OPEN DISCUSSION JULY 2020

Jul 1, 2020

This thread has been created for discussion on themes relevant to Reason and Science for which there are not currently any dedicated threads.

Please note it is NOT for general chat, and that our Comment Policy applies as usual. There is a link to this at the foot of the page.

If you would like to refer back to previous open discussion threads, the three most recent ones can be accessed via the links below (but please continue any discussions from them here rather than on the original threads):

OPEN DISCUSSION APRIL 2020

OPEN DISCUSSION MAY 2020

OPEN DISCUSSION JUNE 2020

The Book Club can be found at:

BOOK CLUB

21 comments on “OPEN DISCUSSION JULY 2020

  • Welcome to the July 2020 open discussion thread.

    If you wish to continue any of the discussions from earlier Open Discussion threads, please do so here rather than there.

    Thank you.

    The mods


    Report abuse

  • Well, here’s a good (long) read to kick things off.

    Stephen Law is an English philosopher and author of Humanism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP). In this blog post from 2012 he forensically dissects the arguments for the existence of Jesus as a historical figure. I’m sharing it because it provides a masterclass in the art of rational argumentation, as well as being (I suspect) a useful resource for the future, even on unrelated topics.

     

    EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS 
    Stephen Law
    Abstract
    The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of independent evidence for an historical Jesus, remain sceptical about his existence.

    Full post:
    https://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2012/04/published-in-faith-and-philosophy-2011.html 

  • Alan

    Yes, there are numerous arguments, expressed in many different ways. What impresses me about the blog I linked to is its thoroughness and objectivity. The way it presents a method for exploring such questions (which is why I said it could be a good resource on other subjects too). And the way (an intrinsic part of that method, of course) he avoids letting emotion creep in and does not indulge any irritation he may feel or any temptation to smack anyone down. It is quite simply a thorough, forensic, objective investigation of the arguments. Which is no more than you’d expect from a former Philosophy professor, of course, but I do find it both more interesting and more impressive than much of the argumentation to be found online.


    Report abuse

  • Marco  #2

    Many thanks for that hyperlink to Dr Stephen Law’s essay on assessing the historicity of a certain Jesus. I enjoyed reading it, and I agree it presents a useful set of ideas for treating the question of whether Jesus (worshipped by Christians) was ever a real, historical man. Dr Law’s argument is philosophical, as he plainly states, and it makes a strong case for skepticism regarding a historical Jesus. Dr Law takes the principled stance of skepticism regarding a mythical Jesus as well; so his purpose in writing this essay seems to have been to challenge what he saw as biblical scholars’ unwarranted confidence in the New Testament as a source of evidence for the historical existence of Jesus. In that, he did well.

    Dr Law suggests that there is no evidence for Jesus having originated as a figure of myth, but I, following Dr Richard Carrier, would disagree with him on that. Indeed, Dr Law himself might be pleased to learn that, for example, the letters of St Paul in the New Testament provide strong evidence of the mythicism of the original Christianity, which Paul himself took up and later began preaching to Gentiles. Nowhere in Paul’s letters is Jesus referred to as a historical person, but always as heavenly being, and this is especially significant, because Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian writings we have.

    I am no expert myself in this subject, so I hesitate to say more here; but the argument that Dr Law sets out on the questionable rigor of biblical scholars’ shoddy methods of assessing the reliability of evidence and the probabilities of historical claims is a welcome contribution from a philosopher. Dr Richard Carrier, an expert in ancient history, has written at length on this subject, motivated in part by concern about biblical scholars’ chaotic treatment of evidence. He has proposed the use of Bayes’s theorem to inject much-needed methodological rigor to history arguments and render the assessment of their probabilities less subjective and much clearer. There does seem to be hope that biblical scholars will eventually be able to progress beyond the commendable skepticism that Dr Law favors regarding both a historical and a mythical Jesus to a position where a mythicist interpretation of the available evidence of the beginnings of Christianity is found to be the most probable.

    See Richard Carrier: “On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt”, and
    “Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus”.


    Report abuse

  • Hi Cairsley,

    It’s a long piece, so I might have missed something, but I didn’t read it as suggesting there is no evidence for Jesus having originated as a figure of myth: just that he doesn’t find the evidence for that convincing either. Here in Scotland juries have a 3rd option in addition to Guilty and Not Guilty: Not Proven. As I read him, Stephen Law finds both cases Not Proven.

    Several years ago, when I was much more into this whole subject area than I am now, I did read a book by Earl Doherty that, from your description, covered much the same ground as Richard Carrier’s work (Jesus: Neither God Nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus, if you’re interested), and I did find his arguments persuasive. But to be honest, it’s not a subject that particularly exercises me any more: I’m absolutely clear that I don’t believe any of the supernatural claims made about the character of Jesus, so whether that character was mythical or historical doesn’t really seem to matter all that much – in terms of my own beliefs, anyway: obviously it would be of huge significance academically, historically, etc, if it could be demonstrated beyond doubt one way or the other.

    I do very much appreciate seeing intellectual rigour at work, though, so it was the approach and method and argumentation of the piece that got me excited, rather than the subject matter as such.


    Report abuse

  • Marco  #6

    On second thoughts, my wording “Dr Law suggests that there is no evidence for Jesus having originated as a figure of myth” is too strong, because Dr Law does mention a couple of things that are in fact evidence for a mythical Jesus, although he does not note that they are. Since his focus in this essay is on the assessment of the evidence for a historical Jesus, he is content to state as a counterpoint his skepticism about a mythical Jesus.

    Like you, I like his approach and method and intellectual rigor in discussing what biblical scholarship has come up with concerning a supposedly historical Jesus. His argument on contamination is new to me and he uses it here very persuasively. From his philosophical perspective, Dr Law concludes that belief in a historical Jesus is not supported by the evidence.

    Earl Doherty’s work on Jesus as a mythical figure was the first serious attempt to have this view of Jesus discussed by biblical scholars, with little success. Richard Carrier’s work, which takes up Doherty’s banner with more effective methods, is another attempt to prompt biblical scholars to face up to the shambles in their discipline, the inadequacy of the evidence for a historical Jesus and the greater likelihood, on the basis of that evidence more rigorously examined, that Christianity arose out of a Jewish mystery cult.

    In ancient history, the best one can usually hope for is high probability, and often one has to be content with a more modest degree of probability, even where reasonable doubt remains. The courtcase simile does not fit here. It is a question of making the best of what evidence is available. So, although I accept Dr Law’s stance of skepticism regarding both a historical and a mythical Jesus, I would go on to argue, with Dr Carrier, that the evidence actually supports the view that the latter Jesus is the more probable.


    Report abuse

  • His argument on contamination is new to me and he uses it here very persuasively.

    It was new to me too, and struck me as a very useful concept.

    Thanks for the additional info on Doherty & Carrier.

     


    Report abuse

  • Question: If what we are is a result of evolution, why do we have intelligences which would seem to be beyond what would have come about to give primitive people a survival advantage?
    This youtube video, tour of a space station, blows me away.   http://www.youtube.com/embed/doN4t5NKW-k
    How does evolution explain our ability to do science on this level (vs “God did it”) and write symphonies, come up with lasers and quantum mechanics?
    If you do a Google search “where did human intelligence come from” you get articles on how the brain changed, brain size in relation to body size, number of neurons etc., but nothing answering the question regarding our super intelligence via evolution.
    Has any evolutionary biologist addressed this issue?

  • Timothy says:

    How does evolution explain our ability to do science on this level (vs “God did it”) and write symphonies, come up with lasers and quantum mechanics?

     

    Evolution of life on Earth covers about 3 billion years as single celled organisms, followed by about 750 million years as multicellular organisms.

    Brains have evolved from simple notochords. into spinal-cords, brain stems, and various areas and lobes which have been added at each evolutionary stage of development.

    Each of these lobes controls specific functions and has cross wiring connecting it to other areas of the brain.

    Neuroscience is complex, but “I can’t understand this, so god-did-it-by-magic” is just a cop-put by those who pretend to know but fail to study.

    There is a simple explanation the mechanisms of synapses, neurotransmitters, and the  functions of various lobes of the human brain, here:-

    https://www.quora.com/How-does-science-explain-consciousness-and-the-states-of-consciousness/answer/Alan-Appleby-4 

     


    Report abuse

  • Timonthy #9: “If what we are is a result of evolution, why do we have intelligences which would seem to be beyond what would have come about to give primitive people a survival advantage?”

    Timothy, when our hunter-gatherer ancestors acquired the brains to study the habits and movements of animals, to read tracks left by those animals, to calculate how far away an animal worth hunting must be and in which direction, and to track and pursue that animal over long distances, what could be seen in action was the survival advantage of having such a complex brain capable of sophisticated pattern- and sequence-recognition, estimation of speeds and distances, calculations of time needed to overtake the prey, organizing and planning a hunt with several other kinsmen, and the long-legged, relatively hairless physiques well suited to jogging long distances where the prey would overheat and become exhausted. In other words we see our ancestors’ outstanding survival advantages, both physical and mental. The planning of such a hunt included the preparation of the weapons and utensils required, and so on. Other tribes, who lived near the sea or a river, were able to supplement their diet first by spearing fish and the by devising nets and cages. They too studied the habits and movements of the fish and knew when and where to fish for the best catches. When brains become large and complex enough to give rise to such abilities to grasp the kind of concepts needed to understand how a particular implement can be fashioned to a particular use or a particular procedure can attain a particular outcome, there is no telling what those industrious, brainy apes will eventually get up to. Thus it was at least on the African savannas where our ancestors came into their own as Homo sapiens roughly 200 000 years ago, and our brains today are pretty much the same as theirs. Obviously, such a complex brain, capable of thinking with abstract concepts, is able to be put to work on different sorts of problems from those of the prehistoric hunting-party; so that, when groups of early humans needed to move into different lands with different terrains and climates, they were able to understand the new requirements facing them and devise new ways to adapt to them. I will not bore you further, for the rest, as is said, is history.


    Report abuse

  • Timothy,

    My explanation of the sudden jump in apparent brain power is that a number of things came together to facilitate rich culture and that culture is key. Among these things are-

    Brains too big for the birth canal forcing a premature birth with a mostly unwired brain with many parts not even formed (humans 28% of adult brain mass at birth, chimps 50%)

    The brain wiring happens in a cultural flux in the first seven years creating brains that are firm wired by experience. Brain wiring has a new fast track mode of evolution through cultural evolution.

    Big brains are more diverse and a few genetic events exclusive to humans in the last million or two years have landed us with notable mental problems for a few but useful cognitive diversity for the many, giving us diverse skills, from a tendency to either schizophrenically invent, autistically systematise, cautiously check things with OCD tendencies, lead others with a psychopathic disregard for individual feelings, etc. etc..

    I contend cognitive diversity and adaptable premature brains forced the need for a sophisticated language if social cohesion was to play a role. We each saw things somewhat differently and mediation needed something far more detailed than identifying calls.

    Our premature brains have a mad scramble of wiring in the first 18 months of life wiring everything to pretty much everything else, leading to the unique human experience of the terrible twos where over stimulation by the senses becomes distressing. Over the next five years particularly these connections are pruned back based on cultural experience creating a lifetime legacy of skills and cultural thinking tools. Perhaps best of all, much cross coupling remains (even more in synaesthes) making connections that allow us to form metaphorical and analogous connections. New, rich language now contains vocabulary for feelings based on body metaphors and action metaphors (forward and up is good, brave fearless, down and back, bad fearful). Our capacity for analogy allows us to understand things in terms of earlier experience and better predict and plan a future.

    Our brains haven’t a single strictly logical neuron (like say a computer boolean logic gate). But culture using cultural evolution, with big iterations, at every generation soon created these stand alone thinking and sharing tools, clever apps that can run on ape infrastructure.

    We are not clever. Our culture is clever. It, evolving over only a few hundred cycles, invented rich language, boolean logic and mathematics, history and love sonnets,  etc. etc., astonishing mental prosthetics. It bred and equipped the premature ape with its bounty.


    Report abuse

  •  Cairsley #11

    brain, capable of thinking with abstract concepts, is able to be put to work on different sorts of problems from those of the prehistoric hunting-party

    I suspect that, after they had solved the problem of dealing with other animals, as is the case with all species, the main evolutionary engine driving the brain development of our primitive ancestors, was the nefarious desire to get the better of rival groups and to achieve high status within their own group, in the competition for resources and breedable females.  Brain bests brawn!


    Report abuse

  • Timothy

    why do we have intelligences which would seem to be beyond what would have come about to give primitive people a survival advantage?

    How does evolution explain our ability to do science on this level (vs “God did it”) and write symphonies, come up with lasers and quantum mechanics?

    Proceed with caution;

    You have presented two groups on the extreme ends of the range of intelligence in humans. Remember that the vast majority fall in the center of that range. When we compare the outliers on any range we could get a false impression.

    “Primitive” people aren’t necessarily low IQ. This is a lesson I learned the hard way. They present the same range of IQ that we see here in the developed countries of the West. Drop a nuclear physicist into the Sahara and that person will appear to be profoundly stupid.


    Report abuse

  • On the cleverness of us, let me just add that the key transformative moment came I believe in the Upper Neolithic and specifically the Aurignacian when I suspect a truly sophisticated language tumbled into existence, in effect catalysing itself. Probably with the addition of tenses, past and future marking an ability to analyse and plan, probably with the addition of abstract concepts like good and bad, hope and fear, love, need.

    This was when there was an explosion in the fossil record of art and artifacts, of grandparents even, suddenly valuable and kept alive, taking over child rearing and training them, telling them stories, shaping their brains.

     

    The universe suddenly became hugely reified, possibly by orders of magnitude, populated with distinct things with distinct qualities. Reality blossomed.


    Report abuse

  • eejit wrote, “I suspect that, after they had solved the problem of dealing with other animals, as is the case with all species, the main evolutionary engine driving the brain development of our primitive ancestors, was the nefarious desire to get the better of rival groups and to achieve high status within their own group, in the competition for resources and breedable females.” “status withing the group” relates to my hypothesis:

     
    At one time we called humans the tool making animal then realized other animals make and use tools.
    We are the storytelling animal. We love stories. It is how we pass on knowledge, values, identity and culture, and our hopes for the future. Note our literature, movies, TV, religion and our adoration of the “stars” of these media. We seek news, novelty, fantasy, tells of adventure and excitement, puzzles and explanations that help us figure things out and make life better.
    After we “discovered” fire, imagine primitive peoples sitting around campfires for thousands of years telling stories. Anyone with a talent for invention and presentation in storytelling, or could sing, or beat out a rhythm gained status giving their offspring a survival advantage.


    Report abuse

  • @Timothy

    …relates to my hypothesis…

    If I understand you correctly, you’re saying the human brain evolved because of language?

    I think it is just the opposite: the value of complex language developed as a result of an evolved brain.

    Of course, I could be completely misunderstanding your hypothesis.


    Report abuse

  • Vicki  #17the value of complex language developed as a result of an evolved brain

    It’s what Uncle Karl would have called Dialectical Materialism.  Those with the best brains used language the best, got sexual partners with the best language (or more probably got most of the  females) who in turn bred offspring with the best mental hardware, who were thus in a position to develop more sophisticated language software…and so on, until the brilliant collection of Timoythies, Vikis, Alan4s, LaurieBs, PhilRimmers, Carisleys…sorry if I left you out, modesty forced my omission


    Report abuse

  • @eejit #18

    It’s what Uncle Karl would have called Dialectical Materialism.

    I would need more convincing to plop Timothy’s hypothesis in with dialectical materialism, but I can definitely get on board with the idea of a combination of social and biological evolution advancing the human brain.


    Report abuse

  • For me, Vicki, Timothy is closest. Sure, language is too recent to have affected the genetic configuration of brains, but it is exactly what caused our spectacular  differentiation from the other apes and mammals.

     

    Long ago I coined the term, that we were not essentially homo sapiens but Homo Memorator (Man/Woman the Narrator). Given brains evolved like so and being born way too early for ape-like characteristics, and now able to entrain a rich culture, leveraged by rich metaphorical language and given a social disposition with neuro-cognitive differences to bridge, reasoning needed to emerge.

    In The Enigma of Reason, Sperber and Mercier, we see how Reason, in its origins, does not necessitate rationality (or for that matter evidence) it merely constitutes a persuading, a rhetorical, narrative to facilitate cultural traction and cultural creation. Of course, as with all cultural inventions, it too can evolve, and did so into rationality as reasons were seen to be either more or less congruent with reality and outcomes.


    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.