Archive for June, 2011

Skeptics in the Pub: Joshie Berger


Deena and I went to the Boston Skeptics in the Pub on Monday to see Joshie Berger.

The first few minutes at our table – before Deena (my social grace) arrived – were characterized by halting attempts at conversation, punctuated by slightly less awkward silences. One of my table-mates sported a t-shirt depicting a harmonic series, with the basic wave equation “λ=c/f”. The other wore squid earrings. I thought with satisfaction: Yes. This is my tribe. These are my type of people. (I happened to be without any trappings of geekery. Well, except for the two pens stowed in one pocket, alongside a notebook. Just in case.)

(Image from SkeptiCamp 2009 site.)

The main reason we had decided to spend this rare and precious kid-free evening here was Joshie Berger. We had listened to his conversation with the rogues on The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe earlier this year, and were eager to hear him talk again.

We were not disappointed. To a surprisingly small crowd (maybe 20 people, if you count the bar staff), Joshie talked about what it was like to be a Hasidic Jew. To have been one, and not be any longer. To have a sister still in thrall to that misogynistic culture (even in the heart of liberal New York). To have so many friends living a lie – disbelieving as he does, yet unable or unwilling to leave like he did.

What I found most moving was when he set aside the jokes, the laughing, the amazing, amusing exposition of human folly and ridiculous beliefs. When he vented a little bit of anger. Not at the believers (they mainly earned his contempt), but at some of the would-be peacemakers in the skeptical movement.

“How dare you tell me to make nice?” was his gist. “After all the pain and suffering that religion put me through, still puts me through, how dare you tell me not to voice my anger?”

I couldn’t help but nod. Oh, sure, I am one of the peacemakers. I try to find common ground. I read books by apologists. I seek out dialogue in university chaplaincy, or at a Unitarian church. But Joshie’s anger wasn’t aimed at me. It was aimed at those who go further, who say that all skeptics (/atheists/humanists/whatever) should be peacemakers. That we should never, any of us, publicly mock or deride believers. Which, for a community that values freedom of expression so highly, is a very odd sentiment.

I did not have a religious upbringing. I don’t have Joshie’s scars; I don’t have the ongoing pain he has of separation from his loved ones. I need people like Joshie. I need people to remind me that such cruelty exists. That there are people who, because of their beliefs, put themselves and everyone in their reach through misery.

I’m terrifically grateful to people like Joshie, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Christopher Hitchens, and all the rest, for reminding me that there are dangerous beliefs out there. I’ll fight bad beliefs my way – and hopefully reach some people. They will fight bad beliefs their way – and reach different people. Skepticism/humanism/atheism needs all of our approaches.


Dogma of naturalism?


Here is a brief digression from my Ultimate Challenge series. I guess reading philosophical agruments makes me imagine that I am a philosopher. If any of you are actually trained in philosophy, please let me know how the following argument is wrong.

People often say that science is dogmatically committed to the idea that everything that exists is physical.

This claim bugs me. It feels wrong.

Not wrong like a straw man – there are many atheists, naturalists, and scientists who probably fit the claim. But I’ve always had this sense that naturalism sort of “falls out” from what science is.* It’s not this whole extra assertion tacked on alongside things like “remove bias where possible” and “keep hypotheses simple”.

I’ll admit it – my discomfort with the claim is personal. I am a scientist, and I am a naturalist. When someone says that scientists or naturalists are committed to the a priori claim that supernatural causes do not exist, I feel like I’ve been accused of something slightly dirty. Something that I am innocent of.

This post is an attempt to examine the claim. I want to clarify the concepts for myself, in case I am not, in fact, innocent of what they accuse me of. I also want to share my understanding with you, my readers, so you can point out any errors in my thinking.

So let’s start with this question:

Can anything non-physical exist?

Like good philosophers, we’ll begin by exploring what “physical” and “exist” mean from a scientific viewpoint. I hope that my definitions – and the reasoning that flows from them – will be acceptable more generally among naturalists, but the only thing I promise you is that these are the definitions that I currently work under.

Okay, let’s start with “physical”. What does it mean to be physical? What sorts of things are physical? I’m going to use a definition that fits neatly with how science examines things. Here goes:

Anything that has observable effects is physical.

Science examines the physical universe. And, broadly conceived, science can be used to probe anything for which we can generate observations, from atomic interactions, to planetary orbits, to human behaviour, to … whatever. If you can record an observation about it, it is accessible to the methods of science. And thus, it is part of the physical universe (as science conceives it).

Now, the above definition of physical is still a little too vague. What does it mean to observe something? Scientists use a multitude of tools for observation, from their own senses, to obvious “scientific” instruments such as microscopes, telescopes, barometers, rulers, and stopwatches, to less obvious instruments like surveys, explosives, and blocks of glass. When I say “observable”, I mean anything that could, in principle, affect the measurements we make using these or any other conceivable measuring instrument. In other words,

 All and only things that can interact causally with the world we experience are physical.**

Wait a minute. This seems a wee bit dodgy. Under this definition, a whole lot of stuff most of us call non-physical seems to suddenly be classed as physical. After all, ghosts, gods, and souls are often claimed to be non-physical, but if any of the claims about them are true they certainly affect the world in ways we can notice. Do we really want to call these immaterial things physical?

Maybe not, but consider the alternative. Remember that anything that can interact causally with the world we experience is within the realm of scientific investigation, at least in principle.

So either these things – ghosts, gods, souls, etc – are defined as non-physical, in which case science is able to investigate the non-physical (because it can investigate them, through their effects on the physical world), or these things are physical (for this particular pragmatic definition of “physical”), and science remains limited to investigating the physical. I recognize that these things are special to many people, but I have yet to see a good definition that divides physical things which have effects in the world from non-physical things which have effects in the world.

So I’ll stick with a definition of physical that aligns with scientific methods.

Second, what do we mean by exist? I’m going to keep this simple and pragmatic.

All and only things that can interact causally with the world we experience exist.

Because if it can interact with the world of our experience, then clearly it exists. And if it can’t affect or be affected by this world, then its “existence” is irrelevant, and basically meaningless, as far as I’m concerned.

So now we have our definitions. What do they tell us about the question?

 Can anything non-physical exist?

I’m sure you already see where this is leading, but let’s make it even more clear by substituting our definitions for the words themselves:

Can anything [that cannot interact causally with the world we experience] [interact causally with the world we experience]?

Of course not. Problem solved. Well, not just yet.

Let me anticipate two of the objections that I’m sure have leaped to your minds, then I’ll open the floor for discussion.

1. There’s no philosophy here, just careful selection of definitions.

Absolutely correct. (Though much of the groundwork of philosophy – as with science – is in pinning down definitions.) But note that I didn’t pull my definitions out of thin air, or generate them specifically so I could support my conclusion. The definition of “physical” is grounded in the way science is done. It may not be your definition. It may not fit with anyone’s intuitive idea of “physical”. But it is a definition that is on the table when we’re discussing science and scientific materialism. And the definition of exists … well, this has a more informal motivation, perhaps, but I don’t think it’s entirely arbitrary. If anyone objects to it, please let me know of some reason we should care about the existence of something that can’t, even in principle, interact with the world of our experience (or accept the non-existence of something that does interact with the world).

2. This doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existence of gods, souls, etc.

Quite right. By redefining these things as physical, I have not altered their properties, or the fact of their existence or non-existence.

But remember – this essay was not meant to argue for atheism, or to suggest that entities traditionally conceived of as non-physical do not exist. My line of thought was exclusively aimed at helping decide whether naturalism – the claim that only physical entities exist – is an extra assumption of science (a dogma, if you will), or whether it is an automatic consequence of more basic aspects of science.

I think I have shown that it is not an extra, separate dogma. In fact, I think I have shown that metaphysical naturalism (not just methodological naturalism)* is an automatic consequence of defining “physical” in a scientific sense, and defining “exists” pragmatically.

Now, since I am not a trained philosopher, I need some feedback. What have I overlooked? What have I screwed up here? Or, if I’ve got this right, who else has come up with this reasoning before me? I know I’m not the only one to think of it.


* Note that, when doing science, we use methodological naturalism – that is, we’re free to believe that other stuff exists, but what we’re studying in science is just the natural (physical) stuff. People who identify as naturalists (such as me) go further, to metaphysical naturalism – the claim that there actually probably is no other stuff besides what’s physical.

** Yes, I know there is still vagueness in these definitions. If you think the remaining vagueness is terminal to my argument, let me know. Otherwise, I plead the requirements of brevity as an excuse to be less precise and wordy than a proper philosopher would be.

Jesus, Interrupted


This post introduces the first book in the philosophy challenge that Deena and I began last year.

Jesus, Interrupted

Jesus, Interrupted. ISBN: 9780061173936; ISBN10: 0061173932; HarperOne; Pages: 304; [Amazon]

by Bart D. Ehrman

This book presents an overview of some of the discrepancies and contradictions apparent in the New Testament, and what they tell us about the actual history of early Christianity, from Jesus’ life to the eventual formation of the modern Christian canon.

This is not a book claiming to debunk Christianity or religious belief in general. It’s a book of history, aiming to introduce laypeople to the scholarly consensus – a consensus that has failed to reach not only lifelong heathens like me, but also most people who claim to believe in and follow the Bible as a guide to life.

Jesus, Interrupted makes two main points. The more obvious is that, in communicating their religious messages, the books of the New Testament fail to accurately portray the historical events they talk about. The other point is that acknowledging this fact does not require abandoning the Bible as an inspiring collection of texts, a devotional tool, or even the centrepiece to the Christian religion.


This book is no simple irreverent catalogue. If you want to see atheists exclaiming “How can people believe this garbage?” you will need to look elsewhere – for example, the Skeptics Annotated Bible.

Ehrman’s attitude is more scholarly. Drawing on his deep familiarity with the New Testament, he lays out numerous examples where the narrative in one part of the New Testament is inconsistent with the narrative in another part. Sometimes it is just a matter of tone. On the way to being crucified, was Jesus the confident son of God, willingly sacrificing himself as part of a greater plan [Luke 23:26-49] or a bewildered human, silent, feeling abandoned by his god [Mark 15:16-39] (pages 64-69 of JI)? Other times, it is a question of differences that are striking, but can be reconciled with sufficiently creative narrative distortions. Did Jesus cleanse the temple of money-changers and other commerce at the beginning of his ministry [Mark 11:15-19] or at the end [John 2:13-16] (p166 of JI)? Apologists may conclude he did both (see also here) – but Ehrman points out that this is an awkward solution that misses the point of the incident in the context of each individual account. And, often enough, there are flat-out contradictions, where no plausible interpretation can rescue the assertion that all of the canonical books are historically accurate. Compare the account of Judas’ demise in Matthew 27:3-10 with that in Acts 1:18-19 (from page 46 of JI).

Throughout the book, Ehrman is also showing us the historical approach taken by mainline biblical scholars. He slowly builds a picture of how we got these various books in their present form. What did Jesus and his followers probably believe? What happened after his death, and how did the early Christian community evolve in those first few decades?

I will not go in to detail – it would take an entire book to do the material justice. This book, I think.

Ehrman’s arguments are very convincing – particularly those that rely mainly on the text of the New Testament. After all, if the evidence is at your fingertips (in print or online), it is very easy to check, to make sure the author isn’t pulling a fast one. But even the rest of it, drawing on non-canonical gospels and on more detailed scholarly research, builds a picture that seems to hang together very comfortably.

Historicity vs faith

The second key point that Ehrman makes – that the fallibility of the New Testament as history doesn’t have to undermine Christian faith – might seem very secondary indeed. It’s not the main content of the book by word count, and it’s certainly not the bit you expect to agitate conservatives and excite skeptics. But it’s clearly important to him. He mentions it prominently in his opening, and devotes his entire last chapter to it.

He is careful to point out that his own agnosticism is not due to the historical inaccuracy of the Biblical texts.

He has given many presentations of these arguments to a lay audience, and notes that often people – religious people who are honestly interested in learning about this book that’s important to them – ask him afterwards why they’ve never learned this before. Not as a challenge; they are genuinely interested. They want to know more – not because they have begun to doubt their faith, but because understanding their scriptures in more depth is an important part of that faith.

I was surprised how much this second theme of Ehrman’s book affected me. After all, as a “cradle atheist”, I have never had a faith in the New Testament’s historicity that could be threatened by Ehrman’s revelations*. But you see, up to now I’ve only ever encountered the Bible in two contexts: believers arguing for its truth, and skeptics arguing for its falsehood. One side has been singularly unpersuasive; the other has carried the day. End of story. What reason do I have to spend more time reaffirming obvious facts? Oh, some people point to the Bible as inspiring literature in its own right. And I’ve had a little taste of that. But generally, whenever I’ve opened up the Bible, my sense that the authors want me to believe (while never offering good arguments for belief) ruins my ability to enjoy the non-belief-related side of the prose.

Reading Ehrman’s book is the first time I’ve been walked through a genuinely interesting alternative: the Bible as an archaeological artifact. It is a set of very old documents. What can they tell us about the people and times that produced them? Just as I don’t have to embrace or reject the British monarchy to enjoy walking through Edinburgh Castle, I should be able to enjoy reading the Bible for what it is without always thinking about whether or not it is the miraculous word of a god.

I don’t know if I’ll actually do this, mind you. It’s a little outside my preferred genres of literature (science fiction and fantasy, with the occasional bit of philosophy). But thanks to Ehrman, I now have a plausible way to enjoy the Bible, if I do decide to pick it up.

Too good to be true?

Okay, so here’s the caveat. First, Jesus, Interrupted is the first exposure I’ve had to biblical scholarship, and second, Ehrman’s conclusions coincide with my expectations. These are two very good reasons to be careful before accepting his conclusions. He seems to make a lot of sense, and he seems to have done careful work. For the moment, I will tentatively take his assertions as true. But I really would like to see if there is another side to New Testament scholarship, and what it has to say.

Fortunately, just such an opportunity will come up later. One of the essays in Contending with Christianity’s Critics, the volume edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, is titled “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament? An Examination of Bart Ehrman’s Claims” (written by Daniel B. Wallace). I’ll let you know how Ehrman stacks up after reading that.

In the meantime, I’ll just say that Jesus, Interrupted was a delightful book to begin this face-off between Christian and atheist philosophies. I learned some interesting facts, and a liberating approach to this terribly influential book I’ve never read. The fact that it wasn’t, in fact, philosophical in nature didn’t bother me. Its subject matter is clearly relevant to the matters at hand, and may come in handy if any later author tries to stand on the Bible as a reliable historical text. But Christians wouldn’t try that, would they?


* Ehrman does not claim to have personally discovered any of these things about the Bible – most have been long-known by biblical scholars. Which makes it all the more scandalous that the stuff Ehrman is talking about is not more widely known.

A new challenge


Luke Muehlhauser, over at Common Sense Atheism, set a challenge early last year: The Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge. He challenges his readers to read several books discussing two worldviews: Christian theism, and atheism. About ten thousand pages of (primarily) philosophical arguments, divided roughly equally between those defending Christianity and those defending atheism. These are the best presentations, in Luke’s opinion, of the two sides.

It is an admirable undertaking, but far beyond my ambitions as a casual philosopher, both in the level of some of the books, and the sheer volume.

Never fear! A couple of months later, Luke came out with an abridged version of the challenge.

The basic idea (in either version of the challenge) is to encourage people to challenge themselves to read the best arguments for an opposing worldview to the one they currently hold.

This sort of activity appeals to Deena and me. Similar reasons have, in the past, led us to check out Christianity Explored at a local church in Edinburgh, to attend a philosophy book group organized under the Humanist Society of Scotland, to become involved through the student humanist group with the Chaplaincy Centre at the university there, and to invite Mormon missionaries into our home for a series of discussions.

So, starting late last spring, we began working our way slowly through the more manageable list of eight books – four apologetic, four atheistic.

We’re going slowly. At times I’ve been tempted to give up, for various reasons. I may tell you more about that in a later post.

For now, I just want to lay out the situation.

As I write this, we are working our way through the fourth book, a collection of apologetic essays. Going in to this exercise, I would say that I held three main positions that are relevant to the question being debated in these books:

  1. I was a negative atheist. By this I mean that I was unconvinced by existing arguments purporting to demonstrate or support the existence of any god. I was not particularly convinced by (or committed to) definite claims about the non-existence of a god.
  2. I was an enchanted naturalist. A naturalist in that I thought that everything that exists (ie, interacts causally with the world I experience) is natural (as opposed to supernatural). This is also known as physicalism. Enchanted because I think the universe presented to human experience through the naturalist lens is beautiful and exciting.
  3. I took all religious beliefs, systems, dogmas, etc. to be products of human minds – through wishful thinking, hyperactive agency detection, pareidolia, misunderstanding of probability, political and social pressures to conform, a desire to externally codify innate moral sense, etc.

I don’t want my use of the past tense in that list to suggest that I no longer hold those positions. I just mean that, at that time, those were my positions, as closely as I can remember. When we’re done the challenge, I’ll check my state of beliefs and see if any of these points has shifted appreciably.

So, next up, I will start posting my reviews of the books we have read. I won’t necessarily do a point-by-point philosophical analysis, but I do want to share my overall impressions, as well as any belief-shift that each book occasions. Of course, there will be individual points that I’ll want to discuss in more detail.

Here are the eight books, as Luke presents them:

And here it is, my Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge (Easy Version):

  1. Bart Ehrman – Jesus, Interrupted (304 pages). A leading Biblical scholar explains the basic facts of Biblical scholarship, and why they undermine conservative Christian views.
  2. C. Stephan Layman – Letters to Doubting Thomas (240 pages). Presented as a series of letters between a Christian and an atheist, this book presents a case for God not based on the usual arguments but on why God is the ‘best explanation’ for the way things are. A careful and respectable case for God’s existence.
  3. Guy P. Harrison – 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God (354 pages). Each brief chapter explains one of the 50 most common reasons people give for believing in a god, and summarizes why skeptics are not persuaded by that reason.
  4. Paul Copan & others – Contending with Christianity’s Critics (304 pages). Eighteen major apologists respond to the New Atheists and other contemporary critics of Christianity.
  5. John Loftus & others – The Christian Delusion (385 pages). Michael Martin writes: “Using sociological, biblical, scientific, historical, philosophical, theological and ethical criticisms, this book completely destroys Christianity.”
  6. William Lane Craig – Reasonable Faith (416 pages). A leading Christian philosopher’s defense of theism and Christian doctrine, with all the standard philosophical and historical arguments.
  7. Richard Swinburne – Is There a God? (144 pages). Many philosophers think Richard Swinburne has given the best evidential case for God ever conceived. This slim and attractive book is Swinburne’s own attempt to make his arguments accessible to the layman.
  8. Richard Carrier – Sense and Goodness Without God (444 pages). A comprehensive case not just for atheism but for a full, enriching, purposeful, and moral naturalistic worldview.

I will begin soon with a discussion of Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus, Interrupted, which is in the “atheist” category. In the meantime, I’m curious what people think of Luke’s list. If you’re interested, don’t forget to head over to his blog to see the discussion of the books there.

As I post my reviews, I will link to them from here:

[Added 2013 April 24:]

For those who are still following along, you may have noticed one or two sidetracks – not exactly reviews of the texts above, but lines of thought clearly connected with them. I’ll keep a list here for anyone interested:
  • Evolving Free Will – Inspired by an assertion in one of the essays in Contending with Christianity’s Critics. This post looks at how we might expect evolution to interact with libertarian free will, if such a thing were possible.
  • The precariousness of libertarian free will – I reflect on the main reasons why I take a compatibilist approach to free will. (Sort of connected with the previous item.)
  • Duty and futility – In which I ponder the value of carrying on once it has become clear that the Christian apologists in the series are largely leaning on the same tired old arguments.

And, just for completeness, here are some books I have picked up as a result of issues raised in the Challenge:

  • Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. I picked this book up so I could more fully evaluate the claims made by Daniel Wallace in his essay from the fourth book in the series. (Wallace’s essay is about this book, not Ehrman’s other book, Jesus, Interrupted, which began this Challenge.)
  • Proving History by Richard Carrier. This book I wanted to read because it addresses historical claims from a Bayesian perspective. (Ultimately, in a follow-up volume, it aims to address questions of this historicity of Jesus.) Bayesian reasoning is a mathematically rigorous way of determining the probabilities of claims (how credible we should think they are) based on evidence available to us.