implemented argues against God being omnibenevolent.  For example, why couldn’t God simply feed our brains (even if just a brain in a vat) with a sensory input of nothing but pleasurable experiences?  Even if pleasure was dependent on some kind of contrast with less pleasurable experiences in the past (or if we would unavoidably become desensitized to a particular level of pleasure), God could simply amplify the magnitude of pleasurable sensory inputs with each subsequent moment of time indefinitely, thus producing an experience of nothing but constant and equally potent pleasure.

Moreover, if the God that most theists propose truly exists, and some kind of heaven or eternal paradise is within God’s capabilities (filled with a bunch of disembodied minds or souls), then there’s no rational reason why God couldn’t simply create all of us in heaven from the very beginning of our existence.  This is basically the case already with many miscarried or aborted fetuses (if theists assume that fetuses have souls and go to heaven immediately after their death), since many of these fetuses aren’t even alive long enough to have developed a brain with any level of consciousness or ability to experience any suffering at all.  Thus, they would represent a perfect example of individuals that only experience an eternity of pleasure completely void of any kind of suffering.  One would think if this is already a reality for some individuals, God should have the power to make it the case for all people, so nobody has to suffer at all.  This is of course if God couldn’t simply create all humans in heaven from the very beginning and skip the creation of the physical universe altogether.  If God lacks this ability, it is yet another argument against this God being omnipotent.  In addition to this, if it were the case that any conscious being created by God is ever destined to any kind of eternal torture (i.e. some version of “hell”), due to no chance of forgiveness after death, this would be perhaps the strongest argument against this God being omnibenevolent.  So as we can see, if eternal paradise and/or eternal damnation are actually real places created/mediated by God, then their very existence argues against God’s omnibenevolence and/or God’s omnipotence since we’re not all created in heaven from the very beginning of our existence, and/or since there are people destined to suffer for eternity.

Another attempt to resolve this Problem of Evil is the argument that humans wouldn’t be able to have free will without the existence of “evil” or suffering.  However, this makes absolutely no sense for a number of reasons.  For one, as mentioned previously, classical free will (i.e. the ability to have chosen to behave differently, given the same initial conditions, less randomness) is already impossible based on the laws of physics and our level of causal closure, and this is the case whether our physical laws are fundamentally deterministic or random.  So this attempted resolution is a desperate objection at best, because it also requires us to assume that we’re constantly violating the laws of physics and causal closure in order to be causa sui, or self-caused intentional agents.  So we’d have to grant one absurdity in order to explain away another which doesn’t solve the dilemma at all, but rather just replaces one dilemma with another.

Finally, if “heaven” or some form of eternal paradise is still a possible product of God’s power, then the free will argument is irrelevant in any case.  After all, presumably we wouldn’t have free will in heaven either, for if we did have free will to rebel or cause “evil” or suffering in heaven, this would contradict the very idea of what heaven is supposed to be (since it is defined as an eternal and perfect paradise without any “evil” or suffering at all).  If one argues that it is still possible to have free will in a heaven that is guaranteed to be void of evil or suffering, then this simply shows that suffering isn’t necessary in order to have free will, and thus the free will argument to the Problem of Evil still fails.  If we didn’t have free will in heaven (which would seem to be logically necessary in order for heaven to exist as defined), then we can see that infinite or maximal “goodness” or eternal paradise is indeed possible even in the absence of any free will, which would thus negate the free will argument to the Problem of Evil (even if we granted the absurdity that classical free will was possible).  So no matter how you look at it, the property of omnibenevolence appears to be ill-defined or circular and is thus meaningless and/or it is incompatible with some of the other purported theological properties used to define God (i.e. uncaused, beginningless, omnipotent, etc.).

Omnipresence

If God was omnipresent, one would think that we would be able to universally and undeniably detect the presence of God, and yet the exact opposite is the case.  In fact, God appears to be completely invisible and entirely undetectable.  In cases where there are theists that claim to have actually experienced or detected the presence of God in some way, it is always in a way that can’t be validated or confirmed by any physical evidence whatsoever.  Science has demonstrated time and time again that when people experience phenomena that do not correlate with reality, i.e., phenomena that do not occur outside of their minds and thus that can’t be independently verified with physical evidence, they are the result of perceptual illusions and other strictly mental phenomena (whether they are full blown hallucinations, delusions, mis-attributed emotional experiences, etc.).  In general though, the basic trend exemplified by theists is that whenever they have an experience that is seemingly unexplainable, they attribute it to being an act of God.

Unfortunately, this is an extremely weak position to take (and increasingly weak as history has amply shown) simply because this “God of the gaps” mentality has been demonstrably proven to be fallacious and unreliable as science has continued to explain more and more previously unexplainable phenomena that were once attributed to one god or another.  So in Bayesian terms, the prior probability that some unexplainable phenomenon is the result of some kind of God is infinitesimally small, and that probability has only decreased over time and will only continue to decrease over time as scientific progress continues to falsify supernatural explanations and attributions by replacing them with natural ones.

So unless we are talking about some kind of Pantheism (where God is basically defined as being equivalent to the universe itself), then we have theists claiming that God is everywhere when this God in fact appears to be nowhere at all.  The simple fact that nobody has been able to demonstrate or verify the existence of God with any physical evidence whatsoever, is a strong argument against the omnipresence of God (if not an argument against the very existence of God).  Ultimately, the theological property of omnipresence is a meaningless term if this type of presence is one that is completely undetectable and unfalsifiable, which would make sense regarding a being that doesn’t possess any properties of space, time, or material, but unfortunately it also means that this term doesn’t adhere to any reasonable convention of what it means to be present, and it also means that the property of omnipresence is incompatible with the properties of being spaceless, timeless, and immaterial.  If the type of omnipresence is that which is claimed to be experienced by theists from time to time, experiences that have been shown to be strictly mental with no correlation to the external world, then this is actually nothing more than a limited type of presence (and one that is strictly mental), and one likely resulting from mis-attributed emotions combined with various inherent human cognitive biases.

Abstract Objects, Disembodied Minds & God

Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve discovered regarding these theological properties pertains to the subset of properties that specifically describe God to be uncaused, beginningless, timeless, changeless, spaceless, and immaterial (which I’ll now abbreviate as simply UBTCSI).  These terms have also been formulated by theists in various arguments for the existence of God (such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument), with theists trying to argue that the origin of the universe must have been brought about by a cause having this particular set of properties.  What I find most interesting is that contemporary philosophers of ontology have ascribed this set of terms to certain abstract objects such as numbers and properties.  It is also notable that these properties seem to result by way of negation, that is, by removing all (or nearly all) aspects of our perceived reality.

The fact that these terms are used to describe the properties of abstract objects in general, which are almost universally agreed to be causally effete, actually supports the idea that God is nothing more than an abstract object.  Even if abstract objects have some kind of ontological existence independent of the brains that most likely produce them, they have still been shown to be causally effete.  If abstract objects do not have any kind of ontological existence independent of the brains that most likely produce them, then they are actually the product of brains which possess the converse of the UBTCSI properties, that is, they are the product of brains which possess the properties of being caused and thus having a beginning, as well as the properties of time, change, space, and material.

If abstract objects are nothing more than constructs of the brain, then we may expect that the minds that produce these abstract objects would have similar properties ascribed to them as well.  Sure enough, many philosophers have indeed also used the aforementioned UBTCSI properties to describe a mind.  So, if it is true that abstract objects as well as the minds they appear to be dependent on are ultimately products of the physical brain (with the latter being well-nigh proven at this point), then ultimately they are both produced from that which possesses the naturalistic properties of causality, beginning, time, change, space, material, etc., thus arguably challenging the claim that either abstracta or minds can be defined properly with the UBTCSI properties.

Many theists have taken advantage of the aforementioned “ontology of mind” and posited that God is some kind of disembodied mind, thus presumably adhering to these same UBTCSI properties, yet with the addition of several more properties that were mentioned earlier (i.e. omnipotence, omniscience, etc.).  However, one major problem with this tactic is that the term, disembodied mind, is simply an ad hoc conceptualization, and one that doesn’t make much if any sense at all when thought about more critically.  After all, if the only minds that we’re aware of are those demonstrably produced from the underlying machinery of physical brains, then what exactly would a disembodied mind entail anyway?  What would it be composed of if not physical materials (and thus those which lie in space)?  How would it function at all if the only minds we know of involve an underlying machinery of constantly changing neuronal configurations which subsequently cause the mental experience that we call a mind?  How can this mind think at all, when thinking is itself a temporal process, known to speed up or slow down depending on various physical variables (e.g. neurotransmitter concentrations, temperature, Relativistic effects, etc.)?

These questions illustrate the fact that the only concept of a mind that makes any sense at all is that which involves the properties of causality, time, change, space, and material, because minds result from particular physical processes involving a very complex configuration of physical materials.  That is, minds appear to be necessarily complex in terms of their physical structure (i.e. brains), and so trying to conceive of a mind that doesn’t have any physical parts at all, let alone a complex arrangement of said parts, is simply absurd (let alone a mind that can function without time, change, space, etc.).  At best, we are left with an ad hoc, unintelligible combination of properties without any underlying machinery or mechanism.

So the fact that there exist strong arguments and evidence in support of abstract objects being nothing more than products of the mind, and the fact that minds in general are demonstrably the product of physical brains and their underlying complex neuronal configurations, illustrates that the only things in our universe that philosophers have ascribed these UBTCSI properties to (minds and abstract objects) are in fact more accurately described by the converse of those very properties.  It would then logically follow that God, claimed to possess the very same properties, is most likely to be nothing more than a causally effete abstract object — a mere mentally simulated model produced by our physical brains.  This entails that the remaining properties of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence, which are themselves abstract objects, are ultimately ascribed to yet another causally effete abstract object.

Much Ado About Nothing

As we can see, the properties commonly ascribed to God suggest that this God as described is:

1) Ill-defined since some of the properties are ultimately meaningless or circular, and

2) Logically impossible since some of the properties contradict one another, and

3) Likely to be a causally effete construct of the mind.

So overall, the theist’s strenuous endeavors in arguing over what the properties of their purported God must be, has ultimately been much ado about nothing at all.

Karma & Socio-Psychological Feedback Loops

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Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing an old friend.  At one point during our conversation, he basically asked me if I believed in Karma (that good things happen to good people, etc.).  My answer to that question was yes and no.  No, in the sense that I don’t believe in any kind of supernatural moral causation, which is what Karma technically is.  But on the other hand, I do believe that there are other naturalistic mechanisms that produce similar effects which would be indistinguishable from what people would call Karma.  Specifically, I believe that there are various psychological, cognitive and social factors that ultimately produce these kinds of effects on one’s life.  So I decided to expand on this topic a little bit in this post.

First of all, the level of optimism or pessimism that a person has will undoubtedly affect not only their overall worldview but also the course that their life takes over time in profound ways that are often taken for granted or overlooked.  If a person has a positive attitude, they will tend to invite others (whether explicitly or not) into their social circle not only due to their personality being inviting and comforting, but also because that person is more likely to be productive in helping others.  Furthermore, if they are also altruistic, other people will often take notice of this, and are more likely to solidify a relationship with them.  Likewise, since altruism is often reciprocated, then a person that is altruistic is more likely to have help returned to them when they need it most.  So in short, a person that is positive and altruistic is more likely to continue along a positive path in their life’s course simply because their attitude and less selfish behavior serve as catalysts to solidify more meaningful relationships with others, thus allowing them to increasingly gain more safety nets and mutual socioeconomic benefits as time progresses.

One can see how this principle would operate in the converse scenario, that is, with a person that is generally pessimistic and selfish.  This person is clearly more likely to deter new meaningful relationships due to their uninviting personality (especially if they are anti-social), due to how they make others feel generally, and due to them only focusing on their own best interests.  Others are likely to notice this behavior, and if that pessimistic and selfish person needs help at some point in time, they aren’t nearly as likely to receive any.  This in turn will make it more likely for that person to fall into a downward spiral, where their lack of help from others is likely to cause that person to be increasingly resentful, bitter, negative, and even less likely to help others around them then they were before.  So we can see how a person’s attitude and behavioral trends often have a catalyzing effect on their life’s course by effectively amplifying their behavior in a reciprocated fashion from those around them.  That is, whatever socio-psychological environment is being nurtured by that person (whether good or bad) will most likely be reciprocated thus creating a feedback loop that can become amplified over time.

There appears to be a sort of avalanche effect that can occur, where even a tiny chaotic deviation from the present state can lead to very large differences later on.  Most of us have heard of the so-called “Butterfly Effect” where tiny perturbations in a system can lead to huge changes that are increasingly amplified over time, and this socio-psychological feedback loop is perhaps one of the most important illustrations of such an effect.  Even tiny actions or events that influence our perspective (or the perspective of those around us) can often lead to dramatic changes later on in our lives.

Another important point regarding the effect of optimism and pessimism within this socio-psychological feedback loop is the placebo/nocebo effect, where if one believes that either positive or negative outcomes are more likely, their physiology and cognitive states can change in accordance with those expectations.  People that strongly believe that they will fail to reach a goal or that have some other negative expectation (such as getting sick) are more likely to self-manifest that expectation (i.e. the “nocebo” effect) since their expectations not only influence their perception for the worse, but also because they often channel their focus and attention on that negative belief (which can increase stress levels and thus impair cognitive faculties and overall health) and the belief can become reinforced in other ways since the brain’s cognitive biases often function to reinforce whatever beliefs we have in the first place, even if they are unjustified, incorrect, or ultimately bad for our well-being.  Following along this line of reasoning, we can see how a person that strongly believes that they will in fact achieve a goal or some other positive state are more likely to do so.  Thus, the placebo or nocebo effect can directly result from optimistic or pessimistic perspectives and are often reinforced by our own cognitive biases and cognitive dissonance reduction mechanisms.

It seems that even a small boost in encouragement, optimism, or altruism, can lead to a cascade effect of improved social relationships (thus providing more socioeconomic stability) and an improvement in overall well-being through various socio-psychological feedback loops.  Furthermore, our attitude or perspective can also lead to various placebo effects that further reinforce these feedback loops.  In any case, we should all recognize and appreciate how even small perturbations in our attitude as well as in our behavior toward others can have profound changes in our lives.  Even small acts of kindness or morale boosts can go a long way to changing the lives of others, as well as our own.  So to conclude, I would argue that if any kind of Karma seems to exists in this world, those Karmic effects are naturally brought about by the kinds of mechanisms I’ve described here.

The Book of Acts as Historical Fiction

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Previously, I wrote a series of posts that mentioned several elements from Richard Carrier’s historical/literary analysis of the Gospels in the New Testament (showing that they are not historically reliable, but are rather allegorical fictions), as discussed in his book On the Historicity of Jesus.  I decided to write a complementary post which mentions various elements from Carrier’s analysis of the Acts of the Apostles, since it is believed to have been written by the same author as The Gospel According to Luke.  Let’s begin.

Although it is implied in the preface of the book of Acts that it is supposed to be some kind of historical account, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact, Acts has been thoroughly discredited as nothing more than a work of apologetic historical fiction, and the scholarship of Richard Pervo conclusively demonstrates this to be the case.  Regarding any historical sources that Luke may have used for Acts, the only one that has been confirmed with any probability was that of Josephus (a person who never wrote about Jesus Christ nor Christianity, yet was likely used by Luke for background material), and although there may have been more historical sources than Josephus, we simply don’t have any evidence preserved from those other possible historians to make a case one way or the other.  All of the other sources that we can discern within Acts are literary sources, not historical ones.  Included in these literary sources is what may possibly have been a (now-lost) hagiographical fabrication, and basically a rewrite of the Elijah-Elisha narrative in some of the Old Testament (OT) texts of Kings, although placing Paul and Jesus in the main roles instead, which obviously would have been a literary source of historical fiction (not any kind of historical account).

The scholar Thomas Brodie has argued that this evident reworking of the Kings narrative starts in Luke’s Gospel and continues on until Acts chapter 15, thus indicating that Luke either integrated this literary creation into his story or he used an underlying source text, such as some previous Gospel that not only covered the acts of Jesus but also the acts of the apostles.  So it appears that Luke either used this source text or his own literary idea and then inserted more stories into it, effectively expanding the whole story into two books, while also utilizing some material from Mark and Matthew during the process (and potentially other now-lost Gospels) and some material from the epistles of Paul.  In any case, the unnamed source text mentioned thus far is a hypothetical one that can only be inferred to have existed from the evidence of what’s written in Acts.  Luckily, the remaining literary sources that scholars can discern Luke used are indeed sources we actually have and thus can directly compare to and analyze.

As an example, the scholar Dennis MacDonald has shown that Luke also reworked fictional tales written by Homer, replacing the characters and some of the outcomes as needed to suit his literary purposes.  MacDonald informs us in his The Shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul (New Testament Studies, 45, pp. 88-107) that:

The shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul share nautical images and vocabulary, the appearance of a goddess or angel assuring safety, the riding of planks, the arrival of the hero on an island among hospitable strangers, the mistaking of the hero as a god, and the sending of him on his way [in a new ship].

Paul actually tells us himself that he was shipwrecked three times, and that at least one time he spent a day and night adrift (2 Cor. 11.25).  It’s possible that Luke was inspired by this detail given by Paul and used it to invent a story that expanded on it, while borrowing other ideas and details from famous shipwreck narratives including those found in Jonah, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid.  In fact, Acts rewrites Homer a number of other times.  Paul’s resurrection of the fallen Eutychus was based on the fallen Elpenor.  The visions of Cornelius and Peter were constructed from a similar narrative that was written about Agamemnon.  Paul’s farewell at Miletus was made from Hector’s farewell to Andromache.  The lottery of Matthias we hear about was built off of the lottery of Ajax.  Even Peter’s escape from prison was lifted from Priam’s escape from Achilles.  There are other literary sources besides Homer that the author of Acts used as well.  For example, the prison breaks in Acts share several themes with the famously miraculous prison breaks found in the Bacchae of Euripedes such as the miraculous unlocking of chains and being able to escape due to an earthquake (compare Acts 12.6-7 and 16.26 to Bacchae pp. 440-49, 585-94).

However, the source that Acts seems to employ more than any other is the Septuagint.  While MacDonald has shown that the overall structure of the Peter and Cornelius story is based on writings from Homer, the scholar Randel Helms has shown that other elements were in fact borrowed from the book of Ezekiel in the OT, thus merging both story models into a single one.  For example, both Peter and Ezekiel see the heavens open up (Acts 10.11; Ezek. 1.1), both of them are commanded to eat something in their vision (Acts 10.13; Ezek. 2.9), both respond to God twice by saying “By no means, Lord!” using the exact same Greek phrase (Acts 10.14, 11.8; Ezek. 4.14, 20.49), both are asked to eat unclean food, and finally both protest saying that they have never eaten anything unclean before (Acts 10.14; Ezek. 4.14).  Clearly, the author of Acts isn’t recording anything from historical memory, but rather is assembling a fictional story using literary structures and motifs that don’t have much if anything to do with what happened to Peter or Paul.  The author appears to be inventing this “history” in order to convince his readers of how the previously-required Torah-observance was abandoned in early Christianity, and to convince his readers that this abandonment of Torah-observance was even approved by Peter all along, and confirmed to be approved of through divine revelation.  Yet, we know this to be a lie because Paul even tells us himself (in Gal. 2) that he was for a long time the only advocate for a Torah-free version of Christianity, and it was merely tolerated by Torah observers like Peter (and often contentiously so).  Similarly, in Acts 15.7-11, we can see that it is basically just Paul’s speech from Gal. 2.14-21 put into Peter’s mouth, which is the exact opposite of what Paul told us actually happened.

In fact, all the other stories in Acts are just like this, where they are a fictional product created from prior literary sources that had no relevance to any actual Christian history, just so Luke could make a point that he thought was important.  There may have been some actual authentic sources behind some of the events we read about throughout Acts, but there is simply no evidence for them, nor any way to discern what those historical elements could even be since if any exist, they are embedded in what looks to be a literary invention as opposed to any kind of real history.  It seems that Luke was writing this to sell some particular idea of how the church began and later evolved in its early years.  Just as Luke had done in his Gospel, Acts tries to portray the Torah-observant and Gentile sects of Christianity as having been continuous and harmonized, it tries to stress the close relationship between Paul and the other apostles, and also the unity of the first believers.  In doing so, the author of Acts had to undermine the Epistles of Paul, most especially Galatians.

One example that shows us the historical revisionism seen throughout Acts is the fact that Paul tells us himself that he “was unknown by face to the churches of Judea ” until a number of years after his conversion (Gal. 1.22-23), he tells us that after his conversion he went away to Arabia before eventually returning to Damascus, and he tells us that he didn’t go to Jerusalem for at least three years (Gal. 1.15-18).  Yet, in Acts 7-9, the author tells us that Paul was known to and interacting with the Jerusalem church non-stop from the beginning (even before his conversion), and rather than going to Arabia immediately after his conversion, in Acts we are told that he went immediately to Damascus and then back to Jerusalem but a few weeks later, never ever spending so much as a minute in Arabia.  So Acts is filled with confirmed instances of historical revisionism, rather than any actual historical accounts.

Another more obvious example of Luke’s inventiveness in Acts is when he expands Jesus’ post-resurrection time on earth to an entire span of forty days, with Jesus hanging out (in secret) with his disciples and dozens upon dozens of other believers.  During this time, he has Jesus teaching them even more than he did while he was alive, before having Jesus fly up to outer space to reside with angels (Acts 1.3-12).  This is a clear-cut example of myth in the making.

The scholar Burton Mack has given other examples of how Luke’s version of the history of early Christianity in Acts is entirely unrealistic.  He tells us:

Luke says that the standard sermon was preached to the Jews on the day of the Pentecost and often thereafter, whereupon hundreds converted and the whole world became the church’s parish overnight…[but this is] a story that does not make sense as history by any standard.

Not only is this nonsensical in terms of the ridiculously hyperbolized growth rate, but also in the most general sense of how people would have really behaved.  As Mack says:

No Jew worth his salt would have converted when being told that he was guilty of killing the messiah.  No Greek would have been persuaded by the dismal logic of the argumentation of the sermons.  The scene would not have made sense as history to anyone during the first century with first-hand knowledge of Christians, Jews, and the date of the temple in Jerusalem.  So what do we have on our hands?  An imaginary reconstruction in the interest of aggrandizing an amalgam view of Christianity early in the second century.  Luke did this by painting over the messy history of conflictual movements throughout the first century and in his own time.  He cleverly depicted Peter and Paul as preachers of an identical gospel…That is mythmaking in the genre of epic.  There is not the slightest reason to take it seriously as history.

To summarize Mack’s conclusion, the narrative we see in Acts is so incredible and unrealistic, it couldn’t possibly have been based on historical events.  Rather, it is what Luke wanted to have happened and/or what he wants his readers to believe happened.  This sentiment applies throughout the entire book of Acts.  In terms of background information, this conclusion comes as no surprise since all other “Acts” literature written by Christians was entirely fabricated as well, for example the Acts of Peter, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of John, and the Acts of Thomas, and all of these Christian fabrications look quite similar to the Acts that we find in the NT.  There simply isn’t any reason to trust the Acts found in the NT anymore than these other Christian fabrications, especially after having demonstrated that it is riddled with hyperbole and historical fiction.

Adding to this is the large number of literary coincidences (just as we saw in the earlier post-series concerning the four Gospels in the NT), which aren’t at all believable as history.  As the scholar Robert Price observed:

Peter and Paul are paralleled, each raising someone from the dead (Acts 9.36-40, 20.9-12), each healing a paralytic (3.1-8, 14.8-10), each healing by extraordinary, magical means (5.15, 19.11-12), each besting a sorcerer (8.18-23, 13.6-11), each miraculously escaping prison (12.6-10, 16.25-26).

Likewise, just as Peter was sent by God to save Cornelius after he sends for Peter following a vision (Acts 10), Paul is also sent by God to save the Macedonians “when a certain Macedonian man ” sends for him in a vision (Acts 6.9-10).  Luke also made Paul’s story parallel that of Christ’s, where, as Price tells us “both undertake peripatetic preaching journeys, culminating in a last long journey to Jerusalem, where each is arrested in connection with a disturbance in the temple “, and then “each is acquitted by a Herodian monarch, as well as acquitted by Roman procurators “.  Furthermore, both are interrogated by “the chief prests and the whole Sanhedrin” (Acts 22.30; Luke 22.66; cross-referencing Mark 14.55, 15.1), and finally both know that their death is pre-ordained and they both make predictions about what will happen afterward, not long before they die (Luke 21.5-28; Acts 20.22-38; cross-referencing 21.4).

Notably however, Paul does almost everything at a larger scale than Jesus.  Paul’s journeys traverse a much larger region of the world, almost the entire northeastern Mediterranean in fact.  Paul also travels on and around a significantly larger sea than Jesus did (Mediterranean vs. Sea of Galilee).  Even during the one particular journey by sea where Paul faces death from a perilous storm, and is saved by faith, on Paul’s occasion his ship is actually destroyed thus dramatically exceeding the level of peril that Jesus had faced during the storm he encountered.  We also hear that Paul’s trial spanned several years rather than merely a single night as was the case for Jesus.  Unlike Jesus, we hear that there were actual armies plotting to assassinate Paul, and also unlike Jesus, we hear that Paul had actual armies come to rescue him (Acts 23.20-24).  Whereas Jesus was said to stir up violence against himself by his reading scripture in a synagogue (Luke 4.16-30), Paul actually stirs up violence against himself by his reading scripture in two synagogues (Acts 13.14-52, 17.1-5).  Though Paul and Jesus both die and are resurrected from the dead, Paul alone marches right back in the city unharmed and continues to preach the gospel in public throughout the region (as if entirely unimpeded), winning many more disciples for Jesus as a result (Acts 14.19-21), whereas Jesus didn’t win any new disciples after his resurrection and didn’t even attempt to do so.  Even at the end, unlike Jesus, Paul is eventually sent to meet none other than the emperor of Rome himself — another example of something that Jesus was never said to have accomplished.  So despite all the coincidental parallels between Paul and Jesus, by Luke’s account in Acts, Paul has been colored as someone who was not only far more famous and more successful than Jesus was, but also one who faced more dangers and at larger scales.

All of these parallels found between Peter and Paul, and between Paul and Jesus, are simply wholly improbable as history.  Another parallel (or set of parallels) worthy of mention concerns the account of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9.1-20), which looks like nothing more than a rewrite of the Emmaus narrative found in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24.13-35), which is another demonstrably fictional story.  Both stories involve a journey on a road from Jerusalem to another city (Emmaus: Luke 24.13; Damascus: Acts 9.1-3).  Both stories feature a revelation of Jesus Christ; in Luke the revelation came as “they drew near (eggizein) ” the city where “they were going (poreuein) ” (Luke 24.28), whereas in Acts the revelation came as Paul “drew near (eggizein) ” the city where “he was going (poreuein) ” (Acts 9.3).  In both stories we read that Jesus appears and rebukes the unbeliever and then gives them instruction, and accordingly they become believers and then continue on their way to preach what they’ve now come to believe.  Both stories involve at least three men on the road together and yet only one of those men is actually named (Paul [as Saul] in Acts, and Cleopas in Luke 24.18).  In both stories “the chief priests” of Jerusalem are portrayed as the enemies of the church (Luke 24.20; Acts 9.1, 14).  In Luke’s Gospel we hear that God said Jesus had to suffer whereas in Acts we hear that God said that Paul had to suffer (Luke 24.26; Acts 9.16).  Both stories feature some form of blindness, where Paul is blinded by the divine light of his vision in (Acts 9.8), and Cleopas and his friend are unable to see that their fellow traveler is Jesus (Luke 24.16).  Both stories also end with this blindness reversed (Acts 9.17-18; Luke 24.31).  In Luke’s Emmaus narrative, the visitation occurs on the third day (Luke 24.21), and in Acts the visitation is followed by a blindness that lasts for three days (Acts 9.9).  Finally, in Luke, the blindness is cured after a meal begins (Luke 24.30-31), where in Acts, a meal begins after the blindness is lifted (Acts 9.18-19).

As we can see, in order for Acts to be any kind of history, one would have to assume that all of these parallels are merely historical coincidences which is orders of magnitude less probable than that they are simply inventions that were intentionally created to reflect one another.  It’s certainly possible for a couple of these coincidences to be historical, but it is nigh impossible for all of them to be historical.  Either way, there isn’t any way to weed out any of the possible historical details from within this plethora of fictional constructions.  Overall, Acts just shares far too many features with popular adventure novels that were written during the same period, in order to lend it any trust as history.  Here’s an overview of those features:

1) They all promote a particular god or religion.
2) They are all travel narratives.
3) They all involve miraculous or amazing events.
4) They all include encounters with fabulous or exotic people.
5) They often incorporate a theme of chaste couples that are separated and then reunited.
6) They all feature exciting narratives of captivities and escapes.
7) They often include themes of persecution.
8) They often include episodes involving excited crowds.
9) They often involve divine rescues from danger.
10) They often have divine revelations which are integral to the plot

Since Acts shares all of these features and thus looks exactly like an ancient novel of the period, there is simply no good reason to assume that all of the parallels it has with other literary sources are merely historical coincidences.  Rather, we should conclude that they are in fact what they have been shown to be: literary constructs and other elements of fiction.

Luke, Acts & The Historicity of Jesus

Clearly Luke constructed tales that were meant to affirm the historicity of Jesus, that Jesus was resurrected from the dead (resulting in a conspicuously empty tomb), that he was touched by his disciples, that he slept and dined with them during a forty-day “retreat” that was held in secret behind closed doors, and that he then flew off into outer space while they all watched (Luke 24 and Acts 1).  It goes without saying that all of this is ridiculous and obviously not historical.  There aren’t any witnesses to these events other than fanatical followers, and so not a single disinterested person ever verified any of it.  It isn’t until Acts 2 that we first hear about the public history of the Christian mission where Christians start publicly announcing their gospel.

However, something rather strange occurs at this point.  Throughout Acts‘ supposed history of the movement, from the time it goes public in the city of Jerusalem, at no point in the story (not in any of the 28 chapters) do we hear about either the Romans or the Jews ever showing any knowledge of there being a missing body.  Likewise, we never hear about them taking any action to investigate what could only be to them a crime of tomb robbery and desecration of the dead, which were both quite severe offenses punishable by death.  Matthew’s Gospel even claims that the Jewish authorities accused the Christians of such crimes before Pilate himself (Matt. 27.62-66; 28.4, 11-15), and although this too is certainly fiction, it does illustrate what could not have failed to happen, if a body actually went missing.

Due to the fact that Christians were trying to use the missing body as evidence for a risen Jesus, they certainly would have been the first suspects of such a tomb robbery, if it had indeed occurred.  At best, they would have been secondary suspects, if indeed Joseph of Arimathea was the last person known to have custody of the body (Mark 15.43-46; Matt. 27.57-60; Luke 23.51-56; John 19.38-42).  So he would have been the first person hauled in for questioning, and yet, conspicuously he is nowhere mentioned in this history of the church, as if nobody knew anything about him (or as if he didn’t exist).  If he hadn’t been hauled in for questioning (whether he existed or not), the Christians would have been next in line to be hauled in for questioning for such an offense.  Yet, we never hear a single event in Acts where Christians were accused by Romans or Jews of grave robbery, which implies that there wasn’t any missing body to investigate, and thus no empty tomb known to the Roman or Jewish authorities.  This means that Christians couldn’t have been pointing to an empty tomb as evidence, for they would have been questioned about it, and possibly convicted whether they were involved or not with the disappearance of the body.  Acts is conspicuously silent on this matter and suggests that there were never any disputes whatsoever regarding the body, there weren’t even any false accusations of theft mentioned, nor were there any questions about it at all.

More importantly, the Romans would have had a larger problem to deal with here other than simply grave robbery, for the Christians were said to have been preaching that Jesus had escaped his execution (whether described as a supernatural event or not), that he was seen congregating with his followers, and that he disappeared.  It is doubtful that Pilate or the Sanhedrin would have believed any claims that Jesus had risen from the dead (nor is there any evidence that they did believe this), but if the tomb was empty and Jesus’ followers had been reporting that he had continued to preach to them and thus was still a fugitive, Pilate would have been inclined if not obligated to haul in every Christian for questioning and undergo a massive manhunt for such a threatening escaped convict.  Furthermore, the Sanhedrin would have also been obligated to find and kill Jesus as per their initial plan.  However, we don’t hear any of this happening in Acts.  Nobody asked where Jesus was hiding at, nor who helped him to escape.  This is more than enough to prove that Acts‘ account of the events here is fiction, let alone completely unrealistic.  There was no missing body, no empty tomb, and thus no criminal that was on the run from the law, for if the Roman or Jewish authorities had heard any of this being publicly preached as claimed in Acts, we would no doubt have heard about the expected repercussions, including the likely persecution of Christians by the Roman and Jewish authorities that would have been interrogating them.

If we are to grant that the original Christians believed any of the events in Acts as historical, then the absence of all of these pertinent details and expected events (regarding the missing body), at best, supports the theory that the original Christians were actually preaching that Jesus rose in an entirely new body (a spiritual resurrection) as opposed to the old one that he discarded and left in the grave.  In line with this theory is what Paul wrote, that the body that dies “is not the body that is to come “, but instead this buried body is left to be destroyed, while an even better “replacement ” body is already stored up in heaven waiting for each of us (1 Cor. 15.35-50; 2 Cor. 5.1-4).  At worst, and more likely than any other theory that has been proposed, is that Acts is entirely a fabrication, and there was in fact no historical Jesus, and the earliest Christians instead believed in a celestial Jesus (where he was effectively an archangel) whom communicated to them exclusively through revelation and through hidden messages in scripture, which is a theory that is supported by the material found in Paul’s epistles (the earliest and most reliable Christian sources we have in the NT).

In closing, we can see that Acts, just like the Gospels in the NT, is not at all reliable in terms of having any historical merit.  There are numerous parallels found throughout suggesting that there were many literary sources used for its contents, and Luke was inventing the material contained within, while adding some historical peripheral details (demonstrably obtained from Josephus) to add local color to the stories he was writing as most authors of fiction are known to do.  Other than those less relevant peripheral details, the actual events described within it are entirely unrealistic, not corroborated by any independent evidence, and are exactly what we’d expect to find in an ancient novel of the period in question.  Again, for those interested in this topic, I highly recommend reading Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, as I have only mentioned a fraction of that which is contained in his overall analysis, and it is very important that one reads all of the background knowledge and evidence to fully understand just how weak the case for historicity really is.  You will not be disappointed.

The Placebo Effect & The Future of Medicine

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The placebo effect has been known for a long time, and doctors and medical practitioners have been exploiting its efficacy for a number of ailments.  Whether it is sugar pills, a fake surgery, or even prayer, the power of belief and the psychological effect on our physiology is real and undeniable.  While the placebo effect may have its roots (or been most thoroughly exploited) in various religions, through the power of belief, it has been used by non-religious medical practitioners for quite some time now, and it is starting to be investigated much more thoroughly in cognitive neuroscience, and psychology.  Scientists are beginning to design and implement new techniques that take advantage of this effect of the mind helping to heal the body.  It’s become a fascinating area of research with some potentially huge benefits that may prompt a significant paradigm shift in the future of medicine.

A major advantage of placebos (at least those in the form of a pill or injection) is that they don’t require the expensive R&D and drug-synthesis manufacturing processes that traditional treatments do, which means that there are likely billions of dollars that can be saved in the future, as well as the very important benefit of greater environmental sustainability, by consuming less energy and creating less hazardous waste in the pharmaceutical manufacturing process.  In the case of placebic-surgeries (which have been successfully performed), if surgeons simply have to make a far less complicated incision or two, along with some other protocol and ambiance considerations and requirements to produce the desired effect, then the costs of the far simpler operation are drastically reduced, as well as any chances of malpractice or other long-term complications resulting from the surgery.

One thing that will have to be considered as we start making greater use of these placebic treatments (specifically “drugs” and surgeries), is how the pricing and costs associated with placebo options will be decided for a patient.  Will placebos be as expensive as normal drugs (if they are comparably effective), or will the decreased cost of placebo manufacturing offset/reduce the cost of other drugs so that the average trip to the doctor will be cheaper for everyone?  As always, we will likely have to continue battling with pharmaceutical companies and or medical practitioners that take advantage of the cost savings just to increase their own profit margins while giving no trickle-down savings to the patient.  In the grander scheme of things, having healthier people at the same cost that we currently have is still better, but nevertheless, we can only hope that these discoveries will continue to reduce the costs for the patient as well.

As for other types of placebos, such as meditation, prayer, various rituals, etc., since these placebos do not require any physical mediums or materials per se (or at least not in many cases), they are relatively inexpensive, if not entirely free in some cases.  Modern medicine, however, is also making more use of similar placebo methods, that is, placebos that don’t require the intake of a chemical nor require any surgery.  In fact, one can certainly argue that modern medicine has been utilizing these “non-material” placebos for quite some time already.  For example, various psychological treatments have been used to help heal people with all kinds of ailments, many of which are psycho-somatically induced, and all of which can be exacerbated by hypochondria, pessimism, and other causes of stress — and the placebo effect is certainly a likely contributing factor in many of these successful treatments.  These kinds of treatments could very well be applied in many (if not all) other cases that aren’t currently considered “psychological” ailments.  Putting this all together, I think we are going to start seeing a shift in medicine where psychology, cognitive and neuroscience are going to combine with modern “material” medicine to form a more obvious hybrid.  This integration will be significant, as currently many medical practitioners or schools of thought within medicine have a large divide between what are believed to be either psychological or physical ailments.  In reality though, it appears that every ailment is actually a combination of the two that can be more effectively treated, when both aspects are treated rather than merely one or the other.  After all, the brain and the rest of the body operate as a single unit, and so they should be treated as such.

Another positive discovery relating to the placebo effect is the fact that even if people know that they are being given a placebo, it is still effective, as long as they believe that the placebo is effective.  A more common concern regarding the placebo effect is that it will lose all efficacy if patients are informed that they are receiving some kind of placebo, however it turns out that this isn’t the case at all.  To give an example, in a recent study at the Harvard Medical School, people with irritable bowel syndrome were given a placebo and they were informed that the pills were “made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.”  Then the researchers found that despite being aware that they were taking placebos, the participants rated their symptoms as “moderately improved” on average.  This seems to imply that it is the belief in efficacy of a particular treatment that houses the placebic potential for healing, regardless of the substrate used to implement it, and this solves a lot of ethical complications regarding the desired disclosure that a patient is receiving a placebo.

If the belief in the efficacy of a placebo is the primary factor for the placebo’s effectiveness, this would imply that stronger belief will produce a stronger placebo effect.  So it appears that one of the most major challenges in producing ever-more effective treatments within this domain, is going to be finding ways to increase the belief in a treatment’s effectiveness (as well as other psychologically beneficial factors including being generally optimistic, reducing stress, and other factors that haven’t yet been discovered).  It may even be possible one day for this “belief” maximization (or the neurological effect that it causes) to be accomplished by physically altering the brain through various types of electrical stimulation or other neurologically-based treatments, so a person wouldn’t need to be convinced of anything at all.  On a related note, I’d like to mention that we also need to consider that the opposite effect, that is, the “nocebo” effect, also exists and presumably for the same psychological reasons.  That is, by a person believing that something will harm them or that they are getting sick, even if there is no actual pathogen or physical medium to produce the illness, they can actually get sick and make things much worse.  For a powerful example, there were chemo-therapy participants in a certain study, some of which only got a placebo, and they still developed nausea and had their hair fall out (alopecia) because of their expectations of the treatment.  So the placebo effect works both ways, and this means that medical treatment will also likely change with regard to finding new ways of countering the “bad news” of a diagnosis, etc., possibly through the same kinds of psychological and neurological techniques.

Nobody is sure exactly when the placebo effect was first discovered, but it was likely unknowingly discovered many thousands of years ago in various cultures with particular religious beliefs, including those that involved prayer and faith healing, shamans and other medicine men, etc.  Without seeing any material cause or knowing what was causing its efficacy (i.e. dynamics in the brain), people no doubt chalked up many positive effects to the supernatural, whether by the interventions of some god or a number of gods, magic, etc.  So this appears to be one of many examples of how natural selection favors not only certain genes, but also certain memes.  If people began to spread certain religious memes (ideas) that promoted self-healing by utilizing the power of belief, they would be more likely to survive, and this would be yet another factor in explaining why religions formed, why they’ve been as ubiquitous as they have, and why they’ve propagated for so long throughout human history.  To be sure, it could have been the case that humans long ago experienced the placebo effect (without knowing it) and this led to the development of certain religious rituals or beliefs (because the cause was mis-attributed or unknown), or it could be that certain religious beliefs that were formed for other reasons happened to produce a placebo effect (and/or to strengthen it by other psychological factors).  Either way, it was a very valuable discovery indeed.  Now that we are starting to better understand the real physiological/neurological/psychological factors that produce the placebo (and nocebo) effect, we can continue advancing a scientific world-view and continue to increase our well being in the process.