Reasoning, evidence, and/or not miracles

This week at Plato’s Footnote, Massimo Piglucci posted a brief discussion on how the use of probability reasoning, especially of the Bayesian variety, can be used to dispel contemporary myths such as anti-vaccination paranoia, trutherism concerning the events of 9/11/01, and bitherism concerning Former President Obama.


The comments thread became an object lesson in just how difficult it is to discuss such matters with those who hold mythic beliefs – every silly conspiracy theory was given vent on it. I myself felt it useful to briefly engage an apologist for miracle belief, with someone misrepresenting the argument against such belief as put forth by David Hume, referenced in Piglucci’s article. I would like to present and preserve that conversation here, because it is representative of the discussions on the comment thread, but also representative of the kinds of discussions reasonable people generally have with those so committed to their beliefs that they are open to neither reasoning nor evidence against them.


Asserting that Hume begins by declaring miracles simply impossible (and thus pursuing a circular argument), a commenter handled jbonnicerenoreg writes:


“The possibility of something should be the first step in a n argument, since of something is impossible there is no need to argue about it. For example, Hume says that miracles are impossible so it is not necessary to look at a particular miracle probability. I believe Hume’s argument does more than the reasoning warrants. ”


My reply:

That isn’t Hume’s argument at all. Hume argues that since miracles violate the laws of nature, the standard of evidence for claims for their occurrence is considerably higher than claims of even infrequent but natural events (such as someone suddenly dying from seemingly unknown causes – which causes we now know include aneurisms, strokes, heart failure, etc. etc.). Further, the number of people historically who have never experienced a miracle far outweighs the number who claim they have, which suggests questions of motivations to such reports. Finally, Hume remarks that all religions have miracle claims, and there is no justification for accepting the claims of one religion over any other, in which case we would be left with having to accept all religions as equally justified, which would be absurd, given that each religion is embedded with claims against all other religions.


Hume doesn’t make a probability argument, but his argument suggests a couple; for instance, given the lack of empirical evidence, and the infrequency of eye-witness accounts (with unknown motivations), the probability of miracles occurring would seem to be low. At any rate, I don’t remember Hume disputing the logical possibility of miracles, but does demand that claims made for them conform to reason and empirical experience.


jbonnicerenoreg,: “If you witness Lazurus rise from the dead, and if you know he was correctly entombed, then your evidence is sense experience–the same as seeing a live person. Hume’s standard of evidence is always about historical occurrences.”


My reply:

If such an experience were to occur, it might be considered ’empirical’ to the one who has the experience; but the report of such an experience is not empirical evidence of the occurrence, it is mere hearsay.


Unless you want to claim that you were there at the supposed raising of Mr. Lazarus, I’m afraid all we have of it is a verbal report in a document lacking further evidentiary justification, for a possible occurrence that supposedly happened 2000 years ago – which I think makes it an historical occurrence.


And no, Hume’s standard of evidence is clearly not simply about historical occurrences, although these did concern him, since his bread-and-butter publications were in history. But if miracles are claimed in the present day, then they must be documented in such a way that a reasonable skeptic can be persuaded to consider them. And it would help even more if they were repeatable by anyone who followed the appropriate ritual of supplication. Otherwise, I feel I have a right to ask, why do these never happen when I’m around?


7+ billion people on the planet right now, and I can’t think of a single credible report, with supporting evidence, of anyone seeing someone raised from the dead. Apparently the art of it has been lost?


Look, I have a friend whose mother died much too young, in a car crash, 25 years ago. Could you send someone over to raise her from the dead? I suppose bodily decomposition may make it a little difficult, but surely, if the dead can be raised they should be raised whole. Zombies with their skin falling off are difficult to appreciate, aesthetically.


jbonnicerenoreg,: “I suggest that if you can get over yourself, please read Hume carefully and comment with quotes. I will be glad to answer any questions you may have about the logic of the argument.”


My reply:

Well, that you’ve lowered yourself to cheap ad hominem once your argument falls apart does not speak much for your faith in your position.


However, I will give you one quote from Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X, “On Miracles”:


A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: he weighs the opposite experiments: he considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.

( )


I think Massimo and I are reading such a remark rather fairly, whereas you preferred to bull in with something you may have found on some Apologists web-site, or made up whole cloth. It was you who needed to provide quotes and reasoning, BTW, since your counter-claim is opposed to the experience of those of us who actually have read Hume.


By the way, I admit I did make a mistake in my memory of Hume – He actually is making a probability argument, quite overtly.


jbonnicerenoreg,: “A beautiful quote and one which I hope we all take seriously put into practise.

Hume is arguing against those who at that time would say something like “miracles prove Christianity is true”. You can see that his argument is very strong against that POV. However, he never takes up the case of a person witnessing a miracle. Of course, that is because “observations and experiments” are impossible in history since the past is gone and all we have is symbolic reports which you call “hearsay”. My congratlations for taking the high road and only complaining that I never read Hume!”


My reply:

Thank you for the congratulations, I’m glad we could part on a high note after reaching mutual understanding.


Notice that jbonnicerenoreg really begins with a confusion between the possible and the probable.  One aspect of a belief in myths is the odd presumption that all things possible are equally probable, and hence ‘reasonable.’  I suppose one reason I had forgotten Hume’s directly probabilistic argument was because probabilistic reasoning now seems to me a wholly necessary part of reasoning, to the point that it doesn’t need remarking.  Bu, alas, it does need remarking, time and again, because those who cling to myth always also cling to the hope – nay, insistence – that if there is something possible about their precious myth, then it ought to be given equal consideration along with what is probable. given the nature and weight of available evidence.  Notice also that jbonnicerenoreg tries to sneak, sub-rosa, as it were, the implicit claim that eye-witnesses to miracles – such as the supposed authors of the Bible – ought to be given credence as reporting an experience, rather than simply reporting a hallucination, or a fabricating an experience for rhetorical or other purposes.  Finally, notice that when I play on and against this implicit claim, jbonnicerenoreg tries an interesting tactic – he surrenders the problem of historical reportage, while continue to insist that witnessing miracles is still possible (which if verified would mean we would need to give greater weight to those historic reports after all!).  But there again, we see the confusion – the possible must be probable, if one believes the myth strongly enough.


And if we believe in fairies strong enough, Tinkerbelle will be saved from Captain Hook.


This won’t do at all.  The bare possibility means nothing.  Anything is possible as long as it doesn’t violate the principle of non-contradiction.  A squared circle is impossible; but given the nature of the space-time continuum posited by Einstein, a spherical cube may not only be possible but probable, presuming a finite universe.  But the probability of my constructing or finding an object I can grasp in my hand, that is both a sphere and a cube is not very high, given that we exist in a very small fragment of Einstein’s universe, and Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry suit it better than applied Relativity on a universal scale.  All things in their proper measure, in their proper time and place. 


But the problem with miracles is that they are never in their proper time and place, to the extent that one wonders what their proper time and place might be, other than in works of fiction.  Why raise Lazarus from the dead if he’s just going to die all over again?  Why raise Lazarus instead of the guy in the grave next to his?  Why do this in an era and in a place lacking in any sophisticated means of documentary recording?  And why would a divine being need to make such a show of power?    Wouldn’t raw faith be enough for him, must he have eye-witnesses as well? 


And of course that’s the real problem for jbonnicerenoreg.  For miracles to achieve anything that looks like a probability, one first has to believe in god (or in whatever supernatural forces capable of producing such miracles).  There’s no other way for it.  Without that belief, a miracle is bare possibility and hardly any probability at all.   And I do not share that belief.


Hitler’s religion

Was Adolf Hitler a Christian? Was he, as others charge, an atheist? [1]

These questions are poorly formed. A more apt question would be, ‘What did he ‘believe’ beyond his own destiny, if anything?’

A preliminary point that needs to be made concerns the touchy question about which scholars one trusts and which one does not; but I don’t really want to raise that issue. Nonetheless, a rule of thumb is, if the same historical trend has been noted independently by different scholars giving careful interpretation of the source materials, then likely their remarks can be trusted, and any disagreements resolved through consideration of their differing perspectives. The majority of scholars I’m familiar with agree that Nazi Germany, and the Nazis themselves, were not as religiously homogenous. Hitler’s own beliefs depend on a careful study of Mein Kampf – selected passages will mean nothing taken out of context.

Such a move leaves one utterly unable to account for the complexities of Hitler’s psychology; unable to account for his biography, what led him to the juncture that Mein Kampf marks as the arrival of the historical Hitler; unable to account for the complex relationship Hitler had with the German right and the German people as a whole. It will certainly not adequately account for the anti-Semitism; or for the obvious tensions between Hitler’s own cosmogony and that of Christianity, which are not identical and in many respects antagonistic.

Quite a number of scholars believe that the evidence strongly suggests that the Nazis not only intended to re-interpret Christianity, but do away with it entirely. (The ‘bible’ they placed on the alter of the one church they established themselves, in Berlin, was of course – Mein Kampf.) That doesn’t make them atheists, but I never said it did. The matter needs greater study, more complex and nuanced argument, greater accounting of the historical context. The problem at the time was not simply Nazism, nor religion, but the history of Germany to that date, and the malaise the Germans found themselves in during the 1920s. The issue simply cannot be reduced to a question of whether they had a religion or not. They had Hitler.

What Hitler himself seems to have believed about himself and his place in the world, is that Fate – some cosmic force, which he sometimes equates with ‘the Almighty,’ but also simply refers to as a less personalized ‘Fate’ or ‘Destiny’ – had placed him at the epicenter of an age old racially determined struggle between the Aryan and the Jew. ‘Good’ (Aryan) and ‘evil’ (Jew) are entirely defined by this struggle, there is no morality otherwise. [2] His dedication to this struggle effectively became his religion.

Thus, Hitler’s own profound sense of personal destiny and his rage against the Jews led to his religion – not the other way around.

Mein Kampf is an act of self-creation. It’s a passion, a narrative of apotheosis of a self-identified savant and savior.

After the disappointment of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler wanted to trash the established right-wing, with its old militarism, and re-define Nazism as a holistic anti-Semitic revolution, and at the same time culminate the reconstruction of his personality that had been on-going after his nervous collapse at (and as response to) the end of WWI. This meant providing an entire cosmogony that could synthesize with both traditional beliefs and prejudices as well as then-contemporary popular understandings of scientific knowledge. It also meant providing a mythic figure that could function as both prophet and savior – Hitler himself, of course.

It is not at all clear what Hitler really thought about the trends of belief that came before him, whether that which could be found in traditional churches, or the developments of science. Paganism, eugenics, Weimar hedonism, evangelical tent-revivals, blind faith in technological innovation, paranoid denial of then current physics – all were simply melted into the alloy forged in the furnace of Hitler’s rage against the world (where he had only felt belonging as a soldier during during the First World War [3}). (A close reading of Mein Kampf reveals that he actually held Germans in contempt almost as much as Jews – “Are these still human beings, worthy of being part of a great nation?” he allows himself to wonder in evident disgust, concerning the German construction workers with whom he worked before the war. [4]) Hitler’s racism was conditioned by Social Darwinism as well as by ‘special creation’ theories, since both were prevalent in that day; but originated in his personal disgust with the human, and his experience of the world as little more than a battleground in a war of all against all.

Claiming to know “what Hitler believed” is simply facile, without struggling to grasp who this cypher was [5] or why his speeches resonated so well with the Germans of his day. It is also a misconception of modern revolutions to try to define their attempts to supplant previous religious beliefs with their preferred ideology, as reducible to the imperatives of their ideology. It is in the nature of modern revolution itself to supplant and dissolve traditional religion. This is as true of ISIS as it was true of the French Revolution’s “Church of Reason.” And it was certainly true of Hitler’s self-created messianism. Of course Hitler would find it useful to claim the authority of “the All-Mighty” for his project. But beyond some profound sense of personal destiny, it is wholly unclear that Hitler believed there was anything ‘out there’ but chaos and never-ending conflict. Although Hitler courted the Wagner family to lay claim on Nietzsche, in fact the only philosopher he read was Schopenhauer (although he inverted Schopenhauer’s understanding of Will as what needed to be constrained, choosing instead to unleash it).

So what did Hitler believe? I have tried to suggest here that, while the question is most certainly interesting, answers to it cannot be reduced to ‘ready-mades’ to fit our own ideological preferences. He was a product of history – but that history was not simple, not linear, and not uni-vocal. Like most of history, it was – and remains – a morass of conflicting urges and social pressures against the individual’s will to achieve some importance – some sense of ‘being there.’

That’s the problem – the will to become a self in opposition to all other selves.

Any ideology promising that will only bring about heart-break.


[1] Really, the dangling of the ‘Hitler-monster’ in the theist/ atheist god debate has got to stop. It does no justice to the victims of Nazism, and distorts the history rather than clarifying it. ‘Well, they started it!’ each side claims – I don’t care. It’s got to stop. It is poorly informed, a-historical, and contributes to the general stock of discursive muddle that plagues the public mind, especially on the internet. Those who think they really have a case to make, should engage in the research necessary to make that case, and not mine for quotes. As raw source, Hitler can be made to say practically anything. Anyway, the whole “believers in X do nasty things, therefore X is wrong,” is a bad argument. Every ideology contains imperatives that can be used to justify even heinous acts. The real lesson of Hitler here is that, if one wants to perform those acts, one will find the justification for it – or make it up.

[2} See: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The war against the Jews, 1933-1945. Weidenfeld And Nicolson (1975).

[3] See: Kenneth Burke, “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Vintage. pp. 191-220. Reprinted Berkeley, California: University of California Press(1974).

[4] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf. Translated and edited by Alvin Johnson, Reynal & Hitchcock (1941); page 54.

[5] See: Joachim C Fest, Hitler. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Harcourt (1973).

The need to enforce law against the conservative religious

Do Christians and Muslims and Jews, all members of the same supposed ‘Abrahamic’ lineage of belief, worship the same God? (The Mormons form a special case, since they insist they belong to this lineage, but are in fact polytheists.) At any rate, as most of us may already know by now, apparently Christians at Wheaton College don’t think so. ( ) (The ‘liberally’ minded professor of the article, suspended for suggesting to students that all the Abrahamic religious believe in one god, was finally fired for not recanting.)
Interestingly, the NPR article makes a spectacular theological mis-statement: “Christians, however, believe in a triune God: God the father, God the son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit.” No; that should read “SOME Christians, however, believe in a triune God: God the father, God the son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit.” (I would settle for ‘most;’ Unitarians are known as such because they don’t believe this.) Indeed, hundreds of ‘heretics’ have been slaughtered over the centuries for not accepting this ‘triune’ nature of the divine, while still claiming to be Christian. And of course differing interpretations of this triune nature have kept the Catholics and Orthodox at schism for almost as many centuries. (Is god three persons blended into one? or three manifestations of the same? Remember, people have died over this seeming splitting of hairs.)

Conservative believers of any religion generally have a very narrow understanding of the kind of god that they allow; and unfortunately these believers belong to competing sects (even if supposedly within a single religion), leading to interminable debate always threatening to break out into open violence.

Of course we should all know by now that Al-Bhagdadi of Daesh doesn’t even think all Muslims worship the same god (and would execute those not worshiping his. But that’s the fundamentalist way – utter paranoia that someone somewhere believes differently than they. What narrow minds these faithful have! And, how little faith – because of course, one can’t have faith in god, and fear that others might not not believe. If god is so powerful, what challenge could non-believers ever threaten him with? Obviously they are fearful for themselves – and on some level doubt the power of the god they keep threatening others with.

Probable psychological diagnosis: religious conservatism is born of guilt – the fear that one’s self does not truly believe in the manner expected by the mysterious ur-father (who, after all, reads all our deepest thoughts – so any doubt, he will know). Religious conservatives thus must constrain – punish – or destroy any who openly doubt without evident divine retribution (suggesting that doubt is beyond the power of the divine), in order to re-affirm their own faith (and thus deny doubts that subconsciously haunt them). Religious conservatism is thus an extreme form of projectively indirect (and vicariously masochistic) self control.

‘I’ll have to constrain – punish – or destroy you; otherwise I must punish or destroy myself (since leaving you be shows lack of self-constraint.)’

Does this make sense? No, of course not. But pathology never needs to make sense; it must only follow a lock-step of ‘reasoning’ – if B follows A, then C must be done – whether B actually does follow A or not. Basically, the conclusion is reached, then premises are decided to support it. Conservative religionists are paranoiacs who find sanction for their fears – and (often violent) reactions – in texts written in ancient tribes the historicity of which they cannot grasp and will not allow.

Liberal religionists have learned to prioritize their trust in god’s mercy and justice above their private fears and guilt. They are not threatened by differences nor by the thought or practices of non-believers, nor by those of believers in competing sects. But, though they frequently try, they can find no reconciliation with conservatives of the same religion, let alone those of other religions. Because conservative religionists will brook no reconciliation of differences. It is the very existence of difference that threatens them – and against which they act, through stridency of doctrine, segregation – or open violence.

I’m afraid the stridency of the conservatively religious makes rapprochement between them and others only enforceable by legislation. Once the law is established, for the safety and security of society as a whole, we can then tell the strident, ‘keep your god in your own damn house of worship, and leave the rest of us alone!’ (I know that also sounds somewhat strident; but really, one gets tired of getting preached at by every fanatic with a god.)

At any rate, the notion that religions, left to their own devices, can come to some equitable understanding, is frankly a little naive. It has happened, on occasion, in certain cosmopolitan centers in different cultures; but such peace is fragile unless enforced by law. Conservative believers have a difficult time accepting that others might not only believe differently than they, but might also live decent, meaningful, even happy lives believing differently. (That’s what really pisses them off.)

Dogs pee on trees, humans tell lies

There is no inherent wrong lying. Lying, misrepresentation, deception, are simply tools in the language kit-bag we all carry, in order to communicate comfortably with others who may or may not share our perspectives. I have known quite a number of people rigidly committed to ‘absolute honesty’ (including myself, at one point in my life). I have never known anyone who has not told lies, who does not regularly or periodically, even routinely tell lies. Especially to themselves (how could one believe one’s self ‘absolutely honest’ otherwise?). Asking the human animal not to tell lies is as effective as asking canine animals not to spritz their scent on trees. It is a part of their being.

So: Two quotes, as comment:

“I assure you that (politicians do not lie). They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence.” – Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”

“(T)he wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others’ advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling.” – Mark Twain, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying”

The question is not whether we will lie – the only question is whether we lie viciously, or appropriately and kindly.

(Of course, being the King of New York, I find it useful not to lie about anything but my age – I’m really 16 – and the fact that I’ve been to the moon twice disguised as two different astronauts.)

In any event: As comparison (with a Kantian flavor as spiced by Schopenhauer), we would find it difficult to imagine a world in which everyone was trying to murder everyone else, at least some point in their life (although certain role-play computer games come awfully close). But it is not difficult to imagine a world in which everybody lies at some point to someone, because that is the is the world in which we live.

Take a specific example. Often we find the debates concerning what might be called ‘ethical lying,’ circling around the ‘white lie,’ a falsehood which benefits another. I want to consider a social imperative that effectively moots the ethic altogether.

Most of us in the working class are expected to lie at work. At the very least, we are expected to reply to an executive’s inquiry concerning our morale, that we are content with our jobs, and loyal to our employers. Not doing so can result in punitive repercussions, even expulsion from employment. ‘Not happy with your job? Well, don’t worry, you’re not working here anymore.’

This kind of lie-inducing situation has recurred with variation for many centuries; it’s a fundamental feature of any class structured society. In some previous cultures the punitive measures could include torture or death.

But contemporary employees are also expected to lie on behalf of their employers (as part of their presumed loyalty), the most obvious case being retail employees who must sell to clients for maximum profits, regardless of actual value to purchasing consumers.

Now before we condemn the dishonesty generated by such situations tout court, we should be aware that there are important gradations among differing power relations and the persons involved. My favored car mechanic appears to be pretty upfront – ‘these are our services, and this is what we charge,’ with no (apparent) add-ons. But the work is good enough so that if there are add-ons, I’m willing to ignore them.

There are also ranges within which such dishonesty reaches limits and actually becomes open to rebuttal and punishment. It is such moments of open transgression that are socially noticeable and raise issues of honesty and dishonesty in public discussion.

Now, to return then the more general problem: One reason we have no difficulty in condemning certain acts, like murder, as inherently wrong or immoral (whether categorically or prima facie) is because so few people actually perform such acts (when murders are committed en masse, of course, we call this “war” and criticize it using other criteria). But how can we hold as inherently wrong or immoral behavior that everybody engages in at some point or other?

This BTW has been the dilemma facing the moralists of major religions for generations, and has generates reams of religious apologetics, qualifications and hair-splitting, as well as practices of repentance and redemption, temperance and forgiveness. Eg., sexual intercourse without intent to reproduce is technically considered wrong even among major Christian churches, but there is a kind of wink or dispensation when it occurs between married partners – as long as it is not done ‘lustfully.’ ie., enjoying one’s own sex through the body of another. (But how is this even meaningful?)

Do we simply condemn the whole species as ‘evil’ (as some churches do)? Or do we admit that human behaviors are complex and indefinitely variable, and that ethics rather trails after many of them, as a means of understanding, rather than prescription. (And, yes, we can have an ethic that treats different behaviors in different ways – utilitarian sometimes, de-ontologically otherwise, virtue ethics for ourselves, Confucians regarding our parents, Aristotelian regarding our friends, etc., etc.

So what I suggest here is that we conceive of an ethic that treats behaviors universally engaged in, along a spectrum of social acceptability, in a different way from behaviors that are infrequent and/or openly transgressive.

Lying is simply a form of communication, and a behavioral tactic of social survival. The presumed transgressive character of the behavior, which is useful to teach in order to prescribe the limits of acceptability, is something of a pretense – again, useful; but not entirely honest.

But what human behavior could ever be?

“I thought I would be honest –
what a dream!”
– Browning

Developed out of a comment made at:

The fundamental injustice of religious reasoning

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”
– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952, pp. 54–56

So goes the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” trilemma, that is supposed to convince us that, the gospels of the New Testament being allowed as trustworthy reports of a historical savant of the late history of ancient Israel, we must decide that the savant is all he claimed, and all the gospels claim him to be.

The one response Lewis could not assume, given his belief, is, simply, ‘I don’t care.’ * The choice he presents is a false dilemma (not a true trilemma, because, as I point out later, one choice is strictly irrelevant); and indeed many of the questions raised in discussions concerning Lewis’ challenge, while having historical-scholarly interest, resolve (or dissolve) in practical application, into questions as to whether we care about god’s existence or not; and I don’t.

Lewis was basically writing for people who wanted to believe, but had their doubts (in an era when belief was getting challenged and shaken by many events of the 20th century); he was trying rhetorically to put them in a position where they needed to make a choice (presupposing they would choose faith, since alternatives would not be fully formed in their minds). As a ploy it is somewhat of a kin to Pascal’s Gambit.**

Nonetheless, in its clearest form, as I previously noted, the challenge presents us with a false dilemma. I remarked that one response might be, ‘I don’t care,’ because I can certainly hold that Jesus was able to remark some ethical truths and that he was something of a loony. These beliefs are not mutually exclusive, ‘loonies’ can be capable of moral insight.

(‘Lunatic’ is a derogatory term, that does no justice to those suffering mental illness. Certainly it’s possible for someone who believes he’s a poached egg – which no one suffering mental illness has ever claimed, as far as I’m aware – to both recite and adhere to the famous Golden Rule of treating others as one’s self. Lewis not only violates empirical knowledge concerning mental illness, he not only violates the right of the mentally ill to be treated with dignity, he thus also violates the morality he claims to presume.)

As far as to whether Jesus is lying, that’s really quite irrelevant, since we only have the asserted quotations of the NT, we have not other means of determining his veracity. But in any case, there is no reason to assume that he is ‘Lord,’ on the basis of this logical challenge, since whether Jesus was a loony or not, or a liar or not, have nothing to do with any claimed divinity for him. He could well be an angel, or some avatar for some other religion’s god; or he could be a brilliant storyteller and moralist, giving his audience just what they needed to hear to reconsider their lives ethically. Or he could have been some sort of brilliant politician; or maybe he was just just someone, like Monty Python’s Brian, who happened to be in the right place at the right time – whether he wanted to be or not. Or maybe, what he had to say is so generalized as to be practically empty, anyway.

Or maybe he didn’t even exist, and the gospels are just so much fiction.

As far as to whether the gospels are themselves lies, records of hallucination, or straight-forward reportage:

There are, I think, two basic approaches to biblical scholarship – one asking, ‘what are the origins of these texts?’ (which may rightfully asked of any literature), and the other asking ‘how do these texts hang together, how do they compose the whole that believers read them as?’ The problem is that in scholarly practice the two questions often overlap, but unfortunately the answer to the second question (which is only meaningful to believers) may simply be that they do not hang together, that we are looking at a quilt, not a tapestry.

Look: concerning any ancient literature, any answer we could possibly give to the questions concerning their veracity, or intent, or the mental stability of their authors, or the rhetorical relation they might have had with their presumed audience – such answers would require compiling as many versions of the narrative as possible, from variant, preferably conflicting sources (since the conflicts will actually weed out certain biases), comparison with non-textual historical records and artifacts, etc., etc. Eventually we say, ‘In their own contemporary context, this is likely what they meant to say to their given audience.’ (By the way, all of this is derived from Schleirmacher – a devout Christian and a brilliant scholar.) But taken beyond the religious view in which such hermeneutics originated, this basically means we are reading such texts the way literary historians read great fiction of past eras, to discover their contemporary context and determine what can be salvaged to apply to literary reading today (or what readers of these texts, literature or not, can use today).

The NT has some problems in this regard; a strong social institution grew up around it and effectively cloistered the texts from critical reading, while at the same time abetting a radical and profound change in the social context in which these texts were first composed. I am not familiar with biblical scholarship per se, but I do know some of the history that tracked through the decomposition of Rome (and its great libraries), led to the canonization of the texts. This history has left us with great lacunae in our efforts to compose a single narrative such that all the loose ends could be tied together. Frankly, I doubt they can be.

This makes asking, ‘how do these texts hang together?’ ultimately resolving into speculations – some well-informed, some mere guesswork, none with enough evidence to be convincing.

* Actually, other than the remarks of this essay, possible responses Lewis would not really have expected, given his context and expected readership, include:

“Jesus was a complete loony, you’re absolutely right, all of his moral dictates are worthless, we should read Hume and Schopenhauer instead.”

“Jesus was indeed the spawn of the devil, and all his moral postulates are intended to confuse us. Read Aristotle or Confucius instead.”

“Jesus was a complete fool, and live your life according to the dictates of capitalism.” (A favored response among many Americans, although they won’t admit to it.)

“Jesus was indeed a prophet, but he was surpassed by the blessed Mohammed.”

“Jesus was mere avatar for the divine Krishna.”

“‘Jesus’ who?”

“Yeah, yeah, Hillel said much the same things a generation before. What a mensch!”

“I don’t think there is evidence this guy even existed.”

“My father, pastor at the Everything Is Lovely If You Submit Church, beat the crap out of me when I was young – so take your ‘Lord’ and shove it!”

Each to his own god (and some of us to none at all).

* Pascal’s Gambit:
If you don’t believe in god, and there is a god, you will go to hell.
If you believe in god and there is no god, you’ll have lived a better life anyway.

Complete response: On the other hand, if you don’t believe in god, live a good life, and there is no god, then you will have lived a good life; but if you’ve lived a good life without believing in god, but there is a god, and he is all merciful, as claimed of him, then you will not go to hell.

Note that the “all merciful” component is left out of Pascal’s Gambit. Yet, it is crucial. I remember a priest remarking, “it is my duty to believe in hell; but only a fool would believe there is any soul in it.” Either god is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, or he is really a waste of time. BUT if he is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, then do what you can, do as you feel you must, and make your peace with him after death.

And if it is not the case that he is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving – then he is not a god worth believing in.

He will forgive my non-belief – or he isn’t worth believing in.

Either he exists, and nothing happens; or he doesn’t exist, and nothing happens.

Or he exists and sends me to hell because he is not all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, in which case he is not worthy of worship, and I would prefer hell to any heaven he offers.

In this life, it doesn’t matter whether he exists or not. If there is any after-life, we’ll deal with that as it comes along.

But this is really what we non-theists have claimed all along.

The problem of ‘the Problem of Evil’

“The problem of evil, in the sense in which I am using this phrase, is essentially a logical problem: it sets the theist the task of clarifying and if possible reconciling the several beliefs which he holds. It is not a scientific problem that might be solved by further discoveries…” -J. L. Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence.”

J. L. Mackie was a professional philosopher and committed atheist who spent some of his career working arguments out of what is known as the Problem of Evil *. Theologians oft wring their hands over it, and that some atheists (especially so-called New Atheists) use it to confront theists with a challenge not easily or comfortably resolvable in the Christian tradition, from whence it originates. The Problem arises out of a conflict of two Christian beliefs: that god is all-powerful and all-good, and that the material universe (supposedly of god’s creation) is filled with evil – filled with sufferings and temptations, hardships, pain. This is an ancient Christian understanding of evil in the material universe following the Fall from Eden. It is unfortunately completely devoid of identifiable significance; or rather, as floating signifier **, it can be made to have any significance rhetorically useful in a given context. For instance, religious teleology: “You are here to confront the evils of your nature;” “you are here to confront the evils of the threatening natural world;” “the internet could be invented to challenge you with the evils of temptation” – etc., etc.

The trouble is, this is a universe that I don’t see myself living in. There is nothing evil about anybody’s getting cancer, or a sudden down-pour washing away this season’s crops, or a meteor falling on some city. These events are results of natural processes, and we deal with them as best we may, because survival – not ‘salvation’ – requires we must. Asserting there is evil in such events, certainly may rhetorically ramp up religious paranoia among some more superstitious Christians, requiring rhetorical re-assurance of divine mercy from wiser, more liberally minded theologians, priests, etc. The work of logical analysis would be to reveal the incoherence and paradoxes involved such an understanding of evil – and this seems to have been Mackie’s intent.

There’s nothing wrong in that – if one doesn’t mind spending a great deal of effort on a non-existent Problem in order to challenge those who won’t learn from the effort anyway. But is there another way to deal with the issue?  But why deal with it at all.  Why not just say, ‘this makes no sense,’ and be done with it?

I started blogging in an effort to find a place for my own secular Buddhism in the New Atheism movement, but eventually lost interest in New Atheism, although I remain sympathetic to the more thoughtful participants. The benefit of my year as a secular Buddhist New Atheist was that I was able to clarify my own beliefs, with which I am now quite comfortable – but being comfortable, I find the ‘god debate’ somewhat tiresome now.

Philosophically, as to the logic of the god debate, the point of origin for me was George H. Smith’s Atheism: the Case against God, presenting the strictly logical arguments against belief; the end point was Kai Nielsen’s Atheism and Philosophy, which presents the case that the very idea of god is simply incoherent, and cannot survive sustained argumentation. Notably, neither of these texts invoke science or scientific methodology (although Smith does make the demand for some evidence to support beliefs that are historically – and quite obviously – only assertions). The rational basis of theistic belief is fundamentally flawed, much of it spurious, regardless of empirical research or evidence.

But the problem is, none of this matters to ‘true believers’ (so we should hardly be surprised when they discard any empirical evidence to their beliefs). As I discovered reading theist responses to atheist arguments, religious belief is not really a matter of reasoning. Its foundations are first, foremost, and overwhelmingly emotional. It may be a simple, vague, intuition of ‘something out there;’ an undeniable pathology of needing paternal guidance; a profound sense that some spiritual ‘other’ lovingly follows one around, invested in one’s success in life, forgiving any perceived transgression. But whatever it else is, it is emotional yearning, emotional fulfillment, emotional satisfaction, that rational argument can never reach. It is love; and one can no more argue against it than persuade a teen-ager that her idealized first relationship is a tissue of rhetoric and fantasized future happiness (conditioned on her willing loss of virginity, of course).

I confess I tried feeling such love for a long time – but I never did. The year before I adopted what I would call the truth of the non-theistic tradition of Buddhism, I went to a priest for confession (having a history as a Catholic). I spoke admiringly of Thomas Aquinas – upon which the priest shook his head sadly, saying “you love wisdom more than god.” He gave me absolution, but warned that I perilously close to unbelief. He was right, on both counts: I love wisdom; I never really believed in god.

To return to our starting point: My problem here is that I no longer recognize the Christian universe Mackie is attempting to confront; I don’t live there. The ‘radical evil’ that Kant and other philosophers write about is comprehensible once one recognizes that it arises out of unbridled desire – this is completely in keeping with the Buddhist understanding of suffering arising from the ‘self.’ But the Christian notion that ‘evil’ is signifier for horrendous experiences of every kind – human, natural, real, imagined – requires some basis in an amorphic metaphysics is entirely alien to me. While I sympathize Mackie’s project, it really seems to miss the point. The Christians’ worry over the Problem of Evil arises from fear, and their commitment to god arises from loneliness, longing, and hope. This makes the question a matter for psychology, not logic. Fearing the ‘evil’ all around us, or trusting in a loving god’s mercy to save us from this, are clearly drawn from deeper feelings than logic can reach.

For me, the universe is simply what is, just as it is. There is no inherent good or evil to it; there is no ‘wrongness’ or misfortune. The only meaningful sense of ‘evil’ for me lies in the harm we do to ourselves or others. Such is properly addressed by either ethics, psychology, or collectively in politics.

It’s not a matter of choice, but of epistemic conditioning. I try not to let my emotions govern my beliefs – and I don’t believe that they should. We should always try to look at the universe just as it presents itself, and learn to live with that.


*See the Stanford Encyclopedia discussion,

** I should remark, for readers unfamiliar with the term, that ‘floating signifier’ is a term of art in semiotics for “a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified” (David Chandler, Semiotics: the Basics, Routledge, 2002 ).

Mackie, J. L. “Evil and Omnipotence,” in Mind, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 254. (Apr., 1955).

Smith, George H. Atheism: The Case Against God. Nash, 1974.

Nielsen, Kai. Atheism & Philosophy. Prometheus Books, 2005.


Really stupid television, episode 2

Previously, on Really Stupid Television: With the Beverly Hillbillies, we saw how the very premise of a television show could be, simply put, stupid, leading to stupidity in every other aspect of the program, and raising questions concerning audience motivation. We’ll try to make this matter more precise discussing another example, a science fiction action thriller that was broadcast on the ABC television network during the 2009-2010 season, Flash Forward.

This discussion will concern what I will refer to as the problem of meta-stupidity in our popular entertainments (although it can show up in more sophisticated arts as well, and can be frequently found in politics and economics). But let me explain.

There are four layers of stupid to be uncovered in the popular arts. Popular reviews or more refined forms of criticism generally deal with three:

Local stupidity: usually revealed in dialogue, pertaining to the experience or inadequacy of a single character, small group of characters, or situation. In one scene from Flash Forward, Agent Noh admits to his fiance Zoey Andata that he has slept with his lesbian colleague Janis Hawks in order to impregnate her because in her flash forward she was pregnant. This is probably among the stupidest excuses for a one night stand one can give to one’s supposed beloved – and it’s not clear why anybody would be stupid enough to have such a one night stand (beyond desperation, which is not Noh’s problem); nor why anyone would be stupid enough to admit such an affair to one’s fiance if an admission was not needed. I suppose this is what passes for ‘responsible sex’ in Hollywood.

Regional stupidity: pertaining to technical misjudgments raising questions concerning the competency of the production crew or the actors, or of the characters in the narrative itself. Inane plot devices are the most glaring example of this: There’s the more local sequence when someone in an apparently empty house, forewarned that danger is lurking, responds to the creaking of a door in the floor above, chooses to climb the stairs, calling out, “is anyone there?” and the inevitable terrorizing that follows. My favorite moment of this in Flash Forward is when the hero, Benford, is interrogating a villain, and the bad guy tells him that, having lived through this encounter in numerous Flash Forwards, he knows that after continued interrogation, Benford will simply lose control and start beating him up, afterwards losing his job and everything he loves. Presumably, Benford is interested in changing the future, so we can easily suppose what he might do to prevent the realization of this prophecy – but this being a stupid television show, we know what really happens next. We could have written it ourselves – in our sleep.

And then there’s the big gaping hole in reasonable expectations: in Flash Forward, we’re supposed to accept that a super-secret organization, with apparently unlimited funds (from sources unknown) could build bizarre relay towers (6 stories high) – to amplify energy generated in a super-collider (huh?) – across the globe, with absolutely no governmental or journalistic suspicions being raised. We used to say, “inquiring minds want to know;” apparently no such existed in the world of Flash Forward until catastrophe happened.

Global stupidity: manifesting in basic problems of plotting in the stories themselves, either in the per-episode narrative, or in the story-arcs linking through the episodes. Critical complaints against Flash Forward have largely surfaced two prime instances of global stupidity: too many characters, and too many side-stories. In one episode, a preacher chats up his flash-forward in religious terms. Nothing much comes of his appearance, and I don’t believe he appears in any later episode. So, why? Because somebody in the production team probably remarked, ‘well, we probably need to address the religious angle at some point; let’s get it done and over with.’ Except that, in a science fiction story, no! you don’t have to address any religious angle! So all you’ve done is fill up time with insufferable twaddle.

Or, again, one story arc looping throughout the show involves a surgeon (Bryce) who (flashforward) sees himself meeting a beautiful Japanese female (Keiko). He becomes obsessed with her, so of course we have to have her back-story as well, and in the last episode, they do finally meet, and, as all too predictably, romance blooms.

Except that Bryce is a vacuous character with no charm; Keiko is charming, but her back-story is implausible and occasionally silly; and the whole story-line reeks of psychopathology. And what does any of it have to do with the search for the cause of the Flash Forward?

But all of this so far has to do with whether the telling of the story is effective – or not. There’s still the question of whether the story should be told at all.

I want to go beyond standard criticisms of stupid dialogue or plot points. What concerns us here is meta-stupidity. This is reference to problems in the very concept of a narrative or dramatic entertainment, or in the assumptions underlying that concept. (The concept is how one briefly describes the plot to reveal its themes, without direct reference to the characters of the story. So: “son avenges father on murderous uncle married to widowed mother,” is a reasonable facsimile of the concept that Shakespeare works through in Hamlet, which also suggests that the thematic of the play concern vengeance, family relationships, and a young man’s struggle to accept his responsibilities.)

We can now turn to the fundamental premise of Flash Forward to consider just how stupid a concept for a fictional story can be.

The purported premise of Flash Forward opens with a catastrophe, presented in a title (read voice-over) that began 20 of its 22 episodes: “On October 6, the planet blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds. The whole world saw the future.” That is, 7 billion people went unconscious, wherever they were (which led to 20 million deaths in the US, according to the show), and when the survivors woke up, they had a memory of events they would experience six months from then. This is not the complete premise, since there is no reference yet to any characters engaged in action, so we’ll flesh the premise out as it unravels in the first two episodes and thus sets the real story (or, rather, stories) into motion: “On October 6, the planet blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds. The whole world saw the future. Now only a handful of FBI agents can determine the cause and prevent it from happening again (while their friends and families try to come to terms with how to live with the future they saw).” But to really get the full flavor of this premise, we must remember that this catastrophe was global, so the premise should remark the global response to it; and here it is: “On October 6 (etc.). Now only a handful of FBI agents (etc.). Meanwhile, 7 billion people talk about it sometimes, and go about their daily business, while governments hold committee meetings to decide who’s responsible for it.”

Here’s the mind-numbing stupidity of it: A planetary catastrophe happens (and yet the only deaths mentioned are those in the US, BTW), and there is no emergency response from any government or charitable agency; the international community of scientists engage in no research into possible causes or solutions; there are no riots or mass immigrations; no new political or religious movements are engendered; psychotic breaks are limited to those who can be pursued by the heroic FBI team. I mean, yeah, there are occasional news casts and a speech by the President, and the head of the CIA suspects the Chinese are involved with it (because “they slept through it” – a stupid claim to make about 1 billion Chinese, that they could both terrorize the world and sleep through it all, but there we go)…. But really, it all comes down to that team of FBI agents.

Well, almost. Because as the series goes on, the premise begins accumulating clutter: Although the scientific community makes little appearance in the series, there are two scientists who are revealed to have invented the gadgets that may have caused the event, and one of them just happens to be in for a possible romantic relationship with the wife of the FBI agent who concerns us most, and the other just happens to be involved with the secret organization that did cause the event; which organization happens to have two FBI agents on its payroll (albeit one’s a double agent), and happens to have connections with a gang of terrorists, not to mention another gang of terrorists in Afghanistan that may be covertly funded by the US…. And anyway, a lot of people get shot, and things explode, and there are sex scenes, and endangered children, and –

(Oh, let me stop there, because I just have to remark, as side-bar, that the two starring children in the series are the most annoying child characters, played by the most annoying child actors, that I have ever had to suffer with in order to follow a story.)

Now, it sounds as if I’ve wandered into the terrain of the regional or global stupidity of this series, but that’s the problem I’m trying to surface: The basic premise is not only stupid, it is thin, very thin. For instance, it doesn’t suggest any thematic of the plot; it could never sustain a weekly television program for more than, say, three episodes. (A similarly thin premise – even with similar added on subplots – could not even sustain the 3 hour TV movie Supernova from 2005 – truly a disaster of a movie.) So what the writers have done is to layer concept over concept in order to generate supposed ‘dramatic moments’ even when these do not add up to any real drama. This is one reason why so many characters, irrelevant to the main narrative, can drift in for an episode or two and then disappear. Example: One added-in concept is: “FBI agent lives with lesbian lover but desperately wants a child.” This gives us a few scenes with the lover, who disappears after a couple episodes. Meanwhile the agent herself is used to flesh out another add-in: “fatalistic FBI agent has affair with lesbian colleague, because he believes he will die soon, and his fiancé is not around” (his fiancé being a lawyer who just happens to represent the suspected terrorists).

Do we see what’s happening here? The show-runners, confronted with the evident weakness of the original concept, rather than finding ways to flesh it out in a manner at least suggestive of reality, have layered it over with concept after concept, all equally unbelievable (because dependent on Hollywood stereotypes), all paper thin (because never fully realized), and all equally stupid.

Finally, one must really comment on the science here, since this becomes another layer of concept by the series’ mid-point. A super-collider supposedly generates enough energy to send 7 billion consciousnesses into the future and bring them back. This assumes, not only that super-colliders do anything  like this (they don’t), but that we have ‘a consciousness’ (which is still debated) – an entity detachable from our bodies, that can be moved temporally by some form of energy, and returned to our bodies whole. This also assumes that the future happens completely deterministically, so that variance is dubious. However, this would moot any possible action by the characters. So by episode seven, it is at last revealed that the future can be changed, when an FBI agent, who knows that he will be responsible for somebody’s death in the future, commits suicide. This is where the theme of the program finally reveals itself. No, it’s not simply an argument for free-will. Rather, by the last two or three episodes, it becomes clear that even if you know the future and can change it, you shouldn’t do that, because of the “balance of energies in the universe” – which balance will realize itself whether we want to or not, anyway. (The person the FBI agent thought would survive once he’s killed himself does herself get killed in a completely unrelated accident.) So the series that didn’t need to address religion (but did so anyway), sneaks ‘spirituality’ in through the back-door: pantheism.  But a particularly muddled, banal, ‘feel-good’ variety of it.

Although there’s much more stupidity to exhume from the corpse of Flash Forward, I’m going to stop here before my mind explodes. In my next post I’ll go into how I was able to survive exposure to this series, and lessons one can learn from such an experience.


More on Flash Forward: