Saturday, January 28, 2012

A nifty biblical play on words

In the course of studying messianic prophecy, I recently came upon 2 Samuel 7:14. It's alluded to as a prophecy of Jesus Christ in Hebrews 1:5. (In Acts 3:24, the Apostles refer to all the prophets from Samuel onward as having testified to the later coming of Jesus, and I was trying to figure out what they could have in mind from Samuel.) So I read the chapter in Samuel for the first time in a long time. It begins with David's desire to build a house for God--a temple. David considers it unworthy that he dwells in a house made of cedar wood while the worship of God is still conducted in the tabernacle--a house made of curtains.

But the prophet Nathan tells David, from the Lord, that this is not to be and that David's son (clearly meaning Solomon) will build a temple for God.

What's literarily exciting is the way that the entire chapter plays with the word "house." Verse 11 says, "Also the LORD telleth thee that he will make thee an house," followed by prophecies that are partly of Solomon and partly of the continuation of David's line and the establishment of the kingship in David's lineage forever. (Hence the excuse for the author of Hebrews to take a portion of vs. 14 to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ, despite the fact that its first fulfillment is clearly intended to be in Solomon.)

When David replies, he goes in and sits "before the Lord" (in the tabernacle, perhaps?) and says, "Who am I, O Lord God? And what is my house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?" (vs. 18) David's entire prayer is a kind of poem. Here is a further excerpt:

And now, O Lord God, the word that thou hast spoken concerning thy servant, and concerning his house, establish it for ever, and do as thou hast said. And let thy name be magnified for ever, saying, The Lord of hosts is the God over Israel, and let the house of thy servant David be established before thee. For thou, O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, hast revealed to thy servant, saying, I will build thee an house. Therefore hath thy servant found in his heart to pray this prayer unto thee. (vss. 25-27)
So David tells God that he wants to build God a house, and God tells David, "No, I'm the one doing the building around here. I will build you a house," using "house" in the sense of "lineage" or "descendants." And David, the poet, is awed and delighted by God's promises and by God's use of wordplay in making those promises and turns around and makes a masterpiece of a prayer to praise God.

It's important for us Gentiles to realize how intensely Jewish all of this is. The Jewish delight in wordplay in the Old Testament is very strong. (Another example is the fact that "Samuel" means "God hears" and that when God speaks to the boy Samuel in the night in the tabernacle, the old priest Eli tells Samuel to say to God, "Speak, Lord, for your servant hears." God heard--which includes responded to--Samuel's mother and sent her a son. Her son must, in turn, hear the Lord.)

This is relevant to the whole notion of fulfillment and prophecy. It's very easy for us literal-minded Anglo-Saxons to feel slightly frustrated at such concepts as layers of meaning, double fulfillments, and the like. And impatience with highly, shall we say, creative Scriptural interpretations, interpretations that have an excessive ratio of imagination to justification, is understandable. But at the same time, part of understanding the meaning of Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New Testament, is understanding that symbolism, typology, and even what one might call puns, including historical puns, are part of the meaning. I may have more to say about this another time, as I've had an interesting discussion of the matter of Biblical prophecy and "reading the Old Testament in light of the New Testament" with a Facebook friend lately. For the nonce, just enjoy 2 Samuel 7.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A reply to a question

A reader has attempted to post an entirely off-topic question in a recent post. The question concerns probability theory and the resurrection. After some consideration, I've decided to recast the question a bit more clearly and answer it here rather than either ignoring it or publishing it in a thread where it does not belong. (Had the reader left an e-mail address, I might have replied that way, but he didn't.)

The reader's question, reworded by me, runs approximately like this:
It seems to the reader that the prior probability of the resurrection is an exception to the law of total probability. The reader asserts that P(R|~G) = 0. He also correctly points out that, on the assumption that P(R|~G) = 0, we should calculate P(R) = P(G) x P(R|G). The problem, the reader claims, is that multiplying the prior probability of God's existence by the probability that the resurrection takes place given God's existence appears to produce a probabilistic error. The reader produces a modus ponens argument:

p1= If God doesn't exist, then the resurrection is impossible.(The reader takes this to be analytically true.)

p2= God doesn't exist.

c= Therefore, the resurrection is impossible.

If premise 1 is analytic, one must deny premise 2 to deny the conclusion. But, says the reader, premise 2 need only be more plausible than not to be assertable. That would seem to mean that if P(G)<50%, the probability of the resurrection is 0, which, however, is not what we would get if we calculated the prior probability of the resurrection as we should using the law of total probability--that is P(R) = P(G) x P(R|G).

I'm going to waive the question of whether it is analytically true that the resurrection is impossible if God doesn't exist, because that either is simply a definitional matter (e.g., if you define "the resurrection" as an act of God) or involves a near-zero probability of a naturalistic resurrection.

The error in the reader's reasoning arises from his putting the wrong kind of weight--specifically, probabilistic weight--on the claim that one is justified in asserting that God doesn't exist if the probability of God's existence is less than .5. Even supposing that we grant that, that has no weight whatsoever for calculating the prior probability of the resurrection. You cannot go from, "'God does not exist' can be asserted justifiably if it is more probable than not" to "We should do our calculations of the probability of other propositions based on treating the probability of God's existence as 0 whenever the probability of God's existence is less than .5."

In essence, the above argument is a completely confused attempt to combine deductive and probabilistic reasoning. There would be no probabilistic inconsistency if the atheist were to say, viewing the prior probabilities, that probably the resurrection could not happen, or something like that. But that would have to be carefully spelled out by adding the word "probably" after "therefore" in the conclusion. (Compare "If John [defined by some definite description] doesn't exist, it is impossible for John to speak to me. John [defined by that definite description] doesn't exist. Therefore, it is impossible for John to speak to me.) The prior probability of R just is what it is. Nothing magical happens if the prior probability of G is below .5. Whatever the prior probability of G might be, you just plug that into the total probability calculation for the prior of R, and that's it. The modus ponens argument given simply doesn't tell us what the prior probability of R is.

Another way to put this is that you have already taken into account the assumption that the resurrection is impossible if God does not exist in the very act of reducing the prior probability of R to P(G) x P(R|G). Nothing more is required to take that assumption into account. The attempt to take it into account (somehow) more seriously by the modus ponens argument and the worry about what happens if the prior for G is less than .5 only darkens counsel.

The moral of the story: Don't mix apples and oranges, at least unless you're well-trained in the art of making apple-orange preserves. When you do probability, do probability. When you do deductive logic, do deductive logic. If you insist on mixing them, be verry, verry careful, or you could get yourself very, very confused.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Follow-up on Mearsheimer et. al.

This is a follow-up to the previous post. Subsequent to writing that post, I did more research on the British anti-semite whose book was lauded by allegedly respectable political scientist John Mearsheimer and who was defended (in the course of defending Mearsheimer) by philosopher Brian Leiter. I am indebted to this post by Pejman Yousefzadeh for links to this additional information. I put this information into the comments on my earlier post, but I think it deserves more attention than that is likely to get there.

One of the questions that arose in the course of Mearsheimer's and Leiter's defense of Mearsheimer's blurb was whether or not Atzmon, the author of the bizarre book that Mearsheimer blurbed, is either a Holocaust denier or Holocaust revisionist. Mearsheimer, in the course of doubling down and refusing to budge, stated unequivocally:

I cannot find evidence in his book or in his other writings that indicate he 'traffics in Holocaust denial.

Notice that this concerns other things Atzmon has written, not just the book Mearsheimer blurbed. Like Leiter, who blandly declared Atzmon (on the basis of extremely brief research) a "cosmopolitan" rather than an anti-semite, Mearsheimer declares him no Holocaust denier at all.

In the very first comment on Mearsheimer's post defending himself (and Atzmon), a reader attempted to provide more data. The reader provided a partial quotation and a link. I am here providing a longer quotation with a different link to the same post. Here is Atzmon on the Holocaust (emphasis added).

It took me years to accept that the Holocaust narrative, in its current form, doesn’t make any historical sense. Here is just one little anecdote to elaborate on:

If, for instance, the Nazis wanted the Jews out of their Reich (Judenrein - free of Jews), or even dead, as the Zionist narrative insists, how come they marched hundreds of thousands of them back into the Reich at the end of the war? I have been concerned with this simple question for more than a while.


I am left puzzled here; if the Nazis ran a death factory in Auschwitz-Birkenau, why would the Jewish prisoners join them at the end of the war? Why didn’t the Jews wait for their Red liberators?

I think that 65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, we must be entitled to start to ask the necessary questions. We should ask for some conclusive historical evidence and arguments rather than follow a religious narrative that is sustained by political pressure and laws.

If this is not "trafficking" in Holocaust denial, I'm not sure what would count. In my earlier post I pointed out that Atzmon plays the post-modernist and says that he "neither affirms nor denies" the Holocaust. That's bad enough. Oddly, the postmodern mask seems to have slipped here. He's talking about "historical sense" and saying in so many words that such Holocaust details as the desire of the Nazis to eradicate the Jews from the Reich and the existence of a death camp at Auschwitz do not make historical sense. Yet I have no evidence that Mearsheimer and Leiter have revised their opinion on the subject or on Mearsheimer's endorsement of Atzmon, despite the fact that this information was made available to Mearsheimer. If readers have evidence that either Mearsheimer or Leiter has done a 180 and repudiated Atzmon, do post that evidence in comments.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Well, and here's a nasty tempest in a nasty teapot

I very recently learned about a little brouhaha that's been going on for a while when someone sent me a link to this article . It's about someone I know of in quite another context--Philosopher Brian Leiter.

As near as I can get the facts, they go approximately and briefly like this: Brian Leiter is a colleague (that is, at the same university) and buddy of John Mearsheimer, of The Israel Lobby fame (or infamy). Mearsheimer wrote a positive blurb for an unpleasantly bizarre little book called The Wandering Who by a Brit named Gilad Atzmon. The book, inter alia (and there are plenty of alia), implies that we should not entirely reject the blood libel against Jews in the Middle Ages. The blood libel, of course, is the claim that Jews kill or killed Gentile children to mix their blood with matzos at Passover.

Mearsheimer was strongly criticized (one should hope so!) for writing the blurb but refused to back down from it. Leiter leaped to Mearsheimer's defense without, it appears, doing his homework very well. In the course of that defense of Mearsheimer he implied that Atzmon is not an anti-semite and that therefore the criticisms of Mearsheimer for endorsing Atzmon are hysterical right-wing smears. This defense of Mearsheimer and, in the course of it, defense of Atzmon, resulted in Leiter's being named by Alan Dershowitz in the above article as someone who is helping to make anti-semitism acceptable in the mainstream.

Got that?

Now, please remember, I just started looking into this very recently, with even less motivation than Leiter should have had for being very careful. I wanted to be fair though, so, though I didn't want to read the whole of The Wandering Who, I did find a couple of Gilad Atzmon's own defenses of his book, including what he calls his "deconstruction" of Alan Dershowitz's criticisms. See here and here.

And guess what? Atzmon really does endorse at least a provisional acceptance of the blood libel. He says,

Anyway, [Dershowitz is] certainly not impressed by my idea that children should be allowed to question “how the teacher could know that these accusations of Jews making Matza out of young Goyim’s blood were indeed empty or groundless” (185). I suppose that Dershowitz hasn’t heard about Israeli professor Ariel Toaff’s study of Jewish medieval blood libel. Toaff found that accusations of blood rituals levelled against Jews in the Middle Ages were not entirely without foundation, to say the least.
Sweet, huh?

This exceedingly telling "defense" by Atzmon appeared on November 9, and Leiter's defense of Mearsheimer for endorsing Atzmon's book appeared on September 26. So Leiter didn't have access, presumably, to Atzmon's own further gloss on the passage in his book. But what Atzmon says here makes it clear that those who took him to be, shall we say, trying to open minds about the truth of the blood libel by portraying Jewish educators as stifling free inquiry were understanding him completely correctly! (Atzmon's story was about how he as a child raised a question about whether the blood libel was justified and about how he was sent home as a punishment for being so bold as to step outside of usual Jewish thought. His point in telling the story, now, billing his childhood self as the persecuted hero of epistemic honesty, is not terribly obscure.)

Now, just to complicate matters a tiny tad, Atzmon turns out to be, or at least finds it convenient to present himself as, some sort of postmodern historical skeptic. He says,
Dershowitz sure has some chutzpah, since it’s actually he who didn’t read ‘The Wandering Who’. If he had, he would have seen that in the book and in all my writing I neither deny nor do I affirm any historical aspect of the Holocaust, gas chambers or the Judeocide in general. Instead, I insist that history cannot be sealed by laws. I also insist that intellectual curiosity and our knowledge of the past cannot be vetted or confined by anyone, let alone such morbid minds as that of Dershowitz himself.
I actually urge my readers to question every historical narrative and this obviously includes the Shoa and Jewish history.
This allows Atzmon to be a Holocaust-denier with (im)plausible deniability. He can encourage people to be skeptical about the occurrence of the Holocaust as an "historical narrative," but when he wants to defend himself, he can fall back (as he does in the interview Leiter read--see below) on talking like the Holocaust did happen. He can also point out that he's treating the Holocaust like he treats all history. Nifty, huh? It's amazing what postmodernism can do for all manner of nastiness, including anti-semitism.

When Leiter hastened to the defense of Mearsheimer, he didn't apparently check into the allegations about Atzmon in any detail whatsoever. He seems to have based his evaluation of Atzmon on an interview (a fawning interview published at Atzmon's own site) in which Atzmon maunders on about the Holocaust in pseudo-academic terminology that downplays the true nature of his views. (Whaddaya know, it doesn't look like the little matter of the blood libel comes up in that interview.) From this Leiter infers that Atzmon is probably not an anti-semite.

Now, how can I put this tactfully? That's careless. If I had a colleague accused of enthusiastically endorsing a disgusting piece of anti-semitic trash, with the specific accusation that the tract in question promotes the blood libel, I'd try to do a leetle more research than Prof. Leiter appears to have done before rushing off and publishing something on the Internet calling the criticisms of my colleague "right-wing smears."

But maybe that's just me.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Cyrus walks into the pages of the Bible

I owe a certain debt to Cyrus the Persian. I made his acquaintance fairly early, for he lived between the pages of a children's magazine, in a series entitled Tales from Herodotus, or something of that kind. There was a picture of him being brought up by the herdsman of King Astyages, dressed in a short tunic very like the garment worn by the young Theseus or Perseus in the illustrations to Kingsley's Heroes. He belonged quite definitely to “classical times”;... Cyrus was pigeon-holed in my mind with the Greeks and Romans.

So for a long time he remained. And then, one day, I realised with a shock as of sacrilege, that on that famous expedition he had marched clean out of Herodotus and slap into the Bible. Mene, mene, tekel upharsin--the palace wall had blazed with the exploits of Cyrus, and Belshazzar's feast had broken up in disorder under the stern and warning eye of the prophet Daniel.

But Daniel and Belshazzar did not live in “the classics” at all. They lived in Church, with Adam and Abraham and Elijah, and were dressed like Bible characters, especially Daniel. And here was God--not Zeus or Apollo or any of the Olympian crowd, but the fierce and dishevelled old gentleman from Mount Sinai--bursting into Greek history in a most uncharacteristicway, and taking an interest in events and people that seemed altogether outside His province. It was disconcerting.


It is rather unfortunate that the "Higher Criticism" was first undertaken at a time when all textual criticism tended to be destructive...But the root of the trouble is to be found, I suspect (as usual), in the collapse of dogma. Christ, even for Christians, is not quite "really" real--not altogether human--and the taint of unreality has spread to His disciples and friends and to His biographers: they are not "real" writers, but just "Bible" writers. John and Matthew and Luke and Mark, some or all of them, disagree about the occasion on which a parable was told or an epigram uttered. One or all must be a liar or untrustworthy, because Christ (not being quite real) must have made every remark once and once only.


"Altogether man, with a rational mind and human body--" It is just as well that from time to time Cyrus should march out of Herodotus into the Bible, for the synthesis of history and the confutation of heresy.

From "A Vote of Thanks to Cyrus," by Dorothy Sayers