Saturday, March 12, 2016

Science and the Supernatural

Today's discussion involves the interaction between science and religion. Much credit goes to professor emeritus Steven Dutch for his article "Why Science Can't Accept Miracles (Even if They Really Exist)"
Ray: The Bible speaks of "science, falsely so called." (I Timothy 6:20) Darwinian evolution (as Dawkins so often calls it) fits into that same category. Bogus science.
Me: Only the King James Version and the New King James Version translate the word in question as "science." Every modern, scholarly translation translates it as "knowledge."
Elia: Science simply means "knowledge"
Me: Scientia is Latin for "knowledge." And words are determined by usage. This is analogous to how the word "apology" doesn't mean "a defense" in contemporary parlance, even though the Greek word ἀπολογία from which it is derived means just that.
Lisa: And yet your understanding of science allows for the supernatural.
Me: I think it would be better to say that my understanding of science doesn't rule out the existence of the supernatural nor the existence of supernatural phenomena, even if it doesn't allow for supernatural explanations.
Let's suppose, as a thought experiment, that the entire length of the Mississippi River transforms into solid gold. Because of the magnitude of this event and the disastrous ecological effect such an event would wrought, this supernatural phenomenon becomes as well-documented as the collapse of the World Trade Centers and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What knowledge do scientists gain by acknowledging such a phenomenon? Surprisingly little. All they learn is that certain events are not subject to the error-correcting methods of science, and resume their work as if nothing happened. It's not that science makes a statement on the existence of supernatural phenomena, it's just that because supernatural phenomena are not subject to the error-correcting methods of science, they are effectively useless as a source of scientific knowledge. But that doesn't mean that supernatural phenomena can't provide meta-scientific or metaphysical information (which lies in the domain of philosophers and theologians) 
Lisa: Then you don't know what science is. Science never invokes the supernatural. Or magic. By definition.
Me: That's what I said. But just because science doesn't invoke the supernatural doesn't mean that it's committed to saying that the supernatural doesn't exist. 
See Stephen Jay Gould's essay on non-overlapping magesteria. Of course even if the magisteria do not overlap in theory they sometimes do in practice, resulting in controversies between science and religion.
Shepherd: Can you name a supernatural phenomena that was not listed in the Bible?
Me: I believe that the UFO encounters commonly reported are supernatural phenomena misdiagnosed as "alien abductions."
Shepherd: What leads you to believe that?
Me: They are exactly the same as demonic encounters of the Middle Ages only with different actors. And like demonic encounters, some of them are too well-documented and consistent to chalk it up to mass hysteria. By the way, it's "a supernatural phenomenon." "Phenomenon" comes from the Greek word φαινόμενον which is a neuter noun and therefore takes "-on" for the singular and "-a" for the plural. 
Peter: Have you considered the possibility, that deluded people in the middle ages would imagine their apparitions to be demons, and deluded people in the 20th century imagine their apparitions as aliens? You say some of these are well documented. An example?
Me: Yes, I considered that when I mentioned in my comment that "some of them are too well-documented to chalk it up to mass hysteria." But this is getting seriously off-topic. There's a Cracked article called "5 UFO Sightings That Even Non-Crazy People Find Creepy." I believe that some of those are very good candidates for "well-documented." I'm not linking it here due to the usage of profanity.
Shepherd: So alien abductions are just examples demon possession and demon possession is supernatural? Could demon possession be explained by natural means or do we know its supernatural. How would we distinguish?
Me: You are seriously going off topic, which normally isn't a bad thing but runs the risk of confusing Peter and Lisa by bringing something completely unrelated to the discussion of the role science plays in philosophy and metaphysics. For the record, I could be wrong or just plain irrational regarding "UFO encounters." It also has no bearing whatsoever on the veracity of the supernatural phenomena contained in the Bible if I happened to believe that no such phenomenon existed outside of it.
The term "supernatural" comes from Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy which classified phenomena as either acting "according to their nature" or "not according to their nature." Strictly speaking, only God can initiate "supernatural" events in the Aristotelian-Thomistic sense, and demonic possession and encounters would be considered "praeternatural." I am using "supernatural" in the sense used by coffee-shop intellectuals of "not definable in terms of interactions between fundamental particles and the four fundamental forces."
Shepherd: I think we are fairly on topic and that Lisa and Peter can keep up well.
Me: No we are not. The existence of supernatural phenomena outside of the Bible has nothing at all to do with the role science plays in metaphysics and philosophy.
Shepherd: Carl Sagan wrote a book called "the Demon Haunted World" which I think began to address that border and the role of science in addressing both demon possession and alien abductions.
It seems to me that your affinity to accept demons possession (and reject alien abduction) as an explanation for certain types of experiences people report has more to do with your wish to accept the Bible as True than it does with your unbiased, critical approach to evidence. I could be wrong of course. [Smiley emoticon]
Me: I cannot believe that you are simply ignoring my previous post and going off on your hobby horse.
Yes, it could definitely be that my evaluation of the evidence is biased by my prior beliefs. But that still has nothing at all to do with the facts that 
  1. Metascience and metaphysics are legitimate areas of intellectual inquiry.
  2. Science is limited by its insistence of randomized experiments to study mostly what Aristotle would call "material" and "efficient" causes of phenomena.
  3. The limitation of science caused by its error-correcting methods does not entail that material and efficient causes are therefore the only types of causality that exist in nature, nor does it entail that all natural phenomena are reducible to material and efficient causation.
Shepherd: Why so touchy? If you want me to address something specific just ask! I am not sure which post I am ignoring. I am also not sure what my hobby horse is. I am pushing to try to make the conversation specific, because I find that it can be very easy to get lost in the abstractions of metaphysics if they aren't tied to specific examples. That's part of why I asked you to give one, and I happen to think that one you gave was deeply useful and instructive in guiding our conversation. 
Also I come in peace good sir. You are a very smart dude, who happens to have a different background and different lenses for viewing the world than I do, but I enjoy that. Please take all of what I say in the good spirit of friendly investigation and if I offend, I apologize - it is not my intent. 
Me: Okay, I accept. I likewise apologize for being too defensive.
For the record, I do not believe that Gould's concept of non-overlapping magisteria is entirely correct, but nonetheless much like how the useful fiction that the Earth is a sphere (when in reality it is an oblate spheroid) is important to keep children from being distracted by irrelevant details, Gould's concept helps explain the divide between science and metaphysics without being too distracted by irrelevant details.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Dialogue with an Unbeliever on Morality

Sometimes I come across an unbeliever who has issues with the morality of God, so it is always a useful exercise to determine by what means he has reached this conclusion.
Michael: Secular morality would come from the same source as secular laws and ethics: Reason, compassion, pragmatism, science, empirical evidence, and human wishes and needs. Religious morality comes from the orders of an unaccountable dictator. There is nothing good or bad about god's morality. It is merely his whim.
Apologists try to create confusion. Morals are rules just like laws and etiquette, and ethics. They are created by and enforced by humans in order to function effectively as social animals. God's fiat is not a good answer because it concedes that the goodness of "moral" acts is merely obedience. God could just as easily said, "Thou shalt covet they neighbor's wife," and thus made envy morally righteous. God didn't create the speed limits or the rule about chewing with your mouth shut. Why is he needed to create a rule against torturing babies? And, doesn't he in fact slaughter and command the slaughter of babies in the Bible? So it seems that humans are more moral than God in that respect. 
Me: "In order to function as social animals" is a hypothetical imperative, but that is not strong enough to create a genuine sense of morality (which sometimes demands that one acts against the hypothetical imperative: for instance, functioning as a social animal in the mafia requires murdering stool pigeons, but that is a bad hypothetical imperative). What you need in order to create a genuine and coherent source of morality is a categorical imperative.
Michael: I don't think it's hypothetical at all. We need rules to govern the way cars are driven on the road so people don't crash into each other. Why bring Kant into it?
Me: Kant is using "hypothetical" not in the layman's usage of the word (as some arbitrary speculation), but rather in the sense of "being the antecedent of a logical conditional" (i.e. acting as a "hypothesis" of a statement, hence the adjectival form "hypothetical.") Your example of rules governing cars on the road illustrate hypothetical imperatives because there exists an imperative that is acting as a hypothesis to the logical statement "I must drive on the road so cars don't crash." But the problem is that a moral system consisting of only hypothetical imperatives quickly runs into the Münchhausen trilemma, in that the set of hypothetical imperatives must ultimately be circular, fall into an infinite progression where there is no ultimate end, or there must be some end that is good in itself. Most dangerously, the end that is good in itself can be the moral agent, thereby resulting in ethical egoism where only rational self interest is the end, but then morality lacks the ability to tell others to behave in a certain way (because everyone has different self interests). As it happens, there is a logical way to determine whether or not something is a good in itself, and that is the universalizability criterion of the categorical imperative.
Michael: Nonsense. "I must drive on the road so cars don't crash" is not a coherent sentence. I, and all the other drivers, must follow the agreed upon rules of the road in order to avoid hurting ourselves, others, property damage, and arriving late, etc. How is any other social activity different? Why do you need Kantian mumbo jumbo to "tell others to behave in a certain way"? And how is "I'll make you burn in hell forever if you disobey my arbitrary rules," a better basis for morality?
Me: I meant to say "I must follow the rules of the road while I drive so that cars don't crash." Sorry.
I'm not sure if Kant is necessary for a coherent system of morality, but I do suspect that his is sufficient, and I definitely do know that his criticism of utilitarian ethics is valid. The problem is that "avoid hurting ourselves, others, property damage, and arriving late, etc." assumes that the other person shares the same goals as you, but it could be possible that his idea of utility is making you suffer by getting you into a fender-bender. On what basis can you say that his notion of utility is wrong and that yours is right?
Michael: Because the previously set rules say I'm right.
Me: Okay, so instead of appealing to authority, you're deciding to appeal to... tradition (as evidenced by your usage of "the previously set rules say I'm right." Make no mistake about it: that is an appeal to tradition).
Michael: Not really. I'm appealing to the current rules of the road which are written, agreed upon, and always changing. Tradition would be to ban cars 100 years ago as being non-traditional.
[When he said this, I realized that I am dealing with someone who arrives at conclusions by feelings and not dialectical reasoning.]
Me: What exactly is so special about the current rules of the road that allows you to use them as justification for enforcing your notion of utility upon my deranged driver? If you fail to answer this question, then I'm afraid that your justification amounts to special pleading. If you answer this question with "because he'll go to prison / society will tar and feather him and drive him out of town on a rail," then you concede that you don't have an issue with the logic behind "I'll make you burn in hell forever if you disobey my arbitrary rules," but rather the person behind those rules (God).
Michael: I disagree. The reason is that god's fiats are arbitrary and we are told over and over again that religious morality has nothing to do with human happiness and they don't need to make sense. With rules of the road, they are not arbitrary. They are, in part based upon pragmatism.
Me: Actually, they're based on the pragmatism of the typical driver. They are most certainly not based on the pragmatism of my deranged driver, who happens to be an anti-social 4chan user (but I repeat myself). Do you have any evidence for the existence of some Platonic "pragmatism" that you're appealing to?
Michael: No. They're not based upon the pragmatism of the typical driver. Do you not know how laws are enacted in this country? The legislative body, be it municipal, county, state, or federal deliberates on new laws. After deliberation on, say, the pragmatic aspects of a law, like, say, a speed limit of 65 mph, it is put to the executive branch. It is the pragmatism of these folks (however benighted) that carries the day. Your deranged driver doesn't fit into the mix.
Me: It appears that you are arguing in a circle. I claimed that appealing to society is the same as appealing to divine command, with the only difference being the choice of commander, and therefore appealing to society has the same problem with arbitrary commands as appealing to divine command. You then said that it does not, because the rules of society are grounded on "pragmatism." I then asked if you had evidence for this Platonic "pragmatism" that you're appealing to. You responded back by saying that it's the pragmatism of the legislative body (i.e. the will of the people) that ground pragmatism... thereby grounding ourselves back on the notion of an arbitrary commander, whom you were trying to avoid by appealing to "pragmatism" in the first place! 
Michael: Why is the government an arbitrary commander?
Me: Because the government has the ability to issue arbitrary commands. Do you really believe that Saudi Arabia's banning of women from driving is not arbitrary?
Michael: Hey, I get it. Don't let all that philosophy class go to waste. But a God who says, "Do this, regardless of the consequences, or I'll make you burn in hell forever," is not the same thing as a governmental body that adopts the recommendations of traffic engineers who have studied the problem and come up with some solution.
Me: You're right. They're not the same. There is a difference in commander, and that is exactly what my thesis is: you don't have a problem with divine command, you just have a problem with who's doing it.
Michael: Actually... It's not arbitrary. They base the ban on their religion and their deluded notions of biology. But they still offer a pragmatic explanation that women cannot drive. Their facts are wrong, but they still base the law on pragmatic reasons. I don't think governments sometime acting stupidly or for a particular special interest is the same thing as being arbitrary.
Me: Now you're evading the question I originally posed to you: why is not my deranged 4chan user's driving pragmatics better than the typical American driver's pragmatics?
Michael: The pragmatic decision as to what the rules shall be is not a personal one. The rule is agreed upon through the legal process. My personal opinion of the pragmatic value of the rule is irrelevant.
Me: And how do you think the legal process chose to make those rules and not others? I can give you the historical answer according to the majority of US judges during the 18th and 19th century, but you're not gonna like it.

Michael didn't respond further to either this or the central question posed in the dialogue: "why is not my deranged 4chan user's driving pragmatics better than the typical American driver's pragmatics?"

Strictly speaking, I committed one bit of invalid reasoning during this dialogue: when Michael asked me why the government was an arbitrary commander, I responded by saying because it has the capability of issuing arbitrary commands. Now, the astute reader would recognize that it is an unjustified deduction to conclude that the government is an arbitrary commander simply from the premise that the government has the capacity to act in such a manner. What I intended to say is that it is unjustified to believe that the government solves the problem posed by divine command (which is the main concern of the interlocutor) if the government, in fact, has the capability of issuing arbitrary commands.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Dialogue with a Skeptic

Person: Why is there no archaeological evidence of the Israelites living in Egypt or of the Exodus?

Me: Is that absence of evidence or evidence of absence? It is known from the historical record that lions lived in the Levant, but archaeological digs would persuade one that they never existed there, because there's not a single bone.

Peter: Two million people wandering the desert for 40 years would leave archaeological evidence.

Even Jewish archaeologists admit the Exodus never happened.

Me: There may have been more than two million lions wandering the Levant over the course of its history. But they left no evidence. So why should we expect that two million Jews would leave archaeological evidence?

Kenneth: Lions are notorious for not leaving campsites, but humans do. A huge group of people (reportedly the entire Israelite population of Egypt) moving around the desert would leave some evidence (There are countless ancient campsites found scattered around, and for groups much smaller than what was reported in Exodus.

Me: Back in the 19th century skeptics were saying that the Hittites were a made up nation and probably a metaphor for the enemies of Israel. That is, until they later dug up evidence that the Hittites actually did exist. Today, you can even take a college class in the Hittite language.

Have you considered that maybe, instead of assuming that you as a 21st century Facebook user have better knowledge of ancient history than the writer of the Pentateuch, you should give the benefit of the doubt that the people closest to the events written about actually knew their ancient history better than you do?

Kenneth: Israeli archaeologists went looking for evidence of the Exodus. These weren't nefarious atheists bent on disproving the Bible out of spite; these were Jewish academics looking for what they considered the original deeds for the state of Israel. And they found nothing. I wonder if you've considered that maybe, just maybe, the Bible isn't a history book or a science text.

Peter: You've really got to hand it to those two million Jews. They were way ahead of their time with recycling and all. They picked up all their rubbish before they left the desert like good little environmentalists.

Me: Peter, do you want to have a serious discussion or not? If you are going to rudely ignore all of my words, then I am forced to politely ignore all of yours.

Peter: Be my guest.

[Peter then drops the conversation]

Me: First of all, if you're going to put words in my mouth and insinuate that I believe that all archaeologists are nefarious atheists, then it's clear that you don't want to have a serious discussion.

And archaeologists went looking for the Hittite empire and found nothing, that is, until one day they found something. You're confusing absence of evidence with evidence of absence. There was absence of archaeological evidence for the Hittite empire until evidence was found, and right now we are in an analogous situation with the Exodus.

And you are not merely asking me to consider that the Bible isn't a history textbook. You're asking me to consider that Jewish archaeologists, who were many thousands of years removed from the historical context, know more about ancient history than the people closest to the historical context. And that is stupid and I will not entertain such a thought.

Kenneth: I didn't put words into your mouth. A fairly common tactic by Christians posting here is to dismiss scientific and academic research as being untrustworthy since colleges and university are notorious dens of Satan chock full of heathens; I was merely addressing that objection up front.

You're clearly an educated guy. I just wonder if you apply the same intellectual rigor to claims made by the Bible as you do claims from other faith traditions.

Me: Scientific and academic research are untrustworthy because scientists and academics say right upfront that all of their research is tentative and thus subject to future revisions and even future falsification. That means that they don't trust what they're producing, but nonetheless produce it as means of facilitating discussion and discovering the right questions to ask (along with avenues of research).

I am a graduate student, so I live right in the middle of those notorious dens of Satan chock full of heathens.

I think that the Roman Catholic Church is basically correct when they claim that other faith traditions are not entirely false, but are merely inchoate, incomplete understandings of God. Take Tenrikyo for instance. It was a monotheistic religion founded by a Japanese woman (independently from Christianity) that teaches
  1. There is one God, who is called God the parent, who is the caring creator and parent of all living things.
  2. The human body is not completely under control of the human will and has an innate tendency to do evil
These are clearly divine truths that are discernible from nature itself, and we should not be surprised that other people discovered such. As the Apostle Paul said, the gentiles have a conscience that teaches them right from wrong even though they do not have God's special revelation. But the difference between other faiths and Christianity is that Christianity is God's final word, spoken through His Son in these last days. (Hebrews 1:2).

Kenneth: What you are saying is a weakness in academic work is actually its strength. Human knowledge should always be subject to revision in light of new discoveries. It is supremely arrogant (as well as intellectually stagnant) to claim some field of study is beyond examination or criticism.

And why didn't God reveal Himself in Japan? Or China (which was much more literate than any contemporary Mediterranean culture) for that matter? It seems within the power of an omnipotent God to get His word out without human help, but that's not how it happened. This as much as anything is evidence against God's omnipotence, benevolence, or even existence.

Me: It is its strength, but that immediately precludes it from being the truth, because one of the characteristics of truth is truthfulness (which is to say, constancy and immutability). It is its strength in that it guarantees new avenues of research and fields of inquiry to be generated, but it means that whatever is generated cannot be taken by itself as truth. It needs some other means if it is to be proven and established as truth.

This is basically what Sextus Empiricus (from whom we get the word "empirical") argued, which is that we should give up on searching for truth because everything we discover will always be merely tentative and subject to change. I think that Empiricus goes too far, because there clearly does exist a notion of truth, but this notion of truth needs ways to be established other than trial-and-error research.
And he did reveal himself in both Japan and China. That's why both countries have growing Christian populations.

Kenneth: Come on, you know research (especially scientific research) is not merely "trial and error." Scientific theories explain huge sets of data and make predictions regarding future discoveries and applications, features notably absent from faith and religion. I don't see it as a strength that one set of knowledge (religious "truth") is immune to revision.

Odd that it took so many centuries for human missionaries to reach China and Japan, when God supposedly wants to have a personal relationship with every descendant of Adam.

Me: If religious truth were subject to revision, then it can't possibly claim to be the truth, because one of the (very important) properties of truth is constancy. Anything that can be revised can't be truth. Period.

And science move forward by serendipitous discoveries along with experimentation (that's the "trial" part) and falsification of existing theories (that's the "error" part). Therefore, it seems to be fairly accurate to describe scientific progress as trial and error.

Where and when missionaries travel to distant regions is a question of history that is unanswerable. Francis Xavier believed that that India was a purely heathen nation, as there was little to no evidence of Christianity ever making it there. That is, until he went there and discovered that several churches claimed to be founded by the Apostle Thomas (along with some archaeological evidence later suggesting that someone in 40-50 AD did make an itinerary from Judea to the Yemeni island of Socotra to India). The Book of Daniel showed that Nebuchadnezzar repented and believed in God, even though there is no corroboration from the historical record, and Jesus said that the people of Nineveh will rise and condemn the Pharisees, even though there is little corroboration of there being a mass repentance in the land of Nineveh.

History is a very subjective, very biased field of study. The phrase "the winners write history" didn't become a proverb because it was wrong, but because nearly everyone knows that the written history we have is fragmentary and one-sided. We will never know who God has called and who he as reached out from history alone. But I do believe what Moses wrote in the Book of Deuteronomy when he said:
For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?' Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?' No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. [Deuteronomy 30:12-14]
Kenneth: Why is your "truth" not demonstrable? If it is something ostensibly constant, why are there such wildly inconsistent interpretations of this "truth?" Indeed, Christians have been disagreeing on what is the truth since Christianity began. If it is such a rock solid, unassailable truth, why do so many people claim that their ideas of truth are superior to someone else's when both are supposed to be reading from the same book? This indicates to me that there is no basic truth, just opinions of what each person thinks as truth.

Me: Pontius Pilate said the same thing to Jesus: "What is truth?" (John 18:38)

Because truth is not always repeatable and demonstrable. Do you believe that scientists are right when they say that dark matter exists? Then not only do you believe something that is not demonstrable, but you also believe something that contradicts are most fundamental and best-verified understanding of physics too, because there is no particle in the Standard Model that interacts with only the weak force and gravity, which is what is required for dark matter.

So you yourself believe that truth does not always have to be repeatable or demonstrable (or indeed, even consistent with our best-verified laws of physics).

Actually, Christianity has been remarkably consistent with the truth. All Christians for the past two thousand years have agreed upon the three fundamental doctrines:

(1) The death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.
(2) The Trinity
(3) The Hypostatic Union

What we don't see, for instance, are four different sects of Christianity started over which ones of the gospels to follow, which is what we would expect to find if the four gospels were truly contradictory (personally, my view is that the Bible that we have is inerrant, but discrepant, meaning that there are no fundamental errors or contradictions, but there are discrepancies, which means that it's not possible to get one unique harmonization of history or science with the Bible, nor is it possible to get one unique harmonization of Jesus' life.)

Kenneth: Trial and error is a gross simplification of the scientific method, but I will stipulate that your definition is technically accurate. But there is an aspect of the scientific method you appear to discount: it works. The scientific method has directly led to an unprecedented explosion of human knowledge and advancement.

Weren't you just admonishing me to not put words into your mouth? I'd ask you to extend to me the same courtesy. To answer your question, there aren't any scientists that I know of positing that the Standard Model is the only possible understanding of physics and that dark matter is a blasphemous and can't possibly exist because it's existence contradicts the Truth.

Gnostics might disagree with your contention. Although you'll have a hard time finding one to ask, since their understanding of Christ was in contradiction with other Christians' ideas and they were dealt with rather harshly for their doctrinal disagreements (or blasphemies, if you prefer). And I don't think I need to tell you about the many, many non-canonical books of the Bible that have been discovered. So to be accurate, I think you'd need to say that the doctrines have only been agreed upon since the Bible was compiled and the canon was established.

Me: I never denied that science works. Indeed, it definitely does work. Classical mechanics also works, and every engineer uses it, even though all physicists regard classical mechanics to be so fundamentally flawed that it is irreconcilable with reality (classical physics can't explain either permanent magnets or black body radiation. Both of these are macroscopic, which is to say, grossly obvious and non-trivial phenomena that require quantum mechanics to fully understand).

My intention wasn't to place words in your mouth, but simply to point out that the existence of dark matter cannot be demonstrated and contradicts our understanding of physics, just like the resurrection and many of the miracles of the Bible. But that doesn't mean that you're a fool for believing in dark matter. Indeed, we know you're not because demonstrability is not a necessary criterion for establishing something as truth.

The consensus among historians is that the Gnostics were a completely unrelated religious movement that later tried to latch onto Christianity. 

As for the canon, we know that the canon was established at a very early date because we have epistles of Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius wrote what amounted to thank-you notes to the churches, and we still have them. What is significant to us is that he was writing in the last quarter of the first century and he quoted extensively from almost all the NT books, using them as scripture. Since this was private correspondence, he was only able to do that because the recipients also held the same documents to be holy scripture. This entails that the NT was in its modern form very, very early.

Kenneth: My reading indicates that the genuineness of Ignatius' letters is in some dispute (I wonder what led you to place trust in fallible human academics in this matter while distrusting them on other matters). But setting that debate aside, the fact that he was admonishing heretical teachings of other Christian sects is evidence of my earlier point that the doctrines of Christianity weren't settled for many decades after the date given for Christ's death.

Dark matter and the Resurrection are not analogous. Evidence for dark matter is not based upon eyewitness accounts of semi-literate peasants from 1,000 years ago. Scientists are actively searching for ways to detect dark matter using knowledge accumulated through many decades of research. And when (or if) dark matter is detected, it won't require people to just shut up and accept on faith that they have it right beyond any question; the discovery will be peer reviewed and scrutinized to verify accuracy.

Me: I never said that all of academia was always wrong, only that we cannot be sure of what is right and what is wrong without some additional means of establishing truth. Indeed, if I believed that academia was totally worthless, I wouldn't be an academic myself. What I am not using here is academic consensus, but rather abductive reasoning. The letters of Ignatius, letters of Clement, and letters of Polycarp fall under the ancient documents rule, which means that all four sets of documents can be taken as being likely written near the end of the first century or beginning of the second century. By itself this proves nothing, but it establishes the foundation for my argument.

Each of these writers make extensive citation of the New Testament, which means two thing: that the authors knew of the New Testament canon and that the readers of these epistles knew of the New Testament canon, and most importantly, that by the last first and early second century, the New Testament canon was widely received as such, as the audience of all three letters were widely disparate, which means that some time must have past before the reception of the New Testament and the writing of these letters. So by abductive reasoning and Occam's razor, the New Testament canon was received in its modern form at a very, very, early date.

You are, of course, right in one sense: dark matter and the resurrection are not analogous, because one is a historical claim while the other is a claim on how reality currently operates. But no analogy is exact, and the purpose of my analogy was to show that the epistemological justification of both the resurrection and dark matter involves something non-demonstrable (right now) and that contradicts our current understanding of physics (there's a lot lot lot more evidence for the Standard Model than there is for the ΛCDM model). Similarly, we Christians believe that Christ's resurrection will also be verifiable and scrutinize one day (As the angel said in Acts, "This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." (Acts 1:11)). The point is that even though right now neither are demonstrable, that doesn't mean that therefore we are obligated to disbelieve in both, because epistemological justification extends beyond that of demonstrability.

All peer-review means is editing. The New Testament was "peer-reviewed" by the recipients of Paul's epistles, the church in Jerusalem led by James, and the twelve apostles (or whoever of the twelve were still alive: cf. Acts 12:2). 

Also, I doubt that the apostles were semi-literate. In fact, given that first-century Judaea was one of the more well-educated regions of the Roman Empire and that also existed in major cross-roads between the Aramaic-speaking Jews and Syro-Phoenecians and the Hellenistic Decopolis and remains of Ptolemy's Egypt, it is highly likely that the apostles were not only literate, but bilingual in both Aramaic and Greek.

As for heretics in the Church, the job of Christian pastor-teachers is to teach the truth, which also means fighting off attacks to the truth. Some doctrines were not just disputes over the canon, but also over misinterpretation of scripture. Some people were twisting scripture, and it was up to these church fathers to correct them. So some of the heresies had nothing to do with the contents of the canon at all. Lastly, and more importantly, there's no amount of evidence that can convince some people. Look at how well the perpetration of 9/11 has been established, and look at how many Americans still believe that it was an inside job. So the existence of heretics can't really be used as proof that the canon and early teachings weren't well-established, as there probably would have been heretics no matter how much evidence or how well-established the foundation of Christianity was.

Kenneth: While I accept that the 12 apostles may have been literate, I find it highly unlikely that the same level of literacy existed across the supposed 500 witnesses to the Resurrection, which was who I was referring to as semi-literate peasants. I have a question that I'm genuinely curious about (this isn't a trap question but an honest query): what epistemological justification do you have for dismissing other religions?

Me: The question is based a false premise, because I don't dismiss other religions, most importantly because other religions are not mutually exclusive to Christianity with regard to propositional truth (what they are mutually exclusive is regarding claims to revelation). There is overlap between Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and various traditional religions, and I accept what they have in common, namely:
  1. There's some perfect, greater power over us.
  2. We can't be our own masters and live life as if we're the only person that matters.
  3. Something happens when we die that's related to our morality or spiritual status.
  4. Things will be good one day.
So I suppose the real question is "what epistemological justification do you have for dismissing the claims of revelation of other religions?" And the answer to that question is that only Christianity and Judaism are based on mass revelation of God to humanity, while every other revelation is strictly private (such as Muhammad's or Joseph Smith's) or mostly philosophical and thus heavily based on assumptions of nature (Buddhism) or entirely traditional and based on maintaining social order (most indigenous religions).

Kenneth: The peer review done by the apostles doesn't seem all that rigorous, particularly with the inconsistencies found in the Gospels. From an outside perspective, it seems more like a one writer buttressing the claims of another, glossing over inconvenient data. Mass revelation was localized to one chosen tribe (Judaism) and in one small corner of the Roman Empire in the case of Christianity. That was my earlier question that has gone unanswered. Why were there no "mass revelations" in ancient China? Or Peru? Or Australia? Those unlucky areas subsequently received revelation, but in many cases hundreds or thousands of years later. Why was revelation concealed from these people if God seeks to reach all humanity?

Me: The gospels have discrepancies, not inconsistencies. From an outside perspective, it looks like four writers producing their own work from memory of what happened without considering the others, which means we have a basically consistent story with roughly the same order of events, but with numerous discrepancies that prevent a complete and final harmonization.

And I did answer it. But I'm going to elaborate on my answer. Nobody is ever deprived of knowledge because of luck. As Moses said, nobody has to go down from heaven to bring the word or cross the sea, because God is near your very heart.

There are two unbiblical answers to the question of the unlearned: the first one is don't worry, they'll be okay, and the second one is that they will go to Hell. Both of these go beyond what is written. But let’s go back and examine this question again. It assumes that there is a place that does not belong to God and that there are events beyond God’s control—but that is not true. All things are the Lord’s, and all people are the work of his hands. If God went to all the trouble to die on the cross to save sinners, and if it is his will that no one will perish, then we can certainly trust God to do the right thing. If we have a problem with this one, then imagine how big a problem God has with this, since he’s the one who died on the cross. It’s no armchair speculation for him! So I’m sure he’s worked out a solution, even if we do not know (or even if we cannot and are too limited in our intellect) to know the solution.



Kenneth: You're an intelligent, educated guy but you still outsource your thinking when it comes to biblical claims, even ones as absurd as a talking donkey.

An equally likely explanation for the inconsistencies is that they were transcriptions of oral traditions written decades after the events were purported to occur. This explanation has the added benefit of fitting with the fact that the oldest manuscripts date from the second century.

Me: The problem with your theory is that the oldest manuscripts are so dispersed across the Roman Empire that a significant amount of time must have passed between the creation of the original autographs, the distribution of these texts, and the creation of these manuscripts, taking us back to some time in the middle of the first century. This was not only pre-Internet and pre-publishing, but pre-postal system. If you wanted to take a letter, you basically had to wait to find someone who was going there, give them a copy, and hope that he would make it there at his own leisurely pace.

We aren't that different in our epistemology, because both of us hold to these two fundamental epistemological truths:
  1. Good evidence needs to exist before we accept that a phenomenon exists.
  2. No matter how bizarre a phenomenon is, if there is good evidence for it, we must accept it.
Take, for instance, the phenomenon of Elitzur–Vaidman bomb-testing, which states that it is possible to directly and experimentally test the bomb detonation rate of a set of bombs without detonating them. This is just as bizarre and ridiculous as the talking donkey, in my opinion. But because we have good evidence, I accept it as possible.

So the real dispute is whether or not Moses (and Peter) counts as good evidence (here's a good spot for a digression: people talk about the documentary hypothesis for the origin of the Pentateuch, but that is just one of three theories in Pentateuch scholarship: the other two are the supplementary hypothesis and the fragmentary hypothesis, but skeptics seldom seem to be aware of these two other theories). After weighing all the evidence together, I've come to the conclusion that they do, but this wasn't an instantaneous or overnight process. It requires the development of trust, not only by knowing the scriptures, but also by learning to trust God.