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Showing posts from August, 2008

Jesus - historical evidence: another quick response to Sam

Sam, you say: "My point here is to say that it is illegitimate to expect certain forms of high-quality evidence to be available. That doesn't make the lower-quality evidence that is available more true, it just means that it isn't a criticism of that evidence to say 'it's not higher quality than it is'." If I understand you correctly, I am amazed and shocked by this - genuinely. Crap evidence - i.e. evidence no where near good enough to rationally support a belief - is crap evidence. Pointing out that, were the belief true, better evidence couldn't necessarily be expected, is simply irrelevant to the question of whether or not it's crap evidence. If my toddler says a fairy came in the night and did magic tricks in her bedroom, that's crap evidence it's true. Saying "Ah, but Stephen, you forget that, if there were such a fairy visitor, well, she'd be very unlikely to leave much better evidence of her visit - so it's no cr

Quick response to Sam

Hi Sam You're going to give me the evidence for Jesus' historicity. But you start with more questions. Gosh, a lot of questions. Here are answers to some. SAM ASKS First you say: P1: there are various historical texts which describe Jesus P2: these texts explicitly or implicitly refer to miraculous events P3: miraculous events cannot happen (they are 'pretty obviously silly') therefore P4: these texts have no (or: very little?) historical validity. Is that a fair summary?" MY REPLY: No. It's not. It's a bit of a caricature. I don't say miracles are impossible. My view is miracles are extraordinary events such that, to be reasonably confident one happened, we need more than just the kind of evidence that would be reasonable for mundane events. We need really good evidence. As Carl Sagan said - "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Do you disagree (yes or no)? I then say that the fact that there are very many mira

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, chpt 1.

Chapter One: A deeply religious non-believer I won’t recount the contents of each chapter, as I am assuming you will have read them. Instead I will pull out a few points I think of particular interest. Much of this first chapter is devoted to explaining that while scientists will sometimes talk about God – e.g. Einstein and Hawking both do – they use the word in an unusual way. Einstein, as Dawkins clearly, shows, did not believe in any sort of personal God or creator/designer God, and was perhaps something of a Spinozistic pantheist. Dawkins next turns his attention to the special reverence and privilege that he believes attaches, quite undeservedly, to religious belief. There are two issues here: (i) are religious beliefs and views given special privileges and respect? and (ii) if so, do they deserve those privileges and that respect? Dawkins answer to (i) is yes, they are, and it seems hard to deny he is right about that. What Dawkins does not address, certainly in this

Jesus - historicity and theories of reference

Incidentally, one issue of importance here is how reference works. For the issue, in effect, is whether in using "Jesus" now, we are referring to an historical individual. One theory of reference is the "fit" theory. You use "n" to refer to x if and only if there is an individual that uniquely fits (most of) your "n"-related beliefs. I refer a certain individual using the name "Socrates" just in case that individual uniquely fits (most of, many of) the beliefs I associate with "Socrates" (sch as that he was the master of Plato, etc.) On this type of theory (Russell, Searle), someone is Jesus just in case they uniquely fit (most of) the beliefs/descriptions we associate with "Jesus". Another theory is the causal theory (associated with Kripke). Someone is baptized "Jesus". The name gets passed on from one person to the next, and from one generation to the next, each using it with the intention it should

Jesus - historicity

Hello Sam You say: Stephen - you keep asking for the evidence, and I'd be quite happy to provide a worked example of what is considered as evidence, but I want to first ask the question: do you consider all of the documents gathered into the New Testament to be invalid as evidence? Because there is very little else. (NB if you _do_ think it invalid, then I would take it as confirmation of your 'unreasonableness'!!) My response: What might reasonably support the claim that a particular historical individual existed? Prima facie , four rather inconsistent documents, written by true believers some decades after the event, telling a story about that individual, attributing extraordinary miracles to him in not just one or two, but many of the episodes, is not, by itself, terribly good evidence even for the existence of such an historical figure (not even when you add Paul, who seems to know very little about Jesus). Not enough to make me confident such a person even existed.

Mad for doubting Jesus' existence

Yes it seems I am a "mad philosopher" Go here . I have asked the author to post my comment saying my arguments are not being accurately represented and readers should come here to check for themselves. I wonder whether he will allow it through moderation? POSTSCRIPT - The author - Doug - did, so my thanks to him. Maybe he will comment here. Hope so.

Jesus - historicity debate continues

Gosh I really have upset a lot of people by simply questioning whether Jesus is a historical figure! Remember, I don't say he wasn't a historical figure (some of you seem to have missed this; even Rev. Sam suggests I "deny" - I don't). I just have my doubts whether he was. It may be those doubts can be allayed by the empirical evidence. If Sam has the evidence, let's see it. I am simply refusing to accept Jesus' historicity on the say so of "biblical scholars", the majority of whom are Christian. (I also note anon said in his comment: "MANY of the Jewish historians and Biblical scholars I read then... doubted the historicity of Jesus".) If I am going to be convinced of the historicity of Jesus, it will be by the evidence itself. So let's see it. [NB. I TWEAKED THE ABOVE SLIGHTLY 14.00HRS ON THURS 28TH AUG] TWO SMALLER POINTS: 1. By the way Peter, in your comment you say: [quoting Stephen] "Hmm. Are you nuts, or signi

Sam gets "blunt"

Here's the Rev. Sam's main response to my previous post (from his comment): Amazing. Now where to begin? First, a distinction between believing that Jesus was a historical figure and believing, eg, in the resurrection or other miracles. The latter is, obviously, much more open to debate and that _isn't_ what I'm asserting here. My assertion is that nobody sane doubts that Jesus was an historical figure, ie that there was an itinerant Jewish teacher called Jesus who lived and was crucified in Palestine 2000 years ago. To deny this is good prima facie evidence that non-rational factors are at play in forming a judgement, the same sorts of non-rational factors that Stephen criticises as being parallel to believing in fairies. Denying that Jesus was an historical figure, is, I contend, an equally egregious intellectual error. So, that's the assertion, and bringing in red herrings like Bert flying around the room is just muddying the water - effective rhetoric but n

“To deny that [Jesus] was a solid historical figure is to my mind a certain indication that standards of rationality have been left behind."

Sam and Jamie both think there's good evidence that Jesus was a real historical figure. The Rev. Sam says: “To deny that [Jesus] was a solid historical figure is to my mind a certain indication that standards of rationality have been left behind." Jamie suggests there's as much evidence for Jesus as there is for Socrates, whom we all accept was a real person. Let's compare the evidence for Jesus and Socrates. In both cases we have a few documents thousands of years old saying this person existed. First some minor points: One difference is, those writing about Socrates actually knew him and heard him speak. Not so in the case of the four Gospels written decades after Jesus supposedly lived. Nor, in the case of Socrates, do we have a lot of other documents (other Gospels) that contradict these four. Nor do the Socrates documents contain many internal contradictions. Nor do the Socrates documents report many amazing events that, if they really happened, would almost

Jamie - bit more on reason being my "religion and God"

Hi Jamie You say that I make reason my religion and my God, despite my denying it and giving the example of compassion and morality which I think at least as important as reason. Here's a quote from you: Stephen: The examples you list (compassion, morality) would be subject to your continuum of reasonableness, correct? Therefore, reason is more important because it is the standard by which you judge. For ex., if you did not think a moral choice was reasonable you probably wouldn't make that choice. My reply. Yes morality is subject to reason, but that doesn't entail I think reason supreme. Unlike Kant, I don't think reason can ultimately underpin or justify morality. Reason can reveal e.g. contradictions in our moral beliefs etc. It can also reveal unacknowledged consequences of our moral beliefs. But it cannot conjure up our basic moral principles in the first place. They are primary. Reason necessarily plays a secondary role. So no, I don't consider reason of

Jamie's latest email

Jamie writes: [quoting Stephen] Many religions, cults, etc. are designed - or, more accurately, have evolved - to be intellectual black holes. They encourage self-sealing patterns of thought which effectively lock you inside. Get sucked in, it's almost impossible to reason your way out again. If what I'm saying is true -- that the worldview (intellectual humanism or whatever) in which you are operating is a religion/cult/philosophical-system -- then you, by your own definition, are in an intellectual black hole. You have a self-sealing pattern of thought which locks you in. You can't see that what I'm saying is true, just like I can't see that what you are saying is true. You are a true believer. To answer your question, religion can be defined as "a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance", which doesn't necessarily mean "worship" in the liturgical sense. And it seems to me that you ascribe supreme importance to

Is reason a religion?

Hi Jamie I am going to respond to just one thing here - which is your comment (in comments on previous post) that reason is a religion too. Hmm. What is a religion? I think it must involve worship, right? Well, I don't worship reason. It's just that reason and observation are the only tools we have for getting at what's true. So I use them. So do you, of course, constantly. Think of your head as a basket towards which many beliefs are tumbling. There are all sorts of nutty beliefs out there that you might adopt - from the the thought that the Antarctic is populated by crab people to the belief that the Earth's core is made of cheese. These beliefs will quickly fill up your head if you don't filter them. We apply reason as a filter, to try to keep as many of the false ones out as possible. Of course reason is not 100% reliable. But it is (and this is a key point) truth-sensitive. Subject beliefs to rational critical scrutiny and you are much less likely to end u

Jamie's latest response

Here is Jamie's response to my reply to him here . Believing in Jesus as God does not answer these questions. Believing puts the priority of life on a relationship with Jesus (which gets into spiritual/mystical issues, I realize) and that makes all other issues secondary. For instance, I believe that a primary man existed who caused the Fall even if I can't prove reasonably when he existed. (Perhaps that will be discovered or proven at some future point.) The reason I believe in that primary man is because that is what the Bible (Romans 5:12 & others) teaches in the plan of redemption (from a Reformed theological perspective). One might say that this is an insular or circular argument (the Bible is true because it says it's true and therefore I believe it). My point, though, is that because I accept that Jesus is God (not the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus) then the things the Bible teaches about him are True, and that includes things I don't fully understand. L. Ro

Jesus - "Mad, bad or God?"

Following on from preceding post, the "Mad, Bad or God" challenge so often put by Christians (first put by C.S. Lewis) is really an example of the fallacy of false dilemma (as Kyle P. points out in comment on preceding post). In the Philosophy Gym, I call it the salesperson's fallacy , because it is commonly used by salespeople. The "Mad, Bad or God" challenge is being used to "sell" Christianity by presenting us with just three options, which then seem to force us to choose "God" as most probable answer. It works by airbrushing out other, far more likely, answers (see preceding post ). Here's the entry: False dilemma (the salesperson’s favourite) It is common to argue like this: Either A or B Not A Therefore B This is often a perfectly acceptable form of argument, as in this case: Either John has a driving license or else John is not permitted to drive. John has not got a driving license. Therefore, John is not permitted to

Jamie correspondence: Jesus and the "Mad, bad or God" challenge

A nice Christian guy called Jamie has got in touch after he heard my podcast on the problem of evil. Here's the latest exchange (done with his permission). Jamie writes: I won't call it "the problem of evil" anymore since that's a misnomer. I was going off the title of the podcast. So as I understand it then, you were answering that problem (during the podcast) by basically refuting the idea of god (including an all-powerful, all-good god) on the grounds of reasonableness. If I've got that right, let me address the god/evil idea from a whole other angle. Instead of starting with God, start with Jesus. (And I'll assume that there is enough documentation of his life to agree that he existed.) C.S. Lewis said something like "Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord." If one believes him a liar or lunatic then any other Philosophy will do. Anything. But if he was Lord then that changes everything. A believer is bound to accept the whol

Gary Glitter - what do we do about paedophiles?

Gary Glitter is back in the UK after completing his sentence for having engaged in sex with under age girls back in Thailand. The tabloids are, of course, having a field day, unleashing all the venom and bile they can muster against this convicted "paedo" and " ageing pervert ". I have been thinking about how we should deal with paedophiles recently, and have come to a few surprising conclusion (that's to say, I surprised myself). Let's start with a thought experiment. A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT Suppose that you find yourself inhabiting a world in which mature responsible adults have the bodies of children, and immature, vulnerable children have the bodies of mature adults. Gary Glitter would find himself very much at home if born into such a such a world. He can have consensual sex with those he finds sexually attractive. I, on the other hand, am in trouble. I find myself sexually attracted exclusively to individuals who are immature and vulnerable and cert

THE POWER OF PRAYER II: Muslims blame Christian prayers for Muslim leader’s death.

Following up on a recent post about how effective Christian prayer has supposedly been in reducing pump prices in the US , there's now more news from Nigeria about the alleged power of Christian prayer. ILORIN, Nigeria, August 14 (Compass Direct News) – Blaming the death of their leader on Christian prayers, an Islamist group that launched a hate campaign in response to an evangelistic event in 2004 is reportedly attacking Christians in this Kwara state capital with renewed virulence, area Christians said. Muslims are attacking Christians because they think that Christians prayed for the death of their leader, and their prayers worked. Why would their prayers work, though, if, as Muslims think, Christianity is a false religion? Very weird. Go here for the report.


DETROIT AIRPORT chairs , originally uploaded by stephenwilliamlaw . Here's a photo I took waiting for plane at Detroit airport last month. Click to see other photos on my flickr site.

Lash and Turner on internet?

I have just been reading Nicholas Lash's (a collegue at Heythrop) piece on the Impossibility of Atheism. I also read Denys Turner's thing (his inaugural Cambridge lecture) a while back in which he argues similarly. I will shortly write something on these two very influential pieces. But I am wondering, before I do, if either is available anywhere on the internet. Sam Norton - you know of any links? Also, Sam, I read the Lash book you recommended ( Believing Three Ways in One God ). I can't see how it helps with the problem of evil. You want to explain? The "Impossibility of Atheism" is chpt 2 of Theology for Pilgrims by Lash. The Denys Turner is "How to Be An Atheist" (2001), which is in a collection of his papers, I believe.

Spellberg "warns" the Muslims

There's an interesting discussion going on at Butterflies and Wheels about an academic who allegedly "warned" Muslims about an upcoming book. Here's "the story" followed by "the question". The story From 'You Still Can't Write About Muhammad' by Asra Nomani in The Wall Street Journal. A journalist named Sherry Jones wrote a historical novel about Aisha, who was married to Mohammed when she was 6, though he waited until she was 9 before having sex with her. The novel was due to be published this August; last April Random House sent it to several people for comment, including Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. Jones has put Spellberg on the list because she had read Spellberg's book, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of 'A'isha Bint Abi Bakr. Spellberg thought the book was terrible; on April 30 she called Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer i

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion

OK, let's get started with the first book. It will be The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. We will go through the book in ten weeks. I will cover one chapter per week, starting with Chpt 1 "A Deeply religious Non-Believer". Two weeks today - Sat 30th August - (or shortly before) I will post a short piece on the first chapter, and all can then contribute via comments. If you don't yet have a copy, it's available from amazon here...


I am thinking of starting a blog book club. We pick a book. Each week we do a chapter. I write up a little piece on the chapter and all can then contribute... You get two weeks' notice to acquire the book. Does this appeal to anyone? A God and Religion theme, and maybe broaden out later to philosophy generally. Fairly accessible books. Currently I am thinking: The God Delusion, The Devil's Delusion (which I just read, and which I loathed, predictably).

Sye's proof

Sye Just to sum up: 1. We looked at the "proof" on your website . It turned out to turn on the premise that there can be no objective laws of logic without the Judeo-Christian God . You say you don't just assume this but argue for it, and suggest the supporting argument (which you call "the impossibility of the contrary") lies behind the "continue" button. But there's no supporting argument there, and you weirdly refuse to set the argument out. The larger argument fails, then, as a "proof" for it helps itself to a premise that is contentious, challenged and, as yet, unsupported. 2. We then turned to how atheists might "account for" the laws of logic. This conversation was complex, as "account for" covers at least two quite separate issues (the question of how to justify such laws, and the question of what might metaphysically underpin them or make them hold). However, we saw that, again, you have no argument for

Info from the committee at BCSE

Britain's answer to Creationism in science classrooms Did you know that there are several active groups of creationists here in the UK? Did you know that they are actively working their way into science classrooms without the knowledge of parents and sometimes even without other teachers at the schools being aware? Do you want to do something about it? The British Centre for Science Education (BCSE) is a group dedicated to promoting and defending science education in the UK. It is run as a cooperative organisation by part-time volunteers with paid membership and a public forum where the general public can debate the key issues involved. It has no full time members of staff and believes in the tools for everyone to think for themselves - Science, Education and Reason - and the outcome – Democracy, Pluralism and Liberty. The BCSE has become deeply worried about attacks on science education , particularly from creationists funded from the USA, and our campaign is dedicated to

British Library Event

Here's some advance notice of an event I am doing in December (it's not yet being publicized). Booking details to follow. “The Big Read: London writers meet the Readers” To celebrate the close of the National Year of Reading and the culmination of the Camden Big Read, the British Library is hosting an exciting evening with some of London’s most innovative and stimulating writers. Participants of this unique event will be able to engage with a diverse panel consisting of Sarfraz Manzoor , journalist and author of Greetings from Bury Park, Stephen Law , editor of THINK and author of The War for Children’s Minds, Esther Freud stage write and author of Love Falls, Ekow Eshun Art Director of the ICA and author of Black Gold of the Sun, Diran Adebayo broadcaster and acclaimed British novelist of My Once Upon a Time in addition to Adam Thirwell author of Miss Herbert and assistant editor of Areté. Participants are encouraged to read at least one of the above titles before comi

Another presuppositionalist

Just discovered this talk, with accompanying slides, which pushes the same atheism-bashing argument - atheists cannot allow for or justify logic and reason. The website is here . From there you can download the talk (mp3) and also the accompanying slides (example to the right). The author, David Anderson, is a creationist, and has a blog here . On which I also found this sort of argument: The goal of those who want to live their life without God is to find some justification for doing so. In general, they put their hopes in science. They hope that they will be able to reduce all of human life and experience ultimately to biology, reduce that biology to chemistry and then reduce that chemistry to physics. In other words, they hope to explain everything as the inevitable outworking of impersonal laws. Nothing transcendent or greater than the universe will be required to explain anything happening in the universe. Well, apart from the tricky question of the origin of the universe it

Quine (from my book "The Great Philosophers")

"…for all its a priori reasonableness, a boundary between the analytic and synthetic statements simply has not been drawn. That there is such a distinction to be drawn at all is an unempirical dogma of empiricists, a metaphysical article of faith." Quine Quine is one of the most influential philosophers of the Twentieth Century. The son of a schoolteacher mother and entrepreneur father, Quine studied mathematics and logic at Oberlin College before winning a scholarship to Harvard. He spent his entire teaching career at Harvard, holding the Edgar Pierce Chair of Philosophy at Harvard University from 1956 to 2000. During WWII, Quine worked for US military intelligence. QUINE’S ATTACK ON ANALYTICITY Two kinds of truth Many philosophers have drawn a distinction between two kinds of truth. Take these two sentences: All bachelors are unmarried males All vixens are female foxes Both are true. But why? It’s tempting to answer: because of what the words “bachelor” and “vixen”

Sye - a third atheist "account" of logic

As we are still talking about whether atheists can "account" for (i.e. justify, allow for, and explain) the laws of logic, here's a third possibility outlined in next post. Quine's view is that the laws of nature are not necessary. This is a popular view (more so in the U.S., largely because of Quine's influence). Quine considers them very high level empirical propositions. And revisable in the light of experience. Sye will have to shoot this theory down too, as well as the two I have already presented.... Of course, even when you, Sye, have dealt with these three, there are innumerable other possibilities you must rule out. What you really need is an argument that rules out all atheist-friendly accounts in principle.

Sye-dim presuppositionalism

I have to go off for maybe a week. Will be back. Carry on with out me. In the meantime, I produce a sketch of my own presuppositionalism I have been developing. It goes like this. My claim: Sye's mind is addled and his thinking unreliable because he was hit on the head by a rock. Prove this is false Sye. Try to, and I will say - "But your "proof" presupposes your mind is not addled and you can recognise a proof when you see it. So it fails." Ask me to prove my claim and I will say: "But prove to me your mind is not addled, then, Sye". Which you won't be able to, for the above reason. I might then add, with a flourish - "So you see, it's proved by the impossibility of the contrary ". And of course I have a good explanation for why your brain is addled - you were hit by a rock. Is my claim reasonable, then? Of course not. It's bullshit. I really can't see how your position is any less of a bullshit position. Can you?

The "missing" foundations of logic

One thought that may be bothering Sye (though who can tell?) is: what makes the laws of logic hold? What explains and accounts for their necessity? What prevents it from ever being the case that a proposition P is both true and false? What makes the law of non-contradiction true? Ages ago I suggested one possible answer to this type of question: these questions may themselves be confused. Suppose someone asks "What makes all stallions male? What is this strange force - a super force - that forces the world to be such that nothing is both a stallion and not male? Clearly, this person is confused. Nothing is required to make it the case that all the stallions are male. rather, "stallion" just means male horse. Understand what "stallion" means and you are immediately in a position to know they will all be male. Indeed, there is nothing to make the case because "non-male stallion" does not describe some state of affairs that the world some consp