Saturday, September 26, 2015

All conspiracy theories great and small

In this post I'm going to talk about something I don't usually discuss--namely, conspiracy theories including the set of theories surrounding what is known as the "manosphere." If you, dear Reader, don't know what the latter is about, please, please feel free to skip this post. Really. You are probably better off not knowing. If, on the other hand, some un-dear reader reads this who is sympathetic to that vile, creepy, insane approach to the world, I'm not setting out to convince you, so you are also invited to skip this post. (And I have full moderation turned on and usually delete comments from manospherians, because I think they have been mind-poisoned, and I refuse to be drawn into their world even far enough to debate them.)

It may therefore be asked why I'm publishing this at all. Good question. Partly because I wrote it up in private correspondence for someone who asked what in the world leads people to be drawn into those ideas, and then it occurred to me that it was in essence a blog post. But partly also because I do think that in general we conservatives have our own dangers of being led into the darker recesses of the blogosphere, and I want to continue to issue a warning. I've issued such warnings before. Such darker recesses also include anti-semitism, Holocaust denial, and 9/11 conspiracy theories. (A couple of these attract a strange mix of extremists on the Right and on the Left, which is an odd sociological phenomenon in itself.) David French issues an important similar warning here.

The other thing I want to bring up, which you can read by itself if you scroll to the last few paragraphs, is the fact that we occasionally become like that which we try to answer. Hence, one finds missionaries "going native," to use a politically incorrect phrase. I once heard of some missionaries to Muslims who ended up keeping Ramadan and whose women started wearing hijab. There is no doubt in my mind that the Muslims thought they were converting the missionaries rather than vice versa. In Internet discussion, something similar happens when one becomes fascinated with trying to reach a particular interest group and starts casting one's arguments in terms that will be congenial to that interest group. When the target group in question hold really, really messed-up ideas, this effect is highly problematic, which is why it can be a bad idea to try to change the minds of kooks. Insensibly, one starts to accept (or at least appear to accept) ideas that are, say, a 5 out of ten on the craziness scale because one is trying to talk people out of ideas that are at 10. That's not a good thing. So some readers may be interested in that rhetorical problem and want to discuss it even if they are uninterested in the particular example. Jesus mythicism would be another area where the problem could come up.

So, with all that introduction, here is an edited version of the mini-essay I wrote originally for some friends.

People are attracted to the manosphere because of roughly the same types of causes that attract some people to hard-line feminism or to wild conspiracy theories such as anti-semitism. That is to say, people see real problems and injustices in the world, and this purports to be a Theory of Everything that explains and unifies all that they see, giving them the True Explanation behind it all.

Human beings are hard-wired to prefer theories that explain a lot over theories that explain piecemeal. In science, and especially in physics, this can be a good thing, driving mankind to seek explanations that do well both at what the old explanations did but that go farther still. It's right to desire explanations that cope with a wide variety of evidence. Conspiracy theories are the pathological manifestation of this hard-wiring in humans. They bring that drive for simplicity in theory-making to the complexities of human society. The conspiracy theorist then succumbs to the temptation to flatten out the complexities of the real world and of the evidence to fit the theory. The conspiracy theorist is chasing the high of feeling that he has explained it all and has achieved true enlightenment.

Ironically, the very claims made for the Red Pill ought to raise warning flags. But on the contrary. Those inclined in that direction don't seem to say, "This sounds like it tries to explain too much, too simply; therefore, it's probably a lot of baloney." Instead, they are exhilarated by the promises.

Confirmation bias then locks in the new convert. Just as the convinced, man-hating feminist "sees" only beaten wives, and "sees" only men who "deserve what they get," the manospherian "sees" only mistreated men and women who "brought it on themselves" when a man dumps them, uses p*rn, cheats, etc. These biased ways of interpreting the evidence are reinforced by hanging around people who have the same blind spots. And of course the bias is reinforced by the fact that there are real instances of what one is seeing. There are real beaten wives. There are real frivolously dumped husbands.

Social feedback is a huge factor, which is why the Internet has been the breeding ground for explosions in conspiracy theories, from the manosphere to Jesus mythicism. Once a person hangs out at these sites, he insensibly starts to talk like the people he is "with" electronically, to respond to their statements in ways intended to convince or sit well with them, and to accept their shibboleths. If everybody around you is saying, "Women rather than men are the cause of widespread frivolous divorce in America," then it comes to seem like it's probably true. One doesn't bother to ask on what this generalization is based. (See here and following.)

I've seen this social feedback at a [particular blog], where [a blogger] is sometimes trying to woo the so-called "Christian" manosphere rather than (the healthier attitude) not caring tuppence what such creepily messed-up people think. This attempt to reach out to them has, in my opinion, influenced the blogger. He has repeatedly stated, for example, that women usually get to decide whether men marry them or not, which is a very dubious thesis.

So even the second-level of association with conspiracy theorists tends to warp the one who associates. If I spent a lot of time trying to reach out to Jesus mythers or anti-semites or Holocaust deniers, using arguments that they would find persuasive, it would warp my own writing and perhaps even my own view of reality. 

This is an interesting and difficult point, because well-intentioned people often do feel that they need to know about and answer even the craziest theories and ideas, and in the blogosphere this can lead you literally anywhere. The point goes beyond the concern that one gives dignity to an idea by responding to it, though that is related. It goes beyond the concern that one has to walk a fine line between, "I am responding to x" and "X is an empirically and/or morally respectable idea," where one might wish to do the former but not imply the latter. The point here, beyond either of those, is that one may imply concretely false ideas about the topic at issue in the course of trying to reach out to people in a particular camp. In answering Jesus mythers, for example, one might want merely to say that even a liberal New Testament scholar like Bart Ehrman thinks they are crazy. That's a legitimate point. But when one gets into the nitty-gritty of the arguments, what if one ends up conceding some particular point that Ehrman makes, such as his repeated implication that the gospels are extremely unreliable as to the details of Jesus' life? Of course it is true to say that, even if the gospels are extremely unreliable about those details, they could still constitute strong evidence that Jesus existed. But one would want to be careful not to start actually believing or imply to one's audience that the gospels are unreliable or even that it doesn't matter globally whether they are reliable or unreliable. The more "out there" one's intended audience is, I suggest, the more of a danger there will be that one will concede too much ground in the course of trying to reach that audience.

Besides problems with arguments, there is simply the effect of spending time in the company of those who hold crazy ideas and regarding those people as friends or intellectual equals. If one does that, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember that their ideas are utterly crazy, that they have jumped the shark, that you should completely reject their warped perspective. One gets insensibly drawn in to at least some extent: "Well, so-and-so goes too far, but it really does seem like the Jews control our government." "Outright Jesus mythicism is too extreme, but all my atheist friends keep talking about the fictional developments in the character of Jesus in the gospels, so maybe there's something to that." "Some of these guys go too far, and I'm not into that immoral Game stuff, but I think women really do cause a lot more trouble in human relationships than men. I mean, look at all these anecdotes my friends at such-and-such a site are bringing up. Terrible stories!"

While there is no simple answer to this problem, no simple algorithm for deciding when to answer something and when to ignore it, I would say that one should beware of conspiracy theories, including the ones I have listed, to such an extent that one seriously considers not trying to get into the nitty-gritty of answering them. Beyond that, one should beware of them to such an extent that one should not deliberately develop a relationship with people at sites or in groups that promote such theories. If your favorite uncle turns out to be a rampaging misogynist, that's a different matter. He was already your favorite uncle, and you now have to negotiate that relationship. But don't deliberately cultivate close relationships with people or sites that promote misogyny (or 9/11 truther ideas, or Jesus mythicism, or...)

Bad company corrupts good manners, and we all have a stake in not corrupting good manners.

Monday, September 14, 2015

When joy alights

When joy alights like a bird on a fence post
arrested in fragile flight
do not frighten her away.

When she comes in the clutch of the heart
at the scent of the evening air
instinct with life and memory,
in the grey-blue of the sky at twilight,
in the sweep of the pine tree to the sky,

Do not say,
There are depths to be plumbed,
There are knots to be worried at.
I have no time for this.

Nor listen to the more insidious voice that lectures,
Death and disease roam the streets.
Pitiless murder with bloody sword unsheathed stalks all the ways of the world,
and beauty and innocence fall before him.
What right have I to be happy?

Rather stand still,
And say,

It is a gift.

Friday, September 11, 2015

I was a teenage demarcationist

It's been a while since I stirred the pot on the issue of intelligent design theory.

And yes, I know that it's 9/11, but at the moment, I have nothing new or special to say about 9/11, so I won't. I sure wish our leaders would get wise about Islam, but I'm not looking for flying pigs anytime soon, and in the absence of learning concrete lessons about jihad and our enemies, talking movingly about 9/11 just begins to sound more and more like a yearly self-indulgence of pointless sentiment.

So I'm going to write about demarcationism instead.

Demarcationism is the idea in the philosophy of science that there are clearcut and interesting criteria that distinguish those activities and theories that constitute science (or learning about science) from those that don't. It sounds like demarcationism should be true until one sets out actually to try to set up such criteria. We might agree, for example, that to be science, some activity should involve statements about the physical world. But nobody thinks that that constitutes a sufficient condition. If I say that rain is caused by fairies, that intuitively doesn't seem to be a scientific theory, but it is a theory about the physical world. Similarly, it doesn't do to say that some theory is not scientific if it's a stupid theory. That's not very clear-cut, for one thing. And for another thing, what looks stupid in hindsight might not have been stupid when it was proposed. Or the other way around. What sounds stupid at first may come to look reasonable later when the world is better understood.

Karl Popper suggested that it is a necessary condition for true scientific endeavor that one's theory be falsifiable and that unfalsifiable theories are not science but pseudo-science. This is attractive. We all have known people who insist that some bromide cures many ills and who are always willing to explain away contrary evidence. The combination of cherry-picked anecdotes of the wonders of the bromide with refusal to acknowledge counter-evidence certainly seems like what one would call an unscientific attitude.

But at that point the problem arises that it is not the theory that Bromide X cures all ills that is unscientific but rather the advocates of Bromide X who are being unscientific in their approach to investigating the theory. In this context, it seems that words like "scientific" and "unscientific" are rough stand-ins for "rational" and "irrational" in the realm of investigating theories about the physical world. But that wasn't what we were originally looking for. Rather, the original search was for a demarcation criterion that would apply to theories and to the investigation of those theories, not primarily to people. In fact, it would be perfectly possible to investigate the alleged healing properties of Bromide X in a rigorous fashion and to draw a conclusion from it--probably a negative conclusion--and no one would contest that that was not a scientific endeavor.

Some cousin of the notion of falsifiability--suitably upgraded with more nuanced probabilistic interpretation--might well be a useful way of giving the honorific "scientific" to people who are approaching physical theories rationally, with a willingness to examine evidence on both sides and admit disconfirmation. And it could provide a reason for criticizing those who are doing otherwise. In that way we might dismiss Freudian psychology or horoscope reading as "unscientific" not only or even chiefly because the theories behind them appear, on consideration, to be egregiously false but also because their practitioners appear unwilling to admit contrary evidence concerning the accuracy and effectiveness of the methods and theories involved. That's progress in some kind of demarcation, but it isn't what the demarcationists actually wanted. For one thing, an unscientific attitude could bedevil people engaging in the areas of investigation that we generally think of as science. It would be possible to be dogmatic and closed to contrary evidence if one were a credentialed geologist or epidemiologist, for example.

This has been a big debate in the philosophy of science for a long time, and the truth is that demarcation criteria to distinguish science from non-science have proven surprisingly elusive.

Nevertheless, there was a time when I was a demarcationist. This was probably partly because of a Popperian influence. But it was also because I was not thinking clearly. In particular, I wasn't thinking clearly enough about the contentious issue of evolution. The demarcationist controversy has been especially important in the creation/evolution debate, with expert witnesses using a pretense that the issue is settled in the philosophy of science in order to get the teaching of intelligent design ruled "religion" and hence "unconstitutional." (By what logic it was supposed to follow that intelligent design theories are automatically religious, much less an "establishment of religion" if taught in public schools, even if they are not scientific, I never understood. But logic is not the hallmark of the anti-ID crowd, including the judges.)

Some twenty-odd-ish years ago, I wasn't at all opposed to the teaching of intelligent design in schools, but largely because I'm a constitutional originalist and knew that the entire imposition of "no creation in public schools" as a matter of constitutional interpretation was baloney. In fact, though, I did tend to think that, even if a conclusion of intelligent design is sometimes justified in the biological realm, it definitely wasn't a scientific conclusion. So whatever else we should say, we should say that this isn't science. And I thought that mattered somehow. To something. Clarity of thought, perhaps?

But it was exactly the opposite. As a dualist about the human person, I should have known this. After all, I myself am (in part) immaterial, yet the investigation of my actions can't be designated clearly as non-science. So let's even suppose that someone draws a conclusion that God himself was the designer of some biological entity. How does it follow that investigation in that vicinity is "not science"? It doesn't follow from the fact that God is immaterial.

Well, but I'm an embodied being. Maybe it follows from the fact that God, in the creation of biological entities, was not incarnate. But that isn't right, either. Consider: If you were present on the day of Pentecost with the right equipment, you could have decided whether the sound waves coming from the apostles' mouths formed words in other languages or whether they were just one language, while the hearers reported hearing different languages. In one sense, this would count as scientific investigation of an act of God! Similarly, if you'd been in the right place at the right time with the right tools, it would have been possible in principle to discover something of the mechanism behind the fall of the wall of Jericho. Did the lower levels of the wall disintegrate, disappear, crack, or what? Was the sound of the trumpet sufficiently sharp to be causal, or did the fall just happen on the occasion thereof?

It may be objected that these are all investigations of the physical events in the world but not of the mind of God. True enough, but that much is true of us as well, despite our embodied nature. You can trace neural firings up to the brain, but there comes a point at which mechanism fails. The human mind itself is measurable, detectable, and investigable only indirectly. Yet, once again, we don't therefore make heavy weather out of saying that it is "impossible to investigate human action scientifically." Of course it's possible to investigate human action scientifically, in at least one straightforward sense. You can see the bridges we build, read the books we write, and hear the words we speak. And you can also see God's causal acts in the world.

For the most part, the barriers to investigating God's miraculous and creative acts in a manner that would normally be called "scientific" are sheerly practical. The events happened long ago. Nobody happened to be hanging around with precise instruments. We'll probably never know many details, and so forth. Some details would be practically impossible to gather. (Did God create a sperm cell for the virgin conception or did he just create such DNA as could have come from a sperm cell? There's a fact of the matter, and it's a scientific fact, but there would have been no practical way to know, even if you were there.)

There is, moreover, an extremely good reason not to make dogmatic pronouncements that a design theory of biological origins "shouldn't be taught in science class." Let's just entertain for a moment the hypothesis that the whole neo-Darwinian shebang, and the abiogenesis origin of life theory, are utterly false. Suppose that, in fact, all of these things were kicked off via various interventions (the bogyman word) by an intelligent being whom Christians and Jews call God. In that case, everybody who is putzing around with speculative theories of how the first cell came into being by purely natural processes or how sexual reproduction evolved or any of these other things is engaging in a pure waste of time with theories that are all totally false. And not just a little bit false but wildly false. Completely off-base. Yet those theories are being taught as "the best theories scientists have today" or even just "the truth, according to science" about where these things came from. They are being taught that way in science class, with the prestige of Science (capital S) behind them, even though they are ludicrously false. While, if this scenario is correct, the true theory of where these things came from is relegated to the speculative, allegedly subjective realms of religion. And that would be pretty silly.

Look at it this way: If the question, "Where did the first cell on earth come from?" is to be regarded as properly a scientific question, and if one hypothesis that purports to answer it is to be regarded as a scientific answer, then a different hypothesis that purports to answer it isn't just automatically "non-science" and hence to be taught in a completely different venue, simply because it mentions a designer or even (gasp!) God. That's totally artificial. If they are both theories that purport to answer the same allegedly scientific question, then why not teach about them both in the same class, that being a science class?

Now, of course one answer from the anti-ID people will be, "Because it's stupid" or "Because it's crazy" or "Because it has no good evidence for it." That may or may not be true (I happen to think it's not true), but that isn't the same thing as, "Because qua theory it cannot, by definition, be science."

Don't get me wrong: I wouldn't be thrilled to have some rabidly anti-ID high school science teacher teaching a caricatured version of ID theory, ridiculing it to the students, and then saying to the parents, "There, are you satisfied? I discussed design theory." That isn't desirable at all, from my perspective. But suppose there were a well-read high school science teacher who didn't think that and who was willing to give an even-handed presentation of the evidence on both sides. Why should he be fired or hounded, like Roger DeHart, for doing so?

See, at that point it's a lot easier for the anti-ID crowd to say, not, "Because Roger DeHart is an idiot and knows nothing about biology" (though I'm sure many of the more loudmouthed among them would say that) but rather, "Because ID isn't science, so we don't need to discuss whether Roger DeHart is an idiot and doesn't know his biology." It's a dodge. It's a ruse. (Pun intended.)

And that's why I'm sorry that I was a teenage (actually, older than teenage) demarcationist. Because I fell for it. For a while, I thought there was something to be gained by stating that a design conclusion in biology is, by definition, not science. Maybe (I strained and stretched) ID could just say that no natural explanation can be found for some phenomenon. Maybe that would be okay. But the positive conclusion couldn't be science. Because it's God, and because reasons.

I changed my mind long ago on that. For over a decade I've subscribed to Michael Behe's broad and non-demarcationist definition of science as "a vigorous attempt to make true statements about the world." Even if we beef it up slightly to "a vigorous and intellectually rigorous attempt to make true and significant statements about the physical world," ID can certainly be in there, since origins statements are statements about the physical world, and ID research can be carried out vigorously and rigorously. In fact, if anybody nowadays is acting like Popper's unscientific theorist who refuses to let his theory be responsive to negative data, it's the neo-Darwinian.

We haven't seen the last of the politicized demarcationists. In recent years they have even tried to ban the discussion of design theories in physics, where they are usually considered less of a threat than in biology, and at the university level, where a widespread notion of academic freedom for professors has previously permitted greater latitude in discussing a variety of theories.

Christians of a philosophical bent, in particular, should refuse to be put into a demarcationist strait-jacket. We can think more clearly than that about science, design, and God, and we should.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Kim Davis, metaphysics, and the public square

I don't need to link to them. You can find them everywhere--in the blogosphere, among the pundits, on your Facebook feed. Some friends you are surprised at, too. Even people who said that Obergefell was a disastrously wrong decision, even people who oppose homosexual "marriage" (some of them). Now Kim Davis, Kentucky county clerk, has actually acted on the premise that Obergefell was a lawless, made-up, unconstitutional farce, that marriage literally cannot exist between two men or two women, and these people are shocked, shocked to find a person who stands on principle against a court order. Now she has allegedly placed herself against "the rule of law," as though Obergefell had anything whatsoever to do with the rule of law. As though the postmodern, lawless bloviatings of Justice Kennedy were not as far as possible from the rule of law. And then the smug talk: If she won't "do her job" she should resign. Should, mind you. Not just could resign. Not, "resigning would be an option." No, according to these people, she should resign. It's her duty. She must make way for others who will issue licenses to two men to carry out their ersatz unions and give them the name of marriage.

What is all of this? Is it not clear that Kim Davis is being consistent--legally, morally, and metaphysically? If Obergefell is a lawless farce, then Kentucky's marriage protection amendment is the law, and Kim Davis, unlike the Supreme Court, is actually upholding the rule of law. If homosexual unions are not only immoral but also metaphysically unable to be marriages--yes, even civil marriages--then to refuse to give them the name of marriage, as an official of the state of Kentucky, is simply to refuse to lie about reality. It is faithfully to carry out the duties of a clerk whose job it is to give out real marriage licenses.

At this point, it seems that no reductio will do, since homosexual "marriage" is already a reductio. But think: Would it make sense to say that she must resign if she were ordered to call a union between a man and a sheep a marriage and refused? Would it make sense to say that she must resign if she were ordered to call a union between a woman and a tree a marriage and refused?

What it comes to is that such simple-minded thunderings against Kim Davis are nominalist to their core, and in two ways. First, those who say such things are being nominalists about marriage, and by extension, about everything on which the positive law touches. Apparently, if the Supreme Court (whom they absurdly claim to be capable of making law) or some legislature were to declare that the value of pi is three, then everyone would be obliged, in all legal transactions, to treat the value of pi as three, whatever the consequences. If SCOTUS or a legislature (and SCOTUS wins if it disagrees with a legislature, just so you know the rules) were to declare an amoeba to be a person, entitled to all the legal protections of the 14th amendment, then all public officials would be in duty bound to treat it as such--to make out adoption papers for amoebae, to consider their best interests in legal proceedings, to consider an amoeba equal in value to a child, or to quit if they won't "do their job" and help those amoebae to their personhood rights.

And here's an interesting thought experiment: Suppose that SCOTUS were to declare that parents have a 14th amendment right to have their children up to one year old post-birth killed, that such children are not persons, does it then become the case that they are not persons? Must the police and other officials all cease to prosecute those who kill children under one year, or else resign in favor of those who will cease to prosecute? Must the police hold back any person who attempts to rescue an 11-month-old as his father prepares to throw him off a bridge? After all, SCOTUS has spoken on a matter of metaphysics, and it is now the LAW OF THE LAND that an 11-month-old is not a person. If not prepared to abide by the LAW OF THE LAND, the police must all quit their jobs. They must move aside and make way for those who will protect the killers of these new non-persons rather than protecting the (supposed) non-persons.

You see, society cannot afford radical nominalism in practice. Sure, there are some perfectly legitimate legal fictions. One can even say that in a sense adoption is a legal fiction. Those adopting are declared to be the child's parents when they have no biological connection to him. And there are some rules that are arbitrary matters of prudence and even aesthetics. How far back from the street must buildings be constructed in the downtown area? But we cannot run a society if everything, every matter of fact, every truth and falsehood, every matter of nature, is treated as if it is subject to the whims of positive law or court order. Nature will have her revenge. If you declare pi equal to three and act accordingly, you're going to have some funny-shaped train wheels.

Once we admit that you cannot create reality in all areas by judicial or legislative fiat, the question arises whether marriage, civil marriage, is one of the things that is just a matter of legal fiat. Is it just like the driving or voting age--last year it was one thing, this year it's another? Or is it more like the value of pi? Or like personhood? Well, it won't surprise my readers that I think civil marriage has an essence, a real nature, and that male-male and female-female relationships don't fall within that nature, any more than human-animal relationships fall within it. (And frankly, I don't give a plug nickel if someone says, "Gasp!" [Swoon, faint!] "Lydia McGrew made some kind of comparison between homosexuality and bestiality! How insensitive!" Yep. Very. Moving on...)

The point is that some things really do have natures, and marriage is one of them. To say that homosexual marriage ("marriage") is now THE LAW OF THE LAND is to assume without argument that civil marriage is so malleable that SCOTUS can just wave its magic wand, abracadabra, and now two men or two women really can be married to one another, and therefore Kim Davis needs to get with the program or move aside for someone else who will. If one disagrees with that metaphysical assessment, one will have a different assessment of Kim Davis. Kim Davis was being told by a judge to lie about the reality of marriage, which wasn't part of the job description she was elected to fulfill. Therefore, she isn't required either to lie about marriage or resign.

There is a second way in which the condemnation of Kim Davis, the smirking or pompous insistence that she must "do her job or resign," is nominalist, and that concerns the nature of jobs. Is there nothing like at least a quasi-essence of being a doctor, a policeman, or even a county clerk? Let's go back to the example of the 11-month-old declared by a court to be a non-person. What does it mean to be a policeman? All the more so if you signed up to be a policeman before this court order came down, the nature of the job as both you and society understood it involved protecting babies from being thrown off of bridges by their parents, not facilitating the baby-throwing. So if the police force decides to ignore the court's evil and insane redefinition of the child as a non-person and stop the baby-thrower, those police are not only doing the right thing but also, to coin a word, the policeman-y thing. Suppose that SCOTUS declares it to be a violation of 14th amendment rights to refuse to let registered sex offenders adopt. (I owe this example to David Bradshaw.) If an adoption officer nonetheless refuses to issue adoption papers to a registered sex offender, he's doing his job. It's utterly backwards to say that he's not doing his job. His job includes protecting children and seeking their best interests, not turning them over to sex offenders. If a doctor refuses to refer someone for an abortion or refuses to administer a lethal injection, he's being a real doctor. Will the people who condemn Kim Davis say the same about doctors in Australia who refuse to be complicit in abortion? Because now being complicit in abortion "is their job"? The medical association of Canada appears poised to require all doctors there to administer lethal injections for suicide or refer to those who will. Will that then become "part of their job"? Whence comes this idea that there is nothing that it means to fill a particular role in society? And how far could this be taken? If one fine year the Canadian Medical Association (or the American Medical Association) requires all doctors, as a condition of licensing, to have sex with their patients as therapy, will that also become part of the job? To torture some patients at the behest of others who are deemed to own them? To run about naked in the streets as a symbol of something or other? Can absolutely anything be made "part of the job"--part of any job, anywhere, any time?

One might think that the position of county clerk is not a good candidate for a job with an essence. But, given that it involves certifying civil marriages, which do have an essence, the possibility arises that the job of county clerk itself is more than just a sheer creature of positive law.

See, here's the thing: In order for society to function--at all, much less well--we need good people doing a good job at good jobs. If all or even most of the important jobs in society, the jobs that keep things running, are deeply corrupted, literally defined in such a way that to fill them you are required to be complicit in grave evil, and if it is literally a duty to quit all such jobs if you refuse to be complicit in grave evil, then society is going to collapse. Slowly or quickly, though the speed seems to be picking up. Do we really want all our doctors to be murderers, our teachers to be corrupters of the youth, and our minor public officials to be liars about the nature of reality? Keep on telling all the good people, all the people with a noble conception of their jobs, that they have a duty either to do evil or to quit and that's exactly what you'll get.

Since most of these jobs, when society was functioning better, were not defined in such a horrible way but were understood to be jobs one could take pride in, jobs that a good person could fill with a good conscience, it is therefore an honorable act, an attempt to hold back the collapse of human civilization, to continue to fulfill those roles in their honorable senses rather than either quit or be complicit in grave evil. It remains a prudential question whether that is the best course to take for any particular person in any particular situations. One can imagine situations where one might be able to spend one's energy better in some other way. But to say that one must always resign when one has conscientious objections to the newly declared "duties" of one's job is to say that we have to give up all of the important roles in society to people who are willing to do evil. I see no such principle anywhere--not in Scripture, not in tradition, not in reason. In fact, if there were enough people willing to refuse the corruption of their professions (see my above example about a unified police force), a lot of good could be done. In this case, if we had enough Kim Davises, enough staunch state governors, and enough deputies who refused to put any of them in prison, then we'd have a lot fewer lies told about sodomite simulacra of marriage and maybe even an outpouring of honorable self-government in America, all of which would be a good thing.

The idea of staying in a job and trying to carry it out according to the earlier, nobler conception of it on the basis of which you entered the profession has its difficulties. It is particularly difficult in the case of a position like that of federal judge. On an originalist understanding, the job of a federal judge is to "say what the law means" and apply it to concrete cases in accordance with that original meaning. I don't mean to introduce a huge philosophy of law debate, but it should be clear that, on that understanding of the job (which is not new), there might simply be an evil, unjust statutory law, duly passed by the relevant legislative body, which one would be called upon to apply to some concrete case. When that is the job and always has been--saying what the law means and applying it--there is far less room for remaining in the job while refusing to abet evil, if the people making some positive law one is called upon to interpret and apply become bound and determined to do evil. One might, however, be able to recuse oneself merely from particular cases, in that case, while staying on the job to prevent interpretive liars on the other side from striking down good laws. But there are a great many important jobs that aren't in any way limited to expounding other people's laws. Even a family law judge, for example, usually has as his mandate to do what is "in the best interests of the child," which obviously has much wider ramifications.

I've argued that the claim that Kim Davis has a duty either to issue homosexual "marriage" licenses or to resign is nominalist in two ways--as regards the nature of the institution of marriage and as regards the nature of her job. A resistance to this sort of nominalism is applicable in a variety of legal contexts. In Kim Davis's case, it is not (in my view) actually true to say that she is breaking the law (for the reasons mentioned above concerning the lawlessness of Obergefell and the most recent relevant law in Kentucky), though she is committing civil disobedience in the sense that she is defying a court order.

But the recognition that both things and jobs have essences may in other scenarios lead a person in a private or public job actually to ignore or disobey a positive law, passed by the legislature or other civil authority. A legislature could enact homosexual "marriage" or any of the absurd and wicked things mentioned above--adoption rights for sex offenders, a requirement for doctors to perform or refer for abortion, and so forth. In this latter case an interesting question arises concerning public civil servants: When are they carrying out their jobs within the legal system in which they originally took office, and when do they cross over into using their position in a more or less revolutionary or subversive way to undermine or counteract a corrupt system that has emerged subsequently? Imagine, for example, a railroad official who altered documents somehow in Nazi Germany so that trains would go somewhere other than Auschwitz and so that the prisoners might be rescued. I have no idea whether such a thing would even have been possible, but there is an obvious sense in which such a person is working against "the system" as it has come to be, secretly using his authority within the system. On the other hand, if we imagine the "rebellious" local police force pictured above that thumbs its collective nose at the courts and goes on stopping parents who wish to fling their children off of cliffs, that does not seem to me like even a remotely subversive act. Nor does it seem like a revolutionary behavior for a doctor quietly to go on taking out tonsils and treating pneumonia while saying, "No," when asked to perform or refer for abortion. Where precisely the difference lies (does it have anything to do with forging papers in one case but not in the others?) I'm not entirely prepared to say. My point here is merely that opposition to an attempt to twist one's job to the service of evil may take a variety of forms, and legal geeks may have fun (rather grim fun) sorting them out from one another.

Anyone who cares about truth and reality should care about Kim Davis's case. Anyone who cares about the fundamental nature of government and the polis has that much more reason to care about her case. And anyone who thinks that no one sane will be called to suffer in the culture war that is now upon us should look at her case and wake up before it is too late and he finds that he has moved, almost without realizing he was moving, to the wrong side.

I close with some well-chosen words from my Internet friend Jeff Culbreath, who wrote them on Facebook and gave me permission to use them:

There are well-intentioned people who oppose same-sex "marriage", and who recognize that Obergefell was lawless and unconstitutional, but who nevertheless hold that Kim Davis should submit and issue faux marriage licenses anyway because the SCOTUS ruling is now "the law of the land." 
In Catholic moral theology, it is not enough to avoid committing a specific sin - let's say, the sin of entering into a pretend marriage to gain public acceptance for one's immoral acts. One must also avoid being an "accessory to another's sin". To be an accessory to another's sin is to commit a sin. Traditionally, there are nine ways to be an accessory to another's sin:
 I. By counsel
II. By command
III. By consent
IV. By provocation
V. By praise or flattery
VI. By concealment
VII. By partaking
VIII. By silence
IX. By defense of the ill done
 If Kim Davis were to issue same-sex "marriage" licenses, she would become an accessory by counsel, command, and consent. Therefore it is unjust for any employer -- particularly a government employer -- to demand this of her or of any employee. She has every right to resist this injustice in precisely the way she has. 

There is another reason for her not to resign, and that is simply to prevent her office from being complicit in evil acts to the best of her ability. In so doing she is doing what we are all obliged to do: advance and preserve the goodness in the world. 

A final reason for her not to resign is to bring attention to the appalling consequences of Obergefell: Christians who are willing to live by their traditional beliefs are now excluded from government employment in this capacity. This realization should have the effect of shocking Americans out of their complacency.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Imagination, pain, and children

I have long thought that speculation has a role in Christian theology in precisely those situations where someone says, "I can't imagine how that could be!" Sometimes those speculations end up being borderline heretical, or at least heretical if one assumes certain premises, and that has to be watched. At the same time, it may be better at least to have the speculations in one's back pocket for the time when one says to oneself, "How could that be?"

This sort of thing comes into play, for example, when talking about the Trinity. One will almost always say something heretical when one tries to get a clear concept of the Trinity, and I'm not going to brush off that problem. On the other hand, if someone says that the Trinity must be logically incoherent, a little speculation can at least be a way to argue that it does not have to be logically incoherent.

Most Christians of a philosophical turn of mind have given a lot of thought to the problem of evil, and I think it is highly biblical to use the concept of soul-making as one part of the answer to the problem of evil. In this thread I have been recently discussing that topic a bit with a blogger who lost his faith during a time of severe suffering.

To my mind, the harder cases are those where it is difficult to give (without speculation) a soul-making explanation of the suffering involved. These would be cases where the person suffering is an infant, young child, or mentally disabled person and is hence unable to process the suffering in such a way (it seems) as to be sanctified by it. It would also apply to cases where pain is so severe that it blots out thought. At least, these are problematic if we assume that soul-making is primarily a mental event--learning something, for example, or consciously clinging to God.

The trouble with saying that God uses these events as soul-making for other people is that that seems to mean that God isn't really seeking the best good of the suffering individual but rather is using him as a means to an end, which (in my opinion) is incompatible with the doctrine that God loves every person so much that he seeks that person's highest good. So, while it may well be true that God can use the suffering of an infant for good in the lives of the parents or doctors, that can't be the whole story. What about the baby? Those of us who are pro-life face related questions when we think about the babies who have died in abortions. What is God's plan for them?

Without in any way meaning to be flippant, I offer the following somewhat unusual speculations so that, at a minimum, we don't have to say, "I can't imagine what possible purpose God could use that suffering for when he allows it."

1) Mystical soul-making

What if soul-making isn't primarily a mental event or an event requiring conscious response, at least not for creatures who have souls and are intended (ultimately) to be rational creatures? This could mean, for example, that you could suffer while mentally deranged and somehow be purified by it, which would become evident when you were no longer deranged, even though you had no thoughts about it. And the same mutatis mutandis for infants, etc. I admit that this one is my least favorite of the speculations in this post, because it seems to me improbable that God deals with man in that way. The pattern that seems more biblical is of our response to suffering being the way in which God uses suffering in our lives, so that soul-making is not a process in which the soul is purely passive. However, I put it out there as a possibility, because that's the point of this post--exploring possibilities.

2) Levels of glory in heaven

Suppose we assume that all babies and those with childlike mental levels go to heaven. Still, it doesn't follow that everyone will have the same level of glory in heaven. The speculation here is that perhaps our sufferings here on earth are used, via our own response to them either here on earth or after death, to partly determine how glorious our individual heavenly state will be. This is a very Dantesque notion. The reader will recall how Dante has some in the sphere of the moon, still enjoying the presence of God, but in some sense lesser than those in the sphere of the sun. (It is from that portion of the Divine Comedy that the famous line comes, "In His will is our peace.")

3) Personal sanctification after death

Suppose that there are not different levels of glory in heaven (contra 1), that all babies go to heaven, but that each person has an individualized route to glorification. This seems pretty obviously true already, and Christians attest to their belief in this idea when they say that God has a plan for each of us, or God has a way in mind by which to sanctify each of us. Again, use the concept introduced in #2 that our own response to suffering after the fact, which might be after death, can be used in some way for us. In that case, the suffering experienced in this life by those who can't process or think about it in this life, for whatever reason, could still be used by God via our response to it after death to bring us to individual perfection.

4) Salvation

I've saved the most heretical for last. Suppose that not all babies go to heaven and suppose that eternal salvation can be determined by what happens after death. Suppose that whether babies et. al. go to heaven depends on their own response to God after death when they are given the mental abilities of an older person. In that case, those individuals' response to knowledge of their own suffering here on earth, in conjunction with the knowledge of God vouchsafed to them at that time, could be part of what determines their eternal destiny.

I don't make any of these speculations lightly, and I don't know if any of them are true. I make them because the next time you hear someone say, "I can't possibly imagine how God could use this terrible illness this baby died of for the benefit of the baby," you should be able to respond, "That just shows that you need to expand your imagination."

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Is everything political?

Here's a silly little story about Facebook drama that got me thinking about a wider question:

A few weeks ago someone "tagged" me on Facebook, which for those of you who live in a Facebook-free cave, means that he typed my name in a certain way that generates a notification to me to come and see something. The "something" was a rather nasty little session going on amongst some "scholars." (I put the term in scare quotes because of their behavior, though they are credentialed.) The short version, in which I will use no names, goes approximately like this: On Scholar A's publicly visible FB page, he linked with great approval a blog post about the historical Adam by Scholar B (who is a theologian, not a scientist) which took the position that the traditional view of the historical Adam is scientifically untenable. An on-line friend of mine, who happened to be FB "friends" with Scholar A, referred to my post here to give a different perspective. Whereupon Scholar B, together with Scholars C and D, began going on at great length about my lack of credentials in science, which of course I had highlighted at the beginning of the article, and how I therefore had no business writing about the subject at all. The question was raised by a friend or two of mine as to why, in that case, Scholar B's similarly uncredentialed article had been approved, and the consensus was that it's okay to write uncredentialed and even state a very definite opinion as long as what you're saying is that the mainstream view is right, but otherwise you should shut up and not lecture your betters. Um, okay.

In any event, in the course of this my curriculum vitae came up, because it happened to be mentioned (by those recommending my post) that, though I'm not credentialed in the sciences, I am credentialed in philosophy in virtue of my publication record. The implication was, I take it, that at least I'm not just a fool and that I have some claim, however indirect, to knowing something about arguments and evidence.

In none of this was the substance of my piece on the historical Adam ever tackled by Scholars B et. al. It was pure ad hominem, including references to totally unrelated blog posts (e.g., my having recommended halting Muslim immigration) and the use of a "cute" little expression coined by one of their number, the use of which in this context insinuated that I'm a protege and/or mindless follower of William Lane Craig, whom evidently they despise. (I'm honored by the implication, though in fact I'm a scholarly friend rather than a protege or follower of Dr. Craig.)

Here's the even odder bit of the whole thing: When my credentials in philosophy were brought up, Scholar B, apparently unaware that the privacy settings on the thread (which was set to "public") made his comments visible to anyone in the universe with an Internet connection and a Facebook account, began hypothesizing out of the clear blue sky that a) I have flunked out of a philosophy graduate program at some point (false) and, worse, b) I falsify my publication record, do not pull my weight in co-written articles, and somehow induce others to co-write articles with me (or write them for me?) on which I deceptively put my name, sometimes as sole author. All of this was made up out of whole cloth without a scintilla of evidence beyond the fact that I do not have a degree in philosophy but publish articles in the field. When I first came into the thread and challenged it I was told insouciantly to "falsify" the latter baseless smear (not only on me but also on my philosophical friends and associates who allegedly participate in padding my resume with their uncredited work), which evinces, to put it mildly, a rather odd concept of the burden of proof.

Eventually, Scholar B pulled in his horns a bit and graciously (???) decided to grant that I write my own publications. All of this with a good deal of, "Well, you must admit..." and "Your history is a little unusual..." and so forth in his own defense. The really humorous part is that based on his own statement what triggered his reevaluation was apparently not waking up one cold 3 a.m. with the thought, "Omigosh, I have behaved like an unprofessional, childish, irrational, obsessively ad hominem-making twit" but rather stumbling across this other post of mine, which evidently he liked a lot better than the one on the historical Adam and that he thought showed my argumentative chops. As the kids say, "Okay, dude, whatever."

Thus endeth the Facebook drama story. Here is the reflection:

It would be difficult to find subjects more dully apolitical than those in my purely philosophical publications. (Here I am not counting the philosophy of religion.) My most recently accepted article (to appear in due course in the European Journal of Analytic Philosophy) is on the sub-field of Bayesian coherentism and argues that what is known as Bayesian coherentism is not really a species of coherentism in terms of the epistemological structure it recommends. On this point I disagree with a number of scholars who have argued that the various projects discussed under the umbrella of Bayesian coherentism do have something to do with coherentist theories of the structure of justification. Another of my individually published papers from several years ago is about Jeffrey conditionalization. A co-published paper (with my husband) in Erkenntnis is about foundationalist modeling of the phenomenon of mutual support. You get the idea. None of these are about hot topics in either theology or politics. If you aren't interested in the fields of probability theory or epistemology, and even narrow sub-specialties thereof, you aren't going to be interested.

So how in the world did it come about that unpleasant, unprofessional, juvenile, and false conjectures about my authorship of such narrowly scholarly articles featured in a discussion of the science concerning the historical Adam? That is undeniably a hot topic and might fairly be said to be political (in a broad sense).

Well, it's pretty obvious, isn't it? I wrote a post that Scholars B et. al. didn't agree with on a subject they feel strongly about, where neither I nor they have any professional credentials. Wishing to engage in ad hominem reasoning, their first question was, "Who the heck is this person?" Those wanting to get them to at least engage a little bit with my piece on the science of the historical Adam pointed out that, at a minimum, I'm not a fool, and they did so by referring to my publication record in epistemology and probability, and it all went on from there.

So very indirectly, my work in esoteric philosophical fields is sorta kinda relevant-ish to whether an article I wrote as an amateur interested in a scientific discussion should be brushed off without even reading it or engaging with it.

Now, I can't forbear adding that on more than one occasion in my writing career probability and epistemology have intersected directly with real-world topics. For example, the issue of ad hoc reasoning is extremely important in science, history, and even biblical studies. In fact, it's going to be relevant almost anywhere that people make conjectures and compare hypotheses. So the fact that I've published professionally on the analysis of ad hocness has a pretty obvious potential application to my ability to evaluate my own and others' arguments in real-life areas, including those that people get hot under the collar about. Similarly, Tim's and my article in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology on the resurrection of Jesus (an important, real-world topic) makes use of Bayesian modeling, and a Bayesian approach can help to correct certain characteristic errors in the philosophy of religion and in common arguments about miracles.

But I want to be careful about this. Empirical fields are fact-heavy, and if you lack important facts, you're going to mess up. You can't do history, science, or biblical studies from an armchair. The Internet can help, as can sheer industriousness, but even in the information age it does indeed help to know a lot about science if you're going to try to evaluate arguments in science. I don't claim that being an epistemologist makes me an expert on everything. That would be foolish. I of course still have huge gaps in my knowledge of the real world, and it could certainly happen that one of these gaps would cause me to stumble in my evaluation of the evidence about some particular empirical topic.

More: Probability, rightly done, is a model of good judgement, not a substitute for it. Though I speak with the tongues of Bayes and of Condorcet and have not good judgement, I am as a sounding brass or tinkling cymbal. Indeed, one often finds the problem of poor judgement among credentialed experts as well. For example, knowing a lot about biblical languages doesn't by itself make you a good judge of the weight of the evidence concerning whether Jesus really said that he was God or whether Luke wrote the book of Acts.

I think that studying philosophy has helped me to have better judgement. It has helped me most of all to be more self-aware about how I am evaluating arguments. But it is not a substitute for good judgement, and just last week a contractor had better judgement than I did about the source of a leak in my house, as was shown by the event. He found the leak; I didn't.

So here's where I'm going with all of this: I try very hard to be balanced, humble, and careful about what I claim and to separate my persona as rampaging blogger-of-all-trades from my persona as published epistemologist, but there's no getting around it. People are going to think that my knowledge of technical fields is relevant to my ability to judge arguments in many fields in which I have no expertise whatsoever, and there is some indirect relevance, so they aren't entirely wrong.

The uncomfortable outcome of that is that in some sense the apolitical becomes political. I spend time thinking about things like, "How is Wayne Myrvold's measure of Bayesian unification related to the measure I want to write about?" In doing so I pride myself on doing philosophy for philosophy's sake. After all, one can't be a politically incorrect, shoot-em-up blogger all the time. Nor even for that matter does one want to be doing applied epistemology in some interesting field with practical relevance (e.g., biblical studies) all the time. At least, I don't. One wants to have apolitical, impractical things that one does just for the love of it, whether it be cooking, raising caterpillars, or analytic philosophy. And that's very important. In fact, I believe that doing things for their own sake makes the world go round. (The funny thing is that saying that is now considered "conservative" in some circles, which just goes to show how messed up our world really is.) But if one does some intellectual endeavor well, and if one gets some sort of credit for it from an allegedly unbiased source (e.g., accepted publications in refereed journals), this will be brought up, for good or for ill, when one starts talking about hotter, less ivory-towered subjects. Scholar B knew that. With all of his ad hominem-ing, Scholar B went straight for the political jugular: What this Lydia McGrew, whoever she may be, is saying about the historical Adam really ticks me off. I can tell that just from a brief skim. Who does she think she is? Some nobody. Oh, now they're telling me she isn't a nobody because she has published widely in probability in epistemology. Well, better slap that down real fast with a few well-placed (if unsupported) invidious insinuations or else I might have to acknowledge that she isn't a complete idiot, which might require me actually to read and discuss her arguments concerning the historical Adam, which I'd rather not do.

The best way to get around this politicizing of the apolitical (which seems to me sad somehow) would be just to pay attention to the arguments from the beginning. Personally, I favor that approach. After all, if you're interested in the historical Adam (which Scholar B evidently is, since he wrote a piece of his own about the matter) and somebody gives you a link to a blog post, and if you're going to spend time making silly comments about the author (about whom you know nothing), and then defending your silly comments, and then retracting them with an ill grace, you could more profitably spend those very same minutes actually reading the post and evaluating its content--a novel thought.

Still and all, there's probably no getting around it: When I publish in pure technical fields, it boosts my creds in non-technical fields in which I have less knowledge! I'm going to keep trying to publish pure epistemology and probability, because I love it. But I can't pretend that I don't know about the indirect relevance that both my work, and my recognition for that work, have to the many other hot topics I'm deeply interested in and write a lot about. Is that part of why I do it--to boost my creds? To be honest, yes, partly, especially for the sake of my work in Christian apologetics. But I also do it for its own sake, and for that reason I'm going to keep on trying to keep a divide, even if I can't and shouldn't try to achieve a hermetic seal, between my political and apolitical endeavors and even a distinction between pure and applied epistemology and probability. That's pretty important.

Speaking of which, I'd better get back to that 2003 article on Bayesian unification...

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Follow up to Part II of Ehrman-McGrew radio debate

Having now listened to Part II of the McGrew-Ehrman radio debate on the British show Unbelievable, I have some follow-up thoughts. The majority of this post will be focused on debunking Ehrman's claim in the debate to have shown a trajectory through the gospels of increasing blame on the Jews for Jesus' death and exoneration of Pilate and Ehrman's attempt to explain a pair of undesigned coincidences connected with the trial before Pilate by this means. Such trajectory claims are notably poorly supported and easy to counterexample, but when stated in a confident tone and supported by selective data, they can sound plausible to the unwary. I debunked one of them (the claim that Jesus is first more human, then more noble and godlike in the passion) here. Ehrman's claim of increasing blame upon the Jews fares no better.

I want to encourage readers to listen to Part II. There is lots of good information there from Tim McGrew. This post of mine is merely supplementary.

To begin with, some miscellaneous points:

Tim gives an undesigned coincidence at approximately minute 36 in which Jesus turns to Philip at the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6) and asks where to buy bread for the crowd. John says in completely disconnected passages that Philip is from Bethsaida, and Luke says that this event took place in the region near Bethsaida. These three points come together to support the hypothesis that Jesus asked Philip this question (of course, not seriously proposing that they should buy bread for the crowd) because Philip was from the region. Ehrman suggests that this is explained by the fact that either John had access to Luke (he himself doubts this but thinks it is possible) or had "heard stories" which formed the basis of the gospel of Luke and included the statement that the event took place near Bethsaida.

This is an extremely weak explanation. Tim points out in the interview one reason for its weakness: If the author of John were doing this deliberately, based on access to Luke or to such stories, to make his gospel look good, he would not have left out the information that this took place near Bethsaida. I would add that, for similar reasons, it is also weak if one hypothesizes some vague "influence" without the deliberate intent to put in the Philip detail to strengthen the appearance of verisimilitude. To begin with, such an hypothesis is very cloudy. (It's hard to tell if Ehrman is hypothesizing that the author of John did this deliberately or not.) But more, if what was doing the influencing was that the author of John had read Luke or "heard stories" mentioning that the event took place near Bethsaida, the probable outcome would be his mentioning Bethsaida, not his mentioning Philip! Otherwise, we have the strange idea that the author of John vaguely remembered something about Bethsaida  in connection with this event (from stories he'd heard or from Luke), vaguely remembered that he himself had (fictionally?) written elsewhere that Philip was from Bethsaida, and then up out of his subconscious popped the name "Philip" (but not the name "Bethsaida") in writing fictionally about the feeding of the five thousand, and that was what got put in! This is a poor explanation.

In contrast, exactly this sort of situation where one person mentions a particular detail while another person mentions a different detail is common in normal witness testimony. (Cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace discusses this point in Cold Case Christianity.) People who remember events mention details as they happen to strike them from their memories. If the stories are based on the same underlying reality, it often happens that these somewhat randomly remembered details fit together. Hypotheses of dependence among the gospels do not have the same explanatory force for this type of fitting together.

Next miscellaneous point: Late in the interview (after minute 44), Ehrman literally laughs to scorn the idea that the disciples promulgated their stories of Jesus' miracles and resurrection under initial conditions of great hostility and opposition. When Tim points out that this is clearly recorded in Acts, Ehrman says that, even if one takes Acts at face value, this isn't really important as confirmation of their stories, because approximately 8,000 Christians are converted but, in the earliest chapters, only two people (Peter and John) are put in prison.

This response to the data in Acts is extremely shallow. Imagine a mega-church with 8,000 members and a pastoral staff of twelve. Imagine that two of the most prominent pastors get put in prison, repeatedly, for their preaching. Is this no biggie? Does this have no potential "chilling effect" upon the rest of the pastoral staff?  Now suppose that the pastoral staff have been lying or telling stories that are very poorly supported. Is it not likely that they will think twice about continuing to do so given the arrest of two of the chief pastors?

But more: There was not time in the interview to go on describing the persecutions in Acts, but Ehrman must surely know that Acts records even more persecutions of the earliest church--the stoning of Stephen, the persecution from Saul of Tarsus, the killing of James the son of Zebedee by Herod, and the additional imprisonment of Peter by Herod. The persecution from Saul involved many people (Acts 8), arose first in Jerusalem, and scattered the believers.

To dismiss all of this as though it has no relevance to whether the disciples would have lied or would have told fantastical, unsupported stories about Jesus at this time, claiming to be witnesses thereof, shows a complete lack of understanding of human psychology.

Next miscellaneous point: Ehrman outright contradicted himself in the debate on a point that he was (in his later statements) vigorously contesting.

One of the undesigned coincidences Tim explained involved Jesus' statement, "You say it" to Pilate in Luke 23:3 when Pilates asks, "Are you the king of the Jews." It was in response to this coincidence that Ehrman spun out his theory of a trajectory of Christian anti-semitism. Initially, when propounding this theory (just after minute 18), Ehrman says this, "The reason that in the gospel of John and the gospel of Luke that Pilate at first doesn't seem to do anything about it once Jesus admits he's the king of the Jews has a different reason." (emphasis added) This "different reason" is supposed to be the attempt to exonerate Pilate, which I will discuss. But notice that here Ehrman explicitly says, summarizing the passages, that Jesus admits he's the king of the Jews. But later, after minute 30, for some reason he starts contesting this very point! When Tim argues that Pilate would have been abrogating his responsibility as Roman governor by finding no fault in Jesus if Jesus admitted the charge without further explanation, Ehrman begins aggressively challenging this interpretation of "You say it" in Luke 23:3. Tim asks him if he is denying that this is what Jesus' response amounts to (an admission), and Ehrman says, "I absolutely don't think he's saying that."

This is a flat contradiction. I could guess at the reason. Tim has a rather clever way of showing the oddity of what we have in Luke, taken alone. It is as though Pilate is saying, "Oh, you're the king of the Jews. No problem." My psychological guess (which could be wrong) is that this catchy way of making the oddity of Luke vivid caught Ehrman's attention and he decided to challenge it, not remembering that he had earlier said himself that "Jesus admit he's the king of the Jews."

As Tim points out, even if Jesus' phrase "you say it" is not an outright admission, it is at a minimum a refusal to deny the charge--cheeky and suspicious under the circumstances (without further explanation), and something a Roman governor should not be satisfied with when he's concerned about a putative case of sedition. There are a couple of possible translations of Jesus' response, but neither explains Pilate's dismissal of all guilt, taken alone. (Hence the need for supplementary information, which we find in John.)

I would add that there is some independent reason to translate, "You say it" as an affirmative. Jesus gives a similar answer in Matthew 26:64 (and Luke 22:70) before the Sanhedrin. The high priest charges Jesus by the living God (vs. 63) to tell them whether he is the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus answers, "You have said it; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see the son of man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven." In response, the high priest tears his robes (vs. 65) saying, "He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy." Even more significantly, in Mark 15:62, this very same response by Jesus to the high priest is given by the more explicit, "Ego eimi"--"I am," which is precisely the wording Ehrman says (contradicting himself) that Luke 23 would have if Jesus is admitting to Pilate that he is the king of the Jews. This is fairly strong independent evidence that Jesus' words "you have said it" or "you say it" mean "yes." In John 18:37, when Jesus answers Pilate's question, "Are you a king?" with the words "You say," he expands upon the affirmative nature of the answer: "For this I have been born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth." (In John, Jesus explains that his kingdom is not of this world, which explains Pilate's finding no fault in him.)

Final miscellaneous point: Ehrman says (just after minute 19) that as time went on the Christians were "in heightened situations of antagonism with Jews, and Christians began portraying Jews as the ones responsible for Jesus' death. And so that's why in the later sources Pilate has to have his arm twisted. Because that shows that in fact it's the Jews who were at fault." He is claiming an external, historical trajectory of "heightened situations of antagonism with the Jews" as a causal explanation for what he sees as a trajectory of increasing anti-Jewish expressions in Christian writings.

Historically, this is completely backwards, all the more so since Ehrman wants to carry this pattern on into the second century. The antagonism with Jewish opponents was an earlier phenomenon in Christianity and with the Romans was a later phenomenon. Acts makes very plain the fact that the persecution of the new church came first from the Sanhedrin and from Saul of Tarsus, that Herod executed James to please the Jews, and that Paul after his conversion was constantly persecuted by Jewish opponents. The Romans in Acts scarcely even seem to know who the Christians are and are inclined to view much of this as some weird, internecine religious strife (as in the case of Gallio in Acts 18). There is literally no time in Acts at the beginning of Christianity when the new Christians are not in a "situation of antagonism" with Jewish persecutors.

In contrast, historically, Nero's first persecution of Christians was in A.D. 64. The destruction of Jerusalem took place in A.D. 70, after which point the Jews were scattered and had no independent governmental and social structures permitting them to persecute Christians as they did in the early days of the church. The ruthless Roman suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt and its aftermath in the early second century made things even worse for Jews. But Pliny the Younger in the earlier 2nd century under the Emperor Trajan was torturing Christian deaconesses for the "superstition" of Christianity. In other words, the Romans came to be the persecutors of Christianity while the Jews were at first the chief persecutors but later were in far less of a position to give the Christians a hard time. This is exactly the opposite of Ehrman's claim that Christians gradually came to be in a situation of "heightened antagonism" with Jews.

Which brings me to...

The claimed trajectory of anti-semitism in the gospels as an explanation of undesigned coincidences

Before debunking this claim of trajectory, let me emphasize (as Tim does in the interview) that it doesn't even begin to explain the undesigned coincidences Tim was pointing out. Tim points out the oddity of the fact that Pilate questions Jesus in Luke 23:2-4 about whether he is the king of the Jews, after the Jewish leaders accuse him, Jesus either admits or at least cheekily refuses to deny the charge, and Pilate apparently turns around immediately and says that he finds no fault in him. Ehrman claims that there is nothing to explain because this is part of an increasing pattern of blaming the Jews and showing that Jesus is innocent under Roman law. But this makes no sense. If that were Luke's purpose, he could easily have left out Pilate's questioning and Jesus' answer. He could have merely said that Pilate declared Jesus innocent after questioning him. Then the possibility would be left open that Pilate learned something that exonerated Jesus under Roman law in his questioning. Leaving in Pilate's question and Jesus' answer in Luke doesn't make Jesus look innocent under Roman law. It makes him look highly suspicious under Roman law!

Similarly, Tim points out that there is a coincidence in the opposite direction, because John records that Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" (John 18:33) but doesn't record any accusation to that effect against Jesus. The accusation of sedition, explaining Pilate's question, is actually found in Luke. Ehrman's response (minute 17 and following) was that this is well explained by the fact that, by the time John was written, everyone knew the "historical datum" that Jesus was condemned to death for claiming to be the king of the Jews. But wouldn't this be likely to lead to John's including the accusation as well as Pilate's question in his gospel, not leaving out the accusation and including only the question? Or at least, including something that explained the question--some prior claim to kingship made by Jesus, for example, and known to Pilate? As the passage stands, Pilate's question appears abrupt, since the Jews have thus far brought no concrete accusation against Jesus as recorded in John, and Pilate appears to know nothing about Jesus. The choppy nature of the scene in John is well explained by the casual nature of witness testimony but not explained at all by the mere historical information that Jesus was eventually condemned to death for claiming to be a king. Moreover, as I will point out again below, since Ehrman is treating John as continuing a progression of greater and greater Jew-blaming, John's failure to include their slanderous, specific accusations against Jesus is strange indeed and actually one of many counterexamples to the claimed trajectory in the gospels.

On to those counterexamples:

Like the failed trajectory claim concerning the "more human" to "more noble" or "more godlike" Jesus, the claim that the gospels gradually make the Jews more responsible for Jesus' death and Pilate less responsible is easily counterexampled when one simply opens one's Bible. Ehrman's argument for this claim is an excellent example of how cherry-picking data can create phantom trajectories out of thin air. Here is Ehrman's trajectory claim (minute 19):

If you arrange our traditions chronologically, so suppose you start with the gospel of Mark, and then you move to Matthew, then to Luke, then to John, and then to the Gospel of Peter in the second century, and then to what Justin Martyr says...the most striking feature of the traditions about Jesus being condemned to death is that Pilate becomes increasingly innocent with the passing of time and the Jewish people become increasingly guilty. That's because as Christians were telling and retelling their stories, they were in heightened situations of antagonism with Jews, and Christians began portraying Jews as the ones responsible for Jesus' death. And so that's why in the later sources Pilate has to have his arm twisted. Because that shows that in fact it's the Jews who were at fault.
Let's start with Mark. Ehrman claims in the interview (minute 21) that in Mark, Pilate and the Jews are both guilty (he implies, equally guilty) of Jesus' death, but that in later gospels Pilate needs to have his arm twisted. Of Mark, Ehrman says, "It's basically Pilate and the Jewish leaders pretty much agreeing that this needs to be done."

This is extremely misleading as a description of Mark. Mark, like all the other gospels, attributes to the chief priests and other Jewish leaders the plot to kill Jesus, stating that they were restrained earlier only by fear of the multitude, who were supportive of Jesus. (Mark 11:18) Mark records, like the other synoptics, the plot between Judas and the chief priests to have Jesus betrayed and captured, and how they promised Judas money. (Mark 14:10-11) Mark, like the other gospels, records that those who arrested Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane were from the chief priests (Mark 14:43), that the Jewish leaders first tried him before the high priest, and that it was they who first delivered him to Pilate (Mark 15:1).

In Mark 15:3-15, Pilate attempts in vs. 9 and 14 to get the crowd to agree to his releasing Jesus! In fact, vs. 10 says explicitly that he suggested that he release Jesus to them because "he was aware that the chief priests had delivered Him up because of envy." This isn't fitting very well with the idea that, in Mark, it's "basically Pilate and the Jewish leaders pretty much agreeing that this needs to be done," is it?

Mark 15:11 states that the chief priests stirred up the multitude to demand Barabbas. In vs. 14, Pilate protests, "Why, what evil has he done?" but they shout all the more, "Crucify Him!" This isn't fitting the pattern very well, is it?

In other words, in Mark, the Jewish leaders are the primary, driving force behind Jesus' crucifixion, and Pilate does need to have his arm twisted. All that one can say is that Mark's account of Jesus' interactions with Pilate is more compressed than later accounts--for example, it does not include the statement found in Luke that Jesus is sent to Herod or the various interviews between Jesus and Pilate found in John. But compression in itself does not mean that Pilate is more guilty or the Jews less guilty in Mark than anywhere else.

And here's another little tidbit. If we widen our focus (always a good thing to avoid cherry picking), we find in Mark 15:39 the Roman centurion saying, "Surely this was the son of God," which is a pretty positive portrayal of a Roman in the situation. (Remember, the claimed trajectory is of increasingly negative portrayals of the Jews and positive portrayals of Pilate, on the grounds that Jesus was innocent under Roman law.)

How about Matthew? Here, Ehrman makes much (minute 22 and following) of the dramatic scene in Matthew 27:24-25 where Pilate washes his hands and declares himself innocent of "this man's blood" and where the people cry out, "His blood be on us and on our children!" Arguably, this is the single most chilling scene in all of the New Testament as regards alleged Jewish responsibility for Jesus' death. (I myself think it's also pretty damning as a portrait of Pilate. But Ehrman wants to say that it portrays Pilate as innocent.) It is certainly a scene that is often said to be anti-Semitic in Scripture.

Ehrman tries to get full value of this scene as part of his developmental hypothesis: See how Matthew assigns the blame to the Jews? See how much more Matthew assigns the blame to the Jews than Mark does? See how this chronological trajectory is developing?

Well, no. Because what Ehrman doesn't say is that there is nothing like this in Luke and John, which are later than Matthew. This scene of hand-washing and of the Jewish crowd crying out "his blood be upon us and on our children" occurs in Matthew but not in the later Luke and John. This is an important counterexample to the developmental thesis.

What Ehrman moves on to highlight in Luke is that Pilate three times declares Jesus to be not guilty, that Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, and that Pilate says that Herod found nothing deserving of death in Jesus. Says Ehrman, "The innocence of Pilate is being heightened."

This is maximal cherry-picking. Taking attention away from the absence in Luke of Matthew's dramatic hand-washing and "his blood be upon us" scene, Ehrman states that Pilate's innocence is being "heightened" in Luke by the mere repetition of Pilate's statement that he finds no guilt in Jesus. (One of these, Luke 23:22, is actually just a fleshing out of, "Why, what evil has he done" in Mark.) To try to make Luke sound more anti-Semitic and pro-Pilate than Matthew simply because of the repeated statement by Pilate that he finds no guilt in Jesus is completely untenable. We can be quite sure that if the scene in Matthew were instead found in John, it would be used triumphantly as evidence of the enormously increased anti-Semitism in the gospels by the time one reaches the last of them. But in fact, by Ehrman's own chronological ordering, Matthew is only the second gospel, and that scene is unique to him. If the account of Jesus' trial before Pilate in Luke 23 is compared with Mark 15, it appears to be merely a more fleshed-out account, not one which blames Pilate particularly less or the Jews particularly more.

Bonus (ht to Esteemed Husband for noticing this): In Luke 23:27-31, a great crowd of (obviously Jewish) people, especially women, mourn and lament over Jesus' sentence as he is led away to die. So much for Luke's increasing anti-Jewish bias.

What about John? There are several points Ehrman conveniently leaves out about John. I have already mentioned the absence in John of anything remotely like the dramatic "his blood be upon us" scene in Matthew. John also does not have the sympathetic and awed Roman centurion, found in all the synoptics, at the foot of the cross. Here are some more:

Luke contains the explicit and slanderous accusation by the Jewish leaders to Pilate (Luke 23:2) that Jesus has forbidden paying taxes to Caesar. This would be especially likely to get the attention of the Roman governor. But, darn it! That's not found in John. The Jewish leaders also say in Luke 23:5 that Jesus "stirs up the people" all over Judea and as far as Galilee--an implication that Jesus is a dangerous rabble-rouser who should be of concern to Rome. Go ahead and check: That detail is not found in John, either. Ehrman wants to say, in his analysis of Luke, that Jesus' trial before Herod and the statement that Herod found him innocent in Luke are evidence of heightened blame towards the Jews and the heightened innocence of Pilate in Luke. I don't actually agree that that is the effect in Luke, but as it happens, oops! The trial before Herod isn't in John, either. If one cherry-picked these points instead of the ones Ehrman chooses, one could argue that there is less sympathy for the Romans and less blame on the Jews in John, the latest-written gospel, than in the synoptics, which are earlier.

Jesus' greater interactions with Pilate in John arguably make Pilate appear more to blame, not less, than in the earlier gospels. Since John shows that Pilate knows that Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, since Pilate says three times that Jesus is not guilty, Pilate's eventually giving in is more blameworthy from both a Roman and a moral perspective. He has agreed to the crucifixion of a man he knows (after careful examination) to be innocent. How Pilate's awareness of Jesus' innocence heightens Pilate's innocence is, when you stop to think about it, quite a mystery!

Back on the other side, one can point out in John that Jesus says that Pilate's power comes from God and therefore that those who delivered him to Pilate have the greater sin (John 19:11). John alone has the Jewish leaders' declaration, "We have no king but Caesar" and their statement that Pilate is not "Caesar's friend" if he releases Jesus (John 19:12-15) I'm rather surprised that Ehrman didn't happen to mention those, since they would have seemed convenient for his position.

But on the other side again, in (according to Ehrman) the earliest gospel, in Mark 15:31-32, the chief priests and scribes mock Jesus on the cross and taunt him to come down from the cross to prove his Messiahship. "Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe." These insults are also found in Matthew and Luke. But John, the latest gospel, has no such specifically Jewish insults flung at Jesus on the cross.

I am not arguing for a reverse pattern, according to which Pilate is actually seen as more to blame and the Jews less to blame in John. I am arguing that, as so often when these claims are made, there is no pattern of development in either direction. The gospels are remarkably unanimous in their description of the basic outline of Jesus' trials and crucifixion, and the details are varied, not patterned. If one looks at the whole of the evidence, one sees that John simply has a lot of different material from the synoptics in these scenes, not material that falls into a neat pattern of ideological or literary development.

And last, I come to the one detail Ehrman really emphasizes for John. This is a particularly egregious abuse of the text by Ehrman. He says (from about minute 23) that the Jewish priests are "the ones who crucify Jesus in the gospel of John."

When you get to the Gospel of John it's even more striking. This is something you wouldn't get reading it in most English translations. Three times, once more, Pilate declares Jesus innocent. And finally, when the Jewish priests insist that Pilate crucify him, the Greek text says 'So Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.' The antecedent there are the Jewish priests. They're the ones who crucify Jesus in the gospel of John.

Here's Ehrman's argument: The end of John 19:15 says that the Jewish priests say, "We have no king but Caesar." John 19:16 says that Pilate "delivered him up to them to be crucified," where the most plausible antecedent of "them" in vs. 16 is "the chief priests" from vs. 15. Ehrman's implication that this meaning of "them" wouldn't be seen in most English translations is a rather absurd attempt to make it look like he has some esoteric, specialist knowledge. The probable antecedent of "them" is visible on the surface of any good English translation, not particularly "in the Greek text."

But to conclude from this that "They're the ones who crucify Jesus in the gospel of John" is a piece of serious exegetical malpractice.

Historically, crucifixion was a Roman punishment, not one used directly by Jews themselves. Perhaps Ehrman is insinuating that the author of John didn't know this. The author of the Gospel of Peter, which Ehrman mentions next, may indeed have been writing later and hence lacking this historical information; that fragment is at least ambiguous as to whether the Jewish crowds or the Roman soldiers crucify Jesus. Perhaps Ehrman is reading the apocryphal Gospel of Peter back into the Gospel of John!

As for the Gospel of John, John states four times that the crucifixion of Jesus as well as that of two other prisoners was carried out by the Roman soldiers.

--John 19:23: "The soldiers therefore, when they had crucified Jesus, took his outer garments and made four parts..."

--John 19:25: "Therefore the soldiers did these things."

--John 19:32: "The soldiers therefore came, and broke the legs of the first man, and of the other man who was crucified with Him."

--John 19:43: "But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water."

--Bonus: The Jews in John 19:31 are not carrying out the crucifixion, because they have to ask Pilate to order the men's legs to be broken so that they will die before the Sabbath. The Romans are unambiguously the ones conducting the death process.

Ehrman's statement that the Jewish priests crucify Jesus in the Gospel of John verges on deception.

Finding developmental patterns in the gospels is rather like "finding" numerological patterns in the Bible or "finding" paths in a trackless forest. One can always pick data that make it appear that there is a path, but when one takes another look, one is forced to admit that it was all a product of one's imagination.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I suggest that the tools of literary criticism and literary development are woefully inadequate for interpreting the gospels. The hypothesis that these documents are accounts at few or no removes from eyewitnesses, with its expectation of variation in detail and mutual explanation among details, works much better. Let's take a fresh look and start using the better explanatory tool.