30 December 2013

I'm taking a hiatus

Being a personal trainer, January is the busiest month of the year for me – at least in terms of marketing and leads. I'm in the midst of helping my lovely fiance plan our wedding, and I'm going to be moving this month. For my own part, I've been making a better effort to manage my time more efficiently and get more intensive guitar practicing in every day.

I really enjoy blogging, especially here and stirring the pot at various Christian blogs, but for one little problem: I'm way too easy to bait into a debate. Even though I'm generally about as easy-going and non-confrontational as they come, I do get a kick out of a spirited discussion about philosophy, religion, science, or whatever else. But participating in those things creates a nasty little side effect: my time disappears. I'll be typing up some big long response to some religious person, and before I know it an hour has disappeared. Or two. Whatever. It's like playing Civilization – you keep thinking, "I'll just do this one thing real quick..." and then before you realize it, you've gone and blown your whole afternoon.

So I think it behooves me to take a forced hiatus. The only way I'm going to be disciplined enough to focus on my priorities is to cut out the fluff.

I'll return when things calm down a bit and my schedule is a bit more predictable, so I can allot time to blogging with some modicum of discipline. Until then, go enjoy the mess AdamHazzard and I made over at Randal Rauser's blog. Thanks for reading, guys. See you again soon.

27 December 2013

Unpacking Randal Rauser's claim that "testimony is properly basic belief"

I have to confess that when I first came across Randal Rauser's claim that testimony is properly basic, my gut reaction was that it was one of the most ridiculous apologetic arguments I'd ever heard. Surely, I thought, he cannot actually be arguing what I think he is. Surely there is some sophisticated aspect to the argument I'm overlooking or failing to properly comprehend.  Recently the debate was rekindled after I pointed out the research which shows eyewitness testimony to be of fairly dubious reliability. Spurred by the debate, I decided to revisit Randal's original post and see what I might have overlooked. Is it really as stupid an argument as I think it is, or am I totally failing to comprehend an incisive philosophical argument that helps substantiate (among other things) the Resurrection of Christ and modern-day miracles?

In fairness to Randal, I'll reprint his summary of his original argument:
It is true that you can think of testimony as evidence just like you can think of sense perception and rational intuition as evidence. But so long as there are no defeaters present, we also find that each of these sources of rational belief can provide a stopping point to the regress of justification and thus each provides a means of prima facie proper basicality. Not only that, but sufficiently strong testimony can also withstand the assault of formidable defeaters. Consequently, just as rational intuition can provide us with properly basic belief that 7+5=12, and sense perception can provide us with properly basic belief that “The banana is on the counter”, so testimony can provide us with properly basic belief that “Common descent is true” or “Jesus rose from the dead.”

The terms of engagement

First, I think it's helpful to define the terms being used. The word "testimony" is generally used in a legal or religious context, but in philosophy it can simply be synonymous with an assertion or claim. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The primary speech-act of testimony is a speaker's saying, telling, or asserting something (Searle 1969). Assertion puts forth a proposition that the speaker represents as true (see the entry on assertion, on norms of assertion, Rescorla 2009)

"Properly basic belief" is a term that's not used much outside of theologians referencing Alvin Plantinga (more on that later). The term "basic belief" derives from Foundationalism and its various derivatives. A basic belief is essentially one that needs no other justification – one that's actually irrational to question.

The most obvious example of a basic belief is "I exist". The assumption of one's own existence is not only a necessary starting point for any epistemological framework, but it's irrational to be skeptical of one's own existence: the statement "I am skeptical of my own existence" assumes the existence of an "I" that is capable of skepticism!

Randal mentions sense perception as a basic belief ("The banana is on the counter"), but I'd be more specific than that. It's entirely possible that there is no banana, that his senses are being deceived – like a thirsty desert wanderer mistaking the reflection of the sun against the sand for an oasis. As optical illusions show, our senses can and do deceive us. But we must operate on the assumption that our senses are at least sometimes reliable, otherwise we've painted ourselves into an epistemological corner.

Now on a personal note, I very much dislike the term "basic belief", because the word "belief" generally refers to assumptions or convictions that we consciously hold, and which can be amended with the introduction of new evidence. Just like skepticism of one's own existence, belief in one's own existence is paradoxical – or at least redundant: "I believe in my own existence" already assumes the existence of an "I" capable of belief. So rather than the term "basic belief", I prefer terms like "foundational assumption" or "necessary assumption". We don't consciously worry about our own existence when thinking about knowledge and epistemology. But that's just a personal quirk, and I'll continue to use the term "basic belief" to be consistent with Randal's use of the term.

Why it's ridiculous

My gut reaction upon reading Randal's argument was that it's incredibly ridiculous, for reasons that seem so obvious that they shouldn't even need mentioning. 

While it's clearly irrational to be skeptical of our own existence or the entirety of our sensory perception, there are many, many reasons to be skeptical of assertions made by others. A litany of cognitive biases color our perception of events – confirmation bias, groupthink, attribution bias, clustering illusion, causal fallacies, and many, many more. Worse, our memories themselves often deceive us. It's a common error among those unfamiliar with cognitive psychology to assume that our memories work like video cameras, capturing external information and storing it just as it happened. The reality is that memory generation is an active process whereby the brain takes bits and pieces of sensory data and fills in the gaps retroactively to make the events coherent – this is known as reconstructive memory. In fact, research indicates that it may be impossible for us to remember an event without altering it in some way [1], [2]. And that's just when you're dealing with the testimony of one person. Every time testimony is passed from one person to the next, bits of information are omitted, added, or altered as each person's recall distorts the original memory. 

That's the science, and it's pretty damning to Randal's case. If the fallibility of human cognition and memory renders testimony inaccurate and unreliable, then how can it be considered a properly basic belief? But even if one is unaware of the research showing just how depressingly unreliable our perception and memories actually are, it ought to be common sense that people's testimony can be and often is mistaken. But wait a second here... have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater? Because obviously lots of information we know about the world comes through the testimony of others. Does our unreliable cognition and memory mean that it's never rational to trust testimony?

Where was I supposed to turn, again?

In the latest discussion/debate on the matter, Randal used the example of getting directions from a stranger as a counter-argument to my skepticism:

Randal overlooks several important things here, and his example ends up making my own argument for me. Remember, the question is not whether testimony can ever be trusted at all, but whether it can be considered a properly basic belief along with things like sense perception and self-existence.

Firstly, our general trust of others comes from experiential evidence. We know, from experience, that people tend not to lie to us without some vested interest in doing so, and it's unlikely that someone is going to give us false or misleading directions just to mess with us. We acknowledge that this is a remote possibility, but our experience tells us that strangers are generally kind in such circumstances. Note, for example, that Randal describes the witnesses in the above example as "intelligent looking people". That statement alone is predicated on a litany of evidence-based assumptions (which can be and often are wrong) about which types of people are trustworthy and/or reliable, and which are not.

Secondly, whenever we get directions from someone we implicitly acknowledge that their directions may in fact be incorrect. It's not that we think they intentionally deceived us, but that we know people's recall is fallible. And the more detailed directions we require, the higher the probability of error.

Both of these facts demonstrate that it is rational to have some degree – if only a small degree – of skepticism regarding the accuracy of directions given to us by others. Note that this contrasts with true properly basic beliefs which are irrational to hold any skepticism toward at all.

Randal then gives another bad example regarding reports of a rare bird:

There's a field of pseudoscience called cryptozoology that deals with mythical creatures like bigfoot, yeti, and the chupacabra. Often, belief in the existence of such animals is buttressed by the eyewitness testimonies of indigenous peoples who claim to have encountered the beasts. But whenever independently verifiable empirical evidence of such creatures is sought, the creatures turn out to be either entirely mythical or simply rare cases of mistaken identity.

The point is that testimony is not, and should not, be taken at face value precisely because we humans often perceive and remember events inaccurately.

Multiple attestations

One of Randal's rebuttals here implies that I ought to reject scientific research as well, because my knowledge of it relies on testimonial evidence. But again, the question is not whether testimony is ever reliable, but whether it can be considered a properly basic belief that needs no other evidential justification.

Multiple eyewitnesses to a crime is generally considered to be stronger evidence than a single eyewitness. That's because we recognize that as more people are involved who can independently corroborate an event, the probability that our judgements will succumb to the errors of a single individual decreases.

Even if I know nothing at all about the science of common ancestry, it's rational for me to accept it on the basis of the fact that an overwhelming majority – virtually the entirety, in fact – of biological scientists all over the world, comprising millions of people and 150 years of research, have corroborated its veracity as a fact. Moreover, they have extensively documented their research and made it accessible to almost anyone, and if I want to contribute to the field I had better be prepared to base my hypotheses on independently verifiable empirical evidence. Clearly, "testimonial evidence" in this regard should never be conflated with a single person, or even a small group of people, who claim to have witness a "miracle" or other supernatural event. This not merely the testimony of others being taken at face value, but testimony that is corroborated with independently verifiable empirical evidence to which I, and others, have access.

Randal's biggest blunder

Remember that Randal's argument here is that someone's testimony is unto itself a rational reason to affirm the truth of an assertion: "It is true that you can think of testimony as evidence just like you can think of sense perception and rational intuition as evidence. But so long as there are no defeaters present, we also find that each of these sources of rational belief can provide a stopping point to the regress of justification and thus each provides a means of prima facie proper basicality."

Where Randal really slips into nonsensical territory is with his statements about "defeaters". In epistemology, a "defeater" is just something which causes a belief to lose some degree of positive epistemic status. A true properly basic belief cannot have a defeater, because to be skeptical of it is irrational (as mentioned earlier). But the fallibility of human cognition clearly gives us a rational reason (or rather, a set of reasons) to be skeptical of testimony.

Randal seems to think that unless a belief he holds can be shown to be false, he is justified in believing it. But that is, as the saying goes, back-asswards. Beliefs do not fall into neatly divided categories of demonstrably valid and demonstrably invalid. They may also be indeterminate.

So, let's imagine that someone tells us that they've witnessed a good old-fashioned Christian miracle. If we say, "I don't believe you", that is not the same thing as saying "I can demonstrate your assertion to be false"; rather, it's simply saying, "Your assertion alone is not sufficient reason for me to affirm your claim – it's possible that you may be mistaken".

If we take the position that we are justified in believing something unless it can be shown to be false, invalid, or unreliable, then we've given ourselves epistemic license to believe just about anything we want – because there are an infinite number of assertions or beliefs which are not demonstrably false. Let's just re-word the last few lines of Randal's original argument to drive the point home. Note that even as the assertions themselves can be changed into virtually any arbitrary claim, the argument itself remains unchanged:
Consequently, just as rational intuition can provide us with properly basic belief that 7+5=12, and sense perception can provide us with properly basic belief that “The banana is on the counter”, so testimony can provide us with properly basic belief that “Buddha performed eight miracles” or “Superintelligent aliens exist beyond the horizon of the observable universe”.

Consequently, just as rational intuition can provide us with properly basic belief that 7+5=12, and sense perception can provide us with properly basic belief that “The banana is on the counter”, so testimony can provide us with properly basic belief that "Satan is our overlord” or “Jesus is a mythical figure”.
[On a side note, I think Randal's wrong about rational intuition being the basis for mathematics – mathematical axioms are based on set theory, which is derived from observational evidence (the existence of discrete objects that can be grouped into sets). I highly recommend Where Mathematics Come From by Lakoff and Nunez.]

All is not lost here, for Randal's part, as he actually inserts a little something that's sensible:
Think about it. Sense perception has also shown to be “horribly, horribly unreliable”. But the answer is not to blind your eyes and deafen your ears. Rather, it is to proceed with a skeptical caution and take the deliverances of sense perception as fallible and provisional.
He's right, of course, but the nuance here is that he erred in his original post on the topic in claiming that sensory perception itself is properly basic, rather than the assumption that senses are reliable to some degree. A true properly basic belief, such as the assumption of my own existence or that my senses are sometimes reliable, is neither fallible nor provisional; Randal makes the mistake of confusing axioms demonstrated to be reliable through induction with foundational assumptions that are required in order for me to develop any further epistemological framework.

So despite Randal's protests, I'm forced to conclude that his argument that testimony is properly basic is just as absurd as I had originally considered it to be. To call testimony "properly basic" is to dilute the term so radically as to void it of all relevance, and it's surely not a principle Randal himself consistently applies unless, like Edward Current, he's converting to every religion.

Addendum: A mainstream view?

In threads that have since been deleted, Randal accused me of being ignorant of philosophy in part because of my apparent lack of awareness that the view of testimony as properly basic was a pretty common view among academic philosophers. Not content to simply take Randal's testimony at face value (see what I did there?), I did a few searches across the interwebs. I searched for "properly basic belief" at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and got this:

Hmmm. Okay. Well, a search for "testimony AND 'basic belief'" gave up a single entry on epistemology, which has a subsection on testimony. Nothing therein refers to it as a "basic belief".

A similar search through the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy was slightly more fruitful....
... but on clicking the links and searching through the articles, not even the articles on religious epistemology or the epistemology of testimony had anything about testimony as properly basic.

Finally, a search through Google Scholar proved the most fruitful. But virtually all the links were to papers by theologians, not academic philosophers in general. Many, of course, referenced (and criticized) Alvin Plantinga and his reformed epistemology.  Nowhere could I find any evidence that the notion of testimony as properly basic was a widely held view.

Finally, since the very concept of "basic beliefs" derives from the philosophy of Foundationalism, I decided to peruse the PhilPaper surveys and see what percentage of philosophers subscribed to the view. Well... it wasn't even mentioned in either the survey or the metasurvey. The closest and most relevant to the epistemology of testimony was internalism versus externalism, and there was nothing resembling a consensus on the matter:

Now, I'm willing to accept that there may be some evidence I'm overlooking. But based on the evidence I've been able to ascertain so far, the notion of testimony as properly basic seems to be extremely fringe and not even particularly common among theologians, much less mainstream philosophy.

24 December 2013

The spirit of Christmas

Even though I'm an atheist, I celebrate Christmas with my family. I mean, why not? Christmas itself is the descendent of the Winter Solstice festivals of Germanic pagans, so it's not like one religion has a claim on it. I know I'm not alone either – many non-believers still like to celebrate family, friends, and the spirit of giving.

If anything bugs me, it's not so much the rampant consumerism or even the occasionally overwhelming obligation to see lots of extended family that you may or may not actually like. Hell, those of us who have such obligations ought to count ourselves lucky given how many people are alone on the holidays.

No, what bugs me is the spirit of bitterness and self-righteousness that comes from certain religious conservative every year, as reliable a showing as the day-after-Christmas-megaturd. You can't throw a rock at a conservative without hitting some rant about how there's a "war on Christmas", and some people have the audacity to say "happy holidays" or celebrate in ways that are meaningful to them.

This holiday, I say we all celebrate the spirit of Mind Your Own Fucking Business. Let's not begrudge each other for what we find meaningful this time of year. If your religious friends are posting "Jesus is the reason for the season" memes on Facebook, let it go. If you're a religious person and other people are celebrating Christmas in a secular manner, let it go. How others celebrate the holidays does not affect you, so let's leave each other at peace.

If there's anything that unites people this time of year, it's a spirit of shared humanism. We give to the poor, we volunteer at homeless shelters, we go out of our way to make time for friends and family, and we treat each other to gifts. Regardless of what exactly you're celebrating, I think most of us can agree that those are good things.

Merry Christmas!

20 December 2013

The conservative reaction to the Duck Dynasty fiasco shows that religion is the single biggest obstacle to gay rights

In case you haven't heard by now, Phil Roberston of the hit show (for some reason) Duck Dynasty was suspended from the show by parent network A&E following some anti-gay comments that he made in an interview with GQ:

“It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”
Alright, so at the very least he implied that a mutually consenting relationship between adults of the same gender is equivalent in some way to bestiality. Makes perfect sense. Then he tossed out a Bible verse, by which he seems to be implying that homosexuality is like prostitution and alcoholism, among other things. Here we have a classic case of religion getting good people to say bad things.

The religious conservative reaction to this has been just as mind-numbingly stupid as one might expect. A staffer for Herman Cain called A&E's decision "fascism".  Sarah Palin, a renown conservative intellectual, defended Roberston's remarks as "free speech". And across the interwebs, we got memes like this:


Let's just pause for a moment to consider the "free speech" and "fascism" comments. Was Robertson censured or censored by the government? Detained? Imprisoned? Fined by the State? No. He was suspended by the network that funds his show. A helpful meme was posted by Betty Bowers, America's Best Christian™:

Clearly, some conservatives have absolutely no idea what free speech and fascism actually are. It's quite ironic too, when you consider that they don't hesitate rally to defend the rights of business owners to discriminate against gays – Chick Fil-A ring a bell? Facebook, meanwhile, was filled with gems like this:

And then over at USA Today, conservative radio mouthpiece Steve Deace offered up this pearl of wisdom:
Irrefutable history documents that the Bible and its teachings were the biggest influence on those that founded the freest and most prosperous nation in human history. Yet nowadays if you believe that same Bible is true you will either silence your beliefs, or you will be silenced. Just ask Phil Robertson, one of the stars of Duck Dynasty, among the most successful shows on TV.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why Christopher Hitchens said Religion Poisons Everything. Rationally, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to oppose equal rights for gays or to treat them any differently than anyone else. Research shows gay people to be just as happy and well-adjusted as straight people, and they raise children who are just as happy and well-adjusted as straight people (and, incidentally, who are no more likely to be gay than children raised by straight parents). The American Psychological and Psychiatric Associations, the American Medical Association, and the American Pediatric Association among others have all, excuse the pun, come out in support of the fact that homosexuality is in no way a pathology.

Virtually all of the modern opposition to gay rights comes not from scientific research or medical organizations, but from religious conservatives. "According to my interpretation of the Bible, it's wrong, and that's that!"

Notice how quickly conservatives turned the discussion from bigoted anti-gay slurs to a defense of their "religious freedom". No, you are not entitled to your opinion, nor am I obligated to respect it. I've had it up to here with people masking anti-gay bigotry behind a thin veil of religious piety. This whole fiasco brought to light just how far we have to go to, and reminded me that, like the late Hitchens, I'm not just an atheist but an anti-theist. Fortunately though, we're winning.

18 December 2013

Religion continues to lose ground

I'm happy to say that despite the fussing of the religious majority, a new Harris poll shows that religious belief in the US continues to decline – and decline quite steeply. 
Among the highlights:
  • Atheism and agnosticism are up 7% and 4%, respectively. It's worth noting that the poll does not use the term "atheist", but "belief there is no God". They're synonymous of course, but oddly enough there are people who do not believe in God but who reject the "atheist" label, as indicated by other polls which show the atheist population to be much lower. 
  • Youth correlates with non-belief, and the youngest generation is 19% less likely to believe in God than our elderly generation.
  • Predictably, republicans are more religious than democrats
  • Only 29% of Americans believe God controls what happens on Earth
  • Less than half of Americans believe the Bible is "all or mostly" the word of God, which is more than a bit ironic considering that some 70% or so of Americans are self-professed Christians

Obviously, non-believers are still a small minority. But things are certainly changing at an unprecedented rate. Most notable is the fast rise in those who are "not at all religious", up a whopping 11% just since 2005:

It might be tempting to attribute the cause of all this to the rise in atheistic polemicism. I do think it's played a role, but I think that the church is doing enough to shoot itself in the foot with its rigid adherence to doctrines that increasingly representative of a smaller and smaller portion of the populace, be it the role and rights of women, the rights and treatment of homosexuals, or the continued fussing over religious displays and prayer in publicly funded institutions. Whatever the causes, people are increasingly finding themselves not to need the dubious comforts of religious dogma, and that, my friends, is certainly a good thing.

Life as a blogger

I originally started The A-Unicornist – well, actually it was originally called The Apostasy – as more of a personal sort of thing. Since I was a wee lad, I've found that writing is great way to help myself organize my own thoughts, work through difficult emotions, or think more critically.

Over the years as this blog gained a steady readership, it sort of took on a life of its own. I thoroughly enjoy the many debates and discussions I've had over the years, despite how exasperating I've occasionally found some religious apologists. But hey, I tell myself, I used to be that guy, too.

My blog writing also to some extent represents my own path in life. And, truth be told, things change. I was looking back at the archives this year, and my post count is way down from last year – although ironically, I hit record numbers of viewers this year. But as I've mentioned recently, my motivation for engaging religious apologists is pretty well sapped. Not gone, as there are still religious topics that interest me, but when it comes to all the old historical and philosophical arguments, there's just nothing there. It's a massive vacuum of confirmation bias, magical thinking, scientific ignorance, and groupthink. Sometimes it's gussied up in a thin veil of academic distinction, but it's a house of cards that topples over readily and it doesn't take much to see even a self-important academic dissemble and fluster in the face of sound arguments against their position.

Recently, I've been dabbling in bloggery about other topics that interest me, including video games and music. They're really just experiments, to see if they stick. As for this blog, I'm honestly not really sure what's next. On the one hand, I'm motivated. I want 2014 to be a marquee year for The A-Unicornist. On the other hand, I don't want to retread the same old junk. Every time I start to write a post about Christianity, the Bible, some apologetic argument or whatever else, I just stop and ask myself What's the point? I think I've covered about all such material I can conceivably care to.

These days I'm more likely to be interested in stuff like my recent post on morality as a science – issues relevant to those of us who are done fussing about religion but still enjoy discussing topics on science and philosophy that shape our outlook and define the human experience. I've still got a shelf full of half-read or entirely unread books that I need to pounce on this year. Regardless, I've gotta pull myself away from the religious discussions, because they're only interesting to me for so long.

Of course, time commitment factors in as well. If by some miracle my other blogs take off, I'll probably put more effort into them. And between moving, planning a wedding, spending time with my lovely bride-to-be and continually improving my chops on guitar, there's only so much time in the day to devote to blogging. And at the risk of sounding slightly whiny, I'll say that to some degree the overall stagnancy of this blog is a bit frustrating. I started this blog four years ago and have posted nearly 1,000 entries, yet my readership has not grown all that much. Not that I don't appreciate my readership, because holy cow do I ever. You guys are brilliant and amazing. I suppose that I just had higher hopes for the reach of the blog in a four-year time span.

All of which is to say... well, I don't know. There's really no point to this post other than to give you an insight into my thought processes.

I do want to mention something though: I'm working on a book. Yeah right, I hear you saying, How many times have we heard that before? Well, after several failed attempts to write topical books, I decided that it seems kind of pointless to do so when I have nearly 1,000 posts right here on this blog. So I've decided to create a sort of "best-of" anthology that I'll sell, inexpensively, in a PDF format or, if I'm really ambitious, possibly a Kindle version. The work consists of compiling my favorite essays, organizing them by topic, and editing them a bit for flow. No promises, but I'm shooting for a release in the first half of 2014.

Til next time.... 

16 December 2013

I get mail

So I got this in my mailbox this evening. I first received a friend request from this person, who is apparently a young kid. I deleted it, thinking "Who the fuck is this kid and why does he want to be my friend?" Anyway:
Hello, Mike, how are you?

My name is Giuseppe and I'm typing from Brazil, so I apologize for any mistake I may commit in this text. Anyway, I would like to suggest you some reasons why the gospels are good and reliable historical sources, indicating the actual existence of Jesus. There are five reasons to believe so:

1. There was insufficient time for legendary influences to expunge the hardcore of historical facts.
    Sometimes people will say: "How can you know anything that happened two thousand years ago". What they failed to understand is that the crucial time gap is not the gap between the evidence and today; rather, what is important is the gap between the evidence and the events that the evidence is about. If the gap between the events and the evidence about them is short, then it doesn't matter how much both the events and the evidence have receded into the past. Good evidence doesn't become bad evidence just because the passage of time. As long as the time gap between the events and the evidence about them is short, then it's just irrelevant how long it has been since the time of the events until the present day. 
    So the question is how close the sources for Jesus life are to the time he lived. Here the gospels are in marked contrast to the sources for greek and roman ancient history. The sources for greek and roman history are usually biased and usually removed one or two generations or even centuries from the events that they record. Yet greco-roman historians reconstruct with confidence the course of greek and roman history. By contrast, the gospels were all written down and circulated within the FIRST generation after the events, while the eye witnesses were still alive. According to professor A. N. Sherwin-White, a professional greco-roman historian, in his book "Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament", for the gospels to be legendary in their core, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be unbelievable; more generations would be needed.

2. The gospels are not analogous to folk tales or contemporary urban legends.
Tales like those about Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill or contemporary urban legends about Vanishing hitchhiker rarely concern actual historical individuals, and therefore are not analogous to the gospel narratives. The Gospel accounts are about real people, that actually lived and that you can read about in literature contemporaneous with the New Testament, about real events, that actually took place and about real places, that have been archaeologically excavated. Thus they're not analogous to folk tales or urban legends.

3. The Jewish transmission of sacred traditions was a highly developed and reliable.
In an oral culture, like that of first century Palestine, the ability to memorize and to retain large tracks of oral tradition was a highly prized and a highly developed skill. From the earliest age, children in the home, in the elementary school and in the synagogue, were taught to memoraize faithfully sacred tradition; the disciples would exercise similar care with the teachings of Jesus. Thus to compare the gospel narratives, as some have done, with the child's game of telephone displays a complete misunderstanding of how oral tradition work in an oral culture like firt century jewish society.

4. There were significant restraints on the embellishment of traditions about Jesus, such as the presence of eye witnesses and the apostles supervision.
     Since those who would seen and heard Jesus continued to live and the tradition about Jesus remained under the supervision of the apostles, these factors would act as a natural check upon any tendencies to elaborate the facts in a direction contrary to that preserved by those who had known Jesus and were entrusted with the tradition.

5. The gospel writers have a proven track record of historical reliability.
Luke, for example, was the author of a two part work: The gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. These are really one work, and they are separated in our Bible simply because the church grouped together the four gospels in assembling the New Testament. Luke is the gospel writer who writes most self-consciously as a historian. In the preface to his work, dedicated to Theophilos, he writes as follows:
     "Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have 
been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed onto us by those who from the very 
beginning were eye-witnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after 
investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for 
you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things 
about which you have been instructed."
     This preface to Luke's double work was written in classical greek, such as was used by greek historians. After this, Luke changes to a more common greek, but he's putting his reader on alert that he can write, if He wish to, like the learned greek historian. He speaks in his preface of his lengthy investigation into the stories He's about to tell. He assures us that it is based on eye-witnesses information and is accordingly the truth.

                                                                                Waiting for reply,
                                                                                                    Giuseppe Luca

Looks like someone needs to spend some time reading the archives of this blog.

02 December 2013

I'm a music snob (and you should be one, too!)

This past July, Vanessa and I visited my brother and his wife in lovely Pasadena, CA. We spent an afternoon in the Norton Simon Museum, a fantastic art museum just a short drive from my brother's house. The museum houses ancient Asian art, European art from the 14th to 19th centuries, and modern art. We were quite amazed by the primitive but beautiful sculptures from ancient India and Asia, often religious in nature and impressive in their detail. The huge tapestries and paintings of Europe dazzled us with their complexity and beauty.

Then, there was a modern art exhibit. I forget the name of it, but it was a temporary exhibit celebrating a few modern artists. One of the items on display was a roughly square-shaped piece of smooth marble with a cylindrical hole drilled through it. That's it. The description detailed the artist's epiphany over her celebration of 'space' or 'emptiness' or some such nonsense. We saw a few such exhibits, rolled our eyes, and moved on to more exiting things.

Now, there are some people who swear that art like that really is art. It's just as powerful and relevant and amazing as all that fancy European art... you know, those paintings that took a lifetime of practice and months or even years of work to produce. I'm reminded of an old issue of Smithsonian in which it celebrated a modern artist who (I swear I'm not making this up) placed a large canvas on his floor, threw three buckets of paint (red, orange and yellow if memory serves), and smeared them around with a broom. Art! Who needs years of training and dedication when you can have a broom or a drill?

Those who defend such, ahem, "art", will say that art does not have to be about complex technical details or some such thing. Art can be simple, and sometimes it should be simple. And you know what? I agree! There is beauty in simplicity. But somehow, I doubt that too many people would care about Michelangelo's David 500 years later if it were just a block of marble with a hole drilled in it.

Enter Kanye West. I think Kanye West embodies everything that is wrong with popular music. He's a talentless hack who writes terrible beat poems with derivative, disorganized lyrics and raps them over digital grooves contrived in a computer program which are then layered with samples from songs by actual musicians. Any idiot with a Mac Pro can slap together some digital beats and samples, and Kanye's lyrics are often pointlessly vulgar, topically juvenile, and are so poorly written that he strings nonsensical lines together in service of a poorly conceived rhyme, like this gem from his latest atrocious single:
I wanna fuck you hard on the sink
After that, give you something to drink
Step back, can't get spunk on the mink
I mean damn, what would Jeromey Romey Romey Rome think?
And please, don't try to convince me that rapping takes an iota of the talent it takes to sing or even do heavy metal screams and growls. You know why people don't go to Berklee to hone their rapping skills? Because any idiot with an urban accent and a little charisma can do it, that's why. And yet, the man thinks himself a creative genius and the voice of a generation, and there are plenty of fans who will rally to his defense.

Kanye is not alone, nor is rap as a genre (though I think it's possibly the worst offender). Much of mainstream rock these days is the same simple chords, mundane topics and cliched song structures that have populated rock radio for decades. Even someone with the extraordinary vocal talent of Beyonce Knowles can all but sing her way out of relevance with derivative melodies and lyrics that are simplistic to an absurd degree. Country music often takes exceptionally talented singers and melds them with simplistic compositions and lyrics whose topics have been beaten to death for ages.

Much of popular music is the musical equivalent of that marble statue with the hole drilled in it. Boy bands pop up every so often precisely because they're easily replicated. So let's take someone else who is not easily replicated. I'm going to go with someone who, personally, I am not a fan of at all: Prince.

Prince, like Kayne West, is a delusional egomaniac. Recently, while performing on the Jimmy Fallon show, he trashed a vintage Epiphone on loan to him from the Roots' guitarist. I have no idea what world he lives in where that would be remotely okay. But as a musician, Prince commands respect even if, like me, his style is not your cup of tea. Prince is a terrific singer and a phenomenal guitarist. He redefined pop music by fusing an eclectic mix of influences ranging from Jimmy Hendrix to the Beatles to Marvin Gaye. He fused rock, funk, R&B, and pop as no one else has before or since. Unlike Kanye West, Price truly is a creative genius.

Me, I'm a metal head. I listen to a lot of extreme music. It's complex, it's difficult both to play and to comprehend, and it's layered with nuances waiting to be found. Most people, if they were to watch the following video, probably wouldn't guess that these piano compositions are from death metal songs:

This band, Fleshgod Apocalypse, produces some incredibly powerful, beautiful, and complex compositions that display musical virtuosity, were recorded with a full symphony and choir, and show lyrical creativity all but absent in pop music. The latest album, Labyrinth, is a concept album inspired by the Greek tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, using the characters and their struggles as metaphors for the human condition. Not a theme you hear too much on top 40 radio.

I remember getting into a debate with someone who insisted that rap was 'real' music and that Dream Theater (who apparently serve as the quintessential example of modern prog rock) is technically obsessed, emotionless garbage. Bands like Dream Theater, so this person said, are just about complexity, and something important gets lost in all that mathematical precision and virtuosity. I'd say that just shows a naivety about Dream Theater and progressive rock.

As a guitarist, I hear similar arguments all the time about the virtues of "shred" guitar versus soulful, blues-style playing. Some insist that technical wizards like Ynwie Malmsteen write dry, boring compositions that are the equivalent of stringing atonal technique exercises together at mind-blowing speeds. Again, I think such statements just display naivety – technique exists to facilitate emotional expression, and the two do not exist exclusively.

So here's the thing though, and this is where I think most music snobs go wrong: just as art can be simple sometimes, and that's okay, music does not have to be about complexity, nuance, or lyrical depth. Lyrics can be trite, and compositions can be simplistic, and we can still enjoy them. There's absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying Kanye West, Nickelback, Taylor Swift, or whatever other tired pop artist you can think of. Simplicity is not, in itself, a bad thing.

The bad thing is when people try to hold that kind of simplistic art side-by-side with complex, nuanced art. It's when people try to hold the guy who smears three cans of paint around with a broom with the same kind of esteem and artistic virtue as painters who dedicated their lives to mastering a difficult skill to facilitate their creative expression. I mean hell, listen to pop music and enjoy it. But don't stop there – listen to classical, to opera, to jazz, to metal, to progressive rock, to R&B. Much of what you hear will likely not be to your taste, but every so often something clicks with you that changes your perception about what "your" style really is.

Listen to music that challenges you as a listener. The kind of music that begs to be studied, where it demands your full attention to discover the nuances that make it gel as a cohesive whole. The vast majority of pop music simply does not do that. It's not necessarily that there isn't talent involved... I mean, I can admit that Miley Cyrus is a perfectly respectable singer. But pop music is designed for casual listening. It's dependent on melodically simple hooks and repetition – song structure that facilitates ingraining the music into your memory even when you're not really paying attention (you know how it is – you hate that song, but you can't get it out of your head!).

There's nothing wrong with musical simplicity. Technicality is just a means to an end. But the best music, for me, wants the layers of musical precision to be appreciated for what they contribute to the melodic whole. Some people find it surprising that I love classical and opera when I have a reputation as a metal head, but the genres aren't as disparate as they might first appear. They all challenge you to appreciate their technical precision and the nuances of instrumentation and vocalization, not just the whole.
To really love great music, and to understand what makes it great, you have to pay attention. The marble slab with the hole in it was interesting for a few fleeting moments, but the richly detailed art of the European masters challenged me to discover its nuances and left a lasting impression. Music, too, should be appreciated for the evocative depth it has to offer and the skill required to realize it.