“I won”

This is a poem I wrote after being inspired by the intelligence, kindness, sportsmanship, and overall moral virtue of perhaps the greatest human being ever to walk the earth. I’m talking of course, about the one and only Donald J. Trump.

“I won”

They say that I lost, but I know that I won.
I’m a great leader! And so is Kim Jong!
Lost by six million? It must be fake news.
Propagate all of my dangerous views.

Pollution is fake! Corona is fake!
There’s millions of dollars that I gotta make!
My fans will adore me, who care’s what I do?
I could shoot someone on fifth avenue.

Thirty-four comrades indicted, oh my!
Fraudulent cronies, they better comply.
Perhaps I can pardon a few, set ’em free.
American heroes, the way it should be.

It’s not about truth, and it’s not about facts.
I’ll monger with fear, cuz I know it attracts.
Pandering voters with outrageous claims.
Desperately trying to bolster my fame.

Conspiracy theories. Believe ’em, they’re true!
As long as they make me look better, they’ll do.
Pizzagate here! Election fraud there!
Q-Anon something or other I’ll share.

The Dems are the devil! They’re after your kids!
I’m playing along for the highest of bids.
Many a Christian will bow to my name.
As long as I trick them by playing the game.

Controlling their minds is as easy as pie.
Flooding the airspace, with lie after lie.
Herding the sheep and they do what I say.
Chapter 11, I don’t have to pay.

Stop with the fact check! Don’t you have faith?
That’s how I duped ’em on November 8th.
Don’t think, but believe! I’m free to deceive!
How can my voters be so damn naive?

The system is broken? I’ll tell ’em I’ll fix it.
By breaking it further, my MO’s sadistic.
Sowing division, I do what I can.
Making America Greater Again!

Filling the swamp as I fired the experts.
Why do they hate me, despite all my efforts?
Because I’m the best! Unlike suckers and losers.
The captured, the wounded, my ego abusers.

Hey China! Hey Russia! I gotta win!
Investigate Biden! Let hacking begin!
And if I don’t win, then I know what to do.
Faithless electors, I’ll try for a coup!

Silence the people! Just give me the votes!
Blaming Dominion and scaping the goats!
Election is rigged! If ever I lose.
But if I should win then I’ll give up the ruse.

They say that I lost, but I know that I won.
Infected the nation, the damage is done.
I’ll start my own network, there’s more to be spun.
Eroding democracy, fun’s just begun!

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 3, Chapter 8: Nietzsche)

In the last post on this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, we began exploring Part 3: The Existentialists, beginning with chapter 7 on Kierkegaard.  In this post, we’ll be taking a look at Nietzsche’s philosophy in more detail.

Ch. 8 – Nietzsche

Nietzsche shared many of the same concerns as Kierkegaard, given the new challenges of modernity brought about by the Enlightenment; but each of these great thinkers approached this new chapter of our history from perspectives that were in many ways, diametrically opposed.  Kierkegaard had a grand goal of sharing with others what he thought it meant to be a Christian, and he tried to revive Christianity within a society that he found to be increasingly secularized.  He also saw that of the Christianity that did exist, it was largely organized and depersonalized, and he felt the need to stress the importance of a much more personal form of the religion.  Nietzsche on the other hand, an atheist, rejected Christianity and stressed the importance of re-establishing our values given the fact that modernity was now living in a godless world, albeit a culturally Christianized world, but one that was now without a Christ.

Despite their differences, both philosophers felt that discovering the true meaning of our lives was paramount to living an authentic life, and this new quest for meaning was largely related to the fact that our view of ourselves had changed significantly:

“By the middle of the nineteenth century, as we have seen, the problem of man had begun to dawn on certain minds in a new and more radical form: Man, it was seen, is a stranger to himself and must discover, or rediscover, who he is and what his meaning is.”

Nietzsche also understood and vividly illustrated the crucial differences between mankind and the rest of nature, most especially our self-awareness:

“It was Nietzsche who showed in its fullest sense how thoroughly problematical is the nature of man: he can never be understood as an animal species within the zoological order of nature, because he has broken free of nature and has thereby posed the question of his own meaning-and with it the meaning of nature as well-as his destiny.”

And for Nietzsche, the meaning one was to find for their life included first abandoning what he saw as an oppressive and disempowering Christian morality, which he saw as severely inhibiting our potential as human beings.  He was much more sympathetic to Greek culture and morality, and even though (perhaps ironically) Christianity itself was derived from a syncretism between Judaism and Greek Hellenism, it’s moral and psychologically relevant differences were too substantial to avoid Nietzsche’s criticism.  He thought that a return to a more archaic form of Greek culture and mentality was the solution we needed to restore or at least re-validate our instincts:

“Dionysus reborn, Nietzsche thought, might become a savior-god for the whole race, which seemed everywhere to show symptoms of fatigue and decline.”

Nietzsche learned about the god Dionysus while he was studying Greek tragedy, and he gravitated toward the Dionysian symbolism, for it contained a kind of reconciliation between high culture and our primal instincts.  Dionysus was after all the patron god of the Greek tragic festivals and so was associated with beautiful works of art; but he was also the god of wine and ritual madness, bringing people together through the grape harvest and the joy of intoxication.  As Barrett describes it:

“This god thus united miraculously in himself the height of culture with the depth of instinct, bringing together the warring opposites that divided Nietzsche himself.”

It was this window into the hidden portions of our psyche that Nietzsche tried to look through and which became an integral basis for much of his philosophy.  But the chaotic nature of our species combined with our immense power to manipulate the environment also concerned him greatly; and he thought that the way modernity was repressing many of our instincts needed to be circumvented, lest we continue to build up this tension in our unconscious only to release itself in an explosive eruption of violence:

“It is no mere matter of psychological curiosity but a question of life and death for man in our time to place himself again in contact with the archaic life of his unconscious.  Without such contact he may become the Titan who slays himself.  Man, this most dangerous of the animals, as Nietzsche called him, now holds in his hands the dangerous power of blowing himself and his planet to bits; and it is not yet even clear that this problematic and complex being is really sane.”

Indeed our species has been removed from our natural evolutionary habitat; and we’ve built our modern lives around socio-cultural and technological constructs that have, in many ways at least, inhibited the open channel between our unconscious and conscious mind.  One could even say that the prefrontal cortex region of our brain, important as it is for conscious planning and decision making, has been effectively high-jacked by human culture (memetic selection) and now it’s constantly running on overtime, over-suppressing the emotional centers of the brain (such as the limbic system).

While we’ve come to realize that emotional suppression is sometimes necessary in order to function well as a cooperative social species that depends on complex long-term social relationships, we also need to maintain a healthy dose of emotional expression as well.  If we can’t release this more primal form of “psychological energy” (for lack of a better term), then it shouldn’t be surprising to see it eventually manifest into some kind of destructive behavior.

We ought not forget that we’re just like other animals in terms of our brain being best adapted to a specific balance of behaviors and cognitive functions; and if this balance is disrupted through hyperactive or hypoactive use of one region or another, doesn’t it stand to reason that we may wind up with either an impairment in brain function or less healthy behavior?  If we’re not making a sufficient use of our emotional capacities, shouldn’t we expect them to diminish or atrophy in some way or other?  And if some neurological version of the competitive exclusion principle exists, then this would further reinforce the idea that our suppression of emotion by other capacities may cause those other capacities to become permanently dominant.  We can only imagine the kinds of consequences that ensue when this psychological impairment falls upon a species with our level of power.

1.  Ecce Homo

“In the end one experiences only oneself,” Nietzsche observes in his Zarathustra, and elsewhere he remarks, in the same vein, that all the systems of the philosophers are just so many forms of personal confession, if we but had eyes to see it.”

Here Nietzsche is expressing one of his central ideas, by pointing out the fact that we can’t separate ourselves from our thoughts, and therefore the ideas put forward by any philosopher are really betraying some set of values they hold whether unconsciously or explicitly, and they also betray one’s individual perspective; an unavoidable perspective stemming from our subjective experience which colors our interpretation of those experiences.  Perspectivism, or the view that reality and our ideas about what’s true and what we value can be mapped onto many different possible conceptual schemes, was a big part of Nietzsche’s overall philosophy, and it was interwoven into his ideas on meaning, epistemology, and ontology.

As enlightening as Nietzsche was in giving us a much needed glimpse into some of the important psychological forces that give our lives the shape they have (for better or worse), his written works show little if any psychoanalytical insight applied to himself, in terms of the darker and less pleasant side of his own psyche.

“Nietzsche’s systematic shielding of himself from the other side is relevant to his explanation of the death of God: Man killed God, he says, because he could not bear to have anyone looking at his ugliest side.”

But even if he didn’t turn his psychoanalytical eye inward toward his own unconscious, he was still very effective in shining a light on the collective unconscious of humanity as a whole.  It’s not enough that we marvel over the better angels of our nature, even though it’s important to acknowledge and understand our capacities and our potential for bettering ourselves and the world we live in; we also have to acknowledge our flaws and shortcomings and while we may try to overcome these weaknesses in one way or another, some of them are simply a part of our nature and we should accept them as such even if we may not like them.

One of the prevailing theories stemming from Western Rationalism (mentioned earlier in Barrett’s book) was that human beings were inherently perfect and rational, and it was within the realm of possibility to realize that potential; but this kind of wishful thinking was relying on a fundamental denial of an essential part of the kind of animal we really are.  And Nietzsche did a good job of putting this fact out in the limelight, and explaining how we couldn’t truly realize our potential until we came to terms with this fairly ugly side of ourselves.

Barrett distinguishes between the attitudes stemming from various forms of atheism, including that of Nietzsche’s:

“The urbane atheism of Bertrand Russell, for example, presupposes the existence of believers against whom he can score points in an argument and get off some of his best quips.  The atheism of Sartre is a more somber affair, and indeed borrows some of its color from Nietzsche: Sartre relentlessly works out the atheistic conclusion that in a universe without God man is absurd, unjustified, and without reason, as Being itself is.”

In fact Nietzsche was more concerned with the atheists that hadn’t yet accepted the full ramifications of a Godless world, rather than believers themselves.  He felt that those who believed in God still had a more coherent belief system given many of their moral values and the meaning they attached to their lives, since they were largely derived from their religious beliefs (even if the religious beliefs were unwarranted or harmful).  Those that were atheists, many of them at least, hadn’t yet taken the time to build a new foundation for their previously held values and the meaning in their lives; and if they couldn’t rebuild this foundation then they’d have to change those values and what they find to be meaningful to reflect that shift in foundation.

Overall, Nietzsche even changes the game a little in terms of how the conception of God was to be understood in philosophy:

“If God is taken as a metaphysical object whose existence has to be proved, then the position held by scientifically minded philosophers like Russell must inevitably be valid: the existence of such an object can never be empirically proved.  Therefore, God must be a superstition held by primitive and childish minds.  But both these alternative views are abstract, whereas the reality of God is concrete, a thoroughly autonomous presence that takes hold of men but of which, of course, some men are more conscious than others.  Nietzsche’s atheism reveals the true meaning of God-and does so, we might add, more effectively than a good many official forms of theism.”

Even though God may not actually exist as a conscious being, the idea of God and the feelings associated with what one labels as an experience of God, is as real as any other idea or experience and so it should still be taken seriously even in a world where no gods exist.  As an atheist myself (formerly a born-again Protestant Christian), I’ve come to appreciate the real breadth of possible meaning attached to the term “God”.  Even though the God or gods described in various forms of theism do not track onto objective reality as was pointed out by Russell, this doesn’t negate the subjective reality underlying theism.  People ascribe the label “God” to a set of certain feelings and forces that they feel are controlling their lives, their values, and their overall vision of the world.  Nietzsche had his own vision of the world as well, and so one could label this as his “god”, despite the confusion that this may cause when discussing God on metaphysical terms.

2. What Happens In “Zarathustra”; Nietzsche as Moralist

One of the greatest benefits of producing art is our ability to tap into multiple perspectives that we might otherwise never explore.  And by doing this, we stand a better chance of creating a window into our own unconscious:

“[Thus Spoke Zarathustra] was Nietzsche’s poetic work and because of this he could allow the unconscious to take over in it, to break through the restraints imposed elsewhere by the philosophic intellect. [in poetry] One loses all perception of what is imagery and simile-that is to say, the symbol itself supersedes thought, because it is richer in meaning.”

By avoiding the common philosophical trap of submitting oneself to a preconceived structure and template for processing information, poetry and other works of art can inspire new ideas and novel perspectives through the use of metaphor and allegory, emotion, and the seemingly infinite powers of our own imagination.  Not only is this true for the artist herself, but also for the spectator who stands in a unique position to interpret what they see and to make sense of it the best they can.  And in the rarest of cases, one may be able to experience something in a work of art that fundamentally changes themselves in the process.  Either way, by presenting someone with an unusual and ambiguous stimulus that they are left to interpret, they can hope to gain at least some access into their unconscious and to inspire an expression of their creativity.

In his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche was focusing on how human beings could ever hope to regain a feeling of completeness; for modernity had fractured the individual and placed too much emphasis on collective specialization:

“For man, says Schiller, the problem is one of forming individuals.  Modern life has departmentalized, specialized, and thereby fragmented the being of man.  We now face the problem of putting the fragments together into a whole.  In the course of his exposition, Schiller even referred back, as did Nietzsche, to the example of the Greeks, who produced real individuals and not mere learned abstract men like those of the modern age.”

A part of this reassembly process would necessarily involve reincorporating what Nietzsche thought of as the various attributes of our human nature, which many of us are in denial of (to go back to the point raised earlier in this post).  For Nietzsche, this meant taking on some characteristics that may seem inherently immoral:

“Man must incorporate his devil or, as he put it, man must become better and more evil; the tree that would grow taller must send its roots down deeper.”

Nietzsche seems to be saying that if there are aspects of our psychology that are normal albeit seemingly dark or evil, then we ought to structure our moral values along the same lines rather than in opposition to these more primal parts of our psyche:

“(Nietzsche) The whole of traditional morality, he believed, had no grasp of psychological reality and was therefore dangerously one-sided and false.”

And there is some truth to this though I wouldn’t go as far as Nietzsche does, as I believe that there are many basic and cross-cultural moral prescriptions that do in fact take many of our psychological needs into account.  Most cultures have some place for various virtues such as compassion, honesty, generosity, forgiveness, commitment, integrity, and many others; and these virtues have been shown within the fields of moral psychology and sociology to help us flourish and lead psychologically fulfilling lives.  We evolved as a social species that operates within some degree of a dominance hierarchy, and sure enough our psychological traits are what we’d expect given our evolutionary history.

However, it’s also true that we ought to avoid slipping into some form of a naturalistic fallacy; for we don’t want to simply assume that all the behaviors that were more common prior to modernity let alone prior to civilization were beneficial to us and our psychology.  For example, raping and stealing were far more common per capita prior to humans establishing some kind of civil state or society.  And a number of other behaviors that we’ve discovered to be good or bad for our physical or psychological health have been the result of a long process of trial and error, cultural evolution, and the cultural transmission of newfound ideas from one generation to the next.  In any case, we don’t want to assume that just because something has been a tradition or even a common instinctual behavior for many thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years, that it is therefore a moral behavior.  Quite the contrary; instead we need to look closely at which behaviors lead to more fulfilling lives and overall maximal satisfaction and then aim to maximize those behaviors over those that detract from this goal.

Nietzsche did raise a good point however, and one that’s supported by modern moral psychology; namely, the fact that what we think we want or need isn’t always in agreement with our actual wants and needs, once we dive below the surface.  Psychology has been an indispensable tool in discovering many of our unconscious desires and the best moral theories are going to be those that take both our conscious and unconscious motivations and traits into account.  Only then can we have a moral theory that is truly going to be sufficiently motivating to follow in the long term as well as most beneficial to us psychologically.  If one is basing their moral theory on wishful thinking rather than facts about their psychology, then they aren’t likely to develop a viable moral theory.  Nietzsche realized this and promoted it in his writings, and this was an important contribution as it bridged human psychology with a number of important topics in philosophy:

“On this point Nietzsche has a perfectly sober and straightforward case against all those idealists, from Plato onward, who have set universal ideas over and above the individual’s psychological needs.  Morality itself is blind to the tangle of its own psychological motives, as Nietzsche showed in one of his most powerful book, The Genealogy of Morals, which traces the source of morality back to the drives of power and resentment.”

I’m sure that drives of power and resentment have played some role in certain moral prescriptions and moral systems, but I doubt that this is likely to be true generally speaking; and even in cases where a moral prescription or system arose out of one of these unconscious drives, such as resentment, this doesn’t negate it’s validity nor demonstrate whether or not it’s warranted or psychologically beneficial.  The source of morality isn’t as important as whether or not the moral system itself works, though the sources of morality can be both psychologically relevant and revealing.

Our ego certainly has a lot to do with our moral behavior and whether or not we choose to face our inner demons:

“Precisely what is hardest for us to take is the devil as the personification of the pettiest, paltriest, meanest part of our personality…the one that most cruelly deflates ones egotism.”

If one is able to accept both the brighter and darker sides of themselves, they’ll also be more likely to willingly accept Nietzsche’s idea of the Eternal Return:

“The idea of the Eternal Return thus expresses, as Unamuno has pointed out, Nietzsche’s own aspirations toward eternal and immortal life…For Nietzsche the idea of the Eternal Return becomes the supreme test of courage: If Nietzsche the man must return to life again and again, with the same burden of ill health and suffering, would it not require the greatest affirmation and love of life to say Yes to this absolutely hopeless prospect?”

Although I wouldn’t expect most people to embrace this idea, because it goes against our teleological intuitions of time and causation leading to some final state or goal, it does provide a valuable means of establishing whether or not someone is really able to accept this life for what it is with all of its absurdities, pains and pleasures.  If someone willingly accepts the idea, then by extension they likely accept themselves, their lives, and the rest of human history (and even the history of life on this planet, no less).  This doesn’t mean that by accepting the idea of the Eternal Return, that people have to put every action, event, or behavior on equal footing, for example, by condoning slavery or the death of millions as a result of countless wars, just because these events are to be repeated for eternity.  But one is still accepting that all of these events were necessary in some sense; that they couldn’t have been any other way, and this acceptance should translate to one’s attitude toward life reflecting this by some kind of overarching contentment.

I think that the more common reaction to this kind of idea is slipping into some kind of nihilism, where a person no longer cares about anything, and no longer finds any meaning or purpose in their lives.  And this reaction is perfectly understandable given our teleological intuitions; most people don’t or wouldn’t want to invest time and effort into some goal if they knew that the goal would never be accomplished or knew that it would eventually be undone.  But, oddly enough, even if the Eternal Return isn’t an actual fact of our universe, we still run into the same basic situation within our own lifetimes whereby we know that there are a number of goals that will never be achieved because of our own inevitable death.

There’s also the fact that even if we did achieve a number of goals, once we die, we can no longer reap any benefits from them.  There may be other people that can benefit from our own past accomplishments, but eventually they will die as well.  Eventually all life in the universe will expire, and this is bound to happen long before the inevitable heat death of the universe transpires; and once it happens, there won’t be anybody experiencing anything at all let alone reaping the benefits of a goal from someone’s distant past.  Once this is taken into account, Nietzsche’s idea doesn’t sound all that bad, does it?  If we knew that there would always be time and some amount of conscious experience for eternity, then there will always be some form of immortality for consciousness; and if it’s eternally recurring, then we end up becoming immortal in some sense.

Perhaps the idea of the Eternal Return (or Recurrence), even though this idea began many hundreds if not a few thousand years before Nietzsche, was motivated by Nietzsche’s own fear of death.  Even though he thought of the idea as horrifying and paralyzing (not least because of all the undesirable parts of our own personal existence), since he didn’t believe in a traditional afterlife, maybe the fear of death motivated him to adopt such an idea, even though he also saw it as a physically plausible consequence of probability and the laws of physics.  But either way, beyond it being far more plausible an idea compared to that of an eternal paradise after death, it’s also a very different idea; not only because one’s memory or identity isn’t preserved such that one actually experiences immortality when the “temporal loop” defining their lifetime starts all over again (i.e. the “movie” of one’s life is just played over and over again, unbeknownst to the person in the movie), but this idea is also different because it involves accepting the world the way it is for all eternity rather than an idea revolving around the way they wish it was.  The Eternal Return fully engages with the existentialist reality of human life with all its absurdities, contingencies, and the rest.

3. Power and Nihilism

Nietzsche, like Kierkegaard before him, was considered to be an unsystematic thinker by many, though Barrett points out that this view is mistaken when it comes to Nietzsche; a common view resulting from the form his writings took which were largely aphoristic.  Nietzsche himself even said that he was viewing science and philosophy through the eyes of art, but nevertheless his work eventually revealed a systematic structure:

“As thinking gradually took over the whole person, and everything else in his life being starved out, it was inevitable that this thought should tend to close itself off in a system.”

This systematization of his philosophy was revealed in the notes he was making for The Will to Power, a work he never finished but one that was more or less assembled and published posthumously by his sister Elisabeth.  The systematization was centered on the idea that a will to power was the underlying force that ultimately guided our behavior, striving to achieve the highest possible position in life as opposed to being fundamentally driven by some biological imperative to survive.  But it’s worth pointing out here that Nietzsche didn’t seem to be merely talking about a driving force behind human behavior, but rather he seemed to be referencing an even more fundamental driving force that was in some sense driving all of reality; and this more inclusive view would be analogous to Schopenhauer’s will to live.

It’s interesting to consider this perspective from the lens of biology, where if we try and reconcile this with a Darwinian account of evolution in which survival is key, we could surmise that a will to power is but a mechanism for survival.  If we grant Nietzsche’s position and the position of the various anti-Darwinian thinkers that influenced him, that is, that a will to survive or survival more generally is somehow secondary to a will to power, then we run into a problem: if survival is a secondary drive or goal, then we’d expect survival to be less important than power; but without survival you can’t have power and thus it makes far more evolutionary sense that a will to survive is more basic than a will to power.

However, I am willing to grant that as soon as organisms began evolving brains along with the rest of their nervous system, the will to power (or something analogous to it) became increasingly important; and by the time humans came on the scene with their highly complex brains, the will to power may have become manifest in our neurological drive to better predict our environment over time.  I wrote about this idea in a previous post where I had explored Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, where I explained what I saw as a correlation between Nietzsche’s will to power and the idea of the brain as a predictive processor:

“…I’d like to build on it a little and suggest that both expressions of a will to power can be seen as complementary strategies to fulfill one’s desire for maximal autonomy, but with the added caveat that this autonomy serves to fulfill a desire for maximal causal power by harnessing as much control over our experience and understanding of the world as possible.  On the one hand, we can try and change the world in certain ways to fulfill this desire (including through the domination of other wills to power), or we can try and change ourselves and our view of the world (up to and including changing our desires if we find them to be misdirecting us away from our greatest goal).  We may even change our desires such that they are compatible with an external force attempting to dominate us, thus rendering the external domination powerless (or at least less powerful than it was), and then we could conceivably regain a form of power over our experience and understanding of the world.

I’ve argued elsewhere that I think that our view of the world as well as our actions and desires can be properly described as predictions of various causal relations (this is based on my personal view of knowledge combined with a Predictive Processing account of brain function).  Reconciling this train of thought with Nietzsche’s basic idea of a will to power, I think we could…equate maximal autonomy with maximal predictive success (including the predictions pertaining to our desires). Looking at autonomy and a will to power in this way, we can see that one is more likely to make successful predictions about the actions of another if they subjugate the other’s will to power by their own.  And one can also increase the success of their predictions by changing them in the right ways, including increasing their complexity to better match the causal structure of the world, and by changing our desires and actions as well.”

On the other hand, if we treat the brain’s predictive activity as a kind of mechanistic description of how the brain works rather than a type of drive per se, and if we treat our underlying drives as something that merely falls under this umbrella of description, then we might want to consider whether or not any of the drives that are typically posited in psychological theory (such as power, sex, or a will to live) are actually more basic than any other or typically dominant over the others.  Barrett suggests an alternative, saying that we ought to look at these elements more holistically:

“What if the human psyche cannot be carved up into compartments and one compartment wedged in under another as being more basic?  What if such dichotomizing really overlooks the organic unity of the human psyche, which is such that a single impulse can be just as much an impulse toward love on the one hand as it is toward power on the other?”

I agree with Barrett at least in the sense that these drives seem to be operating together much of the time, and when they aren’t in unison, they often seem to be operating on the same level at least.  Another way to put this could be to say that as a social species, we’ve evolved a number of different modular behavioral strategies that are typically best suited for particular social circumstances, though some circumstances may be such that multiple strategies will work and thus multiple strategies may be used simultaneously without working against each other.

But I also think that our conscious attention plays a role as well where the primary drive(s) used to produce the subsequent behavior may be affected by thinking about certain things or in a certain way, such as how much you love someone, what you think you can gain from them, etc.  And this would mean that the various underlying drives for our behavior are individually selected or prioritized based on one’s current experiences and where their attention is directed at any particular moment.  It may still be the case that some drives are typically dominant over others, such as a will to power, even if certain circumstances can lead to another drive temporarily taking over, however short-lived that may be.

The will to power, even if it’s not primary, would still help to explain some of the enormous advancements we’ve made in our scientific and technological progress, while also explaining (at least to some degree) the apparent disparity between our standard of living and overall physio-psychological health on the one hand, and our immense power to manipulate the environment on the other:

“Technology in the twentieth century has taken such enormous strides beyond that of the nineteenth that it now bulks larger as an instrument of naked power than as an instrument for human well-being.”

We could fully grasp Barrett’s point here by thinking about the opening scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where “The Dawn of Man” was essentially made manifest with the discovery of tools, specifically weapons.  Once this seemingly insignificant discovery was made, it completely changed the game for our species.  While it gave us a new means of defending ourselves and an ability to hunt other animals, thus providing us with the requisite surplus of protein and calories needed for brain development and enhanced intelligence, it also catalyzed an arms race.  And with the advent of human civilization, our historical trajectory around the globe became largely dominated by our differential means of destruction; whoever had the biggest stick, the largest army, the best projectiles, and ultimately the most concentrated form of energy, would likely win the battle, forever changing the fate of the parties involved.

Indeed war has been such a core part of human history, so it’s no wonder Nietzsche stumbled upon such an idea; and even if he hadn’t, someone else likely would have even if they wouldn’t have done so with the same level of creativity and intellectual rigor.  If our history has been so colored with war, which is a physical instantiation of a will to power in order to dominate another group, then we should expect many to see it as a fundamental part of who we are.  Personally, I don’t think we’re fundamentally war-driven creatures but rather that war results from our ability to engage in it combined with a perceived lack of and desire for resources, freedom, and stability in our lives; but many of these goods, freedom in particular, imply a particular level of power over oneself and their environment, so even a fight for freedom is in one way or another a kind of will to power as well.

And what are we to make of our quest for power in terms of the big picture?  Theoretically, there is an upper limit to the amount of power any individual or group can possibly attain, and if one gets to a point where they are seeking power for power’s sake, and using their newly acquired power to harness even more power, then what will happen when we eventually hit that ceiling?  If our values become centered around power, and we lose any anchor we once had to provide meaning for our lives, then it seems we would be on a direct path toward nihilism:

“For Nietzsche, the problem of nihilism arose out of the discovery that “God is dead.” “God” here means the historical God of the Christian faith.  But in a wider philosophical sense it means also the whole realm of supersensible reality-Platonic Ideas, the Absolute, or what not-that philosophy has traditionally posited beyond the sensible realm, and in which it has located man’s highest values.  Now that this other, higher, eternal realm is gone, Nietzsche declared, man’s highest values lose their value…The only value Nietzsche can set up to take the place of these highest values that have lost their value for contemporary man is: Power.”

As Barrett explains, Nietzsche seemed to think that power was the only thing that could replace the eternal realm that we valued so much; but of course this does nothing to alleviate the problem of nihilism in the long term since the infinite void still awaits those at the end of the finite road to maximal power.

“If this moment in Western history is but the fateful outcome of the fundamental ways of thought that lie at the very basis of our civilization-and particularly of that way of thought that sunders man from nature, sees nature as a realm of objects to be mastered and conquered, and can therefore end only with the exaltation of the will to power-then we have to find out how this one-sided and ultimately nihilistic emphasis upon the power over things may be corrected.”

I think the answer to this problem lies in a combination of strategies, but with the overarching goal of maximizing life fulfillment.  We need to reprogram our general attitude toward power such that it is truly instrumental rather than perceived as intrinsically valuable; and this means that our basic goal becomes accumulating power such that we can maximize our personal satisfaction and life fulfillment, and nothing more.  Among other things, the power we acquire should be centered around a power over ourselves and our own psychology; finding ways of living and thinking which are likely to include the fostering of a more respectful relationship with the nature that created us in the first place.

And now that we’re knee deep in the Information Age, we will be able to harness the potential of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and artificial reality; and within these avenues of research we will be able to change our own biology such that we can quickly adapt our psychology to the ever-changing cultural environment of the modern world, and we’ll be able to free up our time to create any world we want.  We just need to keep the ultimate goal in mind, fulfillment and contentment, and direct our increasing power towards this goal in particular instead of merely chipping away at it in the background as some secondary priority.  If we don’t prioritize it, then we may simply perpetuate and amplify the meaningless sources of distraction in our lives, eventually getting lost in the chaos, and forgetting about our ultimate potential and the imperatives needed to realize it.

I’ll be posting a link here to part 9 of this post-series, exploring Heidegger’s philosophy, once it has been completed.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 5: “Christian Sources”)

In the previous post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, we explored some of the Hebraistic and Hellenistic contributions to the formation and onset of existentialism within Western thought.  In this post, I’m going to look at chapter 5 of Barrett’s book, which takes a look at some of the more specifically Christian sources of existentialism in the Western tradition.

1. Faith and Reason

We should expect there to be some significant overlap between Christianity and Hebraism, since the former was a dissenting sect of the latter.  One concept worth looking at is the dichotomy of faith versus reason, where in Christianity the man of faith is far and above the man of reason.  Even though faith is heavily prized within Hebraism as well, there are still some differences between the two belief systems as they relate to faith, with these differences stemming from a number of historical contingencies:

“Ancient Biblical man knew the uncertanties and waverings of faith as a matter of personal experience, but he did not yet know the full conflict of faith with reason because reason itself did not come into historical existence until later, with the Greeks.  Christian faith is therefore more intense than that of the Old Testament, and at the same time paradoxical: it is not only faith beyond reason but, if need be, against reason.”

Once again we are brought back to Plato, and his concept of rational consciousness and the explicit use of reason; a concept that had never before been articulated or developed.  Christianity no longer had reason hiding under the surface or homogeneously mixed-in with the rest of our mental traits; rather, it was now an explicit and specific way of thinking and processing information that was well known and that couldn’t simply be ignored.  Not only did the Christian have to hold faith above this now-identified capacity of thinking logically, but they also had to explicitly reject reason if it contradicted any belief that was grounded on faith.

Barrett also mentions here the problem of trying to describe the concept of faith in a language of reason, and how the opposition between the two is particularly relevant today:

“Faith can no more be described to a thoroughly rational mind than the idea of colors can be conveyed to a blind man.  Fortunately, we are able to recognize it when we see it in others, as in St. Paul, a case where faith had taken over the whole personality.  Thus vital and indescribable, faith partakes of the mystery of life itself.  The opposition between faith and reason is that between the vital and the rational-and stated in these terms, the opposition is a crucial problem today.”

I disagree with Barrett to some degree here as I don’t think it’s possible to be able to recognize a quality in others (let alone a quality that others can recognize as well) that is entirely incommunicable.  On the contrary, if you and I can both recognize some quality, then we should be able to describe it even if only in some rudimentary way.  Now this doesn’t mean that I think a description in words can do justice to every conception imaginable, but rather that, as human beings there is an inherent ability to communicate fairly well that which is involved in common modes of living and in our shared experiences; even very complex concepts that have somewhat of a fuzzy boundary.

It may be that a thoroughly rational mind will not appreciate faith in any way, nor think it is of any use, nor have had any personal experience with it; but it doesn’t mean that they can’t understand the concept, or what a mode of living dominated by faith would look like.  I also don’t think it’s fair to say that the opposition between faith and reason is that between the vital and the rational, even though this may be a real view for some.  If by vital, Barrett is alluding to what is essential to our psyche, then I don’t think he can be talking about faith, at least not in the sense of faith as belief without good reason.  But I’m willing to concede his point if instead by vital he is simply referring to an attitude that is spirited, vibrant, energetic, and thus involving some lively form of emotional expression.

He delves a little deeper into the distinction between faith and reason when he says:

“From the point of view of reason, any faith, including the faith in reason itself, is paradoxical, since faith and reason are fundamentally different functions of the human psyche.”

It seems that Barrett is guilty of making a little bit of a false equivocation here between two uses of the word faith.  I’d actually go so far as to say that the two uses of the word faith are best described in the way that Barrett himself alluded to in the last chapter: faith as trust and faith as belief.  On the one hand, we have faith as belief where some belief or set of beliefs is maintained without good reason; and on the other hand, we have faith as trust where, in the case of reason, our trust in reason is grounded on the fact that its use leads to successful predictions about the causal structure of our experience.  So there isn’t really any paradox at all when it comes to “faith” in reason, because such a faith need not involve adopting some belief without good reason, but rather there is, at most, a trust in reason based on the demonstrable and replicable success it has provided us in the past.

Barrett is right however, when he says that faith and reason are fundamentally different functions of the human psyche.  But this doesn’t mean that they are isolated from one another: for example, if one believes that having faith in God will help them to secure some afterlife in heaven, and if one also desires an afterlife in heaven, then the use of reason can actually be employed to reinforce a faith in God (as it did for me, back when I was a Christian).  This doesn’t mean that faith in God is reasonable, but rather that when certain beliefs are isolated or compartmentalized in the right way (even in the case of imagining hypothetical scenarios), reason can be used to process a logical relation between them, even if those beliefs are themselves derived from illogical cognitive biases.  To see that this is true, one need only realize that an argument can be logically valid even if the premises are not logically sound.

To be as charitable as possible with the concept of faith (at least, one that is more broadly construed), I will make one more point that I think is relevant here: having faith as a form of positivity or optimism in one’s outlook on life, given the social and personal circumstances that one finds themselves in, is perfectly rational and reasonable.  It is well known that people tend to be happier and have more fulfilling lives if they steer clear of pessimism and simply try and stay as positive as possible.  One primary reason for this has to do with what I have previously called socio-psychological feedback loops (what I would also call an evidence-based form of Karma).  Thus, one can have an empirically demonstrable good reason to have an attitude that is reminiscent of faith, yet without having to sacrifice an epistemology that is reliable and which consistently tracks on to reality.

When it comes to the motivating factors that lead people to faith, existentialist thought can shed some light on what some of these factors may be.  If we consider Paul the Apostle, for example, which Barrett mentioned earlier, he also says:

“The central fact for his faith is that Jesus did actually rise from the dead, and so that death itself is conquered-which is what in the end man most ardently longs for.”

The finite nature of man, not only with regard to the intellect but also with respect to our lives in general, is something that existentialism both recognizes and sees as an integral starting point to philosophically build off of.  And I think it should come as no surprise that the fear of death in particular is likely to be a motivating factor for most if not all supernatural beliefs found within any number of religions, including the belief in possibly resurrecting one from the dead (as in the case of St. Paul’s belief in Jesus), the belief in spirits, souls, or other disembodied minds, or any belief in an afterlife (including reincarnation).

We can see that faith is, largely anyway, a means of reducing the cognitive dissonance that results from existential elements of our experience; it is a means of countering or rejecting a number of facts surrounding the contingencies and uncertainties of our existence.  From this fact, we can then see that by examining what faith is compensating for, one can begin to extract what the existentialists eventually elaborated on.  In other words, within existentialism, it is fully accepted that we can’t escape death (for example), and that we have to face death head-on (among other things) in order to live authentically; therefore having faith in overcoming death in any way is simply a denial of at least one burden willingly taken on by the existentialist.

Within early Christianity, we can also see some parallels between an existentialist like Kierkegaard and an early Christian author like Tertullian.  Barrett gives us an excerpt from Tertullian’s De Carne Christi:

“The Son of God was crucified; I am unashamed of it because men must needs be ashamed of it.  And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.  And He was buried and rose again; the fact is certain because it is impossible.”

This sounds a lot like Kierkegaard, despite the sixteen centuries of separation between these two figures, and despite the fact that Tertullian was writing when Christianity was first expanding and most aggressive and Kierkegaard writing more towards the end of Christianity when it had already drastically receded under the pressure of secularization and modernity.  In this quote of Tertullian’s, we can see a kind of submission to paradox, where it is because a particular proposition is irrational or unreasonable that it becomes an article of faith.  It’s not enough to say that faith is simply used to arrive at a belief that is unreasonable or irrational, but rather that its attribute of violating reason is actually taken as a reason to use it and to believe that the claims of faith are in fact true.  So rather than merely seeing this as an example of irrationality, this actually makes for a good example of the kind of anti-rational attitudes that contributed to the existentialist revolt against some dominant forms of positivism; a revolt that didn’t really begin to precipitate until Kierkegaard’s time.

Although anti-rationalism is often associated with existentialism, I think one would be making an error if they equivocated the two or assumed that anti-rationalism was integral or necessary to existentialism; though it should be said that this is contingent on how exactly one is defining both anti-rationalism (and by extension rationalism) and existentialism.  The two terms have a variety of definitions (as does positivism, with Barrett giving us one particularly narrow definition back in chapter one).  If by rationalism, one is referring to the very narrow view that rationality is the only means of acquiring knowledge, or a view that the only thing that matters in human thought or in human life is rationality, or even a view that humans are fundamentally or primarily rational beings; then I think it is fair to say that this is largely incompatible with existentialism, since the latter is often defined as a philosophy positing that humans are not primarily rational, and that subjective meaning (rather than rationality) plays a much more primary role in our lives.

However, if rationality is simply taken as a view that reason and rational thought are integral components (even if not the only components) for discovering much of the knowledge that exists about ourselves and the universe at large, then it is by all means perfectly compatible with most existentialist schools of thought.  But in order to remain compatible, some priority needs to be given to subjective experience in terms of where meaning is derived from, how our individual identity is established, and how we are to direct our lives and inform our system of ethics.

The importance of subjective experience, which became a primary assumption motivating existentialist thought, was also appreciated by early Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine.  In fact, Barrett goes so far as to say that the interiorization of experience and the primary focus on the individual over the collective was unknown to the Greeks and didn’t come about until Christianity had begun to take hold in Western culture:

“Where Plato and Aristotle had asked the question, What is man?, St. Augustine (in the Confessions) asks, Who am I?-and this shift is decisive.  The first question presupposed a world of objects, a fixed natural and zoological order, in which man was included; and when man’s precise place in that order had been found, the specifically differentiating characteristic of reason was added.  Augustine’s question, on the other hand, stems from an altogether different, more obscure and vital center within the questioner himself: from an acutely personal sense of dereliction and loss, rather than from the detachment with which reason surveys the world of objects in order to locate its bearer, man, zoologically within it.”

So rather than looking at man as some kind of well-defined abstraction within a categorical hierarchy of animals and objects, and one bestowed with a unique faculty of rational consciousness, man is looked at from the inside, from the perspective of, and identified as, an embodied individual with an experience that is deeply rooted and inherently emotional.  And in Augustine’s question, we also see an implication that man can’t be defined in a way that the Greeks attempted to do because in asking the question, Who am I?, man became separated from the kind of zoological order that all other animals adhered to.  It is the unique sense of self and the (often foreboding) awareness of this self then, as opposed to the faculty of reason, that Augustine highlighted during his moment of reflection.

Though Augustine was cognizant of the importance of exploring the nature of our personal, human existence (albeit for him, with a focus on religious experience in particular), he also explored aspects of human existence on the cosmic scale.  But when he went down this cosmic road of inquiry, he left the nature of personal lived existence by the wayside and instead went down a Neo-Platonist path of theodicy.  Augustine was after all a formal theologian, and one who tried to come to grips with the problem of evil in the world.  But he employed Greek metaphysics for this task, and tried to use logic mixed with irrational faith-based claims about the benevolence of God, in order to show that God’s world wasn’t evil at all.  Augustine did this by eliminating evil from his conception of existence such that all evil was simply a lack of being and hence a form of non-being and therefore non-existent.  This was supposed to be our consolation: ignore any apparent evil in the world because we’re told that it doesn’t really exist; all in the name of trying to justify the cosmos as good and thus to maintain a view that God is good.

This is such a shame in the end, for in Augustine’s attempt at theodicy, he simply downplayed and ignored the abominable and precarious aspects of our existence, which are as real a part of our experience as anything could be.  Perhaps Augustine was motivated to use rationalism here in order to feel comfort and safety in a world where many feel alienated and alone.  But as Barrett says:

“…reason cannot give that security; if it could, faith would be neither necessary nor so difficult.  In the age-old struggle between the rational and the vital, the modern revolt against theodicy (or, equally, the modern recognition of its impossibility) is on the side of the vital…”

And so once again we see that a primary motivation for faith is because many cannot get the consolation they long for through the use of reason.  They can’t psychologically deal with the way the world really is and so they either use faith to believe the world is some other way or they try to use reason along with some number of faith-based premises, in evaluating our apparent place in the world.  St. Augustine actually thought that he could harmonize faith and reason (or what Barrett referred to as the vital and the rational) and this set the stage for the next thousand years of Christian thought.  Once faith claims became more explicit in the Church’s various articles of dogma, one was left to exercise rationality as they saw fit, as long as it was within the confines of that faith and dogma.  And this of course led to many medieval thinkers to mistake faith for reason (in many cases at least), reinforced by the fact that the use of reason was operating under faith-based premises.

The problematic relation between the vital and the rational didn’t disappear even after many a philosopher assumed the two forces were in complete harmony and agreement; instead the clash resurfaced in a debate between Voluntarism and Intellectualism, with our attention now turned toward St. Thomas Aquinas.  As an intellectualist, St. Thomas tried to argue that the intellect in man is prior to the will of man because the intellect determines the will, since we can only desire what we know.  Scotus on the other hand, a voluntarist, responded to this claim and said that the will determines what ideas the intellect turns toward, and thus the will ends up determining what the intellect comes to know.

As an aside, I think that Scotus was more likely correct here, because while the intellect may inform the will (and thus help to direct the will), there is something far more fundamental and unconscious at play that drives our engagement with the world as an organism evolved to survive.  For example, we have a curiosity for both novelty (seeking new information) and familiarity (a maximal understanding of incoming information) and basic biologically-driven desires for satisfaction and homeostasis.  These drives simply don’t depend on the intellect even though they can make use of it, and these drives will continue to operate even if the intellect does not.  I also disagree with St. Thomas’ claim that one can only desire that which they already know, for one can desire knowledge for it’s own sake without knowing exactly what knowledge is yet to come (again from an independent drive, which we could call the will), and one can also desire a change in the world from the way they currently know it to be to some other as yet unspecified way (e.g. to desire a world without a specific kind of suffering, even though one may not know exactly what that would be like, having never lived such a life before).

The crux of the debate between the primacy of the will versus the intellect can perhaps be re-framed accordingly:

“…not in terms of whether will is to be given primacy over the intellect, or the intellect over the will-these functions being after all but abstract fragments of the total man-but rather in terms of the primacy of the thinker over his thoughts, of the concrete and total man himself who is doing the thinking…the fact remains that Voluntarism has always been, in intention at least, an effort to go beyond the thought to the concrete existence of the thinker who is thinking that thought.”

Here again I see the concept of an embodied and evolved organism and a reflective self at play, where the contents of consciousness cannot be taken on their own, nor as primary, but rather they require a conscious agent to become manifest, let alone to have any causal power in the world.

2. Existence vs. Essence

There is a deeper root to the problem underlying the debate between St. Thomas and Scotus and it has to do with the relation between essence and existence; a relation that Sartre (among others) emphasized as critical to existentialism.  Whereas the essence of a thing is simply what the thing is (its essential properties for example), the existence of a thing simply refers to the brute fact that the thing is.  A very common theme found throughout Sartre’s writings is the basic contention that existence precedes essence (though, for him, this only applies to the case of man).  Barrett gives a very simplified explanation of such a thesis:

“In the case of man, its meaning is not difficult to grasp.  Man exists and makes himself to be what he is; his individual essence or nature comes to be out of his existence; and in this sense it is proper to say that existence precedes essence.  Man does not have a fixed essence that is handed to him ready-made; rather, he makes his own nature out of his freedom and the historical conditions in which he is placed.”

I think this concept also makes sense when we put it into the historical context going back to ancient Greece.  Whereas the Greeks tried to put humanity within a zoological order and categorize us by some essential qualities, the existentialists that later came on the scene rejected such an idea almost as a kind of categorical error.  It was simply not possible to classify human beings like you could inanimate objects or other animals that didn’t have the behavioral complexity and a will to define themselves as we do.

Barrett also explains that the essence versus existence relation breaks down into two different but related questions:

1) Does existence have primacy over essence, or the reverse?

2) In actual existing things is there a real distinction between the two?  Or are they merely different points of view that the mind takes toward the same existing thing?

In an attempt at answering these questions, I think it’s reasonable to say that essence has more to do with potentiality (a logically possible set of abstractions or properties) and existence has more to do with actuality (a logically and physically possible past or present state of being).  I also think that existence is necessary in order for any essence to be real in any way, and not because an actual object needs to exist in order to instantiate a physical instance of some specific essence, but because any essence is merely an abstraction created by a conscious agent who inferred it in the first place.  Quite simply, there is no Platonic realm for the essence to “exist” within and so it needs an existing consciousness to produce it.  So I would say that existence has primacy over essence since an existent is needed for an essence to be conceived, let alone instantiated at all.

As for the second question, I think there is a real distinction between the two and that they are different points of view that the mind takes toward the same existing thing.  I don’t see this as an either/or dichotomy.  The mind can certainly acknowledge the existence of some object, animal, or person, without giving much thought to what its essence is (aside from its being distinct enough to consider it a thing), but it can never acknowledge the essence of an actual object, animal, or person without also acknowledging its existence.  There’s also something relevant to be said about how our minds differentiate between an actual perception and an imagined one, even between an actual life and an imagined one, or an actual person and an imagined one; something that we do all the time.

On the other side of this issue, within the debate between essentialism and existentialism, are the questions of whether or not there are any essential qualities of human beings that make them human, and if so, whether or not any of these essential qualities are fixed for human beings.  Most people are familiar with the idea of human nature, whereby there are some biologically-grounded innate predispositions that affect our behavior in some ways.  We are evolved animals after all, and the only way for evolution to work is to have genes providing different phenotypic effects on the body and behavior of a population of organisms.  Since about half of our own genes are used to code for our brain’s development, its basic structure, and functionality, it should seem obvious to anyone that we’re bound to have some set of innate behavioral tendencies as well as some biological limitations on the space of possibilities for our behavior.

Thus, any set of innate behavioral tendencies that are shared by healthy human beings would constitute our human nature.  And furthermore, this behavioral overlap would be a fixed attribute of human nature insofar as the genes coding for that innate behavioral overlap don’t evolve beyond a certain degree.  Human nature is simply an undeniable fact about us grounded in our biology.  If our biology changes enough, then we will eventually cease to be human, or if we still call ourselves “human” at that point in time then we will cease to have the same nature since we will no longer be the same species.  But as long as that biological evolution remains under a certain threshold, we will have some degree of fixity in our human nature.

But unlike most other organisms on earth, human beings have an incredibly complex brain as well as a number of culturally inherited cognitive programs that provide us with a seemingly infinite number of possible behaviors and subsequent life trajectories.  And I think this fact has fueled some of the disagreement between the existentialists and the essentialists.  The essentialists (or many of them at least) have maintained that we have a particular human nature, which I think is certainly true.  But, as per the existentialists, we must also acknowledge just how vast our space of possibilities really is and not let our human nature be the ultimate arbiter of how we define ourselves.  We have far more freedom to choose a particular life project and way of life than one would be led to believe given some preconceived notion of what is essentially human.

3. The Case of Pascal

Science brought about a dramatic change to Western society, effectively carrying us out of the Middle Ages within a century; but this change also created the very environment that made modern Existentialism possible.  Cosmology, for example, led 17th century mathematician and theologian, Blaise Pascal to say that “The silence of these infinite spaces (outer space) frightens me.”  In this statement he was expressing the general reaction of humanity to the world that science had discovered; a world that made man feel homeless and insignificant.

As a religious man, Pascal was also seeking to reconcile this world discovered by science with his own faith.  This was a difficult task, but he found some direction in looking at the wretchedness of the human condition:

“In Pascal’s universe one has to search much more desperately to find any signposts that would lead the mind in the direction of faith.  And where Pascal finds such a signpost, significantly enough, is in the radically miserable condition of man himself.  How is it that this creature who shows everywhere, in comparison with other animals and with nature itself, such evidence marks of grandeur and power is at the same time so feeble and miserable?  We can only conclude, Pascal says, that man is rather like a ruined or disinherited nobleman cast out from the kingdom which ought to have been his (his fundamental premise is the image of man as a disinherited being).”

Personally I see this as indicative of our being an evolved species, albeit one with an incredibly rich level of consciousness and intelligence.  In some sense our minds’ inherent capacities have a potential that is far and beyond what most humans ever come close to actualizing, and this may create a feeling of our having lost something that we deserve; some possible yet unrealized world that would make more sense for us to have given the level of power and potential we possess.  And perhaps this lends itself to a feeling of angst or a lack of fulfillment as well.

As Pascal himself said:

“The natural misfortune of our mortal and feeble condition is so wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can console us.” 

Furthermore, Barrett reminds us of Pascal having mentioned the human tendency of escaping from this close consideration of our condition through the two “sovereign anodynes” of habit and diversion:

“Both habit and diversion, so long as they work, conceal from man “his nothingness, his forlornness, his inadequacy, his impotence and his emptiness.”  Religion is the only possible cure for this desperate malady that is nothing other than our ordinary mortal existence itself.”

Barrett describes our state of cultivating various habits and distractions as a kind of concealment of the ever-narrowing space of possibilities in our lives, as each day passes us by with some set of hopes and dreams forever lost in the past.  I think it would be fair to say however, that the psychological benefit we gain from at least many of our habits and distractions warrants our having them in the first place.  As an analogy, if one day I have been informed by my doctor that I’m going to die from a terminal illness in a few months (thus drastically narrowing the future space of possibilities in my life), is there really a problem with me trying to keep my mind off of such a morbid fate, such that I can make the most of the time that I have left?  I certainly wouldn’t advocate burying one’s head in the sand either, nor having irrational expectations, nor living in denial; and so I think the time will be used best if I don’t completely forget about my timeline coming to an end either, because then I can more adequately appreciate that remaining time.

Moreover, I don’t agree that religion is the only possible cure for dealing with our “ordinary mortal existence”.  I think that psychological and moral development are the ultimate answers here, where a critical look at oneself and an ongoing attempt to become a better version of oneself in order to maximize one’s life fulfillment is key.  The world can be any way that it is but that doesn’t change the fact that certain attitudes toward that world and certain behaviors can make our experience of the world, as it truly is, better or worse.  Falling back on religion to console us is, to use Pascal’s own words, nothing but another habit and form of distraction, and one where we sacrifice knowing and facing the truth of our condition for some kind of ignorant bliss that relies on false beliefs about the world.  And I don’t think we can live authentically if we don’t face the condition we’re in as a species, and more importantly as individuals; by trying to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.

When it comes to the human mind and how we deal with or process information about our everyday lives or aspects of our overall condition, it can be a rather messy process with very complicated concepts, many of which that have fuzzy boundaries and so can’t be dealt with in the same way that we deal with analyses relying strictly on logic.  In some cases of analyzing our lives, we don’t know exactly what the premises could even be, let alone how to arrange them within a logical structure to arrive at some kind of certain conclusion.  And this differs a lot from other areas of inquiry like, say, mathematics.  As Pascal was delving deeper into the study of our human condition, he realized this difference and posited that there was an interesting distinction in terms of what the mind can comprehend in these different contexts: a mathematical mind and an intuitive mind.  Within a field of study such as mathematics, it is our mind’s ability to logically comprehend various distinct and well defined ideas that we make use of, whereas in other more concrete domains of our experience, we rely quite heavily on intuition.

Not only is logic not very useful in the more concrete and complex domains of our lives, but in many cases it may actually get in the way of seeing things clearly since our intuition, though less reliable than logic, is more up to the task of dealing with complexities that haven’t yet been parsed out into well-defined ideas and concepts.  Barrett describes this a little differently than I would when he says:

“What Pascal had really seen, then, in order to have arrived at this distinction was this: that man himself is a creature of contradictions and ambivalences such as pure logic can never grasp…By delimiting a sphere of intuition over against that of logic, Pascal had of course set limits to human reason. “

In the case of logic, one is certainly limited in its use when the concepts involved are probabilistic (rather than being well-defined or “black and white”) and there are significant limitations when our attitudes toward those concepts vary contextually.  We are after all very complex creatures with a number of competing goals and with a prioritization of those goals that varies over time.  And of course we have a number of value judgments and emotional dispositions that motivate our actions in often unpredictable ways.  So it seems perfectly reasonable to me that one should acknowledge the limits we have in our use of logic and reason.

Barrett makes another interesting claim about the limits of reason when he says:

“Three centuries before Heidegger showed, through a learned and laborious exegesis, that Kant’s doctrine of the limitations of human reason really rests on the finitude of our human existence, Pascal clearly saw that the feebleness of our reason is part and parcel of the feebleness of our human condition generally.  Above all, reason does not get at the heart of religious experience.”

And I think the last sentence is most important here, where we try and understand that the limitations of reason include the inability to examine all that matters and all that is meaningful within religious experience.  Even though I am a kind of champion for reason, in the sense that I find it to be in short supply when it matters most and in the sense that I often advertise the dire need for critical thinking skills and the need for more education to combat our cognitive biases, I for one have never made the assumption that reason could ever accomplish such an arduous task of dissecting religious experience in some reductionist way while retaining or accounting for everything of value within it.  I have however used reason to analyze various religious beliefs and claims about the world in order to discover their consequences on, or incompatibilities with, a number of other beliefs.

Theologians do something similar in their attempts to prove the existence of God, by beginning with some set of presuppositions (about God or the supernatural), and then applying reason to those faith-based premises to see what would result if they were in fact true.  And Pascal saw this mental exercise as futile and misguided as well because it misses the entire point of religion:

“In any case, God as the object of a rigorous demonstration, even supposing such a demonstration were forthcoming, would have nothing to do with the living needs of religion.”

I admire the fact that Pascal was honest here about what really matters most when it comes to religion and religious beliefs.  It doesn’t matter whether or not God exists, or whether any religious claim or other is actually true or false; rather, it is the living need of religion that he perceives that ultimately motivates one to adhere to it.  Thus, theology doesn’t really matter to him because those who want to be convinced by the arguments for God’s existence will be convinced simply because they desire the conclusion insofar as they believe it will give them consolation from the human condition they find themselves in.

To add something to the bleak picture of just how contingent our existence is, Barrett mentions a personal story that Pascal shared about his having had a brush with death:

“While he was driving by the Seine one day, his carriage  suddenly swerved, the door was flung open, and Pascal almost catapulted down the embankment to his death.  The arbitrariness and suddenness of this near accident became for him another lightning flash of revelation.  Thereafter he saw Nothingness as a possibility that lurked, so to speak, beneath our feet, a gulf and an abyss into which we might tumble at any moment.  No other writer has expressed more powerfully than Pascal the radical contingency that lies at the heart of human existence-a contingency that may at any moment hurl us all unsuspecting into non-being…The idea of Nothingness or Nothing had up to this time played no role at all in Western philosophy…Nothingness had suddenly and drastically revealed itself to him.”

And here it is: the concept of Nothingness which has truly grounded a bulk of the philosophical constructs found within existentialism.  To add further to this, Pascal also saw that one’s inevitable death wasn’t the whole picture of our contingency, but only a part of it; it was our having been born at a particular time, place, and within a certain culture that vastly reduces the number of possible life trajectories one can take, and thus vastly reduces our freedom in establishing our own identity.  Our life begins with contingency and ends with it also.

Pascal also acknowledged our existence as lying in the middle of the universe, in terms of being between that of the infinitesimal and microscopic and that of the seemingly infinite lying at the cosmological scale.  Within this middle position, he saw man as being “an All in relation to Nothingness, a Nothingness in relation to the All.”  I think it’s also worth pointing out that it is because of our evolutionary history and the “middle-position” we evolved within that causes the drastic misalignment between the world we were in some sense meant to understand, and the micro and cosmic scales we discovered in the last several hundred years.

Aside from any feelings of alienation and homelessness that these different scales have precipitated, we simply don’t have an intuition that evolved a need to understand existence at the infinitesimal quantum level nor at the cosmic relativistic level, which is why these discoveries in physics are difficult to understand even by experts in the field.  We should expect these discoveries to be vastly perplexing and counter-intuitive, for our consciousness evolved to deal with life at a very finite scale; yet another example of our finitude as human beings.

It was this very same fact, that we gained so much information about our world through these kinds of discoveries, including major advancements made in mathematics, that also promoted the assumption that human nature could be perfected through the universal application of reason.

I’ll finish the post on this chapter with one final quote from Barrett that I found insightful:

“Poets are witnesses to Being before the philosophers are able to bring it into thought.  And what these particular poets were struggling to reveal, in this case, were the very conditions of Being that are ours historically today.  They were sounding, in poetic terms, the premonitory chords of our own era.”

It is the voice of the poets that we first hear lamenting about the Enlightenment and what reason seems to have done, or at least what it had begun to do.  They were some of the most important contemporary precursors to the later existentialists and philosophers that would soon begin to process (in far more detail and with far more precision) the full effects of modernity on the human psyche.

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

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.

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

In my last post in this series, concerning Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, I talked about the concept of good and evil and the character Ivan’s personal atheistic perception that they are contingent on God existing (or at least an afterlife of eternal reward or punishment).  While there may even be a decent percentage of atheists that share this view (objective morality being contingent on God’s existence), I briefly explained my own views (being an atheist myself) which differs from Ivan’s in that I am a moral realist and believe that morality is objective independent of any gods or immortal souls existing.  I believe that moral facts exist (and science is the best way to find them), that morality is ultimately grounded on objective facts pertaining to human psychology, biology, sociology, neurology, and other facts about human beings, and thus that good and evil do exist in at least some sense.

In this post, I’m going to talk about Ivan’s influence on his half-brother, Smerdyakov, who ends up confessing to Ivan that he murdered their father Fyodor Pavlovich, as a result of Ivan’s philosophical influence on him.  In particular, Smerdyakov implicates Ivan as at least partially responsible for his own murderous behavior since Ivan successfully convinced him that evil wasn’t possible in a world without a God.  Ivan ends up becoming consumed with guilt, basically suffers a nervous breakdown, and then is incessantly taunted by a demonic apparition.  The hallucinations continue up until the moment Ivan comes to find out, from his very religious brother Alyosha, that Smerdyakov has hung himself.  This scene highlights a number of important topics beyond the moral realism I discussed in the first post, such as moral responsibility, free will, and even moral desert (I’ll discuss this last topic in my next post).

As I mentioned before, beyond the fact that we do not need a god to ground moral values, we also don’t need a god or an afterlife to motivate us to behave morally either.  By cultivating moral virtues such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, and analyzing a situation using a rational assessment of as many facts as are currently accessible, we can maximize our personal satisfaction and thus our chances of living a fulfilling life.  Behavioral causal factors that support this goal are “good” and those that detract from it are “evil”.  Aside from these labels though, we actually experience a more or less pleasing life depending on our behaviors and therefore we do have real-time motivations for behaving morally (such as acting in ways that conform to various cultivated virtues).  Aristotle claimed this more than 2000 years ago and moral psychology has been confirming it time and time again.

Since we have evolved as a particular social species with a particular psychology, not only do we have particular behaviors that best accomplish a fulfilling life, but there are also various behavioral conditioning algorithms and punishment/reward systems that are best at modifying our behavior.  And this brings me to Smerdyakov.  By listening to Ivan and ultimately becoming convinced by Ivan’s philosophical arguments, he seems to have been conditioned out of his previous views on moral responsibility.  In particular, he ended up adopting the belief that if God does not exist, then anything is permissible.  Since he also rejected a belief in God, he therefore thought he could do whatever he wanted.

One thing this turn of events highlights is that there are a number of different factors that influence people’s behaviors and that lead to their being reasoned into doing (or not doing) all sorts of things.  As Voltaire once said “Those who can make you believe absurdities can also make you commit atrocities.  And I think what Ivan told Smerdyakov was in fact absurd — although it was a belief that I once held as well not long after becoming an atheist.  For it is quite obviously absurd that anything is permissible without a God existing for at least two types of reasons: pragmatic considerations and moral considerations (with the former overlapping with the latter).  Pragmatic reasons include things like not wanting to be fined, incarcerated, or even executed by a criminal justice system that operates to minimize illegal behaviors.  It includes not wanting to be ostracized from your circle of friends, your social groups, or your community (and risking the loss of beneficial reciprocity, safety nets, etc.).  Moral reasons include everything that detracts from your overall psychological well-being, the very thing that is needed to live a maximally fulfilling life given one’s circumstances.  Behaving in ways that degrade your sense of inner worth, your integrity, self-esteem, and that diminish a good conscience, is going to make you feel miserable compared to behaving in ways that positively impact these fundamental psychological goals.

Furthermore, this part of the story illustrates that we have a moral responsibility not only to ourselves and our own behavior, but also in terms of how we influence the behavior of those around us, based on what we say, how we treat them, and more.  This also reinforces the importance of social contract theory and how it pertains to moral behavior.  If we follow simple behavioral heuristics like the Golden Rule and mutual reciprocity, then we can work together to obtain and secure common social goods such as various rights, equality, environmental sustainability, democratic legislation (ideally based on open moral deliberation), and various social safety nets.  We also can punish those that violate the social contract, as we already do with the criminal justice system and various kinds of social ostracization.  While our system of checks is far from perfect, having some system that serves such a purpose is necessary because not everybody behaves in ways that are ultimately beneficial to themselves nor everyone else around them.  People need to be conditioned to behave in ways that are more conducive to their own well being and that of others, and if all reasonable efforts to achieve that fails, they may simply need to be quarantined through incarceration (for example psychopaths or other violent criminals that society needs to be protected from, and that aren’t responding to rehabilitation efforts).

In any case, we do have a responsibility to others and that means we need to be careful what we say, such as the case with Ivan and his brother.  And this includes how we talk about concepts like free will, moral responsibility, and moral desert (justice).  If we tell people that all of their behaviors are determined and therefore don’t matter, that’s not a good way to get people to behave in ways that are good for them or for others.  Nor is telling them that because a God doesn’t exist, that their actions don’t matter.  In the case of deterministic nihilism, it’s a way to get people to lose much if not all of their motivation to put forward effort in achieving useful goals.  And both deterministic and atheistic moral nihilism are dangerous ideas that can get some people to commit heinous crimes such as mass shootings (or murdering their own father as Smerdyakov did), because they simply cause people to think that all behaviors are on equal footing in any way that matters.  And quite frankly, those nihilistic ideas are not only dangerous but also absurd.

While I’ve written a bit on free will in the past, my views have become more refined over the years, and my overall attitude towards the issue has been co-evolving alongside my views on morality.  The main crux of the free will issue is that libertarian free will is logically impossible because our actions are never free from both determinism and indeterminism (randomness) since one or the other must underlie how our universe operates (depending on which interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is correct).  Neither option from this logical dichotomy gives us “the freedom to have chosen to behave differently given the same initial conditions in a non-random way”.  Therefore free will in this sense is logically impossible.  However, this does not mean that our behavior isn’t operating under some sets of rules and patterns that we can discover and modify.  That is to say, we can effectively reprogram many of our behavioral tendencies using various forms of conditioning through punishment/reward systems.  These are the same systems we use to teach children how to behave and to rehabilitate criminals.

The key thing to note here is that we need to acknowledge that even if we don’t have libertarian free will, we still have a form of “free will” that matters (as philosophers like Daniel Dennett have said numerous times) whereby we have the ability to be programmed and reprogrammed in certain ways, thus allowing us to take responsibility for our actions and design ways to modify future actions as needed.  We have more degrees of freedom than a person who is insane for example, or a child, or a dog, and these degrees of freedom or autonomy — the flexibility we have in our decision-making algorithms — can be used as a rough guideline for determining how “morally responsible” a person is for their actions.  That is to say, the more easily a person can be conditioned out of a particular behavior, and the more rational decision making processes are involved in governing that behavior, the more “free will” this person has in a sense that applies to a criminal justice system and that applies to most of our everyday lives.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether someone thinks that their behavior doesn’t matter because there’s no God, or because they have no libertarian free will.  What needs to be pointed out is the fact that we are able to behave in ways (or be conditioned to behave in ways) that lead to more happiness, more satisfaction and more fulfilling lives.  And we are able to behave in ways that detract from this goal.  So which behaviors should we aim for?  I think the answer is obvious.  And we also need to realize that as a part of our behavioral patterns, we need to realize that ideas have consequences on others and their subsequent behaviors.  So we need to be careful about what ideas we choose to spread and to make sure that they are put into a fuller context.  If a person hasn’t given some critical reflection about the consequences that may ensue from spreading their ideas to others, especially to others that may misunderstand it, then they need to keep those ideas to themselves until they’ve reflected on them more.  And this is something that I’ve discovered and applied for myself as well, as I was once far less careful about this than I am now.  In the next post, I’m going to talk about the concept of moral desert and how it pertains to free will.  This will be relevant to the scene described above regarding Ivan’s demonic apparition that haunts him as a result of his guilt over Smerdyakov’s murder of their father, as well as why the demonic apparition disappeared once Ivan heard that Smerdyakov had taken his own life.

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

I wanted to write some thoughts on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and I may end up writing this in several parts.  I’m interested in some of the themes that Dostoevsky develops, in particular, those pertaining to morality, moral responsibility, free will, moral desert, and their connection to theism and atheism.  Since I’m not going to go over the novel in great detail, for those not already familiar with this story, please at least read the plot overview (here’s a good link for that) before pressing on.

One of the main characters in this story, Ivan, is an atheist, as I am (though our philosophies differ markedly as you’ll come to find out as you read on).  In his interactions and conversation with his brother Alyosha, a very religious man, various moral concepts are brought up including the dichotomy of good and evil, arguments against the existence of God (at least, against the existence of a loving God) such as the well-known Problem of Evil, and other ethical and religious quandaries.  I wanted to first talk about Ivan’s insistence that good and evil cannot exist without God, and since Ivan’s character doesn’t believe that God exists, he comes to the conclusion that good and evil do not exist either.  Although I’m an atheist, I disagree with Ivan’s views here and will expand on why in a moment.

There are a number of arguments against the existence of God that I’ve come across over the years, some of which that I’ve formulated on my own after much reflection, and that were at least partially influenced by my former religious views as a born-again Protestant Christian.  Perhaps ironically, it wasn’t until after I became an atheist that I began to delve much deeper into moral theory, and also into philosophy generally (though the latter is less surprising).  My views on morality have evolved in extremely significant ways since my early adult years.  For example, back when I was a Christian I was a moral objectivist/realist, believing that morals were indeed objective but only in the sense that they depended on what God believed to be right and wrong (even if these divine rules changed over time or seemed to contradict my own moral intuitions and analyses, such as stoning homosexuals to death).  Thus, I subscribed to some form of Divine Command Theory (or DCT).  After becoming an atheist, much like Ivan, I became a moral relativist (but only temporarily – keep reading), believing as the character Ivan did, that good and evil couldn’t exist due to their resting on a fictitious or at least non-demonstrable supernatural theological foundation and/or (perhaps unlike Ivan believed) that good and evil may exist but only in the sense that they were nothing more than cultural norms that were all equally valid.

Since then, I’ve become a moral realist once again (as I was when I was a Christian), after putting the philosophy of Ivan to the test (so to speak).  I realized that I could no longer justify the belief that any cultural moral norm had as equal of a claim to being true as any other cultural norm.  There were simply too many examples of moral prescriptions in various cultures and religions that couldn’t be justified.  Then I realized that many of the world’s cultural moral norms, though certainly not all of them, were largely universal (such as prohibitions against, at least certain forms of, stealing, killing, and others) which suggested a common human psychological component underlying many of them.

I also realized that as an atheist, much as Nietzsche realized, I now had to ground my own moral views on something that didn’t rely on Divine Command Theory, gods, Christian traditions, or any other foundation that I found to be invalid, illogical, unreasonable, unjustified, or not sufficiently demonstrated to be true.  And I had to do this if I was to find a way out of moral relativism, which simply didn’t sit well with me as it didn’t seem to be coherent with the bulk of human psychology and the more or less universal goals that humans strive to achieve in their lives.  It was ultimately the objective facts pertaining to human psychology that allowed me to resubscribe to an objectivist/realist morality — and now my views of morality were no longer contingent on merely the whim or dictates of some authoritarian god (thus bypassing the Euthyphro dilemma), but rather were contingent on objective facts about human beings, what makes us happy and fulfilled and what doesn’t (where these facts often disagree with moral prescriptions stemming from various religions and Divine-Command-Theory).

After dabbling with the teachings of various philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Rawls, Foot, and others, I came to accept a view of morality that was indeed coherent, sensible, sufficiently motivating to follow (which is a must), and which subsumed all the major moral theories into one framework (and which therefore had the best claim to being true since it was compatible with all of them –  virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism).   Now I’ve come to accept what can be described as a Goal Theory of Ethics, whereby morality is defined as “that which one ought to do above all else – when rational and maximally informed based on reason and evidence – in order to increase one’s personal life fulfillment and overall level of preference satisfaction”.  One could classify this as a subset of desire utilitarianism, but readers must be warned that this is NOT to be confused with traditional formulations of utilitarianism – such as those explicitly stated by J.S. Mill, Peter Singer, etc., as they are rife with problems resulting from not taking ALL consequences into account (such as consequences pertaining to one’s own character and how they see themselves as a person, as per the wisdom of Aristotle and Kant).

So how can good and evil exist without some God(s) existing?  That is to say, if a God doesn’t exist, how can it not be the case that “anything is permissible”?  Well, the short answer is – because of human psychology (and also social contract theory).

When people talk about behaving morally, what they really mean (when we peel back all the layers of cultural and religious rhetoric, mythology, narrative, etc.) is behaving in a way that maximizes our personal satisfaction – specifically our sense of life fulfillment.  Ask a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Humanist, why ought they behave in some particular way, and it all can be shown to break down to some form of human happiness or preference satisfaction for life fulfillment (not some hedonistic form of happiness).  They may say to behave morally “because then you can get into heaven, or avoid hell”, or “because it pleases God”, or what-have-you.  When you ask why THOSE reasons are important, it ultimately leads to “because it maximizes your chance of living a fulfilled life” (whether in this life or in the next, for those that believe in an afterlife).  I don’t believe in any afterlife because there’s no good evidence or reason to have such a belief, so for me the life that is most important is the one life we are given here on earth – which therefore must be cherished and not given any secondary priority to a hypothetical life that may or may not be granted after death.

But regardless, whether you believe in an afterlife (as Alyosha does) or not (as in Ivan’s case), it is still about maximizing a specific form of happiness and fulfillment.  However, another place where Ivan seems to go wrong in his thinking is his conclusion that people only behave morally based on what they believe will happen to them in an afterlife.  And therefore, if there is no afterlife (immortal souls), then there is no reason to be moral.  The fact of the matter is though, in general, much of what we tend to call moral behavior actually produces positive effects on the quality of our lives now, as we live them.  People that behave immorally are generally not going to live “the good life” or achieve what Aristotle called eudaimonia.  On the other hand, if people actually cultivate virtues of compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, they will simply live more fulfilling lives.  And people that don’t do this or simply follow their immediate epicurean or selfish impulses will most certainly not live a fulfilling life.  So there is actually a naturalistic motivating force to behave morally, regardless of any afterlife.  Ivan simply overlooked this (and by extension, possibly Dostoyevsky as well), likely because most people brought up in Christianized cultures often focus on the afterlife as being the bearer of ultimate justice and therefore the ultimate motivator for behaving as they do.

In any case, the next obvious question to ask is what ways of living best accomplish this goal of life fulfillment?  This is an empirical question which means science can in principle discover the answer, and is the only reliable (or at least the most reliable) way of arriving at such answers.  While there is as of yet no explicit “science of morality”, various branches of science such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and neuroscience, are discovering moral facts (or at least reasonable approximations of these facts, given what data we have obtained thus far).  Unless we as a society choose to formulate a science of morality — a laborious research project indeed — we will have to live with the best approximations to moral facts that are at our disposal as per the findings in psychology, sociology, neuroscience, etc.

So even if we don’t yet know with certainty what one ought to do in any and all particular circumstances (no situational ethical certainties), many scientific findings have increased our confidence in having discovered at least some of those moral facts or approximations of those facts (such as that slavery is morally wrong, because it doesn’t maximize the overall life satisfaction of the slaveholder, especially if he/she were to analyze the situation rationally with as many facts as are pragmatically at their disposal).  And to make use of some major philosophical fruits cultivated from the works of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Rawls (among many others), we have the benefits of Social Contract Theory to take into consideration.  In short, societies maximize the happiness and flourishing of the citizens contained therein by making use of a social contract – a system of rules and mutual expectations that ought to be enforced in order to accomplish that societal goal (and which ought to be designed in a fair manner, behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, or what he deemed the “original position”).  And therefore, to maximize one’s own chance of living a fulfilling life, one will most likely need to endorse some form of social contract theory that grants people rights, equality, protection, and so forth.

In summary, good and evil do exist despite there being no God because human psychology is particular to our species and our biology, it has a finite range of inputs and outputs, and therefore there are some sets of behaviors that will work better than others to maximize our happiness and overall life satisfaction given the situational circumstances that we find our lives embedded in.  What we call “good” and “evil” are simply the behaviors and causal events that “add to” or “detract from” our goal of living a fulfilling life.  The biggest source of disagreement among the various moral systems in the world (whether religiously motivated or not), are the different sets of “facts” that people subscribe to (some beliefs being based on sound reason and evidence whereas others are based on irrational faith, dogma, or emotions) and whether or not people are analyzing the actual facts in a rational manner.  A person may think they know what will maximize their chances of living a fulfilling life when in fact (much like with the heroin addict that can’t wait to get their next fix) they are wrong about the facts and if they only knew so and acted rationally, would do what they actually ought to do instead.

In my next post in this series, I’ll examine Ivan’s views on free will and moral responsibility, and how it relates to the unintended consequence of the actions of his half-brother Smerdyakov (who murders their father, Fyodor Pavlovich, as a result of Ivan’s influence on his moral views).

Atheism, Morality, and Various Thoughts of the Day…

I’m sick of anti-intellectuals and the rest in their assuming that all atheists are moral Nihilists, moral relativists, post/modernists, proponents of scientism, etc. ‘Dat ain’t the case. Some of us respect philosophy and understand fully well that even science requires an epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical foundation, in order to work at all and to ground all of its methodologies.  Some atheists are even keen to some form of panpsychism (like Chalmers’ or Strawson’s views).

Some of us even ascribe to a naturalistic worldview that holds onto meaning, despite the logical impossibility of libertarian free will (hint: it has to do with living a moral life which means to live a fulfilling life and maximizing one’s satisfaction through a rational assessment of all the available information — which entails BAYESIAN reasoning — including a rational assessment of the information pertaining to one’s own subjective experience of fulfillment and sustainable happiness). Some of us atheists/philosophical naturalists/what-have-you are moral realists as well and therefore reject relativism, believing that objective moral facts DO in fact exist (and therefore science can find them), even if many of those facts are entailed within a situational ethical framework. Some of us believe that at least some number of moral facts are universal, but this shouldn’t be confused with moral absolutism since both are merely independent subsets of realism. I find absolutism to be intellectually and morally repugnant and epistemologically unjustifiable.

Also, a note for any theists out there: when comparing arguments for and against the existence of a God or gods (and the “Divine Command Theory” that accompanies said belief), keep in mind that an atheist need only hold a minimalist position on the issue (soft atheism) and therefore the entire burden of proof lies on the theist to support their extraordinary claim(s) with an extraordinary amount of evidentiary weight. While I’m willing to justify a personal belief in hard atheism (the claim that “God does not exist”), the soft atheist need only point out that they lack a belief in God because no known proponent for theism has yet met the burden of proof for supporting their extraordinary claim that “God does exist”. As such, any justified moral theory of what one ought to do (above all else) including but certainly not limited to who one votes for, how we treat one another, what fundamental rights we should have, etc., must be grounded on claims of fact that have met their burden of proof. Theism has not done this and the theist can’t simply say “Prove God doesn’t exist”, since this would require proving a null hypothesis which is not possible, even if it can be proven false. So rather than trying to unjustifably shift the burden of proof onto the atheist, the theist must satisfy the burden of proof for their positive claim on the existence of a god(s).

A more general goal needed to save our a$$es from self-destruction is for more people to dabble in philosophy. I argue that it should even become a core part of educational curricula (especially education on minimizing logical fallacies/cognitive biases and education on moral psychology) to give us the best chance of living a life that is at least partially examined through internal rational reflection and discourse with those that are willing to engage with us. To give us the best chance of surviving the existential crisis that humanity (and many more species that share this planet with us) are in. We need more people to be encouraged to justify what they think they ought to do above all else.

The Gospels as Allegorical Myth, Part 4 of 4: John

The final post in this series will mention a few elements from Richard Carrier’s analysis of the Gospels as found in his book On the Historicity of Jesus, specifically pertaining to The Gospel according to John.  As with the previous three Gospels, John also appears to have written a religious novel filled with allegorical myth and fiction, and doesn’t appear to be interested in reporting any factual historical accounts.  Likewise, just as was the case with Luke and Matthew, John quite evidently had knowledge of the previous Gospels and used them as sources.  Though some scholars have maintained that John was writing independent of the other Gospels, there is simply no evidence to support that independence.  Rather, there is abundant evidence that John did in fact know about those Gospels and used them as (at least some of the) sources for his own, with the main difference being that John simply redacted them much more freely than Luke or Matthew did with their sources.

One example of John’s apparent knowledge of Mark’s Gospel, for instance, is the fact that John copies Mark’s pairing of the “Feeding of the Five Thousand” miracle with the miracle of Jesus walking on the water, in exactly the same sequence (So John 6 was likely derived from Mark 6.31-52).  However, as we saw in the analysis regarding Mark’s Gospel, Mark’s specific choice of pairing and sequencing of various miracles were intentionally placed as they were for the purpose of producing a particular literary structure.  Additionally, the paired events themselves are obviously ridiculous and historically implausible, so the most likely reason John shared the pairing that Mark employed is that he in fact borrowed it all from Mark.  Adding to this likelihood is the sheer number of details that they both have in common, including the details that “five thousand” people were fed, exactly “twelve baskets” of crumbs remained, that Jesus performed this miracle starting with exactly “five loaves and two fishes”, and that the amount of food needed to feed the crowd would have cost “two hundred denarii”.

In John’s Gospel, we also find the same literary structure for the narrative regarding Peter’s denial of Christ that Mark originally wrote in his Gospel (compare John 18.15-27 with Mark 14.53-72).  John also mentions the story of Jesus curing a blind man with spit that we first heard about in Mark, although in John, we can see that he freely changed some of the details.  Whereas in Mark, Jesus only uses spit for the magic spell, in John, Jesus uses spit mixed with dirt to make mud which he applies to the blind man’s face.  John also changes the additional magic that Jesus had to use in order to get the spell to work.  In John, after Jesus applied spit, he told the blind man to go “wash in the Pool of Siloam” to get the spell to work, whereas in Mark, the blind man was “half cured” from the spit (as we infer when he tells Jesus that although he could see now, the people he saw looked “like trees walking around”), then Jesus simply touched his face once more and then the spell worked successfully (compare John 9.6-7 with Mark 8.23-25).

John also has numerous similarities with material in Luke and Matthew as well (especially Luke).  Only in John and Luke’s Gospels do we hear about the new character, Martha, the sister of Mary (Luke 10.38-42; John 11.1-12.2).  Only in them do we hear about the miraculous scene where Jesus produces an extremely large catch of fish (Luke 5.1-11; John 21.1-4).  Only in them do we hear the claim that there was in fact a second Judas among the twelve disciples (Luke 6.16; John 14.22).  We also only hear in these two Gospels that Judas Iscariot was possessed by Satan (Luke 22.3; John 13.16-27).  In them alone, we hear specifically that the disciples chopped off the right ear of the high priest’s slave (Luke 22.50; John 18.10).  Both alone mention that Pilate declared Jesus innocent thrice (Luke 23.4, 16, 23; John 18.38, 19.4, 6).  Both alone claim that Jesus had been buried “where no man had yet been laid” (Luke 23.53; John 19.41).  Only in these two Gospels do we hear that there were two angels seen outside of Jesus’ empty tomb (Luke 24.4; John 20.12).  Both alone say that the resurrected Jesus visited the disciples in Jerusalem (not Galilee as in Matthew and Mark) and inside a room (rather than outdoors as in the other Gospels) as well as having Jesus show his wounds and even share a meal with them (Luke 24.33-43; John 20.18-29, 21.12-13).  To be sure, John modifies and adds to many of the contents he’s borrowing from Luke, but either way, the number of similarities and coincidences between the two is far too great to conclude that John isn’t using Luke as a source (even if he is doing so rather creatively).

After we concede to the fact that John is using the other Gospels as sources, we can take notice of the fact that John intended on rebutting a particular theme that those previous Gospels all had in common, that “no sign shall be given” that Jesus is the Messiah (e.g. Mark 8.11-12), which was in line with what Paul said when he mentioned that no signs were given to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ (1 Cor. 1.22-24).  So in Mark for example, even though he invents miracles to put in his stories as allegories, he is careful to make sure that only the disciples (no independent witnesses) are the ones that ever notice, mention, or understand those miracles.  The only thing remotely close to an exception to this in Mark is at the end of his Gospel, when the three women saw that the tomb was empty and heard from a man sitting inside that Jesus had risen (which wasn’t really a miracle that they witnessed, but they were surprised nevertheless), and yet even with this ending we are told that the women simply ran away in fear and never told anyone what they had seen (Mark 16.8).

Matthew had already added to this material in Mark, “correcting” it by instead having Jesus say that “an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign” and therefore “there shall no sign be given except the sign of Jonah“, meaning the resurrection of Jesus on the third day (Matt. 12.39, 16.4).  Thus we can see that Matthew took what Mark wrote and went one step further, by allowing that one sign, and narrating the story so that the Jews “know” about it (hence his reason for writing Matt. 28.11-15).  So Matthew invented new evidence that we never saw in Mark.  Luke merely reinforced what Matthew had written (Luke 11.29), yet added to it with his invention of the parable of Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31) as well as the public announcement that was made to the Jews (Acts 2), thus illustrating the previous Gospels’ “no sign shall be given” theme.

John rebuts this entire theme by packing his Gospel full of “signs” and by taking Luke’s parable of Lazarus and turning it into an actual tale of Lazarus (John 11-12).  We even read in John 2.11 that “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him“, thus implying that it was because of these signs that his disciples believed in him (something we don’t hear about in any other Gospel).  We read just a few verses later in John 2.17-18 that when Jesus was asked for a sign, he simply says that his resurrection will be a sign.  Notably however, John doesn’t say here that this will be the only sign.  Quite the contrary, for in John 2.23 we hear that “When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing“, and later we read that “a great multitude followed him because they beheld the signs he did ” (John 6.2), followed by John telling us that when people “see the sign he did“, they declared that Jesus was a true prophet (John 6.14).  In John 3.2, we read that a Pharisee named Nicodemus said to Jesus “no one can do these signs that you do, unless God be with him“, and even in John 4.48-54 we read that Jesus said “You will in no way believe unless you see signs and wonders” and then he provides them with a miracle to see.  We are even explicitly told that these signs were indeed the evidence that showed that Jesus is the Christ (John 7.31, 9.16, 10.41-42), and there are several other references to the signs that Jesus gave, including John telling us that there were even more than those mentioned in his Gospel (John 20.30).  So John clearly attempted to rebut this theme present in the other Gospels, and made it blatantly obvious that he was doing so.

Adding to this rebuttal seen throughout John’s Gospel is his resurrection narrative that was the most ridiculous of all — the “Doubting Thomas” narrative (John 20.24-29), where the resurrected Jesus asks Thomas to stick his finger and hands in his open wounds so that he would believe.  So we have multiple examples of the author of John (or authors, as scholars actually believe there were multiple authors that contributed to the extant manuscripts of the Gospel we now have) creating proof, and insisting that all this new evidence justifies belief that Jesus is the Christ.  This is also why John alone invented an eyewitness “source” for his Gospel (never heard of before in the others), whom he referred to as the “Beloved Disciple” (although it is implied that this unnamed person was Lazarus), and said that he got all of his information from him.  In any case, the incredibly propagandistic style and contents in his Gospel make it thoroughly untrustworthy (more than any of the other Gospels in fact) in terms of historical accuracy.

Beyond this obvious propaganda, John is also filled with several long, implausible speeches (that we’ve never heard of before his Gospel) of Jesus, and yet conspicuously absent from these speeches are the Sermon on the Mount, as well as any appreciable amount of moral instruction.  We also see many new characters (such as Lazarus and Nicodemus) and new events that the other Gospel writers seemed entirely unaware of.  John also scrambles the order of many events, for example, moving the episode of Jesus clearing the temple from the end of his ministry to the beginning of it.  John also expands Jesus’ ministry from one to three years, having Jesus go on multiple trips to Judea and Jerusalem rather than only once.  John even moved the date (and thus also the year) of Jesus’ execution in order to make Jesus’ death correlate with the exact day that the Passover lambs were slaughtered, likely in order to make a different theological point with regard to viewing Jesus as the Passover lamb.  Thus John appears to be the worst of all the Gospels in terms of him most freely redacting what the previous Gospel authors wrote, adding and inventing whatever he wanted.  Thus, if John is trying to convince his readers that what he wrote is factual history, then by modern standards, John is clearly lying (just as Luke was).

One of the biggest problems that scholars have faced when trying to analyze John’s Gospel is the fact that we don’t have what John originally wrote.  Scholars are aware that somebody later on rearranged the Gospel, adding and removing content and ultimately scrambling the order of many scenes.  One can see quite clearly that his Gospel has been altered just by noting that it finishes with two different endings, where each ending was written completely unaware of the other (John 20.30-31 and 21.24-25), with each serving as conclusions to two different resurrection appearance narratives (with John 21.1 added as a hasty attempt to stitch the two together).  This “multiple ending” problem had actually happened in Mark’s Gospel as well, where there are at least five different known endings.  Even the famous story of the adulteress (John 7.53-8.11) with the famous line “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” wasn’t present in the original text as scholars know that this was added by a later editor.  There is plenty of evidence in fact that suggests that there are corruptions throughout the entire text.

We can see in John 5, for example, that Jesus goes to Judea (specifically Jerusalem; 5.1), and yet in John 6 Jesus is not in Judea but rather “went off to the other side of the sea of Galilee”.  This is a problem because the sea of Galilee is nowhere near Jerusalem, let alone in Judea.  Evidently, in the original text, preceding John 6.1, Jesus was in Galilee at some location on the opposite end of the sea of Galilee (and not in Jerusalem), so the order of events became jumbled due to various alterations over time.  We’re also told in John 2 (13, 23) that Jesus was in Jerusalem and then we’re told that he entered Judea (3.22), but obviously if he was in Jerusalem (a city in Judea) then he was already in Judea, so it seems that some part of the text was deleted here that would have mentioned Jesus returning to Galilee prior to him re-entering Judea a second time.  There are other examples like this which I’m not going to mention here because there are more interesting materials in John that I’d like to get to now.

As with the other Gospels, John also has several literary structures of his own.  One of the most brilliantly crafted is the sequence where Jesus is traveling from Cana to Cana (something we’ve not yet heard of until John).  This role of Cana is a literary construct that John likely invented to illustrate different degrees of faith and how to obtain those levels of faith.  The story takes place over several days and the literary sequence starts with a miracle at Cana “on the third day” (turning water into wine) and ends with another miracle at Cana on another “third day” (“resurrecting” a father’s son), which is also combined with other notable references as an obvious metaphor and allusion to Jesus’ future resurrection.  Here is what this quite elegant literary structure looks like:

Traditional Context (features a woman as a mother)

–   John 2.1-12: A wedding completed at Cana.

–        – Featuring a mother and her son.

–        – A miracle is requested and fulfilled.

–        – Complete faith in a traditional Jewish context.

–        – Story ends at Capernaum (2.12).

I.  Traditional Context (ends with a man)

–                    A. John 2.13-22: Clearing of the Temple.

–                          – A miracle is requested and not fulfilled (2.18).

–                          – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (2.19 = 2.20).

–                          – A question is thus voiced as disbelief (2.20).

–                          – A metaphor (of resurrection) is misunderstood (2.19-22).

–                          – The temple Jews have no faith.

–                     B. John 3.1-21: Nicodemus the Pharisee.

–                           – Jesus is believed because of his miracles (3.1-2).

–                           – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (3.3 = 3.4).

–                           – A question is thus voiced as doubt (3.4).

–                           – A metaphor (of rebirth) is misunderstood (3.3-4).

–                           – A “teacher of the Jews” (3.10) has partial faith.

–                      C. John 3.22-36: John the Baptist.

–                            – Jesus is believed because of his word (3.27-34).

–                            – Jesus’ words are explained; Jesus is the savior (3.35-36).

–                            – John has complete faith.

II. Marginal Context (begins with a woman)

–                       A. John 4.1-15: The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well

–                             – A miracle is requested and not fulfilled (4.15).

–                             – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (4.10, 13-14 = 4.11-12, 15).

–                             – A question is thus voiced as disbelief (4.11-12; 4.15 is sarcasm).

–                             – A metaphor (of living water) is misunderstood.

–                             – The woman has no faith.

–                        B. John 4.16-38: The Samaritan woman reconsiders.

–                              – Jesus is believed because of his miracle (4.16-19).

–                              – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (4.16 = 4.17).

–                              – A question is then voiced as doubt (4.29).

–                              – A metaphor (of spiritual messiah) is misunderstood (4.21-25).

–                              – The Samaritan woman has partial faith.

–                         C. John 4.39-42: The Samaritans of Sychar.

–                               – Jesus is believed because of his word (e.g. 4.41).

–                               – Jesus’ words are understood; Jesus is the savior (4.42).

–                               – The Samaritans have complete faith.

Marginal Context (features a man as a father)

–   John 4.43-53: A funeral averted at Cana.

–        – Featuring a father and his son.

–        – A miracle is requested and fulfilled.

–        – Complete faith in a marginal Jewish context.

–        – Story began at Capernaum (4.46).

John clearly invented this material to make a point, and it looks like he designed it all to fit into a particular pattern of metaphors and parables: two miracles that parallel and invert one another occurring at Cana, and nestled in between two sequences of three conversational narratives, with the first of those triads paralleling the second in terms of the developing faith in each example (no faith, partial faith, and finally complete faith).  We can also see that the first triad is in a traditional Jewish context, and then the second one repeats the same themes in a relatively marginal context, with John alternating the roles of men and women (something we also saw Mark do in his Gospel).  Note also how the two events that ensconce this overall structure both involve an announced problem of some kind (running out of wine in the first event, and an official son’s illness in the last event).  Both involve a request to fix the problem, both involve a rebuke where Jesus says something ornery to the person making the request.  Both also involve a reaction where the requester then puts complete faith in Jesus, followed by a successful solution to the problem (where what they believed Jesus could do, he successfully accomplishes).  John also repeats the same literary components in traditionally Jewish and in marginally Jewish contexts (so we have two sets of each); first a traditional Jewish context (a Jewish wedding) followed by another traditional context (temple Jews and John the Baptist), followed by a marginally Jewish context (Samaria) finally followed by another marginal context (helping a Herodian official).

So we can see that John, just like the other Gospel writers, has created literary structures (a triadic ring structure in the case above) filled with metaphor and allegorical messages (in this example regarding different levels of faith and their respective effects, as well as allusions to the crucifixion and resurrection which I’ll mention more in a moment), as opposed to John reporting any kind of historical events as he claims in his preface.  Once again, it is simply very implausible for historical events to occur in such an order and with such coincidental patterns, and this is compounded by the number of historical implausibilities that are all entirely expected elements to find within fiction.  These implausibly coincidental sequences as well as the types of events and behaviors are not something we ever expect to occur in real life.  John is in fact writing a religious novel here, and is inventing material and arranging it in very specific ways to serve his own literary and theological purposes.

Like the other Gospel writers, John also borrows texts from the Old Testament (OT) and rewrites them or adapts certain ideas in his narratives.  For example, the first miracle at Cana, which is John’s only “new” miracle not present in the other Gospels, illustrates this fact.  This story exemplifies the Word of God in the book of Exodus, where we hear that Aaron “did the signs in the sight of the people, and the people believed” (Exodus 4.30-31), which is the basic model that John employs for his entire Gospel.  In the story found in Exodus, we read that God told Moses that he would give him three signs to perform such that if they didn’t believe after the first two signs he gave, they would definitely believe after the last one was given, with the latter point seen in the following verse:

“If they will not believe even after these two signs, nor listen to you, then you shall take some water that you took from the river, and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you took out of the river shall become blood upon the ground.” (Exodus 4.9)

As we can see, the last miracle Moses was going to perform was turning water into blood, which closely parallels John’s first miracle of having Jesus turn water into wine, thus John appears to be starting where Moses left off and transforming “the last” into “the first”.  One may recall that toward the end of John’s Gospel, at the crucifixion, we read that Jesus spews both water and blood from his body (John 19.34), and so Jesus’ ministry appears to have ended with a reminder of the miracle that it began with.  This is something that Jesus even alludes to in John 2.4 where two references to John’s crucifixion scene are mentioned (Jesus references the hour of his death, and references the fact that he would no longer be his mother’s son).  This demonstrates that John rewrote the crucifixion scene (including the spewing of water and blood from Jesus, which is unique to John’s Gospel alone) as he had these parallels in mind when he matched it with his scene at Cana.  In accord with this intentional matching is the fact that the crucifixion is an anti-type of the scene at Cana: at Cana his mother gives a command to Jesus, and at the crucifixion Jesus gives a command to his mother; at Cana we hear his mother saying to do whatever Jesus says, and at the crucifixion Jesus tells Mary what to do; whereas at Cana Jesus’ mother asks him to make wine from water, at the crucifixion Jesus gives them blood with water; at Cana we hear Jesus asking what he has to do with her, and at the crucifixion he says that he has nothing to do with her (due to a transformation of kinship); at Cana Jesus says that his hour has not yet come, and at the crucifixion his hour had indeed come.  John even repeats the same Exodus theme where he says that the miracle of the water and blood coming from Jesus happened “so that you may believe” (John 19.35), just as God had told Moses what would happen after performing his turning water into blood.  So there is strong evidence here that John is simply replicating the last miracle that Moses performed.  There is also evidence that John borrowed and adapted some of his details from a similar miraculous tale told of Elijah in 1 Kings 17.8-24.  In that story, we read another tale involving a woman and her son, although in that particular story they expected to die soon because they were starving to death (1 Kings 17.12).  The woman’s son is approaching death from illness and Elijah is called upon to heal him (1 Kings 17.24), similar to what we hear happen in John when Jesus later saves a man’s son from deadly illness (his second miracle at Cana).

Related to this is the odd fact that Jesus seems quite rude to his mother when he says “Woman, what have I to do with you?“, which upon further analysis doesn’t appear to be any kind of historical report, but is rather an anti-type of Elijah, when in the tale with Elijah, the woman in need of food says to him “What have I to do with you?” (and the exact Greek is used in both the story with Jesus and that of Elijah in the Septuagint translation of 1 Kings).  In both stories the prophet involved tells those needing food to take empty pitchers and remove from them the required provision, which then miraculously appears before them.  Thus, rather than John being concerned with any kind of factual history, this is just another example of a literary construct John invented, and that he carefully integrated into his revised account of the crucifixion and the entire Cana-to-Cana structure.  John is simply lying and passing it off as history, as the evidence illustrates more and more upon closer analysis.

One good demonstration of John’s overall inventiveness is when he creates an eyewitness, the “Beloved Disciple” (John 21.24, 19.35, 19.25-27, 20.2-8), who is inserted into the same story told by the previous Gospels, and yet this person is conspicuously absent from those previous Gospels.  Unlike in John, there aren’t any male disciples at the cross in any of the other Gospels, nor is anyone resting on Jesus’ chest at the Last Supper.  John clearly inserted this character into the stories that he borrowed and redacted from the other Gospels, and then dishonestly claimed that this person was his “source” for the contents in his Gospel.  This is further confirmed by the fact that John makes considerable effort to imply that the “Beloved Disciple” was in fact Lazarus, a character that was not among the list of twelve disciples mentioned in the previous three Gospels. In fact, Lazarus wasn’t ever mentioned in any of the other Gospels except in Luke’s Gospel when he was only mentioned as a deceased character in Jesus’ fictional parable of “Lazarus and the Rich Man”.  How do we know that John made considerable effort to imply that this never-before-heard-of witness was Lazarus?   There are many reasons, for example, the fact that only one character in his Gospel is described several times as “the one whom Jesus loved”, and that was indeed Lazarus (John 11.3, 5, 36).  Also, right after Lazarus was introduced and described as Jesus’ beloved, we hear that he is reclining with Jesus at supper the very next day (12.1-2, 9-11).  So when we later hear that “the one whom Jesus loved” is also reclining with Jesus at the Last Supper, it is quite obvious that this is supposed to be Lazarus once again.  This should also be the case for every other instance when we hear a reference to “the one whom Jesus loved“, such as at the crucifixion, at the empty tomb, and finally at the resurrection (John 19.26-27, 35, 20.2-8, 21.7, 20).

The final giveaway that the Beloved Disciple is Lazarus is the fact that we hear in John 21.21-24 that a rumor had spread around the community that the Beloved Disciple would not die, and there simply isn’t any reason for this speculative rumor to have arisen other than the fact that in John’s Gospel, Lazarus had been resurrected from the dead by Jesus. So clearly people were wondering if Lazarus would ever die a second time, hence the rumor that began to circulate.  We also hear that the Beloved Disciple was the first person to see the burial cloths that Jesus had cast off and left in his then empty tomb, and earlier in John we were told that Lazarus had been wrapped in burial cloths which he also cast off at his resurrection.  Accordingly, Lazarus is the first person to believe that Jesus had risen since he had experienced a similar resurrection himself and could relate to it firsthand (John 20.8).  However, there are even more similarities worth noting.  In both Jesus’ and Lazarus’ resurrection accounts, we hear the peculiar detail of the soudarion (a small cloth covering the face of the deceased), and in both stories this cloth is clearly distinguished from the burial wrappings.  In both, we hear references to being bound or unbound by these wrappings, as some metaphor for becoming unbound or liberated from death.  Additionally, in both accounts we are also given a colorful and detailed description of these burial wrappings, their placement, etc.  So the many parallels make it quite obvious that the “Beloved Disciple” is in fact Lazarus.

All the details that John gives us about the Beloved Disciple being Lazarus merely exposes that John is lying throughout his Gospel, because there is no corroboratory evidence that Lazarus ever existed, not even from the demonstrably untrustworthy Gospels that John himself used as sources.  Nobody else knows anything about this Lazarus character (let alone his most extravagant resurrection story, in fact the most incredible resurrection story told in any of the Gospels) and we simply don’t hear anything about him except in John’s Gospel.  Thus, a non-existent Lazarus couldn’t have witnessed anything, despite John telling us that he did.  This absence from the other Gospels implies that this is a definite fabrication.  Adding to the exposure of this lie, is the fact that John assigns a high level of importance to the whole Lazarus resurrection event.  The event is so integral to the plot that John tells us that it was because of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and thus gaining so many newly convinced followers, that the Jewish elite then plotted to kill Jesus (John 11.53).  Yet, we don’t hear anything about this integral reason for the plot against Jesus in any of the other Gospels.  So the fact that John made this “Lazarus resurrection” story integral to his Gospel, just further illustrates that his Gospel is a fabrication, where he is just rewriting “history” (or more accurately he is rewriting the pseudo-historical accounts given in the other Gospels) as he pleases, likely to suit his own purpose of re-emphasizing the many “signs” that were said to be proof that Jesus was the messiah.

Lastly, John appears to have invented this Lazarus tale in order to reverse and thus to rebut or refute the Parable of Lazarus as found in Luke.  The bottom line here is that whenever we find instances of imaginary people in earlier stories being turned into real people in later stories (i.e. Luke’s Lazarus versus John’s Lazarus), what we are seeing is in fact a major marker for myth-making, and one that was quite common in antiquity.  Furthermore, the fact that John turns Luke’s imaginary Lazarus into a real person isn’t the only indication that he is trying to refute Luke.  There are several other indicators of this in fact.  In Luke’s parable, we hear about a rich man that ends up burning in hell and he sees up in heaven a dead beggar named Lazarus that he once knew, and he sees this Lazarus resting on the “bosom of Abraham”, so he begs Abraham to resurrect Lazarus from the dead so that he may warn his still-living brothers in order to avoid the same torturous fate.  The parable ends with Abraham refusing to resurrect Lazarus because “if they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16.31), thus further repeating the point mentioned in the synoptic Gospels that Jesus would not be performing signs since they won’t persuade anyone.  One coincidence worth noting here is the mention of Luke’s Lazarus resting on the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16.22-23), thus ever more confirming that John’s “Beloved Disciple” who we hear was reclining “on Jesus’ bosom” (John 13.23) was in fact Lazarus.  More importantly, we can see that in Luke’s parable, Lazarus does not rise from the dead, whereas John completely reverses this as well in his Gospel, and not only does Lazarus rise from the dead, but his resurrection actually convinces many people to turn their favor toward Jesus and be saved, which goes completely against what Jesus said in Luke’s Gospel (as well as what the other Gospels were saying).

Not only is John’s Lazarus sited as convincing others through his being resurrected, but John also sites Lazarus as a witness to the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and to Jesus’ resurrection (and as the source for John’s entire Gospel), thus illustrating that the overall purpose of John inventing Lazarus was to convince people (despite this going against what Jesus had said wouldn’t work in Luke).  So it is clear that John’s invention of Lazarus was to be a refutation for Luke, and this only further reduces any chances that John is ever accurately reporting history in his Gospel, for he’s freely redacting the Gospels he used as sources, and not at all interested in preserving what they had to say (if he assumed they were accurate histories, which even if he thought so, we can see that they are not), nor is he receiving this from any kind of witness.  As it has been made quite clear by now, what we are seeing in John’s Gospel is allegorical myth and fiction, with these stories created to serve specific literary aims even beyond the creation of literary structures that we saw an example of early on in this post.  As such, just as with the other Gospels, John’s Gospel can’t be trusted as any kind of reliable historical sources.  Rather we are seeing numerous examples in the Gospels of employing well-known ancient literary methods of writing fiction and allegory (most especially students of literary Greek, which the Gospels were written in).

It should also be noted as I near the conclusion of this post, that the common historical methodological criteria that scholars have tried to use to sift out possible historical details of Jesus that are buried in a sea of myth have been proven to be either fallacious and/or unreliable, and this has been demonstrated by the fact that when scholars apply these same criteria to the exact same evidence under consideration, they get different results (which proves the methods are unreliable).  Since fiction often contains peripheral details that are historical and since fiction is written in all manner of genres, due to the principle of contamination we are unable to establish if there are any details in any of the Gospels that can support the historicity of Jesus.  The best method proposed thus far, and one that has been proven reliable mathematically and proven to be logically sound is the application of Baye’s Theorem.  So for those that wish to refute Carrier’s arguments or his conclusions, one must do so by refuting the prior and consequent probabilities that Carrier defends, and one must support their own proposed probabilities with evidence and logically sound argumentation.

This concludes this particular series of posts.  As mentioned in the previous post, regarding The Gospel According to Luke, I may eventually make a fifth post to complement that one, and discuss Luke’s book of Acts to illustrate how it too is quite obviously fiction, and looks very much like a typical ancient novel with all the goodies one would expect to find therein.  For those interested in the most recent scholarship regarding the historicity of Jesus Christ, I highly recommend reading Richard Carrier’s book, as it is the most comprehensive analysis regarding the historicity of Jesus I’ve ever read or heard of, and is very well documented and well researched (featuring a nice 40-page bibliography with everything well referenced regarding extensive work from numerous top scholars in the field).  I only provided readers of this post-series with a small fraction of what Carrier researched and wrote in his book, but I hope that for those interested, it was informative and fascinating!

The Gospels as Allegorical Myth, Part 3 of 4: Luke

In the first two posts in this series, we looked at various elements of Richard Carrier’s analysis of the first two Gospels found in the New Testament, specifically The Gospel According to Mark and The Gospel According to Matthew, as discussed in Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus.  We saw many examples that illustrated that those Gospels were demonstrably myth and fiction, as opposed to being any kind of written histories.  In this post, I’ll be mentioning some elements of Carrier’s analysis as it relates to The Gospel According to Luke.

For starters, The Gospel According to Luke is the first Gospel to superficially represent itself as history.  Unlike the other Gospel authors, Luke actually does write more like a historian, where he adds superficial historical details to form a local color, and even attempts to date some of the events contained therein.  He even includes a preface (although rather vague) explaining what his authorial intentions are.  Unfortunately, after a close examination of what he wrote, we can see that he was no better than Mark or Matthew, and in fact fabricates numerous details throughout his Gospel.  One interesting element that tips us off is the fact that Luke creates a resurrection narrative that is thoroughly designed to answer the skeptics of Matthew’s account, employing a tactic that “requires” his own story to be true.  However, since no other Gospel (nor Paul for that matter) ever mentions the odd and quite convenient details that suddenly make their first appearance in Luke, we can be fairly certain that it is indeed a fabrication.  For example, Luke mentions that Peter not only double-checked the women’s claim that the tomb was empty, but that he also handled the shroud (Luke 24.11-12); that Jesus showed the disciples his wounds and made sure that the disciples touched him and fed him to prove he wasn’t a ghost (Luke 24.36-43); or that the resurrected Jesus actually hung out and partied with many (dozens) of his followers for more than a month before eventually flying up into the clouds of heaven (Acts 1.2-9).  So we can see several examples of Luke fabricating historical events, deliberately trying to win a particular argument against doubters (which included many Christians that had very different beliefs about the details and nature of the resurrection).  That we find these types of things in what Luke wrote, should serve as a clear warning to not trust anything that he has added to the stories found in Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels.  Rather, we should assume that, just as Mark and Matthew demonstrably fabricated their stories for a particular purpose, such is the same for Luke (unless of course, we find evidence to believe otherwise).

Further justifying this assumption of fabrication is the fact that, although Luke at least tries to sell his readers the pretense that he is reporting history, his methods are entirely non-historical.  He is not doing historical research, nor weighing various facts, nor checking their validity with respect to independent sources in order to write about what events he thinks most likely transpired.  Instead, Luke appears to be producing an expanded and redacted amalgam of Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels, which were themselves non-historiographical products composed of carefully constructed literary structures containing various allegorical and obviously mythical contents.  Unlike what we’d expect from historians (and those living in Luke’s era no less), Luke never names his sources nor explains why he (or we, the reader) should trust them, nor does he mention how he chose to include or exclude the contents we find in his Gospel.  What we find from Luke is instead an insistence that he diligently followed what had been handed on to him — another claim we know to be a lie, since we have two of his sources (The Gospels of Mark and Matthew) and are able to confirm that he freely altered them in order to support his own agenda.  For example, though there are many instances of Luke borrowing excerpts from Matthew and Mark’s Gospels, he also changes some of the details, such as redacting Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and changing it (effectively reversing it) into a Sermon on a Plain.  Despite this reversal that Luke makes to Matthew’s version, both Matthew and Luke’s Sermons are followed by the unrelated narrative where Jesus heals the centurion’s son in Capernaum (Matt. 8.5-13, Luke 7.1-10), and both Sermons are preceded by a general account of Jesus healing many people (Matt. 4.23-5.1, Luke 6.17-19).

Another more conspicuous example of Luke redacting Matthew’s Gospel in particular (and creatively so), is when Luke rewrites Matthew’s Nativity Narrative.  In his version, Luke reverses almost every key element.  Whereas Matthew depicts Jesus’ family (Mary and Joseph) as basically outlaws, fleeing from Bethlehem and Herod’s dominion and authority and cowering many miles away for more than 10 years, Luke depicts Jesus’ family as being in complete obedience of the law and going to Bethlehem in observance of their emperor’s command (Luke 2.1-4).  While Matthew tells us that Herod was searching to kill the infant Jesus, Luke has Jesus being presented in the Jerusalem temple to several public pronouncements of Jesus’ messianic status by Anna and Simeon (an event that obviously wouldn’t have escaped Herod’s attention, nor that of Herod’s informants).  Also, when Matthew has Jesus’ family hiding in Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath, Luke has Jesus’ family living deferentially in their home in Nazareth for that entire time, even bringing Jesus back to Jerusalem for the Passover every year without fail, to remain in full compliance with Levitical law (Luke 2.41).  So it appears that Luke deliberately changed the reason that Jesus was “born in Bethlehem” yet somehow “came from Nazareth”, which were details that Matthew had already attempted to harmonize in his own Gospel.  It’s unlikely that Luke would attempt the same harmonization unless he knew that Matthew had already started this “Bethlehem” tradition.

There are several other differences between Matthew and Luke’s Nativity narratives that are unlikely if those differences weren’t intentional.  As mentioned before, for Luke, the family of Jesus is always obedient to religious and secular law (and they are never in danger), but also notably they are never hiding in a foreign country (unlike in Matthew’s Gospel).  Luke also completely removes the involvement of foreigners (e.g. the Persian “magi”) and instead replaces them with (apparently Jewish) shepherds.  He even replaced Matthew’s magical star (which informed the “magi”) with an angelic light from heaven (informing the “shepherds”; Luke 2.8-18).  Clearly, Luke didn’t like Matthew’s version of the story, so he changed it to fit his own desires.  It’s also unlikely that Luke’s Nativity Narrative would share so many elements with that of Matthew’s, for example, the way angels send practically the same messages to Mary and Joseph, the fact that both accounts involve an annunciation and mention a virgin birth, and that both have a genealogy in them (though Luke’s genealogy differs from Matthew’s) — unless these similarities and presumably intentional differences are because Luke was in fact borrowing and redacting Matthew’s Nativity Narrative.  There are even certain phrases in Matthew’s narrative that Luke copied verbatim (e.g. “and you will call his name Jesus”, Matt. 1.21 vs. Luke 1.31-32, where the Greek used is identical), thus further supporting this conclusion.  To be sure, in many cases, Luke’s Gospel doesn’t redact Matthew’s line-by-line or verbatim, but it was often the case in antiquity that many redactions were made more freely, to conform to the author’s own linguistic style and literary preferences, which Luke certainly employs.

As mentioned in the last post, whereas Mark’s Gospel was advocating a Pauline (i.e. “gentile-friendly”) form of Christianity, Matthew’s Gospel seemed to be a redaction of this, where instead Matthew emphasized the importance of a Torah-observant (strictly Jewish) form of Christianity.  Luke’s Gospel seems to strive to unify these two major divisions of early Christianity, both the Gentile and Torah-observant sects.  Luke’s account (spanning both Luke’s Gospel and Acts) seems to be revising history in several ways in order to give the impression that both of these Christian divisions were actually in continuous harmony with one another, while also portraying Jesus and Christianity in general as a credible and reverent sect that was law abiding and even respected by the Romans.  In fact, Luke portrays Jesus and Christianity as only opposed by a branch of the Jewish elite.  Thus, Luke is effectively rebutting Matthew, just as we saw that Matthew was attempting to rebut Mark.  So rather than promoting Gentile or Torah-observant Christianity per se, Luke is promoting a harmonious church — one that is a positive and faithful transformation of Judaism into what is ultimately the Gentile church (although Luke is careful not to explicitly describe it as such).  Notably, this amalgamated model of Christianity that Luke describes throughout his Gospel is a significant example of Luke freely changing fairly important details and perspectives that are conspicuously unknown to Matthew and Mark, and it seems fairly clear that Luke did this as a response to the ongoing disagreement between these dissenting sects of Christianity, and so he revised the events in his story as if to imply that they weren’t ever an issue.  In any case, Luke doesn’t appear to be reliably reporting history here, but rather is revising it to fit his literary and theological aims.

Luke also heavily relies on re-writing texts and older myths found in the Old Testament (OT), which, as we’ve seen with Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, illustrate that Luke isn’t writing history here or repeating any kind of eye witness reports, but is in fact simply reusing older myths as models for new ones.  Of the material that Luke adds to that found in Mark and Matthew, there is quite a bit that is demonstrably fabricated rewritten versions of the Elijah-Elisha narrative in 1 and 2 Kings, placing Jesus within them as the central character and changing the setting to 1st century Roman Palestine.  Sometimes Luke directly parallels those stories and other times he inverts them, but there are too many coincidences for this to have plausibly arisen by chance.  Here’s a list of some examples:

Luke 1.5-17 reverses 1 Kings 16.29-17.1

Luke 7.1-10 transforms 1 Kings 17.1-6

Luke 7.11-17 transforms 1 Kings 17.17-24

Luke 7.18-25 transforms 1 Kings 22

Luke 7.36-50 plays on 2 Kings 4.1-37

Luke 8.1-3 plays on 1 Kings 18

Luke 9.51-56 transforms 2 Kings 1.1-2.6

Luke 9.57-62 transforms 1 Kings 19

Luke 10.1-20 transforms 2 Kings 2.16-3.27

Luke 22-24 adapts elements from 2 Kings 2.7-15

In order to illustrate this myth rework that Luke is employing, I’ll mention a couple examples from this list that Carrier explores as they exemplify the rest well.  In Luke 7.11-17, we hear of a new story that Mark and Matthew have no apparent knowledge of, that is, the healing of the Widow’s Son at Nain.  The story on its own is already quite obviously fiction, employing many dramatical elements and miraculous events that we would typically find in fiction rather than in reality.  Also, as it happens this kind of story was a trope at the time, where effectively the same story was told a few decades later about the medical doctor Asclepiades by Apuleius, and similar stories were told by Pliny the Elder before Luke even began writing his Gospel.  It sounds like an urban legend — a tale retold many times involving different people living in different places, but with very similar elements otherwise just as we’d expect from an urban legend, including the typical convenient lack of an actual eye witness account for any of the events in the story.  Adding to these already obvious signs of fiction, is the fact that this story is simply a rewrite of the exact same legend told of Elijah in 1 Kings.  Here are some of the parallels between the two:

  • Luke — “It happened afterwards…” (7.11)
  • 1 Kings — “It happened after this…” (17.17)
  • 1 Kings — At the gate of Sarepta, Elijah meets a widow. (17.10)
  • Luke — At the gate of Nain, Jesus meets a widow. (7.11-12)
  • 1 Kings — Another widow’s son was dead (17.17)
  • Luke — This widow’s son was dead (7.12)
  • 1 Kings — That widow expresses a sense of her unworthiness on account of sin. (17.18)
  • Luke — A centurion (whose “boy” Jesus had just saved from death) had just expressed a sense of his unworthiness on account of sin. (7.6)
  • 1 Kings — Elijah compassionately bears her son up the stairs and asks “the Lord” why he was allowed to die. (17.13-14)
  • Luke — “The Lord” feels compassion for her and touches her son’s bier, and the bearers stand still. (7.13-14)
  • 1 Kings — Elijah prays to the Lord for the son’s return to life. (17.21)
  • Luke — “The Lord” commands the boy to rise. (7.14)
  • 1 Kings — The boy comes to life and cries out. (17.22)
  • Luke — “And he who was dead sat up and began to speak” (7.15)
  • 1 Kings — “And he gave him to his mother” (17.23)
  • Luke — “And he gave him to his mother” (17.15)
  • 1 Kings — The widow recognizes Elijah is a man of God and that “the word” he speaks is the truth. (17.24)
  • Luke — The people recognize Jesus as a great prophet of God and “the word” of this truth spreads everywhere. (7.16-17)

The main tip-off here is Luke’s use of the exact same phrase, given verbatim, from the Septuagint text of this Elijah story (“and he gave him to his mother”), which along with the other parallels is a strong indication of literary borrowing (as these coincidences arising by chance are highly unlikely).  There are also several differences or inversions that are worth noting which are also unlikely to have arisen by chance, for example, when Luke changes the ultimate message the story is trying to convey.  Whereas in the OT text, the idea and recognition of sinfulness leads to a form of despair and is accompanied with the idea that the man of God (or simply God) is a troublesome visitor who comes to punish sinfulness with death, in the New Testament (NT) text, the idea of unworthiness is joined with a sense of profound faith along with a powerful reverence for the Lord.  The NT text shows a clear conviction that despite one’s unworthiness or sinfulness, the Lord comes to heal and save people from death, so rather than the OT portrayal of God passing along the sins of a mother onto her child, the NT portrayal replaces this with the concept of a God that doesn’t look at one’s unworthiness or sinfulness but rather looks at one’s faith in the Lord.  We can even see that in the OT portrayal, we hear “that the Lord is the author of evil, the one who brings harm to the widow (1 Kings 17.20), whereas in the NT, God is seen as the one who comforts and heals instead (Luke 7.7).

The second example that Carrier describes is in regard to Luke 9.51-56 and how it emulates 2 Kings 1.1-2.6, where there are many more examples of direct verbatim and some near-verbatim borrowing from the Greek Septuagint, as well as many parallels and deliberate differences and inversions.  Both stories also have the same five part structure: a plan of death and assumption into heaven (2 Kings 1.1-6, 1.15-17, and 2.1; Luke 9.51), a sending of messengers (2 Kings 1.2; Luke 9.52), those messengers being turned back (2 Kings 1.3-6; Luke 9.53), there’s mention of calling down fire from heaven upon those who rejected those messengers (2 Kings 1.7-14; Luke 9.54-55), and finally journeying from one place to another (2 Kings 2.2-6; Luke 9.56).  Even where there are a large number of other differences between the two stories, the changes Luke made aren’t incoherent at all, and they fully correspond to stable patterns of adaptation including modernization, abbreviation, emulation, and fusion, all of which are common in Luke’s imitation of OT texts.  So just as we saw in Matthew and Mark’s Gospels, Luke is also making up new stories of his own by rewriting other myths found in the OT.

The last example from Carrier’s analysis that I’m going to discuss here is the Emmaus narrative of Luke 24.  This is a tale of a resurrection appearance that isn’t found in any other Gospel, and thus is a distinctive example of Luke’s inventiveness.  In this story, Luke talks about a man named Cleopas (along with some unnamed friend or companion) who goes on a journey from Jerusalem to a nearby city called Emmaus, after hearing that the corpse of Jesus has vanished.  On the way to Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus appears to both of them (although in disguise) and explains to them the secrets of the kingdom, which in this case happens to be a spiritual rather than a physical kingdom.  Afterward, he vanishes and Cleopas realizes who the “stranger” was and goes on to proclaim to others what Jesus told him.  Interestingly enough, the name Cleopas conveniently means “tell all” (i.e. “proclaim”), which is one of several obvious markers that what we are reading is myth.  Whenever characters in the story have a name that has a meaning which is extremely relevant to the tale told (in this case Cleopas “proclaiming” to others what he was told and had seen), it is most often the case that the name was specifically chosen or invented for exactly that reason.  Additionally, the absurd nature of the story gives us more hints that this is myth, including the miraculous vanishing, Cleopas’ unrealistic conversation with a total stranger, and the patently fictional concept of a disguised divine visitor.  In fact, this looks just like the age-old “Vanishing Hitchhiker” legend, conformed to an ancient Roman setting.

The founding myth of Rome, which was at that time famously known everywhere and even celebrated in yearly passion plays, is almost identical to the story that Luke is telling us.  In the Roman version, a man named Proculus (which in archaic Latin means “Proclaimer”, just like Cleopas’ name) takes a journey from a nearby city called Alba Longa to Rome, after the Roman people just learned that the corpse of Romulus had vanished.  On the way to Rome, the resurrected Romulus appears to him (although not in disguise, but rather in a magnificent and glorious form), and Romulus explains to Proculus the secrets of the kingdom (specifically, how to conquer and rule the world), and then Romulus ascends into heaven (which Luke eventually has Jesus do as well).  After this, Proculus, realizing who he was, goes on to proclaim to others what he was told.  If in fact Luke’s intended “Emmaus” is supposed to be the “Ammaus” that was mentioned by the Jewish historian, Josephus (a town located a few miles away from Jerusalem), then in both tales the proclaimers are going from a city on a mountain to a city in a valley (located just a few miles away), in almost the same east-to-west direction.  However, some of the differences are even more telling, for example, while Proculus receives his gospel on the road to Rome, Cleopas instead receives his gospel on a road from Jerusalem.  Whereas Romulus appears in a glorious and explicitly recognizable form sharing the secrets of the visible, physical kingdom/empire on Earth, Jesus appears in disguise, sharing the secrets of the hidden, spiritual kingdom in heaven.

So Luke has reversed the importance of a few key characteristics in Rome’s founding myth, as if to devalue it and send a different message with his story.  Whereas in the Roman myth, all roads lead to Rome, in the Lukan myth, all roads lead from Jerusalem, possibly illustrating that unlike the Romans, the Christians’ resurrected hero promises a hidden kingdom originating from Jerusalem.  Whereas in the Roman myth, Romulus’ glorious appearance is what proved to Proculus that what he was being told was true, it was the powerful word of the gospel that proves to Cleopas that what the stranger said was true (as well as what proves that the stranger was in fact Jesus).  So overall this story appears to have adopted most of the elements of the Roman myth, but as is often the case with mythmaking, this re-written myth is meant to illustrate different values (in this case, some of the differences between Christian and Roman values).  It should be noted that Carrier elsewhere demonstrates in his analysis just how much the Gospels borrowed from this earlier Romulus resurrection tale, as this narrative isn’t the only instance of borrowing, and in fact we find numerous parallels between the resurrection story of Romulus and various elements not only in Luke’s Gospel, but also in Matthew’s and Mark’s.  To illustrate the similarities, recall that in the first post in this series, I mentioned how there were many authors in antiquity who wrote fictional historical biographies, including the example of Plutarch’s Life of Romulus.  In Plutarch’s biography of Romulus, he mentions a few attributes of Romulus that are remarkably parallel to the Gospels’ description of Jesus.  For example, among other things we are told of Romulus that:

  • He was the son of god.
  • He was born of a virgin.
  • An attempt was made to kill him as a baby (and he was saved).
  • He was raised by a poor family.
  • He became a lowly shepherd.
  • As a man he becomes loved by the people, and hailed as king.
  • He is killed by the conniving elite.
  • He rises from the dead.
  • He appears to a friend to tell the good news to his people.
  • He ascends to heaven to rule from on high.

Plutarch also mentions that as he wrote this, there were still annual public ceremonies being performed, celebrating the day Romulus ascended up to heaven.  The sacred story that was told at such ceremonies was described as such: at the end of Romulus’ life, there were rumors circulating that he had been murdered by a conspiracy of the Senate (much like how Jesus was “murdered”, in a sense, by a conspiracy of the Jewish Sanhedrin), the sun went dark (just as was the case with Jesus), and Romulus’ body vanished (as did Jesus’).  The people wanted to look for Romulus, but the Senate instructed them not to, “for he had risen to join the gods”.  Most went away in happiness, wishing for only good things from their new god, but “some doubted” (as is mentioned in all the Gospels after Mark; e.g. Matt. 28.17, Luke 24.11, John 20.24-25, though it is implied in Mark 16.8).  Soon after all this, a close friend of Romulus named Proculus, reported that he met Romulus “on the road” between Rome and some nearby town and he asked Romulus, “Why have you abandoned us?”, which Romulus then replied and said that he had been a god all along but had come down to earth and taken human form in order to establish a great kingdom, and that he now had to return to his home in heaven.  Then Romulus instructs Proculus to tell the Romans that if they are indeed virtuous, they will possess all worldly power.  Plutarch then mentions that this annual Roman ceremony of the Romulan ascent involved some people reciting the names of those who fled vanishing in fear, while some people re-enacted the scene of being afraid and fleeing (sharing many similarities to the ending of Mark’s Gospel).

Clearly, there are numerous parallels between the story of Romulus and the stories of Jesus we hear about in the Gospels.  Most importantly, this tale of Romulus is widely attested as being pre-Christian.  Although Plutarch wrote this biography sometime between 80 and 120 CE (during the time the Gospels were being written), he was recording a long-established Roman tale and custom, and this has been proven by noting that the sources Plutarch used for his fictional biography were undeniably pre-Christian (including: Cicero, Laws 1.3, Republic 2.10; Livy, From the Founding of the City 1.16-2.8; Ovid, Fasti 2.491-512 and Metamorphoses 14.805-51; and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2.63.3; which were all written prior to the Gospels).  Beyond the parallels noted here, in terms of the origins of Christianity and the various influences on its origin, it should also be noted that within several different cultures there were in fact a number of pre-Christian savior gods who took on human form and endured various trials, passions, and tribulations, with many of them even dying and later resurrecting from the dead (e.g. Osiris, Zalmoxis, Dionysus, Inanna) and sharing their victory over death with those that believed in them and/or those that took part in various mysteries (including baptisms and pseudo-cannabalistic rites similar to the Eucharist).  One last thing to note regarding these other savior gods is that even though they all were placed into history, with many even having detailed biographies written about them, we can be fairly certain that none of them actually existed.

Now getting back to the Emmaus narrative in Luke, beyond the fact that this Emmaus narrative is written in a distinctively Lukan style (employing his syntax and vocabulary), it also appears to be crafted specifically for the purpose of echoing and reinforcing Luke’s first two opening chapters.  This echoing is especially obvious when comparing Luke 2.40-50 and Luke 24.13-33, where we hear about “another Passover, another Jerusalem visit” and another “couple beginning their journey away from Jerusalem”, where they are either discovering or erroneously believing “that Jesus was not with them”.  In both sections of Luke we hear about a couple that is distraught about having lost Jesus, and both of them quickly return to Jerusalem after a climactic discovery (when Cleopas and his unnamed friend discover Jesus is present, or when Mary and Joseph realize that Jesus is absent).  Likewise, Mary and Joseph find Jesus “after three days”, just as Cleopas and his friend do (Luke 2.46 vs. Luke 24.21).  Both stories involve Jesus asking what exactly they’re doing (i.e. “Why are you looking for me” and “What are you talking about”), and both are followed by Jesus explaining some scripture to those present, telling them that “it is necessary” that he did what he did (i.e. “it’s necessary for me to be among the things of my father” and “it’s necessary for the messiah to suffer these things”).  Furthermore, both stories involve the theme of people not understanding what had happened, and of course, both feature Jesus having disappeared.  Notably neither of these stories found in Luke were ever seen in the other Gospels, thus implying that Luke either invented both stories, deliberately having them echo one another, or implying that Luke used another (likely fictional) source that no longer exists.

In summary, we can see that Luke is inventing the material in his Gospel, as illustrated by the many instances of convenient coincidences as well as other historical implausibilities, with Luke also borrowing and freely redacting material from Matthew and Mark’s Gospels (which as we’ve already seen are demonstrably myth).  Luke also appears to have borrowed and rewritten other myths from texts found in the OT (including his rewriting the Elijah-Elisha narratives found in 1 and 2 Kings).  Furthermore, Luke’s Emmaus narrative as well as his general narrative of the resurrection appears to have used the myth of Romulus as the model for it (as the other Gospels appear to have done as well).  The only sources we can identify that Luke used for the main elements of his stories are unreliable ones (in terms of having any historical merit), as they themselves were littered with numerous markers of myth and various elements that are wholly unrealistic, yet are exactly what we would expect to find in fiction.  There is also reasonably strong evidence that Luke used Josephus as well, specifically as a source for adding various elements of local color to his fictional history.  On top of this, it is also agreed by scholars that the author of Luke’s Gospel was also the author of Acts, and several scholars (including Richard Pervo) have thoroughly demonstrated that Acts is riddled with historical inaccuracies and obvious fiction (Acts looks exactly like an ancient novel), and this authorial link thus further discredits the idea that Luke is reporting history accurately in his Gospel (Here’s a related post I’ve written mentioning some of Carrier’s analysis on Acts to expand on this topic and illustrate what scholars have found in more detail).  So, as was the case with both Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, even if there may in fact be some nuggets of historical truth buried within the fiction that Luke wrote, we are once again unable to discern what those historical truths may be (if there are any), as we simply don’t have any independent evidence or historical sources to corroborate such details.  The fourth and last post in this series will highlight some of Carrier’s findings regarding the last of the four Gospels, namely, The Gospel According to John.

The Gospels as Allegorical Myth, Part 2 of 4: Matthew

In the first post I wrote in this series, I mentioned many of the elements from Richard Carrier’s analysis of the Gospels, that show that they are quite obviously allegorical myth and fiction rather than any kind of actual historical account.  Though I only mentioned a fraction of the elements explored within the Gospel According to Mark that are clear markers of myth, there were enough examples within that fraction alone to undeniably demonstrate it to be myth.  In this post, I’ll be discussing Carrier’s analysis on The Gospel According to Matthew.

The first thing to note in The Gospel According to Matthew, is that Matthew quotes Mark’s Gospel in many places (often verbatim), and so scholars agree that Matthew used Mark’s Gospel as a source and essentially redacted it as needed to serve his own literary and theological aims.  Thus, right off the bat, because Mark’s Gospel was demonstrated to be fiction/myth, the fact that Matthew is using it as a source means that Matthew’s source is just as likely to be fiction and myth.  We’ll still survey the content in detail throughout this post, but the fact remains that copying myth and fiction from another source only produces more myth and fiction, and thus Matthew’s emulation of Mark’s fiction is a tell-tale sign of myth, as he appears to have had no actual independent sources from which to base his own position and arguments on.  Additionally, just as we found in Mark’s Gospel, all of the magic and miracles performed in Matthew’s Gospel, e.g. Peter walking on the water, are obvious markers of myth and fiction (which goes without saying).  The second thing to note is that just as we saw in Mark’s Gospel, Matthew’s Gospel also shows no signs of being any kind of researched history.

Most scholars also agree that Matthew redacted Mark’s Gospel in various ways, not only to fix and improve on it (from Matthew’s perspective anyway), but also to reverse its too-Gentile-friendly model of Christianity.  Whereas Mark’s Gospel favored a brand of Christianity that was developed by Paul (in which Torah observance was optional), Matthew’s Gospel seems to emphasize the need to continue a Torah-observant Christianity, having Jesus insist that all converts remain or become practicing Jews in all other ways (including practicing circumcision, obedience to dietary and other Jewish laws, minus the temple cult rituals).  Matthew also added certain narratives that weren’t found in Mark, such as the nativity (in fact, we don’t hear anything about Jesus’ youth or birth in Mark’s Gospel), which included the ridiculous claim that Jesus was born of a virgin (another obvious marker for myth that we’ve seen in countless other stories about demigods and mythic heroes).  Matthew also made an absurd redaction to Mark’s “empty-tomb” narrative, as well as some other noteworthy redactions which will be discussed later in this post.

Often times, when Matthew tries to “fix” what Mark had written, Matthew just makes the story even more ridiculous than it already was.  One example was in the story of Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem.  Mark has him sit on a young donkey that he had his disciples fetch for him.  Matthew changes the story so they fetch two donkeys for him, the young donkey and its mother, and then Jesus rides into Jerusalem on both donkeys (which is logistically impossible).  The reason that Matthew does this seems to be that he wanted the story to more closely match a “literal” reading of the Old Testament (OT) prophecy that had originally inspired the detail in Mark.  In fact, Matthew actually goes further than Mark and quotes the scripture (Zech. 9.9) that Mark clearly also used as his own source (yet which Mark didn’t mention explicitly).  The Septuagint text regarding this prophecy reads “on an ass and a new foal” (meaning a very young baby donkey), and the original Hebrew reads “on an ass, on a young male ass, the child of a [female] ass”, which was most likely a poetic idiom for just “young male donkey”, but because Matthew took this literally, he has Jesus riding on two donkeys rather than just on a young donkey.  Clearly Matthew did this so that he could make the connection to Zechariah more explicit and thus to create an instance of “prophecy” historicized.  Matthew makes a few mistakes like this in his Gospel by either mistranslating OT texts or taking a literal interpretation when it’s not warranted, but in the most notable cases it seems that Matthew was trying to fulfill certain prophecies based on his own interpretation of OT scripture.  There are quite a few cases, not only in these Gospels, but also throughout the rest of the NT where what we are seeing is clearly intentionally historicized prophecy rather than remembered history, and this is a significant marker of myth.

One unfortunate consequence of Matthew’s redactions is that he completely destroys Mark’s own beautiful and brilliantly crafted literary structure by moving certain events around, and adding and subtracting various elements throughout.  However, Matthew also recycles some of the pieces of Mark’s Gospel to create some of his own large-scale literary structures.  For example, after Matthew introduces Jesus’ ministry, he adds a five-fold division of sections by repeating five times the complete phrase “and it happened when Jesus had finished”.  Each time the phrase is used, it ends an extended insertion of discourse that Matthew has added to the teachings found in Mark’s Gospel.  Since Matthew’s main goal was to expand the teachings in Mark’s Gospel and make them more strict and firmly Jewish, his overall structure reflects this intention, using those five-time repeated phrases to alternate between various narratives and discourse.  We see the following:

(Chapters)
1-4:      Narrative (Intro – birth, baptism, and ministry)
5-7:      Discourse (“Jesus’ demands upon Israel”)
–           Ending with the key phrase at 7.28-29

8-9:      Narrative (“Jesus’ deeds within and for Israel”)
10:       Discourse (teaching the disciples how to do the same)
–           Ending with the key phrase at 11.1

11-12:  Narrative (“Israel’s negative response”)
13:        Discourse (“explanation of Israel’s negative response”)
–           Ending with the key phrase at 13.53

14-17:  Narrative (“founding of the church”)
18:        Discourse (“teaching for the church”)
–           Ending with the key phrase at 19.1

19-22:  Narrative (entering Judea and ending in Jerusalem)
23-25   Discourse (on “the future judgment and salvation”)
–           Ending with the key phrase at 26.1

26-28:  Narrative (Conclusion – betrayal, crucifixion, resurrection)

Unlike Mark, Matthew inserts these five special long discourse sections (the five “Great Discourses”) in his overall structure.  Similar to Mark though, Matthew also crafted his Gospel into a large chiastic superstructure which looks like this:

A – Genealogy (summary of past times: 1.1-17)
B – Mary [1], an angel arrives, and the birth of Jesus (1.18-25)
C – Gifts of wealth at birth (magi), attempt to thwart birth (Herod) — (2.1-12)
D – Flight to Egypt, woe to the children, Jeremiah laments destruction of the first temple (2.13-21)
E – Judea avoided (2.22-23)
F – Baptism of Jesus (3.1-8.23)
G – Crossing the sea [twice] (8.24-11.1)
H – John’s ministry (11.2-19)
I – Rejection of Jesus (11.20-24)
J – Secrets revealed through Jesus (11.25-30)
K – Attack of Pharisees (12.1-13)
L – Pharisees determine to kill God’s servant (12.14-21)
K – Condemnation of Pharisees (12.22-45)
J – Secrets revealed through Jesus (13.1-52)
I – Rejection of Jesus (13.53-58)
H – John’s death (14.1-12)
G – Crossing the sea [twice] (14.13-16.12)
F – Transfiguration of Jesus (16.13-18.35)
E – Judea entered (19.1-20.34)
D – March to Jerusalem, woe to the children (24.19), Jesus predicts destruction of the second temple (21.1-27.56, 23-25)
C – Gift of wealth at death (Joseph of Arimathea), attempt to thwart resurrection (Sanhedrin and the guards) — (27.57-66)
B – Mary [2], an angel arrives, and the resurrection of Jesus (28.1-15)
A – Commission (summary of future times: 28.16-20)

However, there’s more to it than this, as within the overall structure there are several sub-structures that reinforce the larger one.  For example, the F segments (the baptism of Jesus, and the transfiguration of Jesus) parallel each other in another common structure that looks like this:

A) Baptism Ministry – Preliminary setting: John’s witness (3.1-12)
B) Transfiguration Ministry – Preliminary setting: Peter’s witness (16.13-28)

A) Revelation of the Son (3.13-17)
B) Revelation of the Son (17.1-8, with a reference back to John at 17.9-13)

A) Satan resisted (4.1-11)
B) Satan cast out (17.14-23)

A) Removal to Capernaum (4.12-16)
B) Removal to Capernaum (17.24-27)

A) Recruiting of disciples (4.17-22) and beginning of ministry (4.23-25)
A) Sermon on the Mount (5.1-8.1, it is in part about forgiveness)
A) Faith and worship produce healing (8.2-17)
A) What disciples must give up (8.18-23)
B) Sermon on discipleship, faith, recruiting, and forgiveness (18)

Matthew also carefully crafted the crucifixion narrative specifically to be more elegantly chiastic than Mark’s version:

A – Passover and crucifixion (26.1-2)
B –  Priests plot (26.3-5)
C –   Jesus anointed for burial (26.6-13)
D –    Preparations: Judas enlisted (26.14-16);  Passover prepared (26.17-19)
E –      Judas exposed (26.20-25)
F –       Lord’s supper [a mock death] inaugurated (26.26-28)
G –       Nazirite vow made (26.29)
H –        Removal to Olivet (26.30)
I –           Abandonment (26.31-35)
J –            Jesus asks God not to be released (26.36-46)
K –            Judas betrays Jesus (26.47-56)
L –             Trial before Sanhedrin (26.57-68)
M – Denial of Peter (26.69-75)
L –             Sanhedrin delivers Jesus to Pilate (27.1-2)
K –            Judas hangs himself (27.3-10)
J –            Pilate does not release Jesus (27.11-26)
I –           Mockery (27.27-31)
H –        Removal to Golgotha (27.32-33)
G –       Nazirite vow fulfilled (27.34)
F –      Crucifixion (27.35-44) and death (27.45-50)
E –     Temple exposed (27.51)
D –    Results:  Jesus’ lordship confirmed (27.52-54); the least are faithful (27.55-56)
C –   Jesus buried (27.57-61)
B –  Priests plot (27.62-66)
A – Passover and resurrection (28.1-10)

Jesus had to be completely abandoned by men for his sacrifice to be effective (so he would be completely humbled: Phil. 2.7-8), and so Peter’s denial of Jesus is essential to the story (and thus becomes the centerpiece of Matthew’s literary structure).  As we can see from the last four literary structures mentioned, this is quite clearly myth that Matthew is writing, for history just doesn’t work out as perfectly as these events are arranged.  Furthermore, we know that Matthew changed the order of some of what was in Mark’s Gospel in order to get this to work, and so just as Mark created narrative material that was historically implausible (if not outright ridiculous) in order to get the literary structure to work, we see Matthew doing the same thing here.  In both cases, as Carrier mentions, the obviously complex literary design has completely eclipsed any interest in historical truth.  Another thing worth noting is that none of this can honestly have been orally transmitted.  The level of detail and intricate structure (as in Mark’s Gospel) used can only realistically be crafted, preserved, and understood using a written text.  Yet, what we are reading is written in a context that clearly implies these are all orally transmitted conversations taking place between Jesus and the disciples (who are supposedly illiterate no less, and couldn’t read nor write).  So once again, these implausibilities and inconsistencies are another marker for myth.

Another supreme example worth noting is the famous “Sermon on the Mount”, an extremely well-crafted literary work that couldn’t possibly have come from an illiterate Galilean.  Rather, scholars are quite certain that this originated in Greek, not the Hebrew or Aramaic that Jesus and the disciples would have spoken.  Scholars know this because this sermon relies on the Greek Septuagint text of the Bible for all of its features and allusions.  It shows an extensive reliance on the Greek text of both Leviticus and Deuteronomy especially, and notably in other Greek texts.  To give an example, the part of the sermon which mentions turning the other cheek and other aspects of pacifism (Matt. 5.38-42) has been redacted from the Greek text of Isaiah (50.6-9), so is unlikely to be the words of Jesus (if he even existed).  The sermon as a whole also has another complex literary structure that could only have come from a skilled writer, not some everyday speaker.  Also, quite notably, it reflects certain interests that would have arisen after the apostles began preaching the Christian faith and organizing communities, as they were struggling to do so successfully.  Looking at the elegant structure of the Sermon on the Mount, we can see another brilliant use of triadic structure (just as we saw in Mark’s Gospel):

– A.  Introduction (crowds ascend the mountain: 4.23-5.1)
–   B.  The Nine (3 x 3) Blessings (5.3-12)
–     C.  Summary Statement (salt and light: 5.13-16)
–       D.  The Three Pillars Begun:
–             [1] How to Obey the Torah (5.17-48)
–                   General Principles (5.17-20)
–                    [a]  1. Murder (5.21-26)
–                          2. Adultery (5.27-30)
–                          3. Divorce (5.31-32)
–                    [b]  1. Oaths (5.33-37)
–                          2. Vengeance (5.38-42)
–                          3. Loving Your Enemies (6.43-48)
–             [2] How to Pay Cult to God (6.1-18)
–                    General Principles (6.1)
–                     1. Almsgiving (6.2-4)
–                     2. Prayer (6.5-15)
–                          [1] Not as the Hypocrites or the Gentiles (6.5-8)
–                          [2] The Lord’s Prayer (6.9-13) — central focus, thus everything centers on this
–                                 1. Introduction and Address (6.9a-b)
–                                 2. Three (3) “Thou” Petitions (6.9c-10) — God is thus at the (exact) –                                    center of this structure.
–                                 3. Three (3) “We” Petitions (6.11-13)
–                          [3] On Forgiveness (6.14-15)
–                     3. Fasting (6.16-18)
–              [3] How to Deal with Society (6.19-7.12)
–                     [a] – General Principles (store up treasure in heaven: 6.19-21)
–                           1. Eye Parable (6.22-23)
–                           2. Value Parable (God before mammon: 6.24)
–                           3. Encouragement (6.25-34)
–                     [b] – General Principles (do not judge: 7.1-2)
–                           1. Eye Parable (7.3-5)
–                           2. Value Parable (pearls before swine: 7.6)
–                           3. Encouragement (7.7-11)
–       D.  The Three Pillars Concluded:
–     C.  Summary Statement (the Golden Rule: 7.12)
–   B.  The Three (3) Warnings (7.13-27)
– A.  Conclusion (crowds descend the mountain: 7.28-8.1)

As we can see upon closer inspection, this is far too elegant and intricate to be a casual speech, and is quite obviously a written literary creation (and one that was carefully thought out and painstakingly arranged).  It has also been pointed out that this sermon fits very well within known rabbinical debates over how Jews could still fulfill the Torah after the destruction of the Temple cult.  As it happens, the general consensus among the rabbis was that good deeds now fulfilled that role (notably acts of love and mercy) — which is essentially also what the Sermon on the Mount says.  Beyond that, the three classical pillars of Judaism that were famously mentioned by Semeon the Just (a rabbi of the Maccabean period), which were: the law, paying cult to God, and social behavior — were the three main points mentioned in the sermon on Matthew’s Gospel.  So it seems that Matthew arranged his discourse to create a Christian interpretation of the three classical pillars of Judaism.  Perhaps more telling of this being myth, is the fact that the contents of the sermon imply that the temple cult no longer exists when it was written.  Nowhere does Jesus in this extremely long speech explain what to do about the temple sacrifice code in Leviticus or Deuteronomy, not even to reject it or avoid it, or that it was no longer needed.  Rather, the speech simply assumes that’s no longer an issue.  That is, it assumes the temple cult has already been destroyed, which means this speech was written after 70 CE (not during the supposed time of Jesus’ life, 30-35 CE).  Thus, it doesn’t come from Jesus, but rather is another unmistakeable case of carefully crafted myth and fiction.

On top of all of these findings, Matthew also added many details that depict Jesus as a new Moses.  For example, scholars have long recognized that Matthew’s Nativity Narrative is a rewrite of the nativity of Moses (drawing not only on Exodus, but also on its first-century expansion in the anonymous Biblical Antiquities), and Matthew has Jesus deliver his new commandments on a mountain (in the Sermon on the Mount) to emulate Moses delivering the commandments of God from Mount Sinai.  In Matthew, Jesus’ Great Commission from a mountain is designed to echo in many respects Moses’ Great Commission before he ascended a mountain to die (Deuteronomy 31-34).  Also, the five Great Discourses (delivered by Jesus) appear to serve as a replacement for the five books of the Pentateuch (which Jews originally believed were written by Moses).  So we can see many examples like these of Matthew’s literary-historical revisionism.  More examples include how Matthew expands Jesus’ forty day period in the wilderness and temptation by the Devil (an event in Mark that seems to be referencing the forty years of temptation in the wilderness of Moses and the Jews), where Jesus undergoes the same temptations as the Jews, but unlike them, Jesus passes every test (and quite conveniently so).  So in this case, Jesus is thus seen as reversing the curse that was bestowed on the Jews when they failed to pass those very tests during their time in the wilderness.  Listing some of those parallels again, we have:

Deut. 8.2 — Israel was in the wilderness for forty years.
Matt. 4.2 — Jesus is in the wilderness for forty days.

Exodus
16.2-8 — Israel was tempted by hunger and fed upon manna.
Matt. 4.2-4 — A hungry Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread.

Exodus
17.1-3 — Israel was tempted to put God to the test.
Matt. 4.6-7 — The same thing happens to Jesus.

Exodus 32 — Israel was lured into idolatry.
Matt. 4.8-10 — The devil confronts Jesus with the same temptations to worship something other than Israel’s God (Satan himself).

Matthew thus invented a narrative here, putting words in Jesus’ mouth, to create a literarily symbolic story involving obviously fictional events.  This is exactly the same kind of literary invention that we saw employed in Mark’s Gospel, where events are created to serve an allegorical purpose and often stem from emulating a previous mythical event (as in the legend of Moses).

As with Mark’s Gospel, the disciples also behave in ways that are unrealistic, including Matthew’s recycling of the “dense lackey” behavior we saw before.  For example, in Matt. 14:13-21 we read:

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.  When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.  When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”  Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”  They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”  And he said, “Bring them here to me.”  Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.  And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.  And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”

Then just a few verses later (Matt. 15.32-36) we read:

“Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.”  The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?”  Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.”  Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.”

So after the disciples just saw Jesus make enough food for the five-thousand people in Matt. 14, when they go to the four-thousand people in Matt. 15, the disciples wonder where they could possibly find “enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd”.  Talk about short-term memory!  It’s simply not believable that the disciples would be so dumb, that they’d not assume Jesus would simply perform the same miracle exactly as he did before.  Jesus did it once before (and with 1000 more people), so the fact that they wouldn’t immediately assume that Jesus would simply repeat this miracle again, is far from realistic.  It seems that Matthew is once again, employing Homer’s model of Odysseus’ fickle and stupid crew members (or the fickle and clueless Jews we read about in Exodus) that Mark employed in his Gospel.  Matthew also repeats Mark’s use of the ridiculous way that the soon-to-be disciples begin following Jesus.  Just as we saw in Mark’s Gospel, in Matthew’s Gospel, they simply drop what they’re doing, quit their jobs without question, and follow a man passing by (Jesus) whom they know nothing about, simply because he asked them with one terse statement.  In real life, it would be extremely improbable to see people acting this gullible, care-free, and irresponsible, especially when it pertains to how they’re going to continue to make a living (having enough food to eat, etc.).  However, in myth and (non-realist) fiction, these kinds of silly behaviors happen all the time, and often serve an allegorical purpose and/or serve as a way of helping to get the set of events to fit into the desired literary structure in just the right way.

An interesting historical anachronism mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel (as well as in Mark’s and Luke’s), and one that would be easy for most readers to miss, relates to the tomb narrative and resurrection, where it is mentioned that after the women arrive at the tomb, they see that the stone had been “rolled away”, leaving the tomb open.

However, it should be noted that more than 98% of Jewish tombs from this period (the Second Temple period, 100 BCE to 70 CE) were closed with square blocking stones, not round ones that could be rolled.  To be clear, in every instance where the blocking stone for the tomb is mentioned as having been moved, it is specifically mentioned that it was rolled away (not merely slid away, such as what would be done with a square stone).  In every instance, the Greek verb “kuliein” which always means “to roll”, was employed.  These are the only uses of any form of this verb in the entire NT (Matt. 27.60, 28.2, Mark 15.46, 16.3-4, Luke 24.2).  In fact, only four round stones were known prior to the Jewish War, and all of them were used to block entrances to elaborate tomb complexes of the extremely wealthy (such as Herod the Great and his ancestors).  Round blocking stones didn’t become more common until after this period, and so this is yet another one of many hints that shows that Matthew is in fact writing his Gospel at least a decade or more after 70 CE (after the Second Temple period ended), despite the fact that he is trying to pass it off as having been written around 30-35 CE.  Historical anachronisms like this one merely provide more confirmation that we aren’t reading actual history here.

The final points I wanted to mention concern other elements of the tomb and resurrection narratives.  There are many implausibilities riddled throughout this story, some fairly implausible and others that are simply ridiculous.  For example, in Matthew’s story, apart from the claim of the resurrection itself which is obviously fiction, after Jesus dies and is resurrected, “…The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.  After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt. 27.52-53).  Obviously had this actually happened, and many people in the city saw this, we’d expect someone (if not many people) to have recorded the event (including pagans and non-Christian Jews), and yet we find no such corroboration for said events.

Another interesting redaction that Matthew made of Mark’s Gospel involves the women at the tomb.  In Mark’s Gospel (16.1-8), we read:

“When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Yet, in Matthew’s Gospel (28.2-10), we hear a completely different outcome:

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.  The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.  But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”   So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

Whereas in Mark’s Gospel, the women were afraid, ran away, and didn’t tell anybody what had happened, in Matthew’s Gospel, quite the opposite occurs, and the women run off to go tell the disciples what they had seen.  So we can see that Matthew intentionally changed what Mark had written, because the story that Mark wrote didn’t serve Matthew’s own literary or theological aims.  In fact, in general Matthew expands and redacts Mark’s resurrection and empty tomb narrative, greatly exaggerating it and making it even more implausible than it already was.  In Mark’s narrative, for example, there is simply a man sitting in the tomb dressed in a white robe, while in Matthew’s narrative, rather than a man sitting in the tomb, Matthew says that an angel came down from heaven, with an appearance like lightning and clothes white as snow, thus adding some hyperbole to make the miraculous nature of the story more explicit.

So looking at everything that’s been shown here, we can see that just as we saw in Mark, Matthew has several carefully crafted literary structures (including the use of triads and chiasmi) that are clearly written products (with many allegorical messages contained within) rather than actual historical events, speeches, discourses, etc.  It’s simply implausible that history would ever work out conveniently enough to produce consecutive events that have such an obvious arranged structure, yet it is entirely expected to find exactly these kinds of structures in an intentional product of fiction and myth.  We also can see numerous instances of other historical implausibilities, including some anachronisms, various episodes of unrealistic behavior, as well as obvious borrowing and redactions of other source texts including the Old Testament and the Greek Septuagint.  Thus, just as with Mark’s Gospel, the principle of contamination prevents us from being able to discern between any possible historical events contained within this Gospel (if there are any), and those that are fiction and myth, because plausible fiction (notably in the peripheral elements of a fictional story) is often mixed in with the less plausible.  So unfortunately, even if there were actual historical events contained within this Gospel (or Mark’s for that matter), we would have no way to identify them.  Therefore, in the absence of any external corroboration (let alone that which is credible), all we can do is assume it is all fiction and/or myth, and since most of it demonstrably is anyway, this assumption is unavoidable unless we find new evidence to think otherwise.  In the next post, I will be discussing elements of Carrier’s analysis with respect to The Gospel According to Luke.